Tuesday, August 31, 2010

There Shall Be No Poor Among You

There is a new book by this title - I know nothing about it - and several interesting commentaries online concerning subtleties that might be missed at first reading. If you're interested in that sort of thing. But I think this is the sort of Bible passage you can have a go at even without a lot of background.

Discuss.

Deuteronomy 15 (New International Version)

The Year for Canceling Debts

1 At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. 2 This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the LORD's time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. 3 You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your brother owes you. 4 However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, 5 if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. 6 For the LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.

7 If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. 8 Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. 9 Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: "The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near," so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. 10 Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. 11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.

Freeing Servants
12 If a fellow Hebrew, a man or a woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free. 13 And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. 14 Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.

16 But if your servant says to you, "I do not want to leave you," because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, 17 then take an awl and push it through his ear lobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your maidservant.

18 Do not consider it a hardship to set your servant free, because his service to you these six years has been worth twice as much as that of a hired hand. And the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do.

Disappointing News

Daviess County, KY had an intriguing program to build better brains, by teaching music, chess, foreign language, and folkdance to every single kid in their system, K-12. Not so that they would all be musicians or chessmasters, but so that many areas of the brain would be stimulated and integrated. It was called Graduation 2010, because this would be the year that a class had gone all the way through the program for 13 years. I was very hopeful that this would reveal important new information about education that really worked. Preliminary signs were mildly good.

I tried to track down the data today, wanting to see how much improvement this county-wide, broad, intensive program worked. I had trouble finding it - already a bad sign, as it would likely have been trumpeted and big news if the gains were dramatic. That no one is talking about them suggests... ah, well.

There might be a slight increase in test scores for the county compared to the state average, but not much. And a few measures even went slightly down over time in the Daviess County. It may not be worth the candle.

Nome

May of 2001 we brought two Romainians home. Except for occasional brief trips when both were gone, we have had one or the other Romanian in the house ever since.

But John-Adrian landed in Nome today, to start a new life. Now we go forward without Romanians.

Retriever Reflective

Okay, Retriever's always reflective, so that's not news. But she sends these things along for my edification, and sometimes they actually work. Even with deeply insensitive souls such as mine.

Plus, the photography's always good.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Regrets

Insty linked to a post by a palliative care nurse about the regrets people expressed at the end of their days. The first one, "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me," put me in mind of Screwtape's directions to Wormwood "...so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here (Hell), 'I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked' ".

Wallis-Soros-Olasky

I am on record here as disagreeing with Jim Wallis in strong terms, about his treading dangerously into confusing his political assumptions with his Christian assumptions, including just this Thursday and Saturday, before I, at any rate, had heard anything about the current controversy.

On The Other Hand, Jim Wallis has been enormously generous to a young friend of mine - the one I asked you to pray for this year when he was near death. Tim is in fact the frequently-quoted spokesman for Sojourners coming forth with the information that the organization did, in fact, receive money from Soros. (Accounts describe Tim as doing this quite nicely, BTW, which gratified me, who would tend to see all references to him from something close to his parents' POV.) Jim took my friend into his home when there was no one else to care for him, and later opened his home to Tim's mother as well, when she went down to care for her son.

Tim is speaking at our church - the church he grew up in - this coming Sunday.

Help The Little Guy

Consider the following: Teenage unemployment is about 26%. The round-number breakdown, I just read, is 22% for white females, 26% for white males; 35% for black females, 45% for black males. The numbers improve gradually up to age 25, but are still terrible. How is that not an automatic recipe for disaster in terms of that generation's learning work skills and becoming adults? I mean automatic. What possible amount of government intervention, education subsidy, inspirational speeches, parental and societal guilt imposing, or affirmative action is going to counteract that? All those efforts, noble as any of them are, are not going to do more that cut that back a small percentage each. We can pretend that better education and more job training programs will "equip our children for the new economy," but the numbers say that's crap. We do a lot of that now.

So lower the minimum wage. Lower it until those numbers go down. If your knee is jerking too hard, with images of poor but honest and hardworking adult breadwinners unable to support families on such a low wage, then lower the minimum wage for young people. Heck, you can even do one of those over-complicated gradual things that governments love to design, with different minimums at every age, and not allowing employers to fire you just because you turned 20 and someone else is cheaper. Like employers are going to fire the kid with 2 years experience to save $.50/hour on an untrained kid anyway, but even if some boss was stupid enough to do that, we won't let him.

Won't those less-expensive kids take jobs away from mummies and daddies, then? (If you ask that, you are acknowledging that lowering the MW creates jobs, BTW). Not really. The 2% of those over 25 working MW include the disabled, the recently-imprisoned, and the addicted. That covers most of it. Those groups could likewise benefit from lowered minimums.

You want to get really radical? (But the thing is politically impossible.) Allow black kids to underbid white kids for jobs. Opponents won't portray it that way, of course. A different MW for blacks will be seen as paying them less for the same work. If you look at it one way, sure. In some places, that ugly reality might even be true. Okay, then allow them to overbid on how many hours they can work.

When you're unemployed you want to bring something to the table that the other guy doesn't. If you've got more experience, or better skills, or more training, you bring that. But what if you haven't got any of those things? Then you have to come in with a promise that you'll work cheaper or work harder.

Small business/New business. Since the 1970's, new businesses (less than a year old) have created 3,000,000 jobs a year. If you are wondering how these brand-new businesses are hiring people so quickly, think franchises and branch offices - though start-ups do their share as well. A new name-brand business gets built in your town, whether it's a new Dunkin's or a bank, and those are new jobs. Large, established businesses, on the other hand, lose 1,000,000 jobs a year.

Now of those two, which gets corporate welfare? You'd think liberals would be all over this. Well-connected, older companies with lobbyists get the loopholes in legislation, often in the form of protection against baby competitors. The more complicated the regulations, the more advantage a big company has over a small one. If you have 30 employees but have the same reporting and compliance responsibilities as a company with 3000, how are you going to absorb that? So how about the first year you don't have to report much of anything. Year two, a lot of the rules start to apply. Year three, you go in the same pot as everyone else.

Plus you have to pay a few hundred bucks to get a vendor's license in most states. Heck, the government should probably pay you a few hundred to start a business. And if it doesn't work out, you can get a few hundred the next year, too. We should require some proof you're doing something. That would flush out some underground economy, too, I imagine. Even five years in a row, a kid trying new businesses on the side while she works elsewhere. None of them work. Well, she knows a lot more about how the economy works than she'd get in most job training programs. For a lot less money.

So we are paying companies to lose jobs for us, and charging them to create jobs. That sounds like a business plan with legs, eh?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Only On The Map - Scotland, NH

It's a pretty good guess that anything named Scotland anywhere near the Merrimack or Connecticut Rivers in New England is going to be a Scots-Irish settlement from the mid-18th C. However, I can find no evidence for this regarding Scotland, NH. There are no Scottish surnames among the original settlers, and the genealogies of the English names do not originate in the Border counties. The settlers seem to have come from old Massachusetts families moving westward. The first church was Congregational.

The terrain doesn't look Scottish. A great deal of SW NH is hilly - everything in these towns seems to be called Something Hill Road - but Scotland is swampy. So go figure. I don't know why they called it Scotland.

Looking at what mapquest tells me is the town center, above, I must conclude that there is no village, just a section of town called Scotland.


Just up the road, this is what serves as the post office, I suppose. There are only two buildings in sight, and I didn't see many others on the entrance roads. Some of these people must live way back in the woods - which isn't that unusual around here.

Budapest Worship

Nicole Roorda Henry put this up on FB, and I am grateful. Nicole is one of those people who has never lived that near, but has crisscrossed our lives in so many places that she is close to us. She has taught in Central Europe (now teaches at Nashua Christian, where one son and many friends attended), and keeps better track of these things for us.



If you prefer it in Hungarian, it's here.

I posted before about Festival Worship, which I believe is the ancient model of worship that will be used by the next few generations far more than we have for the last few centuries. I did an entire adult studies series on it this year and promised to post parts of it. Then I found out I'd forgotten and promised again. Maybe this time.

Leadership Video

I haven't pointed out for some time that the Ten-Four Films blog on the sidebar is my son Ben's, a videographer for the mega - The Woodlands United Methodist Church, north of Houston. A Methodist megachurch? Everything is bigger in Texas, especially Houston. A recent Ten-Four Production with student interns. The voiceover is an example of what happens when a Newhampshireman goes into Humorous Voice Mode after living with Texans for four years.

How To Be A Leader from B. Wyman on Vimeo.


Anyone in the area should make the journey there some Sunday to try and help you forget, perhaps, for a while your drab, wretched lives. (Name the reference without a search engine.)

Chicago Versus Barmen -II

I was planning on going in a different direction in my criticism, but the idea of confessing Other People's Sins kept floating into my mind. I regarded it as a distraction at first. Jaed's comment, quite well-put, highlighted for me that this was in fact the main issue.

It is highly reminiscent of CS Lewis's "The Dangers of National Repentance," written in 1940.* I wonder if that was in the back of jaed's mind while writing. If not, you absolutely have to read the essay, jaed. I cannot find the naked essay, but David Foster over at ChicagoBoyz includes it, along with his own excellent commentary, here. I found additional commentary at an interesting site, Isegoria. The key weakness of the Chicago Declaration is that it is confessing other people's sins. It occurs to me that this goes to the root of the greatest danger from the Religious Left, of which they seem blithely unaware. (The greatest danger from the right I am not presently discussing. There are two, actually.)

*The reader is supposed to immediately think "ooh, during the war, then." This is additionally important because of the reference to "Colonel Blimp," a political cartoon between the wars that portrayed a retired military man who was stupid, uninformed, reactionary, and supported Churchill. A few years later, no one who had found such condescending amusement in the character was laughing anymore. Churchill, and Blimp indirectly, had turned out to be right, and those who had sneered at him had to swallow the knowledge that they had nearly destroyed their country. Not that they did swallow it, of course. They found other people to blame. But they were at least exposed for the others. The most poignant of his portrayals was not drawn by the original cartoonist, for reasons that will become obvious. A cartoon drawn after the fall of Paris shows a British soldier evocative of Blimp shaking his fist to the east from an English shore. It was captioned "Very well, alone."

Friday, August 27, 2010

Last Kaplan Quote (for awhile)

Chapter 17, Crossing The Jordan:
In the 1970's, when I was in my twenties, I traveled throughout Islamic North Africa and the Middle East, settling in Israel, where I served in the military. In Israel, finding life among people of my own faith claustrophobic, I rediscovered my Americanness. What I took away from Israel was not Zionism so much as realism: While Israel's security phobia might at times seem extreme, life in Israel taught me that the liberal-humanist tendency to see politics predominantly in moral terms could not be less so. In Israel, I often met foreign journalists who demanded absolute justice for the Palestinians and talked constantly about morality in politics, which in practice meant that anyone who disagreed with them was "immoral." You couldn't argue with these people. Meanwhile, my right-wing neighbors in a poor, Oriental part of Jewish Jerusalem sought absolute security. You couldn't argue with them, either, but at least their arguments were grounded in concrete self-interest and not in absolute moral terms. (A confidant of King Hussein and Prince Hassan told me the reason the two men had trusted Yitzhak Rabin so much was that he always framed his arguments for peace in terms of Israel's military self-interest rather than morality.) Self-interest at its healthiest implicitly recognizes the self-interest of others, and therein lies the possibility of compromise. A rigid moral position admits few compromises. This is some of what I took away from Israel.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Best of February 2007

There isn't any. Really. I thought of just linking the titles, but even that seemed more than was deserved. You can always just click on the sidebar if you're that curious.

Maybe I'm just irritable.

Only On The Map: Ashuelot, NH

The name may be familiar if you have traveled in the region, but not because of the village. The Ashuelot River is one of the main tributaries of the Connecticut, and everything nearby is named after it: Ashuelot Campground, Ashuelot Restaurant, Ashuelot Motors. Rather like "Alamo" in San Antonio, or "Mayflower" anywhere in eastern Massachusetts. But there is an actual village, in the town of Winchester, and it has yet another covered bridge with the same tired joke on it. This is a bit fancier than the many other bridges in the area, though, more complex in its construction.

The sign advertises a small museum nearby. Those are everywhere in NH. It's who we are.


That it was once a more important village is evidenced by the existence of its own post office, however small. It was an important railway stop; in addition to the usual textile mills and tanning, it boasted one of the first makers of musical instruments in the country. Those days are long gone, however. Many of these SW NH towns are quite poor. These houses are reminiscent of the New Hampshire I grew up in. You wouldn't notice, yourself, because there are slowly deteriorating buildings from this era most places in the country. But to me, this was Derry, and Londonderry, and Merrimack, and Auburn, and a dozen other towns in the SE of NH that are now essentially suburbs of Boston, with upscale houses and expensive restaurants.

The Professional Left

This is a subject I know little about. The people of the left I encounter are largely amateur. They might volunteer for a cause, or send money, but their primary contribution to advancing any overall progressivism seems to be confined to creating a social environment in which their people are acknowledged as the good and pure ones, while their opponents work from evil motive. I have written about this partly because of its pathetic nature - a permanent high-school culture devoted to who is cool on the street.

None of them get rich off this. There are certainly jobs and promotions in many fields (some almost entirely) which depend on this indirectly, as in jaed's comment about the "aspirational class" in my post on flag pins. But the people I have met who make their living this way are few, and none in my current experience. I have known attorneys who take up particular causes with an interest in changing American law in dramatic ways. But most of these make their living defending individuals in that realm, folks who are often poor and have legitimate grievances and need of protection under the current system.

Come to think of it, the really radical people I have come in contact with tend to be speakers brought in at work, who come from one or another nonprofit. Those, I suppose, might fit the description of Professional Left. They don't make anything, serve anyone, or do anything, really. They go around telling people what ideas they should have, and lend their weight to legislative and civil-action endeavors.

So I pass along the link about Professional Leftists by Richard Fernandez, and the related essay by Oleg at The People's Cube with some hesitation. I know that such lobbyists exist. I know that the directors of NGO's, nonprofits, and foundations are much more liberal than I, and that it stands to reason that the most committed radicals would seek out such positions. But I don't know any. It sounds plausible.

The plausibility derives from an entirely different direction. There is a CS Lewis essay The Inner Ring, which I believe was published in The Weight of Glory. It bears the same title as the Fernandez article, and seems to describe something of the same phenomenon in a more general way. A sample:
In the passage I have just read from Tolstoy, the young second lieutenant Boris Dubretskoi discovers that there exist in the army two different systems or hierarchies. The one is printed in some little red book and anyone can easily read it up. It also remains constant. A general is always superior to a colonel, and a colonel to a captain. The other is not printed anywhere. Nor is it even a formally organised secret society with officers and rules which you would be told after you had been admitted. You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it.

There are what correspond to passwords, but they are too spontaneous and informal. A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation, are the marks. But it is not so constant. It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who is outside. Some people are obviously in and some are obviously out, but there are always several on the borderline. And if you come back to the same Divisional Headquarters, or Brigade Headquarters, or the same regiment or even the same company, after six weeks’ absence, you may find this secondary hierarchy quite altered.
This is the world that I know, and have written much about. I am only seeing at this moment how profoundly this essay has affected since I first read it some thirty years ago. I have been always on guard against this temptation - perhaps those around me might wish I had focused on different sins. Though there is nothing of doctrine or politics in it, this essay has formed many of my religious, social, and political belief.

If one takes it seriously, it can lead to despair: the knowledge that there are others who will wield enormous power over you, in your everyday life and in the wider world. You might have joined them, or attempted to. You might have become a macher. We write, and argue, and persuade; we do our jobs, we give our tithes and offerings, we try to move in the world as God commands; we vote, we buy, and sometimes when called are even able to be a little heroic. But we are the small people, and others, who even in full humility we can see are less worthy, will have their way.

But beyond the despair is the comfort: it was ever thus, in every age and place. This is the world God has assigned us to, and we are asked no more than to be found at our post when the call comes. We might by chance fall into a place where our pebble selves turn the tide of the great river. But if not, no matter. The call is the same.

I have little hope that the church in America will revive and become a beacon. I believe the center of its gravity is passing to the Third World, while we here abandon doctrine for works, and works for doctrine, ending up with neither. I do not see an America where the encroach of government into our lives is finally thrown back, or even significantly lessened. Bureaucratism will take its inexorable toll, technology in the hands of do-gooders will do evil, and being a peaceable people, we will find no single incident that is too much, forcing us to act and disassemble the whole mess and start again. Our grandchildren will put up with intrusions we think abhorrent, but they find minor.

Yet this bothers me very little, and changes my outlook not at all. It was ever thus. This is the lot that mankind has always faced, and 99% of it worse than mine. As one good dies and evil triumphs, God sends another good from an unexpected direction, growing in near-secret while we watch the destruction of nations.

I also wonder if something of Lewis advice is in my mind in my suspicion of Chicago, as contrasted with my approval of Barmen, in the previous post.
"Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule."

Chicago Versus Barmen

My son sent me a link to the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern, a 1973 document composed by evangelical luminaries with a social justice orientation, including Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Lewis Smedes, plus others whose names I did not recognize. I looked up the others. They seem like nice people.

I expected that the declaration would start with general principles of Christian social action that were not especially controversial or arguable, and then overreach in what followed to unwarranted conclusions. That makes for interesting discussions, certainly. I also expected, because of the word “declaration,” that it would carry echoes of the Barmen Declaration, Karl Barth’s courageous confessional statement in Germany in 1934. I wondered if these would be echoes more of style than of substance.

I was wrong on both counts. The Chicago Declaration goes subtly wrong in the first paragraph, embedding worrisome assumptions in the rest of the document. Sentence two doesn't really follow from sentence one here.
As evangelical Christians committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and the full authority of the Word of God, we affirm that God lays total claim upon the lives of his people. We cannot, therefore, separate our lives from the situation in which God has placed us in the United States and the world.

I take such statements apart by putting them in other contexts. If a document is consonant with Christian doctrine, then it should hold up, with appropriate modification, from the mouths of other Christians in other times and places. If it does not, then there are red flags.

I cannot fit this declaration in any way into the words of Jesus. I cannot imagine Paul writing this, nor Augustine, nor Aquinas. That is not an automatic write-off, of course. We can justly and honestly extend words of Scripture to new situations, deriving truths for today from ancient truths. In fact, this is what we are called to do. But those little red flags go up again. We can perhaps imagine Luther, Calvin, Wesley, or John Paul II venturing into these discussions. They are closer to us in time, and wrestled with political and social questions as they applied to the Church.

There is always an enormous difficulty in making a general rule, as the situations in which Christians have some political influence and those in which they have none may call forth different responses. Whether we consider that The Man in Jesus and the Apostles’ day was the Roman power or the Jewish religious authorities, it still remains that the early Christians did little or nothing to influence them in how they should corporately behave. That would suggest noninvolvement. But most Christians have lived in times and places where at least someone in the Church had power, sometimes dominant power, and we developed a whole set of guidelines for that. The contradiction for social justice types is if they want to point to the first few centuries as pacifist because they were noninvolved, then it rather undercuts their claim that we should be involved when it suits them. You can’t have that both ways.

Though as in all complex things, it may not be either-or, and there may be ways through the swamp.

As to Barmen similarities, there were no especial echoes. Presumably the 1973 signatories would approve strongly of the 1934 document. Certainly there is no requirement that they echo form or style, but I don’t find the newer document cutting so deeply to the root as the earlier one, as here.

Barmen:
8.25 - 6. "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Matt. 28:20.) "The word of God is not fettered." (2 Tim. 2:9.)
8.26 The Church's commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ's stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and sacrament.
8.27 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.
Chicago
We acknowledge that God requires justice. But we have not proclaimed or demonstrated his justice to an unjust American society. Although the Lord calls us to defend the social and economic rights of the poor and oppressed, we have mostly remained silent. We deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism and the conspicuous responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the body of Christ along color lines. Further, we have failed to condemn the exploitation of racism at home and abroad by our economic system.
I will note additionally that the Religious Left often portrays itself as a counterpoint to the Religious Right, formed as a necessary corrective to the excesses of Falwell and Robertson. (I wonder who the left would quote if they didn’t have those two knuckleheads? Perhaps other knuckleheads would rise.) The date on the Chicago document would suggest that the opposite is true.

There’s more to say on this, because I don’t think the 1973 document is entirely wrong. The Religious Right does indeed often defend a traditional religious culture, and hence a status quo, rather than the eternal gospel.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

PJ on Afghanistan

Early in PJ O'Rourke's amusing and informative essay on Afghanistan, The 72-Hour Expert, comes this comment on tribalism.
Even the worst of Afghan governments never acquired the special knack of pitting tribe against tribe that is vital to American politics—the Squishy Liberal Tribe vs. the Kick-Butt Tribe; the Indignantly Entitled Tribe vs. the Fed-Up Taxpayer Tribe; the Smug Tribe vs. the Wipe-That-Smirk-Off-Your-Face Tribe.
Nice to see the idea spreading out.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

City-States

Long ago I had the idea that the world was really still composed of city-states, with artificial boundaries or greater or lesser importance around them. It was a fancy – I never followed through on that. In the last year the idea resurfaced, most likely because I began corresponding with an old college friend who works in Shanghai. Certainly, the cities and their economic needs dominate the changes in China, however much the government wants to keep the provinces on board. In what I thought at the time was an unrelated context, I discussed the American cities which spill out and straddle state boundaries: NYC, certainly; Washington DC, Philadelphia, and Boston in the east; Several cities on the Mississippi; Chicago.

In the last month, I have seen the idea in several forms: Kaplan’s description of the power realities of the Near East, especially the Caucasus; a much-circulated Foreign Policy article by Parag Khanna, and the related book, Global City; a migration map showing which world cities are attracting immigrants.

The FP article claims that one has to go back a thousand years to find the model, but I would put it much closer. Even in 1500, the powerful port cities of Europe were connected more with each other than with many places in the interior. Nation-states were declared, especially in westernmost Europe, but international cities dominated. And beyond Europe, this was even more true.

It is the nation-state that is anomalous, a recent invention. Perhaps it is not as fully stable as we imagine. Perhaps soft boundaries are a better way to go. If California opened its border, but the Los Angeles area drastically reduced benefits in order to survive economically, would that solve California’s immigration problems or worsen them?

For conservatives, a disempowered UN would hold attractions. Trading cities would likely arrive at enforceable peace agreements – peaceable for their own needs anyway, regardless of what happened in less-dense areas – far more quickly and efficiently than a system which allows Denmark and Guyana equal votes in matters requiring any sense.

Once you break out of the sanctity of nations idea, the gravitational pull of cities across boundaries shows up everywhere you look. It is reminiscent of Joel Garreau's books Nine Nations of North America and Edge City. Perhaps he should be the one looking into this for us.

Monolith

My father-in-law sends along his magazines after he's done with them. I toss most: I get my sports info online; Newsweek and Time are insipid when they aren't irritating; Progressive and American Prospect are appalling; Discover is the classic 'where's the beef?" science mag. Sometimes there's a Smithsonian or an archaeology magazine worth holding onto.

One article in American Prospect did look interesting, so I turned to it. I won't bore you with the shallow reasoning, unquestioned assumptions, and biases. They were very typical. What jumped out at me was the writer's impression of conservatives/Republicans/Tea Partiers as this monolithic force attempting to crush the beleaguered forces of good. There was little reference to any ideas or opinions they might have, how their motives might vary. From moderate right to far-right, we were all essentially the same, varying only in intensity and willingness to cheat or deceive. No branching, no competing streams of thought, no history or individuality.

To her, we were a completely depersonalised enemy, like a single virus or unvarying clay.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Zoltan

Powerline has a short biography, with commentary, on Zoltan Mesko.

Saying he's the richest kid from Timisoara isn't true, though. Organised crime is still big in Romania. It used to be called Casa Noastra, with the same mean as the similar Italian.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

ABBA

And of course, posting on any retro band reminds me of my first obligation as a blogger.

Post 2525 - Zager & Evans

I remember even at the time thinking that the time line was awfully long. 6565? We've already beat that one.



The modernistic Stonehenge and dry ice is a nice touch, BTW. Assuming someone actually was trying to evoke Stonehenge.

Somewhere in here was the switch from first-name bands - Chad & Jeremy, Peter & Gordon, to surname bands - CSNY, Loggins & Messina. I can't imagine Zager & Evans were the first, but they were early.

Only On The Map


Many villages in NH are marked on the map but are not actual towns. They are not incorporated, don't have a high school, aren't a recognised post office address - but there they are on the map. It may be a single spot, usually at a junction, or may be a whole section of town, with the map-point put rather randomly at some location they can make an excuse for. Usually, only the locals will recognise the name.

I like driving back roads on vacation, and this time I decided to make these villages my focus. I am familiar with all the town-names in NH and can locate them on a blank map, but most of these villages are names that don't register to me. I thought there might be some NH history to learn by visiting them. We'll go one at a time, as the mood takes me, and see what we learn. We'll have a dozen or so of these.

Above is the cemetery in Westport, (part of Swanzey) which looks as if it could accommodate quite a few more folks. Below is also the cemetery, if one faces in the opposite direction. Looks like they really expected the town to prosper and grow. They should have enough room for a few centuries at this rate. Don't let the "port" part fool you - it's 70 miles from the ocean. New England towns were often named after places back in Great Britain. In this case, there is a Westport in Somerset and one in Ireland. Neither seems a good nomination. This part of NH was generally settled by the Scots-Irish in the mid-18th C, but Westport Ireland is in County Mayo, not a very Scots part at all, and Somerset is far SW. But Swanzey itself was named after the town in Wales, so perhaps we should favor the Somerset origin.



This is the Slate Bridge, a half mile away, one of four covered bridges in Swanzey. I remember the old bridge, with its weight limit for passage going down year after year until this restoration was built. On the way here I passed Depot St. in a somewhat more densely settled area. There's a clue to the village. Westport had cloth manufacturing, and was a stop on the Ashuelot branch of the Boston and Maine RR. Going up Depot St reveals no depot any longer.



The white signs always either list the supposed toll rates - in pennies - for walkers, horses, carts; or they caution you that passage at a rate faster than a walk is prohibited. It's cute the first time.

Liberal Arts Education

I commented recently in Resources To Spare that a liberal arts education may increasingly be a sociobiological sign of an abundance of resources. It may have, in fact, always have been such a signal, though obscured by the GI Bill generation's capitalizing on the transition from a 1930's elite being the main beneficiaries of such an education to the general accessibility in the 1950's and beyond.

I am not prepared to cover the waterfront on this topic, but I thought the changes I have observed while educating my own children might be interesting.

My first two sons, who went to college between 1997 and 2006, are absolutely the sort of student that such an education was intended for. When I was growing up, it was never if you go to college, but when you go to college, and I followed through on that with Jonathan and Ben without much thought. We started saving for it as soon as they were born, and were able to pay for it entirely as they went along. What we called normal life in my culture - and many still do. I was certainly not aware then of any sea change in how children would be educated.

But look at the narrowing already in place: the college they chose was one of the 56 from the National Review list of colleges that provided a core-curriculum, western-tradition, liberal arts education; it was inexpensive - with academic scholarships, we paid $13K/year for each; it also provided a solid, and sometimes intense, Christian tradition as well; and my first two were excellent students, so the risk of throwing the money down the drain was lessened.

Enter Romanians. We of course had saved nothing for their education, as we hadn't expected them. They were less-good students, especially in such subjects as literature, history, and philosophy - no scholarship, no National Review list for them. We were still in of-course-you-send-your-kids-to-college mode, and John Adrian started at a very conservative Christian school, with lower entrance requirements, in Business. And now it's $20K/year and rising. And he works hard enough to get by but not excel. So when he comes back and starts going to school online, one course at a time, it makes entire sense. I am seeing college in a different light now, more in terms of what the majority of 20-year-olds are like rather than what the exceptional ones are like.

Now comes Chris, who has no interest in college, barely scraped by in HS, and wants to go to a technical school in automotive mechanics. 18 months (theoretically), no dorms, no sports, no coffee-shop discussions, no spiritual aspect, and no potential wives who are going to be teachers or librarians or microbiologists.

Kyle is now a freshman in HS. College for him will be $40K/year, and he is between my first two and latter two in terms of fit for traditional, ivy-covered, academicia.
The mold is broken. I'm not seeing my original vision of normal education as sensible for him. If he were more of a reader, and it were half the price, we might still revert to that. But sending him under these circumstances - as many parents still will - is now a luxury good, a signal of excess in resources, either ours or his, to fit him for a particular class. Doesn't look likely.

It could change. His oldest brother, my nephew who occasionally comments here, was an indifferent student in high school who found his feet late but is now going for a PhD in engineering. That may still be Kyle's path. But I think we are looking to nontraditional postsecondary education at this point - and Kyle is (in this way) very typical of his generation. The old model is dying.

Update: Wow. Right on schedule, WSJ has a review of Craig Brandon's The Five Year Party, describing the deterioration in liberal-arts education. Brandon was an instructor at nearby Keene State College.

Let me add another bit to this. It is conventional wisdom in this culture that young people cannot be sheltered and must have opportunity to "make their own decisions" - which often means making their peer groups' decisions - about sex, alcohol, and how hard they want to work at things. Fair enough. But where is the evidence that 18 is the best age to start that? It certainly wasn't for me.

Forwarded Links

Akafred forwarded two links this morning, a report of misconduct by a morality researcher, (he notes wryly that perhaps it is not only Christians who are hypocrites), and Gordon MacDonald's column on Anne Rice's renunciation of Christianity.

Earlier today, I had sent him Bruce Schneier's older column on Real Vs. Perceived Risk.

Conservationists

Before there were environmentalists, there were conservationists. They included outdoorsmen, including hunters and anglers, much more than the current environmental movement does. The changeover, and the social, class-influenced aspect of the new model, is hinted at here. Calvin Trillin, writing in 1970 (and you can get a reminder of the change in Abercrombie & Fitch as well)...
It is true that there is an automatic disdain for snowmobilers among the people I have always thought of as Abercrombie& Fitch Conservationists - sailing enthusiasts who complain about the noise the riffraff make with their outboards, people who build tasteful hundred-thousand dollar houses [note: probably a million now] and then talk about preserving the natural beauty of the area against the ugliness of tacky beach cottages.
Nice to see some historical support from a contemporaneous account for an idea I have been pushing here. Much modern environmentalism is aesthetic, rather than focused on actual environmental problems with some danger. (Commenter akafred can wax eloquent on this score, as his business puts him right in the thick of real environmental problems versus popular ones.)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Religion Posts

It occurred to me today that my summary of opinion posting here, as outlined in Confirmation Bias, was not fully accurate. My claim that I don't offer opinions as much as analysis of opinions is true for political and social commentary. But I do offer opinions when I write about religious topics, and seldom do any analysis of why people have the religious views they do. Perhaps it is because religious people hear enough amateur psychologising anyway, and I see no need to add to it unless I have something large to say. Which I don't think I have, yet.

Really, I don't know. I'll have to think about this. At a minimum, I think I can attend to the method of how I go about searching for ill motive.

QOTD

The Den Mother, commenting on Roger Clemens over at Neo's.
My first reaction upon hearing this news yesterday was: When you lie to Congress, it’s perjury. When Congress lies to you, it’s campaigning.

Zionist Conspiracy

Egyptian Muslim clerics are discouraging the building of the GZ mosque because it will encourage Americans to associate 9/11 with Islam in general, instead of individual terrorists.

Aside from the hackneyed “Zionist conspiracy” charge, Al Azhar has it right: from negative media attention to subliminal associations with the 9/11 strikes, the “9/11 mosque” has great potential to backfire on Islam. Many other Muslims agree. That Al Azhar has labeled it a “Zionist conspiracy”— an appellation usually reserved for especially heinous charges attributed to fellow Muslims, such as the strikes of 9/11 — is indicative of how absurd the mosque project must appear to them.


Y'know, I never thought of it that way.

Via Instapundit.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Comment To Watch For

I ran across this phrase twice tonight in comments sections: I suspect that deep down...

I'm going to take a risk here and say that the number of times this is followed by a true statement is vanishingly small. I say that recognising that I've probably written it at some point. I was probably wrong then. It is equivalent to "This is the conventional wisdom among amateur analysts, and I feel it's right."

Translation

When Christians say that their faith is under attack - often in headline letters, CHRISTIANITY UNDER ATTACK! - I often find on examination that what they really mean is "Cultural support for Christianity is under attack." Which doesn't sound anywhere near as dramatic, though it may be a bad thing in its own way.

We live in a postchristian culture. This distributes unevenly, and some places and subcultures still offer considerable cultural support for the faith. But I'm from the leading edge of places that offer little cultural support, and much dismissiveness, for Christian belief. Get used to it. We've had much worse to deal with over 20 centuries.

Confirmation Bias

Orin Kerr has two wonderful posts over at Volokh: Brilliant People Agree With Me and People Who Disagree With Me Are Just Arguing In Bad Faith. Funny with a point.

The power of confirmation bias fascinates me because it is my own. I fancied myself a logician, an uber-rationalist from highschool on, in days when I was quite liberal. I was distressed as I passed 30 to begin to discover how many of my opinions were social markers rather than strictly logical. I held the beliefs of "my people" - not without artful variations of my own, of course; marvelous are the subtle ways that we disguise ourselves from ourselves, and I needed those idiosyncrasies, those deviations from standard, to maintain the fiction that I was an independent thinker.

I don't mean to paint this too starkly, like those seem to feel that their testimony of coming to Jesus must include truly awful things they were involved in to make the story better. I was a logician in part. I did have some ability to stand alone even from a young age. But this was nowhere near as dominant in my personality as I thought.

We move also in the direction of our social contacts: friends, coworkers, congregants, neighbors, and even those distant people we listen to or read about who seem to be from a culture we would like to be a member of. On this score, I am lucky that I wanted much to be a descendant of Inkling culture, especially of Lewis. Time and again he proved me wrong, and reluctantly, gradually, I came to his views on many subjects. I was lucky also in my friends. These evangelical Christians - pretty close to fundamentalists in those days - were precisely the people who my work associates assured me were intolerant, close-minded, and unthinking. Those fundies were, in contrast, more willing to discuss things honestly and consider alternatives than the open-minded mental health professionals. The latter groups is somewhat more tolerant now. I know many psychiatrists, social workers, and psychologists who are believers - but I knew almost none 30 years ago, an era that we think more religious than our own.

Perhaps I just had an especially nice group of fundie friends, our longstanding Bible study in particular. But at least in the Covenant, I have been able to consistently find people who were willing to hear you out, make your case, and consider the merits of your argument. Not always, of course. Just a lot more than anywhere else.

I write opinions here, and fall into the trap of thinking myself opinionated in the usual sense. But I don't offer political opinions as much as I think I do. I am much more likely to focus on the arguments that people do make for their side and poke holes in them. That's not a reason...Social signifiers you are unaware of are leaking out all over...That's a contradiction... and hopefully, being able to stand back from it all and say to myself "Pretend all the intellectual content of this essay is irrelevant, mere post hoc reasoning for an opinion taken for entirely social reasons. Does anything change?"

The danger of this is that it still applies to my own opinions as well. I am sure I miss an enormous amount of my own emotional leakage. But I at least consciously try to turn the spotlight on what I write as well, try to see if there are places where I am guilty of precisely the error I am exposing. I find it all the time, sentence by sentence as I go, and have to rethink and reword comments the moment after I type them. "What would an antagonist see in that statement?"

Question

Which bothers you more?

A: Smart people who are arrogant

B: Stupid people who are arrogant

More on "Discouraged"

One of my favorite single-panel cartoons, likely read in a New Yorker in a waiting room 30 years ago, is an elderly couple sitting in beach chairs. The man says, with furrowed brow "I've come full circle. Things are what they seem."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Update...

...on my recent post about the song "Ah yes, I remember it well" from Gigi, Memory. Recently-discovered photographs reveal that Honore Lachaille's recollections were correct all along about his evening with Madame Alvarez. An unused photo from Vogue Paris dated April 1903 shows Alvarez in a gold gown, sans one glove, with a clearly visible moon in the background.

An aged Lachaille reported "The bitch has been trying to make me appear crazy and dim for years. Did you ever see 'Gaslight?' I feel thoroughly vindicated."

Madame Alvarez was unavailable for comment.

Discouraged

I spoke with a longtime coworker just as I was leaving today. She's quite the conspiracy theorist, and I was surprised to find she is now a Truther in addition to being a Birther. She voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, but now thinks he's part of the oOne World conspiracy. She is a full-fledged CFR/Bildeberg/Trilateralist at this point.

When I have known someone for many years, I tend to think of their recent self as their "real" self, and earlier versions as stages. For the last ten years, I have seen her as a fundamentalist Christian, considerably more interested in endtimes prophecy than I ever was, and drawn to political things that outraged her. The items she would pass on to me often involved finding significance in what I saw as relatively minor events. I now think that the last two years or so she must have been something a bit more eccentric than that. About five years ago she married a pastor from Georgia who had been serving a church up here. I imagine his politics may be involved.

Here's the interesting part: I've known her since she interned and then was hired here, over fifteen years ago. Not only was she quite liberal then, especially around women's issues and redistribution, but she was something like a conspiracy-theorist then. In more public conversation, she was in the patriarchy/rigged-economy/plutocrat camp, but privately, she let on that she was quite convinced that powerful males in the government were not merely unenlightened sexists - not really a conspiracy - but that they intentionally sought to pass legislation that would insure that women were kept subservient in future generations.

Before I knew her, she had been a member of the Boston Church, an intentionally apolitical sect which has rigid hierarchical discipling practices and some suspect theology, described as a cult by some.

Well, I'm making her sound foolish - she's a lovely person actually, and bright enough. Flamboyant, funny, kind.

But it leads to an interesting speculation. I am not the first to note that a tendency to believe in conspiracies often precedes the data, which is acquired later. Confirmation bias seems to be incredibly powerful with these people. And though conspiracies have more than their share of loners, they seem also to be easily influenced by the small circle of people they hang with. They communicate with each other a lot, sending each other stories and links. And while they often have an extreme left or extreme right overall tendency, they also usually have these oddities of belief that come from the other side of the spectrum, and even more often, conspiracy beliefs that can go either way, like alternative medicine or anti-corporatism.

Do any of you know any conspiracy theorists who are, well, centrist? I was about to type "moderate," but that seems self-contradictory. I know pessimists who will wish a murrain on both the houses of our current political alignment, but I'm not discovering any conspiracists in that census.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Flag Pins

I come from a culture that seldom wears pins of any sort. Even in my youth, when men up here wore pins far more often than they do now (partly because they wore suitcoats more often), they would sport a small Rotary or Masonic symbol on the lapel, or some barely-visible symbol on a tie-tack. Especially religious men might have a teeny cross. Except on specifically patriotic occasions, wearing of a flag pin was rare. In fact, all of my cultural influences are non-pinwearing. Northern Europeans, especially Scandinavians, especially Swedes, dislike display in general. New Englanders likewise prefer reserve. Ivy Leaguers are notoriously understated (except, oddly, on vacation at Bar Harbor or the Cape). When my people become Pentecostals, they still worship with considerably less noise than the average mainstreamer anywhere else - except perhaps Minnesota.

So we are suspicious of displays of piety or patriotism, and wonder if those more energetic are trying too hard. It's just unseemly. A bit vulgar. We are largely unaware how quickly we jump to the conclusion that all those others are hypocrites. When I bring that idea out into the open - I tend to do that - people up here deny it. When they are conscious of the connection, they back away from it, because they know that this would be worse than silly. It would be judgmental, drawing conclusions about others' sincerity from what is merely a cultural bias of our own.

But we do. We absolutely do, and you can hear it come into play in religious and political discussions all the time.

This floats the other way, of course. People from other places and traditions are sure that we must not love Jesus, or not love America, because we're quiet. So I will briefly say to my readers from other places knock it off.

But it is my own people who I am taking to task here. First, when you give up displaying a sentiment openly, you will give up the sentiment itself a generation or two later. See, for example, that the disappearance of church attendance started in northern Europe and northern America. The distaste for American flag-waving tends to come from northern Europe. Protesting that you don't have to make a fuss to be a good Christian or a good American is unarguably true. Yet it is a deeper truth that in declining to make a fuss, your body will eventually turn and persuade the mind that it must not be all that important.

But second, and more immediately, this attitude is much more part of blue state disapproval of red state mores than they could endure to contemplate, were they faced with the truth. It leaks out unguarded - no, it often gushes out spitefully - however much it is denied.

I live here. I grew up here. I have been observing this all my life, though I didn't notice it until middle-age, when I became less liberal, then postliberal, and found myself suddenly associated with all these pin-wearers (or flag-raisers) and distancing myself from the pin-shunners. The dissonance was powerful, and I confess that I had to hear it first in the more extreme sneering before I was able to admit that I had any of it at all. And I found its name was Legion.

Third, there is a darker element still. There was another culture which didn't wear flag pins or boisterously sing the national anthem, and I belonged to that as well. This was not a culture of quiet faith or understated patriotism, but a culture which actively rejected faith and patriotism. Remember Frank Zappa's line: "You've seen 'em! You've seen 'em with their little fish on the back of their cars! Just remember. They are the enemy!" Perhaps not coincidentally, that group also drew heavily from the Ivy and (Ivy-wannabee), northern-Europe-admiring crowd.

All this was in play when there was all the fuss about Obama not wearing a flag pin to something-or-other. Politicians are not accidental in their symbolism. But - and students of the various arts take note - symbols have neither a single meaning nor multiple meanings. They have a range of meanings. When Young Goodman Brown grasps the staff that the devil has left for him, is it an act of open rebellion against God, or merely an illustration of how we might choose darkness unawares, almost unconsciously? It is clearly a sign of going into sin, or grasping evil to oneself, but to understand the degree of it, we must get the context from the rest of the story.

So also with not wearing a flag pin. Many conservatives were quick to jump to the most extreme interpretation of the symbol's range: that Obama is a hater of the flag and patriotism. The candidate's supporters declared the meaning came from opposite edge of the symbol's range: he just didn't, our people don't, we don't think patriotism resides in the display of a pin, what are you guys getting so exercised about?

We might try to narrow it down, trying to see what it "really" meant, by getting context from other related behaviors by Obama. But I think that misses an important subtlety. I believe it was meant to be ambiguous across a considerable range of symbol's meaning. In that way, Obama could communicate to several groups at once "I'm one of you. You're my people," while maintaining deniability that he was expressing any such thing. It's what politician's do.

Kaplan on National Character

"As I had found in Romania and elsewhere on my journey, the issue of national character again became unavoidable. To the average person, the idea that different national groups - Swedes and Iraqis, say - exhibit different characteristics is self-evident. Yet some intellectuals have trouble with such commonplaces, and for good reason: The acceptance of national ingrained characteristics can lead to stereotyping and the subsequent dehumanization of individuals. Moreover, the acceptance of national characteristics tempts pessimism, since if group traits are ingrained, then the optimistic notion that parliamentary democracy and free-market capitalism can transform societies is weakened. However, a viewpoint is not necessarily inaccurate because it happens to be morally risky and pessimistic, especially if it helps explain phenomena that are otherwise unexplainable." (Italics mine)

Memory

When I posted two weeks ago about the vagaries of memory, I should have included this.



The point in this song, of course, is that the man is wrong at every point.

I doubt that.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Resources To Spare

In evolutionary biology, there is a concept of conspicuous display of resources, even wasting resources (especially among males), to advertise that one has good and to spare. Peacock tales are the most frequent example: they provide no particular advantage and use up a lot of the body's resources to produce such a display. Yet because of this, they are a sign of good genes and general health. I've got resources to burn, peahen, baby.

I wonder if something similar hasn't been increasingly at work in liberal arts college education. On a national cultural level, it is We have such an abundance of wealth that we can afford to spend thousands of dollars to educate some our most talented youth in fields that don't promise to increase the GDP much. Countries on the make can't afford such luxuries, and they send their best and brightest into science and technology or business degrees.

On an individual level, a degree one finds enjoyable, rather than one that is geared toward income, announces that the bearer has such talent that they can find remunerative work anyway. I think uncomfortably of my own studies in Theatre and Medieval English Literature. To the question "What are you going to do with that?" I was arrogant enough to brush it off. I'll find a way to make it work. You'll see. I no longer think that was a good attitude or a wise bet.

Humans are more complex than peacocks, so the comparison is not as linear. There are certainly at least some job possibilities attached to every field (though various "Studies" come close to being entirely self-referential). And there is certainly significant benefit to a society for some people to know history, philosophy, or literature - it's just that the proportion of people we send into those fields may be askew.

Of course, sports provides some of the same evolutionary cues. I have enough health and strength that I can waste it on entertainment. Which may account for the animosity that starts at a relatively young age between jocks and intellectuals - they are signaling different types of abundance with overkill, completely eliminating the other group from one sector of the mating pool. One could extend this to include artists, fighters, and preps as well.

Blogfriend Update

Went to the Airport Diner with Carl from No Oil For Pacifists this afternoon. He was up visiting his brother in NH. Nice to meet people in the flesh that you only knew online before. A fine fellow. And I say that even though we didn't have drinks all afternoon.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Best of January 2007

I was fully involved in my Cultural Tribes series. I don't generally link to something from any extended series in my "best ofs," but I do here. It was a literary month.

Permission To Not Understand Shakespeare. I would like to thank linguist John McWhorter for his permission to not understand Shakespeare, and will pass it on to you. McWhorter has far better credentials than mine, and he doesn't get it either.

Pedantic Language Lesson

The Science & Technology Tribe in humor Who does make fun of themselves? It is usually a marker of emotional balance.

Though I would write it differently now, I still like to reprint The Big Bad Three. When editorialists and online commenters want to illustrate for you how bad Christianity is, and how much it has contributed to the misery of man, there are three examples that are trotted out: the Salem Witch Trials, the Inquisition, and the Crusades. Keep in mind...

How Shall The Country Be Run? A longer piece, not so much fun, focusing on great changes in framing resulting from subtle changes in how a question is asked.

After the 2006 elections, I asked for a do-over on the basis of deceptive campaigning by Democrats. Rather pertinent for 2010.

Understanding Conspiracies by looking for blue hats.

Four book discussions: one of playwright Sir James Barrie's The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, using his wonderful dialogue of charwomen discussing WWI as a jumping-off point to contemplate current discussions. I keep hoping for a Barrie revival of something other than Peter Pan. (Which I also liked. I played Nana the dog.)

two I liked - Greg Easterbrook's The Progress Paradox, How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.
For the first 80 pages, Easterbrook hammers home how much better life keeps getting. Each cynic wants to deny it, searching for exceptions in education or international relations, but the list is impressive, and its supporting evidence powerful.
and John McWhorter's The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Languages.

and one I thought ludicrous - Holyoke: The Belle Skinner Legacy by Jack Dunn. A sample of that book...
Knowing that George Bush and his administrators had never, and would never in the future, consider adhering to any of these [Just War] conditions, Maggie nearly burst into tears too. She suspected that Bush and company did not have the ability to understand complex matter.
Can you imagine Sir James Barrie writing such tripe? (Never mind Shakespeare)

Spam

Sometimes a spam comment will show up on an old post - one I am sure no one is reading any longer. This from an early 2007 comment thread:
I usually go with my family to a some village specially because we like to know the people and the places. I believe the people are more helpful and kind than people of the city.
I love to go with my couple, he usually buy viagra (hyperlink) and we enjoy too much our privacy.
I'm pretty sure "katty" isn't a native English speaker.

Friday, August 13, 2010

IQ Estimating

On the Mega Test, Ron Hoeflin found that the number series questions had the best correlation to high-IQ. I wrote to say I was surprised at this, and he responded that he was at first himself. (This was over 20 years ago.) But number series aren't tainted by accidental factors as easily as vocabulary questions are. On the Mega, for example, physicians are likely to have an advantage because some of the puzzles rely on knowing the opposite of an obscure medical prefix (such as hyper- and hypo-). Easy to do online now, but difficult then unless you had those prefixes already learned or knew where in your medical references to find them.

Well, we don't usually have much opportunity to observe people discovering the rules behind number series, do we? So that's out in sizing up what their candlepower is. We can sometimes get a sense how at ease they are with numbers and scientific topics, and we can attend to the vocabulary they use. These can be deceiving if we don't attend to circumstance, however. People who have boned up on a topic just prior to your hearing may seem to have a facility somewhat beyond their actual knowledge - and reading from a prepared text can make them shine even brighter. It does take some intelligence to recognise the words, know their pronunciation, and deliver them naturally, but nowhere near what one would need to use the same words and concepts when caught off guard. Yet in the opposite direction, people who do have command of such may take pains to gear their speech to their estimate of the vocabulary of their hearers. This can be subtle, as people have usually been exposed to a richer vocabulary than they use themselves, and can follow the explanations of a person smarter or more knowledgeable than themselves.

There are also social cues that people mistake for intelligence markers. We have spoken of this before, but it bears remembering here. An offhand comment that one reads the New Yorker is an attempt to suggest one has a higher-than-average intelligence. That is likely true, but the magazine is understandable by people with an IQ of 95, so it could be an affectation. Moreover, the people who read it likely overestimate the IQ of what they believe is the average reader by 10 points.

Some folks delight in using obscure words or abstruse concepts as a way of showing off or bullying. More innocently, some people just like knowing words. Both take some intelligence, but can mislead the hearer. Buckley did both: he loved words, but would also use unfamiliar terms in debate to put his disputant on the defensive.

Knowing test scores removes the need for guessing at the intelligence - I use the term in the strict g-factor sense, without regard to more elusive concepts of common sense, insight, or clarity of expression - but many of these are rough, and we don't always have access to them. SAT scores (old scoring up to 1600) divided by 10 give a rough idea of IQ. Childhood scores are especially volatile - emotional and accidental factors can bring down the score of a bright child more easily than an adult. Not much raises your score, so if you have a childhood IQ score you may regard that as your probable minimum.

Knowing lots of people's scores gives one an intuitive feel for others whose scores one doesn't know. Where do they seem to fit - nearer Amy, Sarah, and Michael, or more like Jason, Jack, and Charlene? Not that there is usually any need to know, but it can be helpful in assessments such as oh, whether a presidential candidate is intelligent.

Such estimates circulate from time-to-time, usually for the purpose of making Republican presidents look stupid and Democrats smart. There are also wild estimates of Jefferson and other early presidents having astronomical IQs. Well, perhaps. But unlikely. People do not relate to leaders too far beyond them, and leadership skills are not well-correlated with IQ. There are interesting theories why each would be so, but frankly, we don't know.

The presidential nominees of my lifetime have all probably had IQ's between 120-130. As that is about the 90th to 97th percentiles of intelligence, that's plenty. Nixon is rated higher, for reasons I have not been able to discover, though I have a decades-old recollection that it was based on his performance at law school. Bush and Kerry were reliably estimated at 125 and 120, respectively, by Steve Sailer, who also puts McCain and Gore around 133, Nixon at 143, and Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Reagan around 120. He calls 125 a starting point for discussing Obama's IQ, as he fit in but did not stand out at his prestigious Hawaiian prep school, where he was unlikely to receive any affirmative action boost. I would partly agree, but would downgrade that. I think his verbal side is likely around that level, but his making the millions/billions mistake too many times, and his idiotic Curvature of Constitutional Space paper with Laurence Tribe suggests he does not understand the scientific concepts he pretends to. Also, the teleprompter jokes alerted me to pay closer attention to vocabulary when speaking informally. Not bad, but not exceptional.

Not that I'd knock him down too many points even with that, however. It does take considerable awareness of the concepts flying around you to even get them wrong, after all. So my starting point is 120, about 90th percentile, similar to many other presidents.

Zoltan

Zoltan Mesko, from Timisoara, Romania, is going to be the New England Patriot's punter, and he looks fine. Surprise to watch for: he can roll out and punt, and is solid enough to run for yardage. Look for it to happen a couple of times this year.

Every team should have a guy named Zoltan.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Missed the Reference

I was looking for a quote from CS Lewis's The Last Battle, so took it as an opportunity to reread the whole book. (As is often the case, I had put two separate quotes together, neither saying exactly what I had remembered.)

In the next-to-last chapter, Lord Digory is explaining that everything from the old Narnia (or England) worth saving is found in real Narnia in Aslan's own land - that the old world was merely a reflection of the real world there. "It's all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me what do they teach them at these schools?"

In the very next paragraph, Lewis explains to the reader the feeling one gets in encountering the reflected, real, and ideal worlds, using the image of a looking-glass on a wall which reflects a real scene outside. It is the Allegory of the Cave, of course, put into modern form. I never noticed it before, though Lewis fairly clubs one on the head with the juxtaposition.

Post 2500 - The Free Market

Conservatives, not just progressives, often fail to remember that free market principles are not something one applies to a society. They are like gravity, always present. Adam Smith's invisible hand was a description of how things work, not advocacy for how things should work. Market principles continued within communist regimes. Governments may ignore them or try to counteract them, but they remain. Ignore or fight against them too much, as in communism, and gravity eventually brings you to earth.

The free market is not the only operating force, of course. As with gravity, other forces can be brought to bear to harness it or hold it at bay for some purpose, such as throwing a stone or building an airplane. Affection, vengeance, drive for power, moral principles - all these can work to channel or oppose the self-interest mechanisms of the market. These are in fact necessary countervailing forces, as they are often the basis of long term "self-interest" in a broader sense. We like to have family and friends, we like to believe our lives have meaning, we give up resources to build systems of law and fairness to inhabit. Corruption - a type of self-interest that does not have regard for these other forces - can harness the free market to benefit the few, leaving only scraps of value outside the centers of power. The free market will continue to work in both places, whether on the scraps or among the cronies, but these circles will then operate independently.

The Legacy of Orthodoxy

I here quote sections Chapter Nine of Kaplan’s Eastward to Tartary. There is a strong theme throughout the book that abstract ideas – democracy, Islam, communism, Christianity, capitalism – only touch earth by embedding in specific cultures, always with unexpected results. Those who continue to see only the abstraction, always furiously expecting the real-world expression to conform to the ideal, become tyrants. He makes a darn good case for this in his travels through the Near and Middle East.

(Toncho) Zhechev’s most famous novel is Bulgarian Easter, which demonstrates how the spiritual battles within the Bulgarian Orthodox Church were never spiritual at all, but political. “There has never really been spiritual opposition to tyranny here,” Zhechev told me, “because we bever had deep Christian values in the first place, only pagan ones. The Bulgarian church continued the Byzantine tradition in which the church and the state were synonymous. In the West, the church could be a corrective to the state, but Orthodox churches are historically ill-equipped to supply moral values when the state has none…

“I so much like your Melville,” Zhechev remarked suddenly, out of context, as though rebuking his own culture. “Moby Dick is such an expression of America’s strong energy and effort to defeat nature, yet the story has such lovely ambiguity. In the Orthodox world, only Russia has had great religious thinkers opposed to the church establishment – Berdyaev, for example,” he said, referring to the early twentieth-century Russian intellectual who, in the Origins of Russian Communism, explained how Lenin’s and Stalin’s totalitarian state owed as much to the Orthodox Church as Karl Marx…


(Nicolas) Berdyaev writes that Lenin’s regime was “the third appearance of Russian autocratic imperialism,” following Peter the Great’s early-eighteenth-century empire and the earlier, medieval czarist state, which had as its principle tenet “the doctrine of Moscow the Third Rome” (after Rome itself and Constantinople). Lenin’s theocratic imperium was, despite its professed atheism, culturally immersed in this czarist Byzantine theocracy, from which he and Stalin had emerged. (Stalin had studied to be an Orthodox priest, and his speeches reflected the hypnotic, repetitive quality of Orthodox hymns.) It was not only the Russian masses – the serfs - who lived within the mental confines of Orthodoxy, but the intellectual and political class, too…

Russian nihilism derived from Orthodoxy and reflected Orthodox aesthetic withdrawal from society – the notion that “the whole world lieth in wickedness.” Bolshevism was an Orthodox form of Marxism, according to Berdyaev. It underscored “totality.” “The wholeness of the Christian East is set against the rationalist fragmentariness of the West,” he wrote, and reached an apotheosis with Stalin’s totalitarianism. Because Orthodoxy was a total system, doctrinal disagreements could not be tolerated and led, therefore, to schisms, mirrored in the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

The Orthodox Church, moreover, as many Romanians had told me, was inherently collectivist and anti-Western, emphasizing the primacy of the nation over individuals, as in the writings of Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn. This was contrary to Western humanism. The Bulgarian church, like its Romanian counterpart, opposed both the Vatican and Protestant sectarianism, as well as capitalist reforms. The crisis of the Orthodox churches in Romania and Bulgaria may have been a delayed reaction to the fall of communism, a system in which the church was deeply implicated.

According to Berdyaev, Russians “did not believe in the stability of civilization, in the stability of those principles upon which the [bourgeois] world rests.” Toncho Zherchev and other Bulgarians shared that belief in upheaval, perhaps because the Bulgarian bourgeoisie had never been large or permanent.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Millions And Billions

This post sets up a point in a later post, but is interesting in its own right.

When measuring vocabulary in IQ tests, it has long been observed that higher education effects disappear by the time individuals are in their 50's - and they aren't that dramatic after a few years out of college anyway. While education does expose one to more words, and creates contexts in which these words are used, much of it is the specialised vocabulary of each discipline. That is a fine thing, for everyone must mean highly similar things in academic discussion when they say neurotic or microeconomics, or little more can be learned.

Something similar happens with numbers. We are not born knowing what a million is, or even a thousand. To all of us, numbers are no more meaningful than the hrair of Watership Down, where everything beyond four is simply "many." We can visualize a dozen somethings and understand it pretty early in life, but we have to work up to an intuitive meaning of a hundred by fooling around with sevens and dozens as we go through childhood. By adulthood, we have enough experience with setting up chairs, making change, and estimating distances that the "hundred" idea is well-embedded. We don't really get to a thousand with that except in more specialised settings which vary from person to person. But we do get a pretty good idea of a thousand because we know that it's ten of those hundred-thingies. Nearly everyone deals with thousands and ten-thousands in some setting and knows what they mean in context. Because we learn to manipulate the symbols of mathematics as children, we are often able to work with these numbers even before we get an intuitive handle on them. 4000rpms has a meaning with engines - it has a sound, it has a feel. From such islands of knowledge we can work in both directions to solidify our understanding of numbers.

I had an advanced studies course in Concepts of Mathematics one summer in high school. Mr. Hulser, quite sure that all of us were going on to take many more advanced math courses, put some stress on our working with large numbers for its own sake. He stated that "research" had shown that people didn't really have much idea what a million was, and though they knew in the abstract that a billion was a thousand millions, the actual working estimates they used showed that they experienced a billion as about ten million. A billion was just a "big million." I don't know if there was ever any real research behind his statement or whether it was just his observation that he tried to give a little more authority to, but it has always seemed plausible to me, given the way numbers get used in conversation and in newspapers. Hulser was not talking about the common man when he gave this estimate, BTW. He was talking about those educated people who happened to be in other fields. They didn't really get big numbers. But we, the budding mathematicians, the chosen ones, must do better than that. We needed to develop that intuitive sense that a million was not a hundred thousands, but a thousand of them, and billions not ten million. He thought best we might hope for by the end of college was an idea of a billion that was only one order of magnitude short instead of two. But it was important nonetheless, because sometimes in solving an equation we might have to intuit where solutions might lie by envisioning the graph.

He stated that confusing millions with billions was a terrible error, and had caused much mischief in the world. The innumeracy of otherwise educated people appalled him - though he left that said only by implication, perhaps not wanting to make us any more arrogant than we already were.

I think he was very much onto something. As we go through adulthood we encounter big numbers all the time, and have to make some sense of there being 15,000 people in a town in 1980 and 19,000 in 2000; of salaries, world population, budgets, odometer readings. We gradually build up a storehouse of these, to gain some control (beyond the mere manipulation of the symbols) of big numbers. And we do this along much the same lines as we do vocabulary - the brighter ones keep acquiring more understanding and more control, so that even a number such as 11.2 million might have some sense to it. And we know that a billion is much more than that, even if we can't make a very precise picture in our heads. Much, much more.

It turns out to be one of those rough measures of intelligence. Anyone might mishear or misspeak on occasion, but consistently messing up million and billion as concepts, just because they sound alike, is a sign, not only of a person who doesn't work with large numbers much, but of one who does not understand the large numbers that flow past him in his life.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Special-Interest Group

I have used the word tribe to describe the American cultural groups, including its political factions. I have made a point of including liberals in that primarily because they deny it. Perhaps the phrase special-interest group would serve better to describe progressives.

To themselves, liberals see their ideology as more a cast of mind, an attitude. They see liberalism as a viewpoint, almost a character, that others possess in greater or lesser degree. They are tolerant - in the fashion of adults very patiently teaching children or primitive peoples what is good for them; they respect learning per se - except that is no longer true; they are generous - particularly when it comes in the form of inducing the government to distribute funds to good things. Their characters are not devoid of these good characteristics - many are indeed tolerant, generous, and respectful of learning. But they do not see how these virtues are slowly poisoned by other attitudes, until they become net negatives for those around them. One can almost identify liberal ideas by this method - excellent ideas which left things worse off as the unforeseen negatives slowly gained ascendancy. Vietnam is a good example; the United Nations another; affirmative action is still a net positive for middle-class and upper-class blacks, and so thus perhaps good for intergroup comity and the nation as a whole. But black poverty has not remitted.

These negatives are often embedded in the special interest advantage of policies that progressives prefer. They may indeed believe that these are policies that make a better society, and are good for all of us, particularly the downtrodden. Heck, the policies they prefer might even be better, though that's another discussion. But there is no getting around that the growth of government occurs in specific areas, and these areas mean more jobs for liberals - directly, as in government, or indirectly in universities, nonprofits, and government-watching media. New regulations mean new regulators; student aid means professors; new services mean new service providers. A class of people benefit. I don't say that they vote only their own self-interest. I do say that like all moralists in government they are completely unaware that self-interest enters into the equation at all.

There is not only wealth, but status that derives from cultural dominance as well. That is more subtle, but just as powerful, and very much in evidence in progressive advocacy.

Lights Across The Water

There is something quite peaceful and beautiful about a NH lake on a still, clear night. You have to wait for the teenagers on the lake to pipe down before you can get to that point, but it is pleasant nonetheless.

The brighter, bluer lights, usually for security purposes somewhere are less attractive and bothersome. There's nothing for it. You can't expect people to make things less safe just so your visual preferences are addressed. But looking across a lake, lights on the other side, is a picture of tranquility. You can see those places a homey and cheery without actually having to deal with any of the possibly annoying folks staying there. Inns look that way to travelers, at least in English literature

Perhaps it is because there are few places in NH with a lengthy view and a good patch of sky other than hilltops and lakes (NH - The Small Sky State), and I like views. It was many years ago, before Ben was even born, that I set out well after from Cow Island, heading over to Skip Brown's Marina in a canoe. Absolutely still, with the stars easily visible in reflection. I didn't know the constellations then, just Orion and The Big Dipper, but I thought I could tell which were Mars and Venus.

I learned many of the Constellations later, in an effort to acquire knowledge that wasn't going to change next year. Natural history is good for that. I paid some attention year 'round, even with the light pollution and high trees of my neighborhood, but the clearest looks were always in summer, looking south across a lake from a Lutheran camp.

Different lake, different camp, different denomination, but still looking south, so Scorpio and Sagittarius still dominated the horizon, the Summer Triangle the overhead, in late summer. Sagittarius is supposed to be an archer, but that's only because they didn't have teapots when they were first naming them in the Middle East. It's clearly a teapot. I don't know what we would make of the collection of stars we call Ophiuchus now, but guy-holding-a-big-snake probably wouldn't leap to mind anymore in this culture.