Wednesday, May 30, 2007

American Productivity - Reprise

Once again I defend American youth against the sneers of the world. Reprinted from last May.

I waited in line at 12:03 pm at the cafeteria at work. I hadn't thought that the order of a plain hamburger would be that confusing, but there was a lot of wasted motion behind the counter. "12 Noon seems to catch George by surprize every day" I murmured to the person in front of me in line. The person in front turned and told an amusing story about waiting an hour for a pizza. In Rome. When the pizza was pre-made.

It reminded me of long waits for service in Romania and Hungary, and even, come to think of it, in England, Ireland, and the airport in Frankfurt. Contrast this with the service that barely-supervised highschool kids give you at McDonald's. It was the efficient-under-pressure fast food service that I had automatically compared George to, not to George's advantage.

McDonald's is a cultural synomym for low-talent, bottom end job in America. "You want fries with that?" But notice when traveling abroad how few people can manage that level of efficiency. They seem to do just fine when they immigrate here, but it just isn't happening there. These are the countries whose students are supposedly walloping ours in every competition. If that's the case, why are they unable grill two different sandwiches simultaneously?

I have wondered on this site before how, if our education system is so bad, we keep so far ahead of the rest of the world? People in other places work much harder, but get less accomplished. Productivity is the term used in economics. Japanese productivity in technical and industrial areas approaches or exceeds ours. In service industries, they are far behind. There are islands of efficient information exchange outside of North America (sorry to have excluded the Canadians thus far. Them too), but no one has so many people moving helpful info into the hands of people who need it.

Americans have a gift for spontaneous organization. So what if our pumpkin-headed teenagers forget where Costa Rica is fifteen minutes after the quiz? They can figure out how to get two kids to work, one back from school, and everyone to Emily's house from 8-12 with two cars and little gas. They can figure out that someone needs to move from stocking to bagging for a few minutes. They take awhile to notice and respond, but they get there. Try that in Romania. You will time them with a calendar, not a wristwatch.

Favored stories: I first visited Romania in 1998 or a mission trip. We had
less than two hours to shop in Oradea at the end of the trip, and I had a mission to get to the museum before it closed. We arrived in the van at 2pm and got coffee at the McDonald's on the bottom floor of a shopping center (a shopping center with few things for sale, BTW. Better now). The Romanians began a discussion of where and when we should meet to return. In my head, this was already automatic reasoning: We all know where this place is. Meet back here. We have to be back by five, it's an hour's drive. Allow an extra half hour, everyone meet here at 3:30. Ten minutes later, the Romanians are still discussing the matter. "When Dani comes, maybe she will want to go shopping with the women." "Andrei's church doesn't meet until 7pm. We will already be gone by then." I thought The
average American fifth-grader is more organized than this.
These were intelligent people, but wasted effort doesn't seem to bother them as it does Americans.

In 2001 I visited Chris and J-A just after our permission to adopt came through. John-Adrian's soccer team traveled to Oradea to represent Beius in a tournament on a Saturday morning. I followed the team in a rented car. We got to the field early, but no one was there. The teacher/coach talked to some people, and we drove to another field. No one there either. Finally he talked to someone on his cell and we searched for a third field. We got there late, but three other teams had still not arrived. The coach tried to register the team, but was not allowed - he was supposed to bring everyone's birth certificate. Much complaining and gesticulating followed. The team was allowed to play one exhibition game. Another team had forgotten their birth certs and played an exhibition as well. One team never showed up.

On the way back, the police stopped the coach, discovering that he had not registered his car for six months, nor renewed his license. He had also been letting the boys have drinks as a consolation, but no one worried about that. Eighth grade? No problem.

Five years in America, our boys organize things like Americans. It's not an intelligence issue. But while cursing your wait in line next time, remember that it would be worse anywhere else.

Exit Cindy Sheehan

Cindy Sheehan’s announcement that she will no longer be an active public figure in the antiwar movement has provoked a revival of harsh criticism of her, not only from the right, as expected, but from the left as well. Tammy Bruce is particularly cutting, as was the Democratic Underground.

I never thought the common explanations for her behavior, pro and con, adequately explained her motivations. We like things to be simple in our public figures, enacting the myth that we have assigned to them so we can put them in a box. It’s intellectually and emotionally tidy that way.

It has been an interesting exercise for me to look at the explanatory power of the various simplifications of Cindy Sheehan and where they fall short, in order to find a combination which covers the waterfront. I would first like to clear out the debris of discussing personal attractiveness. This should be irrelevant, but both men and women, both right and left, are likely to disparage their opponents’ appearance. Conservative men have been brutally insulting regarding Ms. Sheehan’s looks. I don’t get it. Most of the unflattering caricature and snide remarks relate to traits related to age. I think we should expect mothers of servicemen to be older than Lindsey Lohan, shouldn’t we?

Tangent: men praise or criticise women’s basic attractiveness, women are more likely to evaluate style. I suspect that women are making an indirect comment about themselves when they pronounce judgement on other women – too overdressed, too cheap, too the-90’s-are-over-honey. These are equally irrelevant, just a different focus. I also don’t think that people care that much, even when they are the ones making the comment. Most people, when you press them, would agree that Hillary Clinton’s figure and Katherine Harris’s eyeliner aren’t important. I conclude from this that people say these things not because they are relevant but because they hurt. In an appearance-oriented society, where women are already self-conscious, you can make it sting. Our usual complaint is that people are being shallow with these evaluations. I think gratuitous cruelty is closer to the mark. Cindy Sheehan isn’t especially unattractive, and people just used that as one more way to kick her. You can get something of the same effect with male public figures, calling Bush a chimp or Kerry “Lurch,” but the intensity isn’t the same.

Back to Cindy are her motivations. She has been accused of being an attention whore. There’s likely something to that, but really good attention whores start earlier and are better at keeping it once they’ve got it. As applause addicts, sudden attention might go to their heads, causing them to miscalculate the long-term effect on your popularity of cozying up to Hugo Chavez, but they generally avoid those mistakes. Real attention whores are more calculating than that, protecting the supply of their drug for later. Ms. Sheehan clearly enjoyed all the attention. She played to it, she got energised by it, she came back for more. Yet in the end she acquiesced in dropping out of sight. There might be some attention-seeking in her method of exit, but she could do more to keep in the public eye. Rosie O’Donnell keeps ratcheting up the outrageousness to stay visible; Cindy Sheehan could have done the same. As nice as the attention was, in the end it wasn’t everything.

On the pro side are those folks who claim that she’s just a sincere grieving mother who opposes this war, a noble sacrificing type willing to endure all this criticism for the sake of her cause. Well, maybe. But people with a single cause tend not to water it down by throwing in every criticism that comes to hand. They try not to get into the whole “corporate fascists” routine or tying it into kicking Israel. Those extras are for people whose cause is broader, who want a whole basket of changes in the economy, social policy, and education. Could Cindy Sheehan be a clumsy one-issue person, who cares mostly about the war but has these few other things she gets carried away with? Perhaps. But where does Chavez come into that, or Cuban medical care? A True Believer can get distracted, or seek coalition partners, but usually don’t spread themselves that thin. The myth of the anti-war specialist also doesn’t explain enough. From the start, she has wanted to change more about America than just being in Iraq.

Blog comments often call her stupid or brainless. That can’t be. It takes some wit even to take vapid cliches and put them in your own words, and Ms. Sheehan went well beyond that. I don’t think she’s going to go on and study neuroscience with her free time, but she’s not stupid. Naïve may be closer to the mark, or unwitting. Moonbat? One of those who believe that because it would be a better world if certain things were true, we should pretend they are true to help them along? Folks who believe only herbs are necessary for healing, or that you can reason with tyrants are certainly spread out across the IQ spectrum, so it’s not an intelligence issue per se (All together now: Imagine there’s no countries…). That could be what’s up with Cindy, believing that if we could just get rid of George Bush and a few neocons, sanity would be restored to the world and the Belgians would help us out in putting pressure on Iran.

But that also leaves unexplained a moderate parcel of facts. She’s disillusioned with the Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and is walking off the stage. Moonbats just switch to another venue and promise to keep up the struggle. Also, Cindy didn’t start with a lot of these views, but picked them up from her supporters and handlers along the way.

Supporters and handlers. This intrigues me. She has clearly been used by people who could not care less about her or Casey, but have causes and power grabs of their own in play. Spokespeople can get caught up in being Vox Populi, and submerge their own personalities under the group identity. If you are the “face” of the antiwar movement, or the “voice” of it, then that’s sort of an enormous personality in itself. There are people who are so weak in their own core that being a figurehead is the closest thing they have to having a personality. Teddy Kennedy seems to fit this, being the outspoken representative of whatever is most important to Massachusetts Democrats, however that changes over the years.

This would line up well with the theory that this is the grief reaction of a mother whose purpose in life seems to have gone away. That he died for values in opposition to hers would be a further erosion of her own sense of worth. I can relate to that. If my children died, I would wonder what the whole point of my life had been. If they died in some way that was a negation of my values, it would go down even harder. Additionally, when one can identify some evil as having caused the death – drunk driving, neocon agenda, spina bifida – then parents often find purpose in removing that evil so that others do not share the same grief. At its best, this is the healthy defense mechanism of sublimation. Our own reality cannot be changed, but perhaps we can change things for others. It is an important distinction to keep in mind that even a foolish cause intellectually can be a healthy response psychologically. We turn our grief into self-sacrifice, though it is no guarantee that we give ourselves wisely.

People who have endured great grief can go on to smile, and laugh, and resume normal life, and this casts no shadow on their sincerity. That Cindy Sheehan is able to enjoy herself with friends, or being fussed over and listened to does not in itself invalidate her grief. But to take such enjoyment in the particular acts she did verges on celebrating her grief rather than his life. That undermines the sublimation explanation.

No single explanation satisfies me

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Fashion Accessories

If Birkenstocks are the shoe of choice for leftists, what should those of us on the right wear?

Perhaps The Manolo has advice.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Musings on Large Issues

For those of you worried that these links might take you to places where you might have to think hard, not to worry. These are all structured so that you can take in the fun part now and think about it later.

Would it be a good thing to live on this earth an extra hundred years, or a thousand? My bias is against, as I wrote in Perpetual Life last year.

That question is tied into what we find important to accomplish in life, which is intimately tied up with whether we have children or not. I slogged through some birthrate tables for developed countries and found a correlation between those who had been oppressors and seemingly national decisions to have no more children. I have since come to wonder if it is national humiliation, which the WWII and communist oppressors have endured, which drives down the birthrate.

I also had fun discussing how no one lives in the real world (except the guys at Home Depot), and how spiritual seeking is really just goofing off.


An article over at journalist Don Surber's blog notes how little the American media has picked up the story of the discovered Al Qaeda torture manual in contrast to the stories on terror they evidently prefer to run. A commenter made what he believed to be an morally earnest reply:
R. Schoenberg Says:
Mr. White has it right, that we left-progressives believe that we are supposed to know better, that our cultural tradition has hade torture illegal and immoral. And why is it a story that Al Queda has a torture manual? They are a truly evil organization, we have seen what they can do on TV, I was a witness to their evil having evacuated the North Tower on 9/11 just in time to look up and watch a 757 plow into the South Tower. So it’s no surprise to me.
But I do truly believe our country and culture is above the horrors of torture. I’ve seen plenty of bullies in my life (I’m using the term bully, but I have in mind an unprintable word) and I do not want to be one of them. What conservatives and Bush want is to turn my country into a bully, one that’s scarcely different from the other countries that behave like bullies. And I can only surmise from the attitude of conservatives on this issue that they are oblivious to what kind of people they have become, and what kind of people they are trying to force the rest of us to be.
(Surber's)Reply: We have tortured no one. We have imprisoned those who abuse prisoners. Your excuses for al-Qaeda are appalling. Look what you have become: Your weird hatred of Bush has twisted you so where you makes excuses for al-Qaeda’s use of torture. “It’s not news”? It is news, as is the news of the sickening silence on the left. Progressive? More new-speak from the left.

I wrote a reply as well, and liked it so much I'm showing it off to you.
R. Schoenberg, I would like to sympathise, as I believe you come to your views with sincerity and thought. Where I think you go wrong is in phrases like “scarcely different than other countries” and “what kind of people they have become.” One does not have to be pro-torture to recognise the profound difference between what our enemies do and what we do. One can even deplore and strive to punish and eliminate the worst of American acts without considering them to be remotely equivalent. Not all shades of gray are the same, and to refuse the side of very light gray against very dark gray is to refuse moral distinctions. Such moral equivalences do not bespeak a tender conscience, but a hardened one; not a moral sensitivity, but a coarseness. That it is held by people who consider themselves sensitive and well-meaning does not change that.
If a woman is attacked and fights dirty to protect herself, should she be condemned? That is not an exact analogy, but the answer to the question opens up the moral view I suggest.

Commenting is as least as much fun as blogging.

Doing Things Badly

G.K.Chesterton wrote "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." The quote comes from What's Wrong With The World (lovely title); you can read more about the context here, at the American Chesterton Society. I don't disagree with the editor's comments on this, but am going in a different direction. Their commentary suggests that it is about things which people should do for themselves rather than leave to professionals, such as choosing mates, rearing children, and making laws. Interesting that we now try to leave those things to professionals as much as possible, eh?

My eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Gladysz, used to say "If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?" The question may have hung on the wall as well. Ignore for today's discussion the obvious objections that fourteen-year-olds would raise, such as "I will have more time after basketball season." Her intent was inspire (or command) our best effort and praise excellence, which is precisely what we hire eighth-grade teachers to do. It nonetheless contains the seeds of a dangerous attitude.

A neglected measure of an act or an idea is how valuable it is even if done badly. If people are hungry they need food, and if you are not a chef or even a mediocre cook, so what? If the fire is spreading it must be put out; this is not the time to get training on firefighting. In these instances it is need that drives action. Fighting a war, praying, and calling home are things of this sort. They are things that it is important that they are firstdone, and only secondarily that they are done well.

This applies in the realm of belief or philosophy as well. Some ideas will get you farther even if done imperfectly. Marxists complain that real communism hasn't ever been properly tried, so we can't reject it yet. Well yes, it is certainly true that the various socialisms work better when they are done well, as in Scandinavia than where they are done poorly, as in Cuba or North Korea. But you will notice that there is a heckuva lot of non-socialism in the Scandinavian approach to other countries. They compete with other countries on the world market, and their success at that, plus their lack of internal corruption, allows them to enact a moderate socialism.

The free market, OTOH, provides a lot of benefit even when it's done badly. Italy gets by with a fair bit of corruption. We have more nepotism and exploitation in America, yet our poorest states and our poorest minority groups have more income than Swedes.

Christianity shows the same advantage. It has never been practiced perfectly, save once when God himself illustrated it. It has seldom been tried more than even half-heartedly on a large scale, yet it has provided the basis for most of what we call "good" in our society.

Christianity can be practiced so badly that it might have been better to not have tried at all, certainly. And good things twisted can produce great evil. But most of the complaints of wars and exploitation attributable to Christianity are ridiculously overstated. (For some evidence, though not proof of this see my earlier post on The Big Bad Three.) Sometimes the value of something is seen in how it works when done badly.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Secret - Hah!

The Secret is all the rage, apparently. Haven't read it myself. From what I can gather, it is one of those "focus on it and it will come to you" books. I will grant that if one is thinking about something with intent, one will just naturally do things which might help that along. Beyond that, there's too much counterevidence.

If thinking really hard about something and imagining it in detail made it happen, or even was much help in making it happen, then I would have slept with a lot of girls in high school and college. My college had 4,000 students, high school had 2,000... heck, that's 3,000 girls right there. And don't tell me that you have to be more persistent and focussed and not so scattered to make it work. At the highest cutoff you can set, there would still be a dozen girls on that list.

Also, every guy in America would have had a brilliant sports career. There would be so many of us who hit the final shot with a few seconds left that it wouldn't be worth mentioning anymore. At least 50% of us would have won a lottery. Been in a movie.

On a more serious note, let's see how happy everyone is about explaining this secret to starving people in Africa.

Just think these things through, people.

The Last Gift of Mary Magdalene

When Mary of Magdala went to the tomb on Easter morning, hoping with the other women to give the body of Jesus a proper burial (Friday afternoon's preparations had been hurried and the bare minimum), her situation was different than all of Jesus's other followers. The men could go back to their previous jobs and families. At least I can go back to accounting/fishing/building again. They would be humiliated, of course, but that would pass. They grieved for their friend, but lots of people grieve. Some of the men had wished to go back to their previous lives, and wanted assurance from Jesus that what they had given up to follow him was worth it.

Jesus had at least attempted to provide for his mother at the end. "Mother, behold your son; son, behold your mother" he had said to John. As far as we can tell, the other women had come from some sort of families, and after suitable punishment by their patriarchs, would be accepted back. Mary the mother of Jesus would have the greatest grief, of course, but no worse than a thousand other mothers in Jerusalem who had lost sons.

Mary had nothing to go back to. There were always job openings for Beggar, of course, but the other beggars would have been schooled for a lifetime in eliciting pity by appearance and tones of voice. She might not be able to make even a subsistence living. She might give herself as a slave, if anyone would have her - the woman of the house in any rich family might have something to say about the master taking on one of the girls from the Pampered Palestinian Escort Service, no matter how temporarily reformed. Ms. Magdalene had seemingly stayed somewhere the last two nights. Perhaps she had stayed with one of the other women, or one of the disciples - if she could find one out of hiding. But it could have been that she had nowhere, nothing, starting in about two hours.

We might hope that the followers of Jesus would remember at least something of what he taught, and that someone would take a poor woman in and provide for her. But if not, her own family was unlikely to take her back. She had shamed them already and was dead to them. Whatever friends she had formerly had among her customers wouldn't want to be that close to her new holiness, unless they were utterly depraved and would enjoy even more trying to take advantage of her need. You thought you were something for awhile there, didn't you - better than the rest of us, huh? Now look at you.

And yet out of love and duty, which are not as incompatible as we make them appear in our era, she wants to give what last little she has in the pointless gesture of doing things up properly for someone who wasn't even a relative. Just because it was the right thing to do. Just to show gratitude one more time, even if only only she noticed.
Reprinted from last year.

It was a gift of generosity unmatched by any of Jesus's other followers, a pouring out of her own self, probably pointlessly, in imitation of his own pointless sacrifice. Just because it had to be done. We lose too quickly in the immediate discussion of the resurrection how great must have been Mary Magdalene's despair at finding the tomb empty. Even this last ability to give a little gift had been taken from her, and she must have thought as well "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

No wonder that Jesus's words to her are "Touch me not." What other impulse could she have had but to wrap her arms around his ankles, touch his face, burrow into his chest, weeping? How did even the Son of God move quickly enough to prevent her?

There are no tears that will not someday be dried, no lonely depths that will not somehow be filled. We hunger; food exists. We thirst; water exists. What else then could hope be for, but for completion?

Changes in First Names in English, 1200 - 2000

In 1300, the most common names in English for boys were John, William, Robert, Richard, and Thomas. In 1940, the most common names were James, Robert, John, William, and Richard. Thomas had slipped to 8th. That's not a lot of change in 640 years. The streak wasn't completely uninterrupted. Charles, Henry, George, and few others would slip into the top 5 for a century or so, but the top 5 never fell very far.

The most common names for girls in 1300 were Mary, Ann, Elizabeth, Jane, and Margaret. In they 1880's they were Mary, Anna, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Emma. A few names like Alice or Sarah would pop in, but that list was quite stable as well.

In around 1800 in England, about a quarter of the boys were named John, and more than a fifth of the girls were named Mary. When one considers that having multiple progeny was more the norm then, it would seem that just about every family had a John and a Mary.

Interestingly, the names had changed somewhat in the 13th Century. Before the Conquest, things like Radulf and Drogo were more common, along with the Johns and Roberts. But after the Normans took over, the Saxon names fell out of favor socially and French names moved up.

In America, these male and female names continued strongly in Virginia. New England and the Mid-Atlantic states began using other names, usually Biblical, but the names above continued strong. Not until about 1800 do we start to see new female names pop onto the lists, and the male names do not start changing until a century later.

Female names have turned over more rapidly since then, as we discussed in this post from a year ago. An excerpt:
Names given to boys have been more stable over time. Michael became the most popular name for boys over fifty years ago, and has been #1 most years since. David supplanted it for a few years in the 1960's and Jacob has pushed it into 2nd in the 21st C, but that's a very long run. In that time, Mary, Lisa, and Jennifer have each enjoyed runs of about 10-15 years atop the list. None of these have even been in the top 10 since 1992, when Jessica rose to the top, quickly replaced by Emily.

Wikipedia covers the most common names for 1880 - present, which is fun thing to browse through.

It is also interesting to ponder Pathological Names, which I also wrote about months ago. John Derbyshire over at National Review Online has also weighed in on the subject.

This all comes up because the new grandchild will be either Benjamin or Emily, so I am thinking about onomastics again.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Reprise of Stupid Things

I had not reviewed last April and May for what might be brought forward, and I have also four or so subjects I've been tussling with in my head to post about. I will try and spread this out, but as I do, I develop more of a backlog.

A wonderful collection of stupid things people said a year ago. It must have been a hot month for stupidity, because I didn't even include the Julia Roberts, BC Faculty, or Diversity Training idiocies (list cut here. Apparently pointing out stupid things other people say is about 50% of my blog).

First up: Jimmy "Birdhouse" Carter, with an absolutely jaw-dropping bit of bigotry. He believes that Jesus supports the Democrats views, and is much more blatant about this than anything a Falwell or Robertson might say. I can imagine Tip O'Neill or Jack Kennedy saying this puckishly, half-believing it but knowing it's ridiculous. But nope. Carter is dead serious here. A sample:
"I told her that if she answered all of those questions, that she believed in peace, aiding the poor and weak, saving the environment, opposing torture ... then I told her, 'You should be a Democrat.'"

Next I have a great jeremiad of spew from someone with Bush Derangement Syndrome

And the utter vacuity of Barbara Boxer. It is not that progressives are always silly in what they say - they aren't. But when people who speak and reason like this are taken seriously, you have to wonder who's minding the store. On the right we try to get our nutcases to pipe down, not elect them.

There was a bit of conversation about the Gospel of Judas about that time, and I weighed in on that.

But Eric Pianka at UTexas has a solution to it all: Eliminate everyone.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Awful Sports News

The Celtics got the 5th pick in the draft, instead of one of the top two. Those poor bastards in Memphis didn't get a top two either.

I am going to start now teaching myself not to care about Celtics basketball for 10 years. Okay, 5.

Those Other Evangelicals

In reading the Doug Paggitt Reimagining Spiritual Formation, I was struck again by how many in the Emerging Church come with irritation from strict evangelical backgrounds. This time, however, I noticed that the church experiences they had come through were not that unusual or terrible. Yet I recognised those churches, pastors, and parents, nodding agreement that they were indeed irritating. I could see how one would want out.

I forget that not all evangelicals go to Covenant (or similar) churches, where disagreement and questioning are allowed, and A & H children are valued. The teachers and parents that I found irritating at my sons’ Christian schools are more common than I generally remember. I get to select my evangelicals by what websites I go to, what books I read, where I go to church, and who my friends are. From this I develop a picture of “what evangelicals are like” that is probably unrepresentative and too rosy.

The fundamentalists operated from a words-based faith, believing that if they could just get their doctrine absolutely pure, everything else would flow from that. This leads inevitably to schism. Evangelicals have a strong streak of that themselves, but I don’t have to participate in it much. That is a liberation the congregants of many evangelical churches don’t have.

We got to build the spiritual environment we wanted for our children, putting in all that non-traditional or non-verbal worship, exposure to Christian variety and secular arts & letters. This was built on a base of Covenant churches, a creative supportive community that was separate, and Lutheran camp – high shoulders to be standing on in terms of flexibility. Had we not had those, I think we would have had to do what the emerging churches are doing now – build something new.

From the pieces we had to work with, the right spiritual environment could be crafted. Minus a few of those pieces, parental energy might have been better spent in rethinking the whole ball of wax and starting over.

Christmas celebration provides a good example. As the holiday becomes increasingly secular in the surrounding society, it takes more and more energy to make it a religious holiday. With our energy and devotion to the things of Christmas (and standing on the shoulders of giants) we were able to keep it as a religious holiday. Some groups think the celebration has become so secular that it is no longer worth the effort to improve it. They may be right. More importantly, they may be increasingly right as we go forward in time. I would be saddened if any grandchildren of mine had to give up Christmas because there was just so little left worth keeping spiritually, but that could come to pass.

Okay, This One's Important

Bill Whittle over at ejectejecteject writes only a few main posts a year, but those few are worth pondering. The concept of the Remnant will be familiar to Christian readers; Bill puts it in a more secular context, though compatible with the Christian one. I will be carrying these ideas around for a long time, I think.

If You Had Told Me

If you had come to me at age 20 and shown me this possible life…

You have four sons, two from a foreign country.
You have been married 30 years to a cute librarian.
You are awaiting the birth of your first grandchild, who will live nearby.
There is a method whereby personal computers are networked, providing instant access to most information. On this network you posted to the public on children’s literature, instantly sparking an insightful post on that topic from one of your sons 2000 miles away.
Another son is in college, and the fourth about to graduate highschool. Everyone likes each other.
You are all planning a backpacking trip to the place you brought your sons when they were children.
You are going to Europe for the (1, 2, 3…) 8th time.

If you had told me that, I would have traded everything I owned for it. For half of it. An arm. A leg. My sight or hearing. Without hesitation. Heck, I might have given a hand or a foot for any one of them alone. I know as an intellectual premise that all good things come from God, but it doesn’t always animate my existence as it should. Sometimes, some few times, I can look and see how I would not have these things were it not for Jesus. I would have screwed too much up.

We so seldom appreciate what we have. Alleluia.

Female Characters in Heroic Fantasy

Under Ben's comment on Books for boys, Books for girls over at 10-4goodbuddy is a disagreement from "Megan." I know who many of Ben's visitors are, but I don't know this one. I don't completely disagree with her point, though I fear she didn't follow the directions and first read the post here that started it all. She would far rather be Fleur than Lucy. She attributes this to a real-girlness in the Rowlings books, in contrast to a rather stiff goodieness in Narnia. I don't think that is quite what she means, though I see what she is driving at instantly.

A clearing of clutter: Megan might just be liking the HP girls because they show the type of imperfection and rebelliousness that teenagers of both sexes admire. Ecch. She might just like modern things better than dated ones. Sigh. I hope this is not the case, and that she means something deeper, but I may be projecting depth onto her that isn't there.

There is not only a difference in the type of young female in the Harry Potter and the Narnia books, there is also a difference in how well we know them. This is only partly a function of skill - Rowlings is quite good at this, Lewis is not - it is also a function of style, technique, intent. The effect of making us feel we know a character is greatly influenced by how much conversation takes place on the page. Narrative voice also plays a part: how much the author lets us listen in on the thoughts of characters.

Do they still teach that in school, BTW? Third-person omniscient and all that?

More conversation is the more modern style, and it is also a more female style. There is no sharp distinction here: there are male authors who use much conversation and female authors who use little, but the tendency is there. This is much of why the Harry Potter books are much longer than the Chronicles of Narnia. The people talk more. Rowlings also uses phrasing that is not only more modern, but more informal. A modern reader is more likely to feel she knows Hermione than she knows Aravis, however she feels about what each is like and what happens to them.

That is a perfectly legitimate preference. It is not always a superiority, however. It depends on what effect the author is aiming for. Lewis tends to make his main Narnian characters coequal, like figures in mythology. He is not unable to do the other. In his Perelandra series there is more conversation and in the first two volumes only one main character, whose thoughts we know a great deal about. We feel we know Ransom.

The mix-and-match, crush and recrush of the later Harry Potter books would be out of place in Lewis's recounting of the tales of Narnia. The focus is on what the children are doing in Narnia, and how that affects historical events in another world. What happens inside the characters is less central to the story. It is important that Edmund, Eustace, and Aravis change, because the changes make the necessary events, the events they were called to, possible. In Rowlings, the characters are much more the point of the story.

Lewis might actually agree that the characters are more important in the eternal view. Because Eustace will live forever, whether he lives eternally as a complete pill or as a follower of Aslan is more important than all of Narnia, which will pass away. But that is what the story ultimately points to, not what it is about. To the people in the story it is the events that matter, not some fine theology of sanctification. The effect is not pure in Rowlings, either: the characters in Harry Potter are focussed more on the unfolding of events than on each other while the plot is moving forward. Yet Rowlings books are "about" Harry becoming something, and the other young wizards becoming someones. Even the titles give this away. Lewis's series is the Chronicles of Narnia. Rowlings books are about Harry.

There is a chick-lit element to Harry Potter. Heroic fantasy written from a more female perspective. Well why not? And some might greatly prefer that type of mix. As Rowlings does the heroic fantasy part with great skill, she keeps her boy audience who might otherwise start wandering away if the series progressed to going to dances becoming too much of a focus. The child readers who have grown up with Harry are likely not too bothered by the romantic angles, as they are going through them themselves. I wonder how the new readers, male and female, are doing with the series if they are reading all of them in fourth and fifth grade.

Kids who like the first few books of a series will go a long way before they give up on it, even if they like subsequent books less.

The Chronicles intentionally have more distance between the reader and the characters, because Lewis is going for a less intimate, more universal effect. The books are shorter, more mythological, and more evocative of many cultures. Harry and Hermione are definitely English, the stories are English, and even the worldwide characters who attend Hogwarts have a certain quality of being flown in to an English boarding school for multicultural purposes. There's nothing wrong with that, and readers are free to prefer that style and intimacy. Harry Potter is a fat summer novel about young wizards. The Chronicles of Narnia are folk tales fleshed out. They're just different.

Tolkien's books lie between Lewis and Rowlings on this scale of intimacy and universality. The Hobbit is more like the Chronicles of Narnia in distance at first, with its obvious narrator exclaiming "Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I had heard about him..." and the crick! crack! sound effects. It is more like a fairy tale, or a folk tale. We move into knowing Bilbo more internally as the story goes forward. Two decades later, we know Frodo in LOTR more like we know Harry. The narrative voice has become different. There is more conversation, and more dropping in on thoughts. And as this happens, the Shire becomes much more England-in-disguise, where in The Hobbit it was "a land far away."

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Western Art As Revealer Of Culture

Fjordman is often over-the-top on the superiority of Western Culture, but entertainingly so, and he is quite thought-provoking. His recent post Why Western Art Is Unique, and Why Muslim Immigration Threatens It at Brussels Journal, suggests that the type of representational art that grew up in the West, whether it is cause or effect, tells much about our subsequent advancement.

Tentative Good News

Good news out of Romania today, as exit polls show President Traian Basescu, who has been suspended for a month on bogus charges, winning over 75% in a "No Impeachment" vote. The Black Coalition against him, which has continued to hold power in the Parliament and the judiciary despite their steadily eroding popular support, will certainly jigger the vote some, but 75% leaves an awful lot of jiggering to do. This coalition includes what the European newspapers call a "conservative" party, because it is made up of members of the old communist Ceausescu regime, including much of the secret police; a rather militant Hungarian party, plus an assortment of socialist & communist parties. They won't just go away, of course, but regroup and try to find another way to stop this anti-corruption nightmare they are living through. Still, it's another solid kick to the still-formidable residue of communism in Romania.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Sarkozy Election: Demographics

Sometimes it's all how you slice the data.

Tom Peters' claim is that the Socialist candidate Royal won among those 18-59, while Sarkozy won among those over 60. Peters’ interpretation of this is that those retired or about to retire insisted that the younger workers were going to have to put their noses to the grindstone, while those working opted for more socialism.

Not so fast. There is first the required caution, not mentioned half enough about any poll, that small majorities are exactly that: small. If Sarkozy beats Royal 53-47 among café waitresses, your informal poll of those who bring you your morning omelet is going to seem evenly divided, even after a year of asking. Secondly, it is quite a leap to assume that all these French citizens are voting solely, or even primarily for the reasons that journalists and observers think they are. People have hundreds of reasons, ranging from the sensible to the bizarre, why they prefer a given candidate. As the election approaches, the candidates and the undecided voters focus on a very few issues, but these are not an exhaustive list.

But let’s throw caution to the wind*, and analyze the French election along these same oversimplified lines that journalists are so fond of. Let’s pretend it is economic aggressiveness versus economic protectiveness that dominated the mind of the French voter. If we look at the data in more detail, we see something quite different in the voting patterns. While it is technically true that Royal wins among those 18-59, such a broad generalization obscures a great deal. (Ipsos/Dell) The "internet" generation of 18- to 24-year-olds voted 58 per cent for Mme Royal. The 25- to 34-year-olds voted 57 per cent for M. Sarkozy. The "May 1968"- Mitterrand generation of 45- to 59-year-olds voted 55 per cent for Mme Royal. The 35 to 44 generation split 50-50. This is a sine curve, not a single sloped line that puts the under 59’s in Royal’s camp and the over 60’s in Sarkozy’s. Okay, it’s a messy sine curve, flattened through the middle part. Deal with it.

The 18-24 cohort has 20% unemployment. Any reason that unemployed adolescents might want a more socialist environment? Those who have figured out why France has so many unemployed 18-24 year-olds might lean toward Sarkozy, but there is no reason to assume that French young people are significantly more economically savvy and future-oriented than their American counterparts. A 20-year-old without a job tends to be worried about what is going to bring life’s goods to his door over the next few months, or even weeks. Vote Segolene, socialist mother of four.

Then we have a longish run of those aged 25 to about 40 who voted solidly for Sarkozy. 40-odd to 55 went for Royal, after which it is increasingly Sarkozy all the way. If we make the convenient assumption that the youngest voting cohort might become less socialist after they start getting jobs, what we note over the whole spectrum is not socialism among those younger than 60, but a more socialist blip somewhere between 40-59. As that blip is bookended by some strong Sarkozy support, unless there is a sharp break right at the edges of that age cohort it is likely that some ages in that range are well above 60% support for Mme. Royal. Hmm. A narrow cohort 5-10 years wide around 50 years old is very socialist. Everyone else over age 24 leans more free-market. This is not quite an opposite to Tom Peters analysis, but it is sharply different.

That batch of socialists aren’t going away soon, and they’re likely to become more demanding as they get older, so French conservatives had better get cracking on convincing younger people that it’s the protected, not the open, economy that’s screwing them over.

*Looking at that idiom more closely, what a beautiful, expressive phrase. Hackneyed by now, but still… ah, a bit of research shows it is derived at several removes from John Milton. Of course.

Reference Books

The first grandchild, currently called “Doodle Bug” until its sex becomes known, should have a proper intellectual start in the world. I’m thinking reference books would be an appropriate gift. I am torn between the complete 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Or should I go retro and get the 1911 Eleventh Edition of Britannica?

An atlas or an anatomy might be more appropriate for a young child, what with the color pictures and all. I am going to find this decision difficult.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Those Tribes Again

Virginia Postrel, writing at The Dynamist, quotes from the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan's Escapism:
If a small vocabulary and the frequent use of clichés promote understanding and communal solidarity, the achievement of verbal-intellectual sophistication can have the opposite effect. The more people know and the more subtle they are at expressing what they know, the fewer listeners there will be and the more isolated individuals will feel, not only at large but also among colleagues and co-workers. Let me use an architectural metaphor to show how this can come about in academic life. Graduate students live in sparsely furnished rooms but share a house--the intellectual house of Marx, Gramschi, Foucault, or whoever the favored thinker happens to be. A warm sense of community prevails as the students encounter one another in the hallway and speak a common language, with passwords such as "capital formation," "hegemony," and "the theater of power" to establish firmly their corporate membership. Time passes. As the students mature intellectually, they move from the shared life of a house to rented apartments scattered throughout the same neighborhood. The apartments are close enough that friends still feel free to drop in for visits, and when they do the entire living space is filled with talk and laughter, recapturing as in younger days not only the bonhomie but also the tendency to embrace wholeheartedly the currently headlined doctrine. Eventually the students become professors themselves. They begin modestly to build their own houses of intellect and add to the structures as they prosper. Because each house bears witness to a scholar’s achievement, it can be a source of great personal satisfaction. But the downside is, who will want to visit? And if a colleague or friend does, why should she spend time in more than one room?

Social scientists claim that a tenement building where people hang out the washing or sit on the stoop to socialize can be a warmly communal place. By contrast, a suburb with freestanding houses is cold and unfriendly. I am saying that the same may be true of intellectual life as one moves to larger houses of one’s own design. Both types of move--socioeconomic and intellectual--signify success, and with both the cost to the mover can be an exacerbated feeling of isolation.
It fits rather interestingly with my Tribes Collection, exploring the American cultural tribes and how they see each other.

Tuan seems to be a fascinating thinker, from what I can gather browsing around about him. The theme of Escapism is that all human culture is designed to escape from the harsh realities of environment, conflict, and death. "A human being," Tuan says wryly, "is an animal who is congenitally indisposed to accept reality as it is." He means this as a compliment (mostly), for this escapism has enabled us to do great things. Two of his books just made it to my lengthening wish list.

Postrel is fascinating in herself, author of The Future And Its Enemies and The Substance of Style, both of which I have read excerpts of. Hmm, maybe those should go on my wish list...

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Psychiatry Updates

For those interested in teach-yourself knowledge about the brain, McGill University has a site The Brain Top To Bottom. The advantage is that it comes in Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced versions, so you can click back and forth between levels of difficulty on a particular topic.

For those who like the genetic angle, there is an interview with Elliot Gershon about the overlap of affected genes in both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. This remains preliminary, but intriguing.
DAOA (D-amino-acid oxidase activator) is strongly implicated in both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia,” Dr. Gershon says. “There is some evidence that NRG-1 (neuregulin-1) might overpresent in individuals with bipolar disorder, but they’re not conclusive. The dysbindin-1 encoding gene appears to be implicated mainly in schizophrenia.” Other genes that may be associated with both illnesses include COMT, BDNF, and DISC1.

“The overlap in genetic susceptibility is quite interesting,” Dr. Gershon says.

“It appears that, although they tend to run in different families, both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia may share some common genetic—and therefore biologic—susceptibilities. This may partly explain why the two disorder have shared symptoms and respond to some of the same medications.
The main page of this excellent site provides links to other new studies, including an update on the next generation of SSRI's, the SNRI's (serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors).

My department is suddenly awash in "bodywork" therapies, which I remain extremely skeptical of. These would including things like Reiki, Rolfing, Orgonomy, Pesso-Boyden, and a dozen others. There is nothing particularly objectionable to the overarching theory that the body and mind are closely tied or even a unity, and the mind can be repaired by interventions on the body. The idea is that postures, sensations, sounds, and the like can be used to work backwards, the body teaching the brain. The difficulty is that this has proved enormously difficult to substantiate. Much of the neurological and brain-response info that the bodywork people quote does not actually provide evidence for their theories, but only possible explanations at a brain structure level of how they could work. Much of the current focus is on remote trauma and attachment disorder treatment. It has always been hard to sort out with such folk what we might call a measurable improvement, and how much of that results from the specific treatment versus the presence of increased structured attention.

On an odd note, we have two patients who seem to have been successful at cheeking Zyprexa Zydis, which would be quite a feat. We have not only one classic A-B-A experiment, but two on each of them. We have a guess how they are doing it, which I won't mention in case some paranoid who wants to ditch his meds is googling "cheeking Zyprexa Zydis" and stumbles on this. But if any of the 40-per-day of you has any further comment or interest, contact me.

Legislative Disconnect Between Party and National Needs

Giacomo over at "Joust The Facts" has a medium-length post on the attempt to link an Iraq War pullout with unrelated legislation, and the possible consequences. His is a good summary, which I will not recreate here.

Republicans are hardly in a position to be indignant about tacked-on legislation; this has been SOP for both parties for decades. They try and bury pork or loopholes in some legislation sure to pass. In this case it is the opposite: because Bush is sure to veto the legislation as long as the withdrawal demand is in it, the Democrats are going for death-by-a-thousand-cuts. He vetoed clean water. He vetoed raises for policemen. He vetoed kitties and puppies. I have no idea whether it will work, as I am not good at those "national mood" sorts of evaluations.

I am good at noticing the simple things, however. The Iraq pullout is completely unrelated to this legislation, and smacks of dishonesty. This is an excellent example of how low things can go when Congress adopts this tack-on tactic as just the way business is done.

Election by sortition. It's looking better all the time.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Post 800 - Dumb Swedes

The stereotype of the immigrant Swede was "squarehead," a large, genial guy who drank too much and wasn't very bright. Over the course of the 20th C, they positioned themselves for a new image, partly based on amazingly attractive women with lots of skin showing, partly based on high educational attainment and scientific achievement. Being of Swedish descent on one side, I enjoyed the shared glory of being associated with such a people.

That ended around fifteen years ago, as I learned what their neutrality in WWII and the Cold War actually entailed. Perhaps I was ready to believe that by the 90's, as I had gotten pretty tired of the insufferably condescending seminarians at the Lutheran camp.

Things are even worse than I thought. Swedish children between 15 and 20 know almost nothing accurate about communism, according to a Demoskop survey.
Of the 1004 young Swedes involved in the nationwide poll, 43 percent believed that communist regimes had claimed less than one million lives. A fifth of those surveyed put the death toll at under ten thousand. The actual figure is estimated at around 100 million.

The poll also found that 40 percent of young Swedes believed that communism contributed to increased prosperity in the world; 22 percent considered communism a democratic form of government; 82 percent did not regard Belarus as a dictatorship.
Simply amazing. Maybe the stereotype was correct the first time around.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Assistant Village Idiot Becomes R-Rated

The MPAA is considering adding smoking to the list of things that can get your movie an R rating. I will probably get an exemption, however, as the problem is glamourized smoking, which no one has ever accused me of.

The US Senate is apparently considering getting in the game in a more intense way, by regulating more content. If you read down, you also find they are looking for ways to force content providers to find "ways to encourage" children to eat healthy food. How well did that work when Popeye tried it? Mothers all over America tried to use Popeye to sell the spinach idea when I was a lad, but I don't see that it was effective.

If you force "what's good for you" speeches into any medium, kids will start gravitating to a new medium.

Abstinence Only

A study by Mathematica Policy Research finds that government abstinence-only sex education programs do not reduce the amount of sex teenagers have. Liberals cheer, conservatives go looking for flaws. The study also shows that abstinence-only sex education does not reduce condom use when teenagers do have sex. Conservatives cheer, liberals go looking for flaws.

Why does anyone think that a government program is going to have any effect at all? Here's a guess: government sponsored safer sex education is going to have little or no effect on amount of sex or number of condoms used either. We spent $176M on these programs - Bush keeping social conservatives happy. We spent slightly more, $208M, under Clinton for safer sex programs to keep liberals happy (I wonder about the price difference. Are demonstration condoms that expensive? Must be special government-approved condoms). Well I'm not happy either way. Bug out.

Ministry Of The Humble

In our discussion of the "poor in spirit" in the Beatitudes, one of the possible synonyms we considered was "humble." Humility is a virtue I have thought about many times, but my seeking of it has been mostly avoiding its opposite, pride or conceit. I have had no better practical definition to work from - which I now see is stunning evidence of how little I know about this. I do not dare to give up what reputation I have.

There is a woman in our church community who has had a very hard life. Recently she has had catastrophe descend upon her. She has handled that difficulty only moderately well, and at one juncture, made a terrible decision and handled it badly. She was surprised when people from the congregation rallied 'round, as she felt undeserving. We mostly felt embarrassment we did not come earlier. She still feels undeserving, and has difficulty accepting that we remain fond of her and are not condemning of her. With the amount of condemnation she has received in her life, it is hardly odd that she should expect this of us. When she talks about what she did, why she did it, events from the past that relate to this, she shows complete candor, humility, and woundedness. She is at the moment textbook definition of humility. Each Christian must learn humility. I don't think there is anyone else in our fellowship who can teach it except this woman. I mean no accusation against any of my friends in this, but it is true. She acknowledges weakness to me that I would not dare confess to her - perhaps not to anyone. She is humble before so many of us now, but even with her as an example, the rest of us will barely dare to humble ourselves even a little more. We likely need a dozen more of her in the fellowship to be able to break down the icy aloofness of reputation in the rest of us. We have no one else to teach us. If she does not teach us and lead us in this, we won't learn it. When I think of the Christian example of those who have tragedy, I usually think in terms of admiring their endurance, or their ability to praise God in all circumstances, or their faithfulness, or even the gentleness and compassion they have learned from their difficulties. From what I have heard of testimony and biography, those qualities are what other Christians think of as well. Those are fine; those are good virtues. But only the broken can teach us humility. We depend on them, and they don't know it. It likely won't occur to them unless someone asks Teach me humility. What do I need to know? That's sort of the deal with humility, after all - you don't think of yourself as having much to give. The unbroken have to ask the broken for teaching. The broken must not fear to teach.

Saturday, May 12, 2007


The Clay Friar has commentary on the use of benchmarks in the Iraq War. Ouch.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Different Fear

Out of the many fears of aging, I have one I seldom see mentioned: fear of moral deterioration. You can find a thousand discussions of our coming physical disintegration, and how our short-term memories will begin to fail, but the thought seems to be if we can fix those, everything's gonna be pretty good. Live to 120 - go for it. That we might become in some way worse people doesn't enter into it.

I spoke with a young woman today who had been given a bracelet by a mentally ill person. The bracelet turns out to be worth $21K. Her husband wants it back. Yesterday, the young woman told me that she had brought it to a pawn shop, found out it was valuable, and given it to someone to sell. Today there was a subtle change in her story. She had given the bracelet to someone and then found out from him it was valuable, so he won't give it back. An enormous difference, and clearly a story she is telling herself to self-justify. I thought immediately of Gollum's story about his "birthday present." That lie was wrapped around a bit of truth, changed over the years. Most lies are.

There is also the chapter in The Screwtape Letters in which Wormwood is told not to panic at his patient's religious conversion, as there are many long, quiet years in which to slowly steer him toward Hell. It is hardly surprising to see a theological similarity between Lewis and Tolkien, but I think this is echoed in great literature over the centuries, at least in the Western tradition. We change our stories over time, fitting them into the narrative we prefer. It is not that we can never absorb uncomfortable information about ourselves and integrate it into our understanding of the world, but we resist it. We cannot be counted on to own up to our shortcomings. We will admit some, but others we will slowly change, enlarging our own virtue and innocent victimhood.

I don't suppose there's much in the way of evidence that this gets worse as we go along, but I have to think it is cumulative most of the time. We may do most of the reworking in the first few months or years, and living another decade or two may not add to the lies much. Some lies we may be able to reverse a bit because of added wisdom. My worry is that these are very much the exception. I consider what stories I have already changed and no longer even acknowledge that to myself. Perhaps I was better person 10 or 20 years ago. I haven't noticed any improvement in self-honesty - I hope there has been no worsening. Yet even if the worsening is slight, what does that mean for humans living to be 100, 140, 200 years old? We may become horrible to behold.

Where Are The Anti-Communist Movies?

David Boaz asks this over at TCSDaily. He makes the point that we're still kicking Nazis in the movies, and British colonialism gets kicked from both the left and the right, but there has been precious little on the 1-200,000,000 killed in the 20th C under communism. There are a few movies, which he notes, but not many. Out of that many deaths and that interesting a bunch of maniacal dictators, there must be another story or two, eh?

The obvious conclusion Boaz wants us to draw is that Hollywood, and the arts crowd in general, underplay how miserably evil communism was, because they are a left-leaning group. (He fails to mention all those comedies about lovable and wacky Russians that populated the screens from 1960-1990. They also had their effect.)

That's a reasonable point, but it is part of a larger, more reasonable point: no one anywhere does historical movies unless they have a modern lesson in mind. It is rather like the Robert Fulghum post below. When you use an historical subject, you get to subtly say Do we have to keep learning this lesson over and over, people? This isn't new; it's a lesson you should know by now. It's an equal opportunity condescension, as we have all see it used to make a variety of religious or anti-religious, American or anti-American, moral or amoral points.

It's a lot more artistic than Fulghum is, though.

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia

My visits to convenience stores are always a bit of a puzzle. Waiting in the checkout line, I wonder who Nick and Jessica are. Really. I'm not just saying that as a snooty way of announcing that I am far above popular culture at that level (though that is one of the implications you are supposed to absorb). I look at them and wonder TV? Movies? Music? I try to guess, then try to guess what kind of movies or music.

Marcia Brady is on the cover of something that begins with an OK this week (month). More precisely, whoever it was who played Marcia Brady years ago, whose name I forget, is on the cover, with the announcement that she lost 38 lbs. at age 50. I am 54, and the Brady Bunch was just one year out of reach for me. Had I been born in 1954 I have little doubt I would have been as enamored of Marcia as everyone else seems to have been. She looks darn good for 50. I did find the teaser line for the story within a little disquieting, though. Something, something, talks about her addiction to cocaine - and chocolate!

Does that seem odd to you? Is cocaine that run-of-the-mill in some circles?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

I Don't Think I Hate The Yankees Anymore

A commenter on the Roger Clemens post, expecting to duck as he announced it, mentioned he is a Yankee fan. Traditionally, that is supposed to be a declaration of rivalry nigh on to enmity. It mildly surprised me that I felt no welling of annoyance. On reflection, I have felt no welling of annoyance over Yankee fans for some time.

Growing up, Yankee fans were the only other baseball fans you might run into around here. We would meet them at summer camp - guys from Connecticut who seemingly had betrayed New England by being New York centered in their affections. A fair number from NY and NJ would come up to lake vacation or ski in NH as well. We would see their bumper stickers and hats. The team histories contributed to the rivalry, but kids are only dimly aware of such things. Being educated in the tribal lore of Red Sox Nation came later. We rooted for our team because it was ours. We never met any Orioles of Phillies fans. All our focus was on New York.

Going to college in the south, I went prepared to express tolerance for all sorts of cultural diversity: Braves fans, Dodgers fans, Pirates fans, and even (swallow) Yankee fans. But with that last category it was forced politeness.

Things are different now. We have teams from all over the country to be annoyed with, and I think that waters it down. There is more national broadcast, and people have moved to and from here in great numbers. I have a son dating a Yankee fan, and one can hardly blame her: her father got a spring training look with them as a pitcher in the 80's. Baseball is a tradition-based sport, and I think there will always be some residual preference for Yankee-bashing, but it's not what it was.

For me, the high-water mark for Yankee hatred was 1978. Tom Boswell declared that one-game playoff between the Sox and the Yanks as the greatest game in baseball history, not only for its internal drama, but for what it meant in the context of its season, the history of the two teams, and the history of baseball. If Peter Gammons is correct in his Beyond The Sixth Game, baseball changed because of free agency in the late 70's and has been a different sport since (though the game itself remains the same). For Red Sox fans that is certainly true, as the legend of the just-missing Boston teams took off in those years. Then in the early 80's we let Carlton Fisk get away, there was a strike shortened season - you could make an argument that the 1978 game was the last game of Old Baseball. The moving, broadcasting, and free agency brought in New Baseball.

I knew something had changed forever in the 1990's when I felt sorry for Bucky Bleeping Dent because Steinbrenner was being such a jerk, and I wasn't the only Boston fan who said that. For us to have sympathy for Dent, to root for his side in a dispute? The world had moved. There have been spikes in Yankee hatred in RSN, when Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs went there, or in the 2003 and 2004 seasons. But it's not the same, and I'm not sure I miss the old days that much.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

We Are All Turks

I promised y'all months ago that I would keep you up-to-date on the controversy about whether the Indo-Europeans came down the west side of the Black Sea or the east side. Because I knew you'd be fascinated to know whether the Gimbutas or Renfrew theory was more likely to be true.

Go Colin Renfrew! DNA evidence is supporting his idea that the Indo-Europeans trace back to Anatolia, in Turkey, around 7000 BCE. Hittite was the first language to split off from the main branch. Forget all that kurgan horseman north of the Black Sea stuff - that came later. Giacomo over at Joust The Facts will be thrilled.

Robert Fulghum Is Dangerous

Robert Fulghum, the All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten author, persists in that paternalistic tone of his years later. He uses that cute “we,” when he means “you,” just like I did with the boys when they were little. “We should pick up our toys.” In his signature work about kindergarten lessons, Fulghum has that comfy little Clean up your own mess and later, just in case you missed it, hammers the candy nails into your tongue by explaining how these things are the key to “Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.” Really.

This latest is a suggestion that Anheuser-Busch use their commercials to show that real men recycle cans and bottles. C’mon guys, how much would it hurt? Take one for the team here. It’s for a good cause, you selfish bastards.

Yet why stop there? Why not use beer commercials to show that real men eat nutritious meals with their beer? And are involved with their kids. You couldn’t have the kids in the same shot as the beer, of course, but you could do cutaways to guys playing with kids, doing homework with kids. And welcoming flamboyantly gay men into their bars with a slap on the back – just think how much good it would do. Those great bar scenes with guys laughing while they drink Bud – those should have fluorescent bulbs.
And more old people.
And reminders to get prostate cancer screenings.

Beer companies shouldn’t have to carry the whole weight of course. Ads for pickup trucks, feminine hygiene, and personal injury lawyers should all include helpful additions. Heck, every commercial should include at least five “encouragements” for people to do the right thing. Even the public service announcements would have to multitask. Quit smoking…and don’t discriminate in housing. It would leave less room for actually selling products, but if everyone had to comply it would be a level playing field. What’s your problem, pinhead?

Better yet, why not have companies pay for commercials to tell us what to do? Programs would interrupt every five minutes for a minute of reminders, sponsored by various companies: Don’t drink and drive…Charles Schwab…save energy…Coca-Cola…learn about epilepsy…Jeep Cherokee. These companies should be grateful that we even let them use the public airways, dammit. They’re rich, they can afford it. It’s public service. And it’s voluntary, so you can show what a responsible caring company you are. ‘Cause if you don’t we’ll gradually make it mandatory. We’ve done it before.

Genial Grampy Bob is just much wiser than you, “Don’t hit people.” Did you hear me George Bush? Don’t hit people. “Share everything.” Corporate America, you’re supposed to share everything. Do I need to pull this car over? This is modern liberalism with the mask slipping, telling us that it’s all so simple, and everyone knows what the right thing to do is except for some recalcitrant selfish people. How sweet. How condescending. How vacuous.

Conservatives should have their version too. Feel free to take this and improve on it and pass it on. Just try not to stretch a point – it’s not necessary.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Supervising Kindergarten

People get in less trouble if they are doing something constructive.
Victims have to be protected and bullies have to be contained.
You can make people share community property, but it’s not fair to make them share their own: not their lunch, not their clothes, and not the drawing they carefully colored.
No one cares for community property unless you make them.
People like giving things, but not having them taken.
Natural rewards build self-discipline. Bribes undermine it.
You have to learn justice before you can understand mercy.
Boys and girls are not always the same.
Don’t encourage show-offs. Remove their audience, don’t add to it.
Not everyone who speaks has something to say.
Everyone’s got an excuse.
Jealousy leads to cruelty.

These rules hold up for governments and politics and ecology, too.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Bonds and Steroids

There has been some sports-page commentary about the racial gap in the poll numbers about Barry Bonds. To some, it's a big deal because 76% of white people think Bonds used steroids, versus on 37% of blacks. There has been some muttering that some black people are letting race interfere with their judgment, blah, blah.

But I understand that. People want to believe the best about folks they see as their own, and have a high standard of proof for believing accusations against them. I think people from NH are smarter and better than people from VT, ME, and especially, MA. I root for Americans in sports I've never heard of, followed by UK, Canada, Australia, Sweden, and Romania, though that's probably not the order. I think it's unfair when bald guys get voted off the island. So I have to figure if I were black, I could theoretically be part of that 67% who stares and says "prove it."

Here's my problem. Who are those 24% of white guys who think Bonds didn't use steroids? He obviously did. Some of them might be Giants fans, I guess. Rooting for your team can also cause you to overlook the obvious.

Overlooking the obvious is a very human characteristic. I am convinced that the Boston Celtics never commit any fouls, for example. But overlooking the obvious for no reason is just stupid.

Thrilled at the Clemens News

Roger Clemens is going to the NY Yankees. I couldn't be happier. I admit, I may live to eat those words, but that's how it looks from here. Roger will be pitching in a tougher league and division. He will no longer be in a pitcher's park. He now has designated hitters to face. He is one year older than a guy who seldom went more than 6 innings last year. The prediction: 100 innings, distributed over 18 starts of 5-6 innings. ERA in the low 3's. 6 games he is dominant, 6 games he is decent, 6 games he gets hit hard. For the Yankees, that's about 3 more victories. Maybe only two, if it puts more strain on the beleaguered bullpen.

Not that this guarantees that the Red Sox are going anywhere. They have all sorts of ways they can collapse in Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland...

There's a sach ur born every minute

Update on the avocado question, below.
There have been books and articles lately describing how the Irish gave us much of our slang. The overarching theory is that gamblers, drifters, and underworld figures of the early 19th C were often Irish (the Italians came a bit later), and Gaelic words took on English pronunciations and spellings. These words, such as jazz, honkty-tonk, slum, have similar meanings to Gaelic teas (pronounced tiaz) meaning “heat, enthusiasm,” Aing iht Tarraing meaning “evil lure,” and saol luim meaning “hard world, poor world.”

All very plausible, of course. But plausibility is not the only measure.

Upon hearing words in an unfamiliar language, our brains quite automatically seize on bits that sound like our own language. “Sparrow-grass” was what Mainers heard from the word asparagas. My son showed off knowing tak sa mycket,* Swedish for “many thanks” in first grade. A friend laughed: “Toxic mittens? What kind of a thank you is that?” On our first visit to Romania we were taught to say cu placere, “with pleasure.” One woman nodded. “Couple ‘a cherries. Got it.”

We have words and phrases like this all over English. The Mayan vegetable Ahucatl sounded like Spanish for lawyer, "avocado." Update in response to question, from Your Dictionary: Originally, the Aztecs called this fruit "ahucatl" in their language, Nahuatl, and believed it was an aphrodisiac. To the Spaniards, the Nahuatl word "ahucatl" sounded like their word, avocado "lawyer" (spelled "abogado" today). The first recorded English usage in 1697 was the compound "avogato pear." The Aztecs also made sauces, called "molli" in Nahuatl. That made their avocado sauce, of course, "ahuacamolli," shortened by the Spaniards to "guacamole" [hwah-kê-'mo-le], the popular chip dip today. A briar pipe has nothing to do with wild roses or other thorny bushes, but the root of the bruyere tree of the Mediterranean. The Cree Indians had a word otchek (Ojibwa otchig) for the groundhog. The English made it “woodchuck” and applied it to another animal. Kitty-corner or catty-corner comes from cater, meaning four. (Cf. Quarter, quarto). Happens all the time. It is called a folk etymology by linguists and etymologists.

So it’s not a ridiculous idea that all these slang phrases might be Gaelic in origin. The problem is there’s not a lot of evidence for it. The immediate protestation from Daniel Cassidy and others is that Gaelic was a suppressed language which migrated to the underworld, where it was seldom written down. Whether in London, Liverpool, New York, or New Orleans, the Irish were an underclass, and their language denigrated or even forbidden for many years. Thus, the usual documentary evidence we might hope for is simply not going to be available for Irish Gaelic in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Nonetheless, we have some record of Gaelic before and after, and some unusual reference points such as NY Police Chief George Matsell’s The Secret Language of Crime from 1859. Much of that information supports Cassidy’s claims partially. I know of no instance in which it provides a definite proof.

Linguistics is about proof; etymology is about probability. That’s an unfair simplification, but it will do for now. Cassidy and others who wish to defend Irish honor in the field of contribution to English get quite caught up in the oppression aspect, and recognizing Gaelic roots of terms begins to take on an aspect of “We have to do this to right ancient wrongs. Damn the English and their dictionaries.” The more you read, the more you descend into the rhetoric and evidence of conspiracy theorists. Baseball writers used “jazz” early, baseball players were largely Irish, they went to Hot Springs Arkansas where there was an Irish population, they used the hot springs and came back to California talking about “jazz” as heat and energy – what more do you need for proof you English bastards? And don’t get me started about St. Patrick and the snakes, which is just a metaphor for the Catholic oppression of pagan snake goddesses…

Okay, fine. I think it is possible and even likely that some of these folk etymologies from Ireland are the accurate explanations, though we may never get hold of good supporting data. I’ll even grant that many nonsense syllables in folk songs are merely poor renditions of Irish Gaelic phrases, such as Billy mee-oo ree-I- ree ay from “Pat works on the Railway” really means “I get up in the morning;” or whoopee-ti-yi-yo comes from something about underfed calves. I don’t claim that they are, but I allow that it’s possible.

I just don’t get the certainty, and the language of victimhood about the whole thing. The card game faro might come from Gaelic “the turn.” Yet who plays Faro anymore? Describing rich or respectable people as “swells,” which is familiar to readers of 19th C literature, could indeed be Irish. Who cares? Even readers of 19th C literature don’t care. The Dead Rabbits, a NYC gang made famous in the Scorcese film might actually mean “very big hulking fellows.” Sure and that’s goin’ t’ change the world naow, isn’t it Michael?

Word origins are for fun. What’s the Gaelic for “Get a life?”

*Cf. Mickle, an obsolete word for "many," or the place name in Tolkien Michel Delving, meaning "many diggings."

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Impression Of Capitalism

I am reading an entertaining bit of fluff by TJ English, Paddy Whacked, a history of Irish organized crime in America. There is assuredly a great deal of information I never knew, but I take it with a grain of salt, as I have already noted a few errors in the first 50 pages. And curiously, an odd comment apparently went unremarked by the various editors:
Merciless, bloody, rooted in a street-level explication of capitalism in its purest form, this war of the underworld would play itself out in many domains.

I think the author means "cutthroat competition," but easily uses "capitalism in its purest form" as an equivalent. I doubt that he had anything remotely like the capitalization of industries in mind. Even the more informal term free market seems out of place. What is "free" about a market that is run by violence and cronyism instead of price?

If we tease it apart further, I suspect Mr. English means "commerce not regulated by the government," and "a real risk of losing." Such criminally-dominated economies long predate any notion of capitalism or any writings of Adam Smith. These economies are actually quite common throughout history and worldwide. A more exact term would be "corruption."

I doubt that the author is intentionally trying to smuggle in any politics with this reference to capitalism. I think we can pretty well guess which way he might vote, if he votes at all, but scoring debating points on the sly is unlikely to be in his mind as he writes such things. He simply accepts these equivalences without much thought, as do his editors, and likely most of his friends. If the government isn't regulating the economy, and if someone can actually go bust, he sees it as capitalism. If the competition is severe and the government really doesn't have control, he sees it as "street-level explication of capitalism in its purest form."

A small thing, but an amazingly ignorant and biased one. Multiply it out by a thousand similar interpretations of anything to do with capitalism or the free market every day in the public discourse, and you can see why some folks would think government regulation is safe, and preferable.

Sad and Stunning

A young woman was admitted to my caseload today. Her baby had died within her, and she was induced, delivering at 8 months. She had made suicidal statements afterward. The previous hospital had tried to be helpful, letting her hold the baby, putting a little hat on it and taking pictures for her. She still had the hat.

She used my phone to check her cellphone messages. She let me listen to the third message, a young female voice saying I heard you lost your baby to crack, you whore. You're a skank whore... and on and on.

I find it amazing that one human being could kick another when she is down like this. Even by the horrible standards of what I listen to every day, this was unbelievable.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Emerging Church - Collection

As with my Tribes collection two months ago, this is just a convenience post to put all my Emerging Church links in one place, with a sample paragraph to remind me which essay it was. Nothing new, but convenient for those who wish to review. The collection goes oldest to newest, in reverse order than online. Notice how long it took me to get rolling. Ugh.

Emerging Church - Very Preliminary info
There is a difference between the Emergent Church, which is a specific organization associated with Emergent Village, and the Emerging Church, which is a more generic name for a broad movement. Critics of the movement often fail to make this distinction, which is not only inaccurate, but somewhat insulting, as the distinction is often mentioned...

Church Emphasis
I am still reading up on the Emerging Church, and will eventually offer opinions. Akafred sent me an article about another movement, the Simple Church. In the last two decades there have also been movements of Seeker-Friendly and Purpose-Driven churches...

Magic Words
“Okay, I take his staff and I blaspheme his god. What happens?”
“How exactly are you blaspheming his god?”
“I, uh, say I blaspheme thee. I blaspheme thee. I blaspheme thee.
“Roll d20.”
“Your own deity strips you of two wisdom points. Wanker...”

Next Gas - 420 miles
I have noticed in myself that I feel a powerful ambivalence about the EC, and such strong attractions and repulsions are always interesting. An understanding of this is gradually taking shape...

Why Discuss EC At All?
Most people are not familiar with the Emerging Church, and don't show much interest in it when articles go by in the magazines or in conversation. There have been all sorts of movements in the church over the decades, so why should we pay particular attention to this one?...

Intro To Emerging Church
For wandering about the web, these sites provide ongoing discussion of what people are doing and thinking about the EC: Tall Skinny Kiwi and Scott McKnight's Jesus Creed site. Both have the advantage of talking about many faith issues with emerging church views in prominence, rather than a mere back-and-forth op-ed style of defense and attack of EC versus traditional model church. The Emergent Village site has both. There are hundreds or thousands of other sites, for which you can follow the links at these three...

The Emerging Conversation With The Assistant Village Idiot
The Emerging Church conversation is composed of nice, earnest people who want Christianity to be more than a text-based, Sunday morning experience. They want to return to some earlier, multisensory forms of worship, including especially the visual arts, which they believe have been increasingly neglected in the modern church. The EC stresses Christians in community, knit to each other but still interacting with the culture around them. They believe the older culture of Christendom has eroded to the point that the church can no longer use it as a vehicle for bringing Christ into the world, and new models for transforming society must be developed. They have very cool names, too, like Mosaic, Sanctus1, Solomon’s Porch, and Vaux.

So why would a Christian want to kick people like this around?

Probable answer: because I am a grouchy and irritable person who can only focus on the negative...

Beginning Slowly
The Emerging Church likes to have narratives instead of dogmas, so I will start with some stories.

There is an apocryphal story of a woman who had seven demons who came to Jesus. "Daughter," he said, "what would you have me do?" "Cast out six." she replied. "Or maybe five..."

EC And Postmodernism
This Postmodernism thing is very important to a lot of folks in the Emerging Church. As Assistant Village Idiot, it is my job to point out the obvious. In all my reading about the EC, I was puzzled by how frequently it came up. We’re postmodern. We minister to postmoderns. This is a postmodern world. The traditional church is stuck in modernity. This is puzzling because postmodernism as a philosophical approach is unnecessary to what most of them want to do...

Liturgical Dialogue
Cantor 1: They believe Christian practice should trump doctrinal disagreement.

Cantor 2: They’ll end up heretics

Cantor 1: You’re anal-retentive.

Cantor 2: They’re anal-expulsive.

Cantor 1: Lord, have mercy.

Cantor 2: Lord, have mercy.

People: Christ, have mercy.

Emerging Church And Community

Here’s another obvious statement: The Emerging Church movement is very big on community. They are very concerned with forming and nurturing community, living out in the surrounding culture as an example of the Kingdom of God. Readers may be grumbling at this point “what is this hypercritical SOB going to find wrong with that?” I’m glad you asked...

Another Postmodernism Thought

The Carol Gilligan theory I had rejected long ago. When quiet, respectable Alabamans didn’t want civil rights for black people in the 50’s and 60’s because it would be disruptive to their communities and way of life we didn’t call that a postmodern morality or ethics of care, we called it for what it was: self-serving rationalization. Some critics of the war in Iraq accuse George Bush and the war supporters of merely caring about our people over their people, discounting any supposed principle behind our actions as a mere evasion. They do not say this approvingly, noting that it is a more postmodern, ethics of care, feminine morality; they condemn it as an abomination. And if it were true that there were no other principles behind our actions, simply a preference for our people over theirs, it would be abominable. Huh. Go figure. When the tables are turned, the “advanced” morality is revealed for what it always was: evasion...

Charles River Church
I don't want to be a reviewer of churches ever in my life, because CS Lewis makes such a point of it in The Screwtape Letters. But I think like a reviewer, so it hobbles me somewhat...

Now that I have half-formed my own EC opinions, I will now turn to the DA Carson book that is somewhat critical of the emerging church. Perhaps the pendulum will swing the other way, and my hypercritical focus will be turned on the attackers now...

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
We use a form of self-fulfilling prophecy to train the young, or new members of groups. We announce to them what the expectations are: what virtues are expected, what faults will be excused..

We’re Irish; we have a temper but we’re loyal.
New Englanders aren’t very demonstrative in their emotions.
You’re a McInness, and no McInness has ever stooped to thieving.
Our people have always been slow to anger, slow to forgive.
We don’t do those things because we’re Christians, and we answer to God more than man.
That’s not the Army way.
Other companies will try and sell people things they don’t need, but we’re proud of our focus on the customer...

A Portable Faith
I read the words “Portable Faith” intended as a disparagement recently. It was an emerging church commenter criticising seeker-friendly and megachurches. I imagine the point was to emphasize the importance of community, and to take a swipe at church-shoppers seeking entertainment...

Funeral: On Art In Church
As a Protestant, I was always struck by how astonishingly ugly more than half the art was in Roman Catholic churches. Garishly painted statues, enormous murals of saints in pain, ornate altars that lit up like a carnival ride – what was with that? The expressions on the face of Jesus, and the stilted postures the put Him in – how did that give one the idea of a warm and welcoming God? Wouldn’t it be more likely that children would grow up petrified? The stained glass windows – now those I liked, even when they were impossibly ornate or had symbols I didn’t understand. We had stained glass in our church as well, and staring at them was sometimes the best way to get through a Sunday morning. A lamb carrying a flag, crowns, pelicans, ships – I loved that stuff. I had no clue what it was about until I was older, but it was great. Compared to listening, that is...

Is The World Changing?
It has become so automatic to declare that the world is changing, ever more rapidly, so that "change itself is changing," that hardly anyone doubts it. This alarming, difficult world we are entering is supposed to be so different as to disorient those not prepared for it. Technological advances will be so profound as to render our ability to cope with them in jeopardy...