Saturday, June 30, 2007

Challenging Another Idea: Wars of Religion

In the argument against Christianity there is often reference to "all the wars that have been fought in the name of religion." Occasionally it will be noted that this is applied unfairly, as the argument is seldom used against the proponents of other religions - not to their faces, anyway - but seems reserved for kicking Christians. Conservatives, even those with no particular affinity for Christianity, will sometimes point out that Communism and Fascism, those secular gods of the 20th C killed incomparably more people.

But the base fact is not often challenged. I challenge it. Christians go in for persecution much more than war. As in my previous post, that is not spiritually very different for the individual. As a consequence, the distinction has been largely unmade even by the church. For the purposes of our souls there is equal danger, or more. Also, Christians have had some specifically religious wars, fighting over which religion or denomination would hold sway in an area - even whole nations. It looks shoddy and evasive for Christians to try and worm out at that point for three reasons:
1. We have done it sometimes.
2. Persecution is also evil, so there is no spiritual difference.
3. We have used Christianity to justify our non-religious wars.

The three reasons taken together give a strong impression that Christian participation in all those "wars of religion" which have killed so many is pretty much the same thing as Moslems, or Zoroastrians, or Hindus and their wars or religion.

Yet when we take them one at a time, we find that there is a considerable practical difference. To have done something evil sometimes is less damaging than doing it a lot. On this score, looking over the last two thousand years we don't find Christians invading somewhere specifically in order to convert them or displace their religion happening very often. The Crusades come quickly to mind, but those wars were sharply limited in purpose and destruction caused. Our Moslem opponents in that series of wars were far more the Crusaders than the Christians.

Next, persecution is an evil thing, but it is not the same thing. Sometimes it is worse, as when Communists tried to not only conquer kulaks, but eliminate them, or Nazis not merely force Jews out but exterminate them. But it is usually a far lesser evil. Oppression is bad, but it is not genocide. To the Huguenot merchant killed with all his family there is no practical difference between persecution and war. But to the Huguenot merchant who flees with his family, there is enormous difference.

The third reason gives the most surprises, however. As long as it was associated with the other two clearly evil reasons it seemed evil itself. Yet once we pull it out and make it stand on its own, we see that this is quite varied. Some Christian justifications of non-religious wars are clearly hypocritical and evil. We want something, we kill the people who have got it, and we say God gives his blessing. Pretty shoddy morality.

But what of wars of defense? They may not be religious at all - the people invading may have entirely mercenary motives, so that the Christian going to war is "only" defending his family, or his property, or his culture. There are Christians who would forbid even these, but most Christians ant most times have understood that God might allow such defenses.

What of the wars of rescue? Is it a mere rationalization of our faith to prevent the slaughter of innocents? Is it lawful to go to war to enforce justice? If not, what does "caring" about injustice mean?

I have made sharp divisions, though the events of the real world are more mixed. Wars can be part justice, part defense, part rationalization, and part thievery all at once. I don't mean to overlook complexity or give sanction to any battle a Christian might fight if he can but find a small actual justice in it somewhere.

Challenging An Idea: Money-Grubbing Americans

Whenever something is so universally accepted that people don't think about it, that idea deserves another look.

At Thursday Bible Study we were discussing treasure on earth and treasure in heaven in the context of the Beatitude. That our culture is a highly materialistic one, obsessed with gain and money was taken as a given. In both Christian and secular circles, the image of Americans as always looking for a buck and focused on acquisition is universal.

My usual response has been to caution folks to expand their idea of what constitutes "treasure." It is easy to fall into the trap of spiritual pride by looking down on those who make money, while being just as obsessed by other types of wealth ourselves. Travel, education, security, leisure time, entertainment, reputation - these are equally Treasure and potential other gods.

This time I would like to go even farther than that. In my travels to other places and reading about them, I don't get the impression that people in other places and times are any less obsessed with material goods than Americans are. The possibility that we are just about like everyone else who has ever lived, but happen to live under a system which is more efficient in providing goods seems quite plausible to me.

We appear obsessed with wealth because to have this much stuff in other cultures one would have to be obsessed by it, and likely corrupt or amoral to boot. People in other cultures therefore we must be devoted to money. We tend to think so ourselves. Also, we all do know some people in our culture who are devoted to money, and when we are honest, find covetousness and greed in our own hearts. We thus fall naturally into the idea that Americans must be peculiarly driven by gain. But this does not necessarily follow. If you mentally cross out the part of the picture which displays what we have and look only to how much attention people focus on getting stuff, or envying stuff, or judging others by how much stuff they have, I don't think we come out worse. If you include all those other treasures I listed above, we may even come out slightly better. We are working fewer hours as a group, taking more vacation, and retiring earlier. If anything, we are becoming obsessed with leisure.

This amounts to no difference spiritually, which is why I think it has remained invisible to the church. We are all tied to the things of this world too much, and the lifelong struggle to unhook those treasures from our heart is the same whether we are a little better or a little worse than others. It is still way too much love of this world.

But the social picture changes quite a bit. If we have more things not because we are grasping and greedy but because we happen to live in a good system, then how we look at others changes. Even within our society, if many of the people who have more than we do have it because they prefer to do a certain type of job that pays better than what we do, our envy and resentment of them will be less. Though it is true that many of our countrymen choose their livelihood largely because of how much money it can make them, it is also true that many of us make different choices, working at things we know in advance won't make as much. Americans seem likely to forgo wealth in order to do something more fun, useful, convenient, or interesting.

This leads quite naturally from the social to the political implications. If those other folks who have more than we do haven't acquired them because of their selfish, awful characters, where does our class envy come from? Where does the class envy toward us of other nations come from?

Simple. It comes from people who benefit from our being envious. They stir it up to improve their own status, power, or income. It comes from refusal to change their own systems because they are the ones who benefit from the inequalities there.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Emily Adelaide Wyman expected to be born around Thanksgiving. Ahh.

Sports Roundup

Ben was present at Craig Biggio’s 3000th hit last night, and blogged about Frank Thomas’s 500th home run. He notes steroids have cheapened that standard even for those who didn’t use them. I commented over at his site, which I summarize here: If steroids are removed from the picture, Bonds, Sosa, & Sheffield are all possibly out of baseball by now. Bonds finishes with about 600 HR, and the other two join McGwire and Palmiero topping out at about 400 HR. In such an atmosphere, Ken Griffey’s run up to 600 HR looks more impressive, and the Thomas, Thome, Ramirez, Rodriguez group getting to 500 this year doesn’t look like such an overload.

Romania is at the top of its flight in the Eurocup, and Charlie Davies got his first goal for Hamarby. Davies is a local boy who will likely be on the 2008 Olympic and 2010 World Cup soccer teams even though he’s still young.

The Boston Celtics traded their 1st round pick and two guards for SG Ray Allen. That doesn’t put them in contention for the Eastern Finals, but it should put them in the playoffs … agggh! No! I’m doing it again! I’m doing it agaaaaiin.

Order More Handbaskets!

I know my audience, and I know you guys are always interested in evidence that the whole world is going to fall apart soon because of things we should have fixed twenty years ago and can’t stop now. Here’s a German sociologist who makes a very plausible case that large portions of the world are just screwed, and feeding them will only make it worse.

Off Your Desk

I will be covering on a Continuing Care Unit the second week of July. We are not allowed to say “Long-term unit” anymore because somehow it sounds worse to somebody than “continuing care.” This sort of intervention is very typical of government work: people who get paid more than I do spent a lot of time in meetings coming up with this.

I have worked acute psychiatric admissions for most of my 29 years here. There is a wide abyss between admission attitudes and long-term attitudes. I don’t need to go into detail about the specifics of psychiatric hospitals; the point I wish to make is general. Coverage on non-admission units is so easy as to be maddening. There is less than half the work, though there is more time spent in meetings. People are unable to get to the point in conversation and burden you with extraneous information. *

While there are some good reasons for this – upstairs staff spend much more time talking with very sick patients in an effort ot form a bond and encourage them – the main difference I see is that they do not know how to get things off their desk. There are a variety of applications that take about two hours each in this field: Medicaid, housing, guardianship, nursing home, and a half-dozen less common. Whenever I cover, there will be a dozen of these things in various folders on or in the desk. Some are partially completed… others have only a name and a few notes… a third group are complete except for one important piece.

Organizing your work like this is about the best way I can think of to get discouraged and feel it is all just too much. Literal piles of work accuse you every moment at your desk. There is a benefit: everyone who looks in at you thinks you are just swamped with work, which is particularly useful if one of those everyones is your supervisor. Yet it is even more true that it appears to you that you are swamped with work.

When people have lists of work I have heard various strategies. Do the hard ones first. Do the easy ones first. Pick something you really dislike and get it out of the way. I don’t think it matters, or rather, what is best for one may not be best for another. But do something. Get it off your desk, to wander through the next part of the bureaucracy as SEP – Somebody Else’s Problem.

You will seldom get to 100% on this. There will always be something lying around undone for reasons you can’t control. These will discourage you less if you are in the general habit of grabbing something, doing it, and crossing it off the list. The possible downside is that others might think you don’t have much going on and will want to borrow you. You can stave this off somewhat by leaving books and semi-useful pieces of paper stacked up. I recommend piles of your most commonly-used forms, so that you have this visual filing system.

I think I just explained to myself why the stuff to be done around the house is discouraging.

* There is a difference between doctors and lawyers in this that leads to misery. Doctors and medical people in general develop the skill of giving necessary information quickly and not repeating the unnecessary. Legal documents, however, have to have everything nailed down to avoid misinterpretation (or shennanigans), and lawyers need you to be that specific. Maybe when they talk with each other they can do the quick-communication, and I think they can turn the excruciating detail thing off in other situations. Doctors and nurses like to whittle things down farther and farther, like “O-sats 92-96.” (Or “Pulse ox.”) The fun there is that you can use cool verbs like “tweak,” “bump,” and “bang” and still sound scientific.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Extreme Anti-Catholicism

In researching how conspiracy theorists build entire plots of cosmic significance around events of minor importance (as I noted here and here), I located several anti-Catholic sites. I can’t say this was accidental, as I was specifically looking for something a Seventh-Day Adventist had shared with me 30 years ago, about Napoleon and a pope’s chair in 1798 and the letters of various papal titles adding up to 666. That stuff is still out there; someone still believes it, anyway.

I am familiar with a strong Baptist strain of anti-Catholicism, as my boys were exposed to it occasionally at Baptist schools, but the attitude there was more “well, their doctrine is so wrong that they’re not really Christian,” than obsessive proofs about how the Roman Church is the Antichrist. I knew that the latter attitude was probably still out there, but I haven’t run across it in person for many years now. Our congregation rents space from an SDA concregation, so I see their fliers and the covers of their pamphlets pretty regularly and don’t think that the Pope=Antichrist doctrine is as important as it once was. I don’t read it in any detail, however, and I know that this pernicious belief is strong in the Ellen G. White books so important to the founding of the denomination.

I don’t get any sense of how common this is, though. Any recent observations out there? Do you run across this extreme anti-Catholicism anymore, or has most of it watered down into the Baptist/fundamentalist version, as above? And actually, I don’t know as I run into even that all that often anymore.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

John Sebastian Freaks Out a Turtle

I worshipped John Sebastian in the late 60’s. He wrote both happy, chirpy tunes like “Daydream” and quieter, reflective songs such as “Younger Girl.” Far out, eh?. And y’know, the happy songs weren’t just happy, but had uh, cleverness too. And…and the reflective songs weren’t just depressing things about loves lost but loves that were still going on. This is unusual for us sensitive poetic types, trust me. At 15, everyone I listened to was either culturo-politically significant or was mooning over some bittersweet breakup. The Lovin’ Spoonful were a refreshing break from that, because they couldn’t seem able to care less about political things, yet hung out with all the politically cool people. Nixon was president, but Zal and John just enjoyed life. To a highschool freshman, this seemed transcendent.

They were perpetually stoned, that was a lot of it. Everyone is cheery and looks reflective when buzzed. We knew our favorite bands all smoked a little marijuana – they were cool, weren’t they? Well, then. But it did not dawn on me for years how extensive this was in Sebastian’s case. Even Woodstock didn’t tip me off – I still figured that John was just this really upbeat, cheery guy who liked to blow a joint now and again. Only gradually did I apprehend that the man was permanently baked. Baked hard. Retrospectively, it explains a lot. See for yourself:

Upon further review, those happy songs were one step above novelty songs. “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?” - how is that more elevated than “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie,” or any of several classics by Alvin and the Chipmunks? In a head to head (heh) matchup for exposition of Southern Culture, Sebastian puts up “Nashville Cats” and “Jug Band Music.” John Denver enters “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and “Country Road.” The novelty acts put up “Convoy” and “Dew Drop Inn.” Tough call. Tougher, because no judge could sit through all six songs consecutively, in any order.

By the time he did “Cheapo Cheapo Productions: Real Live John Sebastian” and “The Four of Us” (which was a double album with a tie-dyed cover. Top that, Joni Mitchell), there was nothing left of him, just a pleasant guy wandering around stage and studio picking up instruments at random, singing as much of songs as he could remember. The reviews of these albums were glowing. Sebastian showed such versatility! Sebastian still had his good-time lyrics going! Uh, Sebastian had become a jukebox, thrilled to play anything that people shouted out, like a hippie Bojangles. I had long since stopped any marijuana use because I didn’t want to get arrested, but I still subscribed to the conventional wisdom of my generation about pot: it wasn’t really bad for you, just made you a little silly. Following the later Sebastian raised the possibility that Hmm, maybe that stuff really is bad for you long term. There is a long, earnest explanation why it’s not bad for you at all, involving consciousness, karma, God, and natural herbs, which I somehow can’t recall, exactly.

Tree-huggers like to pose as the sober scientists these days, and don’t like to admit how much the popularity of their movement owes to baked folkies singing about how much better plants and rivers are than like, concrete. Environmentalists may have some science now, but at the first Earth Day, not so much. Pave paradise and put up a parking lot. Friends around a campfire, and everybody’s high. I’ve seen the steel and the concrete crumble. I will state again: some are perpetually trying to return to summer camp. John Sebastian had many contributions to this, but his best effort for utter stoned vacuity was probably “How Have You Been?” which I eagerly learned from a bootleg in 1970. The complete lyrics are here: As representative a batch of stoner lyrics as your could hope for, verging on the edge of significance and vision of a better world, signifying nothing. The episode with the turtle sums up early environmentalism so perfectly that I quote it in full here.
And here is a turtle from the Long Island Expressway
He says that his home has been covered with tar
So I gave him a ride on the back of my suitcase
And he says that he´d like to stay here in your yard
At long last his life won´t be quite so hard
Remember that turtles are rather single-minded, and when lost will set out in a random direction look for home, unsatisfied until they find it. Sebastian’s helpfulness in dragging this creature miles from familiar territory, aided by his anthropomorphizing the little testudine ( pathetic fallacy ) looks a bit different. Cruel, even. But that’s how we thought then, saving the world by doing dumb stuff that made things worse. I imagine they gave the poor turtle, now destined to live his entire life in dim, confused frustration and likely dying shortly, some dope to calm him down. Maybe that helped. Or not.

That Kid Who Used To Live Here

I remember this kid who used to live here. When stuff got moved to put in the AC today he was brought sharply to mind. Goffstown Junior Baseball Playoff Champion 1996, and Concord Christian High School Drama Award 2002, and a picture of my mother and stepfather taken in 1999. They tell a story somehow, but I can't tell what the story is. It hovers on the edge of understanding.

Portland Sea Dogs

We went to watch the visiting Sea Dogs beat the local team tonight, because we wanted to watch Clay Buchholz, the top prospect in the Red Sox system. He did not disappoint: 6.1 innings, 1 run on 4 hits (the run scored after he left, but it was his runner), 1BB, 11 K's. We particularly admired how he changed speeds. As the knuckleballer Charlie Zink is also pitching well, the Sox may have some new arms in 2008.

Minor League baseball is filled with nonstop games and promotions, and they play predictable music to get the crowd going. They of course play "YMCA" by the Village People. Because nothing says good clean American fun quite like 11-year-old boys being led by their mothers and older sisters in dance motions to a homoerotic song.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Grandchild Update

We still don't know if it will be Benjamin Matthias or Emily Adelaide, but the new grandchild has already filled a bookcase and is moving onto the second. I've always been a book giver, because most people on our list don't get as many as they should. In this case, maybe I should switch to something else educational, like legos or math manipulatives.

Darned Discouraging

To my Polish visitors...Witac.

Dubbahdee, who comments here, asked a blog question to which the answer was "I have a stats counter at the bottom of my sidebar." It's called freestats, and it gives you a few things free in the hopes that you will buy their more sophisticated products. When I first got it months ago it was a fun toy, but I don't use it much anymore. I have been just assuming my stable 40 unique visitors per day then was pretty much what's happening now. As comments have been down, I wondered if I may have dropped to 30 or something.

Lo and behold, my login today tells me I was getting 80 unique visitors a day last week. Well gee. I didn't think I'd been writing anything better than usual, but perhaps, I thought, I am being discovered. I checked to see where my traffic was coming from. "No referrer" is the top preference, meaning that most of my traffic comes from you regulars who have me bookmarked. A strong second, however was a google search for people looking up pictures of ABBA, one of which I posted last December. No, I am not going to repost the picture. In the number 4 position was a google search in Polish for pictures of ABBA and #5 was Spanish googling for pictures of ABBA.

Grasping at straws, I saw that Maggie's Farm, an interesting multiplayer blog that does both commentary and linking was in the 3-spot. Ah, bless them, I thought. I don't go over and comment there enough. Nice people. I should put them on my sidebar and spend more time there. I dropped by, read a half-dozen posts but didn't see anything about my site, so I used the quicksearch option for "village." They had linked last week to my update on Melanie, Donovan, and Gilbert O'Sullivan.

This is discouraging. Here I try to run a nice middlebrow site, but what I am known for internationally is running pictures from the 70's of Bjorn Ulvaeus and pals. All the acts above are not even performers I liked at the time they were big, let alone now.

OTOH, there may be a way to manipulate the system. People looking for such pictures may be fuzzy-headed boomers reminiscing about scoring some dynamite weed - excuse me, visiting Mary Jane - and ending up with me. This may be exactly the audience I want to influence to stop voting for the closest equivalent to George McGovern every election, and inform them that no churches will force them to wear a clip-on tie if they visit. I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this, but watch this space for retro bands that I actually liked at the time, like the Loving' Spoonful or the Blues Magoos. Plus earlier pictures of Bjorn, who I guess is big in Poland or something. I will add in religio-socio-political commentary to draw the last hippies in.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Segregation By Age

At a large barbecue today, I noticed that the people in their 90's sat together, those in their 60's together, those in their 50's together, and those in their 20's together. (Not all decades were represented, though there were a few outliers). No one made anyone do this, and the barriers were not impermeable, but the tendency was very strong. Some few people crossed over to discussions with other generations quite easily, and close relatives were equally likely to be with family as with age-mates.

I have long thought that age is a bigger segregator than race. When my boys played soccer or basketball and I came to a game or practice, I gravitated to the parents regardless of race, not the kids in the stands. I might talk to the young people a bit, particularly if I knew one well, but my comfort zone was with the dads. New Hampshire may not be a good measure of this because racial minorities are super-minorities here - though the Christian schools tended to have a higher percentage than the public schools. Perhaps it is different elsewhere.

Censorship In Oakland

A group of African-American Christian women working for the City of Oakland formed the Good News Employee Association. Using the in-house email and bulletin boards, which had previously been used by gay employees for announcements and political statements, the women made fairly unremarkable statements such as "Marriage is the foundation of the natural family and sustains family values." They were disciplined and disallowed from further communication on the subject as their emails were "homophobic."

So long as these policies applies both ways, I can live under either system. I don't make controversial political or social comments on state email or in my office displays. I expect that to be observed by others and it generally is.

George Will commenting on this makes an interesting point about the use of speech codes to attempt to change culture.
The treatment of the GNEA illustrates one technique by which America's growing ranks of self-appointed speech police expand their reach: They wait until groups they disagree with, such as the GNEA, are provoked to respond to them in public debates, then they persecute them for annoying those to whom they are responding.
A technique, Will calls it. To provoke with statements and actions you know will be allowed until your opposition responds - then attack that response as "hostile."

We see this not only in politics, but the personal politics of everyday life. People who work in bureaucracies know that if you are the person who points out a problem, you run the risk of being considered to be the problem. If a coworker is incompetent, complaining to your supervisor may be the last thing you want to do. Especially if the person has been incompetent for a long time and every knows it but no one does anything about it, it is the person who declares that the emperor has no clothes who endures the wrath of the authorities. The ending of that fairy tale always struck me as unrealistic, by the way. In real life, the emperor would have the child and his parents killed on the spot and keep on walking. Problem solved.

In the Oakland scenario, it had clearly become acceptable for some social and political announcements to be made, because these were right. To make contrary statements would be wrong. This chilling summation is unfortunately what underlies the suppression of free speech. The suppressors would not see it quite that way - they have lengthy explanations why certain views are right in a particular way while others are wrong in a particular way. Thus they can maintain that they of course support free speech, but that this is an exception somehow.

In general, it is now a cultural value that one always has freedom to encourage someone to ignore cultural tradition, but does not have the freedom to encourage them to retain a cultural tradition. In unconscious irony, breaking tradition is now the one tradition we must not break.

Climate Debate

As an example of why I don't venture too far in commenting on the science in the climate change debate, I offer the following discussion. On Roger Pielke, Sr's site Climate Science is a weblog post by Kevin Trenberth. In the comments section - the comments, mind you, is the following:
Comment by Steve Sadlov — June 18, 2007 @ 1:17 pm


The bottom line, for me, is:

“There is neither an El NiƱo sequence nor any Pacific Decadal Oscillation that replicates the recent past; yet these are critical modes of variability that affect Pacific rim countries and beyond. The Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, that may depend on the thermohaline circulation and thus ocean currents in the Atlantic, is not set up to match today’s state, but it is a critical component of the Atlantic hurricanes and it undoubtedly affects forecasts for the next decade from Brazil to Europe. Moreover, the starting climate state in several of the models may depart significantly from the real climate owing to model errors. I postulate that regional climate change is impossible to deal with properly unless the models are initialized.”
I sort of understand this quote from the article sentence by sentence, but its significance is only partly apprehensible to me. But to Mr. Sadlov, this is the bottom line. I'm just over my head.

Pielke's site is one of the major reputable catastrophe-skeptic sites. For balance, Real Climate is a site by "working climate scientists" who endorse the more common views about AGW. I didn't follow much of that, either.

I will soon get around to kicking Bill McKibben on issues only marginally related to the climate debate.

The Purpose-Less Church

A story is told among actors about an old-school type working with a method actor. I heard it as either Olivier or Michael Caine speaking to Dustin Hoffman. (The former is more likely because of "Marathon Man.") Hoffman was doing his Stanislavsky shtick of getting into his character's skin and becoming his character. Olivier remonstrated "Why don't you try acting, dear boy?"

In all our discussions of what being a church should mean, or of what being The Church should mean, there is this assumption, a very American one, I think, that there is some necessity of having a Purpose. Lengthy discussions and debates take place with much agony of spirit trying to discern what God's special direction is for a church. Is it our mission to reach out to the community, or to send missionaries, or to exemplify Christian community, or to appeal to seekers, or to bikers, or what? What's our mission statement, what's our vision?

Why not just be a church?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Black Man's Burden

Kipling's poem White Man's Burden and the phrase it develops is now a synonym for racist colonialism. That Kipling at the height of Empire could pen such words to general approbation from his peers now strikes us as an arrogance so high, a hubris so beyond the pale as to be comical.

In the poem, Kipling encourages America to take up the White Man's Burden for the civilizing of the world's others. He cautions that we, like the British, will receive no thanks from those whose lives we improve, but only criticism, yet we are bound by duty to do it anyway.

Except for the whiteness part, Kipling got it right. The racial aspect is unnecessary and perhaps even accidental to the development of the customs and institutions of civilization that have brought rights and freedom to many.

As Western civilization is said to be a combination of the influences of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, it is not difficult to imagine changes in history that led to the great cultural advances occurring on the southern shore of the Mediterranean rather than the north. If those influences had combined in a way similar to what happened in Europe, it might have been the North Africans who carried the burden of improvement of the rest of the world.

Yes, the egalitarianism of the northern European barbarians was also part of the development of the rights of man, and a thousand other adjustments would have to be made to construct an equivalence to Italy in Tunisia, to London in Cairo. But an exact match is not needed so much as the spread of certain ideas to an area - and that might have happened differently than it did.

Read the poem, ignoring what leaps first to the eyes of a 21st C reader. Kipling got it right. I wonder if he and his countrymen had not made the moronic connection of cultural ideas to race that the multiculturalism which is largely a reaction against racism might never have gotten a foothold, to trouble us so in the last decades.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Journalistic Bias

MSNBC's recent cataloguing of which journalists make contributions to which political parties doesn't contain much in the way of surprises, as 9 in 10 contribute to Democrats, which should be obvious at this point.

I did find the incredibly sophomoric reasoning of George Packer of the New Yorker justifying his contributions to the DNC and a candidate to be uh, intriguing, however.
"My readers know my views on politics and politicians because I make no secret of them in my comments for The New Yorker and elsewhere," Packer said. "If giving money to a politician prejudiced my ability to think and write honestly, I wouldn't do it. Fortunately, it doesn't."

The contributions don't create your prejudices, you bufflehead! They illustrate them. He has beclowned himself.

Thought Experiment

Jumping off from my previous post on how people argue as a clue to who to believe, I encourage my readers to try the following thought experiment.

You are a researcher in a climate related field who believes that your new data points in a certain direction. Let us say that it tends to confirm the current majority view that observed warming is anthropogenic. You are confident of your methodology and the trustworthiness of your assistants. Nonetheless, you know enough about the rigors of scrutiny to acknowledge that someone might legitimately find flaws in your method or reasoning, or that some unreliability has crept into your data, unknown to you. Part of your confidence comes from the further knowledge that even if your research is shown to have weaknesses, these might be minor or reparable. You wish to uphold the standards of your profession, and your writing contains the proper acknowledgement of uncertainty and limitation.

As your research becomes known, the predictable happens: environmental activists play up your data, burying your appropriate cautions. Skeptics play up your standard uncertainties, overestimating what these mean.

Because of your understanding of general climate issues, you believe that warming beyond a certain point could be catastrophic. The likelihood of this worst-case scenario is low, perhaps even very low – that sort of estimate is out of your expertise. But it is clear to you that it is a real possibility. The people who exaggerate its likelihood irritate you, but nothing like the people who deny its possibility or dismiss it irritate you.

In a fit of obsessive ethicality you try to set all your prejudice-dials to zero. You suspend from consideration what the effect of your statements will have on your career, even subtly; you overlook for the present who is irritating and who is a friend; you review much of the data which led you to your general conclusions; you seek out credible opposition; you make judicious adjustments according to the track record of accuracy of all parties.

If you read the Assistant Village Idiot’s blog, you also make allowances for your tribal loyalties of culture, religion, ethnicity.

You arrive at a general comfort zone of where you “stand” on the related political issues. You make an honest effort to discover how much various interventions will cost, even though cost is way out of your area of expertise.

Rinse. Repeat monthly. This is your considered professional opinion of what humanity should do about carbon, methane, energy, sequestration, abatement, and all the rest.

The experiment: controversial research emerges that suggests that some key factor is off by a factor of 5, e.g., polar warming is five times faster, or only one-fifth as fast, as previously thought. Or, a proposed intervention’s hidden costs mean it will cost five times as much, or a new technology reduces the cost by 80%. In some way, the problem is five times bigger or five times smaller than you thought. Respond.

Bill McKibben's Strongest Argument

In the video debate on our responses to climate change, Bill McKibben returned often to a single general point: the majority scientific opinion, especially as evidenced by the IPCC report, regards global warming as real, anthropogenic, and potentially serious. Amidst all his sneers and irrelevancies, McKibben gravitates back to this in almost every comment. There is good reason for this – he thinks it’s a killer point, dwarfing smaller objections.

Yeah, it is a good point. Even granting all the caveats about the IPCC report – that it is a highly politicised document, especially in its summary, that it is badly reported to emphasize the worst possible outcomes, that its certainty is overestimated, that there is credible scientific challenge to some claims – the report, and the scientific consensus it represents, is a big deal. The evidence that it is big is the amount of energy skeptics devote to challenging it. If it didn’t mean nuthin’ no one would pay any attention to it.

We come immediately to enormous difficulties in the debate. There are many fields of expertise which bear upon the issues. Even the people well-qualified to speak on the various pieces are not necessarily positioned to speak about the whole. Most of the loud voices on all sides are not experts in any of the relevant fields, but bright generalists who attempt to synthesize information from disparate areas. Choosing among the many generalist voices comes down to epistemological questions of what we think we know and how we think we know it.

While it is true that most of the researchers and theorists studying the overall issues are not experts in all relevant fields, it’s not as if they know nothing at all about related fields. The closer a question comes to their specialty, the more likely each is to understand far more than the average bear about it. They are subject to the same prejudices, social pressures, and confirmation biases as the rest of us, even in their own fields, but they are also able to weed out some absolute idiocies and have at least an ability to understand the mechanisms involved. If they tend as a group in a particular direction, that is formidable evidence even if it is not unassailable proof.

For a generalist such as I, following the debate becomes a balancing act, evaluating credentials that I have only a superficial understanding of and following the arguments and counterarguments to see who seems to make more sense. To make up an example, when reseach about the glaciers in Greenland is cited, I have a long series of questions to which I have only very approximate answers.
Is a glaciologist the trumping expert in this discussion, or something else?
Is an atmospheric scientist more likely to know about this than a climatologist?
Is this PhD teaching at U of Aberdeen a well-known crank or contrarian or a mainstream guy? Has he been right before when others are wrong? Does U of Aberdeen have a good department in this, or are they a third-tier player in the debate? Do any of these guys have historical, financial, or institutional ties to other players in the debate? What is the context in which the claims were made? Is anyone being evasive in their answers?

Worse, once I’ve made my poor estimates, I’ve only answered one small question. I have to restart this seat-of-the-pants estimating when I read the two guys arguing about whether sunspots have anything to do with all this.

In such situations, we often revert to superficial markers to choose who to believe. Our balancing of trust from various sources may be complicated, but this does not make them deep.

She’s a professor, so she probably knows what she’s talking about.
He’s written books that I’ve liked on other things.
I am reading this in a reputable journal.
They make lots of money by ignoring pollution.
They raise lots of money getting people excited about stuff.
She sounds pro-business.
He sounds anti-business.
I believe my smart friend.
I believe/disbelieve the UN/ the EU/ Bush/ NASA.

We do not choose these simplifications at random. Each of us has reasons, perhaps very good ones, for putting our trust in certain sources. Significantly, even when we try to expand our knowledge, digging in to an issue like climate change to understand the science and economics, we usually start with the sources we believed anyway. This is likely to reinforce our previously-held beliefs rather than challenge them.

Yet not always, and this is where the techniques of an Assistant Village Idiot may help us out. On any controversial issue, there are clues that can be examined even if much of the subject is beyond your ken.

Who is fighting fair? Politeness is only a part of this. There are people who interrupt or are insulting in argument, which is certainly not quite fair, yet at a deeper level are discussing reasonably. Understanding one’s opponent’s actual claims is foundational. When people habitually misrepresent the other side I begin to disregard everything they say. False equivalence is fairly common. “My opponent believes the poor should be given nothing; she would be happy with a rebuilding of poorhouses.”

Who has modified their views over time, and why? Have any prominent authorites moved from one side of the debate to the other? Did this personally benefit them in any way, or has it cost them? What are the facts from position A that challengers B and C have come to acknowledge? If someone cannot even acknowledge why alternative views at least look plausible, or that enthusiasts on one’s own side have made foolish claims, or that those who disagree might at least mean well or have found an important portion of the truth, then there is no point in listening to them, is there?

Who is unnecessarily dismissive? In my own field there are theories which are meritless and deserve to be dismissed from serious discussion. Yet even these always have something understandable about them, reasons why a person might believe them if she didn’t know better. I would not recommend anyone pursue EMDR for PTSD – but I acknowledge that it might have some benefit unrelated to the eye movements. I am desperately weary of patients who want to treat schizophrenia “naturally” – but I can of course understand that medications have uncomfortable, even miserable side effects; or that it is a very hard thing to believe one’s brain is broken; or that doctors make mistakes; or that older psychological theories are equally bogus. I think disability rights advocates are often motivated more by their desire to kick the system than to help the patient – but I don’t count their gentler motives as nothing, and gladly acknowledge that they do some good.

I simply don’t trust the rationality of a person who is unable to budge 1% on even the minor points. There is something narcissistic or autistic about that.

You will note that none of these techniques is an infallible guarrantee which POV is correct. They are just indicators of the rationality of the arguer.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


A lot of my patients are chronic manipulators of the system. This really torques people off, especially the poorly-paid line staff. Yet our manipulators are irritating mostly because they aren’t very good at it. Good manipulators pass unnoticed.

I have a 30ish woman who is on probation, but will not allow us to contact her PO. She knows she will be facing 7.5 – 15 if too many more probations violations show up on her sheet, so it’s rather a roll of the dice for her. Or rather, like a giant game of Jenga against herself, in which she is oddly compelled to keep removing sticks as carefully as she can, rather than adopt the obvious solution of not playing at all. One more restraining order; one more overdose; one more loud disturbance; unable to stop.

She is costing the State of NH a fortune. Lots of Medicaid care, rental assistance, mental health and probation services, and now $800/day in a psychiatric hospital. Yet she sees almost none of it herself. She wants to be cared for (but independent, like a permanent 16 year old) and so gets herself into a hospital with an uncomfortable bed, unexciting food, little entertainment, and dangerous peers. We are paying for a first class vacation on an island paradise for her and her 12 closest friends, but she is receiving life in a mediocre boarding house. If she were an effective manipulator, she would get a bigger cut, wouldn’t she?

Much of this stems from receiving expensive services she doesn’t need: 24-hour nursing care, multiple MD’s, psychologists, rehab therapists. But once she’s here, we have to provide those things. We would be considered neglectful if she had a medical complaint – any medical complaint – that we failed to address. If she decides she wants to throw a chair because she’s angry, then the State of NH pays someone to talk with her in a firm but therapeutic manner, directing her to consider consequences and make predictions about others’ likely responses, coaching on “using her skills” to reduce her anxiety, and getting hit and injured when she decides to throw the chair anyway. The people providing this expensive service to her get paid 2 – 2.5x as much as she does to be sick.

We often wish there were some way to just short-circuit this system. If we could pay her to stay out of the hospital we’d save a bundle and she’d make a bundle. But then lots of other people would want the same deal, and we’d either have to pay everyone who signed up or hire expensive people to determine whose claims were legitimate. Plus people to train and supervise them to make sure they aren’t being corrupt or unethical. Plus people to oversee the bureaucracy that contains these people, to make sure that the buildings are safe and the sexual harassment workshops are attended.

It’s a shame for everyone involved: patient, staff, other agencies, taxpayers.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Sabermetric Detour

I should have run these numbers a month ago. I kept noticing that the Yankees overall numbers, particularly their Runs Scored, were not bad, and kept telling myself they were probably "a little better" than their record. As a Red Sox fan, I regarded Boston's barrage of wins as their just due, even though the Runs Scored versus Runs Against were a little weaker than expected.

There is a sabermetric formula called Pythagorean Wins. Developed (unsurprisingly) by Bill James, it predicts a team's winning percentage on the basis of runs scored versus runs allowed. Over the course of a season, the anomalies balance out and it reflects the number of actual games won pretty accurately. A more complicated version of the formula is more accurate still, but is unnecessary for our purposes here.

Its best use is to look at a team's winning percentage versus its expected percentage (according to RS v. RA) to see if there is any large discrepancy. Large discrepancies usually mean that a team's luck is temporarily out of whack, and one can look for that to even out. One month ago, the Yankees were much better than their record suggested, the Red Sox slightly worse. That is now evening out.

According to the Pythagorean Wins formula, the standings in the American League East should be:

Boston .614
NYY .604
Toronto .511
Baltimore .479
Tampa Bay .395

The reality is
Boston .638 (meaning that they've been a bit lucky)
NYY .522 (meaning they've been very unlucky)
Toronto .478 (a little unlucky)
Tampa Bay .456 (quite lucky)
Baltimore .420 (quite unlucky)

The most logical prediction, therefore, is that the gap between the Red Sox and Yankees will close further. Dogfight again.

Also, look for Baltimore to move up as the season progresses and Tampa Bay to move down. There is a major caveat here, however. Tampa Bay is loaded with young players who are improving every month. The rule of thumb is that baseball players peak between ages 26-28, decline slowly for a few years, then fall off the cliff before age 35. For pitchers, only slightly older. Players who are 23 or younger who have already made it to the major leagues, therefore, improve enormously as a group over their next five years. Given that there are still managers with an uncanny ability to screw up young pitchers, the group improvement is even more impressive.

The name Hanley Ramirez may trouble Red Sox fans as an illustration here.

Tampa Bay has more players in this category than any other team, and so may improve consistently over the course of the season, negating their expected fall in luck. A hurried look at the TB lineup would suggest that they are going to be a force in 2008 and 2009. The Devil Rays, however, have a remarkable record of throwing away or screwing up talent. Keep your eyes on these guys, though:

Delmon Young 21. RF, fair-good, and improving month by month
BJ Upton 22. 2B - already has an OPS of .941
Scott Kazmir 23. SP, ERA 4.10
Elijah Dukes 22. CF, hits lefties well but poor against righthanders.

Plus James Shields and Carl Crawford, both 25.

No Longer Left Behind - A William and Mary Grad Speaks Out!

A lot of bloggers are getting to complain about their alma maters lately. The Dartmouth guys over at Powerline have gotten a lot of mileage out of the alumni revolt over the board elections, and the Duke grads have been able to sound off for an entire year about the lacrosse team accusations. Today Dr. Sanity gets to fume about multiple graduations at UCLA, and this time of year people get to grouse about commencement speakers in general, such as this list from last year.

I felt left out, see? It seemed that everyone was getting to rag on their college but me. Then I remembered that William and Mary actually had two national controversies in the last year: the removal of the cross from the Wren Chapel and the exhibit about sex workers.

But I don't care. Sure, these both represent more of the deterioration of Western Civilization, a battle in which I am expected by my peers to be a rearguard footsoldier. I still don't care. I don't send W&M any money, so boycotting them will have zero effect. I haven't been to a reunion since... 1982 or something. I last visited in 199...6, when Jonathan was looking at colleges. He didn't like it much, and frankly, I wasn't so thrilled myself. I have an old roommate who's a dean now, and I have contact with a classmate maybe once a year.

I barely recall what the Wren Chapel looks like. I have no memory of its supposedly historic cross. It was not a place of spiritual refreshment for me at any time. It would be great if I had some story about a life-changing experience involving a time of crisis and impromptu visit to the chapel, resulting in my contemplation of that particular cross and its significance because of all the brothers and sisters in Christ who had gone before. If I had such a story, I would certainly have written it to the college newspaper during the heat of the controversy. And been appropriately outraged, of course. I was deeply saddened to learn that The College is contemplating the removal...

As for the exhibit about sex workers - this is supposed to be avant garde? I was a theater major in the 1970's, for pete's sake. Sexual controversy was 50% of our conversation for four years, and we took off our clothes for no reason. We were very earnest. Significant, even. And we got to talk about sex more than anybody, except maybe the dancers. A exhibit about sex workers, which allows the studio art and women's studies people to also look very earnest and significant while talking about sex? How 20th Century.

Simple declaratives, which everyone outside of academia already knows: 1) the removal of the cross is not an expression of respect and welcome of other religions. Buddhists are not empowered by this move. It is an endorsement of the vague spirituality that is the Zeitgeist. If you don't want to sound so Moonflower about it, you can say "other spiritual traditions" instead. Because it is an endorsement of the general, it is of course a demotion of the specific tradition of Christianity, which previously held a spot of higher eminence. 2) Because learning new and challenging things often makes us uncomfortable, artists and academics continue to suppose that making people uncomfortable is in itself a learning experience. I doubt they apply that to their travel and interior design plans, because when they operate in the everyday world, they know that the idea is crap just as well as the rest of us do. But they've got themselves talked into this silly notion when it comes to inflicting their ideas on others. Plus, they get a chance to talk about sex right out in public, which helps in mating rituals.

Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

Nations As Personality Disorders

I had occasion yesterday to discuss with a personality-disordered young woman whether she would be staying beyond the 10 days of her emergency petition. She greatly minimized what she had done to get herself into hospital; every sentence that came out of her mouth included some blame for others. Even when she made a show of saying she was accepting responsibility, she would undo that before she came to the end of the sentence. I know I was acting like a teenager yelling at my mother because she wouldn’t listen to me. I was angry and said that I’d like to kill her but she knows I would never do that and put me here anyway.

After 30 years of doing this, I have a mental checklist of things people say when they get into situations where they do not want to hear the truth. This woman, who is a prescription drug addict who would rather be some other diagnosis (which would entitle her to anxiolytic medications) made three of those checklist statements within 60 seconds. It is seldom worth carrying such a conversation farther unless you are willing to adopt far more indirect tactics of introducing unpleasant realities.

This is not very different from many online debates I participate in. To go further, it is not very different from many of the national and international debates we have. These are not mere disagreement and different perspectives, which can usually be negotiated and reach some accommodation. These are simply refusal of one side to accept any responsibility, or even any slight modification of their premise. Even when making a show of taking responsibility, they are actually only blaming, for example: I don’t think the Democrats are perfect in this. I fault them for letting the Republicans get away with it.

Noticing the parallels between the pathological arguments of individuals and of groups, I went back to my Underground DSM-IV, my collection of frequent statements made by psychiatric patients and what they actually mean. In the section under personality disorders, I found many things which matched up with political realities today. The following list is a compilation of statements about pathological individuals. Observe how many are used by nations as excuses. You may have to stretch a bit to see equivalences such as foreign aid = therapy, or economic/military interventions = hospitalizations. I am thinking in particular of the Arab/Muslim nations and their narcissistic style, plus the Western European elites and their high-functioning borderline style. (People who are used to working with these categories might also find it enlightening to reflect on nations with histrionic, schizoid, antisocial, and paranoid styles. Comments welcome.)

When a patient claims that the hospital doesn’t know him, and therefore has no right or foundation for evaluating him, he means that the objective evidence should be ignored in favor of his rationalizations. Related: “No one is listening to me,” means “no one is agreeing with me.”

Pts. referring to length of time they have been in hospital as an argument for privileges or discharge means they still don’t get it.

The wife or mother of the violent sociopath who says “I just want him to get help” is going to take him back (See “I need therapy,” next.)

“I need (undefined) therapy.” Means I feel bad and think I will feel better if other people listen to me endlessly. Our other offerings, including group therapy, won’t be considered real therapy. Other variations include “I haven’t gotten any therapy here.”

Identifying “low self-esteem” as your problem means you want someone else to fix it. Self-esteem (in the popular sense, not the older, precise sense) is entirely subjective. Self-respect is based on actions. Seeking self-esteem is seeking to feel better without doing anything, and does you no good. But no matter how far down you go, you can always do something to increase your self-respect.

Paranoids have an uncanny ability to make their worst fears come true. Eventually, everyone is watching them and trying to stop them from (fill in the blank)

Borderlines seeking cool alternative diagnoses have an uncanny ability to locate only private therapists who can’t help them. (Note: for the international equivalent, it may be helpful to think of academic opinions and the NYTRB here)

People who have a “problem with women,” or “problem with men,” reveal behaviorally in about 24 hours that they don’t do well with the other gender either. Ditto for “problems with authority.” Those folks also tend to show “difficulty working independently” and “difficulty sharing responsibility.” What’s left?

Punching the wall is not something to be congratulated for just because you wanted to hit a person instead. You are still rehearsing violence. In fact, you are ably demonstrating how unconcerned you are with your own pain and will use that to intimidate others.

Intense borderlines tend to live near the hospital and interact with each other. When any one of them dies, or especially if one commits suicide, several others will have short memorial admissions to the hospital.

When a patient challenges your credentials, no credentials will be good enough. There will always be something you lack. “Oh, so you’re not a psychonutritionist.”

When a patient – and some providers – claims a “right to be angry,” there will be a sudden shift in the meaning of ordinary words. That one is entitled to ones own feelings and opinions will be made to equal “I am justified yelling at people. Or worse”

France is a glamorous borderline personality disorder – the cause? An abusive incestuous relationship with Germany. Much of European politics suddenly becomes clear if you keep this in mind. The rescuing Americans are the bad parent who didn’t rescue enough, and so get blamed more than the perpetrator, who she has now gone back to live with.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Graduation Girls

At Chris's HS graduation tonight, the principal went out of his way to mention that for the second time in three years, there were nine girls and one boy in the top ten of the class. Why are people surprised at this? Why is the principal, of all people, surprised at this? Schools - or at least school grades - are designed to favor girls. That's not conscious, but it's intentional.

It may be that boys get just as good an education as girls do, but just don't reap the recognition. My younger brother maintains that the boys actually get a better education, because they learn early that life isn't fair and you have to make your own way. As he spent much of his elementary school career in the hall but now has an MFA and teaches theater at East Carolina University, he may have something there. The reward system of school does not approximate the reward system of adult life very well, though it claims to.

But back to the principal's glee. He related this female dominance in GPA to growing acceptance of female leaders in society. He clearly thinks this shows social progress has been made. How many graduations has this guy watched? How many NHS installations has he presided over (in this class it was about usual: 29 girls, 13 boys)? How many honor rolls has he submitted to the local paper? Can he really have missed that this has been going on for decades? Girls get better grades: about half a letter-grade higher, on average.

It's the other parts of school that reveal that there is a disconnect between classroom rewards and outside rewards. Guidance counselor's advice, and student government elections, and awards given by outside agencies, and standardised tests - the boys pull even in these fields overnight. The girls may suspect that something is up as they observe these things. They certainly get irked when they notice them, because it seems unfair that they, who played by what they were told were the rules, don't take home the prize.

It's simple, girls. The rules aren't the real rules. You've been lied to. The girls who didn't make NHS have started figuring that out before you. The school rules for girls are now the dominant rules through college and even into graduate school. Don't fall for it. You'll just be even madder when you have to learn it later - and you'll make it worse by blaming others that life isn't fair. You're right, of course; it isn't fair. But that won't matter.

Return of a Great Blog

"Carl" made some great observations on my "More Time Off?" post below. Clicking through to see who had made these brilliant comments, I got back to his own blog No Oil For Pacifists.

NOFP used to be an everyday stop of mine, but he stopped writing, and I eventually gave up, like a pigeon that no longer hits the bar for a pellet. Welcome back.

Great Discussion at Volokh

How often have I directed y’all to a comments section? Never, right? This blogpost and comments section at the lawblog Volokh Conspiracy has all sorts of smart people discussing autism, faith, global warming, false beliefs, homeopathy – an extended discussion of why people believe things that aren’t so. There is a minimum of snarling, hyperlinks to interesting articles about cognitive development, and some new (to me) ideas. From this one post I added 3 books to my Amazon wish list.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Will The Circle Be Unbroken?

"Oh, I've gotta brand new pair of rollerskates, you've got a brand-new key.
I think that we should get together and try to make the scene."

"Well I told you once before, and I won't tell you no more, so get down, get down, get down, you're a bad dog, baby, but I still want you around, around. I still want you around."

Of the late 60's, early 70's pop stars with odd voices, few were more irritating to me than Melanie and Gilbert O'Sullivan. Even Donovan Leitch had a normalish voice in comparison.
The continent of Atlantis was an island, which lay before the Great Flood in the area we now call the Atlantic Ocean. So great an area of land that from her western shores those beautiful sailors journeyed to the South and the North Americas with ease in their ships with painted sails...

Whether in spite of their voices or because of them, their songs penetrated... well, not to the heart... to the brain stem, becoming unforgettable, like the memory of grade-school paste.

Melanie is on a comeback tour, and the reviews aren't pretty.

"She's half Woodstock legend, half crazy trailer-park gran: an impression that remains unaltered when she begins to speak of the reignition and realignment of her creative forces...
Emmylou Harris, Rickie Lee Jones and Patti Smith, all women of around Melanie's age, have evolved and matured so gloriously over the past few years. But Melanie doesn't seem to have taken those rollerskates off.

She sings some of the old songs. She sings lots of new songs that sound a lot like the old ones."

For her American fans in New England, she will be at the Flye Point Music & Arts Festival in Brooklin, Maine next weekend (6/23 - 6/24/07)

O'Sullivan is on tour again. Did you have to be told that?

Donovan has been sort of on tour, but something keeps falling apart. He is still working with moviemaker David Lynch at the Foundation for Consciousness-based Education and World Peace.

Crummy Hymn

CS Lewis once claimed that hymns were "sixth-rate poetry set to fifth-rate music."

There are lots of crummy hymns lying around in old denominational hymnals, or on mimeographed song sheets in the closets of church camps. Mercifully, we are spared most of them. They circulate in our denomination or region for awhile, gradually reveal themselves as too time-bound or just awful, and just drop from sight.

When a hymn reaches crossover status - when it gets picked up by other denominations or gets held over for another edition - it is usually an indicator of some sort of minimum quality. In The Covenant Hymnal, published in 1996, there is a crossover hymn written by a Methodist in 1993. People should really let these things cool down a bit before embracing them to hymnal status. I admit that with nearly 800 hymns and 200 more psalms and prayers you can get by with a few clunkers. In an honest effort to include something up-to-date - denominational officials would like have said "relevant" then - they included something that was out of date the day it hit the presses. The words were written by a song-leader from North Texas who was born in 1954. So he's my age. He has reportedly written more than 100 hymns. All of them better than this one, I'll bet.

The lyrics reek of the 1970's, which makes sense seeing that John Thornburg would have been in seminary then. The lyrics also reek by just, well, reeking. He tries to show that he knows what alliteration is.

When faith and culture clash, when Church collides with state,
an agent for authentic love must learn to challenge hate.

When people call for war and hunger for a fight,
God's prophets must emerge and speak to break inertia's might.

A renegade for peace, a midwife for the truth:
we ache, O God, for one to act as justice-seeking sleuth.

Praise God for all like this, who scandalize our scorn
and perforate our prejudice, a fearless, holy thorn.

I suspect that the need to have something of appropriately liberal sentiment overwhelmed the literary sense in this instance.

Filling Out The Lineup Card

The leadoff hitters have been poor for the Red Sox this year, resulting in JD Drew leading off recently - a player one would not ordinarily think of in that spot.

I have no idea how that will work out, but who we think would "ordinarily" be in that spot is a function of the received wisdom of generations of baseball managers. They are mostly wrong. Before statisticians started working their slow changes on the game, the prototypical leadoff hitter was a middle infielder who had a moderately high batting average and stole bases. Baseball announcers were positively giddy about .270 hitters who danced around and "made things happen." Everyone seemed absolutely sure that hopping around disrupted a pitcher's attention so much that such players were worth their weight in gold. Luis Aparicio comes to mind. His year-by-year statistics are here, and reveal he should never have been anywhere near the leadoff spot, even in a pitchers era.

On Base Percentage has grudgingly become acknowledged as a more useful measure than Batting Average for leadoff and second hitters. Slugging Percentage is even more gradually becoming recognised as a better measure of power than home runs. The foundation of filling out a lineup card is, in fact, fairly straightforward. There are two numbers you need to know: On-Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage. The higher the player's OBP, the closer to the top of the order he goes. The higher his SP, the closer to the middle of the order he goes. As the middle of the order is between the 4th and 5th spot you have some flexibility there.

Because the high OBP's are sometimes also the high SP's, the player with the two highest added together should usually end up in the 3rd spot, with the compromises between OBP and SP spreading out from there.

Baseball traditionalists start going into cardiac arrest here. They say it's oversimplified, and there are a dozen other factors that have to be taken into consideration in deciding where a batter should hit. And that's true, as far as it goes. But the foundation on which you build should be OBP up, SP middle, not base-stealer up, guy-who-makes-contact second. You can illustrate it in half-a-dozen ways, via computer simulation, box score retrospectives, or experiment.

Watching baseball rather than studying it gives several false impressions. Stolen bases look very exciting, so we overestimate their value. Actually, they aren't worth that much. A player must succeed 70% of the time just to break even stealing bases (slightly less in pitchers parks, slightly more in hitters parks). This is because getting caught stealing is so enormously expensive that you have to steal a lot to make up for it. On a caught stealing, your team loses both a baserunner and an out. On a successful steal, the team only gains a base. Statistically, every 10 stolen bases over that 70% mark equals one additional run for your team. Not much.

10 walks, on the other hand, is worth almost 3 runs; a base-on-balls doesn't look very exciting, and so is undervalued. Luis Aparicio, above, drew very few walks and had a very good but not great base-stealing percentage. I am told his glove really was that good, so that going to the Hall of Fame isn't a joke. But for his bat - it's a joke. Phil Rizzuto? He's essentially Orlando Cabrera.

The whole concept of "rattling the pitcher" has some minor value, but it is much more apparent at lower levels of baseball. Little League pitchers definitely get rattled; Highschool pitchers might get unnerved. Greg Maddux, not so much. If you really like that sort of baseball strategy, you might also try yelling "Hey, batteh-batteh-batteh SWING batteh" at your next MLB game.

All those wonderful extras baseball managers are supposed to think of - not putting your slowest guy just before your fastest in the order, or making a guy lead off so he thinks about making contact rather than hitting homers, or that old favorite of hitting behind the runner - yeah, fine. Knock yourself out. But putting the players in order of OBP brings more batters to the plate over the course of a game.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Is It Torture?

In the comments well below, Copithorne is quite sure that waterboarding meets his definition of "inflicting excruciating pain." Judge for yourself.

Waterboarding video.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Rethinking The Great Depression

I think I remember what I was taught about the Great Depression years ago. It is hard to reconstruct from memory what the prevailing wisdom of the nation was in the 1960’s, but I can at least remember what I was taught. The base narrative, as little as I thought about it, would have run something like this.

Americans were overoptimistic in the 1920’s leading to a false prosperity bubble which burst with the stock market crash of 1929. Partly through inheriting a bad job and partly through incompetence, Hoover didn’t fix things, and banks failed in the ensuing panic, impoverishing many. Roosevelt was elected and enacted some stimulative programs that very slowly pulled America out of the Depression. During the Depression itself people didn’t have jobs, particularly in the South, and spread across the country looking for work. There were bread lines, and the Dust Bowl.

One of my 11th-grade US History texts was titled The Perils of Prosperity, (that telegraphs its opinion on the matter, doesn’t it?) which apparently has been revised and is still in print. My mother’s family didn’t talk about it – I don’t recall anyone on that side of the family ever referencing it even years later – and I had no contact with my father or his family then. Whatever I learned must have come from newspapers, TV, and Look Magazine.

To this base other (contradictory) narratives were attached over the years – I have little idea where I picked most of them up.

Roosevelt’s programs didn’t help that much, but provided needed optimism. It was actually WWII that pulled us out of the Depression.

Roosevelt’s programs, especially Social Security, were the start of the creeping socialism that gave us our big government of today. But if he hadn’t done something like that, actual socialists like Norman Thomas might have been elected.

Hoover actually just got stuck with the bad choices from Harding and Coolidge, who let capitalism run unchecked.

The depression was worldwide, and there wasn’t much anyone could have done.

If politicians had just allowed the crash and recovery without trying to tinker with it and fix it, it would have been over more quickly.

Arnold Kling has a series over at TCSDaily which reconfigures the entire narrative. He focuses more on how the presentation of events by journalists and historians affected American attitudes over subsequent decades. His take is that the prosperity of the 20’s was not artificial, but we believed it was, and have retained an antibusiness, especially Big Business, attitude since. Additionally, our literary classes have held close to their breasts the idea that business success is somehow dangerous and unhealthy for both the culture and for individuals.

If you enjoy thinking about the history of beliefs and what myths we choose, the series is, in order:
How Depressing Was The Depression?
What Roosevelt Didn’t Know
The Great Tug-of-War

The Global Warming Debate Part One: Bill McKibben's Bad Start

I linked a week ago to a video debate between skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg and environmental activist Bill McKibben, giving you time to think about it before I inserted my opinions.

I have little ability to evaluate the conflicting scientific claims – I imagine few of us here other than akafred do. Not that I can’t grasp the concepts, but the attempts each side makes to undermine the claims of the other creates enough uncertainty that I dare not make any pronouncements about who to believe. At the end of the Q&A, the conflict seemed to be boiling down to “new studies have shown that global warming alarmism is unwarranted/ newer studies than that have shown that it’s justified/those studies have weaknesses/no they don’t/yes they do.”

What I can do, however, is evaluate the debate itself, to see if that gives us any clues. I formed definite opinions about which person was arguing more reasonably and what the type of arguments might mean. As both Lomborg and McKibben are prominent figures in the ongoing debate I will use them as proxies for the two sides of the political discussion. That may be unfair to somebody, as each side might have representatives who could do the job better. But as long as you keep these two caveats in mind, we can proceed.
There might be excellent arguments and counterarguments that never made it to this video.
The better debater (smarter, more charming, better prepared) might yet be on the wrong side of the truth.

Lomborg speaks as a trained professional in one of the many related fields bearing on the subject, who isn’t cautious about crossing over the line into places he is not an expert. McKibben speaks as an advocate, a smart amateur who relies on his wit and breadth of knowledge.

McKibben, complaining about the lack of time and promising to hurry, nonetheless devotes his first point to poisoning the well against Lomborg. He wants the audience to know immediately that Lomborg is more an advocate than a dispassionate scientist, and not an honest advocate. I find this extremely irritating. Lomborg had made a presentation criticising no one (except Al Gore), making the case for his ideas. Bill McKibben starts off saying, in effect, “my opponent is a paid liar.” I fantacize having the power to stop debates right there, being the moderator and interjecting “We can’t have that. You’ve lost. Everyone go home.”

There is another side to that argument, though. If your opponent is a paid liar, you should be allowed to work it into your presentation somehow. Would I have objected if McKibben done the same thing more artfully? I’m not sure. Being less blunt might give the appearance of rational debate, but it’s the same thing in the end, and style shouldn’t count when processing truth.

It is clear that Bill McKibben is trying to negate the perceived advantage he thinks Lomborg might have with the audience. “My opponent is just an advocate. He’s no better’n me.” I doubt that is a mere rhetorical device on McKibben’s part, either. His tone certainly communicates he believes there is danger that the students of Middlebury might be taken in by some plausible person who sounds scientific.

This pattern persists throughout McKibben’s comments, including those in the Q & A. He conjures with images that are not quite pertinent to the announced issue, raising their spectres but not tying them in. Exxon…War In Iraq…appointed by Bush…appeared on Glenn Beck. He loses enormous ground with me every time he does this. I expect that if people have solid points to make they don’t resort to this nonsense. Why won’t you argue the point, Bill? I wonder, when is style an indicator of content, or lack thereof?

There is another side to this argument as well, though. Advocates and journalists do think like this. To them, the sources and associations matter more than the data. Speaking at Middlebury College, arguing as an advocate instead of as a scientist may be more persuasive to that audience. I was not the intended audience, so what strikes me as extraneous and low may not matter much.

To wrap up on the metacommunication issue of how Mr. McKibben is arguing, and whether it is an indicator of content, it is also clear that McKibben is not listening carefully to what Lomborg is saying. At at least four points in the discussion he refutes something that was never said. He hears some of the words and leaps to conclusions about what he heard. Lomborg challenged a quoted scientist’s statement in a very specific way; McKibben angrily answered with a general defense of his credentials. He didn’t listen, yet answered with condescension.

Next Up: Bill McKibben’s Strongest Set of Arguments

I'm Just Sayin'

I love the urban legends site, both for reference, and just for browing around. Following up on the Willisms post on false quotes by liberals - it has an extended and fairly pointless discussion in the comments, but some of you will like it well enough because of subject matter - I browsed snopes for what quotes and actions had been attributed to George W. Bush. The negative rumors were mostly false, the positive ones mostly true. On a hunch, I tried the same trick for John Kerry, Al Gore, Bush 41, Dan Quayle, and Bill Clinton. Same political pattern, in that there were many negative rumors about Republicans which later proved false, many negative rumors about Democrats that later proved true. For positive rumors, the reverse.

It wasn't anything like 100% - 0%, or so overwhelming that one would suspect the evidence was just too tidy to be real. Just a pretty strong tendency. Check it out yourself, if you like.

I had previously heard less than half the rumors either way, so I can't tell you how generally believed these urban legends were about the various political figures. To come to the attention of snopes, some threshhold of general circulation must have to be reached. This would suggest that people more readily believe negative myths about Republicans, but it is only evidence for that theory, not proof of it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

More Time Off?

Max Sawicky has the gloriously-named blog Max Speak, You Listen! How can you not like this guy? As near as I can guess he is a center-left economist - or perhaps a maverick-left economist - who works at the Economic Policy Institute and writes for Pajamas Media.

A recent article by Max at PM takes issue with the prevailing wisdom among American conservatives that the economies of Old Europe, particularly France, are going to hell in a handbasket because of their socialistic, managed economies. Sawicky makes several good points about differences in how unemployment is measured and popular economists' over-reliance on GDP as a measure. He notes, for example, that the French are as productive as the Americans per hour worked, they just work fewer hours, both weekly, and in number of weeks worked. I have neither the skill nor the inclination to challenge his figures, and his numbers look reasonable enough, so I will take them at face value for the purpose of this comment.

Max Sawicky believes that GDP is an inadequate measure because vacation and leisure time is a valuable thing that is not figured into the final total (I simplify, but I hope not unfairly). When measuring the wealth of a country, is it not valid to include the mandatory 6 weeks of vacation as part of the equation? Why should that not count for something in the overall tally? It is not money, but it is something valuable, and may be a lifestyle that many would prefer.

It is an intriguing thought, and not without merit. I do find a significant flaw in that reasoning, however. Vacation and leisure time is a valuable thing to most people - but not to everyone. Even if 90% of us would like more time off, and would be willing to sacrifice some income to get it while still holding onto our jobs, that still leaves 10% who would just rather be at work.

We trade lots of things for money. That's what it's for. Money isn't anything in itself, but just a vehicle for what you'd like to trade for. If we are going to count something besides money as "wealth," because life's value can be measured in so many ways, why stop at leisure time? By that metric, shouldn't job security count as something of value? The French would score high on that one, also, BTW. How about low crime? We could include a dozen, a hundred other valuable things in our definition of wealth. Some would consider the mere opportunity to make a lot of money as valuable. Some would point to stability of neighborhood, or happy family life, or a chance to be useful as their preferred measure of wealth. If we wished to create some new definition of wealth of nations that included the personal definitions of its citizens, we could not balance these things. We would eventually conclude "Each to his own. If you wish to consider nearby museums as wealth, while your neighbor wishes to value the view from her window, you should both have what you wish."

We could all have far more money than we do. Any one of us could have chosen work that was very dangerous, or in unattractive locations, or immoral - or to work 100 hours/week, or give up job security or reputation to make more money, if money were the thing we wanted. We made other choices. We all chose to make less than a fortune in money because other things were more valuable to us: honor, time with family, opportunity to serve, love of a particular kind of work. We in effect trade money for these things. We never see that money, because it never came in a paycheck, but it is a trade we made.

As an aside for those worrying about the spiritual implications and Jesus's cautions about money, I will note that this flexibility, this fungibility of money is what makes it such a powerful draw. Because you can trade it for just about anything, when you have it, you are focused on what you can trade it for. What you are focused on - where your heart is, to put it in more biblical terms - is in fact your god. That is also true of any other type of wealth that you have already made the trade for. Did you trade your money for a house that occupies most of your pride and waking thought? Then that may be your god. All these false gods are sweet at first. Money is just a bit sweeter because its flexibility causes it to own even more of you.

Mr. (Dr?) Sawicky has a possible out which he did not mention but I can anticipate. What if you do indeed value time off greatly, but the American economy does not allow you to easily make that trade? It is likely true that many of us would take more time off, even for less money, if we could find a job which would allow this. By that metric, perhaps many of us think the French do have the better deal.

First, I doubt that. The job of teaching school is available to many of us, but we don't take it. Either it doesn't pay well enough, or we find children too annoying, or it doesn't have the opportunity for advancement we would like.

Second, even if that were so, why stop there? If we think government-mandated vacation is such a general good, why not government-mandated travel? Why not legislation that all jobs have a certain amount of physical and intellectual stimulation because it's good for us?

The government does in fact mandate some other things we think of as such obvious general goodnesses that they should be provided. Physical safety. Some minimum of respectful treatment. Sick time. Perhaps we should factor those into our national wealth as well. There is certainly movement that health care be mandated for all, or job retraining. Each society does mandate what it thinks non-negotiable. People push for these new mandates because they feel so strongly about a value that they think everyone will be happier if it is adopted. We actually do have a fair consensus about these things. We might tussle over how many hours a 16 y/o should work while school is in session, but we don't want it to even be allowed for 8 y/o's to work as chimney sweeps 60 hours/week. We agree as a society on certain values.

Why then, would we add vacation and leisure time to that list? I will hazard a guess why some folks think we should do things more like the Europeans do. They think we will be a different type of person, a type they like better, if we all sought money less and leisure more. This is similar vision to the one of many environmentalists, who think that if we had simpler lives, less focused on monetary gain, we would be happier, better people. If we would only try it, they think, they would see how much better it is to have a life where we walked more, and made less noise, and didn't play with so much electrical stuff.

I don't know if we'd be happier if we lived lives more like the Europeans. But I know the Europeans would be happier if we did that, because they would envy us less. I don't know if we would be happier if we valued the same things environmentalists do. But I know they'd be happier, because honor and status would be measured in terms of the things they've got lots of.

When people want to make all of society be a certain way, it's always because their status would improve under the new system.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Forget Iran

There is an article over at TCSDaily that is worthy of the Village Idiot's approach. It points out things that we all know, and should have been keeping in mind, that gives evidence that it is Pakistan we should be worried about more than Iran. We get distracted by the noisiness and insanity of Ahmadinejad contrasted to the relative goodwill of Musharraf, and overlook the obvious.

It is the job of Village Idiots to notice the obvious and point it out. I should have noticed this myself; that's why I'm still the assistant.

Childrearing Advice

One of the topics discussed on the backpacking trip was how much the boys used to whine and complain while we did this hike when they were little. This was especially galling, because The Dad carried most of the stuff in those days. Ben was especially noted for grousing in those days.

The boys had an excellent reply: Ben complained about everything, and was, paradoxically, enjoying himself complaining. When I could just leave him alone, without trying to cheer him up, encourage him, or (eventually) complaining back at him, he would do fine. He plodded along, but eventually made it.

Some kids just complain, and you really shouldn't feel obligated to intervene about it. When I left him alone to grouse, he was in his element.