Saturday, September 29, 2007

When The Dust Settles

As before, when we wait for all the cards to play out, the accusations don't look quite the same. From The Corner:
On Appeal, Ememy Combatant Omar Khadr's Military Commission Reinstated [Andy McCarthy]

I've been out of pocket for a couple of days, but I'm glad to say I told you so on this one. Earlier this week, a military appeals court reinstated the commission trial against against alien enemy combatant Omar Khadr, murderer of an American soldier. The case had been thrown out by a military judge in a decision which, though preposterous, was cheered by military commission critics. As the Wall Street Journal editorialized yesterday, you may not have heard about it since, "in the media's current terror narrative, it's only worth celebrating when the Bush Administration's judicial rules are overturned."

Just The Facts, Ma'am.

The small story, which is getting the attention: The argument about whose story is correct between Rush Limbaugh and Media Matters doesn't strike me as enormously important. Each side claims to give the full context for his "phony soldiers" remark. Rush's goes back farther in the transcript but leaves something out. Media Matters's version is a continuous transcript that picks up later in the story. The matter is much simpler than the debate. The right and the Republicans got some mileage out of denouncing the "General Betrayus" ad. It was silly of them to bother, and was just political posturing. Now the Democrats want one back and jumped on this. No one in his right mind thinks that Rush Limbaugh believes that soldiers who disagree with the prosecution of the war are necessarily bad soldiers. However, if they can make it sound that way they might get some juice of their own. Is there anything in this matter that bears on national security?

Two other issues are getting less ink, but strike me as more important. Jon Stewart edited a comment of George Bush to make it look like he said something ridiculously stupid. Stewart is a comedian - we give a lot of leeway to people who are doing satirical or comic pieces, for good reason. Watching the whole segment, however, it is clear that Stewart is presenting this quote as true. Stewart went to W&M, and even the densest of us know without question what the meaning of the president's quote was. There isn't the slightest reason to think that George Bush was claiming that Saddam Hussein had killed Nelson Mandela. People who are already predisposed to think Bush an amazing idiot will gleefully claim that is what he said (I already know who is going to try this one on me at work), but as one progressive Bush-hater reluctantly admitted at pajamasmedia, one would have to have "the brain of a jellyfish to think that was what Bush meant."

So we are left with the single possibility that Jon Stewart, who doesn't have the brain of a jellyfish, intentionally misrepresented what he knew to be the truth. Just shameful.

The next issue goes to even deeper matters. A Spanish official leaked a pre-Iraq communique between Bush and President Aznar. The MSM reporting of this information has been framed to give the opposite impression of what the text says. The news is supposed to be the news. We might all fall into bias, but professional journalists should not be putting in effort to make things appear a certain way. They are supposed to endeavor to discover the truth, not see how they can make things appear.

Fandom Made Simple

The New England sports talk shows are all exercised about Clay Buchholz being shut down for the rest of the season. But we neeeeed him for the playoffs. I can make this simple: Kerry. Woods. I hope to be alive to watch next season. If pitching the great late-season rookie works 9 out of 10 times, it's still a bad bet. Injure your future, you'll kick yourself for 50 years in Boston.

In an update on my Cy Young post of a week ago, I think John Lackey won the award tonight. I can't say he doesn't deserve it.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Social Signaling

I have frequently made the irritating claim that progressivism is more of a social than an intellectual phenomenon. This fits with much of my Tribes Commentary, specifically in relation to the Arts & Humanities folks using political and religious beliefs for social signaling. Today’s example: Katie Couric claiming that it is pretty much accepted that the war in Iraq was a mistake. As an intellectual statement, it is ludicrous. Couric knows the polls, and knows that right or wrong, not everyone agrees with her. But as a social statement, it’s quite powerful. “All my circle is from the right tribe. I am not merely part of the tribe, I am centrally placed.”

Well, it’s fun to watch other people do that social signaling, and smack them around for being such uninsightful fools, but that train runs both ways. If your beliefs are social signaling (or even worse, nothing but social signaling), that implies some chance that my beliefs may be social signaling too. It’s not just your people, but also my people. Not to mention me.

Let’s pretend for purpose of discussion that all our religious, political, and social beliefs are entirely hollow. They have no intellectual content to speak of, and are mere social signals. We use them as birds use song, marking territory, calling attention to ourselves, attracting mates. We use a particular vocabulary of values to keep some people away and draw others in, to attempt to assign ourselves a certain status in the world.

Bumper stickers, what is displayed in your office, and choice of avatars are essentially just social signaling.

As an aside, I take ironic amusement in identifying Christians who have not explicitly announced their beliefs. “It must be the Holy Spirit that told you that,” they say. No, you just use a vocabulary and phrasing common to evangelicals. Without knowing it, you were social signaling, looking for like-minded people.

Let’s put the self under the microscope then. What does “postliberal” signal? It is only a tepid endorsement of conservatism, so there must be something about conservatism that I want to make sure you know I don’t fully embrace. Perhaps it signals “witty conservative – not a yahoo.” Postliberal carries a certain challenging or condescending air to it. “I have seen through all that. I’m an adult.” That has something of the irritating and self-deluding quality of the dwarves in Lewis’s The Last Battle. “We won’t be taken in.”

The more common term these days is classical liberal, as at Eric Scheie’s site “Classical Values.” He has exceptionally good commenters there, BTW. He runs a much better salon than There is a one-upmanship to it that says “I have preserved the real tradition. Not like those poseurs who haven’t studied and learned their own roots.” My Christian style would say much the same: part evangelical, recovering the important truths that have been neglected in the Church in the past century, but also liturgical, grounded in the long conversation of believers age to age. I am not here making the theological case for that tension of beliefs, but only noting the social communication underlying standing in a certain place. To claim to be part of the long conversation very much carries the condescension of “I’ve read about these things and thought deeply about them. You haven’t.” But to keep the evangelical part prominent communicates that I am socially alert, noticing the current trends going on around me and fearlessly embracing the present – not like both the fundamentalists on the right and the mainstream clergy on the left, clinging to tribes in decline and not perceiving the Wave of the Future.

This sort of social communication, you will note, has both positive and negative signaling in it, inviting in those who read those tea leaves the same way I do, while hinting that those who receive a different signal – that because I am not liberal I must not be thoughtful or properly educated, or because I am a Christian that I must be reflexively judgmental – should just go away and stop irritating me. Hardly a very Christian or openminded attitude. It’s rather like Jim Croce’s “If you’re goin’ my way, I’ll go with you.” Well big deal.

Prolife means, “I am willing to face uncomfortable truths and you’re not.” Patriotic communicates “We’ve got things basically right here, so we put up with the failures on that basis, you whining, ungrateful bastard.”

This grows tiresome.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Counterfactuals and Iraq

My uncle sent along an interview in the Harvard Business School Alumni Magazine with Ali Allawi. Allawi, an Iraqi who came out of exile to take important government posts in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam, makes for an interesting interview because he, George Bush, and Paul Bremer were all graduates of Harvard's Business School.
When did you realize that the American presence in Iraq was going off-track?
The lightbulb went off when I began to meet the officials and advisers who were attached to my first ministry, and I discovered the varying qualities of those people. Before I went back to Iraq, I spent a lot of time reading about the occupations of Germany and Japan so that I could compare and contrast the team that was being assembled in Baghdad with those who went in after the defeat of Germany and Japan. And the quality was just not there.

He certainly understands many aspects of the situation in a way I will never attain. Many of pronouncements about what the US should have done after the overthrow sound very plausible. I do not possess the foreign policy knowledge to counter his general arguments. Thus I grant outright that what Allawi thinks would have been better could well be so.

As I have noted before, however, I am pretty good at seeing the weaknesses in reasoning. Assistant Village Idiots are most useful when they look at a bit of reasoning and say "I don't see how you get from there to there."

Several things trouble me about his reasoning, nonetheless. It could have been nipped in the bud if the United States had handed over administration of the country to the Iraqi opposition. The Americans could have come in, overthrown the regime, spent maybe a few weeks looking for weapons of mass destruction, and then pulled out like they did in Kuwait. And If the Americans pulled out tomorrow, I don’t think much would change. Maybe the Iraqi military would fall under the control of the Shia-Islamist parties, something that the United States is now trying to stop, but not very successfully. Simple counterfactuals such as those strike me as inherently implausible. "If only we had done this one simple thing..." "If only the ambassador had held his teacup like this..." They might well have been better, but to lightly claim that a single change would have fixed pretty much everything is the epitome of hindsight bias. If we had bought the Chevy instead of the Ford, we might not have had electrical problems, but we might have had brake problems instead. Historical counterfactuals notoriously underestimate problems.

Secondly, I get a little twinge-y when a Shia thinks that turning things over to the (largely Shia) opposition is such a great idea. The suggestion may not be sly or agenda-driven, or even particularly prejudiced on his part. He may be a remarkably openminded and tolerant gentleman with no particular animus against the Sunnis. But little red flags go up in the back of my mind: on what basis does he think this would work?

Allawi doesn't say, and gives scant attention to possible downsides.

As I noted, the man knows far more than I ever will about Iraq and its governing. But in your own field of work, how often do you find that the people who have simple solutions to past problems are all that good at solving future ones? Where I work, those people are often the greatest barriers to success.

If he had stuck with claiming "this would probably have worked better, for reasons a, b, c" I would have been more persuaded.

The Way We Were. Hmm...

My mother was a Sinatra fan, and "Love and Marriage" is one of the first songs I learned.

Lyrics by the great Sammy Cahn

Love and marriage, love and marriage
Go together like a horse and carriage
This I tell you brother
You can't have one without the other

Love and marriage, love and marriage
Its an institute you can't disparage
Ask the local gentry
And they will say its elementary

Try, try, try to separate them
Its an illusion
Try, try, try, and you will only come
To this conclusion

Love and marriage, love and marriage
Go together like a horse and carriage
Dad was told by mother
You can't have one without the other

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Looking up a neurologist today, I discovered that she had trained at the University of Novosibirsk. I am not well-up on Russian cities, still less universities, so I didn’t recognize the name. All hail search engines.

Is third-largest city in Russia! “More then 100 years ago Alexander III Russian emperor pointed out in his rescript to his heir that it is necessary "to connect by inner railway net the Siberian regionswhich are richest with gifts of Nature". Thus, building of Great Siberian Railway has begun.”
More charming history.

Third largest, and I’d never heard of it.

Remote. Skverno Remote. If you travel from Ireland to Novosibisrk, Moscow is only halfway. I hadn’t realized that Russia, Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan all come together in an “X” in the middle of Asia. That’s about 100 miles from Novosibirsk. Ben, when Paul Shirley goes to play for Kazan deep in Russia in that basketball book – past that. Where Kazan went to a distant road game that even they didn’t like – past that. You have to sort of wonder what medical training in such a place is like. On the other hand, Russia has been good at producing neurologists for a long time.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

EB White, Neocon & Green; Libertarian & One-Worlder

In “On The Reading Of Old Books” CS Lewis advised that we read one book from a different era for every modern book. Failing that, he thought we should not fall below the level of three new to every old. There was a time long past when that was true for me, but I have become slack. If I read an older book at all these days, it is usually by Lewis himself.

The Bible only half counts, as we impose so many modern ideas onto the words that we don’t get the full benefit of standing outside our culture when we read it. Fundamentalists are especially guilty of grafting new ideas onto old texts.

Reading modern books about earlier times does not count. Useful that may be, but it does not lift us out of modern perspectives. People writing in retrospect impose patterns that were not there. When we know what happens next, we construct stories to pretend we understand events. Following events through the eyes of those who do not know what comes next is sometimes arresting, sometimes eerie, but always worth seeing.

Books from another era are also written with different assumptions, and give us some defense against the blind spots of our own age. Values we would not think to question are regarded as unimportant to other times and places, and matters of highest import to them strike us as odd and peripheral. New ideas come from the past.

EB White would be regarded, in retrospect, as a prototypical Eastern liberal. He was the dominant writer for the liberal New Yorker, a great defender of Roosevelt and the United Nations, urbane and ironic; a literary man and a freethinker. He was an original back-to-the-lander, well before Aldo Leopold or Helen and Scott Nearing, and decades before the Mother Earth News. He was suspicious of “progress,” and apprehended entirely positive character changes in himself from living as a Maine farmer. He thought that the populace should be settled on the land throughout the country, because it was good for their independence and self-sufficiency. White was a great admirer of Thoreau and of Nature, and would be quickly claimed by the Green Party were he to show up in modern times.

I doubt they could long abide him, however. As with the current back-to-the-landers, there was a libertarian streak, an insistence on individual freedom and suspicion of do-gooder interference, that would create a parting of the ways.

White wrote the individual essays of One Man’s Meat from 1938-42. It is a technique of his to write about the minor events of his immediate surroundings to illustrate parallels with world events, trying to capture the universal in the specific, much as Thornton Wilder and James Thurber did. He sees echoes of the Paris and Moscow of Europe in the Paris and Moscow of Maine. Amidst the details of keeping the brooder stove warm for his poultry, an observation on the character of Hitler will break in, or a self-examination whether the gifts of the New Deal are eroding his own character.

There is a hawkish lust for liberating the oppressed and sending the military to punish injustice which would alarm not only progressives, but many conservatives as well in our day.

The armies of the democracies that will lead up to my world state will be built for attack. They will be imaginative, bold, and alive, but their minds will not be on conquest nor will they confuse raw materials with the good life.

They will be trained to attack today’s injustice, rather than repel tomorrow’s invasion…

Voice: We tried that once.
Answer: You mean we tried it once after waiting three years. My army doesn’t wait. It is a swashbuckling organization, dealing with a foreign tyrant as brilliantly as with a domestic train robber. It would have started fighting Hitler years ago when he was just beginning to be a nuisance.
Voice: But your army would get us in trouble.
Answer Where do you think we are now, pal? “Compost” June 1940

Yes, he did write “world state,” as the alert reader has noticed. He advocates throughout the essays for a union of democracies, a banding together to throw back the forces of tyranny. With Nazi and Soviet power looming as it did, it appeared to him that freedom’s only chance was in such a permanent union, modeled after our own United States. This eventually morphed into his support for the UN; a different kettle of fish, but one sees the connection. One sometimes hears a proposal for a union of free nations to replace the UN these days, but most progressives continue to regard the United Nations as the last, best hope of mankind, to be clung to despite all evils.

It is a great sadness to me that White came down so far in the world as to settle for a United Governments, Free or Despotic, for he himself wrote before the war

A first step in elevating the character of war and improving the world state is the abandonment of diplomacy. Events of the past few months have demonstrated that diplomacy gives the advantage to liars and tends to weaken democracies…

Diplomacy is the lowest form of politeness because it misquotes the greatest number of people. A nation, like an individual, if it has anything to say, should simply say it. This will be hard on editorial writers and news commentators, who are always glad to have diplomatic notes to interpret; but it will be better for the people.

He was right the first time.

He was right the first time also, but later forgot, in noticing how quickly the intellectual classes in the cities adjust their beliefs in the face of tyranny. The July 1940 essay “Freedom” begins
I have often noticed on my trips to the city that people have recut their clothes to follow the fashion. On my last trip, however, it seemed to me that people had remodeled their ideas, too – taken in their convictions a little at the waist, shortened the sleeves of their resolve, and fitted themselves out in a new intellectual ensemble copied from a smart design out of the very latest page of history. It seems to me they had strung along with Paris a little too long.

I confess to a disturbed stomach. I feel sick when I find anyone adjusting his mind to the new tyranny that is succeeding abroad. Because of its fundamental strictures, fascism does not seem to me to admit of any compromise or any rationalization, and I resent the patronizing air of persons who find in my plain belief in freedom a sign of immaturity.

He meets one friend who contrasts the fine alert faces of the Germans with American youth; another who believes that taking any government seriously is the mark of a gullible fool; a third berates him for loss of detachment; a fourth that democracy is decadent and

…he seemed mightily pleased with himself, as though he were more familiar than most with the anatomy of decadence, and had detected subtler aspects of the situation than were discernible to the rest of us.

I would call it prophetic, but I think he is simply observing in 1940 what we observe in 2007 and is common to all eras among the chattering classes – an adjustment in beliefs to meet the realities of power: “And I for one welcome our new insect overlords. I'd like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others…”

If You Look Up Cute In The Dictionary... see this little guy's picture. Best annual report cover I've ever seen.

The report doesn't list photo credits, but I assume the boy and/or the photographer are from around here. If someone knows why I shouldn't put the picture on the web, let me know and I'll take it down.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

No Surprises

I never see the Sunday Morning Talk Shows - no TV, and I'm at church - but they are not only regarded as influential, but the people who watch them seem utterly convinced that they are the most informed people in America. They're the political geeks, the involved, the difference-makers.

The big news over the past few weeks, the stories that are going to figure in commentary for another decade or more, are 1) several Democratic fundraisers who have been indicted for major crimes, and 2) What, exactly, did the Israelis bomb in Syria?

So, Meet The Press has a meet the candidates series - today was Hillary Clinton and so far they've featured 4 Democrats and John McCain (I'm sure they'll get around to the rest of the Republicans eventually) - and the other two shows had Senator Clinton as well. They didn't focus on Norman Hsu, however. They wanted to know what Hillary will do in Iraq. If she is ever elected, by the time she takes office there won't be that many variations left on what can be done in Iraq by 2009. The Middle-east, sure - there'll be plenty of that for years to come, and I'd like to hear what she thinks would be wise to do in Iran, in Lebanon, in Pakistan, in the region as a whole. Iraq, not so much. Also, one show asked about her health care plan, which is nearly identical to John Edward's.

And what's your favorite ice cream, Mrs. Clinton? If you could be any animal in the world, what would it be? Crap.

Media Matters has an interesting study showing that conservatives are invited to the Sunday morning shows slightly more often than progressives. Their headline and lead paragraph would suggest that the conservatives are invited much more often, but I quibble. They also don't mention that the hosts of these shows, Russert, Stephanopolous, and Schieffer, are progressives, but again, I quibble. The study also claims that only half of the journalists were identifiable by ideology, and that there are more conservatives than progressives in the mix. Where did they find all these neutral journalists in a profession that votes for Democrats 92% of the time?

But I quibble. I'm sure it's a very revealing study. Revealing of something, anyway.

History Quiz

The American history quiz that students from American colleges, including the most prestigious schools, all failed (on average), can be found here. I got a 95%, which seems about right. I mostly missed some monetary policy questions at the end, even though I had narrowed the choices. On the other hand, I got a few right where I had narrowed the answers and then picked what looked likely.

The basic story is that not only did students average less than a 65% - in some cases much less - but at the "best" schools, there was a tendency for seniors to do worse than freshmen, indicating that they had lost ground while going to Ivies and Ivy-wannabees. Yale, Duke, Cornell, Princeton, and UPenn actually damaged their students. When one looks at the questions most frequently missed, it becomes apparent that the problem is not forgetfulness, but reversing correct answers in favor of more politically convenient myths. The questions most missed included the understanding of just war theory, separation of church and state, income distribution, and Plato's ideal of government. What are the odds. eh?

Two encouraging notes: several schools that my sons considered and their friends went to (their college was not in the survey) did better than most, and going there improved average scores: Grove City, Wheaton, and Calvin. A strong correlate with higher scores was growing up in intact families where intellectual issues were often discussed. Those students not only entered college with higher scores, but learned more while at school, even though they were no longer at home.

I was dying to know if conservative students did better than progressive ones, because the intact family and evangelical school correlates would certainly suggest that, but political preference was not included in the survey. It also didn't measure whether history majors did any better than the others.

That college is often a place to learn the template rather than, y'know, learn stuff might explain the first story here.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Alternatives

For those who dislike America's militaristic ways in the world, especially the Middle East, you might like to catch up with how the European style of dealing with conflict is working in Lebanon.

Adopting Older Children

I have meant to pass this along for so many months; I wondered if I actually had. I don't find it in the search function. I conclude I must have written something about this in the comments section of another blog.

When older children describe wanting to be adopted, they will often frame it in terms of wanting a family. They seldom say "I want a mother. I want a father." Parents, in their knowledge of what children need, too quickly jump to the conclusion that their older adoptive child wants an intimate filial relationship in replacement for the one that is missing. Children sometimes have siblings or cousins, or have lived in a family temporarily, so a parent quite naturally concludes that the missing piece to be supplied is MOM or DAD. I don't think this is so, certainly not at first. Six-plus years later, the closely-bonded mother part or father part of family life is only half-complete in my young adult Romanians. The bonding was occurring at the same time as the natural separation time, and the two desires conflicted with each other.

But they are completely convinced that they belong in this family. They are part of this family, mutually influencing and being influenced by the other five of us. From the start we stressed the more generic belonging to a family over the intense dyadic relationship. They were more comfortable at first having brothers (plural) than having either Jonathan or Ben as capital B-Brother. They are now closer to each of their American brothers than they are to each other.

A next-closer step of having parents is nearly as solid. While they see differences in us, both Chris and J-A seem most comfortable regarding us as a set. They rest comfortable in the knowledge that they have Parents.

While they call us Mom and Dad (or Pops), and have since before the adoption was official, that full intimacy of relationship remains incomplete. As it often remains incomplete even with biological children who you have for twenty years, this is not worrisome. There is the formation of their own families to come, and perhaps children of their own, and these events add connecting threads long after children have left the house.

So I give that as advice if you are adopting older children, or perhaps even if you are blending a family or reuniting with a child: don't push the intense dyadic Daddy/Mommy aspects. Strive to create a generic Family which they are clearly part of - family customs, family habits, family expectations, and let the more intimate relationships form silently.

There is also considerable advantage in teaching relationships from this approach. This is how people in a family treat each other. Tracy's humorous but very serious teaching when boys are leaving the house has perhaps been our best trick in adoptive parenting. "No one leaves without kissing the mother goodbye." It strikes exactly the right note: belonging, affection, and obedience without forced intimacy.

Cognitive Biases

Ah, the wonders of wikipedia. This entry has a list of cognitive biases, a topic dear to my heart. People do not see themselves very well, unaware of some reasons behind their choices.

I didn’t know that most of these had names. Hyperbolic discounting relating to the preference for more immediate benefits, or Information bias the tendency to seek information even when it cannot affect action. Fascinating stuff.

Naturally, I have some quibbles. The list includes several fallacies, which to my eye constitute a different category. Small matter, and the boundaries aren’t that clear. More irritatingly, I am long tired of seeing Vietnam used as an example of sunk-cost (in this case they put it in a subcategory of irrational escalation ). Iraq is now being added to the example. Discounting sunk costs is good logic. Don’t throw good money after bad and all that. What has already been spent is indeed not an economic factor in whether one should go further. Vietnam is not a good example. Even without addressing the issue of whether Vietnam (or Iraq) should be considered a failure, to use a military endeavor as an example is to set all considerations other than money and lives to zero. To not include such issues as morale, deterrence, honor, and promise-keeping is not merely to overlook them, but to insist that they are worth nothing.

If folks who are certain that Vietnam should be the standard example for sunk-cost bias doubt the utility of such things, I would offer analogies from their own behavior. Is it worth bothering to contribute further to a cause or candidate that is down twenty points in the polls? Why bother to vote at all, or carry a banner, or speak at a public meeting if your cause is going down? Yes, now you see. There are other things of value hidden in the equation. As my distant relative General John Stark would say, “Death is not the worst of evils.”

A similar omission shows up in many of the studies and examples given. Because dollar amounts and economic value is the easiest to measure, reading the literature of decision-making can subtly convince us that it is the only, or only important value. The endowment effect, status quo bias, prospect theory and loss aversion illustrate that people will value something owned and familiar more than a similar item which is unowned and unfamiliar. This is hardly surprising. There is a hidden value in those objects which we regard as part of our lives. Our bias towards them is not a bad thing, and should not be regarded as irrational.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

High Traffic

My recent post Little Folkies attracted more commentary than usual, for those of you who like that sort of thing. One never knows.

In addition to the ABBA picture that drives my traffic, one of the dragon ones from a month ago also attracts viewers from all over the world for no particular reason. I have to get back into the habit of posting stuff like that.

Interesting Properties

Post 1001. The number 1001 has several interesting properties that make it one of my favorites. I'll give hints until someone gets the main one.

Post 1000

I haven't linked to Ben in awhile. The honor of Post 1000 goes to my son Ben's films at the YouTube site for The Loft. There are several series (The Office, Arthur the Intern), which I recommend seeing in order.

For those who follow this irregularly, Ben graduated from Asbury about a year-and-a-half ago, and has been making films for the enormous The Woodlands United Methodist Church north of Houston for about a year. When he told us he wanted to be a filmmaker, my first thought, coming from an older generation, was "Ah, you want to be poor for the rest of your life. Alright then, suffer for your art if you must. Sorry for any part I had in this madness." But here he is with full-time work and everything. It's a new world, innit?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Rational Ignorance

Rational ignorance is an economics term occasionally borrowed by other disciplines. When the effort required to obtain correct information is just not worth your time, you are being rationally ignorant in not spending the time to get it. Ten hours of research to save yourself a dollar is just not worth it. When confronted with a complicated matter with little practical effect, people shrug and pick whatever pleases them on impulse. If you are choosing between two car rentals, one of which has a low rate plus a mileage charge, the other a higher rate with unlimited miles, most people do a quick estimate to see if there is going to be some large difference between them. If it is established that the two are going to turn out to be pretty close for your trip, it becomes silly for you to obsessively calculate whether your hotel is 3.9 or 4.2 miles from the airport, etc. You pick one. You are being rationally ignorant.

This plays out in politics because your individual vote has virtually no effect on the outcome of an election. Even in the 2000 Florida election or the 1970's election in NH decide by only a dozen votes, one vote doesn't matter much. If you personally had not shown up at the polls, same candidate would have been elected by eleven votes, or thirteen. Only in the rarest of situations does your vote matter. In such a situation, why not adopt the beliefs that make you more popular, or that make you feel better? You get nothing for your vote, but you might get something personal or social for being a person who votes a certain way, or seeing yourself as a person who votes a certain way. There are interesting discussions of this by Arnold Kling and Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter.

People who do vote do some minor exaggerating of their eventual impact on the race, but for the most part, know that their votes are being cast into the sea. We vote for the sense of participation, for an almost mystical connection to a set of ideas, to a candidate, or to the American ideal of citizen government. We may secretly hope that someday our one vote will be a decider, but even knowing the futility - even when we are a Democrat in Utah or a Republican in DC - we want to make a certain statement. To the world, to ourselves, to God, whatever; but a statement.

I have railed against the social cachet that comes from being a progressive in certain circles, and how miserable and shallow an excuse that is for adopting a set of views. Well, why not adopt the views that will make you feel better or more popular? Hmm?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Different POV

Over at Tech Central Station, there is an interview concerning the subprime mortgage problem, and why it is not such a big deal.

Cy Young Award - AL 2007

I’ve never seen this before. By the numbers, there are eleven legitimate contenders for the American League Cy Young award this year. Some are going to finish low in the balloting – Kazmir pitches for Tampa Bay, the poor bastard, so that knocks his victories down, and playing for a “winner” is important to some voters. Different fans have different preferences for what they like to see in a pitcher. I lean toward ERA and IP myself. But whatever your preference, and whoever you pick, you can see that there are two or three other pitchers who bring nearly the same credential to the vote. As a Red Sox fan, I hope Beckett wins it, but it’s not like I think any of the other ten would be a poor choice. Quite amazing. You may never see this again.

Fausto Carmona CLE / 17-8 / 202 IP / 126 SO / 3.07 ERA
Dan Haren OAK / 14-7 / 203 IP / 174 SO / 3.11 ERA
Johann Santana MIN / 15-12 / 209 IP / 220 SO / 3.14 ERA
Eric Bedard BAL / 13-5 / 182 IP / 221 SO / 3.16 ERA
Josh Beckett BOS / 19-6 / 189 IP / 180 SO / 3.20 ERA
John Lackey LAA / 16-9 / 202 IP / 160 SO / 3.21 ERA
CC Sabathia CLE / 17-7 / 227 IP / 198 SO / 3.21 ERA
Kelvim Escobar LAA / 17-7 / 186 IP / 153 SO / 3.25 ERA
Justin Verlander DET / 17-5 / 184 IP / 166 SO / 3.47 ERA
Scott Kazmir TAM / 13-8 / 196 IP / 220 SO / 3.54 ERA
Chien-Ming Wang / 18-7 / 186 IP / 94 SO / 3.82 ERA

E.B. White Again

From "Salt Farm."
When liberty's position is challenged, artists and writers are the first ones to take up the sword. They do so without persuasion, for the battle is peculiarly their own.
Really? Not around here.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Deep Brain Stimulation

This treatment has lurked in the background of every conference on depression, every discussion about new antidepressants, for the last five years. (Among those who knew more, ten years.)

Nice to see it getting some popular publicity.

Liar, Liar

I lied three times in one sentence this week, completely off the top of my head. I doubt that's any kind of a record.

We were discussing in passing the inadvisability of lightning romances, and I mentioned that a girl I had gone with in college had become engaged a week after ending up with me. The truth is more complicated. There is nothing particularly fascinating about the story except as it relates to the sentence I actually spoke.

She had an affection for me, and willingly shared company with me while she carried the torch for an old boyfriend, to whom she was ring-on-the-finger engaged but who had been refusing to return her calls for over a year. My intentions were romantic, but clearly going nowhere. I lasted from February to July with this, then abruptly just gave up. Three weeks later she confessed a crush on my roommate and began sort of dating him. Being attracted to both irony and melancholy myself, I wasn't that bothered.

He went briefly back to New Jersey to pick up the remainder of his worldly possessions. By the time he returned in mid-September, she was already confessing to friends that she was "going to be engaged" to a third young man, whom she had met about 10 days before. They might have known each other slightly over a year before, but he had spent his last year abroad. And before that, you remember, she was torch-carrying.

They were actually engaged after being together for less than 6 weeks. They are still married and have eight children, which just goes to prove something or another.

So it wasn't me she had broken up with, though I was not far in the background. And it wasn't a week, but six weeks, with rumors of engagement at slightly over a week. And I hadn't ever really been going with her, though our relationship was a...a something. So my claim wasn't untrue, and my statement likely captured the actual whirlwind experience that all observers felt at the time better than a more accurate statement would.

But it is amazing to me that any of us, perhaps all of us, could invent something so quickly. It illustrates both how brilliant and imaginative we are, and how quickly the truth can fly away from us.

Three lies, one sentence, no breath taken. Remarkable that

Wisdom From A Liberal Of Another Era

I am rereading some essays of EB White, who wrote for the New Yorker for many years. All political persuasions take a certain glee in quoting someone from the opposite side who agrees with them. Sometimes the quotes are out of context or inapplicable, but they do generally give us pause, if we are reflective.

The quote is from "Clear Days" in One Man's Meat and carries the timeline October 1938. In the first section, White has discussed how he does not want to shoot a deer despite the social pressure from his Maine neighbors. He is next repairing his barn roof and contemplating world events and the actions of "Mr. Chamberlain, M. Daladier, the Duce, and the Fuhrer." For all the repeated contempt that is cast upon the teaching of history that is just names and dates, it bears mentioning that if we did not know our names and dates, we would have no idea what Mr. White is writing about. Names and dates are good.

I'm down now; the barn is tight, and the peace is preserved. It is the ugliest peace the earth has ever received for a Christmas present. Old England eating swastika for breakfast instead of kipper is a sight I had as lief not lived to see. And though I am no warrior, I would gladly fight for the things Nazism seeks to destroy. (Living in a sanitary age, we are getting so we place too high a value on human life - which rightfully must always come second to human ideas.)

The sacrifice Mr. Chamberlain made to preserve the Ideal of Peace reminded me of the strange case of Ada Leonard, the strip artist of superb proportion. Miss Leonard, if you remember, took sick of a ruptured appendix; but rather than have it out she risked her life in order to preserve. in unbroken loveliness, the smooth white groin the men of Chicago loved so well. Her suffering was great, and her courage admirable. But there comes a point beyond which you can't push Beauty, on account of the lines it leaves in the face. Peace is the same. The peace we have with us today is as precarious and unsatisfactory as the form of a strip artist with peritonitis.

The modern progressive's response to this attitude of reluctant warmongering is often to protest "Well of course there are some extreme situations in which war is justified. We never said it wasn't. It's just that this doesn't apply to the American situation in 2007." That said, they revert to the wide river of generalized anti-war sentiment they float in unless challenged. They delude themselves.

Contrast this with White's easy pronouncement that we place too high a value on human life. Does anyone at the New Yorker think that today? Reflect also that this is years before America's entry into the war and for all this writer knows, he may be advocating for a fight we will not win. America is in no way directly threatened at the time of this writing, nor is there any "imminent" threat.

Patriot's New Logo

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sex Education With Different-Style Sons

This is where posts get a little weird, because about a third of my readership is people I know live instead of electronaically, including my two older sons. The two younger sons do not read the blog, which comes into the story later.

It is impossible to speak or write at length on a sexual topic without unintentional double-entendre. This was first pointed out to me at an educational conference on treating sexual offenders, when the main presenter mentioned this in his warm-up remarks. His name, no lie, was Peter Loss.

I will proofread, but if I miss something , class, please try and contain yourselves. Double-entendre is unavoidable because our slang terms for bodily functions are often variations of the most common, multi-meaning words, like come, go, up, down, set, and run. Sorry. Linguistics distraction there.

I have not appreciated until now how much my sex-education skills are geared toward sons who are readers, as I was. I got my sex-education from the shelves of the Manchester Public Library (and hey, I married a librarian. I wonder…), plus a pamphlet my mother left around “anonymously” when I hit puberty. Like it might have come from my younger brother, or the tooth fairy, maybe. My son’s instruction when they were young was verbal, direct, and purposefully a little over their heads technically, so that the information would rocket around in their curious little brains. As they got older, I was more likely to just take opportunities as they arose – "Imus In The Morning" was pretty good for that – and tack on bits of information calculated to direct their curiosity. Notice I did not write “pique” their curiosity, which is rather a coals-to-Newcastle thing for teenage boys.

Because really, who wants to discuss “clitoral stimulation” with…well, with anyone other than your spouse, actually. But if someone can drop the idea to you that “you really want to know about this. Trust me. I’ll explain it in however much detail you want,” that’s usually enough to perk up the ears and leave it at that. No, that’s okay. You don’t have to go into detail. I think this gives me enough to go on. Plus, they are a librarian’s sons as well, with significant research skills in their DNA.

This system completely falls apart with a boy who doesn’t like to read. I have adjusted some over the past few years with the two younger ones from Romania, dive-bombing them with extra packets of information, but they have two added difficulties: both of them, particularly the older, dislike any serious conversation with adults. Small wonder, as most serious conversations resulted in someone being hurt, guilted, or sent away when they were growing up. Secondly, you can’t tell either one of them anything, as they are sure they know, especially the older (again.) Except they don’t. Always some new skill to learn when you're a parent.

I have no idea how you go about this with daughters, by the way, whether they are readers or not. I imagine doctor's and nurse's daughters got set-piece instructions with flip charts and explanations of the diagnostic criteria for amenorrhea.

How We Screwed Up Worship Singing

Michael Van Horn, an associate professor of Worship & Theology at our denominational seminary, North Park in Chicago, relates a story of discussing the worshipping community of her church. Were they organized around a common theology or common mission? The Creeds? The Bible? She didn’t think that sort of unity was possible with her church – too much variety of belief for that. What brought them together, then, Van Horn asked? After some thought, she offered that her church was held together because they all liked the same kind of music. The professor accurately identified that these services were a concert, and the attendees concert-goers, not a worshipping community.

My mind goes immediately to the large highschool youthgroups that my sons went to for a time, and the churches that sponsored them. That is not entirely fair on my part, but the extremes of this problem tend to come from those who seek churches because of their praise-song or Christian-rock music as the main attraction.

Yet there are certainly churches of many musical styles at which the quality of the musicianship is a big draw. That is not just a seeker church phenomenon, and also comes perilously close to being a concert rather than a worship service, for some percentage of the congregation, at least. At a minimum, most Christians have churches they would not attend because of the musical style or quality.

I imagine one of the early church fathers, perhaps the Apostle John, writing “My children, this should not be so.” But it is, and I see parts of it as getting worse instead of better.

Because of electronic reproduction and the internet, music is increasingly a scalable phenomenon. We do not have to rely on local musicians for our entertainment, but have the world’s best brought into our homes – and churches. As Taleb notes in The Black Swan, we can live within a mile of a Russian √©migr√© who is only marginally less talented than the great pianists, but he will remain an impoverished instructor who gives few paid performances because we can listen to the best with little effort. The very few who are at the top of the heap will make a fortune, while everyone else gets little. This holds true in other arts and design as well. There is some extra juice in being at a live performance, but this only partially compensates.

We are quite spoiled, all of us in America, in what we expect when we come into church. A small congregation like mine will not sing powerfully and well – by the world’s standards – even if we were devote hours a week to musical training and rehearsal. Yet our ears expect that power and that quality. Few churches, even large ones with well-trained choirs, eschew all amplification. We are concert-trained, and headphone-trained. It gives us the impression, whether we like it or no, that our singing is a poor and weak thing unless we have a great many of us together or electronic amplification. To unconsciously conclude that we are spiritually weak and ineffective hardly seems a stretch.

Singing in worship is now different from nearly all other singing. A hundred years ago, the singing one did at home, church, and school, or at festivals, pubs, and parties was not that different a musical experience, though the choice of music would be different in each. Worship singing did not stand out as qualitatively different. It was just singing. Piano volume and familiarity of the songs covered a lot of ills in all those situations, and there was an important result: people participated much less self-consciously than now. The energetic and pentecostal-style churches hold up a higher level of participation and flat-out gusto, but even with those, cut the power to the amplification sometime and see how suddenly reserved and uncomfortable everyone is.

We have become dependent on quality, amplification, and niche style. We didn’t have to – we have the same genes and the same scriptures as our ancestors – but it is easy to see what a natural result this is. We stood on ladders and now even tall people look like midgets.

We have unwittingly dug ourselves a hole that will take some effort to get ourselves out of. One must do one’s own worship, and listening to others perform is a permissible, but weakening part of this. Communal singing carries its own earthly pleasure, but a different pleasure than the appreciation of musical power and excellence. Though we have let some spiritual muscles atrophy, we must nonetheless soldier on. Paradoxically, the church-camp music which drove so much of our move to praise songs in worship is now one of the last footholds that communal singing without a lot of assistance has in the rising generation.

Related: you know whether you really like something if you like even poorer versions of it. If you like a style of music only when it is done exceptionally well, then you don’t really like that type of music. You can’t say that you like reading mysteries, or science fiction, when there are only a very few examples you can stand to read.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Book Review Lite

We have a charming custom in our family which expects that a book given as a present has been read by the giver. It's one of the perks. With most books, it is better to refrain from reviewing until the receiver has actually read the book.

I sent Ben Can I Keep My Jersey? by Paul Shirley, a memoir of a reasonably well-spoken, marginal NBA player over three years. He plays in Russia, Greece, and Spain as well as the CBA and ABA before finally holding down an NBA spot for longer than training camp.

It's not life-changing, but it is entertaining. Shirley writes with that wiseacre Dave Barry style that seems to have become standard for youthful humor writing, and he does it reasonably well. As Benjamin has much the same style, it sometimes felt as if it were Ben writing it. Very nice for me. The book is at times laugh-out-loud funny.

I wonder if Dave Barry is going to become the default writing style for bright young men of this generation?

Shirley does have a lot of the requisite social and religious beliefs of a young wiseass, but he also seems able to make his own observations and draw his own conclusions when he has his own data, rather than what he has picked up from all those smart people who live outside of basketball. By the end it is clear that he is a bit undersocialized, which is unexpected for a person that well-traveled with that broad an experience for a young man. But he has mostly met people connected with basketball, plus the rich people of poor countries who own basketball teams, and the foreigners who like basketball players. He hasn't interacted with average Americans outside his own family as much as one would expect.

In the basketball world, he is unusual and somewhat isolated by his intelligence - he at one point has to settle a dispute among players how many American states there are, as there was a strong contingent believing it was 52 instead of 50 - and this adds to his smartass attitude, which weakens the book slightly.

Interesting world we live in. Paul Shirley is one of the 500 best basketball players in the world but is considered mediocre. He is nowhere near the 500th-best writer or 500th-smartest person in the world but he publishes a book and develops a reputation as a bright young man.

The Last Shall Be First, and The First, Last.

A co-worker has been in the news recently, asking questions of the candidates in the NH primary. Nice enough lady, but when she was describing the experience to us, she spoke disparagingly about another questioner “who was asking why her son’s art project couldn’t be put up because it had the word ‘Christmas,’ or something like that, and I thought ‘Talk about something important, lady.’”

Perhaps John McCain isn’t the person to be asking about your local elementary school’s policies, so I see the point. But I am not sure that the woman was asking that a potential candidate fix it, as much as comment on it. There is a pertinent cultural question underneath that. A generic Christianity has been this country’s culture for most of its existence, and some people want to change that to a religion-neutral or religion-absent culture. How deep, specific, and valuable the default Christian culture was has attracted both popular and scholarly attention. Nor was this cultural Christianity the same at all times and places in America from 1776-1976, only to have changed in the last decades. It has been messy from the start. If I were to oversimplify, my own view would be that the previous state of affairs was a net gain for the country and a net loss for the Church. I can see arguments in both directions. The binding together of national and religious holidays sometimes looks as if it strengthens both, sometimes looks as if it weakens both.

Moving to a religion-neutral culture requires changes in the existing culture, and this of necessity creates a Christianity-hostile set of changes. The theory behind the changes might be evenhanded and eminently fair, but the act of forbidding something that the majority of people prefer and are used to is not merely perceived as hostile to the popular culture, it is in fact hostile to it. The strongest arguments for making the changes proceed from the appeal to minority rights. Citizen A belongs here as much as you do and does not share the popular religion or view, and has the right not to be forced to participate, however passively, in a religious celebration. This unavoidably creates conflict in collision with the right of Citizen B to express his views. In the real world, there are often not neat solutions which satisfy both requirements. We fantacize that there is some Solomonic decree which would settle such conflicts once and for all, but real institutions don’t work that way.

The woman with the “unimportant” question was asking Senator McCain where he comes down on these cultural issues, which is an entirely legitimate question to ask of a presidential candidate. How does he propose to navigate the current change from a more publicly shared religious culture to a more separate one?

I contrast this to that evening’s offering on NHPR’s “The Front Porch.” One segment was introduced by noting how various groups were pressing for favored central issues to be addressed by candidates, such as health care, or education. New Hampshire voters are continually enjoined, via political signage and electronic media, to “ask the candidates where they stand on (blank).” But, the announcer’s voice purred, there was a issue that hadn’t been getting much attention that they were going to focus on that evening: the arts.

Gag me. When NPR ties the idea of candidates in with the idea of the arts, it doesn’t mean a discussion of cultural expression and how various candidates see the future of culture as expressed in art – it means a discussion of government funding of the arts. The underlying questions of cultural change will be unaddressed, and likely not even noticed. It will simply be a review of requests for more dollars, with gratuitous swipes thrown in at anyone who thinks the taxpayers should have any input as to what the money is used for. There will be the requisite interviews with artists and folks who have glowing things to say about the importance of art in general.

I don’t see where there is an automatic benefit that accrues to a society because it pays for art as a lumped, generic category, irrespective of what that art expresses.

Perhaps government-paid artists should recuse themselves from voting on their own source of funds, as judges recuse themselves from cases in which they have a personal stake or interest. Perhaps we should encourage government employees in general –me, for example - to refrain from voting, as it is a clear conflict-of-interest.

Okay, that’s never going to happen, but I find it interesting that the frowned-upon woman who asked the inappropriate question was bringing up deeper and more subtle issues than NPR.

The Romanian Orthodox-Communist Connection

What has been well known to the religious out-groups in Romania for years is finally coming out. As a new archbishop is elected, information from old secret police (Securitate) files is being leaked to reporters. The Orthodox hierarchy was riddled with informers, many of whom used information from the confessional to turn people in.

The mission group I used to work with had strong connections to a village near Zarand where the Securitate rounded up all Baptist males over the age of 12 (the town was largely Baptist) on a Sunday in the 1950's, and shot them in front of their families. Their identities had been supplied to them by the Orthodox priest in the neighboring village. I knew a Baptist ministered who pastored three tiny churches near Beius - he was full of bigotry and hatred against the Orthodox priests, and his rambling, urban-legend laced stories about them offended and bothered the Americans visiting. Easy for us to say he should be more forgiving.

This article led me also to an excellent site in English that includes news from Russia and Romania, transatlantic politics

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Oh Yeah, Sorry

While writing the last post, I completely overlooked that there are a few people reading who would care what my conclusions were on the Equalized Attempted-Justice Career Home Run List, Except Not Counting Japanese or Old Minor Leagues, Negro Leagues And Everyone Who Got Hurt.

A good sabermetrician could probably poke holes in these numbers, but here's my estimate of what the equalized home run totals are:

Aaron 780

Ruth 728

Mays 715

Williams 691

Killebrew 680

Robinson 606

Bonds 600

Griffey 593

Jackson 575

Gehrig 563

Schmidt 560

Mantle 552

Murray 547

Banks 532

Mathews 530

Rodriguez 513

Thomas 508

Foxx 506

Thome 496

McGriff 493

Ramirez, Sheffield and Delgado all have some chance to break into this top 20 soon.

Everyone Has An Asterisk In Life

I did an off-the-cuff estimate a few months ago of what the career homerun totals would look like without steroids in the picture (Short answer: Bonds retires with 600, Palmeiro, Sosa, and McGwire all finish with around 400). When I set down the list on paper, other extraordinary circumstances kept intruding onto the list. What would Ted Williams’s total have been without five years of military service? What would Harmon Killebrew’s totals have been if the Washington Senators hadn’t had their heads up their collective asses during the first 5 years of his career, when he rode the bench? What would Mel Ott have hit in a normal ballpark?

There are stat freaks who attempt to estimate these things quite exactly. I’ll read it if they do it, but I haven’t the interest to do it myself. What jumped out at me in compiling the list, however, was that everyone had some abnormality that needed to be accounted and corrected for. Some had very small adjustments, such as hitting during the pitcher’s era 1963-68, or the strike-shortened 1981 season. Others had larger necessary adjustments, such as well, Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Everyone was an exception. And this is among those who got to baseball in the first place, those who weren’t hit by buses, or played darts instead, or were born in Siberia. Further abnormalities eliminated many actual ballplayers. What is the equivalence between Negro League homers and Major League homers? What would Tony Conigliaro have hit if he hadn’t been nearly killed in 1967? Even among the group which had the most injury-free, stable careers, there was not one who didn’t have some sort of asterisk beside their total. Even the hypernormal group was not normal.

So too with all of life. No one has a normal one. Just today alone, I heard the stories of three lives that have some fundamental unfairness attached to them. I wasn’t looking for these stories, and I even had an attempted-avoidance nap. They’re everywhere. There are no normal lives. In The Horse And His Boy Shasta pours out the story of his difficult life to Aslan. Yet the lion, while in some ways protective and sympathetic, says “I do not call you unfortunate.”

Tracy and I used to kid “When does all this craziness stop and real life start?” It wouldn’t be funny if we didn’t all immediately identify with the sentiment.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Excuse Me, Did You Say...France?

The pod people have come and replaced France with another country that looks and sounds the same but is completely inverted.

France might apologise to Iraq.

French leftist worries France might be too arrogant.

I take back everything I said.

Third World Myths

Not only is the information about what is really happening in 3rd World health and wealth stunning in this video of a speech by Hans Rosling, the animations illustrating his data are immensely cool. I watched the speech twice just to watch the projections run again. It isn't often that an audience applauds the way data is presented and asks for a replay.

Three times. I just watched it again. (At California Yankee, HT Maggie's Farm.)

Breaking In The New Straight Man

My brother and a friend did this stand up routine in college years ago. I have given up trying to claim I had thought of it originally. I likely didn't.

Vaudeville and Borscht Belt comedians often worked in teams. The rumor among performers was that it might be harder to be the straight man than the laugh guy. If you're a good straight man and your partner quits or croaks, you likely know enough people so that you can hook up with another one soon.

But what if it's the straight man who leaves? How does a comedian interview for a new straight man? I've always thought the routine had possibilities, with some meathead blowing the set-up lines.
My girlfriend and I went to the Caribbean last month.
Nah, but we fooled - you were supposed to say "Jamaica."
Most straight shtick is intentionally neutral - what the average Joe would say. But as above, sometimes your feeder line has got to be precise. These don't come one right after another, either. Those "my girlfriend and I" lines are supposed to be sprinkled in at odd moments, moving from one bit to another.
My girlfriend and I vacationed in Maine.
Nah, but we fooled around a little.*
The repeated punchline is supposed to build, so that by the end of the routine, the audience knows that when they hear the word "girlfriend," one of these "Nah, but we fooled around a little" lines is coming. This is a big set up for the close of the routine, when the comedian will cap it all off by A) sneaking the punchline in by surprise, without the setup, B) deflecting the pun and punchline, so that the audience fills it in on its own or C) something more lame.

I like the idea of the laugh guy having to cover for about every third joke as a stand-up routine.

* There's more: I went over to my girlfriend's apartment to play cards the other night.
Nah, but we fooled around a little.
I got a million of 'em.
My girlfriend was very sick last week. Bedridden? My girlfriend made me a cake for my birthday. Layer?

'Nother Mental Health Comment

Several blogs I frequent have linked to the story of Fran Lyon in the UK. The government is threatening to take her baby as soon as it is born because they suspect her of being a danger to it. Do I need to point out that in the center/right/libertarian blogs I run to that people are horrified at this? They are quite certain this is a massive governmental intrusion on the family.

I fear I disagree with them. The newspaper story is here.

Rather than rewrite the whole caboodle, I will cut-and-paste the comment I made over at Tigerhawk. By way of intro, Dr. Mercury wanted to know more details before making a judgment.
I'm with Dr. Mercury. I want to hear the other side of that story. I will acknowledge that child-protective workers can jump the gun, believe myths of their own making, be incompetent, etc. I don't automatically assume they are nice people and correct in their judgment. Many do tend to be over-willing for the state to step in. I traditionally err on the side of wanting children to be raised by natural parents unless the danger is clear.
As a person who has worked in an acute psychiatric setting for 30 years, the following facts jumped out as red flags for me:
She worked for a non-profit named "Borderline."
The author tried to make it appear that Munchausen By Proxy is a thoroughly discredited diagnosis.
Munchausen By Proxy is an unusual diagnosis that would not occur to treating professionals in the normal course of evaluation. Something triggered it.
There is no mention of the child's father and what possible rights or involvement he might have.
Her education, not her stability or productivity, was stressed.
The confidential hearing is described as being "in secret." Confidential hearings are not unusual in mental health, and have their own developed rules for rights-protection.
We are not told anything about why the other two MD's thought she was a risk because they cannot, by law, reveal that info. The reporter neglects this.
She is described as having eating disorders (plural) and self-harm, but her ex-psychiatrist claims there is no evidence of risk. That's simply impossible.

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger! We are clearly not being told the whole story here.

I admit there are many functional BPD's who bring up their children - hmm, if not well, then at least no worse than a lot of other folks. I have an additional bias of having adopted two sons who were physically and emotionally abused by their bio parents. I see only the most intense borderlines, so that greatly affects my perception here. But I have watched the lengthy custody battles unfold after a child has been damaged. I've been doing this for long enough that I have treated some of those children in turn. Maybe this woman does deserve a shot at raising the child.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Mental Health Comments

I'm mashing several posts together here.

I have on my caseload a gentleman in his 60’s with a history of very high competence in business who has been gradually losing short-term memory, causing him to become depressed/suicidal. There may also be some underlying narcissism, plus some evidence of a few manic episodes over the last four decades.

The complicating factor is that he has been to a specialised clinic for extensive testing. This mid-Atlantic clinic specialises in discovering subtle variations in ADD and selling books about that. Mirabile dictu, their tests five years ago showed that this gentleman had – gasp! – an unusual type of ADD. I very much want to write them a letter notifying them of our findings about his measurable memory impairment, asking them to update their records, and telling them to go f- themselves.

For added fun, the clinic was recommended to him by his brother, a PhD psychologist in Canada, who would like to move near here for a few months so that he and his brother can have some “really intensive” family therapy together about their childhood experiences. 50+ years ago.

I don’t know if folks saw the NYTimes science article linked, but Eli Lilly has an intriguing, very different antipsychotic in testing. On my team here, we start the trials of AC-104 this month. This yet unnamed drug is the clozapine metabolite I wrote about earlier this year.

Eugene Methvin, writing over at Tech Central Station, has an article about what we should do with mentally ill serial killers. I have mixed feelings about the article, but it is so very interesting that it is worth a read. The ideas are interesting, that is. Methvin’s writing, not so much.

Observing those who suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder is often frustrating for not only friends and family, but treating professionals as well. I certainly understand this, and have experienced my share of that frustration, but such people often exhibit in stark relief what is less perceptible in the personality foibles of the rest of us. I should note that all of us will display various behaviors which could be considered symptoms of a personality disorder if they were in excess. For example, everyone has situations in which they might be dependent – when we are in a serious medical situation perhaps, or in some emergency where another person who clearly knows what they are doing takes charge. Some of us are dependent in many situations – it is rather a first option coping mechanism for some, and we would identify that as a personality “problem.” The Dependent Personality not only leans or tends toward dependence, but has trouble taking any other role, no matter the situation.
We had two women with BPD come in this week who each showed a behavior in such an extreme that its meaning shone out clearly. The first listed what was going on in her life and showed such enormous emotional lability that it bled over into her understanding of events. She was talking about an argument with her mother which clearly made her unbearably angry and sad at the same time. She switched because of a chance association of her own to discussing the morning breakfast at the hospital. Because she was still riding the anger and sadness from thinking about her mother, she became upset that the nurses and dietician did not understand her special dietary needs and became near-hysterical describing her ill-treatment at our hands. She kept up the complaint throughout the day. Only – she had liked the breakfast when she had eaten it, even expressing same out loud at the time. The emotional overlay she added on later completely covered the real situation, and changed her perception of it. By this and a few similar examples, she showed clearly that her emotions are running the whole show. Her intellect lags behind in explanations, and is put into service only to make up reasons for the emotions to feel satisfied by. Never have I listened to someone for whom the powers of reason were so entirely an appendage. The intellect just sort of rolls on by itself automatically, making up explanations at the command of the emotions.

We all do this to a certain extent, quickly rationalizing the things our emotions direct us to. But the delay was so enormous in this woman that the process stood out in high relief. All of us allow our emotions to influence our intellect, but the intellect in its turn has some power to influence back. In this woman’s case, the intellect had no power of return influence.

The second woman was admitted for the 65th time – she has an equal number of admissions at two private hospitals as well, plus a wide assortment of other facilities in northern New England. She was sad – and thus suicidal, as she always is when sad – because the Labor Day holiday is always difficult for her. It is the anniversary of her cat’s death many years ago. This immediately arouses irritation in treating staff on an overfull unit. People want to yell “Your roommate has a five-year-old daughter dying at Boston Children’s Hospital. That’s a real tragedy. Get a grip.” (We don’t of course.) Our patient is also troubled because she visited a place she loved as a little girl that has changed, and a cousin who is only a few days younger attempted suicide (they have had no contact for years), and her bigger apartment isn’t as charming as the old one… Translation: I used to have a life. Now I don’t. I am fifty years old and I have nothing – no friends, no family, no job. She cannot say it quite like this, because it would lead so easily to the questions of what happened to all these things, and how did she lose them.

Yet there is a final difficulty with this. I knew here twenty-five years ago, before she had used up all her relatives, when she still worked full-time for months on end, when she had a boyfriend. She sounded exactly the same then, hearkening back to an earlier time of her life and what she had lost.

The cat is just an irritating detail in the story. It's her whole life that hurts. We all do exactly this in much milder form, where it's not so visible.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Baseball and Narrative

I have something like a dozen posts backed up, mostly completed mentally but with no words on a screen. They're starting to run into each other.

Bill Simmons over at had an article about baseball playoff myths. #1 was that experience counts during the playoffs. This strikes me as an impression created by narrative. We know the experienced player and attribute more of the good things that happen to that player's actions. Example: Fading Star and Backup Infielder both get hits in the 9th inning, leading to a game-winning run. It doesn't matter which one hits before the other, or which one hits the double and which the single. The fan will remember Fading Star's hit as the key one. Forever. This will falsely reinforce his idea that experience is important in playoffs.

Repeat as desired. Make cliched pronouncements at work about this until retirement. Then switch to sports call-in shows.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Pete Seeger, 60 Years Later

I stand in amazement and admiration. Pete Seeger has publicly repented of his support of Stalin and even written a talkin' blues song about it.

Seeger was my hero when I was a young leftie, but I became disillusioned enough to include him on my list of Ten Worst Americans a year or so ago. Guess I'll have to rethink that.

Lewis, 60 Years Later

CS Lewis's Abolition of Man (available in its entirety online here) was prophetic. Where literary criticism was going wrong in the 30's and 40's among academics has come to full flower in our own age. A clear thinker can sometimes manage the greater demolition of an idea with a mild sentence than all the flame-throwers and propagandists can do in entire books. In criticising the authors of a high-school text book of English composition, Lewis writes:
In actual fact Gaius and Titius will be found to hold, with complete uncritical dogmatism, the whole system of values which happened to be in vogue among moderately educated young men of the professional classes during the period between the two wars.
That settles that, then, doesn't it? No insulting names, calling one's opponents Dhimmicrats or Repugnicans, wingnuts or leftards. Just a quiet overview. I'm glad it wasn't me he was talking about.

The context is his review of The Control Of Language an English textbook for the upper forms, by the Australians Alex King and Martin Ketley, which he disguises as the Green Book by Gaius and Titius. If it seems that Lewis is wasting large cannon on small game, remember that this textbook was in use for several decades, and had more direct effect on the thinking of schoolboys than the writings of the deeper thinkers behind them. Also, Lewis stands in against the heavyweights only a page or two later, giving a concise but thorough critique of I. A. Richards and thus "New Criticism," ascendant at Cambridge and Oxford at the time.

Richards (and Leavis) he accords more respect. He does not find their ideas ridiculous, but inadequate, incomplete, and unsatisfying. They rise to the level of refutation. But King and Ketley's textbook is a mass of contradictions and half-baked ideas, now thrust upon students who will be subtly damaged as human beings without quite knowing how. G & T are very concerned their students might fall for the political and social beliefs of their parents and grandparents (as if) because of the manipulations of language. They want to fortify the lads so as not to be taken in. That this opens them to be taken in by another set of beliefs currently in fashion seems not to worry them. The quote above continues:
Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people's values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough. And this phenomenon is very usual. A great many of those who 'debunk' traditional or (as they would say) 'sentimental' values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process. They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that 'real' or 'basic' values may emerge. I will now try to find out what happens if this is seriously attempted.

In between these quotes is the numeral "1," a footnote marker. Lewis sums up a set of attitudes prevalent still in a footnote, as cleanly as I have seen it done.
The real (perhaps unconscious) philosophy of Gaius and Titius becomes clear if we contrast the two following lists of disapprovals and approvals.
A. Disapprovals: A mother's appeal to a child to be 'brave' is 'nonsense' (Green Book, p. 62). The reference of the word 'gentleman' is 'extremely vague' (ibid.) 'To call a man a coward tells us really nothing about what he does' (p. 64). Feelings about a country or empire are feelings 'about nothing in particular' (p. 77).
B. Approvals: Those who prefer the arts of peace to the arts of war (it is not said in what circumstances) are such that 'we may want to call them wise men' (p. 65). The pupil is expected 'to believe in a democratic community life' (p. 67). 'Contact with the ideas of other people is, as we know, healthy' (p. 86). The reason for bathrooms ('that people are healthier and pleasanter to meet when they are clean') is 'too obvious to need mentioning' (p. 142). It will be seen that comfort and security, as known to a suburban street in peace-time, are the ultimate values: those things which can alone produce or spiritualize comfort and security are mocked. Man lives by bread alone, and the ultimate source of bread is the baker's van: peace matters more than honour and can be preserved by jeering at colonels and reading newspapers.
"...jeering at colonels and reading newspapers." That about captures it.

He subsequently complains that they should be called Intellectuals when
Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chests beneath that makes them seem so.

The Warrior Class

Instapundit passes on this Atlantic article which Steve Green calls the most important read of the year. I don't know as I'd go quite that far. The first part deals with rereading Vietnam, a summary of important but neglected books, including many on the second half of the war, about which little has been written.

The piece then expands to discuss other writers, not all American, about the frustration and moral difficulties of guerrilla and counterinsurgency warfare. Read to the end or you miss important points.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Lewis's Influence On Tolkien

Lewis himself said "no one influenced Tolkien. He was as difficult to influence as a Bandersntch." This is often quoted as evidence of no influence, and certainly the opinion of an informed observer on the scene shouldn't be discarded. But the quote itself goes on, and Lewis notes "He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all."

Getting someone to start an entire work over from the beginning is influence, I would say.

Those trained to look for literary influence by pulling examples from the texts and themes will always look there first, and sometimes only. The attack of the Ents owes something to Birnham Wood coming to Dunsinane in "Macbeth." The names of the dwarves come from Snorri Sturlusen's Elder Edda. George MacDonald hearts elves. Cervantes also mentions potatoes.

How about if you influence the general subject matter - original mythology; its flavor - northern European; its form - prose rather than epic poetry; and its purpose - expressing Christianity through pagan myth. Throw in that you debate the foundational theology and theory of art with the author weekly for decades from a perspective of large agreement in a society in which there is little.

Oh yeah - also be the person most responsible for encouraging the work to completion and provide the basis for a significant character. I would wonder how one would be more of an influence than that. Authors include in their dedications their gratitude for the sacrifices and encouragement that others - usually spouses - have provided. We should take them at their word on this. You can't write an English 403 essay, much less a PhD thesis, on the influence a husband has on an author. Because that particular influence is of no use to the commenter and reviewer, it is regarded of no importance. Balderdash.

While Tolkien believed that Lewis should write less, and more carefully, Lewis believed that Tolkien should write more, and less obsessively. Fans of Tolkien's fiction would now disagree with this, but for Tolkien's professional work, it is almost certainly true. His 1936 essay "Beowulf: The Monsters And The Critics" changed criticism of that work for decades, perhaps forever. His translations of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, The Pearl, and Sir Orfeo were reissued 50 years after completion. (Translations are seldom reissued more than an edition or two.) He should have written more, Lewis knew it, and despaired of the scattered writing habits of his friend which brought little to completion. Tolkien had a wife and four children and was devoted to his students, it is true, and this left him little time to match the output of Jack Lewis. But what time he did have was spent much in creating the languages and histories of Middle-Earth, not for the few years of hobbit adventures, but for thousands of years, whole ages of history. While this gave the peculiar strength and foundation to LOTR that made it one of the most important books of the 20th C, it also imperiled the tale of the One Rig being told in full at all.

Lewis might marvel at being shown the three languages of Middle-Earth and say that Professor Tolkien must be the cleverest man in Oxford (and sincerely mean it), but who would have cared if there had been no burglars and dragons to draw us in? It would be a quaint legend of the Oxford English schools - a don from Merton once made up whole languages and a mythology to go with them. You can still find them over at the Bodleian. No Lewis, no Lord of the Rings.

I don't think the fantasy genre would have taken off without Tolkien. Even now, Eddings, Garner, and William Morris have few readers. None, perhaps who did not hear about them through the introduction via Tolkien's fantasy. There would have been Lewis, MacDonald, and...and what? Some Arthurian things might have pulled it through. I doubt it. No Dungeons and Dragons. Reduce the membership in the Society For Creative Anachronism by 90%. Computer games - completely different. Would the Star Wars movies have had such a ready audience? Perhaps. But no Harry Potter. The entertainment culture for those under 40 (no, 50. No, 60) would be unrecognizable.

Charley Horse

I work up in the middle of the night wondering about the origin of the phrase charley horse. Is it one of those ruined French things, like "tally-ho" coming from il est haut ("he is up!") with the "ley" in Charley actually a French le something? (Blank) le hors? But no, the "s" wouldn't be sounded - unless it went back many centuries into Old French. Blank-the-outside. I can't see any connection of that with a charley horse. Char...sur...cherCould be a weird idiom of some kind.

This is strange even for me, to wonder about such things, at least immediately upon awakening. Oh hang it all, I had to know. The OED has "origin uncertain," or actually "orig. unc." Well thank you very much. Maybe it's one of those Gaelic phrases those gaelophiles are always trying to sell, that look so improbable in spelling, but may actually be true by sound.

Fortunately, google is up and running, even in the middle of the night. There are three thoroughly unlikely derivations from the late 19th C, plus one really remote possibility from the 17th C. As the first mention of the term comes in relation to baseball, there's still some chance that there is a Gaelic connection, as most ballplayers were Irish then. If anyone fluent in 19thC lower-class Gaelic want to have a go at "Charley horse," I'm a sympathetic audience. But the strong money is on the type of injury that baseball players had that made them limp, like a horse, or perhaps a direct reference to Charlie "Old Hoss" Radbourn, a great early pitcher. One only runs across his name when they list the pitchers with 300 or more wins nowadays, but he went 59-12 with a 1.83 ERA pitching for Providence in the 1890's. In case you ever wanted proof that baseball was a different game back then. 70+ starts, most of them complete games, with crummy, heavy baseballs - I don't think they threw like Clay Buchholz for 600 innings a season, thanks. I suppose if Providence is your idea of a major-league city, though...

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Silent Evidence

Silent evidence is as valuable as the observable, concrete type, but it is harder to notice. Sherlock Holmes noted the dog which did not bark, and once the significance of that was noted, the meaning was immediately apparent.

The conversation over at Sippican Cottage runs to the new phenomenon The Dangerous Book For Boys and similar books which have leapt to market recently. We last followed G. Sippican's adventures in the medical establishments of Massachusetts, where his Lyme Disease had gone undiagnosed and he found himself unable to get an MD's attention about the symptoms. He finds the activities in the DBB to be rather mild, and is proposing to write his own volume The Borderline Sociopathic Book For Boys. Great fun, but an event at work triggered the memory of silent evidence. I once asked an elderly psychiatrist what he thought of all the ridiculous precautions we took protecting our children in this soft era. Bicycle helmets - I mean really.

Having worked at children's rehab facilities, he pointed out to us with the mildest of disapproval "The children who got head injuries then were sent away to special schools, and you never saw them again." Ouch. Pursuing this further on my own, I recalled that those less severely injured or handicapped lived somewhat on the outskirts of children's socialization. When we remember our friends, what we did, how we lived, what risks we took, we are not remembering the full sample. Some were removed, making our picture false.

Taleb focuses a good deal of attention on this in The Black Swan. He uses the career of Casanova as an example - not the many seductions, but his seemingly uncanny ability to bounce back from disaster time and again. But of course. No one wrote books about the people who bounced back from disaster four times but then lived out their remaining three decades in failure. When a million people roll a die, 166K+ will roll a 6. If the million rolls again, almost 28K will have rolled two sixes. A third, fourth and fifth roll will isolate more than a hundred people who have rolled nothing but sixes. What did they do differently? Did they roll a special way? Local newspapers interview them, and psychology departments study these special lucky ones for common themes.

But that's just crap. We see that it's crap when it's rolls of the die, but when it is about business success we attribute more meaning than is warranted. Certainly, some decisions are better than others and give an advantage. But the advice that comes from those folks is generally useless for the simple reason that they themselves often don't know why they made it. "Always keep a positive attitude, and get up early." What about those other thousands of people who had a positive attitude and got up early, whose businesses did not succeed?

The seven habits of highly effective people, and all that. There are people who have done all seven of those things all their lives and never gotten anywhere. When we only study the group that has made it, we get a false picture. The silent evidence is hidden from us.

I am not denying all causation or saying that there is nothing that can be learned from observing the successful. I am saying that such observation gives us a skewed picture. Those thousands of women who sing as well as Madonna and take off as many clothes and do all the things she did in her early career but don't become world-famous, what are they to conclude? That they are unusually unlucky or incompetent? Of course not. Out of the many musicians paying their dues in exactly the same way, some few will hit it big. And those few will think they are pretty special and have done something remarkable which the others have not. Rubbish.

Gambling sites use an old gambler's trick by offering you some free picks at first. If 10,000 people contact your website and get a free pick, how many of them are going to think you're brilliant? If you give another free pick to that group, you will now have a sizable group of people who think you are the best handicapper ever, and will pay you big money to learn your next pick. Worse, lots of them will keep coming back even if your picks fail.

For Christians, this has not only practical importance, but spiritual as well. All those big churches who tell you what they did, those preachers who will explain to you why God has blessed their ministry - well, maybe not. Maybe they just built their facility in a good spot in a growing area. Have you noticed, in fact, that these super-churches are never from areas where the population is declining? Huh. How about that. God doesn't work in those areas, I guess. The spiritual arrogance that results is almost unconscious. "Well, we give God all the glory. We just made ourselves open to the Holy Spirit..." Those other Christians from West Virginia or the Dakotas - are we to conclude they were not open to the Holy Spirit? Danger. Danger here.

You need this concept under your belt when I discuss Lewis's influence on Tolkien. At no time will my fingers leave my hands.