Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Cognitive Lingusistics Through Misheard Lyrics

One of the debates in linguistics is whether there is a grammar embedded in us genetically. One side claims that the marvelously versatile and plastic human brain learns words and speech because that is what the infant is presented with. The brain would adjust itself to some other form of communication equally well - there is little or no brain structure which must be used for language. It happens to be used for language because that is the raw material presented to baby.

The other side, following Chomsky, holds that there are brain structures which are pre-installed for language. The terms Deep Structure, Universal Grammar and Transformational Grammar are used in this context, if you want to go look up the subject more thoroughly. I will note in passing that Deep Structure enjoyed a faddish fame in the 70's (and maybe later, though I wasn't paying attention then), supposedly referring to mythic profundities that underlay music, art, and theater. All the Jungians were very into this, and the Joseph Campbell people fall into this swamp from time to time as well. Deep Structure is actually only a rather banal technical term in linguistics. Steven Pinker calls it a "useful gadget."

The evidence for the Chomskyite view has accumulated over the years, and the current dominant belief is that specific language structures are in the genes. Linguists are fond of ingenious experiment design to tease out ambiguous evidence, but you can do one experiment in your own head. Contrary to the postmodern view that our expectations hugely affect what we hear, we actually do a lot of hearing, in the sense of the brain dividing long chains of sound up into words, before our expectations get their grubby little hands on meaning. It is true that our expectations have some effect on interpretation, especially at the margins, but these are so far downstream as to be of minor importance.

Human speech has few clear breaks between words. Fluent speakers, especially in informal conversation, run everything together. If you have briefly studied a language and expect to be able to understand it spoken, you find that you cannot pick out a single word of a sentence - you can't even tell where one word leaves off and another begins. Only after much hearing does your brain begin to predigest the sounds into words for you. Then, armed with a clear few words of each sentence, you can begin to interpret based on gesture and context.

This is why receptive understanding of a language one learned when young lasts much longer than speaking that language. Logically, it should be the other way around: we should be able to take a hundred remembered verbs, a hundred adjectives, and a few hundred nouns and make do even decades later. The thousands of words that other speakers might throw at us should be a much harder list to hold in long term memory. But it is not so. Once trained to a language, the brain breaks up the stream of sound into the correct discrete words, even when it has forgotten what those words mean. (Interestingly, this sometimes takes a period of adjustment, as if the mind is searching for the correct language archives, but once found, switches over quickly.)

Misheard lyrics are your at-home evidence. Because singing is unlike speech in cadence, the brain has trouble finding the breaks. It settles for breaking the stream into any words that are close, then sends it on to another part of the brain to figure out the provisional meaning. That pre-meaning-finding part may find a plausible construction, or may have the memory play it back to the decoder brain for a new division. "Scuse me, while I kiss this guy" splits the s from sky and attaches it to the. The decoder brain thinks this is fine, because it has found real words to pass on to the pre-meaning-finder. The meaning-finder says "weird, but coherent," and accepts it. Unless we direct even higher parts of the brain to focus attention on the meaning to see if it really makes sense, the provisional meaning lives on in our memory indefinitely.

Note that we do a lot of decoding and storing automatically, completely independent of the meaning of the words. Our expectations of meaning, all our culture and biases have played no part.

Garage bands and psychedelic wannabees did not attempt to sing "Incense and Peppermints" in the 1960's. Why? Because no one could tell what some of the words were. Try it. No peeking.

Even I never got what some of those lines were, and I was a little fanatic about such things. I won't admit to you what I heard then.

When Austin Powers used the song in a movie, he got the words wrong. I have put the incorrect lyrics in italics, with the correct ones in bold. (How do I know which is correct? If you were there in the 60's, you know that "occasions, persuasions" is infinitely more likely than "oh cajun spice, sweats and" You just know. And it's a great example of the brain just making stuff up, sending it along to the memory, and hoping no one will notice that it makes no sense.

Good sense, innocence, cripplin' and kind. mankind
Dead kings, many things I can't define.
Oh Cajun spice, sweats and blushers your mind.
Occasions, persuasions clutter your mind
Incense and peppermints, the color of thyme. time

Who cares what games we choose?
Little to win, but nothing to lose.

Incense and peppermints, meaningless nouns.
Turn on, tune in, turn your eyes around.
Look at yourself, look at yourself,
Yeah, yeah.
Look at yourself, look at yourself,
Yeah, yeah,
Yeah, yeah.

Tune-a by the To divide this cockeyed world in two.
Throw your pride to one side, It's the least you can do.
Beatniks and politics, nothing is new.
A yardstick for lunatics, one point of view.

Who cares what games we choose?
Little to win, but nothing to lose.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Abraham Group

What a mess this crew is. Lot gives his daughters to the crowd, Abraham imperils Sarah to save his own hide, Jacob snakes his brother, echoing the division between his parents, then tries to make peace at the end with grampa's trick, putting the women and children in danger first. As karrde points out in the Joseph comments, the story of Dinah is pretty grim, and I haven't even gotten to Laban. When the Lord uses the traditional identifying formula later in scripture The God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, it's not such a warm fuzzy. Jews of a reflective nature might well have thought Do you have to keep bringing that up? It's nice and homey that you're the family god and all that, but ouch! Couldn't you have mentioned some of our good guys?

God's intent - or one of His intents, as there are always wheels within wheels with Him - is pretty clear. Not because of who you are, but because of who I Am. Got it? Well, there's an odd comfort in it, I guess, when you are feeling lower than low, you still know you're chosen.

I'd like to give this motley band a little credit. All the tribesmen called out of Ur have grown up in a polygamous, polytheistic, card-sharping land that includes Sodom and Gomorrah as its cities of light. God pounds in a very few lessons early on, pretty much letting everything else go. Rule #1: Follow me. Just me. No one else, just me. Have you got that? I am your god, all those other gods are for other people, not you. Hands off.

This is about the only lesson that Lot ever learns. He's pretty much a scum, but he gets that one idea drummed into his head. This god. Not those other gods I grew up with. Only one.

It sounds easy to us now, but it wasn't easy for them. When Christianity came to Europe, the worship of older gods hung on for centuries. When people wanted their crops to grow, or their children to recover, they would sneak back to the old altars and make the old sacrifices. When your back is against the wall, you pretty easily slip into thinking maybe the old way is more powerful. Maybe this new religion doesn't work here, or doesn't work at all.

Including human sacrifice, which became Rule #2: no human sacrifice. But gee, everyone around here does that in a pinch, Lord. All the tribes are doing it. It's powerful. It shows commitment. The blood of a living creature appeases the uh, Other Forces, and humans are like really, really valuable. God teaches this people: But not you. This act is forbidden you. I am more pleased with other things - see Rule #1.

Hints of other rules to come are scattered in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but these are the big two. And compared to how badly Europe and every other tribe in the world has done when God's teaching comes to them, three generations is pretty quick. It may be a record.

Bitter, Partisan

Ben Smith over at Politico feels Obama's pain on how hard it is to rise above the traditional, bitter, partisan divide he deplores.

Deplores? What would be the evidence of that? Barack's fantasy, and that of his more ardent supporters, is that this means not criticising him. Their squeals at the mildest criticism, coupled with their tolerance for vicious, divisive politics from him is astounding.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Tribal Wow

This Newsweek essay linked on Insty just reeks of tribalism. Amazing that a person so condescending and insulting gets to blame others for "this coarsened sensibility."

Update: Gerbeel's comment reminded me to link to this Iowahawk post Redness of Heart.

The Joseph Group

Joseph doesn’t have to be a group. The story that takes up most of the end of Genesis is plausible and coherent read as straight history. There is no need to interpret Joseph as a composite; but there is an advantage.

The descendants of the Abraham Group reacted badly, even criminally, to the series of minor droughts and famines of the time. They cheated and warred with each other, even selling their own relatives into slavery. They were not far removed from generations that practiced human sacrifice, and the whole depressing mess with Lot, Jacob and Esau, Laban, Rebecca – the whole crew, really – is a collection of unattractive characters, only intermittently faithful. I will handle that group on its own, but for now it is enough to remember that God choosing that group must have seemed pretty unlikely to everyone around, including the family itself. No one seems to get along, and tribal loyalty is an obligation everyone tries to get out of and abuse if they can. This bunch is not reminiscent of great conquerors and wise men from the east, but of those families that used to live on the edge of town, like the Herdmans. Outsiders can't tell whose kids are whose, and cousin-marriages aren't out of the question. The police are always coming because they're always fighting, and they leave junk around everywhere. Clearly, they were not chosen for their good qualities, but to illustrate God’s good qualities.

But they must have had something going for them, because the Joseph group, sold into slavery or arriving during famines like refugees in Egypt, managed to prosper and move into positions of authority. Even though we don’t have independent historical evidence for any Josephs who really wowed the pharaohs and ended up second-in-command, it’s quite possible. Even if the story is meant to be read as a composite Joseph, the elements are there: remain loyal to the god of your fathers, do not sin, the Lord will bestow wisdom and knowledge on you. You will not only survive, but prosper in the new land. You will be a mystical people of dreams and understanding. Stick together, sacrifice for each other.

The Joseph story teaches that favoritism among multiple wives and children is a dangerous thing, that sexual sin is a great dishonor to yourself and to others, and that lives can rise or fall on a single act of obedience or disobedience to God.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Noah Group - Further Comment

No scathing comments. Perhaps my more literalist readers are just polite.

It does occur to me that I started in the wrong place. You play deity for awhile. You have a group of people who don't write, and you want them to remember what you've taught them over a few thousand years of history. How are you going to do it? You could, I suppose, insist they remember series of battles with Amalekites, Canaanites, and Assyrians. Like that worked so well even with written aids later?

You'd steer them nightly toward what we see in Genesis.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Noah Group

Christians give off the impression of being embarrassed about Genesis, especially the first 11 chapters (Abraham shows up in Chapter 12). It is certainly the section of the Bible which draws the most fire from nonbelievers; more, even than the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus. Fundamentalists get positively defensive, insisting on an all-or-nothing view of the Scriptures; their opposite number are those who would toss anything offensive in order to get folks to consider Jesus’ Incarnation & Resurrection. (Those whose goal is to get nonbelievers to consider only the moral teachings of Jesus I am eliminating from the discussion of Christianity altogether. They may be nice people who act more like Christ than I do, but their religion is not Christianity. Jesusism would be a better term for what they believe.)

I would place myself at both extremes, insisting that a) everything in Scripture must ultimately be accounted for in our teaching, but also b) willing to grant enormous tracts of territory to skeptics, ridiculous and inconsistent concessions, in order to get the core teachings of the faith onto the table. But between those two extremes of scripture insistence is where most Christians would place themselves, instead of at the extremes, which is where truth more often resides. Christian truth contains more paradox than milk-and-water compromise. At its best, the compromise approach is a cautionary statement about complexity, of refusing to apply third-grade Sunday School answers to adult questions. Well and good as far as it goes. At its worst, it is a dishonest evasion, a “Heh heh heh, we don’t really think those things happened in ah, er, a literal sense, but are meant for our edification and as examples blahdee blah blah…” This latter comes from lack of courage in our thought – which is ultimately a lack of faith.

The mental image of a God always hurriedly patching up mistakes, barely rescuing the scripture narrative from the degradation of passing through human minds, is a little revolting. Who would worship such a god? A cobbled-together scripture, which a helpless god hopes will do if folks don’t look too closely, is not very inspiring now, is it? The idea of a series of vague folk tales strung together, approximating some idea of a monotheistic deity gradually coming into focus is a look through the wrong end of a telescope: accurate but completely misguided.

God did not scramble to find something useful that might apply to our modern situation in the oral narratives of the Israelites, preserving the few threads of gold amidst the dross of a primitive tradition. The folk tale style, similar in so many ways to the parables He told when He came in the flesh, was intended since before the beginning. God’s work was not to preserve the occasional tidbit, to hide a few threads of gold in the straw, but to condense the many tidbits into a pure picture of Himself, to spin straw into gold.

There were many Noahs, not one, and few if any named Noah. They preserved the belief in the One God, they preserved many good things out of the destroyed land into the rescued land. Very likely, they knew how to build boats and had already divided the animals into the clean and the unclean and labored to preserve them. They lived in lands of wickedness but were saved from a Flood with varying degrees of miraculousness, from providential to impossible, because of their faith. God compressed their various stories like a diamond into the story of Noah, so that future generations would remember.

The condensing, the synthesis, was not a grudging allowance by a YHWH who could do no better, but His original plan, so that His story would endure in the minds of men when all others from that time had passed away.

More to follow: More Adams, more Abrahams, more Josephs. Bring your objections and your arguments, but I think I can show that this approach illuminates parts of scripture that fundamentalism has to gloss over.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day

Two heretical posts for Earth Day - one mildly so over at Fair Trade Certified
...I would officially like to nominate "going green" as the front runner for the prestigious Most Overexposed Phrase of 2008 prize. For the love of all that as good and holy, not every single action that's not a gratuitous waste of resources is "going green". I don't care how new Al Gore tells you this is, sometimes reusing something is just that....reusing something.

A bit of take-no-prisoners from Justin over at Classical Values, who brings back some of the predictions from earlier Earth Days - the sort of moonbat nonsense you suspected was there but never tracked down on your own.
"We have about five more years at the outside to do something," ecologist Kenneth Watt declared to a Swarthmore College audience on April 19, 1970.

In January 1970, Life reported, "Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support...the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution...by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half....

Harvard biologist George Wald estimated [in 1970] that "civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind."
Thanks for making it easy for us, Justin.

Monday, April 21, 2008


Envy never comes to the ball dressed as envy, it comes dressed as high moral standards or distaste for materialism.
Martin Amis

Friday, April 18, 2008

Obama and Conservatives

I have heard that Obama appeals to some conservatives. That was a furrowed brow for me. Couldn't imagine why. My only guess was that they were so torqued off at McCain that this bright, pleasant youngish man seemed a safe harbor, even if he was unfortunately leftist.

It has come up enough online that I decided to give it some thought. I haven't met any conservatives in real life who are leaning Obama, but there do seem to be some out there.

He has the temperament of a type of conservative. His ideas are those of the antiBuckley, but one can imagine them conversing on Firing Line for weeks on end. Check that. The content-driven Buckley would gradually drive the style-driven Obama into retreat and an unannounced (but no less complete) humiliation. It wouldn't last weeks. One could imagine it lasting a few weeks, however, in the sort of conversation that conservatives imagine the world could be run by. While there are right wingers who crave red meat and confrontation, there is another sort which tires rapidly of demagogues and fire-breathers. Obama would like to be a unifier; he listens politely and responds in measured tones, holding out the possibility that the country would settle down for a bit. That natural conservatism, the desire to be left in peace, has great appeal to a certain personality type. Many conservatives hope little more than to be left alone to pursue their lives without interference.

Considered this way, I understand it. The difficulty is that it is an illusion. Barack Obama's domestic views are so interventionist and his foreign policy views so non-interventionist that his actions would lead to stark choices: go along and have temporary peace and quiet, hoping that the damage to rights and allies will not be so great that it can't be rescued later, or rise up in confrontation, crying halt. BHO puts forth a vision of men and hobbits in Bree, living peaceably and respectfully together in mutual adjustment, an example of tolerance to all travelers.

It all depends on whether Saruman or Sauron are real threats on the move. If not, why not live as Obama hints, even if it turns out to be expensive and a bit intrusive? But if so, then there is no respite on the horizon, and his association with half-orcs is a matter of great concern.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


A Yankee fan at work was trying to razz the Red Sox fans with his usual line, that he has been using since 2004: "26 World Series compared to 2. Big deal." Best comeback I've heard yet:

"Yeah, I like watching ESPN Classic sometimes, too."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Nation of Givers

It was almost a year-and-a-half ago that I reviewed Arthur C. Brooks Who Really Cares? The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism. Brooks was recently interviewed at The American, in which he summarises the data in his book. There's colored graphs, too.

If you read the interview closely, you can sound like you've read the whole book. AVI's key to sounding smart.

Brooks has two more books coming out this year: Gross National Happiness and Social Entrepreneurship.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Those Playoff Complaints

After all the noise about how teams in the west were going to be so badly cheated, and inferior teams from the east going to the playoffs, it eventually boiled down to only one robbery. Golden State (or outside chance, Denver) is not going to the playoffs, despite having a much better record than Atlanta. Portland also has a better record, but not hugely so - that strikes me as normal variation rather than robbery. Plus, I don't get too worked up about teams missing the playoffs when they only go .500 down the stretch.

I still follow Al Jefferson's stats over in Minnesota. I hope the T-Wolves get Beasley or Randolph in the draft. If so, they won't be a bad team next year, though they have so many teams to climb over to make the playoffs.

Ben's New Video

My son's music video done for Matt Brouwer is up.

Review of Biblical Literature

A friend sent along a review from this site, Review of Biblical Literature. I spent half an hour browsing, and I feel smarter already.
The review he sent along was for Misquoting Truth, from InterVarsity Press. The author, Timothy Paul Jones, I had not heard of, but the book looks like that cross between academic and popular I look for.

Easy Translation

If you want to understand Jimmy Carter, just mentally add the words "wants to be seen as.." whenever you read his name.

Participating In Unjust Social Structures

Three times in the past month or so I have heard a Christian claim the Bible in general, and the prophet Amos in specific, declares that we commit injustice when we participate in unjust social structures. (The milder version is that we are commanded to work to correct unjust social structures.)

That’s a lot of elastic words in one phrase: participate in – if I decide that lottery tickets, tobacco, pornography, cigarettes, beer & wine, fossil fuels, & high markups on food are unjust, do I have to actively try to overthrow a state government that allows convenience stores, or can I get away with just biking around that state on the way to my vacation? Unjust – is 99% good enough? If something drops below 90% justice – jeepers, romantic selection by young people is notoriously unjust, does that mean we have to forbid dating, or would merely requiring a government license be enough? Social structures – oh wow. Funerals are pretty unjust, and so is Little League. Or do you mean like Ed at the water department hiring his girlfriend?

Do I purchase justice offsets by sending money to Democrats, or just the certain ones?

Surely I jest? Sure they jest. These terms have been the principle grain of academic marxism for fifty years, but if we sprinkle some Bible-words in it all comes out of the oven Christian? (See “sacred conversation,” previous post)

Simplest first: there is no positive command from Jesus to change political structures. The examples usually given, such as Christ speaking fearlessly to various authorities, actually illustrate the opposite idea. Jesus essentially tells Pilate that politics and governments are not very important. His actions certainly had political consequences, but these were never primary.

This isn’t to say that seeking to improve justice in one’s society isn’t a good thing. It’s a very good thing. It’s just vague, and not everything called “working for justice” actually is. Prophets make sinners uncomfortable. This preacher is making you uncomfortable. Therefore, he is a prophet and you are a sinner. That is nearly psychotic reasoning, but it has been put forward in defense of Revs. Lee and Wright. But why pick on black people for this, when Jim Wallis, Rich Nathan, and John Thomas are at hand?

As for Amos, his first focus is on Israel’s worshipping other gods. There are several mentions about justice, some specifically about the poor, but none mentioning institutions or social structures, even by other names. Rich people – maybe lots of them, maybe all of them – were cheating poor people, and for these acts they were accused. Remember that the courts dispensing injustice in these verses were like our civil courts, not our criminal ones. Powerful people were fixing the outcomes of property disputes and such.

Complicated discussions of economic and social justice should certainly include understanding and repairing institutions. But there’s nothing about it in Amos.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Conspiracy Theory

The family of one of my patients has a website up on his behalf, to free him from the horrible injustices the various governments local, state, and national have visited on him by locking him in a psych hospital just because he threatened to kill people and thinks that Special Forces in Iraq put a chip in his head. We discussed the site at team today.

Our PhD psychology student surprised me by asking about conspiracy theories. After my very general answer, he started talking about the website Loose Change and the Twin Towers. By jiminy, he's a Truther! He started in about kerosene mix and jet fuel but I cut him off. "Popular Mechanics has it covered. Straightforward. Thorough. Check it out." He seemed disappointed and wanting to discuss it further. I was brief, and I am sure he thought, dismissive, but I didn't say "It's just nuts," which is what I was thinking. I noted that the evidence offered by the conspiracy theorists was unconvincing - they lean toward an explanation of single events that is barely possible. Additional barely possible explanations do not strike them as reducing the chances that their theory is correct, but confirming it. Aha! Mayor Willie Brown was warned to be cautious about flying at his Sept 10 morning briefing! You see?

But Willie Brown got those warnings about once a month. The mayor of LA didn't get a warning; the mayor of San Diego didn't get a warning; the mayors of Oakland, Sacramento, and Son Jose didn't get warnings. Mayor Brown reported his info immediately in case there was some lead there. And we never heard any more about it! That just goes to show it's possible there is a coverup...

The student shook his head worriedly and said that the scary thing is that it's even possible. Ah yes.

Simple declarative: belief in the probability that some sort of conspiracy is happening precedes all data. I have had folks protest no-no-no! I never suspected Bush in the 1990's, I hadn't even heard of him! I only gradually came to think he and Cheney might be involved. Nonsense. You've believed in some sort of conspiracy for decades, and gradually came to think that Bush might be part of it. The details have been vague and somewhat flexible, but the repeated themes of corporations...conservatives...military...intelligence agencies have been constant.

The belief precedes the evidence.

Update: the team psychiatrist, referencing conspiracy theorists, noted another explanatory bit: they regard secret information (often unsubstantiated) as more important than obvious info. The Physician's Assistant had a good example: conspiracy theorists will believe a convoluted tale about the acquisition of hammers - which can be weapons, y'know - and not ask themselves "why would they go through this when you can go down to the hardware store and buy a couple?"

It is interesting to contemplate what their life experiences have been, and how their minds work, to believe that the doubtful hidden must be more important than open knowledge.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Kicking the UCC's John Thomas, White Person

As promised in a previous post.

John Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ (my childhood denomination) has declared that we should hold a "sacred conversation" about race. We should have this conversation at Trinity, Rev Jeremiah T. Wright's - and Obama's - church. When you are the president of a major denomination, people usually regard you as a serious person. Newspapers and television news quotes you as if you are someone of authority; someone who Knows Something.

Sacred Conversation is an utterly vacuous phrase. People use such words when a) their thought is vacuous or b) they wish to conceal their real meaning. It's either Susan Sarandon or George Orwell. I am torn as to which is true for Rev. Thomas, whose other exploits are reported here. He wants a "preach-in" in May on the subject. Preach-in. The 60's are over, John.

I have a pretty good idea what the conference schedule is going to look like: what sort of person will be invited to speak, what the workshops will be about, what the conclusions will be at the end. The only interesting part will be to see how many other progressive causes will be successfully inserted into the mix. Will the greens, anti-globalists, feminists, socialists with hispanic surnames, anti-militarists, and sexual orientation advocates get to crash the party, or will they have to be content with just having their causes mentioned in every speech, in the requisite litanies of oppression?

If you do not yet believe that there are intellectual sins, and that such people are evil, I recommend C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce.

Zombie Attack Info

I have neglected to keep my readers up-to-date on the important issue of how to deal with zombies. This site will bring you up to speed quickly on survival in the event of zombie attack. Flamethrowers: Helpful or not? Should you use firearms or melee weapons? What disguises should you be alert for?

Crash course. Top 5 Zombie Survival Plans

1. Take over a giant food/hardware type store (Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco, etc)
2. Get out of town – as far as you can. Live off the land and conduct period raids into more populated areas for supplies.
3. Get off the land entirely. Grab a boat big enough for a small team of survivors to live on and plan to collect rainwater and supplies from periodic trips ashore.
4. Get high. Go to the greatest elevation and most remote area you can find and count on the cold temperatures and long winters to keep the undead moving slow or frozen.
5. Arm yourself and others and travel to a nearby mall. gather all the food and block off the doors. Wait for the zombies to leave to find easier prey or attempt to leave in a fortified car or bus.

Also included: a review and trailer for the upcoming movie Zombie Strippers.

Still Winter

Glenn Reynolds is posting spring pictures. Tigerhawk, Classical Values, and even Maggie's Farm are posting spring pictures. No, I'm not linking to any of 'em. Bastards.

I'm going up north of Bangor on Saturday though, and I imagine it's even worse up there. So I'll be better soon, because they'll resent my coming up from the sunny south.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Liberating Link

It remains true that an African-American usually has to break the ice in criticizing people of color before the melanin-deprived folks dare do it also in any discussion. That may be technically unfair, but social complexity often is. Because larger groups or majorities are usually oblivious to smaller groups, criticism of the smaller by the larger seems like an attack out of the blue. Canada has fewer people than the US, and is perpetually aware of living in our shadow. Americans are less likely to think of Canadians at all unless the context suggests it. Thus an American initiating critical comments about Canada looks like he's kicking someone for no apparent reason. Canadians are rather expected to complain about America. Everyone gets to pick on California, Texas, and New York City because they’re big. Someone from Texas who blogs about how stupid the people from Rhode Island are, unless she has just been there or grew up there or RI has been in the news, looks petty, somehow.

This gets ambiguous when a person of mixed race is running for president and makes his race a primary focus of his campaign. If he says that we need to have a conversation about race, does that change the social permissions about who can initiate what? Does the permission only apply to himself, or does it include his friends? How about people of color in general? Do they get a say in this, or does Obama’s comment change the rules for everyone?

Politicians love these ambiguities, because it allows them to have things both ways. People who make political decisions based on feelings also like ambiguities. They get to ignore content except where it is convenient, and operate on the basis of seemings – of what feels fair. People who rely on the content of words are just screwed. They try to rely on what has been said, and can’t understand why everyone else keeps “missing the point,” and the national conversation keeps going elsewhere.

With this in mind, Jamal McCoy’s essay over at Stop Barack Obama is well worth reading. He analyzes African-American preaching and public speaking with insights I had missed. An extremely perceptive gentleman, who really is speaking truth to power. Heh.

I’ll comment later, starting with kicking some white people, in the spirit of fair play.

(Via Classical Values)

British Humour

Neco Draconis posted some British Humour. Maggie's Farm was next.
I just got carried away.

First, a Monty Python skit in honor of Rev. Jeremiah T. Wright
The Four Yorkshiremen

Eddie Izzard Cake or Death

Flanders & Swann Have Some Madeira, M'dear

The Goon Show (yes, that's Peter Sellers)

Beyond The Fringe,

A Bit of Fry & Laurie

Fawlty Towers

Rowan Atkinson

A French Wallace & Gromit Commercial

Monday, April 07, 2008

Counting the Cost

When people find the truth too expensive, they religiously save the receipts for all the lies they've bought.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Social Subtleties: Three Connected Discussions.

The three posts below go together, separated for easier reading.

(Ben posted earlier today about social cues in TV series scriptwriting. That wasn’t his primary topic, but it’s interesting to see parallel thinking like that.)

Part I: Sophia's Office Window

Sophia has the office next to mine. She is a Christian conservative of slightly different flavor – chocolate chip to my vanilla, perhaps. Her window looks out over the copier, and she has affixed a long list of examples from around the world of what bad things happened to peoples who were not allowed to own guns. It’s been up a few months. I don’t know how many folks have read it.

One of the med students from another unit brought the psychiatrist over to look at it. Neither said a word, the younger just pointed to it and grinned mockingly. How do I know it was mockingly, rather than approvingly? Because our brains are very good at picking up social cues like that. Even the worst of us are pretty good at it. We evolved in groups where such things were important for survival. Tribes enforce their norms via gestures and expressions which are maddeningly difficult to describe. My oft-mentioned A&H tribe is especially good at it. They can pick up the merest changes in tone or eyebrow.

So can I, as I grew up in that tribe.

The psychiatrist likewise grinned in amusement. Some rube had had put up something about gun rights for public display. Here! What a maroon! No words, just the shared chuckle.

It is not merely the point of view, of course, though that in itself can prompt those superior smiles. The placement and tone of the document were also part of their pleasure. Those gun people. They don’t know how they come across. They don’t get that this is ridiculous. We do. We two, and our tribe do. That’s how we know we’re better.

If progressives don't want to be accused of this level of arrogance and rudeness, they should stop doing these things in front of me every few days.

CS Lewis writes about this in The Screwtape Letters. In a comment that stabbed me to the heart when I first read it and stayed ever before me in my long conversion from liberalism to conservatism, the senior demon Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood to encourage some types of humor but not others, in order to deliver the patient out of the hands of The Enemy and safely into Hell, to be food for them.
But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.

Lewis is referring more to spiritual than political flippancy, but the point holds. Watch how often people will laugh at something or someone without bothering to make a reasonable argument or give evidence against it. All the cool kids “just know” that it’s ridiculous. The tactic is an enormously powerful social enforcer. Time and again while I was a progressive, I would hear people make such jokes to me. Reagan. (Hahaha.) NASCAR. (Snicker.) Trickle-down. (Ha!) Born-agains. (Stop, you’re killing me!) I now have the opposite response: when someone speaks as if the joke is obvious (sometimes they go so far as to add an urban legend in, like Dan Quayle and studying Latin), I now conclude that it is merely a social cue, an efficient tribal communication devoid of intellectual content.

Part II: Classical Values

A recent post at Classical Values A Man With Real Experience, referring to Al Gore and his 1988 comments about Vietnam had layers within layers once I started to think about it. Gore’s comment had injected a mild note of disagreement into the standard VN narrative, remarking that the South Vietnamese people certainly regarded what they were fighting for as freedom. He had softened the disagreement with a half-dozen references that showed he still believed the prevailing progressive narrative, but there was this little discordant note. Simon picked up on that note, relating it to our current situation and how the antiwar crowd cannot manage to acknowledge even that much these days. I commented in the thread
…There is an enormous problem with this approach. It is a social nicety used to preserve relations with the person you are disagreeing with. It is excellent for use with families, friends, and colleagues. It is a dyadic and small-group strategy. As a persuasive strategy with large groups it is much less effective. The people listening to you agree that you have a point and that you're a wise a good person, but the balancing act you just went through undermines the impact of your claim, and memory of it erodes…

We use Gore’s tactic when persuasion can be very gradual, but damage to a relationship can be the work of a moment. We do not so much disagree as send up a caution flag.

I had originally complained that a politician’s use of this tactic was deceitful. He gets to tell everyone present that he agrees with them, but also gets to pose as a person who sees many sides of things – one who has been fair to other points of view and has considered them. So when he kicks them in the balls you know they deserved it. The audience, meanwhile, receives no real challenge to reevaluate their position. They can even pretend that they have reevaluated their position in that instant. They go on as before, thinking themselves wise and the politician evenhanded. Better yet, the politician is on record as having considered an alternative POV. Even his opponents might be impressed that he has at least heard them clearly.
Tricksy politician. False.

One layer deeper, I look at the tactic a soupcon more kindly. The current audience receives the near-indiscernible disagreement in the context of being patted on the back a dozen time. Yet in this age of rancorous debate, the single comment can be taken out of context and sent out into the world: “Even Al Gore says…” A communist can be made to look libertarian, a libertarian communist, and anyone can be made to look stupid or evil.

It's still not honest, but it's more understandable in that context.

Part III: Tone Filters

Someone linked over to the Daily Howler – Glenn Reynolds, perhaps – and I dropped by for that one essay. For some reason I had in my mind that this was a flame-throwing conservative site. Wrongo. It’s a flame-throwing liberal site. McCain and Obama were being criticized in the essay, so I didn’t get tipped off to my error right away. That combo could occur on either a conservative or liberal site, yes? Oh very yes.

I thought the tone of the essay was a bit insulting and unfair - That’s a little over-the-top, Mac. Yet I was able to read along without particular annoyance, browsing for information or insight. As it dawned on me that this was a progressive site, the tone distracted me more, and I eventually stopped reading.

I was able to perceive the tone, but could filter it out when I thought it was directed at others. Once I knew that the tone was directed to folks like me, the snarkiness was too much. From listening to people live and reading their arguments for years, I suspect I may be on the good side of the bell curve for evenhandedness. I think many people get so used to talking within their own group that they don’t even hear the nastiness directed to others anymore. They believe they or their comrades are being critical, but not unfairly so, and certainly not insulting. A good test is observing whether their own tone fed back to them offends. Conservatives who spend much time in the presence of liberals are puzzled that phrasings and tones of voice clearly calculated to offend pass unnoticed by the speakers.

Screwtape is apposite again
In civilised life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face. To keep this game up you and Glubose must see to it that each of these two fools has a sort of double standard. Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother's utterances with the fullest and most oversensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent. You know the kind of thing: "I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper." Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken.

A gentleman named Gary Galles has already done up the section of Screwtape with a slight rewording to illustrate how this is in politics

I have heard that tone shooting out from the conservative end of the spectrum toward the progressive end at times, but far less often. I have little doubt there are professions or churches or cultures where conservatives are in such predominance that the tone deteriorates unnoticed. When folks believe they are alone with their own they become less cautious, freer with their sneers. I recall standing on the street with a Mormon friend when other friends of his came up. As their comments about non-Mormons intensified, I could feel his discomfort and embarrassment – they had wrongly assumed that I was one of them and revealed themselves more than they wished (they were less nasty than social workers, BTW). It is always interesting to see behind the curtain.

What intrigues me about these tone-filters is that they are apparently automatic.

Friday, April 04, 2008

PSA For BF Sufferers

A spiritual malady that affects Christians and Nonchristians alike. There is help.


Most references to temptation, even among Christians, are to one-off events. I doubt these are our great spiritual dangers. It is the less-visible temptations that stretch over years which unravel us. CS Lewis writes directly about the great, consuming temptations in both his fiction and non-fiction. Not only The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and “The Inner Ring,” but the Narnia and Perelandra series are largely taken up with the questions of temptation. There are temptations to do evil in a good cause, temptations of cowardice, temptations of apostasy and compromise. The brilliance of Narnia is not in its fantastic elements, but in the seriousness of moral questions presented even to children. Young people are not treated as moral simpletons, capable only of steal cookie/not steal cookie obedience, but as full moral agents in hard places.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings seems to be entirely about temptations, once one thinks to look for them. Boromir is tempted by glory; Saruman by knowledge and power, Denethor by knowledge and despair; the temptation to be left alone in false peace settles in various forms on hobbits, Tom Bombadil, ents, and elves; the beauty of making tempts both elves and dwarves. The danger of competing goods, and of virtues unchecked drive the story forward: Gandalf is tempted by pity, Sam by humility, Frodo by gentleness. While these temptations may come to a sharp, revealing point in the story they are all constant temptations to the characters. Everyone is beset by peculiar weaknesses and virtues that intertwine. Gollum and Galadriel, Beregond and Butterbur are all assailed by moral choices of real consequence. Courage is not a virtue so much as the measure of all other virtues. There’s a book for someone to write about temptation as described by the Inklings. One can meditate on the peculiar temptations of a single group or character at a time.

This all came up because of a description of a scholar a friend sent. The man in question grew up as a fundamentalist Christian, attended a Christian college and prestigious theological school, and had made a name for himself in New Testament studies. He had pioneered a method of considering early texts and interpreting ambiguities which changed the field. Over time he lost his faith, and puts his energy into undermining it now. I was reminded of Gandalf’s comment about Saruman, and it not being wise to study the arts of the enemy too deeply, and of Frodo’s inability to resume normal life in the Shire because of the wounding and trauma he had experienced. But most of all, I thought of Denethor and his Palantir, discovering things important and real that lesser men could not see. His great knowledge led him ultimately to great despair, not because what he had seen was untrue, but because it was selected truth, with Sauron doing the selecting. I feel much sorrow for the scholar.

Fundamentalism can be a brittle faith, shattering rather than absorbing blows. I think real faith always has a few dents in it – not just religious faith, but belief in a theory, trust in a person, or confidence in predictability. Reality is rather messy, unjust, and unpredictable. Even Jesus was surprised that someone had touched him for healing, that the disciples could not keep watch, and that the Father had abandoned him.

Thursday, April 03, 2008


On my way across the parking lot to the closest smoking area on my non-smoking hospital campus, a long-term patient waved to get my attention. Elaine has schizophrenia, and even though she is a little bit of a thing, is seldom out of the hospital long because she smacks people rather unpredictably. She is regarded affectionately by the staff, however, because of the equally unpredictable - and often painfully accurate - things that she says.

"Are you going to the nicoraria?" she hollered.

Nicoraria. I like it.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Narcissism in Foreign Policy

Chelsea Clinton brings up the tired A&H accusation that the rest of the world is opposed to us because we wouldn’t sign the Kyoto protocol; Alice Walker thinks Barack will negotiate more freely with foreign leaders because all the racial baggage against America will be banished; European elites think the world hates us because of McDonald’s, Canadians blame it on our ignoring others, Muslim extremists believe it is because we are decadent, the UN because we don’t listen to the UN enough, and the sons of third-world kleptocrats believe America is disliked because it exploits poorer nations.

Everyone is quite sure that their reason for being angry at America must be what everyone else’s reason is also. It’s an amazing display of narcissism and inability to understand others. Do these folks actually think China gives a rat's patooie about Kyoto, or Poland about our racial history? I don't recall any anti-McDonald's statements coming from Osama, and half of Africa is angry that we do listen to the UN.

A Sign Of Good Times

The alternative media is in a lather over the Obama campaign. His blue-sky campaign, with its daily examples of untruths and inaccuracies, is precisely the phenomenon that New Media thought it could kill in its cradle. A little sunlight was supposed to cure that sort of thing, but there goes Barry, tefloning along no matter what crawlies are uncovered. He does not transcend racial differences but rather, intensifies them; he is not candid, but congenitally evasive and dissembling; not inspiring, but demoralizing; not a breath of fresh air, but a grubby return to cynical machine politics. No matter. It is the idea of Obama that counts.

Much of this is the negatives of other candidates, as is the case in any election. There are plenty of Democrats who think I can’t stand Hillary, Obama’s going to have to do. He seems to have some good qualities. Or similarly, I want us out of Iraq. I’ll put up with whatever else I have to for that. Those aren’t the voices we hear from, New Media or Dinosaur Media, but they’re out there. I hope. I hope all BHO’s supporters aren’t all smoked-up moonflowers. Resigned, negative votes I understand. They're what made this country great. Or stable, anyway.

All descriptions of voter tendencies are wild generalizations, attempts to explain complicated matters in simple declaratives. But generalizations which accurately capture the thoughts of some voters have value nonetheless. We can tease out threads, so long as we don’t pretend they are the whole cloth.

Blue-sky candidacies are a sign of good times. Kennedy’s inspiring New Frontier pitch capped more than a decade of post-war boom. A nation ready to go to the moon, end racial divisions, and spread democracy to the world is not a nation that perceives itself to be in crisis, but a nation that perceives itself to be ready for new challenges. Bill Clinton was not elected during the height of the Cold War but immediately after the collapse of communism, when all the talk was about what we should do with our Peace Dividend (answer: Let’s do it all! We spent it four times). Significantly for our discussion here, both those elections were just after brief economic downturns, in 1958 and 1991. There is a pattern here. Economic expectations are high from years of growth, but a slight downturn sours the voters, who are now easy prey for promises of a brave new world.

Happiness and satisfaction research inform us that how well-off we feel is influenced by the timing of our good and bad events more than the actual dollar amounts. We feel more prosperous receiving $100,000 for 10 years than $1M in a single year followed by $0 the next. To receive $10M one year and lose $9M the next makes us depressed, though objectively, all three scenarios equal $1M. When things are going well, we regard that as the normal state of affairs, and any bad news which intrudes sends us looking for someone to blame. Hey, increasing prosperity must be easy, and just occur naturally if someone doesn’t screw it up, huh? Life should be better. We deserve a better life. If somebody somewhere weren’t being stupid or selfish, we would have that life. We become ripe for smooth talkers who tell us that a positive attitude will turn our life around. You can make money at home while you sleep, and save the environment too! Lot’s of people are making a fortune with our secret investment secrets, or flipping houses for a 50% profit after painting the spare bedroom!

Or similarly, if we just have the audacity of hope, America will become the great society it was meant to be, with no more wars and universal prosperity. We can do it! We just have to believe.

For all the wailing about how bad the economy is and how hated we are in the world, the persistence of the Obama campaign is evidence that things are going well; well enough that people are willing to roll the dice for a great leap forward. People who really think the economy is tanking – today, right now – can’t afford to think in terms of long-term structural changes and the remaking of society. Only the wealthy can afford to waste an election on pretty symbolism. The War in Iraq was going as well as wars ever go, and is now going better than wars ever do, but we’re tired, and we want it to go away. The economy perks along nicely – even our recessions are prosperous times now – but we feel cheated, somehow. People live longer and better, enough that we come to believe that illness means that something is seriously wrong with the whole universe, not just our bodies.

The rhetoric we hear from the Obama supporters is blue-sky stuff. I don’t know what percentage of his people actually think like that, but it must be a pretty good chunk for his poll numbers to stay up after all that has come out about him.* Cinnamon Stillwell provides some good San Francisco examples of this Barack-can-set-us-free talk, and Alice Walker had a gushing essay just this week.

I read a few weeks ago that Rush had offered the opinion that Barack’s candidacy is not an opportunity to move beyond the racial divide, but evidence that we already have. I will add a similar claim: Obama’s continued appeal is evidence that we feel so secure in our prosperity that we can roll the dice for a symbolic gesture of a candidacy.

*Or perhaps the opposite: his supporters are already jaded, negative voters unaffected by any revelations.

Audacity of Hope - The Real Deal

I received this letter from a Romanian friend, who started the mission and orphanage where we found or third and fourth sons, and where Ben worked for a summer.

Dear friends,

If you keep up-to-date on international politics, you'll know that President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush are now in Bucharest, Romania for the NATO summit! For me, this event in Bucharest is amazing! Consider this passage from Daniel 2:21: "And He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning."

Twenty years ago, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (from his strong Anti-NATO Block - which was much stronger than even Putin's attitude against NATO today) built his biggest palace in the world even at the expense of many Romanian lives. Now to see how this palace is being used to unite international powers is almost unbelievable. How God changes times and circumstances!

Have a great day!

Peter Lucaciu

Executive Director

Romanian Evangelistic Medical Mission