Thursday, October 30, 2008

Election Quotes

These are two of my favorite quotes in general, and particularly apropos now.

The head of the secret police in CS Lewis's That Hideous Strength tells one
of her students:
Ah, you fool, it's the educated reader who can be gulled.All of our difficulty comes with the others. When did you read a workman
who believes the papers?...But the educated public, who read the highbrow weeklies, don't need reconditioning. They're alright already. They'll believe anything.

And, Gandalf tells the assembled Captains of the West, as they prepare to
go into near-hopeless battle
Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.
(Lord of the Rings, Book V)

Intelligence - Tangential Reagan Quote

Quoting, in turn, Winston Churchill. So that's a twofer for conservatives.

"They say the world has become too complex for simple answers. They are wrong. There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right. Winston Churchill said that "the destiny of man is not measured by material computation. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits -- not animals." And he said, "There is something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Social Signaling - Not Just For Liberals

I make the frequent accusation that liberalism is driven by social cues more than intellectual ones. The assumption that certain people and ideas are somehow ridiculous, the snigger and sneer (not a dramatic, Snidely Whiplash sneer of course – that would be gauche), the mild condescension in person – more pronounced in writing, these are tools of social control. They are a signaling of who gets it, who is in the group, rather like animal calls. I have been very critical of this. Rather sneering and condescending myself, actually.

I don’t object to social grouping and social signalling. I think it’s fine. I do it myself all the time. My objection has been to the pretense that what is merely social is actually intellectual. I should be a little fairer with that. Liberals are not the only offenders on that score by any means. People identify each other as Christians without having explicitly said that and are likely to say “it must have been the Holy Spirit.” A charming idea, but one that can include a certain smugness, a certain we’re-both-so-spiritual attitude that is a bit dangerous. Within groups of Christians are are admonishments about works and grace, or whether something is scriptural, that are phrased mildly but are spiritual body-slams.

I was taught secret signs in DeMolay, so that we could identify “brothers” in a group, especially in need. More subtly, I was present when a visitor at church approached a member and began to talk comfortably with him and the longtime member responded without surprise. They had identified each other as probable career military officers by their shoes.

You know that Goths do it, Geeks do it,
Neocons and Jesus Freaks do it.
Let’s do it, let’s talk in code.

They say that Danes do it, French do it,
Even plumbers with a wrench do it.
Let’s do it, let’s talk in code.

Your baseball caps do it, pins do it,
Farther outs and farther ins do it.
Let’s do it, let’s talk in code.

I tell you John does it, O does it
Everybody that you know does it
That does it! Let’s talk in code.

Even in a close election, the chances your individual vote will make a difference is small. We vote to participate, to be part of the group that Does Things Right. It gives us a tie to group membership, group identity. As these groups are the places that we find our friends, network for our jobs, even seek for mates, they represent sustenance to us. Most of us belong to many such groups with varying degrees of allegiance. People who know us well can even sort through them, sniffing out which groups are really most important to us by the prominence we give the various “tells.” Wheels within wheels, Ezekiel, and sometimes others read us better than we read ourselves.

When others do not produce the right signals, we rapidly conclude that they are either stupid – unable to discern the signs, or antagonists – active rejecters of our values. As to the former, we have all seen pathetic attempts of people trying to establish group membership by using the right jargon or spouting the right attitudes, but everyone in the group knows they aren’t ever going to really be accepted. They’re too dumb, they know the words but not the music. No one wants to be that guy, though most of us have been at some point in our lives. We have also seen the second group, whose refusal to cut their hair (or grow it), It is deliciously ironic to read feminists sputtering about Sarah Palin’s hair and glasses (Why don’t you write to Vogue about it, dear), but it’s a very standard reading of clan totems. If you don’t display any clan totems, you shouldn’t be eligible to say “glass ceiling.” People are defending their turf as intently as any urban gang, they just do it with social controls instead of violent ones. Why should I blame them when I do similar things myself? When speakers misuse Bible imagery or phrasing to make a more secular point, the fur might rise on my back and I might give a little growl. If you can fake or force your way into my clan, then perhaps my own position is not safe. The credentials I thought were solid may not entitle me to a place by the fire anymore.

My tone is intentionally overserious for humorous effect, because it all really is both deadly serious and ridiculous. This is all very primitive and we should be able to override it once it is brought to our attention. But this desire for group identification is not merely vestgial, left over from generations of living in bands or villages of 70-150 people, it still operates today. We still do signal and bond in this way, and none of us wishes to be left out in the cold foraging for our food alone.

Related issue in an upcoming post.

Election By Litigation

I worry that this may come to pass, even more this election than last. The Right blogosphere is reporting that the Democrats have thousands of lawyers on standby to quickly file protests for any election difficulties. I have no idea if that’s true, or what Republicans might have planned as well. I have read this however, which seems at least plausible.

Anyone actually disenfranchised should have a right to protest, of course. Even if it is inconvenient to the system, it’s an important right to protect – and too much inconvenience might force us to change our methods of keeping track of voters, which is likely a good thing. But there is an air of using litigation as a tactic rather than as a protection here. If you are one who believes that the Republicans are attempting to deny a certain class of voters – the poor, mostly - their rights, then flooding the courts will seem restorative. If you are one who believes that the inflated registrations by Democrats are going to result in fraudulent votes, then you will see the tactic as an intimidation. It would be nice if each voter were regarded neutrally of course, and I am sure that is how it is usually approached at the micro-level. To the poll worker, the person in front of them whose file is not quite in order but seems plausible should be regarded as a potential voter, not a potential Democrat or Republican voter.

But in the national discussion, that person is assumed to be a probable Democrat, and the Republicans want his bona fides to be established, while the Democrats claim that excessive suspicion is a type of discouragement, or even suppression. Both are correct, and how does the poor lady running the checklist keep that balance when it’s crowded and people are rude and impatient?

I worry most that it’s those ladies (and gents, of course) with the checklists and the other poll workers who are going to bear the brunt of this. I would hate to see any of them be publicly humiliated or challenged for behavior that is better than most of us would manage under pressure. Nor the supervisors and town officials who are co-ordinating them, and want nothing more than for every legitimate voter to breeze in and everyone else to go away. Litigation brings accusation of incompetence, discrimination, and any number of evils. Some of those people are corrupt or incompetent, and yes, we should do something about that. But most of them are volunteers who are on your side. By about 4pm, a lot of them are wondering “do you have a constitutional right to vote if you’re an a**hole? I think not!” I imagine that’s a bipartisan sentiment among the workers about then.

Go out of your way to be nice to the poll workers this Tuesday.

So, When Will We Celebrate V-I Day?

So we’ve won the war, and nobody cares.

Going in, it was supposed to be impossible. The cruel Afghan winter, a cataclysmic refugee problem in Iraq, and all that. When we won the purely military part quickly, the complaint was it was only temporary. When the Iraqis elected a government, people complained that it was a puppet, only doing what the US said. When that government acted independently, it showed that we were unwanted and unneeded. When the insurgency started – thanks in part to being encouraged by Americans who kept signaling we should leave – it was called a civil war. When it clearly didn’t turn into a civil war then it was called a stalemate. When the “stalemate” dragged on, it was called a lost war because it wasn’t being won fast enough. (There, at least, the critics had some point. The war wasn’t being won fast enough. That’s not the same thing as losing). This was the spot where critics started insisting that they had been just fine with going into Afghanistan – it’s not that they were reflexively anti-war, you see, just this particular bad, unnecessary, illegal, icky war in Iraq. Funny you don’t hear people say that anymore – now it’s back to what a bad idea Afghanistan was. Doesn’t everyone know that? Sure, that’s what we’ve said right along.

When we started winning Iraq faster, there was no way we could win because it was an occupation, and how do you win an occupation? (The Germans and Japanese may have some insight on that, BTW).

What now remains is to not create a vacuum as we leave that Iranians, disgruntled Sunnis, organised crime, or any of a half-dozen other dangerous fauna indigenous to the Middle-East can exploit. Leaving slowly and cautiously is the one thing we have left to accomplish. And it may be the one thing we won’t do.

But it’s Bush who lied, of course. Not any of the critics. They’ve been right all along.


Just before leaving work, I spoke with the evening nurses. I mentioned the neo-nazi kids who were plotting to kill so many people, and Jules Crittenden’s post about how androgynous they look (Tranny nazis? Who knew?). We briefly discussed how hard it can be to get evidence to prosecute such people, and whether it was easier now in the internet age. Security at Obama events was discussed. One of the nurses, who is new and I have never spoken with before shook his head sadly. “Republicans are so hate-filled.”

Gee, thanks. What enormous sense of entitlement must be going through a person’s head that he makes public bigoted comments at work to people he doesn’t know? I can’t imagine making a similar statement and not being written up.

I imagine there could be jobs where the reverse occurs. But that’s what working in human services is like.

They Don't Mean It

Progressives have put a lot of energy into bemoaning how stupid Sarah Palin is, giving that as one of the reasons they could not consider voting for her. They deceive themselves. If that were true, John Sununu would have a 20-point lead on Jeanne Shaheen for the Senate in New Hampshire. In reality, he is running behind Shaheen, and has slightly less support than McCain.

Senator Sununu has 30 IQ points on ex-Governor Shaheen – maybe more. He has Washington experience; she was a cipher as governor. It is an elegant reverse of the stereotype of Palin. It has made no difference in his election chances.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Butterfly Etymology

Not entomology, the study of insects. I could not care less about that. Eugene Volokh has a post on where the word butterfly comes from. Metathesis of flutterby, souls of witches, sacred bears, and what butterfly feces look like are discussed in the comments. The AVI weighs in several times.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Those Terrible American Students

My nephew sent this link from Boston Magazine that challenges the myth that American students are worse than our international competitors. In brief, 1) the studies which show us in a bad light are often comparing apples and oranges, 2) the American system is different and better suited to developing people who continue to learn as adults, and 3) 70% of American schools are just fine - best in the world, but the bottom 30% are so terrible it skews our numbers.

This is a favorite topic of mine. I noted in 2006 that our supposedly moronic teenagers have been going on to rule the world for several generations now.

So, 30% of American schools being inadequate is too much - but let's keep the problem in focus.

Working For A Non-Profit

It's not that for-profit enterprises are immune from this sort of nonsense, but get a load of this laudatory newspaper article:
(Deleted's) job entails engaging in community partnerships with leaders of other organizations to determine what might be emerging trends or issues in the community. They try to work together through this process to find solutions to the problems they see.
I imagine a lot of donuts are involved in doing this.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


During the 2004 elections, I recall that something like 50% of the public thought that the media favored John Kerry, 20% thought it favored Bush, and 30% thought it was balanced.

In the 2008 elections, 70% think that the media favors Obama, 10% think it favors McCain, and 20% thinks it is balanced.

Grains of salt time. I'm too lazy to run these down, so I may have the numbers somewhat wrong. They are approximate anyway, though I think they're close. I would remember if the numbers came from some obviously partisan source in either direction, so I conclude they come from groups I know little of or believe to be relatively reliable. I may delude myself there. Further, I don't know if the way the questions were asked match up well enough to be a fair comparison. This might be apples and oranges - or apples and pears, anyway, which are more similar.

Most importantly, remember that just because more people think something doesn't make it true. Martians visiting and evaluating media bias might see things quite differently. (Or Venusians. Martians may be unreliable).

With all that salt, it can be fairly asked whether these numbers mean anything valuable at all. I find one thing interesting about them - they are quite different in just four years. Conservatives might find some long-term encouragement there.

And by the way, when do we get to start using the phrase "Media Bias Deniers?"

Intelligence - Part VI

In another context, I acknowledged how little I know about the issues of the day. I know little economics, foreign policy, or communications technology. I know perhaps 10% of what I would need to to converse intelligently on those subjects. But an Assistant Village Idiot has an advantage. The experts in these fields know 30-40% of what they need to to run things - not because they are stupid, or hidebound, or lazy, but because complex subjects contain a great deal that is unknowable. Donald Rumsfeld took a lot of flak about his comments about Known Unknowns, but he was spot on. There is information that we believe is known or could be known, but we don't have it, such as enemy location or secret agreements. There is an empty area of knowing beyond that, the Unknown Unknowns - the chance events which change everything and we will have to adjust to. The common practice is to not think about these much at all, because how can we plan for what we cannot know? Yet we can build in flexibilities and redundancies which don't look necessary. And we can keep making ourselves humble about what we don't know.

The Assistant Village Idiot tries to stick with what he knows. He fails at this, being too full of himself and puffing himself up about patterns perceived. Being an actual Village Idiot is a difficult task, and few attain it.

1. Focus on what constitutes a logical, versus emotional or social argument. Especially from your allies, and most especially from yourself.
2. See what you see.
3. Retain a childish and archaic notion of what constitutes fair play.
4. Every time you think you're right, go back to Step 1.
5. Keep the core knowledge at hand. In a religious discussion, remember what most Christians for 2000 years have said the Scriptures teach about a topic. In a political discussion, remember basic civics.

This doesn't sound anywhere near as wise as it did while I was thinking it up.


My worry is that "Yes We Can," an excellent campaign slogan, will continue to morph into "Because We Can," an evil method of governance.

Demographic Advantage

So, not only is Mickey Mouse registering to vote as a Democrat, he has contributed to Obama's campaign as well. It appears that Barack has nailed down the all-important cartoon character demographic.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Intelligence - Part V

I may be at the end of the series.

As I move on to a discussion of the presidential candidates, this is a good place to point out that people who actually make individual decisions that affect others are likely better at this than the rest of us, or they would have long since failed and been removed. People instinctively know this, which is why we have long favored governors over senators in presidential elections. In theory, senators know the subject matter of governance better than anyone (even journalists!), but seldom have the decision making experience of governors. I never fully bought that argument until writing this sentence. I thought it only a minor advantage. Similarly, Barack Obama has offered the running of his own campaign as an example of executive experience. I have found that circular and weak until writing this series. But a political campaign does require constant adjustment, an ability to mitigate the effects of bad luck and jump on good luck opportunities. Obama does seem to have adjusted well in the campaign. That does tell us something.

Joe Biden has shown little ability to adjust to changing circumstances or question his own wisdom. I find nothing of interest more to say.

I am tempted to the stereotype that the younger candidates will be the more adaptable, but I doubt it holds generally. Palin has changed course, adapting to the opportunities that present themselves. She seems to have started more as a religious reformer, redirected that to anti-corruption, with a strong thread of economic freedom throughout. She has adjusted quickly to the new role of being national inspirer rather than local decision-maker. In that change, however, she has been mostly following directions, taking other people’s word for what adjustments must be made. That’s not a bad thing – seeking advice when you don’t know the ground is certainly wise – but it isn’t the same thing as independently recognising a need for change and formulating a plan.

Obama, as I mentioned, has made adjustments on the fly these eighteen months. Even if that comes primarily from his advisors he still deserves the credit – he hired them. We have not seen what Obama would do if faced with dramatic changes, but we seldom get to observe that in anyone before electing them. I am sidestepping the issue of flip-flops on all candidates here. Those are adjustments, but are so confounded by the political calculations around them that we cannot tell whether the candidate is making a reality adjustment or a campaign adjustment. We are giving partial credit for adjusting at all. Barack has also made personal changes, not only giving up drugs and deciding to be a real student, but deciding that community organising wasn’t creating the societal changes he hoped for and going into electoral politics. There are some indicators of adaptability here.

McCain is a more mixed picture. Advocating for the surge, the biggest policy rethinking of the decade to date, is his calling card. It worked. Another big-ticket item was his campaign finance reform, which didn’t. In both cases, he soldiered on in the face of criticsm and was willing to go against prevailing wisdom. We’re not grading on success but on adaptability here, remember. He otherwise tends to gravitate to pretty typical solutions. OTOH, he was willing to go well outside the box in his campaign, considering Lieberman for a fusion ticket and then settling on Palin. He adjusted to being a POW, but only slowly to being back in civilian life. He adjusted to being a Senator in the minority party but didn’t do as well with his party in the majority. I would say that he adjusts, but slowly.

The ranking would be Obama slightly ahead of Palin and McCain, with all three showing different types of adaptability. Biden is not even submitted for ranking.

As I'm really guessing here, I encourage other data I hadn't considered.


I have not mentioned that son #4 is planning on joining the Marines. Really planning on it, like having gone down for his physical and his ASVAB. Security clearance is next. I haven't mentioned it because Chris often gets ideas of what he'd like to do which suddenly evaporate. But this one might actually happen. After his first four years, he wants to guard the embassy in Romania (of course). I've told him that's a bit far out to plan, but he likes having a plan.

It's been an amazing thing. He goes out running to get in shape for Basic. By himself. Without reminders. Comes back smiling. This is one of those "the pod people have come and taken my son" moments.

Christian Andrew Wyman, 21 years old, with niece Emily. Can you picture him in uniform?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

No One Asked...

...but my suspicion is the attack on the McCain worker is at least partly a hoax.

The Man In The Arena

The quality Teddy Roosevelt is speaking of here is not quite the same as the adaptability I have been speaking of, but it is related. Roosevelt, in his speech to the Sorbonne, stresses the striving, the action, the taking of consequences. He clearly likes the image of struggle, of daring great things. Rarrrgh.

Does the ability to stand back and change sets, to realise that the current theory is not reliable, come only by experience, by trial-and-error? I hope not. I hope that there is a cast of mind that can be taught, and a generation brought up on it. Especially as those who make decisions, even many decisions in a variety of situations, often still do not learn the skill.

But it is one way to get there, however unreliable, and Roosevelt’s 1910 speech at the Sorbonne is rousing, at any rate. You are probably familiar with this most famous section.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Teddy restates the theme in the section immediately following.
Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride or slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not exactly what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, or fop, or voluptuary.
In fact, he pretty much repeats that theme throughout the full speech.The style is of another era, long, vivid to the point of purplish prose in places, but there are some great sections. Even better, he is saying this to the French! French academics! For that alone TR deserves to be on Rushmore.
Let the man of learning, the man of lettered leisure, beware of that queer and cheap temptation to pose to himself and to others as a cynic, as the man who has outgrown emotions and beliefs, the man to whom good and evil are as one. The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement.
A little later
I believe, of course, in giving to all the people a good education. But the education must contain much besides book-learning in order to be really good. We must ever remember that no keenness and subtleness of intellect, no polish, no cleverness, in any way make up for the lack of the great solid qualities. Self restraint, self mastery, common sense, the power of accepting individual responsibility and yet of acting in conjunction with others, courage and resolution - these are the qualities which mark a masterful people. Without them no people can control itself, or save itself from being controlled from the outside.
And best of all
There are well-meaning philosophers who declaim against the unrighteousness of war. They are right only if they lay all their emphasis upon the unrighteousness. War is a dreadful thing, and unjust war is a crime against humanity. But it is such a crime because it is unjust, not because it is a war. The choice must ever be in favor of righteousness, and this is whether the alternative be peace or whether the alternative be war. The question must not be merely, Is there to be peace or war? The question must be, Is it right to prevail? Are the great laws of righteousness once more to be fulfilled? And the answer from a strong and virile people must be "Yes," whatever the cost. Every honorable effort should always be made to avoid war, just as every honorable effort should always be made by the individual in private life to keep out of a brawl, to keep out of trouble; but no self-respecting individual, no self-respecting nation, can or ought to submit to wrong.

Intelligence - Part IV

I have no idea how many parts there will be. I’ll just keep talking. (Cue snark from readers)
I have been converging on an idea of intelligence that includes adaptability, not just pattern-recognition. So, who’s got it? Who can we point to, especially among people running the companies we work for and invest in, or running the areas we live in, that we want to follow?

It is much harder to tell than I thought at first glance. Adventurous, flexible thinkers sometimes turn out to be the worst at adapting, because they become attached to their own ideas, those patterns they cleverly saw before the rest of us. Even retrospective analysis doesn’t help as much as we’d like. A leader can be the only cow in the pasture who recognises what the new slaughterhouse is for, the only one who figures out that the new paradigm is Escape or Die, but still pick a plan for escape that doesn’t work. A congential radical who loves to throw out the conventional wisdom might rebuild from scratch when only 20% of the old method needed to be abandoned. Heck, some people just get lucky and look like geniuses. If you interview the CEO’s that succeeded or the people next door who became millionaires, they will give you irrelevant advice. At best, they will identify some things that are necessary but not sufficient for success. The proof of this is that other people in their cohort did exactly the same things as they advise but did not succeed. Seven habits of successful people – except that a lot of less-successful people have those habits, too. Five steps for church growth – but a lot of churches did the same things and didn’t grow. Retrospective analysis hides more than half the data. So even success is not an indicator of adaptability, nor failure a disqualifier.

Still, I should make some attempt, no matter how flawed, to guess at who might be good at this. David Petraeus looks good at the moment. He took a stalemated partial success in Iraq and turned it into a victory with a change in tactics. Better still, everything he says suggests that he still sees the need to adapt and readapt to changing situations. We back home are ready to oversimplify and say “Yippee! We’ve won! Let’s go fishin’!” and Petraeus is still adapting. But if the situation changes again, does the brilliant general have the ability to see that the new old way isn’t working and change again? We don’t know.

That we can offer only a tentative grade on George Bush after 8 years of his presidency highlights how difficult and ambiguous the question is. I rate him below-average on this score. It is true that he has had to make adjustments so enormous that few others will see their like, and done that well. But readjusting to changing circumstances has been less good. Politics comes into play, because even a minor adjustment was pounced on by the opposition as an admission that the administration had failed originally. One more circumstance to adjust to, I suppose. But deciding that the original plan was good – the original SecDef, the original SoS, the long trail through the UN resolutions and the Iraqi elections and the flypaper theory – I don’t think he adjusted to these well. I think George Bush has responded to economic situations well, even brilliantly at first. But the readjustments have not been there. The ability to say “erase the board, rethink everything” has not been evident.

We also don’t know – at least, I don’t - if the ability generalises well, if the researcher who bounces back professionally when his developments become obsolete can also rearrange his life around the sudden financial reverses.

Oh, To Be Young Again

Reading the biographical information on Sigmund Freud and CS Lewis is Nicholi’s The Question of God, (and less literarily, driving a friend's 16 year old to orchestra practice) I was reminded of how different things look from the perspective of age. Time travel or masquerading as a younger person are both common literary devices, and on a more prosaic level, many people say “If only I knew then what I know now,” or “If I had to do over again…” The fantasy is apparently quite natural.

Those of us with vivid imaginations, especially those with a storytelling bent, have the problem of fantasising too well. Normal people imagine only the fun parts of being 15 again – putting every penny you can find on the Mets to win it all in 1969 at 100-1 odds; dating that girl you now know in retrospect would sleep with anyone, even you; saving the world from disaster with your prescience. Those of us with darker imaginations go too quickly to what it would really be like. To be fifteen with a fifty-five-year-old’s mind – who could you talk to? Who would be your friend? The people you spent most of your waking hours with would be unimaginably boring and irritating. Those elders with whom you would have a more natural rapport would never perceive that – they would be unable to see beyond the body, even if they thought you a particularly fine and mature specimen of teenagehood. Those in-between would be most infuriating of all: they would condescend as if they were doing you some honor to even treat with one so young, yet they would be callow to your eyes. It would be hellish.

Fortunately, being over-realistic can provide escape hatches as well. I did think of a place, a profession, a life that could be lived, that might deliver you from that misery. Think about it. You may come up with a better idea than mine.

International News Crisis

Dateline New York, London, Paris: With American and world markets still reeling from a financial crisis based on the uncertain value of subprime mortgages, journalists took a second hit today when it was revealed that much of their subprime news is defaulting at a higher-than-advertised rate.

“These news traders are like anyone else” an internet spokesman explained today. “They have been exchanging complex news derivatives and making a reputation for themselves. No one wanted to ask the real value of the underlying news. Everyone had an interest in pretending that everything was fine. This led to a “news bubble” where news speculators were artificially driving up the value.”

“No one knows what these news derivatives are worth,” a news industry official speaking on condition of anonymity admitted. “The smaller news sources – your sports scores, local elections, and police reports – we think those still have value. It’s the big news outlets like the Associated Press and the NY Times that are in trouble. They’re holding a lot of Obama and McCain news that they’ve invested in heavily. These have been repackaged and sold to other outlets on the secondary market.”

News-watchers have begun to ask whether a government bailout, including increased congressional oversight might be in store. Sources close to the president acknowledged that the idea had been discussed, but the administration was leaning toward letting the information market take its natural course. “This president is reluctant to intervene with heavy-handed government controls. If some news organizations have invested in bad news, they should be the ones to bear the responsibility of that, not the American people.” Congressional leaders, however, are adopting a more aggressive tone. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are both considering legislation to set the value of news. “We’ll tell them what it’s worth,” an anonymous staffer declared. “We’ll buy up all the news and decide what’s valuable for the American people to know and what isn’t, then sell it back to the press. The American people have the right to be told what their news is worth without having big corporations making those decisions behind closed doors.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

ABBA's Revenge

Ever since my post with video clips of ABBA vs. The Mamas and the Papas, I have had "Take A Chance On Me" running through my head.

Intelligence - Part III

I am not writing this series because I am a world-class expert on the subject of what constitutes intelligence, but because my views are slowly changing. (I might be a county-class expert on intelligence). Had I not read Taleb’s The Black Swan, I doubt I could have accepted the Palin candidacy with grace. My son Ben is tired of the Palin discussions, and I promise not to stay on the topic long. I fully admit that if the Democrats had done something similar, I would be more likely to consider it a stunt and less likely to consider her candidacy seriously.

But the thought was already growing in my mind that defining pure intelligence as g-factor, that patern-recognition, analogy creating, platonicity was a limitation. I had long been suspicious of top-down central planning, which always looks so plausible but has a poor track record. Taleb’s writing, pointing out the besetting dangers of such intelligence took me a step further. “Smart” people create a different type of errors. They become enamored of a pattern or theory and push it forward in spite of contrary evidence.

Well, sometimes that works. Confidence and perseverance can be good things. But it can also be catastrophic.

Some systems are so complex that patterns do not hold very well. There are weather cycles that are fairly consistent and predictive – seasons, El Nino, monsoons – but even these admit of considerable variation. There are too many interactive variables to make solid predictions. We have gotten much better, but still have surprises.

The economy is even more complex. One of the reasons that Taleb has contempt for most economists is that they believe they can reduce complicated, unpredictable events into some manageable form. They see patterns that aren’t there, or more precisely, are there only in certain circumstances or for a limited period of time. Economists overestimate how well the predictors will work. It is not that there are no patterns, or that there is no value in their knowledge, but that acting as if we know when we have overrun the limits of our knowledge in a crisis is dangerous.

A reasonably smart person who doesn’t have a pattern locked in her head, who is simply looking at the situation cold and trying to manage or adjust the crisis, will do better than the smarter person with a Theory they can’t let go of. The former won’t always get it right either, and will make some errors that the Theory person wouldn’t. The Theory people will then articulate what went wrong and how they would never make that mistake, and convince us that we should stop listening to those seat-of-the-pants people and listen to them, the experts. And this will work great until it stops working, at which point we will have…

You know what we will have: a hundred economists choosing up teams and telling us a dozen different reasons why we had a financial crisis. Each of those explanations will sound entirely plausible while you are listening to it. You will know with assurance that if you got into a live argument with any one of these people they would mop the floor with you, because they know this much better than you do. You would have to leave the debate floor in ignominious defeat, revealed as a fool. And yet… and yet I didn’t recently cost the American people $700,000,000,000, did I? No, it took smart people, Nobel prize winners in economics to do that. One of the small comforts of this whole crisis is also one of the most depressing aspects. There was very little criminality, very little fraud, in this whole mess. People stretched rules, but they didn’t break them. It was bad ideas that brought us to this pass.

No, it was good ideas, arrogantly imposed beyond their usefulness, which brought us to this pass. It wasn’t that these subprime mortgages were all bad loans, which anyone could have seen. Most of them have not defaulted, and will turn out to be good loans. Most of those people are still making payments. They will be homeowners and have escaped from the cycle of poverty (if you’re a Democrat) or become part of the ownership society (if you’re a Republican). It’s just that as a group these loans defaulted at a higher rate, and because we’re not sure what the final numbers on that will be – thirty years from now – we don’t know what complex derivatives that include them are worth, so no one wants to buy or sell them anymore.

Off the rant, on to the general discussion.

Pattern recognition is intelligence*. So is pattern elimination, but it’s usually much less fun. There is a certain emotional kick we get from insight, of believing we have understood some new portion of the chaotic world around us. We like that feeling so much we strive for it. We seek it out, latching on to plausible explanations. Hence, new diets. Hence, alternative medicine. Hence, management techniques, Christian living seminars, EMDR, Values Clarification, new math, tough love, and every other one-step solution that we like.

Eliminating a pattern can have the opposite emotional impact. We move from a place of assurance to a place of doubt, exposing ourselves to the sharp winds of reality. There can be compensations, of course. Eliminating someone else’s pattern, or seeing through a common misconception can be very satisfying. Yet this is chancier. We are still then left staring into the chaos, squinting to see what new pattern might be there, now that the old one is gone.

Some professions actively encourage pattern destruction as well as pattern creation in their training and practice. Medicine is one, most types of engineering another. Anthropology is notoriously resistant to abandoning ideas. New ideas are admitted for discussion, but their proponents usually have to wait until the old guard dies off before they get control of the introductory textbooks. People don’t change their minds a lot. They have their pet theory that they are known for or have sided with, and all their effort goes into defending their idea and attacking the others. This is also true of the arts and literature. A professor who reads from a marxist feminist perspective in 1982 will still be reading from a marxist feminist perspective in 2002 and 2022. She will have added and subtracted a few things along the way, but the central premises will be intact. Religion is a mix, showing both faddism and stability.
Foreign policy is an area where different groups or schools of thought have theories they believe should be adhered to. America should never go to war unless…We should be willing to trade with any nation that…Dictators always…Eastern European countries want us to…All of these are great examples of patterns that work great every time until they suddenly don’t. When patterns suddenly don’t work, the most dangerous person in the room is the one who says “But it has to work. Try it again. Again. It will work eventually if we just keep at it.”

I have a rule of thumb that an expert in any field is defined as one who knows when you can force something, and when you absolutely should not force it. Plumbers, salesmen, coaches, therapists, designers, parents, poets – the expert is the one who knows, partly on the basis of principles but equally on the basis of native intelligence, experience, or intuition, that the standard rules don’t cover this situation.

* Thus the standardised test questions Horse: Colt :: Cow: ? These are pattern questions. Even fill-in-the-blank vocabulary or What Is The Best Title questions are pattern questions, illustrating that you pick up the patterns of language use. The tests themselves are patterns of a subtler type, which is why “test-taking ability” is not necessarily an unfair advantage. After taking a few of these things, you should be picking up what the rules of fair questioning are. When they are asking you for the best answer, they are not going to throw you an all-of-the-above or none-of-the-above. It’s too ambiguous. It’s not clean. This is why these tests measure one type of intelligence very well, but fall short in predicting how people will do in ambiguous situations. As everything in life is patterned and predictable until the day that it isn’t, that’s a serious limitation of the tests.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Leave One Blank

I mentioned in August 2007 that because we can't have a negative vote to get rid of a person from our own party (I still have Ted Stevens on the top of my list), and we're not going to have sortition anytime soon, the only real protest vote you can cast after the primary is to leave one blank.

I haven't decided which one I'm going to leave blank this time around. I'm sure it won't be Sununu, but all the others are still up for grabs. I'm not thrilled with Jeb Bradley - but I really want Carol Shea-Porter gone. I don't mind Lynch, but I am quite partial to Kenney. I doubt I'll leave the top of the ticket blank, but you never know.


Remember in 2000, when the newspapers and talking heads were so concerned with how much money George Bush had raised for his campaign, so that they accused him of essentially buying the election?

Remember in 2006 the household names for Republican scandals? Can anyone name the Democrats currently involved in scandals?

Remember in 1996 how we were told that we should want divided government between the parties by those same papers/heads?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Intelligence - Part II

We didn't call them SAT I and SAT II when I was in school. We called them boards and achievements, with "college boards" being rather a generic that included them both. I did well on my boards my junior year - never took them senior year. But I did better on my Math I and Math II achievements. A friend introduced me to her sister as "that guy that got xxx's on his college boards," quoting my achievements numbers instead. I liked that new number better, and just sorta shifted over into using that number instead. By college, I had locked it in as a show-stopper.

I don't blame the girl for any of it. I'm sure something similar would have occurred to me on my own eventually. My reasoning was a lot like Gollum's laying claim to taking the ring from Deagol: Well I did get xxx's on my achievements. And if I had taken the boards senior year I might well have gotten xxx's. So taking one thing and another, it's not really, really a lie.

There were other high-ceiling IQ tests that showed up a decade later, by Kevin Langdon and Ron Hoeflin. I took those and kept the higher one. Not dishonest. Just not really honest, either. Because of that higher score I joined one of those obscure groups of people who do that. I wrote for the newsletter, corresponded with other members, and even got elected to office of one of them. I also took a WAIS-R, but knew it was invalid even as I was answering. I had read dozens of psych testing reports that referenced answers in passing. I don't know how much advantage that was, because those were mostly in my strong areas anyway, but it's just invalid.

The whole thing looks even more pathetic when you realise that my bragged scores don't mean anything more than my real ones. They just sound better. Whatever they measure, I've got that. I've got lots of it - and I can assure you it is overrated. I got distracted for years into the argument that the tests don't measure anything real - they do; g-factor has been demonstrated about as thoroughly as anything you can't do a blood test for. But the real thing that they measure is double-edged.

If you were to oversimplify g-factor into a handy concept, it would be pattern recognition. It's useful in a wide variety of areas. Sensing a pattern through the noise and creating an hypothesis to test is what we usually call "smart" in any area. The blue ones hold up best, the green and purple ones hold up pretty well, the red ones suck - I think blueness is the key to stability here. Patterns are what we talk about in arguing economics, foreign policy, demography, crime reduction - all of politics. If you don't do A, then terrorists will B. For every N% you cut taxes, you get M% increase in GDP. Which patterns are real is what we differ about in most areas.

In Intelligence Part I, I noted "Nescience (not having knowledge) can create all manner of trouble, but false pattern recognition (believing predictions that aren't true) will be catastrophic. Such as, oh, believing that subprime mortgages are valuable to hold, if you've got enough of them to distribute the risk. If you see a pattern where there is none, or miss the real pattern, you won't just get a wrong answer. You will keep getting wrong answers over and over, and you won't quit. Smart people can create far more damage than mere fools. They set up government programs that don't work but never end. They run major corporations into the ground.

Anyone who has ever been in conversation with me knows that this is what I do - the second type of fool that is brilliant, provocative, insightful - potentially disastrous. Talking with me will give you all manner of new insights into any topic that interests you. I will hit upon a thread, a pattern, an analogy that creates sudden illumination. Let me assure you that you don't want me to be actually in charge of anything important. I will run a brilliant idea into the ground until all around me is destroyed. I'm a good advisor, a terrible leader. Don't ever do what I suggest. Just take it under consideration. It has not been accidental that I encouraged my sons to make their own decisions and live with the consequences far earlier than their peers, even though I keep giving advice.

Taleb gives a great example early on in The Black Swan. (Keep these three groups in your head: The Poor Reasoners whose opinions are based on random ideas they've picked up; The Smart Guys, who have plausible theories for what they believe; The Fat Tony's, who try not to make theories but just deal with what comes. We'll be using them for the rest of the discussion). Suppose you are flipping a fair coin and recording the answers. If you flip three heads in a row, fools who don't understand probability will say that you are "due" to flip tails, and so rate that as a higher than 50% chance. Four heads? Even more "due." Five? Now you're really, really due. Eventually, a tail will be flipped and the meathead will believe his theory has been proven. People who know probability, the even bigger fools, know that it's a 50/50 chance every time. After seven straight heads? Sure, 50/50. Ninety-nine heads? Yeah, 50/50. Of course.

Enter Fat Tony (a composite of real traders Taleb knows), who is not a fool. "Ninety-nine heads in a row? There's something wrong with that coin. I'll bet it comes up heads again." No, no, Tony you fool! The problem specifies... "I don't care what the problem specifies. You get ninety-nine heads in a row, there's something wrong with the coin." Fat Tony has it right. All the arguments by the smart people that in a limited number of cases, statistically, computers can generate 99 heads in a row if you let them run long enough - those people are going to be screwed, and they will screw everyone who follows them. Fat Tony won't. He knows that the chances are greater that someone has done something to the rules. Something is wrong with the theory. Back off. Rethink.

I spent much of my life trying to be one of the second group - the bigger fools. Now I'm trying to be more like Tony. Not that the Tony's of the world are always right, either. There's no guarantee that just because you avoid being too-clever-by-half that you are really one of the smart ones of the world.

Yes, this has political implications in all the recent discussions about whether Sarah Palin has the goods to be president-if-necessary, versus Obama being president-for-sure. Palin is in either the first or third group. We hope the latter. McCain is in the second group, with we hope some of the third. Obama and Biden are second group to the core. They don't even know the third group exists. Progressives in general believe there are only the first two groups, and don't see that the second is dangerous. Even McCain has far too much of that for my taste. Bush is a mix. The Clintons are a fascinating mix, worthy of discussion in a separate post.

And I willingly concede that Palin might be in the first group of more minor fools, rather than the canny Fat Tony. We don't know. She has shown some of both, the mere fool and the Fat Tony; being a Bigger Fool by birth and training I don't have the skills to sort that out. The frustration is that the argument is being carried on with people who do not see that the third group exists. They think the second group is the height of wisdom.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Tim Sample

For those who like the Bert & I style Downeast humor of Maine, Neco Dracones has three Tim Sample videos. I listen to this and can't get past the thought "Bob Bond," my son's father-in-law who lives in Jackson, New Hampsha, just over the border from Maine.

Intelligence - Part I

Nescience can create all manner of trouble, but false pattern recognition will be catastrophic.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Whole Hog - With Pain

Yeah, I like being ironic with the ABBA pictures, because everyone knew, I mean just knew and you didn't even have to explain it, that ABBA was an uncool, toothy, pop band. Ewww.

The Mamas and the Papas, though, they were cool. Everyone knew that.

Except now I'm not seeing a definable difference. My own irony bites me back.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Okay, Maybe I've Changed My Mind

I just said that the ACORN registrations were no big deal.

Maybe I was premature in that. 200,000 suspect registrations?

Update: This is where the sheer mass of numbers start to create importance. Let us assume that 90% of those 200K are legitimate registrations with a technical error, such as two numbers transposed in the SSN or something. Then assume that of the remaining 20,000, 90% don't show up to vote. That's still 2,000 votes fraudulent votes.

O Bloody Hell's comment is a good one: if they don't think they are going to turn into some votes, why do they put so much energy into these registrations?

Palin Rally

We attended the Sarah Palin rally in Salem tonight, Tracy, Heidi, Emily, and I. I have never been to a political rally before. I think she gave what used to be called a stump speech - nothing new, touched all the bases, a few bits of local interest for the crowd. It was well-delivered. A few laugh lines. I am pleased that her voice does not irritate me as it did at first. There were a few Obama supporters in Hallowe'en masks - something about how scary McCain's health care plan is. I was glad to see them there, as few and as lame as they were. This is America, and I hope there are a few McCain people at every Obama rally as well, even if they are equally lame.

I wish I were EB White, able to evoke the scene for you.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The McCain/Frank Proposal

I have four principles, which increase in complexity, that have provided me with great explanatory power over the last two decades.

1. Democrats lie.
2. Republicans screw up.
3. Libertarians have the right idea, but get carried away.
4. There are a few misunderstood geniuses in every age who get important details wrong, but get a few things so stunningly right that they move us forward.

Regular readers know that I am a big fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan. I think he's one of the geniuses in Principle #4. Taleb's blog, Fooled By Randomness contains post after post of counterintuitive ideas. These are so good that I cannot do more than half-a-dozen at a time. There is simply too much that is new, too much "Whoa! I never thought of that possibility."

Taleb dislikes economists, and only agreed to take his new position as Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at NYU Polytechnic on the agreement that no economists would be allowed into the building he works in. Very, very occasionally, he will say something nice about an economist, but usually, he mentions them only to illustrate how consistently wrong they are about, oh, crises like the one we're in now. Such things intrigue me. I know the Econ 101 basics and a few other things, but economists baffle me. I respect Harvard's Greg Mankiw, who used to advise Bush but now criticises him. Like a good conservative, I thought I was supposed to sniff at everything Paul Krugman says, but have been reading conservative economists approving of his Nobel Prize, based on earlier work. I don't know who the hell to believe, so when someone like Taleb comes along and says "ignore all of them, especially the Nobel winners," it seems attractive. What a relief that would be, to be smarter than all the rest of you by knowing nothing. I am reminded of Milo's nightmare in "Bloom County," where he was to be tormented by two economists discussing all night whether the deficit was important. Anything but that.

So I am primed to like what Taleb likes. One of the people that Taleb likes is Arthur DeVany, professor emeritus at UCal- Irvine in Mathematical Behavioral Sciences. DeVany has an equal number of counterintuitive ideas, including stochastic eating and sleeping, evolutionary fitness, and the utter randomness of what movies will be hits.

Digression to set the stage for what follows: Like many conservatives, I have been frustrated by John McCain on the economy lately. What we like about McCain is that on foreign policy he will be firm but not brutal. We know it is in his bones, and if he does something in that area that puzzles us, we will trust him. But on the economy, he does not have conservative principles in his bones. Lord knows what are in his bones there. Does he have bones there? Conservatives don't automatically accept everything that McCain says about the economy, but neither do we automatically reject it. Who knows what the hell he's thinking? And Barney Frank - Barney F-in' Frank, one of the primary people who got us into this mess, I always figure that what he says about the economy, I want the opposite. How bad could that be?

Browsing along in DeVany's discussion of how the idiots in Washington screwed us royally on this financial crisis, and what he thinks should be done, I encounter the following line, in reference to his own very persuasive proposal:
In its basics, this solution is not far removed from a shared appreciation scheme that I think Barney Frank and John McCain have proposed.
Well knock me over with a feather.

Go back to my four principles. I have no idea how to fit this in.

ACORN: As a Practical Matter... big deal. It's a pretty inefficient way to grab votes. Let Democrats waste their energy on it.

It goes against the grain to say that for those of us who are concerned with principle as well as practical effect. Also, the fact that it is unlikely to make much difference does not mean that it is impossible that all may hang on it. Voter registration fraud is far less bad than voter fraud, but it still cheapens the legitimate votes. Counterfeit money pushes down the value of the real.

Republicans reason that votes of the homeless and street people are going to tend Democratic, so inflating those numbers are going to generally increase votes for Democrats. Fraudulently. This irks us no end. Seeing the numbers of fraudulent registrations mounting into the thousands raises the specter that those registrations could at least theoretically turn into votes. Appalling.

Democrats like to encourage ACORN because they see the same numbers. They have some interest in winking at fraud; the Republicans have a stake in preventing it.

Tangentially, wouldn't we all like to have an alternate universe where counterfactuals are played out, to observe whether the Republicans and Democrats would switch places on the purging the rolls/inflating the rolls question if poor people were more likely to vote the other way? We can only speculate.

But what are these numbers really? The street-level employee of ACORN needs quantity, quota. Whatever his superiors might hope about increasing votes for Democrats, whatever he may hope himself, he has a financial incentive not to trash Republican registrations. Furthermore, getting caught at that would be far more a criminal problem than merely not scrutinizing registrations that have the right boxes checked but may be suspect. Bad press. Big problem.

Those registrations of the underserved poor may lean Democrat, but they are not 100% Democrat. Anyone who has tried to persuade homeless or marginal people of anything knows it's not a sure bet. If they just wanted Democratic registrations and were going to somehow lose all the Republican ones, they'd send their people everywhere - shopping malls, boat marinas, synagogues. Clearly, some folks at ACORN genuinely want the poor to be registered, and voting as they hope is simply a bonus. Whether that is 10% of the people at ACORN or 90%, I don't know. But that's how they run their show.

So you get 5000 registrations, and you know that most of them are bogus. How many of those can you turn into votes? How many cartons of cigarettes and minibuses are you going to need to make this go? And how will you hide that in the billing?

Interesting personal note: Chris was registered to vote in NH, but moved to Texas August 2007. When I went to vote here in NH in March, his name was still on the rolls. I told them he had moved. Honor system. I had done this before when Jonathan and Ben had moved. I don't think Chris has done anything about this since moving back. He's going to show up to vote (maybe. He's 21, right?) and maybe not be allowed to. Or maybe will be. He could probably vote in both Texas and NH if he worked at it with absentee ballots. How likely is that?

Who's the guy in Cleveland that's going to find people to shuttle around all day to vote in 6 precincts each? How many will still be agreeing to wait in line at the fourth stop? I think that is a great use of time for Democratic volunteers on election day. Knock yourself out. Keep working with homeless people getting them to do something abstract for their own good and you'll be a conservative in five years.

Isaac in Special Needs

I don't doubt that many adult Bible studies and Sunday School classes are among the most dogmatic, irritating places to be caught - just as the stereotype suggests. But that has not been my experience. I am sure my selection bias is great, but I have had no other type of discussion - college bull session, barroom, online comments, work lunches, private parties, classroom - that approaches the adult studies I have attended in my life for openness, intellectual adventure, and non-defensiveness. Christians are certainly subject to the same conceits, hobbyhorses, and crusades as everyone else, but a good Bible study has a feature that can override these.

People want to get it right. No one likes to have to eat their words, be proved wrong, or have their points neglected or misunderstood. But sometimes folks will put up with all of that, because getting the right understanding is of primary importance.

This week I preached on Abraham's binding of Isaac for sacrifice (I didn't get it down to 10 minutes; twelve, I think), and by design, the adult class was discussing that section of Genesis in the context of Petersen's The Jesus Way. One of the participants raised the question of whether Isaac was slow or limited in some way; if he was "a special needs kiddo." We shy away from such a thought initially, but it's not like God didn't do stuff like this a lot in the genealogy of Jesus. Foreigners, prostitutes, adulterers, murderers - they're all in there. Why not a simpleton as well.

As Isaac speaks in several places, we are not talking severe developmental disability here. But the possibility that he is a slow learner offers a possible explanation of what occurs to him. His trust in Abraham is dramatic - not quite sensible. I don't deny the possibility that Isaac had some great faith in his father that is part of the story of faith we are to learn. But the two are not mutually exclusive.

Isaac's own son tricks him with a rather simple ruse later on. Yes, Isaac was old; yes he was hungry; but...still. A goatskin? Jacob knew his mark, as did Rebecca. Rebecca's implied contempt for her husband is also explained if Isaac is limited. She gets into this arranged marriage, finds out that the new husband is wealthy and devout but not her equal in intellect - a growing manipulation and condescension might be the natural result, even in a society where women did not ordinarily have high status or authority. Her ability to control him may in fact have saved his bacon many times over the years, and few of us can resist such temptations long.

Huh. Jacob is quite a bit like his great-uncle Lot, isn't he?

Also, Isaac does not send the servant out to find him a wife, Abraham does that. In fact, Abraham trusts this head servant at several junctures where he might be expected to confer with his oldest son instead. Odd.

It gives a different view of the faith of Abraham. He waits a hundred years, God proves his faithfulness by giving him Isaac. But gradually, he comes to suspect that something is not quite right. Is this my legacy? I am to be the father of nations through...him? I don't understand. But Isaac lives on, first child, inheritor. And not too swift. Yet God keeps nudging Abraham: You trusted Me before and I did the impossible. Trust Me again.

In my sermon, I wondered how Abraham had heard God at all. We make excuses, find rationalizations, and hear what we want to hear. Somehow Abraham stuck with it, wanting the right answer, through all the up and down emotions that say "Surely this must be God's will! Surely this can't be God's will!" For anyone who has had a large decision and honestly sought God's direction, you know that there's a lot of noise interfering with the signal, a lot of breaking things down and starting again; leaping, hesitating; embracing, rejecting. God says "Go forward."

So is this how the prophecy is to be fulfilled? I sacrifice this one, God provides another, even later in life? Or have I misheard? Maybe God means some other kind of sacrifice, of letting him go on his own, or a blood-covenant the boy and I share. And God says "Go forward."

The fantasies grow darker here. If the boy Isaac was so obviously a hopeless simpleton, part of Abraham may have even wanted him out of the way, clearing the space for a better one, a more fit legacy. And yet, your boy...good and gentle and the great miracle of your life. I shall refuse. God will have to do some different miracle, I'll not sacrifice any human, certainly not my Isaac, my laughter, my treasure.

We are not told what temptations are whispered in Abraham's ear - Genesis stories tend to be multilayered, but not infinitely so. Perhaps the devil himself wondered what was up, uncertain what appalling humility was in the works. Which way to tempt? What's my goal here? Such puzzlement may be echoed in the NT, when Satan tempts Jesus in odd, probing ways. We usually teach that story as if the Prince of Darkness has a clear plan he's trying to steer this Jesus to. Yet perhaps...perhaps he was also guessing at that point.

Whatever was whispered, it cannot have made things any clearer for Abraham. What he most fears, what he secretly wants that he cannot admit; what he refuses to consider, what he must do.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Conversational Trump Card

My wife won gift certificates to the Barley House - she calls radio stations and wins stuff often - so we had a wonderful dinner for $.65 plus tip. I ordered a Guinness, which when it arrived had been poured so perfectly it looked artificial. The guy at the next table echoed my wife's comment that it was too perfect to touch.

He then mentioned he had toured the Guinness facility in Ireland in the 1960's when they still did most of it by hand. There simply is no trump comment to that. We narcissists are finely attuned to one-upmanship, but he had started at a level that blows out all competition. Where do you go from there? Ah yes, my son Benjamin was named after the earl, who was his godfather. He might have been on that tour with you. Bit of an eccentric, liked to go about disguised as a hops-loader.

No, there's nothing for it. The man turned out to be a Southern Californian up with his wife to see the foliage and was a very pleasant conversationalist. But even had he turned out to be a boring blowhard, he had scored sublimely with his opening gambit.

Tough Autumn

The Onion brings the grim news.

(HT: neoneocon)


Should I add it to my blog? Is that selling out to The Man or something?


So. The investigator's report concludes that "Governor Palin's firing of Commissioner Monegan was a proper and lawful exercise of her constitutional and statutory authority to hire and fire executive branch department heads," but the investigator also wants to tell you it was really a violation of an ethics law.

Which part is getting reported in the MSM? I don't want to keep seeing the same hands every time, here.

Friday, October 10, 2008

What If It's Not Greed?

With the sharpish global downturn in the financial sector, all parties look for someone to blame. It is not enough to see those accused as merely wrong, foolish, misinformed, or the like. We have to see them as evil. Like those urban legends where the misbehavers get their just desserts, we construct a sin-narrative about these people. This reassures us that we, the good people, are far less susceptible to such things. We might get damaged in the spillage, but it wasn't our fault. If we don't have full immunity against such things, we at least have improved chances.

Christians love this - okay, some Christians love this. The wages of sin? Why - that's our specialty. This is our hour. We are called forth to preach to a wicked world. Greed, greed. Bad greed. Bad, bad greed. We always told you, but you wouldn't listen. Repent sinners! This nation and all its greedy, materialistic values must mend its ways!

The Religious Left loves this stuff. Their progressive politics, which in some cases is their real religion, coincides with a biblical theme. Oh frabjous day. Calloo, Callay. We don't get front page articles quoting us that often and have to let go with both barrels.

Not that the Religious Right can keep their hands off the topic. Greed may not be their #1 sin to preach about, but it's well up there. And if we can just get your attention on that one, maybe we can work some others in. It's an easy segue to "mindless pursuit of pleasure," and the liberals will nod along with that for quite awhile, too.

Yep, it's greed that caused all this financial crisis. Everyone knows that.

I am reflexively suspicious of what "everyone knows" so I wonder: what if it's not true? What if it's not greed?

Greed can cause people to underestimate risk, but that doesn't mean that everyone who underestimates risk is greedy. Some got bad information, or bad education. Some are congenitally overconfident, or arrogant. Some love the excitement. Some aren't that smart. Some were suspicious of this right along but were persuaded against their better judgment. Some were in businesses where the margins are so slim that you pretty much have to stay within range of the risks everyone else is taking, or you go out of business long before a crash.

Efficiency is essentially fragile, Nicholas Taleb tells us. If your company perfects its just-in-time delivery so that you don't need a lot of warehouse space, you can sell for a lower price for years until something gums up the system. You're screwed then, but several of your competitors went out of business before you even got that far. People take out adjustable-rate mortgages because the rate is cheaper now. You're making a bet - that your income will increase faster than the mortgage payment. Sometimes that's a good bet. There are folks out there now who are still hanging on, paying that mortgage, even though they took out one of those loans we now call risky and unwarranted. Are they greedy? Some of them aren't even imprudent. They're going to make those payments, buy that small house, and have a moderate prosperity because of their perseverance and hard work. In fact, the majority of those people we are calling poor risks are going to make it through to the end. They aren't all defaulting, it's just that a greater percentage of them are defaulting than the banks bargained for.

What about those evil lenders and mortgage repackagers, then? Aren't they greedy? Some. But when you consider, as above, that most of those loans are going to pan out they have actually provided a service to some less-prosperous people that they couldn't get elsewhere. They underestimated the risk. Is that evil? There are those who in their arrogance kept assuring others that they had accurately estimated the risk and kept this house of cards building higher, but that may be more conceit than greed.

Yes, that may be a worse sin. But not the same sin. And how culpable are those who believed them? Those risk management experts have degrees and charts and enormous confidence in their tools. Any of you who think it is evil to be persuaded by such people should review the candidates you've voted for over the last two decades. Or the cars you've bought.

It just torques us off when the Wrong People make money in this world that we rejoice in their misery, calling them greedy and evil. Put crudely, that's sort of a spiritual masturbation on our part.

Now that - that really is a sin.

State Route Signs

Most states have nice boring signs for their numbered routes, with either the state outline or name, or just a boring black-and-white geometric.

Several states got cute.


Welcome To My Job

"Sometimes when I say things," said the psych nurse "I realize that the combination of words coming out of my mouth are something I never dreamed I would say in my life." Quite true, as this was in reference to her immediately previous comment "Well, he did have a packet of chewing tobacco stuffed up his butt."

We were wondering if he had smuggled in any other contraband, and so had done a drug screen as well. "The proof is in the urine." the psychiatrist noted.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Post 1500 - The Blank Slate

Dr. Joy Bliss over at Maggie's Farm has some discussion about the perniciousness of the blank slate theory of human development. Included is a marvelous video by Steven Pinker on the heritability of human nature.

1. The Arts & Humanities Tribe is kicked - by name - by Pinker.
2. Virginia Woolf gets an extra kick
3. Cool stories about identical twins reared apart

Downside: learning that all the time and energy I put into my kids was pretty much wasted, at least in terms of how they turned out. Had I known that, well...I don't know what I would have done instead. I probably would have done pretty much the same, just not been nervous about it.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Hiding Out In The Open

Sometimes, if we want to avoid being noticed, the best place to hide is in plain sight. To avoid accusation for something you really want to hide, one strategy is to voluntarily confess something lesser or unrelated. Skillfully done, that admission can suck up all the oxygen in the room and keep people from asking more questions. They might even feel that they’ve gotten more intimate details of your life than they wanted to know, and actively avoid digging deeper.

Even with God, confessing our little narrow circle of sins can be a way of not listening to what God is really concerned about. I am really sorry about A. Really, really sorry about B. Really, really, really sorry about C. Prayer time is up before we can get to D, E, F.
The Christian comedian Mike Warnke used to do this, confessing his horrible, what-a-bad-dude-I-was sins, enough so that it was years before people picked up that the bulk of his autobiography was untrue.

It becomes second nature, an automatic strategy for eluding detection. I know. I’ve done it myself. (In fact I should do a post about my own lies, shouldn’t I? Soon. I hope I mean that.)

Barack Obama has written two autobiographies, and they include details about his drug use. Mostly, though, they are about his identity crises. There’s not much about who he did business with, who furthered his career, all those Ayers, Dohrn, Rezko things that are just emerging into the news now. He says they’re not friends, and this could be true, as we have nothing to compare it to. We don’t know who Obama’s friends are. That may not be a bad thing in itself – some people are more naturally aloof and it doesn’t unfit them from most jobs, including the presidency. Richard Nixon had few friends, though he had pleasant relationships with many people.

Perhaps Obama’s drug confessions were a way of distracting attention. I don’t claim to see into the man’s soul, but writing two autobiographies before you’ve accomplished all that much is suggestive of a person who wants to control the flow of information of what people see about him.

Who Is Virginia Woolf Afraid Of?

A common theme of feminism since I was in college is that men are afraid of women’s sexuality. This is abundantly clear in more oppressive societies – what else could burqhas and female genital mutilation mean? But it is fair to level the accusation against the men of more egalitarian societies as well. That the depth and pervasiveness of this is often exaggerated doesn’t refute the central point that it is there. This is perhaps best observed by reading (or watching, if you must) the popular culture of a few decades ago. Sexist comments leap out that would not be accepted in polite company now – yet we denied then that sexism was all that big a problem. By extension, our denial now may be in error. We have already proven that we do not see ourselves as clearly as we think.

With that in mind, where do these frequent complaints by progressives about Sarah Palin’s sexuality originate? What drives that? Sarah Bernhart's gang-rape threat, HuffPo's Michael Seitzman’s bizarre fantasy of sex with Sarah Palin, Cintra Wilson's disturbing screed in Salon - and I thought I had weird fantasies...

I don’t write those off just because they are extreme. 1. They are in respectable venues – HuffPo, Salon. Bernhart's act gets reviewed in the NYTimes. If someone said similar things about Pelosi, Hillary – would they get reviewed as edgy or outrageous in the newspapers? 2. They are humor, often a rich source of uncovering a culture's darker side. 3. Milder versions of exactly the same thing are common.

I imagine you can find things equally vile about prominent progressive women in the comments sections of some right-wing blogs. I haven’t seen them myself, but it’s likely they’re there. But that’s just it – anonymous blog comments are the fringe of the right. You can’t know if the person means it or is assuming a persona. This horror-movie stuff is just part of the menu on the left, however.

These are pretty dark corners of the psyche that are getting uncovered. These aren’t just disagreeing with Palin’s positions. There’s some pretty sick stuff going on here.

Applying the standard of the first paragraph, what is it about her sexuality they are afraid of, that they would be prompted to violent thoughts? What is Virginia Woolf afraid of? Having given birth to five children seems an automatic nomination. Is it the reproductivity part of Sarah Palin’s sexuality that unhinges them? This is a group that has 0.3 children lifetime per woman, after all. I would nominate the huntress aspect of Palin, but the woman warrior has been a trope of lesbian and feminist art for at least two decades. And as for the sex itself being a problem, a quick google of "feminist sexuality" should dispel that. I won't link to half that stuff.

They don’t just disapprove of her sexuality or prefer to make other choices, there is a primitive fear emerging here. Those who doubt that should reread my first paragraph and ask themselves if they are quite sure of their own hearts in this.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Tribal Elders

We prefer to elect tribal elders for POTUS. We predominantly elect them to Governorships, the Senate, and the House as well. There are set paths to becoming an Elder, whether a thane like John McCain, or a counselor like Biden. Even our younger candidates are less outsiders than Young Turks, the rising generation pushing the old guard away before they were quite ready. But even the Young Turks are generally drawn from that pool of young people being groomed for leadership. They might come from an opposition party, with less hope of predictable advancement than the sons and daughters of those in power, but they are still recognizable in form.

Obama is a Young Turk, but clearly from the standard pool of Ivy League, up through the political ranks elders-in-training. There are business pools and military pools training elders as well. Though Bush positioned himself as a contrast to this group, he only differed from them in part. Gore, Kerry, Bush 41, Cheney, Quayle, Dole, Mondale - all these were standard elders. The Clintons were a special case but like Bush, not very unusual in the end. Bill was rather a colonial from Arkansas, educated back in the mother country of Ivy, then sent back out to evangelise his home country with the aid of Hillary, a nearly archetypal tribal elder.

For although it was, and is, a predominantly male eldership it was never exclusively so, and certainly less so now. Eleanor Roosevelt was a tribal elder in a way that Mamie Eisenhower was not. Most female Senators and Governors are from this mold: Elizabeth Dole, Susan Collins, Jennifer Granholm*...Olympia Snowe is a mildly exotic version of the same. A few women in the House escape this mold. Nor is it especially racial. Condi Rice, Colin Powell, and Jesse Jackson are tribal elders. Al Sharpton isn't.

You know where this is going. Sarah Palin is not a tribal elder sort, and that scares the stuffing out of people at some primitive level. She certainly could morph into that role over time, as Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter gradually did. Both of those presidents started elsewhere and had some success before turning to politics. Both had something of the nonstandard about them, but both ultimately settled into tribal elder status.

News anchors and journalists clearly see themselves as tribal elders. They hate the alternative media not because those are Young Turks angling for their positions, but because they want to overturn the tribal elder system altogether (so far).

Palin is not without precedent, however. Ross Perot was never a tribal elder and never became one. Had he been longer in politics he might have become one; the role seems to bend the man. A few candidates come along in each primary - we don't choose them. Jerry Brown and Ralph Nader are tweeners, having moved off early to worship Loki instead of Thor and Freya. To succeed from outside the pool of elders you usually have to be some sort of fusion in your earlier career - the military/entertainment Jesse Ventura or the entertainment/business Arnold Schwarzennegger.

Obama makes much of not looking like the other people on the dollar bills (yeah, like Washington and Franklin would just blend in so well now, y'know?). Palin would not only trump him badly on that score (as would Hillary), she upends the system at a deeper level as well. Whether she goes on to become Vice President or goes back to being Alaska's Governor, she will (likely) slowly take on tribal elder characteristics, as Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir did. But she could still stand apart from that archetype even as she keeps roles that supports it.

*Did you know that Jennifer Granholm was a beauty pageant winner? Shouldn't that disqualify her from being a Democratic, feminist governor?

Maddened Dachshunds

We got these dogs in March, and they have been rather lumpish since. They get excited and yippy when people walk by the house, especially Pippin, but mostly just lie around sleepily waiting for food. From the porch, they have barked at the few squirrels and chipmunks that walk by, and have shown occasional tunneling behavior in the lawn for no apparent reason.

In the last week they have gone nuts. Once their little noses catch the scent of the October air they star racing around, following the paths I have seen the chipmunks on. They snort, they wheeze, they stick their noses into holes and shrubbery. I don't know how long they'd go, but I have given them a full fifteen minutes of them straining at the leash, wearing themselves out, with no letup. These are dogs for whom fifteen minutes a week was a lot of exercise.

Do chipmunks give off more scent when the temperature changes? Do dogs get a stronger desire to fatten up on small game in the fall?

Obama: Sports Fans Should Know Better

Ben over at 10-4 Good Buddy has an astute observation about Obama and Hope. It's one of those things that a village idiot should have seen, but I didn't, which is why I am still an assistant.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Retirement Funds

Well, as of FY2006 the NH Retirement System has one of the worst actuarial funding levels in the country. My wife's and my pensions are both there. Great.

If You Give A Liberal A Cookie

Part I

At my discussion this week about True Patriot, academic censorship came up briefly and incompletely at the end. The English professor referenced that Joe Lieberman had been in the NYTimes after 9-11 with a report of what various college professors had said against the war, quoting many. She clearly found this appalling and chilling, to think that the government was going to be publishing what she was saying with the implied "We're Watching You" threat. She had already previously said that evening that she didn't like slippery-slope arguments, so I challenged that. What do you think was going to happen? What actually came from that?

Dale, the other professor and a friend of mine, told me very seriously, as if I were a person who did not understand the gravity of this, that whenever St. A's brings in a pro-choice speaker the college gets calls from alums saying they will never give money to the college again, and protesters sometimes block the roads, preventing students from getting back to their dorms. The most liberal of the attendees lectured me with some anger that if I didn't have a problem with that, I didn't know what America was all about. I told them they were making mountains out of molehills.

At the time, I was only trying to show that these events were relatively minor. Their dark pictures of mobs getting violent or government thugs dropping nasty hints to college professors were a result of their fevered imaginings, not reality.

I should note at this juncture that I understood their disquiet and at that moment agreed with their belief that if this type of thing extended, it would be a Free Speech chilling problem for society. Yet having questioned part of their premise, it was easier to step back and question their entire structure. This led to my introductory post whether the academy is the best place for free discussion in our current culture.

To round out that discussion, here is the report by Lieberman the professor was talking about. Some discussion of it is here. You can see that the professorial quotes are not just any quotes against the war, or the Bush administration, or even America's flaws. Many are of the extreme nature of the New Mexico prof who said "anyone who bombs the Pentagon has my vote." But even that wasn't consequated in any way except bad publicity. I understand the mindset that believes even these should be protected statements in the academy, as the slippery slope leads to firings, disciplinary actions, and threats. But let's first notice the obvious but neglected point that not every professor or statement opposing the war or the administration or criticising America was even noticed, let alone embarrassed in any way. That may seem over-obvious, but notice in the professor's comments above, she had called it quotations of things professors had said against the war. In her memory, in her narrative, that was what had actually happened (see the immediately preceding post about memory and narrative). She's a smart person. she had remembered an important incident that had escaped me. But she had gotten it wrong. The facts had mutated into something that fit her narrative. Similar mutations have occurred on the left throughout the Bush administration. I don't doubt that they occur on the right as well, though I am less likely to notice them. Bush's comment "You are either for us or against us" has been completely ripped from its context and made to sound as if he said something quite different. The idea that people were being shouted down or silenced for "being against the war" is ludicrous, but it has become how progressives remember it.

They believe they were "silenced" and "people weren't allowed to bring these things up" because they lost the argument. In true narcissistic fashion, they believe that if the public hadn't agreed, it was because they hadn't really heard. Either the public is too stupid, or Dark Forces were preventing them from hearing it. Both of those myths remain popular on the left.

I understand the slippery-slope argument. I understand the thinking that believes it is only a short hop from a Senator highlighting extreme comments to the weight of the federal government silencing all criticism. I grew up with that mentality. It comes from a desire to be seen as real true persecuted person, having gotten that whiff of McCarthyism yourself in your own little town. Exaggerating the power and evil of one's opponents is a delicious way to feel one is nobly standing for truth, just like those brave souls of yesteryear. It's crap; it's juvenile grandiosity, but I understand it. I've done it.

Part II
Well, welcome to my world. Welcome to the world that most of America lives in. From the moment my foot hits the parking lot at work Monday-Friday, I have to assume that anything I say or write could be brought into a court of law. I cannot say anything of a political or religious nature in a patient's hearing that might be construed as the slightest social pressure, criticism, or evangelising them for any cause. Everything I write about a patient becomes an unerasable legal document that can come back to haunt me later, and all of us who do this for a living have had that happen. Waitresses can't talk politics with their customers, and appliance repairmen, zookeepers, paralegals, or shopkeepers do so at peril of their livelihoods. We are supposed to feel sorry that college professors live in a protected world whose boundaries are occasionally crossed?

Additionally, step into the other part of my work world. I had a supervisor tell me I should be ashamed of being a man after the Clarence Thomas hearings. I have been told by another supervisor that she personally thinks my political beliefs are inconsistent with our profession. There are things I simply would not say at department meetings because of the social and even professional rejection they would entail, though similar comments from the other perspective are frequent. It's funny when our patients talk about assassinating Reagan or Bush. It's chilling when they threaten Clinton. Do you think those have any effect on professional advancement? Damn straight they do. That's not a major whine on my part. I don't want advancement in that field. Also, my experience isn't that different from millions of other people in this country. That's life. People adjust and bring their political expression to other venues.

Y'know, lots of people might like to have the freedom to indocrinate 20 year-olds and get paid for it. That most professors have the sense of honor not to do that and attempt to teach instead is immaterial. After tenure, they could. Some do. And they are not particularly monitored as to whether they are slipping into that without knowing it over the years. The Academy believes it owns this privilege by sacred right, and that society will take the long descent into barbarism if they are not allowed to continue. Rubbish. Society pays colleges to provide a certain type of education in thinking and preparation for the world. When parents or the students pay they vote with their feet, and simply don't go where the service they want is not provided. When government loans and state legislatures become involved - and that is the reality for most students - that pressure is still there, but indirect. That's just real life.

Conjuring images of the medieval church or the Kremlin persecuting dissidents is delicious, but it comes from times and places where very few people even had access to the information that the academy was exposed to. Those controlling authorities could actually hope to keep certain opinions from spreading by applying pressure at a very few places. That world has been disappearing for years. Anyone can get ahold of the ideas of Foucault, or Trotsky, or Derrida at the touch of a button now. Where unavailability is still a problem, ironically, are precisely those areas where those ideas are in ascendance.

This is why online learning and other consumer-driven postsecondary education is pushing them out. Prestigious universities are losing prestige, not because Americans are anti-intellectual, but because they are anti-intelligentsia, anti-academy. Even George Bush reads Camus nowadays. The figure of The Professor in comic books and Gilligan's Island, a person who knows much about all important subjects, does not even work as comedy or stereotype anymore. People chuckled about the comedic exaggeration of Russell Johnson's character then - now they would fail to find it funny at all, except as some sort of retro thing. People have access to the information themselves and know that humanities professors are often not all that smart. Smarter than average people, perhaps, and trained in particular specialties, but not dealing with subjects far beyond the ken of mortals. That is in fact why these disciplines have developed their own coded vocabularies, to identify outsiders rapidly. They can no longer rely on their superior knowledge to do that for them. It's too easy for a talented amateur to join the conversation after a little work.

There is no need to censor the academy. They are making themselves increasingly irrelevant. The entrenched, government-funded educators at younger levels is more worrisome.