Thursday, January 29, 2009

All-Time Leadoff

Sportswriters have to write something down, find a new angle that other people aren't writing about, so they sometimes back themselves into these corners just for controversy's sake. I get that. Still, you are responsible for what you write, ultimately, so you don't have a good excuse if you write something stupid. When Rickey Henderson was just elected to the Hall of Fame, lots of people referred to him as the greatest leadoff hitter ever. That could be true. But just for controversy, ESPN suggested that Pete Rose might be a better leadoff hitter. Please, no. Let's not even have that discussion. I admit I have always liked to kick Pete Rose because he's a jerk, but this is just not an intelligent conversation. And the easiest way to illustrate that to you is to compare Rose to a player that you would never in a hundred years consider the best leadoff hitter of all time, and see that Rose loses that comparison. Carl Yastrzemski would be a better leadoff hitter for your all-star team than Pete Rose. I am not joshing you here. Their careers overlapped almost entirely, eliminating the need to make cross-era comparisons. Everyone gets excited by Rose's 4000+ hits and .300+ batting average, so they figure that of course you would bat him leadoff over Yaz. But you wouldn't. We now know that on-base percentage is a more valuable number than batting average, and Rose is behind Yaz, .379 - .375. Those walks add up over time, and Rose didn't walk much. Yaz did. 300 times more in his career. Sure it looks really cool, with Charlie Hustle running down to first base on a walk, with the announcers cooing about how he gets on base any way he can, but in strict point of fact, he didn't actually get on base more than Yaz. Once on base, both of them tried to steal some bases and shouldn't have bothered. We now know that stolen bases are only valuable is you make it 70% of the time, and neither approached that. Yaz stole 168 in 284 attempts, for a 59% average. Rose was worse, stealing 198 out of 347 for 57%. I am, you will notice, comparing them only as leadoff hitters. I am comparing Rose's strength to Yaz out of place in the lineup, and Rose still loses. It gets worse. If you made Carl Yastrzemski bat leadoff his whole career, if you told him that getting on base was more important to your team than power, do you think he might have done just a bit better still? Already leading Rose in the most important categories, wouldn't he start to pull away even more? At least 40 more AB per season, too. It adds up. Of course, with Yaz you get power, too. 100 fewer doubles, 80 fewer triples, and 260 more home runs. Pete Rose is not in the conversation for best leadoff hitter of all time.

Shades of Glory

I am a big fan of Negro Leagues and African-American baseball history. I hope to get out to the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame in Kansas City someday. You would think I would be appreciative of just about anything I could put my hands on. I read Only the Ball Was White shortly after it came out, and that was all that could be found for years.

You would also think that National Geographic could do quite a good book on the subject. You would be wrong about that. Shades of Glory, by Lawrence D. Hogan, just isn't very good. It does what it sets out to do, I suppose, but I can't imagine who'd be that interested. Baseball fans are interested in players, in anecdotes, in statistics. There's some of that, but the bulk of the book is taken up with the history of the leagues, and to a lesser extent, the teams. I really don't care whether the Chicago American Giants made or lost money in 1909. I imagine some people cared then, and historians of African-American business ventures care now, but that hardly seems worth the candle. The people attending those games in 1909, white or black, were interested in doubles, triples, strikeouts, nicknames.

The information about players and managers is set in shaded sidebars scattered throughout the book. Those are worth reading. The rest is pretty tedious.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Voluntary Madness

I am putting this post down as a marker. Most of my readers will likely not guess quite what I am driving at, though I think they might find it interesting anyway. More information is going to come out over time on this book, and I just want my initial impression to be recorded.

Norah Vincent’s new book, Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost And Found In The Looney Bin recounts her experience being treated at three psychiatric hospitals. There is an excellent review in the NYTimes which also gives a decent summary of the book.

Norah is first treated at “Meriwhether” Hospital, likely a stand-in for Bellevue, for depression. I am already suspicious, in a way that only people who work in psychiatric emergency settings can be. The next two hospitals she signs herself into, and her experience of them, reinforce the suspicion.

I don’t doubt that she does indeed encounter “Teflon-slick professionals and brutish aides” at Meriwhether. I have seen both – heck, I have been both - and acknowledge that the failings of public psychiatric hospitals most commonly lie in these directions. It is hard to deal with violent people without looking – or becoming – brutish, and similarly difficult to deal with manipulative people without looking – or becoming – evasive. That certainly makes life harder for those remaining patients who are neither violent nor manipulative. They need to trust someone on the staff, but much of the staff looks untrustworthy. Meriwhether may be particularly bad as well. But Norah hasn’t walked a mile in those shoes. She can tell her side; her caregivers are prevented from responding because they keep her information confidential.

Tangent on medications. There are good reasons to attempt treatment for depression without resorting to medication, but these are more often an excuse. Because withdrawal from some medications is unpleasant is not sufficient logical reason to refuse all medications. Because medications can have side effects is only a legitimate reason to refuse them if you actually have those side effects. The fact that other people have them is irrelevant. Complaints about pharmaceutical companies and beliefs that doctors prescribe medications only because it is part of their blinkered world-view or that they’re getting a cut are likewise evasions. Doctors prescribe psychoactive medications because they often work, and work quickly. At $1000/day, quickly is important. When symptoms are severe, the efficacy of nuts and berries on mild-to-moderate symptoms does not factor into the immediate situation.

Second tangent on costs: Norah Vincent’s hospitalizations cost someone tens of thousands of dollars. If she was insured, then the cost was borne by ratepayers and the reduced care for others served by her insurer. That these considerations do not enter into Ms. Vincent’s planning her adventure is mildly diagnostic.

Back on track, or something like it: She insists on treatment without medication, then is resentful when she later becomes severely depressed. She wants certain types of therapy she thinks she will like better. These all involve paying attention to her. Is that harsh? Yes, and possibly unfair.

But I doubt it.

I would like to see the discharge diagnoses from those hospitals, especially the first one. I would like to see what her scores on the MMPI-2, or even better, the PAI, were. I am less enamored of projective tests, but the results of those would be interesting as well.

I am interested in this data because I suspect that a diagnosis of depression for this patient is uh, incomplete. Much of this pattern is familiar. Additionally, Norah Vincent’s previous book was Self-Made Man, an account of her 18 months posing as a man. While that would not ordinarily be pathological, in combination with the other information it is suggestive.

Update: I should ask Dr. Sanity for her opinion.

Cynical Poll

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Time Has Come Today

White boys who played in garage bands in NH loved this song, and would stretch it out to ten minutes.

Smart Guy

Clever guy, this Barack. The problem at Gitmo has always been that these guys are being held without trial. So Obama announces that he’s not going to make any decision for 120 days – they just sit there, waitin’ for Barack - and he gets the media to buy his story that this is a reversal of the Bush policy. The other problem is that people claim that the prisoners there were tortured, at least during the first few weeks. So Obama assures everyone publicly that we will not torture, absolutely not, except when we might really need to, and his CIA director won’t quite commit to calling waterboarding always a form of torture. (My money is on: it’s torture when someone else authorizes it).

Also, we are continuing to bomb villages in Afghanistan, which the Taliban claims is killing women and children. Our sources say no, it’s all jihadists we’re killing. No change there, except here’s the thing: Obama apparently believes our sources now, unlike in 2007, and our media seems willing to take his word for it. Problem solved! We’re putting more troops there, and everyone’s fine with that. The idea that we might have to take military actions within Pakistan’s borders hasn’t prompted the left to talk about quagmires, or cycles of violence, or American imperialism.

This is bittersweet for conservatives. At one level, we’re thrilled that Obama gets it, now that he’s looking at the daily security briefings. That was always the case, as most Democrats who actually had the real information usually signed off on the Bush Administration actions. Once terrorists move from being pawns in the American political game, mere abstract counters where people get to preen about how noble they are, to actual dangerous people in our custody who want to kill Americans, what to do with them becomes much more problematic. Obama is smart enough to understand the situation and adjust. That’s a good thing.

It is more than a little irritating, however, to see Obama given a pass, or even praise, for the very things even he attacked Bush on. All that rhetoric about fascists, and cabals, and BusHitler, that made the rounds over the last few years – what was that all about? All that relief progressives feel about not having to worry about Bush-Cheney anymore – was there ever anything more to it than feelings? The idea that whoa, those guys are cowboys, we’d be much safer with one of our guys in charge turns out to be the entire basis of foreign policy? All those foreigners must hate Bush for the same reason we do, but once we have one of our good guys in there, the world will deal with us better. Whew, sure glad we got the guys from our tribe in there! What a narrow escape, huh?


The deeper arrogance goes, the less it knows itself. CS Lewis writes about this in some detail in Mere Christianity in his larger discussion of humility and the Great Sin of pride.
If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited, indeed.
Jennifer Rubin has an interesting article on Obama’s Graciousness Deficit. I thought this was his strong suit. Most conservatives in the comments seem to feel that it is just his arrogant nature, and we’ll see more of it as we go. I am less sure. Obama proved adaptable during the campaign, and he is reportedly a smart guy. But mistakes like this right out of the box, when he can afford to look gracious even while he’s putting the screws to people, does not bode well. He comes off looking thin-skinned. He’s the president, not a despot.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

T-Wolves Again

It was only 20 days ago that I predicted they would make it to 10th place in the west. They are already there. They have a long way to go in the standings to catch any of the roughly-equal 7th-9th place teams, but they look as good at the moment. 9-2 since 1/1/09. They can't sustain that pace, but they have a shot at reaching .500 for the season, which didn't look so possible when they were 6-25.

They are playing both point guards, Telfair and Foye, most of the game and three of their PF's a lot. (If you want to subtract Gomes as really a SF, I will counter that Jefferson was a C/PF with the Celts.) Interesting lineup.

How To Respond

A local clergyman made an irresponsible remark in a very public forum (irresponsible in the histrionic, over-the-top category). Should I respond in that public forum or drop him a note?

Update: I should have been clearer. It is not my church or even denomination. It is a letter to the editor. I agree with much of what he said, but believe his rhetoric was not merely over-the-top and inflated, but irresponsible.

Bumper Sticker

After due consideration of one of the best sets of comments sections in my 1600+ post history, I have decided to go with peanut butter to remove my McCain bumper sticker. I don't have peanut oil, so I'm hoping this will work almost as well. Mostly, I'm hoping for raccoons. So if you see a raccoon with a reversed "a" on its tongue, it's my fault.

Memory Lane

Eight years ago, the news stories of the week were a bit different.

There was a controversy about the $20,000 of vandalism the Clinton staffers had done before handing over the White House to the Bush Administration. Though it was substantiated, Bush forbade his staff to mention it and did not pursue prosecutions.

George Bush renominated many of Clinton's nominees for federal judgeships, an unusual gesture with little precedent in American history.

Senator Jim Jeffords, after campaigning as a Republican and talking campaign money from the RNC, left the party to prevent the "wrong kind" of Republicans from assuming power.

Democrats insisted that the rules of the Senate distributing power on the committees be changed because of the closeness of the election and the evenness of distribution of the parties' Senators. The Republicans go along with this voluntarily.

The "audacity" (guess which Dem senator said that) of Bill Clinton's last-minute pardons stirs controversy even among loyal Democrats.

In a move that angered many Republicans, George Bush declines to override President Clinton's claims of executive privilege on documents related to the pardons and earlier scandals.

The US attacks and removes Iraqi air defense systems which they have illegally built up over the previous few years.

Sure, I'm being one-sided here. You might think of other things less amicable that Bush did in the first weeks of his presidency that you'd like to mention. Go right ahead.

Mary Did You Know?

The accompanist played an arrangement of this as the prelude this morning. There is Christmas music written every year, but little of it enters the canon of Christian favorites. We weeded through all the ethnic carols for a century, ending up with a mostly English, French, and German menu with some others thrown in. Other than that, what have we added since "Some Children See Him?" and "The Little Drummer Boy?"

I think "Mary Did You Know?" is going to be the addition from this generation.

Talk Radio

No, not that talk radio. At the lower end of the radio dial there are both Christian and public radio stations. Interestingly, I can tell which kind of station it is almost instantly. Just a few words, a tone, a cadence, without yet knowing the content. I'll bet most people can tell the difference quickly as well.

And I don't like the sound of either. I don't like the way they are talking to me. I can get past my dislike of the style if I am making an effort to ignore it and get to content, but both styles give me an immediate inward dismay when I hear them. The exceptions for each style would be Ravi Zacharias and Car Talk. Uh, for different reasons, obviously.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Endive

A new conservative humor site, the Endive. I only checked out the front page, but my initial impression is that it is less good than IMAO, Scrappleface, or Iowahawk, but not way behind. It is in the format of The Onion, which many people like. I should also mention the similarly formatted Lark News, which is evangelicals poking fun at evangelicals.

Conversational Grouping

This is not a furniture post.

Talking with old friends last night, I wondered what the ideal conversational group size is.

Don't. Please don't get going on how there are different ideal sizes for different types of discussion. Of course lovers' conversations are between two people, which would be a silly number for a yearly festival. Of course people prefer different group sizes depending on their personalities. I am asking what you prefer - what have been your best conversational groupings and why.

Mine: 4-7 people who are themselves a subgroup of a group of 8-15. They are similar but not identical in outlook and belief. They have some history. If the group reaches 8 in size it naturally breaks in smaller conversational clusters.

Interestingly, this not only describes my group last night, but the Inklings as well.

Disney On Ice

We took the godson to Disney on Ice today. Last year it was Nemo throughout, but the setup was different this year. Four product lines - I'm sorry, Disney movies - were featured this year. Splashy. Colorful. Unsubtle. Which is fine - this is geared to 3-10 year olds, for whom irony and moral complexity are not especially entertaining.

We were in Row R, from whence you can tell theoretically, I'll bet those are very pretty girls down there. With the amount of souvenir and OH-MY! childish voice stressors you are going to encounter with your wee ones, I wouldn't recommend this for dads unless you can sit a lot closer. But if so, be a hero and take the tykes to see Ariel and her sisters while your wife rests at home.

The effects are nice - dramatic without being frightening - and the music is good. The variety show format leads to some odd moments in the curtain calls, but it touches something deep in the male psyche to watch Wendy and Mrs. Darling dance to hunka-hunka-burning-love, however briefly. Even from Row R.

I recommend you scout the souvenirs before buying, though they are all ridiculously overpriced. Flounder hats are fetching, but the child wearing it can't see it, and it has limited distraction value after about, oh, 2.2 minutes. Something that changes lights or makes a variety of soft sounds is just what you are looking for.

Friday, January 23, 2009

It's My Money

Conservatives and libertarians always say this about government spending. Those Democrats who are not full-out progressives or on the dole themselves say it sometimes also. But is it true? If your spouse is sleeping with lots of people who aren't you, what do you mean when you say you are married? "I thought I was married, but apparently I'm not."

Oh sure, it should be regarded as your money, but when was that last true? If it were your money, you would have some say over where it got spent. Fans say this about athletes - "I pay your salary." No you don't. Management pays his salary. You might pay management - you and a million other guys - but that is unreal to the athlete. Wherever the money comes from last is where we think it "came from." To a child, beef comes from the refrigerator. To his mother, it comes from the supermarket. To the supermarket, it comes from a meat-packer. The cow is pretty far up the line.

So too with politicians. Where does money come from? It comes from the budget. You get more money by changing the budget. Where does the budget come from? It comes from politicians, advised by experts and lobbyists. If your group wants money, you don't go to the taxpayers. You go to a lobbyist or a politician.

Yes, this is deplorable, but it is also human nature. The customer doesn't give us a raise, the boss gives us a raise. We are wired to the visible and immediate.

Things That Last Longer

Since Chris left for Parris Island, I have noticed a few things in my life last longer than before: gas in my car; sugar in the bowl; cigarettes in the carton; coffee in the bag, laundry soap.

Chris is sort of doing well. He's had a bad cold, inflamed knees, an infection in his eye and face, and he's always hungry. He's been there three weeks Monday. He sounds upbeat.

Pathology In The Hundred Acre Wood

I ran across an older article today diagnosing the characters in Winnie-the-Pooh.
However, perspectives change with time, and it is clear to our group of modern neurodevelopmentalists that these are in fact stories of Seriously Troubled Individuals, many of whom meet DSM-IV criteria for significant disorders (Table 1). We have done an exhaustive review of the works of A.A. Milne and offer our conclusions about the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood in hopes that our observations will help the medical community understand that there is a Dark Underside to this world.
I have some quibbles. I would diagnose Eeyore with a Major Depressive Disorder rather than Dysthymia, and I don't see Roo's socioeconomic status as dire. But it is generally an excellent article. There were followup letters to the editor at the link, which I have not read. There will be some people who didn't get that it was a joke. Others will be offended by sections even though they know it's a joke. Many people will offer additional possibilities for diagnosis and interpretation. Maybe, someone will make reference to The Pooh Perplex, an excellent collection of faux-literary/social commentary essays from the 1960's about Pooh.

That article reminded me of another, which I was pleased to find online. Jordan Smoller's Etiology and Treatment of Childhood is the best I have ever read in the diagnostic sendup genre.
Childhood is a syndrome which has only recently begun to receive serious attention from clinicians. The syndrome itself, however, is not at all recent. As early as the 8th century, the Persian historian Kidnom made references to "short, noisy creatures," who may well have been what we now call "children." The treatment of children, however, was unknown until this century, when so-called "child psychologists" and "child psychiatrists" became common. Despite this history of clinical neglect, it has been estimated that well over half of all Americans alive today have experienced childhood directly (Suess, 1983). In fact, the actual numbers are probably much higher, since these data are based on self-reports which may be subject to social desirability biases and retrospective distortion. The growing acceptance of childhood as a distinct phenomenon is reflected in the proposed inclusion of the syndrome in the upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, or DSM-IV, of the American Psychiatric Association (1990). Clinicians are still in disagreement about the significant clinical features of childhood, but the proposed DSM-IV will almost certainly include the following core features:

1. Congenital onset
2. Dwarfism
3. Emotional lability and immaturity
4. Knowledge deficits
5. Legume anorexia
Masterful, including the footnotes.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Pinker, Roberts, and the Oath

It is always gratifying to make an assertion and then learn that someone much smarter than you has made the same point.

Steven Pinker wrote a rather snarky opinion piece about the flubbed oath of office in the New York Times - "Oaf of Office." (And BTW, why does juvenile humor suddenly become worthy of the NYT when it's about conservatives?).

The essay was mentioned at Volokh Conspiracy, where I noted in the comments:
Pinker is an expert on language, but his mind-reading is no better than any other mortal's. He likes to kick conservatives when he can, so he speculates on motive in order to bring up things he has disliked about Roberts. There are always a dozen possible explanations for a verbal flub - Pinker chooses the one that suits his need and attributes it to Roberts.

I recently noted at my own site that Pinker seems unable to restrain himself from injecting his political opinions into his discussions of language and thought. I wonder what that means?
A few hours later, Ed Whelan noted over at The Corner.
I agree with Pinker that the split-verb myth (as well as its subsidiary rule against split infinitives) is unsound. But Pinker offers no evidence that Roberts in fact embraces the split-verb myth. And a quick review of one of his written opinions—where any niggling is more likely to manifest itself—indicates that Roberts doesn’t.
Thanks Ed.

The Ernest Chronicler

Young Samuel over at The Ernest Chronicler was discouraged by lack of traffic, and his posting dropped off. I encouraged him to gird up his loins and begin again, so give him a visit. He has just put up new posts.

Sam is now in high school, but I haven't seen him since he was just easing out of twerphood. Yet even then, he was an intelligent twerp, an interesting twerp. When he first came to our church at age four, he would only answer to the name "Yellow Bird." This irritated his parents deeply, but my sons thought it was hysterical and encouraged it. He got more eccentric but less irritating from there.

He's a violinist. He has a nice cleverness of phrasing. Drop by.


Having a late cup of coffee can lead to a counteracting late glass of merlot, which can lead to changes in sleep. I seldom remember my dreams, but changes sometimes highlight them.

Other people’s dreams are boring, so I seldom mention any of mine. Occasionally there will be an unusual juxtaposition that has some entertainment value. But generally, the emotional content of dreams is as random as the narrative. One awakes feeling that a dream event was intensely important. But it’s not. Your brain just hit one of the “high meaning” buttons at the same time it hit the “ostrich” button just before you awoke, so you have the impression there is some significance to the ostrich.

Your friends are amusing in dreams whether they do something out of character, but even more amusing when they are in character. Your brain puts them in some unlikely situation, yet you know them well enough to predict their subsequent behavior.

Ben has some friend who does an ironic comic strip where everyone is a superhero, so no one is really. Rather like Xanth, but more egalitarian. It’s being made into a movie, and he brings in all these Wymans and assigns roles to create sample wisecracking dialogue.

Really, this is quite sensible. Someone should do this. Bethany, Erin, shouldn’t someone absolutely do this? Wouldn’t you love to do a guest appearance on that?

He draws superhero samples of us. I look good. Not as good as everyone else, but better than now. My sons think this is hysterically funny, that even in a fantasy world I still look more goofy than average. They ask what my superpower is, and the author doesn’t know. So far it’s just flying around. The boys find this uproarious as well. They insist I put on a cape, which looks ridiculous. The dream ends.

It would happen exactly like that. And they can find it humorous, but it sounds like heaven to me. Look a little better, fly around with no particular responsibilities? Golden. I’ll even wear a silly cape if it’s required.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


A young friend, Stephen Byrd, announced his engagement today. I very much like Stephen. I admire his thinking. But in terms of marriage, I have to say that he got a better deal than Tina did.

Deserving Of Attention

Andy Levy over at Big Hollywood has a To-Don't List for the right during the Obama administration
DON’T question the motives - question the policy. When you disagree with Obama’s policies, say so, and make it clear why. But remember that President Obama is doing what he thinks is best for the country, as President Bush did. Both men love America and want what’s best for her. End of story.
More like that. Short but wise.

Via Instapundit


Discussion is often about making distinctions. I say that A and B are the same, you say no, there’s an important difference. I say the difference is trivial, you are only making excuses. You say the difference is critical, I am being obtuse.

I have said often in the past year that Obama’s supporters worry me much more than Obama himself. Supposedly rational people are exhibiting a starry-eyed wonder about the man. These often are – not coincidentally – the same supposedly rational people who are unable to find a single redeeming feature in George Bush.

Yesterday provided an excellent example. The hospital chaplain was wearing an outsized Obama ’08 pin. That is already pretty marginal. We are forbidden such displays during the election season, for good clinical reasons. (This is selectively enforced, but generally adhered to.) Because it was the day of the inauguration, not the election, the wearing of such a button does necessarily mean she voted for him or supports him. As elementary schools will attend to the inauguration of any president, so a person in an official capacity might also choose to highlight the inauguration qua inauguration, I suppose.

No one believes that for a moment, of course. The Obama supporters – staff – came gushing up to her about how excited they were. If they thought the button indicated Obama support, we certainly can’t expect people in acute psychiatric crises to absorb a more subtle distinction. Thus she becomes clinically unavailable to anyone who has strong feelings against Obama, for good reasons or bad. She can’t do her job.*

But that’s not what I came to talk about tonight. In one of the gushing conversations, the chaplain exclaimed “In his inauguration address, Obama used the word “I” less than any other president. He said “we” all the time.” I don’t know if that’s true, but let’s grant for a moment that it is. Here are my distinctions:

If Obama used “we” instead of “I,” that’s a good thing. Even if it’s calculated, even if it’s insincere, it’s a nice note to sound at an inaugural. Plus, it might even be heartfelt.

That his PR people pointed out that he used “we” instead of “I” - that’s also okay. That’s what they are for. Even if it’s cynical, if it’s a true statement, that’s allowed.

Oh wait. You thought someone spontaneously noted the use of “we” and reported it, like a news item? No. It’s either a PR move, or it was a glowing impression by a journalist - who just happened to have the word counts of all the inaugurals memorised - which makes it unreliable.

The distinction is in the hearing by the easily misled. Recognise that this was a PR move. Notice that this is an ad for toothpaste. Don’t take this at face value. You still might buy the toothpaste. Heck, it might be great toothpaste. But the reality-based community seems to need a little more interaction with actual, you know, reality.

The second distinction moves the opposite way - ascribing a meaningful difference to a trivial one. Deeper into the gushing, one of the people chatting with the chaplain mentioned the difficulties in providing security with a million attendees. "Four million," another shot back "the most in inaugural history." There was more than a hint of irritation, as if reprimanding the other for believing those doubters, those underminers, those attackers.

The size of an inaugural crowd isn't a measure of anything except, well, the size of an inaugural crowd. If only 100,000 came, that wouldn't make Obama any less able. But the size of the crowd has been important to lefties throughout my adulthood. Perhaps it is a tribalism, a gathering of the clan to show We are strong. How dare you oppose us? We are many. I'll bet someone trots out the number of how many watched on video feed, as if that were more than a curiosity.

Four million, one million, it wouldn't make any difference. Except if you're going to trumpet it as a big difference, in which case I will point out it was less than one million.

* She’s a UU pastor, so she may be unaware of the difference between spiritual and political guidance.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

McCain Annoyance

Tracy thought it would be good patriotic symbolism to remove our McCain/Palin bumper stickers on the day of the inaugural. Except the one on the truck isn't coming off neatly, and I'm going to need a solvent of some sort. Annoying.


The church that runs the shelter couldn't talk to me when I called, and didn't get back to me about my homeless person I was trying to find a roof for. They were having trouble getting the video feed for the inauguration.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Great Site

One thing leads to another. Looking up Maypo ads, I came across this wrestling video from the 1950's over at TV Days. This is how I remember the wrestling of my small-screen B&W days. This is after the end of the match, and they're still fighting. Irish brothers from Bayonne versus Polish brothers from Milwaukee.

My personal favorite was Bobo Brazil and his famous Coco Butt. Here he is in a tag team match, late in his career.


Emily is at the resisting being fed age, which reminded me of this from my own childhood.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ahead Of The Curve

All of a sudden, there are numerous references to liberals as being part of a cultural tribe. Debra J. Saunders has it over at San Francisco Gate.
To trash Bush was to belong. There was little upside in supporting Bush, even if you had supported his agenda.
And Glenn C Loury writes on The Call of the Tribe in the Boston Review
Growing into intellectual maturity has been, for me, largely a process of becoming free of the need to have my choices validated by the brothers. After many years I have come to understand that, until I became willing to risk the derision of the crowd, I had no chance to discover the most important truths about myself or about life—to know my calling, to perceive my deepest value commitments, and to recognize the goals most worth striving toward.
I've got over two dozen posts on the subject - by far my most favoritest topic - under Cultural Tribes.

Thanks to sissy willis

Obama's Radio Address

I admit I am getting tired of the Greatest Pre-President Ever(!) shtick, but that is coming from Obama's supporters, not Obama himself. We heard his last radio address before the inauguration while driving to Scituate yesterday, and I was quite impressed. He was gracious, stressed many of the things about American exceptionalism that a conservative might have, and reminded us to be thankful for the peaceful transition of power in this country.

So far it's just speeches, but he is at least saying the right things. The appointments and policy hints he has given during the transition have not all been to my liking, but in most cases, they are the same objections I have to Bush and McCain policies. Particularly on economic issues, "more conservative" has not turned out to be "actually conservative," and there's not as much daylight between Obama and the moderate Republicans as I might have thought.

We shall see. I wish him well. He seems to be trying to be a decent, honorable person at first, and that is worth something in itself, even if I disagree with policies. There are limits, where you'd just as soon have a corrupt miserable bastard who agrees with you on certain points as an affable person with terrible plans, but decency is worth something.

Facebook Church

My wife has just gotten on Facebook this week, and loves it. I'm not especially interested myself, but it's nice to hear her laughing in the computer room in the evening. Many small networkings are not as meaningful to me as fewer, more substantive connections, but I admit I see the point.

Church was canceled today because of the snow. This is still a source of amazement to me, to cancel church. If people can't come, they can't come, but those who can should still have church. I admit that this comes from a mentality of growing up in Manchester, a mile from church. Even Protestants had more of a parish model in those days, and you went to the church of your denomination that was closest.

When new church models based on electronic networking are discussed they sound very unexciting to me, not much like real church at all. Going online for church? Ridiculous, unless you have some significant limitation that prevents you from attending in the flesh. Where is the community in electronic church?

But another side of that occurred to me this morning. If everyone in our congregation had Facebook, we could have had church together online this morning. Not quite Real Church, because it's not as intimate and reassuring. But better than no church at all. I had not considered a hybrid model of electronic church. People who already know each other and have significant connections can have interaction, then move on to a structured worship together, then have coffee and chat afterward. Online worship would necessarily have to develop its own rules and conventions - singing the bass harmony to a hymn I don't know well while sitting in front of my computer doesn't strike me as powerfully engaging my emotions in the service - but it could be done.

It would work well for those traveling, too, which is more common these days. If most people were actually present at a house of worship, but someone were providing a running electronic version to those away on business or vacation, they would be much more connected than they would have been otherwise.

Would moving to this model encourage people not to attend as often, and lead to congregations that were increasingly electronic and seldom met in the flesh? Absolutely, and that strikes me as an enormous problem. Communion and other sacraments would be particularly problematic. Solving one problem often creates another. But that occasionally live, often electronic style of communication is what the current generation is moving toward anyway - it won't seem as strange to them as it does to me. I suspect that electronic congregations will meet more frequently throughout the week. Heck, congregations could meet online for prayer every morning and evening for fifteen minutes. Under a parish model, where people were seeing the whole congregation on Sunday, and selected members throughout the week for choir, youth group, or properties meeting, such online meetings will always seem odd. But we are already in a model of less-frequent congregational meeting, with people traveling much farther to get to their chosen house of worship.

The frontier favored some denominations and styles of Christian expression over others, which is why America has such an unusual percentage of Christians whose churches do not have sacraments. Preaching, Bible reading, and individual prayer all travel well, so Methodist- and Baptist- derived denominations did well west of the Appalachias. Those folks are often unaware of how far outside common Christian practice they are, because in their culture, that what Christianity is: print-heavy; simple, dramatic music; daily devotions; pivot-point salvationism. Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox - these held on in towns and cities, where even the rural people were oriented toward central meeting places.

Some styles of worship and theological emphases will do better under an electronic hybrid model than others, but those are not clear to me at present. I imagine folks have lots of opinions on that.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Well, it's cold here, and the rest of the country has heard about it. We've all been watching this inch across the country, starting from when it was 60 below in Nome (A young friend is the cable guy in Nome. A gentle-looking soul who is gradually learning to be tough as nails).

People in severe cold tend to wax philosophical about cold vs. heat, the trials of our ancestors, and whatever else comes to hand. You will notice that none of this wisdom is ever particularly new or gripping. The word banal comes to mind. Yet I do it myself, reflecting today on the shared experience of weather and how sensation affects conversation.

I decided we philosophise in the cold only to reassure ourselves that we can still do it. The first thing every essay about dangerous situations tells you is "stay calm." We keep running the thinking circuits in the cold as a test, making sure that if something miserable happens we will not be like those folks we read about who panicked and ran naked in circles with one snowshoe.

AVI's Parallel To Godwins's Law

Godwin's Law states
"As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."
It is often misunderstood as a claim that the person making the comparison has lost the argument, or that the discussion has ended. There is additionally a Godwin's law of time travel to the effect that once time travel enters a sci-fi series, the probability of the hero using it to try and stop the Holocaust approaches one.

I have chose the word parallel, as my similar observation is not a corollary, axiom, postulate, or lemma. But it's got to be a something, so I chose Parallel.
As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving McCarthyism also approaches one, but more slowly than Godwin's Law.

Letters From Boot Camp

I don't think Chris has ever written a letter in his life, except thank-you notes he was forced to write when younger.

After the form letter from the Marines, he appends the following:

Hey guys! Everything is going pretty well. Finally getting used to military life. Mom keep praying always. These next 12 weeks are going to be rough but I'll get through it and I'll see you at the graduation. And please do send me those adresses I left on the bed. I'll keep you updated with how things are going here. Right now I just have a bad cold right now but it will go away soon hopefully. Other than that things are going well. Ill tell you guys storys about boot camp when I get home. Ohh and JA tell Ina, Cata, and Crina that everything is OK. Love ya all. Semper Fidelis

(2nd letter)
Hello! How are you guys doing? Hope all is well with everyone. Today was our 3rd day with the DI's. I am not doing bad at listening to them, but some of the recruits got chewed out by them really bad so far. Tomorrow is our first PT day. Right now I have a bad feeling about it. Both of my knees start hurting more and more when I run. Then if I just stand it doesn't hurt. Only when I bend them. So I am going to try and tough it up tomorrow but I might end up seeing a doctor soon. So pray for my knees if you will. Other than that all is good. I get free time every night for 1 hr. and 4 hrs on Sunday Morning for church and such. So Ill be able to write a lot. Alright hope to hear from you soon. Good Night hugs & kisses.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Link to Links

Carl over at No Oil For Pacifists has gone links-wild, with heavy emphasis on legal decisions and on Gaza. He has scouted out some good 'uns to save you the time.

If someone links to my linking to his links... hmm, I wonder what the longest internet chain of that is. Other than people doing it as a joke.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

My Time, Public Time

Irritations and disputes can be an occasion for reflection.

I have a very different view of public time, when others are depending on me, versus my time, when no one is particularly. Public time is brisk, efficient, and on time. We haven't the right to hold others up, we owe them our best, an unnecessary four seconds apiece wasted is nearly seven minutes for a hundred people... Look alive. Nip about. It works very well on an acute psychiatric unit. Keep things moving. Get them off your desk.

On my time, I take my time. This was less true ten years ago, when I tried to play with the same brisk accomplishment that I worked. I don't see the point now. If there's no hurry, there's no hurry. The light turning yellow is no problem. Even getting lost is only a small problem. Noise might be a problem. Others' hurrying might be a problem. But time is not a problem. Time becomes a warm surrounding bath, not a timed shower.

"Don't Bustle me," said Eeyore, getting up slowly.

I was home sick today, and eventually got the things accomplished I wanted to. It was quite lovely, really. No hurrying. Tomorrow it is schedules again, place to place until 9pm or later. Today the phone ringing was a profound interruption and irritation. Tomorrow I will be the one calling, interrupting others.


I have never mentioned it, so I believe it is time to weigh in. Vaccinations do not cause autism. The risks of vaccination are real (and sometimes tragic), but the risks of not vaccinating are greater, to your child individually, as well as to your child's schoolmates.

The anti-vaccinators want a certain view of reality to be true, so they pretend it is.

The Churches To Come

In the recent post When Opinions Are Sought the two recent Christian works were Pagan Christianity and Jesus For President (I have linked to the websites, not the books). They are both worth checking out.

As with many thinkers in the Emerging Church and postmodern evangelicalism in general, they get the diagnosis right. Yet I always have an overriding disquiet about the ability of contemporary American evangelicals to get the solutions right. They are earnest, they are intelligent, they are observant, yes. But the growth of the church in the last fifty years has not been in the West. The center of mass of Christianity has moved to the developing countries. Increasingly, it is China, South America, Africa, and Korea that will lead. We are the eroding church. Western Europe is even more postchristian, having taken what values it likes from the church, discarded the rest, and moved on. It is likely that we are next. For those outside of New England, this may seem premature. But New Hampshire has 4% church attendance every Sunday - not much above the European churches.

Evangelistic types, forever prophesying that God is about to do a mighty work here or there, will claim that I am not relying on the Spirit to make such a statement. I often wonder if the "spirit" they mean is the spirit of evangelical culture rather than the Holy Spirit. Certainly, God might just take these unlikely places for revival. He seems to like that, in fact, and I earnestly desire it. But it is one thing to say that God can make this dead fig tree come to life, and quite another to say that dead leaves are really a sign of life, just because we wish it to be so.

Most EC types tell us that the forms and structures of church no longer fit our culture, that they do not speak to the typical human of our times. They point out, often with great accuracy, that aspects of our Christianity which we think central are in fact ephemeral, cultural add-ons from the century of our denomination's founding. They propose to strip these off and build anew.

I'm all for it. I will be presenting a fairly radical idea to my own congregation this week, in fact - something which goes against our traditional view of church but I believe will become increasingly common. Yet I don't expect the next world-changing work of the Spirit to come from me, or even from my culture. The glory has nearly fled. The house churches under persecution in China or the churches enduring war and poverty in Africa are much more likely to produce new wine.

I notice resignation that these American church-changers resolve into a very few slots, once the decorations have been taken off. Unsurprisingly, these slots are labeled "My secular subculture's preferences." I have no objection to that as a style - I think every subculture should indeed have the worship and church structure that fits it. But I draw the line at taking up the Jesus a subculture prefers.

Currently, Jesus as an early version of the Dalai Lama (or Gandhi) is popular. By this telling, He was centuries ahead of His time, but taught little more than that we should be generous to the poor and be pacifistic toward the powers of the world.

I have stated before and will repeat here that Christian pacifism may be adopted for righteousness sake, particularly in specific circumstances, but Jesus did not teach it as a strategy for conquest. That is a modern idea. General pacifism has popped up in a few places in church history, especially in the form of withdrawal from the world, but it is not the teaching of Christians in most times and places. You may become a pacifist because you believe that Jesus teaches that your individual righteousness is of more account than worldly justice, and even believe that in the longest of long runs it will endure, but you cannot take it up just because you think it is a clever strategy that Jesus said would work. That is Dalai Lama territory, Buddhist territory, and I will point out that they have never freed nations by that strategy - not even the Dalai Lama's own country. Individuals may consider themselves freed by these negative acts, but that is quite different (and I am suspicious of even that in many circumstances). Jesus did not say love your enemy because that will work. Paul does mention briefly that returning good for evil dumps coals on your enemy's head, but he doesn't specify whether that is in this world, or if said enemy must have a conscience of his own for it to work on him.

There have simply been too many unresisting believers who have been wiped out by aggressors, vanished beneath the waves, to consider this a worldly strategy. Do you believe you are called by God in this time, in this place, to lay down your sword and accept whatever worldly consequence results, for the sake of the gospel? Fine. You may be right. But do not tell me that Jesus taught that violence never leads to peace or justice. He said no such thing. And if nothing else, the freeing of the slaves and the peacefulness of Germany and Japan should teach us otherwise.

Yet these postmodern evangelicals love that type of Jesus. I understand the attraction. All those American versions of eastern religions get to be cooler. They get to capture the appearance of greater morality. They think that war and violence are horrible, not like you, you primitive retrograde Christian. Why, you must like war, or at least not really, really hate it as much as we do. The Emerging Church wants to be king of the hill in that discussion. And so Jesus must be made into the Original Gandhi. Rubbish. Christian pacifism is a high calling, and it might be asked of any of us. But it is not the only calling, and not the highest.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Celtics' Slide

They are letting in more points, suggesting that defense is the central problem. The major lineup change is that Kendrick Perkins is playing less or not at all recently, and is reportedly not so effective when he is in. He has an injured left shoulder, perhaps worse than the Celtics are willing to admit.

Celts fans were so pleased to have a legitimate center at all last year, that we overlooked the fact that we have no decent backup center. We have had an abundance of power forwards who could also play center, but no true center. This has gone underappreciated with Kevin Garnett on the floor, because he can soak up some of the slack when Perk is playing a full-strength 30 minutes a game. But with Perkins out or only at 80%, it becomes clear that Glenn Davis, Leon Powe, and Brian Scalabrine are all power forwards - decent backups who can play a little center when pressed. Further disguising this lack is that fact that a fair number of other teams do not rely on a true center for more than 20 minutes/game, so the matchup problems are not immediately apparent.

Because Perkins is probably the least talented of the starting five, it seems counterintuitive to think of him as the most indispensible on the roster. The other four are not easily replaceable for long stretches, but all have people who can step in adequately for a game or two.

The defense has not adjusted to the lack of a center. As witness tonight: Toronto's Center Bargnani, who usually averages 12 ppg in regulation has twice that many tonight, and more rebounds as well.

Jim Rice Makes The Hall of Fame

About time.

When Opinions Are Sought

A young friend suggested I check out two Christian writers, wondering what I thought of them. At the same time a friend of my own age wanted to discuss a book he had recently read on King Philip’s War (hence the poll last week).

This is more complicated than you would think at first glance. In both cases, my friends have mostly been exposed only to the intensely evangelical versions of American history and church history. They are both quite intelligent and curious, and I have for years been on the side of the line that has raised the caution flag about the traditional versions of what they have read. There are other Christian traditions that see things differently; there is much of American history that is not glorious, or even justifiable.

But what they have picked up goes off the other edge – a historian who works overtime to blame the European settlers and exonerate the natives; Christian writers who put modern ideas in biblical language. My friends are telling me things which I would like to dispute for reasons opposite what I would have two years ago.

It is an easy enough principle to say “Just play it straight. Give your opinion without trying to slant it one way or the other.” Well of course. But is that really possible in actual conversation? Don’t our voices change subtly for every situation? We blithely claim it will all work out evenly if we just don’t interfere too much. I doubt very much that this ideal is at all true. People pick up ideas for very bad reasons and keep them a long time. We may not be able to influence another’s thinking very much, but shouldn’t we at least avoid the myth that it never works and trying to is intrusive? The whole world is full of people with ideas that other people gave them for bad reasons. Hell, my own head is full of such ideas as well. In those places where I think I have balance, shouldn’t I do the best sales job I can, even with friends?

We say that friendship is more important than such trivial things as differing opinions, and my first inclination is to agree wholeheartedly. But is that true for Minsk in 1918? For Munich in 1933? Selma in 1965?

Nothing in my current conversation is anywhere near that dramatic, of course. The consequences of a retired gentleman changing his mind about colonial history are not great. The consequences of a bright young filmmaker having a slightly negative rather than slightly positive view of one church movement are likely not great either. But whole kingdoms have sometimes turned on less than either of these.


Among the advantages of having your children grow up is that their advice occasionally becomes valuable to you. I wrote a novel that has been sitting in a closet for years – 25 years, actually, as I was writing it while Tracy was pregnant with Ben. Ben is now 25, and having grown up on novels and being a smart guy, his observations about such things are quite useful. Because I have forgotten many of the details by now – I had to think a moment when he started talking about the character “Jim” – criticism of my great work of art is only mildly uncomfortable.

For those who know the family organization who are wondering why Jonathan, the older brother, has not provided any similar help, it is because he read the book at age 13. It gave us a nice father-son bonding experience, but his literary evaluation was not sought at that time. (On the other hand, Ben has been writing to publishers about things he thinks are wrong with novels since he was about 9, so perhaps it is a personality thing.)

Mildly uncomfortable is still uncomfortable, though, and his initial observation that it reminded him of Madeline L’Engle didn’t end up as positive as you’d think. Instead of putting it in the “Time” series, he thought it was rather like The Austins Survive The Apocalypse. A little ouchie. Yet I saw what he meant immediately, and nodded throughout at his observation of how many of the characters were aspects of me. Part of that is the conversation-heavy writing. My writing voice is similar enough to my spoken voice that even on the blog, it is altogether too easy for people who know me to hear me speaking as they read. That’s a good thing in this context, but not in the context of a novel with male and female characters of different ages. They can’t all be me.

I can’t bear to rewrite the sucker. It’s 100,000 words long, and Ben agreed with my guess that I would find some aspects unendurable to read now. But based on his comments, I am going to rewrite the beginning and end to reframe the story. If you are in a position of criticising someone else’s writing, by the way, it is best to focus on whether something works or not. That another person could see what I was trying to set up but thought the terribly-clever technique I used fell flat was easy to hear. It just doesn’t work. Fine.

Actually, I’m going to cheat and lie. The framing rewrite will just be an unconvincing patch in the eyes of those who read the earlier version. That seems dishonest to my earlier self, who wanted things to be a certain way, and in fact would have thought them crucial. I will even change the title slightly. I have an odd impression of “selling out,” even though I should view this as “having another whack at it.”

On the other hand, the rabbit in “Harvey” was originally visible at the end, and we’re glad that was written out, right?

Side note: the book was originally written longhand, both drafts. I can’t imagine doing that now.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Virgin Atlantic

An excellent example of how to achieve sexiness without any actual, y'know, sex. Not even much flesh.

Sure, the male reactions are early vaudeville. But it works.

Thanks to Tigerhawk.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Rejoice! Kill the Fatted Calf!

I have won the prestigious International Blog of the Year award for 2008, given annually by the International Center for Extreme Internet Excellence. It was a bit of a surprise, as I hadn't even known I had been nominated until I read it over at Maggie's Farm.

Why Did Steven Pinker "Lie?"

This post is not easily understood without at least skimming the previous one.

The overexcitable among you, especially those unfamiliar with Pinker, should refrain from yelling “Because he’s a damned liberal, that’s why! That’s what they do!” (That may turn out to be the case, but let’s not start there, okay?)

I offer the following quotes from the lead-up to his Did Bush Lie argument. I have italicized words and injected parenthetical comments. If I seem picky, remember that Pinker’s entire point rests on his unpacking of a single word. This, in contrast, is an entire paragraph mostly irrelevant to his main argument.
The aftermath of 9/11 spawned another semantic debate, one with consequences even weightier than the billions of dollars at stake in how to count the events on that day. This one involves a war that has cost far more money and lives than 9/11 itself (human cost is important. But why is “more than 9/11” relevant?) and may affect the course of history for the rest of the century. The debate hinges on the meaning of another set of words – sixteen of them, to be exact:
The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
This sentence appeared in George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2003. It referred to intelligence reports suggesting that Saddam Hussein may have tried to buy five hundred tons of a kind of uranium ore called yellowcake from sources in Niger in West Africa (No, it referred to that intelligence plus a hundred other things, some of which were definite, some of which were suggestive). For many Americans and Britons the possibility that Saddam was assembling nuclear weapons was the only defensible reason to invade Iraq and depose Saddam. (What percentage of Americans? Possibility? Assembling? Only defensible? I contend that the number of people at that time who said this was relatively small. Either way, the sentiment is extraneous to the debate of whether Bush lied. Pinker tips his hand). The United States led the invasion in the spring of that year, the most despised American foreign policy initiative since the war in Vietnam. During the occupation it became clear that Saddam had had no facilities in place to manufacture nuclear weapons and probably had never explored the possibility (? Are you kidding me?) of buying yellowcake from Niger…

Lying is an impeachable offense for a president (no it’s not), especially when it comes to the casus belli of a terrible war.

What jumped out at me is the superlative statement. The foreign policy decision to go into Iraq is not merely despised, but the most despised. It is also, again, not relevant to the discussion at hand, though it seems to be relevant to Pinker’s emotions.

I would disagree with that superlative. I think just about everything about our foreign policy toward Israel has been more controversial over the years. Support for the contras, immigration, the Iranian hostage crisis, SDI, Bosnia, Reagan’s speeches in Germany, Gulf War I – surely at least some of these deserve nomination as roughly comparable. China? Cuba? NAFTA?

Since Vietnam. Ah, is this a clue? Why would that particular controversy occur to Pinker in this context? It is not objectively very similar. But it is emotionally associated, and that has made all the difference. The prescient second half of my thought in the previous post was “Can a reference to Vietnam be far behind?” Three-point swish. I tell you, they just can’t help themselves. Progressives regard it as a proven part of the shared culture that Vietnam was wrong, wrong, wrong; that we resort too quickly to war; and the American government (especially Republicans) lies about it. This belief is central to the world-view of boomer liberals, and must be defended at all costs. Even when they don’t consciously perceive it as especially important; even when they might hedge a bit from their 1970 position in intellectual discussion now – it is part of the furniture. Click your stopwatch – they will mention it.

Am I over-reaching in my interpretation of the thoughts of Pinker in specific about this? He is, after all, an individual human being, not a stereotype; he is in no way notorious for anti-war commentary; his reference was not quite an explicit comparison of Iraq to Vietnam. Wouldn’t it be fair to smack the Assistant Village Idiot, who frequently rails about the mind-reading that others do, for pretending to see into the motives of someone he does not know? Perhaps. On the face of it, it even seems unfair to me that I am doing it.

But then how did I instantly know both things were coming?

Did Steven Pinker Lie?

I am just barely into Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought. Before I can read farther, there is an annoyance I will get off my chest. I am aware that Pinker is politically liberal, somewhere near the “progressive” default setting for academics. Conservatives are also wearily adjusted to liberals gratuitously injecting their political sermons off-handedly into other matters. Somehow, they just can’t stop themselves. As long as there are people out there who still don’t get it, progressives feel obliged to keep making disparaging remarks about unrestrained capitalism, McDonald’s, or what yahoos other people are. As a side note, Pinker is a Canadian, which in some ways helps him rise out of this attitude, but in others draws him deeper in. A wash, I think. He is still very worth reading.

Chief among these obsessions recently has been the war in Iraq. As I noted above, I can usually just brush by these references with a “there they go again” sigh and go on reading. In this instance, however, Pinker makes the “Sixteen Words” about WMD’s in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address the focus of an entire section. In his discussion of meaning, context, and understanding, he tries to unpack those words to illustrate how such differences in understanding words have large consequences.

Full disclosure of my own presumptions here: as soon as I read the first words of the book,
On September 11, 2001
I thought “setting up for a Bush criticism.” In the next section, first sentence, as soon as I saw where Steven Pinker was going, I thought “I am so tired of this” before I even read his argument.* I knew what his conclusion would be, and was tempted to skip over whatever rationalization he had concocted from the application of his expertise in linguistics and thought. Bush was going to have to be bad, Pinker had to get to it first thing in his book. But I like Pinker, I generally like his reasoning, and thought he had enough in the trust-account with me that I owed him my attention.

He focuses on the word “learned” as in “The British government has learned…” Without going into his technical detail, he takes the position that in that particular usage, “learned” has a tight meaning. It is a factive verb, and the full statement can be true only if what follows is true. It is a stronger word that “believe.” I take his point. The British have learned is much stronger than The British believe. There is a definiteness, a you-can-take-it-to-the-bank quality in the former that is not in the latter.

Yet however good that point is (and however necessary it might be for authors to get juicy current examples to illustrate their arguments), it is seriously damaged by three counter-arguments. First, some linguists would say that factive verbs are a myth, and relying on the concept leads us into contradictions. It’s over my head, but it’s not over Pinker’s – it’s his field – yet he doesn’t mention the controversy, which bears on this exact point. Secondly, if Pinker is going to stress context in the meaning of words, then certainly the context of information obtained by espionage has bearing on the discussion. This was not from generally-available sources, but from that shifting, shady world of human intel. We certainly expect that when the POTUS says “The British government has learned” he had better mean a whole lot more than “MI6 overheard an Arab guy saying…” OTOH, I am not surprised when foreign intelligence turns out to somewhat different than advertised once we have the benefit of hindsight. Pinker fairly points out that Bush knew there were credible people who doubted the information from those sources. Knowing that, his use of the word “learned” is deceptive, an exaggeration.

I am going to sidestep the whole argument about Joe Wilson’s trip to Africa, the Iraqi trade mission to Niger, other worldwide sources of intelligence, Sarindar, and the relative credibility of the believers and disbelievers. Other people know that ground far better than I. That sort of discussion is not what you come to the Assistant Village Idiot, aspiring master of the obvious, for. I waive that discussion, and frankly, my first two counter-arguments are not the important ones anyway.

My third counter-argument is the strongest, and entirely in keeping with Pinker’s essay. If he is going to focus on the tightness of the word “learned,” then I am going to focus on the looseness of the word “sought,” as in “Saddam Hussein recently sought…” Sought can be a phone call to a guy who knows a guy. Sought can be inquiring what the going price is. This has been my stance on the Sixteen Words controversy from the start. “…Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Well, duh. I imagine he has been seeking significant quantities of uranium for years, and so have any number of other dictators around the globe. Heck, everyone is seeking significant quantities of uranium. Bush could have made “learned” even stronger, adding “Cross my heart/ hope to die/ or stick a needle/ In my eye” and it would still be true. I didn’t think it was the heart of the argument at the time, I didn’t think Bush thought so, and my memory (which may deceive me) is that the Sixteen Words grew in importance among the critics over time.

Harumph, you protest. The POTUS has a responsibility for precision. His utterances are taken seriously because of his authority. Well, respected science writers have a responsibility for precision too. Steven Pinker is taken seriously as an authority. If his audience is less than Bush’s, his responsibilities are the same. Pinker knew how the sentence continued when he wrote his chapter. He has editors and friendly critics before publication. If he is going to devote such close attention to one word, he should at least give passing attention to the others. He knew, or should have known, as the phrasing is, about the word “sought.”

So, did Steven Pinker lie? That seems harsh to me. Overstrong. An unfair mind-reading to suggest that.

Which is exactly my point.

*There was a prescient second half to that thought of mine, which will be revealed in the next post.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Night Trains

Arthur Chrenkoff was well known in the rightosphere for his blog. He collected the upbeat war news, missing from the MSM. He was no Pollyanna, but kept his eyes focused on the fact that even during the worst days, some encouraging things were happening. Children were going back to school. Electricity was being reconnected despite sabotage. Whole areas of Iraq and Afghanistan had persistent peace.

He stopped blogging in 2005 to finish his graduate studies in Australia, as well as finish his first novel, Night Trains. Chrenkoff was born in Poland and lived there until 1987 – he captures the WWII Central European setting remarkably. He would attribute this to the stagnation behind the Iron Curtain until it fell. Trains, infrastructure, and even attitudes did not change as much in those forty years as on the outside.

The book’s other setting is present-day Australia. It is a sci-fi time-travel novel, rather a Schindler’s List crossed with The Iowa Baseball Confederacy*. Night trains, steam trains visible only to a few and not often, take riders from modern Australia to central Europe of the 1930’s and 40’s. The familiar reluctant hero, drawn not by sense of adventure or desire for cosmic justice, begins to help the Allied war effort – the escape of Jews from the Nazis in particular. It is simple decency. A modern non-hero who knows with certainty the extent of the Holocaust, helps those who are trying to excape from among those who disbelieve or half-believe in the danger.

The Grandfather Paradox of time travel – whether affecting the lives of those in your own history affects you in the present – takes on a new twist here. In fact, the time contradictions keep on taking a new twist throughout the novel. The consequences of actions across time drive the plot. Close to the very end, the reader is still uncertain how the final twist will work and who will be affected. We know that things will work out – it seems that sort of book - and which final few meetings by characters will be key, but method remains dark. The morality of actions which have contradictory effects in time leaves several characters with ambiguous choices.

The mood is dark and sometimes violent. Chrenkoff’s ability to capture atmosphere is as good as his ability to give progressive quarter-twists to the plot as we go.

There are a few weaknesses. Chrenkoff scants conversation in favor of description, which keeps the action too much in the main character’s head. One particular twist of the grandfather paradox, which gives Chrenkoff his dramatic and frightening first few paragraphs, is simply not convincing. It is not developed or explained, and seems to be an evil that pops out like an animatron at an amusement park ride rather than an essential evil. Lastly, I disliked the stereotypical portrayal of the psychiatric clinic. I don’t know the laws of confinement in Australia, but there is simply no relation to the American system in the events which take place there.

Still, those are fairly minor quibbles, easily ignorable in this fascinating book.

* The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, by WP Kinsella bears similarities to his more-famous Shoeless Joe, from which “Field of Dreams” was adapted.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Let Her Go Down

I haven't put up a Steeleye Span song for a bit. One of my favorites. Very poignant.

Sometime in October,
We sailed from England's shore,
When we sailed into a raging storm
Like I've never ever seen before;
And all of the crew they were brave men,
But the captain, he was braver,
He said "Never mind the ship, me boys,
There's none of us here can save her."
Chorus: Let her go down,
Swim for your lives,
Swim for your children,
Swim for your wives,
But let her go down,
Just let her go down.

Lost in the open ocean,
There were some of the crew and me,
While the captain steered our wounded ship,
To the bottom of an angry sea,
And with his dying breath we all heard him say,
"Just the fortunes of a sailor."
And he said "Never mind the ship, me boys,
There's none of us here can save her."

He wondered if his shipmates
were ready just to pray and give in,
So he called their names out one by one,
But there was no one else around but him,
He saw the ship go down in the fading light,
And he knew they could have saved her.
He said "The captain lied
when the captain cried,
There's none of us here can save her."
Chorus: (Peter Knight)

Okay, it would be poignant if it were remotely possible that sailors would act this way.

War Poll

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Conservatives Love America More

I am a little late to the party commenting on Joel Stein's op-ed in the LA Times last month. The issues that Stein raises are constant enough, however, that his editorial and my comments would be current any time in the decade.

Stein believes that in one sense, conservatives do love America more, but that this way is so flawed as to be a net negative. Liberals, on the other hand love America in the correct way.
Fox News' Sean Hannity loves this country so much, he did an entire episode of "Hannity's America" titled "The Greatest Nation on Earth." In that one hour he said, several times, "the U.S. is the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the Earth." One of the surest signs of love is it makes you talk stupid.

Conservatives feel personally blessed to have been born in the only country worth living in. I, on the other hand, just feel lucky to have grown up in a wealthy democracy. If it had been Australia, Britain, Ireland, Canada, Italy, Spain, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Japan, Israel or one of those Scandinavian countries with more relaxed attitudes toward sex, that would have been fine with me too.
Stein compares the conservative's love of America with the irrational love that a parent has for a child, believing that their little Jacob is the smartest, bestest kid in the world. Liberals are more dispassionate, more in contact with reality.

I note in passing the irony the words Second World War infuse into Stein's list of great other places.

Before my mostly-conservative readers get all upset, let's give credit where credit is due. Stein gets some things right in his essay that most liberals don't. It has been my long complaint that progressives in general do not understand what conservatives believe. This is why they continually set up false dichotomies and straw men - not because they are dishonest in the simplest sense, but that they lack the intellectual (or moral) courage to face the arguments actually in play. Stein at least gets it that liberal patriotism is qualitatively different from the conservative variety.

He goes wrong at two important places. First, what if your child really is the smartest in the class, or first violin in the orchestra? That you think he is special is no longer merely an irrational prejudice based on parental bias. Conservatives believe that the US is the best place in the world to live, and more especially, that American values really are superior. To complain that they (we) would think so anyway, as the French think that France is best or the Chinese think that China is best, is not to confront an uncomfortable truth, but to avoid an uncomfortable truth. Sean Hannity has reasons for thinking America best, and these are not mere favoritism for one's own. One might disagree with his reasons or think them exaggerated, but they are based on real evidence.

I recently asserted to a liberal that America is the least racist of nations. She found the idea amazing and appalling, as if I must be blind for thinking so, with all the prejudice that exists in America. She was stuttering and speechless. Well, prejudice does exist in America, and lots of it, but if you observe the behavior of Europeans to the Roma, of the Japanese to the Koreans, of everyone in Africa to everyone else, of China to everyone, or the light-skinned to the dark-skinned in Latin America, then the US starts looking pretty good. Even Canada and the UK, our only real competitors in the non-racist Emmy Awards, have significant problems. Countries that have homogeneous populations aren't really in the mix for comparison, are they? Hell, the Flemish can't even get along with the Walloons, or the Irish with the English.

The second place that Stein goes wrong is in his belief that it is conservatives who are tribal.
I still think conservatives love America for the same tribalistic reasons people love whatever groups they belong to.
Yes we are tribal about other Americans, and that is what allows our military, our businesses, and all our institutions to function even when comprised of many races and groups which disagree. The co-operation may be more reluctant than we would hope, but the love of conservative Americans for other Americans, even black ones, Jewish ones, and gay ones, is apparent once one steps outside our society and looks in at the reality. Stein, on the other hand, is intensely tribal about a single group of people who live in various countries: other progressives. He does not feel an affinity for British Tories, or Australian aboriginals, or French Algerians living in the banlieues. His reference to the people of other nations means liberal white Swedish people, young Japanese people, and urban Italians that he might meet as a tourist.

The tribalism of progressives is one of my favorite soapboxes (see "Cultural Tribes" on the sidebar). It is fair to accuse me of exaggerating it, or noticing it to the exclusion of other factors. But I am not making it up. You can hear progressives making generalizations about Europe, or Other Developed Nations, when they actually mean only a subset of those populations, any day of the week.

Two Sides Of The Family

This is my father's side of the family. This was taken in Pubnico, Nova Scotia around 1930. My grandfather Carl is on the far right; His dad Charlie is in the center. It's an unfair comparison, because it's black-and-white and the fashions are different.
In contrast, these are cousins on my mother's side. The three women are 53, 51, and 44. No, I am not kidding.
You can guess which side of the family I take after from our Christmas photo. It just kills me.

Monday, January 05, 2009


I continue to follow the Timberwolves, because I like Al Jefferson - notice that he just turned 24. You heard it here first: they will finish 10th in the NBA West, and have a better record under McHale than the teams that finish 7th - 9th. The West is already decided. They are too far in a hole to catch the four teams fighting for three playoff spots (Houston, Dallas, Utah, Portland), but they will be creditable.

The lower slots in the East will remain very competitive. Only Washington has eliminated itself from the playoffs so far.

Least Accurate Fortune Cookie Ever

You may have followed Ben's ongoing saga of how outrageously accurate his fortune cookies are. We were down visiting him last week and went out for Chinese on Jan 2. I got the least accurate fortune cookie ever.
You will make a name for yourself in the field of fashion.
Only if coffee stains are about to become all the rage.

Wow. Just...Wow.

The Raving Atheist became The Raving Theist on 12/22/08

Milgram Redux

Neo-neocon put me on to this replication of Milgram's famous studies on obedience to authority. You studied this in introductory psychology: a researcher tells a college student that s/he is participating in an experiment to test whether administering shocks to people who get wrong answers helps them to learn more quickly. The person receiving the shocks is an actor, and no real electricity is used. It is the student who is actually being studied, to see if s/he will continue to administer shocks under orders from the researcher. As the voltage increases, the actor reacts more strongly, then not at all, as if seriously harmed or even dead. Milgram found that a majority of people would keep shocking the victim with increasing voltage if the researcher tells them to.

The repeat experiment was less dramatic, but showed similar results. The immediate conclusion that the psych textbooks draw is how morally weak many of us are, willing to inflict pain just because an authority figure tells us to.

I suggest that the textbooks and the New York Times are wrong about this. These are not clean experiments, neither Milgram's original nor the recent replication, and the experiment doesn't show what they say it does. There is a lot else going on here.

Milgram's original was in 1963, when memories of Nuremberg were still green. We were still aghast that the most cultured and educated nation on earth could somehow go berserk and its citizens become monsters. The 60's psychologists were also eager to show that A) Americans were little better than nazis, and B) ours is an authority-loving culture. I remember well how much we congratulated ourselves at being better than common folk, because we were an authority-questioning tribe of modern college students and social scientists - demonstrating this by all wearing tight jeans, bright colors, and long hair, just to show that we weren't like those others. Far out, huh?.

The experiment starts out with the shocker being told that the shockee has volunteered for the experiment. So already, we are not measuring whether students would obediently just harm others for no reason just because some guy in a lab coat says so. The shocks were reportedly going to help the shockee learn. As they were mild at first, it is an open question whether the person administering the faux shocks thought he was causing any significant harm to another person. We find the idea of painful stimuli distasteful, but it is not immediately obvious that a volunteer who hopes to gain something is being harmed. People signed up for Synanon, EST, and other confrontive therapies, athletes in training use pain as a measure of effort, mild aversive therapies are still used with consent, and most adults believe that a certain amount of discomfort must be endured to grow up in life. In its earlier stages then, the experiment measures whether people think such methods will work, or are at least willing to consider that possibility. Sadism and obedience are irrelevant at this stage. As the experiment progresses, obedience does enter the picture, but the waters are muddied by the concepts of sunk cost and willingness to admit error, in addition to the assent to the original belief of whether aversive techniques work.

Early in my mental health career, I worked on a behavioral unit that allowed aversive responses to patient behavior. Most dramatically, we were instructed to throw a glass of water in the face of Anna D every time she stole a cigarette. I went along with this for two weeks before I balked and said I could no longer participate. Was it my obedience that was at issue here? Partly, but my belief that aversive techniques worked was more to the point. Though I am much less convinced of that now, we still use antabuse, and I could see myself signing up for something uncomfortable if I thought it would treat an addiction or paraphilia.