Friday, February 27, 2009

Black History Month at ESPN

First, it is a favorite soapbox of mine that we should be celebrating Black Future Month (Women's Future Month, Native American Future Month) instead. There's a Confederate History Month, too, but you can't really do Confederate Future Month. That should give you some idea why Future months are a better idea in general. I love history, but most great events are ambiguous. Battles won mean battles lost for someone else. Tragic events should not be forgotten, but should be specific: The Holocaust, slavery, Holodomor. Everyone in general needs a future more than a past, and that goes double for previously oppressed people. I'd like to visit the Negro League Hall of Fame in Kansas City, because it's a completed era. But to celebrate the ongoing story of blacks in baseball, I'd like to see a lot of that energy devoted to their present and future.

ESPN tries to do its bit for Black History Month. I am only a touch queasy about that, because it is culturally true that blacks have excelled in this area, and great changes have occurred within living memory. I have some interest in what Oscar Robertson went through at Crispus Attucks and how he compares it to today. But what Robertson's grandfather went through interests me less. It might interest Oscar, and there's no particular reason to ignore it or bury it, but neither is it all that valuable to know.

Today's story is about two coaches in Abbeville, SC. The great grandfather of the white one lynched the great-grandfather of the black one. Parts of the linked story are interesting, worthy of remembrance and reflection, and poignant. But a major focus of the story is simply insane, and it is a common insanity. It's this huge uncomfortable deal that the white guy is supposed to feel some guilt about, and the black guy some resentment. How they "deal" with this is the center of the story.

No. That is nuts. I understand the connection at least a bit, but it is a connection of feeling and impression, not logic. When feelings are allowed to masquerade as thoughts, no resolution is ever going to be possible.

List of caveats: I know I partly don't get this because I'm not from the south. One of the white guy's friends mentions early in the story that he would have trouble forgiving someone who had done that to his family. This whole "my family" thing, probably coming down from the intense clan culture of the Scots-Irish, doesn't resonate with me. It's your damn great-grandfather. He's irrelevant. It's a little less crazy on the black man's side, but it's still basically insane. People have cultural identities, and we do sort of root for the people who were "ours" in some way when we read about them in history. When I read about the persecution of Christians in any past era, I do put myself in their shoes somewhat, and feel some personal twinge for them. Women reading about the trials women endured have some identification with that. Fine. But to hold it against some person living today just doesn't occur to me.

Also, I get that an example of oppression in the past that has some continuous connection to a prejudice of today is worth contemplating and evaluating. These things are measuring sticks, report cards - and valuable. But it's not you it happened to. It just isn't.

Let me show you why this is with some counter-examples. I am one of the keepers of the family genealogy. But I only have to go back one generation to find a perpetrator. My father molested one of my female friends when I was about 6. If I were to meet her now, I can see feeling embarrassed. I could understand if she did not even want to speak with me because of the associations. I feel sorry for her, and I hope it wasn't traumatic and she quickly forgot it. But I feel absolutely zero guilt or responsibility. I can still ache over people I myself have hurt.

Similarly, there is a man who cheated my grandfather badly - ruined him during the depression. Were I to meet one of his descendants I wouldn't feel the least resentment, and I wouldn't expect him to feel the slightest guilt. If I can't see legitimate guilt over two generations, or even one, for Pete's sake, where does three generations come in?

Second example: Let's reverse the situation in Abbeville. In this alternate universe, it's a white man who went into a black section, felt he was being cheated, and hit a black guy with a hammer. One of the black guys standing around stabbed him in the back, then a group of them dragged him out to a tree and hung him. Terrible. Tragic. Food for thought. Why would the descendants of those people feel responsible a hundred years later?

Last example: A Hungarian policeman in Derna, Romania killed a Romanian in 1916. Descendants of both still live in the town. Wouldn't we as Americans think there was not only something sad, but somewhat ridiculous about anyone feeling either victimized or responsible now?

There are real issues extending into the present day that might deserve consideration. Heck, even reparations can be tied in theory to measurable losses, however impossibly complicated it would be to sort out now. That's only three-quarters crazy. If there is ongoing prejudice in Abbeville, then that's the problem that needs solving. If black people today have been cut off from true events and deprived of honor, then that's the problem that needs solving. The story of the lynching is legitimate fare for newspaper stories, plaques, school discussions.

But to personalise it makes no sense. The feeling of identification is no logical connection. Legitimate complaints draw much of their emotional power from these irrelevancies, but they make the problems forever unsolvable. Let the legitimate complaint stand or fall on its own.

It's easy to imagine a movie ending that makes it all right. The white guy's family puts up a plaque in honor of the black guy who was lynched. A great gesture, everything's put to rest. In the movies. But in reality it still doesn't end there. All players from 1916 have multiple descendants. What if one branch of the black guy's family is just mean and unforgiving, and says it's not enough? Or one of the white guy's family objects and makes a big deal about not going along? So now we've got a new generation of insults: We tried to do the right thing but you won't drop it, versus You made a big show and now you think it's all fine. With human beings, this will never end. There's always something to be offended by.

Uncle Dave Passes Along European PR

My liberal, NoCal uncle who I was named for I have mentioned before. The things he forwards along, I can't always tell if they are fringe left or making the rounds among progressives generally. Today's quote:
Hey, this is Europe. We took it from nobody; we won it from the bare soil that the ice left. The bones of our ancestors, and the stones of their works, are everywhere. Our liberties were won in wars and revolutions so terrible that we do not fear our governors: they fear us. Our children giggle and eat ice-cream in the palaces of past rulers. We snap our fingers at kings. We laugh at popes. When we have built up tyrants, we have brought them down. And we have nuclear f***ing weapons.
My reply:
I hope they were kidding. Every square inch of Europe was stolen by its current inhabitants from someone else. They absolutely do fear their governors more than any American. Still do. The liberties they "won" were won by us, including not only all of the 20th C but the practice of representative democracy (though I'll give the Brits some credit there) itself. Bringing down tyrants in their own land they haven't been much good at. They have relied entirely on each other for that, and not happily. More recently, they've relied on us.

I don't know where you got the quote, but such things are a common attitude in Western Europe. I used to post on a European board where people would argue with a straight face that they were in as much danger from America as from Russia during the cold war. Well of course they had to think that. After abandoning all of Eastern Europe to the Russians the sting of self-honesty would be too great for any nation to bear. So they had to find someone else to blame. We're a good choice because they know we won't punish them.

Remember that they are essentially children - those teenagers who are so sure they know better than their parents.

Vermont Socialists

In the recent article making the rounds showing that it is 5 states which are creating most of the foreclosure crisis, Vermont was listed as a counter-example of a state that was having no problems at all in this area. Vermont bankers apparently did not foolishly overextend credit, and Vermont citizens did not foolishly take on debt they couldn’t pay. Good on them, then. I get annoyed with Vermonters for their socialist leanings, but I continue to root for them in many ways and see them as kindred spirits. Old Vermonters, definitely and even some of the new ones.

I wonder if the willingness of the residents of the Green Mountain State to accept more socialist ideas stems in part from their belief that other people will generally be as frugal, hardworking, and honest as they are. Such attitudes are certainly what drive Scandinavian socialism, and they are having some difficulty with this as they take in more immigrants who are, er, emphatically not Nordic. Sweden, et al, are trying hard to maintain the same social contract they had when the whole country was basically distant cousins to each other. Good for them and I applaud the effort. But it adds another level of difficulty. Scandinavians have been so far above average for honesty and kindness that virtually anyone moving in must bring down the average. Socialism requires enormous amounts of social virtue – some would say an impossible amount once you get beyond the tribal level.

Even the Vermonters who moved up from NY to escape the rat race and adopt a simpler lifestyle were pretty clear that those simpler lifestyles often involved hard work. Even if you’re into local organic produce, alternative education, or researching corporate malfeasance, somebody has to eventually do some work. Lobbying the government may take effort, but it’s not real work – it’s getting other people to do work. Those who don’t get that crash and burn pretty quickly in northern New England.

The amount of corruption, free-riding, and power politics common to the rest of the country is less common in Vermont. Not that they’re angels – peoples is peoples. Yet I suspect they believe that others are like them, and those idealistic progressives from around the country are as practical and hardworking as they are. Extending this, I can see why they might take it a bit personally that conservatives don’t trust them to manage this more socialistic government wisely. As a good example, Howard Dean is not my favorite person. He is a deceitful campaigner. But note that he didn’t start that way going into the 2004 primaries – much of that has emerged since he went national. Before that, he showed the ability to cut budgets when necessary, and was not especially radical on the social scale. Oh, he was undoubtedly a liberal, but not doctrinaire. Vermonters who go to Washington turn more liberal, but that’s true of everywhere.

Vermont, if you guys were running the Democratic show I could swallow a lot of this big government more easily, because you would do big government in a small way. I still wouldn’t prefer it, but I could deal with it. Yet the larger point is, it’s not Vermont Democrats running the show, it’s Chicago, and New York, and Detroit, and San Francisco. I can’t see why you’d have anything to do with those people. They’re not you.

I think we can find some common ground here.

The Truth Is Veiled

Talking with a brilliant, elderly psychiatrist on Wednesday, he was speaking quite warmly about a patient he had interviewed that morning. He is a man deeply touched by his patients’ suffering, and her courage in adversity had impressed him. He described her as very religious, and this led in his monologue to questions of suffering, faith, and endurance. Not being religious himself, he quite naturally wondered why her suffering had not caused her to lose her faith.

Ironically, the physical therapist in a wheelchair rolled past just then, with ashes on his forehead.

Without lecturing the man, I spoke of Frankl’s and Bettelheim’s observations of people in the concentration camps. I noted that ease of life in nations usually led to less religiosity, and the same is often true for individuals for well. He kept returning to the same point – his general puzzlement at the existence of faith in the face of hardship.

I cast my net wider, giving evidence that religious people had given a great deal of thought to suffering over the centuries. I mentioned Luther and Therese, Francis of Assissi, Job – I could certainly have kept going. It was like bumping up against a wall over and over. The doctor’s impression was that this had not been thought through by religious people. The single overwhelming question of how can God be good if people suffer was as far as he could go. He felt that contradiction so strongly that he was unable to really engage intellectually beyond that. Though he did not claim it was an original idea, he spoke as if it were a new revelation that religious people just weren’t dealing with.

The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say, is that we have had this conversation twice before at least, about three years ago and ten years ago. His understated amazement was present then as well: wow, people suffer and yet still maintain there is a good God! How can that be? Nothing I said then made any difference either. And he’s had plenty of time to read up on it or ponder it over the years if he wanted to. This is, I will reassert, a person extremely skilled in listening to his patients and intuiting the meaning and subtext of what they say, a person who has seen complex theories of personality come and go over his lifetime. Not only are there no obvious intellectual or emotional barriers to his understanding these ideas, he is in fact over-equipped to enter into ideas and feelings of others.

So. He doesn’t ponder the meanings. But I ponder him. How is it that person who thinks and cares deeply can walk by such questions? It is not as if he has examined this at length and come to a different conclusion; he has not noted subtle flaws in the reasoning of religious people; he has not identified new contradictions that have not been addressed. He comes to the edge of the ocean and sees only desert because he is standing on sand.

The scriptures speak of things being veiled from our sight, and most especially, the things of God. CS Lewis illustrates the idea in The Last Battle, where the dwarves have passed through the door and entered into heaven, but believe they are stuck in a dark, dirty stable. They are offered a banquet, but taste only filthy straw. In the Gospel of John, scene after scene has Jesus commenting about the Pharisees’ inability to understand. In some verses it seems as if this is very much their own fault; in others it sounds as if such understanding is only by God’s action and they could not do otherwise. In between, Jesus mentions also those who believe only because of signs. (Chapters 3-8 refer to this problem repeatedly, with Jesus giving a subtly different answer each time. The answer is clearly almost within our reach but just beyond our understanding).

My doctor friend standing by the ocean – is it his own fault that he does not say “Well, people say there’s an ocean here. Shouldn’t I at least step out a bit and see if I get wet?” Or is there nothing he can do, because he does see only sand? These things are beyond me.

I am making no statement, BTW, that all or most nonbelievers fit this description. On the contrary, I have spoken with some and read many nonbelievers who seem to have genuinely engaged the larger questions surrounding Christian belief. But I have met many, many others over the years who fit the elderly psychiatrist’s category. They do not even really know what the questions are, and they don’t know that they don’t know. Do they sense at some deep level that the answers beyond the door are too expensive, or is this gift simply not given to them?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Guys Backstage Were Cracking Up

While looking for something else entirely, I came across this.

There was clearly more to this show than I realised at the time.

Raising Children

Don't raise them to be good kids. Raise them to be good parents.

There's not much market down the road for being a Good Kid. It's not a great job qualification, and I doubt it plays well in personal ads. This is because the qualities of being a good child are not a complete overlap with being a good adult.

I am not just being cute here. There are times in raising a child when they have to take risks, to make a decision and stick with it, enjoying or enduring the consequences. You increase this slowly, certainly. Children should be let in on the decisions you are wrestling with long before they take any active part in them. But that focus on where they need to be at age 20 needs to be ever in your mind. Their short-term need - even your short-term need for them - may be for the quieter, predictable, well-behaved circumstance.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Megan McArdle (a renter) reminds us that support for mortgage bailouts keeps rents artificially high. The government helping someone usually means hurting someone else.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Pastor was preaching on the Transfiguration today, looking for some modern analogy. His weren't bad, but I think Transformers are a natural. Click. Twist. Rotate. Look, it's Jesus, but completely different. I picture lots of light being inside the original package, which shoots out in individual shafts as the unveiling takes place. Special FX. I think this part of the Bible seems stranger to adults than it does to kids.

Children's Church is easy to design that week. Draw a picture of Jesus transforming. Explain it. A lot of the boys would have him shooting at the devil - well, they want to have him shooting, but they've been around church long enough that you have to handle that very carefully. This armed Jesus upsets some people, but it's not very different from all those icons of St. Michael or St. George spearing a serpent, now, is it? The boys may actually be closer to Christian tradition in this.

Generic Christian Church

I still think this is a great idea, naming yourself Generic Christian Church. "We have worship. We have Sunday School. We help those in need."

What kind of worship do you have? they ask, trying to fit you into a slot, or find some reason to reject you. "Oh, we have some singing. Some prayers. We read the scriptures. The pastor gives a lesson. You know, just regular worship."

So many churches that claim to be non-denominational are essentially soft-shell Baptist, or Christian rock concerts with audience participation. That's just denominationalism done informally. Self-selection by style and region. Or churches will make such a deal about how bad denominations are that they will become one themselves, like the Campbellites. Stealth denominationalism.

If the idea doesn't attract, what else is it that you think should be there so prominently? Reform movements that want to bring the Church back to basics often have some idiosyncratic ideas they call "basic." This is supposed to avoid that.

I thought of having a black-and-white bar code as a symbol, but that would freak out the end-times fundamentalists too much. It might improve attendance as they sent people over to keep an eye on us, but I doubt they'd put much in the plate or volunteer for stuff.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


We were discussing with my son, his fiancee, and her parents a rather sad story of a boy who had been abandoned one recent night by his mother. "I can't imagine what that must be like," said John-Adrian. I made some questioning but neutral remark like "You don't think so?"

"No, that's so terrible. I can't imagine what that must be like for your parents to just drop you off like that" he repeated.
"But it happened to you," I said in some surprise.
John-Adrian is quick on his feet, and hard to pin down even when caught in an error. "Yeah, but that happens a lot in Romania. You don't expect it to happen here."

Eight years later, we fill up the whole jar of who he considers to be his parents, and he can't imagine being abandoned by us. It is more than I ever hoped for for him. Damage does not always last forever. See previous post on Healing.


I have been close to a very few remarkable, likely miraculous healings. I have been peripheral to a few more, and I have heard of hundreds - many likely unreliable.

I believe that healing takes place mostly in the context of community.

Diversity Pledge

Volokh has commentary on UVA Law's Diversity Pledge, which students are encouraged to sign.


How long before that becomes encouraged? When that day comes, how is this different from a 1950's loyalty oath?

Odd Poll

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Martian Way: A Modern Lesson

Isaac Asimov wrote The Martian Way, a sci-fi novella in the mid-50's. Literary types focus on the eye he had out for McCarthyism when he wrote it, but I had completely forgotten that part of the story until rereading it recently. Suffice it to say that intellectual circles, still reeling from the descent into barbarism of the world's most literate, urbane, and philosophical nation in the 30's and 40's, coupled with idealistic hope in the UN and the possibility that communism would grow into the great rescuer of mankind, viewed anti-communist extremism as the great danger of the world. If even Germany could go bad, then so could we, and in just this way. The minor, self-correcting blip in American politics became legendary for silly reasons. Asimov failed to rise above that. Ah well.

What remains memorable about the story is the cultural lesson. People born on earth believe that no one can exist in space for longer than six months without going mad. Those born on Mars half-believe this as received wisdom despite evidence to the contrary in their own culture. Space scavengers spend extended periods in space all the time. When Mars needs water and the supply from Earth looks to be cut off shortly, adventurous space scavengers hit upon the idea of going to Saturn's rings and picking up a big chunk of ice to bring back to Mars. Because of the length of time in space, people are skeptical it will work.

Ignore the water, science, and technology as incidental to this point. The great cultural risks are taken by those who are already used to some of them. Those on the fringes willingly run the experiments on themselves which inform us what humans are capable of.

The nervous joke about physical existence in the future is "Well, we might all be uploaded to silicon by then." Most of us find the idea as appalling as it is intriguing, a version of you sitting on a shelf, which can be outfitted with a body - or not - as those who come after see fit. We try and imagine if such a being is really human. We think it a rather ignominious end.

Not to worry. Other people are going to test this for you because they want to, not because scarce resources make us all attempt it. What kind of sicko would try this? You might. Those who have a terminal illness would see themselves as having little to lose. The silicon version of you would likely belong to your inheritors, not some evil tyrannical government laboratory. Your great-grandchildren might be curious about you. The advances in technology from your time to theirs would make the downloaded you seem rather primitive, like an old 8mm movie enjoyed at reunions. But they would get some sense of you that they didn't have.

Those who spend a lot of time in online worlds will also likely nominate themselves. Few would do it now, but as everyone gets used to the quasi-reality of online personae, those out at the farther end of the curve, for whom Second Life 4.1 with virtual reality is more vivid than their flesh-and-blood life, might also reason that they have little to lose by switching over. People would continue to have minor ties to their carbon-based selves, then tenuous ones, then none. You wouldn't have to worry about the eeriness of meeting them at the store or driving around. They wouldn't go there. They'd do that in their networked world, where you could go or not as you chose. They would regard us as living in a slow, faulty, uninteresting world. There might be overlap, as folks found it entertaining to have three or four lives to bap in and out of at will, each with its own population, but there would be lots of people who picked one life and mostly stayed there. We would barely be aware of what happened in those other worlds - nor would we need to.

But, but, doesn't this meatware world have to go on functioning to support all the others, making the electricity, uploading and downloading the citizens. Couldn't this world be taken over by nefarious controllers, who would make the derivative, dependent worlds do what they wanted? Couldn't they make us into anything?

Probably not. Those living on silicon would likely find a Martian Way.

Look On The Bright Side

Mankind has tended to get out of tough spaces by technical cleverness rather than wisdom. Well, those branches of mankind that survived, anyway. Groups that were neither clever nor wise tended to get eliminated.

The amount of debt we are bequeathing to our successors is growing so enormous that we are backing ourselves into a corner. We have apparently already eliminated "wisdom" as a possible solution, and so must rely on technical innovation. The amount of rethinking government required to slow spending is not going to happen. I can fantasize that it would happen if, if, if, but those are big "ifs." If Republicans nominate almost entirely frugal candidates, and if a significant majority of Republicans gets elected, we have a shot at it. As those two things tend to work against each other electorally, it's not going to happen.

The dark fantasy if things get bad enough America will increasingly accept tyranny has been an undercurrent to political discussion for decades. The more hopeful thought that if things get bad enough she will wise up - 70% of the under-25's realizing that they are getting massively screwed and voting for small government, for example - also floats in the political air.

What is more likely than either is that technological solutions will become affordable because they are the only road home. Whether we approve of them or want them, we will accept them because we have no choice. It is considered the height of Pollyannaism to wait for magical solutions, but it's not just waiting that will occur. The forces that back us into the corner will also drive down the prices of what we need.

What you envision may not be what you get. Want a solar house? It may not happen that way. Really dislike the idea of a solar house? You may get one anyway. Circumstances, not choices, will dictate what houses look like in thirty years.

With all this in mind, I pass on to you some of the technical innovations that are gradually coming online. All of them look like they will "work" in some sense. Whether they will work well enough, or cheaply enough, is another matter. But some things out of this list are where you young 'uns are going. I still recommend that small-government types continue to interest their children in space colonization.*

Some reposts of earlier links occur.

MIT's Technology Review hightlights ten emerging technologies.

From the same source, improvement in materials, drugs to dampen bad memories, and improvements in batteries.

Future Pundit updates us on the drop in prices of PV solar and some good news about rainforests

The Futurist had a timeline of energy predictions in 2007. We seem to be slightly ahead of schedule in most places. Related, the projected big jumps in solar technology.

This just in: new research shows that men regard pictures of women in bikinis as objects. They don't try and imagine what the women in the pictures are thinking and feeling at all. Your tax dollars at work.

*(Foreshadowing: your guide to quality literature.)

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Daniel Tammet's discussion of his synethesia in Born On A Blue Day evoked memories from long ago. I remember the colors of a few numbers, even though I can no longer see them in my mind's eye. Usually, articles on synesthesia focus on other sense-mixing phenomena, such as visualising sound or noting a texture to letters. Thus, I never thought it applied to me until well into adulthood, when I encountered a description of a synesthete who thought that numbers had colors.

Problem was, he thought they were the wrong colors, which annoyed and puzzled me. If I thought his colors were wrong, what colors did I think were right? The answers did not immediately come to me, so I dismissed the idea that I had experienced this. I found no accounts of people having any sense-mixing experience and then losing the faculty. I concluded that my imagination was overactive on the subject. Still, it nagged at me a bit.

About ten years ago, cleaning out some old boxes, I came across notes I had scribbled inside the front cover of a college textbook. It was clearly my handwriting, and referred explicitly to knowing the colors of numbers, but I had no recollection of it. The written exercise was an attempt to discover if other concepts had colors associated with them - I was trying to fit colors to ideas, without success. Included at the bottom were abbreviated names of colors next to the integers 1-9. Four of them jumped out at me, immediately visualised. The other five I could not bring to mind, even with the "right" answers in front of me.

Interestingly, I knew more than just the colors of those numbers - I knew shapes and textures as well, though I hadn't recorded them in the book.

3 is a thin translucent yellow upright cylinder, 4 a muddy dark brown squarish blob, 5 is a shiny orange (actually in the shape of a five - the only one), 6 is brick red, but I no longer recall the shape. Possible associations that drove these connections are that "six" rhymes with "bricks," and squareness could easily associate with the number four. The two even numbers are dull, the odd numbers bright.

Even this was long forgotten as a mere curiosity until reading the book. Daniel recounts seeing black integers in a textbook early in school and being upset because they were wrong. I recalled from nowhere being angry at a large red five in a book because the people had gotten in wrong. How could they get so close and then ruin it?

I don't know what it all means. Tammet is also a calculating savant, far above my abilities on that score. What intrigued me was his perception of shapes for numbers and how this helped him recognise prime numbers and calculate. I had nothing like that. I could do mental arithmetic if the numbers were spoken to me, even if they involved many digits and operations. I could do visual arithmetic only by whispering to myself, the sort of distraction that teachers of that era tried to eliminate pretty quickly.


Sorry not to update. Suddenly getting a fifth son has been disorienting. But I have thoughts running around, and will post several times over the next few days.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Blog Census

Commenter jaed made thoughtful observations on separate topics, and I realised I didn't have a picture in my head who he is. So I looked him up, and his long-untouched blog. His post hypothesizing what you hear on the UN answering service remains true now, two-and-a-half years later.
If a neighboring country has invaded and annexed yours, press 1 for an emergency meeting of the Security Council, to be held within 30 days.

If your local dictator has been arresting and displacing political opponents and their families, friends, and people from the same village en masse, press 2 for an official Statement of Concern.
His entry includes the links to these various events.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Big Solar

Something for all you alt-energy fans, over at Wired.

Genetic Choices

Future Pundit is fond of asking, whenever a genetic influence is detected or a specific gene identified, "will parents choose to make sure their children have this gene or to not have it, when the choice becomes available?" It is an exceptional question to consider. The two most recent entries are empathy, and risk-taking.

We forget that an important part of evolutionary psychology is focusing on the traits that exist within the population, not just the individual. It is not solely a matter of whether we want a more compliant child or a feistier one ourselves, but if we want a society with reduced compliance or enhanced feistiness in its populace? There will be many of both individuals - how much does it change things to go from 50-50 to 70-30?

Not to mention unintended consequences of gene-environment interactions. An enormous number of your genes do nothing more than turn something on or off during your development, depending on whether the proper conditions are present. When you breed plants or animals for specific qualities, you get oddities.

Do you think I'm getting ahead of myself here? Think again.
Every baby born a decade from now will have its genetic code mapped at birth, the head of the world's leading genome sequencing company has predicted.

Get in the habit of asking yourself this whenever genetic traits are identified. I'm 55, it's not going to be my world. It's going to be yours. Part of a parent's decision is going to be the social and competitive world your child will grow up in. Do you refuse to enhance, knowing your daughter will be competing against the enhanced? We can dodge that for a generation in our family, equipped to compete naturally against the enhanced. But it won't last. And enhancement per se won't be the only issue.

If schools start granting admission advantages to Children with any of the following genetic traits: 16B15; 9CC121 or 3; etc, or employers offer them bonuses, will scientists decide that a core population of completely unmodified individuals is a necessary precaution? Will governments pay bonuses for that, as compensation? Will certain religious or social groups hold themselves aloof from enhancements, or from any modifications?


The complicated arrangements in our extended families has come up at our weekly small group several times in the past two months. Those arrangements are even more on my mind with the arrival of our nephew Kyle this weekend. We are now thinking we would like to have him here on an extended or even permanent basis. Tracking down who is connected to who and who is living with who just now has become an issue, so I thought it might be fun to make out a genogram. Well, fun is hardly the right word, is it? I was driven by curiosity.

I use a modified system for my own needs, but it is a rule of thumb that complexity in your section of the genogram is a red flag for problems. You want to have a nice boring section around you. Few people do. There are second marriages, hostilities, and whatnot in every family. You will often see shining, responsible individuals rising up in the diagram in the worst spots - people who decided to transcend their circumstances by effort.

But the life complications of "six children, four fathers," or unstable households are reflected on the page. They are difficult to diagram. You keep running out of space in a section and have to start over with a fresh sheet, symbolically moving some people out of the way to make room for others. There is software you can buy to map things out for you, but doing it by hand often illuminates issues dramatically. If it's this hard on paper, what must it be like to live in? Patterns show up. Some people have surprising green lines of closeness extending into many corners of the family. Others seem to have red lines of difficulty emanating from them like rays of the sun.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Threshold Phenomena

If you are going 46mph in a 45 zone, you are speeding. That may not be the threshold for getting a ticket - that may be 51 or 53mph - but there's no way around the fact that you are speeding. Whatever the penalty is for speeding, you deserve that. Yet we don't consider it equivalent to going 86mph in a 45 zone. Reaching the threshold for speeding is not the same as the average for speeding. When we think "he's always speeding," we don't think of a person going 1mph over.

Poverty is a threshold phenomenon in America. There is a cutoff number. If you make less than that, you are eligible for whatever the poor are eligible for. But you don't make the average amount of $ as everyone below the poverty line - and in some societies, you might not reach the threshold of poverty at all. When we think "they are living in poverty," we might be imagining people much worse off. It doesn't mean you're not "really" poor. It just means that the threshold is not the same as the median.

Anything that is bad can be made worse. Rape can be more heinous if it is repeated, or involves violence, or the victim is more helpless. There is torture and worse torture - as the current saying is, forcing someone's gag reflex is not the same as cutting their tongue out. There is stealing and worse stealing; lying and worse lying. We do well to remember both pieces: that the threshold has been reached and consequences should follow; that there may still be valuable distinctions to be made.

Political arguments often devolve into threshold versus distinction. I wonder why our minds are constructed this way. To person A, the threshold has been crossed, nothing more need be said - person B wants to make further distinctions. In the next argument, their roles may reverse. We seem remarkably unwilling to grant good faith to our opponents. For example, no matter how much person A protests that he does indeed acknowledge that B is poor, if he makes any statement that C is poorer, B believes his poverty is being denied.

No conclusion here. I am just puzzled. Everyone understands the idea I am driving at here, and has been on both sides of the divide. Yet we feel it very deeply and do not naturally rise out of the conflict despite a lifetime of repetitions. We must make an effort each time.


Carl Pham, in the comments over at Transterrestrial Musings has the quote of the week. The context was the voting of recent immigrants, college students, etc.

And so on. Voting Democratic is kind of a newbie thing, in many ways. Something that seemed like a good idea at the time. It appeals to your first, inexperienced, unrealistic notions of what voting should accomplish, of how the world should be run. It’s kind of a Harlequin romance version of political activity. Most people grow out of it, although there is a certain hard core of dependents who never do, simply because the Democrats service their needs.

Budget Comparison

The church budget was up for discussion today. It's a little north of $100,000. According to our by-laws, we have to get information to the congregation well in advance so that all of us will know what we are talking about when we meet.

Contrast this to the $800,000,000,000 Congress just spent with about a day to read the proposal - and that's extra spending, not even the budget proper. I guess Obama forgot that he promised at least 48 hours for each spending bill, even much smaller ones. Maybe "forgot" isn't the word I'm looking for.

Watership Down connection. Rabbits can count up to four (I actually doubt they can count to two - literary license); after that, it's just "many." So hrair can be used for both five or a thousand. The name "Fiver," or the list of rabbit enemies "The Thousand." Human beings can go higher with numbers and retain some meaning, but I think the principle still holds. Beyond a certain number, relatively low when talking about government money, it's all just "lots." three million equals three billion equals three trillion. Which is why we have not marched on Washington to put violent hands on our representatives.

Annoying Music

akafred sent me the link for NPR's Annoying Music For Valentine's Day. The host, Jim Nayder of Chicago, has apparently been doing this for other holidays as well, dating back to 2002.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Minstrel Boy

I grew up on the Limeliters version of this. No surprise that Pete Seeger never sang it, so far as I know. In my hippie liberal years between 13 and reading Tolkien (19), it may be this song alone that held me back from complete pacifism. It is an exceptional marriage of tune and lyric.

YouTube has several versions that are okay, but none that were excellent. I had not heard of Danny Quinn, but I like his energy on this. It is very much in the style I sang and played thirty and forty years ago. Unfortunately, there's some shtick and another song on this video. Just stop it at 2.00 - you'll thank me.

The Minstrel Boy to the war is gone
In the ranks of death you will find him;
His father's sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;
"Land of Song!" said the warrior bard,
"Tho' all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!"

The Minstrel fell! But the foeman's chain
Could not bring that proud soul under;
The harp he lov'd ne'er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said "No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and brav'ry!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free,
They shall never sound in slavery!"
Thomas Moore, early 19th

Love Is All Around - The Troggs

The Troggs played at my highschool for Central Week 1969.

Apparently, someone had just gotten a movie camera and liked playing with the effects. Some of these romantic moments turned a little creepy.


John-Adrian and Samantha are engaged. She is a darling - he got a good deal, that boy. Lands on his feet.

Vermont Republicans

As much as I like having NH be the site of the first presidential primary, I would like for Vermont to have a chance sometime. I feel sorry for their Republicans. No one has paid attention to those poor bastards in years, and I'm curious what their opinions are. Their votes have been buried in Democratic rubble.

Without Data

In the discussion of our own state budget, the topic of the 1998 national welfare reform - called Personal Responsibility and Opportunity or something like that - came up at work. For those of you not following daily, the people "at work" are social workers and psychologists and thoroughgoing liberals. A woman bemoaned how much worse things were for the poor, and how little the government, especially under Bush, cared for the disadvantaged. I feigned puzzlement and asked what was worse. I received anger: "Look around you! What does it take?" Miffed, but uncomfortable dueling with the unarmed, I tried to keep my voice even, though it doubtless had a bite. "It resulted in fewer poor people. Especially children. More especially children of single mothers. And most especially African-Americans. That's not just a conservative POV. Those are the numbers."

Most present did not believe that it even could be so, and two thought it offensive that conservatives even tried to rationalise such horrors by pretending it was better for the poor to be abandoned.

Maybe where you live it's different. But it's people like this - with graduate degrees, every one of them - who keep me postliberal in spite of the general mediocrity of Republicans. We simply cannot allow such people to be in charge of us.


I have heard of things like a mouthguard improving peak athletic performance, but had never seen anything reputable on it before. Interesting if it proves out.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Russian Update

A collection of summarized recent stories describing what is happening in Russia, by Canada's David Kilgour. A lot of bang for the buck here, and Kilgour has more international credentials than you can shake a stick at. A lot of attention is given to whether Putin's influence is waning.

Libertarian Principles. Well, Principles in General

Randy Barnett over at Volokh Conspiracy relates why it's a bad idea to let judges tear up mortgage contracts. It's a current issue - whether bankruptcy judges can modify existing mortgages in the current credit crisis. Barnett links to a fuller discussion of that issue in the WSJ, but tackles the more general ideas on his own.

Libertarian first principles can be analogized to having a cheat sheet of answers to a multiple choice test. While you might know the right answer--which is certainly useful--you won't know exactly why the answer is right, which is needed to truly understand the subject being tested. And without such an understanding, one cannot explain the "right answer" to others and why it is right.
I note that the same thing often happens to Christians - many of them know the right doctrinal answer, but do not know or are unable to articulate why it's the right answer. CS Lewis would say that if you cannot explain something in plain language, you don't really understand it. Deprived of your familiar jargon, explanations will of course be much longer. But they should be possible.

Earnestly Desire The Higher Gifts

Well, I don't earnestly desire them, but sometimes they just come to you, unasked. My brother who is staying with us about half the time got a call from his ex-wife, who he stays with the other half, and is heading back to Massachusetts tonight. Half an hour after he got the call, before he has packed and left, we got an emergency call from Tracy's brother. We will have our nephew Kyle for the weekend. He has been through a miserable time in general, but especially the last few days.

We have some bizarre version of the gift of hospitality. Gifts do not follow the neat patterns that Sunday School teachers would have you believe. We are not especially good inviters of others over for social times. We were not one of those families who always had the whole neighborhood over visiting our kids. Our kids liked to go to other people's houses, where they had TV, or to be left alone. We don't often entertain. No one would look at our day-to-day lives and say "those people have the gift of hospitality."

The general pattern is that there is no pattern. God is too creative for that. People with a gift of evangelism may have it only in one narrow area, like children, or cult members. Or only in writing, not live. People who are cautious, even stingy with their money in all areas may have one path where resources just flow from them - a gift of generosity. "Heaven help me if I don't preach the gospel," says St. Paul. He might have said "I just can't help it. It's who I am."

It's who I am. I cannot do otherwise. It's one of the signs of the gift.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Specialized Versus Everyday Meanings

In your psych eval, if you came across the phrase Substance Abuse: denies you might be insulted. It sounds as if the evaluator has decided that you do abuse substances, but refuse to admit it. It doesn't mean that at all, it just means you said you didn't. If the evaluator knew something to the contrary, she would include it: but tox screen is positive for cannabinoids. Denies suicidal ideation. Denies auditory and visual hallucinations. The evaluator is not going to write "none" in any of those slots, because she doesn't know that.

The income tax system is voluntary in the US. That doesn't mean you can opt to not pay it. It means you fill out the bill yourself rather than having the government send you one.

A better known example is that acute doesn't mean intense, it means brief, or coming on quickly. Culture has a different meaning in the social sciences than it does in everyday use. Actually, culture has a slightly different meaning in each social science class you'll ever take.

Words with specific meanings in a subject (in legalese a term of art, which is, I suppose, a term of art in the law) cause a great deal of headache when they move out of their own neighborhoods. Well-meaning people blunder, crusaders mislead many, and the deceptive misuse terms intentionally to manipulate.

Christian theology has its own pitfalls here. Personal God is often misunderstood.

Here's an irony: in Critical Theory, such terms are often seen as tools of
oppression. But critical in this sense not only has a different meaning than the everyday, it has a different meaning than its specific literary usage. Postmodern vocabulary (and its deconstructionist and poststructuralist cousins), is perhaps the best known example of using language as a tool of oppression.

!0 College Courses

Mental Floss has a list of courses you wish your college had had. No I don't, actually, though I see their point. Theatre & Speech has proved useless enough over the years (yes, we spelled it that way at W&M - 18th C and all that), I didn't need encouragement to become more frivolous.

I am grateful that Dungeons and Dragons had not yet been invented when I was a college. I never would have graduated. I did hear of a game called Midgard my junior year, that was a precursor to RPG's played by mail, if you can imagine such a thing. Fortunately, I never found a contact address. Wikipedia does not list this game anywhere, but it sounds so plausible that I cannot dismiss it as legend.

Indirect HT to Ben

News You Missed

Okay, you folks in Texas, or those that follow water problems closely, didn't miss the drought affecting more than half of Texas. We heard about it from our hosts in San Antonio, but I don't think I really got how extensive this is.

But I imagine you missed what is the big news in Romania this week: a premier handball player was stabbed to death in a disco in a peaceful Hungarian vacation city. Handball is big in Romania, for both men and women, and team handball not the same thing as ten other kinds of handball, including the preppy sport you are envisioning, is an Olympic sport. Apparently, someone in the disco mistook the situation, and thirty people attacked a dozen unarmed athletes. As the newspapers in America often say, "alcohol is thought to be a factor." Yeah, you think? And yes, discos remain big in Hungary and Romania. (It's not your computer that's slow loading, got it?) At least two, and possibly three of my sons know people in these pictures. These capture the spirit of young Romania as well as anything I could post. Well, actually no. Fotos of young Romanians working in other EU countries would probably capture their spirit better.

I have no idea whether gypsies (Csigani, Roma) were actually involved, but unsurprisingly, they are being accused on all the southeastern European handball forums. I don't know why I bothered to point that out. I'm sure all of you keep up with southeastern European handball forums on your own, and don't need me to belabor the obvious.

Affecting Behavior Vs. Influencing Behavior

It is relatively easy to affect behavior. It is hard to change behavior in the sense of remaking it. Failing to note this difference is the cause of much panic and blather in the world. The distinction goes to the heart of progressive politics, for example, as well as addiction treatment, dieting, and paranoia about evil advertisers bending the people to their will.

Social scientists have acres of studies showing what affects behavior – who we vote for, what we buy, who we marry, where we live. We found a 28% increase when the presenter wore stripes…fewer than one in three New Yorkers said they would buy… How we make the enormous logical leap to believing that the effects are increasable, or even sustainable, is easy to understand, but still flat wrong. Yes, we tend to vote for the taller candidate, but our legislative houses are not stuffed with seven-footers. People drink more when they are around other drinkers, but one person drinking constantly does not turn his neighbors into lushes.

This pops up over and again. Human beings are not infinitely malleable. We habituate to some things, or react against them. If you eat less, your metabolism changes. You can reduce the speed limit by 20%, and many people will drive more slowly. If you reduce it 80%, they will disregard the law, or find another method of getting about. A great ad campaign can cause lots of folks to choose Bright-O, but they won’t buy gallons of the stuff unless they need gallons of the stuff. There is a law of diminishing returns.

Now run the thought experiment with taxes; with drug laws; with job programs, infrastructure building, welfare, education – with just about everything government does. The things that governments do influence behavior and outcomes. Politicians make the leap that if they just do more of it, they will fix more things. We don’t have to fall for it.

Selfish Americans and Profligate Developed Nations

While we are frequently reminded of the enormous percentage of the world’s wealth and energy sucked up by the USA and the developed nations, equally shameful imbalances go unmentioned. Generous, responsible Americans will want to know what they can do to correct this.

The United States, Canada, and Europe use far more than their share of advanced education. Students over fifteen in the developed world receive 5 days of education for every one that the average Chinese child receives, and those in India receive only a half day. This leads to further imbalances, as Americans use 50 to 100 times as many books as Indonesians and Namibians over the course of a lifetime.

There is also a pixel imbalance in the world. Not only do Europeans use more than 6 times the number of computer pixels than Africans, the Israelis are worse (darn them!), soaking up ten times the number. Similar stories of pixel deprivation in poorer countries, constrasted with pixel waste in the West, occur with digital cameras. Not content to overuse their own natural abundance of pixels, Europeans, and especially North Americans, think nothing of taking pictures while visiting even the poorest of countries.

And don’t even get me started on American flags. We in the US use such an enormous percentage of these that it beggars description.

What you can do.
Cut classes. Read fewer books. Learn less. If we can rein in our voracious appetite for such consumables, there will be more left over for the rest of the world. It only makes sense.

Take fewer pictures, especially while traveling abroad. Even better, take pictures of yourself and everything around you and email them to a city in India or Zimbabwe.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Dachshund Infinite Loop

When Merry and Pippin have finished eating from their separate bowls, each goes over to the other's bowl to check it out - just in case something has been missed, don't you know. They lick the second bowl quite intently.

Then they decide that hey, that other dog is sure paying a lot of attention to that other bowl - there must be a reason for that, and they go back to the original bowls. A few repetitions is usually enough, but sometimes this can go on for fifteen minutes.

I try to explain this to them, but they just don't listen.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mate Preferences - II

A followup to yesterday's post about mate selection

A lot of guys seemed to be worried about finding sexual partners. There is a foolproof strategy.
1. Do something violent. Hitting a wall is good.
2. Faced with the consequences of this, cop a threatening attitude.
3. If someone shows the least sympathy, call yourself a loser and starting crying.
4. Repeat as needed.

I admit I don't understand the theoretical underpinnings of this strategy. On paper, it would seem to be a low-payoff method. But empirically, I find that it works often.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Concept Changes

I know people - mostly at work - who resist the idea of absolute right and wrong, or absolute truth. It occurred to me today that they are still pretty tight on the word justice, though. If someone pulls that right/wrong thing on you, you might return with "is there real justice and injustice, then?"

Mate Preferences

Over at FuturePundit - a site I have to spend more time on - there is an article on an ongoing study by sociologists at U Iowa about mate preference. Researchers have been asking college students since the 1930's what they are looking for in a mate. Unsurprisingly, there have been changes.

The comments there take care of the clear problems with the research pretty quickly: the people who went to college in the 30's are not the same slice of America as they are now; this study is not about who college students prefer as mates, but who they say they prefer (which we will come back to); the words used as descriptors have different connotations now; college students in 1930 were expecting to marry in the next few years, that is no longer true in 2009.

Still, the study is interesting, and revealing. From the study:
For women of the 1930s, emotional stability, dependable character and ambition ranked as the top three characteristics they wanted in a man. Attraction and love didn't come in until No. 5. Today, women, like men, put love at the top of the list, with dependability and emotional stability rounding out the top three characteristics in Mr. Right.

Women rate desire for home and children much higher in importance than men do. In 2008, women rated desire for home and children fourth men ranked it ninth.

Women ranked "pleasing disposition" as significantly less important in 2008 than they have ever before. Pleasing disposition -- presumably interpreted to mean being a nice guy -- fell from a steady ranking of No. 4 throughout the second half of the 20th Century to a significantly lower rank of No. 7 in 2008.
From FuturePundit's commentary:
Strip away tradition. Strip away religious beliefs. What happens? Men and women are looking at each other in ways that seem even more influenced by their evolutionary heritage. The mating market looks like it is becoming more competitive.
1. What young people say they are looking for and who they do eventually marry has a large disconnect. Women are particularly susceptible to this. Not the women who comment here, of course, but those other women, notoriously misunderstand themselves and their attractions. This is one reason why I will never lead marriage and dating discussions with youth groups. I would lose my temper.

2. The word chastity, even more than virginity, carries a connotation of frigidity now that I don't think it did in the 30's. That changes the question. That sex in college is more common now is more than likely, chastity thus suggests an unattractive militancy. I am not sure that the value itself is undervalued as much as the study suggests. If we changed the requirements according to changed norms, then I think "2 or fewer sexual partners" might still score pretty high. "Pleasing disposition"(Nice Guy) may also have changed.

3. FP's idea that we are more like our primitive ancestors in our selection now because tradition and religion are less prominent deciding factors strikes me as suspect. We have in some ways moved toward primitive norms, moved away in others. There is some discussion of this in the comments.

HT: Instapundit.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Instead of Parody

Ben's site has a link to a new toy called Wordle which allows you to view a word cloud based on your website. Terri and Carl, I tried yours already and they look cool.

Bad Bible Studies

I was thinking how humorous it would be to link to Worst Study Questions Of The Week, but thought better of it. Even if I didn't link to them directly, curious folk could google them and trace their provenance. Even on a small site like this, people might tip off those criticised, who might be hurt. Also, they would click themselves over here to correct me by noting how many people had gotten saved by that exact question at last week's revival or how it had prevented them from committing suicide or poisoning their neighbor or whatever. So there.

Instead, I will note a style of Bible study (or Christian topic study) which absolutely burns out my clutch on contact. Good questions, delivered in a condescending style, as one might use with third-graders.

What is God trying to tell us about justice in this passage?
How do you think God feels about those who profess His name but do not show hospitality?
What can you do in the coming week to show Christ to others in the area of mercy?

Perfectly good sentiments. Those are indeed the questions we should be asking. But Moses on a moped, why do they have to put it that way? I have wondered how the companies publishing these study guides can stay in business.

Well, some folks don't pick up tone-of-voice in written comments, so they're immune. Others like the clarity of the questions enough that they can overlook the tone. Still others are figuring they could write Bible studies just as well and are calculating whether there's a living in it.

Autism Update

I did a Public Service Announcement on autism and vaccination about a month ago. There was a little controversy. Just recently, more news has surfaced. The researcher who brought the scare to public attention manipulated his data. Ten of thirteen of the researchers on the 1998 followup study that heightened concern have retracted their conclusion.

Get your kids vaccinated.

The Way The HR List Should Be

More steroids. Now it's Alex Rodriguez (who people were counting on to pass steroid cheapened Bonds and restore justice). I don't know enough to estimate how many career home runs he should be penalized to date.

I have an equalizing list for career totals, which tries to approximate what would have happened under normal circumstances: no steroids, no wartime service, no pitcher-dominated eras, etc. I suppose it's time to update it, just so I can drop Rodriguez off - for now. Explanations for my new totals are in the first comment. Active players are in italics, so of course any of them could drop down in the future if steroids turn out to be part of their picture. You will notice that Sosa, Palmiero, and McGwire aren't on the list. Eliminating steroids dropped them to about 400 HR each.

1. Aaron 780

2. Ruth 728

3. Mays 715

4. Williams 691

5. Killebrew 680

6. Griffey 611

7. Robinson 606

8. Bonds 600

9. Jackson 575

10. Gehrig 563

11. Schmidt 560

12. Mantle 552

13. Murray 547

14. Thome 541

15. Banks 532

16. Mathews 530

17. Ramirez 527

18. Thomas 521

19. Foxx 506

20. Sheffield 499

21. McGriff 493

Whatever its imperfections, doesn't this list just make more intuitive sense?

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Meaning Of Sarah Palin

Yuval Levin’s article “the Meaning of Sarah Palin” in Commentary includes some astute observations on American cultural divides. Many of his points intertwine with my Tribes discussions about the Arts & Humanities Clan, but he says them more succinctly and elegantly.

Blog Parody - An Idea Whose Time Has Come

PJ O’Rourke once wrote “I always thought that if I ever wound up teaching a creative writing class, that's what I would have the kids do. I would have them do nothing but parodies for a semester, because in order to do a parody you have to understand how the writing is done." (full interview in Cigar Aficianado magazine here). A college writing course similarly taught me – no, actually I don’t know where the hell I heard this – that you could discern a writer’s style by attempting to parody it.

I am now parodying other people’s blogs – all of yours, mostly - in my mind. It’s a hoot. It reveals to me what an enormous cruel streak I have. While all of you would like the notoriety, I think it might send you into extended depression.

Updike "On Not Being A Dove"

Of the many discussions of Updike since his death, the piece that I have liked best is neo-neocon’s discussion of his “On Not Being A Dove.” Updike's full 1989 essay (recalling 1966) is linked at neo's.

Strange Bedfellows

There was a sound clip on NPR of Obama exhorting us that time was of the essence in passing the stimulus package. It reminded me of nothing so much as Luke Skywalker whining to Yoda. The next segment was about Hillary Clinton going to China, and as God is my witness, I breathed a little sigh of relief that she was in charge of that. Who would ever have imagined?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

A Regard For All Mankind

At the simplest level, those who want to eliminate, or at least deemphasise nationalism in favor of a more universal regard for humanity are absolutely correct. If Frenchmen were as generous of spirit to Algerians as they are to their fellow townsmen, that would be a good thing for the world. If an American saw no real difference in personal responsibility to Iranians as to other Americans, we would regard that person as noble and elevated, having achieved a level of love for mankind worthy of emulation. If we had only the practical objection that such things are beyond the capabilities of mortal men, or that they are often poses covering a darker tribalism, that would not tarnish the ideal. This is the sort of completely unprejudiced openness we think Jesus had, that Mother Theresa had, that the Dalai Lama has.

If the Iranians and Pakistanis and Canadians and Brazilians – all the nations of the world – could indeed achieve or even approach such a comity of coexistence, who wouldn’t like it? Of course that’s a better world. Of course we should all try to get there. I sometimes get the impression that those who advocate for this ideal think that those who disagree with them are so base as to not want universal peace and justice. They seem to think that we prefer a world of strife so long as our guys can be dominant. They are quite sure that nationalism is an obstacle, even the obstacle to universalism and transnationalism.

That’s rather insulting, and more than a little self-congratulatory. It is the moral attitude of adolescents, who think that because they feel something so strongly they must be better than those others.

Yet even in this perfected world, wouldn't nationalism be part of the fun? Like rival teams or towns or schools, might we not hope the best for others while still enjoying our own group making its way through the troubles of the world together? Even heaven seems to be populated by different groups, each with its own song, its own honors, its own unity.

More seriously, what do we do with the people who don't want to go along with us? To keep things simple, imagine a village setting rather than national messes for the disputes. The village decides that certain land shall belong to one group. Someone else puts a house there. After five years of arguing and mediation, the town stops negotiating and decides to evict. It looks like it's going to require force. What do you, the citizen, do? What if you think the village is correct but disapprove of force? Now all of a sudden it's you that is no longer part of "we."

There is no general answer to this. It matters greatly what this house and group are. If it's a black person building in a designated white neighborhood, then it looks one way; if it's Israeli's settling on the West Bank it looks another way; if it's an illegal immigrant building in a state park it looks a third way. What if one of the parties is being impoverished or endangered by this? To pretend that there is a Christian solution, an always-moral solution to this generic dispute is absurd. We appeal to an authority, a tradition, a church for a decision - but what if one party will not abide by it?

These are not silly hypotheticals. This is what will always happen, everywhere, with every group of human beings, from the family to the international level. Nor can we resort to the idea of starting everyone afresh, clearing the slate and making a new arrangement, for there will be disagreements about that arrangement also. Do we start afresh again? After fifty tries, when we have established that one party will not stop until they have everything, do we start again? It is one thing for me personally to forgive seventy times seven, spending my life humbling myself before another for the sake of the gospel. But what if the side that will only be satisfied with complete victory is robbing the poor? Shall I do nothing?

But here I will add an interesting twist. Thus far, it has all been very basic stuff. Only the most ardent of pacifists would deny that eventually, people have a right to seek justice, on behalf of others if not themselves. Well of course you can eventually take firm action. No one's denying that. Well, actually you are.

Let's add a new person to the village. This sensitive, moral person arrives just after the fiftieth infraction and says the village is being hasty. They should try to work with the offender. They should appeal to a mediator, or be willing to make more concessions. The village makes another fifty tries, just to live up to that elevated morality, when a second new person arrives, exhorting the others with tears and heaving bosom to have mercy fifty more times.

Something odd has happened here. The new people arriving on the scene aren't personally tired of the whole thing, so they think the village shouldn't be either. Because they haven't seen the injustice and the honest efforts, they think they haven't "really" happened. At this point we must note that there are always new people coming into the village. They might feel as if they are more moral and just, because their personal store of forgiveness has not yet been exhausted. They see the villagers as vicious, divisive, uncaring, unwilling to listen...

This is what is happening behind these calls for peace. John has been victimized for years. Joe says he's not sick of it yet, so John shouldn't go to war. Except Joe just came in last week. Of course he's not sick of it. He wants to start afresh. Worse, he's self-righteous with John about it.

Reading The List

The salaries of state employees is now available online, and they were the subject of much discussion at work today. I don't have much interest, but couldn't help but being exposed to the irritation (or outrage) expressed over the salaries of known incompetents in the system. Most people read the first few pages, looking at the salaries in descending order and tut-tutting over many entries. Look at the a**holes who make more than me!"

One could start reading the list from the bottom, however, noting those people who work harder than you do at thankless tasks, but get paid less.

Update: I should note that I write this as one who is a NH state employee, and those commenting around me are as well.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Of course Obama nominated Republican Judd Gregg of NH for Secretary of Commerce. He's run out of Democratic politicians that have paid their taxes.

Naziism Was Not Nationalism

This post is an interim between Monday's We Are The World post and the discussion of whether that philosophy is theoretically more moral, more Christian, aside from any practical considerations. That latter post is proving unwieldy, requiring caveats and explanations at every turn. This should clear out some of the rubbish in preparation for the full discussion.

To claim that the Nazis were not nationalists is so counterintuitive, so out-of-step with what people usually think, that we have to attack the idea full on to have it seen clearly. Heck, it's got national right in its party name. If it wasn't nationalist, then what was all that with the flags and the speeches about German destiny?

The nazis did not exalt the German nation, but only a subset of it - tribal Germans. Because that tribe was a significant enough portion of the total population, it was easy for people to be slid over to the idea that they were the Real Germans, the heart of Germany, the part that carried its destiny. But the national boundaries were never the dividing line. Jews, half-Jews, quarter-Jews, born within the boundaries or not, we not considered real Germans. Poles, communists, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses - it never mattered if they were born part of the nation or not. Across the national boundaries, people of German blood in neighboring countries were considered part of this supposed nation.

It was pure tribalism, not nationalism.

On the other hand, it was nationalism that defeated the Nazis. The English, Scots, Welsh, and even the Irish made common cause, though they hadn't worked out their own difficulties - still haven't, really. But we're in this one together anyway lads, like it or not, eh? Multi-racial America (and Canada, Australia) banded its tribes together into a nation despite severe animosities. Ironically, we easily kept the Italian- and German-Americans in our court. I'll bet we could have done so with the Japanese-Americans as well, had we ourselves not slipped back into tribalism and screwed them over. We accomplished what the Germans were unable to: nationalism. Our great failing was when we abandoned our own ideal and reverted to a more primitive morality.

It's an important point to clear up because in the usual We Are The World framing, nationalism is seen as the great obstacle to international comity. National feeling and even patriotism are regarded as dangerous, with a jerk of the head and reference to "look what happened with the Germans, after all." Imagine there's no countries...

With that as lead in, here are the questions for tomorrow:

1. When people divide themselves into us versus them, who is the us they are thinking about? The government? The individuals? The native-born? The dominant culture? We have to define that at least vaguely to know what we even mean by us versus them, and whether that division is a good thing or a bad one. Try the examples of Israelis/Palestinians; Democrats/Greens; criminals/victims to see how slippery this is. Who is this "we" and what are our obligations to them? (Refer to Der Hahn's comment on the original post for some excellent thinking on the matter).

2. There will never be unanimity of purpose. What do we do with the folks who don't want to be part of the "we?" What if "we" want to share everything but some refuse to go along? This one cuts both ways. People might refuse to be part of the general "we" for very good reasons or very bad ones. What do we do about them? What's the theoretical moral response to that?

Post 1700

In honor of album 1700 - Peter, Paul, & Mary's attempt to be hip again. Watch Mary Travers in this cut-short video of the second song they released as a single from this album. They can't hide the fact that they don't know what rock and roll is, and they don't like it much anyway.

Full confession - I loved this album, which came out just as I entered high school. It was so significant (The Great Mandella, Weep For Jamie), so deep (The House Song, Bob Dylan's Dream), so folky (Rolling Home, The Song Is Love), so achingly bittersweet romantic (Leavin' On A Jet Plane, No Other Name). Just like I thought I was at fourteen. I can still recite the liner notes.

Bad Analogy - Government Economic Decisions As Family

The Acting CEO of the hospital came to our department meeting to talk about the state budget. Like many states, NH is having a budget crisis, though ours is not so bad as others. In discussing, as good liberals do, how the governor and legislature are looking at revenue streams (that's "taxes" for all of you who can't make the necessary translation), she used the common analogy of what a family would do if its budget was tight. After cutting out nonessentials, a family would look at ways of increasing revenue.

I am really tired of this analogy. Families do not make money the same way that governments do, nor spend it according to the same rules. If New Hampshire is like a family at all, it is the citizens who are the family, not the government. The family analogy smuggles in the idea that the government is the parent in this grouping. Liberals use that analogy because that really is the way they see government. Like wayward children, we the citizens are only given as much freedom - and money - as they think we can handle responsibly. But we, the people, all get together and select a custodian, not a dad.

I thought at first it would be good to picture the government as the children in this family. Then I thought that picturing the government as the household servants would be better. But both of those break down when you try and push them, so I decided that it is better to get rid of the family analogy altogether. It doesn't hold together at any level. In a family, the people who make the money have a dominant voice in how its spent, and those who receive are under the tutelage of the producers. Secondly, in a family the children grow up to have families of their own. In a nation, neither of those things is true.

Television Reminder

We haven't had TV for 30 years, which I seldom mention anymore. But having seen half the Super Bowl on Sunday, I was reminded of something about television folks need to keep in mind.

The commercials are the content. Companies do not pay for you to see a particular show. They pay for the right to put whatever content they want in their commercials. What we call the shows, and think of as what TV is really about, are just the ads the companies put up to attract your eyes to their commercials.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


At 41-9 they have not mathematically qualified for the playoffs. But even if they lost their next 32 games they would very likely make it.

Minnesota wins close tonight. Can they catch both Utah and Phoenix? Tough.


Two of my sons gave me Richard Wiseman's Quirkology for Christmas. I was all ready to tell you what a fascinating book it was until I read the 6th and 7th chapters. Those last two sections deal with (6) altruism and moral inconsistency and (7) pace of life and anxiety. Because I knew a bit about the research in those fields already, I was aware of what Wiseman was leaving out. I also know something of the controversies about that research, and know the weaknesses in those studies. For example, the research he cites about people's honesty and generosity in returning money, and the studies on TV influencing violence, measure only short-term effects. Interesting, perhaps - but not very illuminating about behavior over time. Other studies have actually shown neutral or opposite effects.

This caused me to wonder whether his engaging writing and leaping to conclusions about odd topics had blinded me to the weaknesses of his arguments. I scanned the entire book again and found this was so. There are interesting tidbits about detecting lies, infrasonic sound giving us odd sensations, subtle factors that influence our electoral choices, what different cultures find humorous, and the like. Many of these do indeed reveal interesting possibilities about human behavior. But upon review, I saw possible objections that had not occurred to me before.

A fun read, but insubstantial.

Monday, February 02, 2009


Sad but true. The stimulus package includes massive amounts of money for SEIU and ACORN. For openers.

HT: Dr. Sanity

Super Bowl

Well the game was okay - plenty of plays that could have gone either way, amazing feats of prowess and all that. But it was just depressing to see Bruce Springsteen looking like a Vegas lounge act. I'm not even a Springsteen fan - it must be hell for those who are.

We Are The World

In my previous blogging on transnationalism, or the general idea of expanding our notions of who we consider us and who we consider them, I have focussed on practical rather than theoretical objections. It is worth challenging myself whether that is the whole story. After all, I do not regard nonbelievers’ criticisms of how terrible many Christians are as determinative whether the doctrine is true. That wickedness is not irrelevant, but neither is it the main consideration.

Those who believe We Are The World certainly believe it is a more moral choice; at a minimum, that it is a higher moral aspiration. It is trivially easy for me to point out that this view consistently leads to greater injustice, or that its proponents reveal themselves to be a zoo of primitive motives which they are oblivious to. Self-righteousness, self-deception, and hypocrisy are always fun to poke at. Don’t get me started, I’ll never stop.

But might the belief itself, the shining ideal, actually be a higher morality we should strive toward, gradually remaking ourselves for a better tomorrow? Is it a more Christian sentiment, that believers should consider themselves obliged to attempt, even with little hope of success? It’s worth considering.

So start thinking about it. I will post soon, perhaps as early as tonight, perhaps as late as Wednesday.

(NOTICE: The following is not fair. Many people who earnestly desire a world of comity and mutual support are not hypocrites, self-righteous, or self-deceiving. Okay, they have to be one of those things, but not all of them together. And they're nice people. Well-meaning people are not in such large supply in the world that I should spend my time kicking them. Yet I do.)

NO, NO, I can't take it! I have to make fun of them before I move on to the serious discussion.
For you younger ones who don't know what WATW refers to, I torture you with this :

PJ O'Rourke did the best summary of it in his excellent book Give War A Chance.
We are the world [solipsism], we are the children [average age forty].
We are the ones to make a brighter day [unproven], so let’s start giving [logical inference supplied without argument].
There’s a choice we’re making, so let’s start giving [true as far as it goes].
We’re saving our own lives [absurd].
It’s true we’ll make a better day [see line 2 above],
Just you and me [statistically unlikely].

That’s three palpable untruths, two dubious assertions, and nine uses of a first person pro-noun, not a single reference to trouble and anybody in it and no facts. The verse contains, literally, neither rhyme nor reason. And these musical riots of philanthropy address themselves to the wrong problems.

Death is the result of bad politics.
Thanks PJ.


My son Ben mentioned that he doesn’t know when to use whom - he just guesses. That is largely as it should be, even for an editor’s mind like his. As the generations turn, we see the changes. The number of 25 y/o’s who would even care is small; as his peer group would include an unusual percentage of those who do, it is small wonder he would be aware of the lack.

But look at this objectively. Ben was one of those incessant childhood readers who regularly won the summer reading program by a factor of ten (except over Danni Cloutier, who was always in that range, which is why we always liked her). His SATV was 800. If people like Ben don’t intuitively pick up what the rule is when they are immersing themselves in literature, then the rule doesn’t exist anymore. It doesn’t matter what the rulebook says is a foul if the refs never call it.

There is a disconnect between the older material he read, which would observe the who/whom distinction, and more modern material where it is disappearing. Disconnect = rule not intuited. In his generation, only those who have been specifically trained to regard the distinction – English teachers being most notable – get it “right” in all circumstances. So it’s not “right” anymore, it is a mere convention used in specialised circumstances, such as public speaking or academic writing. It’s a good thing to learn for those reasons. That’s it.

Whom was already messy and uncomfortable in my mother’s childhood. People were already dropping it out of conversational speech, using “who” for most situations. At the beginning of a sentence especially, “whom” has an unnatural sound. It has not grown more natural over time, certainly. “Who do you want to be?” is not very different in sound from “Who do you want to be with?” though whom is considered more correct in the second sentence. It is hard to know what we mean by “more correct” when a large majority of educated, native speakers don’t use it.

The old rule is “to whom or for whom,” that is, when the object of a preposition. By whom, from whom, under whom, etc. would also be correct. But even to my ear, whom sounds correct only when actually following a preposition – merely being the object of a preposition isn’t enough anymore. Whom are you looking for doesn’t sound right (For whom are you looking now sounds stilted because of the word order).

This is a spot where you can observe language change as it happens. The generation younger than I (another construction that is changing) will get to see it even more clearly. When they are old, whom will exist only in specialised cases. Typically, a usage will remain in a language only in set phrases, long after it has disappeared from standard construction. To whom it may concern, or from whom all blessings flow will persist for quite awhile yet, preserving the form in amber. Because of its association with archaic phrases, whom will seem more and more to be merely an old word. People will use it for humorous effect to suggest excessive formality or age, stuffing it in anywhere without regard to whether it conforms to an actual dative* usage or not. I can’t think of specific examples, but I believe that is already occurring, using whom in much the same way that the –eth conjugation is used on verbs to sound all King James and holy.

Incidentally, although this is the same dative* form as he, him/ she, her they are not changing in the same way. I don’t know what will happen with those, but they bid fair to persist. It illustrates that where the word is placed in the sentence exerts more power in current English than what its actual part of speech is. Favoring word-order over diagrammatic construction is a long trend in English; the sound of certain combinations gradually pushes out the latter over time.

*It’s not a true dative either, but now we are getting into matters ridiculously obscure and unnecessary.