Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ol' 55

Sometimes I liked the B side better

Impossible Things

We change our thinking not because we find one impossible thing in our old beliefs, but because we find too many. We are quite capable of holding a few impossible things in hand. This is how knowledge advances. The consensus of experts does not change just because someone finds an impossible thing in the old knowledge. Only when the impossible things add up do they gradually relinquish their hold on the old ideas.

We highly objective, data-driven, logical people are just as likely - 100% - to believe some impossible things.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Listening, Not Discussing

I may have mentioned before that there are people worth listening to, because they are opinionated and interesting, but not good to discuss things with. It is emphatically not a left-right thing, as I am thinking of two examples from each camp as I write this. They are folks who cannot listen themselves, so whatever point you make, they accuse you of meaning something else. I can seldom tell whether this is a rhetorical ploy on their part to win arguments or if they truly see the world as either 100% agreeing with them or being completely opposed. I suspect the latter.

This phenomenon is often found in conjunction with people who cannot attack your point without attacking you as well, usually with dripping sarcasm. They put their energy into the insult instead of the argument.

I imagine many writers I love to read could fall into this category. Their skill is in expressing, not balancing. PJ O'Rourke or Mark Steyn might both be pleasant boon companions - but there is some chance that having a conversation with them with even the slightest disagreement would be impossible.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Strong Verbs

Note: A commenter who seems to know something says much of this is wrong - so read it with suspicion.

Ever wonder where those strong verbs in the Germanic languages come from? (Ed: No, they didn't. Very few people concern themselves with such things.) Come, came; give, gave; run, ran; ride, rode; write, wrote. These are basic words, not extra, dressy things we add in for show. They aren't Latinate. They aren't particularly Indo-European at all, actually. Those languages tend more to the use of suffixes for tenses. Vowel changes are more common in Semitic languages such as Hebrew or Arabic, which start with three-consonant root words that are modified to make plurals, tenses, and compounds. Which is why the Hebrew text in your Bible doesn't have vowels, so people had to guess at them and come up with things like "Jehovah" for YHWH - which is a pretty inaccurate guess, BTW.

But how, exactly, did Semitic languages influence Germanic at some point? It's quite a distance, and it is the type of influence that only comes from significant rather than incidental contact. You might acquire some vocabulary from foreign traders, but you only change your verbs for close friends. Linguists spun theories, including a posited "Atlantic" language spoken by somebody Semitic around the North Sea in sometime BCE.\

Linguist Theo Vennemann, who is never short on theories, suggests that it was Carthaginian traders speaking Punic who created this vowel-changing influence. Other Vennemann theories on such diverse topics as Old World hydronomy and the Runic alphabet are at the link.

Metaphor Alert

From Ryan Sager at True/Slant
A research team out in Texas decided to tackle the concept of butterfaces through the lens of evolutionary psychology. (We have people tackling concepts through lenses today. Metaphor status: Awesome.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Girl Words, Boy Words

The excellent group blog Language Log (including personal fave linguist John McWhorter) has this entry on the word cute, and gender issues in discussions of footwear. The former includes "Foxtrot" and "Preteena" cartoons, the latter, one from the strip "Cathy."

One would think trying to wring too much from word frequencies of 30000 conversational sides of men and women, or references from the Minerva Journal of Women and War would be eye-glazing boring, but it makes for fascinating reading. Cute and adorable were the most female-associated adjectives, being used by women 3.5 times more than by men. Males used tough and lame about twice as often as females. The effect was even more pronounced depending on who was being spoken to. Men tended to use cute more often if talking to a female - talking to a male, not so much. Women doubled the frequency of cute when talking with another female. This was a straight-up count, without other context.

Nouns used by females included husband and boyfriend, while wife and girlfriend were used more often by men, which would seem trivially obvious until one runs the numbers. Women use husband 15 times as often as men do, but men use wife only 5 times as often as women. Other high-frequency girl nouns were boyfriend, babies, shopping, clothes, dinner, and shoes; Boy nouns included beer, man, girlfriend, cars, dollars, and baseball. Both beer and beers got mentioned, actually.

The comments section is equally fascinating, discussing words roughly equivalent to cute in Swedish and Japanese, and tables informing us that females use subordinating conjunctions and hedges more often than males.

Monday, October 26, 2009


My new coinage: Echothymia.

Echolalia is a psychiatric symptom, involuntarily repeating another's speech. Echopraxia is the involuntary imitation of another's movements or actions. But the woman we were discussing today imitates the mood or affect of the person speaking to her. This is not uncommon, as we all do it a bit in conversation, and demented folks do it more. Children do it sometimes, though not as often as we'd wish.

But there wasn't a word for it until now. We got by with locutions about mirroring and empathy.

Global Ambiguity

The AP has a story out today to remind us that the earth is not, I repeat, not cooling. Except, that's not really what the AGW skeptics have been claiming. I have gone from "uncertain" to "skeptic" over the past five years, so I think I'm pretty well up on what the skeptics have been saying. While there has certainly been mention that we have had slight cooling since 1998, and I am willing to concede that the dip has been statistically unimportant, the main point has been that there has not been warming, as we were assured would happen. Could this flat line be a mere hiatus in the overall warming trend, and we are still in trouble, just not as fast as predicted? Absolutely.

Yet the observed evidence has been more than a decade of no warming. In the face of the catastrophic predictions, it would seem that the burden of proof has shifted to the AGW crowd. With the spectacular failures of McKibben's and Hansen's predictions, more responsible scientists, if they wish to convince us of the importance of atmospheric carbon reduction and sequestration, now have to overcome the exaggerations of their allies.

In an entirely different context today, I announced that sleight-of-hand was in itself a reason to reject legislative proposals. That is apposite here.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Last Dance

The lights are down. The people who brought alcohol or dope are wasted, the people who didn't are wondering why this event was called a "party." The 8 girls on the committee, plus their two boyfriends (well, one is just a friend who is always around to help) are starting to clean up the decorations, ashtrays, and empty cups. Couples hold each other on the dance floor, with no longer any pretense of dancing.

You thought, you young 'uns, that "Stairway to Heaven" was always the last song for the last 30-plus years, because it's from the 70's and has been the last song your entire lives. But it wasn't. This was the last song. It sucked then, too.

Anglicans To The Vatican

New Things has the report, with many updates.
Vatican creates new structure for Anglicans
The new church structure, called Personal Ordinariates, will be units of faithful within the local Catholic Church headed by former Anglican prelates who will provide spiritual care for Anglicans who wish to become Catholic.

“Those Anglicans who have approached the Holy See have made clear their desire for full, visible unity in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” [Cardinal William] Levada said. “At the same time, they have told us of the importance of their Anglican traditions of spirituality and worship for their faith journey.”
Requoted from Forbes

Sometimes the larger events of our age go less recognised, because they are slow-moving. In the general Anglosphere, C of E and Episcopalians have been slowly becoming essential Unitarians, while retaining their more traditional liturgy. That combo will continue to hold some membership, but it is an inherently unstable position. In the rest of the world, it is proving completely untenable. Other Anglicans, especially in Africa, have been chafing at the bit for years. They are eying the exits, and the Vatican has provided one.

I doubt they will ever extend this type of arrangement to Covenanters, so if I make the journey to Rome I will have to go solo. That may yet happen. I have considered it for many years. I don't have the same obstacles to accepting Catholic doctrine and practice that others have - I have different ones, of course.

Should Of

I react badly to seeing should of, could of, or must of in print. Clearly, the writing is responding to the conversational sound, which is identical to should've, could've, or must've. I assume he does not read much, or would otherwise be aware of the "have" that is making the "'ve." As a percentage matter, I may be correct in my prediction that the writer does not read much. But as a high horse grammatical response I am being unfair. I am expecting a native English speaker to be aware of the underlying construction of what he says - which seems a small expectation, ne c'est pas? Yet we pedants do not recoil with anywhere near that severity to kind of or sort of used as conversational hedges. It is informal, perhaps, but no grave solecism.

One can sense the long tracing of the usage, from a precise a spear is a kind of a weapon meaning "type" through a yurt is a sort of house, meaning a borderline designation, to our current idiom he was kind of angry, meaning "partially." But that takes a bit of pondering; it is not immediately apparent when looking at the phrase "sort of."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Piano Debt

We moved two pianos (twice each), along with some slightly less heavy furniture today. I had 2.5 sons for two of the moves and 1.5 sons for the other two. Kyle is more than half an adult when moving things in general, but for heavy objects, children are a net loss until about age 11. They help, but also feel the need to wisecrack or show off at inopportune moments, and misunderstand directions even more than the usual misunderstanding that occurs among adults moving heavy objects. Kyle is 13, and one of those children who believes it is his bounden duty to entertain the troops on every occasion. A net gain, but not an unalloyed help.

(BTW, I once moved furniture with a person who does it for a living, and it was a great joy. He was able to describe precisely and briefly what needed to happen at every point. Now pivot, top end toward the door...)

We have been acquiring and switching pianos for decades. We have gotten little use out of them. My wife took lessons as a girl and will occasionally force her way through a piece. Ben took lessons for a few years in the 90's. It gets used for an annual Christmas party - when it is held at our house. It is good for banging out the notes to learn a melody, which happens about once or twice a year. Small children like to sit on the bench and hit notes for a few minutes at a time. Not much return for the effort, to my mind. I told my wife she has incurred great piano debt with me.

But a piano is a statement, a cultural statement, that is hard to let go of. We are the sort of people who should have a piano. Pianos suggest not only culture, but stability. Even the smaller ones are heavy, and apartment dwellers or frequent movers do not acquire pianos until they wish to indicate that they are staying put for some time.

As our society continues to become more mobile and more willing to discard household objects, heavy furniture in general will become less common. We have a lovely old desk of my father-in-law's, which we will be exchanging for a smaller and lighter one. Who would need such a thing these days, even for free? China cabinets and sets of family china will continue to be handed down for awhile, but families have fewer children these days, and an increasing percentage of those children would consider such items a burden. My grandmother found many occasions to use her good china - my mother somewhat fewer. Except for the three main holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, we have to make a specific effort to use it.

We did make that effort with the first two sons, so that they would at least not thoroughly embarrass themselves at a formal occasion. It was probably even more needed with the two Romanians, but we had lost the habit by then. For the fifth son, I fear this is thoroughly unfamiliar territory.

But at least he used the piano just after it was put in to replace the other one. He twice played the first few bars of the theme song from "The Office."

We pass down only fragments of culture and custom which are on their way out, and being separated from their wholes, lose context and meaning. Attitudes and practices which I can understand secondhand from knowing my grandparents, my grandchildren will have no intuition of. Rather like a drawer of old kitchen utensils or a workbench of old tools, where you have to puzzle over half the objects, wondering what they were used for.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Location, Location, Location

When we compared anatomically modern humans (minimum 2M years ago) to behaviorally modern humans (max 60K years ago), I gave a hint that even stricter definitions of behaviorally modern humans might bring our definition even closer than the important dividing line of the emergence of language. Because Ice Ages forced the widely-spread peoples into now-tropical areas, we seemed to learn to interact more peacefully about 18,000 years ago. That happened in many places, and no one area can claim it.

"Many places" comes up in all discussions of origins of human behaviors, as the East Asian and North American centers developed independently of the Middle-Eastern improvements we are familiar with. Domestication of the dog, for example, happened very gradually across much of Asia. Full domestication of the dog, however, seems to be be found earliest in southern Russia, and in the Natufian culture in what is currently Israel and Syria. Domesticated sheep - earliest in Southwest Asia. Goats - Iran. First permanent dwellings, current Ukraine; actual cities - Mesopotamia. Einkhorn wheat - southeastern Turkey; rye - central and eastern Turkey. Writing - Mesopotamia.

If one looks at a map, one will see that these are nowhere near Olduvai and the other sites in East Africa which National Geographic and others would highlight as the birthplace of mankind. They do seem to cluster around northern Iraq, however, where the Bible locates Eden. The time frame is about 50% greater than a literal reading of Genesis would give us, but still, not too shabby for a people who didn't write things down and didn't do archaeology.

This is in one sense a trivial, circular finding. That the earliest peoples to domesticate animals, settle down, and begin to keep records are also those societies which give the best picture as to how those things happened is hardly surprising. The Jews were one of those related groups, not the only one. Such early pretty-darn-good history does not necessarily argue for the premise that we should accept the religious beliefs of any of those groups.

Yet we are talking about the impressions that those who talk about early man and first humans give us. And the impression that Discover, Into to Anthropology textbooks, and TV specials give us stresses the African, the biological origins. The Man from Mars might not call that the more accurate impression. While he might agree with all the science of the secularists, he might also nominate Genesis as capturing more important history in story form.

This is the spot where a cheerful, kindly Christian might merely remind scientists not to neglect an important feature in the impressions they create. Throw us a bone once in awhile, such a one might say, 'cuz Genesis has some good stuff in it. I am only intermittently cheerful and kindly, however, and my message is a bit harsher. I don't find it entirely accidental that this aspect is neglected. Some science writers openly try to discredit not only the close literality of Genesis, but even its general impression. Many more consider this a secondary but nonetheless important part of their science teaching.

It is only human nature, perhaps, to focus on the point of contention, and for scientists to take special pains to undermine the science of the Genesis account because there are many who still believe that science. But we're not talking human nature here. You're supposed to be scientists, remember? Your whole shtick is that we can rely on you because you are above those petty considerations. You can't have that both ways. Just the facts, ma'am, without trying to include your own sermons in with it. Or if you must have your sermons, then you have no cause to kick when others have theirs.

Some scientists, science writers, and general secularists do throw a bone in the direction of Genesis from time to time. These are not monolithic groups of people who have it in for Christian fundamentalists in particular. But the fundamentalists are not just paranoid, making up an antagonism which others do not feel. They are reading the social cues very nicely, and feel your contempt. Denying it does not give you more credibility, but less. If you don't know yourself, fundamentalists reason, how can you know us? And even, how can you know science?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


The audit of our contributions went fine. When I had statements for most of it confirmed, the supervisor waived the rest because I had established credibility. Two things were disallowed because the documentation was wrong - one because a nationally-recognised Christian charity didn't include a date on the statement, and another because an organization didn't send me an additional tax form as well (it was a non-cash contribution), but the two together didn't meet the threshold for getting the IRS mad and putting my head on a pike. One less thing to worry about.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Founding Population

We pulled the beginning of behaviorally modern humans from over 2 million years ago down to something like 50,000 - perhaps even 10,000 years ago. But there are other objections to the Genesis account. It narrows the founding population to two people, Adam and Eve, for example. Sticklers will not there is something a little fuzzy around the edges even of that, as the story of Cain and Abel, their immediate descendants, pretty clearly suggests there are other people around. But two is the traditional number, so lets stay with that.

What is the National Geographic estimate on the other end? How many people were in our ancestral pool? As a purely scientific matter, that depends entirely on when you take the snapshot. But as an impression created to influence our perception, the number seems to be quite large. There were Neanderthals all over Europe, and the hominid population of Africa has high-range estimates of over 400,000 creatures. Let's not push what we don't know too far, however. These archaic humans lived in small hunter-gatherer bands, each covering considerable territory. Let us not task National Geographic with defending such a high number. Let's cut it in half, then half again: 100,000. That is comfortably in the range set by Sarah Tishkoff of University of Maryland (and Watson, and Macauley).

Well first off, we can chuck those Neanderthals right out anyway. Fascinating creatures who dwelt over a wide area, they have contributed precisely no genes to our DNA. None of them were ancestors of ours. So what is the last of the snapshots of population where we can find a tribe who supplied all our subsequent genes (exclusive of later mutations, of course)? How many people in that group?

The number has been trending downward for decades. When I was in school it was well into the thousands, in the 90's the first suggestions came it might be under a thousand. A few good estimates put it at 200-400 now.

The lowest, quite recent estimate is 160 souls. This may seem an impossibly small number to those raised on images of widely scattered tribes hunting saber-tooth tigers, but there are three reasons why it may be enough. First, it seems to be just enough mathematically if we are tracing back DNA. Second, if the behaviorally modern humans did have some sudden and serious advantage, they would pretty quickly out-compete all surrounding tribes.

Third, and to me most interesting, involves imagining the probable route of expansion out of Africa around 50,000 years ago. Between what is now Djibouti and Yemen is the Mandeb Strait, the narrow connector between The Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Now 17 miles wide, it was much narrower 50,000 years ago, and was likely dotted with islands. Once boats become common, we imagine hordes of people pouring out of Africa whenever there are population pressures. 160 people seems way too small.

But imagine what must have actually happened. The coastal peoples would have fished, navigated, gone to islands on a temporary basis, and perhaps even gone at regular times of the year. But once one tribe had succeeded in settling on the Yemen side permanently, exploiting the limited resources there, they would be an enormous obstacle to any further tribes establishing themselves. Within a generation, they would know the tricks - the poisons, the dangers, the sources of water and food. And they would be able to defend the area far better than another tribe could attack it. As they came under population pressures themselves, they would gradually move farther east along the coast (not north along the Red Sea, as it is even more of a desert there). In only a century, the territory of this tribe would extend so far along the coast as to prove an insuperable obstacle for anyone trying to leave Africa to find a place to settle. It wouldn't look like much today, only a few miles, but it would be more than enough to discourage leapfrogging past them.

That tribe settled the rest of the world.

Videos of Job

I have been discussing Genesis as history, or perhaps more precisely, a story which preserves much history. I haven't gone much into the theology of Genesis. I find the latter more fascinating, because even more than suggestions of historical events, Genesis encapsulates a great deal of later understanding of God into relatively few, spare stories.

The contrast deserves some attention. Archaeology is well and good - it illuminates some customs and comparisons of the Jews with their neighbors - but even extreme, exhaustive knowledge of the peoples of Persia, Egypt, and Palestine would leave important things out. I will go further: if we had a hundred years of video of Abraham's life, divvied it up and reported back on it, a lot of the most important stuff simply wouldn't be there.

To illustrate this, look at the story of Job. It is perhaps the oldest story in the Bible, in the sense of first appearance of the telling of the story in something like its present form.

Job is all folk tale. There may have been an actual person by that name and similar experience, but the crafting of the story is very once-upon-a-time. As Jesus began the parables with elements such as "there was a man who owned a vineyard," or "there was a woman who had ten silver coins," Job begins with the story of a rich man. How rich? Why, he was the richest man for miles around, son. He had (big number) donkeys, and (big number) camels. He lived a righteous life. How righteous? Well son, he was so righteous that he would offer a sacrifice on behalf of his children just on the chance they had sinned. He led a happy, comfortable life. How happy?

You get the picture. These are oral formulaic elements, setting the story in the realm of the universal. Unlike other Bible characters, Job is not tied to the reign of a particular king, or to an identifiable area, or within a clear genealogy. He is not meant to be. He is meant to stand very emphatically for all humankind in time of doubt and suffering. He asks the questions of God that humanity asks.

The framing of the story is also mythic. Satan has a conversation with God and sets Him a challenge. How would we know this? Job doesn't appear to know it. If he repeated the story of his experience to his grandchildren, that part wouldn't be there, unless God had specifically revealed it to Job at some other point. As with Jesus's temptation in the wilderness, there is no way for human beings to have this knowledge unless they are told it. Presumably Jesus told the disciples what happened during his fast, which is why we have a highly condensed version of those forty days. How long the actual temptations were which Jesus boiled down to their essences we have no way of knowing unless He tells us.

So too with Job. He doesn't know what is happening in heaven, he only knows what is happening to him. It is the storyteller who intuits what the story must mean, framing it in the structure of a conversation between God and Satan. We are given a few words, but we know that argument has been going on since before any time we know.

The ending, also is a storybook ending. Job gets back double what he lost. Sounds great in a story, but thinking about it as a human being, it doesn't sound so great. That doesn't matter in terms of this story. We just need the storyteller's wrapup that it all came out right for Job in the end.

If we had a video of Job during this experience, we would not learn anything about him worth knowing. The actual history would be worse than irrelevant, it would be a distraction. We would not know more about Job, we would know far less if we knew his history. Apply this back to Genesis. It is good to know historical and archaeological things. It is mildly gratifying when identifiable historical or prehistorical events show up in the text. But those aren't what the story is about.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bad Logic

The rest of the Genesis series is still to come, BTW. Many duties call.

NPR had a report on the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. The British Museum has them, the Greeks want them.

I have no dog in this fight. I saw the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum and wasn't impressed. They probably would look better in situ, but I'm never going to Greece. I don't care who ends up with them.

I do care about logic. The Greek art representative was protesting that this was a moral issue in the art community because "they don't belong to anyone. They belong to history." If they belonged to history it wouldn't matter where they went, would it? Clown. What you mean is you think they belong to your guys but you want to look more noble than that. Why else would you go on about the beginning of democracy, and Athens, and so forth? You are making the case that because your ancestors - well, actually not your ancestors, because things are pretty mixed more than two millennia later - invented this idea, which you guys haven't done anything with since, thank you very much, but you think this gives you a moral claim.

The British claim is basically that they cared when no one else did, and paid money. Which isn't a rock solid claim, either, but it's something.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Worship is going on at all times, whether we are aware of it or not. The whole creation praises its creator. When our local church has a worship service, it is not making something that would not be there otherwise. Our services provide an opportunity for the people of God to join in the worship already proceeding. It is not something we build, but a door into a building that already exists.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


I have neglected to mention that Ben's new site, Ten-Four Films, is up on the sidebar. It includes his blog, but now includes his films as well. Love the home page. Enjoy.

Rapid Language Development

There are lots of genetic and cultural foundations to language that likely developed in spurts over time. Yet some final genetic piece seems to have been a tipping point that sent communication from primitive to complex very rapidly. In the first place, any improvement in communication between tribesmen conferred such an advantage in exploiting an environment that each of them must have spread rapidly. That some last piece also did so may seem odd to those accustomed to the evolutionary narrative of slow, almost imperceptible improvement, but it is likely anyway.

The evidence for this is not archaeological but from events occurring in our lifetimes. A simplified, stripped-down, invented language becomes complex as soon as a generation of children grows up with it. A pidgin language is such a stripped-down item, invented by adults who come in contact with each other for trade. "Pidgin" may in fact be a corruption of "business," as the language Tok Pissin was originally a "talk business" language. But when infants come into the picture, learning the language from birth, it develops word-order, declensions, and subtler distinctions within a generation. It becomes what we call a creole. A creole is a real, complex language, as subtle as the other 6000 languages in the world. It sounds primitive to the speakers of the original language because the new speakers seem to just plain have it wrong, and use mispronunciations and simplifications as foundation pieces. Yet it has its own internal subtleties.

All this happens in a generation. The kids just do it. No one tells them they're supposed to make up a sophisticated language, but they make what they need, and their communication needs are complex. They have a full genetic pre-loading to make a language if the building blocks are placed in their hearing. There is even a Nicaraguan school for the deaf where the children spontaneously made up an enormously complex sign language based on the few signs adults brought to them. No one told them to. When men invade and take local wives who speak a different language, the children of that village will develop what they need.

As I noted, for this puzzle piece to have a dramatic effect it had to have been undergirded by a host of other cognitive abilities, each of which developed in their own time. The FOXP2 gene (pronounced forkhead box 2 not "fox") is often nominated as that last puzzle piece for language. While the story is fascinating and something similar may indeed be the key, FOXP2 doesn't yet have the explanatory power to sustain its popular reputation. Still, it is a good illustration of the concept of "final genetic piece" language.

The first fully complex languages around 60-80,000 years ago may not have been as fully sophisticated as current human languages. There have been cognitive improvements in humans since then, two of which have been identified at 37,000 and 6,000 years ago. Don't jump to Edenic conclusions on that last improvement, though. But the improvements were so dramatic that these speaking peoples outcompeted and displaced everyone else quickly. We are all descended from them.

We are also watching an example of this dramatic drive to language complexity - also driven by the young - happening under our view. Internet communication is developing complexity to keep pace with its needs. For content-heavy communication we still use standard English. But for electronic social communication the needs are different. Words are stripped down to initials (ROTFL, FTW) which seems an uber-efficiency to communicate phrases and sentences. Yet these phrases and sentences are often only social signs, light on content but meant to express mood. Emoticons and punctuation repeats serve a similar function. One can view them as highly efficient ways of communicating nuance with a few strokes. But one can look through the other end of the telescope and see them as mostly content-useless, formulaic conventions. Both are true. Kids are both simplifying and complicating the language at the same time to meet the specific needs of electronic social networking.

No one told them to. They just do it. Same as thousands of years ago. Once a few children had been born with the necessary genetic pieces in place (and so likely siblings or cousins) they would have made a language. The other children in the tribe would have had the smarts to imitate a lot of it, even if they didn't get it all, and this would create an even larger pool of speakers. When those children grew to adulthood, that tribe would kick butt.

Friday, October 16, 2009


In the comments section of a recent post of neo's there was an interesting exchange between Occam's Beard and gcotharn (scroll about a quarter of the way down). Both had gone to lefty sites trying to illustrate the illogic of many racism charges by accusing good liberals there of being racist on the flimsiest of evidence. But instead of the light dawning, the accused protested solely on the basis of being a good person. These were, significantly, people who had demonstrated logical abilities in other conversations. Why then were they unable to even consider making a logical argument against the charge, instead reverting to character defense?

The more I thought about it, the more revealing this became. Most people think of "racist" as a fairly objective term. The line may vary from person to person, but the idea that a charge of racism must be founded on some actual evidence of treating one race differently seems rather obvious. One refutes the charge or admits to it on the basis of tangible evidence. Put this baldly, it would seem silly to use any other meaning of "racist."

Yet I admit I understand it, at least in its milder forms. Perhaps it is left over from my days as a liberal, but it seems to me mere politeness to take a bit of extra consideration with anyone who might have historical or cultural reasons to be a bit touchy. We adjust our speech much as we would adjust our physical contact for a person with a sunburn. In my recent exchange with Elisheva I chose my words carefully, not because I did not want to look antisemitic, but because I did not want to give unintentional offense. People who don't make this adjustment are seen as rather boorish. "Never speak of a rope in the family of one who has been hanged."

Most people don't mind in the least treating all others with extra consideration around selected topics. It just seems kind. But most of us also have defenses that cause us to resist someone presuming on that kindness. We capitulate over small things, yet reach a point where we consider others' demands that we change to be a boorishness of their own. We set limits on what others can demand of us in extra consideration. We refuse to be held hostage by a person who takes more favors than deserved.

But how if we believed the other person's deserts were unlimited? How can I deny the request of one who saved my very life? Or, I betrayed her years ago and will now do whatever she asks to make it up. We might then feel that the failure to meet a demand was indeed a want of goodness on our part. Imagine if we did not have the defense of limit-setting and proportion, or had voluntarily relinquished it? The objective standards of what would be acceptable social interaction would then not apply. If people cut in line or took more than their share we would no longer stop them.

Put another way, if the police in your town protected you in great danger and saved your life, you might acquiesce in any ticket they wrote on you, even if you weren't speeding. If a fire had wiped out many of the merchants on the street but spared your shop, you might intentionally not notice their cheating you, even if the fire was not your fault.

Progressives may have convinced themselves that the victim claims of numerous groups are so unlimited that any accusation must be acknowledged as fair in its own way.

Post 2100 - Best of July 2006

It's been over a month since I did one of these. Do the math. At that rate I would never catch up.

The month was very big for book reviews and commentaries, apparently. I complained about Freakonomics. I had some praise for the language book The Way We Talk Now. I liked Theodore Dalrymple's Our Culture, What's Left Of It and had some further comments on Virginia Woolf.

I even discovered a similarity in the relationship between JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis and between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell while reading The Narnian and The Rivals.

It's hard to believe that few people believed there was a Religious Left just three years ago, but the conventional wisdom was exactly that. I had a lengthy, rather irritated post arguing that there is indeed a powerful Religious Left. Don't read the whole thing, just browse it.

I wrote of yet another example of how Monty Python provides absurd situations which actually turn out to be true in politics, comparing Middle-East negotiations to The Cheese Shop.

Why cultural values are more worth preserving than ecosystems.

And the obligatory linguistics post summarising Merritt Ruhlen's list of words still identifiable from mankind's original language.

Evolution and Young Earth Creationism - 2

It was pretty clear what I was driving at with the contrast between the National Geographic 2M+ years impression of the origin of humanity versus the Genesis impression. For 97% of that 2,300,000 years, those creatures didn’t have sophisticated language as we know it. You can define humanity by tool-making, I suppose, but I don’t see why you couldn’t just as arbitrarily choose upright walking and go farther back, or choose complex language and go farther forward in development for the arrival point.

Necessary tangent: I will do a separate but short post on why complex language did not develop over tens of thousands of years but sprang up rapidly once a tipping point (probably a genetic one) was reached. There would be some foundation, certainly. It would have been more advanced than the communications of baboons, presumably. But the change would not have been gradual.

Nor are we stymied at the 50-60,000 year range of having to unreservedly call them people just like us either. I personally think that language is a good dividing line, but if someone wanted to get stickier – get more technical – there are a lot of things about that group that still aren’t like us. They don’t have permanent dwellings. No domesticated animals or agriculture. No metalworking, living in villages. No trade as we know it, or getting along with groups larger than one’s own band. We are seeing some interesting stuff, however: in addition to the spears they’ve had for a long time, we’re starting to see bows and arrows; they are not only throwing furs around themselves for protection, they are even beginning to sew pieces together with big bone needles to make garments. Something like art, music, and religion might be developing. Once you know our history, they are clearly becoming us. They are significantly different from other animals. But where we put the finish line is an interesting question.

To cut to the chase: when do we see this suite of behaviors that tells us okay, those are humans as much as we are, we can no longer deny it. Anyone? Intergroup contact increases during an Ice Age about 18,000 years ago. Dog domesticated, 12,000; other animals over the next few thousand years. Semi-permanent dwellings, agriculture, surplus and trade, about 8,000 years ago. I don’t think we want to put the finish line that close. Certainly we don’t want to put it at the development of writing, or cities, or the like, as there are cultures now that don’t have those things and yet are indisputably human. But we are in Genesis range, aren’t we? We are 99% of the way from Olduvai to today just to get some cooperation beyond the level of the tribal band.

Our Martian landing today, looking at the humans talking, writing, spread out over the whole planet, building cities, making electricity, would love to have the data from our scientists about exactly when these changes happened, and would no doubt reject the Genesis 6000 years as a suitable time frame. But if our current secularists tried to push the issue too far, trying to get him to go up and speak before the United Nations and put all those myths to rest once and for all he might demur. He might look at the first few chapters of the anthropology textbooks and say they were technically correct but essentially misleading. To counteract the myth of gradual progress, he might recommend that children read something like Genesis, just to get the basic – and perhaps more important – concept of how quickly and recently this all occurred into their cute little craniums. (No, it shouldn’t be crania. Singular forms that have embedded into English take English plural forms, not the plurals from their language of origin.)

There are three major objections to the Genesis story: time scale, location, and number of original humans. I think I've taken care of time scale and will move on to the others. You might begin to guess some of my points.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Evolution and Young Earth Creationism - 1A

I'm still working on the next section. For now, just keep thinking of that man from Mars dropping by every 100,000 years and seeing no change for a coupla dozen visits. Last two journal entries, at 200,000 years ago and 100,000 years ago:
21. No change to report. This batch got smarter than the other apes and then stopped dead. I think we should drop them.

22. There might be some hints of progress here, but I'm probably imagining things because I want to see it. Hope springs eternal in the Martian gazorninplat and all that.

Or, if 100,000 years is too big to imagine, think of it in 10,000 year increments - hundreds of them since the Laetoli footprints - with no change. That is, if grant money for Martian academics survives that many disappointments.
335. Worst career choice ever, studying humans. Mother told me to go into retail and I should've listened.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Evolution and Young Earth Creationism

Impressions Versus Science

If you bing, google, or yahoo up “first humans” you get a collection of estimates of upright figures who lived somewhere further than 2 million years ago. Artistic images from the Olduvai and Laetoli discoveries likewise show bipedal creatures, a bit hairier than us, heads a little different, but clearly meant to emphasise their similarity to us. They hold hands. They look off to the horizon. I will call this the National Geographic impression, as that is the popular-culture representative of the textbooks and educational videos which teach that view.

In contrast, what I will call the Genesis view is of figures that look a good deal more like us. They are in fact usually healthier and better-looking than we are, a sort of Platonic ideal of the human form. As most of the artists depicting them until recently were European, they used to look more European than Semitic. That has been changing over the last few decades. They look rather Mediterranean now.

The impression created by the National Geographic view is that humans emerged 2.3 million years ago, in East Africa, from a large population. How large? That varies greatly, as it seems to depend on the time snapshot focused on. But the impression created is of many small bands of humans over a limited area expanding eventually to a population of many thousands ancestors of wonderful us.

The Genesis impression,drawn directly from the text, is that the first humans were two people who lived about 6000 years ago between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

In one sense, and the most common, the science is all on the side of the National Geographic view. I am an evolutionist and accept that science. I believe in Lucy and Olduvai Gorge and stone tools having a great deal to do with our origins. But I am concerned at the impressions created by the National Geographic view, impressions that accord more with a particular worldview than with the actual science as we know it.

Because Young Earth Creationists (YEC) limit the discussion to the last 10,000 years, and because people in general tend to have large numbers run together in their heads, any discussion of hominid creatures from say, 230,000 years ago tends to be immediately rejected by YEC's and immediately accepted as anti-creationist evidence by evolutionists. Yet 230,000 years ago is only 10% of the way back to 2.3 million. We miss that because our brains just read "Big Number," which to evolutionists means "proves my point" and YEC's means "can't be true."

If we start at 2.3M years, we have these First Humans. They. make stone cutting tools by artfully chipping away certain types of rock. If we move forward a hundred thousand years, we find them doing the same thing. Two, three, four hundred thousand years on, same tools. No improvement. At six hundred thousand years forward, about 1.7M years ago, there is a slight improvement in the stone cutting tools. That is a very long period of time. Have these First Humans improved in other realms - in social organization, housing, variety of diet, anything like that? No, no, no, and no. Do they sound like any human beings you have ever heard of, going thousands of generations without the slightest improvement, even by accident, of the way they go about living?

The National Geographic supporters, seeing where this is going, will object at this point. Wait, we never said they were just like us. We don't call them human beings so much as hominids. We know they were different and there was development. You are misrepresenting us. No, actually, I'm not. The first exercise in this essay was to google up "first humans," and those folks that lived 2 million years ago are consistently called humans in biology textbooks, Science Channel specials, the New York Times - in all of the popular science culture. You ordered it, you eat it, as the saying goes.

Scientists do not, as some YEC's believe, emphasise this time-span just to stick it to Christians. That motive seems to be pretty dominant in a few, and a whole lot more go out of their way to keep mentioning that these humans did not live just a few thousand years ago, but millions. But there are more innocent motives for the emphasis. First, when people know that they have got the right answer - which in one sense the evolutionists do - and someone else has got the wrong one, they tend to return to that sticking point pretty often. If someone says the Treaty of Utrecht was 1638 instead of 1648, I might not bother to correct them. It doesn't matter so much at this juncture. But if they keep saying it's 1548 or 1748, or worse, say it was in 648 AD, then I'm going to move to correct that thought pretty emphatically, because the understanding of much history is at stake. If they keep getting it wrong I will grow strident. That's just human nature, not an especial vice of evolutionists.

More innocently still, we humans like to try and imagine ourselves as closer than we are to just about anything. We talk to pets and pretend we understand their feelings. If we read about a crime in Los Angeles we think of people we know there, or the time we went there, and try to see if there is some connection between ourselves and the event. We want a connection to be there. Thus, artists for National Geographic are trying to capture similarity, trying to identify with, trying to project their own thoughts onto the creatures whose bones we have found. It's a nice feature of humanity - it just leads us a bit astray in this case.

We left off at 1.7M years, still in East Africa, still with thousands of hominids running about. At 1.5M, no change. 1.1M - in the evolution "his halve cours yronne" - nothing different. Man from Mars dropping by every 100,000 years isn't seeing any difference in these humans. 900,000 years, 500,000 years, still the same stone tools, no improvements. No change here. At about 200,000 years ago we might start to see some subtle changes if we knew exactly what to look for, but really, we have to get well under 100,000 years ago before anything you'd notice pops up.

At about 60,000 years ago, these bipedal creatures develop language. Maybe it's a little more than that.

Now just a cotton-pickin' minute, AVI! You've been talking about these hominids, these humanish creatures who have been bopping about in Africa for over two million years, that National Geographic says are humans and they don't even TALK?

Well yeah, pretty much. They must have had some sort of verbal communication - a fair number of mammals do - but there is good reason to believe that there is some threshold element to language, and once that point is reached, sophisticated language develops and spreads very, very rapidly. So, evolutionists might call them human beings with some legitimacy, and they certainly did exist and are our ancestors, but if you want to say that this first 97% of human beings weren't really human beings, using language as your standard, you've got some justification for that.

We'll leave this hominid group right here for now, so you can start to absorb that the contrast between the Genesis impression and the National Geographic impression isn't quite as advertised by at least one measure.

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH)

I received a mailing from my congresswoman asking for my opinion on health care reform. There were about 10 highly slanted questions, designed so that the answer made no difference to what she would vote for, but merely gave you a sermon of what she thought were the main issues. Has anyone in your family ever been denied coverage because of a preexisting condition? There was a teeny space for additional comments.

Revealing slant and perspective are one thing (they all do that) but this is active deceit. Someone had to intentionally design questions that were not questions to give the impression that constituent opinions were being sought.

Large moral questions do not exist independently of the more basic moralities of honesty, reciprocity, and respect. Boring old virtues are not a different, optional morality but the foundation of any morality.

I will not for a moment pretend that Republicans, lobbyists, bloggers, and everyone else has not engaged in slant and even deceit in this matter. But this small matter struck me as notable because it was immoral at its core, not simply deviating as it went along.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


If one goes over to youtube, one can find Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Julie London, or a dozen others singing this song. I hoped to like one of those better and post it, to show that I am one of the cognoscenti who knows more about music than the rest of you clowns. Nah. The others are great - Mathis is better.

This version was the one requested by the female stalker in the movie "Play Misty For Me." I got spooked after watching that film, thinking that a girl I was dating was potentially like that, and I'd better get out fast. Just my overdramatic victim imagination, though. She was pretty normal, I was far more screwed up than she was.

Hey, I'm sorry, okay? You think boring old AVI was never a self-absorbed twit? I was a musician, remember? Sophomore year of college wasn't my most stable.


According to Ben, there's a new TV show called "Hank" with Kelsey Grammer. There was an old show called "Hank" in the mid-60's. It was about a college drop-in trying to go to school for free. I'm one of the few who remembers it, apparently.

He's up with the sun, and he's got the college ringin'
As he goes about another swingin' day.
With jobs to be done or errands to run
He's A Number 1 okay.
He'll dry clean your coat, be a butler or a porter
If it means another quarter in the bank.
He'll get his degree, his Phi Beta key
And get 'em both for free.
That's Hank!
Sad ending, it seems. Dick Kallman, who played Hank, was murdered by a drug addict in the 70's.

State Contract

I am not a member of the state employees’ union. I was years ago, when it was a local affair and not affiliated with SEIU (via AFSCME), because I am not opposed to the idea of unions per se, just the current incarnation of many American unions. I haven’t followed the negotiations with the State of NH, and I don’t know the details of what was proposed about furloughs versus layoffs. Thus, I may be leaping to unwarranted conclusions. But I find it ironic that all these good government union Democrats, who vote for people who want to “spread the wealth” and just voted for a president who specifically said that to a plumber, voted that a few be laid off rather than everyone have furlough days. It has a sort of penguin near the water feel to it. That we selfish conservatives and libertarians, rapaciously out for our own good rather than general beneficence, would take such a position is hardly surprising. I thought progressives were kinder and gentler than that.

Thought Experiment: Genesis and Science

If the first eleven chapters had somehow gone missing for centuries and were only recently rediscovered, it would be academics telling Christians they should accept them gladly, and the fundamentalists who would resist this most strongly. Genesis has got lots: the first intentional crops date from around 8,000 years ago, Genesis has the Cain-and-Abel conflict a very few miles away between settled growers and hunter-gatherers about 6,000 years ago – pretty good estimate for a people who had no archaeological science or written history; the beginning of mankind is associated with language and the naming of things – with choices, forethought and afterthought; the gradual creation; the storing of food against times of want; the flood at about the right time and place; the invention of wine at something close to the right time and place; the cultural interactions of receiving strangers and making covenants; confirming the existence of whole tribes of peoples and tells us something about them. Historians and anthropologists would be insisting, dude, you have got to claim this. This book is great. Christians would be more wary, especially the literalists, who would look askance at all this six days of creation and people living for centuries stuff. Sounds pretty much like stories handed down, thanks. We like our Bible nice and literal, word-for-word and tightened up. No messy God for us, thanks, just a neat predictable one. We said nyet to the Apocrypha, remember. I believe in the work of the Holy Spirit, and that after decades of rancorous debate the church would recognise the missing chapters as Scripture. Just not at first.

Once this is understood, the literalists look rather like the old fable of the monkey with its hand stuck in the jar, unable to let go of the treasure. If the little ape could let go, it could pull forth its hand and then pour out the treasure. Refusing to release its grasp, it is stuck forever with neither hand nor treasure.

I’ll be displaying some of this treasure shortly.

My Uncle, and Michael Moore

My uncle sent me the recent Michael Moore letter to Obama about the Nobel Lifetime Pre-Achievement Prize.
Dear President Obama,

How outstanding that you’ve been recognized today as a man of peace. Your swift, early pronouncements — you will close Guantanamo, you will bring the troops home from Iraq, you want a nuclear weapon-free world, you admitted to the Iranians that we overthrew their democratically-elected president in 1953, you made that great speech to the Islamic world in Cairo, you’ve eliminated that useless term “The War on Terror,” you’ve put an end to torture — these have all made us and the rest of the world feel a bit more safe considering the disaster of the past eight years. In eight months you have done an about face and taken this country in a much more sane direction.,,

Aside from the moronic oversimplifications, creating an entire foreign policy out of two ideas (that peoples need to liberate themselves rather than have others do that for them – tell that to Western Europe, the slaves, and the Jews – and that bloodthirsty enemies of the US would be okay if we hadn’t mistreated them), there are a few interesting things in Moore’s logic that bear noticing.

In the first laudatory paragraph, telling Obama how much good he’s done, notice that all the accomplishments are mere words. They are things Obama has said, not done. Yet Moore seems pretty satisfied with those. His evidence is that “the world” feels safer. What is the basis for that statement? I know of no grand consensus of the nations that each of them feels safer. No one’s done that survey. There’s no data. If I had to guess, however, I suspect eastern Europe feels less safe, and that Hondurans, Israelis, Iranian and Chinese dissidents, and African Christians feel less safe. Just for openers.

There is also the upbraiding of Bush for the words “War on Terror,” and the attribution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to him. See Charles Krauthammerfor a review of the actual history. Yet even given the usual overidentification of any president with a war fought during his term of office, I find Moore’s insistence on this rather strident. He is trying to score rhetorical points rather than illuminate history.

Who, then, does feel safer? Current rulers, tyrannical or no, and the friends and sympathetic journalists around them. Western Europeans in general, but predominantly their elites and talking heads. American liberals. I guess to Moore, that’s “the world.” I would instead call it “his tribe.” If you bung that concept into the first paragraph, the whole letter makes perfect sense. As this is a tribe that by and large does not join the military, they were pretty safe already (okay, not the tyrants). Whether Iraq and Afghanistan made us, the actual us that is the whole country, safer is a question for another day, and I doubt it has a simple yes/no answer. What matters in this context is that to Moore, the answer an unmodified “no.” No pluses and minuses, just complete assurance that we would be safer if we just pulled out of Bush’s wars. Moore was physically safe anyway; UN diplomats were safe anyway; Norwegian committeemen were safe anyway. Why then would he feel specifically safer?

Because the only thing that is under threat for him is is worldview, and the personal stake he has in people like him having the whip hand culturally. It is humiliating for Moore and his supporters to have to live in a country where other tribes have any say. They spent eight years trying to distance themselves from that America. To not be the acknowledged Lords of Governance and Culture is what we call in the psych biz a narcissistic injury. His feeling of improved safety refers not to his physical safety, but his relief at the world heading the way it’s supposed to now.

I am sure they tell themselves it is physical safety, not only for themselves but for others, that they are concerned with. All, perhaps, have at least some real concern for this. Yet I still conclude such concern is secondary (at best), because of the frequency of Moore’s arguments in progressive discourse, however disguised and varied the form. It appeals to linear and simplistic moralities of what should occur according to theory rather than any cost/benefit analysis; it coincides very neatly with what would be good for them personally and politically; once it has identified a bad motive in its enemies it looks no further no matter how small a fraction it is, putting all explanation into that basket; it is focusesd on words, impressions, and symbolism rather than action. It is not how things are that matters, but how they can be made to look.

Real events and conditions abroad seem almost not to matter, except as chess pieces in the American culture wars. What percentage of progressives fit this unflattering description I can’t say. All are more affected by this blindness than they realise, certainly. Hopefully, the number of thoroughgoing tribalists, for whom the actual safety of America is only a minor consideration, is small.

It is a great irony that Moore’s closest rhetorical equivalents are the creators of bathetic patriotic productions, manipulating symbols, stock phrases, and the swell of music to evoke an emotional response which bypasses the intellect. That his politics are precisely opposite theirs is immaterial. They use flags, martial drums, and stock heroes, he uses stock villains and one-dimensional faces of oppression; they ignore America’s faults, he ignores her virtues; both have rhetorical styles reminiscent of William Jennings Bryan.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


We are moving stuff out of my father-in-law's house as he moves to a small apartment. I was inspired to come home and tab another 50-100 of my books to leave our house.

My children may curse me for some things, but this isn't going to be one of them.

Friday, October 09, 2009


We're going to be audited by the IRS for our contributions. Lucky us.


The Nobel Peace Prize is a lefty political award given annually for legitimizing tyrants via weakening the authority of sane people. As such, it is entirely appropriate that Barack Obama was immediately nominated and received the award.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Creationism And Politics

It has been fashionable for years for people to write books about the conflict between faith and science. Some hope to resolve the conflict, some wish to solidify it.

I’m not going there, not because I don’t have an opinion, but because any discussions involve people willfully misunderstanding each other. So much time is spent explaining “I said this, but not that,” “No you didn’t, you are just avoiding my point,” and folks giving out the same tired formulas as if they are some great new revelation that it’s not worth the annoyance level for me. Dueling soapboxes, rather like Hyde Park, but less colorful.

There are some interesting practical considerations, however, and that might be fun. (For me, that’s who.) Volokh Conspiracy recently had a thread about a 7D creationist running for political office, and whether that should be an automatic disqualifier. As an evangelical and an evolutionist, the question interests me.

Much depends on how the question came to be raised. If the candidate is bringing it up as an issue, it’s a red flag for me on two counts:
1. He’s majoring in minors in terms of governance.
2. He’s majoring in minors in terms of culture war.
The fact that he is also wrong on the issue is nearly irrelevant. A candidate focused on keeping creationists out would be almost as bad. Someone needs to enroll in a local Get A Life chapter. The issue is more symbolic than real.

OTOH, if the issue is only coming up because some journalist is trying to make him look bad, I am less concerned. It’s a pink flag, but not a red one. The usual argument that this person will have to make decisions about Science! as an elected official doesn’t hold up well. The amount of science mythology running around about vaccinations, organic and GM foods, or - God-help-us - energy sources is much more pertinent. Creationism is not an infallible proxy for scientific understanding and belief in genral. It is a good proxy for attitudes toward taking academics’ word for things. That has overlap with scientific understanding and belief, but it is not the same thing.

I believe the evidence for the general outline of the theory of evolution is considerable, but I did not produce any of that evidence. Even armed with a manual, I could not easily replicate any of the thousands of observations and experiments that have gone into that body of evidence. Time and money constraints, let alone training, would prevent nearly all of from going to the Galapagos Islands and redoing even Darwin’s observations of a century ago. Even among the few who have contributed to the scientific underpinnings of the belief, they have done so in only one narrow field. They are dependent on the knowledge of others for 99% of the rest. The belief in evolution is built from thousands of bits of information across a dozen disciplines. That is its strength.

I read a bit in linguistics, prehistory, and evolutionary psychology. I used to read a bit in astronomy and anthropology. I do not approach an expert’s knowledge in any of those fields, but I have some idea of what is generally known and plausible. The evidence from all those fields points in the direction of an ancient universe and changes in species over time. I don’t believe in evolution because of any one of those skeins of knowledge but because everywhere I turn, that theory – or something close to it – seems necessary for the knowledge to fit together coherently. A vast conspiracy across all those disciplines to hide true knowledge is surpassingly unlikely.

Do I need to mention that those who are most irritated by creationists aren’t able to do the foundational research either? They take other people’s word for stuff – as do I, remember, so there’s no sneer in that – often without any particular understanding of why. It is not simply a matter of whether you trust the smart good people or the stupid evil ones. An entire complicated epistemology of how we know things, who we trust, what doubts and exceptions we have, and how we act on it goes into this. Always believing the scientific consensus doesn’t have such a great political history, even through the 20th C.

But one would think that a belief in 7D creationism would be highly problematic for evaluation of any scientific knowledge. Yet that is a superficial interpretation, itself driven more by culture war than science. I disapprove of creationism or even Intelligent Design being taught in public schools, but the idea that we completely undermine children’s belief and understanding of science by doing so is simply absurd. Belief in the received authority of the dominant intellectual culture is what is really undermined, and why they are so upset by it. The energy behind the issue, both on the creationist-encouraging and creationist-stomping sides, comes from the war of cultural dominance, not science education. I am always torn whether such ironies amuse or irritate me. (I have a soon-upcoming post about the impressions that evolutionists try and create, versus the facts.)

There are a half-dozen types of creationism, for openers, with varying degrees of friendliness to evolution.

There are engineers who are 7D creationists – people who design wings, or circuits, or chemical processes. Doctors, chemists, mathematicians, and a dozen other –ists are found even among the Young Earth Creationists. Whether they encounter intellectual conflicts with the information in their narrow fields and how they deal with that I don’t know. But they seem to be able to do their jobs, don’t they? Some scientists also have specific carve-outs in their beliefs for creationism, having concluded that belief in a literal Genesis 1 is necessary for their faith, and putting aside scientific information they understand quite well, undealt-with. That may be a problem, but it isn’t a scientific understanding problem.

At a more popular level, people believe contradictory things all the time. Parents who tell pollsters they are biblical creationists (so that they don’t appear to be saying anything bad about God or the Bible) and even make impassioned statements at school board meetings still get thrilled at how much their fourth-grader is interested in dinosaurs or astronomy or geology. Those of you who make condescending noises at that – D’you shop at Whole Foods…Go to casinos… diets…supplements…unproven medical interventions…

I could offend all of you if I kept going, couldn’t I?


It's not health-care reform, it's insurance reform. It is therefore a twenty-way battle among insurers, providers, and marketers, some of whom want to screw us, versus regulators, some of whom want to screw insurers, providers, and marketers. It's all about who you can be persuaded to resent more.

Monday, October 05, 2009

IASA to FTW! to QQ

That was my succession of emotions when I got invited to comment at someone else’s blog, who then deleted my comments.

Christian Language Difference

The nonreligious conservatives and libertarians who visit must be getting a bit bored, but this is where the conversations have been going for awhile. Perhaps tomorrow will be different.

Rightwingprof was curious about my take on the language and conceptual differences between Christian denominations. I imagine there might be book-length treatment of this somewhere, but I had only a few thoughts.

Evangelicals don’t reference “mercy” that often. They will speak about the related concepts of forgiveness and generosity, and they certainly have a clear conception of mercy, but they don’t frame things that way. “Hope” is similarly less used. Evangelicals are more likely to focus on faith and love. The liturgical churches have references to mercy and hope built into their cycles of worship, so these thoughts tend to rise to prominence more. This is not a mere language change, but an emphasis that expresses a slight difference in thought.

The approach to God is different. In the Roman Catholic, and even more especially in the Orthodox churches, there is a strong sense of a spiritual world running independently and in parallel to our own experience. It touches this life at an infinite number of places, but is separate and must be sought. The evangelical picture is much more of God and the spiritual world invading this world and transforming it. Both groups would agree that the other is correct, and that the two are not mutually exclusive. The twin pictures, in fact, describe the same phenomenon. But the difference in emphasis leads to different approaches, particularly in the political realm. The evangelical would change events in order to influence society to change at a deeper level; the Catholic and Orthodox approach would be more to work on the deeper realities and do more rescue work than transformational work on the world’s ills.

Catholic and Orthodox believers have a strong concept of the different roles or descriptors of God. Pancrator, healer, victor, comforter, etc. Evangelicals tend to blend those. It’s a plus-minus thing. There is truth and advantage on both sides.

Orthodox churches remain strongly ethnic, which is a plus-minus for the expression of the Church Universal.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Deja Vu All Over Again

Jonathan is fixing Kyle's computer. Therefore, Kyle is using our computer. He is playing an online game that uses lots of memory. Our computer now easily freezes up.

I know this conversation. I have been through it with four previous sons. No, it's not anything I'm doing. It's not this game that's causing the freezing up. Must be something else. Not me.

Do I even want to get into this conversation again? Sigh.


Someone in the small crowd that wrote the new Jordin Sparks song "Battlefield" has clearly been exposed to the song "Awesome God" at some point - but not enough to recognise that one section is too close to be original. Sing along. Either one.

Bat For Lashes

This British alt-rock singer disables the Youtube embeds, but you might sample her song Daniel there anyway. It's what you'd get if Grace Slick enslaved Mummenshanz. Another song, "What's a Girl To Do?" is uh, Beatrix Potter on acid.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


Evangelicals also get evangelised by other groups, and each other. Certain Christians always seem to be interested in trying to convince you you need a second baptism, or to get slain in the spirit, or that your understanding of the end times is backwards; that you should be attending certain seminars, reading such-and-such a book, or listening to some new preacher.

I often find it irritating, depending on the social skills of the presenter, so I well understand what non-Christians feel when Christianity in general is presented to them that way. Yet I don't feel insulted. I just think they're wrong, or majoring in minors. I don't think I have ever felt insulted by any such folks, including heterodox groups such as LDS or Jehovah's Witnesses. I didn't feel insulted by Christians witnessing to me before I became one myself. I can't imagine why I would. Just irritated. Uncomfortable. Buddhists, New Agers, and TM devotees don't evangelise by saying "you should convert to Buddhism," but by telling you practices you should adopt, or attitudes you should cultivate, or cool people they've run across who they think you should emulate because of the wonderful peacefulness/groundedness/tolerance they display. That's evangelism, and perhaps a bit more irritating because it isn't honest with itself about what is happening.

I find it irritating when wrong things get said (which explains my desire to challenge such things and return conversations to level ground). I understand the irritated response from those who disagree.

But if you are insulted, I think that's your own problem, not ours. Whether you learned it at your mother's knee or developed it as an adult, the idea that some great moral transgression has occurred if someone expresses that your religion is not adequate to eternal tasks, does not flow from Natural Law. Social transgression, sure. We evangelicals often take that risk and pay that social price. But equating that with moral transgression - you'll have to deal with that yourself, I think. Can't help you there.

There is also an interesting disconnect between uses of "convert" which causes much mischief. If I try to persuade some Hindu (or, heck, Christian from another denomination) to switch to my Covenant church, I do not say, or think, "I want to convert that person." I want them to be converted by something that they do to themselves, not something I do to them. The change in verb form indicates an important reality. Not even at a deeper level do I want God to "convert" them. God doesn't work that way. It's not an external force being applied to you.

In a nonreligious sense we say "convert miles to kilometers," and that very much carries the sense of an outside force being imposed on the numbers. To claim that evangelising is the same thing is just inaccurate. In fact, it is suspiciously inaccurate, as if the person needs to pretend that something is being done to them - that others are trying to make them do something. There were eras when new rulers took over and made everyone under their authority convert to some new religion. At a milder but still very wrong level, some countries have religious tests that one cannot hold certain jobs unless one belongs to the national religion. Those pressures do not obtain here.

So I give a suspicious glance when folks claim You/they are trying to convert me. I think it's an evasion, one more way to resist hearing what is said.

Irritating? Yes. We evangelicals raise our hand like a basketball player acknowledging a foul. We do that. Sometimes we don't like it any better than the recipient, because it can be socially uncomfortable for us, too. We try to find ways to get out of it, actually. But the complaint that we are insulting or trying to make someone do something? We don't own that. I think those come from inside the hearers.

Friday, October 02, 2009

More Gypsies

Time For Some Fun! PATSHIVA!

Video embedding disabled, but you can see a Roma party here. It turns into a discussion of the rival kings of the gypsies, then gypsy poverty.

Then they party again. Alcohol! Music! Dance! Bling! Bright Clothing! Gluttony! And more alcohol.