Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Rally To Restore...

It's just too easy.

The Rally To Restore Punchlines


Have to go full screen on this one.

Via Maggie's Farm

Saturday, October 30, 2010


I am clearly not a Twitter sort of guy, and as blogs go increasingly out-of-fashion, I'll have to find something. But if I did have an account, this would be my first tweet:
Bought Sam Adams Latitude 48 IPA for the name. Too busy reading blogs to notice taste. Solution: have another.
Update - Tweet #2:
Pretty good. More like an English bitters than most IPA's.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Liberal Gene

Jonah, via Maggie.

The finding is that a particular gene, plus having a lot of friends in adolescence, correlates with having politically liberal ideas as an adult. Sounds possible.

The kicker is the hypothesis by "the researcher and his colleagues" is the kicker:
people with the novelty-seeking gene variant would be more interested in learning about their friends’ points of view. As a consequence, people with this genetic predisposition who have a greater-than-average number of friends would be exposed to a wider variety of social norms and lifestyles, which might make them more liberal than average.
The far-more obvious possibility, that people who seek social approval become liberals, does not even occur to them.

When adolescents eat more, or drink more, have too much or too little sleep, too many or too few sexual partners, or do anything outside the statistical norm, the focus immediately goes to some greater need for something-or-other that explains the behavior.

Or when children in studies have certain personality traits and grow up to be conservatives, we are treated to hypotheses of their greater need for control, or rules, or conformity, or some other pathological explanation. But since they grew up to be liberals, whatever they did that was different must obviously be something good.

What the hell is it with these people? They are supposed to, by profession, be alert for outside factors that bias their results.


I got a robo-call from Sarah Palin today, trying to inspire me, an Illinois voter to vote for...well, I never heard. Because I'm not an Illinois voter. I'm in NH, area code 603, not Glen Ellyn, IL, area code 630. Sponge-headed Scienceman got one too.

No doubt it was some volunteer or poorly paid staffer who made the error, but it's not the sort of thing that inspires confidence. I did notice that her voice was less annoying, though. Perhaps she's working on that.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New Site

For those who know the site Real Clear Politics, a fairly balanced site including essays from all over, recent polls, handy reference, they have a new spin-off site Real Clear Religion which looks promising. One of the bloggers at First Things wrote approvingly of the editor.

Current essays up, to give you a flavor:
Rise of the Religious Charlatans - Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Huffington Post
The Great Catholic 'What If...' - George Weigel, First Things Magazine
Iraqi Archbishop Urges Mercy for Aziz - John Pontifex, Catholic Herald
The Evangelical Identity Crisis - Alan Wilson, The Guardian
Nine Reasons Men Should Go to Church - Theodore Roosevelt, R. House
Dwight Howard Gets Dunked - Rick Brunson, Orlando Sentinel

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

One Game

I didn't even click over until the game was almost over. And it doesn't mean much. But my oh my, isn't it satisfying.

Key stat: In a low-scoring game, Rajon Rondo, 17 assists.

Monday, October 25, 2010


The World's Most Beautiful Granddaughter, who turns three next week.

Photos taken at the Portland Children's Museum

She will have a sibling in May

Viking Grave

Via Maggie's, a Smithsonian article on a mass grave of three dozen vikings, found under Oxford University when digging started for a new dormitory.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Caught By Curiosity Again

I wasn't going to nibble on Retriever's posts on pressure cookers and butternut squash. Uh - uh. Not that kind of blog. I'm sure she's more interesting than most on those topics, but I stayed away.

But that title about Minevars and Frescoes kept begging to have its link followed. I didn't know what minevars are...and anything about frescoes might be worth knowing...and she's likely pulled out something I won't find anywhere else...

And at minimum, there will be a remarkable photograph at the top.

Retriever had to search to find out what minevars were. When I had the answer, I asked my wife if she knew - because Tracy is simply phenomenal on vocabulary in general, and specifically the objects that might somehow show up in an historical novel. She knew it, from a book title Scarlet and Minevar, and guessed it was some kind of fur.

I checked with a search engine, found that the book is A Taste For Scarlet and Minevar, and it shows up for exactly one hit, plus the two Retriever heroically unearthed from sources which define obscure.

No one plays more than one night of the dictionary game with Tracy, because it becomes too irritating and time-consuming to find a word she doesn't know. You have to go into the specialised vocabulary of a discipline to catch her up. As the theater and speech major, I provide the pronunciation, even if I've never known the meaning. It's a symbiosis we have had since about our second date.

Ad oh yeah, that was pretty interesting about the frescoes.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Commenter Boludo Tejano over at Tigerhawk described himself as Post-liberal. It's a movement, I tell you.

Default Setting

Just writing down a common theme of mine in compact form for future linking.

When one is trying to contemplate what is true, and what one should believe, there is an important preliminary sterp. First, we must know what our default settings are. Otherwise, we will too easily fool ourselves when examining the evidence. We will have a confirmation bias toward what we want to be true. It is impossible in such an instance to be objective.

If are raised raised mostly among Christians, with mentors and heroes all being persons of that faith, we will secretly root for explanations which vindicate our tribe. Or, if we are raised among Christians and want out in some way, we will secretly root for ideas which discredit it.

This leads us to the hidden default setting. We must not only look at what are the beliefs of the place we come from - for we may have an ambivalent relationship to those - but more importantly, to the group we hope to belong to. In Empire, we will learn the language of the capital and the ruling class if we hope to get ahead. We will identify with these "better" people, if only they will accept us. If we are a bright college student who has long known (or fancied) that we are far smarter and more enlightened than the people we left behind, we will gravitate to the beliefs and practices of those around us who seem to have the best claim to being intellectuals. This may be a selection of our peers, a subset of our professors, or the writers we are assigned, but we will want them to be proved right. We may later reject this, preferring a group out in the world of our profession, our new friends, or local luminaries - but we will always have this temptation with us.

Socrates said "Know thyself," and this may be one of the important strands of what he meant. Until we know what advantage, whether social, financial, or psychological, that a particular set of beliefs provides for us, we have no business pretending we are choosing cleanly.

Descartes resolved to assume nothing and see what he could conclude. I am not so temeritous as to claim he was wrong - it may be that this rule for objectivity I am laying down applies only to people like me, and we may not be the most noble or elevated. But I will still venture to call Descartes sharply into question on this point. I don't believe we can assume nothing. There is no default place in contemplation where we are starting at a zero point. At best, we can attempt to correct for biases we identify.

As Lewis said, a heap of broken images is itself an image. To have rejected all creeds in the hopes of starting at some neutral place is itself a creed.

Need I mention that this is uncomfortable? It is not so much difficult intellectually as emotionally. None of us likes to think that any fraction of our creed could be a pose, adopted in order to seem like a certain sort of person, either ourself or others.

Planet Narnia - Postscript

I note that several CS Lewis scholars disagree with Michael Ward's thesis. Will Vaus was originally convinced and then decided against it, for example. I have read their arguments only in summary, and they raise valid points. However, I can already see at least one weakness in their arguments. I may address that in general at some future date even before I have read their criticism in full, or I may hold off. But it should be interesting to follow up on.

The weakness, in brief, concerns a misunderstanding of the creative process of telling a story. Both Devin Brown and Vaus make assertion that imposing multiple structures on a story and letting the story tell itself do not likely coexist in the same work. Put that way, they might say I have overstated their case and disagree that they have said this. I nonetheless think they have, and I think it misguided.

Friday, October 22, 2010

And These Shall Be The Signs

In a fallen world, when a solution to the tragedies and problems of other people gives you a sense of relief, it may be merely a symbolic solution. Only when you know that your action has helped, but they are still largely on their own, is there some chance the gift is real.

For this reason, those who traffic in solutions that make us feel better should be viewed with the greater suspicion. Not because they are evil, but because we are only too willing to accept their belief they/we have done good.

And I'm not only talking about government and nonprofits here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rocky Mountain High

Bing has a new photo on its home page for search every day, with little Carmen Sandiego-style facts about the locale or creature, discovered when you run your cursor over certain spots. Today it was a picture taken somewhere in the Rockies, and one of the run-overs was the lyrics to Jahn Denver's song about them.

Ignore for a moment the barely-discuised marijuana reference. Lots of people thought that was very transgressive and hip in those days. Look at the borrowed religious imagery throughout. Additionally, not the theme that only the right sort of people deserve to be there.

Rocky Mountain High
John Denver
Words by John Denver; Music by John Denver and Mike Taylor

He was born in the summer of his 27th year
Comin' home to a place he'd never been before
He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again
You might say he found a key for every door

When he first came to the mountains his life was far away
On the road and hangin' by a song
But the string's already broken and he doesn't really care
It keeps changin' fast and it don't last for long

But the Colorado rocky mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullabye
Rocky mountain high

He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below
He saw everything as far as you can see
And they say that he got crazy once and he tried to touch the sun
And he lost a friend but kept his memory

Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake

And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply
Rocky mountain high

Now his life is full of wonder but his heart still knows some fear
Of a simple thing he cannot comprehend
Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more
More people, more scars upon the land

And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
I know he'd be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly
Rocky mountain high

It's Colorado rocky mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
Friends around the campfire and everybody's high
Rocky mountain high

I've kicked National Geographic and a whole flock of environmental nonprofits for their relative comfort in quoting people who describe wilderness or natural features in religious terms, compared to people who use religious language about, say, actual cathedrals or sanctuaries - all the while denying that they are they are talking about religion at all. They aren't so much lying as just brain dead, with zero insight into themselves.

Let me take it a step further. Feelings of exhilaration are the entirely natural result of completing something, especially something physical, and even more especially while in the presence of something we deem worthy of admiration. It's a good thing, nothing wrong with it at all - the Jews in Second Temple days worshiped after a long communal climb, including singing, on major festival days. (And as for closet pantheism, the mountains and oceans in the background of praise songs on the screen worries me at times.) But we have to see it for what it is. Like the love charms and magic spells of fairy tales, you will fall in love with the next thing you see when you climb a mountain, finish a symphony, or win a championship.

So why, among respectable people, are these expressive rhapsodies considered appropriate - to the point that not expressing admiration is considered a sign of a deadened soul - while religious enthusiasm are considered unseemly and ridiculous?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Only On The Map - Last Stop: Noone Falls

I told you at the beginning that there would be some Scot-Irish (don't start on me now) settlement important in SW New Hampsha, but actual history hasn't borne this out as we've touched down in these places. Finally, here they are.

Noone is one of the map-localities that actually must have had a village at one time. There's the old mill, now offices - mostly of non-profits.

Then there's the addition to the mill, now made into shops, tending toward the artsy and New Age.

And the remnants of the village across the creaking Bridge At Noone's Falls

Across from this was Our Town something-or-other. Printing shop, maybe. That's how you know you're in Peterborough, because everything is named Our Town Realty or Our Town Laundry, or Our Town Cafe, or whatever. Rather like everything in San Antonio being named "Alamo." Because Peterborough claims to be the basis for the town of Grover's Corners that Thornton Wilder set the play in. He wrote it at the MacDowell Colony north of Peterborough, an artists' retreat, and the particulars of the play are very small-town NH.

Well, every place has got to have something. And as one of Wilder's themes in the play is seeing the universal in the particular, I guess it's a good thing that someone commemorates it.

All high schools and most colleges do "Our Town" at some point, sometimes once a decade or so. But I liked "The Skin of Our Teeth" much better. We did a good deal of reading aloud to our first two sons, as I recently mentioned, but we also did plays aloud as a family, divvying up the multiple parts. I don't think Ben was old enough to participate in that one - Jonathan was about 9. He liked the dinosaurs living next door to the people, and caught many of the Genesis references. "Henry, put down that rock! You know what happened last time!" after learning that Henry Antrobus's original name was Cain.

Seeing the universal in the particular was part of that show as well, and so is a nice fit for the end of this series. If you've never read "The Skin Of Our Teeth," BTW, I highly recommend it.

Living In New England

Sponge-headed Scienceman gives his Ten Reasons to Live in New England.

I might've excuded Mars'chusetts myself.


I thought all this time I couldn't watch Ben's films because of something I needed to download to watch Vimeo. Turns out it was the browser - I have liked Firefox but it's starting to annoy me, and I may switch back to Chrome, which I am told doesn't have the problems it used to.

But the videos play just fine on IE, so I spent the evening watching the best of my son's films over the past few years. Music videos, some powerful interviews, promos, a documentary, TV commercials - even a 3-D horror film spoof.

He talks about frustrations of not getting the films right due to time and equipment problems here. Look fine to me.

I'm enormously proud of you, Ben. I know you knew that, but I wanted to say it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Third Party

Instapundit notes that Rush Limbaugh was explicit about this in his monologue today, warning Republicans that a return to business as usual would be their last chance. Palin hinted at the same. Links and comments seemed to give considerable credibility to the idea. One said he had scratched down DFTU: Don't F*** This Up on a work notepad.

Here's something to keep an eye on: a year is enough to get a high-profile third party going and credible. I don't know about winning in too many places, but credible is within reach. So on top of watching the behavior of elected Republicans beginning in January, keep an eye on NH, Iowa, and SC a year later. Those are different states with different kinds of Republicans and Democrats - together, a pretty broad sweep. Check the polls, and check the nominees. If the Republicans don't put up someone acceptable to the Tea Party - not necessarily their first choice but someone they feel they can get behind - then look for a third party to ramp up pretty quickly. Local candidates can get the nomination of both the Republicans and the third party. Senate and House candidates might swing that, but it will be tougher.

New Rules

Here's the problem: NFL fans suppress their knowledge of how violent the game actually is. Me too. Because it's fun to watch. For me, not so much for the violence, though I like the "physicality." Even when we attend a game live - heck even high school games - we're not that close to the action. We know that the game involves people between 200-340 lbs crashing into each other at high speeds, but we have enough distance from that to shield us from the reality of it. We don't want to know.

When reality intrudes, we don't like it. We don't quite want to have the distance of Madden 2010 or World of Warcraft, but really, what we want is closer to that than to the actuality we would see if we were within 10 feet of one of these hits. We've been hearing a lot about concussions this year. The reality is that concussions aren't new, and we always knew they were bad, just not how bad. It used to be called "getting your bell rung."

Matt Millen was talking to Steve Young last night. Millen's was maintaining that much of what people are suddenly nervous about is just what football really is. They players and everyone that close to the game knows it (though they may also deny reality as too frightening), and without it, it's not football anymore. Young stated "It's a TV game." He was cut off from expanding on that, but he hit it right on the head (unfortunate metaphor, actually). Reality can't leak out into the living room too much, or the fans go away. That balance of reality and fantasy must be maintained, and the line moves over time.

Millen is speaking from inside the game, as if the arbitrary composition of the game represents some important reality. Well, you want your Madden or WoW characters to exist entirely in the game as well. You don't want them suddenly becoming self-aware and realising this is just pixels and fantasy - it has no meaning. Young, whose career ended because of concussions, steps back a bit more and sees that the NFL is a lot closer to being just pixels than something with real meaning.

Widen the field to 58 or 60 yards, improve the helmets, and the fantasy comes back again.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Planet Narnia - Did It Work?

Short answer: not for me. I am impressed – astounded, in fact, at the complexity of what was attempted. I fully acknowledge that if I were a better reader, more attentive and absorbing of atmosphere rather than hurrying on, I might have received some of what Lewis offers. But I am not that reader, and most of what was intended passed right over me.

Yet not all. I did pick up some of the tone-changes among the books. I did notice the increased humor and laughter, the contrasts between female characters, and certainly the theme of fertility, mothers, and life, in The Magician’s Nephew. But associating this with Venus never crossed my mind, and the many other elements that suggest that goddess – copper, redness, beauty, apples, flame, magic, sweetness, breath, flowers – went likewise right over my head. This is largely because I never knew these were associated with her, even though I read a fair bit of medieval literature. Again, I was not a good and attentive reader of those works. I largely read them for class, looking for great themes to make sure I included in my blue book on the exam.

But I should have, absolutely kick myself for not noticing, all those people rising up out of pools all the time in that work. Heavy-handed, almost comical, yet I missed it. I note that happens with the theology in Narnia as well. The sacrifice and resurrection in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe seemed too blatant and exact for me (the Stone Table representing the law seemed about the right amount of obviousness) - yet apparently a large percentage of readers don't make the connection. And it is a children's book for a post-Christian culture, after all.

People who received Narnia differently may have caught much more of the planetary flavors and atmospheres of each than I did. I read Lewis after Tolkien, and came expecting another Middle-Earth. I expected connectedness rather than episodes in various moods. Yet in fairness, without the hobbits tying the whole LOTR narrative together, the atmospheres of locale in Tolkien, though much more intense, might not have charmed so much. An adventure in Rohan without hobbits, followed by an adventure in Moria, might not interest, even though both were leading to some common end. I’ll go farther. Those adventures, even peopled and connected by Aragorn, Boromir, Gimli, and Legolas, wouldn’t grip in the same way, despite all the attention to names, history, and geography. The homeliness of the hobbits, and our identification with them in fairy-tale fashion as the inconsequential persons caught up in great events, make the story. Tolkien grabbed a break there by starting with Bilbo's adventure, charming, but originally not much related to the greater events in his world - his preference for Silmarillion-style mythology is not shared by most of his readers.

Lewis's thread of connection among characters in the stories is much more intentional, and actually more deft.

Also, I don’t tend to read description. I tend to notice more of it on subsequent readings, but even then I skim adjectives. I don’t envision so much when I read – I’m seeking the conversation and I hear. I am also thinking about plot in the background the whole time, and with Lewis, noticing how theological themes are working themselves out in the story. A detailed description of a castle storeroom would likely just be Right. Swords, carpets, rich clothing. Some dust, characters recognise them from previous adventure. Got it. The illustrations don’t suggest much atmosphere – they don’t suggest much of anything to me, frankly. I would have preferred fewer and more detailed, or none at all.

But my sons were introduced to the Narniad by having it read aloud, then reading it to themselves, having it read aloud again four years later, then reading it to themselves again. Even though I would have put my energy into the conversation, I wouldn’t have omitted the descriptions, and some of the flavor differences might have penetrated for them at a less-conscious level. In reader’s theater or radio theater, even I picture the events more (because you have to). I suspect there would be more of that if it were being read with description.

Note on the text of Planet Narnia: I’ve got a pretty significant vocabulary, but Ward uses words I have never seen before. Scouring a few consecutive pages to make this point, I encountered “Hudibrastic,” “hesychastic,” and “monoscopy.” There are also terms used primarily in specific fields, such as “anaphora” or “polysemous” for literature, “monophysite” for theology, and “hydragyrum” for chemistry, that I hesitated over and had to run a quick search for in the brain. Plus Latin at least once per paragraph. Perhaps such are necessary, or they are common in more academic works that I just don’t expose myself to. I don’t mind such words as “lugubrious,” and “heuristic” which are rare but at least general. It still seems a bit much, though.

Great Chain Of Being

Perhaps it is because I am medievally-minded at the moment because of reading Planet Narnia. Perhaps it is because the accusation of feudalism keeps coming up WRT liberals these days, but it occurred to me recently that the repeated focus on Tea Partiers being the wrong sort of people to govern compared to experienced career politicians seems a descendant of the medieval Great Chain Of Being.

If the King is in his place overall, the nobles are in their place ruling, the professions next, the merchants below that, and the peasants keeping their place, all will be well. The Church runs, not in a separate place but parallel.

If we define the term merchant a bit narrowly, excluding those in the large corporations which have become so intertwined with government as to be part of it, the present political conflict is between the merchants and the nobles. The professions are divided but tend toward the nobility; the peasants are divided but tend toward the merchants. The intertwined business are divided, wanting both to be spared competition from the merchants, but have freedom of action for themselves.

Except there aren't supposed to be any nobles in American society. Any natural nobility based on merit, is within the American approach to things, but must be held in check, lest it take over institutions and perpetuate itself along non-meritocratic lines. Schools, the military, the church, the press, the courts - all of these are vulnerable to such.

Disclaimer: Let me again note, as I fail to do often enough, that there are differences among liberals - or perhaps, a continuum with legacy journalists at one end and folks who usually vote for Democrats on the other. Among the latter, often good and earnest people who I think have absorbed a few bad ideas and get their news from the former, any idea of aristocracy that is not merit-based would be in theory abhorrent. Most of the Democrats you meet day-to-day would fall into that category. But they elect or empower the former, believing more than they should that the self-styled aristocracy is generally meritocratic. Not following the new media, they are only exposed to the worst stupidity and worst chicanery of the left - and thus believe that this is all there is and it's not so much. That government corruption, vote fraud, and stunning misunderstandings of history and science might actually be 90-10 against Democrats seems frankly incredible to them.

But they aren't feudalists. They don't approve of corruption, they don't support privilege, and they readily abandon proven crooks and liars - if they can only be convinced that the accusations against same are true, and not merely mud thrown by nonliberals.

The op-ed pages of the major dailies, and a healthy percentage of humanities professors (for openers), are another matter. They really do veer close to feudalism.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Even I

The writer in the Washington Times, Robert Turner, makes it pretty clear he'd like to discuss the larger issue of the Vietnam War, hammering home his point that what the students at Kent State were protesting about was wrong, with horrible consequences. So when he telling about the new information of what they were doing during that specific protest, let's expect he has some bias. Still,
According to Friday's Cleveland Plain Dealer, the tape captured the command "Retreat!" As the guardsmen moved back up Blanket Hill, pursued by rock-throwing protesters, photographer Norman was left behind - apparently too busy taking pictures to realize the guardsmen were pulling back - and quickly was in the midst of angry protesters.

The tape captures one voice saying: "They got somebody," and a few seconds later, male voices shout: "Kill him!" Kill him!" There is then the sound of a .38 caliber revolver shot, followed by a female voice: "Whack that [expletive]!" Three more handgun shots ring out at about five-second intervals, and soon thereafter - in just 13 tragic seconds - 29 of the 77 guardsmen fire a total of 67 rifle shots...
That seems to be focused pretty much on facts, which are either true, partly true, or not. Not much room for an accusation of revisionism there.

Well, I had some bias at the time as well. I sided with the protestors, read James Michener's condensed account of the events in Reader's Digest, and wondered what would happen to me, a hippie pacifist, if the fascist Nixon government proceeded in killing innocent students who only wanted to end an unjust war. I figured that these were flower-in-the-gun-barrel types. Michener, BTW, later came to darker conclusions, according to the NYTimes.
James A. Michener, the author, who concluded in his own study that the killing of four Kent State University students by National Guardsmen was an accident, now believes a conspiracy may have existed among guardsmen to fire on the antiwar demonstrators, United Press International reported last week
The information from the tapes is new. But surely the other information, about the student violence leading up to the protests, the visits by Marc Rudd and Bernadette Dohrn, the SDS presence and declarations of war - not in general, but at Kent State specifically - the previous arrests for violence...surely that information was available at the time as well?

Yet it was entirely news to me this week. Michener, as unrelentingly liberal as he was, must have nonetheless made some reference to the preceding events. Though the NY Times may have reported that the last protest at Kent State was a panty raid in 1958, I didn't read the Times. Heck, my hometown newspaper was the Manchester Union Leader, and William Loeb must certainly have published a stirring defense of the Guardsmen, right on the front page. But then, I was already pretty sure that everything Loeb wrote was twisted so far that it was a lie, and probably disregarded any counter-information about Kent State that came my way. Probably just a case of taking a few innocent facts about the protestors and inflating them to look like dark communist plots.

So I must have known, but erased the memory, letting it fall away in very 1984 fashion. That's pretty scarey to me, because I began my two decade-long march across the political spectrum just a few years later. So not only had I forgotten it by 2010, I had forgotten it by 1978. And actually, by 1973, as we shall see later.

That two decade-long march, with, I think, gun control being the last issue to fall, was haunting, even painful. Yes, the left was going too far with some of their idiot ideas. Yes, they attributed all fault in conflict to conservatives, taking no ownership for any escalation on their part. Yes, they denied realities of human behavior and found pathological reasons behind every action of those who disagreed with them, but I always held to the point that they weren't totally insane, because they were right sometimes. Conservatives had indeed been fascists at times, and that bore watching; so these overheated leftists couldn't be entirely dismissed. And events like Kent State were my evidence for that.

I hated where I was being driven intellectually. I hated the very thought of being associated with those horrible people. The ones I knew were gentle enough, but everyone of my background knew, everyone knew, that if you pushed those conservatives far enough the nutcases among them would rise up and get violent, and the nicer people would just let them. Or worse, would become maddened mobs shouting for blood themselves. Lee Harvey Oswald was quite obviously a conservative nutcase, because hey, he'd been a Marine and liked guns, so how much more evidence do you need? To gradually absorb that Oswald was a man of the left took some time for me, even after learning all the solid biographical information about him.

The excuses I made for violent people of the left... I'm a clever guy, and can make good excuses.

I should be more patient and understanding of liberals, shouldn't I, given my own history?

Here's the take-away thought: liberals regard as ridiculous the accusations that conservatives make, that these movements are infiltrated by communists, marxists, and other off-brands of leftist. This is because they know that 90-95% of the people they encounter who ascribe to those views are nothing of the sort, who even disagree publicly with the 5-10% who seem determined to find a revolution somewhere. The flaw in that argument is that infiltration seems to be a preferred tactic on the left, and 5% is often just fine with them. Why the extreme left does that and the extreme right doesn't I don't know. But it is a peculiarly effective method of asymmetric warfare. Environmentalism isn't a particularly radical or alarming idea, yet they've got plenty of marxists trying to wrestle the movement to their own end. Unionism and social justice are pretty middle-American ideas, but both have barking mad Trotskyites in them. Heck, even panty raids, a pretty mild form of protest against...something-or-other, seems to have had incidents of student activists using them to set the stage for later rebellions. Contrast this with the farther-right groups: Birchers don't infiltrate movements of the right, they argue with people and tell them they are dupes. Randians can't even succeed at taking over the libertarian movements, let alone conservatism. They argue. Even the Tea Parties, with their hardly-radical ideas of smaller government and eliminating corruption, have had difficulty taken over from the Republican establishment despite superior numbers.

It's a powerful tactic. Most movements have volunteers who assent but basically only show up on weekends or with small checks. Full-time activists showing up in volunteer organizations are going to quickly have a disproportionate influence, and the rank-and-file are going to be pretty relieved that someone else is doing the work, because they've got leaves to rake and jobs to go to.

Maybe I'm trying to talk the right wing into trying this infiltration tactic, I don't know. It seems to work. Nah, there's something about it that is essentially dishonest. Can't go there.

I sang this song with Carroll County. Now that you know, as Paul Harvey said, the rest of the story, listen to the personalization of it, the call for war. We were so sure we were the ones who wanted peace, and some of us were willing to get violent to prove it.

The song feels different tonight.


Joe Carter over at First Things has a bit of a rant about evangelicals.
There are two types of evangelicals in America: those who naively embrace whatever trendy items happen to be hot sellers at “Christian” bookstores—WWJD? bracelets, Testamints, prayer of Jabez scented candles—and those who shun such kitsch. I am solidly of the second type. Like a good Pharisee, I thank God every day that I’m not like those people.

Michael Totten interviews David Hazony about changes in Israeli political thought. Hazony is not speaking about Likud hardliners, nor even the centrists of Kadima. He is speaking about the Israeli left's disillusionment.
There has been a real awakening, or disillusionment. The dream that said if we give the Palestinians what they want and we’ll have peace once and for all has been abandoned by the majority of Israelis as a direct result of our experience. We had the collapse of the Oslo Accords followed by the failure of Taba and Camp David. This was huge for a lot of Israelis on the left.

Steve Sailer keeps me up-to-date on a matter of European prehistory and genetics. Short version: the prevailing wisdom is changing again, sort of back to an older theory. For now.
For quite a number of decades, it has been apparent that agriculture was first invented in the "Fertile Crescent" of the Middle East, then spread into Europe. But that raised the question of how agriculture spread: did Middle Easterners colonize Europe or did existing European hunter-gatherers pick up Middle Eastern techniques? A couple of decades or so ago, geneticists entered this debate. L.L. Cavalli-Sforza argued that most Europeans today are descended from Middle Eastern farmers. Bryan Sykes responded that most Europeans are descended from indigenous hunter-gatherers who switched to farming.

The latest view is that Cavalli-Sforza was even more right than he claimed.

Theodore Dalrymple explains why prison works, or at least works better than the alternatives.
Mr Clarke was quite right to say that short prison sentences are not effective but, with the practised lack of logic of a man who has spent far too long in politics for the good of his own mind, he has drawn precisely the wrong conclusions from it. His error will cause much unnecessary suffering.

M&M Colors

Harumph. In my day we didn't have all these fancy, designer colors for our M&M's. There was one typre of M&M's, with one distribution of colors, and we made do with that. We made do with what we had, you young punks, and we liked it. Most of the candies were brown, too, just like the chocolate underneth. And the red ones were special, dammit, almost rare. This taught you something about life, that it wasn't going to all be gaiety, song-and-dance, and here we go round the mulberry bush. Life is boring, and plain, and you'd better appreciate it when something colorful comes into your life, mister.

The actual percentages, in the Good Old Days.

30% Brown
20% Yellow
20% Red
10% Green
10% Orange
10% Tan

Hmm. I could have sworn there were 50% browns. And okay, it was the orange ones that were special, but the principle still holds.

Frankly, I don't remember the tan ones, even when prompted. I think it's a hoax.

The covered peanuts seemed a reasonable experiment at the time, but now we see that in retrospect, it only opened the door to all sorts of nonsense. Blue ones. I still narrow my eyes a bit when I see those. Buying all yellow M&M's if you want, or all green ones. Why in my day, if you wanted all of one color, you and your friends had to tediously pick them out one at a time, sharing each other's germs. The way life should be. And now, prefiguring the Abomination of Desolation, you can get pastels. Purples. Speckled, monogrammed, almond M&M's. Almonds, mind you - a fancy foreign nut, not a respectable American nut.

Even the plain, regular bag of M&M's has been subject to deteriorating standards. Look at them. I mean just look at them!

Brown M&M's, the color that taught you about life and are good for your character, aren't even in the top four of the distribution. Modern hegemonic blues are the most common - those johnny-come-latelies, those haughty interlopers. It's an outrage.

24% Blue
20% Green
16% Orange
14% Yellow
13% Red
13% Brown

Friday, October 15, 2010

Group-Directed Humor

Humorous statements about groups fall along a continuum of social acceptability. At the far end would be nigger jokes, with the viler forms of representations of other groups bumping right up against that. At the near end would be depictions that are race-neutral, gender neutral, group neutral – a grouping of people who act a certain way while driving or standing in line, for example. Jokes about people of a certain profession would tend more in the latter direction – though even this can be an unexpected minefield, as I learned when I repeated a news story about the stupidity of a woman who worked in a certain chain restaurant, only to be told, after an awkward silence, that such waitresses were usually black. Oh. I didn’t know that, you see, living in New England where that’s not so.

There are some universally acknowledged rules of context. OK, almost universally acknowledged. There are always people so poor at picking up the social cues that they don’t get the contextual differences and say offensive things. Or they are mean and bigoted enough that they don’t care anyway. You can more freely make jokes about your own group, especially in front of your own group. This can get remarkably subtle, as the acceptability shrinks when it is a group you were born into but are now distancing yourself from, or distancing yourself from aspects or subgroups in the category. You can put unacceptable words into the mouth of a character you want to make the audience dislike. Also, it is more acceptable to take shots at people higher up the social scale than those downstream. Yet again, this has its perils. A 70-year-old might have an impression that Group A is a moderately high status-group and an acceptable target, where a 20-year-old might wince, as the group is in decline. (There are reversals of this as well.)

I’m not breaking any new ground by noting all this, but it helps to set it up to illustrate some problems in the national discourse.

Comedians make their living by locating the boundary points and playing with them. Chris Rock tells a lot of nigger-humor that wouldn’t have been all that remarkable when told to an all-black audience, but got shock value by sticking with those routines before mixed audiences, or even all-white audiences. The anxiety level skyrockets in the room, as no one knows whether they are “supposed” to laugh or not. And audience anxiety is the comedian’s friend, as we have all noted how even banal humor can elicit laughter in a tense situation.

The rest of us tend not to take those risks, because the stakes are too high socially.

Humor may be a summary of social norms, a constant temperature-taking that lets all of us know where the fences are. It may be a form of social signaling to tell others the rules - that may even be its original evolutionary purpose, as humor tells us volumes about who is up and who is down, which people are “one of us” and which not, what actions are simply misfortune and which are your own stupid fault, and how one should act in difficult situations ( see below).

Rather than try and codify a set of rules, I will run some examples to show the subtleties and boundary areas. These are, when one tries to describe them according to general rules, impossibly contradictory and opaque. Yet each of you will sense the differences down to your bones, illustrating how remarkably socially alert we all are.

1.) Imagine you are a banker in New England. Yet, you were born in North Florida, went all through school there, and still follow NASCAR. Do you tell redneck jokes? The friend I am thinking of does, at least to me, quite happily making fun of himself. (Which is a sign of emotional balance.)
Yet doesn’t this change suddenly if you are entertaining a group with such humor and one of the listeners laughingly inserts “Jesusland” into the mix? At that point, is there not some thought of seamlessly switching over to defending your childhood group, even though your identification with it now is only partial? It all might end well with no intervention on your part, of course. The other speaker might catch the whiff of chill wind from you and make some effort to take the edge off that, perhaps making fun of one of his own groups, or bringing ironic humor where the “stupid” redneck gets the better of the visitor who looks down on him. All fixed, at least for now. His subtle retreat and making nice to you may only mean “I won’t say anything funny to that humorless bastard again,” but it may also lead to him thinking “Y’know, that really was over the top and kind of a prejudicial attitude.” But if statements like this persist in a group, one has to decide how to respond. Very individual. Very contextual.

2.) When my sons hit about 14, I introduced risqué humor into the situation while riding in the car. Not often, but quite intentionally, because there were important rules of social propriety to be taught, and jangling them with such ambiguous situations is a vivid way to teach it. The first few times, I would add “You tell your mother that joke and I’ll kill you.” All of them were jokes that I could indeed tell my wife (and sometimes did). I could tell it to each, but not the two of them together. Many would still be inappropriate to say aloud to both of them together. Later, another boy we drove to school did tell them to his mother, who thought they were funny – and his father, who thought them offensive and launched into a lecture. I hadn’t counted on that, and left off. But I could still tell them to my son, who might tell them to his friend. It is different coming from a respectable adult.

3.) From time to time, collections of jokes about a foreign country might get forwarded to you. Usually the French, but I’ve seen others. This is considered more acceptable than making fun of Americans descended from that nationality. If they are clever and not vile, I sometimes forward them on. But clicking on names as I scroll down my address book can be tricky. And sometimes I delete one or two before it goes out under my name. To tell these jokes in some more formal context, such as making a speech or publishing them in a magazine would narrow the acceptability dramatically. Everyone in the editorial room at US News and World Report might pass them around and chuckle, but no one would think of putting them in the magazine. We have crossed over into the territory of speaking for the American people, or at least part of it if we do that, and the nationality referred to might feel justly insulted.

Even more so, no Senator from the floor, and certainly no POTUS, would say them in any official and 99.9% of unofficial capacities. It would be a terrific insult. Also, some Senator might send them over to the President with a chuckle, but the President can’t forward them on. (It just occurs to me that this must be one of the things that sucks about being president if you’re a guy. Unable to obey your God-ordained natural inclination to pass on jokes.) Very individual. Very contextual.

This gets complicated by people who seek to be offended to make a political point – sometimes a valid one - and the somewhat overlapping group who need to be offended for personal reasons. Both fascinating topics which I leave aside here. Enough to say that this adds some randomness to evaluating discourse that is a cause of conflict.

Humor can be used as a signal of social control. Reading about Darius Rucker for my Hootie post, Wikipedia reported that Saturday Night Live did a routine about Rucker leading a bunch of drunk southern white frat boys on a counter-march to Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March. There is nothing funny about this. It is entirely social control. You’re not black enough, fronting an all-white band, having a white audience, and joking about the Miami Dolphins with white boys. Be more black, you bastard. When I mentioned this humor-as-social-control idea to a small group at work, using another SNL routine as an example, one of the others protested that if a lot of people laughed, didn’t that empirically prove that it was funny in this culture? Easy answer: Munich, 1935. What do you think about your empirical rule now, asshat? Or if that is too alarming, at least Oxford, 1935. Am I saying the current state of affairs is equivalent? Of course not. Miles away. Am I saying that this is where that line of thought leads? Absolutely. It always leads there, in America and everywhere else.

Let us hover over Munich/Oxford 1935 for a few moments, actually. Sophisticated people in that environment had precisely the same social skills as Manhattan, 2010. Europeans have always been pretty bigoted about each other (and Americans). But in that context there was considerable tolerance in other areas. Someone launching into a Prussian joke, or a woman joke, or a send-up of writers, or Catholics, or bankers would have responded just as well as my “Jesusland” commenter in Example #1. They would have caught the same almost imperceptible chill and moved with grace to make it right. I am Prussian on my mother’s side, actually. I take a bit more liberty to make fun of them. Yet we know the enormous dark side of what they did not see, refused to see, despite their social skills equal to ours. They are us.

Obama has a reputation for being humorless among everyone but progressives. That’s also easy. He’s not funny. Not that I have any requirement that a president needs to be funny – Mister we could use a man like uh, Calvin Coolidge again - but if you’re going to try and be funny, you should succeed at it at least mildly. His humor is all of the social control style, making fun of Americans that come from groups other than his two: black, but more especially, Ivy League. This is not a minor social error that the man should make some effort to adjust for and clean up his act. This is far over the line, ridiculously over the line of social acceptability for a president. (And don’t start on me about examples from other recent presidents that were just the same but I’m just not mentioning them. I know your examples.)

How can this be? I am not being in the least ironic when I say that liberals are in fact far better at these social cues than the rest of us. They really are. They live in this world of social aspiration, and they pick up things that others miss. Much of their disdain, in fact, seems to derive from their observation that all these others make blundering gaffes of social offense, mistakes they learned not to make as teenagers.

We find the social control style of humor gratifying, all the way back into childhood. Think The Man Who Wouldn’t Wash His Dishes. That is not a specifically progressive vulnerability they should be alert to, it is a human universal we should all be alert to.

I was sent a satire on Glenn Beck that was in Mother Jones. I don’t know much about Beck, actually. I caught him a few times on the radio dial years ago, and I only skim the media reports about his recent activities. But that skimming tells me what the narrative is supposed to be concerning him. American Roots Values, whether one says that admiringly or disdainfully. Much of the satire was fair game, focusing on the ideas of that loose Tea Party/Beck/Palin association of individuals. It was, as in my recent Krugman post, group-neutral. I didn’t think it was a fair characterization, but one doesn’t expect that from satire. One expects political cartooning in that.

Yet a full 30% was almost content-free. It was entirely classist. Goobers. What ridiculous yahoos. Coming pretty close into white trash, actually. When I read that, I don’t think intellectual debate of the Krugman style. I think southern planters talking about darkies. It is, as above, not marginal or a bit risky – it is hugely over-the-line. You are free to think me overreacting here, taking the stance of one of the professionally aggrieved, oversensitive and prepared to take offense at any negative. Yet why would you be so sure of that? Once we have noted that “oh, don’t be silly” - your gut impression that such things are not possible coming out of your group - is a thoroughly unreliable metric in this cultural situation, what else have you got?

I will pass on that yesterday, the day I started composing this in my head, a female psychiatrist of my own age (57) who was a reliable Democratic and liberal voter until ten years ago, mentioned in an unrelated context how uncomfortable she and her husband used to be in New York, before the children were born, attending parties with other doctors and human services people, because of the vile and vicious things that would be said about conservatives quite offhandedly, and everyone laughed. No one objected with even that little chill in the air. I mention that only as the most recent example of things I have heard a thousand times, and been reported to me by ex-liberals. (Not all of these ex-liberals became conservatives. There are a variety of directions one might go.) These party-goers are the very people who pick up most quickly on other social cues, modifying their speech and even their thought when recognizing they have given offense or trod dangerous ground. They are the most successful at straining out gnats. Yet they swallow camels. With alt-media and many defectors from their ranks, they have read many times that they are giving offense. Yet their response it “No we’re not. You deserve it.”

No need to go into analysis of why this occurs here. I think it can be fairly easily shown to relate back to personal and social issues unrelated to the political opinions. The important thing to note at the moment is not why it occurs, but that it occurs.

Baby Shower

Who would have thought, while writing a very serious post about humor, that I would be fascinated by a discussion of marriage and raising small children prompted by a Baby Shower. Retriever went to one, and tells us about it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

New Blog!

Frequent commenter akafred has his own blog up: Sponge-headed ScienceMan. I don't know the meaning behind the first part of the name, but the ScienceMan part is legit. Makes his living at it, teaches at a local university, actual academic credentials.

There's already a humorous puzzle to work out. Don't think I quite got it.

Moxie will apparently figure prominently in this endeavor, in and amongst the popular science items. The only science blog that features Moxie, I'll warrant.

Adding it to my sidebar now...


Hootie & The Blowfish owned 1995. Jonathan turned 16, I was still driving him to school, and we heard them a lot. Ben, turning 12, had just started to listen to the same music Jonathan liked and got energised by them as well.

As good as life gets.

When I told Jonathan I was posting a Hootie song, he reminded me that I had been prescient about Darius Rucker, noting that he had a great voice and style and would likely have a good solo career after they (inevitably) broke up. I hadn't remembered that - glad he did. Apparently Rucker is still working, an accomplishment in itself fifteen years later, and is now a country music singer. It fits, though I would never have predicted it.

I read the Wikipedia entry and found other oddments I hadn't known. Rucker sang for Sinatra at his 80th birthday and is a friend of Tiger Woods. It's hard to get those two thoughts into the same brain.


The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. John Maynard Keynes, now also a defunct economist.
Yes, I know I'm playing around with "defunct" here and sliding away from what Keynes meant, but he was being a jerk with that word, trying to assert the obvious superiority of his new way. Applied more generally, it's a good quote. Much of the following applies to him.

I read years ago a quote from a chess master “Every chess match is a furious argument about how chess should be played.” I immediately understood that, though I am not a good chess player. This is the strongest defense against that opening. You think so? I will demonstrate that your entire style, your entire approach to the game, has weaknesses that I will exploit (you bastard)! It can get personal – and it does – but there is the constant assertion of the ideology, the idea. Proponents of one style watching a game would be rooting for their method, their ideology, whether the players were Russian, Japanese, African, Israeli.

Ideologue is used almost entirely as a negative term, an insult, in our current discourse, but the above is its great strength. It is unprejudiced according to personal differences. It can create prejudices all its own, of course, and many of the great horrors of history can be attributed to this insistence that one’s idea is correct, regardless of who says it. But it is abuses by the ideologues, the other tyrannical strains they add in to enforce their belief, that are the problem. It may be that the type of person who is a purist in ideology tends more easily to have those other qualities – that is certainly the current assumption of our ideology-suspicious culture – but taken alone, being an ideolgue is not an evil thing. I would say it is a good thing. It is ultimately driven by the ideas This is true. This will work. The absence of this leaves us entirely in the realm of I have the power. I want.

CS Lewis wrote – and it has been quoted often these days
Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
This is so. (Liberals quote this thinking about sex and drugs. Conservatives about economics and regulations.) But is it not better to have no tyrant at all? The doctor who insists on his theory no matter how many patients are dying is worse than the doctor who hopes only to get rich or famous, and provides the service most in vogue among important wealthy people. Yet we may hope to find a doctor who is neither of those extremes.

Paul Krugman is an ideologue, with both the virtues and vulnerabilities of that type. He believes certain economic ideas should prevail because they are true, because they work. He supports the Obama administration’s current policies not because he is a big Obama supporter, but because he thinks they are on the right track, and in fact should go even further in their Keynesian direction. He is not an Obama shill. Were this administration to change course, he would oppose them.

He is also not one to get stuck on assigning evil motives to his opponents. He is against them because he thinks them wrong, not because he thinks they are angling for their own reward. This does begin to get fuzzy, as when it comes to putting ideas into practice, all ideologues believe that their obviously correct ideas would prevail if opponents weren’t gaming the political system to put those less-good ideas in place. Krugman is not entirely above that, but neither are his philosophical opponents. And in both events, they are somewhat correct. There are indeed people pushing for Theory A to be enacted because they will benefit from it personally. They may also agree with Theory A, but that may be largely a product of seeing their own advantage.

Acknowledgement: My separation of the field into Keynesians and anti-Keynesians, with the state-controllers tending to the former and the free marketers to the latter, is so painfully broad as to make economists shudder. It ain’t that simple. But I am talking more about Krugman than economics here, so indulge me.

From Krugman’s POV, the matter is simple: he predicted we would have a recession if we did not do some dramatically Keynesian things during the Bush administration. We were not bold enough, we did those things only half-heartedly, and we now have a recession. He considers his point proved. I can readily see why he sees it that way. But his anti-Keynesian opponents have almost the same argument. They believed we could outrun a recession if we just stopped doing any Keynesian things at all. We didn’t stop, we got a recession, and they also feel vindicated. Makes sense.

I note in passing that both sides would agree that corruption, favoritism, loopholes, and other exceptions undermine the practical effects of even their own theory and are deeply opposed to them. That’s another good thing about ideologues: they are more opposed to such deviations from the straight line than the rest of us. Yet even that has its political cost, for both see corruption and advantage-seeking to be the natural result of implementing the other guy’s wrong policies.

Our American economic policies are hybrid, usually revealed as half-hearted swings in one direction or another. In such situations, there is never a pure situation which proves one side right over the other. We are reduced to looking at tendencies and trends. And as Carl points out in the previous post, such modeling is notoriously unreliable. As above, corruption and exemptions screw up the data further.

Ideologues, including Krugman, are hugely susceptible to confirmation bias. They do not often lie, but they see events along certain lines. The bits of reality which support their POV shine out like diamonds, the other bits fall out of memory rapidly. This has the net effect of making their pronouncements not very valuable. Not that there is no truth, but that they are unreliable reporters of it. It is easy for me to see this in Krugman because I am more persuaded by long-dead economists other than Keynes. In this essay, it is almost reflexive to note that his argument is “It can’t be stimulus money that is causing the problem, because we’ve hardly spent any of it yet.” But it’s budgeted. It will be spent. Markets are already adjusting to that. People are already totting up the sums of what will be coming due. That his theory was applied inefficiently – that this administration can’t organise things well enough to direct the money quickly – is not an unreal point, but it is a small one.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Some Links

I haven't done this for awhile. I should get back in the habit.

Carl at No Oil For Pacifists passes on some strong negatives about our ability to model the economy and predict outcomes.

Related: Woody over at GM's Place reports on a completely unwarranted specificity of an Obama economic claim this week.

Right Wing News did a survey of conservative bloggers on their preferred choice for Presidential nomination. No surprise that Sarah Palin was very strong. Perhaps also no surprise that she had moderately high negatives even among this group.

Planet Narnia: Hiding In Plain Sight

Michael Ward had to first overcome my suspicions that CS Lewis, a notably candid writer and individual in most people's mind, would go to such lengths to create such an obscure puzzle, and in his works for children of all places.

First, Lewis did not intend it at a puzzle, but as an unobtrusive or even subliminal part of the Narniad. He did not want it to be deciphered, but experienced. The discovery, then, might well ruin the effect.

But more importantly for this post, Ward points out Lewis's secretive nature, which has gone largely unobserved. Those who have read the biographies of Lewis have debated whether Lewis had a sexual relationship with Mrs. Moore early on. I won't weigh in on that. But the glaring fact, hiding in plain sight, is that he had this woman a generation older than him (plus her daughter) living with him until she died, and he offered only the most meager explanation of her presence. He made almost no reference to her in his writing or among his friends. Next, he hid his marriage to Joy Davidman even from his friends for over a year. Yes, there is "an explanation" why he did so, and we may take it to be true. But the explanation was mostly given only in his writing and correspondence, long after. If the explanation was so prosaic and unremarkable, why conceal it from his friends?

His autobiographical stories of early lying to his father about his life events, though they seem merely unfortunate and not serious deception in Surprised By Joy, take on a new light when we begin to see Lewis as a person who was almost unbearably candid in some ways, but yes, quite secretive in others. Two of the Inklings, in fact, referred to the book as Suppressed By Jack. This from close friends. There is even taking the name "Jack," a nickname he gave himself in childhood, as his preferred form of address throughout his life. Odd. He took numerous pen-names throughout his career.

It was not only negative secrecy. Lewis's charities were always hidden and often anonymous. I had long ago heard and since believed, that the Chronicles were dashed off in single or at most second drafts - an accomplishment of brilliance I have repeated with some amazement. It turns out to be completely untrue. Complexity, whether in art or personality, is not easily separable from privacy.

Candor can be a form of secretiveness, or an aid to it, for if one gives people a bit too much information, they withdraw from asking any further, or wondering what might lie behind. To go on about one's sciatica is to neatly prevent others from asking about your digestion.

Both Tolkien and Owen Barfield described Lewis as a thorough mystery to them. Michael Ward gives evidence for his theory that Lewis was painfully aware of this disconnect between various aspects of himself and made it his life's work to integrate them into a single person. The word "integrity," note, is derived from the same root, related to this idea of all aspects being part of a whole. Ward gives Jack Lewis credit for ultimately succeeding at this far better than a typical man, as evidenced by his writings and his actions in the last few years of his life. The last novel is entitled Til We Have Faces. The immediately posthumous literary work The Discarded Image. Ward does not suggest that Lewis took these titles as any coded message - they are entirely appropriate to the books themselves for other reasons - merely that these themes which had consumed his internal life found some completion in his later years, and the metaphors might quite unconsciously appeal to him.

It is only at this point that Ward notes
Anyone familiar with his poetry will know that it manifests an almost staggering degree of phonetic and metrical complexity, and the poems which look as if they are free verse are actually in the most complicated metres of all.
And then, the major criticism (begun by Tolkien) - that the Narniad was an unfortunate hodge-podge of disparate elements, is counterbalanced by the number of readers over the years who have suspected that something was up with the series, and suggested it dealt with the Seven Deadly Sins, or the Seven Catholic Sacraments, or the Seven Virtues (three theological and four cardinal), or the Faerie Queen in miniature, and on into a dozen other possibilities.

The medieval planets, and the spirits thereof, suffuse Lewis's poetry from earliest years, and the Ransom Trilogy is founded on them. We ask, quite fairly: Would you expect this person to write a hodge-podge series of books, while writing nothing else, late in his career? And thus, before Planet Narnia has given the slightest evidence that The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is meant to surreptitiously convey a jovial (in the fullest, older sense) spirit, I was quite ready to believe that this, or something very like it, was possible.

But did it work? Given that Lewis attempted this, did he accomplish it? Those, I think, are questions with many answers.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Local Politics Update

I haven't weighed in much on NH's races with national impact. I have only a bit to add here.

I saw a link complaining about Charlie Bass, who is running for the House in the district I work in but don't live in. (We only have the two here in NH). I'm not a big Bass fan, but I figured that if his opponent, Anne Kuster, was too far left according to her competition in the Democratic primary, she would likely be too far left for me. From the little I know, Kuster seems a nice lady. More importantly, I get really torqued about people misrepresenting facts, so I was curious what this site thought Bass was misrepresenting.

I expect such fact-check sites to be from one side or the other, and that this one would be liberal. That bothers me only a little. I resent partisan groups claiming they are merely fact-checking, assuming the mantle of objectivity, but I also see both sides doing it, and have come to expect it. Those sites that really do hold both parties' feet to the fire have my admiration.

But NHFactcheck turns out to be an actual campaign site of Kuster's. That's over the top. Don't like it.

In the gubenatorial race, I have not been thrilled with the Republican nominee John Stephens, nor that upset with current governor John Lynch, a Democrat. I have been toying with leaving that blank rather than marking down Stephens. There had been a lot of resentment of Lynch for promising to veto gay marriage, then reneging. Changing one's opinion does not awaken in me the sense of betrayal that others seem to feel. If someone is 40% convinced of a POV, and over time that changes to 60%, that's not unreasonable. As that changes the practical effect 180 degrees, I might still vote against the person, but not necessarily with anger. Promising a veto is of a different order, and I was already getting more negative about Lynch.

The more recent accusations have been that Lynch has received a lot of money - by NH campaign standards - from wealthy gay-marriage advocates out-of-state. He spoke to them at a convention in Chicago and the money flowed. But is this cart, or horse? Changing your mind and attracting new donors strikes me as reasonable - changing your mind for money strikes me as very bad. But it is hard in practice to tell which is which.

I have confirmed that the money received from these sources is over $100,000. I have not been able to find out what is chicken and what is egg, here.

I caught ten minutes of the Ayotte-Hodes debate. Ayotte demolished Hodes, even before a New England College audience largely sympathetic to him.

Bumper Stickers Update

Hit a nerve, here.

For those who didn't follow the thread far enough, Dr X has some intersting actual research that has been done on road rage and bumperstickers, plus his (her?) expanding on the topic. It is especially gratifying to me, as I often agree with Dr. X, but have sharply disagreed with him on our last two online encounters - I may even have said "balderdash," which is quite stern - and am pleased to illustrate my general goodwill.

Also, I tread on dangerous ground. My wife puts bumperstickers on her car more than I do on mine. Certainly, if you asked 100 of our friends which of us was the more narcisissistic and aggressive, less than five would choose here. And the only reason it's not zero is because we have a few contrarian friends who would go out of their way to find evidence why the obvious answer isn't the right one.

And yet, maybe it does hold. Tracy's bumperstickers are usually about libraries or reading, and on that topic, she may indeed be narcissistic and aggressive. She actually tries to put those stickers on the cars of other family members. So if we restrict this to specific aggression rather than generalised aggression, the point still holds.

And she is a more aggressive driver. Scares the pants off me sometimes.

Letter Received

Hi Blogger,

I'm the pastor of a new church plant called Charles River Church in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. I'm writing requesting a small favor. Our church has taken on the name of a former church plant (no association) that closed its doors back in 2007(I spoke to the former pastor about the name). Several years ago you blogged about the former Charles River Church after a visit. I was wondering if you may be willing to delete this post to help us clear up any confusion. I would hate for someone to look up our church on a search engine and get confused about the location because they found your blog entry. I would be really grateful!

Thank you,
- - - - - - - - -
Josh Wyatt
Lead Pastor, Charles River Church
P.O. Box 320293 West Roxbury, MA 02132

My response:

Done. As one who just had a startup close after thirteen years, I wish you all the best.

Push Polls

My new strategy- find out which candidate they're pushing for, then take their out-of-context quotes and tell them it makes me support the other candidate more.

My favorite part- taking the "would knowing that John Lynch supports releasing violent sex offenders all the time because he's a lying weasel" question and saying that it definitely increased my support of him.

Take that, John Stephen.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bumper Stickers

Adjoining cars in the church parking lot with opposite POV's. On the one hand, that's very Covenant. Different politics - we try to get past that.

Before you point out that it's unfair to draw too many conclusions about folks from bumper stickers, let me note that no one makes you oversimplify your views that way. I'm not drawing the conclusions - you are drawing them for me when you put the slogan on your car.

I have some issues with both cars, er, their owners, here. As we are returning to this church after 13 years, I don't know who they are, and they don't read my blog. So I feel I can be a bit freer than I otherwise might.

The car on the right (natch):
TRY AND TAKE IT, with a stylised logo that is a guy shooting a rifle. A star figures prominently.

The car on the left had three stickers. Multiple stickers are more typical of the left than right up here:


I contrast this to the political stickers at my old church, same denomination. Usually, just a candidate's name. The state chairman for the McCain campaign had two stickers, one a 5" square McCain decal, and another 5" square decal that said FREE TIBET. Someone else did used to have an IRAQ IS ARABIC FOR VIETNAM one. As it was still 2003, a touch annoying in its haste, but who knows, it could've turned out to be true. And anyway, he and his wife had met in the Peace Corps in Yemen, so you cut a little slack for that. Way before that, maybe 1997, a psychiatrist who attended for a few months had EXPOSE THE RIGHT. Which my son Jonathan, a high school senior then, thought was pretty good.

So I'm spoiled, I admit it. The tolerance I am used to is not likely to be matched elsewhere.

Easiest first. "Jesus is a socialist." I like the "is," instead of "was." That shows a nice orthodox alertness. And the sentiment is merely wrong in its schoolboy equivalences, not so much insulting. Yes, Jesus wants us to share, and socialism reportedly wants us to share, but that's about the end of the similarity. No matter. Remembering Churchill's maxim, it might even be a good thing on a young person's car.

Moving over to the right, "Try and take it," I have a problem. The right to protect your family seems consonant with Christianity. Defending just yourself, maybe. I won't get into the complexities of that here, but if someone wanted to take the hard-line Nope view, they would have some good scriptural foundation for it. The sticker pretty clearly says if the government tries to take my gun(s), I will shoot its representative when they come. That's not overreading, is it?

Do you really mean that, dude? Because if so, I think that's a dangerous idea in Bedford. If you lived in Camden NJ or Detroit, maybe I'd cut you some slack on it. Certainly, if we lived in East Timor or Kosovo, I could see your point, and your ability to protect your family would be so impaired by being underweaponed compared to some very evil people, that I wouldn't criticise. Christians in comparable situations might have the authority to contradict you, but I wouldn't dare from my comfortable life.

If you don't really mean that, if you're just trying to express how important this is to you in a dramatic way, then find another way.

The fun one to criticise. "Yeah, like Jesus would own a gun and vote Republican." First, you'd have to establish that Jesus would vote at all. Since if he wouldn't, the second half of your statement becomes meaningless. I know that you might technically be saying "Naw, I'm just objecting to the Religious Right claiming he's on their side. I say don't vote for anyone." But really - that's not it, and everyone knows it. If you attempted that escape route, I would, if anything, have even less respect for you as a coward and a liar.

Jesus's immediate followers pretty much disengaged from politics, whether imperial or religious. Three centuries later, it was different. You can call that the great downfall of the Church, or a reasonable response to the need for social order, or an essentially neutral development that had consequences good and bad; but putting political statements directly into Jesus's mouth strikes me as really dangerous territory, given the 2nd Commandment and all. Everything has to be extrapolated, deduced, pondered, in that territory.

As to owning a gun, well, his disciples carried swords. They didn't have guns then so we don't get an exact read here, but hey, a sword's pretty close. Plus a whip to drive the moneylenders out of the Temple. I think guns look like a possibility, at least for the disciples while traveling through Philly.

The last one. "Republican Family Values: Greed, Fear, Hate." That just doesn't go in a church parking lot. That's just evil. I mean that. You worship with these people, and you can't see the remotest possibility that they might disgree with you for good reasons? The only possibility that you can even imagine is that they are evil to the core, that's why they hold those views?

Again, I am not offering the standard escape, because it is dishonest and cowardly. To say "Oh, I didn't mean all Republicans - I'm sure you mean well, but Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, now..."

You actually want to be caught saying "Not you, you're one of the good niggers?"

It tempts me to get a bumpersticker that says PROGRESSIVES PROJECT and park right next to you. That works for driving around, too. It takes a moment to get the meaning, and folks would have to think...But that would be unfair of me. A fleeting fantasy, but I wouldn't do it. And anyway, people would read it too fast and think it was a possessive, which would cause them to put the accent on the wrong syllable of "project," and it would just be a puzzling statement that looked vaguely liberal.

Much better to just try and find one that says ON THE OTHER HAND...

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Dylan Thomas Comments On AVI's "Best of" Series

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I remain a person raised in a book world, where having your ideas put down on dead trees, able to be stored on shelves of dead trees, was a mark of permanence, as if some stray thought of yours might descend unto succeeding generations - that some great-granddaughter might take up the volume with curiosity and some pride.

That the actual status of what is in books, unless you are of the 1% of writers who are still consulted a generation later, is ridiclous impermanence, does not seem to have dented this. The 50%-, 75%-, 90%-off book tables at Borders or B&N (the few times I even go), with dozens of titles only a few years old, do not dissuade me. Even the $2 bookstores have not dented this. The romantic vision of the library of my youth, the used book store, even the (be still my heart) antiquarian and rare bookstore, remains more powerful in my imagination. That is permanence in the imagination of the book people of my generation: that a hundred years later someone might still read you., it is the George MacDonald character in The Great Divorce - refers with pity to souls of dead authors hanging around libraries to see if anyone still reads them.

Online writing seems less permanent, despite the fact that the internet has increased access to older material a hundredfold, and people actually read older stuff far more than they would have, simply because it is easier to get hold of.

The internet is, however, the Library of Now, and the impermanence of its words are brought home forcefully - if we stay in the world of romantic vision instead of reality. I read things I posted a few years ago and bring them forward, because I said them better then, or don't want to write the same idea a twentieth time now. That no one is ever going to read these archived documents otherwise hits me with force and regret. How do I know this? Because I barely read them myself, and don't go back through the archives of even my favorite sites.

Yet the reality is, hell, it's archived. Who in the world would have ever even bothered to archive anything I ever wrote before five years ago? Now a machine does it for me, with a reasonable chance that someone might actually be able to dig it out twenty years from now, or even stumble on it by accident while looking for something else - just like in the stacks of the library.

I probably wrote 500 songs between the ages of 15-30. One hundred were not completely worthless, having some part of them worth keeping. Perhaps ten or a dozen were worth keeping in whole. Did even I put in the effort to preserve them? A few. With effort - effort, I should add, that I am unlikely to make - they could be retrieved and organised. But I can't sing in that range anymore, I no longer have the guitar skills to play the accompaniment, I don't see the point of teaching them to others, as they would require harmonies and rehearsals to be salvagable... And, I observe, the world has gotten along pretty well without them to date. Ephemera.

So now I have greater permanence, but feel worse about it. And this feeling ties directly to the power of the romantic vision versus the actual reality.

The Real Programming

Years ago a radio guy - may've been fire-breather Jay Severin - clarified for me that in media, the commercials are the real programming. The sponsors, who put up the money that makes the station run, like to put their program, the commercials, in a spot that will attract an audience. Thus what we call the show, what we think of as the whole point of the station, is, when one looks at it, actually the advertisement. The show is what brings customers out from the street and into the shop. Got that? If it's a new perspective for you, ponder that a bit before reading on. The commercials are the program. The shows are the advertisements.

In an era of media change and new business models, this is still true, though it now goes through more levels and is somewhat disguised.

In politics, and if you follow the whole news, especially among the Democrats, there is the prevailing opinion that the ideals - the ideas, programs, legislation - are the programming, while all the back-room deals, corruption, earmarks, and influence are merely regrettable necessities in getting the work done. No, it is the reverse. The corruption is the programming, the ideals are the advertisements politicians put out to get people to vote for them.

If you live in Massachusetts, this may be fairly easily grasped. Barney Frank, John Tierney, Sal DiMasi, years of Kennedys and Bulgers. In NH, it's less true, and you have to cast your eye over the entire republic to see Chicago, and California, and Philadelphia, and the long string of Democratic congressmen whose corruptions are coming to light. That the cancer is mainly Democratic may stem from its construction as a coalition of interest groups - though which is cart and which is horse, eh? I'd highlight the Republican offenders as well, but those make the national news pretty easily without any help from me. It's the Page 14 scandals that should be Page 1 that I worry about.

I know lots of nice, well-meaning liberals. As a group, they are less well-meaning than they suppose, but certainly there are plenty of individuals who are no worse than the average Joe in their motives, and often much better. Do not be deceived. The ideals, the concern for the downtrodden, the rooting for the underdog - these are the advertisements they put before you to get you into the store. The corruption is not an unfortunate necessity which they hope to reduce, but the actual product they are in business to make.

Yes, this is easily rejected as mere cynicism, as if what I am like is the point here. Focusing on me, or the parties you think I might support, is the easiest way to reject uncomfortable knowledge. And certainly, you can engage in the usual confirmation bias tactic of thinking of Democrats this doesn't seem to apply to, contrasted with your memory of Republicans you think it does. I'm stressing the word memory here. You might find that your proof examples go back a ways, while the evidence cutting against you is fairly fresh.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Traffic Driver

Traffic down just a tad (except for the Maggielanche yesterday), and you know what that means: ABBA pictures. I found a whole new stash online.

This is clearly early on - three out of four of them are wearing normal clothes. Which may give you an idea which member may have been the driver for those costumes.

Planet Narnia

How did we miss it? Okay, how did I miss it? The answer to the latter question may give some insight into the first.

Imagine assembling one of those jigsaw puzzles of a photograph. In this case, one of those artsy B&W photographs like this favorite of mine by Brassai. As they sometimes do nowadays, in addition to the usual snap-together pieces there are outlined objects: the Eiffel Tower; a loaf of bread and a wine bottle; a cafe chair - that sort of thing. You might think "Oh how cute, how clever. There are all these Paris-thingies in it," but more likely you would just think lame. Some of the embedded objects might not be immediately recognisable, and as you identify them you feel a bit proud of yourself. But you don't have any sense that they have really added to the picture, which was fine all on its own. The objects are in fact an intrusion, swimming around unnecessarily and distracting from both the beauty of the photograph and the assembling of the puzzle.

Now further imagine that the light changes - you see the puzzle at an angle in the early morning, or someone flips the switch of an overhead, and you see suddenly that this is a color photograph. No, better still: the switch is flipped and things begin to move - it is a Pool of Galadriel or TL Sherrod's time-viewing machine in "E For Effort." More than a film, we are looking into the thing itself, Montmarte in 1936. We are brought down the steps somehow, and the wine bottle piece and breadloaf piece turn out to be exactly where they would be if we were carrying them. The Eiffel Tower piece is at the spot where we can turn and see the structure itself. The embedded objects are not, in fact, random, but integral to the work, and the scene only appears to be black-and-white because it is early morning.

First, is Michael Ward convincing that each of the seven books in the Narniad are built around a planetary influence, as the medievals understood such things? He is absolutely convincing. I was highly skeptical when I first heard the idea - following Lewis himself, who deplored all the variety of things that people "found" in his books, and remembering my hitchhiker years ago who had said "Oh, Narnia. That's about tarot cards." Even learning that some highly credible sources, such as Walter Hooper, Don W. King, and Alan Jacobs, had been convinced, I still imagined it was only going to be those embedded objects in the jigsaw puzzle, floating around and making an annoying game out of a work of literature.

Also, I had never much liked Greek and Roman mytholgy, even in its medieval adaptations. Having started on Tolkien, I expected heroic fantasy to be northern - Germanic, Wagnerian. Also from Tolkien, I expected fantasy worlds to be entirely self-enclosed and self-sustaining, not requiring any intrusions from our world to inflate them. Especially, planetary influences from our own solar system, not the Narnian heavens, had no business mucking about in other worlds. They made sense in Lewis's science fiction series, which takes place in our solar system, but not another world. Let them have their own gods and goddesses.

Thus, even though I had long liked the Narnian series somewhat, and certainly found it amazingly useful to illustrate any number of thorny theological ideas, I had always found it pale in comparison to LOTR. From the outset, I found myself recoiling at elements: Dammit, not a faun. Fauns are boring. And later, Get those blasted (a medieval term weighted with meaning - but I likely used a more Anglo-Saxon adjective) dryads out of here!* I now see that in bringing false expectations, I had misunderstood an enormous amount of what was before me.

I take some comfort in the thought that Tolkien missed it as well, and for much the same reason. It must have been hard for Lewis to bite his tongue. Perhaps I still won't be able to enter in to the stories - I remain unimpressed with centaurs and may not be able to unlearn that - but at least I'll have another go.

Lewis's intent was not to drop some lunar or saturnine items into a Jesus-story, but to compose each tale so that it had the feel, right down to its bones, of the quite real and identifiable forces in the universe that the Romans happened to name Jove, or Venus. Lewis believed in their reality in much the same way that a medieval would. He is in some ways not a medievalist, but something close to being a medieval writer, and we need to read him that way. As children, we get served up a boring Apollo = Sun, Mars = "God of War" listing when we are taught mythology, with perhaps a story or two about a chariot or a spear. We don't enter in to the idea, don't suspend our disbelief, and find it frankly incredible that intelligent people, no matter how long ago they lived, could be much moved by it. But to previous peoples, Mars was not simply a god of war but of forests and growth, or verticality with implied phallicism, the god of necessity that you turned to for strength when the job was hard or impossible but simply must be done. His metal was iron, his hardness morally neutral. Today he would be the god of construction, and even guys who considered themselves more under the influence of Sol or Saturn might turn to him while at Lowe's.

If the Narnia stories had come down to us from medieval times, in verse and not aimed at children, we might have seen. We might have applied the rules of observation that cause us to read "Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne" and get some sense of the atmosphere Chaucer was trying to create. But none of us are steeped in the knowledge of medieval influences, in the planetary sense. We are not cultrually trained to step inside them and experience them - Lewis would say Enjoy them in a specific sense that means "participate in them." The companion piece to the Narniad should be The Discarded Image, which Lewis wrote just after completing the series.

A Lewis quote from "The Grand Miracle," found in God In The Dock.
"I think we are rather in this position. Supposing you had before you a manuscript of some great work, either a symphony or a novel. There then comes to you a person, saying, 'Here is a new bit of the manuscript that I found; it is the central passage of that symphony, or the central chapter of that novel. The text is incomplete without it. I have got the missing passage which is really the centre of the whole work.' The only thing you could do would be to put this new piece of the manuscript in that central position, and then see how it reacted on the whole of the rest of the work. If it constantly brought out new meanings from the whole of the rest of the work, if it made you notice things in the rest of the work which you had not noticed before, then I think you would decide that it was authentic. On the other hand, if it failed to do that, then, however attractive it was in itself, you would reject it.
The quote leads the book Planet Narnia. To see where Lewis took the idea after that, see Will Vaus here.

*Leading perhaps to a new movie, "Dryads on a Plane." Double meaning, there.