Thursday, March 31, 2011


Joe Carter at First Things has an essay which includes the best summary of my discomfort with the WWJD trope I have read to date. The rest of the essay has much to recommend it as well. I like quoting Carter - partly because I often disagree with him, and it tells me I am liking the actual idea, not just repeating what pals of mine would say. (Though I suspect I would like him just fine in the flesh.) But also because he's not afraid to write bluntly and cleanly.
If he were walking the streets of America he would likely still be doing the same thing. But is this what we should be doing? Not necessarily. We are not Jesus; we are his disciples. Our mission is not his mission but the mission he assigns us. The question we should keep constantly before us is “What Would Jesus Want Me To Do?” But then WWJWMTD isn’t as easy to embroider on a bracelet or fit on a bumper sticker.

I have read longer expositions, but this captures it all, quite succinctly. Christ's mission and our mission are related, but not identical. We fall too easily into wondering "what would Jesus do with this poor wounded kitty trapped in a tree?" - into the mentality that says "This is a good thing. Jesus likes good things. Therefore Jesus would want me to do this." We can see it best, perhaps if we move the dial in the opposite direction that WWJD thinkers usually want to point us. What Would Jesus Say? Well, He might say "Depart from me you evildoers, I never knew you." Yet it still might be our part to say "As chair of the pastoral search committee, I would like to thank each of you for accepting this task." WWJD might not always be a soft answer.

I can make it a touch simpler, "What Would Jesus Have Me Do?" but either way I think the switch in focus is essential. I don't think it's a mere technicality, where youth pastors roll their eyes and say "you're right Madison, there were only eleven apostles at that point, according to some commentators who have a specific definition of apostle." It's the opposite. It is those who would refuse to make the distinction that are playing with technicalities, trying to make bricks with less straw. The two questions will often have the same answer. But sometimes, they will be profoundly opposed.

When you get into the habit of making this adjustment every time, of What Would Jesus Have Me Do instead of What Would Jesus Do, it gets easy to see through the word games that people play trying to pull a fast one on you. Who Would Jesus Bomb? What Would Jesus Cut? Once you know that it's a stupid question and must be reframed, it's not so hard to get to the real questions they are asking: What Would Jesus Say Is Too Much Injustice When You Have The Power To Stop It, or What Would Jesus Say The Government Should Provide?

Which is nowhere near as much fun to ask, because you don't get to kick people in the balls and feels self-righteous over that.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Complete Lenten breakdown tonight. I had a most lovely buttered, salted, baked potato; some exquisite dried up pizza; and 7 Triscuits.

Giving up cigarettes has been a breeze.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Education Changes

xkcd, brilliant as usual

The short version is to read researcher Peter Gray's The Seven Sins of Our Forced Educational System. Exactly the sort of article I would have described as nutty 10-20 years ago, but now think has many good points.

The long version is to read the rest of this post first, warming you up to the idea that radical educational ideas may not be insane, then reading Gray's article.

It used to be, the only tension was between public schools and religious schools. Prep schools were there, but only for the rich and few. They knew who they were, and their worlds did not touch ours, except when they wanted to rule us.

Radical voices came onto the fringes in the 60's. American education was designed by rich industrialists to create useful cogs for their corporate machines. Which always struck me as a textbook example of stretching reality to an insane degree, highlighting some aspects while downplaying others in order to make some political point. Grading destroys love of learning...rote learning destroys real understanding...competition destroys cooperation... Each of these had enough truth to limp along to the next decade, but obscured more than they explained. Montessori schools were there for those who were determined to go that route, and those were okay, but given the population they drew from, never seemed to provide the value-added for education that was hoped for. (I still like 'em, though.)

Over the last two decades the clamoring for education change has grown more frantic. Conservatives have a lot of people who think that if we just went back to the good old days, even the strict back-to-basics days if not the one-room school, all would be good in the garden. The idea is insane, based on nostalgia rather than true recall and certainly not real data, and I am frankly sick of the argument on conservative sites. It morphs over into core curriculum ideas for highschool and college, which is a quite different subject. (And even that is not quite an honest argument. It is easy to find bad examples in modern course and texts and pretend that things were never like that in the old days. Nonsense.) It starts from a selection bias of the better friends and relatives of online commenters who liked school and like writing about it now. Why, my grandfather had only borrowed chalk, a compass, and two desks for twelve students in their little town, but by golly they worked hard and all of them went on to become civil engineers or neurosurgeons. It's rubbish, every bit of it.

Liberals have their own idiocies, which I'm sure you've seen enough of that I can skip it here. Homeschooling has been a real change, and they have done well at undermining many myths of what is necessary for schooling. Special Ed has been enormously expensive but the old system was to put children away in institutions and just let them waste. I suppose if we don't really value independence and consider relative physical comfort to be a good life, that could be our goal again. Yet now that the mask is off I don't think we could look it in the eye again.

Bigger changes are brewing. Distance learning is growing. Ooh, those awful for-profit schools! Like your school wasn't out to make a nice living for a lot of people off you, just because it had ivy-covered professors? Khan Academy hopes to "flip" middle school and high school, so that the video lectures are the homework and the working of problems with a teacher are the in-class part. The TED lectures in general are filling up with new models for education. We hang back from trying any - we have so much invested in the current model and fear to be wrong - not with our children!

You would think that one such as myself, who values the wisdom of other eras, hates educational fads, and is married to a school librarian would be the last of the big experimenters. But school librarians are often the front edge of cooperative and experimental methods in a school. Plus, adopting Romanians, then acquiring Kyle, has given us a different look at our system in the US. Things at school that only annoy you when you have children able to dazzle with brilliance and adapt out of, become problems requiring solution when that advantage is not there.

But what hit me hardest about Grey's essay was what it described about me. I really was one of those who thought my role was to be amazingly brilliant and wait for someone to discover me. I really did think I was better than most of the rest of you. To see in print that this is what our current system encourages in the personalities of some bright students - and to be ready to hear that - was unpleasant. I use my education to entertain myself and others. The only direct application to my job or any useful activities is my ability to string sentences together - which may come more from reading rather than going to school.

In fairness, I am very entertaining. There is that.

As recently as 15 years ago, Jonathan laughingly reassured me that Asbury looked like what I would consider a real college, because that was still important to me then. I now hope the opposite for most children - that they don't go anywhere near such a place, except for a season to absorb what school "used to be like." I hope Emily and Sarah have already carved out their first employment niche in their late teens and take formal training only as needed, such as for brain research or business Hungarian. With no ivy in sight.

Memphis Grizzlies

One roots for teams for odd reasons. I have kept an eye on Memphis because I want former Celtic Tony Allen to do well (and he is) and because Mike Conley's father was a triple-jumper and a favorite of mine. I followed the T&F B-List of Steeplechase, Hurdles, and jumping events from about 1964-94 and still have a soft spot for those guys, whose events are just as hard, but just out of the spotlight.

I was hoping from the start that Allen would ease out the better-known OJ Mayo, who has a large jerk factor, and that seems to be what's happening.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Judging A Book By Its Cover

People can identify criminals by their photos. The magazine carrying this has not been my favorite over the years - it has been the "where's the beef?" source for psychology* - but I read up on this columnist and he seems to be the real deal.
In this blog, I have repeatedly emphasized the fact that virtually all "stereotypes" are empirically true. If they weren't true, they would not be stereotypes in the first place. To my knowledge, all of the very, very few stereotypes that are not empirically true, for some reason, have to do with people's appearance. Hence, it is not true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it is not true that beauty is only skin-deep.Another "stereotype" about physical appearance that is not empirically true is "you can't judge a book by its cover." In previous posts, I have explained that women can tell which men would make good fathers and which men would make bad fathers simply by looking at them. And people can tell who are altruistic and who are egoistic simply by looking at a 30-second video clip without sound.
The article lets you try your hand at it as well. I did very well (10 of 13) on my definites, but once I had put someone into the indefinite category did no better than chance.

* Rather like Discover has been for science in general, and Omni before that. High on speculation about new developments and discoveries, before they are solidly established.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Not Always Rockers

You can, however, see Mick almost involuntarily starting to bust out at the end. Once you know the rest of the story it's easy to see.

Cultural Enforcement

Music is a way of sharing/enforcing your culture on others.

A lot of arguments just got clearer for you.

ABBA Dolls

Who knew?

I think Emily and Sarah need these.

Blog Name

When I took the title Assistant Village Idiot, I expected some joking about it. I expected the jokes to range from a good-hearted teasing, perhaps delivered with some subtlety, to the entirely obvious, with critics thinking they had somehow stumbled on a joke no one had thought of before. Ha! You just got promoted to Complete Village Idiot. Yeah, you can take that Assistant off your name now.

In fact, it has all been on the one track. Everyone who has mentioned it, here or on other sites, has rapidly revealed themselves as a total jerk. The only explanation I can think of is that the joke is so obvious that people with social skills know there is no point in mentioning it (unless perhaps they have something they have significant confidence is new).

I suppose this is not all that surprising. Some social skills are rather artificial, and displaying them or not displaying them may only reveal what one's family education has been. But most social skills are a function of inner realities of being able to listen to contrary POV's, regard other humans with respect, and hear one's own words as an observer, with some objectivity. That those who simply cannot refrain from an incredibly obvious comment telegraph something about themselves.

Posr 2900 - That Hideous Strength - Last Time

Well knock me over with a feather. Commenter David likes this book best of the three by a long margin. He suggests it would work well as a movie.

On reflection, I think he is quite right on that. Many of the book's difficulties disappear in film's medium. There are conventions from the horror and SF movie genres that would make the spiritual and demonic nature of the N.I.C.E much more plausible and efficiently captured. Some scenes that are a bit tedious to read because of the necessity of describing a great deal - such as Jane Studdock's visions or the confusion of tongues scene at the end, might be remarkably easy to show. Feverstone's character, or the Fairy's enjoyment of torturing a certain type, can be shown more easily than described. The bloody attack by the animals, the floor running with blood - okay, that might be tougher to do without good special-effects people. Jane's ambivalence about marriage/career/personality/obedience, and Mark's dawning recognition of what being a husband actually means would have to be put quite differently. The accidents of mid-20th C cultural choices are both too near and too far from our own to resonate well. But as these same questions remain a popular topic now, I'm sure there's a way to accomplish it.

As a movie, I think it works. A rather intense and frightening movie as well. I certainly wouldn't bring children to see it.

Ben's List

Ben has his list of top 100 books in his life. Done with rollicking commentary, and inspiring to those who have always been readers. Plenty of comments from those who know him and knew him when. It may also be an enchantment to younger reading addicts to get A) a flavor of what a life of books can make of you and B) some new ideas of what to pick up.

Update: Here's an odd thought. One can't see such a list without wondering about a personal list. But a parent, or a parent who read out loud a great deal - or this parent who read out loud a great deal, anyway - can no longer make an individual list. I loved Watership Down (that's why I read it to the boys. Duh.) but I don't know as it would have made my all-time list. Certainly not in the top 30, anyway. But because it became an event for Ben (and lost in that shuffle was that it was quite important to Jonathan as well, which I why I jumped it so early on Ben. It was slated for a year or so later, but it just worked, somehow, against my prediction) it became part of the fabric of our family's culture, and thus rises on my list. Tracy and I would likely have put the Susan Cooper books, and some other Arthurian material on our lists. But they didn't read out loud very well, pointing up weaknesses we might not otherwise have seen, and they drifted downward in thought and eventually seeped out the bottom.

There are books important to me that are nowhere close to Ben's list, of course: acres of Lewis, Nine Nations of North America, Albion's Seed, many plays, especially by Tom Stoppard - dozens of things really. But my fiction list, and certainly my children's fiction list, simply has no meaning without reference to the two older boys.

We built a family culture, not one imposed by parents on children, but gradually including them in the making. I have entire confidence where they will take it next - more than where I might take it next, actually.

Friday, March 25, 2011


The newspaper in the lobby had a photo of an irate protester yelling at a legislator “Your job doesn’t require you to run into a burning building!”

Let me offensively reply “Your job doesn’t require you to miss a paycheck when customers don’t come in. And then another paycheck, and another one.” Why do I dare such an offensive comment? Because I have the former sort of courage, and I don’t have the latter. So I quite naturally consider the latter courage to be the greater.

I admit I can’t lay proof to full burning-building physical courage. Also, I may have less physical courage now than I did in earlier decades. But I have the credentials for the courage of a job that puts one in physical danger, because I’ve done it. I have stepped forward to deal unarmed with someone angry and stronger than I. I have been injured and persevered in the restraint, and I have come back after injury to do it again. And I have had moments at work where the great sadness comes into the back of my mind whispering, “I wonder if this is where it all ends.”

I don’t want to oversell that. Staff seldom get killed here (two in my 30+ years, neither in my building). My current position has much less risk than my previous one. There are many fields more hazardous than mine. But then, neither to firemen and police get killed all that often either.

I don’t think I have an entrepreneur’s courage or a salesman’s courage. Or at least, I don’t have the courage they might have to show, if business goes downhill, if customers stop coming, when no one wants your product or services, when you’ve got mouths to feed or employees to pay. Not all who go into sales or have their own business ever have to face that humiliation and failure, certainly. But it’s a possible outcome. And I have willingly made the trade of a regular paycheck, however modest, rather than take that risk. It is impolite and seems ungrateful to even mention it, but there are firemen and policemen who have made essentially the same trade I did. I don’t imagine it’s all of them or even most. But it’s there, and it’s damned offensive for people to pretend it isn’t.

Perhaps I would have developed entrepreneurial courage had I had to. My dad was a salesman all his life, my brother had his own business, and I’m similar to them. We can all endure a lot more than we think we can. Had I done so, I might be writing the opposite essay now, telling you that having a business slowly fail under you doesn’t take anywhere near the courage of running into a burning building. So be it. My experiences are what they are, and I want to express my admiration for those willing to endure risk, sit at table with humiliation, and dine with insecurity every night for years. It takes courage, and you’re a better man/woman than I.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Three Parables

The current adult study at church is a NT survey by the Okenga Institute – distance learning from Gordon Conwell Seminary. I have liked these courses, not merely because they challenge my assumptions about Scripture and the faith, but because of how they do it. I find that many things I thought I knew have a pretty slender foundation. I have been told things over the years about when various NT books were written and why. It’s a pastiche of information, some of it dating back to confirmation class in 1967 with Rev. Willard Soper. Bill would have been in seminary thirty years before that, and his professors in turn … well, you get the idea. Much of the rest comes from writings or sermons by evangelicals pretty close to the fundamentalist side of things, or the introductions and notes for each book from study Bibles. Or whatever everyone else at various Bible studies had been exposed to.

It doesn’t mean that any of that information is wrong. I simply note that the supports for what we think we know are often weak.

In discussing the 25th chapter of Matthew, the instructor mentioned almost offhandedly that these three parables of judgment had been arranged thematically to connect with Matthew 24, in which Jesus speaks of his eventual return. For no reason I can identify, I have always treated the gospels, especially the Synoptics, as chronological. I figured these three parables showed up then because that was about when Jesus said them, at least according to Matthew’s memory. That they might be specifically chosen to be part of a package about judgment, though they had been uttered weeks or even years apart, had simply never occurred to me.

So let’s look at them as a package, rather than three individual parables. This is unlikely to make things simpler at first, because these three are among the most troubling of parables: The Wise and Foolish Maidens; The Servants and Talents; and The Sheep and the Goats. Read them over – at least glance rather than work entirely from recollection.

The first thing I’m noticing is that judgment is going to work out very, very badly for some people, and they are going to be surprised at this. This is Jesus talking, red-letter direct quotes, and he is quite clear that some are going to be condemned. He tells the foolish maidens “Truly, I don’t know you.” The goats he tells “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” The third servant he tells “And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Hyperbole to make a point? Maybe. But it sure sounds to me like he means it.

Second, I notice that the lack of generosity shown by the wise maidens to the foolish is in sharp contrast to the behavior applauded in the sheep of the third parable. I recognise that the Wise and Foolish Maidens isn’t about generosity, and parables are supposed to have but one focused meaning, but still – it’s quite a difference. Similarly, the Parable of the Talents seems to tell us to take enormous risks, and the Sheep and the Goats is at least compatible with that. But the first parable counsels the opposite: be cautious. Be overcautious. Again, not the main point of the story, but the different tone is unmistakable. Taken as a group, however, they are consistent. The wise maidens don’t help the foolish, the first two servants don’t help the third, the sheep don’t help the goats, and Jesus is down with that. You snooze, you lose.

Third, I’m not seeing a strong element of grace in these parables. It looks like works from here. I can make them fit with a little effort, but even as I do, I wonder if I am stretching and rationalising in order to fit a theory of my own rather than what the Scriptures are trying to tell me.

Fourth, there is the phrase in the Sheep and the Goats about the least of these, and Jesus’s brothers and sisters. We leap to the conclusion that the first of these means “poor people,” and the latter means “everyone,” but we are drawing heavily on modern misreadings of the parable of the Good Samaritan for those meanings. Consistent with the actual meaning, the text seems to be saying we should be generous to a new group of people – people who follow Jesus, not simply everyone. That’s rather troubling, to think that the order is to be generous to our new family, those other Christians. Not very American. Not very melting pot/multiculti/religious tolerance. Though that is consistent with some other things Scripture says. John 17, 1 John 4.

Relatedly*, notice that there is nothing about government or even collective action here. I grow weary of those Christians (left or right, depending on the issue), who seem to regard that as a mere technicality because they cannot conceive of work being done any other way. I go more to the opposite extreme, wondering if the sheep get any credit for of the good works done by sheep-influenced governments, or credit for keeping goats out of office. They might even incur blame for these things, as they could conceivably be regarded as tricking others into thinking they have done good works when they haven’t. Jesus never goes near those ideas – and given the sharp examples here of how he judges people who we might think got it almost right, we might fearful of presuming too much.

So I'm acknowledging that it's difficult and puzzling. What say you?

*That was an entirely futile paragraph put in for my own pleasure. It will have absolutely zero effect on those in both the social justice or Christian America movements. I despair of them ever being able to examine their assumptions in this area.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Revolution in the Middle East

Can we finally drop the idea that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has anything to do with peace in the Middle-East? The events of the last few months have thoroughly destroyed the notion that it is anything but an excuse to avoid realities.

Sigh. But I'll bet the idea comes back, zombie-like, unkillable. People want it to be true, so it will persist. Everyone left of center in the West has now forgotten that they were absolutely, 100% wrong about the USSR, while the right-wing nutcases, if anything, underestimated its evil. Yet Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" is still taught in schools as if it contains wisdom, and 60's retro style, music, and appeal includes a warm appreciation for precisely those political values that have proven vacuous.


Barack Obama signed off on beginning a war with Libya because the UN had approved it. He was opposed to Iraq because the UN hadn't approved it. Amid all the other explanations he and his administration have been offering, that is the only one that seems to have not yet contradicted itself.

Yes, that is reductionist on my part, the sort of oversimplification and generalisation that should never enter intelligent discourse about complex foreign policy matters. I get that. We know how the game is supposed to be played, with chin-stroking analysis, like art critics marveling over how some pointless drivel raises interesting questions or starts a conversation about what art is supposed to be. But I ask in reply Is it true? Is there anything which contradicts this analysis? What is its disproving evidence?

To the absolutely fair question of what might be offered as evidence for this proposition, I will note that this is precisely what the most fevered of right-wing nutcases predicted: that leftists in general and Obama in specific think the UN, not any individual nation (and certainly not the US during uh, some administrations) is the real constituting authority for war.

So. What other arguments hold up to scrutiny?

Note: I offer no opinion here whether attacking Libya is a good idea. I like it less the more I look at it, but I don't pretend to know enough to give wise analysis.

Good Ways And Bad Ways

If this review does it justice at all, Robert Benne's Good Ways and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics looks quite good. And the book is cheap, so pay attention here.
Benne distinguishes two positions on the relationship between religion and politics—separationism and fusionism—and argues Christians ought to reject both. As for the first, there are at least two varieties, one secular and one religious.
Seems like simple clear distinctions that you can add your own nuance to, or not, as you choose.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Suricata suricatta

A problem with meerkat pictures is that most seem to be copyrighted. I think this one's okay, but here's its source, just to give credit.

That Hideous Strength II

For a book with so many flaws, it certainly sets me thinking. Elements of this post will be used in a later essay on enforcing culture on others.

The description of Belbury, the Inner Ring, and Mark Studdock's temptations to it may be the only strong point of the book, but it is handled artfully enough that one feels sure Lewis understood this temptation from the inside.

Why did this grip me so as a young man, and again now, when the danger is (hopefully) past? I saw myself clearly in these temptations, and took the warning quite seriously. I think I took it as an admonition of what could happen to you "in business," or perhaps politics, or some other large organization. I wouldn't have said I had already experienced much of this.

The N.I.C.E - National Institute for Creative Experiment (ironically and unfortunately the acronym for the QA wing of the National Health Service in the UK) at Belbury is not that different from a college theater department - mine anyway. Mark Studdock's insecurities were familiar because I had been living them not long before. The delicate calculation of who Belongs and who is a mere visitor dominated my social life for a few years. I was not fully conscious of this, yet if I needed evidence for the truth of it, my ability to retrieve that social data instantly, though I had not thought of it for 35-40 years, should be enough.

The network was never static - each round of Directors Workshop productions brought in new talents on the rise; each musical brought in singers and dancers staking out territory, some even commanding places of acceptance even though they were not theater majors, and elevating the status of those in the department who could sing or dance well. Then on to the long slog of the status of those who liked their theater grim versus those for fun, the modernists versus the classicists, the technical and production cliques versus the onstage. Move too far in one direction and you could excite enmity. Many who wanted in could not crack the core, and could never know why.

This is too negative a portrait, of course. There was genuine affection, real camaraderie, and willing humility of acknowledging superior talent. I was not a skilled player at the status game for good reasons and bad. These questions were originally not part of my entry into a career. When they did emerge later, as power started to redistribute in the 1990's, I played and played badly, quite vulnerable to those who assured me of their protection and influence. I was spared most of all, quite in accordance with what Lewis predicted, by genuinely liking some people who were of no advantage to me, and genuinely disapproving of others whose goodwill was necessary. My knack for offending those in authority protected me from ever going too far down that Belbury road.

I do worry how much this attitude was part of me unawares at our last church. I was a central player there - I was inner ring. Such folk seldom have the slightest awareness who they are subtly undermining and excluding. Thus my lack of awareness of exclusion proves nothing. Even contrary evidence - of my encouraging and including others - may only obscure the truth.

Steel Drum

Just because I like them.


"Shall we, perhaps, in Purgatory, see our own faces and hear our own voices as they really were?"
CS Lewis Reflections on the Psalms

In my case, that would be brutal.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Presidential Primaries

I agree with Barone that the primaries are a bad way to choose presidential nominees, and that in particular, they create a deemphasis on foreign policy.

What's his alternative? I'm on record, despite being from NH and enjoying the extra weight my vote supposedly gets every four years, to consider alternatives. Everything I have seen seems to create even greater problems.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

College Basketball

I find I don't like watching it that much. I like following bracketology - the game itself bores me. That it is the collegiate sport that makes most mockery out of the phrase "student athlete" probably doesn't help me in this.

Best of September 2007

Lewis's Influence On Tolkien. No Lewis, no LOTR. Also, how prophetic was The Abolition Of Man.

Two essays on the politics of EB White, not easily categorised today. I've got him as a Green Neocon Libertarian One-Worlder. Gringo corrects one of my claims in the comments.

How cognitive biases play out these days, plus some discussion one one in particular, Rational Ignorance. A commenter unwittingly reinforces a negative stereotype about himself.

I did a takeoff on Little Boxes, turning it back on its creators, which generated some heat in the comments.

A note on adopting older children. I don't know as I'm a great parent, but I've done a lot of it.

A history quiz in which my readers did better - much better - than college instructors on average.

Government Artists

How We Screwed Up Worship Singing. I don't know if this was avoidable; I don't know if it can now be changed. I suspect the church is going to have to make some permanent adaptation.

A bit of irony now.

Maintaining An Elite

One of the things that stuck with me from Bryson's book is the ability of an elite to continue to operate the levers of power to maintain its image of itself, long after any real superiority it had has vanished. It is a repeated theme of history.

The first part is the easiest of course. The Church of the Smoldering Embers considers itself more righteous that the Congregation of the Bruised Reeds because they judge data selectively. Any Smoldering Ember who shows righteousness is considered a typical member of the Church, while those who misbehave are considered "not real members," fringe players or exceptions. The South Branch Smoldering Embers have always been a little, uh, primitive, dear. The righteous among the Bruised Reeds are seen oppositely: they are regarded as exceptions, while those who fall short are considered more typical of that Congregation.

Thus the impression is continually reinforced, whether the data is abundant or scanty. We remember the good examples from among our number and gradually forget the bad. It is not only elites, but all tribes that do this.

The second tactic is an extension of the first. The Church of the Smoldering Embers defines righteousness as having lots of smoldering embers. Bruised reeds are considered nice enough, but really beside the point in terms of righteousness. It's embers that are the right stuff, and because they've got so many of 'em, it proves they're more righteous.

Elites apply this universally. In my recent post on money and the NT, I noted that elites of the last few centuries have defined themselves in terms of how they got their money, where they grew up, where they went to school and the subjects they took. They define those as elite, and they've got lots of 'em, so they're deserving of their status. Add in the basic tribalism of remembering only the brilliant things your people said and the stupid things those unfortunate others said, and it is a simple matter to continue to consider yourself superior indefinitely.

I'm thinking Bertie Wooster's circle here. Though Bertie himself was a kindly enough chap, willing to give a fellow credit where credit is due.

Vision of John - A Curiosity

When artists have depicted the events of The Revelation To John over the last couple of centuries, they rather automatically choose the image of Earth and Beyond Earth from our own culture. We see the Archangel Michael out in the solar system with a spear, or "a third of the earth" showing a globe with two continents blotted out (usually Asia and parts of a few others). That is our way of conceptualizing looking at the earth. From space.

Whatever John saw in his vision, we can be pretty sure that wasn't it. It would have taken too much explanation to him to recognise what it was. Those are North and South America. That's Australia. You come from over here. This is what the world looks like is you go way up high in the sky. And it's certainly not God's way of looking at things, so there's no appealing to our way being the "right" way. For openers, even if you were starting from outer space as your reference point, why not put Antarctica on top?

All those primitive illustrations in Orthodox churches around the Mediterranean? Our concept is just as primitive. Theirs may be better in most ways.


Ben recently complained about how far down the Rick Reilly columns have gone over at ESPN. He spoke too soon. Reilly had further to drop. He is now officially a dry hole.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Money, Sin, and Obedience

The New Testament makes frequent reference to the temptations of wealth, and there is simply no getting around that. Even if the older translation of “The love of money is the root of all evil” could never have been true, the more accurate “…a root of many evils” is still pretty clear. (What were they thinking of, BTW? David took Bathsheba because of money? Peter denied Christ for money? How can you come up with that translation and not say “Hey guys, we’ve clearly made some mistake here.”)

Similarly, Mammon is the one god Jesus specifically identifies as a competitor who will steal away his flock. Wealth is declared a particularly dangerous temptation at many points.

Yet I think we have oversold wealth as a sin in our (wealthy) western culture over the last two centuries, and I doubt that is accidental. Jesus’s message is that anything one might give up to be part of the Kingdom of God is worth it. An eye or a hand are as nothing (Matthew 18:8). Family, even wife or children, are of infinitely less account (Matthew 19:29). When we see these verses, we do not rush to conclude that God has something against families, or against whole bodies.

But when we read the story of the rich young ruler, with all its camel-extruded-through-needles imagery, we conclude pretty rapidly that there is something about wealth that is in and of itself evil, or at least suspect. Considering the lilies we seem to regard as rather a sliding scale, that those with much are somehow more at fault than those with little. A lot of biblical mentions of money, wealth, riches seem to get slid into this whole idea of the unseemliness of money for Christians. Generosity is applauded, certainly – yet I think it is applauded in a somewhat different way than expected.

We have the eyes of our culture, and it is difficult to have others. We can borrow other eyes only with intention. We learn that in other ages Christians were fully cognizant that the rich had more tendency to arrogance, or were more easily tempted to believe in self-sufficiency, and conclude from these that other eras believed much as we do. They didn’t. Western cultures started moving in an anti-aristocratic direction three centuries ago, and we have acquired resentments of various aristocracies along with that.

I have heard critics attribute this censure of wealth largely to Marxism, or other socialist and utopian schemes, regarding it as an infection entering Christian thought. There’s something to that, but I think it misses a great deal more. The western, and especially American idea was more general – that aristocracy had proved exploitative - that it was bestowed by the more unfair mechanism of inheritance rather than accomplishment. If anything, wealth was regarded as an equalizer against aristocracy, a neutral tool which could as likely combat privilege as reinforce it. (Which is perhaps why Marx saw capitalism as a necessary step toward socialism.)

Rulers and the privileged were resented in earlier eras largely because they were from outgroups to one’s own: factions within one’s general tribe, or worse, foreign conquerors. Resentment and contempt of wealth per se comes as much from the aristocracy as from the poor. They are wealthy in birth, wealthy in the accidentals of status, wealthy in certain types of education or initiation. Those parvenus with mere money are crass invaders. The resentment of those in the aristocratic classes for those in “mere trade” goes back centuries. In modified form it is much present in the some American aristocracies now. Christians from those aristocracies display contempt of wealth for what they believe are spiritual reasons derived from the NT. Darker motives of protecting their own sort and providing cover for political allies is fairly obvious to everyone but themselves. Not that they are devoid of pure motive – they are likely no worse than others - but that their unawareness leaves them no hope of remedy. The unforgiveable sin is the one that cannot be confessed – the one which should be obvious but you can’t see it.

This thread runs more strongly through preaching of John the Baptist, and then explosively with Jesus, than any condemnation of the rich. We are commanded to obedience if we serve God, and what the specifics of that obedience might be are disconcertingly left out. St. Paul gives some specificity to gentile converts to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and to remember the poor. Even that isn’t a lot to go on, frankly. But NT obedience is largely open-ended, and one has to think intentionally so.

There is no hint of Jesus saying to the Pharisees “learn to be more generous, learn to be meek, and you will begin to get the Kingdom of God.” That idea is popular now, but it has nothing to do with Jesus. They didn’t kill him because they were afraid to be generous. Give them credit for knowing a good deal about generosity long before Jesus shows up. Jesus’s message is much harder: “The fulfillment of the promises is at hand. If you had believed, you would know that nothing you have is worth keeping compared to this. I tell you one more time – this is the test whether you ever understood. Sign on to open-ended obedience or all this opens up to the gentiles.”

Who is my neighbor? The lesson is not “gee, ain’t it great to be generous and to expand the circle a little.” The lesson is “A Samaritan who is in the kingdom is more your neighbor than the Jews you grew up with.” Loyalty has not been expanded (that’s more of an American idea, and one that I generally like, but Jesus isn’t encouraging International Food Fairs (mmm…) or Diversity Awareness here) – loyalty has been changed. You were loyal to family, to Judaism, to your village, to your sect, to social roles – all that is now secondary, or even eliminated. Kingdom loyalty, to Samaritans or Romans is higher. A woman in the kingdom is now the superior of a man outside it, though he be wealthy, or a priest, or sinless according to the law. A slave is now valued more than master – but if-and-only-if. A great sinner now rises to the dais. Not because Jesus is turning the society’s values upside-down, but because he is ignoring them in favor of one single value.

We want to Americanise this and talk about the dignity of women, or the dignity of the outcast. Nothing of the kind. This is not about the dignity of women in general, or Samaritans in general, or sinners in general, or the poor in general. This is a single cut: Kingdom/non-kingdom. Infinite value/no value. There is nothing, literally nothing, in the NT about challenging the socioeconomic system of his day (no, not even beating the moneylenders, rendering unto Caesar, or the widow’s mite. Don’t impose ideas of the last two centuries onto the Bible.)

Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good. He came to make dead people alive.

Morehead State

Morehead State's beating Louisville points up a limitation on all predictive models, whether mathematical or observational. At best, even exceptional predictions can only identify which team would win the majority of times if they played multiple games against each other. If Louisville plays Morehead State five times, it wins that matchup 3 or even 4 times. And that is all a method can ever do for you. It can't tell you whether this is going to be the one time out of five that the underdog puts it all together and wins.

How often does the better team win in college basketball? 75-80% of the time? That's the best you will ever get from a predictive model. Anything beyond that has a lot of luck involved. Not blind luck, of course. It is meaningful to identify the teams that have a better or worse chance than the common wisdom. But even if you identify a 12 seed that really is a better team and should beat the 5 seed 60% of the time, they are still going to lose 40% of the time.


I forget how long it took my brain to adjust to not having frontal lobe stimulants delivered with remarkable efficiency whenever I need to concentrate hard on something. I'm operating at 80% mentally, I think. Good enough to accomplish most things, but not all.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sound 'n Grace

A Polish gospel choir. I think they got the feel of it pretty well.

Monday, March 14, 2011


I quit smoking last week. By accident. That sounds like it should have a fascinating story behind it, but it doesn't.

I've also given up starchy foods for Lent, which has been much harder.

Rock-and-Roll HOF

We came back through Cleveland after Ben's college graduation and attempted to go to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. After struggling with evening traffic to get down to the lake, we found that the HOF closes at 6PM.

If it opened at 6PM, and stayed open until 6AM, that would make more sense. The hours of operation alone disqualifies this item from being the real deal. There is plenty else to complain about, of course, and Mark Goldblatt has his go at it over at National Review Online. He includes a list of figures who have not made it in. His point is that there are political biases - not that there are hard-and-fast inclusions and exclusions based on politics, but mostly that some significantly unworthy personages have gotten in on the strength of their political notoriety rather than their talent as rockers.

Fair enough, but why choose that complaint when the entire selection process is such a target-rich environment? Rolling Stone has ruled this for years and its well-known biases show. They like black music that black people don't listen to anymore, for example. (The link does not reference R&B, which should also be included.) They like bands that tried to fuse rock with something else - anything else.

It's a fool's errand to begin with. Definitions of rock rapidly break down. The Beatles were rockers early, not only in covering classics like "Twist And Shout," but in their own "Day Tripper" or "Help!" Yet right from the start, they had plenty that was clearly not R&R: "Norwegian Wood," "Michelle," and a hundred others. If you try to go purist on rock roots, you suddenly find yourself in rockabilly in western swing instead. Coolness became the eventual standard, and coolness by the standards of only certain cool people.

And this qualified.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Bracket Is Up

Here's my bracket. Because of matchups, some of my surprise teams (up or down) don't really show up.

Belmont over Wisconsin killed me, but I went with the numbers and picked Belmont, even though I think the numbers are anomalous.

Reconsideration: That whole region troubles me. By the numbers I had BYU #8 overall but I kept pushing them down because of Davies' suspension. I had Belmont #7 and Pitt #9 - the former unexpectedly high, the latter much lower than most folks have them. So I chickened out and shaded both of those a few places. But I barely have the courage to keep Belmont at #11 (Wisconsin I have at #12). I could do half a dozen brackets with those variations, I suppose.

By the numbers, I have Belmont beating Wisconsin, Utah State, Pittsburgh, and BYU and going to the Final Four. Yet I am not convinced they could beat any of those teams, never mind all of them. The Southeast region is the weakest by far - or, if you prefer, the most equally competitive.


We were given little cards at church today, to fill out with things you are going to do: people you are going to pray for, volunteering you are going to do, folks you are going to invite. Then you bring it up and put it on the altar at the end of the service - there are variations on the theme. Anyone who has been to a denominational church has seen these. Maybe nondenominational too - don't know about that.

I've filled out lots of these over the years. I didn't fill this one out.

As many of you remember, our church of thirteen years lurched and skidded to a close last year, and we are in another congregation. Perfectly nice congregation, in our denomination and where we went before. We went to the "get to know us" classes, and Tracy eventually joined. Rejoined, actually, and the irony is that our son who we brought up in that church is on the board of deacons that decided whether to recommend each candidate for membership. (He recommended his mom, yes. Though we did all have the humorous thought cross our mind...) Other longtime Bible-study friends have been coming as well, and are considering membership.

I did not apply for membership. No definite reason.

Yet another longtime Bible-study friend found the entire discussion of membership appalling: "What, this is like a special club that you get to belong to, and we only let you in if you meet our standards?" The comment was so foreign and baffling to me that I didn't make any answer. I used to see church membership as a privilege, I suppose. With what we have been through, I see it as a burden now. I don't want to make promises I can't keep. Membership may cost you a lot more than you wanted to pay. I hope to get back to the place where I consider it a privilege - and certainly, there was a great deal that other people gave me as well, not the least of which was encouragement.

I thought parenting was a privilege, and I hope to get back to that attitude someday. But you pour in everything that you've got and the dial says "not enough" and you have to go find some more to give somehow. Because you promised. Because you signed on and that's what you do. Even if you aren't that great a parent, or it isn't fair. And when they marry, you never let them see your doubts or let the new one feel unwelcome.

You keep your promises or die - but I haven't. My moral code says "do, or die trying," but there are places where I didn't keep the promises and gave up. Those still haunt me. I don't want to add in any more. So I don't fill out those little forms anymore - they are promises, and I have broken too many.

One might fairly say that the churches don't really expect you are going to make it to 100%, or even that you are going to do well at all - they use this making of commitments as a technique to harden the will and encourage you to do better. And what would happen if we never asked for commitments from anyone?

I have no answer to that. It does make sense. But somehow I don't think that reducing the importance of promises and increasing the sense of having failed by breaking them is the way to go.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


One oddity of our tribal nature, and who we find ourselves in alliance with, is how we are influenced by those we share a foxhole with.

It sounds dangerous for Christians - of for any creed or opinion one finds correct on its own merits - that we should be swayed. But as a practical matter, those who are uninfluenced by such tend to be the paranoids and fanatics.

Yet influence by others who only partially share our aims has been death for Christians. Some of us have fallen in too easily with those who promise to make the young people smarten up, be respectful, go to work, and stop swearing in the streets. Others of us have swooned for anyone who says they care about the poor.

So Rob Bell is going to find himself with unexpected friends and unexpected enemies just now. It is a hard time for anyone, and I wish him well - I don't think I'd like him personally very much, but I like his approach in some ways, and I would prefer him to hold focus on his current issues until he feels the dust has settled, rather than drifting around picking up whatever is fashionable among young evangelicals.

If you hear him talking about "But Jesus challenged the socioeconomic system of his day,” and “God judges a society in terms of how ‘the least of these’ are treated*," you will know that the pressure was too much for him and he has retreated to the safer ground of what's general and superficial and easiest. Sin boldly, Rob. (Which BTW, is one of the most completely misunderstood bits of Lutheran theology. Not because Lutherans are stupid, but because Luther was not very clear exactly what he meant by this. Still, it's one of the treasures of the church, suitable for many occasions.)

*Ooh. I just threw up in my mouth a little bit actually having to type those out.


Or comparison, if you prefer.

A youngish friend seeking his PhD in history - I think I have referenced Josh on other occasions here - tells me that the some historians of religious history are making a point of spelling Puritanism with a small "p," to emphasise that it was a movement, not a unified whole in any way, with contradictory trends, fads, backwaters, and saints or charlatans.

I am thinking the same thing about the Emerging Church at this point. Seeing it as a single trend, even a diverse one, doesn't capture it. Spell it with a small "e." It is many things, some of them contradictory.

And that is exactly what it should be, if it is to have any permanent positive effect.

Learned Too Much

My initial guess was that the Bell/Piper controversy was simply one in a series of skirmishes between the older academics who labored to pull evangelicalism up from the fever swamps of fundamentalism versus the emerging church celebrities who believe they are saving us from extinction. That has pretty much borne out by what I have inadvertently picked up in content while absorbing the clothing and namedropping these two and indeed, the many sides have put forward.

My initial notes say that First Things will generally side with Piper but have some stern warnings; Sojourners will want to side with Bell but will have something doctrinal they can't swallow, and be reduced to complaining about Bell's critics instead. Rather like my tweet on the Gandhi dilemma. I haven't checked, but I still think that's exactly how it will play out.

This will play out again, on different topics. I am a touch surprised that universalism should be prominent just now. But missionaries we have supported for years have gradually come to something like that position, and the sister of a friend, also once a missionary, now has a website touting her universalist beliefs. So this may be one of the common heresies of our age. It's a common enough secularist belief, but it's been rare in the church until the 18-19th C, and had only a few efflorescences since then.

Other representatives of the two tribes may be more prominent in other disputes, but it will play like this again:
E(merging)C(hurch): We're just raising questions.
R(eformed) S(talwarts): No, those are accusations disguised as questions.
EC: This generation thinks it's crucial to question and dialogue.
RS: We think your questions have no merit. Ask different ones.
EC: You're rejecting these ideas without considering them.
RS: Am not.
EC Are too.

And both are right, of course. Piper tweets "farewell." Even if Bell's book is strongly universalist and thus heretical, does Piper dismissively say "farewell" to the Lutherans over homosexuality, or the Seventh-Day Adventists over their anti-Catholic teaching? Why is Bell's heresy more worthy of quick dismissal? And as for Bell, 90 seconds of that video was more than revealing. What an arrogant prick.

But I know too much now, and other cultural pieces come in. When I saw "Mars Hill" alongside Bell's name it contaminated my objectivity. I have been generally positive to the Mars Hill side of the EC, but worried that this need for relevance would become need for hipness. Similarly, I saw that Piper was that guy who wrote books for IVP in the 80's about reclaiming traditional sexual roles. Again, an idea I have some general approval of, but one that bid fair to value appearances of tradition enough to often overlook their shallowness. And absolutely, one prone to disregard whatever negative impressions he might create, so long as he got you to hear what the truth is.

Next up: All the EC and EC-sympathetic people will express their outrage that Piper could treat Rob Bell - Rob Bell, an important figure in our tribe because he's hip and his church is big - so dismissively. And frankly, almost no heresy would be too much for them to back down from that insistence that he be treated specially. Meanwhile, all the Reformed Stalwarts and going to keep pounding the same doctrinal issues, in greater and greater detail, with less and less overall perspective, to prove to those EC folks that they are just wrong, just like they always predicted they would be. All of 'em. They're all the same.

Tweet Practice II

Emerging Church dilemma: Can’t attack Gandhi, can’t defend Gandhi, what to do? Attack the people who attack Gandhi. Problem solved.

Pastor Piper punched...uh provoked? Pissed? Nah, that's going nowhere.

How do you do that tinyurl or similar thing? Or do you get those directions when you sign up for Twitter? And do I actually need to know? I forgot to include a link to Ben's post, BTW. I Think I'd Like To Go To Heaven. Is It Nice There?

Tweet Practice

Let’s practice tweeting, to see how I would adjust. The Bell/Piper controversy seems an appropriate place to start. Hey, do spaces count?

The heterodox always market either the claim that their belief is ancient, or it’s new and not been fairly considered. This is usually crap.

No italics, probably tough to be creative with the punctuation. I don't think this is going to be my medium.

Does Bell really think Jesus went around encouraging discussion and raising questions? Talk about projecting your own values on the Gospel!

I dunno. I don't think I've got the feel of this.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Seeing The Obvious

I have mentioned Jonathan Haidt's research, mostly with approval before. His latest is worth a read. He is a true-blue Arts & Humanities Tribe academic - a social psychologist - who is neither conservative nor religious, but recognises that conservatives and religious folk are kept out of the academy through prejudices subtle and overt.

I was fully prepared to praise him with faint damns for seeing the obvious, but I missed seeing the obvious myself on other issues, yesterday and today.

Seeing the obvious is hard. If it is being obscured, it is hidden for a reason, and many folks have an interest in not seeing. I speak so often with a slight sneer about missing the obvious, but that is unfair. We don't see the fouls committed by the home team, we don't see that junior is a bully. In politics, the threats by our side are justified outrage, those by our opponents are criminal threats.

We know this but find it so hard to rise above it.
we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.
George Orwell

Rob Bell John Piper Controversy

Mad Magazine fans will recognise Sergio Aragones' style of illustrating hidden motives. An important formative influence in my thought, perhaps.

I have little or nothing to add to the theological discussion. But I may have something of my unusual perspective to bring in. I know nothing about either of the participants - I'm not up on this. But this smells like a cultural conflict, not a theological one, at least from someone. Maybe, maybe a political one, but I think I would have heard of these guys if they were big hitters left or right. Politics come into cultural conflicts of course, so one or both of them probably has a political agenda in disguised form. Disguised even from themselves, I'll bet. This is tribal, and I don't think many of the players know that.

As with my NCAA bracket, I will strive to know little about the surface of the debate, so that I might perceive the hidden motives better. I have some initial thoughts, but for now, I would simply ask you to play along. If you know what is up with this controversy, try and unlearn it for the moment and simply look at the symbols and presentation that people are bringing to the debate. I don't mean to imply that either is manipulating symbols - I mean only to notice what type of person they want to look like and sound like. For example, I am pretty certain Bell is Emerging Church and Piper is midwestern Reformed. I don't know if they are pastors or academics or writers or what. But you can tell at a glance what cultural image they want to be seen as.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Bracket - Math III

My brain got increasingly fed up with this as I went along and I cut more corners. I think I may have even lost some school down in the 50’s while switching lists. I guess that will show up when the bracket comes out.

I won’t be updating it on the basis of the last few games. This will be the list, subject to a few decisions, all of which revolve around purity of method versus what I think will happen. By purity of method, BYU, Belmont, and Wisconsin are all ranked higher than I think they should be – insanely higher in the matter of Belmont. OTOH, I think Florida should go higher than where they ended up by my system.

I will probably have better predictions if I move teams that are clearly out of place. OTOH, the original experiment was not to know anything and just slam together a mathematical model for fun. On the other, other hand, it stopped being fun and I won’t be improving on the model for next year. If I do this again, it will take a different form. Blowout wins and losses versus virtual ties seems to provide good predictive value, at least as far as the conference tournaments have shown (rough estimate from reading up this week). But it is tedious enough to work out by hand, and results in odd enough records (such as an adjusted 43-12 W-L) that it then gets difficult to do anything else with them, such as factor in strength of schedule. Just too many teams. It would be fun to do lots of complicated things with a dozen teams. With 80, not so much. It’s not worth the candle.

I did discover that there are many mathematical models for Bracketology, some with more sophistication than what you’d ever do by hand I have no knowledge which is best. Maybe that will be next year’s project instead – rate the methods. I looked at a composite site, and every method had Ohio State and Kansas #1 & 2, usually in that order. After that it gets stranger.

Monday, March 07, 2011


Dr. Helen has a link commenting on PUA's - that is "pick up artists." Get used to the acronyms if you choose to read up on this. Either some few with a strong founder effect on the phenomenon of game likes thinking in abbreviations, or this male type in general likes it. The longer article is here is you want to skip directly to that.

The concept is that women's sexual responses can be hacked, using their evolutionary hardwiring against them to seduce them. An idea rather frightening even if only partly true. There is apparently a lot of interest by proponents of what they call game in more academic discussions of what it all means in understanding male-female relationships in general, the future of the human race if knowledge of game becomes more widespread, whether the techniques discussed have wider application for leadership and politics, and, I imagine, a dozen other related items. One reads all this with a sort of horrified fascination.

I don't know the history of this - I recall reading in college that Balzac had claimed that any man could seduce any woman if he would only listen long enough - though I have little doubt that there is much discussion of natural game versus game as an intentional manipulation if one wanted to search for it. And certainly some of the more basic points have been long observed. For example, that women say they want sensitive caring men but go to bed with bad boys has been noted by most high school males. The traditional counters to this, that this only applies to a subset of women and is most prominent in younger women, are acknowledged by some proponents and emphatically denied by others. Questions of what the PUA's ultimately decide they really want in a relationship also take up much discussion space.

I should note that while this sounds like mere braggadocio and hopeful wishing on the part of some men, the proponents have actually amassed evidence that what they claim is in fact true and observable, whether anyone wants it to be true or not. They would claim that it is the disbelief that is mere braggadocio and hopeful wishing on the part of women.

It's hardly surprising that this concept of manipulating others via the use of artificial techniques would emerge from discussions of seduction. But similar things have been claimed about the behavior of tyrannical political groups, cult religions, and sales techniques. Something of these more general applications did show up in Lewis's That Hideous Strength, sounding quite plausible in that context. It may be that we all can be hacked in many ways, and this is simply one aspect, attracting much energy and attention for obvious reasons.

I like to think I would not have used this in high school and college even if I had known. Yet I can't say that with any assurance.

I don't think it is wise to dismiss this as impossible simply because we can invent arguments why it shouldn't be true. That the wilder claims are unlikely doesn't mean that there's not something to it.


We have one medical transcriptionist whose mistakes are becoming legendary. Anyone can make occasional spelling or grammar errors (she's got plenty of those, too), and what is dictated into the phone may not always be completely clear. But the following come from only two documents total over the last month - the only two she has done for my coworker and me. They all stem from a lack of vocabulary and general knowledge.

He is uncertain who his sir name comes from...

He is at panes to point out how dangerous the people he hangs with are...

He stresses that he worships satin...

She then studied at the University of Rock Chester...

When she entered primate school...

Other than the Alzheimer's Disease and the depression, she knows of no gastrotrophic illness in the family.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Bracket - Math II

I have a rough outline of what I am calling the Real Won-Lost on teams 21-40 and am already seeing them move up or down from their ranking. I'm part way into 41-60, and have acquired bits about 1-20 without trying. I don't think I will go farther than 60, just run some numbers on the teams that actually make the tournament.

The next step, figuring in strength of schedule, has also hit a snag. I have a listing of the average ranking of each team's opponents. I was going to fool around with that by hand according to some linear factor, such as removing an adjusted loss from the record for each 5 or 10 points below 100 on average ranking and adding same for each 5 or 10 above. One plays with such things and settles on a number that seems to make things come out about right in some known situations, then applies them across the board.

But some teams with very few losses have them against a very weak average ranking of opponents, and my possible added losses result in a ridiculous number. Noticing that, I could see that this isn't linear. That is, there isn't that much difference between playing teams ranked around 110 and ranked around 150, and very little difference between playing teams ranked around 210 and 250. But there is a lot of difference between playing the teams ranked at 10 and those at 50. So I can't just pop in "add a win or subtract a loss for every seven points of stronger ranking."

Example: Georgetown's opponents' average ranking is 69. Belmont's is 247. I'm seeing that most tournament teams will have average opponents' ranking of around 120. Belmont is more than twice the distance south of average as Georgetown is north. Yet intuitively, I know that Georgetown's 69 represents about as much a harder schedule as Belmont's 247 is softer.

So the line bends, which reveals itself at the extremes. Difficulty increases as one moves toward 1 faster than it decreases as it moves away. The graph will have to be some some power of x (say, x to the 1.3 power) rather than linear. I would need enormous amounts of data, perhaps a decade's worth, to calculate that.

So I'll just estimate - 1.3 looks pretty good, and at least it's better than 1.0.

I may just look at the rank of the average team they lost to and the average team they beat instead, as that would likely hew closer to a linear equation.

That Hideous Strength

I last read the book over 30 years ago, I think. There may have been another reading early on in there, and I have read excerpts and references to the book.

I find it is a very different book at 57 than at 25. When I first read it I saw much of myself in Mark Studdock (and my new wife in Jane Studdock). What I had remembered of the book included a great deal of the temptations he faced, and his weakness of character he showed in facing them. What I took away from this was "Don't be that guy. And you could, you know." On this reading, I more often think how much I want to warn the young man. I don't see myself at all, nor my wife in Jane. Perhaps the lessons took.

Or some of the lessons, anyway. I see parts of myself in some of the other characters now, including some of the most unattractive. Not so very much - I seem to have found other faults instead - but some things that were not visible in me as a young man, not even in my secret heart, have evidence now.

A word of warning on the reading. I see flaws in the construction of the story that I did not see at first. Most probably, I was so taken with identification with Mark and Jane, and anxious to read any new twist on Merlin, that I was able to disregard weaknesses. The descriptions of the temptations and development of Mark and Jane are believably timed, subtle, and ring true. To be like the conflicts and ambiguities of real life they should unfold slowly, and they do. The other characters, especially the fellows of Bracton and the staff of the N.I.C.E, are likewise plausible and recognisable. I now know some people like them, as I did not when I was in my twenties. But the events surrounding them do not read so believably. It is not that the events could not happen - though of course it is a modern fairy tale and the events are supposed to be sharply drawn, with good and evil unmasked - but that they seem to happen without sufficient set up and cause. Catastrophes have little buildup, and feel inserted for the sake of the plot rather than flowing naturally from previous events.

Lewis seems to have sensed this himself, as he uses literary devices to extend the impression of time at several points. And it is certainly true that events in real life do often seem to descend without cause upon us, showing their origins only in retrospect. We plod along daily with life changing little, then one Tuesday it all upends overnight. However, authors are not allowed to tell stories that way, even if that is more like real life. It jars.

It's an odd contrast, with the internal events of the main characters handled so deftly and precisely, while the exterior events seem at times to fall off a passing vegetable wagon. They add up in the end, and hang together in retrospect, but while they are occurring they take one out of the book a bit.

Jewish Funeral

The Jewishness isn't the main point, just an interesting add-on.

Kyle's grandfather, John Adelberg, had a memorial service at Levine Chapel in Brookline, MA, today. We walked around the historically Jewish neighborhood on Harvard St. We both looked interesting in yarmulkes. Kyle got to see his Mom and his youngest sister, but none of the others were there.

I met John only a few times, and didn't know much about him. In fact I learned most of what I know of him today. If you want an incentive to finish well in life, remember that the last few years are going to dominate what people say about you in the eulogy. Unless you did something historic, the work and focus of most of your life will be breezed by in a few sentences. Was an architect at thus-and-so for 25 years, then had his own firm until retiring. Your idiosyncrasies during retirement, and how you bore your final illness will take up more space. I suppose that is because the people at the funeral will tend to be those who knew you more recently - including the young rabbi. In the same way that some guests at your wedding quickly faded from your life, the mourners at your funeral will be something of a snapshot of your last years.

Family will be an exception, of course. Some of them will come even if you haven't kept much contact for years.

Eulogies are supposed to emphasise whatever positive spin of events can be found, and I think that entirely proper. It is good to think there will be a day when people will say their best about you - even if you deserve worse from their lips because of sins against them. Yet I found it jarring to hear in John's eulogy two things that weren't quite true: that he was close to his grandchildren (the other thing I won't mention). I have no doubt he was fond of them, and Kyle, at least, seems to have liked him. And there were periods when John saw them with some frequency.

It was more jarring to realise that most of those present, who knew John far better than I did, thought they were true. It's not that I don't want to give the man credit for good things. As I noted, it sounds like a lot of good things that deserved to be told were left out. Yet at some point, accentuating the positive becomes talking about a fictitious person.

Put the best spin on me you can. Leave out the bad things and perhaps the world will forget them. But no untruths, please.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Peer Support

I'm very big on peer support networks, even if it is the current bandwagon.


The commentary on the Brandon Davies dismissal has included frequent polite nods to the idea that Brigham Young University is a private institution and can make whatever rules it wants. But the undercurrent in the secular press has been unmistakeably What a ridiculously strict rule for 20-year old kids. Isn't college supposed to be the time that you have fun, drink too much, and have sex? Isn't it (snigger) unrealistic for BYU to be having such rules in this day and age? There seems to be an idea that BYU is depriving young adults of some natural right.

We had kids go to schools that were near that strict, so I have some secondhand sense of the thinking of such schools.

Let me ask the question another way: Let us imagine a person in his fifties going into a therapist's office for some general unhappiness or claim of trauma from a hard life. Or similarly, a grandchild asking an 80-year-old...

So, what was the hardest thing you faced in your life?

How does the answer "I went to a very strict college, where you could get kicked out for drinking or having sexual relations" sound in that context? It would be comic if it weren't pathetic. There are, however, many answers to the therapist's or grandchild's question that began "Well, I got (/got a girl) pregnant in college and..." that would be entirely plausible Hard Times. This is the sort of obvious life information we shouldn't need a village idiot to point out for us.

So I conclude that there is a different meaning to the undercurrent: "I did some of those things and I don't think it was wrong, and I resent even hearing about people who do think it's wrong." The guilty flee where none pursue.

Remember that when you hear all that yap about Christians being so judgmental. Sometimes it's true, of course. We've got lots of folks willing to do that. But a lot of times, no accusation has been made but people defensively act as if one has. Or they try to bait Christians into making statements that they can then turn and called judgmental.

Which when you look at it that way, is a very judgmental thing for them to do.

Happy Jack

Long before MTV came in and there was a genre called Music Videos, bands played with the concept.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

What God Wants Politically

In theory, I want Christians commenting on secular sites to bring their faith to the topic, to offer some perspective that is necessary and missing from the discussion.

In practice, nearly everyone who does it, left/right/whatever, does it in a way that is jarring. There seems to have not been a following of the discussion as it is occurring, an intruding of a favorite soapbox that doesn't quite fit.

Whenever I attempt such things, I try to create some segue, some context or disclaimer for the secular reader. I don't know that I succeed.

I had thought that the problem was merely because of the space constraint. It is hard to get a complex theological idea into concise form after all. But I have concluded that this is not the whole problem. The recent statement by Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, et alia seems like nothing so much as simply talking past those who disagree with them, without the slightest attempt to understand. And the replies - I think the one in Commentary is the most referenced - are no better. People bring that into threads seem to come out of left field, also unaware of what has been said leading up to their comment.

I just don't get the complete assurance that they know what Jesus would say. If there is one thing that is most shockingly notable about Jesus's comments, it is that He often stepped back and took a very different view than the common argument, identifying a neglected piece that is, when examined, far more important than anything the disputants had been saying. That may be the most obvious thing about Jesus and the question of taxes, or who shall be married to whom in heaven, or whether we should feast, or whether the precious oil should have sold and given to the poor. He gives an answer that is essentially outside the context of what everyone else is saying, yet stunningly, the simple answer.

Christian commenters do the opposite. They are firmly embedded in the discussion as it occurs along secular lines, but rip out some verses from the NT to club others with. Perhaps we lay people could hardly be expected to do better, but folks with theological training...

No, I won't even go there. It seems like it should be true, but I don't believe it. Jesus said repeatedly that the main point was believing in him, being willing to admit wrong, being willing to give up anything to receive the Kingdom of God. I didn't say that, He said it. From whence comes this idea that we can just skip over that part and say "Oh yeah, believing in Jesus, sure, that's number one. But what I really want to talk about is..."

I don't get it.

Nanna's Recipe

Recipes come down in the family and take on the air of legend. In ours, one of the big ones was Nanna's Swedish Meatballs. Nanna was entirely Swedish, born Lovisa Josefina Nordstrom. But this was an immigrant family that stressed becoming assimilated, and she became Louise pretty quickly, even to her sisters.

My younger brother learned to do division by counting the Swedish meatballs in the pan and figuring out how many he would get.

It was Nanna's Recipe, and all the grandchildren have it. It aroused even greater interest over the last decade, when my brother discovered another recipe, clearly in her hand, that was slightly different and including nutmeg. This, he had noted, had excited loud huzzahs from his guests when he prepared it. We speculated whether the nutmeg was omitted from the Lutheran cookbook by accident, or whether she had traded the honor of everyone admiring her recipe for the honor of having a secret weapon that made hers just a little bit better when people came over. (I have since seen recipes that include allspice instead of nutmeg, which strikes me as a reasonable variation if you like to live that dangerously.)

Yes, our Nanna might have been capable of such a thing. So was yours.

I had noticed, but not partaken of the Swedish meatballs at IKEA or in the supermarket, all of which have the sour cream sauce as well. That's not what we were used to. Those were the other kind of Swedish meatballs, those sauced meatballs. Not proper meatballs, really. Though I do like sour cream sauces...

I was curious what the other sort of Swedish meatball was like, so I went looking for a recipe online. I settled on one that looked doable and gave it a whirl.

It is far superior to my grandmother's recipe. Not even close. I am never making Nanna's Swedish Meatballs again, even though this recipe takes over an hour and a half. I am betting that more and more old family recipes are going to bite the dust in the next generation.

Notes on preparation: I always make a half recipe. All that nonsense about making a roux - and why do they invariably call it a classic roux? - I don't much bother. Thicken the pan drippings with flour, stir in the hot beef stock, and it's fine. That "color of coffee with cream" idea takes another half hour of constant attention for little added benefit. Also, I've been reducing the black pepper each time I make it. Tonight it was a half of what the (halved) recipe calls for, and that was still too much. Mincing/grating/blending the onion very fine is key.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011


"(Cause) is really important to me and it breaks my heart to hear of upsetting things that go on throughout the world… I want so badly to be able to do something major and change the world for the better, and when I participate in huge marches like the one in DC, I feel like I'm actually doing something and part of something larger than what I can do on my own.”

Male or female?

Young, middle, or old?

Liberal or conservative?


Part of what has impressed and worried me about Watson winning at Jeopardy is how difficult context must be to program. A coworker said "Meredith is Genesis" to the intern yesterday. Only about half the people present, all of whom work in the NH mental health system, understood what was being said.

If you play with it, you could find a dozen possible meanings for the reference, but would likely be wrong. (Michael and Retriever might pull it out.) The full meaning of the phrase is "The town of Meredith, NH is in the service region of the community mental health center Genesis Behavioral Health in Laconia."

That degree of subtlety would be difficult to teach a computer. One can see how it could be programmed to know it is in a NH mental health context and thus assign certain meanings to words that have multiple referents. Or one could also program it to recognise "Meredith" as a girl's name or a surname, and "Genesis" as a rock band or a book of the Bible, but even that gets tricky. Meredith is also a lakeport here, and of course many things in the town are named after it.

Plus subtle mishearings. These things are so tricky, in fact, that human beings often get them wrong in conversation. Minimalist references are common in our speech and we get by them 90% of the time. But not all the time. (Does this happen more frequently to married couples, or is it just because there is more conversation about diverse topics, and thus more opportunity? Or because one is male and one female?)

I don't know how you teach a computer to sort through those many meanings, some of which have never been associated before in all of human speech.


Charlie Sheen is an actor, right? I've heard his name for years, but I don't know if he's movies or TV. He must be pretty good, I suppose, if he's been around this long. Drugs keep getting mentioned, so the more accurate diagnosis wood be substance-induced mood disorder. I'm assuming he's quite liberal, because the tone of criticism is different than it was for Mel Gibson.

The sports radio guys were talking about some recent meltdown he's been having, and were laughing over his quotes. Welcome to my world. I went back and forth between being bored - I have heard a lot of bipolar guys talk like this - and embarrassed for him and the people laughing at him. Our new admission this morning had a similar presentation. Not all people going through mania are so entertaining, I suppose, but this type of conversation flows naturally from the tangentiality and expansive feelings of mania. It's like laughing at the crippled kid.

If he didn't have oodles of money this whole picture would look different.

So, this is the unofficial mental health awareness week.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Bracket - Math

This year I know almost nothing about college basketabll. I knew the name of that guy on Duke the beginning of the year, and I saw a cover that said Duke and Kansas are good. That's it. So it's a good year to test the idea I had last year, of filling out a bracket based on math instead of knowledge.

I read in 2009 that margin of victory is a telling stat, and more specifically, that blowout wins vs. not-getting-blown-out losses is the way to bet. This fits what I've said before, that the cliche "great teams win close games" is more mythology than truth. Great teams win blowouts. A close game can really be seen as only half a win in terms of its predictive value. So I'm going to start there. I don't know how I'm going to define blowout or close game yet, though.

Actually, I'm going to start by picking all my #1 and #2 seeds over the #16 and #15 seeds. But that should have been obvious anyway.

I have to figure that strength of schedule means something, and I'll work it in somewhere, probably with a significant weighting, but I haven't figured that out either. Last, there is the intriguing notion that winning home games is important, but that games are sometimes not 100%-0% home or away. The thinking there is while Louisville playing at Kentucky's gym is a significant disadvantage - the crowd noise and court appearance - it's still a bit of a home game. It's not far, some of your fans will make the trip, and you've seen the place before. Call it 10-15% a home game. If you are playing at a neutral site that is in your league and you've played there before, it might be 55-60% a home game even it it is far away.

I really don't know how I'm going to calculate that last one. I may just give up. An either-or Home/Away might not make that much difference, because I don't think I'm going to weight that factor as strongly as the other two. I will be doing the calculations by hand, just because it's fun. I'm sure there are sites that do all this for you, far better than I'm going to do, but don't tell me about them, for I would be sorely tempted.

Just running the calculations I will likely learn things about teams that will start to influence my decisions, but I'll try to make it as clean as possible.

Update: I think I had better check whether teams have a major injury or not. Or is that cheating?

Update: First calculations, immediate problem. The first few games of the season are often not against DI teams. I don't know which way I'll jump on that.

By The Seaside - ABBA

Guilt And Style

Tangential to the "Tanakh" post,but interesting: I have long waved off references to “Catholic Guilt,” or “Baptist Guilt,” or “Jewish Guilt,” noting that every group, even atheists, seem to have their own particular brand of this general human trait. Not everyone in each group shares the tendency, and I’m not sure there is a dramatic difference in the amount of guilt feeling from group to group, only the style. Because of this, I tend to think style is important in these matters. All of them include strong elements of not shaming your parents or “the family,” however expansively that is defined. Intriguing to me is that despite the dramatic yearly reminder during the High Holy Days of the necessity of repenting before God, the stereotypes of Jewish guilt don’t include that. Neither the humorous stereotype of parents encouraging guilt, nor the accusation by secular and uninvolved Jews that the more observant attempt to make them feel guilty, includes much suggestion that they are offending God. The focus seems to be that they are letting down other Jews, or the whole Jewish people, or their heritage.

There is much less of this from Catholics and Calvinists, I think.

Perhaps Jews don’t think that is a matter for joking, or consider bringing God directly into the guilt equation is a bridge too far. Or perhaps modern Jews really do think more about Jewish identity than they do about God. Dunno. I suspect it’s historically recent and mostly American.

Gas Prices

Wasn't George Bush to blame the last time gas prices went up?

Teenage Impulsivity

Anyone who has seen a teenager in the grip of an obsession knows that they can work harder than most people. Like a garage tinkerer who will spend hours refining an invention that will save him a few seconds a few dozen times in his life, a teenager can devote enormous persistence to a task that strikes his fancy. If the reward is visible. If the reward is not visible, they are easily distracted into one that is, even if it is a lesser reward.

I have no idea how you're going to use this information, BTW. I certainly haven't figured it out.

Why then, are they so lazy, so unconcerned, about tasks which need to be accomplished - even they know need to be accomplished eventually - but hold no charm?

Because our "achieve reward" and our "avoid discomfort" circuits are separate, and theirs haven't lined up yet. For adults, the connection between the two concepts has developed over time, so we can at least roughly estimate some balance between them. But for teenagers, these two items are still quite separate. Their "achieve reward" circuits are actually more active than an adult's. So active, in fact, that it kicks in for whatever crosses its path. Their energy goes to "the next visible reward." All others, take a number. Rather like the dog-man in the movie who turns his head and says "Squirrel!" Shiny, shiny.

Complicating this is the underdeveloped circuitry for avoiding discomfort. Because teenagers dawdle over anything unpleasant, you would think it would be the opposite - that they do little but avoiding discomfort. Yet it is the underdevelopment, the lack of ability to see that 10x discomfort will occur if you don't endure x comfort now that keeps them unmoved by consequences. 10x, x, it's all the same. My parents are mildly upset, my parents are very upset, it's all the same. I might be embarrassed for a few moments, I might lose my job - those are about equivalent to a teenager.

This is of course entirely understandable to adults, even as it is infuriating. We feel those same impulses on their separate circuits and get the point that one might not want to do something unpleasant. Why not put it off a few more minutes, hours, days? But adults have the better-developed pain avoidance, and can better foresee how painful this is going to be if it is postponed too long.