Saturday, April 30, 2011

Jesse's Rant - MWBOT5

The flexible nature of Ventura's rant (which Texan99 emphasises) is curious. One can imagine it coming from a fringe player of half-a-dozen groups, all over the American spectrum - including some from history. "Elites" are pushing us around, making money, and rubbing our noses in it - and this seems a moderately common idea, however the targets vary.

This seems related to my earlier observation that a belief in a conspiracy precedes identifying its members. (No search reveals this here. I make the observation on other sites frequently, but have apparently not mentioned it here. Huh.)

So the paranoid tendency about hidden forces controlling us and ruining everything may pre-exist targets, and the resentful tendency about open, flaunting forces controlling us and ruining everything may also be a personality trait.

Are there other political tendencies that are factory-installed, waiting only to imprint on some random local condition? There are people who seem congenitally determined to reject both sides of a conflict and seek a compromise. That's often a wise approach, and gene pool likely needs a fair number of those to keep us off each others' throats, but it does have its own weaknesses - eventually you are attempting to get Jesus and the Pharisees to sit down together and talk it out, and listen to each others' POV. (and Jesus would appreciate the reminder, right? Blessed are the peacemakers and all that? He'd thank you later.)

The disquieting thought, of course, is that all of our political and social beliefs are just local variants of relatively few genetically-acquired outlooks. I suspect all base types might be necessary for a tribe to survive over time. I'd be curious if the American immigration populations - which would bear some similarity to Canadian, Australian, and other settler groups - has different proportions to those who stayed home, and if the involuntary immigrants (slaves, transported criminals) were a third mix.

Readers are encouraged to speculate wildly on this one, without regard to whether there is solid evidence to back up their new favorite theory.

Friday, April 29, 2011

My Uncle Again

Uncle Dave sent along a recent rant purportedly by Jesse Ventura. I thought he was sending it as an example of how insane the right-wing and Tea Party are, and I thought it sounded bogus. Searching the web I can see it attributed to Jesse, but it has the ring of someone else's rant, with Ventura's name tacked onto it.

Doesn't matter, really. When I dismissed it as insane...well I'll quote the email directly:
AVI: Did he really write this? I can't find that it's an urban legend, but it smells odd.

UncaDave: Yeah It does smell odd But so what
More often than not. you focus on the author
But not on what he says What difference does it make who writes? Even the marginals like Ventura (or his ghost writer ) may say something worthwhile
In which particular do you disagree with him?

AVI: Good heavens! All of it. It's insane. He talks about vague poisoners and robbers, calls them elites, and everyone can fill in the blanks with their own enemies. He's some guy they put away in a home, muttering about the commies, or the corporatists, or the jews. (For confirmation, look at the comments at the link.)

UncaDave: A continuance of attacking the author and ducking what he says
So I took the bait, and fisked the entire Ventura essay. Hope you have fun.

You who, even approximately, is this "you" he is speaking about? control our world. No, no one does. Power is diffuse.
You’ve poisoned the air we breathe, and yet Jesse lives and prospers, Funny.
contaminated the water we drink, is he talking about 1973 or something? What water? Where? Draining aquifers is the problem he should worry about
and copyrighted the food we eat. As opposed to breeds of cattle or tomatoes for the last two centuries? General Mills? Nestle? Or does he mean genetically-modified foods? What's his objection to them, other than some gut sense that they shouldn't be...well, I can't tell exactly. What the hell is he thinking is wrong? Is it 1999 again?
We fight in your wars Who? I'm still not getting it. Afghanistan and Iraq were popular wars at first - you could make a good case that the politicians fought them because the people demanded it, then they got unpopular after three years, as wars always do. If you mean Libya, I might agree.
die for your causes what causes does he mean? Whether one thinks the wars were about punishing bad guys, bringing long-term peace to the ME, or just grabbing some oil, those are pretty popular causes with Americans. I'd question the methods long before the causes. Those are pretty good causes. As wars go, those are way better than average reasons.
and sacrifice our freedoms to protect you. What freedoms were sacrificed? Airport searches, I'll grant. But the worrisome surveillance issues stem aren't particularly war-related. Yet who got protected?
You’ve liquidated our savings, OK, he must mean the government here, then, not businesses or the wealthy. Whatever else you might say about Walmart or GE or Microsoft, they haven't liquidated savings. And I'd say "eroded," not liquidated, anyway.

Hey, if this is the government that he has been talking about, then maybe Jesse and I have some common ground!

destroyed our middle class when did this happen? I must've missed it on the news, is it 1933 again?
and used our tax dollars to bailout your unending greed No we bailed out unending stupidity and I'm not sure who benefited, except unions and a lot of folks in government.
We are slaves to your corporations I pick Disney, then. I'll be their slave. Or Apple.
zombies to your airwaves okay, that one is starting to sound like my paranoid schizophrenic patients,
servants to your decadence. I'm trying to think what particular decadence I am enabling this year. Unless it's 1913 he's talking about. Is he channeling William Jennings Bryan?
You’ve stolen our elections - okay, that's the Democrats, but even I don't think they've stolen a lot of them. Maybe a handful,
assassinated our leaders - The 1960's? Is that the answer to the puzzle?,
and abolished our basic rights as human beings. And yet no one has locked Jesse up, despite his being insane. And I ate the dinner I liked, and sit typing at a computer.
You own our property So it's banks that are the problem, maybe,
shipped away our jobs, and shredded our unions See auto bailouts, above. And union member are about the only group with pensions now.
You’ve profited off of disaster Someone made money on....Katrina? Gulf Oil Spill? Or Japan? Or the tornadoes? I think those were pretty much all loss. Hiram does make some overtime whenever we have a blizzard, but we don't begrudge him that, he works hard for it
destabilized our currencies more than one? Maybe it is Bryan and the Free Silver party he's channeling,
and raised our cost of living. Only if he means government.
You’ve monopolized our freedom I have no idea what that means,
stripped away our education, Naw, the kids pretty much do that on their own

Everyone get ready to block those clustered metaphors...
and have almost extinguished our flame . We are hit… we are bleeding… but we ain’t got time to bleed. We will bring the giants to their knees and you will witness our revolution!

That IQ Research

I am sure that Steve Sailer is more thorough and more clever in reviewing the IQ research reported yesterday, but I am disciplining myself to do this without assistance.

The quote at the end of the article tells you what you need to know about the rest of the research. This is where she wanted to go all along:
Instead of limiting ourselves to narrow standardized tests, we might seek as well directly to assess motivation as well as creativity, practical skills, wisdom, and even ethics. If we did, we might find our society advancing to levels of economic productivity and, for that matter, well-being that we previously believed to be out of reach.
Yes, and boo'ful kitties as well.

I have little doubt that the study tells us a little something, but not quite what Duckworth thinks. That motivation influences scores is rather obvious, but perhaps it does need to be studied and teased apart a bit. Here's the thing: high motivation doesn't raise one's score much, but low motivation can certainly depress it. Thus, when the films are reviewed for sign of ebbing interest, they are picking up the losses. If one transfers thinking about this over to athletics, my statement about motivation becomes clearer. A good athlete, with training, he might cut as much as minute off his time in the mile run. If motivated by a coach, a drill instructor, a competitor, or a corny movie, might cut 10, 20 seconds off his best time during that training, especially at the beginning. And that's it.

But a less good athlete can lose a lot more than a minute by being unmotivated. He can slow to a jog, or even a walk, completing the task only for politeness or because others are yelling. In fact, it will usually be the less good athletes who do this, and the poor athletes most of all. The bad singers will get quieter, try to turn invisible, not show for practice. Unskilled artists will try to just get out with a dashed-off sketch. People like succeeding at things, and so keep doing things they are good at. Things they aren't good at, they will focus on less, unless there is some other draw - social, monetary, guilt.

This is surprising? Is this the great new knowledge in understanding IQ scores, that the kids with 120 IQ and above will fight for every point, while the kids at 85 may blow off subtests they are particularly bad at and drop to 81?

It seems a strawman that Duckworth is arguing against, that there were people who viewed IQ tests like a Sorting Hat, a smart-o-meter that reads your brain wand the dial hits a number installed at birth? Has she met such folks? There are people who take the stability of IQ more seriously, much more seriously, than Duckworth does, and have evidence to back it up. She hasn't dented their view with this.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


The Carolina Panthers drafted Cam Newton with the first pick. Which is why they will always be the Carolina Panthers.

Wide World Of Sports

ESPN is doing the 50th anniversary of WWOS. The 1978 anniversary show has more meaning for me, because we got rid of our TV shortly after that, and I seldom saw it again. (For some reason this is labeled a Silver Anniversary show. It isn't.)

There is an odd moment late in the video, where you will do a double-take, until you remember Oh yeah, it's 1978. Weird.

Cliff-diving in Acapulco. Wrist-wrestling in Petaluma. Lots of Track and Field, lots of swimming and diving. Boxing, skating. I loved it. Looking at the partial list of events, it suddenly picks up for me in 1966, when I remember details about half the events as I see them listed. But there is usually only one event per episode, and there were usually 2-3 each week. I'm guessing that 1966 is the year my mother stopped insisting that I go outside and play rather than sit inside and watch TV.

For a lot of these sports, it was enough to have seen them once, or perhaps once a year. But for a reader such as I, it was fascinating to have only read about such things as rugby or sailing, and then get to watch them. That seems almost unbelievable to me now, but there it is. Track meets or tennis only came on when someone at a Big Three network put them on, and that mostly meant ABC. Libraries didn't have them, you couldn't rent them, and only wealthy athletic departments would have films.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Game 7

I'm not a hockey fan, but it is nice to turn on the radio while heading down to Cumby's and hear them win Game 7 in overtime within thirty seconds of my starting to listen. That's a nice, efficient way to be a sports fan.

Cow Hampshire

I found a charming NH history site while looking for something else. Cow Hampshire. Like many other insulting *nicknames, "Cow Hampshire" has been embraced by natives as a badge of honor instead - perhaps because it is mostly Marsschoositts folk who call us that, and we like being unperturbed by them gen'rally. Why, after all, would Maine or Vermont call us "Cow Hampshire," except perhaps as a Hail, fellow! Well met! greeting? But there are subtleties within, as there often are in ongoing PR battles. Cow Hampshire purports to embrace the rural, unsophisticated nature we are supposed to have (and believe me, there are places where it is absolutely true. There are entire towns which seem to survive on an economy of sharpening each others' saws.), but there is a bit of further mahketin' going on as well. The SE section of NH is essentially Manchester, Nashua, and suburbs of Boston. It kills us to admit that, but it's just true.

So we dig in our heels a bit to insist that we are not suburban Boston, but a pristine rural state with lots of wildlife,moose new hampshire Pictures, Images and Photos


and wilderness,
So that tourists will come.

We've been doing this for a long time, actually.

Ambivalent reality: the Lakes Region (blue gray)

has a lot of Massachusetts people in the summer - other states too, but MA predominates. All of them think they are practically natives. It is in our interest to let them keep thinking that, but in reality, only a few do.

At any rate, Cow Hampshire, the blog. The first recorded use of the word cocktail was in NH. The speculation is that it comes from horse-racing, referring to a horse that is not a thoroughbred, and thus "mixed." Could be.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Art and Ideas

The more I see the more I doubt whether people ever really make aesthetic judgments at all. Everything is judged on political grounds which are then given an aesthetic disguise.
George Orwell

There is a quote by Lewis, but I have given up on finding it, that even if one could write like (Thomas) Traherne, one wouldn't be allowed to, because every dictate of style is in fact a directive of what one may write about. Something similar to Orwell's idea there.

People will say they admire a work of art because it was done well, even though they disagree with its message. That is far less possible for me than it is for others. I suppose one can admire skill most easily in one's own field, so that one trained in classic ballet can be impressed by a Martha Graham troupe even while finding it infuriating, or a playwright enjoy well-written dialogue in a play advocating virtues opposing his own. But even in arts that I know something about I do not find such an adjustment easy. If the theme the artist is putting forth is one I hate, root and branch, I cannot enter in to admire it.*

My view is the more common, far more common, in all cultures until recently. Art for it's own sake, art as something noble in itself rather than as a vehicle for real virtues, would not have been a meaningful concept for most of our ancestors. Once we grasp that, we see Orwell's and Lewis's words in a different light. To value artistic skill regardless of the use to which it is put is not a neutral vision of art and skill, but a very emphatic statement about them. It is a claim that we should value artistic skill more than our faith, or our philosophies, that it has a claim of virtue all its own.

So also with other ideas that have been elevated over the last few centuries. We consider it a good thing to be open-minded, and to have an exchange of ideas. Maybe so, but Jesus didn't seem to think so. His aim, and that of his immediate followers, was to tell things, not learn what their ideas were and affirm them. We may imagine that Jesus would be different in 21st C America, but I think imagination would be our only basis for thinking so.

*I don't have to like all aspects of it. I get more out of hip-hop than most people my age, even though I find much of it musically appalling, because it at least has more narrative than most other popular music, which since the 50's has often been based on a single thought repeated endlessly (Hey Jude, supposedly one of the great pop-rock anthems, for example). Even the objectionable parts can be values conflicts based around other recognisable values, rather than the mere negation of virtues or complete narcissism of much popular music. Sometimes I don't much care if the music is particularly skilled or not, so long as it has quiddity - that it exemplifies peasant folk dance or operatic solo or Western Swing fairly well.


Visiting at James's site (his most recent is about eliminating malaria in way he fears may be too cleaver by half, but expresses some hope), he has a very short post farther down
If a proposal promises $$BIG in savings but postpones serious cuts to some other year, that proposal is a lie.
The 20th C was in general the period where we accepted the idea of people currently living paying an enormous cost for the sake of those who come after. Not only the utopian schemes of communist, national socialists, and their watered-down cousins, but neoconservative hopes of peace in the Middle East, and the whole idea of deficit spending reflects this. We used to sell education at town meeting with the idea that those were of school age now needed it. Now it is a federal idea, and we "invest" in education for the economic benefit of those who will come after. Environmentalism is now suffused with the idea. It was originally marketed as a way to clean things up for our own use now. As James noted, it doesn't seem to work that well. I wonder if people with fewer or no children fall for this line of reasoning more easily.

Not that it never works. There have certainly been infrastructure investments that have paid off a hundredfold. However, we have a skewed view of these, as we are seeing them only in retrospect, no longer aware of the grand plans that didn't work and slipped beneath the waves. It's one of those ideas that works well enough to persist, even though it may be an overall loss. It certainly seems to be a net loss, with neither the present nor the future generation benefiting.

When it's borrowed money, it's not our sacrifice at all, and it is deeply dishonest for politicians to say so. It is money borrowed from the future to be spent on the present.

Christianity, and most cultures, give some thought to posterity, but not like this. The focus on actual people, rather than hypothetical ones, is much stronger before the 20th C.

Monday, April 25, 2011

No Oil For Pacifists

For those who like their economics-blogging current and well-researched, I will note that Carl is on a roll this week at No Oil For Pacifists. He covers other subjects as well, but this has been economics week. Pick a few. Go beyond slogans. Smarten up, you slackers!
Obama's Mistaken Medicare Math
A Tipping Point On Receiving From Government
Corporate Tax Rates and Revenue
Tax Year 2000, Tax Year 2008
Liberal Economics Of The Day
Multi-employer Pension Plans - Something new to worry about.
Charts Of The Day - Regulation
Chart Of The Day - Green lobby outspends industry lobbies.
The Death of Federalism

May We Believe Our Thoughts? Part IV

You can read or listen to folks who claim that altruism doesn’t exist, because we get something back for all those good acts, such as enhanced reputation or a good feeling about ourselves. They seem to believe they have undermined the whole idea because no one can find an example of the Platonic Ideal of altruism on this earth. (Are Randians particularly prone to this line of argument, or has that just been my random experience?)

I consider the answer straightforward. We are all aware of times when we are less altruistic and more self-serving. This is not merely a matter of perception, because examining our motives can push the dial in either direction, no matter how deeply we dig. It then follows, as the night the day, that there are times when we more altruistic. It exists, and the lack of a pure example is irrelevant.

So too with the freedom of our will. It may turn out that our wills are only 10% free, or 1%, or 0.1%. But we are aware of instances when we are more compelled. Thus there are instances in which we are less compelled. I very much doubt, as with altruism, that there is any human action which is entirely free. I think we just like the idea of an entirely free will, an entirely altruistic person, or within the frame that “nobody’s perfect” we think of a “real” free will as being 95% free, a “real” altruistic act as being 95% selfless. Which is perhaps why we react so badly when evidence of even a few points’ loss from our total is brought to our attention. That we got snookered on that mail-order flower pot might be evidence that we fall below the 95% free designation. Our view of ourselves as free, rather than easily led persons is imperiled. Preachers who warn us that getting compliments is one way of getting paid back in this world make us uncomfortable, because if we drop below 90% altruistic, we go into the outer darkness of being a selfish person. There’s not much cushion, if that’s our mental picture.

Maybe we’ve been starting from the wrong end all along. Maybe humans never get above 5% altruistic, or 5% free. When we read the scriptures that way, our impression of what is being said changes, but I don’t know that we actually encounter contradictions. I admit, it looks at first like we’re going to encounter massive disconnects. But a lot of that is going to turn out to be feelings.


We like certainty from our leaders, and apparently our prophets as well. Perhaps we shouldn't hold it against them, because that confidence appears to be part of their jobs, but it is a bit disquieting, in terms of our references to Dunning-Kruger, to read this account of our two most recent presidents. I haven't read Bush's memoir, perhaps he lets go of more there, and perhaps Obama will when he is out of office. I don't think Clinton's did, however. Paul Ehrlich isn't the only secular prophet to be wrong repeatedly, but certainty seems to keep them in business. Watership Down fans will remember that the Threarah said something similar about lapin prophets - being wrong seemed to actually increase their credibility somehow. Dictators seem the most certain of all, which should give us pause.

(Note on Ehrlich: He was one of my reasons for quitting the Prometheus Society decades ago. However he qualified, he became a member, and other members rather fawned on him. It was hard to get people to notice that he had been dead wrong repeatedly. This among a crowd of supposedly elite intelligences.)

I wonder if being social sure decreases/increases the ability to be insightful, or if it is unrelated. I would think it increases insight, because it shows the existence of at least one field where accurate information can get in. But not sure that it actually is. I know of no data. Thoughts?

And why should it happen at all? Chicken & egg. Do those who have no receptive feedback abilities get worse at things? That could be. Do those who are not skilled fail to develop evaluative knowledge? What is the mechanism whereby it gets worse? With a denial model, it would seem increasingly painful to contemplate reality, and thus a powerful disincentive to insight. Yet anosognosia in increasingly being seen in terms of brain injury/underperformance of brain areas/physical inability.

Looking for models here.

Tangential, but I think deeply related to the entire discussion. Children develop fears, and children in religious households develop religious fears. As adults they may blame the religion for causing the fears, which is a natural conclusion (correlation) but not a correct one (causality). Evangelical friends who had grown up Catholic described their own (Catholic-tinged) fears growing up, and had been surprised at hearing about their adult children's morbid fears when young of not being saved. (What if I didn't say the sinner's prayer quite right? What if my parents didn't teach it to me quite right?) I remember this being very painful for my son Ben, and significantly, the calming answer may have worked precisely because it contained just enough uncertainty to be believable. He had encountered Augustine's answer to the morbid fear of whether one was saved: "If you want to be, you probably are." It rings true, and rings truer than all the fundies shouting at you to have confidence in your salvation, confidence in the scriptures, confidence in God.

There is a similar moment in the Xanth novels when Grundy the Golem, a built creature of wood animated by magic, works for the Good Magician Humphrey for a year to get a single question answered: Do I have a soul? When the year is up, Humphrey gives the answer in a form that contains not only assurance, but the seeds of further assurance: Only those with souls care about the answer.

Next, on to the research and philosophical questions of whether anything we think may be trusted, or whether it is all epiphenomenon, a set of narratives that we must have because that is how our brains work.


Photographers see different pictures than the rest of us. Such as here. Not as different as artists, but still...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

May We Believe Our Thoughts? Part III

I am going at the easy cases of free will at first, because I think they are ultimately more powerful in our imagination than the philosophical arguments. Our worrying starts at these perceived threats to our free will, because we jump quickly to deeper worries that all our decisions might be suspect. We do not quite think “If advertising can make me buy a $200 camera I didn’t need, can it be that I have been a libertarian or a Presbyterian all these years for reasons that are little better?” Yet such worries rumble around in our brains unspoken or unacknowledged. And as we encounter these small assaults on our impression of free choice far more frequently, I think they have the greater cumulative effect. We keep getting reminded that our wills are not entirely free. We fear if we dig to the bottom we will discover that none of it is. So we don’t go at all.

But I do. There are flocks of us who started in mathematics and mentally reverse the sign, or ask what would happen if there were 50,000 geese on the island instead of 5. As Readers of Chesterton and Lewis are familiar with this – Lewis noted in his Introduction to the Psalms that the harder questions are more likely to be bush the game is hiding behind. Engineers find advantages to thinking this way, as do attorneys, and likely a dozen other professions.


We read constantly about how forces we do not suspect are making our decisions for us. Here’s a fun list. Upbeat music or the smell of lemon makes us work harder, for example. Supermarkets arrange their goods so that we buy more stuff, and more expensive stuff. We had discussion here a month ago about the phenomenon of “game,” of men who believe that can artificially push certain buttons to get women to have sex with them. Accusation and counter-accusation is made throughout politics that voters are being manipulated into believing something is true or some candidate is competent. We keep track of religious groups for evidence of cultlike behavior, manipulating people who have vulnerabilities via methods that bypass their judgement and reason. Even in milder form, we are are suspicious of emotional appeals to religion as unfair somehow (I understand that feeling, but have concluded over the years that people who make unemotional appeals to religion – folks like me – are perhaps farther from reality and subtly more dangerous). One of the main themes of this blog – it was a favorite topic of CS Lewis - has been the social pressures that get us to adopt entire philosophies. Advertisers – those sneaky unscrupulous advertisers – well my goodness, they talk us into just everything! They make us buy cars we don’t need, they make kids fat, make us go into debt…and don’t even get me started on puppies, kitties, and big-eyed children.

We believe we think, but may only react.

Hold on a minute, here. Step back from the ledge a moment. Advertisers may spend millions trying to sway us from Coke to Pepsi, but if they spent that much flogging Dr. Pepper, would it be a serious competitor? Store brands of cola, whose only advertising is lower price, also get sold. If you don’t have a product that people want, all the advertising in the world won’t get sales for you.

It used to be rather a joke that the “Best TV Commercial” of every year often didn’t increase sales. Advertising does not make us do things, it only influences us. Changing the lighting or the temperature of the room may increase our productivity, our sales, or our chances for having sex in the next hour, but in none of these cases will it make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

One could define all art as manipulation if we wanted to take that attitude – even elegant, high cultural art. Does opera not rely on musical tricks of timing and tone, tricks for the eye to point our emotions in a set direction, tricks of plot that artificially create tension and resolution to sell us an idea? Or might we just call that “good writing” instead? We could define all sales as manipulation if we wished – and where does “sales” leave off and “producing food” pick up, really - or we could call it wealth increase, as both parties ended up with something they wanted more. Is raising children a manipulation? We could make it appear so, by highlighting certain features and suppressing others. Is perfume a manipulation? Is cleanliness?

One of our survival skills for the last 10,000 (or perhaps 100,000) years is to avoid being taken in, so we are ever-alert for those who we think are pulling a fast one on us. We repeat those stories throughout the hive, our antennae are up, we pride ourselves on being the first to recognise that ant is an invader…there’s something wrong with that mash.

Most humans have lived in situations of high competition for scarce resources, where small advantages and disadvantages can have life-or-death consequences. We naturally live in a mentality that overreacts to the discovery of trickery. 5% manipulation, once discovered, feels like 50% to us. But try and decide who is manipulating who in a strip joint, or a graduate school admission interview – or in a worship service. In all cases there are not only the direct participants, but many others who are not present, yet might have been, who have “manipulated” the behavior of those in the room in some sense. If you want to you can see all of existence this way, down to the tricking of your own body by how you feed it and shelter it.

Intentional repeat: I am going at the easy cases of free will at first, because I think they are ultimately more powerful in our imagination than the philosophical arguments. Our worrying starts at these perceived threats to our free will, because we jump quickly to deeper worries that all our decisions might be suspect. We do not quite think “If advertising can make me buy a $200 camera I didn’t need, can it be that I have been a libertarian or a Presbyterian* all these years for reasons that are little better?” Yet such worries rumble around in our brains unspoken or unacknowledged. And as we encounter these small assaults on our impression of free choice far more frequently, I think they have the greater cumulative effect. We keep getting reminded that our wills are not entirely free. We fear if we dig to the bottom we will discover that none of it is. So we don’t go at all.

*I will note in passing that I did not include atheists in that list because it’s just useless. There is at least a subset of them which believes they are the only group that this doesn’t apply to, because they have found the one place of no assumptions, and it’s all the rest of us who have to be alert. I will come back to this in a later discussion of whether certain creeds encourage this lack of insight, or whether it is just personality factors, distributed randomly across the creeds. I’m going to answer “both” to that, but atheism isn’t the only group I’m going to try and pin that tail on.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Adult Sunday School

I will likely be teaching again. Team-teaching this time, if we can work it out, which is something I'm less used to.

The topic is identifying and using one's gifts, so that new people can integrate into the life of the church, and others can look at their possibilities with fresh eyes. Exactly what we should be doing, really.

Here's my long-standing worry: I have a peculiar horror of Christians attributing the direct action of God to entirely natural talents. Oh, he's really an anointed speaker...she has a gift of discernment... and the like. I likely object because I saw too many cases where it was claimed, but clearly untrue. Discernment turned out to be nothing more than an awareness of current evangelical fads; anointing which was nothing more than cliches delivered with energy. I could blame it on having been in a 1970's Jesus Freak culture, but I think I had that discomfort right from the start. Natural abilities are perfectly good things, also given by God, and talents we are responsible for. Acts 6 seems a good model for assigning responsibilities. You will notice that the requirement is that they are generally "full of the Spirit and wisdom." No one is testing them whether they have "gifts of administration," nor whether they have experience in administration. Either/both seems fine.

I believe in directly bestowed spiritual gifts. I am now unsure whether such gifts are given permanently, though I was originally taught this was the case. But I accept that they can be given for an occasion, because I have seen them, and even displayed them in specific situations. I don't know that I can identify a spiritual gift that has been enduring in me. I have nominations, but not entire confidence.

I suppose my worry is that we will encourage chuckleheads to be even more chuckleheaded. But in our congregation, the opposite is more likely to be the problem. Suburban congregations are more in danger of being spiritually tentative than of suddenly deciding they should be "totally changed into fire," as the Desert Father Abba Joseph said. Instead of worrying about this, perhaps I should encourage it.

With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm

Surprisingly, I didn't raise my children on this one. I should have. It would have done them good.

It is originally English, lyrics slightly different, here - by the same songwriter who wrote "I'm Henry VIII, I Am."

The Ocean, and Family Culture

Walking on the beach in Scituate and looking at the precariously-placed summer houses, I commented that I couldn't see the attraction. Tracy pointed out that there was the view of the ocean: "It's always different."

"No it's not," I answered. "It's always the same."

I said this merely to be clever in a particular way. I'm not certain I really meant it. But it is the sort of thing Jonathan or Ben would say, and they weren't there, so I said it for them.

Roll Jordan Roll

Yeah, I've put this up before.

Both groups sing, but the arrangement is pure Fairfield 4

Thursday, April 21, 2011

May We Believe Our Thoughts? Part II

I have multiple posts on this now complete. I'm figuring I'd better spread them out over several days, or they will be rather tedious.

Multiple posts, but still no discussion how this relates to Christian belief, salvation, or election. Ah well, it will come.

Symptoms and insight.

If you have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, you have full insight – overfull insight – into the fact that you have symptoms. I keep thinking I have hit someone with my car when I know I haven’t. It’s a crazy thought, but I can’t get it out of my mind. I know intellectually that my hands are clean. But the certainty that they are dangerously germ-ridden is sometimes overwhelming. If you have OCD, you know you have symptoms. People might have any of a hundred understandings of how the symptoms arose, but there is no doubt of their existence. Anxiety disorders in general are perceivable to the patient as symptoms. Yeah, I have phobias. That’s why I’m here, doctor.

Contrast this, as we have, with schizophrenia, where insight is always impaired when the illness is untreated, and may continue even after treatment. Plenty of schizophrenics take the medications because it makes other people happy, even though they don’t believe they need them; or will take them for other symptoms, such as getting more sleep, or take them because they are under court order or guardianship. Some never believe that the voices are not real.

There’s a full spectrum in between. People who are depressed may not have insight into that at first, they may just think that life sucks and everything is hopeless. But they can often, if the depression is not severe, accept the explanation from others, and be cued into it. Yeah, I’m depressed. People who are irritable don’t see it that way at first, they just think that a lot of other people are being jerks. Yet they can sometimes be cued into the understanding as well: Have you been more irritable lately? “Y’know, I have. Small stuff bothers me more than it usually does.” A patient’s understanding of mania is more varied, but generally, the more severe the symptoms, the less likely the patient will perceive them as symptoms. The sicker one is, the less insight, which is both infuriating and tragic. Hold that point in mind.

Borderline personality disorders can learn over time, whether by specific instruction or by hard-knocks trial and error, which feelings and responses should be classified as symptoms. Until then “feelings are facts” to them. Their present feeling of being nonsuicidal and safe trumps the fact that they tried to OD just two hours ago. They are not attempting to manipulate others with this. This triumph of current feeling over all fact is their reality. They can go to the other extreme in crisis as well, being unable to understand feelings of despair or anger as temporary phenomenon. They seem world-consuming. Similar uneven insight prevails in the other personality disorders as well.

There is another anosognosia we have not yet mentioned as well. Some people are unable to perceive their incompetence regardless of the outside cues. I saw a backstage American Idol segment a few years ago while in a lobby somewhere. The girl had sung and was terrible. The judges had told her she was terrible and to give it up. She refused to believe it. She just knew that she was a great, absolutely great entertainer, and she wasn’t going to give up her dreams on their say-so. (I have since learned that this happens on American Idol all the time. Or Bulgarian Idol. Or Serbian Idol. This is why people need to stop telling elementary school children to follow their dreams, they can be anything they want to be. Despair, Inc. has it better.*
There is the more general case, the Dunning Kruger effect Here’s the money quote:
poor performers do not learn from feedback suggesting a need to improve.
The same as with the serious mental illness – the more intense the symptoms, the less the insight. Learning does not take place. Feedback has no effect. Here’s an irony from Dunning and Kruger’s work, BTW. They quote Bertrand Russell with approval on the subject. One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision. And as if to illustrate this, he became quite sure of several things he proved to be entirely wrong about over the course of his career. Perhaps no worse than other opinionated folk, though.

You know people like this - coworkers who who believe they are the most competent in the shop but are really a drag on the rest; choir members who cannot sing, but tell everyone else what they are getting wrong; 50% of all hockey fans calling in to sports shows; nightmarish parents who hold court on their philosophy of childrearing; all manner of showoffs and snobs. One keeps thinking that a spectacular failure will finally get the message through to them, that they will now just have to at least have a moment of doubt. But it doesn't. If anything, they get worse.

Next up, more Dunning-Kruger, this time with dictators, the confidence of prognosticators, and how in the world this foolishness can be adaptive.

*And while we’re at it, stop telling teenagers these are the best years of their lives. Great way to increase suicidality, I would think.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Kenyan Distance Runners

Evidence accumulates that there are slight genetic advantages of Kenyans from the Rift Valley which help them run better at distance. These include less bulky calves and ankles, more slow-twitch fibers in their muscles, and (somewhat relatedly) more efficient use of oxygen by the muscles. West Africans, in contrast, are seen as having some genetic advantages that make them better in explosive strength sports, such as sprinting or jumping.

It bothers some people no end that there might be genetic advantages in one group versus another, because who knows where that might lead? So they go to great lengths to prove that all differences are environmental. This can lead to ridiculous claims. The study's data points screamingly points to genetic factors, which for some unexplainable reason, the article insists are environmental factors.

That said, it pays to be clear exactly what "genetic factors" mean.

1. At an elite level, even slight advantages may be great.
2. Traits we regard as under our control, such as tenacity, coachability, or pain threshold, might be just as heritable as calf size.

But most importantly, 3. Each of these traits is a single advantage, not a general advantage for "modern distance running." There has been no selection over the past 10,000 years for traits that will make you "travel across the ocean and run specific distances on the flat in special shoes." There are any number of traits that could be advantageous in distance running, or any other sport. The Kenyans have a specific suite of tiny genetic advantages. Other combinations of genetic difference might work as well, or better. Frank Shorter had a VO2 maximum that exceeded that of the Kenyans. Put that together with one other genetic trait and it might be a world beater.

This has larger implications for all genetic differences between groups. A demonstrated advantage in reflexes, IQ, cold tolerance, stress tolerance, or nasal cuteness might be quite real, but not the whole story. Genes matter, and those who play the "follow your dreams" game of pretending otherwise are being viciously cruel to young people. But there is more than one way to skin some, if not all cats. A little wisdom, a little perspective, and something similar to the dream might be found.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Stunning Postmodernist Achievement

I have had my own sendups of postmodern and deconstructionist thought, but nothing of the quality of this site. Each time you visit, it gives you a different, randomly generated pomo essay.

The Moral Economy Of Guilt

A new issue of First Things is out, and there is an interesting article by Wilfred M. McClay on the The Moral Economy of Guilt. Longish, and it covers more than one topic.
Forgiveness in its deepest sense is something different from “letting go of anger” so that we can individually experience wholeness and healing. It involves an extraordinary suspension of the normal workings of justice: of the normal penalties for crimes, and the normal costs for moral failings. By definition, it is something that can be done only rarely without undermining the basis on which it rests and without creating an entirely different set of moral expectations. The famous admonition from Tuesdays with Morrie that we should “Forgive everybody everything” is perhaps appealing as a psychological instruction, but it is appalling as a general dictum. It resembles the child’s dream that every day should be Christmas.

May We Believe Our Thoughts? Part I

I recently posted about unawareness versus denial of mental illness. The formal term is anosognosia, brought over from neurology, where it has long been observed that patients are sometimes unable to perceive even straightforward and obvious phenomenon, such as the absence of a limb. Until recently. Psychology has tended toward the less-biological explanations of lack of insight, attributing the lack to denial or other defense mechanisms, with the implication that the patient “could” be able to see their symptoms but were prevented by psychological factors. This is changing.
It was driven home to me because of several recent patients of mine, contrasted to others with similar diagnosis. Kevin is able to understand that we think his worry that his throat is closing is a delusion. Christopher cannot even repeat our point-of-view back to us, but launches every time into his proofs of the enormous, intricate conspiracy in the entertainment industry to torment him specifically. Amber sometimes thinks that the voices she hears are from her own head, based on past event, and sometimes thinks they actually are her dead father speaking to her. Ruth is convinced she is under chemical attack and must wear bronzing paste and a helmet. As with Christopher, she is somehow unable to even touch the idea that others disagree with this. She cannot even theoretically consider, just as an exercise, that some other possibility exists.
Those of us who work in mental health are familiar with people denying reality and being unreasonable. Yet there is something about these schizophrenics that is an even harder wall. Not a thread can permeate this barrier. In a world of lack of insight, this is the extreme. It is worth noting that these two, and many like them, are among the most intelligent patients, and in most areas, their functioning is unimpaired. Everything not touched by the delusions is fine, or more than fine.

The very existence of human minds that can be this physically shut off from reality raises questions about all of us. It is not merely that there is no insight, but that the brain does not seem to have an alternate route. There is not a work-around. There is not enough redundancy in the system to compensate. Our thinking is vulnerable in this way, like a child’s tower of blocks built too high. Even with the plainest data and extremest need, the brain cannot find a way to at least jury-rig a solution. We know that it is possible to believe things for bad reasons, or even no reason. We now find that things are even a bit worse: there is not enough fence to keep the sheep in inside our brains, and we might wander anywhere. We consider reality to be the final teacher. Rather chilling if that is true only in an eliminationist sense.
Because there seems to be no final something that will compel us to change our minds, even when we are horribly wrong, the whole question of how much control we have over our opinions and choices becomes very uncomfortable. There is a long tradition of doubt and skepticism in philosophy, so wondering how reliable our thoughts are is hardly new. In the 1970’s at least, it was one of the primary topics of freshman bull sessions. Perhaps we have imagined it all, and all that. Yet I think we take it a bit harder to have even our thinking, our tool for working around whatever puzzling, ambiguous, and contradictory data we encounter, called into question – and not just theoretically, but with some evidence actually on the table.
So, how much control over our opinions and decisions do we have? There are a thousand people who could answer that better than I, but I think I can bring something different to the discussion anyway. In Part II I’ll have a go at that. For the moment, two things.
1. If our thoughts are thus unreliable, then at the bitter end of all brutal self-examination, before one should despair of having to give up some cherished belief, such as a faith or set of values, remember that all offered replacements are in the same boat. If your being an Adventist is some entirely irrational accident and byproduct of your genetics and where you happened to be born, then that is also true of the agnostic arguing against you. His beliefs must also be accidental. If yours are no better, then neither are they worse, and you might just as well keep them. If all the beliefs of mankind are that unsupportable, then so is that last belief. It is self-defeating and self contradictory. If everything were that pointless, we would be unable to know that. So there is an escape hatch even if the worst possible theories about our brains turn out to be true. Not an especially noble one – we’ll work on that – but no fear.
2. Christians should remember that our faith has always raised a questioning eyebrow at the idea of free will. We forget this in the west, especially in America, and especially among evangelicals, because we stress the personal choice, come-to-Jesus moments in our theology. We therefore think that our faith must require that we must have some considerable percentage of our will that is free, or all bets are off. Not so. Not a bit of it. The scriptures and the teachings of the church for 20 centuries have an arms-length relationship with the idea of free will.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Voting Dead

Jonathan Adler over at Volokh links to the Ohio report about how many of the dead are still on the voting rolls there. From the comments:
Bob Lipton says:
As a native son of New York City, I find this distrust of the dead to be bigoted and unwarranted. The dead have formed an important voting bloc in New York City and other urban centers for decades. To deprive someone of the the franchise just because he happens to reside in a graveyard instead of an apartment building smacks of an attempted to deprive the majority of control of the government in favor of a small minority, which is clearly undemocratic. It merely favors those who show up at other events.

The dead make little demand on the state. Through specially and perhaps unconstitutionally onerous ‘death taxes’ and ‘estate taxes’ they bear a disproportionate proportion of the burden on the common wealth. They use no public hospitals, draw no pensions, commit no known crimes and have tiny carbon footprints.

Yet despite these marks of good citizenship and, perhaps, oppression, there is a movement about to deprive them of the franchise, spearheaded, no doubt, by the minority of Americans who see them as impediments to their own private goals and who like to show up at camera-covered events to protest the more quiescent fellow Americans.

Perhaps the Necro-American communities scattered throughout this fair land of ours are insufficiently politically active for their own good, but they are, on average, older than the living, less physically able and they doubtless consider it less dignified to be out and about, engaging in unbecoming picketing and shout, preferring to let their voting make their political choices clear for them.

Whatever their privately held reasons are — and who can blame them for not making those reasons public in this modern climate of yellow journalism — we should, as good Americans, support their wishes to remain private individuals without giving up those rights, privileges and duties that we all hold dear, among them the franchise. After all, it is all too likely that many of the people reading this will some day join a Necro-American community, and who among us would wish to lose our vote?

E-Books and Book Clubs

I don't have Kindle, so I certainly still feel more comfortable with printed books. But increasingly, the arguments people make why they are superior seem weak. They have a nice romantic feel. They look nice. It's what your culture has always been. I get it. With me, it's maps over GPS, and memorising phone numbers rather than having them stored. You feel you are fighting some important rearguard cultural action, so that our children and grandchildren will...will...

Will know how to shoe a horse. Will know how to wind a grandfather clock and read Roman Numerals. Will know how to get their clothes really clean by beating them against a rock.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Opus Dei

My favorite coworker relates a story of interviewing a potential babysitter, who she found out was a member of the Catholic organization Opus Dei. Though she is a practicing Catholic herself, she clearly found it quite creepy. Listening to her, it was clear that she was taking Dan Brown's portrayal from The DaVinci Code at face value. I suggested that Dan Brown may not be right on this, but she protested that he had "done research." Ah well.

The irony is that she is very much into Native American religious practices, and goes to Sweat Lodge ceremonies. We look at discomfort in religion differently, I guess, depending on whether they are seen are persecutor religions or victim religions. Actual historical data need not intrude.


I have come to believe that the motto for every race and tribe in the Middle East is "You have no right to criticise us, because you don't know what we've been through." Which is just an excuse to A) not be criticised, and B) recount for you in numbing detail what they have been through.

It Was My Understanding There Would Be No Math

A therapist from the community mental health system was discussing the budget cuts with me, noting that he had believed at first that NH is short of money, but after attending the rally a week or so ago, he had realised that it’s all political. The protests about the budget cuts included two overlapping, but nonetheless distinct groups: those protesting loss of services, and those demonstrating in favor of union power. The community mental health center employees are not state employees and not union, so they come to such rallies entirely in the “no loss of services” group. But union speakers and organisers dominated the protests, and for that group the politics is more the issue than the services, so it is unsurprising that attendees were influenced in that direction. It is also a savvy move on the part of the unions to portray the protests as one unified group instead of two, and to frame the rally in an us/them way.

The part that distresses me is where the discussion went from there, with general agreement that there was not really a lack of funds, but only a “current political climate,” and an opportunism by “political groups” to “gain more control.” Well, partial truth values, as they say. They believe that there could be plenty of money out there, but nefarious others are earning it evilly and keeping it unfairly. The anecdotes about corporations, and rich people paying no taxes, bubbled up quickly, and the personal stories about how much they resented big houses, arrogant people they had seen, rich towns screwing the poor, and the like were not far behind. Don’t tell me it’s not class envy. I just listened to it in my office.

The other prejudice, that useless government workers are getting paid big bucks, stealing from the noble working man, is also irritating. However, there is at least more truth in that one.

Portraying this as mere Hatfields and McCoys, or Serbs versus Croats, allows people to retreat entirely into their tribal mode. Those evil/stupid people want to take power from our wise/kindly selves. Comments sections of political blogs are full of this rhetoric from both sides. I believe most people work hard for less money than they might and get very little credit for it. That is true of government workers and those in private employ. We in government get more job security and better benefits generally, so we have considerable pluses there. We are also stuck in bureaucracies that do not reward excellence, so that’s a tradeoff.

Here is the big split, the great divide between the two groups. Though it is a tendency, and not a universal, it is pronounced; I find it enormous. One side seems able to do math, the other not so much. It is possible to resort to actual numbers, such as revenue projections, fixed costs. I can’t get folks to go there. Not here, anyway. There would be plenty that could be debated, as the Republicans and Democrats have different revenue projection and each accuses the other of accounting tricks. But at street level, I find that folks on the Democratic side, be they liberal or union, just don’t want to bring numbers into the discussion except in oversimplified advocacy form (“The top 3% of all Americans…”)

It Was My Understanding There Would Be No Math

Plenty of exceptions, of course – I may have complaints about Paul Krugman, but inability to do arithmetic isn’t one of them. And, I have little doubt there are innumerate Tea Partiers, though I don’t know enough of them to generalise. But the folks with graduate degrees that I encounter at work generally have little understanding of, or patience with, numbers. (The physicians are a notable exception to this.) This includes the attorneys, BTW, not only the social workers, psychologists, admin grads, and rehab therapists. While many lawyers are quite savvy with statistics, many others (and I am thinking the younger ones are worse?) clearly aren’t.

I am also recalling Ilya Somin’s observation about clergy – word people – making comments about economics without knowing much. I made related comments a few years ago. (Beware: copithorne in the comments.) There is some evidence that conservatives get more civics questions right, get more social science questions wrong, and are about even in history. My longstanding hunch is that liberals are much better at picking up cultural references, which include not only current culture, but historical, art, and literary culture as well. But they avoid numbers.

I think the divide goes to the top. I had previously noted that Democratic politicians were more Law/Humanities/Wordy, while Republicans are more Math/Science/Business (let me stress again that these are only tendencies, though they are strong ones.) I also noted there that our senators tended to look too much alike, and thanked Obama in 2008 for looking different. All the puzzle and argument about Obama’s intelligence isn’t difficult to fathom once one posits SAT’s of 700V, 500M. (Equivalent to something over 1900 by today’s scoring) The 700 is plenty for honors at even HLS if you bring other skills to the table, but the 500 means you “only” get in to Occidental from Punahou Prep, and never allow the score to be published again – especially if it was just short of that and began with a “4.” It would just look bad.* I don’t know those numbers to be true, I simply note that they fit well with someone with Obama’s gifts who is clearly hiding large portions of his academic and testing record. George Bush was somewhat the reverse, 566V, 640M (also about 1900 now). For those interested in the politician and vote IQ discussions in general – Al Gore, John Kerry, presidential comparisons, state-by-state, urban legends – can search over at Steve Sailer’s site (sidebar). There’s an older article here which covers a lot of the territory, though Steve has made adjustments since then.

*Not as bad as Bill Bradley’s 485V, but bad in terms of running for president. A 500M is actually fine for most jobs in the world.

Nice Bit Of Reasoning

Joe Carter over at First Things made some defense of capital punishment from a Christian perspective, and one of the commenters made the very challenging statement
David B. Hart once told me and a room full of students that one of his chief definitions of an incompetent moral theologian is one who thinks he can justify capital punishment from the teachings of Paul or from the Gospel of Christ.
Well, them's fightin' words in their extremity, so I started thinking about the possible lines of Hart's thought, and what might be said in response.

Let me note here that I no longer have an opinion on capital punishment, or rather, only a coward's opinion. Because we are no longer a nomadic or impoverished village society, and can afford to spare a few people to keep dangerous criminals separate from the population, capital punishment is no longer the only practical choice. As with teachings on divorce, the Christian can understand that some things were allowed by the law as an accommodation in the OT, but might be superseded now. The increased danger of getting the wrong criminal as a society's population increases makes caution, and perhaps even forbearance, more reasonable. For these reasons I am uncertainly against capital punishment. I am aware of the arguments about deterrence, bringing repentance to a focus, and the possible psychological need humans have for justice. I don't reject these arguments, I just don't think about the issue much, and haven't for decades. Perhaps I should revisit it.

I was pleased then, when Hart wrote a followup essay at First Things. He anticipated my objections - or perhaps I should say that the objections I tried on covered most of the better ones - and answered them nicely. I don't know that he has entirely convinced me. For that, I will likely need some repetition and reflection. But my experience reading the essay was similar to reading many of Lewis's God In The Dock essays in my 20's: an initial disagreement, brought sharply into question by solid logic.

It's a nice bit of reasoning.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Pastor's Wife Insists She Is Called To Interpretive Dance

Still my favorite from Lark News.

I really am still messing around with comments about insight and free will. But as you may imagine, once you've got it in the front of your brain, everything that happens seems to relate to it.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Garrison Keillor Gets It Right

Or, The Not-So-Telling Detail.

Bernard-Henri Levy is one of the few French intellectuals who excoriates his countrymen for their Anti-Americanism (the other would be Jean-Francoise Revel). He likes Americans. Garrison Keillor is an Upper Midwestern sentimentalist who has over the years come to have contempt for more and more of his fellow citizens. So when GK reviews a book by BHL, the first thought is I'm going to be cheering for the latter and annoyed at the former, right? No way. Not this time, anyway.

I missed the review when it came out, but Steve Sailer just reprinted it, and it's worth noting. Authors like to find the telling detail, the artful little bit that they noticed and you didn't that sums everything up. Levy has a bunch of telling details about American culture - and he gets them wrong. He notices an important little something that he believes will just speak volumes to Europeans about what we are like. Keillor skewers:
At the stock car race, Lévy senses that the spectators "both dread and hope for an accident." We learn that Los Angeles has no center and is one of the most polluted cities in the country. "Headed for Virginia, and for Norfolk, which is, if I'm not mistaken, one of the oldest towns in a state that was one of the original 13 in the union," Lévy writes. Yes, indeed. He likes Savannah and gets delirious about Seattle, especially the Space Needle, which represents for him "everything that America has always made me dream of: poetry and modernity, precariousness and technical challenge, lightness of form meshed with a Babel syndrome, city lights, the haunting quality of darkness, tall trees of steel." O.K., fine. The Eiffel Tower is quite the deal, too.

But every 10 pages or so, Lévy walks into a wall. About Old Glory, for example. Someone has told him about the rules for proper handling of the flag, and from these (the flag must not be allowed to touch the ground, must be disposed of by burning) he has invented an American flag fetish, a national obsession, a cult of flag worship. Somebody forgot to tell him that to those of us not currently enrolled in the Boy Scouts, these rules aren't a big part of everyday life.

He blows a radiator writing about baseball - "this sport that contributes to establishing people's identities and that has truly become part of their civic and patriotic religion, which is baseball" - and when, visiting Cooperstown ("this new Nazareth"), he finds out that Commissioner Bud Selig once laid a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington, where Abner Doubleday is also buried, Lévy goes out of his mind. An event important only to Selig and his immediate family becomes, to Lévy, an official proclamation "before the eyes of America and the world" of Abner as "the pope of the national religion . . . that day not just the town but the entire United States joined in a celebration that had the twofold merit of associating the national pastime with the traditional rural values that Fenimore Cooper's town embodies and also with the patriotic grandeur that the name Doubleday bears." Uh, actually not. Negatory on "pope" and "national" and "entire" and "most" and "embodies" and "Doubleday." ...

Bombast comes naturally to him. Rain falls on the crowd gathered for the dedication of the Clinton library in Little Rock, and to Lévy, it signifies the demise of the Democratic Party. As always with French writers, Lévy is short on the facts, long on conclusions. He has a brief encounter with a young man outside of Montgomery, Ala. ("I listen to him tell me, as if he were justifying himself, about his attachment to this region"), and suddenly sees that the young man has "all the reflexes of Southern culture" and the "studied nonchalance . . . so characteristic of the region." With his X-ray vision, Lévy is able to reach tall conclusions with a single bound.

And good Lord, the childlike love of paradox - America is magnificent but mad, greedy and modest, drunk with materialism and religiosity, puritan and outrageous, facing toward the future and yet obsessed with its memories. Americans' party loyalty is "very strong and very pliable, extremely tenacious and in the end somewhat empty." Existential and yet devoid of all content and direction. The partner-swapping club is both "libertine" and "conventional," "depraved" and "proper." And so the reader is fascinated and exhausted by Lévy's tedious and original thinking: "A strong bond holds America together, but a minimal one. An attachment of great force, but not fiercely resolute. A place of high - extremely high - symbolic tension, but a neutral one, a nearly empty one."

And what's with the flurries of rhetorical questions? Is this how the French talk or is it something they save for books about America? "What is a Republican? What distinguishes a Republican in the America of today from a Democrat?" Lévy writes, like a student padding out a term paper. "What does this experience tell us?" he writes about the Mall of America. "What do we learn about American civilization from this mausoleum of merchandise, this funeral accumulation of false goods and nondesires in this end-of-the-world setting? What is the effect on the Americans of today of this confined space, this aquarium, where only a semblance of life seems to subsist?" And what is one to make of the series of questions - 20 in a row - about Hillary Clinton, in which Lévy implies she is seeking the White House to erase the shame of the Lewinsky affair? Was Lévy aware of the game 20 Questions, commonly played on long car trips in America? Are we to read this passage as a metaphor of American restlessness? Does he understand how irritating this is? Does he? Do you? May I stop now?
These telling details - playwrights like them, novelists and filmmakers and poets and comedians all like them. They are so delicious, to both writer and reader, that we forget they are often wrong. Insanely, wildly wrong. Because we want that sort of thing to be true, the wise nod of the head and the efficient summary, we will swallow almost anything.

Best of Autumn 2007

I decided that best of's for a single month was just out of hand. This is three months together.

December 2007 had a great deal about the morality of war, just war, etc. I should probably collect it into one spot. There is quite a bit about on how the way the questions are asked is often dishonest.

Three posts about unpredictability, risk, and moving away from the mechanistic theologies Christians had wandered into. More economic bubbles, not fewer, is part of this.
The Return of Uncertainty
Increasing Instability
Leaving Narrative Behind

Apropos again, with all the budget arguments, I expose a graphic deception. A commenter has a go at refutation, with partial success.

Hating Mission Statements.

We need periodic reminders of the Barmen Declaration

How paranoid groups have a continuity of symbolism, even when their thinking becomes incoherent. And how we all sorta do that, too.

We learned about the war from The Barbers of Iraq. Really. And that is scary.

Either the Democrats snookered CNN, or CNN snookered the rest of us, but a reminder of how elections are run.

NPR, still getting the Clinton impeachment wrong. And they still will. The myth is firmly embedded in the American political consciousness now. Maybe in the next generation.

You didn't know the NYTimes preferred romance novels, did you? Of a sort, or a sort.

I had forgotten how vehemently I wanted a president with no charisma. It's good to remember that again.

Hobbits In Kentucky

Garrison Keillor Gets It Wrong, and pretty consistently in the same direction.

Institutional Memory

Grumbling about work...

The central narrative of my 30+ year employment at the hospital was being asked to work with the staff that no one else would, often put in those exact terms, culminating in being supervised by an insane person 1991-99. Then, the liberation from this in 1999-2006, when I worked with the most wonderful people and everything I touched turned to gold. As central as those are, they are virtually unknown outside a circle of about a half dozen people at work, and perhaps a dozen of my friends and family.

This was brought home forcefully over the last month in three work conversations. The previous supervisor, and what a strange, almost dangerous person she was, came up in conversation in matters unrelated to me. I mentioned that she had been my supervisor for eight years and received amazed, shocked looks. But she's diagnosable. Dr. (redacted) made a detailed, non-humorous case for it when she covered on our unit, and gave us instructions how we were to deal with it. The other stunned comment was similar.

Yes, yes I know this. I said this for years, trying to get people to listen. But it's over now, and it ended well, actually. You didn't know? You worked the next unit over and no one ever mentioned it? Huh.

Similarly, the buoyant days of doing two jobs at once for the sheer joy of being appreciated and feeling competent had also slipped the minds of some I was sure would remember. Vague nods. Well shucks, then. I was kind of thinking I was holding the department aloft, covering for the impossible person, then covering two jobs. Those powerful people who assured me this was all being observed at a high level, and something would be done about it...well, I long ago figured out that no one was going to take any risks and do anything about it. But I guess I had still harbored the fantasy that someone had noticed those decades.

So I asked the head of my department whether any of this information had ever come to her in passing over her three years here. Nope. She was quite fascinated, actually. She spoke with at least one other long-time member of the department about it after. I don't know that it changes anything. Just another up-short reminder: it is not merely that people see things differently and remember things differently - it is that most things aren't remembered at all. On the plus side, that may mean two major screwups of mine from those years, topics that I still wince at whenever someone wanders near them, may also have vanished.

Human nature being what it is, that's less likely, actually.

Ah, if only Stalin knew.

Groundhog Day For Serious?

So, there's a movie coming out this summer about a guy who keeps repeating time until he stops a terrorist attack - sort of like Groundhog Day for serious?

This is why we should write our ideas down and get credit for them. I was on this one forty years ago. At the time, the idea was to keep working this prison break in Siberia (Ivan Denisovitch was in my mind) until I got it right. Later it became the Maramures political prison in Romania. The year kept changing, but the idea was the same: rescuing the prisoners, blowing up the prison, making sure only certifiably evil guys got killed, not just the more helpless guards or cooks who just needed a job.

I thought it a rather embarrassingly simple adventure and plot, not worth mentioning out loud.

Guess not.


Lelia mentioned that comments which do not recognise the feelings of the hearer can be invalidating. There is a cartoon called Four-Box World (I thought, though I can't find it) which gives a simple, often pointed and ironic, outline of the possibilities. In this one, I have occupied all four boxes at various times: I have been dismissive of others both unfairly and fairly; I have been dismissed both fairly and unfairly. It should give me pause, but it doesn't.

Before discussing full anosognosia, it is worth noting how thorough lack of insight can be even in ourselves at times. We equate mood with competence, for example. Christians very easily equate mood with faith. It is not that we consciously make this connection, but that all those positive images just make more sense to us when we are feeling upbeat. Stepping out in faith, believing in forgiveness, expecting a miracle - all those cliches. And when depressed, these seem elusive, and we fear our worship is empty and our God disappointed in us. Those others, who seem able to live in the cliches at the moment, we resent terribly. We may get especially ticked off at the expressive worshipers or whole denominations at such points: Yeah, all this pumped up singing and dancing, you're just doing on Sunday mornings what kids do in clubs on Saturday night, don't put any spiritual shine on it.

Rather small of us, but we do it - because mood feels permanent. It lies, and tells us it provides insight. But either way, it doesn't. When you are depressed, use whatever tricks you can to fool your body back to baseline, even if it's false excitement. When you are cheery, caution yourself that this also is not theology, but chemistry. And in neither case should you guilt others with your cliches.


A coworker with no children noted with disdain what seems to be expected for bridal showers and wedding presents these days. When you are out of these loops, you don't see the gradual escalation. When you are then invited, you see the decade's accumulation of excess. The contrast to 1980, to 1960, to 1940, to 1920, would make one think that entirely different occasions are being celebrated.

It is simply appalling. It just is. I don't blame current brides and their families, because they are merely standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before. At any given point, any serious de-escalation has a smack of punishing your daughter for the sake of some abstract nonmaterialistic ideal.

That this is at least ironic in a society which values marriage less, and virginity by either party not at all has been pointed out by many others. No need for me to add my voice on that. Yet I wonder if the expanding weddings and presents are actually a cause, or at least a reinforcement, of the values which lead to divorce. I don't mean any individual wedding creating a greater likelihood for participant divorces, but the larger, cultural change. The huge party and the mountain of presents create an idea of receiving, of getting, of being the center of attention, of needing certain objects in your life to be happy.

Well, chicken/egg, I suppose. But I don't think it is mere irony.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Sarah Elizabeth Wyman

April 7, 4:23pm, a month early. 5lbs, 8 oz, 19 inches, by C-section. Mother and baby apparently fine. We have the older sister with us and expect we will be bringing her to the hospital tonight.

Stop The Presses

Russell Saltzman over at First Things, who I kicked pretty hard, actually, is the first to make the AVI joke with some style.
As for being only the assistant village idiot, if you need a reference should the top spot open, I'd be glad to help.
The earth is improving.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Unawareness Versus Denial

Because of the neurological research coming out over the last decade or two, psychiatry is increasingly making a distinction between denial and unawareness. Some of the research is being done up at Dartmouth MS by folks I admire and used to work with, so I keep up with this more than other areas.

Everything has been in the "denial" category since Freud, or before: the idea that mentally ill people really do know, at some level, what reality is, but hide it from themselves. Therapy was a way of developing insight, and having the courage to accept the unpleasant.

Unawareness, in contrast, is the idea that certain brain dysfunctions make the owners of those brains unable to see their illness, no more than a blind person can see, or even more exactly, than a color-blind person can distinguish colors. Like an amputee who feels a phantom limb, or like Oliver Sacks, losing the sense of ownership of a limb after injury, they cannot perceive their illness, regardless of the evidence submitted. Dr. Flashman gave the example of the patients who believed he had implanted chips in their brain, shown their chipless MRI's. The responses were varied - my sort of chip doesn't show up...that's not my doctored the photo... but none were able to muster even a 0.1% acceptance of the no-chip idea. Not evn in theory. Not even as a "what if" scenario.

We are moving more and more lack of insight from the "denial" pile into the "unawareness" pile, for psychotic disorders certainly, but even for mood disorders when they are untreated. How far will this go? Will it turn out that no depressed people ever respond to any offered advice or insight, but only to the intervention of attention, of exercise, of medication, of practicing agency? Lincoln's comment that people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be might turn out to be completely untrue, and useful only for the reminding the folks outside the depression that nothing, absolutely nothing they advise is going to have the slightest effect.

I am increasingly convinced of this for many illnesses, and it makes me feel shame at the conversations I have had over the years with patients, attributing (usually, but not always, unconsciously) their lack of insight to some stubbornness or cowardice on their part - a refusal to engage reality rather than a biological inability to perceive it. It's not just a waste of time. It's thirty-plus years of unnecessary cruelty.

If you absorb this, you will see that it makes things both better and worse. If the patient is not going to be convinced, whether you explain for two seconds or two hours, why bother to give any explanation at all? Or if you listening to her for two hours will make no more difference than listening for two seconds, why listen at all? Isn't it just a waste of time and ultimately cruel, pretending to a patient that her opinion makes the slightest difference when if fact it doesn't? So let's just ignore everything she says until we get a guardian then, and hold her down and give her medicine and be done with it. Why any charade?

I don't think it takes much imagination to see that as a chilling scenario, and an enormously bad precedent to set.

But is badgering a deaf person because they can't hear any better? Because even if the mental health practitioner is speaking in the kindest tones, is really rooting for the patient to "get it," and has the best intentions, if we really think that underneath it all they are denying reality, that some trick or intervention on our part will help them turn the corner and begin to see, then badgering is what we are actually doing.

It gets worse. It may apply to a high percentage of all beliefs, not only to mental illness.

Update: Roper's comment reminds me that I have at least a half-dozen professionals reading here, so I should provide some links. Xavier Amador looks like he'd be pop psych, but he is not. His books cover a fair bit of the brain research.

Laura Flashman

Thomas McAllister

Suffering Fools

Eddie Izzard points out a difficulty with the phrase "He doesn't suffer fools gladly." Who does?

What's going on out there, then?

I've got a pig in me trousers.

Ah well, come on in then, that's fine.

Except, of course, that I am one who does suffer fools gladly. It's relatively intelligent people I'm mean to. I rather lie in wait for those, storming up the hill trying to claim the high ground. Those I kick. Maybe I expect too much of them.

I certainly don't go into the foothills looking for novices to kick. One doesn't duel with the unarmed. But I imagine that's just me rationalising and making excuses for bad behavior.


According to the banner on an informational email at work today, the appropriate color ribbon for STD's is green.

Social Reform

I consider it a great error to read the NT, and especially the words of Christ, as documents of social change.

That society has changed and does change (and I think for the better) as a byproduct of the spiritual change of allying oneself and devoting oneself to the Kingdom of God is an excellent thing. But to retroactively apply our ideas of social progress back on the gospel, as if making good governments were Jesus' main point - or even one of his main points - is a dangerous stretch. You can only get there by making large assumptions, generally unwarranted

For clarity, I am referring to all sets of political ideas that grew up between 1750-1850 that we feel the NT must, just must, be in favor of: socialism, nationalism, communism, free market, self-determination. They are good or bad on their own merits, and have their derivations from NT ideas or not. But they can only be derivations, never the command. The Church had no earthly power at the time of the NT, and the distinction between believers and authorities was clear. As the church moved into the authority business itself, the way back was sundered.