Thursday, July 31, 2014

We Are The World

The video showed up in my Youtube sidebar for some reason.  I can no longer even think of this song without PJ O'Rourke's comments on it.

We are the world [solipsism], we are the children [average age forty].
We are the ones to make a brighter day [unproven], so let’s start giving [logical inference supplied without argument].
There’s a choice we’re making, so let’s start giving [true as far as it goes].
We’re saving our own lives [absurd].
It’s true we’ll make a better day [see line 2 above],
Just you and me [statistically unlikely].

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


Retriever sends along this exchange with a NYTimes writer about civility, and the lack thereof.

I suppose there might be people who are, as a practical matter, not deserving of civility, and fully eligible for social sanction.  As an intellectual and historical exercise, one can find extreme cases.  Even Jesus landed on some people pretty hard.

But once one person is deemed worthy of incivility, it is only a matter of time before everyone is.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Yet I Grant - The Music

It was an incredibly stupid movie.  The Hollywood condescension of  what the gospel is, how it should be preached, and the risible suggestion that the Common Folk would flock to churches if only they emphasised the right parts of Jesus were offensive.  But the music was fun, and I've gotta give 'em that.


Sentimentality is a leading cause of poverty.

When I was a coffeehouse musician in the 1970's, I used this to great effect as a closing song.

Just to show you what a jerk I was then.

Well-Behaved Women

I have been reacting badly to this bumper sticker in our parking lot, but didn’t think it through until yesterday.

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. It’s supposed to sound like a feminist admonition, but it comes across as a personal complaint hiding behind feminism for cover.  Well-behaved men seldom make history either.  Badly-behaved women or men are likewise unlikely to “make history.”  Very few anyones make history.  It’s not a particularly meaningful standard.  Too much luck involved.

Is she saying “I have unappreciated greatness, primarily because society thinks women like me should pipe down, or make cookies, or be nice. But you’re wrong, all of you.  I act this way not because I am obnoxious, but because I am great.  You just don’t get it.” It has a similarity to"They laughed at Columbus.  They persecuted Jesus.  Einstein's teachers thought he was stupid."  From those partial truths, every person laughed at, persecuted, or looked down upon claims an equivalence to those great figures.

So there is some sort of bad behavior this woman wants a pass on for which she believes she is being put down by The Man. Temper? Volume? Sex? Bossiness? Staying out late? Drinking? Those are indeed areas where men still do get some slack in some places that women don’t, I suppose.  Good cover has to be based on something.

Yet somehow I think it’s just cover. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Religion Vs Culture

Liberalism is a religion.  Conservatism is a culture.  You might choose different terms for the distinction I am making, but there is a qualitative difference in how they go wrong.  Conservatives are notorious for mixing God, Country, Military, and Tradition, being unable to even perceive that these might be at odds in America at times.  Liberals are notorious for thinking that their values are simply Right, and that Jesus, Moses, Buddha, and Whoever taught those things, or would have if they had the benefit of modern wisdom.  (Alternatively, some liberals believe that those worthies were All Wrong, but we've got it right now, and those who disagree are some sort of phobe or bigot.)

My Uncle again. He is, I remind you, a real person, who lives in San Luis Obispo.  Despite his considerable intelligence, he remains entirely swayed by the social smoothness versus yahooness of political figures as portrayed in liberal media (the New Yorker, Huffington Post, and Truthout are particular favorites), and draws intellectual conclusions from this.  He believes that though their probably is no God, Jesus would support government health care because it is generous, just as an example.

It was an interesting exchange today, which I include apropos of my distinction between how liberals and conservatives go wrong.  Please feel free to offer refinements or corrections.

Uncle: ...the difference between Con and Lib media
is about belief vs  teaching  The first inspires passion , he second option does not
To use Limbaugh as an extreme example, his audience likes to shout  "Ditto"
Limbaugh himself is charismatic; his listeners are loyal to him  They are "fans" as in Red Sox
I know of no "liberal" who can match any of this.

AVI: The misunderstanding of the use of "ditto" is one of the  most profound difficulties liberals have in discussing Limbaugh.  They all assume, because they have not actually much listened to him and know him only through spoon-fed quotes of media they trust, that the word is used to mean "I agree with you completely, Rush.  Little or no deviation whatsoever.  I sign on to your POV because you explain things so well!"

Liberals therefore congratulate themselves that they are not like that.  (As you just did.) They are thinkers, and skeptics, and questioners, and don't accept what their leaders tell them.  It just proves how superior they are to those idiot conservatives saying "ditto."

Except that people who actually have listened to the show know that this is not what the reference is.  It has a specific meaning in context.  It is not completely divorced from agreeing with Limbaugh of course, but it is not synonymous.  It would be entirely possible for a caller to say "Dittoes, Rush!  But I disagree with you about Rand Paul..."

Therefore, when "liberals" criticise dittoheads, as you just have, and clearly get it wrong, conservatives know immediately that they have no idea what they are talking about.  The field reverses completely, and the liberals are the ones who are revealed as those who simply accept what their leaders tell them.  You don't know what "ditto" refers to, but you believe you do, because other trustworthy liberals have told you this is what it must mean.  And you have believed them.

This is why leaving liberalism is always a personal journey that requires painful self-observation.  It is not a set of intellectual principles, but a religious faith.  It is impossible to leave liberalism without personal struggle.

(Addition, not in the email.) This is why conservatives have trouble abandoning even one part of the whole culture.  They believe somewhere in there that it is all intertwined, and giving up one piece will ultimately result in the entire wall collapsing.  That is both a strength and a weakness.  Liberals don't have that problem. They change views as the fashion changes all the time without worrying about it in the least. And the wall doesn't crumble, even when conservatives observers feel it should because of logical consistency.  All walls are and boundaries are unimportant.  The tribe sticking together is what matters.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Expecting this will be of absolutely no importance to anyone but me: "A man can rise from faeries to Paradise Lost ( I ought to know), but never get from Restoration Comedy to anything of the sublime." CS Lewis, after a tutorial session with John Betjeman and two other students at Magdalen.  (Lewis did not think much of Betjeman as a student.)

Restoration Comedy loomed too large too long in me.

Admit It...'ve been missing this.

Meerkat Quartet


National Tragedies

Now that we are between national tragedies, it might be safe to complain about the tendency to instantly sermonise so many of our fellow citizens apparently have.  When bad things happen, it is because we have guns or because we don’t; that there are too many Lilliputians or too many people who don’t like them; too much Jesus or not enough; or a default howl that there are too many of the evil other guys, with their evil attitudes and evil schools and evil culture, and not enough of wonderful us.

We have each our own hobbyhorses to ride.  I think of Perchik in “Fiddler On The Roof” telling the story of Laban and drawing from it the lesson “never trust an employer;” or the fire chief in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, warning the children that this shed might have been destroyed by playing with matches, though everyone knew it was the Herdmans.

One could consider it an innocent annoyance, I suppose, a natural human tendency to find explanations, or incantations to keep the dark at bay. In the panic of tragedy, people emote rather than develop close arguments, and we shouldn’t be too hard on gentle, decent folk who are simply trying to express sympathy.  So the defense goes.

I take a grimmer view. These spontaneous sermons are based on previous rehearsal, and are intended to bend the world to one’s own viewpoint.  They are manipulations. They are the quieter everyday opinions, now nailed down hard as declarations and cultural markers, at a time when one cannot easily be called out for it.  Here we are in the midst of all this grief, and you are injecting politics into the situation by calling out someone else who tried to inject politics under the radar. You rude bastard.

I notice it because I slip naturally into the role of referee*.  I don’t bring up gun legislation or environmental regulations or Bush/Obama/Harding’s foreign policy – I just notice it when you do, and want people to fight fair. Most readers barely notice the insertions as they go by, and resent the entrance of an umpire.  But I believe this is how cultural change happens.  Putting down markers in a crisis is a way of gradually claiming territory. That’s why everyone wrestles hard to capture the event for their own narrative – because they know it works.

Hey, my friends do it too. I suspect it is a conscious manipulation only to the Rahm Emanuels of the world, and most other people think they are acting in all innocence.  Perhaps, perhaps they are using such a situation as a teachable moment, at a time when they can get people’s attention, because…well, because there are dead bodies on the ground and they want to exploit that because their POV is so important.  I’m sorry, did I say that out loud?

Certainly, the snipers also feel proper sorrow and compassion for the victims and their families.  The manipulation is likely well less than half their motivation for speaking. That’s why they get so insulted when they are called out – they only pooped in the corner a little bit before moving on.  Most of the time they were listening compassionately and saying encouraging things. Why should anyone complain?  

Am I being too harsh on small sins here?

*Nobody asked me.  True.

How To Get Out Of A Psych Hospital

I am referring, of course, to involuntary hospitalization.  It’s quite easy to get out of a voluntary hospital.  Just sign out. Or run out of insurance.

But say you have the misfortune to get put in confinement with no one around to vouch for you – traveling, perhaps, and your perfectly explainable behavior looks dangerous and suspicious to the local constabulary. They decide that Bedlam is the place for you, to be given a once-over before resuming life among the many.  What then?

Don’t say “I don’t belong here.”  It will certainly do no good, and may be counted a small mark against you.  Giving detailed proofs why you “don’t belong here” will not improve matters in the slightest. Threatening to call attorneys or various officials is likewise a yawner for us.  Stand in line, Jack.  Actually getting in touch with a lawyer isn’t a bad strategy, but then you have to convince her that you are the victim of some horrible misunderstanding or mistake, which she should help you with.  Good luck with that.

An opposite tack will work far better.  Praise the food.  Compare the place favorably to a hospital in another state, or better yet, let it slip from your lips that they don’t treat patients well there.  Snort at the idea of living in a shelter or cheap hotel.  Declare that perhaps a decent rest and some relief from caring for yourself might in fact be a welcome change.  Nod thoughtfully that you have many vague “issues” to work on, and may need to stay months before you are ready to go. You are not actually safe to leave at present.  Safe enough to go down to the cafeteria by yourself and wander about unsupervised, certainly.  But safe enough to leave and be on you own, no.  “I’m not any better than when I got here.” True, true.

If this counterintuitive strategy seems too risky, thus that you fear they will take you at your word and keep you, well, there’s always tomorrow.  You can say the opposite tomorrow without awakening suspicion.  It’s a psych hospital, remember?

You might also try looking as much like a visitor or employee as possible and just slipping out on some pretext. Shoes are one of the most important parts of your disguise.  Just about any shoes will do, but the absence of shoes will be a killer. A clipboard or notepad are nice, a magazine, not so much - and multiple magazines are a dead giveaway. Make reference to getting something you left in your car.  There is always some staff member about who has never met you before and might be caught unaware.  Immediately after transfer from one location to another is the best time for this. We had it happen last week.  The error the patient made?  She got impatient and started running halfway through the parking lot.  Never run, or even hurry.  Running at any hospital is always suspicious.

Monday, July 21, 2014

HBD Weakness

There is a frequent, though not universal undercurrent which sometimes becomes explicit, that the real value of understanding human genetics is something in the nature of group advantage, not individual ones.  This is rather paradoxical, as the commenting persons are often deeply individualistic, and seem only secondarily concerned with the perpetuation of their own progeny (or a double dosing of nieces and nephews).  The focus is very much on "how did we get here?" before "where are we going?"

Yet the other leaks out, often in the context of illustrations from science fiction and the societies we might hope for going forward.  A few sound eerily like Weston's speech translated by Ransom at the end of Out Of The Silent Planet. It has the advantage of transcending the merely national, I suppose, giving an observation point of centuries or millennia rather than our rather ephemeral countries.

It would be better if we at least did not punish improvements of ourselves going forward, nor normalise that which will weaken, impoverish, or diminish us. Fine.  But it is ultimately individuals who will live forever, and our causes and materials which will disappear.  Even if one does not believe that - and there are plenty in that group who do not - one might be cautious about anything which sacrifices the individual to the "greater good" going forward.  We might in a very few generations become folks we would disapprove of or even despise now. 

Those future beings will, of course, hold us in contempt because of their chronocentrism, and the belief that they are superior because they come later in time and can tell stories about how our primitive ideas turned into their better ones.  As that is precisely what we do now, we can expect that our descendants will not be worse at such such rationalisations. But for the time being, it might be better to say good is good; evil, evil, and feel confident that we are largely right.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Parody/Parody Non

I was undecided at first whether this was parody or serious.  Halfway through I decided it was a parody, and a rather tasteless over-the-top one, unfairly deriding Netroots attenders in a cartoonish fashion.

By the end, I concluded it was serious.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Climate Science

Climate Science is new.
It has an enormous number of variables.
It attracts the second tier of scientific minds*, not the first.
Why then do we give its claims more credence than we do other sciences?
First answer: photographs.

*All sciences except math tend to have physics envy.


I have an old atlas - Hammond, 1939 - which we are passing on.  Looking at the map of Africa is particularly instructive. The history of colonialism, plus the history of the 20th, is pretty much on display there.

The countries are color-coded so that we can tell which are British colonies, which are French, and which are Belgian, Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese.  There is also an inset which shows which areas used to be German: Togo, Kamerun, and an eastern and southwestern German territory.  That color-coding covers most of the continent.  Liberia and Egypt are about the only exceptions.  As Liberia was a sort of American offshoot, and Egypt has been more Middle-eastern than African for 3000 years, that's not a lot.

We might hope that by 2060 or so we will look back at the post WWII, pstcolonial era as one of necessary development, however painful, and a Good Thing. Right now that seems to be a mixed grill.  The behavior of the French and Belgians seems to have been so bad that it hardly seems necessary to even compare that era to this.  The Spanish, Italians, and Portuguese attempted to bury the history of their colonies, so those stories are only beginning to be told now.

I am intrigued by the British territories in Africa, and indeed, across the globe.  It has been a key divide since the years I was in school, one group maintaining that the English, however bad, created better conditions than have prevailed since - another group claiming that the behavior of the UK in the thrid world was so abysmal as to be unworthy of comparison with any other governance.  People just sort of have a side of this debate that they are on from the start.

Here is a missing piece:  the English had better writers, on both side of that issue.  There were brilliant defenders of Empire.  There were also writers of enormous skill who recognised how deeply unfair conditions were in the Commonwealth compared to the Chilterns - Orwell comes to mind - who tried to hold fair Albion accountable.  We simply know more about how things proceeded in English colonies, from 1500 onward.  Common language is only a small part of this.

Bias. Again

One does not need to be an expert in a field in order to be the best available explainer of it.  There are science writers who are not specialists in any science, but are nonetheless exceptionally good at making concepts clear to a reasonably intelligent reader; religious writers who have no special credential in church history but can communicate a fair bit of it to lay audiences; even general writers who can successfully expound on a variety of topics.  Some can even speak knowledgeably and fruitfully to audiences of actual experts, summarising, analogising, tying together related bits.

There are limitations, certainly.  I don’t know what the threshhold level of intelligence and training is for explaining radar, or iconoclasm, or PTSD, but it’s probably pretty high.  John Tierney is no slouch, Isaac Asimov was pretty smart.  A host of folks even farther down the Gaussian Distribution have performed admirably at the task of explaining stuff, but I’m betting there aren’t many from the bottom half.  The flip side of that is folks who are smart generalists sometimes go up and over in how qualified they are to discuss complicated topics.  I have known some of these (cough, cough).

Those two sides, then – one has to be intelligent enough to understand an actual authority, but have enough humility to recognise when things have gone beyond one’s level.  You might be able to explain the current state of the research better than a whole roomful of actual researchers, but you are not, in fact, a researcher yourself.  In every field there are hoops to jump through – best-practice methodology and peer review being only biggies among the many – that are not simply arbitrary.  If you don’t have those on your tool belt, you just don’t.  A clumsy person might fairly evaluate the work of finish carpenters, but that does not mean they should be giving instruction.

When we watch a sporting event, it is always our fair lads being assaulted by the thugs from the next town over (and the refs refuse to acknowledge this).  When the Rosetta Stone was first exhibited at the British Museum, the French complained that the photo of Jean-Francoise Champollion was smaller than the photo of Thomas Young on the opposite pillar. The English complained that Young's was smaller.  The reality was (as you have guessed) that the pictures were the same size.

Deeply true, and yet often the easy way out.  Sometimes there is bias, and slant, and a refusal by the presenters to portray the data evenhandedly.  Then also, declaring equivalency, even when it is true, is a way to easily rationalise one's way back to the original bias in about 0.4 seconds.

What to do when the bias is real, but pointing it out is regarded as whining?

Yes, I am going somewhere with this within the next few days.