Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Most People Have Tribes, Not Beliefs

There's been one of those media dances in the last few days which would be hilarious were it not so very sad.

First there was the news that Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who was sent to was sent to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses in the wake of the Supreme Court decision imposing same sex marriage on the country, had met briefly with Pope Francis. This provoked howls of rage from many on the secular and religious left, and accusations that the pope had betrayed them and erased all of the good words that he'd said on issues that they'd cared about, because apparently it's impossible to listen to a pope's words on helping the poor or some such issue if he's had the temerity to meet with someone you don't like for a few minutes.

Then the Vatican press office put out a statement that "The pope, the statement added, did not enter into the details of the situation of Davis, and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects." and social media erupted again, this time claiming that Davis and her supporters had lied, that the pope had been fooled into meeting with her, etc.

And as if to cap off the tower of silliness, CNN now trumpets an exclusive report that Pope Francis met with an old student of his from Argentina, who is an atheist in a same sex relationship.

Apparently, the pope is a trophy, and the big cultural contest is to figure out which team is holding the trophy.

Two things seem to be at play here.

One is that Pope Francis, while widely admired for his holiness, also seems to serve as a blank canvas onto which many people project their beliefs. Case in point, a recent survey found that 63% of Catholics who oppose same sex marriage believe that Pope Francis opposes it too, while only 36% of Catholics who support same sex marriage think that Pope Francis opposes it.  (The correct answer is that he opposes same sex marriage.)


The second is that for a lot of people, beliefs seem to matter a lot less than tribal identification. Good people are on your side, bad people are on the other side. Thus, the logic goes, if Pope Francis appears to be a good person, he must be on your side and share your believes, because THERE ARE NO GOOD PEOPLE ON THE OTHER SIDE!

My cynicism seems to be kicking into higher gear as I enter middle age. I used to be kind of inspired by how societies in Late Antiquity could be torn apart by Christological heresies, with mobs fighting in the street over issues like whether Christ had a single nature which was Divine, a single nature which was human, two natures, or one nature which was both human and divine. How wonderful it must have been to live in an age when people cared so much about theological truths!

Now, I find myself wondering if many people on the ground actually could have described the theological positions at stake, or were there a few theologians fighting about the actual issue while everyone else argued based on "this guy is on my side" types of tribal identification?

Half Life

Last night in bed, Darwin was telling me about a discussion he'd had in the car with Julia (12) and Jack (7) about why Isabel (9) was being so moody lately.

Julia: "I think it's because she's getting older."
Jack: "I think it's because she's a chicken sandwich."

I laughed myself stupid over this, and every time I stopped, the phrase "chicken sandwich" would pop up in my head again, and I'd start shaking again.

And suddenly, in the midst of my laughter, I remembered that it was our half life. Actually, that I'd forgotten our half life -- on Sept. 16/17, Darwin and I (and family) were on vacation and not remembering that 18 years earlier, we'd started dating, two weeks after we met. So we've known each other for half of our 36 years.

"We missed our half life!" I said to Darwin as we huddled under our feather comforter against the chill breeze blowing in the perpetually open window. "Have we really known each other 18 years? That seems like a really long time somehow. How is that possible? Let's see -- we've been married almost 15 years; Eleanor is 13... Oh my gosh, we are so old." I pondered for a moment. "We really ought to have sex in honor of the occasion, but my toes are cold."

"We ought to have sex, but your toes are too cold," Darwin murmured, mostly sleepily. "Some excuse."

"Also, the cats are stupid, and there are two boys in the crib."

"Well, I guess that's not going in the blog post."

"Only if we don't have sex. And there's a cat on my pillow."

The cat judged me.

Darwin dropped off to sleep, after we'd realized again that there is no ideal position for two people who want to snuggle, because, perhaps to remind us that true happiness is only found in heaven, an elbow or an arm or a knee was always jabbing in the wrong place. I stayed awake a little longer, offering prayers of gratitude for 18 years of companionship, and every now and then trying to stifle my laughter at the chicken sandwich.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 13-3

It's been three weeks since the last installment: eight days of writing and two weeks of being on vacation and finding myself unable to get the time to put words on the page. Sorry for the long delay.

This installment completes Chapter 13. The next chapter will go back to Jozef, now training for the Austro-Hungarian cavalry. The total novel is now a hair under 180,000 words. Four more full length chapters to go and then three short concluding ones. I'm still hoping to put some serious work in and wrap up by the end of the calendar year.

Kiev, Russian Ukraine. September 30th, 1914. Breakfast in the Luterek household was not subject to genteel pretensions. Doctor Luterek was a believer in a hearty breakfast, as he often did not have time for a midday meal, and he insisted that it be served early so that he could be at the hospital by eight.

On Tuesday, the morning after Konrad’s memorial mass, Natalie has been hesitant to join the family at table, not sure what kind of greeting would await her. Instead she had taken a currant roll and a flask of tea from the kitchen to consume on the way to the hospital. That night it seemed that peace had returned to the household, and so she joined the family for breakfast Wednesday morning in time to see that peace shattered again.

Natalie was at the sideboard loading her plate with kanapki -- little open-faced sandwiches made of buttered toast set with either fresh cheese curds and a slice of tomato or else several paper thin slices of dry sausage -- when Borys entered the dining room.

“I just got news yesterday,” he announced. All eyes were immediately upon him. “I’ve received my temporary commission as a cadet and orders to report for training as an artillery officer.”

For a moment there was silence, then Madame Luterek burst into tears while the doctor and his daughters all began to talk at once.

[continue reading]

Monday, September 28, 2015


"How does a bastard orphan son of a whore
and a Scotman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
spot in the Caribbean, by providence impoverished, in squalor,
grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

The ten-dollar founding father without a father
got a lot farther
by working a lot harder
by being a self-starter
By fourteen they placed him in charge of a trading charter
and every day while slaves were being slaughtered
and carted away across the waves
he struggled and kept his guard up.
Inside he was longing for something to be a part of
the brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter.

Then a hurricane came and devastation reigned.
Our man saw his future drip dripping down the drain.
Put a pencil to his temple, connected to his brain,
and wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain.

Well, the word got around, said, 'This kid is insane, man!'
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland
Get your education, don't forget from whence you came,
and the world's gonna know your name!
What's your name, man?

Alexander Hamilton..."

Perhaps you haven't heard of Hamilton, the new hip-hopera with a rare spate of unanimously glowing reviews, but like the man himself, it's making some history. The show, sold out before it even transferred to Broadway, is a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, treasury secretary and famously killed in a duel with Aaron Burr. And in a post-modern casting decision, most of the lead roles are played by decidedly non-white, non-dead men. Hamilton is played by the show's creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, son of Puerto Rican immigrants, and the other founding fathers are played by actors and singers cast for their ability to rap, regardless of ethnicity. (Well, that's debatable, actually: the casting listings for the show, for the most part, specifically call out for actors of every ethnicity except white, which does present the question of whether there's some reverse stereotyping going on.)

Here's the genesis of the show, performed at the White House in 2009:

And now NPR is streaming the whole cast recording. (EDIT: NPR isn't streaming the soundtrack anymore since it's now out on CD, but they link to a Spotify playlist where you can hear it.)

Tickets are getting scarce, but Darwin and I are planning to roll together Christmas, our birthdays, and 15th anniversary into one big event and go to New York next year to see this.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Grace in Action

If there is anything that places me squarely on the introvert side of the spectrum, it is that for eight days I traveled the country (four of them in the car) and ate fast food and consumed ungodly amounts of chips and salsa and guacamole, and pan dulce and breakfast tacos, and had several servings of alcohol for several days in a row, and when I came home I found that I'd lost a pound or two. Sure, you can chalk that up to muscles atrophying in the car, but I have to think that it has something to do with the sheer amount of energy I burn up in being "on" when I am in society. Being "on" isn't performance mode or anything. It's a social awareness, a mental filter which keeps me from running my mouth too much, graciousness as an activity as much as an attitude -- none of which are all that difficult, and most of which are second nature, and yet which consume strange quantities of energy. I recently realized that my preference for doing nothing at all militates against the fact that I am my best self when I have to shake off lethargy and live for other people. It gets me out of the house, it seems to be more effective than diet and exercise for my health, and it keeps me from sloth. But oh, I am so tired when I get home.

While driving, we read the gospel passage about the two men forgiven their respective debts of 500 pounds and 50 pounds. Although neither could pay, the man forgiven more was more grateful, perhaps because the man forgiven the lesser debt figured that his benefactor really hadn't put himself out all that much. It was just 50 pounds, right? No big deal for a rich guy. But every kind of deal to someone who can't pay. I'm that 50-pound debtor. In the grand historical sense, my faults are pretty pedestrian. I can't get organized. I do what I want, to the exclusion of what I ought. I can't be bothered. I find it easier to create interesting fictions in my head than to do the boring grunt work of reality. Minor stuff, maybe, but I can't seem to break free on my own. It doesn't matter if the trap is big or small if you can't get out of it. I have to have grace, or I cannot die to myself. Do you understand how easy it is to be inspired by spiritual reading or scripture, and how hard it is to start dinner on time or to speak mildly to a whiny, provoking child? And yet the fruit of the former is in how I deal with the latter, and it avails me nothing to have deep thoughts if I cannot walk the tedious walk. I must have grace, or I perish, and I drag little souls down with me.

To that end, I've been thinking about the rosary. Again. It's time to dispense with the idea that I can consult my own tastes and simply go with the style of prayer I prefer. Every time I come across a saint talking about the value of simply living the Christian life, it turns out that the saint is already saying the rosary and having a regular prayer time. Heh. I think that the way to approach the rosary, for myself, is as if it and I were in an arranged marriage. Not a sexy arranged marriage, like the kind in books, where, as an outside observer, you already know that the characters are made for one another and that love will blossom around page 300. This is an awkward arranged marriage in which I need to make my peace with this prayer and do my best to treat it with civility and respect because I'm going to have to live with it for a long time whether I find it interesting or not. As I find that more and more of the saints have said the rosary and had a great devotion to it, I begin to suspect that the problem here might be me, and not the prayer.

What helps is to break it up into bite-sized chunks, and lo, it comes in convenient decades. Right now my decade is the second sorrowful mystery, The Scourging. When I find myself assailed by temptation, I pray this one because of Isaiah 53:5, "By his stripes we are healed." Scourging is the kind of visceral brutality I hate to think about, but when I consider that each rent in Jesus's body actually heals a rent in my soul, I find more courage to face it headlong. His body is disfigured so that the scars of my sin can be softened and transformed by the blood dripping onto them. I do take a mild comfort in fact that I too have given life through the literal disfigurement and tearing and scarring of my body. (Still not watching The Passion of the Christ again, though.)

And yet, here's a lot of talk about how great prayer is, but the proof will be if I actually say the rosary tonight when I get into bed. Talk is so stupidly, ridiculously easy -- I could extemporize about praying the mysteries of the rosary all day. But the doing of it is stupidly, ridiculously hard. Lord, help me to act rather than talk. Without your grace, I can, and will, do nothing at all.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why Is Consumerism a Problem?

At this particular moment in our culture, there seems no difficulty in finding voices, both secular and religious, eager to condemn consumerism. When I did a quick image search on "consumerism" (which Google helpfully defined for me via Wikipedia as "a social and economic order and ideology [that] encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts") to illustrate this post I found pieces of original artwork ranging from a metallic dinosaur covered in corporate logos devouring people and pieces of great artwork to an image of Christ crucified on shopping bags.

However, while many are eager to condemn consumerism, there seems to be less agreement on precisely why it is bad.

One line of thought seems to be simply that consumerism often focuses its acquisitive energies on crass merchandise: too many Mickey Mouse ear hats and not enough reproductions of Renaissance artwork and hand made furniture. It's easy to mock bad taste, at least when sitting with other people who share our own preferences, but this isn't really a critique of the acquisition of goods and services, but a complaint that people aren't choosing the goods and services that we would like them to.

Another accusation is that the focus on buying things means that people spend too much time making money which will allow them to buy the merchandise they covet, and not enough time spent in leisure. However, this too seems a little odd, in that much consumerism, from theme park visits to pay-per-view TV, is focused around leisure time. Even virtuously active leisure activities come with large helpings of consumerism, as I've discovered this year while training for a half marathon. You'd think that running, a sport which involves putting one foot in front of another on a public road, would be a no-frills hobby, but it is indeed heavily accessorized: running shoes, running socks, running clothes, hydration systems (this is the fancy word for a water bottle that clips on a belt), gels, chews, GPS devices... The list goes on. Nor are these strictly vain items. I can attest that having a good running shirt makes all the difference between miserable chafing and feeling comfortable throughout a 10+ mile run, and whatever odd ingredients may go into them (the two I care about are carbs and caffeine, the rest is delivery system) eating a little packet of energy gel during the middle of a long run certainly makes it easier to keep up energy during a run which my iPhone running app (another consumer product) tells me consumes about as many calories as I normally eat in a whole day. And even if we ignore the ways in which leisure time and activities are often tied to consumer products and services, the complaint that we should focus less on goods and services and more on time is really just a claim that we should be allocating our enjoyment differently than we are.

Other times, the assertion is that consumerism eats up valuable resources which could be used to make us better off. But when we boil this down to its basic argument, this amounts to saying that our consumption of stuff keeps us from having more stuff, which is not really all that persuasive. A variation on this is that consumerism focuses too much on variety, and that this variety results in inefficiency, thus making us all poorer. Bernie Sanders recently took this line in arguing, "You don't necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country." However, I don't think that many serious students of the economy believe that reducing the number of brands of deodorant would produce large amounts of excess wealth to redistribute.

You may be wondering by now if I'm coming around to arguing that there's nothing wrong with consumerism, that it's a productive and enjoyable desire. I'm not. No, I think that people are right to react against the excessive focus on acquiring things, whether those things are mass consumer goods or the artisan handcrafted thing-of-the-moment. However, as is often the case, modernity can have a certain instinct for what is wrong without having any clue as to why. Why is "the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts" a problem?

Not because it's bad for us to have things that we want. Not even necessarily because the things we want are bad or crass or chosen instead of some other thing which maybe we should have desired instead.

The problem is moral. Often, feeling a lack of completeness and fulfillment in ourselves, we seek that which we think will fill that lack. If your problem is that your running shoes are falling apart, perhaps buying a new pair will fill that running shoe shaped whole in your life. But often the things we buy are not direct solutions for our problems, but rather a substitution. I'm sure we've all experienced examples of this in strictly material terms, where buying serves as a shortcut to get around our real problem. You wish that you were in better shape, so you shell out money at the New Years sales for that expensive piece of exercise equipment, sure that now you will be able to achieve that buff body in just ten minutes a day and enjoy doing it. Often what you realize come April or May is that you're still not spending even that ten minutes. Spending money was easier than actually doing the daily work to get in shape.

But the turtles go down further than that. Why do you want to get in shape? Because if you have that buff beach body by next summer, you will feel better about yourself and win the love of that person who will complete and perfect your life. Nothing against getting into better shape, but really: will getting more fit really make you more lovable in the eyes of either yourself or others? Getting in shape is worthy in its own right, a way of taking care of the body which you have been given, but although this gives fitness goals a certain veneer of virtue, these too are often in their way a substitute for some deeper problem.

It is said that every sin is, at root, the sin of idolatry. When we follow consumerism down to its root, we find the same basic sin. We substitute one material pleasure for another, but then below that we believe that some material pleasure will give us happiness, give us peace, give us the sense of purpose fulfilled. In the short term it sometimes can. But our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in You. The problem with consumerism is not that we desire the wrong stuff, nor that we desire stuff instead of time, nor that by satisfying our desire for the things we want we somehow sap our overall economy of efficiency and riches. The problem with consumerism is that we constantly tell ourselves that if we could have just the one more thing -- the right piece of clothing, the hot new electronic device, the right organizational system, the perfect vacation -- we would have purpose, peace and happiness. And so we devote ourselves to pursing these intermediate ends, these things which may be good in themselves but are not the ultimate good, while neglecting the one thing which will in fact bring use these things: God. We ignore that thing larger than ourselves, the thing that gives us purpose and promises eternal happiness. We turn in on ourselves in the constant search for that one next thing which will make everything perfect, and we fail to see that happiness is not inside ourselves but outside. We must follow not our latest hunger for novelty but rather understand that true happiness is to be found in union with the ultimate Good: to know, love and serve Him and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Fifty Essential SF Authors

As we head into a busy weekend, here's a meme for you, courtesy of Brandon: Fifty Essential SF Authors. Just for reference, the last SF book we read here was The Martian, but before that it's hard to say because SF is a genre that's mostly dropped off our radar.

%Darwin has read
#MrsDarwin has read
On our shelves

(1) Mary Shelley: FRANKENSTEIN# 
(2) A Square (Edwin Abbott) FLATLAND
(3) Jules Verne:
(4) H.G. Wells:
(5) E.M. Forster ‘The Machine Stops’
(6) David Lindsay VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS.
(7) Olaf Stapledon:
(8) Jorge Luis Borges “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”
(9) George Orwell NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR#%
(10) Aldous Huxley A BRAVE NEW WORLD
(11) A Merritt
(12) Edgar Rice Burroughs

(13) E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith
(14) Stanley G. Weinbaum ‘A Martian Odyssey’
(15) Jack Williamson:
‘With Folded Hands’
‘The Moon Era.’
(16) H.P. Lovecraft:
‘The Call of Cthulhu’#
‘A Whisperer in Darkness’#
‘Shadow Out of Time’#

(17) A.E. van Vogt:
‘The Black Destroyer’
(18) Isaac Asimov:

(19) Robert Heinlein
“The Man Who Sold the Moon”%
“Green Hills of Earth”%


(20) Joe Haldeman FOREVER WAR
(21) C.S. Lewis:

(22) Arthur C Clarke:

‘Against the Fall of Night’ aka CITY AND THE STARS %

(23) Clifford Simak:
(24)Hal Clement MISSION OF GRAVITY %
(25) Poul Anderson:
‘The Man Who Counts’
‘The Queen of Air and Darkness ‘
(26) Alfred Bester
(27) Keith Laumer DINOSAUR BEACH
(28) Fritz Leiber THE BIG TIME .
(29) Robert Silverberg ‘Nightwings’
(30) Philip Jose Farmer:
(31) Tom Godwin ‘The Cold Equations’
(32) Harlan Ellison ‘Repent Harlequin Said the Ticktockman’
(34) Roger Zelazny:
(35) Ray Bradbury

(36) John Brunner STAND ON ZANZIBAR
(37) Michael Moorcock
(38) Daniel Keyes ‘Flowers for Algernon’
(39) Walter M. Miller A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ %
(40) Frank Herbert DUNE #
(41) Cordwainer Smith
‘Scanners Live in Vain’ #
‘The Dead Lady of Clown Town’ #
‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard.’ #

(42) Ursula K LeGuin:
(43) Jack Vance
‘The Dragon Masters’
‘The Last Castle.’
(44) Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle MOTE IN GOD’S EYE %
(45) Larry Niven
'Neutron Star'
(46) Gene Wolfe:
‘Fifth Head of Cerberus’.
(47) Walter Gibson NEUROMANCER
(48) Neal Stephenson
(49) Dan Simmons HYPERION
(50) Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons THE WATCHMAN

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Book Report 2: The Gift of the Magi, again

Three Paragraphs (on a story I read)
by A nonny mouse

Yesterday I was asked to read a short story about Cristmas, for school. This story was about a charming couple shopping for Cristmas gifts. The story was told from the wife's point of veiw. She fancied a set of combs the porpose of witch was to draw attention to and decorate one's hair. However there is till the problem of her present to her husband.

Shopping is, alltogether, a tedious buissness, espeasealy when one is short of money. Even so the wife cuts and sells her long brown hair for twenty dollars. With her newly earned money she buys, for her husband, a beautiful watch-chain for his treasured watch. Upon returning home, her husband is shocked at his wife's short hair. He has sold his watch to buy her the set of combs.

For some people, morals are hard to spot. So I shall present of of mine. Firstly the answer is neither to  (a) not give preasants or (b) to find out what you are reciving. These are very bad solutions. Nowadays, twenty dollars is a reasonable price for a nice gift. Back then twenty dollars was expensive, but you must remember that a gold watch-chain is a very nice gift. I belive that these two went a little overboard. The meaning of Christmas is not giving preasents. (Here I add that, however expensive, please don't pay for a gift with your own hair. It is not wise.) It is a day for going to mass and honoring our lord.

P.S. I think it would have been better for the wife to give a home-made gift instead.

Are People Obligated to Have As Many Children As Possible?

Apparently there is a philosophical paradox known as the "repugnant conclusion" which goes something like this: If you accept the conclusion that the best world is one with the maximum amount of human happiness (which is one way way in which people try to make secular arguments for "goodness") then a world in which there are more people who are less happy could be better than a world in which there are fewer people who are less happy. So if you had to choose between a world in which 1 billion people are 100% happy and a world in which 20 billion people are only 10% happy, you should choose the world with twenty billion people who are unhappy most of the time because there is more total happiness in that big world than in the smaller, universally happy world.

Now, most people who are inclined to judge morality in terms of the net amount of global happiness are not the sort of people used to advocating a world with huge numbers of mostly unhappy people, so the paradox provides an interesting mental puzzle for them. This bubbled up to my notice a couple weeks ago because a philosophy blog called Leiter Reports got a lot of attention running a post about how the (mostly liberal) explainer site Vox had commissioned a piece by philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö at Stockholm University advocating the Repugnant Conclusion, a piece which Vox later rejected (among other reasons) because Ezra Klein was worried it would give the impression that birth control and abortion were wrong. You can read the submitted piece here.

Personally, I don't think the submitted article makes a very good case. The author is trying to write in an accessible, easy to understand way, and I think it mostly comes off as a bit sloppy. Here's his opening, which lays out the paradox itself:

You should have kids. Not because it’s fun, or rewarding, or in your evolutionary self-interest. You should have kids because it’s your moral duty to do so.

My argument is simple. Most people live lives that are, on net, happy. For them to never exist, then, would be to deny them that happiness. And because I think we have a moral duty to maximize the amount of happiness in the world, that means that we all have an obligation to make the world as populated as can be.

Of course, we should see to it that we do not overpopulate the planet in a manner that threatens the future existence of mankind. But we’re nowhere near that point yet, at least not if we also see to it that we solve pressing problems such as the one with global warming. In the mean time, we’re ethically obligated to make as many people as possible.

This idea, that having children is a moral obligation, is controversial, so much so that it’s known in philosophy as the “repugnant conclusion.” But I don’t think it’s repugnant at all.

What I thought was the most interesting part was where he's trying to justify the idea that we have obligations to people who do not yet exist:

You might be thinking at this point, “Sure, more happiness sounds good. But morality is about helping people, and creating more people helps ‘people’ who don’t exist, not yet anyway.” This view is known as actualism. Only actual individuals have rights. We have not done anything wrong, unless there is an actual person who has a legitimate complaint to make against our action.

This means that, if I do not create a happy individual, even if I can do so, I do nothing wrong. A merely hypothetical individual has no legitimate complaint to make. This is the great appeal of actualism: it means that people have total freedom in choosing whether to reproduce or not. My view suggests that we have a moral obligation to keep having children; actualism lets people do as they like.

I can’t help finding all this problematic. Imagine for a second that the Genesis story is actually true. Under the actualist view, Adam and Eve could have morally refrained from having children, even if, had they decided differently, billions of billions of happy persons would have been around!

Here is another consequence of the theory. Suppose I have a choice as to whether to have a baby at 15 or at 35. If I have the baby at 15, I’ll earn much less money in my career, the baby will go to worse schools and live in a worse neighborhood, and generally her life will be much tougher. If I have her at 35, I’ll be able to adequately provide for the baby, pay for college, and so forth. If I have the baby at 15, then, did I do anything wrong? I did not, by actualist reasoning. There is no one there to complain about what I did. The baby is, after all, happy to be around. By creating her, I did not violate her rights. And the hypothetical baby I would’ve had at 35 isn’t around to complain. But this cannot be right. If these are the options I have, I ought to wait. The world where I have a baby at 35 is just happier than the one where I have a baby at 15.

Now, I'm not a philosopher, and I don't play one on TV, but part of what interests me here is that there's a similar argument one sometimes hears from devout Catholics about obligations to those not yet existing which goes something like this: "Think how much our world is suffering because people are too selfish to have more children! St. Therese of Lisieux was the fifth of five children. St. Thomas Aquinas was the eighth of eight children. How many people even have five children today, much less eight? By refusing to have all of the children that God wants to give them, people are refusing to give birth to saints!"

This rests on what I think of as the "bubble gum ball theory of the soul" in which there is a sort of spiritual gum ball machine in heaven with lots of babies waiting to be born. If people don't conceive as often as they are "meant to" then they are refusing to give life to some number of those intended people. By this theory, people are somehow failing in their obligations to these future people when they fail to conceive them.

First off, this strikes me as falling afoul of traditional Christian doctrine. The Second Council of Constantinople (5th ecumenical council: 553 A.D.) condemned the doctrine of the pre-existence of souls, so from a Catholic point of view there clearly aren't actual people failing to exist because their parents never conceive them. Now, it's true that if parents overall have fewer children, then all other things being equal this means that there will be fewer saints, but there will also be fewer murderers, fewer insurance salesmen, etc.

It's also problematic to think of us as having an obligation to give life to the person who would be conceived should we go conceive them right now, in that the number of people who could be conceived far exceeds the number that can be or should be. A man produces millions of sperm a day. A woman usually drops one egg per month. So in theory, there are millions of different people who theoretically could exist if I ran out right now and had sex with some passing woman, depending on which sperm and which egg happened to get together. But that doesn't mean that I and some woman I don't even know have an obligation to give those possible people life. Even with my own lovely MrsDarwin, there are millions of different children we might conceive in a given month, and yet clearly, we can't give life to all of them. We don't wrong some child denied existence while giving existence to another depending on what day or hour or minute out of the fertile window in a month we conceived on. And of course, if we conceive one child in a month, that means that all the other children we could have conceived if a different sperm had met the egg, or if we have conceived the month after with a different egg, or the month after -- all of these other people would be denied existence by the existence of the one.

I think that this kind of reasoning would quickly become absurd. It doesn't seem reasonable to try to decide when to try to conceive and how often to try to conceive based on a perceived obligation to the person who would be given life as a result of that conception, when it's clearly impossible to give life to any more than a tiny fraction of the millions of different possible people one could be the parent of.

I'm not completely clear whether Tännsjö pictures the obligation to people who don't exist yet as being to individual people (you have an obligation to give life to some specific person so that that person can experience the happiness of life) or to people in general (you have an obligation to have children because they will experience happiness). His example about deciding what age to have a child at is doubly odd, since he phrases it concretely: "If I have the baby at 15... her life will be much tougher. If I have her at 35..."

Clearly, you can't choose to have the same child either at 15 or at 35, so it's not as if she will be happier if she is born later. If he doesn't have a child at 15, that child will never exist. If he has a child at 35 instead, that will be a different child than he would have had at 15.

Saying that we have responsibilities towards people who do not yet exist in a general sense (as opposed to saying that we have responsibilities to specific people who could exist) seems far less controversial. Clearly, we the current generation of people have a responsibility to produce the next generation of people. To decide that we would be happier in the short term to focus strictly on ourselves and not go through the work and trials (and joys) of having children would in some sense be selfish. I don't know if it makes more sense to look at the wrongness of that selfishness in terms of us failing in our responsibilities to the generation net yet conceived, or if it makes more sense to talk about us as a current generation not living up to our purpose as human beings (though I lean towards this later rationale), but if all those currently alive decided to be "child free" from here on out, I think there's clearly something very wrong about what we'd be doing. Similarly, I think it makes sense to talk about our duty to care for certain resources in terms of making sure that they are still there for the good of future generations.

However, it seems very problematic to me to envision a moral obligation we could have towards some specific person not yet in existence, such as an obligation to conceive that person.

As for the "repugnant conclusion" itself: It seems to me that it serves mostly to underline that "maximizing global happiness" is a bad way to do moral analysis. Fortunately, as Christians, we have other options.

Book Report: The Gift of the Magi

Three paragraphed book report of The Gift of the Magi
by she who must not be named


The "TOPIC" is unclear. Is it: Christmas, or shoping, Giving, or presents. Whatever it is they lose there top most treasured Item's.


The Plot is that the girl is sad because she only has $1.25 to get a present for her love. So she cuts her hair of so she has more money. She Ends up getting her love a chain for his watch but he sold his watch so she will have to work together to save up for the watch, but he bought hair combs for her hair, but she choped it off, but alls well that Ends well just not in this case.


The moral of the story is ask your love what they want for christmas. Simple presents can be the best so she could have given him a kiss instead or something grown up like that.


Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 13-2

I've still got to pick up the pace a bit more, but with the three day weekend I hope to have the next installment (the last of this chapter) out a lot more quickly than this one was.


Kiev, Russian Ukraine. September 22nd, 1914. For the next several days a state of dazed paralysis descended on the Luterek household. Madame Luterek seldom left her room where she refused food and was prone to sudden bouts of loud despair. Doctor Luterek divided his time between the hospital -- where he could forget, for a time, the tragedy in his own life while immersing himself in the difficult operations which the influx of wounded required -- and the house, where what little time he did not spend in his wife’s room, he passed in solitude in his library.

After the shock of the first day, the staff made sure that the house was cleaned and meals were put upon the table at the usual intervals, but this background of normality provided only a limited degree of comfort. The young people were left mostly to each other’s care. During hours spent in the nursery, sitting on the faded rug and armchairs which had come from the old nursery back in Warsaw, the scene of many leisure hours spent with Konrad before he had left to become a cadet, Borys, Sara and Lena told stories of their lost brother, and learned to think of him again without the choking ache of grief taking complete hold of their words.

On Sunday, Natalie encouraged Sara and Lena to accompany her and Mrs. Sowka to church. They did so gladly. This, on the third day after the news of Konrad’s death had reached the family, provided a turning point, at least for the young people. On Monday Borys left the house early on business of his own, Natalie returned to her usual schedule at the hospital, and the girls even ventured out to an aid society tea. Only Madame Luterek kept to her room and made no move towards returning to everyday life.

Thus it was that on Tuesday afternoon Madame Luterek was the only member of the family at home when a package was delivered, addressed to the family in Konrad’s handwriting.

Something in her had stirred that day. The house was quiet. The grief which had curled its soft, suffocating self around her chest, making even the smallest action which hinted at normality seem exhausting and futile, seemed to have decreased slightly in its weight. She had got out of bed, dressed, and come downstairs to have a cup of tea.

Natalie returned home at three-thirty, along with Sara and Lena who had spent the last few hours rolling bandages for the new hospital train being funded by Princess Mikhailov. They found Madame Luterek at the table in the sitting room, staring at the package, afraid to open it yet unable to leave it even for a moment.

“It’s from Konrad,” Madame Luterek told them. “He’s not dead.” The words brought a heartbreaking smile to her face.

[Continue Reading]

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The Summer of my Dishcontent

On Saturday we are getting a new dishwasher. It's only been three months since the repairman looked at the old one and shook his head over the numerous costly problems it had. At first it wasn't that bad standing over the steaming sink washing dishes for eight people by hand. The pioneers, right? Solidarity with the poor, hey? And then the glow wore off, and night after sticky night I scrubbed dishes, sweat dripping down my face and my hair plastered to my neck, and the glow of virtue degraded to a stinky flush.

We are the richest people I know, and we wash dishes by hand in an un-air-conditioned house. This isn't a boast or a complaint. It's just how it is. There was no time to go together to look at dishwashers, and the more we researched, the more we bogged down in the minutiae of noise levels and third racks and hard food grinders. Dishwashing by hand became a form of inertia, of inaction being easier than action.

Meanwhile, the rest of the house languishes too. The front bedroom, where the big girls are supposed to sleep, has been primed for a year. I primed it, in a fit of virtue. Perhaps the virtue wore off, or perhaps now I have a twenty-month-old who is not to be trusted, and big kids who are still of the age to think that I have the answer to every question that starts with, "Moooommm?" For whatever reason, the bedroom is still unpainted, and everything seems on hold until that project is completed.

The paint in the princess bedroom bathroom, the one that Darwin and I shower in because the shower in our bathroom has a leak in some yet-to-be-determined location, is peeling so badly that the plaster is exposed in several places. That too has been primed (in places) for a year. One of the pull-chain lights has gone on the fritz, so now it's badly lit too. The place would benefit from a ceiling light, if only we would buy one and schedule an electrician.

Meanwhile, in Europe, refugees are stuck in the Budapest train station (one of the loveliest I saw in my time over there) and children are washing up on the shore of Turkey. An unpainted, unlit, unimproved house is a very small worry in the grand scheme of things, and yet it's the responsibility that I've been given, right now. I cannot stop the war in Syria. I cannot feed the refugees, except indirectly through donations. I can, however, finally hire someone to rewire the lights and the electrical outlets and paint the bedroom and bathroom, and although it doesn't do anything for the children in war-torn parts of the world, it does provide work for my neighbors and allow them to provide food for their families.

I don't know. Would it be better if we lived a life of radical poverty and sent every spare dollar to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless? And yet, how are we to maintain this home for our family without spending money on it? How are we to keep our home safe from the risk of fire without spending money to replace 85-year-old wiring? How are we going to maintain the integrity of the house without doing the maintenance work that requires? Would it be better if this house sunk into even more disrepair, as long as I sent money off to a charity that assures me that of course the overhead is low and the bulk of the money helps those in need? These aren't either/or questions. Of course we have to make a return to the Lord for all he has done for us. It's not a question of should we give, but how much should we give, and how much should we spend on ourselves?

And then there is the matter of beauty. Several months ago I was driving along a road lined with strip malls, and meditating on Psalm 19: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands." That means that every element of creation proclaims God in some way. Trees, grass, rocks: all these in some way reflect God's goodness and beauty. And man, when he creates, has an obligation to use his creative powers to reflect God's goodness and beauty too. Some buildings do this better than others. Strip malls are poor reflections of God. They are ugly and utilitarian, bland and interchangeable. My own house is a good, if shabby, reflection of God's beauty. And in owning it, I have a responsibility to ensure that I keep reflecting God's beauty and goodness through the choices I make. Some of these choices are inexpensive, but some require more thought, effort, and money. Should I buy a ceiling light for the bathroom off the Home Depot clearance rack, or should I search for something more beautiful, more in keeping with the design and age of our house, and commensurately more expensive? It would be a moot point if I couldn't afford anything better than the Home Depot special, but I can. Do I have an obligation to buy ugly, cheap fixtures for my house so that others can eat? Put that way it seems a convicting contrast with an obvious answer, and yet one of the Catholic issues du jour is the status and dignity of the craftsman. How will the craftsman be able to keep crafting if no one employs him? How do smaller companies stay in business if no one buys their products?

In a sense, this is a purely intellectual quandary. I already know that I'm not going to buy a cheap light for the bathroom. I grew up in some ugly, cheap houses, and I don't want to live in one as an adult. More to the point, we have the luxury of being able to give to charity and to afford beauty, and a dishwasher too, if not air-conditioned comfort. Something has to give somewhere.

But the widow's mite still haunts me. We give out of our excess, and we're buying a pretty nice dishwasher after all the dithering. We buy beauty, and we get an earthly return in being able to live with beauty. The widow gave all she had, and looked for no return. And Jesus commended her.  I think, "How can this dishwasher, or this light fixture, or this paint job, help me to love and serve God better?" And I'm reminded of the section in The Name of the Rose in which the abbot pontificates on how the beauty of his jewels turn his mind to things divine. And then I remind myself that our house bitter cold in parts of winter and oppressive in parts of the summer, and even some of the poor live a bit more comfortably than we do, climate-wise. And then I remember that other people are at this very moment starving, dying, watching their children die, living in terror, being exploited or abused, and my comfort level seems unbearably luxurious.

Yet God has willed that I live here, in this place and at this time, with the responsibilities and obligations that he's given me right now. There's no virtue in being Mrs. Jellyby, so obsessed with the African missions that her own children lived in squalor and ignorance. Just something else to ponder as I do the dishes next week. Death, taxes, and the dishes, here with us always.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Death before Birth

I have not watched any of the Center for Medical Progress's expose videos on Planned Parenthood and StemExpress, a company which handles the disposal/redistribution of body parts from aborted babies. There is an argument from some quarters that everyone ought to see the videos, ought to have to come to term with tiny arms and legs being nudged around in dishes, ought to hear laughing employees declare, "Another boy!" as they examine what's left of the poor innocent.

I don't need a video to show me what preborn babies look like. I held one in my hand ten years ago, a wee eight-weeks-developed baby, my own. I don't know why it died, but it looked perfect. It (I don't know whether it was a girl or a boy, and I don't prefer to assign it an arbitrary gender) didn't even fill up the palm of my hand. Baby had all ten fingers and all ten toes, but what has always stayed with me are the big beautiful blue eyes.

I know that some parents want to give a conditional baptism to a child who's been miscarried. We didn't. The baby had died two weeks before I miscarried, apparently, and baptizing a two-weeks-dead body seems a mockery of the sacrament. We had no doubts that God had taken the little one to himself.

The baby's existence and death didn't have to be justified on the grounds of becoming medical research material.  It was never "useful". It did not further the aims of science. And because the baby was human, it deserved a human burial. So we buried it, the only gift we were able to give the baby in its brief lifetime.

I did not take any photos of my baby, but you can see a sweet little eight-week-old baby here. It looks just like mine did. I don't need hidden videos to convince me that abortion is an evil evil business, and I don't want to see these dead little one dismembered when it's hard enough to see a dead little one intact.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Trust to be Pro-Life

Tristyn Bloom has an interesting piece (actually from a while back, but I just ran into it) which makes the point that the perceived need for abortion in our culture is in part tied to our society's deep belief in the importance of planning and controlling our lives.
I think the reason people continue to defend abortion is because, essentially, of existential terror: fear of what will happen when something unexpected, uninvited, unplanned bursts into our lives demanding action. I think that is a crippling psychological problem that doesn’t even rise to the level of morality, that we can’t just tell people to suck up and get over.

We often hear that a problem with young people today is that we are irresponsible. We don’t have a sense of duty. We don’t have a sense of order. We’re immature. I think that the problem is actually the opposite.
To accept that life would be the irresponsible choice, and that’s the framework from which a lot of people are operating. They see themselves as accepting consequences, as responsible. They have a semblance of a moral framework and we can’t ignore that just because it’s completely the opposite of our own. And this isn’t just about whether or not you accept a child. I think that we are so enslaved to a plan, and a routine, and a vision of our lives, we can’t embrace the unsettledness, openness, flexibility, and folly it takes to have an actually pro-life culture in every instance.
If you look at even the language used — “unplanned pregnancy” because that is the strange case. The normal case is the planned pregnancy. And this is understandable in two ways. One, it’s a concession to comfort and the economy of family. Not everyone in the pro-life movement is against contraception, for example. But the other, I think, is a psychological necessity because two, in a certain sense we are very unwilling to admit that we are all essentially accidents.

Especially for secular people, or people with different theological assumptions, that is what the creation of life kind of amounts to. Scientific materialism seems to force us to admit this. And I feel that on some level modern parents compensate for this meaninglessness by investing their child with meaning through planning. You were chosen. You were fated. You were designated. They are compensating for the meaninglessness of the way conception happens by choosing it on their own and by actively bestowing that significance upon them. We are the little gods of our own children. And we extend this to everything in our lives. In our education. Where we live. What we do. How we eat. Everything imbued with meaning by the fact of being chosen. And these choices, in turn, define us back to ourselves.
We live, historically speaking, in a particularly rich and safe time. That's good. We're peculiarly fortunate compared to many who came before us. Yet it allows people to convincingly imagine much of the time that if they do everything right, that nothing will go wrong.

We have contraception to make sure that we don't get pregnant before we're ready. We have various forms of fertility technology which are supposed to assure that we can have children when we want to. We test and scan and try to identify any "defective" children before birth so they can be eliminated.

From a Christian point of view, I think that can wander into the idolatrous. In the end, we did not create the world. We are responsible for our own actions, but don't control the world or the things that happen to us.

A lot of the Christian life as it's translated into modern middle class America is very prudence focused: Wait until you meet the right person so that your marriage will last. Don't have sex until you get married. Find a job that will allow you to support a family.

Natural Family Planning, which the Church urges Catholics to understand in order to allow them to exercise prudence when necessary in spacing their children, requires a great deal of self control and prudence when used by fertile couples to space children out.

None of these are bad, they are all good exercises of prudence, but in a certain sense it can mean adopting the prevailing culture's emphasis on control.

Now, as in all things, there's an opposite extreme. Some Christians hold that any attempt to exert prudence in regards to having children is wrong, and married couples should make absolutely no effort to space their children. I think this represents a failure to use the prudence and reason which God has given us. It's all very well to trust God to provide for us, but one of the ways that He provides for us is by giving us the capacity to make wise decisions.

The golden mean in this regard is to live prudently, yet at the same time recognize that by exercising ordinary prudence we in no way inoculate ourselves against the unexpected. The fates are capricious, and having exerted prudence in no way guarantees that we shall be be safe from them. The better that we are able to understand that, the better we will be able to embrace the unexpected turns which the embrace of life entails.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 13-1

I'm back from the summer break as rested as one can be while writing a novel and training for a half marathon. My goal is to post sections at least once a week. This one begins Chapter 13 which returns to Natalie in Russian Ukraine. There will be a total of three installments of Chapter 13.

Kiev, Russian Ukraine. September 18th, 1914. Sister Levchenko pushed open the door to the small sitting room where Natalie and Elena were having an afternoon cup of tea while trying to discern the war news from the oblique reports of the afternoon edition of the newspaper.

“Nowakówna. Nikolayevna. Make a up bed immediately. There’s a new patient being brought in.”

She hurried away without waiting to hear the other two women’s response. The gray wool uniform dress and large red cross on her white apron gave her authority over the voluntary aides as complete as that of any doctor.

“There wasn’t a hospital train due today,” said Natalie, as they cleared their cups and saucers from the table.

Elena shrugged. They were the only volunteer aides that day. If they had to prepare a whole ward it would have taken over an hour at breakneck pace. One bed, however, was a quick task to practiced hands.

They spread crisp white cotton sheets which gave off the smell of disinfecting wash -- a small which at first had seemed harsh and chemical, but now conveyed a wholesome purity to their nostrils. Blood, dirt and infection conveyed danger; chlorine and carbolic solution were the weapons against those foes.

“Do you ever think of becoming one of them?” Elena asked, smoothing the regulation grey wool blanket.

“Who?” Natalie asked, tucking the bottom corners beneath the mattress.

“A red cross nurse.” Elena moved the big canvas-covered frames into place, turning the bed into its own private niche, ready for its patient. “They do all the real work. We might as well be maids, and they’ll be just as happy to have real servants when all the respectable ladies have tired of playing white-clad angel. The nurses are the ones who have the skills to make a real difference.”

“But surely-- You can’t just become a nurse. There must be a great deal of training.”

“Oh, a great deal. Even on a war footing, several months worth. But people do it. They’re not born nurses. My cousin Sonia took the training during the 1904 war and served in a hospital in Moscow.”

“Well, of course, but what I meant was--” Natalie felt the heat of blood rushing to her face, as if she had just provided a very poor answer in class while the other girls looked on. “Surely it’s not as simple as just taking some training and becoming a nurse. Don’t you have to be… the right sort of person?”

The words sounded wrong in her ears even as she spoke them, and she flushed again. The shade of difference, the idea that there was something Other about the professionally trained nurses -- whether some authority gained at nursing school or a natural air of command which destined them for a higher order -- this distinction was impossible to define and yet it put a chasm between her and the nurses as wide as that among between the doctors and the orderlies: between the men who cut and cured and ordered versus the men who carried, cleaned and did as they were told.

Throughout her upbringing in the convent it had been a principle as clear and unquestionable as the laws of motion which held God’s creations in their orbits that she was a member of that order in society which obeyed. Obeyed graciously, obeyed genteelly, obeyed the higher call rather than the lower, to be sure, and perhaps within that realm of obedience exerted authority over those temporarily or by birth of even lower status: children, servants. But the basic principle remained.

Leaving the convent, meeting her father, these had for a time given her the trappings of a higher station, a new Paris wardrobe, first class rail cars, a beautiful hotel room. Yet even these had seemed a window on another world, a world in which she still possessed no rights or authority. Her brief command of waiters and taxi drivers had not made it seem any less against the laws of nature for her to disagree when her father told her that she must never see him again or when Dr. Luterek held her to account for his son’s pursuit of her.

Could a few months training reverse all this and make her the ultimate female authority over a ward of patients and their care? Was she meant to wield such power and responsibility? The idea was by turns alluring and terrifying.

“You two, don’t stand there, turn the bedclothes down.” The ward sister had entered, all action and command, followed by two orderlies carrying a stretcher.

Natalie obediently helped turned down the sheets. As the orderlies gently slid the apparently unconscious men onto the bed, she recoiled at the sight of a head like an obscene newspaper caricature. The soldier had a massive, discolored swelling above his left brow. She knew it must be the result of some massive blow to the head, yet the way it distorted his forehead, and the dark patches of internal bleeding pooling around his eyes, gave the man the look of a cartoon drawing of an intellectual with swollen brain and weary eyes.

“Soldiers who brought him in said the cart horse was startled by a motor,” she heard one of the orderlies explain to the other. “Caught in the head by a falling barrell. Wonder he isn’t dead already.”

The nurse began issuing orders rapidly, and Natalie rushed away, first to fetch bandages and gauze, then for a basin of disinfectant. As she fulfilled these requests she watched the nurse’s swift and confident movements, thinking of Elena’s question and wondering if she herself could ever dress a man’s injuries with such calm professional skill.


The new arrival, Sergeant Utkin, had kept them busy throughout the afternoon, and Natalie had stayed an hour past her usual time. Madame Luterek never waited tea when someone was late, but any tardiness was displeasing to her. No letters had arrived from Konrad in almost two weeks, and although this left his mother in a state at once desperate for news and terrified at what it might bring, the extended silence also meant that no letter addressed to “My Lovely Natalie” or “That Little Governess” or whatever teasing endearment might next come to the young lieutenant’s mind had arrived to embarrass Natalie, enrapture Sara and Lena, and set Madame Luterek casting baleful glances at the young governess she remained convinced must somehow be at fault for capturing her son’s attention. This calming of the household tensions was welcome, and Natalie had no desire to spoil it by doing anything to upset Madame Luterek.

[continue reading]

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Martian: Old Fashioned, Hard SF

I first heard about Andy Weir's SF novel The Martian because its publishing history is pretty much a dream given form (a shining beacon in space?) for someone like me:
In 2009, Weir started posting the story chapter by chapter on his personal blog where anyone could read it for free. The early version of his self-published book attracted a lot of science-minded readers, and they offered feedback.

Weir is a space nerd, but he says chemistry is not his area of expertise.

"Chemists actually pointed out some problems in early drafts," Weir said. He was able to go back and correct some of the chemistry that's crucial for Watney's survival.

Word of the book spread, and readers started asking for an e-reader copy. So Weir made all the individual chapters available in one file. Some had trouble downloading it though, so Weir put it on Amazon via Kindle Direct Publishing.

That's when the floodgates opened. More people downloaded the 99-cent Amazon version than had ever downloaded the free version, Weir said, and readers started leaving positive reviews on Amazon. In just a few months it skyrocketed to the top of Amazon's best-selling science fiction list.
So a book agent got in touch with Weir. Shortly after that, the publishing company Random House called — it wanted to publish a hardcover.

Four days later, Hollywood called for the movie rights, Weir said.

So yes, he scored a book contract and a movie contract in the same week — both in the low to mid six figures, The Washington Post reports.

"In fact, it was such a sudden launch into the big leagues that I literally had a difficult time believing it," Weir said in an interview on his site. "I actually worried it could all be an elaborate scam. So I guess that was my first reaction: "Is this really happening?'"
Up until college, Science Fiction made up a significant portion of my reading diet, and the classic "hard SF" in which engineering and science problems are used to drive plot and action was one of the sub genres I enjoyed most. There's always a certain fascination to problem solver stories, and while hard SF is sometimes bashed within the field as having shallower characterization, I tended to think that authors were often better at portraying fairly "ordinary" people trying to solve exotic engineering problems than successfully imagining exotic character and cultural problems in far flung futures.

In the end, I mostly walked away from the SF/F genre entirely. Most of what I read now is mainstream or historical fiction, but I retain an affection for science fiction even though I don't keep up.

When I picked up a copy of The Martian at the library, I ended up reading the whole thing in a day. It was a blast. No, the characterization is not deep. But the thing is just such a fast paced and fun problem solving yarn that you can't hold that against it. Even if you are not yourself interested in the details of how to make a near future expedition to Mars, the wise cracking main character and his constant struggle to survive will pull you in.

The novel opens as follows:

I'm pretty much fucked.

That's my considered opinion.


Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it's turned into a nightmare.

I don't even know who'll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.

For the record... I didn't die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can't blame them. Maybe there'll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, "Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars."

And it'll be right, probably. 'Cause I'll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did.

Let's see... where do I begin?
There you have it: smart aleck, occasionally profane, but a fun character voice, and a person who is stuck in a terrible predicament. On the sixth day of a manned visit to Mars in the near future, the crew has to cut short their planned fifty day stay and make an emergency evacuation when an unexpectedly heavy sandstorm endangers their habitat. In the process of the evacuation, astronaut Mark Watney is struck by a falling antenna, knocked off a precipice, and his suit ceases to show life signs. The rest of the crew has to go ahead and make the evacuation without retrieving his body.

Except that he isn't dead. The debris that punctured his suit destroyed the life signs monitor, but his blood from the injury froze around the puncture, closing the leak and allowing him to still have oxygen to breath until he regains consciousness. By the time that happens, however, he is the only person left on Mars, with no working communications equipment and no hope of rescue until the next mission arrives in about four years.

The movie is coming out in October, and I'm hoping it will be as fun as the book. In the mean time, I might pick up a copy so I can read it again.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Do Over

I am 36 years old, and I've been Catholic all my life. And I don't have a prayer time. I have said the rosary on and off through the years, and I still struggle with it, because it's not interesting to me. I like Liturgy of the Hours, conceptually, but time and again, I've flamed out in my attempts to say it regularly. I do read the Bible, as part of daily mass readings with the kids, but that's fallen by the wayside during the summer. My one regular prayer is Sunday Mass, and that's required. Meatless Fridays. We do those too.

It's not that I don't pray during the day. It's that I don't have a regular, prioritized time for prayer. As I move through my day, as I wash dishes (by hand; the dishwasher's been out for three months), as I sweep or vacuum, as I'm asked a million questions I don't know the answers to, I do turn my mind and heart to God, and I try to meditate.

And then I screw up again. As in, just now while I was writing "I screw up again," I snapped at a child for interrupting my writing time.

Darwin and I were talking the other night about how just being in the same place isn't enough. If the only time we ever spent with each other was in the dinner-to-bedtime routine chaos, we'd see each other and talk to each other, but we'd never be able to go deeply enough into anything to maintain a good friendship. We'd start to become strangers. We rely on our quiet time after the kids go down (or are at least banished upstairs) so that we can strengthen the foundation of our relationship on which the chaos is built. A relationship needs the chaotic times too, I think, so that each person can truly see and appreciate the quality of the other, but it also needs breathing time.

I'm trying to find that breathing time again for prayer. I recently went on retreat, and one of the points made was that if prayer is not routine, it is not a priority. I thought about that all weekend, came home and discussed it with Darwin, and we agreed that we needed to make a change, again. And in the way of all post-retreat life, I regressed. I did not say morning prayer. I did not make more effort. I probably made less.

But this morning, I had to make a choice between slacking off and sweeping the floor, and by God's grace, I chose to sweep the floor. A moment ago, I had the choice to answer a child patiently or impatiently, and by God's grace, I chose to answer patiently. My mind went off to places it shouldn't have been, and by God's grace, I picked myself up and went back to what I should have been doing.

I need prayer. I need it. But I also need to remember that God is I AM, and that every instant I have a new opportunity to start over and make the right choice. When I turn my mind to him and beg for help to change, even as I'm sinning, I can be transformed in the twinkling of an eye, because his mercies are renewed every morning, because now is the acceptable time. So I failed at saying the rosary or morning prayer, over and over again. All that means is that I have another chance to try again. So I'm stuck in some stupid sin. That means I have the opportunity to ask God for his grace, again. All failure is a opportunity to lean on God one more time. The Christian life isn't about being perfect. It's about relying on God completely, because it's clear that our own strength isn't enough.

The only time to be a saint is now, and the only real sainthood is starting again.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Orphan Openings: Unless A Grain Of Wheat Fall To The Ground

The initial coolness was like the peace of death. Before, she had felt and tallied Brian's every thoughtless act or wounding word. Now, real and perceived grievances all beaded up and rolled off of her like rain down a marble monument. It was so liberating to put the pain behind her, to move to a state in their marriage in which she could hide herself away and play the role of wife. They still did all the same things. They got up, danced around each other in the bathroom, went to work, had dinner together, had sex. The sex was better than before, actually, because now there was a corner of her mind where she could watch herself and improve her performance and adjust her mental game when necessary.

But even death is not static. Repose becomes decay. She had thought that she was preserving the marriage by closing herself off. One day she realized that Brian had ceased to expect anything from her. He had become other to her, and now she was other to him. They were two people in a house, partners in management, marking the time with manners. She had died to him, but she had not counted on him dying to her. It was frightening to realize that she was interchangeable.

One day at the office she stopped by Sofia's cubicle to drop off a report. A faded inspirational poster was tacked up to the divider, a backlit image of a stalk of wheat with the caption, "Unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit."

"What does that mean?" she asked Sofia.

"I don't know? It was my dad's, it used to hang in his office. I think it's that... the wheat can't grow unless it's transformed? The grain by itself doesn't change, but when it's planted and starts to grow, it bursts open and warps out of shape and is destroyed, and in the process it becomes something bigger and better, something it never could have become on its own. It has to die to go on living."

"That sucks."

Sofia shrugged. "Most living feels like dying anyway."

"But it doesn't really die," she said. "How can it grow into a plant unless it's alive?"

"I guess the grain of wheat part of it dies."

"That's pretty lousy for the grain," she said, unreasonably annoyed on behalf of an anonymous seed.

"It's not like it was going to last forever on its own. Get planted or get eaten."

"And those are the only two options?"

"Or decay in storage," said Sofia, turning back to her computer.


On her way home she picked up Chinese food from a place Brian liked. At home she pulled out dishes and candles and plated everything up just like she'd read about in an article about reviving the spark in your marriage. Brian called her as she was throwing away the containers.

"I'm going to be late, babe," he said. "The project is running late, and you know how it is. Don't wait for me to eat. I'm just going to grab a sandwich somewhere up here."

It was like him to spring this on her. Several cool replies simmered within her, and she considered which one would be most effective.

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground...

"Okay," she said. "What if I come up there and eat with you?"

"You want to come all the way up here?" he said. "I'm only going to have about ten minutes."

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies...

"I don't mind. I'd like to."

"Um, okay. Sure, if you want."

"Thanks." She swallowed. "I love you."

There was silence on the line for a moment. She closed her eyes and waited.

"Yeah, you too," he said shortly. "See you."

She picked up the plates and started scraping them in the trash, wondering at the strange bitter pang of the first blade of wheat piercing through the confines of the dead husk.

Fake Map of Tribal Nations Takes Social Media by Storm

In one of those strange eruptions of social media interest, a person going by the name of liminalsoup uploaded to reddit a map for an alternate history that he's planning to write, about a world in which Europeans never reached America, and a few days later someone uploaded the map to Facebook (falsely describing it as a map of where tribes had been prior to Columbus) where it proceeded to get hundreds of thousands of shares.
I had seen it going around on Facebook, where I'd noted that the Comanchees hadn't been an independent tribe in pre-Columbian times, nor had they been in the Oklahoma/Texas area in which they later became famous. Other friends pointed out other issues with the map. The actual derivation of the map, with the author trying to decide where to put various tribes in an alternative history in which American Indians continued to live on their own for another 500+ years, makes sense of a number of these oddities.

As I started to search for the map, wondering about its mistakes, I stumbled across a real attempt at a map showing tribal locations which had been publicized on NPR just a few weeks earlier. Ironically, though this map was put together by someone of Indian ancestry and was an attempt to show where tribes originally were can list them by their own names (rather than names given to them by Europeans), and it apparently didn't catch the imagination of social media the way the fictional map did. (I say ironically because the person making the mis-attributed social media posting of the fictional map captioned the image: "America before colonization.... I've never seen this map in my entire 25 years of formal education. Not in one history book or one lesson. This is not a mistake... Representation matters!!! #NativeHistory #BeforeAmerica")

[full high resolution image here] Actually, you can kind of see why the fictional map caught on in a way that the real one didn't. It's simple and easily grasped, with clear boundaries and mostly recognizable names. The real map is full of unfamiliar names, many in small type, and lacks boundaries.

Thinking of history from another perspective is difficult. It's not uncommon to see guilt-ridden modern attempts to address the European discovery, conquest and settling of America "from a Native American" perspective, but if that attempt at perspective is to show "that thing which Europeans came and messed up" you're already in some sense dealing with a perspective centered on European events.

Most of the American Indian cultures in North America were hunter gatherers, and virtually none had writing systems, so the number of written records and archaeological traces we have to work from are fairly small. Even in Mexico and South America, where there were more complex farming societies and several civilizations which left writing behind, we have less to go on than the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt (which themselves are fairly alien to us.)

The native societies as they were encountered by European explorers and colonists were not necessarily in continuity with their pre-European past, because contact with Europeans had touched off massive plagues which wiped out some very large number (it underlines our ignorance of pre-Columbian America that we have no very good idea what percentage, but estimates range up to 90%) of the indigenous population. (Europeans had built up immunities to a number of diseases that were unknown in the new world until their arrival.) The tribes that we met were a sort of post-apocalyptic survival of those plagues.

I suppose someone has tackled this and I just haven't run into it, but it seems like there could be an interesting "first contact" novel for some SF writer to tackle, if you tried to re-imagine the human population experiencing the kind of things which the indigenous populations of the Americas did when they came into contact with Europeans: alien induced plagues causing massive death around the world, very small numbers of aliens with very advanced technology making small incursions in some areas but not getting to others, disruption of the world's political alliances as some countries align with the aliens in order to get help and support against others, the aliens not always having a clear idea of the disputes that they're being pulled into taking sides in.

As with the fictional map, perhaps a fictional approach like that would actually provide the best window that modern Americans could have into what that sort of disruption must have been like from the other side.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Fair Labor vs. Owner of the Vineyard

One of the comparisons people can't help making in discussing the Gravity Payments $70k minimum wage which I wrote about the other day is the parable of the vineyard:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ So they went off.

He went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’

When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’

He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’ Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:1-16

Christianity Today had a brief piece making the allusion, which also came up in the NY Times followup. The reference isn't necessarily complimentary to the workers are Gravity who have objected to the new wage structure, rather like being accused of being like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son.

I think it's an interesting Biblical allusion to bring up, because in many ways I think that social justice advocates (by which I mean those who self consciously think of themselves as such, not the wider world of those who care about justice in society) would not like a labor market which functioned in the manner of the Parable of the Vineyard.

Before discussing that, however, it's a good idea to start by looking at what the actual purpose of the parable is. Jesus often told parables in which some everyday, secular example was used to make a point about secular reality. Sometimes the secular example isn't even an example of virtuous behavior. For instance, in the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, Jesus describes a dishonest employee who, when he realizes that he is about to be found out and fired, embezzles even more money from his employer in order to give out favors to various other people. The steward does this so that he will have friends to take care of him once he's fired, and the point of the parable is that we cannot serve two masters and that we should therefore give away possessions now while storing up treasures in heaven. The dishonest steward is presumably about to be fired because in the past he's taken from his master's wealth for himself. However, when he realizes that there's about to be a reckoning he steals not for himself but to help others, realizing that it will be only the care of others that will help him once he is jobless. I think few would take this tale of sharp dealing literally and conclude that we should embezzle in order to help others. But part of what makes the parable memorable is that Jesus takes a very realistic example of sharp dealing in the business world -- something his listeners would intuitively understand -- and reframes it to be a description of how we should relate to the next world and to God.

The Parable of the Vineyard is also dealing with the next life, as it states right at the beginning, "The kingdom of heaven is like..." Christ tells us that even those who come to "the vineyard" (which we take to be conversion and the life of following Christ) will receive the same reward (heaven) as those who have labored in the vineyard all day. This may seem unfair (as the complaints of the all-day workers indicate) but that's because we're judging by human standards in which we "earn" our rewards. Heaven is unearned. It is a freely given gift of God to all those who are willing to receive it. And because it is not earned but given, we are wrong to think we can quibble about whom it is given to based on who "worked more" for it.

The words of the vineyard owner are key here, "My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?" The vineyard owner has complete dominion over his money. He gives it as he chooses. The workers who have worked all day are in no position to argue with him as to how he disposes of his money because they have no right over it.

Now this is where turning around and using the parable to talk about actual labor markets gets interesting. In a sense, the parable assumes what we might describe now as a libertarian attitude towards work and payment. The vineyard owner tells the all-day workers that they have no right to question how much he pays the other workers, because they have received as much as they agreed to work for. If he is generous to the others, that's his business. The implication is that the money of the vineyard owner is totally his own, and as long as he fulfills his explicit agreement with the all day workers, they have no ability to question his actions.

Let's take another example of wage dissatisfaction which social justice advocates often point to: A worker is slogging away earning $10/hr which is the wage that he agreed to when he took the job. Then he finds out that the CEO of his company is being paid $20,000,000/year, on the order of a thousand times as much. Why, he asks, is that person paid so much when I'm paid so little? In this case, the answer, "My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go," is not going to be very persuasive.

Indeed, I think we can probably agree that the wage structure of the vineyard owner would not pass muster with any labor union negotiating a vineyard maintenance contract. And yet, unionization is often advocated by Catholics as a means to achieving greater social justice.

Heaven is utterly God's to give. We have no right to heaven. We have not earned it. God does not have an obligation to us.

However, the vineyard owners is an imperfect analogy in that he does owe a reward to his workers. And, indeed, the sense of fairness which I think we are generally right to have doesn't even give him total discretion over his money and how he dispenses it. Yes, depending on how strongly we want to take the right to private property (ironically, those who wrap themselves in the term "social justice" would often take the view that his ownership of his money is comparatively weak, and that he does not actually have the right to dispose of his money however he wants) he may or may not have the complete legal right to pay different workers different hourly wages, but at a minimum if he chooses to pay some workers ten times the hourly wage as others for the same work, workers may well feel that his behavior is unfair and not want to work for him. (Even if, as the owner's words point out, they are not making any less than they initially expected.)

It seems to me that implicit in our sense of fairness in a situation like this is an idea of a certain amount of social ownership of the money to be used as wages. Say the owner has $1000 with which he is to pay ten workers. Workers are going to expect to that the money available for wages be divided in some fashion which matches their sense of fairness.

Let's talk about an imaginary vineyard. This vineyard pays $10/hr and hires laborers to work days of up to twelve hours. (Hey, it's ancient Israel. Life is hard.) Five workers are hired at 6:00 AM to work a full day. Five more are hired at 9:00 AM. Five at noon. Five at 3:00 PM. Five at 5:00 PM. The work day ends at 6:00 PM. 155 man hours have been worked. The expectation is that $1550 will be paid out at the rate of $10/hr. If the vineyard owner instead pays out $3000 (giving each of the 25 workers a full day's pay of $120) he sends to the workers the message that the pot of money to be divided for the day's work is not $1550 but $3000.

Here's where I'd argue that the sense of fairness which we might normally identify as right-leaning in our politics works of a sense of social ownership and responsibility which more left-leaning people should understand.

When the workers realize that there is a larger pool of money to be divided, they believe that it should be divided according to rules which they consent to via their sense of fairness. They don't think that the money is strictly the owners to do with as he sees fit. If he decides to pick out five of the workers at random and pay them far more than the others because he likes their looks, the other workers will be angry. Even if they don't have any formal process of negotiating how the money is to be distributed, they want the money divided in a way that they can consent to as being just. Not only just in the sense of "it's his money, he can do what he wants with it" but in the sense of "that is a manner of division which I can agree with."

Now, what triggers the desire to re-negotiate the division of wages in the parable is when the vineyard owners effectively puts a bigger bag of money than expected on the table. The workers expected $1550 to be paid out. When he goes to pay out $3000, they feel that they should have a voice in how that money is divided. They feel that they should have an opportunity to renegotiate the terms of their employment.

If the owner had stuck to the acknowledged hourly wage, probably no questions would have been asked. There's an implicit agreement that the wage represents some compromise between how much the vineyard produces and how much the workers need to get by. But various things might break the equilibrium, and what is perceived to break the equilibrium could vary depending on someone's politics.

For instance, in our modern world, if a company produces very high profits or pays its executives very high salaries, some people (many of them on the left) will take that as an indication that there is money on the table, and they will want a chance to negotiate how that money is divided.

In this news story about Gravity Payments and its $70k minimum wage, there was apparently a sort of equilibrium in which people were making their old salaries and the owner and his brother were both making about $1 mil per year while also earning profits of over $2 mil. However, the status quo with $4 mil going to either executives or profits was accepted until the owner decided to take a significant portion of that money and use it to increase the salaries of the lowest paid employees. Then, some employees decided that they wanted their voices heard in how that "extra" money was to be divided.

Obviously, the sorts of things which people consider to put money "on the table" will vary, and the sorts of distribution which people consider fair will also vary greatly. But what I do think is fairly universal is that people have a sense of fairness which does not actually see an employer as having absolute ownership and discretion over the money he spends of wages. In the human world, the vineyard owner's argument for why the all-day workers should not object fails to address this sense of fairness, because the analogy which Jesus is making to to salvation, something which is in no sense earned. As such, comparing workers to object to some new salary arrangement at a real life company to the grumbling workers in the parable is not actually a very good rhetorical move.