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

Thursday, August 31, 2006

A Joyful Noise

Week by week the Darwin monkeys have been behaving better in mass. We realized this as our definition of being 'bad' shifted from shouting and kicking the pew to laying under the pew trying to pick off old bubble gum: not a well-advised activity, but much less distracting for the surrounding worshippers.

The last few weeks, both girls have begun to join in with the sung parts of the ordinary with particular will, and particular volume, but not particular tunefullness. This tends to attract glances and smiles from those around us, which of course encourages the little songbirds.

One doesn't want to quash this sort of thing, but one does wish to harness it a bit. And since the girls are (like all children) great mimics, I'm wondering if what is needed is a CD with mass parts for them to learn. We have, of course, some CDs of truly great liturgical music, but since our parish won't be attempting Palestrina, Montraverdi and the like any time soon, something rather more down to earth is doubtless required.

I seem to recall my parents having some tapes of common hymns and mass parts which we listed to when we were kids. Does anyone know of any CDs currently out there that do this? Although I'm nothing to talk about, MrsDarwin actually sings quite servicably, and I'm thinking one of the advantages to working on mass parts with the girls (and just having them listen to them and soak them up a bit) would be that the modern settings to tend to be very simple -- and thus might be a better place to learn the basics of hitting a note then when the monkeys are shouting along with the in-law's CDs of Irish drinking songs.

Truth in Fiction

Steven Riddle of Flos Carmeli writes about finding greater truth in reading fiction than non-fiction:

What I've discovered over time is that nonfiction books very rarely present anything like nonfiction. That is, most postmodern nonfiction. When your view of reality is that reality is shaped by the language you use to describe it and by the oppressions, hidden or overt that define it, it would be difficult to present anything in an objective way, because there cannot be any objectivity.

Fiction, on the other hand, shows me the human condition, and because the author lays his cards on the table on way or the other, I can determine whether what is shown is truly reflective of human experience or is shaped by the bias of the author to lead me to an agenda. If the latter, and if the agenda is one that I do not like, I am likely to throw the book across the room. But when it is an agenda I concur with, such as Flannery O'Connor, I get so much better a snapshot of reality than in any nonfiction I've read in the last ten years....

Well enough. It is my contention that I have learned far more about life and the things that really matter from fiction, or from non-fiction disguised as fiction than I ever did from reading non-fiction. C.S. Lewis's vision of heaven and hell in The Great Divorce has done more to make me think seriously of the last things that any dozen books of straight theology on the last things.

I certainly agree with Steven that truth is often best presented in fiction. Though perhaps, it has a great deal to do with what kind of truth one is trying to convey. Books on politics and political history tend (I would say) to be the worst offendors among non-fiction in being totally locked into their own points of view. Much history, however, is written from a far more honest perspective, and provides a fascinating window on the history of the human experience. Biography and autobiography can also be either highly biased (as is often the case with popular "Here is what the life of this famous person really meant" books) but can also provide some of the deepest insights in literature into the human person. I'm greatly fond of Trollope, Austin and Dickens, but all fall short compared to Boswell's Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Lately I've found myself reading rather more non-fiction than fiction, though I tend to avoid the more ideologically charged writers from either side of the political spectrum. Yet the power of fiction to convey truth should never be underestimated. Lewis' fiction conveys Christianity rather more compellingly than his apologetical works, and Dante's Comedia conveys Catholicism more compellingly in many ways than Aquinas' Summa.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Mind of God (Part 1: Suffering & Death)

Over the past week or two, a couple pieces by City Journal editor Heather Mac Donald (first one in American Conservative, and then a piece written for National Review Online in response to criticisms of the original article by Michael Novak) have stirred up a bit of discussion on the old topic of whether "conservative" and "religious conservative" are or should be synonymous.

Mac Donald's article is not really about conservatism so much as about belief. She considers conservatism to be a highly rational, skeptical approach to politics. And she considers the behavior of many Christians to be anything but rational and skeptical:
Upon leaving office in November 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft thanked his staff for keeping the country safe since 9/11. But the real credit, he added, belonged to God. Ultimately, it was God's solicitude for America that had prevented another attack on the homeland.

Many conservatives hear such statements with a soothing sense of approbation. But others -- count me among them -- feel bewilderment, among much else. If God deserves thanks for fending off assaults on the United States after 9/11, why is he not also responsible for allowing the 2001 hijackings to happen in the first place?...

When nine miners were pulled unharmed from a collapsed Pennsylvania mineshaft in 2002, a representative placard read: "Thank you God, 9 for 9." God's mercy was supposedly manifest when children were saved from the 2005 Indonesian tsunami.

But why did the prayers for five-year-old Samantha Runnion go unheeded when she was taken from her Southern California home in 2002 and later sexually assaulted and asphyxiated? If you ask a believer, you will be told that the human mind cannot fathom God's ways. It would seem as if God benefits from double standards of a kind that would make even affirmative action look just. When 12 miners were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion in January 2006, no one posted a sign saying: "For God;s sake, please explain: Why 1 for 13?" Innocent children were swept away in the 2005 tsunami, too, but believers blamed natural forces, not God.
I have a certain tendency to ignore these kinds of questions, for the simple reason that I've heard them so many times before, but the fact that one hears these things so frequenty from those perplexed by religious belief suggests that there's something here worth looking at.

First of all, these problems are contributed to by Christians who express themselves badly when talking about providence and the answering of prayers. Ashcroft's statement, if summarized accurately, suggests a certain simplicity of thinking: It would (the vast majority of the time if not always) be a grave mistake, I think, to picture God as speshielding sheilding one country from terrorist attacks, or allowing terrorist attacks against another country.

Why, then, do we as Christians thank God when our loved ones are preserved from an accident or when our country survives or is spared some major catastrophe? Traditionally, the Catholic Church teaches there are four kinds of prayer: adoration, thanksgiving, contrition, and supplication (in that order of importance.)

It seems to me that there's something important to be found in thanksgiving being listed below adoration, and in supplication being listed last. One of the things that is very difficult for most of us (and perhaps the more so for modern Americans in particular, with our emphasis on justice and equality) is to truly treat God's will as superior to our own. Very often, Christians see God as a boss with all sorts of powers, but essentially acting under the rules and understanding of the world as we ourselves have. Thus, people think (at least implicitly) in terms of filing requests (such as, "No terrorist attacks, please") and thanking God when He performs as requested. ("Good job on keeping those terrorists away. Keep it up.")

In this sense, Christ's prayer in the Garden of Gesthemene is very human "My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me." And yet there follows the proper acknowledgement of God's all-powerful will, "Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt." Proper supplicatory prayer not only asks God for what the believer desires, but also seeks to unite the will of the believer with that of God.

Thus, in the widest possible sense, prayer of thanksgiving should be offered not merely for what goes as one would wish, but for what doesn't. Sometimes we find it very difficult to be thankful for what transpires in our lives, and in such circumstances one prays for the ability to accept God's will. This is the sense in which one may offer prayers of thanks that our country has thus far been spared another terrorist attack. God neither forces terrorists to attack us, nor removes their free will so that they may not, but to the extent that God is the creator of all the world and all the people in it, it is proper to express thanks to God that our fellow men have not yet inflicted another such attack on us, while understanding at the same time that should such an attack take place, we must pray for the ability to accept that God's creation of free will allows such cruelties to take place -- just as it allows the virtues of great saints.

Going back to Ms. Mac Donald's articles, I think her problem is indeed only superficially with prayer (or perhaps more accurately with the way many Christians talk about prayer) and much more directly with the basic question that unbelief so often comes back to: If God is both all-good and all-powerful, then why do bad things happen to good people?

Answers to this question tend to fall under the general categories of "it's for some greater good" and "it's because of free will/the Fall". I suppose my own response straddles these two a bit: it seems to me that to a great extent our accusations against God result from our perspective as mortal creatures, who however much faith we may have have difficulty seeing our lives, sufferings and deaths in the context of eternity and our immortal souls.

Continued comfortable life in thisdefinitelydefinately what most of us plan, and so we naturally see a story of nine miners being rescued from a collapse as being a "good" story while we see 12 out of 13 dying in another mining accident as being a "bad" story. Yet from God's point of view (if what we as Catholics believe about Him is true) whether I die today on my drive home or fifty years from now as a grandfather is a matter of indifference compared to whether I merit heaven or hell, whenever I die. Which is not to suggest that people's deaths are orchestrated by God to maximize the number that merit heaven, but rather that our perspective is by its nature so very different from God's that judging whether an event should or should not have happened becomes impossible.

Clearly, if the only perspective on the world is that which we have as mortal creatures in the temporal world, God has much to answer for. And yet, would a god ruled by our human standards and laws be worth worshipping anyway? If God is anything worthy of regard, He is not limited by human comprehension. All of which may make belief appear no more rational to Ms. Mac Donald. It is not without reason that Paul said the Gospel seemed like "foolishness to the Greeks". While on the one hand, it seems to me, the rational mind recoils at treating something essentially the same as oneself as superior, the rational mind must also confess itself unable to fully understand that which is far greater than itself.


Jack was confirmed this afternoon at home.
Jack's confirmation was beautiful....He was lying in his parents' bed with all of us around him (15 of us). He was able to make the sign of the cross, fold his hands, and whisper "I do" to each question Father asked him for his profession of faith. When Father was praying over him, he would close his eyes....he looks so tired. Father gave him a tiny piece of the Eucharist also. (Everyone was) choking back tears. Me too...

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Jack's Birthday Party

Yesterday, Jay and Suzy talked to a child psychologist at Children's who told them that they should go ahead and have Jack's birthday party. The two older children have been hyped up about his birthday which is September 8th (the Blessed Mother's, isn't that wonderful?) but they don't think he'll make it that long, so they had it yesterday in his hospital room. Bittersweet, indeed.

Then they decided to bring him home today....they're hoping it will be more comfortable, less stressful. The waiting is awful....everytime the phone rings these days, I wonder if it's "the call".

Happy early birthday to Jack!

Jack at home

Just a quick message to tell everyone that they're taking Jack home. They decided that it would be all right for the other two children and more comfortable for all of them. I'm going to their house now to help my sister-in-law get things ready for his arrival later this afternoon.

Thank you so much for all of your prayers...

<>Remember to pray not only for Jack's family, but for his hospice workers as well.

Venerable Louis and Zelie Martin, Servants of God,
You offered many prayers for your own sick children.
We unite our prayers with yours for Jack's healing.
May God look favorably on your intercession and, in His Mercy, grant us our request.
May His will be done in all things.

Venerable Louis and Zelie, pray for us!

Michael Walzer on Just War and Israel

Over on Examined Life, Scott Carson discusses a pair of articles by philosopher Michael Walzer dealing with just war theory and recent events in the Middle East. Though Walzer hails from the left-leaning side of the political spectrum (one of the articles discussed is from the most recent New Republic) the analysis of the Israel/Lebanon situation sounds reasonable and level-headed.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Monday, Monday

No news on Jack so far today. The doctors think it will be a matter of days, not weeks.

Posting may be light this week. Darwin is increasingly swamped at work and some friends and I have entered into a three-way painting pact. Today one friend and I primed the living room while the other watched all the kids, and we're switching off again tomorrow and Thursday. Babs threw up in my friend's kitchen and had to come lay on the couch while we finished up here, but otherwise things went smoothly. My living room is currently sporting primer white and a disgusting shade of salmon, but after the top coats it will be cream and red ("Tender Rose", if you must be exact) and will look much more genteel. After the moulding goes up it will be magazine-worthy.

And for them as keep track of these things: Baby is proud to announce the first razor edge of tooth is starting to pop out. It wasn't there this morning, but there was definitely a sharp little tooth sticking out tonight at dinner. Baby is a true individual, breaking out of the Darwin paradigm of the eighth-month first tooth. Perhaps this development will put a cease to the 3 AM whine.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Pray for Jack and his family

Barb reports:

We got word that Jack is worse...Mark and I are going up to the hospital to see him. The cancer is now in his spinal fluid. Yesterday they took him off the ventilator. He stops breathing sometimes, and Jay gently shakes his hand and tells him to breathe, and he does. Today, however, he is becoming disoriented and confused...the cancer is affecting him more. They have called in hospice. Jay doesn't think it will be today, but soon.

I ask that you all pray for a peaceful, holy death for our Jack....that it will be such to be consoling to Jay and Suzy and a cause of conversion for many.


Our visit to the hospital was so surreal. We were all looking at each other and saying it doesn't seem possible, seem real. Perhaps this is a coping mechanism the dear Lord gives us.

Jack had another seizure while we were there today and when he came out of it, he told Jay and Suzy that he was ready to go. Suzy told him he could go whenever he was ready. We all cried. Suzy and Jay are holding up very well when they're in his room. Jay would come out and talk to us and that's when he would cry. They wanted to bring him home, but don't know the effect on their older children. They're afraid that Jack's room would just become the place where Jack died and they don't know if they want that. So tomorrow, they're going to talk to the people at the hospital that deal with these issues to find out how others handle this.

Perhaps, our dear Lord will take the decision out of their hands. The doctors say it could be hours, days, weeks...they don't like to speculate. It's hard to imagine when you see him that it could take weeks, but of course I don't know. They say it all depends on what part of the brain is affected by the cancer. He is drowsy all the time, occasionally tries to say something softly. Sometimes, the buzzer goes off because he stops breathing and Jay or Suzy gently shake his arm and say his name and he breathes again.

Thank you all so much for your prayers....

<>Please keep praying.

Venerable Louis and Zelie Martin, Servants of God,
You offered many prayers for your own sick children.
We unite our prayers with yours for Jack's healing.
May God look favorably on your intercession and, in His Mercy, grant us our request.
May His will be done in all things.

Venerable Louis and Zelie, pray for us!

Jack's Weekend

From Barb on Friday:

Anyway, tonight we found out that the doctors are very pessimistic. Suzy's sister is a nurse at Children's Hospital and she was in a employee's lounge and overheard the doctors talking about Jack. The CT scan today was bad and they have no hope for him now. Jay said tonight that they don't know how much more they should make him go through concerning treatment. They hate to prolong his suffering, but they hate the thought of losing him. What a heartache!

I pray that our dear Lord's will be done....

And yesterday in the comments box:
We did find out today that the cancer has spread to his spinal fluid... more bad news. They took him off the ventilator, but he would stop breathing sometimes and Jay would gently shake his hand and tell him to breathe and he would start up again. They're hoping that is only temporary. They really hope that they will be able to bring him back home. They don't want him to have to spend this time in the hospital.
A blessed weekend to all...we are so humbled by everyone's kindness and prayers.
Jack's Prayer
Venerable Louis and Zelie Martin, Servants of God,
You offered many prayers for your own sick children.
We unite our prayers with yours for Jack's healing.
May God look favorably on your intercession and, in His Mercy, grant us our request.
May His will be done in all things.

Venerable Louis and Zelie, pray for us!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Jack in the ICU

Barb informs me that Jack's mother had to call 911 today because he had a seizure. There were some frightening moments where he was in an unresponsive state and would only stare blankly. Fortunately he's out of the seizure now, but he's still hospitalized and under sedation. They have him in ICU for observation and have done a CT scan to see if they can find out why it happened. The family had been hoping that Jack would have a few "normal" weeks while he continued his present chemo, but that doesn't seem to be happening.

Every time I post an update on Jack I include his prayer. Please take a moment to pray whenever you read it.
Venerable Louis and Zelie Martin, Servants of God,
You offered many prayers for your own sick children.
We unite our prayers with yours for Jack's healing.
May God look favorably on your intercession and, in His Mercy, grant us our request.
May His will be done in all things.

Venerable Louis and Zelie, pray for us!

What's Plan C?

Today's WSJ has an article about marketing Plan B, the "morning-after" pill, and includes this classy example of an ad campaign set to run in venues such as Cosmopolitan, Lucky, and Glamour.

Marketers of birth-control drugs often find they need to highlight something other than the sexual situation that creates the need for them in the first place, say ad executives who specialize in pharmaceutical marketing. Some such marketers have in the past drawn attention to unrelated side benefits, like how a specific pill clears up acne, or another shortens a menstrual cycle. (emphasis mine)

Are condom manufacturers peeved at having their products represented so publicly as being unreliable? Will this start ad wars between the various players in the contraception industry?

The WSJ, in its feature article on the subject, also tells us that
Plan B effectively functions like a high dose of birth-control pills. When taken within 72 hours following unprotected sex, the product reduces the risk of pregnancy by as much as 89%.
Wow, a whopping 89%! The poster girl should be peeved that not only was her first form of birth control unreliable, but that the second form may not be either. If she is so desperate to avoid pregnancy so much, perhaps she should not be engaging in activities that require her to double-invest in birth control products. Condoms may be cheap, but Plan B isn't.
Barr said it expects use of the drug to grow. Currently, it is prescribed about 1.5 million times a year in the U.S. The company declined to project how much revenue would increase over the approximately $30 million a year currently generated by Plan B's sales in the U.S. Barr's version of the drug is only sold in the U.S. and Canada. Other companies sell similar products elsewhere. Will Sawyer, specialty pharmaceuticals analyst at Leerink Swann & Co., predicted that Plan B sales may triple, to $90 million, over the next three to five years. The company said it expected to price the two-pill Plan B regimen at least as high as the current $25 to $40 per prescription.
I hope she hit up her boyfriend for half of that $25 to $40 tab.

CMinor made a good point about Plan B back in May:
The "Plan B" pill's promoters are currently waging a campaign to make it universally available to the end that many pharmacies and pharmacists face legal action if they choose not to carry it. (Most make this decision either for personal moral reasons or to avoid alienating clientele with moral objections to the drug, but it's a safe bet that the potential for future lawsuits should something go wrong is also on their minds.) The eventual outcome of this campaign--if Plan B's apologists have their way-- will probably be over-the-counter availability of the drug in any pharmacy. You, I, your daughter, and mine, anytime, no prescription needed, no doctor needed, no questions asked. As often as we feel we need it. Oh, the presumption is that the "average" woman will use Plan B fewer than a half dozen times during her reproductive life, and on that premise is based the current medical viewpoint. But medications are widely misapplied in the real world, a fact that every doctor knows very well. With Plan B on the shelf among the OTCs, available for cash and with complete anonymity, what is to stop any teenage girl (or even some older ones) from making Plan B their Plan A contraceptive? Cost? If it's too expensive, what is to stop them from theft?
Bearing also pointed to a quote from Pamela Pilch that makes a very basic point:

Besides all the usual (and correct) arguments against the morning after pill, there is one argument I never hear expressed in the MSM, but which should be appealing to secular women and radical feminists. It was first brought to my attention by Dr. Hanna Klaus. And that is that women are being economically exploited by the morning after pill. Because women can only become pregnant for a few days per cycle, many women will use the morning after pill on days on which they couldn't have gotten pregnant anyway. For each dose of the morning after pill, they are paying as much as they would pay for a whole month's worth of regular birth control pills (which is still a lot more than they would be paying to use natural family planning!).

This burden will fall most heavily on young girls who are too scared to go to a physician for regular BCPs, but who engage in unprotected sex several times a month. They may substitute the MAP regularly for unprotected sex and be spending much more money each month on it than if they just used regular BCPs.

On Learning to Read in 100 Easy Lessons

Ice cream and celebrations are in order, for on this day Noogs has finished Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.

I have to say that the book has lived up to its name: there were 100 lessons, they were easy, and she's definitely reading. We've enjoyed the stories, which seem to me more interesting than the "See Jane run. See Dick hop." variety. I didn't look at any other reading programs before we started the 100 Lessons, but this one seems to work fine, and we'll probably use it for Babs when it comes time for her to learn.

I don't think that the book's special font for the earliest lessons was either a help or a hindrance -- Noogs mostly paid it no attention. I also found that by the end I wasn't paying much attention myself to the teaching directions but tailored the lessons to Noog's strengths and weaknesses. (The teaching scripts were a great help in the beginning for building my confidence, however.) I had planned to stop using the book at about lesson 80 because it seemed like, aside from the stories, the lessons were mostly drill without any new material, but it soon became obvious that Noogs needed the drill or else she grew lazy about sounding out her words.

So congratulations to Noogs! Next step: Houghton Mifflin Literary Readers Book 2.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Update on Jack

Thanks for the prayers for Jack. Today I found out that they're going to keep him on his current chemo. They don't like to use it because sometimes, the child will develop leukemia from it. But they're at the point where they don't have many choices. The steroids and other medications that he's on are helping the dizziness and double vision, so that's a blessing, though they too have side effects. His counts are starting to come back also so that's good.

They are going to keep him on these medications for two weeks and then check his counts and do another MRI. They're hoping that at that time they might be able to get him into a clinical trial somewhere.
Jack's Prayer
Venerable Louis and Zelie Martin, Servants of God,
You offered many prayers for your own sick children.
We unite our prayers with yours for Jack's healing.
May God look favorably on your intercession and, in His Mercy, grant us our request.
May His will be done in all things.

Venerable Louis and Zelie, pray for us!

And then there were eight...

It is a sad day on what was the smallest, coldest planet on the solar system. It's still small and cold, but it's not a planet any more. As the NY Times reports, the International Astronomical Union has kicked the smallest planet of the fold and declared to instead be one of three "dwarf planets":
In the new solar system, there are eight planets, at least three dwarf planets and tens of thousands of so-called “smaller solar system bodies,” like comets and asteroids.

For now, the dwarf planets include, besides Pluto, Ceres, the largest asteroid, and an object known as UB 313, nicknamed Xena, that is larger than Pluto and, like it, orbits out beyond Neptune in a zone of icy debris known as the Kuiper Belt. But there are dozens more potential dwarf-planets known in that zone, planetary scientists say, and the number in that category could quickly swell....

According to the new rules a planet meet three criteria: it must orbit the Sun, it must be big enough to gravity to squash it into a round ball, and it must have cleared other things out of the way in its orbital neighborhood. The latter measure knocks out Pluto and Xena, which orbit among the icy wrecks of the Kuiper Belt, and Ceres, which is in the asteroid belt.

Memorization of the solar system for the world's second graders just got 1/9th easier, a concept they can appreciate once they master fractions a year or two down the road.

Time to buy another book...

Darwin, on his quest to brush up his mathematics, checked out Unknown Quantity by John Derbyshire, a new book on the history of algebra. Unfortunately, the library's two-week period for new books has coincided with an overload of work for him, so he hasn't had time to read more than the first few pages. And as it was sitting about, I picked it up and have been working through it.

I'm no math whiz. Algebra and higher mathematics are a long-forgotten memory from my distant past. I don't know if I didn't take well to numbers because I have no natural aptitude or because I never encountered that teacher who had a passion for the subject and could unlock the secrets of math. But reading Unknown Quantity, from the perspective of an adult with no deadlines looming (except for the due date, of course) and a desire to become informed, I've developed a respect for algebra and for mathematicians. I haven't finished reading it yet -- it's a bit of a hard slog for me because I'm trying to work out some of the basic equations presented and I can't do it quickly. For example, Derbyshire talks about removing the term x to the second power from a cubic equation. I have grainy black and white memories of reading about this in Saxon Algebra, and even of performing the operation. But for the life of me I can't remember how it was done, and the example he provides isn't jogging my memory much.

Still, I'm starting to see why this is interesting to many people. Reading him explain about the different kinds of numbers and the different ways to solve equations, it strikes me that working out a complex equation might be a bit like writing a story. The author might know how the story ends up, but he has to work out the plot to achieve that solution. He could use the equivalent of natural numbers, and make the plot as simple and straightforward as possible. Or he could add a few twists -- how 'bout them integers? Didn't expect negative numbers, did you? -- keeping in mind the rule of signs, of course. But what if the story is some kind of Tim Powers-esque romp, with ghosts and djinn and the Cold War and time travel? Then you need the real numbers, like the square root of two. It exists, but you can't see it. It's real, but not rational!

Perhaps some real matheticians will show up and slap me around and say, "Actually, it's nothing like that at all!" But it pleases me to think that if I could just see it the right way, I could enjoy math as much as reading a well-constructed story or directing a play.

NOTE: Patrick sensibly points out that of course you can see the square root of 2 if you draw a 1x1 square and measure the diagonal. And the calculator confirms this and gives me a figure of 1.414213562. Now I feel rather silly (no fault of Patrick's, of course) and rather less insightful than previously. You know what they say about a fool opening her mouth...

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Turning Out The Vote

The Wall Street Journal offers another of their articles on the intersection of politics and fertility (available to non-subscribers).

Simply put, liberals have a big baby problem: They're not having enough of them, they haven't for a long time, and their pool of potential new voters is suffering as a result. According to the 2004 General Social Survey, if you picked 100 unrelated politically liberal adults at random, you would find that they had, between them, 147 children. If you picked 100 conservatives, you would find 208 kids. That's a "fertility gap" of 41%. Given that about 80% of people with an identifiable party preference grow up to vote the same way as their parents, this gap translates into lots more little Republicans than little Democrats to vote in future elections. Over the past 30 years this gap has not been below 20%--explaining, to a large extent, the current ineffectiveness of liberal youth voter campaigns today....

The fertility gap doesn't budge when we correct for factors like age, income, education, sex, race--or even religion. Indeed, if a conservative and a liberal are identical in all these ways, the liberal will still be 19 percentage points more likely to be childless than the conservative. Some believe the gap reflects an authentic cultural difference between left and right in America today. As one liberal columnist in a major paper graphically put it, "Maybe the scales are tipping to the neoconservative, homogenous right in our culture simply because they tend not to give much of a damn for the ramifications of wanton breeding and environmental destruction and pious sanctimony, whereas those on the left actually seem to give a whit for the health of the planet and the dire effects of overpopulation." It would appear liberals have been quite successful controlling overpopulation--in the Democratic Party.

Damn that wanton breeding...

The Tool-Making Animal

Razib of Gene Expression had a post a while back on some recent archeological evidence to backup the standard "out of Africa" genetic evidence for the origin of modern humans. (Genetic evidence suggests that modern human originated in Africa some 50k+ years ago and from there migrated to India. From there, evidence suggests all non-African humans radiated out in various directions.)

What struck me was a side rumination of Razib's:
And is it plausible that human artefactual technologies could persist for tens of thousands of years? Some perspective: 15,000 years before the present would take us back to the last Ice Age, past Rome, past Sumer, past the Neolithic. But what about the Olduwan and Achuelean tool traditions, they persisted for hundreds of thousands, even millions of years across the span of the World Island (Eurasia + Africa)....
What does this have to do with the paper in question? If the exact same cultural tradition persisted for tens of thousands of years (a range given in the paper would be 75 K BP to 35 K BP) that is strong evidence to me that the perpetuators of that cultural tradition were not yet "human" in a the way we understand human, for humanity is protean, changeable, fickle and restless with creativity. On the other hand, it could be the relationship between the East African artefacts and the Indian ones is coincidence which happens to span tens of thousands of years, just as ancient eastern North American cultural traditions seem to bear some resemblance to the Solutrean tradition in Europe which predates it by 10,000 years. Myself, I lean toward the former, that is, that "modern" cognition, which allows for the explosive and unpredictable tacking of cultural traditions is a more recent innovation than we might have thought.
This is interesting stuff. Though goodness knows there are enough ideas as to what it means to "be human" one of the persistant definitions is "man is a rational animal". Rolled into the use of that word "rational" is a host of other statements that set us apart from the creatures with which we share much of our DNA: "man is an imaginative animal", "man is a problem solving animal", "man is a spriritual animal".

So when we talk about the origins of the human species, the really inriguing question is, when did our ancestors start doing all these things? When did art first appear? When did man begin to consciously shape his environment by using technology? When did man begin to wonder where he came from?

None of this is readily apparent from fossil, genetic or archeological (except perhaps the art question, though there the question of what art is becomes rather tricky) evidence. But as Razib points out, there may have been some period in which rather human-looking creatures wandered the earth wielding stone tools, yet making those tools more as a matter of instinct than invention.

What does seem significant is that nowhere on earth (although some populations remained isolated from the rest of the world for dozens of millenia in places like Australia) do we find humans (or human-like creatures) who are not capable of cognition, art, invention and spiritual/philosophical curiosity. This seems to me to suggest one of three things:

1) The change that produced these characteristics took place quite a while ago, clearly before the most recent common ancestor of all living humans.
2) The change was in some sense innevitable, so that all human populations developed these characteristics despite living in separate places with separate population and environmental pressures.
3) The change is in some sense fundamentally not physical, and is not strictly at matter of DNA.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

MrsDarwin, in Random Quotes

Seen around: The Random Quote Generator Meme, where one selects the first five quotes that seem to express one's personality. Except I find I've picked six.

The architect should strive continually to simplify; the ensemble of the rooms should then be carefully considered that comfort and utility may go hand in hand with beauty.
Frank Lloyd Wright (1869 - 1959), 1908

Let us take things as we find them: let us not attempt to distort them into what they are not. We cannot make facts. All our wishing cannot change them. We must use them.
John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801 - 1890)

Originality is the fine art of remembering what you hear but forgetting where you heard it.
Laurence J. Peter (1919 - 1988)

All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.
George Orwell (1903 - 1950), "Animal Farm"

Admiration, n.: Our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves.
Ambrose Bierce (1842 - 1914), The Devil's Dictionary

A compromise is the art of dividing a cake in such a way that everyone believes he has the biggest piece.
Ludwig Erhard (1897 - 1977)

Monday, August 21, 2006

But what do I know?

Love2LearnMom was kind enough to tag me with a homeschooling book meme. I've realized that we have a pretty laissez-faire attitude, not in regard to education, but in regard to the mechanics of homeschooling. After all, now that Darwin and I are years from our homeschooling days, no one quizzes us on whether we had a history timeline on our wall or what phonics program we used. We're also big proponents of the "jump in and swim" school of teaching, which means we start with what we have and supplement as we go with what we find. No doubt this is easier with pre-schoolers that with older children...

Homeschool books I actually enjoyed reading:
Gotta 'fess up here: I haven't read that many homeschooling books, and I haven't made it through most of the ones I've started. I did really enjoy Dorothy Sayer's essay The Lost Tools of Learning. Is her educational system feasible? I don't know, but I enjoy her style.

Resources I won't live without:
-The library
-Bookshelves from IKEA
-Darwin's mother
-a timer

Resources you wish you had never bought:
As I haven't gotten far in my homeschooling-induced purchasing, I'm going to change this to resources I wish my parents had never bought...
-Christ the King, Lord of History
-Seton packaged High School curriculum

Resources you enjoyed last year:
-Teach Your Child To Read in 100 Easy Lessons
-Inside the Human Body
-An Alphabet of Skulls
-An Alphabet of Dinosaurs
(doubtless Noogs's interests are becoming clear)

Resources you'll be using this year:
-Faith and Life Book 1
-Houghton Mifflin Literary Reader Book 2 (from the collection of Darwin's mother; I have it on my shelf so why not use it?)
-my nifty new educational planner

Resources you'd like to buy:
-Grey's Anatomy
-a skeleton (any species; Noogs is fascinated by bones. She'd like a human skeleton if she could get one, though.)
-a piano

One resource you wish existed:
I'm still trying to figure out what resources actually exist, let alone what ought to exist.

Homeschool catalogs you enjoy reading:
-I haven't really looked at any specifically homeschooling catalogs, but I do drool over the various Dover Books catalogs. I should find some homeschooling catalogs, because I love catalogs and pore over far too many: Pottery Barn, Rejuvenation, Victoria's Secret, Anthropologie, and very shortly, the Skulls Unlimited catalog, ordered for the delectation of Noogs.

One homeschooling website you use regularly:
This is two, but I regularly read The Opinionated Homeschooler and Love2LearnMom, both of whom have years of experience on me, at least in regards to the educator side of the equation.

I won't assign tags this time, though I would be interested in hearing the Opinionated Homeschooler's recommendations and advice on the subject.

The Miss Manners Guide to Junk Movies

Judith Martin, more popularly known to the reading public as Miss Manners, has a long and varied list of accomplishments. One of these was reviewing movies for the Washington Post once upon a time, and one of the movies she reviewed was The Empire Strikes Back.
To call "The Empire Strikes Back" a good junk movie is no insult: There is enough bad junk around. And surely we're getting over the snobbery of pretending that it is undemocratic to recognize any hierarchy of culture, as if both low and high can't be appreciated, often be the same people.

But when light entertainment is done well, someone is bound to make extravagant and unsupportable claims for its being great art. You will hear that this sequel to "Star Wars" is part of a vast new mythology, as if it were the Oresteia. Its originator, George Lucas, has revealed that the two pictures are actually parts four and five of a nine-part sage, as if audiences will some day receive the total the way devotees now go to Seattle for a week of immersion in Wagner's complete Ring Cycle.

Nonsense. This is no monumental artistic work, but a science-fiction movie done more snappily than most, including its own predecessor. A chocolate bar is a marvelous sweet that does not need to pretend to be a chocolate soufflé; musical comedies are wonderful entertainment without trying to compete with opera; blue jeans are a perfect garment that shouldn't be compared with haute couture. There are times when you would much rather have a really good hot dog than any steak, but you can still recognize that one is junk food and the other isn't.

This is a distinction that is too rarely made when dealing with movies that touch, however peripherally, upon matters of philosophy or theology. I recall when the first Matrix movie came out and friends were encouraging me to see it. "It's deep!" someone exclaimed. "It's really a very Catholic movie, and it deals with the whole question of reality and philosophy. I think it's my new favorite movie!"

Now keep in mind that we are speaking here of The Matrix. This is the movie in which Keanu Reeves ran around looking tousled and dazed and uttering lines that, when analyzed, generally carried a subtext of "Dude!" It was entertaining, and perhaps could serve as a glossary of various popular existential ideas, but it was by no means highbrow or great or even memorable for anything besides the shooting technique bullet time. And even that has lost its novelty, since every action movie since has parroted the style. The Matrix was a junk movie -- entertaining, superior to many other junk movies in style and concept perhaps, but junk. You want a good movie dealing with heavy intellectual discusion, look for Copenhagen. If you you're seeking a movie to assure that perhaps your lousy day job is just an illusion after all, that's where the Matrix comes in handy.


Another update on Jack from Barb:
We saw Jay tonight....Jack is getting worse. On Saturday and Sunday, he slept 16-17 hours each day. When he was awake, he had double vision and was dizzy. He can't keep food down. Twice he kept it down for several hours, but then he loses it. This all means that the cancer is growing.

His blood counts have been too low, so he didn't make it into the clinical trial here in Cincinnati. They are giving him some other chemo and steroids in an attempt to help make him more comfortable, and hopefully, his counts will come up high enough to qualify for some other clinical trial.

They go into the hospital tomorrow for tests, discussions with the oncologists, and possibly to give Jack an IV since he probably will be getting dehydrated. Meanwhile, we need that miracle.

Rick and Rhonda Lugari graciously sent us relics of St. Therese's parents...I gave them to Jay tonight and he got all choked up. We are so grateful for everyone's prayers....everyone's concern and support has been such a witness to our family.
It's extremely hard on Jack's family to watch him suffering -- please keep his parents and siblings in your prayers as well.
Venerable Louis and Zelie Martin, Servants of God,
You offered many prayers for your own sick children.
We unite our prayers with yours for Jack's healing.
May God look favorably on your intercession and, in His Mercy, grant us our request.
May His will be done in all things.

Venerable Louis and Zelie, pray for us!

Textbook Quotas

In the "this is what's wrong with mainstream educational publishing" vein, the WSJ (You can see what I've been reading while under the weather, eh? Well what can I say, I was finding even Derbyshire's history of algebra to be rather dense for sick-time reading. And the other stuff I had in my stack was no more appealing.) offered a front page article on Saturday about the PC world of textbook photography. It seems that the major publishers (Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, etc.) have set up quotas to make sure that enough minority representation can be found on the pages of children's text books. Some of this involved cherry-picking what you discuss in text books:
As submitted to Texas for adoption in 2002, McGraw-Hill's "The American Republic Since 1877" included a profile and photo of Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman pilot. But there was no mention or image of aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright. After a Texas activist who advocates for more patriotic textbooks complained, McGraw-Hill added a passage and photo about the Wrights. A company spokeswoman said the brothers had been left out inadvertently.

However, the rules also creep down to seemingly innocuous stuff like who appears in the concept (or filler, depending on how you look at it) illustrations in math and spelling books. McGraw-Hill apparently mandated that only 40% of people appearing in textbook illustrations be white. 20% should be African American. 30% Hispanic. 7% Asian. 3% American Indian. And 5% should be disabled.

Of course people with actual disabilities are difficult to get up to a photo studio to run through exercises in a mock classroom, so the textbooks apparently often fill in by putting able-bodied kids into wheelchairs or on crutches in order to meet quota. I have no idea what the figures are on this, but what percentage of those under 18 who are 'disabled' suffer from a malady which results in appearing exactly like a healthy kid, but being confined to a wheelchair? I'm thinking it's low. But then, I guess a wheelchair is a very easy disability to portray photographically.

Another whole set of guidelines regards avoiding stereotypes:
McGraw-Hill's 2004 guidelines for artwork and photos say Asians should not be portrayed "with glasses, bowl-shaped haircuts, or as intellectuals"; African-Americans should be shown "in positions of power, not just in service industries"; elderly people should be "active members of society," not "infirm"; and disabled people should be shown as independent rather than receiving help.

An older McGraw-Hill manual -- which a company spokeswoman says is "still relevant" as guidance -- discourages depicting Asian-American males as waiters, laundry owners or math students, or showing Mexican men wearing ponchos or wide-brimmed hats. African-Americans should not be portrayed in "crowded tenements on chaotic streets" or in "innocuous, dull, white picket fence neighborhoods," but in "all neighborhoods, including luxury apartments."

For a spread on world cultures, one major publisher vetoed a photo of a barefoot child in an African village, on the grounds that the lack of footwear reinforced the stereotype of poverty on that continent, according to an employee familiar with the situation. It was replaced with a photo of a West African girl wearing shoes and a gingham dress.

Well shoot, we wouldn't want to give a bunch of kids the idea that there's poverty in Africa, now would we.... And is it really going to cause massive trauma to Asian children if they see Asians portrayed as intellectuals?

Of course, the key sin of most of these mainstream textbooks is that they are committee written monstrosities with no character, no clear narrative and a disorganized hodge-podge of often irrelevant information provided by means of sidebars, highlights, examples and such forth, which actually take up most of the book rather than providing occasional diversions from the main text. But I can't think that all this helps any either.

As Steven Riddle points out in the comments, this foolishness on the part of the textbook publishers clearly doesn't come out of a vacuum. Although states do not officially have quotas, the people in charge of making textbook decisions for large states like Florida, Texas and California have criteria that include "images which reflect a diverse student body" and "breaking down stereotypes". The textbook companies (who know that the majority of their profits rely on pleasing these officials) simply set up quotas as a way of making sure that they always go 'above and beyond' in meeting these goals.

If there's any doubt they're just jumping through hoops, one of the things mentioned in the article was that 'diverse' images were far more often on the right hand page, because hurried state examiners often just flip through the pages to get a gernal impression, and thus only see the right hand pages.

Gimlet with a Dash of Bitters

One of the enjoyable things about the Wall Street Journal is the weekend drinks column, which is written to appeal to those with a conservative turn of mind and a preference that all things be rooted in some sort of cultural reference. Thus, when a column of a couple week back sought to discuss the Gimlet, the discussion opened thusly:

"Will you have lime juice or lemon squash?" Francis Macomber asks at the beginning of the Hemingway story that bears his name.

"I'll have a gimlet," replies Robert Wilson, the ruddy professional hunter Macomber has hired to help him shoot animals in Africa.

"I'll have a gimlet too," says Macomber's wife, Margot. "I need something," she says -- the first indication that the safari has gone wrong.

"I suppose it's the thing to do," says a defeated Macomber. "Tell him to make three gimlets." And in his over-agreeable acquiescence, Francis has revealed the nut of the story: He is a man who isn't able to stand his ground. As Hemingway puts it, "he was thirty-five years old, kept himself very fit, was good at court games, had a number of big-game fishing records and had just shown himself, very publicly, to be a coward."

Macomber's ruthless wife enjoys the power that the knowledge of her husband's cowardice brings; promptly, brazenly, she cuckolds the poor fellow with Wilson.

From this promising beginning he moves on after a bit to the Raymond Chandler:
[I]n "The Long Goodbye" Marlowe is introduced to the Gimlet by Terry Lennox, an ever so polite Anglophile with problems, among them the fact that he is married, off and on, to an heiress whose sexual morals would make Paris Hilton blush. Marlowe and Lennox are at an L.A. bar called Victor's drinking Gimlets, but Lennox isn't completely happy with his cocktail: "What they call a Gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice and gin with a dash of sugar and bitters," he says to Marlowe. "A real Gimlet is half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow."
This of course got me curious about two things: 1) Making a Gimlet and 2) What exactly Mr. Lennox's wife had been up to.

One of these seemed quicker to fix than the other, so I picked up a bottle of Rose's Lime Juice and a bottle of bitters. Experimentation proceeded. Whatever exactly may have been the cause of Mrs. Lennox's lack of inhibitions, I believe I can report that it was not strictly speaking the fault of her husband's choice in drink, since this has not resulted in any notable misbehavior on the part of MrsDarwin.

Now first of all, Mr. Lennox had more problems in life than his marriage if we could drink anything that was 50% Rose's Lime Juice. The stuff pours like syrup and tastes at least as sugary as limey. There must be limits. I'm inclined to about a 1:4 ratio of Rose's to gin. This is enough that the drink provides an interesting blended taste of gin-ish-ness and lime and sweetness, with neither side winning out. However, the lime still plays strong enough notes this is not the place to pull out a really top shelf gin. Stick with something under $20 a bottle unless you just don't care.

Of course, Chandler's hero found himself, by the end of it all, trying a bit not to care as well, though finding it difficult:
Philip Marlowe's Gimlet-drinking routine comes to an abrupt halt when his friend's heiress-wife turns up dead in her love nest and Lennox lams it south of the border. But when the shamus thinks he finally has the whole mess of who killed whom sorted out, he allows himself a sort of commemorative drink: "I drove out to Victor's with the idea of drinking a gimlet," Marlowe recounts. "But the bar was crowded and it wasn't any fun. When the barkeep I knew got around to me he called me by name." The bartender seemed to recall how Marlowe took his drink: "You like a dash of bitters in it, don't you?"

"Not usually," Marlowe replies, "Just for tonight, two dashes of bitters."

I find a dash or three of bitters really makes the drink. The WSJ columnist suggests calling this a Marlowe -- it clearly can't be a Lennox, given that character's instructions for mixing the drink. Though MrsDarwin still seems to prefer the simple gin an tonic -- perhaps it has to do with those intriguingly mentioned morals which Ms. Hilton and Mrs. Lennox share and MrsDarwin does not...

Now for step two, I really need to read The Long Goodbye one of these days. My familiarity with classic American stuff like Chandler is not what it should be.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A Triumph, Mother, A Triumph!

The show was fabulous, boys -- everything went perfectly and the audience loved it. We had a few minor hitches in the final rehearsal, including a costume mishap that could have been a major problem (no, don't think Janet Jackson, 'cause it wasn't like that at all), but the kids rose to the occasion and didn't let it get them down. There was a digital camera on hand to record some of the madness, and when the shots are sent to me I'll post a few and you can see why I've been blathering about sunburn makeup for the past two weeks.

Now that the show is over and Darwin is recovered from his whatever-it-was, we should be back to blogging as usual. In the meantime, I don't want to catch any of you wearing city shorts. That is right out.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Beau Brummell, call your office

I post now on the most heinous trend to hit fashion since I don't know when: The City Short.

What is up with this look?

It turns out I gave away my one and only pair of shorts -- my favorite shorts -- to the Katrina clothing drive while I was pregnant. I don't know what possessed me, because I liked those shorts. But anyway, they're gone now. So a week or two ago I returned to Old Navy to see if I could find them again. Lo and behold, Old Navy had NO SHORTS. It was not merely that they had a few pairs stashed away against the back wall. In Texas, in 100 degree heat, there were no shorts. None at Target either.

But there were City Shorts. Appalling, chimerical visions -- neither quite shorts nor quite pants but some repulsive compromise. And they don't look good on anyone. We recently went to Family Day at Darwin's Big Anonymous Company, and I saw several women wearing City Shorts with heels. This must stop, America. These things must be driven out of our homes and schools and department stores and expensive catalogs.

Paris Hilton in knickers. Need I say more?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Oyez, Oyez

Blogging may be lite today, as they say, because Darwin is down with the fever/stomach thing, and I have a marathon final rehearsal before the dress rehearsal on Friday. Today heads will be knocked together if lines are not memorized. Today the tempo must be fine-tuned and the dead air eliminated. Today the sunburn must be perfected and the props must be in their proper places, and enter with the proper characters. Yes, there is much to do, which is why I, at least, won't be on the web all day searching out juicy tidbits for you, the reader, to digest.

I wish they all could be Cincinnati boys...

Our congratulations to Rich Leonardi on the birth of his son Peter Albert. And my congratulations to my hometown Cincinnati on the birth of her newest citizen.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Notes on Camp

We had the first of our three final rehearsals leading up to the big dress rehearsal leading up to the performance on Saturday.

1. It's really too late to change anything now, whether or not I think that maybe the character should have moved to the chair instead of the door. Just rehearse it how we planned it!

2. The stage is way too small. There's no help for that. I'm just sayin'.

3. It worries me when the six-year-old comes on stage to sing his song, and then announces that we have to wait a minute. Why? Because someone in the other room just started a new computer game, and he wants to play. No! We're live now! (Note to self: Breathe. It's just rehearsal.)

4. Tomorrow is the day I go on the search for the Ultimate Love Letter -- pink, frilly, ornate, something that screams from the stage "I LUV YOU". Maybe I can perfume it too...

5. For when only the best will do, choose real stage makeup to create the illusion of a terrible sunburn. Real street blush just isn't gonna cut it. And CoverGirl has a powder compact in a lovely shade of seafoam green that screams "Retro!"

6. A full drum set is just too loud to allow for unamplified singing. On a related note: duct tape down the mike cords before someone trips again.

7. Mrs. Darwin's law of Directing with Children: When you're working on a scene that requires precision timing and lots of directorial input, the baby will demand to be held by you and no one else. And she won't take a teething toy. And the bigger girls will want to run on the stage to show that they too can tap dance.

8. It's mildly depressing to work with girls who are much slimmer than I am, even if they are 13 and 18.

9. Late night rehearsals are suprisingly productive.

10. I'm going to miss working on this when it's all over.

Unknown Quantity

For those of you who didn't think I was absolutely insane to suddenly come upon a desire to refresh my knowledge of math, here's something interesting I stumbled across quite by accident at the library. John Derbyshire, the National Review regular, has a new book out titled Unknown Quantity: A Real And Imaginary History of Algebra. It's a history of the discipline from ancient through modern times, with readable yet not terribly dumbed-down refreshers on essential elements which the reader needs to understand in order to grasp the significance of the history.

While I have major differences with 'The Derb' on a number of topics, his science and especially his math writing tends to be both interesting and charming, so I'm looking forward to reading a bit of it before the library's two week loan policy on new releases snatches it back from me.

Learning Organization from the Heathen

Things had come to a head. I'd hit the point where I thought I'd dealt with all outstanding tasks for the day, only to be reminded the next day of some fairly essential thing that I'd forgotton, one too many times. (Indeed, a few clients and coworkers might say, rather more than one too many times.) Somehow, despite using a phone journal, my Outlook Calendar, a trouble ticket system and project management software, things were slipping through -- usually things that I committed to on the phone or in person at some point when I didn't have my computer in front of me.

So I decided to get a Franklin Planner. I used to carry a Franklin back in high school and early college, but I'd lapsed on entering the working world, because I never seemed to need it all that much. Having changed job descriptions a few times since then, however, it seemed like time to give the thing a try again. (They have all sort of Franklin software as well these day, but since my problems usually stemmed from when I was not in front of a computer, and I have a fetish for nice pens, I figured that a paper system was the way to go.) The new planner is supposed to arrive shortly, so we'll see whether I manage to get myself organized or not...

As I was waiting for a big data pull to come back (which seems to be when a lot of my internet reading comes in) I ran accross an old Salon article in which the rather dubious author tries out a Franklin Planner. I can't say I share her fears that greater organization will turn me into an automiton (though I also never bothered to use the sections that were supposed to help you with "life planning") but I was somewhat amused to hear that the Franklin system was developed by devout Mormons, the founder actualy being a descentant of Brigam Young.

Do I need to go get the thing blessed when it arrives lest I be taken over by the most American of all religions?

I'll take my chances, I think. Still, I was amused.

And if the Franklin system represents, as the Salon author claims, a peculiarly Mormon approach to organization, what would a peculiarly Catholic approach to organization looks like? Should I get planner inserts for the Divine Office and the Angelus?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

God and Philosophy

In general, I hesitate to make a reader's comment the subject of a post, for fear of seeming to abuse the inherent power of being the blog post. But since the comment I was writing on the post below about philosophy and moral reasoning was reaching post-like proportions (and because I've been short of time to write good meaty posts lately) I thought I'd make and exception.

Kip said:
I love Plato too, but it's just an amusement though isn't it? He has some nice lessons on logic, but was also able to prove some ludicrous things, purely by the power of his intellect and sheer audacity. I'm not sure he's a good candidate for philosophical veracity. But I guess the epsitles of St Paul are largely philosophical, as indeed are the writings of other great early Christians. Likewise, the wise teachings of the Confucists and Buddhists. So evidently some philosophy can illuminate what is deeply true. But it's such a small proportion! And in every case is founded on something deeper than the philosophy itself. As for all muck that I dabbled in as a youth (not that my reading was all that deep or broad; Neitzsche, Marx, that existential rubbish, plus bits and pieces of this and that from here and there), it's beautiful and seductive, but monstrous -- and lies, all lies! Corrupters of the young, indeed. Bring out the hemlock!

Like any powerful tool, logic can be mis-used in the wrong hands. Logic is, after all, the way of determining consistency, not truth. Thus, the veracity of anything 'logically proven' is dependent not only on the quality of the logical analysis, but also on the accuracy of the premises which the argument accepts. Garbage in, garbage out.

As for Plato in particular -- of those outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, I think in some ways he got closest to understanding God. Which is no small feat. I don't think it should be diminished.

There is certainly some odd stuff that he has the participants in his dialogues suggest, or even agree on. However, I think it would very much be a mistake to take all of this at face value. Despite the readable style, Plato has some rather subtle things going on, and I don't think that everything which his characters agree on is actually something Plato would support in an unqualified fashion.

There's a tendency within certain strains of Christianity (I tend to see it as a more Protestant impulse these days, but that's not to say that it isn't present in some of the Fathers as well) to overly denigrate all human endeavor (whether intellectual or moral) in comparison to the goodness of the divine.

Of course, it's hardly a fair comparison. If God is infinitely good, then we all far quite short by comparison. And yet, we are made in the likeness of God, and Christ enjoined us to "be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect." That command hardly seems compatible with a "snow on a dunghill" approach to grace and salvation.

The traditional Christian understanding of man has been that he stands halfway between the animal and the divine. With the beasts, we share all too mortal bodies and the bodily needs and desire that go with them. And yet we are rational animals, sharing in the divine reason which gives order to the universe in which we live, and thus able to understand our world in a way that animals cannot.

In our sin, we sometimes try to make ourselves as gods, and yet we are at our most godlike when, rather than setting ourselves up a rivals to God, we join with him in the use of our reason and of our creative powers. In the field of human endeavor (as opposed to prayer and contemplation, though which we experience the divine more directly), there are three disciplines which bring humanity into the closest imitation of God:

-The creative arts, in which the artist mirrors God's creative love
-Reason: philosophy, logic, mathematics, by which man seeks to understand the divine order of the mind of God
-Science, by which man seeks to understand the workings of God's creation

While none of these are salvific in their own right, I don't think we should ever minimize their place in allowing man to mirror his creator.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Death's Head

Noogs, who loves bones, was begging for a book on them yesterday at the library. She has her favorite book on the subject, but I can only read Inside the Human Body so many times before ossification sets in, so I was ready to mix it up with something new. And so I picked up The Big Book of Bones by Claire Llewellyn, mostly because of the engaging photo of a skeleton on a bicycle on the cover. And indeed, we found the book basically satisfactory until we came to the last pages on "Scary Skeletons", on cultural representations of skeletons. There in vivid color was an image of the tarot card Death.

Now, I'm not a superstitious person. I don't hold with fears about the number 13 or black cats (actually, we own one, and he does bring us misfortune, but mostly of the hairball-on-the-carpet variety). But I'm not cavalier either. I wouldn't play with a ouija board or allow one in my house, and I won't mess around with tarot cards or fortune-telling or horoscopes (though most of the garden-variety ones in the paper don't seem to be channelling anything more dangerous than The Onion.) Tim Powers said it best in an interview with

Dave: As a writer known for books about the supernatural, how do you deal with that disbelief? Many of your fans must believe in it - not all of them, but some certainly.

Powers: I have a sort of back door in my skepticism in that I'm a practicing Roman Catholic, and though I'm generalizing, Catholics do have a sort of double-barreled view of the supernatural which is: "I don't believe a word of it" and "I wouldn't touch it." So I'm totally skeptical and totally scared of it at the same time.

For one book, Last Call, I had to buy a set of tarot cards because I needed to look at the pictures. I think it's silly nonsense, like astrology. But I wouldn't shuffle that deck in my house. I think it's nonsense, and I also think it's scary. Maybe my readers
have that in common with me; maybe they don't so much believe it as they wouldn't necessarily play with it.

After reading Last Call, Darwin and I were curious to reference some of the images mentioned, while not really wanting a deck of tarot cards in the house. So we bought a set of Minchiate cards -- a kind of pre-tarot game. This was before we had children, or we probably wouldn't have indulged our curiosity; now we keep them high on a shelf and don't let the girls look at them or play with them. We haven't looked at them in ages, and if it ever came to where the girls were getting into them, we'd throw them out.

Darwin wanted to go out to the library himself this evening, so I had him return that bones book and pick up a different one for Noogs. She hadn't paid much attention to the tarot image except to say that the skeleton was smiling, but I just didn't like the idea of exposing the girls to tarot images. Some doors shouldn't be opened even casually.

Apologia Pro Evolution

Chad of On The Silent Planet, another Catholic blogger with an interest (indeed, a far more professional one) in evolutionary biology, offers the first in a three part series dealing with evolution and belief.

The overall plan for the series:

Part I: Introduction, and Why (Micro)Evolution is Good Science
Part II: Why Macroevolution is a Historical Field, but Yet Still is Good Science
Part III: Why Evolution Properly Understood is Compatible with and Affirming of Christian Belief

I've go to salute the guy. The last couple week's I've barely had time to write anything, much less such an ambitious undertaking. I'm definately looking forward to reading this series.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Moral Reasoning -- Backwards

It seems we often see these day very clever (and sometimes less so) people trying to derive moral norms by reasoning forward from basic principles. To take a rather basic example: just about all human societies have had it as a norm that killing another member of society without just cause is wrong. The points of difference are on what constitutes "just cause" and what constitutes "member of society".

One must then decide whether to reconcile these cultural views, or instead proclaim (as some do) that moral norms vary by time and place. I would tend to argue that one simply cannot take moral norms at all seriously and yet argue that they can be fundamentally different depending on when and where you live. In ancient Rome a pater familias was considered to have life and death power over his family (at least in the earliest times -- later Roman civilization increasingly recoiled against this) and thus could (with full moral justification) decide that it was best for the family if one of his children was killed. One may say that this was right or that it was wrong, or that it is a morally indifferent issue (though that certainly seems a hard position to maintain in this case) but one cannot sensibly maintain that it was right then but wrong now -- unless by "right" and "wrong" one simply means "customary" and "not customary" or "beneficial to society" and "not beneficial to society".

If we take it that some things are always wrong and others always right -- that there is some sort of objective moral code which applies to us as a species, or as rational creatures -- the question then becomes how to determine which things are right and wrong, given the differences between various society's moral codes. Many seem to take some general principle as a given, and then reason onwards from there. Thus, in addressing the question of murder, many people who believe they are reasoning from first principles argue that murder is the unjust killing of another being who possesses consciousness and self-awareness, and thus unjustly depriving that being of those faculties. Others argue that it is the ending of any life that is the inherent wrong, and thus advocate vegitarianism.

And yet both of these, in fact, are not working from first principles, but rather are working backwards for certain assumptions -- assumptions that are perhaps so deep-seated that they hardly seem like assumptions. Thus, when someone assumes that personhood (and an inherent right to life) follows from the possession of self-awareness and consciousness, that person implicitly accepts an assumption that killing a human is different in a fundamental way from killing an animal. Consciousness and self-awareness are then seized upon as the most obvious differences between most humans and other animals. Similarly, someone who recoils from all animal killing and advocates vegitarianism implicitly assumes that there is a fundamental difference in kind between animals and plants which makes the killing of the one acceptable but the other not.

Where then do these assumptions come from? Perhaps a true skeptic would say that these are but emotional reactions to the world, unrelated to either reason or reality. But I find this approach to be so unappealing as to seem untrue. Rather, it seems to me that the human person possesses some basic understanding of right and wrong -- which may be obscured to a greater of lesser extent by one's cultural conditioning and personal inclinations and desires. From this (in the absence of some other source that one chooses to trust on such matters, such as revelation) one must take those things which seem most clearly certain and then reason backwards to the general moral principle -- which may itself proceed to resolve some cases on which one is less sure by instinct.

It seems to me that it is in violating this basic principle that Peter Singer's controversial ideas about infanticide clearly go wrong. Singer has identified what he believes to be the characteristics of a human that make killing it wrong, and upon applying those characteristics finds that killing an infant is not murder. Yet, instead of taking it that this means he has chosen the wrong attributes as being the essential characteristics that define the right to life, he assumes that society as a whole has poor instincts as to what deserves the full protections of 'personhood'.

Using the backwards approach, it seems to me instead that one must take our basic revulsion at the idea of killing an infant as a starting point, and work back from that to a definition of what makes murder wrong that explains that killing an adult is wrong and that killing an infant is wrong. From there one can ask: If killing a human that does not yet possess self-knowledge is wrong, then what is it that makes killing wrong? Is it the very identity of being human? This seems a fit to me, since being human is a binary characteristic -- while such things as consciousness and self awareness admit to levels of degree. From there, the question that one asks as you push out into the more ambiguous waters of abortion or euthanasia is: Are we dealing with the killing of a human in this situation? Has there been some sort of change in kind, where we are not longer dealing with a creature of the same sort as another human? Or are we looking at a person who is the same in kind, but at another point in the range of development of function?

Bearing Children

The Darwins offer our congratulations to Erin of Bearing Blog, who is the proud mother of Miss Mary Jane Frances!

Go over to say congratulations. Stay to gaze at that beautiful little face.

Hey, kids, let's put on a show!

Painting has stalled out for the moment (hence, no pix yet)-- not because I'm bored with it or have lost motivation, but for two reasons. First, I lost my in-house babysitting now that my siblings are gone, and second, I'm at crunch time in rehearsals for my show.

Earlier this summer, some talented friends of mine, a large group of siblings, asked for my help in putting together a musical revue based around various standards of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. They have the vocal and instrumental chops to perform the pieces (and the dance moves too), but needed someone to create and stage a coherent show. I love doing that sort of thing, so they gave me a list of songs they'd been practicing and I set to work developing a plot that would tie them all together. The show is meant to be light entertainment, so the story is a classic tale of a kid getting a lucky break in New York City (circa Gershwin) and melting the heart of his frosty leading lady.

The script was put together gradually from scenes built around the songs, and once the basic structure was set, we began to find themes and running gags. A final character was added to incorporate the oldest brother of the family, who joins in on one of the last songs in the show. Not everything is perfectly melded -- Route 66 is tacked on as a sort of prologue because I couldn't quite work it in smoothly anywhere else -- but on the whole we have a fairly tight plot with plenty of gags.

Performance is next Saturday, so we're ramping up the rehearsals. Next week we have three full runs plus a dress rehearsal Friday night. For an amateur show in someone's living room, it's suprisingly technically polished. Lights and curtains have been hung, mikes are being set up, and there's even a 12'x8x wood floor for the stage and tap routine (moved from a different part of the house). Our orchestra consists of piano, bass, and drums, and for intermission our 16-year-old pianist is presenting us with a an abbreviated (though hardly less difficult) version of Gershwin's An American in Paris. Considering that the show is not only free but includes dinner, I'd say that our invited audience is full of lucky stiffs.

So the upshot of this is that paint and moulding have been temporarily upstaged by blocking, choreography, and the search for the right shade of blush to simulate a livid sunburn under the lights. Regular home decorating resumes in two weeks, by which time I'll have to buy all new rollers, because the ones I stored in the fridge (thinking I'd get back to the painting tomorrow) will have hardened beyond salvaging. Oh well, them's the breaks in show business.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The shot heard round the world...

...was the Democrats blowing their own foot clean off.

Senator Joe Lieberman, who just six years ago was the much vaunted VP candidate, is now a man without a party, thanks to Daily Kos and such.

Now, I can't say I'm exactly a Lieberman fan. I voted against him and Gore in 2000, and I am not impressed with folks like him who used to voice pro-life convictions and then conveniently lost them when they went to run for high profile office.

Still, it can't be good for the Democratic Party or the country as a whole to have the extreme left winning out over more moderate strains. Though it may turn out to be good for the Republican Party come 2008 -- thus letting them off with another "saved only by the opposition's idiocy" victory.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Jack and the Clinical Trials

From Barb:
I just wanted to let you know that Jack was not accepted into the clinical trial in Memphis. It was full.
They've decided to put him into the clinical trial here in Cincinnati which is for all types of cancer and is in the first phase. At first his parents were upset because they thought the clinical trial in Memphis would give him a better chance. Now they just feel that perhaps God has other plans that will keep them home.
One problem is that this trial is all oral medications (pills) and Jack (like lots of other kids) doesn't do well with pills, so they're working on trying to teach him how to swallow them. They also cannot begin until his counts come back up...they were still too low as of the end of last week.
Thanks again for all of your prayers...
Jack's prayer:
Venerable Louis and Zelie Martin, Servants of God,
You offered many prayers for your own sick children.
We unite our prayers with yours for Jack's healing.
May God look favorably on your intercession and, in His Mercy, grant us our request.
May His will be done in all things.

Venerable Louis and Zelie, pray for us!

Mother's Rule of Life

I am as in need of scheduling advice as the next person, and so last Mother's Day when my own mom sent me A Mother's Rule of Life I thought that perhaps this would be a useful tool for getting my home and life into a more scheduled routine. The subtitle is "How to Bring Order to Your Home and Peace to your Soul", and though my soul is already peaceful, my house could certainly use a little order.

Unfortunately, my first reading of it left a distinctly bad taste in my mouth. I wedged it into a bookshelf and left it there until last week, when the organizational urge struck again. Maybe I'd been too hasty with my first impressions and so overlooked some good advice. After re-reading it, I can say, upon careful consideration: Nah.

I just can't take this book seriously. My first presentiment of trouble came from the first page of the first chapter, in which the author recounts how she was pounding the table and issuing her husband ultimatums about schooling, the house, and yelling about how she just couldn't take it anymore. I could tell at that moment that the author and I had already diverged wildly in terms of personality and coping mechanisms for stress, but hey! the Lord works in mysterious ways, and if He had revealed the secret of organization to this woman then who was I to naysay?

Unfortunately, the rest of the book bore out my initial impressions. The book was more about the author's transformation than about the practicalities of creating and following a rule of life, and I simply couldn't get over her personal problems, emotional neediness, and relationship struggles. Merely discovering that using some common sense and a bit of stepping into the other's shoes will make a relationship a lot less stressful isn't going to fly with me as wisdom from on high -- I already knew at 18 what she was discovering at 30. I found myself irritated and bemused by her insistence that God was calling her to take every other Saturday "off" from her family. I felt sorry for her husband.

Also, it's no news to me that I need a schedule; this book didn't tell me anything I didn't know already. My problem is one of motivation, and for that I find books on housewifery almost useless. It strikes me that A Mother's Rule of Life is a book that will be of greatest assistance to women who are from the same mold as the author. However, if emotional displays annoy you and a lack of common sense vexes you, go straight to the source and pull your inspiration from the Rule of St. Benedict. At least he won't burden you with chapters of irrelevant personal details.

Gene Expression Questions Philosopher

Over on Gene Expression Classic, Razib has up another in his 10 Questions series of interviews, this one with philosopher Matthew Stewart. I confess to not knowing enough about writers of general consumption philosophy books to have any opinion or knowledge of Stewart's work, but I'm charmed by the opening of a recent Atlantic Monthly (full text only available to subscribers or in the library) article he wrote:

During the seven years that I worked as a management consultant, I spent a lot of time trying to look older than I was. I became pretty good at furrowing my brow and putting on somber expressions. Those who saw through my disguise assumed I made up for my youth with a fabulous education in management. They were wrong about that. I don’t have an M.B.A. I have a doctoral degree in philosophy—nineteenth-century German philosophy, to be precise. Before I took a job telling managers of large corporations things that they arguably should have known already, my work experience was limited to part-time gigs tutoring surly undergraduates in the ways of Hegel and Nietzsche and to a handful of summer jobs, mostly in the less appetizing ends of the fast-food industry.

The strange thing about my utter lack of education in management was that it didn’t seem to matter. As a principal and founding partner of a consulting firm that eventually grew to 600 employees, I interviewed, hired, and worked alongside hundreds of business-school graduates, and the impression I formed of the M.B.A. experience was that it involved taking two years out of your life and going deeply into debt, all for the sake of learning how to keep a straight face while using phrases like "out-of-the-box thinking," "win-win situation," and "core competencies." When it came to picking teammates, I generally held out higher hopes for those individuals who had used their university years to learn about something other than business administration.
Seems to jibe pretty well with my own experience dealing with MBAs. I certainly haven't found studying Classics rather than Marketing, Business or Computer Science to have slowed me down at all in working as a marketing/data analyst and web programmer. Though I would say it often takes a a few years for your earning power to equal that of someone with a technical degree, even if you end up doing about the same work.

Requiscat in Pace

Fellow blogger and occasional commenter John Farrell's father, David J. Farrell, died quietly on Friday morning. Our prayers go out for the repose of his soul, and for the Farrell family during this times. And thanks to St. Joseph, patron of the good death, is doubtless in order. Few of us could do better than to die quietly and at home, surrounded by our families.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Book Meme Redux, or Me Too

Darwin got in first and took all the good answers, so my list is a bit lighter.

1. One book that changed your life: Lewis's The Four Loves. I read it at 17, and it had a profound influence on my thoughts about love and friendship, making me susceptible to the intellectual wiles of the freshman Darwin.

2. One book that you've read more than once: Declare by Tim Powers. An excellent mix of historical speculation, suspense, action, love across time, and the supernatural, set against the backdrop of the Cold War.

3. One book you'd want on a desert island: Well, Darwin already took The Divine Comedy (thought I came up with it independently) so I might have to grab The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. That's pretty meaty stuff for an island sojourn. Or maybe I'd have to find a copy of Bad Twin.

4. One book that made you laugh: My Home Sweet Home by Giovanni Guareschi. Family doesn't get funnier than Margharita, the Passionaria, and Alberto.

5. One book that made you cry: I read Jane Eyre when I was 13 or 14, and found myself snuffling at Jane's stirring declaration that she was not an automaton, Mr. Rochester. It's possible that something more recent has made me tear up, but nothing springs immediately to mind -- I'm not much for crying.

6. One book that you wish had been written: The Complete User's Manual to Eleanor, Julia, and Isabel. Boy, would that make my life easier!

7. One book that you wish had never been written: Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This is the book responsible for numerous heinous theories of child and human development by perpetrating the myth of the tabula rasa -- thus rejecting the notion of original sin.

8. One book you're currently reading: A Mother's Rule of Life. I'm reading it, but I'm not liking it.

9. One book you've been meaning to read: The Death of Achilles by Boris Akunin -- fourth in the series of Erast Fandorin mysteries. These are excellent reads for anyone who loves classic mysteries, and are uber-stylish to boot.

AND I'm back, having just remembered that I wanted to tag a few people: Rick and Rhonda Lugari and BarbfromCincy in the combox, and Amber and CMinor -- time permitting for all, of course.

Book Meme

Well, it had to happen some time. I've been tagged by Zippy with the book meme that's been going around. No I have to figure out what book changed my life other than Lord of the Rings and the Bible if I'm to not blend in with everyone else.

1. One book that changed your life: Plato's Dialogues -- My father very wisely put the basic dialogues of Plato in my way at age 14, which must be the height of what Sayers calls the "pert age". I'm far from being a complete Platonist, but hitting me as they did at just the right age, some of Plato's basic ideas like the relation of "the Good" to the gods (Euthephro) have become very deeply ingrained in my thinking.

2. One book that you've read more than once: Brideshead Revisited -- I've probably read Brideshead more times than Lord of the Rings, which is impressive since I started reading it three or four years later than LotR.

3. One book you'd want on a desert island: Dante's Divine Comedy -- At a practical level, I'd pick the bible first, but since so many other people had picked that, I figured I'd pick a runner-up. The Comedia rolls religion, philosophy, beautiful poetry and memorable characters into one package. If I had to read only one piece of literature for the rest of my life, that would be it.

4. One book that made you laugh: Three Men In A Boat -- Need one say more?

5. One book that made you cry: The Smith of Wooten Major by Tolkien -- a quiet but incredibly powerful little book which always leaves me misty-eyed.

6. One book that you wish had been written: The Return of the Shadow -- Some years after finishing Lord of the Rings, Tolkien started work on a sequel to be title The Return of the Shadow, which was to be "a supernatural thriller" dealing with an "orc cult" springing up among the men of Numenor a generation or two after the War of the Ring. He abandoned the project after writing a couple chapters.

7. One book that you wish had never been written: The Koran -- It may be un-ecumenical to say so, but if there's one book which has resulted in more blood and loss of souls from the Church, I can't think of it. Eat your hearts out, Freud and Marx.

8. One book you're currently reading: I'll cheat and list two, I'm actively reading A War Like No Other by Victor Davis Hanson (about the Peloponnesian War) in my spare time, but I've also been working (very slowly) through the 12 books of Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time for just over five years, since MrsDarwin and I got married. (My Dad gave me the set as a wedding present.) One of the best sets of novels from the post-war period, Dance to the Music of Time spans some forty years of story time and is in some ways like an English Remembrance of Things Past, which makes it a perfect work to read on and off over a long period.

9. One book you've been meaning to read: Again, I'll cheat and mention two: Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by Stephen M. Barr and also Worlds Apart, A Journey to the Great Living Monasteries of Europe by Tudor Edwards.

Tagging: The ATP, the Opinionated Homeschooler, and the LogEyed Roman. And since the "two shall become one" I shouldn't be surprised if MrsDarwin followed up with her own picks.