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

Friday, June 29, 2007

Fr. McBrian on Sen. Brownback; Faith and Reason

A few days back Rich Leonardi called attention to a rather appalling column by Fr. Richard McBrien on Converts to Catholicism. The basic drift -- I hesitate to say thesis -- of the article being: In the Bad Old Days before Vatican II, there were people who were converted to Catholicism because charismatic individuals convinced them it was the One True Faith, however these days it should be impossible for anyone to believe there is a One True Faith. Nonetheless, there is an Opus Dei (queue frightening organ music) priest in D.C. who has had the effrontery to convert several well known conservatives including Robert Novack, Larry Kudlow and Sen. Brownback.

As if this weren't enough to put his readers into a state of near catatonic fear, Fr. McBrien concluded by saying he would have more to say about Senator Brownback in the following column.

I couldn't help being curious what Sen. Brownback had done (other than converting to Catholicism) to offend Fr. McBrien badly enough to inspire a two part series, so I tuned in this week to find out. Part Two, it turns out, is titled "Theology and Science", and is designed to be a critique of Sen. Brownback's NY Times essay about "What I Think About Evolution".

There is, in some ways, less overtly to be annoyed about in this second part than in the first, though McBrien can't help slipping in several more statements that in the post-Vatican II world (or at least that version of the post-Vatican II world which resides within McBrien's imagination) it is impossible to believe there is only one true religion.

Still, his main bone to pick is with Brownback's take on "Faith and Reason":
While insisting that he opposes "the exclusion of either faith or reason from the discussion" about evolution vs. creationism (or "intelligent design"), Senator Brownback nonetheless concludes that any explanation of the origins of the universe that excludes God "should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science."

But here the argument becomes slippery. Does the senator mean to imply that some, most or even all scientists explicitly "dismiss the possibility of divine causality"? If there are, in fact, scientists who do that, they are in clear violation of their own scientific methods.

Scientists as scientists can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, nor should they even try to do so. God is knowable only through faith of some kind. The most that people of any specific faith can hope for is the assurance that their belief in God is not contradicted by reason or science.
Now, I was sufficiently fond of Brownback's point that one doesn't "believe" in evolution but rather "thinks that it is correct" that I pretty much game him a pass on terminology. Others have pointed out (that McBrien does as well) that the senator uses the terms "reason" and "science" as interchangeable when discussing "faith and reason" and thus comes out making it sound like faith does not itself derive in part from reason. This may simply be sloppy use of vocabulary, or it may (as McBrien accuses) be a result of a lingering American Protestant worldview.

However, my impression is that, however distasteful Sen. Brownback's other opinions may be to Fr. McBrien, on the question of theology and science, they're actually saying very much the same thing.

Feline Genetic History

Razib links to a couple stories about recent research on the genetic (matrilinial) history of the house cat. From one of the articles (in the New York Times) comes this summary:
Unlike other domestic animals, which were tamed by people, cats probably domesticated themselves, perhaps accounting for the haughty independence of their descendants. “The cats were adapting themselves to a new environment, so the push for domestication came from the cat side, not the human side,” Dr. Driscoll said.

Cats are “indicators of human cultural adolescence,” he remarked, since they entered human experience as people were making the difficult transition from hunting and gathering, their way of life for millions of years, to settled communities.

Until recently the cat was commonly believed to have been domesticated in ancient Egypt, where it was a cult animal. But three years ago a group of French archaeologists led by Jean-Denis Vigne discovered the remains of an eight-month-old cat buried with what was presumably its human owner at a Neolithic site in Cyprus. The Mediterranean island was settled by farmers from Turkey who brought their domesticated animals with them, presumably including cats, because there is no evidence of native wildcats in Cyprus.

The date of the burial, some 9,500 years ago, far precedes Egyptian civilization. Together with the new genetic evidence, it places the domestication of the cat in a different context, the beginnings of agriculture in the Near East, and probably in the villages of the Fertile Crescent, the belt of land that stretches up through the countries of the eastern Mediterranean and down through what is now Iraq.

I'm kind of charmed by this explanation for cat personality. And, of course, it suggests this graphic to illustrate the point:

Women and Children First

The rest of the household is definitely back. While I was shaving this morning the girls burst in to reveal that a cockroach had been trapped under a glass cup for Daddy to deal with. Much shouting went on, though after the invader had been dispatched, the girls immediately armed themselves with a flyswatter, a broom and three golf balls and announced that they would kill any bugs they saw. (Whether this resolution would survive contact with the face -- or perhaps more relevantly the antennae -- of the enemy remains to be seen.)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Abusing the Privilege

The opening paragraph of Ross Douthat's review of Christopher Hitchens' new book:
Every talented writer is entitled to be a bore on at least one subject, but where religion is concerned Christopher Hitchens abuses the privilege. For years now, he has supplemented his prolific punditry and criticism with a stream of anti-theistic diatribes, and now these rivers of vituperation have pooled into a single volume, an omnium gatherum of God-bashing (although he insists on using the lower-case "g" throughout) that exceeds most of its predecessors in the felicity of its prose, but matches them in the tedium of its arguments. "I have been writing this book all my life," Hitchens declares in the conclusion to God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, "and intend to keep on writing it." One hopes that someone near and dear to him will have the courage to firmly suggest that he stop.

(HT, John Farrell)

Live to Work or Work to Live

A while back someone else on the team at work was describing how she'd got here by saying, "I knew that what I wanted to do with my life was work in analytical marketing, and _______ Inc. is one of the legends in doing that well, so I'd been looking for a chance to get a job here."

This struck me, because -- although I quite enjoy my job and find it very interesting, and haven't exactly be casual in pushing my career over the years -- I'd never say that marketing analytics is "what I want to do with my life".

Certainly, life is a lot more interesting and fulfilling (not to mention, usually, successful) if you can find an employment that you enjoy. However, it does strike me as a bit off-base to equate success in a specific job as a goal/success criteria in life.

Not that you shouldn't have job-related goals, but that even within that context, the job-related side of one's life is generally a means to an end. (This would be different, I suppose, if you had a truly vocational approach to your job, but I'm not sure that most jobs merit a vocational -- in the Catholic sense -- approach.)

Truly left to myself, I'd probably be drawn to something rather more riskily entrepreneurial than what I currently do -- or else simply reading and writing a great deal. (Or maybe both in turns.) However, since we got married job decisions seem to be primarily motivated by where we want the family to live and how much we need/want to make rather than what, in the most objective sense, I "want" to be doing.

I think at an earlier point in my life I would have found that dispiriting, feeling that career decisions should be strictly the result of "following your passion" in regards to what seems interesting. At this point, though, it seems to me that this involves substituting an artificial set of ends for one's person. In the end, our ends as persons are (in the earthly sense) matters of love, charity and creativity; and (in the heavenly sense) sanctification and salvation.

In some cases, one's occupation leads to these ends quite directly, but most of the time, I think, it is simply a means to an end. A good career provides the money to support family and the leisure to pursue creative outlets. But in this regard, one good career is very much the same as another. Over the years I've wandered from sales to marketing to web design to marketing analytics, and I wouldn't mind if opportunity sent me in yet another direction, so long as that provided good support for family, book collecting, occasional writing, etc. I'd be hesitant to take a job that didn't allow for any use of mind or skill -- but aside from that it's certainly not as if there were some great, glowing GOAL job description out there towards with I inexorably move. It almost seems a little odd to take it so personally.

Things That Inexplicably Make You Crack Up in a Meeting

Remembering: "Horticulture: You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Empty Rooms

Wife, kids, and in-laws -- indeed the entire population of the house except myself and the cat -- have headed off to visit relatives for two days. Being the sort of wild and crazy guy that I am, I'm taking the opportunity to work late on a couple project, do a few things around the house, and cook curry without holding back on the spiciness. (The girls are adventurous eaters, but they have their limits.)

Since the household population has been anywhere from two to six people above normal levels at any given time over the last week, the quiet having the house to myself last night was relaxing.

Still, nothing makes you realize how time intensive and interactive being a husband and father is like coming home to an empty house. Even getting home well after 7pm, the evening yawned ahead with an unstructured chasm of free time. It's enjoyable for a few days, but after six years of marriage and five years of fatherhood, I can't even imagine what it would be like to be single again.

The house is awefully quiet.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Judeo-Christian or Judeo-Islamic?

Razib has an interesting post up on what exactly the term "Judeo-Christian" means, precipitated by his observation that in some ways Judaism is more similar to Islam than to Christianity.

A slection from near the end:
One reason most Americans find the idea of Judeo-Christianity so plausible is that the Jews they encounter are disproportionately Reform or secular. To caricature it one could sum up the minimalist Judaism normative in the Untied States as mainline Christianity with the Son and the Holy Ghost subtracted. In contrast, it is in Orthodox Judaism that the similarities to Islam become stark as the legal dimension of the faith comes to the fore. Though Orthodox Judaism and Islam give due respect to their foundational written scriptures, the Hebrew Bible and the Koran, both are incomprehensible without consideration of the mass of commentary built around the original written law. In Judaism this would be the collection of writings which comprise the Talmud, and in Islam it would be the Hadiths. I predict that there is a strong chance that in this century we will see a "Reform Islam" coalesce in the West which is analogous to Reform Judaism, an adherence to a minimalist Koranically inspired religion which gives short-shrift to the relevance of the Hadiths in the modern world. In this way, there will be a dyad of Judeo-Christian-Islamic and Judeo-Islamic (there are legalistic movements in modern Christianity, but obviously unlike Islam or Judaism they are created de novo rather than looking back to a long history of commentary and precedent).

Wealth and Poverty, Ancient and Modern

A friend had forwarded to me an assertion from an online email discussion a few days ago, asking for comment, and since the direction that the answer got me thinking seemed interesting, I'm going to shamelessly turn the exchange into a post.

The assertion I was asked to comment on was essentially: "Although we think of the modern, capitalistic, global economy as having created unprecedented wealth, it has actually resulted in more poverty on a global scale than we have ever seen before. While some people today have more than ever before, there are more people in poverty in the third world than at any point in history -- while ancient and medieval societies (especially in India and China) you could live pretty well, have a nice house, eat decent food and have a fair amount of leisure time."

My immediate gut-level thought was: This is clearly wrong. The standard of living is much higher now in just about every part of the world than 1000 years ago.

However, I think one of the things that causes people to fall into this "golden age" fallacy is that when things go wrong in the modern world it's possible to see poverty and famine on a massive scale.

There are two levels at which to look at this. First, there were some truly massive plague and famine events in the ancient world. However, a) we don't see them live on CNN and b) in those cases where society sufficiently broke down, there simply aren't many records left of the events.

More importantly, however, I think that in many ways our very efficiency and technology allow poverty to be more widespread and extreme when things break down. Modern agricultural methods have allowed the population to climb much higher than was ever the case in the past, and so when there are sudden breakdowns in the system, there are more people around to starve.

Simply consider the number of man hours required to raise the food necessary to feed one person now versus 1000 years ago. This differential is probably several thousand to one. This effectively means that food is now several thousand times cheaper than it was in the past. (As mentioned above, it also means that when the amount of food normally raised by one person is destroyed by war or famine, several thousand people go hungry instead of just two or three.)

Thus, the fact that modern agriculture and economic systems have allowed most people to move out of direct food production has made the effects of famine and social breakdown much worse.

Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that life wasn't simple and satisfying in a pastoral sort of way in ancient rural Asia (or Europe, come to that), but people do need to keep in mind the differences that made that life possible.

1) Early mortality: There was no effective artificial contraception in the ancient world, but the population was basically flat. A major factor in this was the rate of mortality before at one, and the rate of mortality before reproductive age. Infanticide was used as a method of population control at times, but simply because of medical and hygienic problems, as many as 50% of children died before reaching their toddler years. Another 10-20% died before reaching reproductive age.

2) Death in childbirth: Another factor keeping the population in check was female mortality in childbirth. Woman stood a 10-30% chance of dying in any given pregnancy. Thus, most men who lived to a natural death (usual in his 50s or 60s) would be widowers and/or or second or third wives. This constant loss of reproductive females helped keep the population in check -- and mad sex a much more ambiguous activity for women.

3) People too poor to have marry: Another thing to keep in mind is that up until 100 years ago, a good 20-30 percent of men were considered too poor to support a wife. They worked for male relatives or on their own land, but did not have sufficient resources to have a wife, much less children. They had relief (if they sought it and could afford it) through prostitutes, but in general they were left out of what was considered "the good life" in society. Women were less likely to be left out of the loop like this because deaths through childbirth created a constant need for more women. However, widows without working age sons tended to be totally destitute.

Add in the increased incidence of debilitating illness, the frequency of wars in most parts of the world, brigandage, etc. (Plus the very low level of education that most people could expect to ever attain -- if you consider that a source of personal satisfaction) and you have a pretty unappealing existence in my book. Secure, yes. But unappealing.

I guess the big question is, how do you balance the value of security verses quality?

It's not for me, honest!

Once upon a time there was a husband who thought he'd buy his wife some things from Victoria's Secret as a present. He wanted the present to be a surprise, so he used his work email to set up an account with said retailer.

Be warned. The result of the combination of this romantic impulse of the husband and the dogged marketing persistence of Victoria's Secret is that he now receives emails every couple of days in his work inbox which boldly declare their origins in the From line while asking in the subject questions such as, "Are you ready for summer sizzle?"

Thus, picture the husband sitting at his desk with a (female) co-worker arguing about taking the derivative of price versus profit, and in a lull in the discussion (as both sides martial their arguments) Outlook helpfully pops up a preview of the incoming message titled: "Five hot new push-ups for your summer wardrobe"

Not that this husband is a perv who sits around work looking at lingerie websites...

Plus their skankalog arrives via snail mail with his name on it every 2-3 weeks.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The dark teatime of the soul

I don't think that I'm spiritually advanced enough to have a dark night of the soul, but lately the most dispiriting hour of the week is the time I spend at Sunday mass. The almost oppressive lack of beauty in our liturgical music, especially, is wearing me down week after week. Recently our choir introduced a new Holy Holy Holy that just makes me twitch everytime I hear it, and even when I try to concentrate on the words we're singing I can't block out the ridiculous melody, irrational phrasing, and excessive length. (Fortunately, the last piece of liturgical music that made me feel this way -- an appalling saccharine "Our Father" -- was phased out a year ago in favor of a much more dignified and shorter chanted version.)

I'm about to start a petition calling for the abolition of seventh chords in liturgical music.

I loathe the thought of shopping around for a new parish. We've attended the same parish ever since we moved here almost four years ago, and we have many friends here. Our regular mass is the parish's musical best, and I know that the choir director and members are genuinely devoted to singing beautiful music to glorify God. Still, it's been weighing upon me how responsive humans are to their physical surroundings. I know that Christ is present in the Eucharist regardless of the aesthetic quality of the liturgy, but His presence commands a level of dignity and beauty sorely lacking in most liturgical music.

I've been pondering something Scott Carson wrote about beauty and the Mass:
Having said all of that, I must now point out that mere conformity with doctrinal purity is not the same thing as perfect goodness, because just as true beauty cannot exist without true goodness, so, too, true goodness cannot exist independently of true beauty, since The Good and The Beautiful always go together, like the convex and the concave. So when a liturgy is celebrated that is objectively ugly, it is not as fully good as it could be, any more than a beautiful Episcopalian liturgy celebrated around an empty altar is as good as it could be. Truth and Beauty are both of them necessary conditions on Goodness. In many Episcopalian churches you often have Beauty, but you never have Truth; in Roman Churches you always have Truth but you rarely have Beauty. This is a problem.
Increasingly, it's becoming my problem.

*Addendum* I should clarify that (as Tex noted in the comments) the choir quite often tries to include traditional hymns and some quite lovely choral pieces. It's just that lately the Glory and Praise stuff has been predominating, and the latest round of service music is a few steps down from the previous fare (of which I wasn't too fond in the first place). During Advent and Easter, we use Latin for the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei, and a more restrained style predominates. But that's like eating nourishing food twice a year and subsisting on Wonder Bread the rest of the time.

Friday, June 22, 2007

English Civil War Bleg

We seem to have a pretty historically literate readership. Any recommendations on a good book on the English Civil War (and possibly the Protectorate as well) which isn't insanely long? (Not that I'm questioning there are a good 800+ pages of history to be told -- I just don't necessarily have the time to know them in the near future.)

What's in a name?

The Wall Street Journal has an article today about the baby-name business. Apparently, some couples are so obsessed with giving their child a funky, Google-friendly name that they hire naming consultants to "brand" their babies. Naming, it seems, has become a much more personalized business over the past century. Gone are the days when John and Mary topped the charts for decades. Nowadays there's a much wider range of names across the population:
In 1880, Social Security Administration data show that the 10 most popular baby names were given to 41% of boys and 23% of girls. But in 2006, just 9.5% of boys and roughly 8% of girls were given one of the year's 10 most popular names -- a combined decline of about 33% from the averages in the 1990s, says Cleveland Kent Evans, an associate psychology professor at Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb. and a past president of the American Name Society. So while a once-ubiquitous name like Mary has fallen from No. 1 during most of the 1950s to No. 84 last year, many new names are taking off.
Uber-original parents, however, do their children no favors by choosing recent creations such as Jolt or Zayden (playground taunt: "Zayden! Zayden! His parents must hate 'im!").

This naming fervor puts me in mind of the Biblical account of Zechariah and Elizabeth naming their son. Mom had the task of selecting the name, Dad being mute at the time, and she bucked tradition by refusing to name the lad after his father. Someone handed Dad a tablet and demanded his opinion, and he amazed the crowd by inscribing, "His name is John" -- doubtless the last time anyone was surprised by a baby being named John.

Although hiring a consultant would seem to indicate a weak aesthetic sense and a rather unhealthy preoccupation with image on the part of the parents, I don't have a problem with carefully considering the sound and style of a baby's name. We have a stodgy English last name and for our daughters we selected old-fashioned, multi-syllabic names to soften and compliment our blunt patronymic: Eleanor, Julia, Isabel. For middle names, we chose saints' names that had some significance for us, and that blended nicely with the first name. We've tried to steer clear of names that have become too popular (such as Olivia or Sophie, both of which I like) or names that sound well but are just too much (Georgiana sounds lovely with our last name).

For naming fun and games check out the NameVoyager or Nymbler (h/t Opinionated Homeschooler, who's been busy playing the name game herself).

But did you read it, sir?

From this morning's WSJ (an article purporting to be surprised that Hitchens' God Is Not Great has been a best seller) comes the following Hitchens quote, "Literature is a better source of ethics and a better source of reflection than our holy texts. People should read George Eliot, Dosteyevsky and Proust for moral leadership."

Sometimes you read things that make you feel someone is overreaching rather pathetically.

Let's start with the truly great writer in the line up: Dosteyevsky. My dear Hitchens: Have you read Dostoyevsky? He is indeed a great source of ethics and reflection, but they are not of the sort you would like. You may tell others to read him, but were he alive he would certainly not tell anyone to read you.

George Eliot? I'm sure that someone out there has received moral and reflective value from Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. However, I'm also pretty sure that person is either rather odd, or just showing off by claiming to have been so effected. Eliot's a great place to go for Victorian realism, but ethics and reflection? Try T. S. Eliot instead...

And Proust? Now you're just showing off. Proust mainly reflected on... Proust.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Teaching Classical Languages to Children

Greek and Latin: When to start, and wherefore to follow. Over on the Humanities Program Blog.

Rights, Bodies and Parents

Razib had a post last week about the issue of circumcision, which (quite accidentally on his part, it appeared) touched off a veritable firestorm of comments. I don't have any interest in bringing the question of whether or not male infants should be circumcised to this blog. However, one thing that did strike me as very interesting was that many of those very much in the "nay" were deeply concerned that parents having their sons circumcised as infants violated the "body rights" of the circumcisee.

The idea seemed to be basically that although there might be some decreased likelihood of infection or contracting certain sexually transmitted diseases, that these same effects could be achieved by other means, and so parents were ethically required to leave their sons a fully intact body until such point as the son was old enough to make the decision for himself. Anything short of this hand-off approach was judged to be controlling, cruel, and yet another case of allowing "a bunch of primitive desert tribes" beliefs to interfere in the world's business, especially in the area of enjoying sexuality.

Those who didn't have a problem with circumcision seemed much more relaxed in their views.

What struck me as interesting is the idea of "body rights" -- and that parents should not meddle in making decision for their offspring, but rather leave as many decisions as possible to be made by the offspring themselves, even if waiting till that point would (in this case) constitute a strong incentive to make a particular decision.

While being as incensed over actual child abuse as the next bear, I find the attempt to extend the term out to cover "religious indoctrination", circumcision, infant ear piercing, education style, or what have you, to be unhelpful in the extreme. (Not to mention trivializing real child abuse.)

I wonder if it stems from some sort of tabula rasa idea of child-rearing. And yet it seems to me rather obvious, as a parent, that your ability to leave a great many decision "up to the child" is rather limited. Children are not equipped to make sensible decisions till rather late in life, and become so gradually. A great many very pivotal decisions are made when one is too young to make them wisely, and the guiding factors in these decisions are generally the values (whatever they are) that one has learned from one's parents and community while growing up -- or developed in reaction to the same.

Not to minimize the importance of the individual, but the process by which one begins to make decisions "on one's own" is a gradual one. The idea that one can somehow hold off a bunch of decisions to be "decided by the child when he's old enough" seems rather unrealistic.

Which is part of why I find it hard to get horrified over the idea of parents making decisions such as this for their children.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

And An Anniversary

Today marks the 20th birthday of PowerPoint.
  • People have been thinking in three bullet points of less than 15 words for 2 decades
  • This may explain a thing or two about modern prose style -- or lack thereof
  • And yet one can hardly imagine composing prose orations for executives

(next slide please)

Al Gore: Faulty Systems and Historical Analysis

Some time back, there was an article I wanted to read in full from The New Republic, and so I had to register on their site. The result of this is that I get emails from them every week or two trumpeting their newest content -- for which I am not exactly an ideological fit, to say the least.

This week they announced they had an interview in which "Gore makes some very interesting comments about the Democratic presidential aspirants." Okay, I was ready to bite, so I wandered on over.

Well, there aren't really any interesting points there -- just that Gore believes that the presidential nomination process is sufficiently broken in both parties that no real intellectual exchange is going on between the candidates. In some areas this may count as revolutionary intellectual analysis, but not where I'm sitting at the moment.

I was struck, however, by what the interviewer seemed (from his gushing) to believe was some pretty spiffy historical analysis by Gore. (I find it really hard to credit the idea that Gore is some sort of big public intellectual on the left side of the spectrum, not that I'd classify any current or former Republican luminaries as public intellectuals either.) So here's what Mr. Gore serves up for us:
"The First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to petition the government, freedom of assembly," he continues, "were all aimed at protecting the freedom and integrity of that conversation that our Founders felt was at the heart of representative democracy. To an extent that was not appreciated at the time, that conversation was based on a particular kind of expression, the printed word."

But things went awry with the decline of print. "Just as the printing press," Gore says, "had overturned the medieval information monopoly that supported feudalism, a half-century ago the printing press itself was replaced as the dominant medium by electronic broadcasting in the particular form of television--over the air, over cable, over satellite. ... To take one example, in the last elections in the contested races, candidates in both parties spent an average of eighty percent of their campaign budget not on the Internet or pamphlets or magazine ads but on thirty-second television ads. That's what works now, and the way it works is troubling. It's not a multi-way conversation or even a two-way conversation. It is often a manipulative exercise utilizing the tools of persuasion that were developed by advertisers of commercial products in conjunction with psychologists and researchers who plumb the inner workings of our thought process in order to devise ways to de- emphasize logic and facts and reason."
So two things here: First off, Gore seems to be indulging in the same "American golden age" kind of thinking to which so many conservative pundits also fall prey from time to time. Now, I too think it was pretty cool that large groups of people were willing to sit and listen carefully to events such as the Lincoln/Douglas debates -- speeches that were far longer than anything that would ever be heard in modern politics. However, American politics (like those of democracies and republics throughout history) have also always been subject to the very lowest forms of debate. If you think modern politics are bad, look at some of the elections in the early 1800s where candidates publicly questioned everything right up to each others ancestry. I love democracy as much as the next fellow, but we should be realistic enough to remember that at most places and times democratic and representative forms of government have still results in a fairly small elite holding office and setting policy, while trying to bribe, bamboozle or threaten enough supporters into line to keep them in power. Read enough about Athens, the Roman Republic or many periods in American history, and this is pretty clear.

Second, Gore falls for a vastly simplified and frankly just plain wrong explanation of how printing changed the world. This isn't to say that printing was not important. But there was no "information monopoly" that made feudalism possible. Nor did printing immediately bring power to the people. Printing did certainly allow for more rapid dissemination of the classical and humanistic works that fuelled the Renaissance, but it's important to remember that the Renaissance was not a populist affair that led directly to representative governments. Even Renaissance 'republics' were republics only of the optimates, and the glories of Renaissance humanism were restricted to the learned class -- a tiny fraction of the European population at that time.

Which isn't to say that the low standard of American public discourse isn't a problem. But it annoys me to hear someone touted as this brilliant expositor of historical systems when he's engaging in gross generalizations of the "first came Gutenburg, then came America, democracy and the promised land" variety that one tended to find in WASP elementary school textbooks of fifty years ago.

Guantanamo Poetry

The WSJ has a human interest feature today about an anthology of poetry (translated from Arabic) by Guantanamo detainees which some of the defense lawyers have facilitated publishing. Though the military has concerns that the poems could be used to relay coded messages to outside al Qaeda operatives, they've approved translations of 22 poems by 17 prisoners for publication. (You can read two examples in the WSJ article.)

I'm sure this will provide another opportunity for much breast beating and declarations that, in the words of one of the poems, "America, you ride on the backs of orphans, And terrorize them daily."

It also serves as a reminder of what a strangely untenable situation we find ourselves in with the wars in the Middle East: Traditionally POWs are held until the enemy surrenders, but here we are faced with an enemy that has no national government, no uniforms, no military code, and no intention of every surrendering. A goodly portion of those detainees who have been released have shown up back in Afghanistan, fighting coalition forces there.

Still, the idea of the prisoners sitting around writing poety carries vague echoes of a time some 900 to 700 years ago, when Arab and Western warriors fought over the same sands, and composed poems about life and death and God.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Edge Between Evolution and... What?

One of the more positive reviews of Michael Behe's new book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism appeared in Crisis Magazine, and was authored by senior Discovery Center fellow Benjamin Wiker. (His author bio on the review itself doesn't mention his Discovery Center affiliation, but he's listed on the DI site here.)

I'll admit that I'm not rushing to make time to read Behe's newest effort. I've not been terribly impressed with what he and the ID crowd have had to say in the past, and my "to read" pile is pretty deep right now. So this cannot pretend to be a critique of the book itself. However, one of the underlying assumptions of the review struck me as very interesting, and I'd like to look at it for a moment here.

In his first paragraph, Wiker says:
Function, for Darwinism, is the true test. If a particular trait doesn’t contribute to survival, it won’t be selected by nature, and hence won’t be preserved in the organism and passed on to future generations. But since Darwinism posits the gradual building up of complexity piece by minute piece, it is demonstrably impossible for it to provide several well-matching parts at once. Therefore, Darwinism fails, and having failed, it must cede its place in explanation to the default position, Intelligent Design.
Two interesting things go on in this paragraph.

First there is an incorrect statement of how selection acts upon traits in a population. Wiker states that if a trait doesn't contribute to survival, it won't be selected and thus won't be preserved in future generations. It's easy to see what he's thinking of here, but his mis-understanding (or failure to express himself clearly) is actually rather key. I have straight, dark hair, but there is no reason to believe that this trait is being selected for in me. And yet, my daughters also have straight dark (though not as yet quite as dark) hair. This trait has been passed down to the next generation even though it has no selection advantage. Some traits are even passed down which are actively dis-advantageous. For instance, both my parents had to wear glasses, and so do my sister and I. Clearly, poor eyesight is being passed down in our family -- and so there's a decent chance that some of my children will suffer from the same defect. However, poor eyesight has done little to detract from our chances of procreation, and so the trait is merrily passed on to successive generations. This may seem like a relatively minor point, but it's actually a very important distinction between the school book explanation of evolutionary theory and reality. It is not the case that any trait which crops up in a population must be actively advantageous in order to be passed on and remain in the population. It just has to not be sufficiently dis-advantageous under current selective pressures to be weeded out. This allows for much more variation within a population than Wiker seems to be allowing for.

The second interesting thing going on in this quoted section is his comment "Darwinism fails, and having failed, it must cede its place in explanation to the default position, Intelligent Design". Perhaps this seemed like an easy sell to a conservative, Catholic audience. ID usually gets pretty softball treatment in conservative publications because it's proponents tend to be conservative Christians themselves. However, one does well to look a little more closely at Wiker's statement here.

At first blush, he seems to be saying something almost silly: "Either something is explained by Darwinism or it's explained by Intelligent Design." And yet clearly, there are a host of things which are explained neither by 'Darwinism' nor by Intelligent Design. Which of these two is responsible for gravity? Nuclear fission? Tornadoes?

However, I think that probably Wiker was simply using a bit of shorthand here, and meant either to restrict himself to speaking only of change within and between species, or perhaps instead to assert a more general principle that everything is the result either of intelligent design or of what might be termed "purely naturalistic forces". And yet, it he means to say the first of these, he's engaging in the rather sloppy debating tactic of "Either you are right, or I am right. You are wrong, and therefore I am clearly right." Unless one gives any strong reason for believing that the point in question is binary, this is not cricket. If he means the latter (which is, the best I can made of the matter) then we have something even odder.

I realize that Intelligent Design makes a great point of saying that it does not purport to know anything about the designer which it posits. And yet let's be honest here: The point of interest to both me and Wiker (and Behe for that matter) is whether God's hand can be seen in the world. And yet what exactly does it mean to say that something is the result either of natural forces or intelligent design? Isn't that to suggest that "natural forces" are somehow not the workings of God's will, and that the workings of God's will are sufficiently sudden and inexplicable to defy "natural" explanation?

It seems to me that there is some very bad thinking that has been going on since the Enlightenment (I often think that the discovery of Newtonian mechanics may have been one of the inciting ideas in this regard) to which many modern Christians are all to ready to fall prey.

The understanding of nature which was held by St. Thomas Aquinas, and which allowed the Catholic Church to nurture much of early science, is that God's will is a rational and ordering principle guiding the universe. It is thus because of God's ordered nature that object in the universe move in ways that can be calculated and predicted mathematically, and because of God's will that creatures descend from each other via methods that are explicable to reason. The Christian worldview has traditionally held that the world is explicable to reason because God, the creator of the world, is Himself reasonable.

However, ID proponents seems to have latched onto a far more modern understanding of "nature vs. God" and thus feel that in order to feel confident that God is the creator of the universe, there must be clearly identifiable points at which "natural" laws and processes explicable to reason do not appear to apply.

This seems to be what Wiker is moving towards with the conclusion to his piece:
Evolution happened, and Behe has no problem with sharing ancestors with apes. The question is not whether evolution happened, but whether mere random mutation and natural selection can explain it. Since it cannot, then the vast panorama of life must be explained by nonrandom—that is, intelligently guided, or at least front-loaded—evolution.
He is clearly ready to concede evolution and common descent (whatever exactly that is taken to mean in the situation he is describing here) but feels it important that there be signs of divine tweeking in the process. And yet, if God created the processes by which creatures vary and are selected, would it not be reasonable to believe that His handiwork would be consistent throughout? If we are right in our worldview, things do not trundle along their natural way without God's help. Rather, what we see as natural laws and processes are the working out in nature of God's constant and rational will.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Woman and the Pharisee

This Sunday's gospel was, of course, the story of Jesus having dinner with the Pharisee, when the sinful woman comes in and washes and anoints his feet.

The reading immediately struck me as one of those biblical incidents which suggests all sorts of different interpretations, explaining the relations of the characters who how they got to the point at which they see them. By the end of the sermon (which was about the Maryknoll missionaries rather than the gospel) several stories had suggested themselves. I'd originally thought to write several in a "variations on a theme" kind of way, but writing the first one took so long I think I'll just leave it at that for now.
The Pharisee's Woman

Surely it is the prerogative of any man of influence to wish the separate portions of his life kept separate, or so the Pharisee had always felt. Men were sometimes greater than the ideas which made them great. Or perhaps it was that God granted greater range of action of men of stature. Certainly, in the scriptures, God never seemed to lose his fondness for David, despite the king's many failings.

The important thing, of course, was for such great men to control the appearance they presented. Ideas and ideologies were the fuel that allowed men to propel themselves upward, and yet like any powerful steed they were as happy to destroy their rider as to bear him. For the great mass of men, it was the ideal that was important rather than the man. And so it was important that all contradictions be kept safely and politely away from sight.

The Pharisee's woman was thus a creature seldom seen. Maintained quietly and simply but without squalor, as befitted someone selected to supply the less holy pleasures of a holy man. If the small hut and infrequency of gifts were less than she sometimes intimated that she wished for, they were certainly more than most women of her character and occupation could expect. Where would she turn, to the Roman soldiers with their all too well known proclivities?

She was, at times -- or so she told him -- a lonely creature. A woman gradually approaching middle age, but remaining attractive in face and bearing, who lived in the outskirts of the city with no husband, no children and no visible means of support was a woman that most people knew all too easily how to categorize. Yet though her hands remained soft, for she was spared work other than that of her own one-person household, and her clothes in good repair -- she was of course not welcome among the respectable women who went down to the wells each day to draw water for their husbands and children.

Indeed the lack of children weighed heavily upon her, and was perhaps the purpose behind her dedicated cultivation of the small garden behind her hut, in which lay, unbeknownst to any but her own torn heart, the small fruits of her body -- too shameful to be allowed to live and one day name their father. The woman knew that, mother now to nothing but herbs and flowers, this more than all her other sins condemned her to eventual solitude and poverty when the Pharisee died, or she became too old to attract his interest and support. Towards that day all jewelry and precious trinkets, whatever small return hours of trying to please could earn, were put away: unwanted for the shame that bought them yet treasured for the bread they would buy in the long, poor twilight which seemed now to draw ever closer.

Thus, when she entered the Pharisee's house, carrying the alabaster flask of ointment which represented all of her furtive savings, and used this product of her sins to anoint the young rabbi's feet, the moment evoked similar feelings (shame of the moment and fear of the future) in both her and in her long-time master.

The Pharisee was shocked at the tastelessness of the display: the weeping, the abasement, the washing and anointing of feet. Surely the woman was not a creature of much value, but he was repulsed by her grovelling. He was angry too. Surely any could guess from this wanton display of penitence what she was, but what if any in the gathering should realize just who she was? He had been very careful all these years, he told himself. Surely no one in the assemblage could know that this thing was his. And yet what if someone did guess it? What if this pathetic creature revealed to whom she had provided her sordid pleasures all these years? In the light of the dining room (much brighter than he was accustomed to see her in) he realized too how old she was becoming. She must know that this shameful display was the end of any consideration she might expect from him. She would not see him again. Now if only she would take herself away before someone realized.

The rabbi finished his pat little tale of the debtors, supported obediently in the question and answer by his disciple. The Pharisee's eyes met the rabbi's for a moment, but he could not hold them. There was something in the young man's eyes that seemed to see right through him.

The woman's feelings might have taken the same names, but they were very different. Shame, certainly, of a sort. After all these years of walking with head upright, while others subtly moved away or stepped aside so as not to be seen too near her much less brush against this walking sin, she found herself unable to raise herself from the floor. Not from the weight of the stares of others, which she had long grown accustomed to shrugging off by thinking of their own likely hidden sins, but rather from the weight of her own knowledge of herself, which all at once came crushing down.

In her mind too, as the waters of her tears seemed to purge her of her sins even as they washed the dust from the feet of the rabbi, was a certain fear. All of the little treasures which she had put away over the years to serve the place of her lost children when she was old had been spent in her sudden impulse towards complete repentance. No look towards the Pharisee was necessary to know that she would never see him again. And so the matter of what would happen to her, an aging woman with no children and no family, newly washed of sin but not of ill reputation, was a matter that was only known to God. Yet as she wept at the rabbi's feel, she felt that perhaps this was a burden that God was willing to take upon Himself in return for her repentance.

I'm not sure if creating a relationship between the woman and the Pharisee completely obscures the point about the Pharisees as a group holding themselves so much closer to God than the rejected in society. Another variation I toyed with was that perhaps the woman was mistress to a Roman officer, and thus not merely a notorious sinner but a traitor to her race -- and thus in the eyes the Pharisees doubly unworthy of forgiveness.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Bookcase Update

Some may recall that there's a project ongoing here to build a full size (7' by 3.5') bookshelf out of African Mahogany for the growing Darwin library.

Travels and such had slowed me down on working on the project, but I'd also run into logistical difficulties since the table saw I borrowed from a friend only has rails that allow cuts up to 32 inches wide, while I wanted to cut my selves to 42 inches. I made an attempt to use the wall as a guide by placing the table saw a measured distance away from the inside garage wall. Perhaps a good idea in theory, but it just doesn't work. (Drywall isn't click enough to slide against, for one thing.)

So some thought went into how do cut my shelfs, since I certainly didn't want to cut the project down to a 32in wide shelf.

The solution (which seems to have worked well) is as follows. I bought a 4ft pine 1x12 and also a 2x4. I then borrowed a circular saw and bought myself a square and set of clamps. I cut a piece from the 2x4 and nailed it down to my workbench to get myself an end guide. Then I cut the 1x12 (using the squire to guide both cuts) down to 1.5in shorter than my finished shelf height (since the clearance on the circular saw is 1.5in).

I then took the rough shelves I had (which were cut to about three inches over finished length) and first clamped down the square and cut off a 1.5in piece, and then flipped it around, put the 1x12 guide on top, clamped everything down, and made the second cut. (You can see this rig in the photo above.)

This netted me out a set of shelves that are all exactly the same width, except the top one which I cut 1.5in over, since I want that to go all the way across the cap the sides.

So far so good. The next steps are routing out the slots for the shelves to go into, and sanding everything to a nice smooth finish. More updates to come...

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Family Library

There are stacks of books on the floor of the living room. A seven foot bookcase is under construction in the garage. We have at least fifty new acquisitions to enter into LibraryThing. Three more books arrived by mail just a couple weeks ago.

It is perhaps time to admit that the Darwins are in the grips of a rather serious library-building instinct.

The phrase "library-building" is, I think, key. Because although we've had the chance to read more recently than in the preceding few years, it's still the case that we frequently acquire books that there's little chance we'll be able to read soon.

There are many kinds of book buyers out there. There are great readers and book collectors and fans and innumerable other types that I haven't come up with a good label for. But some people are library builders.

We organize our books into sections: Literature, Classics, Fiction (mainly paperbacks which we're not proud enough of the form or content of to promote to living room display), History, Drama, Theology, Philosophy, Science/Mathematics, Childrens' Literature, School Books, Picture Books. An even greater sign of the malady, every so often one of us will find ourselves staring at a section and thinking, "This section feels a little lopsided, what other books do we need to round things out?" Too much bio and not enough physics and astronomy in the science section? Not enough Greek stuff in Classics? A couple of key authors missing from Children's Literature?

There's a certain utility to all this, perhaps, in that since we intend to homeschool our children all the way through high school (unless they very much object) it's useful to have lots of good things to read around. But we honestly have a pretty good public library within ten minutes of our house. There are plenty of things we could pick up there when we want them. And some of the books we feel compelled to get we may not pick up for five years or more.

Perhaps I read too much about medieval scriptoriums at a pivotal age. Perhaps in regards to books I'm simply too much of a materialist. Whatever the reason, we both find ourselves thinking not just of having books that we want to read, but of maintaining a library, an institution of sorts. And there are some books we simply want to read for fun, which can be checked out from the library or picked up in cheap paperbacks. But there are other books which must be had because... Well, we're really not sure why. But for some reason "the library" seems like an essential thing to maintain.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Warrior or Artist?

There's been muttering over the dinner table in the Darwin household of late that there's been too much fluff on the blog and not enough substantive posts, but this is sufficiently interesting that I can't help posting it.

This quiz seeks to have you distinguish between "famous artists" and "unknown artists", but what makes it all the more interesting is that the "unknown artists" are all major leaders from World War II.

Looking at the paintings without knowing that, I wouldn't have said, "Oh that must be by _____." However, after seeing the answers it seems to me that you can see some very interesting things about the three leaders featured from their paintings.

No One to Root For

A couple weeks ago I read The Polish Officer by Alan Furst, a spy thriller of sorts (though a dark and at times meandering one) about an officer in the Polish-in-exile intelligence service from 1939 to 1943. It's a good novel, with a lot of historical detail which is (so far as I know) quite accurate.

Among other things, it provides a brief but masterful description of the chaos and idiocy that was the Soviet response to the warnings of and actual first days of the German invasion of the USSR. (The main character is eventually sent as a liaison between Polish and Russian partisan groups.) As it describes the gradually stiffening resistance (rather than the implosion that the main character watched during the occupation of France), the author comments (in reference to the German believe that once the door was kicked in the entire Soviet edifice would crumble): "They had attacked the USSR, but now they found themselves fighting Russia."

This reminded me of my rather ambiguous thoughts when reading Antony Beevor's masterful history Stalingrad a year or two ago. By the end of the book, I found myself wishing that the German army would somehow survive. Loathsome though they were, there was little to choose between them and the Soviets, and one started to feel it was unfair that (with the Soviets doing everything possible wrong leading up to and in the first weeks of the invasion) the USSR not be defeated.

But life is notoriously unfair, especially on the steppes of Russia. And given that the several million Nazi soldiers who vanished into Russia made it much more possible for the Allies to defeat the Axis, I suppose one should consider it some sort of limited good.

Still, it seems an interesting question of alternate history what would have happened if the Soviet government had sufficiently collapsed under the German attack to leave something of a power vacuum to the East. Would an Allied victory have been possible without Papa Joe over on the Eastern Front? Trying to keep some sort of control over the vast stretches of Russia wouldn't have tied up as many Nazi soldiers as the Soviet army eventually chewed up, but it would certainly have been a massive drain on resources. Though the oil fields of the East would have done a great deal to ease the supply problems that crippled Germany by the end.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Froo-Froo Foodie Fun

Waiterrant does us all a service by revealing just how chefs at froo-froo restaurants create those high-falutin' menu items: the Froo-Froo Menu Generator.

Here's what I'm eating tonight:
Tasty, and so avant-garde.

For Those Who Believe Size Does Matter

Let me present the world's larget handgun, a revolver firing the H&H .600 Nitro Express (a round developed in 1899 for shooting elephants). You kind of have to see this to believe it, and even then you may think, "That's not for real."

(HT Stephen Bodio, another Patrick Leigh Fermor fan)

Cause and Effect

I haven't been paying too much attention to the Paris Hilton saga, but Father Fox has the perfect recap of the situation.
Often enough, those who point out the hard edges and normative cause-and-effect of reality, when it comes to family, upbringing, personal choices in life, are told they are unsympathetic, lacking in understanding. The more important fact is that many people cannot bear to face the truth, many others do not want to be the ones to point it out, especially when, in order to make it clear, one has to be rather blunt.
My life, summed up in two sentences!

Cause and effect ought to be a basic concept -- every action has consequences, and generally, one is responsible for the effects caused by one's actions. (Hence, the criminal charge of "manslaughter": although the accused might not have directly killed anyone, the effect of his actions was that someone died.) One of the greatest frustrations in life is trying to reason with someone who seems to think that causality is trumped by intent. Even more frustrating is trying to reason with someone who believes that causality applies your actions but not his.

As a parent, dealing with cause and effect is a major part of my day. Look, if you hit your sister you will be punished. Look, if you tease your sister or pull her hair, she's likely to hit you. See what happens when you jump on the bed? You fall off and get hurt, don't you? It's repetitive, but I know that I'm dealing with minds that are growing into the full use of reason and need to be trained to make the logical and moral connections between their deeds or words and the effects thereof. Perhaps it denotes a dearth of early foundational work that adults such as Miss Hilton feel that their actions are consequentless, or should be held so because, well, no one was hurt, were they? Or if someone was hurt, I didn't mean to do it and so it's not my fault!

Welcome to my world, Miss Hilton.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Have a Bite?

Our friend JenniferF of Et Tu Jen probably has all the supplies to cook up this Asian delicacy next time we come over for dinner -- but I don't think she wants to.

Read all about it.

Work Americans Won't Do

As the fight over the latest attempt at coming up with new immigration legislation continues, we continue to hear every so often in the press that it's important to bring immigrants in to do "work Americans won't do".

Without question, immigrants (legal and illegal) do backbreaking and poorly paid work throughout this country. (Though the book has its flaws, Mexifornia by Victor Davis Hanson talks about the work and life of illegal immigrant agricultural workers in California from the point of view of someone who's worked beside them in 110 degree vineyards wafting with dust and pesticides.)

However, the phrase "work Americans won't do" has always bothered me. Perhaps the more accurate phrase would be "work Americans won't do if they can afford to palm it off on someone else without paying too much, and thus avoid any incentive to make the work more efficient and less manual."

Partly because of my annoyance with the phrase, and partly because of some lingering "a man's land is his own responsibility" idealism, I've never been able to stomach the idea of hiring a "yard guy". So every other weekend or so finds me and/or MrsDarwin out sweating in the yard.

A year or so ago, this meant I spent a hot May afternoon digging persistent holly roots out of our front yard (in what had been an area of shrubbery and was about to become the rose bed). If you haven't dug out holly before, you must understand that it really does belong in the company of ivy (as in the old carol), because like ivy is it nearly impossible to dig out or exterminate. The roots go down deep and they criss-cross all over with no seeming pattern -- and even the slightest bit that remains in the ground will send up sprouts for years.

I was pounding away with a short-handled mattock when one of a group of teenagers slouching by shouts in my general direction, "Stupid wetback! What ya doin?"

Now, I'm half-Mexican in ancestry, but no one ever guesses it. My hair isn't that dark, and although I take a tan if I get around to going outside enough, I'm not really olive at all. But apparently if I'm wearing workboots, jeans and a white t-shirt and covered in sweat and dirt while working in the yard -- it is actually possible for people to recognize my Mexican background. Perhaps I was even doing some of that famous work that Americans won't do.

So I'm sticking with doing my own yard work.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Biblican Scholarship vs. Classical Scholarship

One of our priests has been conducting a series of bible studies on the various gospels, which sometimes spills over into sermons and other discussions. I don't know if this is an example of the excessive credulity towards "experts" which a certain type (or lack) of education produces, but he has a certain habit of latching onto anything he reads by "modern biblical scholars" as the latest thing, and then running with it, seemingly without thinking at all about whether or not this might be incompatible with Catholic doctrine. (Father's doctrine is actually quite solid, so this usually just results in a strangely disjoined feeling where he on the one hand relates scholarship suggesting that the authors of the gospels changes or added numerous things in order to make points of their own, while at the same time holding to all the events and doctrines which the disputed episodes convey.)

Anyway, via this exposure to popular biblical scholarship, it's struck me that there's a very different approach that a certain strain of modern biblical scholarship takes to textual evaluation than what I seem to recall from my (admittedly only undergraduate level) time reading classics scholarship.

Biblical scholarship often seems very focused on the idea of stripping away additions and figuring out the original narrative. This makes a certain amount of sense when dealing with a situation where you're trying to discover the facts about a historical occurance based upon the accounts available, but often modern biblical scholars seem to take the approach of assuming that the actual events related by the gospels were primarily or strictly non-miraculous, and thus working from the assumption that references to miracles and to more specific theology must be later additions. One gets the general impression that the original account of each gospel (if, by the scholar's lights, there can even be said to be such a thing) is so distantly burried as to be virtually unknowable.

By contract, most of the notes I was used to seeing in the apparatus criticus were generally fairly matter-of-fact and had to do with relatively minor differences, corruptions and deletions suggested by examination of different manuscripts. Perhaps it's simply that no one imagines that anyone cared enough about changing Horace's Odes or Vergil's Eclogues to have made massive changes in the manuscript tradition, but there was seldom any suggestion that there were many changes after the initial writing of the work, other than accidental ones or subtractive editing.

My impression (perhaps wrong) is that there is not actually more than the usual amount of variation in the surviving manuscript traditions of the gospels, and that there were rather more manuscripts floating around for the gospels than there were for many of the great classical works -- which you would think would provide ample opportunity for variation to show up if it did in fact exist.

All of which leaves me wondering, is there some reason to be running around supposing all these prior narratives and additions and modifications in the gospel narratives, other than general suspicion (on the part of those who are not orthodox Christians) of their contents? Beyond skepticism of the events conveyed, is there a reason to think that Luke's gospel is that much different from what Luke wrote than our extant copies of Heroditus or Thucydites or Virgil are from what those respective authors wrote?

On the Bright Side

We complain, every so often, about our parish. The architecture is nothing to write home about (unless you wrote: "What is this?") and the music of the ordinary just got switched out to some rather rambling and uninspiring modern, OCP-ish stuff.

But stuff also happens that makes us remember why we like it. For instance, this is the third year running that the Corpus Christi homily has actually been about the real presence. Which never happened to us at any of our other parishes. (On the down side, it turned into one of those rambling three-for-the-price-of-one sermons that went on for nearly 30 minutes and inspired a gread deal of comment in the baby -- who had to be taken out to finish her oration in the vestibule.)

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Ha ha

Thing that are currently making me laugh excessively and compulsively:

"The Chinese Buffet!"


I need to go to bed.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Rice, Rice, Baby

Friday is generally informal team lunch day here at the office, and the chosen venue is Chinese food at least half the time.

Now, its a fact of modern food economics that at your average restaurant much of the cost of your bill springs from the cost of renting and staffing the restaurant rather than actually obtaining the food. Modern agriculture provides our country with such a ridiculous surplus of food that one of the easy ways for an establishment to make people feel better about paying $7-9 for a lunch entree (which is necessary in order to pay for the cooks, waitresses, busboys and square footage of the restaurant) is simply to provide 2-3x the amount of food that one person could possibly need. One lunch portion at any of the local Asian eateries amounts to more food than many people who actually live in rural Asia get in a day.

The solution that most of my coworkers gravitate towards is to leave aside the bowl of rice that comes with every mean, and which one is expected to mix with one's stir fry. Now, given the general disrepute of starch among the sedentary class these days, I understand the reasoning behind this, but wasting rice has always struck me as a particularly offensive form of excess since so many of the poorest in this world live almost exclusively off rice. It seems rather let-them-eat-cake-ish to leave one's rice to be thrown away by the busboy.

So here's my thought: Some conscientious eatery out to sprinkle around "give your rice away" placards on all their tables. Provide an explicit option to order your meal without rice (the price would be the same) and for each order without rice, donate $0.25 or $0.50 to some charity such as Food For the Poor which (at third world prices) can probably turn that in to 1-5lbs of rice for some poor family somewhere. Over by the door they could post a tally of the number of pounds of rice donated each month, which would probably amount to enough to feed a medium-sized village.

That place would certainly have my business, and my rice.

Four Modern Martyrs in Iraq

Chaldean Thoughts provides many details about the priest and three deacons gunned down outside the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul right after mass last Sunday. The church had been the target of repeated threats and bombings by Islamic militants who objected to the continued celebration of Christian sacraments.

Things that (or People who) Don't Bother Me

TSO at Video Meliora has tagged us for a new meme. So, in no particular order, here's my list.

Things that (or People who) don't bother me:
  1. Girly drinks
  2. Accordions
  3. Ukeleles
  4. Nepotism
  5. Cat blogging
  6. Public schools
  7. People who cross picket lines
  8. Crocs (though I wouldn't wear them myself)
  9. Musicals
  10. Spanking
  11. Anime
  12. Foie gras (the concept, I mean; I've never eaten it)
  13. Animal testing
  14. Two-Buck Chuck
  15. Accents
  16. Games with complicated rules
  17. Vatican politics
  18. The Novus Ordo
  19. Malt balls
  20. Doritos
  21. Country music lovers
  22. Will Ferrell movies
  23. Barefoot children
  24. American Idol
  25. Boxed wine
  26. Reading at meals
  27. Lolcats
  28. Lurkers
  29. Female Eucharistic ministers
  30. My sister's boyfriend
No pressure, guys, but I tag Dorian, Opinionated Homeschooler, and Julie D.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Problem With You, Sir

The final installment of the Christopher Hitchens/Douglas Wilson debate over at Christianity Today contains the following hilariously spot-on comment by Wilson:
This relates to the second point, which concerns evolved morality and the past. When dealing with people whose moral judgments have differed from yours, do you regard them as "immoral" or as "less evolved?" The rhetoric of your book, your tone in these exchanges, and your recent dancing on the grave of the late Jerry Falwell would all seem to indicate the former. In your choice of words, the people you denounce are to be blamed. The word fulminations comes to mind. You write like a witty but acerbic tenth-century archbishop with a bad case of the gout. But this is truly an odd thing to do if "morality" is a simple derivative of evolution. Are you filled with fierce indignation that the koala bear hasn't evolved ears that stick flat to the side of his head like they are supposed to? Are you wroth over the fact that clams don't have legs yet? When you notice that the bears at the zoo continue to suck on their paws, do you stop to remonstrate with them?

Your notion of morality, and the evolution it rode in on, can only concern itself with what is. But morality as Christians understand it, and the kind you surreptitiously draw upon, is concerned with ought. David Hume showed us that we cannot successfully derive ought from is. Have you discovered the error in his reasoning? It is clear from how you defend your ideas of "morality" that you have not done so. You are a gifted writer, and you have a flair for polemical voltage. But strip it all away, and what do you have underneath? You believe yourself to live in a universe where there is no such thing as any fixed ought or ought not. But God has gifted you with a remarkable ability to denounce what ought not to be. And so, because you reject him, you have great sermons but no way of ever coming up with a text. When people start to notice the absence of texts, the absence of warrant, the absence of reasons, you adjust and compensate with rhetorical embellishment and empurpled prose. You are like the minister in the story who wrote in the margin of his notes, "Argument weak. Shout here."
I can think of few better summaries of Hitchens simultaneously attractive and annoying qualities than "Argument weak. Shout here." Indeed, one of the things I particularly noticed during the exchange was that when Hitchens wanted to discard something without having to provide a good reason, or gloss over the fact he was ignoring a point made against him, he would simply amp up the rhetoric.

And indeed, there's surprisingly bad thinking going on under Hitchens' thunder at many junctures. Take this section:
It is, rather, religion that has made many morally normal people assent to appalling cruelties, including the mutilation of children's genitalia, the institution of slavery, the revulsion from female sexuality, and many other crimes from which an average infidel would, without any heavenly prompting, turn away. Ask yourself this question. Can you name one moral action, or moral utterance, performed or spoken by a believer that could not have been performed or spoken by an atheist? My email is available to any reader who is willing to accept this challenge.
Why he has such an issue with circumcision I cannot imagine, unless perhaps he is the "victim" of such and chooses to blame it for certain deficiencies which are in fact simply his own lack of skill or accoutrement. But let us leave that aside.

Can any serious person with the most basic knowledge of the history of civilization imagine that slavery and oppressive patriarchy are by nature revolting to human nature unless we are forced into it by religious beliefs? Perhaps Hitchens has (like many other career atheists) made so much of the passages of the Hebrew scriptures which regulate slavery and the place of women in society that he has managed to forget that these if anything represented an improvement of the conditions under which most slaves and women found themselves in other cultures around the first millenium B.C.

Far from being the result of religious brainwashing, slavery and the treating of women as property have been found in the vast majority of cultures throughout the world and throughout history. And the abolition of these evils is specifically a result of the increasing influence of Christianity in Western Culture, and then the eventual imposition of Western values on much of the rest of the world.

Women in Western Art

Via Suburban CEO comes this "beautiful, kind of hypnotic video" of women's faces in Western art. Very peaceful, very fascinating.

A Stool With Two Legs

Being on the road and all (and holding out on the theory that it's still awful early to get excited about presidential politics) I didn't see the Republican debate the other night, but this item over at The Corner struck me:
Three v Two: Near the end, Romney talked about "the stool" of the Reagan coalition having three legs—national security, free-market economics, and moral issues. He's absolutely right about and it is extremely important to conservatism that that continue to be our coalition. Rudy, immediately afterward, talked about the "two big principles" that unite us, a vigorous national defense and the free market. He basically wants to cut one leg off the stool which is the greatest substantive weakness of his candidacy. Romney was smart to come back to it and highlight that difference in this interview on Fox.

Maybe at the next debate Giuliani can be provided with a two-legged stool to sit on?

Funeral follies

There's nothing more frustrating than driving your family (including your three small daughters five and under) 400 miles to a funeral than discovering that children aren't really wanted at the funeral, and that the family has already taken the precaution of hiring a babysitter so that the kids won't disturb everyone at the funeral.

Unless it's sitting coldly through the funeral at the very back of the church trying desperately to keep your children under radio silence, and feeling furious that you made this long trip with your family in the first place, and fuming about the blatant hypocrisy of a desire for no children at the funeral of a woman who had eleven children and more than forty grandchildren

UNLESS it's discovering that the whole thing was a misunderstanding and that it was your own mother who arranged getting a babysitter, and then badgered you about putting your kids in babysitting because she thought everyone else was doing it and it was her mother's funeral anyway and she didn't want the kids to distract everyone.

I suppose one should be grateful that you never have to attend the same funeral twice.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Time of Gifts

Should any of you be forced to find a suite capable of accomodating a family of five plus four siblings and a mother-in-law for a reasonable price in Baton Rouge, there are reasons to be hesitant to recomment Chase Suites, however one of the massive points in its favor is that it offers not only a free hot breakfast, but also a free dinner with free wine and beer. And sometimes, when you're in Baton Rouge with that many family in a room but are lucky enough to have been left alone for a while because it't not your family that's in town, those drinks are a good time to sit down with a book, in this case A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor which I got not long ago on the advice of a dear friend.

A Time of Gifts is an after-the-fact account of the author's journey from Holland to Constantanople on foot in 1933. The author went on to become a rather fascinating commando in WW2, and the book itself was written in 1977 with the benefit of hindsight, but based on the lengthy diaries that the author wrote as he wandered across Europe.

It's beautifully written, and takes place at that delicate point at which the first warning signs of the second world war were making themselves known. The Great War and chewed up a generation of European manhood, but it had left most of the great cities of Europe unscathed. Yet many of the cities which the nineteen-year-old Fermor wandered through were largely levelled in the second world war. And already as he walks across Germany the red flag with its black swastika is flying. Some Germans are marching to volk events in uniform, while others despite the short man with the tasteless mustache.

The following paragraph (from which the title is derived), about Christmas, 1933, struck me, and so I include it:
The only customer, I unslung my rucksack in a little Gastof. Standing on chairs, the innkeeper's pretty daughters, who were aged from five to fifteen, were helping their father decorate a Christmas tree; hanging witch-balls, looping tinsel, fixing candles to the branches, and crowning the tip with a wonderful star. They asked me to help and when it was almost done, their father, a tall, thoughtful-looking man, uncorked a slim bottle from the Rudesheim vineyard just over the river. We drank it together and had nearly finished a second by the time the last touches to the tree were complete. Then the family assembled round it and sang. The candles were the only light and the solemn and charming ceremony was made memorable by the candle-lit faces of the girls -- and by their beautiful and clear voices. I was rather surprised that they didn't sing Stille Nacht: it had been much in the air the last few days; but it is a Lutheran hymn and I think this bank of the Rhine is mostly Catholic. Two of the carols they sang have stuck in my memory: O Du Heilige and Es ist ein Reis entsprungen: both were entracing and especially the second, which, they told me, was very old. In the end I went to church with them and stayed the night. When all the inhabitants of Bingen were exchanging greetings with each other outside the church in the small hours, a few flakes began falling. Next morning the household embraced each other, shook hands again, and wished everyone a happy Christmas. The smallest of the daughters gave me a tangerine and a packet of cigarettes wrapped beautifully in tinsel and silver paper. I wished I'd had something to hand her, neatly done up in holly-patterned ribbon -- I thought later of my aluminum pencil-case containing a new Venus or Royal Sovereign [pencil] wound in tissue paper, but too late. The time of gifts.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Southern Gothic

My dad's family are Irish of the Potato Famine variety. They live in and around Philadelphia. They are cheerful and personable and loud and musical. They held a merry Irish wake when my grandfather died, but I (alas!) could not be there.

My mother's family live in the South, and have always lived in the South, except for when they lived in Virginia or England and were busy descending illegitimately from Henry II. Once upon a time my grandparents lived in what was once the home of Confederate General Carnot Posey, with an imposing grandfather clock and a covered back porch and a big kitchen now attached and vast pocket doors that separated the dining room from the front parlor, and all within calling distance of the boyhood home of Jefferson Davis. Any Southern family of any standing has a skeleton lurking somewhere in the deep attics that shade the broad porches and back verandas; ours was hauled into the light two years ago at a gruesome family reunion. Now we're having another family reunion of sorts; my grandmother's funeral is Tuesday, and I will be in attendance.

Grandma was a Lady: she played bridge and sipped coffee from a demitasse and had a succession of black cooks named Virginia. She ate "dinner", never "lunch". She had eleven children in fifteen years, which never seemed to keep her from looking trim and coiffed in old photographs. When we Yankee grandchildren came to visit, we would walk with her across the street to daily Mass, after which we would be presented to say good morning to Father and to Grandma's friends: Miss Mildred, Miss Irene, Miss Velma. And for the benefit of those who didn't attend daily Mass, she would send us down to the office of the small local paper with an announcement for the society column: "Friends will be happy to know that Mr. and Mrs. J. D__ were visited by their daughter A__, of Cincinnati, OH, and her children, and also by daughters B___ and S____, both of Baton Rouge, and their children."

My mother was the eighth of the eleven children; I was the twelfth of almost forty grandchildren. I have family members who know the difference between a second cousin and a first cousin once removed. The sheer size of family made it difficult to bond with anyone over such brief and infrequent visits as we made. When I last saw Grandma two weeks ago, I had to remind her often who I was and whose daughter I was -- in that regard, not much had changed.

Resquiscat in pacem.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Prayers requested

Please pray for the soul of my maternal grandmother, who passed away this evening at 9:25.

Do Not Call

I used to think that Caller ID was a silly feature to have on a phone, kind of like employing a private secretary to open and sort your mail, but lately it's been a life-saver. I understand that telemarketers are people too and should be spoken to politely, even if (as I am) you're always turning them down. The blessed Caller ID ensures that I don't even have to answer the calls.

But lately the phone has been ringing off the damn hook. We're getting up to twenty telemarketing calls a day, and I'm weary of it. This is hitting the level of harrassment. You know what? I work at home. If I have to be interrupting reading time with the girls to check who's calling, or worrying about the phone waking up the baby, my productivity levels go down. And so, we've finally seen the light and signed onto the National Do Not Call Registry. And for now, I'm answering every telemarketing call I get and immediately asking to be taken off the call list.

Sen. Brownback on Evolution

Generally, it's a bad idea when people start talking beyond their area of competence, so I was surprised to be quite favorably impressed by a piece in the NY Times (H.T. Pro Ecclesia) by Senator Brownback detailing his views on evolution.

It seems that at one of the Republican debates a reporter asked if any candidates who did not "believe in evolution" would raise their hands. Brownback was one of three two did so, and attempts to explain his reasoning for this more clearly in his letter:
The premise behind the question seems to be that if one does not unhesitatingly assert belief in evolution, then one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days. But limiting this question to a stark choice between evolution and creationism does a disservice to the complexity of the interaction between science, faith and reason.

The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God....

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.
From some of his comments (such as pointing to the debate concerning punctuated equilibrium vs. "classical Darwinism") I think Sen. Brownback may be as well informed on some of the issues as one could be. However, he seems to show a good understanding of what he does and does not know, and does not attempt to impose an order on those scientific issues which he is not familiar with. Rather, he focuses on the philosophical/theological point which is truly important to him. (Would that Cardinal Shonborn could bring himself to do the same when he writes on the topic.)

Books Do Furnish a Room

The Darwin household has reached the point were several dozen books are stacked on the floor, and since all available wallspace in the livingroom is already lined with half-height Ikea shelving, it is time for full-height shelves.

However, since cash and time and not quite as scarce as they once were (and because I'm always a sucker for a project) I'm looking at starting to build my own shelving. There's not a whole lot truly nice furniture in the Darwin household, but there is one very nice bookshelf that we inherited from my grandmother, and the design seems like one that could be copied fairly successfully with a bit of care and attention. (I tried looking at the sort of stuff available through unfinished furniture stores, but I wasn't impressed with their design -- most of the shelves featured a frame around all four edges which made it impossible to see or pull out books in the outside inch on either side of a shelf.)

So I headed down to Fine Lumber and Plywood Inc. here in town on Memorial Day to get prices, and the plan is to head down after work today and pick up wood so I can get going. And being the sort of creature I am, I then set up a spreadsheet that allows me to vary the height, width, number of shelves and type of wood and then automatically recalculate the price.

In the end, it looks like building all-hardwood bookshelves is expensive enough that I'm thinking I should go all the way: 7ft tall, 3.5ft wide. I'm looking at soft maple or African mahogany, with red oak as a runner up -- but it's not that much cheaper than the maple and it has a rougher and more common look. I'd wanted to look at beech, to match the inherited shelf, but I'm not seeing it anywhere. And I considered cherry but it was far too expensive.

Assuming it doesn't turn into a total trainwreck, I may do some progress posts on the project over the next few weeks.