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

Monday, June 30, 2008

Relics of a Fallen World

Last week the US Supreme Court came to the rather unsurprising conclusion that if the second ammendment says that the right of "the people" to bear arms shall not be infringed, by "the people" it means... individual people. Regardless of whether one thinks this is a good idea (in other words, regardless of whether one thinks the 2nd ammendment should be repealed) this would seem like a no brainer. However, Vox Nova writer Mornings Minion took the occasion to write a blistering post in which he informed anyone who would listen that "the Church teaches" that handguns should be banned. (A number of well reasoned responses to MM's post were made on other blogs, and I'm not going to bother fisking it here.)

It seems that back in the 70s, the NCCB and USCCB stated in several documents that due to the large number of crimes that involved handguns, it would be in the interest of society to work for the elimination of handguns. In other statements on social issues and crime since that time, the USCCB has on a few occasions advocated "sensible restrictions" on handguns and stated that one ought to hope for their eventual disappearance. (For the most complete, and earliest, USCCB statement on handgun violence, see the brief 1975 statement "Handgun Violence: A Threat to Life" issued by the USCCB Committee on Social Developmentand World Peace.)

Now clearly, such a policy analysis, even by a committee under the aegis of the USCCB, carries no doctrinal force. However, I think it's appropriate for faithful Catholics to think on these sorts of issues when their shepherds bring them up, and so that's what I proceded to do.

My first reaction is to be pretty dismissive of the wish for handguns to vanish entirely (or, nearly so: exeptions are mentioned for police and military use) since I personally enjoy using handguns very much. I've never shot at or threated another living creature with one, but I go down to a range fairly regularly to assault paper targets either with my own Browning .22 target pistol or with a larger caliber gun belonging to the range or to a friend. Though the .22 is great for target shooting (and is cheep to shoot) there's nothing quite as satisfying as the roar and lift of a large caliber pistol or revolver. The classic Colt .45 has been, since 1911, a sheer pleasure to handle and shoot. And for all it's modern blocky feel, the Glock .45 is a similarly beautiful weapon to handle. 9mm pistols have an angrier bark and jump, but are also fun. And a good .357 or .44 magnum revolver, with a truly smooth action, is a beautiful piece of worksmanship, and provides enough weight in the hand to be a very good long distance shooter.

Sure, I'm conscious of the fact that guns are also powerful tools for self defense -- and should I ever need to use one so I'd have no hesitation to grab one of my rifles and use it thus. But even if I knew that I would never find myself needing to defend myself with a gun, I'd still very much enjoy using them. What, then, should I make of this hope to see handguns eventually vanish entirely?

The difference, it would seem, is that the bishops are concerned entirely with the issue of handgun violence. My interest in handguns, on the other hand, is only minimally related to my desire to have them around for defense. I just like them generally. And indeed, I'd be more happy if one never had to worry about needing one and could simply enjoy using them recreationally. Is that reasonable?

Here's another piece of military machinery which is, to my mind, incredibly beautifully made:

A good claymore is a beatifully balanced thing, which moves like an extension of your arm. In origin, however, it was designed to sever a head from the neck with ease, or slice an arm off at the shoulder with one smooth stroke. So the original reason for all the craftsmanship that surround swordsmithing is steeped in bloodshed. In the Bible itself we find the desire to see swords beaten into plowshares. And yet there is, to my mind, a beauty to a well-made sword that a well made plowshare simply does not possess. (Sadly, swords are not as easy to use for strictly recreational purposes as guns -- though I heartily recommend the modern sport of fencing.)

Perhaps the most direct similarity to the USCCB's comments on handguns can be found in regards to the crossbow, which several Church councils advocated banning in the late Middle Ages.

Crossbows, longbows and their modern cousins the compound bows continue to be used for hunting and recreation in the modern world, but I don't think that any prominant churchmen have called for them to be banned any time recently. The bow has become permanently separated from it's deadly connotations, so far as I can tell.

Yet none of these weapons, in their deadly or recreational forms, would have been developed to the level that they have without the historical human need to slay animals for food and other humans in war. In a sense, these things are products of the fallen nature of our world. And even the sword or bow remails fully capable of killing other human beings with brutal efficiency.

I suppose that if one truly wants not only the violence of our fallen world, but all the products and traces of that violence removed from it, one must wish to see every sword beaten into a plowshare. I'm sure that some would see my affection for weapons of all kind as being a "glorification of violence", and would wish out of existence not only guns but swords and bows and all other products of humanity's history of violence. Yet since the world is and will remain fallen, I can't help seeing the products of our weapon-making history as worthwhile in their own right. And so while wishing that no one felt that he needed a gun in order to protect himself, I can't bring myself to wish them out of existence. They're the product of too much history and human ingenuity. And they're just plain fun.


And courtesy of Julie D., a joke for our anniversary.
After she woke up, a woman told her husband, “I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for our anniversary. What do you think it means?”

“You’ll know tonight.” he said.

That evening, the man came home with a small package and gave it to his wife.

Delighted, she opened it to find a book entitled The Meaning of Dreams.

Good thing all my dreams lately have involved flooring.

Lucky 7th

I don't know what the traditional gift is for the seventh wedding anniversary, but we gave ourselves wood.

(That on the stairs is our 4 1/2th anniversary present, for which occasion the appropriate gift is "golden fluff and cheeks".)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Prejudices of the Self Made Man

Not long ago, I spent a week or two going the rounds with an adamantly pro-choice philosophy grad student in the comments of another blog. One of the points he kept making was essentially, "If you're really in favor of reducing abortions, you should be in favor of contraception and sex ed programs, because "abstinence based" programs do not, statistically, have good success." (As in, those who have attended public schools with "abstinence only" sex ed programs do not have startlingly lower pregnancy and STD rates than those who haven't.)

That may or may not be true. I haven't familiarized myself with the research. But it's hard for me to take, because since planning (and succeeding) on not having sex before marriage worked for me, my wife, and many of our friends in college -- it's hard for me to understand why it's unreasonable to expect others to do the same. It wasn't exactly easy, and I can certainly understand why one could fail, but it doesn't strike me as an inherently unreasonable expectation. Why? Well, at root, because to say that it's unreasonable to expect others to even be capable of pulling pulling that off would be to say that they simply don't have the abilities that I have. And I have fairly deeply ingrained within me the idea that just about anyone can, with hard work, do the same things that I have done.

This has been striking me a lot over the last couple years as we have finally issued into what I think of as the upper middle class (which I define, in thoroughly relativistic fashion, as doing better financially before 30 than my parents ever did, even right before my father's retirement/death.)

Back when we lived in Los Angeles (one of the most expensive living areas in the country) and we scraped by on a single income which was not much over the poverty line for a family of four, I enjoyed the righteous feeling of insisting, "I may be poor, but I still don't think the government has any business taking money from the rich and giving it to me." It's a fun position to hold, and I milked it for all it was worth while I was qualified to hold it. (Probably much to the annoyance of some of those around me.)

Now I find myself in a less flattering position -- that of the person who has "arrived" in some sense, and now finds himself saying, "If I could get to a stable family income through hard work and dedication -- so can everyone else." This is characterized by those who disagree with the sentiment as "Telling the poor that if they aren't doing well, it's their own fault."

I don't tell the poor that. (Indeed, unless one imagines "the poor" to be an embodied character that wanders about the stage of life, I'm not sure exactly how one could without being insanely rude.) And there are a set of "advantages" that I did have even though I grew up in a lower-middle-class family and never had got a job through "connections": I had two parents who provided me with a stable family environment, an outstanding education, and a strong moral grounding. Those are incredible advantages in life, and ones I do not think I could possibly have got where I have in life without. But they aren't advantages that can be given to you by a government program.

There are, so far as I can tell, to different ways to react to the feeling of being a "self made man". My own, which I would tend to think of as an essentially conservative one, is to conclude that one's success is essentially the result of hard work and a good upbringing, and to seek to help others to receive a similar upbringing, while encouraging them to work hard. The other approach, which I would tend to think of as a "liberal" one (and which has been on my mind of late as it seems to be the approach which is followed by presidential candidate Barack Obama) is to hold that while one somehow achieved success, it was really, really hard and few other people can possibly manage to do the same, and so all sorts of preferences and programs are needed in order to others to achieve what you have.

For instance, I recently ran across this quote from Obama's book, Audacity of Hope. Speaking about meeting with the top campaign donors from his Senate campaign, he says:
But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class; the top 1 percent or so of the income scale that can afford to write a $2,000 check to a political candidate. They believed in the free market and an educational meritocracy; they found it hard to imagine that there might be any social ill that could not be cured with a high SAT score. They had no patience with protectionism, found unions troublesome, and were not particularly sympathetic to those whose lives were upended by movements of global capital.
Sure there are lots of social ills that can't be cured by the free market and a good SAT score, but in regards to getting a good education and a good job, the free market and a good SAT score will certainly get you a long way. And Obama should know this, as do I. Because unless he got into college based strictly on racial preferences (and he seems like a smart guy, so I doubt it) it's been his good SAT scores and the free market that have taken him from middle class Hawaii to having a very good chance of being our next president. (And making far, far more money than anyone I know in the mean time.)

Yet Obama's reaction to all this is not to say, "Look, I had a lot of obstacles before me, but with the help of a loving family, and a lot of hard work in school and afterwards, look where I am today. And you could do the same." Rather, his message is essentially that unlike him, none of us poor schmucks stand a chance of getting anywhere in life unless he's elected president so he can start a bunch of new programs that will do everything for us.

The conservative attitude sounds rather heartless, since it boils down to: "Go work hard, and you'll do well." But it stems from an implicit assumption that the person being addressed is of the same abilities as oneself. The progressive attitude, on the other hand, implicitly assumes that others do not have the same abilities as oneself.

In the end, which of these is fair, and which is demeaning?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Fear and loathing in the garden

Some mornings you go outside to take the air and gaze at the garden, and then you glance at the tomato patch and find that once again, birds have gotten inside the netting. Not one, but three birds. And they're still inside. And there happens to be a handy piece of long flooring strip sitting on the grass. And this is what happens.

But you better believe I put the fear of God into those birds!

And I saved the last Cherokee Purple, which was delicious.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Are we done yet?

We are not done yet, but we're getting there.

When you only seal half the living room at a time, you have to lay your boards in an ever-shortening stair step pattern.

This is the corner of the hearth. We took a lot of time to dry lay it and finesse our cutting, but it was worth it -- much easier to lay than the box by the kitchen. Also, it helped that we didn't have to fill it in.

This is the last day of Darwin's time at home, so here's hoping we get a lot completed.

Planned Parenthood as "Lifestyle" Brand

Monday's Wall Street Journal contained an article about Planned Parenthood's efforts to invest it's "surplus" from recent years (being a non-profit, they're not allowed to call the difference between what they spend and what they take in each year a "profit") in expanding their reach into middle and upper class demographics. To this end, they're opening "express centers" in suburban malls which feature birth control, pregnancy tests, counseling, books and branded merchandise.
To encourage the new wave of patients to join the cause, an express center in Parker, Colo., sells political buttons next to the condoms and sets out invitations to activism by the magazine rack.... Officials also aim to rally support with upbeat marketing: TV ads with perky voice-overs about love; a crass-and-sassy Web campaign aimed at teens. Earlier this year, Planned Parenthood began selling a $2 branded condom -- promoted as a "must-have fashion accessory" -- in luxury boutiques and W hotels.
They're also opening regional mega-clinics, as opposed to their more traditional 2,500-5,000 sq. ft. facilities to provide their full range of "services". These mega-centers are targeting at higher income areas, and designed to give the Planned Parenthood brand a brighter, more consumerist appearance.

If all of this chirpy discussion of how to make Planned Parenthood a more attractive brand strikes you as having a certain "Springtime for Hitler" quality, it's because you and I inhabit something like the same culture. Indeed, aside from the obviously appalling elements, one of the weirdest things about reading the article was the implicit assumption that Planned Parenthood was a marketable brand. Between their founding by Margaret Sanger, who ranted about how abortion and contraception (especially for non whites) were needed to protect "the race", and the fact that they are by far the largest provider of abortions -- a service that major portions of the country may be reluctant to totally ban, yet at the same time are far from comfortable with -- I would tend to assume that Planned Parenthood is one of those pariah organizations which we can't seem to get rid of, yet no one seriously considers a positive "brand".

In the immediate culture within which I move, that may be true. But apparently in other cultures that exist within this country, Planned Parenthood is the sort of "brand" from which one would be happy to buy a fashion t-shirt of branded condom, just to show that you're "with it" by having all the right corporate titles on your possessions.

People talk about reducing the "division" in our political and cultural discourse, but this sort of thing serves to underline for me that there really is little chance of these divisions going away any time in the foreseeable future. In a country in which one sub-culture's "lifestyle brand" is another culture's "culture of death", there's simply too fundamental a disagreement to expect it to go away.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Wedded bliss, ca. 1930

Thinking of taking your kids on a trip down memory lane to the Great Depression? First find out how you'd rate as a 1930s spouse, courtesy of the 1930s Marital Scale!

(Darwin got 147 and I got 102, so we're all ready for the time machine.)

h/t Literacy Chic

Tales from the subfloor

Surfacing with an update on flooring, for those fascinated by the subject.

Gluing down hardwood is a nasty, smelly, sticky process. The sealant is noxious and weirdly tacky and porous underfoot, and the adhesive is unpleasant and thick and has to be cleaned with mineral spirits. The mineral spirits start to burn your hands after a time and it doesn't wash off well. Cats and children are fascinated by all these substances, which might explain why my recurring dream last night was of trying and failing to keep small creatures out of stickiness.

That said, here are some pix.

Box inlay in the small hall between the kitchen and living room. This was a bitch to lay. You can see in the lower left corner where, at the end, we wound up with a small gap in the corner despite our best measuring efforts.

After spending five hours yesterday just laying out our box, today we realize that flooring goes a lot faster when you aren't trying to do fancy-schmancy stuff.

If all goes well, we'll finish up a good portion of the kitchen tonight and be able to get the fridge and the table out of the living room.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

An Inconvenient Tragedy

Some may recall that La Scala in Milan is preparing an opera of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth for the 2011 opera season. It's not everyone who can turn a pop science phenomenon into an opera, and indeed, I must admit that I rather doubt that La Scala will manage to produce something that people want to see on its own terms -- as opposed to something one wants to see for the righteous slow that it gives one to know that, having donned one's finest clothes and driven over to La Scala in one's Maserati, one may sit back in one's box and gaze at the other worthies around the opera house in the firm belief that one is far above those poor, ignorant "global warming deniers".

Ah, but though he may not live in Milan, there is one out there who can craft a three act opera based on the Al Gore oeuvre, and that man is Bob The Ape. He presents a libretto for An Inconvenient Tragedy in three acts. If you have any doubt whether you should go read all of it, and believe me that you should, merely consult the cast list:

Cast of Characters






a Titan




an ambitious Spirit


Carbona Dioxida


an airy Spirit




an Oriental Sorcerer, servant to Algor




a Seeress




a Judge




God of the Sun




a Golem


Three Citizens


A Troupe of Polar Bears


A Figure representing Unnatural Heat

MrsDarwin and I have been going about the house saying "Oscar, a golem" to each other since last night. And so, following upon St. Augustine, I must enjoin you to take and read.

Gracious living

We've been living it up in a small space due to the kitchen being completely torn up. Now, so that we can use the kitchen as a staging ground before we floor in there, we've moved the table into the living room. Usually I have a "no food in the living room" rule for girls, but we're waiving that for the time being.

It wouldn't be so bad to live everyday life in one room if half of it weren't taken up by the prospective floor.

So we're a bit squeezed right now. Just wait until this afternoon, when the couch goes out to the garage and the refrigerator moves into the living room.

Darwin has been doing prep work on the stairs. Yesterday morning the big girls helped him rip off the carpet up to the landing.

We'll be laying floor strips on the stairs and edging them with stair nosings. The cost for the nosings that matched our floor was astronomical, so we opted to buy maple nosings and varish and polyurethane them ourselves.

We stained them deeper than the floor for contrast.

Up today: completely clearing out the kitchen so that we can sand off the vinyl adhesive tomorrow; laying tile around the fireplace and by the back door; moving the fridge, stove, and dishwasher out of the kitchen.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Floor, let's go!

Perhaps you've been wondering, "Did the Darwins chicken out on their reflooring plans?" The answer is, no, but we waited nine weeks for a 4-6 week shipment of wood. Well, now is the time, gentle readers. Darwin is at home for the next week, and the work is under way. The girls and I will be doing our part mostly by staying out of the house.

Pix later, maybe this evening.

Update (from Darwin): After years of keeping my children somewhat insulated from popular culture, one gift of used VHS tapes has my offspring flattering me with the words, "Oh, Dad! You're as smart as Bob the Builder!" Sigh... I tell them that I refuse to wear the hat.

Update (from MrsDarwin) Head over to Jen's to see what the girls and I did while out of the house. It involved lots of screaming.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Engineering Our Way Out of Crisis

The Times of London has an interesting article about efforts to produce crude oil from plant waste such as straw and woodchips using genetically modified micro-organisms which excrete oil as a waste product. Thus far, their efforts have been very small scale, but it's a fascinating effort.

“Ten years ago I could never have imagined I’d be doing this,” says Greg Pal, 33, a former software executive, as he squints into the late afternoon Californian sun. “I mean, this is essentially agriculture, right? But the people I talk to – especially the ones coming out of business school – this is the one hot area everyone wants to get into.”

He means bugs. To be more precise: the genetic alteration of bugs – very, very small ones – so that when they feed on agricultural waste such as woodchips or wheat straw, they do something extraordinary. They excrete crude oil.

Unbelievably, this is not science fiction. Mr Pal holds up a small beaker of bug excretion that could, theoretically, be poured into the tank of the giant Lexus SUV next to us. Not that Mr Pal is willing to risk it just yet. He gives it a month before the first vehicle is filled up on what he calls “renewable petroleum”. After that, he grins, “it’s a brave new world”.

Mr Pal is a senior director of LS9, one of several companies in or near Silicon Valley that have spurned traditional high-tech activities such as software and networking and embarked instead on an extraordinary race to make $140-a-barrel oil (£70) from Saudi Arabia obsolete. “All of us here – everyone in this company and in this industry, are aware of the urgency,” Mr Pal says.

What is most remarkable about what they are doing is that instead of trying to reengineer the global economy – as is required, for example, for the use of hydrogen fuel – they are trying to make a product that is interchangeable with oil. The company claims that this “Oil 2.0” will not only be renewable but also carbon negative – meaning that the carbon it emits will be less than that sucked from the atmosphere by the raw materials from which it is made.

Fascinating stuff. I would imagine there are also some folks out there working hard at super-efficient CO2 converting micro-organisms, to be used as "scrubbers" in power plants and perhaps even internal combustion engines.

I know that some fellow science enthusiasts find me overly blasé about the prospect of global warming, peak oil, etc., but given humanity's track record over the last few hundred years, it strikes me as fairly likely we'll manage to engineer our way out of any scenarios in which earth becomes uninhabitable for us. This struck me particularly when I found myself flipping through the environmentally alarmist tome Six Degrees the other day. It discusses what would happen if the earth's average temperature increased six degrees Centigrade (about 11 degrees F), as the most extreme global warming models currently suggest could be possible in the next hundred years or more. Needless to say, it's pretty dire. Author Mark Lynas predicts that a full 6C rise could result in the collapse of civilization, the extinction of most plant and animal species, and a return to the stone age, if humans didn't die out completely.

Now here's the thing I find unconvincing about these kind of scenarios: They're invariably based on global warming skyrocketing while humanity sits down and suffers the consequences, with billions dying, civilisation vanishing, etc. Maybe I've got too much of a Heinlein mentality, but I don't see humanity going quietly into the night (or desert, as the case may be.) If we started to see really massive, destructive effects that were clearly the result of global warming, expect someone (if not in the West, in the developing nations like China and India) to take matters into their own hands and do something massive. For instance, if you created a massive underground explosion along the lines of Krakatoa (think underground nuclear test that makes the USSR's "Tsara Bomba" look small) you could win yourself a couple years of unusually cool world temperatures as a result of suspended dust in the atmosphere. Heck, perhaps there's even an easier way to get that many particulates into the upper atmosphere. Similarly, genetically modified plants and micro-organisms might be used to try to drastically reduce CO2 fast.

Now obviously, we don't think about trying these things right now because they're easy things to get wrong, with the possibility of a run-away GMO wiping out hundreds of existing plant species, or your attempt to get particulates into the atmosphere causing world-wide nuclear fallout. But if countries like China are in danger of collapse, or tens of millions of people world-wide are starving, expect the caution to go to the winds.

This isn't to say that the earth might not end up trashed, but my guess it that it would be trashed by massive (and sometimes poorly thought out) attempt to stem off disaster, rather than by the warming itself. I'm pretty sure we could keep the climate from cooking us out of existence. The question is, can we do that without trashing the environment, or will we do it by large and clumsy means. Either way, I don't see world temperatures going up 6C. There may be environmental disasters in our future, but I don't see that one being it.

(Note: It's also entirely possible that the natural systems of our planet have the ability to adjust to process much more CO2 than we imagine, without going into serious global warming. I consider that fairly possible, but I'm ignoring it for the purposes of this discussion.)

Monday, June 16, 2008

When to do Nothing

Many column inches have been spent in recent months asserting that the Republicans are out of ideas. Reading up about McCain's "cap and trade" global warming proposal, I could almost wish that were the case.

It is one of the facts of human nature that we often feel we must "do something" even if we don't actually know what, if any, action would be helpful. It is painful and difficult to sit still and do nothing when you know that there are things going wrong. Often this is a good urge, but sometimes it gets us into trouble, especially when we don't actually have any idea how to remedy the problem in question.

I encounter this pretty often at work. When the business is behind and not making it's financial forecast, everyone becomes very urgent to "do something". As an analyst, it often falls to me to point out that one or another of the proposals which is suggested to "do something" won't actually help, and may make things worse.

"Let's do fifty percent off on product X." Sorry, the data for the last year shows that product X is not price elastic. All you will do is cut our revenue on that product by 50% while zeroing out our profit on it entirely.

"Let's do buy-one-get-one-free." When we do buy-one-get-one-free on a proprietary product, we just flood ebay with resellers offering out product at below market prices. We'll see depressed demand for the next month or two. I've got the data to prove it.

However, almost invariably, we do these things anyway. Why? Because people always want to be able to say that they're doing something about the crisis. No one wants to tell his boss, "We're missing our number, but we're not doing anything about it, because none of the ideas we've had would help any."

(If the above makes it sound like there's nothing we can do to increase sales, it's because our extant marketing plan generally has all the price elastic products as heavily optimized for volume as possible -- such that only cost concessions from our suppliers could allow us to be more aggressive than we're already being. Those kind of cost negotiations are the responsibility of another group in the company. So when our specific group gets told to "do something", it's often the case that we're already doing basically everything that's likely to work.)

In a "change election" like this one, we effectively have a country-wide demand that "somebody do something". It's not necessarily an unreasonable demand. We're spending money we don't have, health care is definitely a problem for many Americans, we have a set of immigration laws that we lack the ability or will to enforce, etc. Certainly, people would like to see solutions to those problems. But that does not necessarily mean that doing anything is better than doing nothing.

On health care, for instance, the current American system clearly has problems which are causing a lot of people a lot of pain. I'd like to see reform on that. However, I very strongly do not think that single payer health care run by the Federal government would be an improvement. So while I may not be crazy about the status quo, I'll certainly settle for that as compared to the "change" options currently on the table.

The question is not so much whether one has ideas, or is out of ideas, but rather whether the ideas one has are any good.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Pizza Chez Darwin

Pizza is incredible. It's the perfect dinner, and the ultimate comfort food. Everyone loves it: even my two-year-old, asked for her favorite food, chirps, "Pee-ta!" The surest way to be branded as a weirdo and a social malefactor is to announce, "Actually, I don't really like pizza."

Well, we like pizza here (just ask the baby). We've been baking and experimenting with our dough for seven years. When we first were married, we tended to make a very basic bready puffy crust. It was amazingly mediocre -- not very exciting, kind of flavorless, but pretty quick. What first revolutionized our thinking was Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread. His excellent overview of the science behind each step of the bread baking process, combined with Pizza Napoletana recipe, instantly transformed our pizza from bland to rustic and tender and delicious.

However, we are tinkerers by nature. Over time we've personalized the recipe through some alterations and additions. We're pretty darn pleased with our crust, so much so that when Reinhart came out with a new book specifically about pizza, American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza, we tried several of his new crust recipes, shrugged, and went back to using our own version. (This is not to disparage the book, which is a delightful read and had an influence on some of our cheese and sauce choices.)

I like recipes that have lots of details about the ingredients and process, so I'll include a both the long chatty form and the "just the facts, ma'am" version.

Pizza Chez Darwin, Long Version

4 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
Bread flour produces a more elastic dough than all-purpose, but you can use all-purpose and leave out the oil.

1 3/4 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons instant yeast (1 teaspoon yeast if planning to refrigerate dough overnight)
Reinhart calls for instant yeast because you don't have to soak it to activate it, and I quite agree -- you can buy it in bulk packages and it keeps a long time in the back of the fridge. If you only have active dry yeast, one packet ought to do it (2 1/4 tsp.), in which case you probably shouldn't hold it overnight.

2 tablespoons ground flax seed
At some point my mother bought me a package of ground flax seed, saying that it was good for me. I've no doubt that there are plenty of health benefits, but to my mind the real advantage of using flax seed is that it gives even dough that only has an hour or two to rise a deeper, nuttier flavor. You can do without it, of course, but then you wouldn't be making my recipe. Ground flax seed is stored in the fridge -- we stack it with the yeast.

1/4 cup olive oil

2 cups water

Semolina flour for dusting the peel
In terms of pizza prep, semolina is tops for allowing pizza to slide off a peel and giving a bit more flavor to the bottom of the crust. If you can't find semolina, you can use cornmeal, but it's an inferior substitute in every way -- too gritty and chunky.

Prepared pasta sauce
I've tried making my own sauce from canned crushed tomatoes and herbs and spices, but I confess that I don't really find the flavor that much different from using a jarred pasta sauce, which is more convenient. I usually choose the tomato and basil flavor, though a cheese variety also does well.

Mozzarella and parmesan cheese
I buy the big bags of pre-shredded mozzarella. Avoid those "fancy" shredded cheeses that are grated very fine -- the thicker shreds cover better with less, and don't get as greasy. Grating a bit of parmesan over the mozzarella gives a more intense flavor.

Toppings to suit
Some of our favorites: sliced kalamata olives, red onions, bell pepper, garlic, feta cheese or chevre, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh basil from our garden. We usually eat pizza on Friday nights and don't put any meat on it, but if we make it for company we'll get some prosciutto. The girls don't necessarily eat all the toppings, but they pick them off and then there's more for the adults.

1. Stir together flour, salt, yeast, and flax seed in a big bowl. Add olive oil and water and stir with a spoon until the flour starts absorbing the liquid. Then knead by hand in the bowl for about five minutes.
This is a very wet sticky dough which will stick to your hand, but the wetness is what makes it nice and rustic. It should stick to the bottom of the bowl but not the sides.

2. Pour a bit of olive oil in the bowl and roll the dough around to coat both it and the sides of the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap.
Some recipes call for transferring the dough to a different oiled bowl, but why make more dishes? It doesn't hurt the dough to rise in the same bowl it's been mixed in -- just make sure your bowl is big enough. The dough is sticky enough that you'll need to scrape half of it off the bottom of the bowl and drizzle oil under it, then repeat on the other side. By that point it should move in enough of a mass that you can turn it to coat the top.

3. Allow dough to rise for several hours, or until roughly doubled, or refrigerate overnight. If the dough has been refrigerated, pull it out and let it warm up to room temperature, approximately two hours.
Refrigerating the dough retards fermenation enough to allow the enzymes more time to release more sugars from the starch. Then when the dough is "woken up", the yeast can feed on these otherwise unrealized sugars, making for a bread with a wonderful depth of flavor. It's well worth it -- if you can remember to do it. Frankly, I don't usually think about making pizza more than a few hours in advance. The addition of flax seed is an attempt to approximate the deeper, nuttier flavor of an aged dough without the aging, and I think it works pretty well.

4. Generously flour the counter, and transfer dough from bowl to counter. Sprinkle plenty of flour on top, then divide into four or six pieces. Gently shape each piece into a ball, then flatten into a disk. Flour again, cover, and allow to rest 30 minutes to 2 hours.
This dough is wet enough that I prefer to make six smaller pizzas rather than four larger ones. A longer rest is better, but if you're in a hurry it's not really going to hurt the pizza to rest for thirty minutes, or even less.

5. Place a baking stone on the bottom rack of your oven, and preheat to 500 degrees.
I rarely take my pizza stone out of my oven, except to rinse it once in a while -- I don't really have anywhere to store it anyway. Reinhart recommends 45 minutes of preheating, but I've gotten away with as few as fifteen. Perhaps you're sensing a last-minute theme to my cooking?

Raise the other rack to the top slot to give yourself more room to maneuver later.

6. Generously dust a pizza peel with semolina flour. Shape one ball of dough into an 9-12 inch crust, gently stretching the edges and tossing if you can. If the dough starts to tear, stick it back together, and allow it to rest for a moment before continuing.
Semolina = pizza goodness. This dough is wet enough to stick to the peel if it sits too long, so have all your topping ingredients ready before you start to shape. I can rarely get the dough to stretch more than 12 inches, but sometimes a longer rest will result in a larger pie. If the dough won't stretch for you freehand, you can place it on the peel and tug at it a bit, but you usually won't get much more stretch at that point, and you run the risk of having the dough absorbing the semolina and sticking to the peel when you try to put it in the oven.

7. Spoon some tomato sauce on the pizza and spread it around with the back of the spoon. Sprinkle mozzarella evenly atop sauce, and grate a bit of parmesan on top. Add toppings judiciously.
You don't have to overdo it on any of the toppings. Too much sauce will bubble over; too much mozzarella will run and get greasy; too much parmesan will burn. If you want to top it further, just add one or two other ingredients, but again, don't overdo it.

8. Slide topped pizza onto stone. Bake about 8 minutes.
Hold the peel at a gentle angle to the stone and give it a shake to slide the pizza onto the stone. Once the pizza makes contact with the stone, withdraw the peel smoothly. Sometimes the pizza will stick to the peel as you try to slide it on, and cheese and toppings will spill onto a stone. This is maddening, so I advise any bystanders to stay the hell back. You can generally salvage toppings by scraping them up quickly with a metal spatula and flipping them back onto the pizza. If the pizza refuses to leave the peel, give it up and close the oven door -- don't keep trying in the heat, or the dough will melt onto the peel. Put the peel back on the counter and work some more semolina under the pie. Sometimes a bit of assistance with the spatula will get the pizza onto the stone.

I find that eight minutes is about the right amount of time for the crust to get all golden, the cheese to melt and bubble, and the toppings to bake. Sometimes the first pizza will take a bit longer; sometimes subsequent pizzas will bake quicker. Keep checking, and take it out when it looks done to you.

9. Remove pizza from oven and allow to cool for a few moments before serving.
If you try to cut a pizza right out of the oven, the cheese goes everywhere.

As I'm generally setting up another pizza on the peel at this point, I use a baking rack to remove the pizza. Then it can cool on the rack before being transferred to a cutting board. Stove top burners also make nice cooling racks, though you'll have semolina all over your stove -- a small price to pay for good pizza.

10. Repeat steps 6-9 for remaining dough balls.
When we make pizza for dinner, we put two or three through before sitting down to eat, and then Darwin and I trade off preparing the remaining pizzas throughout dinner. Don't set up a new pizza on the peel more than three minutes before the one baking is scheduled to come out, or your dough will certainly stick. This makes plenty of pizza, but it stores nicely as leftovers.

Pizza Chez Darwin, Short Form

4 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
1 3/4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast (1 teaspoon yeast if planning to refrigerate dough overnight)
2 tablespoons ground flax seed
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups water
Semolina flour for dusting the peel
Prepared pasta sauce
Mozzarella and parmesan cheeses
Toppings to suit

1. Stir together flour, salt, yeast, and flax seed in a big bowl. Add olive oil and water and stir with a spoon until the flour starts absorbing the liquid. Then knead by hand in the bowl for about five minutes.

2. Pour a bit of olive oil in the bowl and roll the dough around to coat both it and the sides of the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap.

3. Allow dough to rise for several hours, or until roughly doubled, or refrigerate overnight. If the dough has been refrigerated, pull it out and let it warm up to room temperature, approximately two hours.

4. Generously flour the counter, and transfer dough from bowl to counter. Sprinkle plenty of flour on top, then divide into four or six pieces. Gently shape each piece into a ball, then flatten into a disk. Flour again, cover, and allow to rest 30 minutes to 2 hours.

5. Place a baking stone on the bottom rack of your oven, and preheat to 500 degrees.

6. Generously dust a pizza peel with semolina flour. Shape one ball of dough into an 9-12 inch crust, gently stretching the edges and tossing if you can. If the dough starts to tear, stick it back together, and allow it to rest for a moment before continuing.

7. Spoon some tomato sauce on the pizza and spread it around with the back of the spoon. Sprinkle mozzarella evenly atop sauce, and grate a bit of parmesan on top. Add toppings judiciously.

8. Slide topped pizza onto stone. Bake about 8 minutes.

9. Remove pizza from oven and allow to cool for a few moments before serving.

10. Repeat steps 6-9 for remaining dough balls.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Economics Thought Experiment for the Day

This is slated for a busy day, so my substantial post creation abilities are limited. However, I wanted to throw out for discussion a thought experiment that has been bumping around my head for a few weeks. (And yes, this is probably something of a political/economic Rorschach test.)

Picture, if you will, that in an effort to guarantee a minimum standard of living for all Americans, a law was passed guaranteeing a minimum income to every US citizen aged 18 or over. According to this law, if you are 18 or over, you will always make at least $24,000/yr. Hourly wages and work week are in no way fixed -- in fact, the minimum wage is abolished, but all your wages up to 2k/mo are collected as a payroll tax and sent to the Central Payroll Administration. Every citizen 18 or over, regardless of whether he or she works, receives a check for $1000 on the 1st and 15th of every month (generally conveniently deposited to the bank account of your choice.) If you work at a job that pays more than 24k, you receive the rest of your salary directly from your employer.

This means that single people are guaranteed an income of just over twice the poverty line, and couples have a combined income about twice the poverty line for a family of four.

My theory is, under such a system: unemployment would go up (a lot); mobility between economic classes would decrease; income inequality would increase and the productivity of those who did work would also increase. Why I can go into later if it seems non-obvious.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Internet vs. Literacy

As I sit here with my plastic container of left-overs before me, writing a blog post instead of finding somewhere to cozy up with a my copy of Vanity Fair, it is perhaps doubly ironic to write about how the internet and literacy interact. It has, however, been on my mind lately, because it's quite clear to me that the constant availability of the internet has significantly changed my habits, especially at work, and I'm not entirely sure if that's a good thing.

Back when I was first working full time, I'd generally take a book with me that I would read over lunch, and perhaps during a 10-20 minute break in the late afternoon. Half the time I didn't actually get around to reading the book, since if people were around I'd generally talk to them instead. But it was certainly relaxing and humanizing to have the brief mental exercise of reading something good instead of working on whatever I was doing. I tended to make a specific effort to pick slower paced, more intellectual books (whether fiction or non) to read at work, in part to make it more of a change from what I was doing otherwise, and in part because taking a page-turning piece of light fiction is a good way to make yourself want to massively overstay your break.

I still generally have some good reading material in the side pocket of my laptop case, but it doesn't see as much use now. I tend to read around the internet in short little blocks between tasks or during dull meetings. And since I know I spent a cumulative hour or more fooling about on the internet during the 9-10 hours that I am at work, I don't really feel I ought to go off and read as well.

Occasionally I do go take a lunch with myself, and read for 30-60 minutes over a meal. It's always relaxing when I do, but one can't afford to do such things every day -- either as a matter of time or a matter of money.

Thus, hour by hour, I probably spend more time rapidly clicking around the internet and reading in short spurts (seldom more than five minutes) than I do actually sitting down and turning the pages of a worthwhile book. Over the years, I've begun to notice that this has altered my work habits a bit, in that I like to have 2-3 tasks going simultaneously in different windows at a given time, and flip rapidly back and forth. Or if I have a task that doesn't absorb absolutely 100% of my attention, I find myself wanting some sort of additional intellectual input, whether good music or an audio book, or an article which I read a few paragraphs of after every five or ten minutes of working.

The internet, in short, (when used as a means of doing reading in dribs and drabs while working) encourages a sort of ADD approach to learning and reading -- and steers one towards the sort of reading matter that fits well with that sort of approach. In other words, nothing too complex or stylized. Don't bother trying to read John Henry Newman by this method. Don't try an economist like F. A. Hayek or a serious essayist like Samuel Johnson. Literary fiction? Poetry? Not a chance. Internet reading, especially at work, is to serious reading from a book what eating potato chips out of the bag is to sitting down to a five course dinner. You may get the same number of calories in the end, but both the experience and what you consume are quite different.

That's not to say that it's worthless reading. The internet makes it possible to interact with other people of like interests to an extent not possible before -- unless you were one of those 19th century wealthy gentlemen who was always going down to his club and his academic societies. And frankly, given the amount of time that work consumes, if I wasn't able to multi-task and follow the news while at work, I probably wouldn't have the opportunity to remain very well informed. Once I get home in the evening, reading is generally off the table until the kids are in bed. And then it is available only at the expense of not taking the opportunity to talk with my wife. Perhaps five to ten pages in bed before falling asleep. Little more.

And yet, at times I wonder if my habit of working an hour or so of recreation reading into the workday, in the background via the internet, simply results in my spending more time at work, and thus having less time to do more serious reading elsewhere. And even if it is the only way that reading can be worked into the day, it does seem that after a while this practice must fundamentally shift one's intellectual habits.

Addendum from MrsDarwin: Today's WSJ has a book review of Distracted, which deals with this very topic.

In the workplace, a distracted knowledge worker is a fallow asset. Thus current research into worker habits is especially valuable. In the spirit of Fredrick W. Taylor's scientific management, Ms. Jackson reports, researchers have found that workers "typically change tasks every three minutes" and "take about twenty-five minutes to return to an interrupted task . . . usually plugging into two other work projects in the interim." By one estimate, "interruptions take up to 2.1 hours of an average worker's day and cost the US economy $588 billion a year." Many distractions turn out to be self-initiated: It appears that we just can't wait to read the next email or blog entry or check to see what might be happening in an online discussion.

Ms. Jackson, a working mother and columnist on work-life balance, has a keen eye for the fractured dynamics of family life. One of the pursuits from which we are distracted, she finds, is the home-cooked meal, a ritual that used to focus a lot of family attention. Today, though, "food is fuel," and not very good fuel at that. "Just 47 percent of in-home meals," Ms. Jackson notes, "contain a 'fresh' item, such as a vegetable." Television may be the culprit, distracting adults not only from the kitchen but also from their kids: Researchers have found that when a TV is running in the background, parents interact with their children 20% less than they otherwise would and are likelier to give passive responses to whatever their children are doing or saying.

I'm particularly interested in the book's discussion of how the ability to delay gratification is more indicative of future success than high IQ:
Martin Seligman and Angela Lee Duckworth, two psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania, recently adapted a famous experiment that tested the willingness of young children to defer gratification: If you put them in a room with some prize – a toy, a marshmallow, an envelope full of money – will they take the prize immediately or hold out for a greater future reward?

Mr. Seligman and Ms. Duckworth turned their attention to eighth-graders, surveying the students about their habits and drawing on the reports of teachers and parents as well. They found that students' purported level of self-control – their willingness to delay gratification – proved "twice as predictive as IQ" when it came to "final grades, selection into a competitive high school, hours spent doing homework, hours spent not watching television, and time of day at which homework was begun." Yet for every article about self-discipline and academic achievement in the PsychInfo database, an online exchange for research papers, there are more than 10 about achievement and intelligence.

Late, but here!

Congratulations to Amber at Rutabaga Dreams, who gave birth to a boy more than a week after her due date.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Obama Initiates a National Conversations

I'm not a great fan of the Obama oeuvre, but it would seem that every so often he comes out on the important issues.

Generate a Barack Obama Quote!

"These people haven't had funk for fifty years. So you can't be surprised if they get bitter and cling to their country musicians and their pickup trucks and their truck nutz. That's what my campaign is about. Teaching all the little people in this country that they can have home boys."
Generate your own Obama quote at

If you've been wondering what Obama thinks about your issue of choice, wander over to the Obama Quote Generator to find out.

Okay, just one more:

Generate a Barack Obama Quote!

"You know, there's a lot of talk in this country about drek. Well I think Americans are tired of the same old Star Trek New Gen. Ordinary Americans believe in Classic Star Trek, they want less
Star Trek Voyager, they just aren't sure if their leaders believe in quality programming."
Generate your own Obama quote at

Taking Steps

Every year, my employer offers a program whereby, if you complete a specified "health improvement" program, you receive a couple hundred dollars worth of money deposited into a health savings account -- the which in turn sends us a check in the mail whenever we have to pay for something related to health care such as a copay or prescription. The theory, which those who study the matter far more than I write is sound, is that paying your insured employees a few hundred dollars to improve their health ends up costing less in the long run since they then need medical care less. (Given that I've successfully avoided visiting a doctor's office for over two years, maybe there's actually something to this. Or maybe I'm just stubborn and don't get sick much.)

Anyway, this year the program is that if you sign up and receive a free, company-branded pedometer (or go buy your own), you can be paid $225 for recording the number of steps you walk each day (you are enjoined to strive for 10,000) and then showing an improvement in your amount of walking in the second and third months of the program over the first.

I'm of the theory that whenever someone offers to pay you to do something which you probably should have been doing anyway, you should take them up on it. So I gamely signed up and can inform you that thus far I average 7920 steps per day.

In order to try to retain a not-too-disgraceful walking total, I've added a pre-lunch walk around the office park to the daily routine. It's hot around here at the moment, and our office park is quite abominably large, so I don't circumnavigate the whole thing, but at least a building or two. Since the company is so kind as to keep the indoor temperature around 70 degrees, one is at least able to cool off quickly afterwards even on the hottest days.

Given that this is only a 10-15 minute walk (1500 to 2500 steps!), it's not exactly much of an addition to the daily routine, but over the last couple weeks I've found that taking ten or fifteen minutes to walk without being on the phone, going to or from anyway in particular, listening to music, etc. makes an increasingly discernible change in the rhythm of the day. Because it's not on the way to or from a specific meeting, and the I leave the iPod behind, it's a chance to let the mind wander and recharge -- if only briefly. Not that I find myself contemplating anything particularly deep. Anything from how the kids have been doing lately to the engineering involved in the parked motorcycles I pass to some argument I encountered online earlier to the need (far from acted on) to spend less time blogging and more time writing. Nothing very deep or profound, but I'm finding the new routine increasingly helpful in avoiding afternoon burn out. And I'm sure the extra walking doesn't hurt either.

Taking time out of the work day to go walking may not be at all the intent of the program, but given that the demands of work eat up a gradually increasing portion of my waking hours, I'm not about to consider the move unfair to the company. Indeed, if it keeps me more alert in the afternoon, it's probably a plus.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why I have tears rolling down my cheeks

I blame GraphJam.

song chart memes

song chart memes

song chart memes
(This one took me a minute, but it was worth it.)

song chart memes

Laffs courtesy of Bob the Ape.

Where my Wimsey takes me

Darwin and I have been watching the BBC's Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, first Murder Must Advertise with Ian Carmichael and the slightly newer trio with Edward Petherbridge. As enjoyable as it is to hear Dorothy Sayers' witty dialog spoken, we have our quibbles with these productions, mainly relating to the characterization of Lord Peter.

Ian Carmichael is clearly too old for Lord Peter, who should be in his late 30s. As impeccable as his comic chops may be (and I get the impression that Carmichael was a noted comic actor in the fine old British style), he simply has no sex appeal whatsoever. This is utterly at odds with Sayers' characterization in the novels, and tends to make his scenes with women rather static. (Strangely enough, everyone in Murder Must Advertise seems cast about ten years older than necessary, though the acting is very fine.)

Edward Petherbridge comes much closer to Wimsey, for my money, but we still only got flashes of the intense ferret-like energy Lord Peter ought to possess. (This is the fault of the director, I think -- all the acting in this series is superlative and the action is hampered mainly by the overly-meditative directing, especially in Strong Poison.) Still, he's younger than Carmichael and has the right sandy hair and long nose for the character. If he were only taller and had a somewhat less high-pitched voice! (This Wimsey icon, and many more, may be found here.)

A question for all you Wimseyphiles who are up on the hot young British actor scene: who could play the definitive Lord Peter? Darwin and I have been trying out some virtual casting, but we're not coming up with anything. We need a tall, lanky (but not too skinny) actor with sandy blond hair and a long nose. Frankly, I think Hugh Laurie could be a fine Lord Peter, if he weren't a bit too old now. Too bad...

Five Minute History

Although knowledge of history has seldom been lower in our country's history than at the current moment in our culture, or perhaps because of that fact, people seem to have a great penchant for declaring things to be historic.

Since I started keeping track, I believe we have now had five of "the most important presidential election of our times" in a row -- despite "our times" remaining fairly similar to what they were before.

The world "changed forever" on 9/11. Though if you were magically transported from 9-10-2000 to 9-10-2007, you'd notice few differences unless you happened upon the foreign affairs section of the newspaper or an airport security line. (And even then, the differences are not so large.)

This election cycle seems to be lending itself to much of this thinking. Several acquaintances emailed me after Sen. Obama's "Philadelphia Speech on Race" informing me that this would rank as the third great moment of American oratory next to the Gettysburg Address and MLK's I Have A Dream speech. School children would, I was assured, be reading this speech fifty years hence in order to understand "when America changed". Does anyone remember much about that speech now -- not yet 90 days later?

One must account for the enthusiasm of the moment, surely, but it seems at times that, having forgotten most of our history, we increasingly declare to be historic whatever caught our attention five minutes ago. Perhaps we even believe ourselves. When announcing his victory in the Democratic primary Sen. Obama declared:
I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.
Perhaps I'm a hardened cynic, but: excuse me? Our past is not so bad, nor our possible future (whether under Obama or otherwise) so good, that such a thing would be remembered. Now sure, part of my reaction to this speech is that I simply don't like Obama. I find his policies and inclinations dangerous, and his rhetoric foolish and shot through with demagoguery under a thin veneer of self-congratulatory high-mindedness.

But that aside, from any political side-taking: History simply is not made every day. It can't be made every day. What makes a historical moment "historic" is its status as a unique event or pivot point in the course of events, as it later becomes clear to us. As such, it's often difficult to know at the time to know that something is historic, but in general, you'll win most of the time by betting that any given event or speech is not. In order to understand that, however, we need to have the perspective of actually knowing history. Not just a few scattered names and dates, but enough of the flow of events in our own country and in others to know what seemed important to people at the time, and to what extent that continues to seem important now.

Only then can we begin to have any perspective as to what is historic and what is not -- and any perspective on what "change" is likely to happen through national politics, and what is not.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Signs you live in Texas

Listening to your daughter sing "Mary had a little lamb", you overhear the following:

"All the children sweat and play, sweat and play, sweat and play..."

What Will the Children Think

In an online debate about the "gay marriage" issue a while back, I heard a woman say that one of her concerns (in light of an assumption that the day of gay marriage was pretty much inevitably on its way) was how she would explain to a school-aged child why exactly she couldn't go visit a friend who had "two mommies" or "two daddies". This was immediately jumped on as being an incredibly homophobic idea. Why not, many asked, use this as a teaching moment? "Little Jenny has two mothers who love each other very much. However, we as Catholics believe that only a man and a woman can get married."

Now, the "teach the controversy" idea is a very popular one in the modern US. We like to think of ourselves as being open-minded and fair -- and also when you're talking to your opponents it's a good code for saying, "Sure you disagree with you, but do you mind teaching people my views anyway?"

However, as the parent (and looking back on having been a child) I think that the sheltering approach is probably the way to go.

Little though the idea may appeal to us at times, there are a lot of things that a mind not yet fully formed is simply not yet ready to deal with. One of these, I think, is "Sometimes people who seem nice or good in many ways do things which we consider gravely sinful -- even though it may not look very bad at first glance."

Actually, to be honest, it's an idea that even many minds which by rights should be fully formed do not seem to be able to deal with. All too often we hear in reference to some hot button personal morality issue, "The people I know who do X all seem like well adjusted and loving people, so how morally destructive can it really be?"

Instinctually, we seem to want to sort people out into "good guys" and "bad guys". As we get older, we hopefully get better at understanding that otherwise good people sometimes do bad things and seem to be pretty happy to go on doing them. We learn to see that people have strengths and weaknesses and can't be conveniently classified. But this takes a lot of time, and I really don't think kids under a certain age are up to doing it.

Perhaps I was just an overly judgemental child, but I remember clearly that one of the difficulties my parents had with me was that when I heard about someone's actions that I had strong moral opinions about, it was hard to keep me from swinging to a rather vocal "that's a bad person" point of view. So when an aunt had several children out of wedlock, or another aunt got married outside the Church, when an uncle walked out on his wife and kids, or when a friend or relative became Protestant, I had a tendency not only to decide that everything about that person was bad, but to volunteer this opinion at all sorts of inopportune times. It's not impossible that I was more of a jerk than most children, but I suspect that this was actually pretty normal.

So you're faced with an awkward situation as a parent in a highly diverse society. You can socialize a child throughout a diverse group of acquaintances, and either go light on the moral teaching, or be clear on moral issues and risk your children constantly coming out with comments and judgements that will be seen as deeply offensive; or you can choose to create an artificially homogeneous social set while your children are young, and hope to put off the "dealing with diversity" issue until your child's moral universe is more fully formed.

Obviously, one has limited choice in these issues. Sometimes they have a way of becoming obvious through friends or relatives in a way that is unavoidable. But to the extent possible, it seems to me that rearing children in a religiously and culturally homogeneous environment up to a certain age makes it easier for them to both deal well with diversity later in life and retail a solid religious and moral grounding. Actively encountering too much diversity too early in life, on the other hand, seems to increase the danger of lapsing into either intolerance or indifference.

A Matter of Probabilities

One of the more enjoyably mind-bending elements of modern physics is the idea that in a number of cases, observing a given situation or reaction actually changes the result. This is the sort of thing that appeals very much to post-modern elements of our sensibilities.

And interesting corollary to this in mainstream culture is that, so I have read, opinion pollsters have found it increasingly difficult to get unstudied opinions out of people. As "marketing" and "positioning" become concepts that most people think about most of the time, people asked what they think of a TV pilot will give replies like, "Most of this I thought had very broad appeal, but I think that older women will be turned off by this plot point."

Political writer Jay Cost has an interesting article at the RealClearPolitics Horse Race blog, which examines the two parties' selection of their nominees in this light. He argues that the predictions of political science models in regards to this election (current president approval rating, economy, war, end of two term presidency, etc.) are to a great extent counter-acted by the fact that many voters in both parties consciously took such factors into account in their nomination choices this cycle.
... So, both parties manifested signs of sophisticated thinking in pursuit of a goal - even though the manifestations were quite different. In both cases, information made a crucial difference. Party actors had up-to-date knowledge of relevant variables, and acted in light of that knowledge. The Republicans were aware of their dire straits and, accordingly, made a risk-averse choice. The Democrats were aware of how favored they are and made a risk-accepting choice. An important precondition of all this is the information age. It is simply easier for people of all classes to acquire information nowadays, and thus easier for them to make sophisticated choices like this.

Interestingly, while they are pursuing different goals in different manners, both parties are putting the same kind of stress on the electoral system. Republicans looked at the macro structure and determined that McCain might turn a probable defeat into a possible victory. Democrats looked at the same structure and determined that while Obama could probably not pull off an enormous win, he could still win in a year like this. Both candidates were thus selected with an eye to having the final result closer than the macro models predict. Both are testing the tensile strength of the macro structure of electoral conflict. Republicans picked a guy they don't like but who might pull the upset. Democrats (with the final say) are trading a possible landslide for their first choice....
This rings fairly true to me. In an internet and media saturated age, enough people seem to be thinking along these lines to make it difficult to handicap election. Essentially, both parties are consciously steering towards getting as much of their way as possible while just barely winning the election.

Friday, June 06, 2008

June 6th

Sixty-four years ago today, thousands of young American, British, Canadian, Australian and other allied men -- most of them ten years younger than I am now, and people nonetheless tell me I'm "young" -- poured off small landing craft to wade through the cold Atlantic water towards Normandy's beaches. On some beaches, they met with very little resistance, but on others, the young men Germany sent to oppose them poured down a murderous rain of lead that wiped out whole platoons in moments.

Last year I read Stephen E. Ambrose's D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II . It's a solid history, with a lot of personal stories from diaries, letters and interviews with veterans.

This year, however, I stumbled across a very up-close look at one unit's experience, The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-day Sacrifice by Alex Kershaw. It tells the story of the men of Company A, 116th Infantry Reg., 29th Div. 34 of Company A's men were from the town of Bedford, Virginia, from a national guard unit which had been called up to full time combat duty for the duration of the war. They were in the very first wave to hit Omaha beach on D-Day, the beach which say the stiffest resistance and the highest casualties. 19 of Bedford's men died within the first hours of D-Day, and it would certainly have been nearly all of them except that one of Company A's boats sank well out from the beach, and the men aboard it were taken back to England (after treading water for over an hour) and didn't land in Normany until several days later.

The Bedford Boys tells the story both of the men on the beach, and of the families back home -- including the day several weeks later when the telegraph machine in the town drugstore starts to reel off one "We regret to inform you" telegram after another. Bedford lost the largest percentage of its men in uniform of any town in the US during World War II, and it did so mostly in a couple of hours.

The book's focus is necessarily very close. You won't get a strong sense for the overall organization of D-Day from it, and it concentrates on what is already by far the most famous beach, for Americans at any rate. What you do get a strong sense of, however, and what is perhaps the most astounding human element of the D-Day story, is the bravery against impossible odds that somehow allowed thousands of young men, wading out of the water into withering machine gun fire, to eventually make their way up the beach, overwhelm the machine gun nests and pill boxes, and begin the long awaited liberation of Europe.

In 24 hours the Allies landed as many soldiers as are currently in Iraq, and suffered as many casualties as we have in five years. Through great bravery, and in the face of incredible suffering. As with so many others who have, throughout history, found themselves having to stand firm in the face of death -- I don't know how they did it, other than that they had to.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Dueling Gin: Plymouth vs. Sapphire

It was a long day at work. And evil birds attacked my garden. And I brought home a thousand pounds of wood flooring -- give or take a few hundred. And there are two top shelf varieties of gin in the pantry. Solution? A taste test.
Up to this point, my reigning favorite gin has been Citadelle. It's a good gin, and it makes a good martini. But it's important to try new products and see if you've been missing something, so a while back I picked up a bottle of Plymouth Gin, reputedly the favorite of Churchill, FDR, Hitchcock, Ian Fleming, and for many years the official supplier to the Royal Navy.

Plymouth is definitely a good gin. It doesn't mask its Juniper taste, but the Juniper is not overpowering, as it so often is in a bottom shelf gin. There's a very slight hint of an herbal-ish sweetness to it, but it's still quite dry. And it does indeed make a good martini. I don't think it's quite as good as Citadelle when drunk straight up, though. What, you never drink gin straight? Well, one has to do it once in a while if one wants to understand how the gin itself tastes.

The other day I stopped on the way home from vespers to pick up a new bottle of gin -- two in fact since I was out of the bottom shelf Burnett's which is used for Gin & Tonics around here. And since I can't recall that I've actually bought a bottle of Bombay Sapphire before (though I've stocked their London Dry Gin) I decided to pick a bottle of that up.

The Sapphire is fairly different from the Plymouth. Plymouth is a classic gin. It doesn't fool around. It's smooth and well made and classy, but it doesn't really attempt to be more than a gin. Sapphire is 6% stronger at 47% alcohol, but still quite smooth when sipped straight -- something of a feat, I'd say. The flavor is much more balanced and soothing. There's juniper in there, yes, but it's roughly equal with the other herbal notes.

As I think about it, it strikes me more and more that Sapphire tastes very much like a mixed martini tastes when made with a more traditional gin like Plymouth. (My martini consists of 1.5oz gin, 0.5 oz vermouth and one dash of orange bitters. With the olive, of course.) Perhaps this works ideally if you're one of those sorts who believes a good martini is the "very dry" variety where you mist the glass with vermouth, or swirl the vermouth around and then pour it out. To my mind, however, it's not right to simply drop an olive in gin and call it a martini. The vermouth is definitely a part of the drink -- as is the rounded, icy taste that comes from a good shake with ice.

I'll have to mix up a martini to see how Sapphire holds up under those conditions. Right now, I'm wondering if it will seem a little timid in martini form. But if you like to shake gin over ice and drop an olive in, Sapphire is clearly the way to go. Still, with my standard recipe, I think Plymouth would be a good addition to the cupboard, or I may simply go back to Citadelle, after my time wondering far and wide.

(And if you think a martini can be chocolate or apple flavored, my buddy Dante has a place for you...)

Lost, lost, lost

My first really big tomato was just starting to turn red. And then along came a bird. the first day just a few peck, from the look of things. I hoped that somehow it could finish ripening without rotting out and I'd still be able to eat some. And then here's how it looked last night.

Update: I caught the culprit yesterday -- on camera. He's not dead yet, but he's on borrowed time.

Vampire Rights

Here's thought-fodder for a busy day: Should vampires have rights?

National Review writer Jonah Goldberg takes on the topic:
[I]t seems to me that the founding fathers would unequivocally say that vampires do not have rights because rights come from God (or our creator). Vampires are undead and exist solely thanks to satanic or other demonic forces. They shy from God and God's love and therefore do not deserve the protections all of God's creatures are entitled to.

Now, the interesting question would be, do atheists think vampires have rights? I think I'm safe assuming that most atheists ground their understanding of rights and citizenship as stemming from sentience, consciousness, etc. Well, vampires have all of those things in their favor. Presumably, an atheist would reject the premise of the question. They would argue that vampires either do not exist at all (strong case there) or that vampirism is a biological state, a disease of some kind (backed up by many sci-fi portrayals of vampires). In which case, I assume they would argue that vampires do have rights because having a disease does not amount to a surrender of your humanity or rights....