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

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Orphan Openings: Suburban Edition

It was with a certain irony that Samantha recalled complaining about suburbia, "You can't imagine a real drama taking place in this neighborhood, only genre fiction: mystery, romance or farce," as she stood over the corpse of her husband's lover, wondering where in this hideous McMansion she could hide a bloody knife.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Everyone loves babies. Here are a few to keep in your prayers.

--Pray for the soul of baby Vivian Marie Cupp, and for the peace of her family.

--Pray for the healing of baby Luke, who just had major intestinal surgery at 11 days old, and for his family as well.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Decline and Fall

This breaks my heart: The WSJ does a profile on a 90-year-old house in Detroit, in which the decline of the beautiful home and neighborhood mirrors the city's own descent.

The brick-and-stucco home at 1626 W. Boston Blvd. has watched almost a century of Detroit's ups and downs, through industrial brilliance and racial discord, economic decline and financial collapse. Its owners have played a part in it all. There was the engineer whose innovation elevated auto makers into kings; the teacher who watched fellow whites flee to the suburbs; the black plumber who broke the color barrier; the cop driven out by crime.

The last individual owner was a subprime borrower, who lost the house when investors foreclosed.

...But, battered and forlorn today, both Detroit and 1626 W. Boston Blvd. were solid and optimistic 90 years ago.

Taking a new route on vacation this spring, I passed through urban St. Louis for the first time. The gorgeous houses near the freeway took my breath away, but all too evident were the signs of urban decay. Who had built those homes, and what would they make of them now? The downward trend isn't unique to St. Louis or Detroit. I see this decline duplicated in areas of Cincinnati: neighborhoods that used to be proud and gracious have become battered and sullen.

Via the Building Cincinnati Photobucket site, which has numerous albums of Cincinnati photos.

Perhaps it's because until I was 12, my family lived in a succession of rather disposable trailers, but it tears me apart to see a fine old house in a state of neglect or active disrepair. True, for a good formative period, one of those trailers was on nine acres of land in rural Virginia, so the outdoor splendor more than compensated for disposable living quarters. Still, I remember when we were planning to move to Ohio, my siblings and I carefully wrote out a list of what we wanted in a house: wood floors, a fireplace, a secret passageway, a laundry chute -- marks of a home that was built quality, built to last. (As it turned out, we had all four in the house we first rented. There was a pathway in the attic that ran between the two upstairs bedrooms, and if you wanted to sit peacefully up there, you nestled against the brick chimney that jutted into the space. The fireplace had been turned into the kitchen pantry, but no matter; we knew it had once been there. We put the cat down the laundry chute, and there is no consensus of memory on whether we tried the same with the baby.)

It did not occur to me as a child that some people would not value a beautiful older house in a beautiful older neighborhood. Perhaps the term "Victorian" applied to architecture had a particular allure because it was so different from where I lived. The concept of upkeep or the desire to flee a crime-ridden neighborhood despite the original glory of the houses were completely alien ideas, as were "white flight", "urban decay", or "factory closing". But I did know that in 100 years our trailer would be rubble (as indeed will the suburban box I now inhabit), whereas even at their century, the gorgeous homes that were built for living and built to last still cast spells even through a heavy haze of neglect.

This past April, the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corp., a nonprofit, bought Clarence Avery's house for $10,000.

One day this summer, Lisa Johanon, the group's executive director, undid the padlock on John Crawford's boarded-up front door. Sheets of peeling paint hung from Marie Ryan's kitchen ceiling. Advertising fliers littered the porch where Veronica Adams's neighbors played jacks. The glass was missing from the window on the staircase to David Andrews's third-floor sanctuary. Kimberly Carpenter's radiators had been stolen.

Usually, Ms. Johanon's charity provides subsidized housing in the poorest neighborhoods -- where ice-cream cones are sold from behind bullet-proof glass -- not high-end areas such as Boston-Edison. But now some 100 out of the 900-odd houses in Boston-Edison are vacant.

If you can't save 1626 W. Boston Blvd., Ms. Johanon wondered aloud, what hope is there for the rest of Detroit? Walking through, she noted the heavily stained carpet and the rickety back steps, but also the rich woodwork and the clawfoot tub.

She hopes her group can revive the house and find a new family willing to bet on Detroit. "A minimal spec, I'd say, would be $30,000 to $35,000, and it would be in pretty good shape," she said.

On a related note, my dad's nearly 100-year-old house is still for sale. Go ye forth and buy it.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thoughts on A Parish Festival

This weekend was our parish festival -- the primary parish fund raising event out of the year. I must confess, I've never been crazy about parish festivals and raffles as fund raisers. I realized this last year when I found myself griping about the fact that every member of the parish is sent ten dollars of raffle tickets for the festival raffle which they're under orders to sell. I don't like pestering my non-Catholic friends to buy tickets (and everyone in the parish has their own to sell) so we always ended up just buying them ourselves. Why, I asked, should we be guilt-tripped into buying ten dollars worth of raffle tickets we didn't want?

As soon as stated, the complaint seemed rather silly, since I don't think anything about writing several times that amount to the weekly collection.

For whatever reason, being strongly encouraged to "buy" something I don't really want (be it raffle tickets, or a chance to play festival games in the hot sun while trying not to lose any of the children) in support of a cause, is something I find myself naturally wanting to resist even when I would have had no problem with simply donating the same amount. Perhaps it's that being asked to buy something triggers a different set of thought processes in my mind (do I want this thing, it is a good use of money compared to the other uses I could put this money to?) than being asked for a donation does (do I think this is a cause worth supporting?)

Once I realized this, I figured the solution was to simply think of the parish festival as a second collection and spend $20-30 at it regardless of whether it was the sort of way I would normally choose to spend money.

This does still leave me wondering why parish festivals exist as means of fund raising (as opposed to, as a chance for everyone to get together and have fun for the afternoon) but that's probably another thing to chalk up to, "Not everyone thinks like you."

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Mormons at the Door

Just after dinner a couple of "elders" (looking about 20) knocked on the door. Having recently cleaned up from doing yard work, I was wearing jeans and a white undershirt with my hair all standing up, and having just finished dinner I was holding a glass of red wine. So I stepped out to talk with them for a moment.

They assured me they were here to share with me and my family a message that Jesus had to help families -- which they suspected I was aware face a plenitude of assaults in the modern world.

Yes, I was aware of the message of Jesus, but being Catholic I didn't think that this was a good time to discuss it with them.

Had I talked with missionaries from the Latter Day Saints before?

Why yes, though it's been a while.

Did I have five minutes to listen to the message they had for us?

"No, I'm afraid not. I've enjoyed dialoging with Mormons in the past, but honestly this just isn't a good time to get into all that."

Did I know anyone in the neighborhood who was in need of their message? (For a mischievous moment I considered sending them after the lesbians next door -- but neither party needed that aggravation and my better angels prevailed.) No, I'm afraid not.

It's fun to go after Mormons with questions like whether God is eternal or merely immortal, and whether Jesus and the God the Father are of one will or two (and if two, whether they agree because they both obey some higher law.) But in the end, I confess I just didn't feel like dealing with it.

And the living room was a bit messy anyway...

Friday, September 25, 2009

Beatrix Potter, Capitalist Swine

As you can perhaps imagine, there is much reading in the Darwin family, as we consider it necessary to corrupt the dear little tabula rasas of our children with a mixture of facts and fairy stories from the very youngest possible age. And how better may one corrupt the youth then by wrapping up the harsh teachings of the dismal science in the charming trappings of a bevy of dear little fuzzy animals? Do not allow these subtle deceptions, gentle reader! As I shall demonstrate, under the cover of a whimsical, Edwardian children's authoress, lurks a deadly capitalist in sheep's clothing.

Attend, to The Tale of Ginger and Pickles (ebook available here)



Once upon a time there was a village shop. The name over the window was "Ginger and Pickles."

It was a little small shop just the right size for Dolls—Lucinda and Jane Doll-cook always bought their groceries at Ginger and Pickles.

The counter inside was a convenient height for rabbits. Ginger and Pickles sold red spotty pocket-handkerchiefs at a penny three farthings.

They also sold sugar, and snuff and galoshes.

In fact, although it was such a small shop it sold nearly everything—except a few things that you want in a hurry—like bootlaces, hair-pins and mutton chops.

Ginger and Pickles were the people who kept the shop. Ginger was a yellow tom-cat, and Pickles was a terrier.

The rabbits were always a little bit afraid of Pickles.

The shop was also patronized by mice—only the mice were rather afraid of Ginger.

Ginger usually requested Pickles to serve them, because he said it made his mouth water.

"I cannot bear," said he, "to see them going out at the door carrying their little parcels."

"I have the same feeling about rats," replied Pickles, "but it would never do to eat our own customers; they would leave us and go to Tabitha Twitchit's."

"On the contrary, they would go nowhere," replied Ginger gloomily.

(Tabitha Twitchit kept the only other shop in the village. She did not give credit.)

See now? Just as you thought you were settling in for a charming story about two animals keeping a shop for assorted fuzzy creatures and toys, what do we find? Competition for sales and a credit market. Let us see what Ms. Potter is filling these tender young minds with.

There is a competitive market in the village. If Ginger and Pickles behave in a predatory fashion by eating some of their customers, they shall gain a bad reputation and their customers will go elsewhere. Thus, although it would be natural for this dog and cat to eat the mice, rats, and rabbits who patronize their shop, they restrain themselves because to do otherwise would be to destroy their reputations, and thus their business.

Where does Beatrix Potter get this idea? Why of course, from her neighbor to the north:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.
Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations Book 1, Ch2

As if this were not enough, Ms. Potter also praises consumer credit! How do Pickles and Ginger assure success in competition against the shop of Mrs. Tabitha Twitchet? (another cat -- perhaps there's something to these businesses all being run by predators?) They offer credit, and consumers value that credit and so patronize the shop.

Ginger and Pickles gave unlimited credit.

Now the meaning of "credit" is this—when a customer buys a bar of soap, instead of the customer pulling out a purse and paying for it—she says she will pay another time.

And Pickles makes a low bow and says, "With pleasure, madam," and it is written down in a book.

The customers come again and again, and buy quantities, in spite of being afraid of Ginger and Pickles.

But there is no money in what is called the "till."

The customers came in crowds every day and bought quantities, especially the toffee customers. But there was always no money; they never paid for as much as a pennyworth of peppermints.

But the sales were enormous, ten times as large as Tabitha Twitchit's.

As, now we see it. Ginger and Pickles offer a valuable service (unlimited credit) but they have not correctly valued it. They charge no interest, require no minimum payments, and have no credit limits. This causes excessive consumption. And now poor Ginger and Pickles experience the opposite side of Smith's dictum: their customers have no care for the emptiness of the till because their self-interest is unaffected. Since they suffer no disadvantage from never paying, and experience significant benefits (unlimited goods at no cost) they never pay. Ginger and Pickles, like many a bad manager, are looking only at top line: their revenue far exceeds that of Tabitha Twitchet. Yet they have the looming feeling that something is wrong...

Catastrophic market adjustment ahead!

As there was always no money, Ginger and Pickles were obliged to eat their own goods.

Pickles ate biscuits and Ginger ate a dried haddock.

They ate them by candle-light after the shop was closed.

When it came to Jan. 1st there was still no money, and Pickles was unable to buy a dog licence.

"It is very unpleasant, I am afraid of the police," said Pickles.

"It is your own fault for being a terrier; I do not require a licence, and neither does Kep, the Collie dog."

"It is very uncomfortable, I am afraid I shall be summoned. I have tried in vain to get a licence upon credit at the Post Office;" said Pickles. "The place is full of policemen. I met one as I was coming home."

"Let us send in the bill again to Samuel Whiskers, Ginger, he owes 22/9 for bacon."

"I do not believe that he intends to pay at all," replied Ginger.

"And I feel sure that Anna Maria pockets things—Where are all the cream crackers?"

"You have eaten them yourself," replied Ginger.
Now we see the trouble beginning to break. Ginger and Pickles have not accounted for fixed expenses, their cashflow is breaking down, and their problems are exacerbated by being so far out of step with the market in their terms: They offer unlimited credit at no cost while some of their key vendors and regulators offer no credit or limited credit. They're consuming their capital goods in order to make up for a lack of cashflow. And like many small businesses, they have not fully considered the impact of regulation to their business (they did not plan around the cost of the dog license.) Further, bad book keeping and a lack of separation between business and personal use has destroyed their ability to track their inventory.
Ginger and Pickles retired into the back parlour.

They did accounts. They added up sums and sums, and sums.

"Samuel Whiskers has run up a bill as long as his tail; he has had an ounce and three-quarters of snuff since October."

"What is seven pounds of butter at 1/3, and a stick of sealing wax and four matches?"

"Send in all the bills again to everybody 'with compts,'" replied Ginger.

Will re-presenting the bill "with compliments" achieve anything for our shopkeepers? One doubts it. They would be better off announcing a change in credit terms ("Beginning Monday next we shall begin charging interest on all outstanding balances, and we shall enforce a credit limit of 5s 6p for anyone wishing to make additional purchases.") However, they may well have spread so much easy credit around by this point that such a move would simply set off a round of bankruptcies.
After a time they heard a noise in the shop, as if something had been pushed in at the door. They came out of the back parlour. There was an envelope lying on the counter, and a policeman writing in a note-book!

Pickles nearly had a fit, he barked and he barked and made little rushes.

"Bite him, Pickles! bite him!" spluttered Ginger behind a sugar-barrel, "he's only a German doll!"

The policeman went on writing in his notebook; twice he put his pencil in his mouth, and once he dipped it in the treacle.

Pickles barked till he was hoarse. But still the policeman took no notice. He had bead eyes, and his helmet was sewed on with stitches.

At length on his last little rush—Pickles found that the shop was empty. The policeman had disappeared.

But the envelope remained.

"Do you think that he has gone to fetch a real live policeman? I am afraid it is a summons," said Pickles.

"No," replied Ginger, who had opened the envelope, "it is the rates and taxes, £3 19 11-3/4."

"This is the last straw," said Pickles, "let us close the shop."

They put up the shutters, and left. But they have not removed from the neighbourhood. In fact some people wish they had gone further.

And there we have it. A troubled business is hit with excessive taxation and immediately shutters. Because the taxes were too onerous, no tax revenues are even collected.
Ginger is living in the warren. I do not know what occupation he pursues; he looks stout and comfortable.

Pickles is at present a gamekeeper.

The closing of the shop caused great inconvenience. Tabitha Twitchit immediately raised the price of everything a half-penny; and she continued to refuse to give credit.

Of course there are the tradesmen's carts—the butcher, the fish-man and Timothy Baker.

But a person cannot live on "seed wigs" and sponge-cake and butter-buns—not even when the sponge-cake is as good as Timothy's!

With competition eliminated, Tabitha Twitchet raises her prices -- perhaps partly due to selfishness and the knowledge of a captive market, but also in order that her shelves not immediately be picked bare by the sudden increase in the number of customers. Further, if she gets her goods from the same vendors and Ginger and Pickles did, those vendors have just suffered a major financial reverse as a result of having to write off all the goods they were never paid for by Ginger and Pickles. They may well have raised prices on Tabitha as they try to make up their losses and avoid following Ginger and Pickles into ruin.

Still, consumption is down and there is unmet demand. Will market forces encourage new competitors to Tabitha Twitchet's de facto monopoly to come into play?
After a time Mr. John Dormouse and his daughter began to sell peppermints and candles.

But they did not keep "self-fitting sixes"; and it takes five mice to carry one seven inch candle.

Besides—the candles which they sell behave very strangely in warm weather.
And Miss Dormouse refused to take back the ends when they were brought back to her with complaints.

And when Mr. John Dormouse was complained to, he stayed in bed, and would say nothing but "very snug;" which is not the way to carry on a retail business.

I must say that I agree: that is indeed no way to carry on a retail business. The alternate vendors who have come into play because of the competitive vacuum and Tabitha Twitchet's high prices are selling inferior product and offering poor customer service.

The market has still not righted itself. Will it? Is an equilibrium to be found, or will it be necessary to nationalize the shops in order to achieve a better outcome?
So everybody was pleased when Sally Henny Penny sent out a printed poster to say that she was going to re-open the shop—Henny's Opening Sale! Grand co-operative Jumble! Penny's penny prices! Come buy, come try, come buy!"

The poster really was most 'ticing.
There was a rush upon the opening day. The shop was crammed with customers, and there were crowds of mice upon the biscuit canisters.

Sally Henny Penny gets rather flustered when she tries to count out change, and she insists on being paid cash; but she is quite harmless.

And she has laid in a remarkable assortment of bargains.

There is something to please everybody.

Awwww. Don't you love happy endings?

The market has brought forth a new competitor for Tabitha (who probably never wanted Samuel Whiskers as a customer anyway, after the way he tried to make her son into a rolly-polly-pudding in a previous book) and Sally Henny Penny has learned from the mistakes of Pickles and Ginger. Consumers are doubtless sad not to have credit available to them, but perhaps eventually one of the two shops (or even a third new one!) will make credit available on reasonable terms, which will allow customers to buy in lean times without getting in over their heads. Then perhaps we can have an exciting little story about credit markets! In the mean time, we can rejoice that the local market has righted itself and that such a remarkable assortment of bargains is available at Ms. Henny Penny's shop.

Wasn't that a good story, little capitalists? Do come again next Friday, and remember that you must ask your parents for a shilling to give to the storyteller, or else the storyteller will turn you out of the room just at the exciting part.

Dear Victoria's Secret

I was beginning to think that you'd forgotten about me, but I see that your memory runs deeper than that. After quiet months with no mail from you, months in which I began to hope that I might be free from the clutches of your marketing department, a fresh new skankalog arrived in my mailbox yesterday. I'm not sure whether to be touched, amused, or pitying.

Dear VS, let me enumerate for you the reasons why I won't be purchasing anything from your skankalog. Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with any modesty concerns. I don't expect the 1933 Sears catalog from a company selling undergarments in 2009. My son is only one, so I have no worries there. (My daughters already know the term "skankalog".) I'm not worried either about the delicate eyes of my husband, who knows he can see better cleavage at home than your underfed models could ever afford. No, what offends me is that for a company that emphasizes sexy, you just don't go far enough. You're all, "Let us give you the illusion of a great rack!" but for women who don't need the illusion, but actual support, you've got nothing. Guess what: not all big-chested women are fat.

Real women are not walking mannequins, either. We're not made of plastic, and we want real support, not just gussied-up bits of mesh. Say it with me: Foundational Garments. Real women want something with a bit of structure. We don't need something that's only going to look good on a surgically firm model. Hi! The rest of us would like to look good undressed too! "Lift" that.

So okay: you wanna be THE manufacturer of choice for the American woman? Then help us deal with the aftermath of wearing your stuff. Why don't you make nursing bras? Couldn't the engineering prowess that created the "Ipex" and the "Biofit" and the "Miracle Bra" be profitably employed in designing a nursing bra that looks rather less utilitarian than the norm while still maintaining function? 'Cause if you're looking to increase market share while supporting a popular cause, you just can't go wrong here. What could be more fashionable than breast-feeding? Even Angelina Jolie does it, and boy does she make it look good. Wonder whose product she's wearing? Not yours.

As for me, my money goes to support the local competition, where the saleswomen actually know how to measure their customers, where my size is always in stock. Until you're ready to compete for my dollars, you can take me off your mailing list. That is all.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

They Only Donate Money

Every so often, when dealing with church projects and non-profit work in general, one hears someone who does a lot of volunteer work toss off a disparaging remark alone the lines of, "Oh, those people. They only give money. You'd never see them down here working."

Sometimes this is used to support a claim as to "who really cares" about an issue, along the lines of:

"Sure, you'll find lots of [members of group X] a pro-life fundraising banquets, but you'll never see them working at a crisis pregnancy center."


"[Members of group X] may give money to 'charity', but you'll never find them filling boxes down at the foodbank or working with at-risk kids."

This has always struck me as a somewhat unfair criticism, for reasons I will get into in a minute, but I was particularly reminded of this last week when I had to go down to the diocesan offices to be trained to count and report the collections for the diocesan Catholic Services Appeal. The annual appeal provides about a third of the operating expenses for the diocese -- and since I deal with financial-ish stuff at work and I'm going to be rotating off the pastoral council in a couple months, I half volunteered, half was dragooned, into helping out with the processing of the collection this year at the parish. At the training session, I was particularly struck by the numbers of where the money in the appeal comes from:

There are 108,000 Catholic families registered in the diocese. Of those, 19,000 contribute to the CSA in a typical year. Of those, 2,500 provide 50% of the total money collected. So 2% of the families in the diocese provide 50% of the money collected. Now you might think that this 2% are some pretty rich folks, writing fat checks to the diocese from their vacation cottages. Perhaps a few are, but it's hardly a rarefied group. To end up in that top 2%, you have to donate $50/mo for ten months to the CSA -- $500 for the year. That's certainly not something that every family can afford, but it's an amount that most families can afford. And yet only 2% do.

Now certainly, it's not as if the majority of people go down and spend significant amounts of time volunteering on important charities either. If you provide significant financial support to charities or significant volunteer time, you're already in a small group. So that brings us back to the question of whether personally volunteering time is somehow worth more in some moral sense than donating money.

In examining that question, I think it's important to remember what money is: Money is a tool for exchange which represents the ability to obtain goods or services which, in the end, represent the ability to command the work of some other person. How much time you can command with that money depends on the person but, in the end, time is essentially a fungible form of work, and work is essentially time spent doing something which others consider to be desirable or productive.

So in a sense, donating time and donating money are actually exchangeable. This is further complicated by the fact that although all people have roughly the same amount of total time, their amounts of free time and the amount they're paid for their working time vary. A professional who makes $90k/yr and spends 10-12 hours a day on work and work related activities has fairly little time for volunteering, and if he donates the money he makes for a few hours a week worth of his work to a charity, that money goes a long way. Someone who works part time for $8 a hour, on the other hand, has a lot of free time, but very little money. The amount of money that person could donate based on the same number of hours of working time would do a charitable organization comparatively little good (while taking away a lot of that person's money.) Given these variances, it may well be that the professional giving a charity the pay he received for five hours worth of his work does the charity much more good (in regards to actually getting their charitable work done) than if he showed up and spent five yours helping out physically.

I don't want to get overly economistic in all this. Someone whose only charitable activity is writing checks will usually have a more distant experience of charitable action than someone who volunteers in a food pantry or crisis pregnancy center on a weekly basis. It's going to be hard for someone who _only_ gives money to experience at a human level the fact that the money he's making for a couple hours during his workday is going to help a particular cause.

At the same time, however, I think it's important to recognize that donating time is not the only legitimate form of charity, and indeed that for those who make large amounts of money (although at a human level they will benefit from doing charitable work in person themselves at times) it will do a charitable cause more overall good if they donate the product of their labors than if they come and donate the same number of hours in labor onsite instead.

A Post-war History Blog

I've been enjoying reading down How It Really Was, a history blog being written by a PhD candidate currently working on the British occupation of Germany after World War Two.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tim Powers Fans Take Note

Fans of Catholic fantasy writer Tim Powers will be interested to hear the following:
Tim Powers has confirmed earlier rumors with the following news: "I can now say that Disney optioned On Stranger Tides and will use elements of the book in the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I can also say that I did not ever specify that Serena and I get parts in the movie or have dinner with Johnny Depp! (Not that we'd mind.)"

The fit is an obvious one, as On Stranger Tides is about a pirate named Jack who goes in search of the Fountain of Youth. This fourth installment will be titled Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and will be released in the summer of 2011.

If you'd asked me what Tim Powers novel should be made into a movie, I would have picked Last Call or Declare, but this will certainly be interesting if much of On Stranger Tides actually makes it into the final movie.

Maybe this will finally result in Powers' publisher not letting his titles go out of print and get insanely expensive on the used market...

Third World

Thought experiment:

Imagine that in 1880, Europe and the Americas had been brought into contact with another continent on which civilization had already advanced to the point at which we are now in 2009.

Let's call this new continent Futureland, and place it in the middle of the Pacific where the Polynesian Islands are. They speak a non-Indo-European language. They're highly secular, but have in their background an essentially animistic religion ala Shinto. The Futurelanders are friendly and open, eager to sell Americans and Europeans high tech products and to build factories in Europe and America. They also happily sell the "old world" modern farming equipment, superior strains of crops, and advise them on more efficient farming practices -- resulting in a rapid increase of agricultural output which requires far fewer farmers than contemporary 1880s practices. They're also quite willing to allow Europeans and Americans to travel to Futureland to attend university, and indeed settle there.

What happens to "old world" language, culture, political institutions, religion and economy? Would such a situation be at all desireable for Americans and Europeans, and if so in what sense?

Would such an encounter be significantly different if it were between Futureland and an "old world" circa 1800 or circa 1650? Or 1950?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Changed My Mind: Three Strikes Laws

I've been challenged on a few occasions, as one tends to be if one is a fairly strong adherent of one end of the political spectrum or another, as to whether I've ever changed my mind on anything to a position contrary to the standard conservative one. And so, an example:

When a three strikes law was put on the ballot in California (where I lived at the time) I was a strong supporter. California was one of the first states to pass a three strikes law, and there was huge support for it because California was suffering badly from the 90s crime wave. The case for it seemed simple: If you've committed three felonies, you're clearly not learning your lesson, and 25-life will take you off the streets and prevent you from continuing to be a danger to society. Support for the bill was heavily fueled by frustration with a justice system which seemed to act far too much like a revolving door, with rapists and murderers often being back on the streets within 5-8 years, and proceeding to commit similar crimes again. With the judiciary and prison system seemingly unwilling to do their job in keeping criminals off the streets, the case seemed strong for citizens to pass legislation forcing them to, and the three strikes law seemed like an obvious way to do it.

The attack of the swine flu

While you suckers were out doing the usual shiftless weekend blah, we here at DarwinCatholic were doing groundbreaking medical research: we survived the swine flu.

"Really?" you gasp. Well. The doctor said that they weren't testing flu strains right now. But it might have been swine flu! It was definitely the flu at any rate. Fever cough chills nose eyes headache bodyache weepy fussy: that flu.

One by one, the children were overcome. This was not the style of flu in which everyone just slept for twelve hours at a stretch. Oh no. After industrial-strength doses of ibuprofen, the youngsters were raring to go, until the medicine wore off and there was total collapse. Judicious applications of Benadryl to treat the sniffles and the runny eyes ensured that each child got sufficient rest.

I already see different approaches to suffering in the children. The oldest moans and lows as if she were dying. The second gets weepy but tries to be stoic. The third curls up in a ball (a weepy ball) and looks bleary. The baby wants to nurse all the time. This we allow, because he is only just one, after all.

Darwin has been spared the ravages of sickness (so far) but I've come down with -- well, not the flu. There's no fever, but there the sore throat and the racking, rasping cough that makes the throat raw, and now, the lack of voice. That makes it tricky to yell across the house at the mostly-recovered children trying escape outside. It also wreaks havoc with our school schedule, because I can't really read aloud, and the kids are still just fractious enough that their attention spans are seriously low -- except for old cartoons on youtube, which they could watch until their brains run out of their ears.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Seven Quick Takes

1. It's a staple of the Cathlick blogsphere to beef about female modesty, but one hears little about the need for guys to cover it up. Jennifer has provided an equalizing shot across the bow in the modesty wars: she's taken a stand against Trucknutz. Anyone who's ever been stuck at a light behind a truck dangling the family jewels (and yes, I speak from experience here) can understand her revulsion.

From my comment at her place:
What you do is, you pull up to the truck, roll down your window, and yell, "I can see why your wife cut them off, but why'd she nail them to your truck?" Of course, this being Texas and all, you may need to be prepared to return fire.
Guys with the Trucknutz: you remember the Mini Cooper ads of a few years ago that urged, "Let’s not use the size of our vehicle to compensate for other shortcomings." ? First, grow a pair. Then, like an adult, put them away out of sight.

2. Here's what's been cracking me up: Sexy People. Hat tip to Lucas and Bill.

3. Who are Lucas and Bill? Two hot guys, that's who. Lucas is a long time friend, and Bill, oddly enough, is my brother. Don't be fooled, though -- he goes by Bill, but his name is really Will. I should know. Bill contributes to Lucas' blog, and Lucas writes a fan blog about Will.

4. Since we've already lowered the tone with Trucknutz, let's go to some video. Here is Alec Baldwin in David Mamet's profanity-laden Glengarry Glen Ross, delivering a speech about sales motivation which closes with a Trucknutz prototype cameo:

Most anyone I've ever met who works in sales can quote at least some of this rant.

5. And now for something unobjectionable:

This here is a big ONE YEAR OLD. As of last Friday. Look at 'im go: five teeth, lots of babbling, and walking all over the place.

6. No, let's go back to Trucknutz. Shouldn't driving a big truck effectively function as a symbol of hypermasculinity? Is this solely a guy thing? Do women have these on their cars as a way of showing that they're liberated and can run with the big dogs, ha ha? Do drivers of Priuses ever try to man up their rides with a pair of danglies? (Google Image says no.) The mind boggles.

7. And since we're on the subject, a story. Having three daughters in fairly close succession, I've changed a lot of diapers in the past seven years. A while ago, before the ascension of The Heir (see above) I was babysitting for a friend's small son and had to change the lad. I opened the diaper, reached for the wipes, and then froze in shock. What on earth was the horrific growth on the child? Gentle readers, it took me a full three seconds before I remembered that I was changing a boy.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Orphan Openings: Lifechanging Incident Edition

Journalists did not, unfortunately, have the insight of biographers. The headlines would read, "Senator Williams attends funeral of mentor's son." Perhaps some reporter, who had done his homework, would add the prefix, "In gesture of forgiveness." Few would remember that August day back in 1982 as anything but one on which a misfortune proved to have a silver lining for the young George Williams: Senator Jackson standing by his hospital bed saying, "Where are you going to college in the fall, son?"

"Stanford, sir." And with the sudden intuition that at this moment humility would be rewarded. "Well... Maybe. I'm on the wait list."

The older man's eyes lit up. "Wait list? Let me make a call, son. I think I might just be able to do something about that. And about this... accident. Believe me, son, my boy and his friends are going to be in a world of trouble as it is. Trevor's appointment to West Point has already been withdrawn. There'll be justice. But I think you understand... That this was stupid boys in a car with beer. They weren't singling you out," the words said with deliberate slowness, "in any way." A pause. "Were they son?"

"No, sir. I don't guess they were."

Had they? Hadn't they? Had he?

Though the images of that day -- the car in the afternoon sun, the sounds of the big block engine revving, the shouts of, "We're gonna get you this time, Williams!" -- could be readily summoned to his mind even now, he could not say why he had darted right instead of left. Had he, at that instant, understood the full implications of a white senator's son running down a black teenager three months before an election? Surely not.

And yet the one thing he was clear about, as he saw again the sun glinting off black enamel paint and chrome in that instant before being hit, was that he'd dodged the wrong way intentionally -- and that as he'd done so and heard the startled screams from the car, going too fast to stop, he'd sensed that he had won.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Brief Pricing Exercise

or: What does Darwin do all day?

I made a quick run over to the grocery store at lunch time yesterday to pick up coffee for work, and I was pleased to find that the brand of ground coffee I normally buy was marked down from 7.99 to 5.99. Not one to waste an opportunity, I bought two.

Now in a sense, this is exactly the sort of behavior that pricers try to cause, but it also underlines some of the pitfalls of my job, and the reason why pricing is a sufficiently complex science that it has a bit of the art to it as well.

A 25% price drop caused me to buy two bags of coffee instead of one. Doubling unit demand by dropping price 25% isn't bad, though clearly no everyone would have bought two. But here's the trick: The fact I bought two bags of coffee won't cause me to drink coffee any more. (Some suspect if I drank coffee much more than I do already, one of my organs would fail anyway.) So in my case, this sale was actually a net loss for the coffee makers and the grocery store. I paid less for the same amount of coffee that I would have drunk anyway, and now they've foregone sales at full price a couple weeks down the road in order to get sales at lower profit margins now.

However, constant customers like me aren't the real targets of a sale like this -- at least, not if the seller is going to be successful. The real question is: by lowering the price of this coffee, will they win business from people who would have otherwise bought Starbucks or house brand gourmet coffee, or even Maxwell House or Community Coffee. If the lower price brought customers to the brand who would normally have bought something else, and if those customers love the coffee and decide to keep buying it even when it goes back to full price, then it's clearly a win for the brand.

At the end of the day, success for the grocery store is if they have greater revenues and greater profits overall -- though achieving this in the long run may mean sacrificing one or the other in the short term. They can do this one of three ways:
1) Have more customers come to the store.
2) Have the same customers buy more things.
3) Have the same customers buy more expensive things.

My guess is that 1) is not in play here -- I can't see gourmet coffee bringing in people who don't normally shot in the store, and I don't think this offer even made the circular. However, you'd want to check your customer count stats just to see.

I fell into 2) by buying two bags of coffee instead of one, but what they really would need is for people who don't normally buy coffee to buy some, which is unlikely. Most people either drink coffee or don't, though occasionally you have shifts in these trends. Arguably, the Starbucks phenomenon has created more coffee drinkers than there were before. For this one, I'd look to see if aggregate coffee demand for the four weeks starting with the week of the discount was up -- and whether any increased demand translated into increased profitability, or if the 25% discount ate up all the profits from the increased volume.

The gold in this case is probably 3). Does this kind of discounting turn drinkers of cheap/nasty coffee into drinkers of more expensive, quality coffee? (Bias showing through here...) To determine this, I'd look at whether there was a move from cheaper coffee to more expensive coffee during the discount, and whether some of that move proved to stick in the following weeks. If so, doing such a discount every 6-8 weeks would be a good way of converting people to the higher quality product by allowing them to try it at lower cost. (You wouldn't want to run it more frequently than that, or people would start refusing to buy at full cost and waiting for the discount, turning your high price product into a medium price product and possibly turning the entire brand into a money loser.)

And now... I have to go price.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mozart Piano Sonata in C Major, Second Movement

I can only memorize about two piano pieces at a time, though neither of them is "Yankee Doodle". The second piece varies (right now it's "Fascinating Rhythm", mostly) but the constant is the second movement of Mozart's Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 545. It's embedded in my finger memory due to a year's worth of practice for a piano recital ages ago. Here is it, played by someone who does it better than I do.

ADDENDUM: Here, for Otepoti, is the version of Fascinating Rhythm in my head (but again, played much better than I could hope to).

My version is up to 1:00. Recording quality ain't great here.

Friday, September 11, 2009

There's No Such Thing as a Monarchist

I've been on an early modern French history kick lately, reading The Battle: A New History of Waterloo, Alstair Horne's The Age of Napoleon, and now Paul Johnson's Napoleon: A Life, and Alistair Horne's La Belle France. All this has led me towards a contention -- though I suppose one on a quirky enough topic few will be interest.

It seems to me that there can be no such thing as a "monarchist". An -ist indicates some sort of intentional form of government which one may support establishing or working towards. Yet looking at the various attempts to bring back the ancein regime or something like it, it strikes me that monarchy is not something which can be intentionally established, except as a cultural and political figurehead of sorts. Monarchy must necessarily be an unintentional form of government, and so while one may admire it where one finds it in history, it doesn't seem like something one can be a supporter of establishing. An intentionally established monarchy would not be a monarchy in any sense worth valuing.

Orphan Openings: Old Gods Edition

"It's only a chicken."

"Take a chicken to the butcher's and have it killed, and no one can possibly object. But if you sacrifice a chicken in the temple of Mars, you commit a grave sin against Christ."

Marcus Tullius's broad face was set in a stubborn expression, his arms folded across his chest. "If I had known about Christ when I was stationed on the Rhine I would have prayed to him. But at the time, didn't know him. So I swore to Mars that if I survived the battle on the bridge I would make him an offering each year on the anniversary of the battle for ten years. He kept his side of the bargain, and here I stand. I can't believe Christ would want me to break my oath."

"But surely an oath to a false god can be no oath at all. Satan has no good in him, and you can owe him nothing."

"I didn't promise anything to Satan, I promised a chicken to Mars. Mars isn't Satan, though I understand now that he's not God either. And I don't see how my oath to Mars is voided just because he's not the sort I took him for at the time."

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Smith, Hume and the Servile State

I was recently listening to an interview with Stanley Engerman, co-author of Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Slavery. It was an interesting discussion overall, but what particularly caught my attention was basically a side-note.

Engerman referenced Adam Smith's understanding of slavery which he described as being that slaves had no incentive towards greater productivity, with the result that using slave labor rather than free labor was inefficient. Smith thus attributed the fact that people use slavery despite it's inefficiency to the will to domineer over others:

But if great improvements are seldom to be expected from great proprietors, they are least of all to be expected when they employ slaves for their workmen. The experience of all ages and nations, I believe, demonstrates that the work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their maintenance, is in the end the dearest of any. A person who can acquire no property, can have no other interest but to eat as much, and to labour as little as possible. Whatever work he does beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own. In ancient Italy, how much the cultivation of corn degenerated, how unprofitable it became to the master when it fell under the management of slaves, is remarked by both Pliny and Columella. In the time of Aristotle it had not been much better in ancient Greece. Speaking of the ideal republic described in the laws of Plato, to maintain five thousand idle men (the number of warriors supposed necessary for its defence) together with their women and servants, would require, he says, a territory of boundless extent and fertility, like the plains of Babylon.

The pride of man makes him love to domineer, and nothing mortifies him so much as to be obliged to condescend to persuade his inferiors. Wherever the law allows it, and the nature of the work can afford it, therefore, he will generally prefer the service of slaves to that of freemen. The planting of sugar and tobacco can afford the expence of slave-cultivation. The raising of corn, it seems, in the present times, cannot. In the English colonies, of which the principal produce is corn, the far greater part of the work is done by freemen. The late resolution of the Quakers in Pennsylvania to set at liberty all their negro slaves, may satisfy us that their number cannot be very great. Had they made any considerable part of their property, such a resolution could never have been agreed to. In our sugar colonies, on the contrary, the whole work is done by slaves, and in our tobacco colonies a very great part of it. The profits of a sugar-plantation in any of our West Indian colonies are generally much greater than those of any other cultivation that is known either in Europe or America; and the profits of a tobacco plantation, though inferior to those of sugar, are superior to those of corn, as has already been observed. Both can afford the expence of slave-cultivation, but sugar can afford it still better than tobacco. The number of negroes accordingly is much greater, in proportion to that of whites, in our sugar than in our tobacco colonies.
(Wealth of Nations, Book III, Ch2, Para 9-10)

By contrast, David Hume is described as having, if possible, a more cynical view: Free workers are more efficient than slaves because they are always on the brink of penury and starvation and thus will work harder, while slaves at least have the assurance that it is in their master's interest to keep them alive. However, no specific Hume citation is given, and running searches on Hume on slavery, I'm not finding anything along these lines. Is this characterization of his views accurate? Perhaps we have among our readers a Hume scholar who can shed some light on this?

Regardless, all this leads to some interesting thoughts.

First, reading Smith's quote, it strikes me that while he's doubtless right about people having a drive to domineer, he may also be overlooking an economic incentive towards slavery in the production of high manual labor, high value crops such as sugar, tobacco and later cotton: While it's true that free, individual farmers working small plots for their own betterment would doubtless be more productive than slaves because it was in their interest to do so, this higher productivity might well not result in increased wealth for the small number of larger planters who were the most direct beneficiaries of the slave system in the US and West Indies. The planters might well have recognized that free farmers would be more productive overall (say, on a square mile of cultivated land basis, and on a per laborer basis) but have believed that they themselves benefited more from taking all of the profits generated by slaves rather than collecting some smaller percentage of the profits generated by free farmers via rents. For them to conclude otherwise, they would have to accept a sort of variant on "voodoo" supply-side economics, predicting that the increase in productivity of free tenant farmers would more than compensate them for getting only a percentage of the profits rather than all of them. Given how hard a sell that has been in modern politics, one can imagine why it wouldn't go over well with the 18th and 19th century planter class.

Second, both the Smith quote and the more cynical thinking on the inefficiency of slavery attributed to Hume suggest a certain attractive element to slavery: "A person who can acquire no property, can have no other interest but to eat as much, and to labour as little as possible." Clearly, no one wants to be a plantation slave, but if the minimum level of substance which one's master owed one could be defined at a higher level (say, an apartment, car, food, flat panel TV and 300 cable channels) the attraction becomes obvious. We naturally do not like insecurity, and so being assured a level of security in return for a lack of material advancement beyond a certain minimum and the chance to "eat as much and to labour as little as possible" is always going to have attractions to some people. Indeed, one might also see a certain non-materialist virtue to it.

Thus points to a trade off which is, I think, always a temptation to societies -- for those who see themselves as having less opportunity to accept a state of semi-servility in order to assure security against material want, and for the most wealthy and powerful segment of society to be eager to give them such guarantees in order to assure that the lowest reaches of society do not become too restive while the elites maximize their profits.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Bad Luck vs. Bad Design

In a post on the topic of health care rationing (responding to a progressive post which argued that denying care to people unlikely to see much return was one of the benefits of a centralized health system) Megan McArdle of The Atlantic makes the following observation:
There's another intuition that at least libertarians have, which is that it is not as bad to have undesirable things result from an impersonal process than from an active decision. It is bad if someone's house burns down and they couldn't afford insurance. It's worse if someone's house burns down, and they were in the class of people deemed unworthy by a bureaucrat of having their house rebuilt.

I think almost all progressives have the opposite intuition. They think it's better to try to produce an optimal result, even if that results in individual injustices (which it will--government rules are very broad brush, and will always involve error at the margins). I'm not sure how to bridge that intuitive gap.

It strikes me this is indeed one of the determining differences between those skeptical of and those confident in the ability of a centralized beaurocracy to actually improve the administration of health care (as opposed to its availability, which obviously could be improved simply by throwing enough money around.)

Given the range of viewpoints found around here, I'm curious what others think of this. Is this indeed one of the major dividing lines between progressive and libertarian/conservative viewpoints?

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Dignity of the Working Man

It is perhaps not a bad time to devote a few thoughts to the dignity of work. Work is not always seen in a wholly positive light. Many of us don't like going to work, and the rigors of labor are reflect in Adam's curse, when after the fall he is told that he shall eat only by the sweat of his brow, struggling to win sustenance from an unfriendly soil.

Yet we also recognize that that is an essential dignity to labor. Through labor we meet the essential needs of life, and labor is frequently a service: Husbands and wives labor for each others' sake, parents labor to support children, we share the fruits of our labor with our churches, with the less fortunate, with our friends and family. We rightly take great pleasure and pride in serving others this way. As a father, even the most tiresome or repetitive task can be a source of satisfaction to me when I know that by this means I am providing for the needs and pleasures of my wife and children.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

RCIA Thoughts: Motives For Becoming Catholic

I was at another meeting of the RCIA group tonight, the purpose of which was for the inquirers (hopefully future catechumens and candidates) to tell the stories of how they came to be there.

One thing that particularly struck me listening to all these is that while the reasons people come into the Church are often pragmatic (want to get married, want to bring kids up in a church, spouse is Catholic, etc.) people's feelings about the decision to become Catholic are almost invariably very strong. Being around parish administration a certain amount, one often hears a certain amount of cynicism about people only wanting their sacraments in order to achieve some visual milestone and then vanishing, and it's true that this does indeed happen. Just because people feel strongly about something at the moment does not mean they will stick with it. People are often not very faithful to what was a year or two ago a fervent resolution.

But here, as when I was working with RCIA a few years back, it strikes me yet again that people always seem to come expressing genuine hunger for God. And as physical creatures, it is perhaps natural that that hunger is often aroused and brought to a crisis point by events in our lives as physical creatures, such as getting married, having children, or the death of a loved one.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Movie Review: District 9

MrsDarwin and I grabbed a rare chance to take an evening out last night and went to see District 9, a science fiction movie that came out a couple weeks ago. Contrary to stereotype, it was actually MrsDarwin who had latched onto this as the movie to see, and I'm glad she did as it was one of the more enjoyable SciFi flicks that I've seen in a while. (Movie Trailer here.)

The premise of District 9 takes a standard SciFi movie plot and turns it sideways. A giant alien ship arrives at Earth and settles over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. And it just hangs there. No aliens appear, nothing happens. After several months, people cut their way into the ship and find hundreds of thousands of aliens in filthy conditions, apparently starving. The aliens are brought down to Johannesburg for humanitarian reasons, but once they're settled friction results. This is learned in flashback; the movie opens twenty years after the aliens first arrival, by which point the aliens (derisively called "prawns" by most people because of their physical appearance) have for some time been confined to a squalid shanty-town called District 9. Because of mounting crime and distrust, the South African government is seeking to relocate the now 1-2 million aliens to a newly constructed tent city well away from the Johannesburg, District 10. To accomplish this, they've hired shadowy multi-national MNU, and the MNU bureaucrat assigned to oversee the eviction is Wikus Van De Merwe, a man clearly in over his head in an operation which will obviously end badly.

What opens as a documentary in which Wikus shows a film crew around District 9 and displays his alien management abilities (as with any culture clash, when people don't understand you, talk louder) gradually turns into a SciFi action movie, as Wikus accidentally sprays himself with a mysterious fluid which an alien who goes by the name Chris Johnson has been distilling for the last twenty years in an attempt to re-activate an aging command module and get the alien ship working again.

A couple things make this film stand out from your standard big budget aliens-arrive-and-actions-ensue movie. One I was particularly struck by is the realism of the characters and dialogue. Wikus Van De Merwe is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but as you get to know him during the course of the movie he becomes a basically endearing character -- and ordinary guy thrust into a strange situation who overcomes some of his prejudices as a result, but becomes neither hero nor martyr. Director Neill Blomkamp had his actors improvise much of the dialogue, and the result in a nice change from the carefully scripted zingers, comebacks and stock characters that inhabit many SciFi action movies. (This especially stood out having seen a preview for 2012 right before the feature.)

Also interesting is that the aliens really are alien -- indeed, sufficiently so that it's never entirely clear what is going on from their perspective. There are clearly several different castes of alien with different abilities (as with ants or bees) and nearly all of those stuck on earth are of a worker caste and not very good at self direction. They're not attractive to human eyes, and their cultural habits are unclear, their food habits at times disgusting, at other amusing. (They usually eat raw meat, but have an intense attraction to canned cat food.) A sequel (the ending clearly leaves room for one) which did an interesting job of fleshing out the aliens and how they got there would be interesting.

In a moment which will stand out to pro-life viewers, at one point the MNU agents moving through the shanty-town serving eviction notices comes upon a shack full of prawn eggs and larvae. Wikus "unplugs" several eggs and radios for a "population control unit" which proves to be consist of a flamethrower. "Here," he says, tossing a piece to one of the MNU security men. "Souvenir of your first abortion." Wikus explains to the camera that the popping sound they hear from the burning shack is of eggs exploding. (We later learn that prawns are supposed to obtain a license to have children.) A few minutes later, as they're proceeding through the camp, Wikus points to prawn children running by and observes that they're breeding too fast, too many children. One of the security men points his rifle at the children, "Should I get rid of them?" he asks. "No, no, no," Wikus responds, putting his hand in front of the muzzle. "You can't kill them at this age. It's illegal."

Note: spoilers in comments.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

On Riding a Bike

When I learned to ride a bike, we didn't go in for any of this sissy stuff. I cut my teeth (and other parts of my body) practicing with no training wheels on a long long gravel driveway in rural Virginia -- spanning three acres worth of sharp rocks and wild flowers and blue blue sky and barbed wire, which was far enough away that was no real danger of wiping out into the fence. It was the neighbor boy's bike, and none of us wore helmets, or (often enough) shoes. Somehow we survived, though. We were all of us tough and skinny. The gravel driveway, or the freshly-mown field (baled for hay by a neighboring farmer) were as nothing to our hobbity feet.

(In fact, the only serious injury I recall anyone getting took place on the path. My brother and the boy next door, the one his age, were walking on the path mown between our house and his, coming from the baseball field. My brother was swinging the bat over his shoulder, as kids will do, and the other boy was following too closely behind him and was bashed in the eye. He needed stitches and probably still has the scar, but he was okay.)

So, the bike. I think the neighbor had a typical boys' mountain bike, and it served us all fine. But as I got older I had a hankering for something different. I didn't ever intend to go biking in the mountains (and truly, I've never done such a thing since) and I wanted a bike that looked more like the ideal bike in the mind of me. And lo, I saw such a thing at the local K-Mart: a blue (or was it red?) woman's bike, not a girls' bike, with an elegant line and not fussy like some ladies' bikes are wont to be, and with the handlebars that curved under and looked so grown-up. It cost $100, which was a virtually unheard-of fortune to my financially virgin ears. I started saving up -- a few quarters here, a dollar there, bits and drabs and limp bills, folded and unfolded and counted again and shoved back into a dingy envelope. I didn't have a steady source of income, and then my family was making plans to move out of state, and as time passed the idea of a bike lost its initial luster (probably aided by the glacial pace of my savings) and I started considering a desk. A desk, like I'd seen at K-Mart, with the pencil drawer and the file drawer and maybe a secret compartment (the models at K-Mart didn't have that feature, but I thought maybe I could build one). I didn't buy that either, and I don't know what I spent my money on. That's the way of it as you get older.

Now my daughter, a few days shy of six years old, has suddenly found her bike legs. In the course of a week she's gone from wobbling a few feet to zipping down the street (paved, and she in shoes), weaving and turning and standing on the pedals. She has a helmet, bought the day after she took a spill and landed a huge bruise smack in the middle of her forehead, highly visible even through the bangs we're growing out that she won't keep pinned back. It's thrilling and exhilarating and not a little heart-wrenching to watch my daughter fly down the street, moving so quickly away from me. And overhead, the sky is blue.