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

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Real Sex vs. the Contraceptive Mentality (Part 3)

[Continued from Part 1 and Part 2]

Enter Artificial Birth Control

In Part 2, I discussed the sense in which marriage customs and sexual morality can be seen as an adaptive response to controlling childbearing. I'd like now to turn to the question of artificial birth control.

In my first job out of college, a small chemical distribution company, I sat next to the customer service group, and thus found myself overhearing a lot of middle-aged "girl talk". One anecdote I particularly remember was recounted by a woman who'd married in the late sixties. She told about how when she and her husband were still engaged, she'd gone with her mother to a wedding, and her mother had taken occasion to whisper to her that it was generally known that the bride had "had to get married."

"I'm just so glad you're a good girl and you'll never need to get married quickly like that, my mother told me," she said. "Of course, what she didn't know is that I'd been on the pill for the last three years."

I think this does a good job of underlining a massive shift in social structure and morality which the advent of plentiful and efficient birth control allowed. The adherance to social and moral norms ("being a good girl" as the mother put it), which had previously been essential for avoiding the bearing of children out of wedlock or a hasty marriage to the father of an impending child, was now rended unnecessary by The Pill. Artificial birth control is certainly not 100% effective, but it is effective enough to allow people to separate sex and reproduction in their minds. Having sex with some given person or at some given time becomes one choice, having a baby with some given person or at some given time becomes a totally separate and unrelated choice.

This, I would argue, is the "contraceptive mentality" in its most basic form: the idea that having sex and reproducing are two activities with no necessary connection, that having sex in no way suggests a desire or willingess to have children with the person you are having sex with.

From a societal point of view, I think this puts us into a state of clear and major change. Whereas there used to be very clear biological and societal reasons to strongly pressure people not to engage in sex outside of marriage (primarily women -- there was always the double standard resulting from the fact that it is women who become pregnant) in addition to the moral reasons which we as Christians recognize, these practical and secular reasons for avoiding sex outside of stable relationships have been reduced to half-hearted (and unpersuasive) suggestions like: Wait until you are emotionally ready.

Who, after all, at such a moment is really sitting around thinking, "Oh, but perhaps I'm not emotionally ready."

Thus, when its full implications are considered, the contraceptive mentality removes virtually all of the practical reasons for seeking permanence and exclusivity in sexual relationships. And, indeed, the loss of these is pretty much what we see around us.

However, this renders us very confused creatures. As biological creatures, we still have the physical pleasures and instinctual emotional ties associated with sex which developed because of its reproductive function. And yet most of us do not think of sex as being reproductive. The fact that natural incentive and natural effects have been so totally disengaged must have a major effect on us -- and the fact that sex is something both so attractive and so essential to the relationships which are the building blocks and perpetuators of society means that the imbalance resulting from this de-coupling of incentive and effect will reverberate throughout society in major ways.

[to be continued: Part 4]

Monday, June 28, 2010

African Rift Likely to Form New Ocean

Scientists have been paying special attention to the East African Rift since 2005, when a series of rifts began to open at the boundary of the African and Somalian plates. As the series of fissures has continued to develop, and more seismic measurements have been taken, over the last five years, Dr. Tim Wright has come to the conclusion that what we are seeing is the formation of a new ocean -- or of a new island, depending on how you want to look at it.

According to the presentation Wright is presenting to the Roay Society's Summer Exhibition, over the next ten million years we will see part of Somalia and Ethiopia separate from the rest of Africa to form a large island in the Indian Ocean. The process of tectonic divergence being observed on land here is similar to what goes on below the ocean at the Mid-Atlantic Rift and other place of tectonic divergence around the globe. And it makes for some pretty impressive pictures.

Orgasmic Bullshit -- or is it?

A commenter over at Bearing's objected to my total dismissal of orgasmic birth and provided links to some videos of people purporting to have just that. Now, call me biased, but I don't intend, now or ever, to watch a videos of people claiming to have an orgasm under any circumstances. However, in the interests of fairness, I post the links; feel free to leave your impressions.

Bob the Ape, the poet laureate of the Catholic blogsphere, was inspired to pen a few lines on the topic. I leave him with the richly deserved last word.
Said a lady, "I've felt both sensations:
The beginning and end of gestations;
And between an orgasm
And labor, a chasm
Is fixed; so please don't try my patience!"

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Blast From The Past

There's nothing geekier than having fond memories of old hardware, but when I came across my old PowerBook 1400cs (the computer I bought to take to college back in 1996) I couldn't help snapping a picture of it before consigning it to the abyss.
And thus proving I was using Macs well before it was popular.

Still runs! Though that's also a lesson in how passing "having it electronically" can be. It had a floppy drive and CD reader (but not writer -- those were very expensive back then) and this was before USB ports. Plus, I used a word processor (WriteNow by WordStar) which was de-supported back when OSX first came out. So getting old files off that machine a few years back was a major endeavor, saving files from WriteNow format to RTF, moving files via floppy to an old windows box which had a CD writer, writing them to CD, and moving them to my newer systems. All of which was slow enough I ended up only pulling the stuff I thought was particularly good or interesting. Sic transunt verba iuventatis.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Weekend Writing Assignment: Narnia Vol. 8

Here's a weekend post which delegates creativity to you.

Anyone who's read Lewis' Great Divorce knows he was enough of a believer in second chances to have re-invented purgatory. What if there had been an 8th Narnia book? What would the title and basic plot have been?

Rules: It must take place, at least in part, after the death of the Pevensies in "our world" during Last Battle and must involve Susan.

Seven Quick Takes -- Clearing Out Stuff That I've Meant To Post About Edition

With thanks to the hostess...

1) There's a paper out in the current issue of Current Biology about chimps fighting "war" for territory. Good popular press articles about it here and here. We've known for a long time that chimps can be violent, and that groups fight against each other, but what's interesting about this case is that a larger group consistently over a period of a couple years wiped out the males of a neighboring group and then annexed their territory. From the Times article:
A band of males, up to 20 or so, will assemble in single file and move to the edge of their territory. They fall into unusual silence as they penetrate deep into the area controlled by the neighboring group. They tensely scan the treetops and startle at every noise. “It’s quite clear that they are looking for individuals of the other community,” Dr. Mitani says.

When the enemy is encountered, the patrol’s reaction depends on its assessment of the opposing force. If they seem to be outnumbered, members of the patrol will break file and bolt back to home territory. But if a single chimp has wandered into their path, they will attack. Enemy males will be held down, then bitten and battered to death. Females are usually let go, but their babies will be eaten.

These killings have a purpose, but one that did not emerge until after Ngogo chimps’ patrols had been tracked and cataloged for 10 years. The Ngogo group has about 150 chimps and is particularly large, about three times the usual size. And its size makes it unusually aggressive. Its males directed most of their patrols against a chimp group that lived in a region to the northeast of their territory. Last year, the Ngogo chimps stopped patrolling the region and annexed it outright, increasing their home territory by 22 percent, Dr. Mitani said.

2) Economist Bryan Caplan has a book coming out entitled Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids which he's blogged about frequently over at EconLog. Last weekend he had an article in the WSJ laying out part of his thesis. I think he makes some good points about how people overestimate what is "necessary" in raising kids: love, attention and affection, yes; organized sports and lessons four nights a week, not so much. And also draws attention to the point that people often make decisions about whether to have more children while going through the most difficult part (the first few years) or raising their first one or two. However, I tend to think he'd do well by refocusing the way he makes those points a bit -- in that this sounds a little like he's saying, "Your kids' success is pretty much genetically determined, so you might as well crank out a few extras and spend less time on them, because you'll really enjoy having adult children and grand kids." Also, it strikes me (as a parent dealing with the work and joys of having the fifth on the way) that "selfish reasons" for having more kids will not really get people there. Unless you have strong philosophical and moral reasons for having a pro-large-family approach to life, most people won't get past the standard 1-2.

3) The Washington Post offers a story about the last ironing board factory in the US. It employs 200 people and pays it's line workers $15/hr (about 30k/yr). It's kept in business by US tariffs on imported ironing boards from China ranging from 70% to 150%. Matt Yglesias of Think Progress sees the economic dead loss but doesn't see how one can vote to take away people's jobs in a recession. These ironing boards sell for $15-20 at places like Wal Mart, Target and K-Mart, so it's easy to say that the savings if the wholesale cost of ironing boards were not being doubled by tariffs would be small. Is your life that different if you pay $20 for an ironing board instead of $10? Is that worth someone's job? Yglesias's comments are furious that he would even suggest it might be beneficial not to prop up prices to "protect US jobs".

The numbers, however, are interesting. Take an average ironing board price of $16.99. According to the article, there are 7 million ironing boards sold in the US per year. On average, the tariff doubles the cost of an ironing board. This means the total money spent on ironing boards is being artificially increased by $59.5 million per year. If you divide that money by the 200 workers, that gives you $297k/yr as the cost of every $30k/yr job waved. Even if retailers didn't pass through all cost savings, or the Chinese increased their prices, we'd clearly be seeing a net overall savings if we weren't pumping up the annual expenditures on ironing boards by $59mil. Where that money would go is hard to say. With such a small percentage of any one household's income going to ironing boards, it is literally impossible to know where this money would go if it didn't go to slightly more expensive ironing boards, but it would go somewhere (produce, services or savings) and would work it's way around to providing some people with jobs. Not those 200 particular jobs, but definitely jobs.

Though most people prefer to assume that if a system is too complex for them to understand (indeed, for anyone to understand) that it must therefore be only theoretical, or "not be that way in the real world."

4) Failed States: If you need your daily dose of realizing how privileged you are, try this slideshow of life in failed states from Foreign Policy magazine.

5) Nestle is attempting to reach customers in remote small cities and large towns in Brazil by sending a floating snack supermarket out on Brazil's river system. Apparently, however, a number of people in the US are outraged at the idea that the world's largest food company (and thus "Big Food") is bringing candy bars and ice cream treats to people who would otherwise be eating the delicious "whole" or "raw" or "sustainable" foods of rural Brazil.

6) I was struck by these two pieces by William Deresiewicz on The Disadvantages of an Elite Education and on Solitude and Leadership. As with any strongly made point, I think parts of his argument go too far, but his talk about how often the elite are not a meritocracy but rather an entitled mediocricy strike me as pretty dead on at the moment. It also struck me that this might shed some light on the roots of the quiet background strife between those from Ivy League universities and those not here in Fortune 50 land.

7) Bruce Charlton thinks that human ability peaked with the moon landings and that we're actually able to do less now than we were then.
I suspect that human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75 – at the time of the Apollo moon landings – and has been declining ever since.

This may sound bizarre or just plain false, but the argument is simple. That landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achievement of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans. 40 years ago we could do it – repeatedly – but since then we have *not* been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability.
It was around the 1970s that the human spirit began to be overwhelmed by bureaucracy (although the trend had been growing for many decades).
The fact is that human no longer do - *can* no longer do many things we used to be able to do: land on the moon, swiftly win wars against weak opposition and then control the defeated nation, secure national borders, discover ‘breakthrough’ medical treatments, prevent crime, design and build to a tight deadline, educate people so they are ready to work before the age of 22, block an undersea oil leak...

While as a conservative I'm sympathetic to "golden age" thinking (though if you can't put the peak of human ahievement before 1900, you're really not trying) this line of thinking strikes me as deeply silly. Some problems are more amenable to brute force solution than others (finding a "cure for cancer" is a far more complex problem then building a rocket capable of sending people to the moon and back) and there's also much of this that is the result of changing political and social mores, not to mention backwards forgetfullness.

Did, for instance, the British Empire at its height actually do that great a job of "swiftly win[ning] wars against weak opposition and then control[ing] the defeated nation"? Not to our modern standards, really. The Boer War was incredibly messy, and cost far more casualties on the British side (and brutality against the enemy) than a modern nation like the US would tolerate in our "little wars" such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor were the Brits ever that great at keeping Afghanistan pacified themselves. However, there was a willingness of the Brits at that time to sustain fairly heavy deployements and casualties on a constant basis throughout the Empire in order to keep things more or less moving along -- while in the US this is the sort of thing which loses presidents elections.

Similarly, it's hard to see how the US public would support pouring 5% or more of total federal spending into the space program these days, when we'd all be so much happier granting ourselves a right to cable television or some such.

Orgasmic Bullshit

(An imminent hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully, said Dr. Johnson, and an imminent labor does the same thing. So you all will forgive me if topics related to labor are much on my mind right now -- especially the fact that in about two weeks I'm going to spend an hour or so wishing I could die now and just be out of this misery, before someone hands me a little baby.)

Someone (who shall remain nameless here, but she knows who she is) called me up to chat a while ago, and mentioned that she'd read somewhere that the experience of giving birth could sometimes be orgasmic.

"That's bullshit," I said.

"No," she insisted, "It says here that the same areas are stimulated..."

"Bullshit," I said.

"But is it even possible..."


I know whose fault this is. I read Dr. Bradley's book too, right around the birth of my second, when I was experienced enough to evaluate this claim with a jaundiced eye. Why does Dr. Bradley write his book on husband-coached childbirth? Why does he tell you how to breathe, how to relax, how to handle contractions? These are coping techniques. And what are we coping with, ladies? PAIN. You don't cope with an orgasmic experience. You let it wash over you pleasantly. You do cope with giving birth, to keep from panicking when major contractions hit less than a minute apart and you want to throw up and body feels like it's turning itself inside out.

I don't think I threw the book (it was from the library, after all), but c'mon! Let's go over a list of things that are NOT orgasmic:

1. Cramps and diarrhea.
2. Agonizing abdominal pain.
3. Your body tearing as you push out a head the size of a grapefruit.
4. A major organ (the placenta) detaching itself from your body.

Let's consider number three in particular, since this seems to be the point of contention. Let us posit that a woman's body is designed to give birth, yes, yes. Let us also be vulgar and state that no matter what kind of stimulation is going on, very very few women ever are having orgasms while engaged with something the size of a grapefruit. Again, if an experience involves bodily tissue tearing, it's probably not orgasmic. These are not generally propositions up for debate.

Dr. Bradley can be forgiven, I guess -- after all, he's a man, so it's not his party -- but I must be stern with the women who propound such nonsense. This past weekend, I was reading a book by an experienced midwife who insisted that although her own labors had not been such, that some women declare that giving birth just caused the most amazing sense of release and relief, almost like an orgasm!

Well. There certainly is a kind of relief after giving birth. It's the empty, flat relief of not being in agonizing pain anymore. (This is separate from the joy of seeing the baby, of course, which is also not orgasmic.) It's the relief you get between contractions. It's the relief of the tortured man when the torturers take a smoke break. My most dramatic experience of the relief of not being in pain anymore was after I had a miscarriage, which was about as far from orgasmic as possible.

Of course it's possible to have a calm birth with no screaming or alarming the bystanders. Of course it's possible to manage contractions effectively without resorting to painkillers -- I've done it myself, four times. (Yes, Dr. B is right that being able to relax on command is key, but I learned that in acting class, not in Lamaze.) Having good information is crucial to achieving these results. Being told that birth doesn't have to be painful is bad information. Learning ways to cope with the pain is good, if one doesn't expect that these techniques will actually make the pain go away. And no technique can lead to an orgasmic birth, which is an oxymoron of the first water.

(Insert your own pithy closing statement about "orgasmic birth" here -- at the moment I can't think of anything that doesn't cross that fine line between clever and "cancel my subscription".)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bookish Meme

A friend tagged me with this on Facebook, but I'm more a blogger than the Facebooker, and so I've changed venues.

1) What author do you own the most books by? J.R.R. Tolkien -- mostly thanks to having inherited a lot of the books put out by Christopher Tolkien of stuff not published during his father's lifetime.

2) What book do you own the most copies of? I have at least nine copies (not counting children's adaptations) of the Bible in thee languages.

3) Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions? In a degenerate world, one learns to ignore these things.

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with? I think that may be a girl thing... Though if I could pick a character I secretly wanted to be it might be Lord Peter Wimsey.

5) What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children; i.e., Goodnight Moon does not count)? I know that I've read The Lord of the Rings, Brideshead Revisited and The Secret History more than six times each, but I don't know which I've read the most.

6) What was your favorite book when you were ten years old? Probably the Planet Builders juvie SF series, or perhaps one of Heinlein's juvies.

7) What is the worst book you've read in the past year? I haven't read any stinkers in quite a while -- one just doesn't have the time for bad books. Though I read the first 70 pages of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man last year some time, and that was spectacularly bad. Now I think about it, Berlinsky's A Tour of the Calculus as pretty bad -- purplest prose I've read in a long time. I didn't finish that either.

8) What is the best book you've read in the past year? Hmmmm. Probably The Leopard by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa.

9) If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be? I've gone off the idea that everyone is capable of appreciating the same books.

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature? The obvious choice would be Obama, but since he's actually written books the committee might feel like that would be showing the peace prize committee up...

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie? The Great Siege: Malta 1565, an outstanding short history which would make an out-of-this-world historical action epic. I'd also really like to see movies of Tim Powers' novels Declare and Last Call, but I could much more easily see these being messed up.

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie? Where the Wild Things Are

14) What is the most low-brow book you've read as an adult? I have the vague and guilty feeling of having read some pretty bad genre stuff back in my college and just out of college days, and the fact that titles are escaping me probably underlines that they were pretty forgettable.

15) What is the most difficult book you've ever read? The answers that immediately occur to me are all things that I tried to read far too quickly because of college reading assignments: Aristotle's Metaphysics, Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Hobbes' Leviathan, John Paul II's Memory and Identity. I really should try reading these again at a reasonable pace and see how I see them now.

16) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you've seen? What's the one where the guy says he won't sleep with his wife until she bears a child who's wearing his ring...?

17) Do you prefer the French or the Russians? Russians.

18) Roth or Updike? Haven't read either.

19) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers? Haven't read either.

20) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer? That's a hard call... I very much like all three, but if actions speak loudest, I've read/heard Shakespeare far more often than Milton or Chaucer.

21) Austen or Eliot? Austen.

22) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading? Modern greats, I haven't ready any novels by: Hemingway, Nabokov, DH Lawrence, Virginia Wolfe, Henry James or Joseph Conrad

23) What is your favorite novel? Brideshead Revisited

24) Play? Lion in Winter

25) Poem? If I'm allowed to pick an epic, I'd be torn between the Iliad and the Divine Comedy. But if we're talking shorter works I'd probably name Milton's "L'Allegro".

26) Essay? This may be cheating, but: An Essay on Brewing, Vintage and Distillation, Together With Selected Remedies for Hangover Melancholia: Or, How to Make Booze

27) Short story? "Victims of War" by Giovanni Guareschi Or, perhaps "Smith of Wooten Major" by Tolkien, though that's more novella length.

28) Work of non-fiction? A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube and Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates

29) Who is your favorite writer? If I can restrict it to living writers, I think I might pick Tim Powers as a favorite -- I don't think he's the best writer alive now, but I think he'd be my favorite.

30) Who is the most overrated writer alive today? Howard Zinn

31) What is your desert island book? I don't intend to be caught on an island, but if I was to be stuck with one book for a very long time it'd have to be something long and varied such as Dance To The Music of Time or the complete Rambler or Anatomy of Melancholy. Indeed, these are all long and varied enough that I would probably need to be on a desert island in order to actually give them sufficient attention rather than having them as perpetual back-burner reads.

32) And... what are you reading right now? I have the bad habit of keeping a lot of books going at once, but limiting to the in progress reads that I've actually dipped into in the last couple weeks: Absalom, Absalom!, From Vines to Wines: The Complete Guide to Growing Grapes and Making Your Own Wine, The Civil War: A Narrative--Fort Sumter to Perryville, Vol. 1, Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome

Forget Diamonds

Another one for the "Why I don't post that often" file (I write this stuff down not because it's interesting but to maintain my sanity):

Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but when you're a mother you need sturdier companions. Here are my two best buddies:

And here's the wild thing who's much to blame:

Here's the tally: in the sugar while the midwife was here, in the flour while lunch was being made, in the flour again while I was writing a shopping list. (I thought it was too quiet to be true.) Maybe it's time to put the chain on the pantry door, I thought, but I'd forgotten that the chain had been wrenched out of the wall in some earlier incident.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

War Without End

I was reading down the WSJ headlines this morning and saw this article about the Afghan government negotiating with some Taliban fighters in order to bring them into the fold. Then the picture illustrating it make me do a double take:

The rifles those Taliban fighters are holding are No. 1 Mark III Enfields -- a design which was the standard battle rifle for the British Army in World War One, and continued to be manufactured in India and Pakistan through the 60s. The design is over 100 years old, having gone into use in 1907. It's a bolt action rifle firing the .30 caliber British 303 rimmed cartridge. Its ten round magazine can be loaded quickly with five-round charger clips, and its bolt action is impressively fast (it cocks on closing the bolt rather than on opening it) such that trained men could file 20-30 rounds a minute, despite having reload every ten rounds. Unquestionably one of the great battle rifles of the Great War, though like the German Mauser, it was showing its age by World War II. Here's a closer look at it:

People talk about how Afghanistan has been the scene of fighting for a long time, but nothing brings that home like seeing mujahadeen carrying rifles that were designed in 1907, and built back when the British were ruling the area. Those rifles were old when those men's grandfathers were fighting age.

Real Sex vs. the Contraceptive Mentality (Part 2)

[Continued from Part 1]

Restraint, Relationships and Planning Parenthood

When I say that we "naturally want to avoid having children" at certain times, I would imagine that the image that comes immediately to mind is of birth control, abortion or infanticide, and most traditional societies have seen these in some form or other. However, I'd like to turn our attention to something so basic and so prevalent that we don't think about it much.

From an anthropological point of view, the entire structure of our romantic and family relationships serves as a way to control childbearing, limitting it to situations in which offspring can be supported. Consider: Requiring that young women remain virgins until marriage ensured that children will not be born without a provider. Nor was the decision to marry, when it came, a strictly individual affair. Marriage was negotiated and approved by the wider families, because the families were in effect committing to help support the new family unit being created. Many cultures also required the husband's family to pay a "bride price", not simpy as compensation for the lost contribution of the daughter to her own family, but as proof that the husband was of sufficient means to start a family.

Once in place, this set of cultural mores and laws provided an easy way to adjust to want or plenty: In good times, people married young, in bad they married late and some did not marry at all. Within a marriage, the strong cultural ideal of the faithful wife ensured that if husband and wife avoided intercourse to space children the husband would not find some other male getting his genes in on the sly, while the cultural rules surrounding legitimacy assured the wife that even if her husband was unfaithful during such a time, any children resulting would not supplant hers in terms of inheritance or prestige.

A dramatic example of the extent to which marriage age was used to manage fertility can be seen in Wrigley's Population History of England, which makes a strong case that the English population explosion in the mid eighteenth century through the early twentieth was a result of a decline of in the average age of first marriage for women from 26 to 23. (This, coming at the same time as increased life expectancy caused the population to grow dramatically, and triggered a round of Malthusian worrying by the cultural elites.)

With marriage choices as the primary means of regulating reproduction, the other key factor, in addition to marriageable age, was the number of people who never married. In Western Europe from the Middle Ages through the Industrial Revolution, 10-25% of women never married. In poorer countries such as Ireland, both late marriage and spinsterhood came into play with the result that as few as 30% of the women of childbearing age were married at any given time. (Comprehensive demographic data here. Example table of percentage of women of childbearing age married by country and decade available on page 21 of this paper.)

What we see when we view demographic history is that marriage (and chastity outside of marriage) is an adaptive trait which allows us as rational creatures to regulate our fertility. The fact that the signs of female fertility are hard to discern means that any sexual act with a woman of childbearing age may result in the creation of a child. And the set of moral and societal norms surrounding marriage provide us with a way to manage that fact responsibly in order to have children only when we believe we can support them. This evolutionary analysis actually leads to a definition of marriage which is startlingly similar to a traditional Christian understanding of marriage: In both cases one of the primary ends of marriage is to assure that children come into being only when others are prepared to love and care for them.

[to be continued: Part 3]

Indiana Jones theme: now with more annoying!

On the Annoying Songs post below, Dorian commented, "I will not show this to my children, as I do not wish for it to be duplicated in my household. A household which features the Indiana Jones theme song on permanent loop."

Well, ask and you shall receive! Here, for Dorian, is the Indiana Jones theme made extremely annoying. To up the annoying ante, our piano is slightly out of tune, and I've left in my mistakes.

It is surprisingly hard to play irritating music under the surveillance of a camera. Thanks to Darwin for his brilliant cinematography and for putting up with my figuring out the annoying tune.

Monday, June 21, 2010

How to win friends and irritate people

We continue our lazy posting streak of letting Youtube do the talking.

It takes skills to be this annoying. My girls thought this was awesome.

h/t The Anchoress

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Angry Cat Album

A little Blues Traveler for your weekend, from Four ("the angry cat CD!" my girls call it). Here are two of my favorites, Hook and The Mountains Win Again.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Difficulties of Planned Failure

It's Friday, and so rather than a deep analysis post, you get some brief workplace bitching.

I'm been having a hard time at work the last couple weeks as a result of organizational changes. Our team was reduced by over 50% (though fortunately, no one got laid off, just moved around) while our workload increased, and I'm the only experienced member left on the remainder. As this was being planned out over the last couple months, I told my manager repeatedly that the team would not be able to get everything done if we were reduced so far and left with all inexperience people. "I know," was the response. "But this is what we've been told to do, and we're not going to get another decision until something breaks and people see we can't be reduced this far and still function."

So here we are planning to fail so we can get more resources. And what I've been finding is how incredibly difficult and demoralizing that is for me. For a very long time, I've realized, a lot of my self-identity in regards to work has centered around the fact that although I fool around a bit with blogs and such I'm a very efficient worker and can usually get things done faster than most other people. Plus, if necessary, I'm willing to put in long hours. So if I'm asked to do something and told it's important, it simply gets done.

And yet, here I am facing a situation where if I take my usual approach, put in lots of hours, find better ways to do things, and somehow manage to do all the work on time -- all I'll do is succeed in making the unsustainable workload last longer, perpetuating the problem. Instead, I'm supposed to give it a try in such a way that I can claim that I have truly done my best and not wasted time, and yet fail to deliver the work that I've been asked to complete and on time, in the hope that bad things will happen and we'll be given more resources as a result. (This made harder by the fact that I'll be the one, as lead on these processes, taking most of the brunt of the initial displeasure at things not working out -- not the manager who's directed me to fail.)

If this were a matter of standing up to management and making the case that I need more resources on our team in order to get things done -- it would be pretty easy for me. But I already tried that, and the result was the direct to let things break. I don't know if I'm pleased to find how central to my sense of identity in regards to work "I get things done and don't fail" is, but now I know, and I guess I'm going to have to either disengage from it or spend a pretty miserable couple weeks/months.

I guess it's better than, "You're so fat!"

Someone I see around at church came up to me the other week and said, "I hadn't realized you were pregnant!"

I was 35 weeks pregnant.

Things like this make me question: when people say this, does it mean that previously they just thought I was fat? Because it's pretty unmistakable, in whatever I wear, that my stomach sticks out past my bust. I'm carrying around a good 30 extra pounds, and that weight has got to go somewhere. So if it isn't immediately obvious that I'm pregnant, what exactly does it look like?

And how does that jibe with the people who say, "Oh, you're so tiny! When I was that far along, I was just huge!" Is there some sort of mental shift people do when they know someone is pregnant, in which the proportions of the body suddenly change?

Anyway, we report, you decide. Here are two gratuitous belly shots -- I'm 37 weeks today.

That's the head of the last tenant. He is still blond -- what is that?

I guess the point is, I feel achy and huge. I lumber when I walk, and the amount of effort it takes me to roll over in bed at night is elephantine. So it's cold comfort to hear someone say, "You look so small!" when I feel like a whale and baby is bouncing on my bladder and kicking my ribcage.

My friends, I've run out of patience with being pregnant. Baby can arrive any time she pleases.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Real Sex vs. the Contraceptive Mentality (Part 1)

If you move in conservative Catholic circles much, you have doubtless heard the phrase "contraceptive mentality". Though used frequently and negatively, I think there is value in delving a bit more deeply into what we mean by the phrase. I was moved to write this in semi-response to an interesting post by Brett Salkeld a couple months back which sought to explore the bounds of what a "contraceptive mentality" is. Another good resource on the topic is this post at Catholic Culture on the contraceptive mentality.

While recognizing the dangers of trying to be too wide ranging in subject matter in the limited space of a blog post, my goal here is to set out answers to the following:
  • What is a "contraceptive mentality"?

  • How is a contraceptive mentality contrary to how humans are "meant" to function morally and sexually?

  • How, if at all, does NFP (natural family planning) relate to a contraceptive mentality?

I think it's easiest to think about the idea of a contraceptive mentality against the backdrop of how we function sexually as human creatures -- a term I use advisedly in that I want to emphasize our rootedness in a certain biological reality of being primates with certain biological systems and instincts, while at the same time not ignoring our rational, emotional and moral sensibilities in the sense that "human animal" strikes me as implying.

Uncertainty and Conception

One thing that sets us apart from most other higher primates is that humans have fairly even sexual drive all of the time. Or, at least, men have sexual drive pretty much all of the time. Women seem to have more variation in their level of interest, and indeed there is a fair amount of evidence that one driving (though unconscious) element of their drive is that they are more "in the mood" during the times of the month when they are fertile than when they are not. Another thing that sets us apart from most other higher primates is that a woman's fertility is not marked by unmistakable physical signs (change of color and swelling of the genital area, changes in smell, etc.) (Though Bonobos have often been compared to humans in regards to their relatively constant sex drive, they are like chimps in that female fertility is readily apparent through external signs.)

Thinking about humans naturalistically, this makes a fair amount of sense from an evolutionary point of view. The exceptionally long period it takes for human offspring to reach maturity, and the importance of learning social/cultural patterns in order to function maturely as a human, makes rearing by stable family groups highly desirable. Other higher primates, with their visually obvious mating periods, do not tend to form strong pair-bonds between mates. Indeed, quite the contrary: because a female's fertility is obvious to all males, the tendency among chimps, gorillas, etc., is for any adult male who can get within reach of her to try to get his genes into play. There are a number of different approaches a male primate may use in order to try to assure he is the one who succeeds in fathering a child on her, but there's a fair amount of competition and free-for-all involved. For humans, since it isn't immediately obvious when a woman is fertile, a male stands the best chance of passing on his genes by forming a longer term, exclusive relationship, since it's only by having relations consistently over at least a month (and knowing that other males have not succeeded in getting in on the action) that he can have reasonable assurance of being the father of any offspring. Take this relative exclusivity out into years instead of months (with the incentive of successfully fathering multiple offspring) and you've solved the problem of having both parents around to help rear offspring which take a long time to mature.

Evolutionarily speaking, there are differing incentives for men and women, which can be used to sketch different stories about men's and women's sexual drives and instincts. But I don't think it's overly controversial to assert that a compromise which suits both sets of drives well is found in monogamy, serial monogamy or polygamy -- relationship dynamics which are exclusive and stable, though not necessarily equal. (As the prevalence of polygamy in many cultures illustrates -- there's nothing but upside for a male from an evolutionary point of view if he can have exclusive access to multiple women rather than just one.)

All of which is a long way of coming around to this basic point: Uncertainty about when conception can result from intercourse is a factor which has been central to shaping the development of human sexual and relationship dynamics throughout the existence of our species.

Evolution vs. Responsible Parenthood

The above discussion should immediately bring to mind a contrast between our modern attitudes toward reproduction and what in anthropomorphic terms we might term evolution's "motivation": A host of messages in our modern society tell us that we should limit the number of children that we have, while "evolutionary success" is based upon the number of grandchildren one has who survive to reproduce. Thus, while the instincts and physical characteristics of most animals seem centered on maximizing the number of offspring, those of us in modern society tend to focus on not having more children than we plan on (and often plan on few.)

It's common for Christians of a ruralist tenor to attribute this to modern industrial society, asserting that in an agricultural society children are an asset while in an industrial society they are a liability. I think, however, this is the result of simplistic thinking. I would propose that, ever since we became aware, humans have always sought some degree of "responsible parenthood", though it's true that the cultures of many modern developed nations are much more biased against childbearing than most throughout history. Still, even in societies in which large numbers of children were described invariably as a blessing, we as humans have, because we are conscious and see death and deprivation as evils, always sought to have the "right" number of children for a given time and place.

Evolution is a process which optimizes the success of populations, not of individuals. As such, it is evolutionarily advantageous for members of a population to produce more offspring than their environment is easily able to sustain. This achieves several advantages: More individuals means more genetic variation, thus providing a larger chance for the development of advantageous new traits. Large numbers of individuals also protect against unforeseen catastrophes and provide individuals able to exploit unforeseen opportunities (new niches, migration, competition, etc.) If available resources prove not to be enough, the least fit individuals will die off, which for the genetic population as a whole is also generally beneficial.

However, we as conscious and moral beings obviously don't want to see people suffering for lack of food or other necessities. However advantageous it might be for the population, we don't want to see people suffering for lack of basic resources. And so we naturally want to avoid having children at times when we think we cannot support them.

[to be continued]

Part 2

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Quick Econ Thoughts on Licensing

This was going to be a comment on Blackadder's post which has turned into a discussion on licensing and whether it raises prices, but since I only have time to write out one thought process today I thought I'd turn it into a post.

Most folks outside economics see licensing as a way of legally certifying duties and providing a means of redress when incompetence occurs. Not only does a plumber who consistently allows sewer gases to enter a home get sanctioned civilly, he can be sanctioned by license loss and prevented from harming other households.

Let's try two examples on our theoretical plumber here:

1) Say that we have a local economy in which licensing is not mandatory. If I want some plumbing done, I have several options: I could open up the phone book, call around, and hire the absolute cheapest guy who says he's willing to give plumbing a job. He may do a terrible job, and set sewage to run through my ice maker. And I'd have little redress because I can't have him de-licensed. Alternatively, knowing those dangers, I could select someone who belongs to a plumbers guild or voluntary licensing organization which certifies its members as having a minimum level of skill and kicks out members who have complaints against them. This guy would cost more, but I'd have reasonable assurance that he would do quality work. A third option would be that I could talk to friends who've had plumbing work, or check through my KofC council in order to find someone who, while not certified, I'm willing to trust is going to do a good job. I check his references, and decide to trust him. In all probability, his rates are going to be somewhere between the person with the expensive license/membership and the guy who has the absolute lowest rates. The tension between these different groups will keep prices at a fair equilibrium. If the plumbers' guild starts getting greedy and raises their rates too high, then more people will do the work to check referrals and find a good non-guild plumber. If the guild makes it easier for people to be certified, more plumbers will join (in order to get more business) and this increased supply will drive down the price of guild-certified plumbers, etc.

2) Now let's imagine a situation in which the local economy is restricted with mandatory licensing. You can be fined or otherwise sanctioned if you work on pipes for pay without being a licensed plumber. On the bright side, this would suggest there's a certain minimum quality level for all plumbers. If you hire some guy in the phone book and he routes hot water through your toilets, you can call the licensing bureau and file a complaint -- given enough complaints, he may lose his license, thus protecting other consumers. However, there's now a mutually beneficial relationship created between licensed plumbers and the licensing organization. If existing plumbers can get the licensing requirements made more difficult and onerous, then they have less competition and thus have more secure work and higher pay. If the licensing organization can get away with making the process more expensive and onerous, they get to make more money. Say that originally you had to take four classes followed by a practicum test to become a licensed plumber. If the licensing organization raises its prices for the classes, or raises the number of required classes from four to six, they make more money. Better yet, the best and largest plumbing certifying organizations can turn to the government and try to get all their smaller and cheaper competition de-certified, so that everyone will have to go through the best possible (and most expensive) training. The only people with an interest in not artificially restricting the supply of plumbers are consumers, but it's hard for them to have any voice in the situation.

Now, if there was a way to keep the licensing process no more onerous than it had to be, I don't see that it would provide a huge amount of drain on the system. However, this brings me to what I think is another one of the basic differences in thinking between progressives and conservatives when it comes to economics (BA points out, rightly I think, that progressives tend to discount limitations of supply while conservatives tend to discount limitations of demand): One of the most identifying tendencies of the progressive worldview seems to be the assumption that it is possible to create institutions which are primarily ordered toward the common good -- not toward the good of the people who control them. Thus, it seems fairly progressive to assume that mandatory licensing will be used primarily to protect consumers, and that no one will co opt it in order to make the licensed profession more lucrative at the expense of consumers. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to assume that regulations and power structures will naturally protect themselves while preying on others, and so they tend to see licensing as a way of keeping people from entering a profession while charging customers higher prices.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Building in Blogger

With the server that dates back to my web design days nearing the end of it's usable life, I decided to convert the Humanities Program site to blogger-based site. I'm not done yet, and haven't transferred the domain name, but I'm fairly pleased with the amount of customization which is possible in Blogger these days if you read around a bit and customize your template. It has become possible to build a site on the blogger platform which looks very much like a stand-alone website rather than a blog.

Original Humanities Program site here.

Blogger-based in-progress site here.

Brother Can You Spare a Brew?

One of the several activities in what turned out to be a rather busy weekend-about-the-house was getting the latest batch of beer bottled.

Generally speaking, I homebrew because I enjoy the process and because I like the beer I make myself better than most of what I can find on the store shelves. However, it occurred to me recently -- while staring at the beer section and realizing the only six packs that looked good to me were priced at $7.99 and above -- that I should step up my production of standard cold-one-when-you-get-home-in-the-evening type beer, because it really is so much cheaper to brew your own than to buy.

This seemed like as good a challenge as any, and so the batch just bottled is Recession "In The Red" Ale, a fairly light (4-5% alcohol) red ale. Recipe as follows:

White Labs American Ale Yeast

7 lbs Extra Pale Malt Syrup

1 lb Crystal 120 Malt
1 lb Munich Malt
4oz Chocolate Malt

1oz Saaz hops (bittering)
0.5oz Saaz hops (flavor)
0.5oz Saaz hops (aroma)

(priming sugar, caps, etc.)

Bring the water to 150F, turn off the heat and let the grains steep for 30min. Remove the gains, bring the wort to a boil, add the malt syrup, bring to a boil again. Add bittering hops, boil for 45 minutes; add flavor hops, boil another 13 minutes; add aroma hops, boil 2 minutes. Pour into fermentor over ice, add cold water as needed to reach a little over 5 gallons, pitch yeast.

The goal was to bring the batch in under $35 total, which nets out to $4/six pack of finished beer. I hit the cost target right on the nose. And from the sample I tried today while bottling, it should be a solid hit in the flavor department as well -- well rounded maltiness well balanced with the refreshing Saaz hops. (Saaz is a Czech variety which you'd normally find in lagers.) It's also a very pleasing deep red/copper color.

To add to the thriftiness of the whole operation, and because so many of the good things in life involve grain and yeast, when I moved the beer from the primary fermentor into secondary after a week, I scooped out a half cup of the yeast/hop sludge at the bottom and mixed it in with a cup of flour and two cups of water to produce a starter. You keep the starter exactly like you do a sourdough starter -- scoop out half a cup or a cup to leaven a batch of bread, then add water and flour, let the starter sit out over night (covered) and then return it to the fridge. It doesn't have the sourdough taste, however, being brewer's yeast rather than wild. However, if you do as I did and start out with a full cup of the yeast/hops sludge from the bottom of your fermentor, you'll get a bit of a hops bitterness in your first batch or two of bread. The best way to work with this is by using some whole grains and such. Here's the recipe I used for the first batch:

2 cups rye flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1.5 cups white bread flour
1.5 tsp salt
0.5 cups beer starter
1.5 cups water

This makes a thick dough, so you need to kneed it thoroughly. Then leave it out overnight to rise. It should have risen noticeably by morning, and it will continue to rise more rapidly through the day. 2hrs before you're going to bake it, lay it out on a pan or peal on a sheet of parchment paper, and shape it into a nice round loaf. Use a razor blade to slice a couple of slashed in the top. Spray it with a bit of oil, cover with plastic wrap, and leave it to rise for the last two hours. Then bake.

I can't speak clearly to the temperature, since I put the baking stone on the grill, set the grill to medium low, and baked the bread with the lid down (after it had taken 15min to get up to heat) for about twenty minutes. Which, incidentally, is a great way to bake during the summer, though it takes a little getting used to in order not to burn the bottom of things. Some day, in the future where I have lots more space and money to play with, I'd love to actually build a brick outdoor oven, but given that we're rapidly outgrowing out house, this does not seem to be the time for that.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Social Contract and Morality

Kyle Cupp has a brief post describing the dehumanizing moral effects of seeing human dignity and rights as springing entirely from a social contract (implied or explicit):
This reduction occurs when we understand and act upon our moral obligations to one another only within the framework of a social contract--when we limit our obligations to those who have entered into such contracts and consider ourselves obligated only to those who share our citizenship, have signed a treaty we have signed, or participate with us in some other contractual arrangement. I make this reduction when I don't care about torturing terrorists because they're not signers of the Geneva Conventions, when I wish to alienate the immigrant who enters my country against my country's laws, when I ignore my obligations to those not yet born because the laws of the land do not recognize their personhood, or when I insist that others shouldn't be given Constitutional rights when the rights I wish to withhold from them are basic human rights.

I think that he's right as far as he goes, but I don't think that his point that basic human rights and duties are inherent to humanity (rather than assumed via some sort of contract/relationship) is actually the point usually at dispute in our society. Rather, what seems often to be disputed is what the extent of basic human rights are -- and which "rights" are merely agreed civic rights which we grant explicitly via the social contract.

For instance, on the torture debate, it seems to me that the two camps hold different views about the extent of basic human rights -- not that one camp only believes in the social contract while the other believes in basic human rights. Essentially, those who are defending the use of "enhanced interrogation" on terror suspects assert that it is in keeping with basic human rights to user certain forms of physical punishment as coercion -- punishing someone for refusing to provide information which the interrogators think they need in order to achieve some common good. What this people are saying (and I disagree) is: "It is morally acceptable and in keeping with basic human rights to waterboard (or beat or keep in the dark, etc.) someone who refuses to answer questions which might save lives. However, we as a society have made an agreement both internally with respect to our citizens and externally with certain treaty signing powers that we will forgo this morally acceptable means of coercion when dealing with criminals or POWs because we consider this to be to the overall common good."

I would propose that the way of testing this claim of mine would be as follows: If those who support "enhanced interrogation" of terror suspects really believe that human rights come only from the social contract and not from basic human rights of some sort, then clearly this would apply to things even more clearly in violation of basic human rights. Would they support:

- Selling them into slavery.
- Cutting out their eyes and tongues and then turning them loose.
- Having them drawn and quartered in the public square.

If not, we must assume that this camp does indeed believe that all people have basic human rights, and indeed their conceptions of basic human rights are more generous than those of many (if not most) societies throughout history.

Now, I do think that Kyle points to a real moral danger. Human societies have a natural tendency towards having one set of rules for "our people" and another for "other people". And so it's important to challenge people to think about what rights are human rights and which ones are civic rights extended only via the social contract.

At the same time, among those prone to hysteria about rights violations, there is a great tendency to assume that all civic rights are basic human rights. So, for example, in the US a trial by a jury of peers is a civic right when accused of a crime -- a right that we as citizens are given via the explicit social contract of our country. However, while being treated justly (and not being punished injustly) are basic human rights -- trial by jury is clearly not. And yet in our society, which so often confuses our legal system with morality, it is quite common for people to consider any other means of dispensing justice than a jury trial to be "denying people their basic rights".

While the social contract is clearly not the only thing that gives us rights, it is by no means unacceptable for certain rights and duties to be explicitly stemming from the social contract and available only to citizens or legal residents -- not to those who are not members of the country.

Ideology and Economic Knowledge

Prof Daniel Klein of had a brief piece in the WSJ this week talking about how people's economic knowledge or ignorance breaks down by ideological lines.
Zogby researcher Zeljka Buturovic and I considered the 4,835 respondents' (all American adults) answers to eight survey questions about basic economics. We also asked the respondents about their political leanings: progressive/very liberal; liberal; moderate; conservative; very conservative; and libertarian.

Rather than focusing on whether respondents answered a question correctly, we instead looked at whether they answered incorrectly. A response was counted as incorrect only if it was flatly unenlightened.

Consider one of the economic propositions in the December 2008 poll: "Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable." People were asked if they: 1) strongly agree; 2) somewhat agree; 3) somewhat disagree; 4) strongly disagree; 5) are not sure.

Basic economics acknowledges that whatever redeeming features a restriction may have, it increases the cost of production and exchange, making goods and services less affordable. There may be exceptions to the general case, but they would be atypical.

Therefore, we counted as incorrect responses of "somewhat disagree" and "strongly disagree." This treatment gives leeway for those who think the question is ambiguous or half right and half wrong. They would likely answer "not sure," which we do not count as incorrect.

In this case, percentage of conservatives answering incorrectly was 22.3%, very conservatives 17.6% and libertarians 15.7%. But the percentage of progressive/very liberals answering incorrectly was 67.6% and liberals 60.1%. The pattern was not an anomaly.

The other questions were: 1) Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services (unenlightened answer: disagree). 2) Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago (unenlightened answer: disagree). 3) Rent control leads to housing shortages (unenlightened answer: disagree). 4) A company with the largest market share is a monopoly (unenlightened answer: agree). 5) Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited (unenlightened answer: agree). 6) Free trade leads to unemployment (unenlightened answer: agree). 7) Minimum wage laws raise unemployment (unenlightened answer: disagree).

How did the six ideological groups do overall? Here they are, best to worst, with an average number of incorrect responses from 0 to 8: Very conservative, 1.30; Libertarian, 1.38; Conservative, 1.67; Moderate, 3.67; Liberal, 4.69; Progressive/very liberal, 5.26.

Americans in the first three categories do reasonably well. But the left has trouble squaring economic thinking with their political psychology, morals and aesthetics.

To be sure, none of the eight questions specifically challenge the political sensibilities of conservatives and libertarians. Still, not all of the eight questions are tied directly to left-wing concerns about inequality and redistribution. In particular, the questions about mandatory licensing, the standard of living, the definition of monopoly, and free trade do not specifically challenge leftist sensibilities.

Yet on every question the left did much worse. On the monopoly question, the portion of progressive/very liberals answering incorrectly (31%) was more than twice that of conservatives (13%) and more than four times that of libertarians (7%). On the question about living standards, the portion of progressive/very liberals answering incorrectly (61%) was more than four times that of conservatives (13%) and almost three times that of libertarians (21%).

The survey also asked about party affiliation. Those responding Democratic averaged 4.59 incorrect answers. Republicans averaged 1.61 incorrect, and Libertarians 1.26 incorrect.

This is not strictly a matter of Klein having a right-leaning ideology, some topics which cleave strongly left/right among the general public are actually agreed on pretty widely by economists. (For more examples, click through to the paper Mankiw is linking to.)

If Klein had wanted to include something to challenge conservative sensibilities, however, he might have tried the followoing: "The Laffer Curve proves that lowering tax rates always results in higher tax revenues through economic growth." (unenlightened answer: agree)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

How Not to Act

Some unsolicited advice for the mother in the store Tuesday afternoon: If a woman suddenly starts making a scene in the grocery store, and it turns out that her child is lost, and she wanders frantically down the aisles calling for him and almost crying, and the employees get involved and start searching for the boy, and finally someone finds and brings forward a Down's Syndrome child of about six:

You will squander all the goodwill and sympathy that any onlookers have built up for your if immediately you start scolding the child harshly for wandering off, and continue berating him until you've paid for your groceries and left the store.

That is all.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Review: Paul: From Tarsus to Redemption

I am not, as my more graphically astute friends and relatives can tell you, someone deeply immersed in comic books, graphic novels, or manga (the Japanese comic book genre). I've read a few classics like Maus, which every so often I find Eleanor having taken off the shelf and advise her that, "I know that's a comic book, honey, but it's actually for older people." And I've read the manga versions of some favorite anime series, such as Fullmetal Alchemist and Hikaru No Go. But if you're looking for a comic expert, I'm not your guy. Still, when we got an email asking if we'd be interesting in reviewing a manga for young teens based on the life of St. Paul, I was curious. (And, of course, there's always the lure of free books.) Though even as a kid I was always more of a prose guy than a comic reader (with the exception of having every Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side comic memorized) there were actually two Catholic comics that I had as a kid (I think a gift from one of my godparents) which I read enough times that I still have images from them bubble up in my mind when I read about the life of St. Francis or of John Paul II (the wonders of the internet: I haven't seen them in decades but herethey are.) So I'm conscious of how a well-done comic on a religious topic can be surprisingly formative even for a kid who's quite willing to read prose as well.

Paul: Tarsus to Redemption (Volume 1) is definitely written with a manga artistic influence, even sporting some Japanese characters on the front cover. Indeed, at first I flipped to the back assuming this would read back to front like traditional manga, but in this case manga is an influence, not a mimic. I'd put the art style as somewhat in between an American and a Japanese one.

The story picks up Paul as a young firebrand, the protege of a wise rabbi, but unwilling to listen to the rabbi's words of caution and peace. Paul's best friend is a converted Roman soldier, and the two of them are committed to protecting God's Truth from the perversions of the sect of the carpenter, by the sword if necessary.

We see Paul and his young firebrand friends taking it to the Christians, and in the early pages they have a violent altercation with a Christian man in front of his family which sets up the stage for regret and character conflict later in the story.

Soon enough, Paul and his droogies are tearing off towards Damascus for a bit more ultraviolence, when he's struck from his horse and hears the voice of God, thus beginning a journey of conversion and repentance.

After his conversion, we see Paul struggle with the knowledge of his own past violence, the feelings of betrayal that his firebrand friends have, the suspicion of the Christian community, and even what looks like a potential love interest.

Tarsus to Redemption works hard at making Paul's conflicts immediate and emotional, and fleshing out the story of his conversion into something that will be compelling to young readers. (I'd put the intended readership at perhaps 11-14, though our eight-year-old sat engrossed in it for some time, and I don't think it's inappropriate for young readers.)

The storytelling is a times rather telegraphic; I had a hard time reconciling the timeframe in some of the Jerusalem to Damascus and back again storyline. This is definitely not an overly talky comic, and Paul (like many a sensitive male anime character) spends his share of time staring darkly into the middle distance.

One story choice that struck me as a little surprising was the invention of an entirely fictional incident involving killing a Christian man rather than using the actual story of St. Stephen, at whose stoning Acts places Paul. That struck me as a bit of a missed opportunity in regards to helping kids reading this learn the Biblical story of Paul.

However, the story is definitely fast paced, and will keep a young reader riveted for an hour or two. The creators are planning at least two more volumes to complete the story of Paul, and are also launching a manga series about Judith.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010


It hardly seems like it, but the Darwins have been inhabiting the blogsphere for five years now. It doesn't seem like that long, though as I re-read our first post, I realize that we had only two children then -- though looking back I realize miss #3 was, as the saying goes, a gleam in her father's eye right around then. And here we are expecting our fifth to be born within the next few weeks.

I also remember, looking over the first month, that it took a while to get used to thinking in terms of blog posts. I'd find myself struggling for topics, whereas these days topics are no problem, but I struggle for time.

Still, three of those June 2005 posts remain among those I recall as my better ones, and am surprised to realize were written so long ago:

Population & Ideology

Send me your poor...

Your child's disabled?

I think at least once a year since starting I've toyed seriously with dropping blogging, as it's something that's hard to do half-way. It becomes a mentality after a while, with thoughts and observations always coming in the form of post ideas. However, the interaction itself is rather addictive. And I would certainly recommend to anyone with an interesting in writing the habit of writing for public consumption on a near daily basis.

Not just that, but there is a sense in which the virtual world becomes a real community over time. Indeed, some of our close friends locally are people we originally ran into via the blog. And it also allows distant friends to keep tabs on us.

So here's to five years, and I'm sure there will be many more. It's good to know you.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Fertility Morality

Peter Singer (yes, that Peter Singer) has a piece at the New York Times philosophy blog where he tries to grapple with the question of whether it is moral to reproduce. He spends most of the piece laying out arguments as to why we should choose not to have children due to the suffering that live involves, then at the end states (without much explanation) that he doesn't actually support the idea of voluntary extinction through refusal to reproduce because a would without people in it would not be as good -- though he never explains how he reaches this conclusion given what came before.

On the flip side, Jeff Mirus of writes a piece on how Catholics are ready to change the culture because they actually have the theological and philosophical reason to believe that having children is a good thing.

Who shall inherit the earth?

Restin' Up

I do believe that at this point I know the majority of American women who've gone two weeks overdue, so it was rather a surprise to me when my midwife informed me at my 35-week visit last week that I ought to go on quasi-bed-rest because I'm already 1 1/2 cm. dilated and 50% effaced. ("Quasi-bed-rest" is a highly untechnical term that just means "put up your feet for half a day and don't irritate your cervix".) This isn't a long-term deal -- after 36 weeks, she'll deliver at home, but that still means I've got to sit around until Friday. For the first few days this was exciting, but the novelty has quickly worn off. The idea of putting up my feet is appealing, but there's some inherent conflict with my nesting urges. My periods of energy are in the morning and late at night -- the quiet times in the house -- whereas when I really have a strong desire to put up my feet is the mid-day period in which the children desire to charge around the house.

Also, I just can't suspend disbelief enough to think that baby would come this early, or next week, or the week after, or any time before her due date. I'm not feeling it. And yet, when my midwife, with her thirty years of experience, tells me to take it easy, I do start to wonder. And that's the irritating part, because I don't really want to go early, and it's unlikely that I will anyway, but man, it sure would be nice not to be pregnant for 4 1/2 more weeks.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Rhyming Song

This one's for you, Dad!

Saturday, June 05, 2010

More Decline in Detroit

The decline of Detroit holds an odd fascination for me. The abandonment of so much beautiful architecture rips my heart out -- I've longed all my life to live in such houses, and to see them fall into irreparable decay saddens me in a way that the meager offerings of modern housing are incapable of doing. Fortunately, the WSJ reliably runs a death-of-Detroit piece every few months; today's article is about the urban flight of Detroit's professional black class:
DETROIT—This shrinking city needs to hang on to people like Johnette Barham: taxpaying, middle-class professionals who invest in local real estate, work and play downtown, and make their home here.

Ms. Barham just left. And she's not coming back.

In seven years as a homeowner in Detroit, she endured more than 10 burglaries and break-ins at her house and a nearby rental property she owned. Still, she defied friends' pleas to leave as she fortified her home with locks, bars, alarms and a dog.

Then, a week before Christmas, someone torched the house and destroyed almost everything she owned.

In March, police arrested a suspect in connection with the case, someone who turned out to be remarkably easy to find. For Ms. Barham, the arrest came one crime too late. "I was constantly being targeted in a way I couldn't predict, in a way that couldn't be controlled by the police," she says. "I couldn't take it anymore."

Ms. Barham's journey from diehard to defector illustrates the precarious state of Detroit today. The city—which has shed roughly 1 million residents since the 1950s—is now losing the African-American professionals who had stayed steadfastly, almost defiantly, loyal.

Through decades of white flight and economic distress, these diehards have sustained the city's cultural institutions and allowed prime neighborhoods such as Indian Village and Palmer Woods to stave off the blight that infects large swaths of Detroit.

Today, frustrated by plummeting property values and high crime, many diehards have hit their breaking point. Their exodus is consigning borderline neighborhoods to full-blown blight and putting prime residential areas at risk. By some estimates, this year's Census will show a population drop of 150,000 people from the 951,000 people who lived within city limits in 2000. That would be roughly double the population loss in the 1990s, when black, middle-class flight began replacing white flight as the prevailing dynamic.

There are other signs the middle class is throwing in the towel. From 1999 to 2008, median household income in Detroit dropped nearly 25% to $28,730, after growing 17% in the 1990s, according to Data Driven Detroit, a nonprofit that analyzes Census data for the city. Over that period, the proportion of owner-occupied homes fell to 39% from 49%, while the proportion of vacant homes nearly tripled to 28%.
A serious problem? A police force so understaffed and busy with major crime that petty theft, break-ins, and even arson fall through the cracks. Architecture is one thing, but how can any city survive if the people who pay the taxes don't feel safe enough to live there?

Friday, June 04, 2010

Seven Quick Takes

(Joint Post Edition)

1. Tycho Brahe was one of the great astronomers of the 16th century, a contemporary of Galileo and Kepler, and an all-around colorful character. He lost part of his nose in a duel, and had a metal prosthetic made (reportedly embellished with gold and silver) which he wore in its place. He is also reported to have had a tippling pet moose:
Lantgrave Wilhelm of Kassel in Germany, with whom Tycho Brahe had an extensive mail correspondence and astronomical discussions, asked Tycho in a letter 1591 about an animal he had heard about called "Rix", which was faster than a deer, but with smaller horns. Tycho replied that such an animal did not exist, but maybe he meant the norwegian animal called reindeer. Tycho wrote that he would check further details about such animals and if he could perhaps send one. He wrote that he had a young moose, that he could send if the Lantgrave would like. The Lantgrave replied that he had owned reindeers before but they had died of the heat, he also had a moose, which was tame and followed him like a dog. He would gladly accept a tame moose from Tycho, and would in such case reward Tycho with a riding horse for the trouble.

Tycho replies that he would order additional moose, and he would have sent his tame one, had it not died shortly before. It had been transported to the castle of Landskrona, a city close to Hven, to entertain a nobleman there. But it had happened that during the dinner, the moose had ascended the castle stairs and drunk of the beer in such amounts, that it had fallen down the stairs, and broken a leg. Despite the best care, the moose had died shortly thereafter. [source]
However, the most famous story about Tycho regards his death, and comes to us from his friend and fellow astronomy Kepler: Tycho had attended a banquet in Prague for the emperor Rudolph II, whom he served as imperial mathematician. The etiquette of the day required that none of the guests rise until the emperor did -- a stricture which Tycho followed despite having drunk deeply and suffering acutely from the call of nature. When he got home, he found he couldn't urinate, though he was in great pain. Nor was he able to for several days. When at last he was able to urinate a bit, it was tinged with blood. He died of a fever (with severe lower abdominal pain) several days later.

This would make Tycho the perfect warning to children reluctant to go to the bathroom before leaving for car trips, except that modern autopsies suggest that he may actually have died from mercury poisoning, perhaps from a medicine that he took to help his bladder ailment. (Darwin)

2. We had a chance to go see the movie Babies last week, and it was just good. Though the focus is mainly on the babies (natch), I couldn't help but observe what glimpses you got of the parents as seen through the eyes of a baby. I was struck by the unstudied beauty of the Mongolian and African mother, and, in the case of the Japanese mother, how meaningless trendy strollers and artfully tousled hair and hipper-than-thou clothes are to a baby. I thought the American parents a bit silly, but I suppose in Mongolia there are plenty of mothers who might protest that their babies aren't allowed to wander around farm animals unsupervised. Or, plenty of African families who would object that it's inaccurate to portray African life as a primitive Bronze-Age existence, and that their children aren't raised in the dirt, thank you very much.

But who cares? The point is the babies, and they're worth watching. As a parent, I recognized every moment of this movie. (MrsDarwin)

3. One of the odd sensations of having written a blog for so long is that every so often I'll go look up a post that I remember as being recent and fairly clever, and find to my shock that it was written 3-4 years ago. I had this sensation this week when looking up a post I'd written in praise of amateurs. (Darwin)

4. Darwin and I often encounter situations that leave us shaking our heads and saying, "I'm glad we're us." And here's a fine example of other couples being silly, from a WSJ article about married couples who spat about driving:

Beverly Floyd will never forget the worst argument she ever had with her husband—a fight that saw the couple screaming at each other and hurling insults of "crazy" and "psycho."

A spat about finances? The kids? Work? Nope. It was about which one of them should gas up the car.

The fireworks started when the couple pulled into a service station while on a return leg of a road trip. Already silently fuming that he hadn't offered to do his share of the driving, Ms. Floyd was astounded when her then-boyfriend didn't lift a finger to pump the gas. So she did it herself and paid for it. As she got back into the car, he handed her a $20 bill.

Bad idea. She threw it at him. He tossed it back at her. She ripped it up. He shredded the cash she kept in the ashtray. She ripped up the money in his wallet. All told, they destroyed about $200 in a matter of minutes. (They spent their evening trying to match serial numbers and tape the shredded pieces of money together.)

Well then. Darwin and I aren't given to fighting anyway, but we're both essentially serious enough that I can't see us ripping up legal tender to make a point about the psychological issues underlying who pumps the gas.

5. We all have our strange little hang-ups. One of mine is that I absolutely cannot rest when there is a fly in the house. This is awkward, because one of the favorite activities of my many offspring is standing with the door open trying to decide whether to go in or out. On reaching a decision, they go in the chosen direction, leaving the door open. (On my gravestone it will say, "Shut the door!") Thus, when I get home in the evening, the first thing I have to do (even if dinner is on the table) is take up the fly swatter and hunt down all the interlopers. Time is of the essence, if the sun goes down they don't congregate on the window anymore. (Darwin)

6. If you want to see a master actor at work, catch Alec Guiness playing eight very different roles in the classic Kind Hearts and Coronets. Here he is as three characters in rapid succession.

I really only looked up this clip because we've been cracking ourselves up all night by rasping out, "The enemy emerged from behind the kopje..." I post it for your amusement (except that I find it won't embed -- grr).

NOTE: YouTube and Google are not going to win themselves any fans with this new Google Ads deal clogging up videos.(MrsDarwin)

7. Young master Darwin (21 months) has learned, in rapid succession, how to climb out of his crib and how to open doors. Nothing is safe. There is, however, one approach to getting him down to bed that often works. Give him a doll to protect and his toy lightsaber, and he will often settle down with one under each arm. (Darwin)