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

Friday, July 29, 2011

Seven Quick Takes


- 1 -

No clever theme this time, as I'm using the quick takes for exactly the purpose it's creator intended it for: It's been a crazy week here in DarwinLand, and I find myself at the end of the week with only one real post and an amusing video posted, and lots of fractional posts on the back burner that never got completed. The first half of the week, MrsDarwin took the kids up to visit some old friends who were spending time on a farm in Michigan. I stayed behind, which worked out well because my big project at work blew up and I found myself putting in twenty hours or so between Sunday afternoon and Monday night.

In the back half of the week, MrsD and I were both trying to catch up on rest, while the kids were responding the way kids to do indoor highs in the upper eighties (we have no A/C in the new-old house) and it not becoming fully dark until 9:30 or so.

- 2 -

Leah of Unequally Yoked, who ran the Religious Turing Test (which I still keep meaning to write about), had up a post the other day noting the spat that developed between Jennifer Fulwiler writing at National Catholic Register and PZ Myers, the atheist doyen who fills roughly the same spot in the atheist/science-blogger world as Fred Phelps does in Christianity, except that a surprising number of atheists seem to imagine he's someone worth listening to.

Leah notes that one of the primary complaints of PZ and his followers is that Jenn was clearly never a "real" atheist (and probably No True Scotsman, either) and indeed that complaints that a convert from some belief system to another "was never really a true X" are fairly common and asks, "How do you gauge the validity of someone's abandoned beliefs?"

I don't think it's possible to externally gauge the extent to which someone honestly held the beliefs that they held in the past. Even the former believer himself is usually not very good at that in retrospect. However, it is possible to gauge how well someone is able to express the beliefs which they claim to have formerly held. Thus, for example, as a Catholic if someone tells me, "I used to be a really well educated Catholic, but then I realized that if you break the Eucharist it doesn't bleed, and when you bite it it doesn't taste like flesh, so I knew that all that teaching about transubstantiation was just idiotic," I know that however sincere that person may have been in the past about his Catholic faith, he didn't have a clear understanding of what Eucharistic doctrines actually state.

- 3 -
Always eager to find another way to shape public behavior, some people are suggesting that a tax be imposed on soft drinks and other unhealthy foods, and the money used to fund a subsidy for vegetables and other healthy items. From what I know of the price elasticities involved, I'd believe that a high tax on soda (the proposal is to tax at $0.02/oz, thus adding $1.44 to the price of a six pack of 12oz cans) would drive demand down a bit -- or shift more people to diet since the proposal is to tax on the real soft drinks, not the fakes.

However, I'm pretty skeptical that a subsidy on green vegetables would actually result in much higher consumption. While I'm told that the price of arugula at Whole Foods remains pretty rough, the price of romaine and spring mix at the average Kroger or Safeway is really not that bad. Living off fresh vegetables and fruits is arguably cheaper than living off potato ships and soft drinks. The difference is that people really like junk food (for a biologically explainable reason: once upon a time before we got really good at growing food sugars and fats were harder to come by, so our bodies are designed to crave them.) Plus, junk foods are highly portable in a way that most greens aren't. (A salad starts to look a little tired after a day or two, while chips and soda keep for months if not years if unopened.) Often convenience is at least as big a driver of behavior as price -- as shown by the fact that "universal health care" hasn't actually driven down the over-use of emergency rooms, despite their higher cost they're open when people are available to go to the doctor.

- 4 -
A few weeks ago, Ross Douthat cited the statistic that in the 70s barely over half of well-educated Americans agreed that adultery is always wrong. This got John Sides thinking, and pulling data from the General Social Survey. It turns out there has in fact been a steady trend of people who have completed grad school or college becoming more disapproving of adultery since the '70s. Razib looks at the same data and separates out male and female attitudes.

- 5 -
I've had some back-and-forth with Alex Binder of Christian Economics about the Modern Money Theory and its implications. Hopefully more discussion on that to come in the future.

- 6 -
My path in life seems to usually put me in the company of people slightly older than myself -- in great part, I imagine, because I hit a lot of life milestones (marriage, children, career, etc.) at what is considered a young age by mainstream standards. Thus, I often hear people at work talking about the creeping sense that things they had wanted to do while while young, things they'd dreamed of, may not be possible.

As we settle into the new job, income, house, milieu, etc. I find myself starting to look forward to possibilities which seem, to me at least, particularly middle aged. Maybe at some point we won't have a kid nursing and we will have enough money to take a vacation together. For several days. Somewhere nice. Maybe someday we'll go back to Europe -- and have the money to stay in hotels instead of hostels and eat at restaurants instead of subsisting on bread, cheese and wine. (Though that wasn't bad...)

I recall catching up with some friends of my parents a few years ago, whose youngest kid had just moved out, and hearing about how they'd gone to stay in Paris for a week. Somehow that seemed a revelation. My idea of progressing through life had unthinkingly been: Run around and see a few things without spending any money while in college, get a job, get married, have kids, stick to that routine till you get feeble and then die.  (Of course, that could happen too.)

- 7 -

It's a good thing our garden is a means of recreation rather than subsistence, because so far all we got out of it was a few rounds of salad before new rounds of lettuce refused to sprout any more. (too hot, perhaps) But soon, very soon, we should be absolutely buried in tomatoes. Big, heavy, tomatoes. Watching these monsters grow larger and larger is certainly a pleasing sight after years of trying to grow tomatoes in Texas and finding that with the heat we could only get one or two full size tomatoes off each plant (though we did get lots of cherry tomatoes.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Constructed Lives

Last weekend's Wall Street Journal had another of its book-excerpt-as-human-interest-article pieces. Past installments have managed to make quite a splash, with examples such as the Tiger Mom piece which seemingly everyone was talking about for week (I hope that author got some good book sales out of it as everyone decided that she was psycho -- there ought to be such compensations for such self pillorying) and an excerpt of Bryan Caplan's book outlining "selfish reasons to have more children."

"My Fertility Crisis" tells of the author, Holly Finn's, attempts to have a child via IVF. She's in her early forties and didn't start trying to have children until she was 39, not, she says, through any lack of desire to be a mother, but through a belief that she needed to have her adventures first -- and because she never seemed to find the right man to have children with. (She still hasn't.)
I'm not that woman from the Roy Lichtenstein print who forgot to have children. I was never so wrapped up in my career that I didn't think about starting a family. But I'm not over 40 and childless for no reason. I was diagnosed with endometriosis, a condition that makes it hard, sometimes impossible, to conceive. I gave too much time to the wrong men. I smoked in my 20s. I preferred red wine to sparkling water. I ate too much milk chocolate. I liked limericks. I know all the wrong that I've done.

I was 39 when I started treatment; I am 42 now. And still I feel lucky. Unlike many infertile people, I have the resources, though they're not endless, to keep at it. Choosing to have children is not like choosing a pair of shoes. Most people know how serious a decision it is. But women who rely on reproductive medicine are still often seen as privileged procrastinators. Our supposedly arrogant delay—we'll get around to having children when we're good and ready—has put us in a pickle, and now we're buying our way out.

That may be true for some. But in my case, there's never been a time when I was "not ready" for children. At 6, I loved my Baby Alive doll like a real child and wanted to be a "baby nurse" when I grew up. By 26, not much had changed. I was in business school but could have cared less about derivatives class. I was too busy dating and taking care of my digital egg, the Tamagotchi. Telling toys.

But here's the guilty glitch: In my early 30s, I took the morning-after pill. My then-boyfriend, the hunky one, said with a sweet smile that he wouldn't mind a baby. I wish I had listened, really listened, to him. But I was still piecing myself back together after a bruising former relationship and broken engagement, and something stopped me from saying the truth: I wouldn't mind a baby, either.

On a walk by the sea one blustery day, a friend told me he'd never hire a hooker. "It's efficient," he said, "but there's something so sad about not being able to get it for free." Picking a sperm donor feels like that, at least at first. For months before I started IVF, I sat down at my computer, logged on to a sperm bank and stood up again.

I've never wanted to pick a man just so I could have children. I craved something less logical. My first love was the man who drove all night in the snow to New York City. He called me from the corner of 93rd Street and Third Avenue and said nothing except, "Look out your window." There he was, shivering at the pay phone, gorgeously spontaneous. I miss pay phones.

And I believe in soul mates. So how did I end up cruising a cryobank? Is this the punishment for romanticism: having to do the least romantic thing in the world? Like many, I trusted that marriage and children—my family—would happen. In the meantime, I lived my life. I fell in with some fascinating men, up close and unvarnished, and had conversations I can still quote. I didn't want to settle at 25. I wanted adventures. I just didn't imagine their cost, and how I would struggle to keep paying it.
Reading this, I can't discount the authors genuine yearning to have children -- and yet there's simply so much wrong with what's going on here. It's criticism Finn seeks to fend off:
The fertile also can be unthinkingly callous. I've had friends suggest that my experience could be a great lesson: This is the first time I haven't gotten something that I wanted (I promise, it's not). Others imply that IVF is a prideful attempt to outmaneuver nature, which may be true. But that's hard to hear from people who used contraception for years, then timed sex according to an ovulation kit, scheduled their C-sections around work and dye their hair.
She's right, I think, that in a contraceptive culture people demand to have children on their own terms -- first to have sex without worrying about children, then to have children without worrying about age or biology. She's right to see this as the flip side of the couple that uses contraception to schedule their children for exactly when it's convenient -- and that's why those of us who are counter-cultural enough to accept the Church's understanding of sex and contraception reject both sides of that coin.

There's also, however, something more human and universal going on here. Finn says that she's always wanted to be a mother, yet somehow the choices that she made over the course of her life, from the men she fell in love with to the morning-after pill she took when she thought she might have got pregnant at a time when she didn't want to, built a life that didn't include children.

The house or office you are sitting in was built according to a plan and a purpose, a purpose from which it is now only able to deviate to a limited extent. My house cannot suddenly become an office tower, though it has an office in it. My office building would make a very poor house. But they are built knowingly, according to a plan. And yet, our lives seem often constructed to a purpose without the architect know that he is in constructing something with walls and doors -- an edifice which will suit some ends well, and other poorly. Individual choices pile up unto some particular type of life, and once that life is built people sometimes find it is not, in fact, the kind of structure they want to live in, and yet tearing it down and rebuilding in some other way is difficult. Some people tear things down and remake them -- going through the chaos that is some sort of conversion of life or belief. Others attempt to repurpose the structure they have have built without making changes -- like trying to build a cozy country kitchen in an office cube.

All this would be a variant on, "It's all your fault if you don't like your life," except, of course, that we are not the only builders of our lives. Enbrethiliel writes about the men in women's lives who aren't there.
A few years ago, on the 'blog of a Catholic lady whose special niche was romantic relationship advice, I said that I sometimes thought that the man I was supposed to marry was aborted before he could even be born.

She replied that if he had been, then he wasn't really meant to be my husband.

I always found something wrong with that answer.

I suspect the hundreds of thousands of marriageable women in post-war Britain, startled to realise that the loss of hundreds of thousands of marriageable men meant that nine in ten of them would be old maids for life, would find it downright offensive.
I'm not sure I believe in the idea that there is some particular person one is meant to marry. Thinking back over the 14 years MrsDarwin and I have known each other, I realize how much I've changed because I know her, and she because she knows me. By God's will and Clotho's twisting threads we met, and by various chances and choices we found ourselves together and grew together until we are what we are now.

Had she never existed, or gone to some other college, or had we simply never run into each other, we would have both continued down paths, different for being unshared. Had I not met her, I'd be a very different person now, in tastes and experiences, whether I'd remained single or found some other woman with whom I'd fallen in love. If we never met until now, would we still be the sort of people who fell in love, or would we have grown into people who wouldn't be interested in each other?

The ravages of abortion, war and all the other evils of the world take people away, people who might have formed a part of and changed the plan of other lives. And those who would have met them keep on building their lives out of the pieces that are left, and may never find the pieces to build the kind of structure they desire.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Celebrity Shakespeare

This is just amazing. I'd rate the most dead on as George W. Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Woody Allen and George Clooney as some of the most dead on.



It's fascinating how much of the facial look of some of the celebrities he takes on while doing their voices. I wonder if that's an additional layer of impression he has to work on, or if the facial impression actually helps get the voice to come out right.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Indoctrination and Education

Kyle has a pair of posts on a California bill mandating that students in the state learn that gay, lesbian, and transgendered people exist and have made noteworthy contributions to the country. It's not exactly clear whether Kyle is in favor of the bill and the text book/instruction differences likely to result, but it is fairly clear that Kyle is put off by people who are objecting to the bill as an example of moral and political indoctrination by the public schools.

My first (and perhaps lowest) inclination in situations such as this is to take the knocking-the-dust-from-my-sandals approach which comes naturally in one who was a homeschooled in California before it was fashionable and say that anyone who sends their children off to the California public schools should know that what little their kids learn probably won't be correct anyway, but that's an instinct which is neither helpful nor apropos. However, I do find myself wanting to address Kyle's approach to this, which in some ways strikes me as being an example of the kind of knee-jerk open-mindedness which is depressingly common these days.

In his first post, Kyle argues that rather than objecting to bills such as this, we should focus on teaching children to think critically, assuming that they will at various times be taught things which are contrary to what we believe to be true.
Let’s say for argument’s sake that public education really does involve indoctrination. If that’s the case, what’s to be done? Change public education policy, sure, but that’s a daunting, long, arduous road. And there’s little guarantee that traversing this path will bring change one can believe in. What options does a concerned parent have in the meantime?

Now I say the following as someone who believes in a handful of doctrines: If you’re a parent fearful of indoctrination at your school system, teach your child/children to see through indoctrination. Teach the boys and girls to think—critically and with a healthy dose of suspicion. Most kids already have the interrogative foundation for critical thought: they ask “Why?” and “How come?” to every statement some supposedly learned person makes.
...
Whatever the content of my children’s education (of course, I want it to be good), my primary educational goal will be that my children learn in time how to think—how to understand and not just repeat. I intend to work with them as they learn the ways of the world and what unfortunately passes for the ways of the world. When my children hear a lesson that contradicts what I’ve taught them (or plan to teach them), I don’t want them to raise their hands and just repeat what I’ve told them or sit quietly thinking my Dad would disagree with this. I want them to learn how to weigh evidence and assess the soundness of arguments. I want accurate thinkers, not repeaters. Heck, I’d prefer them to be mediocre thinkers to outstanding repeaters.
This is reasonable enough -- surely one is not going to say that children should not be taught to think critically and assess truth for themselves. However, it's not really a successful objection to the question of whether to teach any given topic or to teach a topic in a given way. Although Kyle is eagerly teaching his son to think critically, I'm assuming that he would not thus be indifferent if he heard that his son's school was going to be teaching that torture is an essential and virtuous may to each with recalcitrant suspects, or that white people are inherently superior to other races. The fact that we want our children to think critically about what they are taught does not mean that we want them to be actively taught things that are untrue. (Nor does critical thinking protect one from having one's view of the world twisted if one is consistently fed incomplete or inaccurate accounts of it.)

In the second post, Kyle deals more directly with what the bill actually requires. He responds to some criticism of his stand against those against the bill thusly:
Regarding the Fair Education Act, from which I had segued into this discussion of indoctrination, I confess to being baffled by Elena's take on the bill. She writes:
What the Fair Education Act is really about is exposing children to squalid information about the private lives of adults. It is information that they do not need to have in order to appreciate the life work of outstanding historical characters especially since it is material mostly based upon rumor and hearsay. When the classroom becomes filled with too much unnecessary and confusing knowledge then a genuine opening of the mind is hindered rather than fostered.
I fail to see any evidence for this reading, at least in the bill itself, and I'm having a hard time imagining teachers using this legislation as an excuse to discuss squalid details of private lives or textbooks beginning to include juicy tidbits, anecdotes, and speculation about gay, lesbian, and transgendered Americans. Maybe I'll change my mind after a few years of having a child in the public education system. In the meantime, I'm inclined to agree with Frank M's take in the comments at Vox Nova: "What it attempts to do is de-legitimize the marginalization of social “undesirables” in school textbooks ... the legislation does not make any requirement about discussing homosexual behavior or expression; it only relates to the existence of homosexual persons and their contributions to the state’s development."
I think Elena's point here, which I think certainly holds when dealing with the younger grades, is that focusing on the sexual activities of a historical figure as a means of identification is needlessly tawdry. Thus, when doing world history with one's second grader, one should talk about Richard the Lion Heart and John Lack Land without going into the fact that Richard was bisexual, and that this arguably may have had something to do with his not leaving a legitimate son, and thus passing the kingdom to John. That Richard often preferred to sleep with boys rather than women is not really the stuff of elementary school text books.

Now, I take it from Kyle's rejoinder here that the idea is that one could talk about Richard as a member of the group "bisexuals" without getting into the question of what exactly a bisexual does in bed that defines him or her as such. Thus, third graders could look up to Richard I as a sterling example for bisexuals everywhere, while remaining blissfully innocent of what exactly a bisexual is.

I think this is frankly a pretty silly idea. When dealing with historical figures, we generally have very little idea what their sexual proclivities were other than by looking at accounts of who they were reputed to be having sex with. Thus, for instance, it might be that Woodrow Wilson was was in fact a homosexual and simply pushed his proclivities so far down that he appeared happily (and indeed devotedly) married to his two wives -- but if that were the case we'd have no way of knowing it. So when dealing with historical figures, the question of sexual orientation is invariably a question of "Who did this person sleep with." As such, it's not really possible to talk about "orientation" as separate from "acts" in these situations. And I think that up until the high school level or so questions of who historical figures like to sleep with are probably not really things that need to be covered -- if schools can get kids to know when Abraham Lincoln was elected, why his election started the civil war, and what he said in Gettysburg, they'll be doing pretty well. If people desperately want to wade into the question of who Lincoln slept with, they can do that after they've mastered all the basic facts and narratives up to a high school level. (Once into high school, it seems to me that instead of doing interest group eduction it's time to get into some serious reading. Kids can learn about diverse sexuality by reading Clouds, Lysistrata, The Symposium, The Satyricon and The Golden Ass. By the time they work up to the modern world a couple years later, reading about Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing or the Stonewall Riots should be pretty tame stuff.

And this gets around to what strikes me as the big educational problem here (as opposed to the moral one -- for I think it's hard to deny that, as the commenter Kyle quotes indicates, the purpose of this legislation is to make a variety of sexual practices and orientations sound "normal" and "okay". The legislation being objected to states:
51204.5. Instruction in social sciences shall include the early history of California and a study of the role and contributions of both men and women, Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups, to the economic, political, and social development of California and the United States of America, with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society.
Now the issue, as I see it, is that this means that the purpose of history instruction is not to talk about the most important or formative things that actually happened in history, but instead to make sure that we talk about at least one thing relating to each of these interest groups. Now, what if it doesn't happen to be the case that one can find an important woman Pacific Islander transsexual who was a major figure in California history? Well, in that case, you need to pick someone who was a woman Pacific Islander transsexual and pretend that she was more important than she was.

This is a lousy way to go about studying history, which is, after all, not the study of who we think is a worthwhile person, but of what happened in the past.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bibliobilia

Book nostalgia seems to be the theme for the week, so here's your chance to get in. I think the focus will be on children's books this time, since that's what we've been discussing. Either share it in the combox, or leave a comment with a link to your blog post.

Here's a page of bibliobilia from my own library:

When I was seven I had chicken pox, along with my siblings, the neighbors, and everyone else, since in the dark ages before the vaccine children had the pox and lived to exchange the war stories. Of course we were miserable, and as the severity of the cases increased with age, I was the unhappiest of the lot. Quarantined from school, I scratched glumly and assiduously picked every strand of cotton ball from my pinkly calamined spots, which were legion. But this was not enough to still the itching frenzy in my breast, so I flipped angrily through one of my favorite books, a tattered collection of The Brothers Grimm with marvelous illustrations by Fritz Kredel.



I liked the obscure stories: Jorinda and Joringel, Iron Hans, and my favorite, The Goose Girl. The Goose Girl is really a princess who has a talking horse named Falada, but her wicked serving woman steals the magical protection the princess's mother gave her. Then the serving woman, posing as the princess, marries the prince (who's never seen either girl to know the diff) and has Falada killed and his head hung over a gate. The poor princess is given the task of herding geese, and every day must pass under Falada's head. When they meet, she always says, "Alas! Poor Falada!" and he replies, "Ah, princess, if thy mother could but see thy fate, her noble heart would surely break." (Or something like that.)

After the princess torments her young co-herder, a swain named Conrad, by making the wind blow his hat around while she combs her hair, Conrad complains about the strange girl to the King. His Majesty, intrigued, summons the goose girl and orders her to explain herself, but she had been forced to swear to the serving woman that she would never reveal her story to any person. The King offers her an alternative: she should spill her sorrows to the stove. And so she does, while he listens in at the stovepipe.

And so, at a large banquet the next day, the King tells the story in a slightly disguised fashion, and asks the serving woman how such treachery should be punished. She, either too arrogant to know when she's in trouble or fighting like a wounded beast backed into a corner, declares that such a traitor should be stuffed into a barrel studded with nails and rolled through the town. "You have decreed your own doom," proclaims the King, and so the rightful princess is restored to the Prince, who (in a twist I thought, even at that young age, to be rather unfair) gets to bed both women with no stigma attached. If it had been the Princess who'd married a false prince, she'd have been tainted goods even if the mistake was none of her fault.

But Grimm's did not console me in the time of chicken pox, and so, in a fit of itchy peevishness, I did the unthinkable: I colored in the book. With orange and green crayon. I sulkily tinted several illustrations before the magnitude of my iniquity dawned on me and I quietly tucked the book back on the far end of the shelf. But of course, it was too late, and every time hence I had to confront what pox had wrought. Despite the garish decorations, I read the book until it fell apart.

Last December, as I was doing my customary last-minute wander through stores, wishing I'd bought presents more than two days before Christmas, I came upon a Grimm's Fairy Tales on the bargain table in the children's section of Barnes and Noble. The treacly cover was a bit repellent, but I always flip through a Grimms on principle, searching for the lost volume of my youth. And there it was, in reprint. And so it now resides in our house, and my own girls can pore over the delightful illustrations.

Though I'm tempted to buy a vintage edition with the cover I remember so well:

Spamalot! Or Not

Do you know, after six years of being on Blogger, I've only just now realized that there's a spam filter for comments? Yes, there is, and it answers the question that had been bugging me in a low-level way: why certain good comments which showed up in our email are mysteriously missing from the blog. I note this with particular apologies to Kevin J Jones, who several months back commented with a most fascinating link about modern misandrists which I would have liked to discuss with everyone at the time, and Brandon, several of whose comments (including the "trolleyology" reference) were stuck in spam for no discernible reason.

And this is why we flirt, every now and then, with the idea of switching to Wordpress. Anyone have any recommendations or cautions on the alternate blogging platforms?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Einstein and the Little Lord

For Enbrethiliel and Brandon and anyone who's been following the discussion on Darwin's post But That's A Girl's Book!, I present: Einstein and the Little Lord, by Robertson Davies. I assure you it will forever warp your view of Little Lord Fauntelroy, and Einstein, and Dvorak's Humoresque.

He wanted a rest, and I knew what sort of rest he had in mind. Underneath his arm was a violin. He jerked his head toward the sound of music from the dance, and in a friendly fashion he said, “Come on; we can do better than that.”
Quite how I followed him I do not remember but in no time I was in the large room in the basement of my house, where the piano lives. I say it lives there, because I dare not say I keep it there. I am somewhat in awe of it. You see, I have played the piano all my life, without ever having gained any proficiency whatever. Untold gold was spent on my musical education, but I remain a hopeless fumbler; I am perhaps the only man in musical history to play the piano with a stammer. Nevertheless, I play. Almost every day I approach the piano in my basement and endure its Teutonic sneers as I tinkle out the kind of music I like, which I confess is chiefly piano arrangements of music meant for other instruments, and even for the human voice.
Einstein gestured me toward the piano, and began to tune his violin. It was obvious that his pitch was perfect. I was horrified.
“Do you mean you want me to accompany you?” I said, weak with fear.
“No, no, we play together,” he said, and tucked the fiddle under his chin.
My blood ran cold. In all the vast repertoire of music in which the violin and piano can mingle there is only one piece that I would dare attempt. It is a Humoresque by Dvorak—the Number 7 in G flat. You know it. Popular musical taste has accorded words to it, words selected from a well-known railway notice:


Passengers will please refrain
From flushing toilets when the train
Is standing in the station:
I love you.

... The speaker was the most beautiful boy I have ever seen in my life. His graceful childish figure was dressed in a black velvet suit and close-fitting knee-breeches from which emerged legs, clothed in black silk stockings, that Marlene Dietrich might have envied. The velvet suit had a white collar of exquisite lace, and about the handsome, manly little face clustered lovelocks of long fair hair falling in a profusion of curls.
You know who it was, of course. And I, from recollections of my childhood reading of the novel of which he was the hero, was able to greet him with a cry which surely fell in familiar and welcome cadence on his ears.
“God bless your lordship! God bless your pretty face! Good luck and happiness to your lordship! Welcome to you!”
The child bowed in response to my greeting.
It was Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Modern children do not seem to know his name, or the book by Mrs. Frances Hodgson Burnett in which his story is told. But surely this is a temporary lapse of fame; his romance is undying, a superb realization of what Dr. Jung of Zurich has named the Archetype of the Miraculous Child.
Most of you are familiar with him, though there may be one or two among you, under thirty, to whom he is a stranger. But millions of readers, old and young, have thrilled to the tale of little Cedric Errol, born in New York of an American mother—whom he never addressed or referred to except as ‘Dearest’, because that is what his English father, who had died so young, had always called her. Cedric considered himself to be an American, and indeed he exhibited all the American characteristics, total candour, boundless self-confidence, naturally fine manners, and a democratic spirit almost too zealous to be wholly believable. But certainly in Cedric there was nothing affected about this democracy; his dearest friends were Mr. Hobbs, the groceryman, Dick the shoeshine boy, and the poor old woman who sold apples at the street-corner; he did good to many others, among the poor and needy, for whom his tender little heart was always grieved. Judge then of the reader’s astonishment when he discovers that this typical little American is, because of the death of a number of relatives on his father’s side, the heir of the great Earl of Dorincourt, and that his true name is Lord Fauntleroy.
How Cedric softens the hard heart of his grandfather, the Earl (a typical English nobleman, proud, domineering, with blood so blue you could use it for ink, but nonetheless a splendid creature and exceedingly rich) and how Cedric makes all his grandfather’s tenants happy, and how Cedric persuades his haughty grandfather to accept Dearest, who, though an American, is nevertheless a lady, and how Cedric gets Mr. Hobbs the groceryman and Dick the shoeshine boy to England, and settles them close to Dorincourt Castle, so that he can go on being democratic at them—all of this is familiar to you. Familiar also are the drawings done for the book by Reginald B. Birch, which made the appearance of all the characters, but especially the ringleted, velvet-suited little lord, familiar to millions of infatuated readers from 1886 at least until 1925.


Oh, do read it all.

The Classics

Sometime in my pre-adolescent years, my family came into an encyclopedia. I expect it was donated to us because it was hopelessly dated by the heady scientific and technological advances of the mid-80s, but I was enamored. Flopped on the floor of our trailer by the pressboard stereo cabinet, perhaps listening to one of my mother's records, I spent hours turning over one and then another of the volumes that lived on the bottom shelves. In this way I acquired smatterings of knowledge about various subjects, not all of which has deserted me. Mainly, however, I flipped to the back of each volume, in which were synopses of "The Greatest Books Ever Written", consonant with the alphabetical breakdown of each tome. The selection bias was toward the critical darlings of early 20th century American lit, which rendered me the invaluable service of providing the rudiments of plot and cultural reference while sparing me from the necessity of reading reams of passe prose.

In this way I developed a working knowledge of numerous books that I've never actually read. (Of course there were many genuine classics summarized as well, but as I read them in later years the true quality of the book settled in my mental library and uprooted the lesser proxy.) Lists can be a form of nostalgia; here are some of the books I know only through their plot summaries in the back of the encyclopedia.

Sister Carrie
Of Mice and Men
Don Quixote
Enoch Arden
Silas Marner
Portrait of Jenny
Trilby
God's Little Acre
How Green Was My Valley
Bridge of San Luis Rey*
Tristam Shandy
Elmer Gantry
The Jungle
The Pearl
East of Eden
Grapes of Wrath
Tobacco Road
Ethan Frome
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Lost Horizon
The Good Earth
Of Human Bondage

*I have since read The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which I enjoyed well enough, but truth to tell, I remember the capsule plot better.

The plots of the bulk of these works contain matter entirely unsuitable for the ten-year-old reader, but the encyclopedic style was so bland that I read my young way through any number of abductions, affairs, rapes, lynchings, and beatings. Still, that's lit for you. I still recall a few of the line drawings which livened up the otherwise unadorned plots: Olivia trying to seduce Viola; Don Quixote tilting at windmills; the Joads loaded up in their station wagon.

This encyclopedic knowledge of the skeletons of literature stood me in good stead in what passed for my senior year. I was not getting ready for college; our laissez-faire homeschooling of the prior years had left me unsure whether I even had the academic chops to attempt higher education. What did people even read at high school? So I hied me down to the library and consulted the shelf labeled "Classics", and spent that year and the next reading through it.

I wish now that I'd written down everything I read that year, when I had so much time despite working 40 hours once I turned 18. Not every book made the cut; Steppenwolf and Siddhartha didn't look remotely interesting to me. Madame Bovary I remember, and Doctor Zhivago, both of whom I thought to be great fools. The Age of Innocence, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. Lord of the Flies, another one I didn't care for. Tess of the D'Ubervilles, Sons and Lovers. The Turn of the Screw. Lolita. The Virginian. Stranger in a Strange Land, which I slogged through in a grim spirit of determination, vowing never to read any more Heinlein.

What I didn't know was that any fool can get into college these days. To my great surprise, I was admitted into the university Honors Program on the strength of the worst essay ever written. My heart sank and my spirits flagged as I pored over the alien Greek titles on the first semester reading list; none of these had been on the library's classics shelf.

First Semester
Homer: Iliad, Odyssey
Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides
Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonos, Antigone
Euripides: Medea, Alcestis
Aristotle: Poetics
Herodotus: Histories
Thucydides: Peloponnesian Wars
Aristophanes: Acharnians, Peace, Clouds
Plato: Apology, Crito, Symposium, Republic, Phaedo
Aristotle: Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics

Second Semester
Plautus: The Menaechmi, The Haunted House, The Rope
Terence: Woman of Andros, Phormio, The Brothers
Vergil: Aeneid
Plutarch: Parallel Lives: Caesar, Anthony, Cicero, Cato the Younger
Cicero: De Amicitia, Tusculan Disputations
Seneca: Medea, Phaedra, Thyestes
Lucretius: De Rerum Natura
Tacitus: Annals

At this point, my father, previously so mild and deferential to my choice of classical fare, assumed his paternal duty by insisting, with increasing frequency, that I start in on this reading list before fall. Dad, though he's since become a great devotee of Jane Austen, had but a passing acquaintance with the foundational works of Western Culture, but he'd been through four years of college and knew class reading lists. And so, I flung myself onto the battle-hazy plains under the beetling walls of Troy, dimly groping my way through the dust of antiquity under Homer's dactylic guidance. I got no further than Ithaca and the blood-stained palace of the triumphantly repatriated Odysseus before school began. It must have helped: over the four years of Honors, three-quarters of the initial freshman class washed away under the deluge of Great Works, yet I managed to float to the surface, buoyed up Aeschylus and Virgil and Boethius and Dante and Shakepeare and a raft of plots of "The Greatest Books Ever Written".

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Foundation of Determinism

Paul Krugman recently did a Five Books interview with The Browser, talking about his five favorite books. The books are: Asimov's Foundation series, Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, two books by Lord Keynes, and a book of essays by economist James Tobin, one of Krugman's old teachers. Of Foundation he says:
This is a very unusual set of novels from Isaac Asimov, but a classic. It’s not about gadgets. Although it’s supposed to be about a galactic civilisation, the technology is virtually invisible and it’s not about space battles or anything like that. The story is about these people, psychohistorians, who are mathematical social scientists and have a theory about how society works. The theory tells them that the galactic empire is failing, and they then use that knowledge to save civilisation. It’s a great image. I was probably 16 when I read it and I thought, “I want to be one of those guys!” Unfortunately we don’t have anything like that and economics is the closest I could get.
This sounded vaguely familiar, and looking around I realized I'd heard about this affection of Krugman's for Foundation before, but again it strikes me as underlining a lot of what I find basically unappealing about the approach to economics and humanity which Krugman has.

To me, the interesting thing about the Foundation books is their historical sweep. Asimov said he got the idea from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and there's a wonderful sense of the sweep of history, of loss and of scale in the books. (Of which, to my mind, it's only worth reading the golden age novels, not the later ones tacked on.) But what's incredibly frustrating is the gnostic determinism of the vision -- that somehow, a really brilliant group of guys can working through a whole bunch of equations and calculate what is going to happen for centuries into the future, as if the universe were some gigantic difference engine with the people in it as gears, moved through predictable motions by the forces exerted on them.

This view, it seems to me, is not just incorrect, but also fairly dangerous. Wrong because it fails to take into account human free will, which is, it seems to me, one of the most defining elements of humanity. Dangerous because it offers the illusion of control, that one can take some great action and reshape society if one can only get people to stop acting as persons and play their appropriate parts in the grand machine.

To see economists as like Asimov's psychohistorians seems to me to glorify economics far above than its proper level. What economics is fairly good at is explaining how certain mechanisms work "all other things being equal" -- yet what makes it frustratingly approximate is the degree to which things are so seldom equal. As soon as people starting thinking of the economy as some great machine with levers just waiting to be pulled (whether it's liberals convinced that if only we could put through a couple more trillion dollars worth of stimulus everything would be fine or conservatives convinced that we can always raise tax revenues by lowing tax rates) they set themselves up to cause more harm than good.

Friday, July 15, 2011

But That's a Girl Book!

While on a family trip a couple months ago, we picked up an audio book of Little Town on the Prairie to keep the back seat peaceful. We'd already read the first six of the Little House books aloud to the girls (some of them multiple times), but he hadn't tried this seventh book on them yet, since it deals with Laura in his mid teens -- an age still somewhat distant from our young ladies. Still, car trips are car trips, so we tried it on them.

In the end, I think we probably enjoyed it more than the girls did, though it did tamp down the fighting in the back seat a bit. (We now have all seven seats of our minivan occupied, so long car drives are contentious and make us wish for a larger vehicle.) I'd forgotten how suddenly the book ends -- after Laura gets her teacher's license and before she starts to teach -- and I found myself wanting it to go on. So last weekend, when taking the kids down for their weekly library run, I picked up These Happy Golden Years, the last full book in the series, and read it over the next couple days.

Truth to tell, these last books of the Little House series are fairly familiar territory for me. I read Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years a number of times in my early and mid teens. (I don't believe I ever re-read the early books, though I had read them as a kid and I would at times sit in while Mom was reading them to my younger siblings.) I'd also read The First Four Years a couple times and a few books about Laura's life.

Of course, there's the fact that there's a lot of fun "American frontier" history and background in the Little House books, and looking back I see it was ideologically congenial to me. But the truth is that I was not necessarily against reading "girl books" as a kid and even in my teens. I read Little Women a few times and tried Little Men and Jo's Boys each once as well. (Though unlike just about any female fan I've met, I liked Amy better than Jo in the second half and was glad to see her marry Laurie.) And I read some of Louisa May Alcott's other books as well.

I read several of the L. M. Montgomery books as well, though I tended to find her heroines less congenial than Wilder or Alcott's. I even had a fondness for Burnett's Little Princess (though I could never finish Secret Garden) and Rumer Godden's Holly and Ivy still feels like Christmas to me (I read it to the girls a couple times each year.)

Now, lest I start sounding like a total milksop here, I'll say in my defense that this was in part because I just read so much that I was always looking for new things to read, and since Mom was a children's literature specialist, reading classic kid lit (which can be a little heavy on the "girl books") provided good conversation and common ground. And, of course, I voraciously read "boy books" as well. Heinlein's juvies were a huge favorite of mine (my favorites included Space Cadet and Tunnel in the Sky) as well as other Golden Age science fiction authors -- and, of course, I read the Narnia books and Lord of the Rings repeatedly.

Quality kid lit, I think, tends to transcend the girl book/boy book division. Coming back to Golden Years after all this time, I'd say it held up moderately well. It no longer has the gripping quality which reading about people only very slightly older than you has for the child eager to grow up, and like all the Little House books other than Long Winter, it's fairly low on plot. But characters and period atmosphere are as involving as ever, and some aspects of young Laura's interactions with her friends and family I find I see from another angle now than I did then. Altogether, it was an enjoyable quick read.

Atheist or Christian -- A Religious Turing Test

As Blackadder explains at more length, Unequally Yoked is running a Turing Test to see how well atheists and Christians understand one another. I didn't see the first round in time, but this week fifteen people (some atheists, some Christians) have answered questions about Christianity as if they are all Christians.

I've only just started to work through it, but it's fascinating. I'm thinking they need some good solid Christian readers to help give a good scoring, so head on over and see if you can identify who the real Christians are and who's faking it. (My personal bet is that in most cases Christians can fake atheism better than atheists can fake Christianity.)

Seven Quick Takes, Linky Edition


1.
Periodically, however, someone will suggest that the Church’s teaching on usury needs to be revitalized. Recently following a link from Darwin’s wife led me to the blog Siris, whose author Brandon has written a number of posts on the subject. Brandon differs from a lot of internet anti-usury warriors I have encountered in the past in that he actually seems to know something about the Church’s teaching on the matter (as opposed to trying to reconstruct a theory of usury from scratch, or simply relying on Belloc’s erroneous treatment of the subject). Brandon’s 2009 post on the legitimate grounds for charging interest (what are called “extrinsic titles” to interest) is quite good as a primer, and my only real objection with Brandon’s treatment is that he doesn’t seem to realize some of the implications of what he writes.
Blackadder writes about usury at The American Catholic. And part of the fun is seeing Blackadder and Brandon, who (aside from Darwin) are my favorite guys on the internet, engaging in discussion.

2. Speaking of favorites coming together, Bearing reviews a new booklet: St. Benedict for Busy Families. I've always loved the Rule of St. Benedict (if not its modern reformulations by promoters of maternal organization), and Father Dwight Longenecker seems just the right man to apply Benedictine principles of an ordered life to the messy business of family.
Fr. Longenecker encourages us to be centered not on the bells but on the principles of Benedictine spirituality. Those principles are embodied in what Fr. Longenecker calls the "two holy trinities:"
  • The Benedictine monastic vows:
    • obedience
    • stability
    • conversion of life
  • The daily pursuits of individuals living in a Benedictine community:
    • prayer
    • work
    • study

(Note that popular culture generally associates monastic vows or even, confusing it further, priest's vows, as being "poverty, chastity, and obedience." That's the Franciscans, not the Benedictines; although it turns out that Benedictines are supposed to embrace chastity just like any Christian, and own nothing or very little as a consequence of obedience to their Rule, Benedictines do not vow poverty and chastity).

Fr. Longenecker considers each of these six principles and, without going out of his way to show us exactly how to apply them to the vocation of family life, explains their purpose, and tries to show where joy can be found in them.



3. Pentimento, with her characteristic excellence, meditates on "real men":
Many of the men in this subculture were what I can only call essentially wounded in their masculinity. It was as if their self-identification as men had been haphazardly constructed out of subersive images of masculinity refracted to them from the culture; as if, finding certain norms of masculinity repellent (not without reason, it must be said), and not having had male role models to demonstrate for them any ontological qualities of manhood, these young men had skirted around the edges of male behavior, and had finished by taking affect for essence. Their own masculinity seemed to have been forged in opposition and negation, cobbled together out of strong, oppositional attitudes to what repelled them culturally, rather than out of any positive attitudes, such as the wish to take on essential male roles -- engaging, for instance, in meaningful ways in the existential struggle to fight real enemies, and providing for and protecting the vulnerable, including women and children. In addition, some of these men seemed to have self-consciously adopted certain styles, tastes, hobbies, and mannerisms associated with other times and places than twenty-first-century New York, identifying themselves more with, say, Europe before World War I, or fin-de-si├Ęcle Paris, or the New York of the Gilded Age. One man from this set whom I dated asked me seriously once whether I considered myself American (he didn’t, in spite of the fact that, like me, he was).
emphasis added
Pentimento and I have moved in different Catholic sets, and so the young Catholic men that I know, starting with my brothers, are generally mature and grounded -- perhaps because of their strong family structures and serious paternal role models. But I'm fascinated by this glimpse into a subculture of enthusiasms and imagery and the desire to re-invent oneself through a picturesque if not fully comprehended past culture.

4.

Speaking of past elegance and modern reinventions: The WSJ profiles the restoration of the elegant Midland Hotel, now styled the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, in the heart of London.
Londoners have always loved this gothic monster, despite the casual treatment it received from its reluctant owners, and they liked buying their rail tickets in the paneled booking hall at St.Pancras. They appreciated the soaring towers, pointed arches, the polychromy of brick and stone decoration and the carvings of birds and beasts. Where else would you possibly choose to have as a background for boarding the Hogwarts Express (from platform 9¾), as the young magicians do in the "Harry Potter" series?

...

Today guests arrive in a new reception lobby that occupies the space where the taxis used to drop off their passengers for the train station. Echoing the station roof (at the time of its construction it was the largest single unsupported span in the world), sky-blue steel beams carry a glass roof that lights the new, large lobby. The hotel may be furnished with contemporary cream leather furniture and coolly elegant flower arrangements, but you can still sense the power of the past. The quality of now-pristine original architecture is immediately striking. You sense exactly how Scott imagined the 19th-century public realm. His station hotel is as grand and as Gothic as the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.

The original wood-paneled booking office, which always occupied part of the ground floor of the hotel building, is now a stylish bar, its gothic windows overlooking the station concourse. GA Design, the interior designers, has struck a balance between the demands of international corporate hotel design and the reinvigoration of the past. It is when you reach the grandest of grand staircases that Scott's vision is at its most complete. A wrought-iron balustrade guides you up three flights beneath the ribbed gothic vaults where every surface is painted with heraldic devices, a star-studded firmament and red walls decorated with hundreds of hand-painted fleurs-de-lys. This is undoubtedly Scott's masterpiece, and a significant example of Victorian Gothic revival architecture.

In the revival of the building's fortunes, original carpets have been copied and deliberately faded. Murals have been carefully restored and light fittings copied. Restoration accuracy has made the original building live again, but perhaps the most difficult element has been to make a modern luxury hotel work perfectly in the old building and to unify it to the new wing. Rooms and suites have high ceilings, new bathrooms and contemporary furnishings. The Gothic corridors were originally designed to be wide enough for two Victorian ladies to promenade in their crinolines, and today their width seems wonderfully generous.

5. Speaking of Harry Potter and the WSJ, today's review of Harry Potter leads me to stifle a sob that my live-in babysitter left yesterday:
So many good films come to bad ends, but not the tales of Harry Potter. The final episode of Harry's epic journey, part 2 of "The Deathly Hallows," is the best possible end for the series that began a decade ago. In contrast to part 1, which was a ponderous exercise in stage-setting and dramatic incipience, this film, directed by David Yates and adapted by Steve Kloves, is a climax worthy of the term. It's a dark and thunderous pageant that sets its bespectacled hero in the midst of vast forces, yet never loses track of who he is—a brave boy, to borrow both parts of Dumbledore's fond phrase, on the way to becoming a wonderful man. (Daniel Radcliffe, in his turn, has grown from likeably bland at the outset to impressively—and still likeably—confident.)
6. Speaking of Daniel Radcliffe, do you know he's starring in the revival of How To Succeed in Business Without Even Trying?



Daniel Radcliffe busting a move to The Brotherhood of Man confirms the review I read a while ago that pegged him as a surprisingly nifty dancer. For my money, you don't get much better than guys in three-piece suits performing zany choreography.

7. Speaking of singing, go and listen to my sister Anna Egan's lovely operatic chops.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Anna Egan Returns!

Fresh from her Salzburg studies, my operatic sister Anna Egan expresses her gratitude to all the benevolent DarwinCatholic readers who supported her financially and with prayers. Just for you, here are two songs we recorded tonight by the sophisticated method of placing an iPhone under a hat on a chair equidistant from singer and piano. As always, she is accompanied by A Hack.

"Chacun A Son Gout" by Johann Strauss, from Die Fledermaus. Anna workshopped this song in Salzburg.

UPDATE: We re-recorded this morning, experimenting with the phone NOT under a hat, and using the mute pedal on the piano for the first time ever (honestly, who's ever used the mute pedal?), and Anna comes out much clearer. The piano is still lousy, though.






"When I Am Laid In Earth" by Henry Purcell, from Dido and Aeneas.
UPDATE: re-recorded this morning, but the mute pedal only controls the piano, not the kids. Sorry about the chatter around 2:15.


My sincere apologies to everyone whose Google Reader keeps showing new posts from DarwinCatholic when it's only me messing with different takes. Recording is an art, not a science.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Misplaced Tears Over Outsourcing

An acquaintance linked to this article about outsourced call centers in India, and since that's a topic I know a certain amount about from a while back, I had to look despite the fact it's at Mother Jones -- not exactly one of my usual sources of news.

In facts, the article pretty well reflects the way things are, from what I know of the industry (more of that in a bit), but the editorial angle of the piece is so at odds, at times, with its content that the contrast become dizzying (unless you behave as Mother Jones perhaps expects their readers to and simply agrees to be outraged by whatever the author chooses to be outraged by.) For instance, read this section:
Every month, thousands of Indians leave their Himalayan tribes and coastal fishing towns to seek work in business process outsourcing, which includes customer service, sales, and anything else foreign corporations hire Indians to do. The competition is fierce. No one keeps a reliable count, but each year there are possibly millions of applicants vying for BPO positions. A good many of them are bright recent college grads, but their knowledge of econometrics and Soviet history won't help them in interviews. Instead, they pore over flashcards and accent tapes, intoning the shibboleths of English pronunciation—"wherever" and "pleasure" and "socialization"—that recruiters use to distinguish the employable candidates from those still suffering from MTI, or "mother tongue influence."

In the end, most of the applicants will fail and return home deeper in debt. The lucky ones will secure Spartan lodgings and spend their nights (thanks to time differences) in air-conditioned white-collar sweatshops. They will earn as much as 20,000 rupees per month—around $2 per hour, or $5,000 per year if they last that long, which most will not.
Is there any greater cruelty than capitalism? Aren't you shocked by what companies are forcing these Indians to do? Why do they put up with this abuse. Oh wait, the next sentence says:
In a country where per-capita income is about $900 per year, a BPO salary qualifies as middle-class.
Maybe this explains why people flock in from all over the country to these business hubs in order to try for one of these graveyard shift "sweatshop" jobs: Instead of appearing in picturesque native garb while working outside in "Himalayan tribes and coastal fishing towns" they can slip on their business casual clothes, head to an air conditioned office, and make 5.5x the per capital wage of the country. This would be the equivalent of making $240,000/yr in the US. Will Mother Jones be publishing a heart-wrenching account next month of how young midwesterners are passing up the chance to work on picturesque farms and auto parts factories to come to New York and sell stocks for Goldman Sachs for a quarter million a year?

Or how about this clear sign of worker exploitation: They hold new worker's wages for the first two months:
After an hour of waiting, our trainer entered. Lekha was tall and rail thin, with big doll eyes. Her accent was what BPO higher-ups would call "perfectly neutral"—her vowels soft and long, her Rs a benign compromise between flipped and rolled. "Training takes three weeks," she told us. "It's combined accent and culture training; we'll assume that you come to us with the accent part pretty well taken care of." In a playfully arch tone, she rattled off the rules: no mobile phones, eating, or drinking. And she would charge us a rupee, she teased, for every non-English word she heard in the classroom. "Any questions so far?"

"When do we get paid?" asked a young man wearing a Nike cap, yellow-tinted sunglasses, and carefully crafted facial stubble. In New York, I would have pegged him as a party promoter from Long Island City.

"Very funny," Lekha said. "You'll be paid for your time, including this training, but only after you've stayed two months. You know the drill: We wouldn't want people taking off as soon as training is over."
Except, it turns out that this is pretty well justified by worker behavior:
During our first cigarette break, Mr. Long Island City revealed that, indeed, his plan was to do precisely that—he'd already gone through this routine at some 15 BPOs around Delhi. "Who needs to stay for the actual work? Plus," he added, flashing a salacious smile, "that way you meet more girls."
Okay, think about this one for a moment: It's not just that some of the employees are unreliable like this fellow and like hopping from one job to another -- it's that well qualified call center workers are in demand enough that companies can't get away with refusing to hire people who are chronic job-hoppers. Surprisingly for a case of low-wage outsourcing, the power is actually resting with workers here, not employers.

Alright, one more snippet, this one a little longer:
Today, almost half of BPO employees are women, many of whom outearn both of their parents. Free-market cheerleaders, conflating rising wages with rising spirits, are quick to applaud India's "maturing" markets. But the truth is more complicated: Studies show that once people move out of poverty, increasing wealth does not necessarily lead to happiness.

Call-center employees gain their financial independence at the risk of an identity crisis. A BPO salary is contingent on the worker's ability to de-Indianize: to adopt a Western name and accent and, to some extent, attitude. Aping Western culture has long been fashionable; in the call-center classroom, it's company policy. Agents know that their jobs only exist because of the low value the world market ascribes to Indian labor. The more they embrace the logic of global capitalism, the more they must confront the notion that they are worth less.
...
Growing up in Kolkata, Arjuna never got along with his parents. "In America, you guys move away from your family after high school or college," he said, "but not here." His family expected him to stay at home, work at the bank where his father worked, and marry his high school sweetheart. Instead, he shocked everyone by moving to Delhi. BPOs aligned with his individualist streak; culture training taught him about societies where young people lived as they pleased. He impressed coworkers with his American accent, and when he got his first paycheck, he tasted the liberating power of disposable income.

Soon, though, his hobbies began to feel hollow. He had lost touch with his family and made few friends. His high school sweetheart stayed in Kolkata and met another guy, but Arjuna had not found a girlfriend in Delhi.
...
In a long Facebook chat, he told me he was still stuck in the same customer-support job, still verging on depression, and still single. He never could figure out how to date casually, as Americans do; nor could he bring himself to use the matrimonial websites popular in India. "To me, arranged marriage is a joke," he said.

In a sense, Arjuna is too westernized to be happy in India. He speaks with an American accent, listens to American rock music, and suffers from American-style malaise. In his more candid moments, he admits that life would have been easier if he had hewn to the traditional Indian path. "I spent my youth searching for the real me," he says. "Sometimes I feel that now I've destroyed anything that is the real me, that I am floating somewhere in between."
Alright, let's try to parse through this for a moment. Working for call centers that take "outsourced" work from the US allows these college educated Indian young people to make 5x the national average, it gives equal opportunities to women in what has traditionally been a highly patriarchal society, and it allows people greater independence in a culture which has traditionally practiced arranged marriage. Yet, the Mother Jones author feels that this is probably mostly bad because... Well, he's not really sure why, but it's caused by Westerners and corporations, so it must be bad, right?

Look, as a conservative the last thing I want to do is suggest that abandoning traditional ways of doing things is without negative consequences, and there are real tensions created as people move from a more traditional society to a more modern one and figure out how to use newfound independence and wealth without destroying themselves and their social structures. (As Shikha Dalmia discusses in this brief clip, this one of the main sources of dramatic conflict in Bollywood movies.)

But the desire of the author to see all of this as somehow victimizing Indian workers and wrenching them away from their traditional occupations almost gives one the impression that he thinks Indians are best off as poor but picturesque workers in the fields -- or perhaps more fairly that he would like picturesque National Geographic occupations to somehow result in a US middle class lifestyle.

As I said at the beginning, I was drawn to the subject matter because I actually dealt with call center outsourcing quite a bit at one point. Eight years ago, new to Texas, I landed a job at one of the local tech giants and the first thing I was assigned to do was to audit tech support and customer service calls being taken by their offshore call centers -- mostly in India. Our team spent probably six hours a day listening to calls and recording our ratings of them, and the rest of the day writing up analysis on how different call centers were doing and talking with managers in those call centers about how they could do better. All of us on the team were people who'd done at least a little bit of call center work ourselves in the US, and during the year we worked on the project we got to know our Indian counterparts pretty well.

Some things talked about here I can attest to. The competition for these jobs is intense -- mainly because they pay so very well by Indian standards. People also sometimes work fairly long hours. (Indeed, we were always trying to get the people we worked with to stop working overtime out of a misplaced desire to deal with all our requests or suggestions immediately rather than the next day.)

What the article doesn't talk much about (or glosses over with seemingly unknowing references) is the level of pride that a lot of these call center workers have (at least, the one's fielding tech company tech and customer support calls -- probably a cut above people doing bill collection or selling vitamins) both in their work and in how far they've come in a short period of time. The ones who are good at what they do (which contra the article is not just a matter of having a good speaking voice, but of being sympathetic, understanding people's problems quickly, and going out of one's way to solve the customer's problems) have a lot of chances for promotion or switching companies. At least at that time, American Express was known for having some of the most skilled and best paid call centers in Bangalore, and we were constantly losing good customer service agents to them.

As with anything, the effects of these kind of global changes are mixed. But portraying the world of Business Process Outsourcing as some sort of cruelty inflicted upon India by evil Corporate America requires ignores the real experiences of the people I got to know while I was working with Indian call centers.

Dining in White

Two striking images.



And the explanation.

Friday, July 08, 2011

A Dance to the Music of Time


A week or two before MrsDarwin and I got married, my father presented me with a set of four volumes wrapped (in a manner that was quite characteristic of our family, in which gifts might be planned elaborately and yet wrapping paper was invariably a forgotten detail whose lack was only realized at the moment a present was about to be given) in a brown paper grocery bag. These proved to be the four volumes of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, twelve novels organized in four movements. I read the first six novels within the next year or two, then progressed with greater intervals between novels, and finally completed the series just a few days after our tenth wedding anniversary.

This shouldn't be taken to indicate that the novels are difficult or boring, rather (for me at least) the slowness in moving through them is in part a natural result of the theme of the novels, which is in many ways the progress of time. The first novel, A Question of Upbringing, was published in 1951 and describes the experiences of the narrator Nick Jenkins, at school and Oxford in the 1920s. The last novel, Hearing Secret Harmonies, was published in 1975 and takes place in the late '60s and early '70s. Nick remains our narrator (first person) through it all, though in the later novels he is an increasingly reclusive one, being less turbulent in his own life than many of those whom he is observing. Across this 50 year span, several hundred characters (minor, major and recurring) make their way through our view, giving a wide ranging sense of the English upper middle class and bohemian life ranging from the roaring 20s (an extended flashback even takes us back to 1914 and the beginning of the Great War) to the hippies and neo-pagans of the '60s and '70s.

Roughly speaking the first movement (first three novels) of the series covers the 20s and early 30s, the second movement the late 30s with the war looming on the horizon. The third movement covers the war itself. The fourth movement stretches from the late 40s through the early 70s. Given that the first novel was published in '51, Powell would have had a good idea of the world events that shape the first nine novels when he started, but the events that shape the last three were still ahead of him. This was, apparently, part of the plan. In his autobiography Powell wrote:
I had been turning over in my mind the possibility of writing a novel composed of a fairly large number of volumes, just how many could not be decided at the outset. A long sequence seemed to offer all sorts of advantages, among them release from the re-engagement every year or so of the same actors and extras hanging about for employment at the stagedoor of one's fantasy. Instead of sacking the lot at the end of a brief run ... the production itself might be extended, the actors made to work longer and harder for much the same creative remuneration ... instead of being butchered at regular intervals ...

Certain technical matters had to be settled at once for early establishment of a sufficiently broad base ... from which a complex narrative might arise; fan out; be sustained over a period of years. This meant that undeveloped characters, potential situations, must be introduced, whose purpose might be unresolved throughout several volumes ... Perhaps understandably, only very few critics of the opening volumes showed themselves capable of appreciating that, in reality, quite simple principle. ...

At a fairly early stage ... I found myself in the Wallace Collection, standing in front of Nicolas Poussin's picture ... A Dance to the Music of Time. An almost hypnotic spell seems cast by this masterpiece on the beholder. I knew all at once that Poussin had expressed at least one important aspect of what the novel must be.
The characters of Powell's series are of much the same range of classes found in Evelyn Waugh's novels, and Waugh was definitely one of Powell's fans, describing Dance as being better written than Proust and much funnier. Coming from Waugh, this might lead one to expect something rather raucous. Powell's novels, however, are a much quieter form a satire than such romps as Decline and Fall and Scott King's Modern Europe. The narration is meditative and lushly well written -- the satire (and there is satire) comes as a natural outgrowth of the actions of characters, sharply observed, who are, like real people, prone to do things which end up making themselves look silly.

The first novel opens with a style and approach to narration which is typical of the series:
The men at work at the corner of the street had made a kind of camp for themselves, where, marked out by tripods hung with red hurricane-lamps, an abyss in the road led down to a network of subterranean drain-pipes. Gathered round the bucket of coke that burned in front of the shelter, several figures were swinging arms against bodies and rubbing hands together with large, pantomimic gestures: like comedians giving formal expression to the concept of extreme cold. One of them, a spare fellow in blue overalls, taller than the rest, with a jocular demeanour and long, pointed nose like that of a Shakespearian clown, suddenly stepped forward, and, as if performing a rite, cast some substance -- apparently the remains of two kippers, loosely wrapped in newspaper -- on the bright coals of the fire, causing flames to leap fiercely upward, smoke curling about in eddies of the north-east wind. As the dark fumes floated above the houses, snow began to fall gently from a dull sky, each flake giving a small hiss as it reached the bucket. The flames died down again; and the men, as if required observances were for the moment at an end, all turned away from the fire, lowering themselves laboriously into the pit, or withdrawing to the shadows of their tarpaulin shelter. The grey, undecided flakes continued to come down, though not heavily, while a harsh odour, bitter and gaseous, penetrated the air. The day was drawing in.

For some reason, the sight of snow descending on fire always makes me think of the ancient world -- legionaries in sheepskin warming themselves at a brazier: mountain altars where offerings glow between wintry pillars; centaurs with torches cantering beside a frozen sea -- scattered, uncoordinated shapes from a fabulous past, infinitely removed from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined. These classical projections, and something in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned to the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin's scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance. Classical associations made me think, too, of days at school, where so many forces, hitherto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear.
Yet, lest this opening seem too grave, be assured that within the next hundred pages you will find such incidents as a school master arrested on suspicion of being a con man pretending to be himself, and a race car driver being found late at night walking through the halls of an English country house holding up an old, china chamber pot before him, as if making some sacred offering.

Having immersed myself, for the first time in four or five years, in Powell's characters over the last month, I found myself so engrossed by reading the fourth movement that, having finished it and found, after a week, that it had the same hold upon my mind as before, I turned back to the first one this week and began time's long cycle all over again.



At the same time, I can't help noting what the series is not, as well as what it is. For instance, though you get a strong sense of what changed and vanished in England from the 20s through the 70s, you do so through the very selective lens of the sort of people Nick Jenkins knows. They're interesting and various people, and include personalities focused on very different things, but they are not chosen in the manner of a "Historical Epic" which focuses on having a character present at each major historical event of an era, or typifying each intellectual trend of an era. Virtually all characters are, also, of the sort of educated upper middle class background that Nick himself comes from. This still gets you a wide range of experience, but if you're looking for the definitive novel on coal miners in Wales, this is not it. Try this fellow instead.

This is also not a set of novels which involves results in a deep acquaintance or understanding of the main character. Nick, indeed, becomes increasingly distant through the series -- someone who observes rather than acts -- and many very important aspects of his own life slip by with little mention. One of the novels is framed around a set of chance meetings as he is visiting his old school in preparation for sending his son there -- yet this is virtually the first indication one has that Nick has a son, and the son himself never becomes a character of any sort. While in the early novels you have a sense that you are seeing much of Nick's life activity, as the novels progress you are seeing the continuation of the stories of all the people he knew earlier (plus the stories of additional people who become entangled in their affairs) but you are not particularly hearing Nick's story.

The sense of time, the intricate and almost-but-not-quite-random way in which characters move in and out of the narrative, is fascinating and eventually addicting, and the prose style is one that I enjoy very much, and this is a structure of narrative which I find myself hungry for at the moment, as I realize in my own life that time has passed and a new generation is growing up around me. Yet there is a certain sterility to all this in Dance to the Music of Time, perhaps in part because it is written very much in the English, post-Christian world. (Powell himself was accused, accurately, by Evelyn Waugh of being agnostic, back when this was something which constituted an accusation in England.) This sterility fits well with Powell's classicism -- though it is unspoken one cannot help feeling that Powell, like the Ancients, sees himself as living in a diminished age that is diminishing further. The political trends of the middle of the last century being what they are, many of the characters in Dance are progressives, indeed often socialists or communists, yet one can tell that Powell (who came out of the closet late in life as a conservative) does not believe that the ideologies of the day constituted any kind of progress.

It would be a wholly different sort of project, but I would love to read a similarly sprawling series dealing more explicitly with time and growing older in a set that is more fertile and thus is dealing more with the differences between generations as well as the progress of one's own progress through life.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Marriage: The Easy Burden, The Light Yoke

I want to extend sincere and grateful thanks to all who offered anniversary congratulations. Darwin and I have not turned out to be members of that set of gracious bloggers who acknowledge and respond to every comment, but we do read and appreciate them all. (In fact, right here I'm going to say thanks to Brandon, whose use of the phrase "trolleyology" in a recent comment has given me a valuable new descriptor for a certain subset of philosophical inanity.)

Commenter BurgoFitzgerald, in particular, has inspired much discussion here with his (just guessing here, BurgoFitzgerald; feel free to correct the gender) recent remarks amid anniversary congratulations:
I loved the fact that you didn't go on and on about how hard marriage is and how much compromise is involved and how there are days when you just want to walk away from the whole she-bang. I am sure all of that can be true about marriage in general, but for once, it was wonderful to read a post that didn't bring anything of that up let alone put an emphasis on it.

...These days there are many married couples who, I suppose, in an attempt to be kind will go on and on about how marriage is often a Bataan death march that is filled with aggravation and back breaking work. It just smacks as either insincere and condescending or indicative of two idiots who engaged in absolutely no discernment before they chained themselves together in a domestic version of The Octagon. Comments to singles by bloggers who have recently married that point out that singles don't think about how married people have an entirely separate vale of tears: burying a spouse and infertility, well, these just ring as hollow as well.

Whenever a married person tells me how "smart" or how "lucky" I am to still be single? I suppose that says a great deal more about how so many people approach and view marriage.
BurgoFitzgerald has performed several kind services here: given lovely congratulations, paid an elegant compliment, been witty in the combox, and provided us with a platform from which to pontificate on marriage, which we dearly love to do. Thank you, BurgoFitzgerald!

I, for one, am here to tell you, dear readers: there has never been a day, not once in my marriage, when I felt that marriage was a burden or a hardship. Everything I do is better and richer for being done with Darwin. Every part of my life is brighter for being shared with him. We have never fought, never sparred or insulted or skirmished or accused, and I can count on one hand the times we've experienced the briefest of coldnesses or silences in our fourteen year relationship. Any conflict is external, never internal; circumstances do not touch the core of our unity.

Some of this may be a function of our personalities. We are very similar, and do not thrive on conflict. Neither of us have any history to overcome or legacy of sinful relationship interactions over which we reproach ourselves. We share strong religious, moral, and intellectual convictions, which give us a solid foundation on which to build a secure and prolific family life. Incorporated into the bedrock of our marriage are the basic manners and etiquette that ease all social interactions, and to which spouses are even more entitled than friends, co-workers, or complete strangers. Enriching this etiquette is the familiarity which breeds confidence, not contempt. And this confidence is expressed not in using the other person as a secure dumping ground for daily frustrations or existential irritation, but in sparing the other as much as possible from both small annoyances of daily life and the vagaries of mood or whim.

Many people would claim that this too is a description of their marriage, and yet I'm often appalled by the condescension, the sharpness and sniping, and the petty or childish behavior that I witness in even the most committed of spouses. And if this is the public face, what must the private life be like? One speaks from the fullness of one's heart.

And so, from the fullness of my heart, I say: I can't imagine a better life than the one I've had these past ten years. I don't know anything about being married to anyone else, but there's no one else I'd rather share every moment with, whether good or bad, than Darwin.