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

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Class, Culture, or Genes?

I found this article on long term social mobility rather interesting. It's a semi-review of The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility by economist Gregory Clark, which seeks to look at the extent to which wealth or poverty persists through generations.

He set out thinking the social-science consensus was correct, intending only to extend those findings further into the past. But the evidence changed his mind: social scientists have been measuring mobility the wrong way, and in fact the popular intuition is on target.

The key to understanding Clark’s thesis is his division of the factors that make for success in worldly affairs into an inherited component and a random component. (“Inherited” here need not mean “genetic”: one could inherit, for instance, one’s family’s reputation.) Most previous studies have focused on movements in social class from one generation to the next. But as Clark explains using his two-factor model, such a limited time frame means that the random component of social achievement is going to have an undue influence. This is not an esoteric notion: think, for instance, of a member of a high-achievement family who suffers a terrible car accident as a youth, leaving him with severe brain damage. It is quite likely that whether measured by income, profession, or educational level, that member will do significantly worse than the family average.

But this accident will not change the family’s basic “social competency” (Clark’s term). If the injured son has children, they will not inherit his brain damage. Their level of achievement will tend to return toward the family baseline. So, Clark suggests, if we really want to measure social mobility, we should look at the social status of families over many generations.

The way he and his team of researchers did so is ingenious: they found relatively rare surnames primarily associated with high social standing, such as the names taken by the nobility in Sweden, or low social standing, such as names characteristic of the Travellers in England, and tracked their appearance in historical records showing elite status, such as admissions to top universities—for Oxford and Cambridge, we have data dating back 800 years—large estates bequeathed in probate, or presence in high-status professions such as law and medicine.

The results confirm that the popular intuition has been correct all along:
The intergenerational correlation in all the societies for which we construct surname estimates—medieval England, modern England, the United States, India, Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Chile, and even egalitarian Sweden—is … much higher than conventionally estimated. Social status is inherited as strongly as any biological trait, such as height.
What’s more, it matters little what social policies are put in place: Clark and his team find that social mobility remains nearly constant over time despite the arrival of free public education, the reduction of nepotism in government, modern economic growth, the expansion of the franchise, and redistributive taxation.

Clark introduces us to the reality of this persistence of status with a few notable examples. For instance, the family of famed diarist Samuel Pepys has had high social status from 1500 until today, while that of Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, apparently has been upper crust since the Domesday Book of 1086. And in noting the many prominent members of the Darwin family, he remarks, “It is also interesting that Darwin’s fourth-generation descendants include Adrian Maynard Keynes and William Huxley Darwin.” The elite tend to marry the elite.

But if such isolated examples were the crux of Clark’s case, it would be a rather flimsy one: even if the standard social science take on mobility were correct, we would expect to find notable exceptions to the general rule. His main backing for his thesis is a number of studies conducted across many countries and many centuries. Nevertheless the anecdotes are an important aspect of this work: they are a component of how Clark continually turns what could have been an extremely dry executive summary of a number of demographic surveys into a consistently engaging book.

The method and the findings here both strike me as fascinating.

One of the points that strikes me as particularly interesting is the point that if how well you do is a combination of family factors and personal factors, that looking at the difference between fathers and sons would tend to magnify the important of personal factors, while looking over more generations would give more of a sense of family factors. This should ring true to any lover of Victorian and earlier novels: distressed nobility may be distressed, but they're still nobility, and thus they have more ability to get themselves back up into the range of other nobles than do non-gentlefolk who may have similar incomes.

The article, however, surprises me a bit in that it seems to assume (whether this mirrors the book or now I don't know) that if certain families seem to continue to achieve highly through many generations, that this must be entirely the result of unshakable class privilege. I would imagine that class is a factor, but it seems likely that family culture and genetics come into it as well.

Culture and genetics would help to explain the phenomenon of immigrants from an educated/genteel background coming to a new country with nothing, yet somehow ending up within a generation or two back in the upper middle class. Obviously, given the shift of cultural context, it's unlikely to be the result of class power or influence and more likely to be the result of some combination of family culture and natural abilities passed down through genetics.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Stillwater - 50

It took some time to piece out the story of Dick’s accident, but Cheryl’s paragraphs of panicked, contradictory accounts and Malcolm’s steadier, shorter updates eventually provided enough information that Melly could watch the story unfold in a sort of balky flip book animation.

The basic facts were simple: Dick had been a passenger in a car that crashed into a building. The driver had been unhurt and had been arrested. But not just arrested for the accident. Cheryl reported that the car was actually stolen! Not exactly stolen, Malcolm clarified; the car had belonged to the driver’s husband. No, it was her ex-husband! Well, not ex-husband, actually; the divorce hadn’t gone through just yet. But it had almost gone through, because the way Dick had met this — well, Cheryl wouldn’t call her a lady — was that he had gone as a friend of a friend to her divorce party. This was true. The driver of the car had been celebrating her impending divorce, and on learning that Dick was a fast-car aficionado, offered to take him for a spin in her soon-to-be ex-husband’s Maserati GranTurismo, which would have been more harmless than running up huge charges on his credit cards if she hadn’t pushed the acceleration to the limit and lost control of the vehicle on a residential street. Malcolm hastened to add that there was no accusation that Dick was an accessory to a crime. He may not even have been sober enough to understand the situation.

Whatever shape he might have been in that night, Dick was in dire shape now. He’d been flown to a big hospital in Dallas where top specialists were hard at work keeping him alive, and Richard and Cheryl were packing up the car and driving up to be with him. Cheryl wasn’t exactly sure of the extent of his injuries, but she wasn’t going to leave her baby’s side, even if that meant renting an apartment in Dallas and living there until he could come home. She was going to be his nurse and his best companion. Maybe she would bring Pugsy to Dallas eventually, but this was really no place for dogs. She was going to be reading up on rehab and spinal injuries and internal bleeding and bed sores and any other term she’d gleaned from years of watching medical shows on TV. “I’ve never seen Mom so concerned about anything before,” Malcolm wrote, and Melly wondered if perhaps this was the first time Cheryl had ever been in real danger of losing something she loved.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

It Would Be Great If It Worked

There's been a peculiar political battle playing out lately over Paul Ryan's latest proposals to reduce poverty. Noah Smith provides a brief description of the proposal:
A few days ago, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan released a plan for helping people out of poverty. He unveiled the outlines in a talk at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank that seems to have emerged as the intellectual center of the so-called reform-conservatism movement. The plan involves making large block grants, called Opportunity Grants, to states, and instructing them to implement a raft of antipoverty programs. The most innovative of the programs involves having social workers directly help poor people take concrete steps to improve their lives in a number of dimensions.
For a while now it's been an article of the faith on the left that Ryan hates the poor, so obviously this has to be evil, but figuring out why has led to some interesting mental gymnastics in which conservatives have been arguing that long term poverty really is a problem which needs programs to reduce it while progressives respond that the number of long term poor is too small to bother about and most people in poverty just need a couple checks to get them out of a hard patch.

Over at a site called Demos, Matt Bruenig makes a somewhat more sophisticated attempt to explain why conservatives think this kind of plan would work while progressives know it won't:

In response to Ryan, many commentators pointed out that people do not need life contracts to go on to boost their market incomes because they already do that (myself,Weissman, Bouie). These writers point out that people move in and out of poverty a lot. Even though the poverty rate stays pretty steady year to year, "poor people" are not the same people each year.

Although these rebuttals have been fairly modest in scope, they actually lay bare a fundamental difference in the way right-wingers and left-wingers understand poverty.

Theory One: Poverty Is Individual

The right-wing view is that poverty is an individual phenomenon. On this view, people are in poverty because they are lazy, uneducated, ignorant, or otherwise inferior in some manner. If this theory were true, it would follow that impoverished people are basically the same people every year. And if that were true, we could whip poverty by helping that particular 15% of the population to figure things out and climb out of poverty. Thus, a program of heavy paternalistic life contracts to help this discrete underclass get things together might conceivably end or dramatically reduce poverty.

Theory Two: Poverty Is Structural

The left-wing view is that poverty is a structural phenomenon. On this view, people are in poverty because they find themselves in holes in the economic system that deliver them inadequate income. Because individual lives are dynamic, people don't sit in those holes forever. One year they are in a low-income hole, but the next year they've found a job or gotten a promotion, and aren't anymore. But that hole that they were in last year doesn't go away. Others inevitably find themselves in that hole because it is a persistent defect in the economic structure. It follows from this that impoverished people are not the same people every year. It follows further that the only way to reduce poverty is to alter the economic structure so as to reduce the number of low-income holes in it.

Which is true? Structural Poverty

To figure out which theory is true, the easiest thing to do is answer the question: are impoverished people the same people every year or different ones? The individual theory predicts that they are the same people (and further that they need paternalist intervention to get their act together). The structural theory predicts that they are different people (and further that we need to alter the economic structure to make things better).

As all of the commentators linked above mentioned, longitudinal surveys show that impoverished people are not the same people every year. The last SIPP (three-year longitudinal survey done by the Census) had around one-third of Americans finding themselves in episodic poverty at some point in the three years, but just 3.5% finding themselves in episodic poverty for all three years. The PSID data show that around 4 in 10 adults experience an entire year of poverty between age 25 and 60. If you count kids, the number of people who experience at least one year of poverty rockets even higher of course.
Now, this sounds plausible, but once you think about it for a few minutes, all sorts of problems occur.

As Megan McArdle points out, the fact that over a long period of time, lots of people move through poverty briefly doesn't mean that at any given time the majority of people in poverty programs aren't long term, nor that the majority of the actual money spent doesn't go to those who are stuck in long term poverty.

Noah Smith writes on his personal blog that if it were true that most people who experienced poverty were only poor briefly and after that they were fine, we wouldn't need help them at all because they could just borrow. (Which we know is not the case.)

And, of course, there's no reason to believe that individual and structural poverty are mutually exclusive categories. What if it's people with a lack of education or with certain problems who invariably end up the victims of structural problems? Wouldn't helping them resolve those problems get them out of poverty? What if one of the big structural problems is that a significant portion of the population has a bad education, or a drug problem, or an unstable family, or any number of other factors which are known to push people into poverty. If we reduced the number of people with those problems, we might actually fix some of the structural problems.

However, while I think that many of the critiques of Ryan's proposal have problems, it seems to me that there's a pretty basic problem with the program idea as well. As with a lot of ideas for intervening to help people, its success would rely to a great extent on it being done well.

Think, for a moment, about the problems with programs like Head Start, which provides pre-school programs for poorer children. There have been repeated pilot tests in which a program finds really outstanding educators, puts them with pre-school age at-risk children, and gets great results. The problem is that when you scale this to millions of kids in Head Start, the program ends up having no measurable effect. The reason is that it's hard to have a massive program the success of which hinges on having outstanding individuals doing hard, low paid, and thankless work. (And in the long run, we tend to keep programs aimed at helping the poor low paid and thankless.)

Similarly, I would imagine that for a lot of people stuck in long term poverty, spending some serious time with a really great caseworker to figure out their lives would be helpful. But let's think about how huge programs that serve the poor end up actually being run: On a low budget, by over-worked caseworkers, under tough conditions. While spending thoughtful time with a great caseworkers might be helpful, standing in line in order to get rushed through a goals process by a over-worked, under-paid and possibly under-competent caseworker is not going to help anyone -- not even the caseworker. It'll frustrate the people the program is meant to help, add another layer of humiliation and paperwork to dealing with poverty, and provide very little actually good life advice.

By contrast, the idea of simply throwing a little more money at the long term poor may not do very much to help get them out of poverty -- but throwing money is something that even the government is pretty good at doing. Ryan's proposal might be better if it could actually be executing well, and perhaps it's worth trying, but I think there are some pretty good conservative reasons to be skeptical of the government's ability to put together a program which would actually help people get their lives figured out.

World War One Reparations Weren't As Unfair As You Think

I've got a history piece up today at The Federalist about (what else) World War One.

One hundred years later, World War I still provokes confusion and controversy. Scholars can’t even agree on who started the war, with major books accusing Russia,France, Britain, and Austria and Germany. If no one knows who started it, everyone agrees how it ended: A vengeful France and Britain imposed massive and unpayable reparations on Germany resulting in the collapse of the German economy and the rise of the Nazi Party.

This view owes its popularity to none other than economist John Maynard Keynes. Before he was duking it out with Friedrich Hayek over questions of recession and economic stimulus, Keynes served as a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference. Frustrated that he failed to find support for his proposals to rebuild the European economy, Keynes resigned halfway through the conference and wrote a book entitled “The Economic Consequences of the Peace,” in which he argued that the Versailles Treaty was a “Carthaginian Peace” which would impoverish Germany and Europe, leading to another war. It rapidly became a bestseller in Europe and America, leading to disillusion with the treaty in the English-speaking world.

It’s a good time to challenge conventional wisdom on the war, and that includes asking: Was the Versailles Treaty really so unfair, and did it actually cause World War II?

Read the whole thing...

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Day The Great War Began (Sort Of)

Various venues are covering today as the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One. An interesting aspect of the war is that it's debatable whether this is actually the right date. Or to put it another way: Whether you count July 28th, 1914 as the day on which the Great War began has to do with how you define your terms.

On July 28th, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, after declaring themselves unsatisfied with Serbia's not-quite-complete capitulation to an ultimatum Austria-Hungary had sent on the 23rd. Austro-Hungarian gunboats on the Danube shelled Belgrade to show that the declaration was serious, but then for several days very little happened. Austria-Hungary and Serbia had both mobilized, but the Hapsburg military was so ponderous in its mobilization that it was a week until the first battle between Serbia and Austria-Hungary.

Russia had begun mobilizing its armies in response to the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war, but did not cross the border. On July 31st Germany demanded that Russia stop mobilizing, and when Russia failed to do so, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1st.

On August 2nd Germany invaded Luxembourg in order to use it as a staging ground for its invasion of France. On that same day, a single German cavalry patrol crossed into France and exchanged fire with four French border guards, resulting in the first deaths on the Western Front.

On August 3rd Germany declared war on France, and Belgium refused a German demand to allow its armies to pass through on the way to invade France.

Finally, on August 4th Germany invaded Belgium and Great Britain, as a result, declared war on Germany.

The war thus took a full week to fully start. Up until Germany attacked France and Belgium, there was still a possibility of the war remaining a regional conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, though Russia's mobilization suggests that it might have intervened eventually even in such a local conflict.

French heavy cavalry mobilize in 1914.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Fruitfulness of Truth

This is not the NFP post I was going to write for Natural Family Planning Awareness Week.

I had an insight yesterday, something that I thought expressed something true about NFP and its application, especially in the postpartum period. (Bear in mind, when I write, that baby is seven months old this week and that signs have been ambiguous since before he was four months old -- the sort of pattern that is infertile in retrospect, but makes every day a decision point for a couple not willing to risk conception right now, as we are most unitedly not.) I thought I might write about it, but I wanted to talk it over with Darwin first, because it is a good policy to talk over one's planned public discussion of sex with one's spouse. The resulting conversation (and non-conversation) showed me that the point was hurtful to him, though that wasn't my intention, and I wished I'd bitten my tongue and kept the reflection in my heart (as I'd halfway intended to do anyway) rather than bringing up something that could have been construed as a criticism.

I hurt Darwin not because I'm malicious or bitter or abnormal, but because my insight tangentially touched on the fact that no human couple can possibly fill all of another person's needs. That's true of the most virtuous, most balanced, best-suited marriage (the Darwins, in short). I hurt Darwin because what I said underscored my own humanity, that I am broken not even by sin (though by that too) but by the limitations of my body in this world. But it wasn't unreasonable or wrong of him to feel that pain. In marriage, when the two become as one and your flesh becomes my flesh, there can't really be any, "It's not you, it's me." Everything is a reflection on the other, which is why small comments become big fights and one's person's small actions can have such an outsized effect, positive or negative, on the other. But if we're both doing our best, and we both fall short, and our problem is not sin that can rejected, then how can this be reconciled? When even our best, most virtuous human efforts fall short, what recourse is there other than isolation and civil silence?

The only solution is to confide ourselves and our marriages deep in the heart of Jesus, who is the only person who can ever fulfill all needs. Every earthly marriage, friendship, parenthood, childhood, will fail, because no mother can be everything, no father can be everything, no wife or husband or friend can meet every physical, mental, and spiritual need. The only way to grow into a deeper relationship with someone is to trust in God to repair and better our deficiencies, and then to constantly be willing to lay down our lives so that He may take them up again. Not closing ourselves off, but constantly opening and stretching ourselves in him.

***

Truth is, I think, the key application of NFP. Naturally, the observation of cycles and the day-to-day decisions about sex, the health of the body, the respect for the body's natural capabilities, and a lack of delusion about our capacity to control all aspects of reproduction: all these are important aspects of Natural Family Planning, by whatever system one practices it. NFP is not perfect, not because of the "failure rate" or because someone's cycle is just too crazy to chart or because abstaining from sex can be really really hard or because of some inherent flaw in the concept. It's imperfect because everything this side of heaven is imperfect. It's imperfect because spouses are imperfect. Look around and you'll find that the relationships in which each person believes the other can totally fulfill all needs are the newest ones, the least mature ones, the ones untried by shared suffering, shared joys, shared daily life, without true judgment about real life and real people.

The reason to practice NFP, or to live a Christian life, despite the difficulties and the inevitable hardships, is that truth and openness and virtue will always bear fruit in a way that lies, misdirection, or taking the easy way cannot. The fruit may seem stunted or worthless or bitter at first. Or it may ripen immediately and be appealing to the senses and the will. But either way, it is divine, and participating in the will of God is never an empty exercise. We sow where we will not reap. We harvest what we did not sow. Between the sowing and the harvesting, which can be human activities, is the hand of God, mending our imperfect efforts. We transform our works and joys and sufferings in Him, and He transcends our flaws and our seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

***

Here's what happened. We were able to talk about last night's discussion a bit more freely over email today, once the immediate rawness had worn off. The pain I caused wasn't the destructive damage of a malicious, sinful action, but the constructive damage of a muscle being exercised. That muscle will repair itself if it is given rest and nourishment. The rest, I think, is key -- we didn't have to hash out every detail of this idea at that very moment, something that could have really strained our relationship as we both tried to justify our points of view. The work of being married doesn't have to be achieved in a moment of catharsis. It takes a lifetime of listening and adjusting, revisiting and rebuilding, and in making the good, hard decisions every day, and every night.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Prices Are Increasing, But It's Not The Fed's Fault

There's been a rash of articles lately in conservative venues complaining that inflation is higher than people are willing to admit, and that this increase in prices is squeezing the vaunted middle class. Amity Shlaes wrote one of the more widely discussed of these in National Review. There have been many critiques of this line of thinking from the right as well, such as this American Enterprise Institute piece. However, it's a line of argument which is tantalizingly easy for people to wrap their minds around, while the working of prices and inflation is the sort of thing that can easily make your head hurt. So there's also a more down-home sort of article such as this one from The Federalist, which makes the modest assertion that consumer prices have increased faster than wages since the recession, and that this hurts consumers.

“Americans should stop whining about food prices.”

That was the message AEI’s Mark J. Perry blasted last September to families gullible enough to believe that rising food prices were a problem:
It’s a favorite pastime in this country – Americans love to complain about rising food prices. Even when they aren’t. In fact, given all of the complaining you would never know that average food price inflation in recent years is actually the lowest in several generations. Below are three reasons that Americans should stop whining about food prices, and be a little more appreciative of how affordable food is in the US today, especially when compared to other countries, or when compared to previous decades in US history.
Perry’s three reasons for why American families should stop whining were that 1) Americans spend a smaller percentage of their budgets on food than they did 60 years ago, 2) people in other countries spend more of their money on food than we do, and 3) the four-year moving average of food inflation is low.

To which I say: so what? None of those supposedly devastating critiques of the “inflation is real crowd” came even close to addressing the real problem for millions of American families: namely, that the prices of stuff they buy are growing a lot more quickly than the wages they use to buy that stuff. Yes, it’s nice that we spend a smaller percentage of our budgets on food than other nations do or than our grandparents did after World War II, but that’s cold comfort to a working mom trying to figure out how to buy $20 worth of meat with only $15 left in her pockets.
Now, he's right. A number of key consumer goods have increased in price faster than wages in the 2008-2014 time period, food and gas key among them. I pulled a couple of the key categories off the Consumer Price Index website and looked to see how the prices have increased from 2007 to 2014:

Overall CPI: 12%
Food & Beverage: 17%
Apparel: 7%
Medical Care: 21%
Recreation: 3%

During that same period average hourly wages have increased 14%, so food and medical are are both definitely increasing in price faster than people's wages are rising. Some types of food have increased significantly more than the average for the category.

The reason why inflation worries find an audience is that they take a clearly observable phenomenon (prices have increased) and blame it on a little understood one: inflation and the actions of the Federal Reserve.

Yes, the Fed has tried to achieve low levels of inflation. Yes prices have increased significantly on some key consumer products. However, while inflation (in terms of increasing the money supply -- or "printing more money" to use the populist phrase) does tend to result in increased prices, increases in the money supply are certainly not the only thing that increases prices.

Increasing the amount of money in circulation will tend to increase the prices of everything (including wages and interest rates) in a country. Two big reasons you would want to do this to spur the economy are:

1) If our money gets "cheaper" compared to the currency of other countries, the prices of the goods we produce will get "cheaper" for customers in other countries, while the cost of imported goods will rise in our country. This means that with inflation we will tend to export more and have more tourists come to visit us. The inability to inflate their currencies (because they share the Euro with Germany, France, etc.) is one of the things that has hurt poorer countries like Greece and Spain in the European financial crisis. Back before the Euro, they would have inflated their currencies thus spurring imports and tourism and helping to get their economies back on track

2) Constant but low inflation acts like an annual decrease in both wages and prices. This can be a help in resetting prices since people don't like to accept pay cuts. Often a company will lay workers off rather than reducing the wages of their existing workers. With a low level of constant inflation, a company's real wage expenses are always going down (while they make this up with the workers they value most by giving them raises) thus making layoffs less frequent. Getting stuck in a job where your company won't or can't give raises is bad, but it's often better than getting laid off entirely.

However, prices also increase for reasons having nothing to do with the money supply. During the last 20 years, prices of food and energy commodities have generally been on the increase. One of the major reasons for this is that much less of the world is in abject poverty than before. As countries like China develop, the number of people able to drive cars and buy meat at the store has been going up faster than the supply of gas and meat. As a result, these commodities and many others have increased as a simple result of supply and demand. (Other goods which depend on labor efficiency and technology have gone down in price or increased slower than inflation: electronics, clothing, etc.)

Inflation is almost certainly not the main driver of price increases on gas and food -- nor on education and medical care, though there the reasons for increases are driven by a whole other set of factors than those I've just discussed. Even if inflation hawks succeeded in reining in the Fed or re-establishing a gold standard, we could expect to see food and oil costs going generally up over the coming years. Increases in technology and efficiency are allowing the world to produce more of these than before, but the demand is increasing even more rapidly and in a situation in which the demand for something increases faster than its supply, increasing prices is the way that the market encourages people to modify their behavior to consume less of in-demand items. We can expect more of the same until we reach something like a new equilibrium.

Stillwater - 49 REVISED


Expanded, revised. Let this be a lesson to me not to forget my own plot.

***

And so, here she was, in the new normal. Ian was gone back to New York City, Malcolm was returned from New York City, and Melly was anxious to hear that neither of them had gotten what they’d set out to get. To know the worst would have been easier than living day in and day out with the sickening uncertainty of hope. What she did know was that she couldn’t spend the rest of her life this way, waiting for the soap opera of Stillwater life to provide her with some vicarious suds. Her life was now, in Baton Rouge. Maybe it lacked the big city panache of New York or the stately rural rhythms of Stillwater, but it had something neither of those places could provide, the one thing that made life more than bearable here: a sister.

In the beginning Melly and Leonie had had nothing in common but the rickety bones of a childhood. They had not fought — Melly never fought — but their personalities were as perfectly weighted as the scales of Justice, so that the slightest character imbalance set them pitching and swaying. After the first explosive week at home, Melly thought that perhaps she was just fated to be more isolated with her family than at Stillwater, but Leonie had surprised her again. At Stillwater there was a certain basic social decency, but nobody there, not even Malcolm, had the tenth part of Leonie’s complete openness. She was head-strong and heart-strong, intense in her loves and in her convictions, ready to correct course at full speed. Zeal and humility made strange bedfellows, but she made sense of the synthesis. In her life there’d been little enough to challenge her to be better than wiser instead of bigger and stronger. And now, with the arrival of Melly, came the revelation that heroes could be small and personal. Melly was good and sweet, but she didn’t come with a cause that Leonie could throw herself into. Strangely enough, Leonie found that Melly’s independent perspective on their family didn’t undermine her own, but deepened it. Together they could adjust and settle isolated, inexplicable bits of memory as in a stereoscope and suddenly old stories would snap into a crisp new coherence. 

Melly, in her turn, tried not to shrink into herself whenever Leonie’s fierce devotion was kindled. It was awkward to be regarded as a teacher by someone who would seize even the gentlest hint as a exhortation to charge into battle. What was needed was something that would knock her down to a human level in her sister’s estimation, something useful and admirable that Leonie could do better than she could, that would play to Leonie’s strengths and give her something to teach Melly. This was Melly’s dearest wish (aside from the secret dream Malcolm would show up on her doorstep with a ring in hand) and, as so often happens with dearest wishes, she wasn’t nearly pleased enough to have it come true, and in the most mortifying way: Leonie taught her how to drive.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Does Calling God 'He' Mean Men Are More Godlike?

People sometimes get a bit queasy about referring to God as "He" on the theory that it somehow leaves women out or marks them as lesser creatures. Someone recently asked the question this way: If it's more accurate to call God "He" because there is something about Him that is more masculine than feminine, does that mean that men are more godlike than women?

The question of in what sense masculine pronouns are best applied to God is a tricky one. Two things are very clear:

1) When God became man, He became a man: Jesus

2) God qua God is not either a man or a woman, and both human sexes in some sense reflect aspects of God. "God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female* he created them."

I think the opening question can be addressed very easily, however. Rather than God, let's think for a moment about ordinary human relationships. Say a man has four children, two sons and two daughters. Imagine someone says of one of the daughters "she's just like her father" or "Jane is more like Tom and any of his other kids."

Now clearly, if someone says this, they're not trying to suggest that Jane is a man or that Tom is a woman. Rather, they're expressing that in regard to personality, appearance, hobbies, or some other set of characteristics, Jane seems more like her father than any of her other siblings do. In this basic, human kind of comparison, sex is not the primary thing that we're referring to when we talk about how similar people are.

The problem with saying "We call God 'He', so men must be more godlike than women" is that it assumes that sex is the primary axis on which we would determine how much or little someone was like God. Why would this be?

Other characteristics seem obviously false: "Jesus was a Jew, so Jews are clearly more godlike than gentiles." or "Jesus was a carpenter, so carpenters are clearly more godlike than plumbers." I'd argue that making a similar comparison based on sex is equally so.

If there's one characteristic which is the right axis on which to compare people to God, it would be virtue. Thus, men and women are both more or less similar to God based on the extent to which they emulate His perfect goodness.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Stillwater - 49

And so, here she was, in the new normal. Ian was gone back to New York City, Malcolm was returned from New York City, and Melly was anxious to hear that neither of them had gotten what they’d set out to get. To know the worst would have been easier than living day in and day out with the sickening uncertainty of hope. What she did know was that she couldn’t spend the rest of her life this way, waiting for the soap opera of Stillwater life to provide her with some vicarious suds. Her life was now, in Baton Rouge. Maybe it lacked the big city panache of New York or the stately rural rhythms of Stillwater, but it had something neither of those places could provide, the one thing that made life more than bearable here: a sister.

In the beginning Melly and Leonie had had nothing in common but the rickety bones of a childhood. They had not fought, because fighting wasn’t Melly’s style, but their personalities, introverted versus aggressive, were pitched for disharmony. Melly had feared, after the first explosive weekend at home, that she would feel more isolated among her family than she had at Stillwater, but her family still had a few surprises for her. No one at Stillwater, not even Malcolm, had the tenth part of Leonie’s complete openness. Zeal and humility seemed like strange bedfellows, but Leonie made sense of the synthesis. She was head-strong and heart-strong: intense in her loves and convictions, but willing to correct course at full speed. In her life, there had been little enough to challenge her to be better and wiser, instead of bigger and stronger. Now, with the arrival of Melly, Leonie discovered that heroes could be small and personal. Melly didn’t have a cause that Leonie could throw herself into. Her independent, characteristic perspective on their family deepened Leonie’s own understanding rather than setting them against each other. Together they could adjust isolated, inexplicable bits of memory in their stereoscope and suddenly old family stories would snap into a crisp new coherence. Melly’s mildness was not a rebuke to Leonie, but a clarion call.

Melly was trying, in her turn, to respond to this enthusiasm not by shrinking into herself, but by opening herself to her sister. She tried to allow herself to be changed by Leonie’s fearlessness without being intimidated by her fierce devotion. She didn’t want to be Leonie’s teacher — in fact, the danger was that Leonie would seize on the gentlest hint as an exhortation to charge into battle. As it was, Melly had had just about enough of being put on a pedestal, between Ian’s “bright angel!” schtick, and trying to avoid playing voices to Leonie’s Joan of Arc, and (she could even begin, in the recesses of her heart, to admit this to herself) Malcolm’s “dearest confidante” tunnel vision.

Ian could be dismissed from thought, and Leonie lived with, but Malcolm was the source of Melly’s disquiet. Her greatest deprivation at home was not the the lack of good food or good family, but the loss of his daily company, and although the length of the separation had dulled the initial pain, her spirit was roiled whenever she meditated on him, and him and Alys, and now, on his trip to New York City. She longed to know what had happened between them, and she wondered why she had heard from neither. The days empty of news left her to spin multiple fantastic scenarios about their visit, little novelettes in Melly could override her reason just enough to create plenty of dramatic tension for Malcolm and Alys but not enough to give them a really satisfying break-up. Why didn’t they just settle something, so she could move on with her life?

She had almost persuaded herself that the reason she heard nothing was because they were too happy in each other to talk to her, or perhaps they really had nothing to write, when, late the week after Ian had left, there arrived another letter addressed to Mlle. Melusine Arceneaux.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Mandatory Fun

I feel guilty about writing a blog post while Stillwater still hangs over my head like the fountain pen of Damocles, but for this I break my silence: Weird Al has released a new album called Mandatory Fun. He's releasing one video a day for a week, on different sites, but you can see them all as they come out at weirdal.com.

So far we've got:

Tacky (parody of Happy by Pharrell Williams



This is one of those where I hear the parody and think, "Oh, that's what that song is!" The comedian cameos are good goofy fun (I love Eric Stonestreet's little tap combination at the mention of resumes in Comic Sans.)

Word Crimes (parody of Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines)



I don't know anything about the original except that it's the song which accompanied Miley Cyrus's infamous Twerk That Launched a Thousand Facebook Posts, and I'm told that one should not, under any circumstances, look for the original video. No matter. This must transcend its source material, because it's absolutely hilarious, and is the sort of thing that will have homeschoolers canceling their English co-ops in order to study the lyrics for a semester.

Foil (parody of Royals by Lorde)



Now this one I do know, and I tell you what, despite the inspired silliness of this song, I just can't take my eyes off of Weird Al's hair, especially when he dons that fetching hat. My girls were in hysterics by the twist at the end, since they've become die-hard fans of the original Mission: Impossible series, which used that little device all the time.

Handy (parody of Iggy Azalea's Fancy)



Another "Huh, so that's what that song is" moment. Not the craziest thing you've ever seen, but definitely watchable, and he's doing some clever things matching the rhythm of the original. And that wig! I'd hire him.

Keep checking weirdal.com daily until July 21 for more fun.



Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Wonder of Mutant Corn

This is a re-post from five years back, when we were living in Texas, but since I now drive through Ohio corn fields on my way to work, and we've been growing sweet corn in the garden for the first time this year, I was reminded of it.



Here to the north of Austin, we live in an odd patchwork of new neighborhood, business parks and shopping malls interspersed with open fields. Cattle graze in the field next to our supermarket, and corn grows cross the street from our bank.

Seeing the orderly fields of corn, I'd never realized that corn represents an intriguing mystery in regards to plant evolution and the history of humanity's interaction with the plants we live off of. First domesticated in Central America around 7000 years ago, corn as we find it today is a domestic-only plant in that it is virtually incapable of reproducing in the wild.

One of the characteristics of corn that makes it such a useful crop is the incredibly high return of kernels harvested to kernels planted. Biologically, one of the reasons for this abundance is that unlike other grasses which have been domesticated as agricultural grains, the corn cob forms halfway down on the plant, closer to sources of water and nutrients, and thus the plant is able to put more energy into seed growth. In other cereals, the seeds are at the very top of the stalk, at the plant's farthest extremety.

Another great feature of corn is that the cob is covered by a husk, which largely protects the grain from pests. It pretty much requires a creature with opposable thumbs to get the husk off, which means you loose less of the grain prior to harvest. Plus, the kernels are well-rooted into the cob, as compared to grains like wheat where the ripe seeds can easily fall from the ear of grain.

However, all of this -- particularly the firmness of the kernels in the cob and the husk covering it -- means that if there are no humans to harvest the corn, very, very little of it will succeed in naturally reseeding. If a cornfield were abandoned before harvest and you returned in five years to see if any wild corn was left growing, you would probably find few to no corn plants.

This means that corn as we find it today must be biologically fairly different from the corn ancestor which Central Americans first found in the wild and domesticated. The predominant theory out there is that corn is descended from the grass called teosinte which is found in Mexico even today, but the differences between the two plants are extensive, though there is enough genetic similarity to make it pretty clear they are related. Teosinte grains is far out on the extremities of a banching stalk, the grains are covered by hard outer covering (like the chaff of wheat), the grains are not strongly rooted in a cob-like structure, and they are not covered by a husk that remains closed.

The National Science Foundation has a nice comparison here:


The prevailing theory at the moment is apparently that teosinte underwent a series of major mutations during a very short period of time which resulted in the corn we see today. I find that a bit unsatisfying, since series of major, conventient, stable mutations are hard to come by. Thus I was interested to find this article about Prof. Mary Eubanks of Duke University, who has been working on the theory that corn as we know it today is the result of multiple hybridizations between teosinte and another wild grass called tripsacum. She's developed a hybrid of tripsacum and modern corn which exhibits many of the properties of the ancient ears of corn dating back 5000+ years that have been found in caves in Mexico. Apparently she has pretty decent genetic evidence for this as well by now.

While I'm not remotely an expert, I must admit to finding the hybridization explanation somewhat more convincing on the face of it than the sudden large mutation explanation. And I had never realized that corn was so interesting.

Re-Reading for the Younger Kids

Isabel (age eight) was having a hard time the other night. She'd taken a spill on her bike and had to have dirt and grit washed out of her scrapes before she could be bandaged up.

"What can I do for my girl?" I asked.

"Read Princess and the Goblin!"

She got out the book and found the chapter two thirds through where we'd left off perhaps six months ago. I read her the chapter, and she curled up happily and listened. The older and younger kids gathered around as well, and what had been a private comfort read became bedtime read alouds -- a ritual which has been all to rare of late since it's light outside until almost 10PM and the kids don't want to come in until it's already after bedtime.

Thinking about it afterwards, I felt guilty. We'd been working very slowly through The Princess and the Goblin for the somewhat selfish reason that I'd already read it (and The Princess and Curdie) to the kids six years ago, when our oldest girls were six and five. It was a great age for reading it to them, but that put Isabel at age two, too young to remember. Now she wants her turn, and I hadn't thought about it because I'd read it to them already.

The same thing struck me the next night when Jack and Diana (ages 5 and 3) were having a hard bed time and Diana begged for me to read her a Mother Goose book which she'd picked off the shelf. The book itself shows the amount of Mother Goose reading that's gone on in the family: the covers are loose and some of the pages are torn or wrinkled, the result of hard use by children on down the line. But that was mostly a long time ago. When the first two kids were aged 2-4, I read them a lot of children's verse and classic picture books at bed time. As they've aged, so have the read alouds. This is particularly the case because, frankly, I'm not as fond of books and stories aimed at very young children as I am at younger ones. The current family read aloud is a Dorothy Sayers murder mystery. The older kids love it, and I enjoy sharing with them a book that I myself enjoy a lot. But while the younger kids can get a surprising amount out of books aimed at an older audience, I realize that my own taste and the fact that I've ready read the two to six year old canon many, many times means that the younger children get a lot less nursery rhymes and Madeline and Babar and Beatrix Potter than the older ones did. Even more left out are children's novels accessible to younger children: Edward Eager, George McDonald, E. Nesbit, E. B. White and such. It's not that I dislike these books. I enjoyed reading them to the kids, but since I've read them to them already, I'd been thinking entirely in terms of moving on to new books.

I can see now that I'm going to have to change this tendency and make sure that the younger kids are getting their fair share of younger-focused read-alouds. I doubt the older kids will mind this particularly either. I go back and re-read my own favorite books moderately often. Re-hearing books that they heard some years back will probably be enjoyable for them, as well as getting the younger children a chance to hear the books they were too young to recall from before.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Coffee Fueled the Civil War

It's been a long couple weeks, and as I wrap things up I'm sitting here at my desk with a cup of black coffee. It seems those under far more trying circumstances than I relied on much the same, according to this post on the reliance on coffee of soldiers in the US Civil War:
It was the greatest coffee run in American history. The Ohio boys had been fighting since morning, trapped in the raging battle of Antietam, in September 1862. Suddenly, a 19-year-old William McKinley appeared, under heavy fire, hauling vats of hot coffee. The men held out tin cups, gulped the brew and started firing again. “It was like putting a new regiment in the fight,” their officer recalled. Three decades later, McKinley ran for president in part on this singular act of caffeinated heroism.

At the time, no one found McKinley’s act all that strange. For Union soldiers, and the lucky Confederates who could scrounge some, coffee fueled the war. Soldiers drank it before marches, after marches, on patrol, during combat. In their diaries, “coffee” appears more frequently than the words “rifle,” “cannon” or “bullet.” Ragged veterans and tired nurses agreed with one diarist: “Nobody can ‘soldier’ without coffee.”
...
The Union Army encouraged this love, issuing soldiers roughly 36 pounds of coffee each year. Men ground the beans themselves (some carbines even had built-in grinders) and brewed it in little pots called muckets. They spent much of their downtime discussing the quality of that morning’s brew. Reading their diaries, one can sense the delight (and addiction) as troops gushed about a “delicious cup of black,” or fumed about “wishy-washy coffee.” Escaped slaves who joined Union Army camps could always find work as cooks if they were good at “settling” the coffee – getting the grounds to sink to the bottom of the unfiltered muckets.

For much of the war, the massive Union Army of the Potomac made up the second-largest population center in the Confederacy, and each morning this sprawling city became a coffee factory. First, as another diarist noted, “little campfires, rapidly increasing to hundreds in number, would shoot up along the hills and plains.” Then the encampment buzzed with the sound of thousands of grinders simultaneously crushing beans. Soon tens of thousands of muckets gurgled with fresh brew.

Confederates were not so lucky. The Union blockade kept most coffee out of seceded territory. One British observer noted that the loss of coffee “afflicts the Confederates even more than the loss of spirits,” while an Alabama nurse joked that the fierce craving for caffeine would, somehow, be the Union’s “means of subjugating us.” When coffee was available, captured or smuggled or traded with Union troops during casual cease-fires, Confederates wrote rhapsodically about their first sip.
There's a good deal more, and worth reading.

Stillwater - 48

Yeah, I could read this through for continuity, or I could go to bed. 

***

Fortunate indeed are they who can command the weather to fit their fancy. Melly could not. She hoped for rain, vast bucketfuls pouring from the vaults of heaven, flooding the streets and making it impossible to walk down by the river or for Ian to drive to her family’s house. What she found, when she looked out her window in all hopefulness, was glorious October, clear and fine, the weather really almost Novemberish in its hint of crispness. There was nothing to prevent Ian from coming, and nothing did; he arrived on the cramped concrete stoop in good time, paid his respects, and escorted Melly and Marie-Helene to the car, and downtown. There they parked along River Road and stood on the sidewalk surveying the options for strolling amidst greenery. To their right, the Old State Capitol, a great wedding cake of a building, rose up amidst an expanse of fenced, manicured lawn. Tucked beside it was Repentance Park which, Ian had heard, had just received a multi-million dollar renovation.

“All the repentance money can buy,” he said, surveying the green crescent of field. “It doesn’t look very exciting, does it? Anyway, we want to see the river.”

Marie-Helene was already charging ahead up the steps of the pedestrian bridge which would lead them across the street to the terraces and fountains of the river front plaza. Melly followed at a more leisurely pace, and Ian matched her speed. He maintained a correct distance between them, doing nothing to alarm her or make her skittish. Melly appreciated the reserve. It was thoughtful of him, and reduced the hardship of having to spend time in his company. She paused, hovering above River Road — her own River Road, though it ran along the east bank of the river here in the city — and looked away south, wishing she could trace its course down to the ferry from Sunshine to Plaquemine, where it picked up on the west bank and ran down past Stillwater itself. Down to Stillwater, where Malcolm was not, because he was in New York City visiting Alys. Melly wanted to stay on the bridge above River Road and stand vigil until Malcolm returned, but Ian was at her elbow. Marie-Helene was shouting back at them from the next, higher portion of the walkway to come and see the river. With the smallest of sighs, Melly turned her face from Stillwater. Marie-Helene, full of the zeal of youth and animated by the sheer joy of living on such a glorious day as this, ran back to seize their hands and drag them up the second flight of stairs. Ian was infected by her mood. Together they pulled Melly up onto the high walkway over the railroad tracks, where the breeze whipped around them as they took in the view.

Above them drifted flocks of puffy clouds in an azure sky; below them lay the pleasant sculptural grounds of the plaza; beside them rose a monumental homage to the large red stick, the baton rouge; before them stretched a pier arched at intervals with great white pipes bent like paperclips. The sunlight was bright enough to make Melly shade her eyes, but she found that every color was intensified, not bleached, by the clear light. Nothing could alter the essentially muddy nature of the Mississippi, but the vivid blueness of the sky transmuted the water into peridot wavelets chased by the occasional shadow of a cloud. Even Port Allen across the river had acquired a certain industrial nobility.

Such a beautiful prospect did her heart good. She felt her cares melt away from her for the moment. Even Ian’s company wasn’t so onerous, because she could see that he too felt the lure of all that was good and right and lovely about such a day. He didn’t appreciate the sky and the river simply because he was seeing them with her. He could see them in themselves and love them independently of whether she loved them too. Melly remembered how serious he had been when he discussed photography with Olivia Spencer, one of the rare occasions when it seemed to be discussing a subject for its own sake and not for how it served him. Now as he gazed out over the riverscape, she snuck a glance at his face, and could believe that he was not thinking of her at all.

On the levee below them, Marie-Helene was already dancing around on the red-paved path lined with benches. Melly made her way to one and rested her weary legs as she surveyed the two ships moored in the river: the USS Kidd and the riverboat casino.

“There’s an interesting contrast,” said Ian, following her gaze as he sat beside her. “Ship of heroes, ship of fools. One is a monument to men who sacrifice their lives for their country, the other a monument to men who sacrifice their money for their entertainment.”

“Often they’re the same man,” said Melly, thinking of her father.

Ian seemed to follow her. “How long have you been at home now, Melly? A month?”

“Yes,” she said, and then hesitated under the demands of accuracy. “Well, not exactly. I got here on a Sunday evening, so tomorrow it will only be four weeks since I left Stillwater. So it’s almost a month, but not yet…” She might have qualified this several more times if not for the check of his eyes, which glowed with the moonstruck fervor of a parent contemplating an adorable infant.

“You never like to be caught saying anything untrue,” he said. “I like that you always feel that honesty is the best policy.”

“Honesty is a facet of the truth,” she said slowly. “I want to be truthful.”

“That’s why I rely on your judgment.” His boyish face was serious, his body tense with the effort of not leaning close to her. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to see you. I wanted your opinion on my project, especially after I’ve had a night to chew on Leonie’s criticism. Do you think it’s selfish of me to fix up a house for only myself? Do you think it’s wrong of me to come down here from New York and buy your houses and throw money at local workmen like I was some French aristocrat patronizing the peasants?”

Melly was unsure what he wanted her to say. “I guess if you’re stimulating the economy no one will complain.”

“That’s a financial angle. But I need you to tell me what to do.”

“I can’t tell you what to do. You know your business better than I do.”

“But tell me what’s right.”

“You’d do better to ask your conscience instead of me.”

“You’re my conscience, Melly.”

“Don’t say that!” Melly did not want to look at him for fear that she might see the light of sincerity in his eyes. “That’s too much of a burden for anyone to bear, to carry the weight of being someone else’s judgment. It’s wrong to put that on me.”

“If you say so, I believe it.”

“No! Believe it because it’s true.”

Melly stood up and turned her face toward Marie-Helene, and toward the street and the car parked on it. She wanted to walk away and leave Ian behind, but she knew her legs were too tired to carry her very far very fast. He could tell too; even without looking at him she could feel him standing behind her, watching her with the devotion of a penitent before the statue of his patron saint.

“You aren’t well,” he said.

“I am. Well enough. I just need an early dinner and bedtime tonight.”

“Let me take you to dinner, “ he said. “You need better food than you’re getting at home. And you need a better environment. What if…” He stood behind her now, almost whispering in her ear. “What if I drove you down to Stillwater, and we could look around for old time’s sake, and then come back to town to eat? I can put off my flight until tomorrow. The pilot doesn’t care.”

Oh, Stillwater. Her breath caught in her throat as the glorious vision rose up before her: every wing and window clear in her mind as if she were standing out on the levee on a cool summer morning. Ian could have her there in an hour. Speed cost him nothing.

But speed cost her everything, and the detachment from Stillwater she was beginning to foster was still new enough to crumble at temptation.

“I can’t tonight,” she said with all the social self-possession she could muster. “I need to take Marie-Helene to the Vigil Mass.”

“Then let me take you there.”

Not only did he take them to Mass, he went with them. Melly didn’t know whether to be gratified or frustrated at this. In the end she said nothing and left him to his conscience, whatever it told him. She had her doubts about whether he’d ever set foot in a church before, but despite his unfamiliarity with the Mass, he comported himself respectably, though he would take her hand at the Our Father and hold it longer than observation of the congregation should have indicated. Still, when he dropped her and Marie-Helene at the house, he didn’t linger or push her. She stood looking after him longer than he’d stood saying goodbye to her.

The house was dull and gray that evening. Leonie was still at work, so there was no one whose eye lit up when she entered the living room. The noise and the chaos struck her with fresh force now that she’d been out for the day in civilized company. She was disgusted with herself for being disgusted with everyone, and ashamed of preferring Ian’s company to the present company. By the time she caught herself staring at the door in a reverie, half hoping that he would return and renew his offer of taking her to Stillwater, she took herself to her hard twin bed and spent several hours with eyes resolutely closed, repeating a fervent prayer that she would never see him again.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why Write For The Insiders?

There's always something a little delicious about reading a negative review, though at the same time I always hesitate because I'm not sure how seriously to take it. Being negative can be so much fun that there's always the question of whether the negativity is fair. Be that as it may, this review of blogger turned novelist Emily Gould's first novel Friendship struck me:
The incestuous hub of this activity is now Brooklyn, where literary life resembles a high-school popularity contest. Brooklyn's litterateurs write about themselves and their friends and then are published and publicized by that same clique. This is hardly unprecedented in the annals of literature—as the critic John Leonard wrote of one of the late Manhattan literary gangs in 2006, "cohorts of scribblers have always herded together like zebras on the African veldt." But the narcissism that online platforms like Twitter and Tumblr tend to enforce has made Brooklyn books especially mystifying to non-belongers. To even begin to understand the recent memoirs by Benjamin Anastas and Jon-Jon Goulian or the new novel by parody blogger David Shapiro, you have to be a master of hipster Kremlinologyy: to know who's dating whom, who goes to whose parties and who's favoriting whose tweets

Firmly established someplace in the upper echelons of this hierarchy is Emily Gould, who has now written her first novel, "Friendship." She made her name as a blogger cheerfully dishing about her boyfriend, her parents and her cats and then as an editor-provocateur at the gossip website Gawker. She reached an even wider audience with a tell-all memoir in the New York Times Magazine about traumas like "losing the will to blog"— though what people mostly remember from that piece is the cover photo of her lolling in bed, her tattoos carefully exposed.
...
"Friendship" is about two New York women approaching 30. Amy, once a minor celebrity in "the blog big leagues," has a sinecure at a Jewish online magazine called Yidster. Bev, an aspiring writer, is getting by on temp work. Amy is melodramatic and egotistical; Bev is quiet and determined. Despite their frequent resentments, the two feel like "allies in a world full of idiots and enemies." Their friendship reaches a crisis when Bev becomes pregnant from a one-night stand and decides to keep the baby. Amy, meanwhile, loses her job, her boyfriend and her chic apartment. The reversal of fortunes is signified through fashion. Bev wears a taupe trench coat to an interview at the start of the book; Amy wears "sad taupe interview shoes" at the end of it. Taupe is evidently the color worn by the down-at-heel.

If you squint hard enough, you can see Amy as a kind of slacker version of Edith Wharton's Lily Bart, both brought low by fecklessness and profligacy. But the book's lesson—the mundane discovery that maturation is about outgrowing petty self-interest—is belied by the book itself, which has difficulty imagining what adult life might actually look like. Once Bev's pregnancy advances, she all but disappears from the story (the birth occurs offstage), which mostly catalogs Amy's hissy fits when she can't afford a dress or has to ride the bus. Eventually Amy realizes the value of true friendship, but the transformation is condensed into the final five pages and comes across as wishful thinking.

The rest is Brooklynology. To get any purchase on this novel, you need to be able to decode its real-life allusions. At one point Amy is criticized for having spastic eyebrows while shooting a video blog for Yidster. The scene is inert because it's an inside joke: Ms. Gould is poking fun at her own 2007 appearance on " Larry King Live." If you happen never to have seen that clip, tough luck for you.

The prose is of the diaristic, blogger style pushed to extremes in books like Tao Lin's "Taipei" and Choire Sicha's "Very Recent History," which offer stenographic transcripts of Brooklyn life. Ms. Gould is more personable than those writers and sometimes nails a wry observation (Amy, in a sulk, ignores her cat in order to watch cat videos on her laptop). But her writing is generally little more than autobiographical referents. The dialogue in particular, spattered with "uhs" and "ums" and "likes," conveys nothing beyond the banal mindlessness of tape-recorded speech: "But no matter what," Amy says to Bev, "if you decide to have this baby, you're going to, like, have a baby. That's going to mean something. Just because . . . like, it's a baby."
I like novels that pull one into other times and places, but a successful novel of that sort both emphasizes the differentness of the subject place and time, while introducing the reader into it. The reader is the 'other' and the milieu is the foreign land.

The insider novel, however, is an utterly tiresome mini-genre. Occasionally someone will try to write insider fiction set in the Catholic sub culture, and while I know the culture and get the jokes, I must say that if the only point is to say "hey, I'm an insider' it's dull and tiresome. What seems doubly offensive about this Brooklynology sub genre is that it parlays its geographical and personal connections to the publishing industry into publication and promotion when clearly Brooklyn is not the native clime of most book readers. The review opens with an anecdote of self importance which is enough to make even a writer feel a bit smug about the low motion death throws of the publishing industry:
In 2008, the writer Sloane Crosley fielded an interview question on the loaded subject of blurbs, those little bits of over-the-top admiration that gild the back covers of books. Ms. Crosley, who was promoting her single-woman-in-Brooklyn essay collection "I Was Told There'd Be Cake," had been a book publicist, and she scored heaps of advance praise from famous friends and clients. "Isn't this why aspiring writers in the rest of the country hate New Yorkers?" the interviewer asked. "Um, yes," she answered. "It seems like cheating. And by all means, if cheating is promoting other people's work, trying to get people to pay attention to a product that the entire world is slowly losing interest in, then yes, I cheated."
A better way to keep people interested in the product would be to write books which are aimed at people in their capacity as human beings, not their capacity as Brooklynites.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Are Traditionalists the Future of Catholicism in France?

Rod Dreher wrote about a recent post put up by the traditionalist blog Centurio which attempts to forecast out the trends in the population of diocesan priests in France and in priests in France who are members of groups focused on the Tridentine Mass. Centurio's post is a sort of sequel to an earlier Centurio post looking at the comparative rate of growth in priests world wide versus in groups celebrating the Tridentine Mass and concluding that although traditionalist groups are growing faster than the number of priests as a whole, those priests will still only comprise 0.5% of priests world wide in 2050 if current trends continue, although that 0.5% does represent a doubling of the current percentage of priests worldwide accounted for by priests from traditionalist groups.

The methodology in the original Centurio post strikes me as essentially solid:
Using available statistical data from the center for applied research in the apostolate (1) and from various sources on the traditional institutes of priests (2), I have put together forecasts on the future number of priests until the year 2050. In order to put these forecasts together I used the simple iterative formula

n (t+1) = n (t) * (1 - r) + o

where n(t+1) is the number of priests in the next year, n(t) is the number of priests in the current year, r is the rate of retirement or priests per year expressed in percent of all priests, and o is the number of ordinations of new priests each year. I was able to obtain the total number of priests as well as the number of ordinations from the sources mentioned above and input into the formula. For the retirement rate I assumed 2.5% which equals to 40 active years for a priest this means that every year 1/40 of all priests becomes inactive. I did all calculations for the individual orders of traditional priests, then summed them up to all traditional priests. I also did the calculation for all priests (currently 414,313) according to the CARA data (1).
France is an interesting case on which to do a follow-up to this analysis because although a historically Catholic country is has seen a huge reduction in church attendance and in the number of priests in recent years. France currently has 14,000 priests, with an average age of 75 and in recent years has ordained around 100 priests a year.

The approach that Centurio takes is to assume that because the average age of French priests is 75, 20% of them will retire every year, while adding assuming that the most recent national ordination number (96) remains constant from here on out. With these assumptions, the number of priests stabilizes at around 480 around 2050. Given the current number of priests in traditionalist orders in France, and their growth rate, they would become the majority of French priests around 2038 with these assumptions.

The problem with this approach is that it assumes that even the new priests (being ordained at an assumed rate of 96 per year) are also retiring at a rate of 20% per year. While it may be that some French vocations are older, I think we can assume that their average age is not 75! What would be a lot more reasonable is to assume a standard length of active life for priests such as 35 years and assume that given a constant rate of ordinations the population of priests will eventually stabilize at that number times the number of ordinations. With 96 vocations per year, that would indicate a eventual priest population of 3360. Obviously, this is a much, much smaller number of priests that the current 14,000. However, it's also significantly more than the reasonably projected number of traditionalist priests. Rather than being the majority in 2050, if current trends continue traditionalist priests will make up about 16% of French priests. (This doesn't include the rate at which France imports priests from Africa and Eastern Europe.)

Even so, the decline in the number of priests is absolutely huge and says a lot about the decline in French Catholicism. This piece describes the decline in the number of seminarians:
As was the case last year, there has been a 3% drop in candidates to the priesthood (from 732 on 15 November 2010 to 710 on 15 November 2011).

In order to evaluate these data over a longer period, let us recall that enrollment in French seminaries had been 4,536 at the end of the Council in 1966; it was 1,297 in 1975 during the explosive years of the liturgical reform; 1,103 in 1996 during the John Paul II years; 784 in 2005 when Benedict XVI was elected, and 710 today. There is therefore an observable 85% drop since Vatican II and nothing seems to able to stop it . . . at least so long as the outlook at the parish level remains unfavorable to the renewal of the priesthood. ... This represents the lowest level on record since the French Revolution in 1789.
The come into perspective a bit, however, if you look at the percentage of the French who are actually going to mass every a week. That too has declined dramatically over time:
A poll by IFOP for Catholic daily La Croix published in early 2010 presented data on Catholics in France. In 1965, 81% of the French declared themselves as Catholics; no more than 64% did in 2009. The decrease in active Catholics was proportionately much larger: in 1952, 27% of the French went to Mass once a week or more, while in 2006, no more than 4.5% did.

If we take the percentage of French who were weekly mass goers right before the council as 27%, and the current percent as 4.5%, we get a decline in the number of church attendees from 16 million to 3 million. This 77% decline in the absolute number of church attendees, even as the French population increased by 41%, represents a near implosion of religious practice. If you look at the number of seminarians as a function of the number of regular mass goers (after all, I think we can assume that only people who go to mass at least weekly enter the seminary) it turns out that the ratio of seminarians to mass goers hasn't changed as dramatically. In 1966 there were 3.6 seminarians per 10,000 weekly mass goers, while now there are 2.4 seminarian per 10,000 weekly mass goers -- a 33% decline. If we could control the number of mass goers for age, we might well see a flat rate.

None of this says that vocations are healthy in France, but it underscores the fact that the vocations crisis is a part of a long term decline in faith and practice by which France has pretty much ceased to be something you can call a Catholic country.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Red Beans and Rice

It's been a while since we've done any food blogging, so let me tell you about dinner tonight:

Red Beans and Rice
(adapted from Leon Soniat’s La Bouche Creole)

1 lb. red beans
1 or 2 ham hocks
2 onions
3 stalks celery
2 bell peppers
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. vinegar
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp. black pepper
salt to taste

Sort and rinse beans. Put in pot with ham hocks, and add 2 1/2 quarts water. Chop onions, celery, bell peppers, and garlic and add to the pot. Add the seasonings. Never let the mixture boil, but rather allow it to simmer gently. Stir the pot 3 to 4 times an hour.

As the beans begin to soften, mash some of them against the side of the pot. The result will be a thick, creamy sauce. When beans have cooked to a cream tenderness they are ready to serve over fluffy white rice.

To serve:

Make 2 cups of rice. Cut andouille sausage into rounds and fry it up. Serve red beans over rice and under sausage.

Red beans are traditionally served on Mondays, but Tuesday is just as good here.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Beauty for Everyone

Our new pastor wanted to make the parish festival bigger, with more games and rides and attractions, something that would boost revenue and bring in the community. I was dubious because I'm not a fan of festivals myself, or of anything that requires standing in line on a hot day, clutching tickets in a sweaty hand and trying to fend off the kids howling for cotton candy. But we went, and I'm glad. Besides seeing a good portion of the parish out and about, the festival brought in a large cross-section of society at large. There are strata and sub-strata to the local community that I never even see, except at the county fair, and the festival brought them all in: the high rollers, the families with small children, the tattooed, the buttoned-up, the young and the old and everyone in between. People who would never have cause to set foot on the grounds of a Catholic church were wandering the parking lot and the school yard having a great time. They came because they wanted some temporal entertainment on a summer weekend, and St. Mary's was providing it. And this is a legitimate aim of the church: to provide ways to nurture not just the soul, but the community's desire for companionship.

The next day was Corpus Christi, and I sang the shorter form of the Sequence in Latin at Mass. The unaccompanied chant rolled through the church, and it was, despite the singer, a moment full of beauty and peace. It was the kind of spiritual beauty, nurturing the soul's longing for the eternal, that the Church does and must provide. And I hoped that anyone who had visited St. Mary's because of the festival and who had decided to try going to church the next day would find that the Catholic Church could provide both temporal and spiritual solace, and that the temporal kind is only the prelude and invitation to the deeper, fuller, richer spiritual beauties that Catholicism offers.

The festival drew a cross-section of society, and the Church needs to draw a cross-section of society, so that no one ever feels that the Church is composed of "my people". But what the Church must offer, is obliged to offer, is beauty, true beauty. This is egalitarian. This is evangelization: to be a source of beauty in the lives of those who have little temporal beauty, to be a refuge and a waystation and conduit for all the deeper longings of the soul trapped in the squalor and the banality of this world. A Church that sloughs off that obligation, that seeks for "relevance" in worship, or "accessibility", is a failing Church. My pastor had the right idea: offer good accessible entertainment as a stepping stone to the richer beauties of the liturgy. If we believe that the Church really is for everyone, no matter who, then we need to respond to the longing for beauty of women who have butterfly wings tattooed on their backs as much as to the longings of the Sunday regulars and those who have been Catholic all their lives. It's a mistake to make the church a place of easy, cheap beauty to draw people in, as if the deepest longings of their souls deserve no more fulfillment than watery pop music or chintzy liturgy. The church becomes temporally relevant in extra-liturgical activities; she stays spiritually relevant by remaining a source of authentic, rock-solid, eternal beauty.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Reading (and not reading) Highlights

The WSJ has a piece this morning on the best sellers that people do, and don't, read. The methodology is kind of clever. Those reading on a Kindle or the Kindle app have the ability to highlight passages of interest. Amazon keeps statistics on which passages are most highlighted. The author of the piece uses the distribution of these most highlighted passages to track whether people appear to be reading the whole book:
It's beach time, and you've probably already scanned a hundred lists of summer reads. Sadly overlooked is that other crucial literary category: the summer non-read, the book that you pick up, all full of ambition, at the beginning of June and put away, the bookmark now and forever halfway through chapter 1, on Labor Day. The classic of this genre is Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time," widely called "the most unread book of all time."

How can we find today's greatest non-reads? Amazon's "Popular Highlights" feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book's Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.

Thus, the Hawking Index (HI): Take the page numbers of a book's five top highlights, average them, and divide by the number of pages in the whole book. The higher the number, the more of the book we're guessing most people are likely to have read. (Disclaimer: This is not remotely scientific and is for entertainment purposes only!)
He then runs down some of this year's hot sellers and looks at how much of them buyers appear to be reading.
"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt : 98.5%
This seems like exactly the kind of long, impressive literary novel that people would carry around ostentatiously for a while and never finish. But it's just the opposite. All five top highlights come from the final 20 pages, where the narrative falls away and Ms. Tartt spells out her themes in a cascade of ringing, straight-out assertions.

"Catching Fire" by Suzanne Collins : 43.4%
Another novel that gets read all the way through. "Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them" is the most highlighted sentence in the seven-year history of Kindle, marked by 28,703 readers. Romantic heat in the late going also helps to produce a high score.
...
"Fifty Shades of Grey" by E.L. James: 25.9%
Perhaps surprisingly, the top highlights here are family-friendly. You should apologize to the people you thought were reading this as pure smut, because they actually were just noting the names of the characters' favorite operas and marking, for further study, slogans like "The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership."
...
"Capital in the Twenty-First Century" by Thomas Piketty : 2.4%
Yes, it came out just three months ago. But the contest isn't even close. Mr. Piketty's book is almost 700 pages long, and the last of the top five popular highlights appears on page 26. Stephen Hawking is off the hook; from now on, this measure should be known as the Piketty Index.
Of course, the wildcard here is the question of what people actually use highlights for. I'm probably not the best person on this, as I've only read a half dozen books on Kindle, and those only because I couldn't get them practically in hard copy. Since a lot of my recent reading is novel research, I've been doing a lot of "highlighting" if you will, but this involves sticking little color coded Post Its into my books and perhaps putting a note on the Post It as to why I want to recall that passage. In addition to the fact that I just like physical books (and a lot of what I'm using for research isn't available on Kindle) I find it a lot easier to use a physical book for reference when writing on the computer. Somehow flipping back and forth between screens/apps seems a lot less productive.

In more general reading, I think that highlights will tend to be passages that the reader wants to reference or quote later, so it's probably not a surprise that in Shades of Grey the highlights are literary references and self help slogans. It's not necessarily that these are what people were reading the book for, but rather that that these are the pieces the reader is most likely want to refer to for some other purpose later. Indeed, skimming down the list of most highlighted passages of all time, it strikes me that pithy general statements get a fair amount of the attention.

It also strikes me that these draw from a small and unrepresentative section of readers. The most highlighted passages are still only highlighted by a few thousand readers, and apparently readers of the Hunger Games trilogy have an extreme propensity to highlight. (Personally, I read the first and by the time the second came in at the library I realized I really didn't care and so returned it without starting it.)

For the record, my unfinished book for the year (all others I've finished or am still making active progress through) was Ken Follet's historical novel Fall of Giants. I read about 500 pages out of 1200 and realized the only reason I was continuing was so that I wouldn't have to mark it as unfinished. Once I realized that, the check box ceased to be worth it. Flat characters and bad prose.

While I seldom choose to leave a book unfinished, some sit in my "reading" pile for years without being finished. The big ones I can think of in this regard at Tackary's Vanity Fair, which I've been 50 pages from the end on for at least six years, and Stripping of the Altars which I got ~200 pages into while on a liturgical history kick and still keep meaning to get back to.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Leopard and the Two Travelers

Eleanor is taking a writing class over the summer, and was assigned to rewrite a fable by Aesop in a different setting, and to include some dialogue, without changing the original message. Here's the fable:

The Bear and the Two Travelers

Two men were traveling together, when a Bear suddenly met them on their path. One of them climbed quickly up into a tree and concealed himself in the branches. The other, seeing that he must be attacked. fell flat on the ground, and when the Bear came up and felt him with his snout, and smelt him all over, he held his breath, and feigned the appearance of death as much as he could. The Bear soon left him, for it is said he will not touch a dead body. When he was quite gone, the other Traveler descended from the tree, and jocularly inquired of his friend what it was the Bear had whispered in his ear. "He gave me this advice," his companion replied. "Never travel with a friend who deserts you at the approach of danger."

Message: Misfortune tests the sincerity of friends.

Here is Eleanor's version:

The Leopard and the Two Travelers

Once there were two men journeying across the African savannah. One man was named Ivan, and the other Joey. Both were very tired. When these men came to a clearing in the tall grass they saw an enormous leopard, and he looked hungry! Ivan wasted no time in scuttling down an aardvark hole. Joey on the other hand climbed a nearby tree. The leopard went for Ivan. He caught Ivan by the leg just before the unfortunate man could pull it down the burrow! The leopard pulled Ivan out of the aardvark hole and shredded the poor man with those claws leopards have. The leopard carried Ivan, who was too weak to get away up the tree and turned to get Joey. Joey was terrified and tried to kick the leopard out of the tree. But this just made the leopard mad! With a flying leap the leopard lunged for Joey, and caught him with his teeth. Both leopard and man went flying out of the tree. They landed with a crash in the tall grass. Joey got up to try and escape, for the grass had cushioned his fall. But the leopard made quick work of him and carried him back up the tree.

Just before he died, Ivan said to Joey, “Did he say to you what he said to me?”

“Yes,” said Joey. “He said, ‘Do not trust those who desert you in fear of their own lives.’ Does that mean I should not trust you?”

“No,” said Ivan to Joey. “For in times like this I trust any man who is about to share the same fate as me.”

“But I’m not,” said Joey with a wicked smile. And with that he jumped out of the tree.

Ivan, too weak from blood loss to shout after him, gave up and said, “Well, after all, nobody should doubt a leopard’s word.” And with that he died. And the leopard ate him.

The End
You'll have to decide for yourself whether the moral has been altered.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Someone to Root For

MrsDarwin and the kids were off visiting Bearing today, and not expected back till late, so I allowed myself to get sucked into watching the US v Belgium game, which was playing on the massive screen in one of the conference rooms near my cube.

Normally I'm one of the world's die hard sports agnostics. I'm not sure that I've ever sat down with the express intention of watching a televised professional (or college) sports game all the way through, and the only game I ever saw in person was back in fourth grade when they took all the altar boys to a Clippers game. Still, watching the second half of the game, and then the overtime, I found myself deeply involved. We all cheered when Julian Green scored the US team's one goal in the last fifteen minutes of the game, and the mounting tension as it looked repeatedly like team USA might bring it up to a tie and bring the game to penalty goals.

This wasn't quite the first time this ever happened. I happened to have gone to an Irish-themed pub to listen to my brother-in-law's band play the night of the last game between the Rangers and the Giants in the 2010 World Series, and in a game between a "red" team and a "blue" team played the day before the 2010 election, I found myself susceptible to becoming deeply involved in rooting for Texas.

Given that life in the Darwin household has revolved so much around novel writing of late, and that when writing I somehow get sucked into a vortex of doubt over whether anyone can really be interested in the doings of people who don't exist, it struck me that these brief sports enthusiasms of mine are a bit like the Paradox of Fiction. Why, after all, should it matter a whit to me which of two groups of soccer players sweating it out down in Brazil wins a game? Why in the world other than that we choose to invest interest and excitement in the question. Something interesting enough happens to pull us in, some circumstance, some personality, and next thing we know we are tensing every muscle waiting to see the outcome of a contest that in any objective sense ought to mean nothing to us.