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

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween Madness

It's times like this I wish we had a digital camera....

We've been running around all day getting the girls' costumes together. Halloween costumes fall into the same catagory as Christmas presents for me: I'm always thinking of original and imaginative stuff to give people, but I don't often get around to buying it, and when I do it's always last minute. Fortunately I received from separate sources a small nun costume and some little medical scrubs. So now Babs will be St. Therese and Noogs is a doctor (and since we're hitting the Knights of Columbus All Saints party later tonight, she's St. Gianna Molla and will carry around a baby doll.) Baby will just be a baby. And she'll like it.

I spent a hour this afternoon wiring a crown of roses for Babs, and her feminine soul is in raptures. Noogs is pleased by the shower cap that's doubling as a surgeon's hairnet. I'm going to make her a doctor's name tag that says "St. Gianna Molla, MD". We're angling for the "Best Costume" prize.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Click

Brick: This click that I get in my head that makes me peaceful.... It's just a mechanical thing, something like a -- like a --- like a ---
Big Daddy: Like a --
Brick: Switch clicking off in my head, turning the hot light off and the cool night on, and (he looks up, smiling sadly) -- all of a sudden there's -- peace!

--Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
The click has been heard in our house. Babs, who until a week ago was wearing diapers more than half the time, suddenly clicked and started using the toilet all the time and even stays dry at night. She only had her first accident the other night -- in our bed, of course.

Two down, one to go...

Friday, October 27, 2006

So you think you're all that?

Check this out -- today I got a call from Laura Bush herself, urging me to vote in the upcoming election! Hoo boy, I'm running with the big dogs now!

And just a few weeks ago, I received a call from Governor Perry's office, asking for my vote. Everyone wants me, it seems. You may talk to your mom or your kids on the phone, but I hobnob with recordings of the First Lady.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Guns Part II: You'll Shoot Your Eye Out, Kid

In my more general post about the 2nd Ammendment and an armed citizenry, I linked briefly to a Harvard Magazine article by Craig Lambert describing the work of Dr. David Hemenway, author of Private Guns, Public Health. Hemenway is one of the more noteable proponants of the current view that we have an 'epidemic' of gun violence in our society. And as a public health advocate, he wants it stopped. As such he, like many Americans, is little interest in questions about the constitution and militias, rather he simply wants to know: is the availability of gun in America causing an increased risk of gun injury, and if so, what can be done to reduce that incidence.

This is a pretty common theme among gun control advocates. "Sure", the argument goes, "it may be that in the unlikely event that someone breaks into your house, you'll be able to protect your family with a gun. But it's much more likely that a member of your family will kill or injure himself with the gun by accident."

Well, one of the things I do for a living is data, and one of the reasons I put so much work into making a living is that I have three small, beautiful children at home. So while I like my guns (all four of them...) I love my kids. And it seemed worth digging into the standard questions and data on this issues to see what is really going on.

Luckily, we live in the a country with lots of great public information available over the internet. So you and I are perfectly free to go trawl the Center For Disease Control data about causes of death and injury throughout the country each year. (Last year of data available, 2003.) I'll first look at the major complaints about gun accidents put forward by gun control advocates, and then look at the hard data dealing with the topic.

The biggest fear, for parents especially, is of children finding guns and hurting themselves by accident (or while playing with the gun). The American Academy of Pediatrics has this to say:

Q) How can I keep my child safe from gun injury?

A) The safest thing for your child is not to have a gun in your home, especially not a handgun.
And Lambert's Harvard Magazine article has this to say:

Many times a teenaged boy will find a gun such as a semi-automatic pistol in his home and, after taking out the ammunition clip, assume that the gun is unloaded. He then points the pistol at his best friend and playfully pulls the trigger, killing the other lad with the bullet that was already in the chamber. "People say, 'Teach kids not to pull the trigger,' but kids will do it," Hemenway says. In a 2001 study, for example, small groups of boys from 8 to 12 years old spent 15 minutes in a room where a handgun was hidden in a drawer. More than two-thirds discovered the gun, more than half the groups handled it, and in more than a third of the groups someone pulled the trigger—despite the fact that more than 90 percent of the boys in the latter groups had received gun-safety instruction.

Hence product redesign may do more good than safety education. Hemenway suggests such changes as adding "a magazine safety, so that when you remove the clip, the gun does not work. Or make guns that visually indicate if they are loaded—just like you can tell if there is film in a camera."

(You can read the study that he mentions here.) Well, there a couple things to note here. A number of guns already have the safety features that Hemenway mentions here. Also, I kind of wonder how realistic a test this was. I mean, 8-12 year olds may be inexperienced and exuberant, but they're not idiots. If they're set loose in a room as part of a study (even though they don't know what they study is of) many of them would probably assume that any gun they find in the room is either a fake or unloaded. It's not quite the same as finding your dad's .45 in his sock drawer and horsing around with it.

It's certainly true that a number of people die in the US each year as a result of gunshot wounds. From the Harvard Magazine article:

Gun deaths fall into three categories: homicides, suicides, and accidental killings. In 2001, about 30,000 people died from gunfire in the United States. Set this against the 43,000 annual deaths from motor-vehicle accidents to recognize what startling carnage comes out of a barrel. The comparison is especially telling because cars "are a way of life," as Hemenway explains. "People use cars all day, every day—and 'motor vehicles' include trucks. How many of us use guns?"

Suicides accounted for about 58 percent of gun fatalities, or 17,000 to 18,000 deaths, in 2001; another 11,000 deaths, or 37 percent, were homicides, and the remaining 800 to 900 gun deaths were accidental.
The first thing that jumps out at you is that the US primarily has a suicide and homicide problem. The number of actual accidental deaths is tiny.

Now, Lambert acknowledges this in the Harvard Magazine article, however he argues (as apparently does Hemenway in his book) that without guns available, people who contemplate suicide are less likely to be successful, and people who commit crimes (if they're not carrying a gun as opposed to if they are) are less likely to injure or kill their victims.

Here, I suppose, you run into a question of how one thinks about the world. The purpose of a gun is to hurl a small but very dense projectile very, very fast -- thus punching a hole in whatever it hits. This means that if you use one to commit suicide, you're likely to be successful. Now, I'm in no sense in favor of suicide. I believe it to be a grave moral sin, which by its nature drastically reduces one's chances of having time to repent and seek forgiveness before death. But while I believe people shouldn't commit suicide, I'm not sure that denying them effective tools for doing so is the right way of dealing with the problem. (I'm not saying it wouldn't be effective, I'm just not sure that it's the right thing to do.)

Similarly, I'll admit that it's true that if one could somehow make guns very, very scarce, that fewer people would be killed by gun wielding criminals. While it's true that determined criminals (say, bank robbers or hard core gang members) will be able to get guns no matter what, more casual criminals would probably forgo guns in a less gun saturated society. However, I have a tempermental preference for a world in which, even if criminals can get hold of guns, I can have them as well, than one in which I'm definately not going to be armed, and many (though not all) criminals still are. (And I'm not even the sort of gun owner who keeps guns loaded and ready to hand. It would take me a good minute or two to go upstairs, unlock my handgun case, slap the magazine into place, and work the slide.)

Yet these considerations aside, we still have the 800-900 accidents that take place very year. Are these indeed mostly cases of boys pointed automatics at their best friends, thinking they are unloaded?

Well, with the help of the CDC's website, I pulled the data for 2003, the last year available, and I bucketized the data by age range.

AgeAccidental Gun DeathsTotal PopulationRate

That's a total of 127 accidental deaths. For comparison, I pulled accidental deaths by drowning for the same period and the same age ranges. (I thought drowning was a good comparison, as opposed to car accidents, since people are in cars every day, while swimming is an occasional recreational activity which many children are not accustomed to doing safely.)

AgeDeaths by DrowningTotal PopulationRate

That's 910 deaths by drowning in the same period: more than seven times as many.

So where does the famously large number of child gun deaths come from? Well, first of all, a lot of gun control advocates (including the APA in the page linked to above) use statistics that include homicide and suicide as well as accidents, and they include ages 1-19 instead of 1-18, since 19-year-olds have a staggering number of homicide deaths and suicides compared to real children. Sticking with the same buckets and time period as before, here are the stats of murder and suicide.

AgeGun SuicidesTotal PopulationRate

AgeGun HomicidesTotal PopulationRate

Now, I don't for a moment mean by any of this that gun safety is not important. Gun safety is incredibly important, because guns are incredibly dangerous when misused. But this data seems to suggest very strongly to me that Americans actually do a very good job of keeping small children from harming themselves with guns. Without question, guns should be stored safely, and children should be taught how to handle them safely (and what they can do to something which is shot). But it does appear that this kind of training can and does work to prevent accidental gun deaths the vast, vast majority of the time.

The danger area with guns is when teenagers get old enough to get hold of them and decide to use them in crime to to kill themselves. That's a major societal and legal problem. But it's not a gun safety problem.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Do you like scary movies?

In my case, the answer is decidedly "NO". I don't enjoy being frightened, and I don't enjoy gore and guts and torture and nastiness. But I recently read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. It's a fascinating, enthralling read, but I just couldn't envision the house in my mind (like the characters, I kept getting lost in corridors). So I've placed the 1963 movie version The Haunting in my Netflix queue, and I'm both anticipating and dreading it.

I once read Misery by Stephen King, and though I wasn't terrified, I was horrified -- as in feeling a sense of horror at what was happening to the character. The Haunting of Hill House didn't horrify me, and it didn't necessarily terrify me either, but the author had a sure way of creating a sudden sense of dread when a moment before events had seemed perfectly normal. I'm curious to see whether the movie keeps the tone of the book, though from all the reviews I've read it seems to be a marvelous adaptation.

If this foray into scary movies proves survivable, I may branch out and see both The Changeling and The Innocents. If anyone's seen these and wants to comment on just how frightening they are, feel free. Meanwhile, I'm off to the library to see if I'm ready for more scary fare.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Guns, blah blah blah

Why Darwin really supports the Second Amendment:
Almost eight months old and always being kissed!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Why have an armed citizenry?

The 2nd ammendment is perhaps the clearest indication that the founders were dangerous people -- dangerous in the sense that their beliefs did not necessarily lead to safety and stability. This is not necessarily an attack, I'm not convinced that safety and stability are always the highest road. Perhaps it also shows that the founders were genuinely unselfish about holding power: what most more modern revolutionaries have tried to do as soon as achieving power is tried to make it as hard as possible for anyone else to overthrow them in the way that they were overthrown. Instead, the founders wrote into our constitution a guarantee that "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

Much though one must appreciate the cheerful thoughts of those who claim this means that people's ability to own deer hunting rifles should not be regulated, and always say "I have no problem with guns that are suitable for legitimate sporting purposes" it seems to me that the founders are in fact guaranteeing no such thing. These are men who had just fought a war of independence, and who came from an English tradition in which all able bodied yoemen were considered available at call for military duty. (Bring you own long bow.) Though there were numerous volunteers and part time guerrilla fighters, the backbone of the revolutionary army consisted of local militias -- to which every able-bodied man was considered to belong, and which were generally self-armed. (Militiamen brought their own muskets and kit, the army provided supplies and larger engines of war such as cannon.)

In quelling colonial unrest, the British had tried to disarm the American militias, with limitted success. And the British armies sent over to fight the war were a mixture of professional British soldiers (usually enlisted on long contracts -- with or without their consent) and hired mercenaries (mostly of German/Austrian origin). It seems to me that one of the things the founders had very much in mind was making sure that a strong central government was not able to enforce its will by means of professional soldiers and mercenaries against the wishes of the citizenry. They assumed that keeping the regional militias as an organized, armed and local power would counter-balance that possibility.

Clearly, this fell by the wayside a long time ago. In a certain sense, that mentality was defeated along with the South in the civil war. Regardless of whether or not one sees this as a bad thing, it's certainly hard to imagine that sort of citizen-militia-as-power-balance-against-national-army idea working in the huge, industrial modern nation to which we belong.

What, then, are we to make of the 2nd Ammendment in our modern world?

While we no longer have militias including all able-bodied males, there's a legitimate argument to be made that despite the overwhelming superiority in firepower that the central government enjoys (and should) over it's citizens, that so long as the right to own firearms in protected, we will never be the helpless victims of a police state. Moreover, in certain emergency situations, armed citizens do end up functioning as an ad hoc militia, as many Korean shop owners famously did during the 1992 LA riots.

Meanwhile, those uncomfortable with the place of guns in American society point out that the US has the highest rates of gun fatality of any first world nation (though our crime violence rates are actually lower than a number of other first world nations -- it's just that when we do have violence, someone is much more likely to get shot). Does the personal enjoyment and self protection which gun owners derive from relatively restricted gun ownership outweigh the dangers which pervasive gun ownership introduces into society?

I tend to think that they do. But then, I'm comfortable with the idea that certain freedoms cost lives and limbs.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Manhattan

Those out there who have strong opinions on such things:

1) I hear different versions of what a Manhattan ought to be made of: rye or bourbon

Back in college I was making them with Jim Beam rye, and the results were so-so. Tonight I tried making one using Marker Mark bourbon. It was pretty darn good. (But then, Markers Mark is pretty darn good...) Which leads to the second question:

2) How good a whiskey needs to go into a Manhattan? Is putting Makers Mark into a Manhattan overkill? I hesitate to have Markers Mark any way but on the rocks -- and yet there's the principle that good mixing requires good ingredients.

When dealing with gin, I use Citadelle or Bombay Safire for martinis (or straight up) but Gordons for Gin and Tonic and Gimlets. Is there a similar hierarchy of bourbons appropriate for different drinks? And if so, what is the appropriate bourbon for a Manhattan?

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Mother of all Trailers

Courtesy of my sister, here's a video that you absolutely should not watch while you're drinking. I am not responsible for the state of your keyboard.

"In a world where the stakes are high and death can make you dead..."

Contemplating a Nuclear Iran

"What will happen with Iran?" seems to be one of the consuming questions right now for those whose political interests stretch beyond the sordid lives of the inhabitants of Capitol Hill. Iran has made it's intention of becoming a nuclear power pretty clear. It's regime has shown a propensity for fighting proxy wars throughout the region (funding Shia militias in Iraq, and supporting Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel) and routinely refers to the US as the "great Satan". It's not the sort of place that you want sitting around with the ability to turn a mid-size city in to a glassy crater, and yet they've been careful to scatter their nuclear facilities throughout the country, with the most important ones built underground with enough steel-reinforced concrete above them that nothing short of a tactical nuke would succeed in blasting through.

There seem to be two basic lines of thought in regards to the question, and I haven't yet made up my mind as to which appeals more to me.

We Dare Not Let It Happen
This line of thinking essentially goes: "The leaders of Iran are religious fanatics who believe the end of the world is not far off and military victory is guaranteed them against the 'great Satan'. Thus, the chances that they would use an atomic bomb against us or our allies (either directly or through a proxy terrorist organization) are very high. We must draw a line in the sand and if Iran does not drop its nuclear ambitions then any military means necessary to make them do so must be used in order to prevent them from going nuclear. Even taking a less alarmist scenario, if they didn't attack us immediately, a nuclear Iran would have enough of a threat hanging over the region to operate even more freely as regards to funding attacks against Israel, funding militias in Iraq, etc."

According to this line of thinking, Iran getting it's first nukes puts us very, very close to Tel Aviv disappearing into a mushroom cloud, or some terrorist organization smuggling an a-bomb into the US. The solution, proponents seem to feel, is to put a very clear line in the sand out there, and if Iran tries to cross it, either stage a serious bombing/missile campaign against their nuclear infrastructure or make a series of lightning raids against Iranian nuclear installations using ground forces. Perhaps some of this comes from the lesson which some of drawn from the Iraq war, which is essentially that while pacifying an unwilling Middle Eastern population is a nightmare, there's not much of any country in the region which is capable of withstanding a couple US armored columns. Why not, the thinking goes, invade, destroy the nuclear facilities, and then simply leave, letting the existing Iranian government sort out the pieces afterwards.

There are two main questions opened up by this line of thinking.

The first is strictly practical: Do we really have the military resources to successfully destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure, and is it vaguely realistic to imagine we could roll in, destroy that infrastructure, and get out again without causing a wider regional war?

The other question is: From both a moral and political perspective, can getting close to attaining the technology that would allow the building of a weapon which could in turn be used against us be considered "an attack" which justifies a military response? War is never a desired outcome, and there would doubtless be many innocent people killed if the US attempted to wipe out Iran's nuclear program. On the other hand, if Iran is allowed to "go nuclear" then it will then be holding the nuclear threat over civilian populations, both of local powers (primarily Israel) and possibly against the US as well. And in turn, the only way other nuclear powers such as the US would have of deterring Iran from using its newfound nuclear weapons would be by holding out the threat of a nuclear counterstrike, thus overshadowing all Iranian civilians with the danger of nuclear war. Ironically, it is possible that the only way to prevent a nuclear war with Iran with any certainty is to fight a conventional war with them first.

At Most a Regional Threat
The other line of thinking puts much less pressure on us right now. The question is, what does it open us up for in the future: "Say Iran goes nuclear within the next five years, which is quite possible. Even so, it's a regional threat on the other side of the world. Iran's air force is negligible. They certainly don't have stealth bombers. And rogue military powers (witness North Korea's recent escapades) simply don't have very good missile technology. So, short of smuggling something in to a port by ship, there's simply no way that Iran could stage a nuclear attack on the US or even Europe any time soon. Even Israel would be comparatively safe, since they have perhaps the strongest air force in the region, already have a reliable nuclear arsenal for deterrence, and the sort of missile technology Iran currently has might well not be better than 50% reliable at successfully hitting a major Israeli city. Thus, the US can afford to sit back and wait to see what develops."

While sitting back and waiting to see what a nuclear Iran would do is certainly an alarming concept, it does strike me as moderately unlikely that a) Iran would develop all that good a nuclear weapon, b) they would develop any time in the near future missiles reliable enough to deliver a warhead with any reliability, must less at any distance, and c) that they could successfully smuggle a warhead into the US by any other means.

All of these are certainly possible, no one should kid themselves that they aren't, but they're not very likely. So weighed against the near certainty of having to go to war with Iran if we are committed to military action rather than allowing them to go nuclear, there's a certain attractiveness to waiting and seeing. It's possible a nuclear Iran would never use its weapons, and if it did, the chances are at least decent that it would do so by attacking another country in the region (probably Israel) and that the bomb would either fail to go off or miss. (If that happened, one assumes there would be pretty wide consensus that it was now definitely time to invade Iran, with even other Islamic countries willing to either join in or look the other way.)

Still, the great uncertainly in this approach is that it stakes a very great deal on the assumption that Iran would be either too wise or too incompetent to hurt us. Given that these are opposite extremes, there's always the danger they would be wise enough not to e incompetent, but not wise enough to avoid a war. And then things could be very, very bad.

Fun and Games with the Family

My sister is visiting us this weekend, and plans include attending a pumpkin festival (hay rides, music, food, and picking pumpkins) and throwing a party to which all attendees are bringing a different kind of cake. Yum, cake.

So, posting may be light, because I love you all, but you can't compete with my sister.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Sales Pitch

The other afternoon, the doorbell rang, and standing on the front stoop was a young woman with a nose ring and a tongue stud who politely asked if I wanted a free carpet cleaning, since the company had a representative in my area right now. Normally I turn down these offers, but the effort required not to stare at her facial jewelry dulled my reaction time, and I found myself assenting. Fortunately I'd picked up the living room that morning and had even vacuumed, so the place was mostly presentable. And so I ended up having a demonstration of a Kirby vacuum cleaner -- very nice, very effective, very expensive.

The salesman calling on my area right now was a pro -- he knew his pitch, he knew his product, and he picked up enough clues from the house to know us a bit. He had a prime opening, as our twenty-year-old industrial vac with no attachments was sitting out. Frankly, I'm appalled by the amount of dirt that came out of the carpet I'd just vacuumed an hour earlier. There's no question my vacuum cleaner is not all that effective, though at least it picks up the obvious surface debris. But no matter how polished a salesman may be, I'm just not ready to drop upwards of $1000 on a vacuum cleaner.

I think that he realized early on that I wasn't a viable sales prospect. After changing out the demonstration filter, once again, the salesman asked, "What would your husband say if he came home to find that you'd bought this vacuum?"
"Well," I said, "He'd probably say, 'I thought you wanted a piano?'"
No arguing with that.

I was surprised at how sensitive I was to the image we presented the salesman. I wished that I'd swept the bread crusts off the kitchen floor, I wished that baby wasn't missing the top button off her dress, I wished that Noogs didn't have mud on her cheek from excavating the back yard. The occasion also served to highlight the differences between the big girls. Noogs was clambering all over the living room in her t-shirt and jeans, wanting to help the salesman and horsing around with vigor. Meanwhile, Babs changed her outfit several times and sashayed into the living room to model for us. She sat nicely on the couch during the shampooing, and Noogs wanted to get down in the suds and romp. Not to be left out, Baby demonstrated that she has reached the "mom good, strangers bad" stage and refused to be put down or looked at.

So now Baby sits on a thoroughly vacuumed and shampooed carpet, and my bank account remains undepleted. But I wish I didn't know how dirty my carpet really was. The sales presentation didn't convince me to buy that particular vacuum, but it did spur me on to serious thoughts of buying something newer and better than the red behemoth with the broken cord holder. I wonder if there are statistics comparing the the incidence of sales presentations of Kirby vacuums with the overall rate of vacuum sales?

One thing is even clearer than before: I hate carpet.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Shotgun Wedding

Every so often we post one of Giovanni Guareschi's Don Camillo stories, both because he's one of the best Catholic culture short story writers of the last century, and because sometimes we get enough realism to know we're not going to have time to post that day.

For some reason, this story has been on my mind lately, so here it is.

Shotgun Wedding

Whenever Don Camillo saw old man Rocchi come to the church or the rectory he grumbled to himself: "Here's the commissar." For old man Rocchi was the leader of the watchdogs who appoint themselves in every parish to scrutinize the conduct of the priest, in church and out of it, and to write letters of protest to the bishop when they find it shocking or even improper. Of course the old man never missed a single service, and since he and his family occupied one of the front pews he followed everything Don Camillo said and did, and would turn to say to his wife in the middle of Mass: "He skipped something," or: "Today he's not got his wits about him," or: "Don Camillo isn't what he used to be." And he would go to the rectory afterwards to comment upon the sermon and give Don Camillo some sound advice.

Don Camillo wasn't the type to worry about such things, but it was a bother to feel old Rocchi's eyes constantly upon him, and whenever he had to blow his nose in the middle of Mass he raised his eyes to Christ on the cross above the altar and silently prayed: "Lord help me blow my nose in a manner that will not cause a scandal!" For Rocchi was a great stickler for form. More than once he had remarked: "When the priest at Treville has to blow his nose in the middle of Mass, nobody knows it, but this one sounds like a trumpet calling to the Last Judgment."

That is the kind of a man Rocchi was, and if such men exist in the world it must mean that they have a place to fill in it. He had three sons and one daughter, Paolina, who was the most virtuous and most beautiful girl in the village. And it was Paolina that startled Don Camillo almost out of his wits one day in the confessional.

"I can't grant you absolution before you do what you are supposed to," he told her.

"I know," said the girl.

This is the sort of thing that happens in every village, and in order to understand it one really has to have lived in one of the low houses in the broad valley and to have seen the moon rise like a great red ball over the bank of the river. There is no visible movement in the valley and a stranger may have the idea that nothing ever happens along the deserted river banks, that nothing could happen in the red and blue houses. Yet more things happen there than up in the mountains or in the big city. For the blazing summer sun gets into people's veins, and that big red moon is utterly unlike the pale satellite they see in other places; it blazes just like the sun, inflaming the imaginations of the living and the bones of the dead. Even in winter, when the valley is filled with cold and fog, the heat stored up during the summer is so great that people's imaginations aren't cooled off sufficiently to see things as they actually are. That is why every now and then a shotgun peeps out of a thicket or a girl does something she oughtn't do.

Paolina went home, and when the family had finished saying the evening rosary she stepped up to her father. "Father, I must have a talk with you," she said.

The others went their various ways and Paolina and her father were left beside the fire.

"What's it all about?" asked the old man suspiciously.

"It's time to think about my getting married."

"Don't you bother your head about that. When the time comes, we'll find the right sort of fellow."

"The time has already come, Father, and I've found him."

The old man opened his eyes wide. "Go straight to bed, and don't let me hear you talk of such things again!" he ordered.

"Very well," said the girl, "but you'll hear other people talking about them."

"Have you given some cause for scandal?" asked the horrified father.

"No, but the scandal will come out. It's not something that can be concealed."

Rocchi took hold of the first thing that came to hand, which happened to be a broken broomstick. The girl crouched in a corner, hiding her head, and received a rain of blows upon her back. Luckily the broomstick broke again and her father quieted down.

"If you're so unlucky as to be still alive, get up," he told her. "Does anyone know about it?"

"He knows--" murmured the girl, causing the old man to lose his head again and start to beat her with a stick taken from a bundle of faggots by the fire. "And so does Don Camillo," she added. "He wouldn't grant me absolution." Again the old man took it out on her. Finally she got in another word: "If you kill me, it will be an even worse scandal," she said, and that calmed him.

"Who's the man?" he asked.

"Falchetto," she answered.

She would have produced less of an effect if she had named Beelzebub in person. Falchetto was the nickname of Gigi Bariga, one of the most stalwart of Peppone's henchmen. He was the intellectual member of the gang, the one who wrote speeches, organized rallies and explained the Party directives. Because he understood more than the others, he was the unholiest of them all. The girl had taken so much punishment by now that the old man pushed her onto a couch and sat down beside her.

"You've beaten me enough," she said. "If you touch me again, I'll call for help and tell everybody. I have to protect the life of my child."

At eleven o'clock that night the old man gave in to his fatigue. "I can't kill you, and in the state you're in, you can't very well enter a convent," he said. "Marry, then, and be damned, both of you."

When Falchetto saw the effects of Paolina's beating his jaw dropped. "We must get married," she said, "or this will be the death of me."

"Of course!" said Falchetto. "That's what I've been asking you all along. Right away, if you give the word, Paolina."

It was no use thinking of marriage at quarter to one in the morning, but words exchanged at the garden gate, before the fields covered with snow, had a certain value and significance.

"Have you told your father everything?" Falchetto asked.

She did not answer, and Falchetto realized that it was a stupid question.

"I'll take my Tommy gun and shoot up your entire family," he exclaimed. "I'll--"

"There's no need to shoot. All we have to do is go get the priest's permission."

Falchetto stepped back. "You know I can't do that," he said. "Just think of my position. We can go to the mayor."

The girl pulled her shawl around her. "No, never," she said. "I don't care about what may happen. Either we are married like Christians or else I'll never see you again."

"Paolina!--" Falchetto implored her, but she had already slipped through the gate in the opposite direction from that which she had so often taken before.

Paolina stayed in bed for two days, and on the third day her father came up to her room. "You saw him the other evening," he said: "I happen to know."

"So do I."

"Well, then?"

"Nothing doing. He won't have a Christian wedding. And I say a Christian wedding or nothing at all."

The other man shouted and stamped his feet. Then he left his daughter, threw his overcoat over his shoulders and went out. And a few minutes later Don Camillo had a difficult problem before him.

"Father, you already know the story," said Rocchi.

"I do. Children need looking after. It's a parent's job to give them some moral principles."

Rocchi was properly put in his place, and he would gladly have strangled Don Camillo.

"I've consented to the marriage, but the rascal won't have anything to do with the Church."

"That doesn't surprise me."

"I've come to ask you this: is it more scandalous for a girl in my daughter's condition to marry outside the Church or not to marry at all?"

Don Camillo shook his head. "This isn't a question of scandal. It's a question of good or evil. We must consider the unborn child."

"All I care about is to get them married and let them be damned!" said Rocchi.

"Then why do you ask for my advice? If all you care about is to get them married, let them marry as they please."

"But she says if she can't have a church wedding she'll have none at all," groaned the unhappy father.

Don Camillo smiled. "You ought to be proud of your daughter. Two wrongs don't make a right. I say she has a head on her shoulders and you ought to be proud of her."

"I'll have to kill her, that's all," Rocchi shouted as he left the rectory.

"You don't expect me to argue the girl out of a church wedding, do you?" Don Camillo shouted back after him.

During the night Paolina heard a hail of pebbles against her window and finally her resistance was overcome and she went down. Falchetto was waiting, and when she saw his face she burst into tears.

"I've left the Party," he told her. "Tomorrow they'll get out an announcement of my expulsion. Peppone wanted me to write it myself."

The girl went closer to him. "Did he beat you up?" she asked.

"I thought he'd never stop," Falchetto admitted. "When are we going to get married?"

"Right away, if you give the word," she said. And her impulse was just as foolish as his, because it was almost one o'clock in the morning and poor Falchetto had one eye as black as a lump of coal.

"I'll talk to the priest about it tomorrow," he said. "But I won't go near the town hall. I don't want to see Peppone." He touched his black eye and Paolina put a hand on his shoulder.

"We'll go to the mayor, too," she said. "I'll be there to stick up for you."

Paolina went early the next morning to Don Camillo. "You can grant me absolution," she told him. "I didn't do any of the things I confessed to you. My only sin is to have told you a big lie."

Don Camillo was puzzled, but she quickly explained. "If I hadn't made up that story, my father would never have let me marry Falchetto."

Don Camillo shook his head. "Don't tell him the truth at this point," he advised her, secretly thinking that old man Rocchi had it coming to him.

"No, I won't tell him, not even after we're married," said the girl. "He beat me just as hard as if what I told him had been true."

"That's what I say," chimed in Don Camillo. "Such a beating shouldn't be given in vain."

As he passed by the altar, Christ frowned down at him. "Lord," said Don Camillo, "Whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted."

"Don Camillo," said Christ, "for some time now you've been skating on thin ice."

"With God's help no ice is too thin," said Don Camillo. "This wedding will be worth a dozen of the usual kind."

And so it was.

Monday, October 16, 2006

When Knowledge is Danger

There's been some hum in the world of Catholic blogging over Rod Dreher's announcement that he has formally left the Catholic Church and become Orthodox.

I wasn't going to write on the topic, because I find Dreher annoying for much the same reason I always found the title character of the Ann of Green Gables books annoying: because while well read he seemed to respond to everything with wild flights of the heart rather than the solid, head-based approach which I prefer.

Besides, I think one of the more annoying tendencies of the blogsphere is to act as one giant college dorm, with everyone's little personal dramas held up for display when they'd be better left in alone by those not involved. However, reading over Rod's farewell-to-Rome post, two things struck me as interesting in a much more general sense, and it's to those which I'm going to devote a little space. If you want to read a well balanced and thoughtful Catholic take on Rod's own situation (rather than the more general questions that interested me) do check out Mark Shea, who provides some compassionate and reasonable thoughts on the whole thing.

Walking in Dark Places
Very few people are cut out to be vice cops. Most of us may be prepared to realize that the world is at times a dark and terrible place, but few people have the ability to face the worst parts of it on a daily basis and not find themselves eaten up by the experience. And yet, for what is seen as the overall good of society, people in certain occupations (vice cops and investigative reporters among others) are asked (or make it their business) to tread the darkest paths in our society, in order to bring wrongs to light and try to right them.

Some of these are things that must be done. And yet, people need to go into such things (or choose not to) with a clear self knowledge in regards to their own moral, emotional and intellectual strengths. Virtue does not require innocence, but a complete loss of innocence is often damaging to one's virtue. And it takes a strong mind and heart to keep the evils in the world (or within an institution such as the Church) within perspective, while dealing every day with the very worst of them.

There's a reason why vice cops have a reputation for falling into corruption themselves, and investigative reporters have a reputation for being hard bitten and cynical.

From a Small Taste Comes Great Longing
To illustrate some point or other (at this point I forget what), my father once asked me as a fairly young child: "Imagine some eccentric millionaire decided that every child in Africa should have a taste of the very best ice cream. He flew giant airplanes into tiny villages and gave each child, some of whom often didn't even have bread to eat, one bowl of ice cream. Through the rest of their lives, some of those children never had another bowl of ice cream. As they thought back on their one taste, were they better off than if they had never had it, or would they have been happier if they didn't know what they were missing?"

I'm not sure what the right answer to that question is, but in many ways I think the same dilemma applies to many active, conservative, orthodox American Catholics. Many of us spend a lot of time and energy yearning for a beautiful, ancient liturgy that we seldom get the chance to experience in all its glories. Some get discouraged and and begin to ask how anyone can survive in the liturgical and spiritual wasteland that is "AmChurch" Catholicism. And yet, having worked on the RCIA team (of an okay but certainly not outstanding parish) I know for a fact that there are people who fall very much in love with Catholicism without even knowing about all the history and liturgy that they're missing. It's not that they're in love with the standard list of complaints: prefer bongos to chant, like I Love Lucy-themed homilies, like a 1:1 EM to congregant ratio, etc.

However, there are out there a number of very good Catholics who aren't readers of Adoremus, have never attended a Latin mass (at least within the last 50 years), have never entered a gothic cathedral, etc. Yet the find joy and peace in Eucharistic adoration, pray the rosary, attend daily mass at least a few times a week, etc. However right someone may be to hear a Hagen-Haas hymn and yearn for chant instead, there's a very clear sense in which it's more important to notice what's going on during that part of the liturgy, regardless of the music.

Yet while there's much to recommend this simple Catholicism, I can't bring myself intellectually to endorse the idea that it's in any sense better to no know the history, theology and liturgy of the Church, however much that may tempt one towards dissatisfaction with the current American status quo.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Great Games

All higher creatures seem to "play": Doing things that mirror more practical activities but are done with no discernible purpose other than "practice" and "fun", as when a dog or cat plays at hunting with something clearly inedible.

As humans, we have some games which combine athletic activities with rationally-based rules and point systems. Thus, while our sports may at a certain level share a basic purpose of promoting teamwork and staying in shape with the games a pride of lions play, our games contain a rational, structured element which is unique to human activities.

Other games, however, are strictly rational games in that they employ some combination of skill and chance, but involve no real physical activity. Among the games of chance (or heavily involving change), some card games go back four hundred years or more. Backgammon and dice games such as craps go back millennia. However other games are strictly games of skill and strategy, and of these there are two particular stand-outs in age and depth of strategy: Chess and Go.

Chess is by far the most familiar to those in Western countries. Originating in India around the 6th century AD, there are clearly recognizable chess variants throughout the Middle East and Far East, including the Japanese game of Shogi. Chess is essentially a fight to annihilate (or at least decapitate) the enemy, and because the pieces can only move in specific ways, there's usually a fairly limited number of reasonable move options at any given point in the game. This both makes the opening absolutely key to the course of the game -- with top chess players memorizing numerous standard opening sequences and the proper counters and variations to them. This limited number of good moves at any given point is one of the things that makes computers so good at chess: when it comes to calculating the likely results of making every possible move, computers usually far exceed human ability.

Go has only become known of in the West in the last hundred years or so, and is still far less well known than chess, however it's history stretches back nearly four thousand years to ancient China. The game is widely popular in China, Korea and Japan, and has a certain (though must less well known) following in America and Europe.

Go's rules are significantly simpler than chess. It is played on a 19x19 board between players playing black and white stones. Stones are played at the intersections of the lines instead on within the squares. Once the stones are played, they remain on the board without being moved, unless the are captured and removed from the board.

Go is essentially a territory-taking game. The goal is to control the majority of the board when the game play ends. Territory is defined as the number of empty intersections which one controls.

The thing that leads to go's incredible strategic complexity is the concept of "life" around which the entire came centers. A stone or group is "alive" if it has adjacent to it or within it "liberties": empty intersections. Any stone or group with no liberties is "dead" and is removed from the board. A group becomes un-kill-able if it contains sufficient internal liberties that you cannot kill it by surrounding it and then filling it it's liberties, because any enemy stones inside will run out of liberties and be killed before the group is. (The black group in the lower left corner of the board above is alive and cannot be killed.)

If you want to learn more about go while generally having a blast, the anime Hikaru No Go (about a 6th grade boy who become acquainted with the ghost of a millenia old go master) is a great way to do it. The series is exciting even for those with no previous acquaintance with the game (read MrsDarwin) and actually teaches a lot of very good go along the way. (Several professional go players consulted on the original manga and the series based on it.)

Unlike chess, go playing computer programs have only been able to achieve moderate proficiency. No program has beaten even a lowest rank professional player. (Though they can certainly beat me.) The main reason for this is that although the rules themselves are very simple, the number of moves that can be played at any given point is huge, given the 19x19 board. And strategic dominance of the board is less simple to calculate as a goal than checkmating a single piece. Which in turn is one of the fascinating things about the game.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Universal Indult

Rumors of a universal indult have rippled through the Catholic blogsphere so many times that I'd started to think they would never be more than just that. However, today the Wall Street Journal (subscribe only, unfortunately) runs the following:

Pope Seeks Wider CelebrationOf Latin Mass
Decree Is ExpectedTo Ease RequirementsFor Catholic Ritual
By STACY MEICHTRYOctober 12, 2006; Page A6

ROME -- Pope Benedict XVI is set to issue a decree that permits wider celebration of Roman Catholic Mass in Latin, according to a person close to the pope, a move that signals the determination of the leader of the Catholic Church to embrace centuries-old traditions that the Vatican marginalized decades ago in its drive for modernization.

The papal decree, known as a Motu Proprio, would relax current Church restrictions on the Latin Mass, known as the Tridentine Mass, according to a person close to the pontiff. The person, who learned of the decree directly from Pope Benedict, said the decree ultimately aims to grant local priests greater latitude to celebrate the Tridentine Mass. Currently priests wishing to celebrate the Latin Mass must receive special permission known as an "indult" from their local bishop or the Holy See. News of the changes were reported in the Rome daily Il Giornale on Wednesday.

The person didn't disclose any details on how the decree would loosen restrictions but said the document had gone through at least three drafts. A Vatican spokesman couldn't be reached for comment.

Allowing wider use of the Latin Mass stands to be the most significant move in the young papacy of Pope Benedict and the boldest indication yet of his uncompromising approach toward leading the Roman Catholic Church.

Can Christians Believe In Ghosts?

Or fairies? Or dragons? Or tree spirits?

The other day I was reading a review of My Neighbor Totoro (which is next up on the anime list for the little Darwins) from a Catholic film-reviewing site, and it cautioned parents that at one point in the movie one of the sisters goes to a giant tree which she has been told is the "guardian of the forest" and asks it to watch over her younger sister, currently lost in the forest. Hints of paganism such as this, the reviewer said, made the movie more suitable for teens and older children than youngsters.

Now, I don't believe any forests that I have run into to be shepherded by tree spirits, but it struck me as interesting that the reviewer seemed to believe that a) belief in such things is totally incompatible with Catholicism and b) asking the tree spirit to protect one's sister is inherently an act of supplicatory prayer, and thus pagan worship. Imagine for a moment that there are spirits which inhabit trees, and some of which are capable of overseeing the other trees and animals in the wood. Now, if this were the case, would it necessarily be "praying" to ask the spirit to protect your sibling?

Two things, I think, cause Christians these days to be deeply skeptical of anything regarding lesser members of the spiritual realm wandering the earth. First, there's a very justified fear of anything which smacks of spiritualism, witchcraft or satanism. Second, religious people are so often accused by the more secular members of society as being "nothing but superstitious" that we have a certain desire to show just how rational believers can be.

Yet throughout much of Christian history, a wide ranging folklore of ghosts, sprites, hobs, nobs, witches, dragons, trolls and goblins thrived. Was this simply a hold-over of paganism, as both modern "pagans" looking for a continuity with the "old faith" and also modern critics of "medieval superstition" (whether rationalist or fundamentalist) often claim?

Whether these folk beliefs can properly be call hold-overs from paganism strikes me as very open to interpretation. On the one hand, Christian folklore of the middle ages and renaissance did share some of its cast of characters with pagan folklore from before the coming of Christianity. On the other hand, Christians had in most cases reinterpreted what these folkloric creatures were based on their new Christian beliefs. Thus, nature sprites and household hobs which had previously been seen as bottom rung deities were now often seen as lesser demons or in many cases, as angels who failed to decide for or against God at the time of Lucifer's fall, and were thus banished to Earth until such time as they made up their minds.

This clearly made such spirits dangerous to know, both because they clearly weren't decisively good enough to have remained explicitly loyal to God, and also because one never knew which alliegance they might be trending towards at the moment. Some spirits were believed to be demonic in all but name, consorting with witches and corrupted material beings such as goblins, and fearing holy days and water (symbol of baptism). Others were simply attached to specific places, and more or less benevolent so long as they were treated with respect. Yet others might be generally well disposed to God and man.

Not to say that superstition and incipient paganism aren't dangers. But I think it's also important to keep in mind the ways in which many of these folk beliefs differed from paganism or from religious belief in general, in the sense that we as Christians think of it. Putting a bowl of cream out for the household nob was not necessarily a pagan offering, since nobs were not generally seen as any sort of god, but rather a local creature who could cause trouble if he was displeased, and do occasional favors if well taken care of. You get a glimpse of this worldview this in Milton's L'Allegro where a sprite threshes the grain in return for an offering of cream:

And he by Friars Lanthorn led
Tells how the drudging Goblin swet [ 105 ]
To ern his Cream-bowle duly set,
When in one night, ere glimps of morn,
His shadowy Flale hath thresh'd the Corn
That ten day-labourers could not end,
Then lies him down the. [ 110 ]
And stretch'd out all the Chimney's length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And Crop-full out of dores he flings,
Ere the first Cock his Mattin rings.

The consensus seems strong these days that this case of characters semi-supernatural are not real, though one can always hope they've simply become reclusive. And so there's no good reason why people should believe in them. But aside from the probably fact of their non-existence, I'm not sure that there's any moral reason why they shouldn't.

UPDATE FROM MRSDARWIN: Our Neighbor Totoro has arrived from Netflix and has fast become the favorite of the small Darwins, supplanting Kiki's Delivery Service (sent back to keep it safe from the tender mercies of the girls, who loved it so). At least in the English translation, I don't see any signs of spirit-worship. The girls talk to the Totoro (which might mean troll or tree spirit) and accept it as real, but there's no homage paid it or worship given it.

Actually, it's the SWEETEST MOVIE EVER and left both Darwin and me misty-eyed.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Bishop Vigneron's 10 Rules

Patrick of Orthonormal Basis linked to a truly wonderful column by Bishop Vigneron of Oakland (there's a job that must be tough) entitled 10 rules for handling disagreement like a Christian. Some highlights:

1. The Rule of Charity: “Charity is primary.”...

2. The Rule of Publicity: “Think with the mind of the Church.”
This rule is simply a translation of the Latin axiom “Sentire cum Ecclesia.” This means that, when we disagree, the final measure for judging what’s on target and what’s off the mark is what the Church thinks, not, ultimately, what you think or what I think – not private opinion, but what the Church has said to all to know.... In order to apply this rule effectively, we need to use a corollary: “Measure everything against the authoritative documents of the Magisterium.”...

3. The Rule of Legitimate Freedom: “What the Church allows is not to be disallowed.”
This rule means that in situations where the Church says that a variety of views or opinions is legitimate, I should not impose my option as a mandate on others....

4. The Rule of Catholic Freedom: “There’s something for everybody, but not everything is for everybody.”
... We need to respect every practice or approach that has a legitimate place in the life of the Church, and we cannot make our favorite practice or approach mandatory for others if the Church has not.

5. The Rule of Modesty: “Not all of my causes are God’s causes.”...

6. The Rule of Integrity: “To do evil in order to accomplish good is really to do evil.”
Breaking one of God’s commandments is not the way to advance his Kingdom, ever....

7. The Rule of Realism: “Remember that Satan is eager to corrupt my efforts to build up the Kingdom, and he’s smart enough to figure out a way to do it."
This rule is strong statement about the need for each of us in our disagreements to practice that form of realism, for which the more common name is “humility.” My cause may be right or my view may be true, but I have to watch that their goodness is not corrupted by my infidelity....

8. The Rule of Mystery: “Not all the habits and attitudes which belong to a society governed by a representative democracy are appropriate in the Church.”...

9. The Petrine Rule: “Nobody ever built up the Church by tearing down the pope.”...

10. The Eschatological Rule: “The victory is assured; my job is to run out the clock with style.” Christ is risen – truly, body and soul risen and in glory at the Father’s right. He has conquered sin and death and all the forces that threaten us. Whatever is at stake in our trials or conflicts, the certainty of Christ’s victory is not in doubt....

To be, or not to be... What?

This video features HUGH LAURIE. And it's a hilarious sketch about how Hamlet came to be the play we know and love today. And did I mention that it has HUGH LAURIE?


Monday, October 09, 2006

Faire Weather

So we attended the Texas Renaissance Festival this weekend (I'd thought we were going to Scarborough Faire, but it turns out that's in the spring). It was quite a to-do, with extensive grounds and actual permanent structures instead of tents and booths. We saw jousting (it was quite obviously staged, to our great disappointment) and heard a huge carillion and spent many moments trying to corral the older two. Fortunately we attended with friends, so the ratio of adults to children was in our favor for once.

I don't know why you attend a Renaissance fair, but the highlight of our trip was taking an elephant ride. I can't say what the elephant thought of us, but the girls found it gratifyingly scary to be perched high up on the back of the huge beast, and squealed accordingly. Afterwards they were able to scratch the elephant's ears. Does it get any better for a small child?

Quibble #1: Why is it that folks at a Renaissance fair feel the need to speak in quasi-Englishe accents? Do Hispanic attendants speak with Olde Spanish accents? I tend to think of France and Italy when I think of the Renaissance, but I didn't hear any French or Italian accents.

We caught the beginning of a show put on by a pair of fellows who apparently mud wrestle for a living. They were trying to get the two sides of the audience to clap in unison.
"Forget it!" one yelled. "You folks have no rhythm!"
"Maybe that's why there are so many kids here," said the other.
There was a smattering of snickers from the audience.
"You all aren't laughing," said the one. "Well, we don't have time to explain all the jokes to the non-Catholics."

Quibble #2: Dressing up as a Goth fairy or wearing a leopard-print bikini top doesn't actually have anything to do with the historical periods known as "The Renaissance" or "The Medieval Era" or "Texas 2006". Halloween is in a few weeks; I suggest you save it until then. That is all.

We caught a performance by a group of guys called Tartanic. (Ha ha!) They wore kilts and played bagpipes and large drums and put on a good show. The woman next to me was trying to get a picture with her digital camera, and the drummer sees her standing on tiptoe.
"Here," he says, taking the camera, "I'll get a good shot for you."
He heads up front and gets a photo of the band. As he passes by the band member addressing the crowd from atop a drum, he casually sticks the camera underneath the guy's kilt and snaps a shot. As I was standing next to the woman, I had a glimpse of the picture, and regretfully inform the readership that I can't answer the age-old question about what the Scots wear under their kilts because the photo was mostly of the guy's knee. Sorry, gang.

Quibble #3: Technically, attendees were not supposed to bring any food or drink onto the fair grounds, and the vendors responded accordingly by jacking up the prices of victuals egregiously. We indulged our rebellious streak and snuck in water and granola bars for the girls. I was glad we hadn't planned to find food inside, or we might have had to pay a visit to ye olde ATMe.

I suppose someone out there has cleavage on the brain, and I'm here to tell you that yes, it was in evidence. However, most of it was displayed by females who really should have been old enough to know better, and "alluring" or "provocative" or "come hither" wouldn't be the first words I reached for to describe the various chests we saw. Here's a hint to women of a certain age: No one wants to see your sunburned, freckled bosom. And there's a good reason why most women wear support undergarments nowadays. Just sayin'.

We enjoyed ourselves, but I can't say that the Renaissance fair is something I'd rush out and do again soon. I didn't see many demonstrations of authentic activities of yesteryear, such as weaving or blacksmithing or fencing or dancing or courtly manners. Plus, it's rather expensive just to walk in the door, to say nothing of the wares within. Perhaps when the girls are a bit older (of course then they won't be free anymore) we'd be able to stroll about in a more leisurely fashion and actually stay through an entire musical set.

ADDENDUM: Darwin pointed out to me that I make it sound like we didn't have a good time. We did, and I wish I could have seen more shows and displays. And I'll admit I snickered at the rhythm joke and the camera-up-the-kilt. My main beefs were with the prices and the attitude of some attendees that you somehow gain Renaissance street cred if you wear pointed ears or fuzzy tails. Star Trek has nothing to do with history, people! (Or the future, for that matter.)

And my issue with the cleavage has little to do with modesty or lack thereof, as much as the fact that many people seem to be utterly deluded as to their level of hotness. You're not all that, girl.

Examining Torture

The question of how to properly interrogate prisoners is one that has dominated certain corners of the blogsphere for quite a while. The 'torture bills' currently going through congress have refocused the debate on this topic once again, and for those interested in a clear (though as a result rather long) explication of the moral issues involved, Scott Carson of An Examined Life works through all the basic moral and philosophical issues.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Is There a 'Religion Gene'

One of the great questions for humanity, one which reaches to the center of what makes humans the sort of creatures they are (whether one takes them to be rational animals, spiritual animals, or determinalistic animals) is why we contemplate religious questions.

Anselm's Ontological Argument is perhaps the classic Christian attempt to address this question, stating essentially that God is that thing which is the greatest and most perfect thing imaginable, and since existing is more perfect than being imaginary, God must therefor by definition exist.

In apologetics terms, many authors talk about how the "God-shaped hole" in the human heart is a key piece of evidence that we are creatures who yearn for our creator.

Nor is this question strictly of interest to theists. One of the great questions for strict materialists is: If there is no such thing as a God or a spiritual realm, why does nearly everyone think there is? Those with an interest in finding evolutinary explanations for such things, such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, have put a fair amount of work into coming up with explanation as to how developing a religious sense would have been biologically advantageous (even if philosophically erronius) for early humans. In this materialist conception, there must be some sort of 'religion gene' which appeared at some point in early human history and resulted in better survival among humans with a religious sense than without.

Now, I'll admit to having little truck with anything that smacks of evolutionary psychology, but there's something rather deeper that strikes me as odd about the idea of a 'religion gene'. It is, I think, the implicit assumption that if one could somehow come up with some sort of apparently biological explanation for why people are able to think about religiousmatters, that this would somehow rule out the possibility that religion is false. Religions are systems of truth claims. To be Catholic is to endorse the claim that certain things are true. To be Bhuddist is to endorse the claim that certain other, contradictory, things are true. However, the claims themselves must have a truth or falsehood separate from anyone's ability to evaluate them or be interested in them.

Once upon a time (when the ancestors of human beings were not yet imbued with reason) there was no creature on the Earth capable of understanding mathematics. However, the fact that no one was capable of grasping what a sphere was or how addition worked in no way detracted from the truth of mathematics. Nor would it disprove the truth of mathematics if a "math gene" or "abstract thought gene" were responsible for making humans capable of grasping mathematical realities. In this sense, the human discovery of mathematics (whether one chooses to think in terms of a 'math gene' which benefited humans' survival or in terms of humanity being imbued with reason and thus able to contemplate the world) thus fits in a very Platonic mode, in that it involves the discovery by the mind of a reality deeper than the physical instantiations of mathematical concepts.

Now, if one has already concluded that there is no God, the 'religion gene' idea perhaps provides some insight into why most humans have always believed in some sort of supernatural level of existence. But I can't see that the idea in any sense disproves the existence of the supernatural -- which is what many of its supporters seem to believe it does. No more, at any rate, than the exitence of a 'math gene' would prove that numbers don't exist.

If there is such a thing, and I must say that I find the idea of looking for genetic origins for thought rather odd and unhelpful, its existence doesn't speak to whether there is or is not a God, merely how it is that humans came to ask the question. The question of God's existence is a question about reality and thus independant of whether we ask ourselves the question or not.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Sophie's World?

Seeing as we have a readership which includes some pretty well-read and philosophically astute people... Has anyone out there read Sophie's World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy.

The idea of a history of Western philosophy in the form of a young adult novel strikes me as kind of fun, and having the characters eventually come to fear they are trapped within a novel seems reminiscent of Island of the Day Before.

Is it any good?

A Mess of Potterage

Just when you think that perhaps finally the only place you'll find Harry Potter controversy is in Trivial Pursuit 90s Edition, some fool pops up and makes a scene. CMinor has the details.
I really was planning to ignore the story of the Gwinnett County, Georgia mom who launched a court challenge in an effort to remove the Harry Potter books from libraries in her school district. Really. Campaigns of this sort crop up around here every so often; usually they fizzle pretty quickly. So I was pretty surprised this week when the story actually started garnering headlines in the national press.

It clinched the deal yesterday when I flipped on the radio to catch a bit of news. There was our girl, on CBS, voice choked with tears. She wondered aloud how, in the wake of recent school shootings, our nation could continue to allow such "evil" in our schools. So now, on top of promoting sorcery and Wicca (the original complaint) Harry and his creator, J.K. Rowling, are associated with school shootings.

Well, the patently obvious response to that would be, "Show me clear and convincing evidence that the Harry Potter books have been implicated in any school shooting." I have yet to hear of a such a case. Heck, I don't think you could even make that case for Wicca, and I'm not saying that as a fan of the practice. It's just that when it comes to potential catalysts for incidents of extreme sociopathic violence, Harry's not even a blip on my radar screen. Nor, for that matter, is a flaky, gynocentric New Age spiritual discipline (if you can call it that) that in my experience, at least, seems particularly appealing to women seeking to compensate for an overall lack of control over their own lives and actions. My suspicion regarding school shooters is that you have to be one seriously screwed up pup to do it in the first place. Still, were I going to pin blame on any form of literature or media for the actions of some of those who have, I'd be more inclined to seek out the graphically violent or politically anarchic than a 'tweener fantasy series about kid wizards.
There's much more, and it's all good. Read the rest.

Sturgeon on Toys

In her fine new blog Auntie Joanna Writes, Joanna Bogle describes a talk she gave on a conference on family life.
In the pleasant sitting-room at Wickenden, after a delicious lunch, we were able to discuss practical matters in a constructive atmosphere, with some good ideas coming from busy families. How to cope with the modern lavish birthday party at which the birthday child is given huge quantities of presents that he can barely even acknowledge adequately, let alone enjoy and appreciate?
...What also emerged is that one or two families can have a significant impact on local network of family groups, eg can help to damp down a culture of ever-more-lavish parties by simply refusing to join in.....

It is interesting to note that most of the problems raised at this, and other similar discusions I have attended in recent years, always end up focusing on the problems of affluence. It's actually not porn, drugs, alcohol or involvement in weird cults that present immediate problems, but the deadening reality of childhoods threatened by massive consumerism and the destruction of innocent pleasures by the fostering of greed.....all this within living memory of an era when many parents in Britain worried about saving enough money to buy just a few modest gifts for the children and treats for birthdays.
I sometimes feel like we're the "damping down" family in our small network. Part of this reflects our personalities -- we rarely give or expect gifts, even with each other. It also reflects our experiences as children -- Darwin and I both come from modest backgrounds, and while we received presents at birthdays and Christmas, our family celebrations weren't the gift free-for-alls I've witnessed in other settings.But it's also a choice about how we want our daughters to think about family celebrations and especially holy days such as Christmas. I don't disapprove of presents, but it seems to me that they should never overshadow the event they commemorate. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ. Certainly one may give presents on that day in honor of the gifts of the Magi, but some parents seem to be of the opinion that they need to be as lavish as the Magi.

I had occasion to enter a Toys 'R Us recently, and was reminded of Sturgeon's Revelation: Ninety percent of everything is crud. The shelves were glutted with tawdry, cheap (and not so cheap) junky toys of the sort that will almost certainly be cast aside within weeks and end up under the feet of hapless parents in the middle of the night. (That one's for you, Dad.) Many toys are so dinky and commonplace that there seems no incentive for children to cherish and care for them; if it breaks you can always get another. Who in his right mind would mend a toy from a Happy Meal? The things are so inexpensive to manufacture and so ugly that they're good for nothing but target practice at the nearest trash can. Likewise, when a parent feels that he or she is obligated to shower a child with loads of gifts at a time, most of those gifts are likely to be "filler" -- presents that have no value in themselves but serve to pad out the one or two gifts that are actually worth giving and receiving.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

"You think a princess and a guy like me...?"

From the "You Can't Make This Stuff Up" file:
A Turkish man (see left), who had deserted from the Turkish army after complaining that he was being persecuted for converting to Christianity, hijacked a plane, possibly as a gesture to get the attention of Pope Benedict (reports on his motivation vary). Coincidently, on the plane were Miss India, Miss Singapore, Miss Malaysia and Miss Philippines, on their way to the Globe International 2006 Beauty Pageant. That's Miss India pictured at right

Perhaps they were together at 30,000 feet, but it's clearly not a match made in heaven. But if the erstwhile hijacker learned nothing else, at least he discovered that brown is beautiful.

You can't make this stuff up.

H/T to Scott Carson, who is not amused.

Flyboys: An Old Fashioned War Movie

MrsDarwin and I took a rare night out last Friday to go see the new World War I flying movie Flyboys, despite it being subject to some pretty vicious reviews. I'm a sucker for old airplanes, and the preview somehow just caught our fancy.

What we found was a surprisingly good movie. The story of an ensemble of American pilots who volunteered to fly as fighter pilots for France in the Great War before America declared war on Germany is told in an old-fashioned, appealing way. The flying sequences are brilliantly filmed and surprisingly free of Hollywood over-hype effects, though for the truly detail-oriented there are some things to quibble with. (The biggest thing being that machine gun bullets don't smoke, thus providing easily visible trails. And I gather that the pilots in the movie are shown pushing their Newports into dives that would likely have caused one of the original planes to shed a wing. Still, nothing that will jar you while watching the movie.)

While the movie doesn't turn war into a sport or a walk in the park by any stretch (two of the pilots are even downed in the trenches at one point) this is not a cynical movie in which all soldiers are victims, scoundrels or both. Nor is it a polemic against the evils of corporate interests and American interventionalism. And it is mainly for these faults, so far as I can tell, that film reviewers seem to have universally hated the movie. The NY times reviewer snarks:
Despite its empty head and arduous length, ''Flyboys'' is ever so nice, in the manner of a Norman Rockwell illustration. The director, Tony Bill, may not be a philosopher but he is a gentleman, moving things along with a tidy, well-mannered hand. In another context, such politesse might feel tonic. Given the state of things, it's nearly toxic.
Translation: "We might have tolerated this tripe about outdated concepts like honor, bravery and cooperating with France if it weren't for the fact that at this time in history any film about war must be a polemic against the Bush administration."

French actress Jennifer Decker, who apparently spoke essentially no English when she started on the production, appears in a low-key supporting role a French farm girl that the main character falls in love with, and courts chastely through the mid part of the movie. However, far from seeming like something grafted on to try to win a little female audience, the plot line has a refreshing honesty and realism about it.

For those without political objections of the genre per se and who enjoy quality old fashioned movie making, Flyboys is a treat.

It's called Education, not Brain-Washing

No amount of pious training or pious culture will protect the faithful, or preserve them from the contamination of the age, if they are left inferior to non-Catholics in secular learning and intellectual development. The faithful must be guarded and protected by being trained and disciplined to grapple with the false systems of the age…. They must be better armed than their opponents - surpass them in the strength and vigor of their minds, and in the extent and variety of their knowledge. They must, on all occasions and against all adversaries, be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them. (Orestes Brownson)
H/T Love2Learn Mom.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Fear of Falling

In a recent, interminable thread of comments on Jimmy Akin's site (in regards to schism and the SSPX) one traditionalist Catholic made the following rather un-traditional comment:
I understand your point about how the notion that the pope would teach something erroneous contradicts the understanding of faithful Catholics that the pope and the Magisterium are divinely inspired and could never teach error.

What bothers me about this notion is that it seems to put our faith on something rather precarious. If a future pope were to promulgate immorality, most of you posting here would probably lose your faith instantly. You'd want to die if such a thing should happen, because it would mean that everything you ever believed to be true has turned out to be a huge lie.

In asking about an "escape hatch," I am trying to see if faith can be rested upon something a little less precarious than the public statements of the guy who happens to be elected by the majority of the Cardinals gathered at a conclave in Rome. Should this happen in the future, the SSPX might provide a model to follow-- that is, a way to remain Catholic and loyal to the Church even if the "smoke of Satan" has indeed entered it.
Now, unless I am much mistaken, it seems to me that the general drift here is: "If at some future date it should prove that Catholicism is false, how can we revise what Catholicism is believed to be so that we don't actually have to admit that our religion has proved false?"

Hanging out as I do, at times, in science enthusiast/skeptic circles, I hear all too often the claim that religion doesn't attempt to say anything that is really "true" about the world, but rather just provides a codification of peoples feelings and hopes. This strikes me as a deeply wrongheaded and ignorant summary of religious belief, and one which suggests very little acquintance with the history of religion. And yet, there are folks like this who do indeed seem to be playing that game.

What, the commenter asks, if "the guy who happens to be elected by the majority of the Cardinals" should teach error in a matter of faith and morals? The answer seems to me pretty clear: If that should happen, then the doctrine of papal infallibility is false. And if that doctrine is false (which though it was not formally declared until the 1870s was clearly understood with increasing clarity for at least a thousand years) then Catholicism is also clearly false in one of its rather basic precepts. Perhaps many would, based on this, conclude the Orthodoxy's critique of Catholicism is correct. But at least as likely, many would be forced to admit that Christianity as a whole was false.

Yet this author's instinct of trying to revise doctrine in order to put in an unfalsifiable form strikes me as deeply wrongheaded. In the end, a faith so defined as to say nothing which can be found to be untrue is a faith in one's self and one's preferences, not in some set of real statements about the nature of the world.

One hears the same sort of error out of the extreme 'progressive' end of the spectrum at times, when some fool or other says that the truth of our faith does not simply rely on whether or not some man actually rose from the dead in 1st century Palestine. St. Paul would be all over that in a moment. Without the cross and resurrection, in what is our faith? However warm, fuzzy, and inspiring Christianity might be as a story, it can hold no weight as a faith unless it is true in some deeper sense than the artistic one.

Perhaps the temptation to bolster our faith in ways that rob it of meaning is built into some of the common elements of our understanding of faith as a virtue. We are reminded of the importance of remaining solid in our faith, of not being shaken or losing faith. Losing faith in this sense is a matter not of seeing your faith proved false, as a loss of nerve in the face of elements of the faith which are difficult to live. If after the death of a loved one, a Christian begins to lose faith in God's love, it is not because Christianity states that one's loved ones will not die, but because Christianity asks us to do a difficult thing: believe that God love us while at the same time understanding that there is great suffering in the world. However, according to traditional Christian theology, there is no sense in which this suffering disproves God's love or existence. This is not a case of the faith being falsified, but rather being difficult.

If, on the other hand, we should come face to face with clear evidence that the faith we have held simply is not true (as would be the case if a pope were to teach heresy ex cathedra) rationalizing some way to coontinue clinging to it would be no virtue. If the correct object of faith is truth, then having faith in that which is false is a mis-use of it.