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

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Douglas Kmiec, Master of Dissembling

Most of us (outside of the set of "conservative legal scholars") had never heard of Professor Douglas Kmiec until he became until the Romney campaign, which he had been working for, ran aground and he became "the conservative legal scholar who has endorsed Barack Obama". Perhaps realizing that fame is fleeting, and that short of the highly unlikely event of a judicial appointment from a President Obama (which would seem next to impossible, given that Kmiec lists his favorite Supreme Court justice as Clarance Thomas -- whom Obama considers manifestly unqualified to be on the court) he will never be heard of again after this election, Kmiec now seems unwilling to cede the dubious notariety that he has earned for himself. Thus, he has an interview in today's New York Times, which is in turn a promotion for the book he has coming out in two week, which is about (wait for it...) how Obama is a great candidate for Catholics to support.

Catholics are, all accusations to the contrary, people too. And far be it from me to suggest that there is some sort of monolithic "Catholic line" one must take to voting. We are, as Catholic, obliged to vote in a manner that will, to the best of our understanding, help society. Because there is much reasonable room for debate over just what is good for society, Catholics may most certainly disagree about who in any given election (this one included) is the best choice.

So it's not that Prof. Kmiec supports Obama that I object to. It's that he attempts to insist that some of Obama's positions are good and moral which are obviously not, at least if one accepts Catholic moral teachings. High among these is the issue of abortion. Obama insists that while a "grave matter" and an "agonizing moral situation" abortion is an fundamental right which must be protected, funded, and readily available at all times. This is clearly and absolutely wrong from a Catholic moral perspective.

Now it is possible (I personally think very difficult, but still theoretically possible) that there might be circumstances in which one might argue that the president at this time has little ability to affect the legality of abortion in this country, and that there are other factors which are more important in a given election. However, Kmiec does not attempt to make that argument. Instead of arguing that there are other good things Obama that outweigh his support for abortion (or bad things about his opponent that make Obama a better choice) Kmiec wants to argue that Obama is a better pick specifically in regards to pro-life issues.

It's a bad argument, and he makes it badly:

So given those views [Kmeic’s view that: 1) overturning Roe would only return abortion to the states (duh!) and 2) we might not get the magical fifth justice out of the next president since we’ve missed it before with Kennedy and O'Connor], the better question is how could a Catholic not support Barack Obama?

At best, they’re reasons to think that simply electing a Republican president will not automatically achieve everything we as pro-lifers desire. (Anyone who thought that in the first place was delusional.) I see no way in which it means that one must vote for Obama, who seeks to make sure abortion remains legal in all states.

Senator Obama’s articulated concerns with the payment of a living wage, access to health care, stabilizing the market for shelter, special attention to the needs of the disadvantaged and the importance of community are all part of the church’s social justice mission.

Whereas the Republican platform advocates refusing to pay anyone a just wage, denying people access to healthcare, plunging the housing market into chaos and ignoring the needs of the disadvantaged?

No. This is precisely the problem with the sort of partisan rhetoric that Kmeic has apparently been taking all to seriously while attending the Democratic Convention. No party is devoted to “let’s screw the poor and keep all the money for the rich”. Rather, there is difference of opinion between the two parties over what practical policies would best serve the common good. When conservatives oppose “universal healthcare” it’s not because we don’t want people to receive the medical help that they need, but rather because we strongly suspect that a government run system would make things worse than they currently are.

Consider the choices: A Catholic can either continue on the failed and uncertain path of seeking to overturn Roe, which would result in the individual states doing their own thing, not necessarily, or in most states even likely, protective of the unborn. Or Senator Obama’s approach could be followed, whereby prenatal and income support, paid maternity leave and greater access to adoption would be relied upon to reduce the incidence of abortion.

First of all, Obama has not actually jumped on board with all those –- Kmiec just imagines that they might be in keeping with the overall Obama vibe. Secondly, this is not an either/or issue. If Kmiec wants to reduce the need for abortion through social services, there are many conservative pro-lifers who would be happy to work to make sure that that happens – whether privately or publically.

But he is deceiving himself (or more cynically: attempting to deceive others) if he claims that Obama’s policy of removing all restrictions on abortion and providing comprehensive public funding for abortions would not increase the number of abortions. It’s not really a matter of opinion: if you remove all restrictions and costs on a means of alleviating a large future expense (raising a child) the use of that means will go up.

It is, of course, not enough for a Catholic legislator to declare himself or herself pro-choice and just leave it at that, but neither Senator Obama, who is not Catholic except by sensibility, nor Joe Biden, who is a lifelong Catholic, leaves matters in that unreflective way.

Not enough? My good professor, it’s not acceptable at all. If one believes that an unborn child represents an innocent and unique human life deserving of the right to life (a topic on which Obama refused to provide a straight answer, and which Biden claims to accept “on faith”) then it is clearly the height of moral bankruptcy to say that one must leave it as a matter of “choice” whether that life be snuffed out. The most basic duty of a civic government is to protect the lives of its citizens.

In my view, Obama and Biden seek to fulfill the call by Pope John Paul II, in the encyclical “Evangelium Vitae,” to “ensure proper support for families and motherhood.” It cannot possibly contravene Catholic doctrine to improve the respect for life by paying better attention to the social and economic conditions of women which correlate strongly with the number of abortions.

No one has suggested that it contravenes Catholic doctrine to pay better attention to the social and economic conditions of women – or indeed to attempt to improve those conditions, which I suspect is what Professor Kmiec actually means.

However, it does contravene Catholic teaching to insist that a woman has a right to kill her unborn child if her economic situation is dire, or for any other reason. And not only do Senators Obama and Biden both insist that, but their economic policies upon which Kmiec rests so much face are predicated upon the assumption that the mother does have that individualistic right to terminate another’s life in order to assure her own comfort. John Paul II, in Evangelium Vitae, explains that our duty to provide for the needs of others and our duty to protect the lives of the most innocent among us stem from one and the same duty to respect life in all its forms.

If Professor Kmiec truly believes that conservative economic policies are predicated upon a total disregard for the needs of others – then shame on him for supporting them for the last twenty years and more. But even if that is indeed his conviction, and he has only now realized that it is wrong to trample upon the needs of others, that merely shows that (surprise, surprise) no political party has a lock on all aspects of the Gospel of Life.

But what is absolutely clear is that the platform of the Democratic Party (which Kmiec has wedded himself to and insists on publicly embracing again and again) is totally at odds with the Gospel of Life. Freedom and prosperity can never be based upon nor include the “right” to kill another. Obama's proposals in regards to economic justice may bear some surface resemblance to certian interpretations of Catholic Social Teaching, but the philosophy which drives the current political progressive movement is one which includes the most complete autonomy possible. Catholic Social Teaching is based upon out duty to care for each other. While the claim that the government has a duty to give us whatever we want may sound a little bit like that, when paired with our absolute right to terminate those who are inconvenient to us, it begins to look much more like old fashioned individualistic selfishness.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Now he's messing with MY head

Baby at 38 weeks, meditating on his wrongs

Perhaps baby resents having his head repositioned just when he was so comfortable, because now he's playing head games with me. This morning at 6:00 I woke up to an honest-to-goodness contraction -- not that painful, but there. After two more contractions at 30-minute intervals, I got up and started folding laundry and getting my room in order in case I had to call the midwife. And since then? Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

Maybe this is just a sign that there's too much laundry in my room.

Brush Up Your Augustine

St. Augustine has found himself in the news lately, due to the hapless commentary of our Speaker of the House. (And just in time for his feast day, which is today.)

Maureen of Suburban Banshee has found the passage (from Quaestionum in Heptateuchum: Liber 2 which is Quaestiones in Exodum) which Ms. Pelosi's staff claimed to be the basis for her theological analysis. Maureen posts the whole thing in Latin, which a quick English translation. As it turns out, a mis-translation of the two sentences that Pelosi's staff cites is commonly found on pro-choice Christian websites, though always mis-attributed (as Pelosi did) as coming form "On Exodus". I've no idea whether this particular chestnut originates, but from the evidence one would guess a single source with an agenda.

One hopes that with his brief moment of news-cycle prominence, perhaps people will be encouraged to take a bit of time reading Augustine. In addition to his vast body of sermons and theological analyses, Augustine was the author of one of the first autobiographies in the recognizable modern sense, Confessions.

The ancient world provides us with a number of fascinating biographies, and several noteable leaders wrote about their own exploits. (Caesar's authorized history of himself by himself in the Gallic Wars and Civil Wars is the most obvious example.) But except for the obvious and embarrassing ommission which someone will point out to me in the comments, Augustine's Confessions is the first work which allows us to meet the author at a person level and understand how he came to be the person that he was. It's a very personal and spiritual book, and also a surprisingly readable one. A decent translation of the Confessions is quite as reasonable as any modern spiritual autobiography -- and brings you into the world of the Church in the late 4th Century in a unique and powerful way.

Reading Confessions is also a great way to brush up on your Latin, if like me you are struggling to retain the vocabulary and grammar that you haven't already forgotten. Augustine's Latin is very readable, much more so that Golden Age authors like Cicero or Virgil. Should you so desire, there's a handy school-boy edition with selections from Confessions along with grammatical notes and a vocabulary in the back: The Confessions of St. Augustine: Selections from Books I-IX

As with most Bolchazy-Carducci editions, this is not a pretty book. It's a trade paperback with a brightly colored cover. But it is a very handy edition if you're working at a 2nd to 3rd year Latin level -- beyond working through a standard grammar text, but not yet reading with ease. And it includes all of the classic stories: Augustine's youthful raid on the peach orchard; his struggles with learning Greek; his conversion moment in the guarden where he hears the voice of nearby children saying "take and read".

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Nancy Pelosi, Girl Theologian

There are certain jobs which nearly everyone thinks they can do.

Screenwriter William Goldman says that writing is one such. Everyone on a movie production is convinced that he could probably write the script just fine, if he wasn't busy doing something else. So why is the writing taking so long to produce the pages?

Apparently House Speaker Nancy Pelosi thinks that running the Catholic Church is something she could do just fine, if only she wasn't busy... doing whatever it is that she does when she's not failing to pass her legislative agenda and putting her foot in her mouth during interviews.

She had a fairly standard instance of foot in mouth over the weekend when on Meet The Press she opined:

I would say that as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition. And Senator–St. Augustine said at three months. We don’t know.... And so I don’t think anybody can tell you when life begins, human life begins.
Meet The Press, 8-24-2008

She went on to insist that the Church had only come to insist that life should be protected from the moment of conception within the last fifty years. Such high profile misrepresentation of Catholic teaching was too much for those who are officially tasked with preserving Catholic teaching in the US, and so within two days Ms. Pelosi had been set straight by:

One might think that under this episcopal onslaught our intrepid girl theologian would return to discoursing on subjects which are actually within her alleged realm of expertise. Not so! She issued through a spokesperson a statement including:
After she was elected to Congress, and the choice issue became more public as she would have to vote on it, she studied the matter more closely. Her views on when life begins were informed by the views of Saint Augustine, who said: ‘…the law does not provide that the act [abortion] pertains to homicide, for there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation…’ (Saint Augustine, On Exodus 21.22)
Unfortunately, the Speaker does not, as the saying goes, know what the hell she is talking about. The passage in Exodus which is cited lays down what punishments should be meted out upon an assailant who accidentally causes a woman to miscarry, and the text is in some dispute resulting in different readings. Augustine apparently (based on the secondary sources that I've been able to find regarding Augustine's thinking on fetal development an abortion -- I've not been able to identify the alleged source which Pelosi quotes) took the passage to mean that someone who caused a fetal death before animation or ensoulment (according to Aristotelian science, it was the soul/form which allowed an animal to sense, move and grow) could be assessed a fine as a punishment, because he hadn't actually killed anyone, but rather destroyed a sort of seed. Someone who caused fetal death after ensoulment was considered to have committed homicide, and punished according to the "life for a life" principle.

For a bit more on the 4th Century science involved in Augustine's view, see this recent post I did over at Catholics Against Joe Biden.

So what we have here is a 21st Century politician trying to lecture modern prelates (who have doubtless read a great deal more Augustine than she) based on Augustine's analysis of an single line if Exodus and his 4th Century understanding of embryology. If Ms. Pelosi is incapable of seeing the many problems with trying to do this, it is perhaps best that she simply leaves the bishops to do their job and goes back to doing whatever it is that she is good at.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Head Down!

You guys! I will never get over this -- the doctor just pushed the baby's head into position as easy as could be. After a week of stress and misery and alternative treatments, it took about three minutes to turn the boy. (It cost a lot more than acupuncture, but on the other hand, it worked.) And as soon as he was in position, my blood pressure shot way up -- a sure sign for me that the end is nigh.

Thanks for all the prayers! I can't tell you how relieved I am.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Turn, turn, turn

After a weekend of medical run-around and referrals for consultations for referrals for consulations, baby's external version is scheduled for tomorrow at 11:45. The doctor says there's usually a 50% chance that baby turns during the version, but that our likelihood is higher because it's a fourth pregnancy. There is the slight risk that the cord will become compressed or the placenta will become detached. If that happens, they put me under and do a c-section right then. However, the odds are good that instead baby will turn and we'll have our home birth in a week or so.

Thanks for your prayers and encouragement. Friday I was feeling upset and anxious. Saturday I had a massage, which went a long way towards restoring my equilibrium.

Also, let me give you the lowdown on acupuncture from my perspective as the whitest person alive. I found it a basically painless procedure the first time -- the needles are small and I really didn't feel a thing. There was a bit of soreness for a few seconds after the needles were removed, but that was it. (The points for trying to turn a baby are on the sides of the little toes.) We also tried moxibustion, which is burning mugwort herb right by that pressure point. The second time, my toes were a bit sensitive from the heat and needles earlier. Yesterday afternoon we tried the moxibustion for the third time, and my toes were definitely feeling irritable. So I'm going to give the Oriental medicine a rest as I'm starting to build up a little scar tissue on my toes.

Some Political Blogging

I've been invited to join the group blog at Catholics Against Joe Biden. Should be you be so inclined, you can read my first post here. I'll have 2-3 posts a week over there until Obama and Biden lose -- or we get stuck listening to them talking for four years.

I'm From the Government, And I'm Here to Help... Your Dragon

This morning's Wall Street Journal has an interesting article about the travails of the Indonesian islanders who inhabit the remaining habitat of komodo dragons.
These locals have long viewed the dragons as a reincarnation of fellow kinsfolk, to be treated with reverence. But now, villagers say, the once-friendly dragons have turned into vicious man-eaters. And they blame policies drafted by American-funded environmentalists for this frightening turn of events.

"When I was growing up, I felt the dragons were my family," says 55-year-old Hajji Faisal. "But today the dragons are angry with us, and see us as enemies." The reason, he and many other villagers believe, is that environmentalists, in the name of preserving nature, have destroyed Komodo's age-old symbiosis between dragon and man.

For centuries, local tradition required feeding the dragons -- which live more than 50 years, can recognize individual humans and usually stick to fairly small areas. Locals say they always left deer parts for the dragons after a hunt, and often tied goats to a post as sacrifice. Island taboos strictly prohibited hurting the giant reptiles, a possible reason why the dragons have survived in the Komodo area despite becoming extinct everywhere else.
You might think this was an ideal situation for both the dragons and the locals, but too often people are unable to leave such things alone. The Indonesian government brought in a US-based environmental conservancy company to set up a nature preserve for the dragons.
With this funding and advice, park authorities put an end to villagers' traditional deer hunting, enforcing a prohibition that had been widely disregarded. They declared canines an alien species, and outlawed the villagers' dogs, which used to keep dragons away from homes. Park authorities banned the goat sacrifices, previously staged on Komodo for the benefit of picture-snapping tourists.

"We don't want the Komodo dragon to be domesticated. It's against natural balance," says Widodo Ramono, policy director of the Nature Conservancy's Indonesian branch and a former director of the country's national park service. "We have to keep this conservation area for the purpose of wildlife. It is not for human beings."

When people hunt deer, it poses a mortal threat to the dragons, which disappeared from a small island near Komodo after poachers decimated deer stocks there, officials say. "If we let the locals hunt again, the dragons will be gone," says Vinsensius Latief, the national park's chief for Komodo island. "If we are not strict in enforcing the ban, everything here will be destroyed."

But, while the deer population remains stable in the park, many dragons these days prefer to seek easier prey in the vicinity of humans. They frequently descend from the hills to the villages, hiding under stilt houses and waiting for a chance to snap at passing chicken or goats. Much to the fury of villagers, park authorities, while endorsing the idea in principle, so far haven't acted on repeated requests to build dragon-proof fences around the park's inhabited areas. The measure is estimated to cost about $5,000 per village.
With roughly the results you might expect.
A year ago, a 9-year-old named Mansur was one such victim. The boy went to answer the call of nature behind a bush near his home in Kampung Komodo. In broad daylight, as terrified relatives looked on, a dragon lunged from his hideout, took a bite of the boy's stomach and chest, and started crushing his skull.

"We threw branches and stones to drive him away, but the dragon was crazed with blood, and just wouldn't let go," says the boy's father, Jamain, who, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name.

Unlike in the U.S. and many other Western countries, park rangers here don't routinely put down animals that develop a taste for human flesh.

A few months later, Jamain's neighbor Mustaming Kiswanto, a 38-year-old who makes a living selling dragon woodcarvings to tourists, and whose son had been bitten by a dragon, was attacked by another giant lizard after falling asleep.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Leave Us Not Be Divisive

An organization which I had not previously heard of, Catholics United, emailed me this morning with a message from their executive director:
“Catholics United believes Senator Biden’s selection as vice presidential candidate is a positive development for Americans who respect leaders who have strong religious, family, and personal values. Senator Biden’s well-known commitment to his Catholic faith has inspired his advocacy on issues such as genocide, universal health care, education, workers’ rights, and violence against women. His faith has helped him to find solace during times of tragedy and crisis.”

“We are optimistic that Senator Biden’s history of seeking practical means of addressing abortion will help move our nation beyond the divisive, acrimonious, and unproductive debate that has come to surround the issue. Senator Biden accepts his church’s teachings on human life and can work to advance these teachings in ways that Americans of all political persuasions can support.”

“Catholics United is especially hopeful that operatives on the far right will refrain from using Senator Biden’s faith and the teachings of the Catholic Church as political weapons in the coming campaign. Faith and values should be used to unite Americans behind solutions to the key challenges of this age – war, poverty, lack of health care, and a looming climate crisis – and not as partisan wedges to divide voters.”
It's encouraging to hear that these folks don't want to see the Church and its teachings used as political weapons by the "far right", but they may have formed the barricades facing the wrong direction when it comes to Senator Biden, who made waves a while back by declaring:
"If I'm the nominee, Republicans will be sorry," he said. "The next Republican that tells me I'm not religious I'm going to shove my rosary beads down their [sic] throat.

"I am so sick and tired of this pontificating about us not being the party of faith," said Biden, a Roman Catholic who has served in the Senate since the Nixon administration.
So while I'd like to assure Catholics United that I have no intention of trying to break through a Secret Service perimeter to smack Senator Biden upside the head with a copy of the Catechism or the Summa or any other large work containing Catholic doctrine, they might want to sit the good senator down and explain to him what a rosary is for, so that next time he's seeking solace during times of tragedy and crisis he is able to murmur a few Aves and Pater Nosters rather than taking out his frustrations by assaulting someone with a sacramental.

And once he's got up to speed, maybe he can try to explain a couple of the basic ideas encapsulated in the first joyful mystery to Senator Obama, in a way that he'll be able to understand at his "paygrade".

Friday, August 22, 2008

Maintaining the Status Quo here

Where's baby's head? Oh, it's still right up top. Yesterday was acupuncture and moxibustion -- baby squirmed and wiggled obligingly, but no dice. Today is acupuncture and moxibustion, round two. Tomorrow: massage. Next week: chiropractic treatment and external versioning.

Unfortunately, it sounds like if baby doesn't turn we're definitely in for a c-section. This means that a) I want to try the external versioning as early as possible, because I'd be really peeved if I went into labor before it was even attempted and had an automatic c-section regardless of whether he could be turned; and b) it's time to look for a doctor and a hospital. I suppose this wouldn't be so much of an issue if we were already seeing a regular ob-gyn, because we could just switch game plans. But since the midwife obviously doesn't do c-sections at home, we need to be ready to transfer care, and I'd like to meet the operating doc before I'm on the business end of the knife. (Just typing that makes me want to cry.)

Also, we need to figure out emergency child-care. My mother is coming out a week before baby is due, but as we'd been planning a home birth, even if baby came before that we'd have some leeway as to when a babysitter could show up. But if we're rushing to the hospital we need a plan for getting an adult on the scene quickly, or stashing the kids somewhere quickly. (Confidential to Big Tex and family: oh, how we miss having you so close! Move back!)

Of course baby may well still turn, on his own or with help -- we're only at 37 weeks today. But I'm starting to feel a bit discouraged, and I'd welcome your continued prayers.

More on Murray and Education

Apparently National Review has a series of short interviews with authors of newly released books. Yesterday I ran into this one with Charles Murray about his new book on education. (I wrote a bit about a Murray WSJ column discussing his proposals in this post.) It's just a ten minute interview, and it's worth a quick listen if you get the chance.

This is the sort of thing that can easily feed Darwin dinnertime conversation, though the girls can get a bit antsy when we spend too much time discussing topics other than princesses and dinosaurs. Murray proposes four "simple truths" about education, two of which are "Ability varies" and "Half of the children are below average".

Both of these are obviously true (at least, outside of Lake Wobegon) and yet I wonder if focusing on them can lead us to give up on far too many people far too early. Murray argues that only 30% of students are capable of ever meeting the standards for math and reading set forth in No Child Left Behind. Not being a fan of Left Behind novels or legislation, I'm not familiar with the reading and math standards involved, but I'm a bit dubious that any significant portion of the population is inherently unable to perform at what we would consider a decent high school level of reading, writing and math. (Though I'm willing to admit, this may be the result of imposing the experiences and abilities of myself and those I know on lots of people that I don't.)

Apropos of that, I also ran into yesterday this article from the American Thinker entitled "Why Shakir Can't Read". (Avoid the comments, they can lower your intelligence.)

One hopes that what the article describes is an exaggeration or is at least rare, but one fears that it is not. It wouldn't surprise me if, by age nine, or even age six, a child raised amidst instability and neglect, never read to and left to amuse himself with television and whatever action he can find on the streets of the 'hood, has been rendered unable to progress (at least without effort more intensive than most schools will ever be capable of giving) beyond a certain point. So maybe its problems like the ones Shakir faces in the article that create the 70% unable to meet standards that Murray talks about.

However it strikes me that although there is a real, inherent educational attainment limit for people, what we are generally seeing in current statistics is a created limit which results from bad parenting, bad culture and bad schools. And so while Murray is doubtless right that there is a limit beyond which it is not possible to push people, it does seem to me that there is still room for broad-based improvements in education if we manage to clean up American cultural attitudes (and particularly those of some sub-cultures in America) towards education -- and also refocus our schools on real teaching.

While there are doubtless limits (both inherent and created through early mis-formation) to educational attainment, I can't help fearing that focusing too much on them encourages us to only solve some problems (like better education for the "gifted") and not others like our overall cultural attitudes toward education, the family and child rearing.

Hope, But No Future

Perhaps it was growing up seeing planetarium shows all the time at my father's planetarium. Perhaps it was being an avid "hard science fiction" fan, cutting my teeth on Heinlein and Azimov before moving on to more recent writers like Niven and Flynn. Or maybe it was that my favorite TV viewing as a child was endlessly rewatching a PBS series called Space Flight. Whatever planted the seed, I've always been a fan of the manned space program. Although it's increasingly become someone no one pays attention to, in the long run our development of space technology will probably be looked back on as one of the key inflection points in human history.

Not all people see it that way, however. I recall writing a letter in support of NASA funding to one of our state senators (Diane Feinstein, as I recall) back when I was in high school and getting back a rather huffy reply from her office saying that the senator did not believe we should be wasting money on space when we still hadn't solved all our problems here on earth.

Well, I hate to break to to those still nurturing a Rousseauian view of human nature, but all evidence suggests that we will never have "solved all our problems here on earth." We are the problem. As long as humans are around, we'll fight wars with each other and compete and deny each other food and perpetuate injustices and so on.

According to this article I ran into the other day, Senator Obama apparently thinking something along the lines of Senator Feinstein on this issue. He plans to remove most of the funding from the already rather poorly funded Moon/Mars program which Bush authorized, and plans to use the savings to fund a nationwide pre-K education program.
Why single out the space budget to cut for this program? “NASA is no longer associated with inspiration,” Obama told a campaign rally audience in March.
I doubt there are many people out there making their decisions about the presidential election based on space policy, but for me at least, theis helps fill in a little bit the image of Obama that I already had: a "hope" that not really aimed at very much beyond looking good and funding more of the same. A hope without a goal. A hope without a future.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Case Study on Costs and "Basic Health Care"

One of the elements of discussion about health care from the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching that often bothers me is when someone states, "Basic health care is a human right" and then goes on to insist that this means we need a system by which the maximum range of health care paid for by the best insurance in the modern US is available to everyone via a government single payer system. (The which leaves aside the practical matter that virtually no single payer systems cover as much as cushier US private insurance plans do.)

Modern medicine has brought us incredible benefits, which we rightly want to make sure that everyone in society is able to share. But modern medicine has also make it possible to throw large amounts of money at a problem to achieve a return which is statistically pretty small. Should this be considered "basic healthcare"?

When we sit down to ask ourselves, "Why can some people not afford health care coverage in this country," it seems to me that one of the reasons is that we've raised our standard of "basic" so high that it becomes hard to afford.

We've been experiencing an applied study in this as we sort out our options in regards to BabyDarwin being breech. 3-4% of pregnancies are breech. BabyDarwin is in what is termed a Frank Breech position, which means his bottom is down, and his feet are up near his head. This is, according to most of the reading we've done, by far the safest form of breech positioning, and some medical authorities maintain that it's basically as safe to deliver a baby in a Frank Breech position as it is deliver a baby who's head down. Others maintain it's slightly more dangerous. The only actual numbers I was able to find were in the Wikipedia (with all appropriate provisos):
Umbilical cord prolapse may occur, particularly in the complete, footling, or kneeling breech. This is caused by the lowermost parts of the baby not completely filling the space of the dilated cervix. When the waters break the amniotic sac, it is possible for the umbilical cord to drop down and become compressed. This complication severely diminishes oxygen flow to the baby and the baby must be delivered immediately (usually by Caesarean section) so that he or she can breathe. If there is a delay in delivery, the brain can be damaged. Among full-term, head down babies, cord prolapse is quite rare, occurring in 0.4 percent. Among frank breech babies the incidence is 0.5 percent, among complete breeches 4-6 percent, and among footling breeches 15-18 percent.

There are also some other dangers that are more of an issue in other breech positions or with a premature baby -- in that if the legs and torso are delivered first and are much smaller than the head (which is usually only the case with premature babies -- at full growth the torso is large than the head) then the baby may be partly delivered while the mother is insufficiently dilated, and then the head gets stuck. This can cause damage to the head, loss of oxgen, and a range of injuries resulting from trying to pull the baby loose.

Because of the 0.4% versus 0.5% difference in risk between standard postion and Frank Breech, and because "breech" in general has a bad name as a result of the other issues (with premature babies and with other positions), the verdict we're getting is pretty much that if we can't get BabyDarwin to turn, we'll have to go the c-section root, because no doctor around here is willing to deliver a breech baby naturally. (And the home birth midwife is clearly not willing to touch it with the proverbial ten foot pole.)

We have solid insurance, so the c-section root will actually cost us less out-of-pocket than what the homebirth route (not covered by insurance, and unfortunately already paid for). But the overall health care cost issue is significant.

Googling around for costs on a c-section I'm seeing a "list price" in the ballpark of $20,000 (though I'm sure the insurance company manages to get it for less.) The prices I'm seeing for a normal vaginal delivery in a hospital are around $6,000. The home birth cost was $2,100 (though that was with an early payment discount -- and before they raised their prices, so apparently "list" is now $3,600.)

The difference in risk between normal delivery and c-section in our particular case is apparently around 0.1%. So comparing a c-section and hospital delivery, we as a society are spending just shy of $28 million on doing 1999 unnecessary c-sections in order to avoid one natural delivery that would have resulted in serious problems. Looking at the difference between a c-section and a home birth at list price, that difference grows to $33 million.

We're justly hesitant to put a dollar value on a human life, and obviously, if you're the 1 out of 1000 who sees your child die or severely injured as a result of the difference in risk between normal positioning and Frank Breech, knowing that the chances were low would do nothing to console you. However, aside from the question of how many lives could be saved if that $30 million were used in some other way than getting c-sections for all breech babies, there's another element to the incentives at play here.

This is primarily an academic discussion for us because we're middle class and well insured, and so we have no problem at all affording the c-section if we can't get the baby turned. (And no problem affording the multiple ultrasounds and consultations and such involved in trying to get the baby turned.) But imagine that we were poor an uninsured. Because the incentives and regulations for our medical system are built around the assumption that everyone worth thinking about has the deep pockets of an insurance company behind him, we'd still be faced with no doctor of midwife being willing to provide a normal delivery, so we'd be stuck going into $20k of debt that we had absolutely no way to pay off in order to get a c-section that we probably didn't need.

As it stands, our medical system is built around the assumption that cost is no object. And doctors are very heavily penalized based on any "avoidable" injuries or deaths that occur on their watch. The result is that instead of providing good, high quality "basic" health care, and using extreme (and expensive) measures only when necessary, we often require extreme measures "just in case". This makes it far, far more difficult to provide "basic" health care to all.

I don't know enough about health care to provide specific policy proposals, but just working through this example it seems clear to me that we are not discussing enough variables when it comes to making sure that "basic health care" is available to everyone. Instead, the only debate going on in our political arena is on how to provide everyone with the level of health care which is often provided under comprehensive insurance policies -- a level which we probably cannot afford to provide to everyone, and which is determined as much as a matter of tail-covering as medical need.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Have a Drink, Marine

A group of college presidents are going around the country getting a campaign to lower the legal drinking age to 18 started. Their contention is that it will decrease binge drinking. (Data suggests binge drinking falls off after age 21, but in my opinin that may well be because people burn out by then, not because being legal takes the incentive away.)

Myself, I'm for the idea in a mild sort of way. I was not a binge drinker in college by any standards, but I didn't take the drinking age all that seriously either. There was always someone on the hall over 21 willing to keep me stocked in port and brandy. (I didn't really get into beer until later -- mainly because I hated cheap American beer, and didn't run into anything else.) Lowering the drinking age and upping the penalties for DUI would make sense to me.

One of the lines that always seems to be mentioned is, "Why is it that at 18 you can be called on to die for your country, but you can't have a beer?"

As it turns out, however, the military has taken this under consideration. All branches of the military now allow servicemen to drink overseas so long as they are above the local drinking age. (They used to try to enforce the US drinking age.) And last year the Marines took one step further:
But the commandant’s changes go further than any other service’s policy, decriminalizing welcome-home beer for underage Marines returning from deployment and giving commanders the authority to hold an 18-and-up kegger on base upon a unit’s return from a war zone.

And there’s no need to hide a flask in your sock before the birthday ball, because the commandant has you covered there, too. As long as your unit holds its celebration on base, commanders can drop the drinking age to 18 in the U.S. under “special circumstances,” and even authorize the possession and consumption of alcohol by underage Marines in the barracks.

The new policy defines these circumstances as “those infrequent, non-routine military occasions when an entire unit, as a group, marks at a military installation a uniquely military occasion, such as the conclusion of arduous military duty or the anniversary of the establishment of a military service or organization.”
Good for them. I'm use the Marines can use a good drink once in a while. Not allowing a 19 or 20-year-old just back from a war zone a welcome-home beer would be downright disgraceful.

On a random historical note: Until mid-century, the British army and navy both included as part of the contractual pay owed to a soldier one drink of beer or hard liquor (usually rum) each day.

When You Need a Good Homily

I missed most of our deacon's homily this week because I had to drag one of the girls out -- catching only the introductory joke, which I had heard before.

If you sometimes find yourself in this position, may I recommend turning to Fr. Fox's blog, where he posts his homily every week. Here's the one for last Sunday.

I must admit, I envy Fr. Fox's parishes their pastor. His homilies are invariably to the point, powerful, and short. (Myself, I don't object to a long mass, but the young ladies tend to.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Time For a New Language

For some reason, I've been itching to learn a new language lately.

Over the last year, I've been gradually getting my Latin back in use, by trying to use as much liturgical Latin as possible. (Reading the text of the mass in Latin while hearing it in English, reading the Office in Latin, using a devotional of Latin prayers by Thomas Aquinas, etc. My Latin is still a bit rusty, but it's gradually coming back. I'm pretty decent at remembering grammar, it's always vocabulary that's been why weak point. So regular use within the limited vocabulary of liturgical Latin is gradually building a (small) vocabulary back up for me.

My Greek, I fear, is still mostly rusting. Occasionally I pull out an old Greek text, or look up a passage in the New Testament, but the fact is that it's rusting. I have sitting patiently in my Amazon wish list a pair of introductory Homer books, which given that I never got the chance to do Homer in college, and I've got so rusty in the meantime, is probably what I need. (Pharr's Homeric Greek: A Book for Beginners and Reading Course in Homeric Greek: Book One)

So the logical thing would be to make a push on Greek, and I intend to that eventually, but for some reason I feel the urge to try something new. Specifically, a language which is not fully a dead language, and which has a different alphabet. Plus, if I'm going to learn a living language, it seems interesting to learn one that has some geo-political relevance, just in case marketing analysts go out of fashion in favor of intelligence analysts and soldiers. (Never hurts to be prepared...)

So three obvious languages occur to me: Arabic, Persian and Russian

There's kind of a romantic appeal to Arabic or Persian. The alphabets are more different. Persian would be an interesting variant on the Indo-European language family, and Arabic presents a chance to learn a Semitic language. And I've had a particular interest in the Middle East for quite some time. (I looked into majoring in Islamic Studies, but couldn't find a decent department at a college I had any interest in going to.)

On the other hand, there's more language I'd be interested to read in Russian: Chekov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Pushkin. And from a business point of view, there's probably much more utility in knowing Russian: Everyone seems to think that Brazil, China and Russia are the business frontiers, but no one really wants to go where Arabic and Persian are spoken. And, of course, there's various Orthodox stuff in Russian.

So, anyone out there with experience with any of these three (or a dark horse recommendation) who has an interesting and weighing in? And does anyone have textbook recommendations? (Being a classics type, I think I'm looking for a Wheelock style text which starts out with tables of declensions and conjugations, rather than having you learn to say "Where is the bathroom" and "I am looking for a good hotel" phonetically.)

So far the possibilities I've identified are:

Economics, The Inhuman Science?

Economics is one of those fields which (like another interest of mine: evolution) has a bad reputation. A frequent line of criticism is: "Economics assumes that everyone is selfish. 'Market forces' is just a term for a Hobbesian struggle in which everyone is out for himself. It means treating people like animals."

There are two major claims in this critique which I think deserve to be addressed separately.

Does Economics Assume Everyone is Selfish?

The answer to this -- not to sound Clintonian -- depends on exactly what one means by "selfish".

When examining human behavior, economics assumes that people act according to the incentives placed upon them. As such, an economist's analysis of how people will behave in a given situation is only as good as his understanding of the incentives acting upon them. Some of those incentives are non monetary, and perhaps are even "altruistic" in a sense.

For instance, people often contribute time and resources to causes both for the recognition of doing something good and for the personal satisfaction of having achieved something they consider worthwhile. An economist, taking such incentives into account in his model, might successfully predict this altruistic behavior, but would succeed in doing so by taking into account feelings of personal virtue, admiration from others, and perhaps even beliefs about the effect those actions would have on the afterlife.

I think one could thus say that an economic analysis does assume selfishness in a certain sense, in that it assumes that we never do anything without an incentive, and that an incentive invariable is some sort of benefit which we expect to receive in return for performing an action.

The reason that economic analyses are so powerful is that we do indeed respond to incentives. If you tell me that I can do A or B with equal effort and cost, and that A will be me benefit X and B will give me benefit 2 x X, then chances are (all other things being equal) I will do B.

And yet, an analysis which states, "Mother Teresa spent her life helping the poor in order to receive recognition for virtue, an emotional feeling of well-being as a result of helping others, and in hopes of achieving rewards in the afterlife that she believed in," certainly makes it sound as if Mother Teresa is being accused of selfishness.

Boiling everything down to an incentive may produce a good working model for analyzing behavior, but it does not correlate well with our experiences of life. When I do something like volunteer at my parish or spend an afternoon sorting food at the food bank, it's not because I think to myself "I think I'd better achieve some recognition for virtue and personal feeling of well being, so I'll go volunteer to 'do good'." Rather, there are things one chooses to do simply because one believes that is the right thing to do.

There are two responses to that difference between how economic modeling works and how we experience reality.

One, which I think is wrong, is to say, "Well, that may be what you think, but in reality you're just responding to incentives. Because economics can make accurate predictions, that's obviously how you really work, and the rest is just an illusion." That approach, a form of determinism, is I think incorrect and is inhuman in the sense that it seeks to strip our experiences of much of what we perceive as their human element.

The other, which I think is more modest and more correct, is that economic analysis is simply a model. It can be powerfully predictive, but it is not something which taps into the underlying essence of reality. It's just a good way of modeling out how people will (assuming we know enough about the incentives they face) behave. Nothing more, nothing less. And if taken in that modest sense, it seems to me to be a good and powerful tool.

Are "Market Forces" a Hobbesian Stuggle

Again, I think this depends upon one's point of view. One models "market forces" by assuming that each party in a transaction will try to achieve the maximum benefit for himself. But since in any market transation, it takes two to tango, this invariably means that the market actors achieve the best possible balance between the desires of all parties involved.

Is this necessarily a brutal struggle in which everyone attempts to take advantage of everyone else? Not necessarily. One can just as well see it as a system of assuring that everyone benefits as equally as possible.

But it can result in some people being left "on the outside" if thehy find themselves unable -- by reason of skills, training, ability or inclination -- to do anything that benefits others all that much. This is why some degree of charitable work is always necessarily within the community -- one cannot simply assume that "the market will take care of" everyone. Markets are good at spreading around the benefits between productive actors, but they're very bad at taking care of those who are not able (for whatever reason) to be very productive.

So while I think it's wholly incorrect to define market forces as inherently cruel and Hobbesian, I think it would be cruel and Hobbesian to claim that no action other than market forces is ever required in society. Fortunately, virtually no one actually advocates that, though many like to accuse others of advocating it.

A Frank Breech of Trust

So we're at 36 weeks now. Everything is in readiness for the home birth. I've got my kit, I've packed all the supplies I need where the midwives can find them easily, I've cleaned my room and the bathroom. We're all set except for one thing: baby has flipped breech.

The problem with this is that these days, not so many people want to deliver a breech baby vaginally. My midwife, with almost thirty years' experience, has only assisted at three or four breech births. Doctors are reluctant to allow vaginal breech births because of the slight risk of the cord getting pinched and cutting off oxygen to the baby -- and I'll grant that, if it happens to your baby, the statistics on the low incidence of occurrence mean nothing. So we're looking at opposite ends of the medical intervention spectrum -- if baby flips head-down, we can have a home birth; if he stays breech, we have to go to the hospital and have a c-section. Needless to say, I'm rooting for the former.

It turns out there are various methods for encouraging a baby to rotate, one of which is for the mother to lay pretty much upside down. This is about as uncomfortable as it looks (though less uncomfortable than a c-section, I keep telling myself). The awkward part is not in maintaining the position for twenty minutes at a time, but in getting into it in the first place. Baby does respond, especially when I put a bag of ice on his head to encourage him to wriggle away up toward the pelvis. (Image from

Other low-intervention methods include massage, chiropractic adjustment (though my friends tell me that no chiropractor will see you without an x-ray, which seems counterproductive in this case), acupuncture, and swimming. I have a massage scheduled for this weekend, and I'm going to need it after laying on my neck and shoulders for twenty minutes at a stretch. I also have an appointment with a doctor to discuss external version, should the at-home fixes fail. This involves the doctor rotating the baby from the outside, sounds to be quite painful ("Like ligaments tearing," the midwife suggested), and needs to be done after 37 weeks in a hospital with ultrasound monitoring in case baby gets tangled up in his cord and needs an immediate c-section. I'm praying we don't have to take it that far.

UPDATE 1/27/10: This post seems to get a lot of traffic from people searching for information about breech babies, so I'll let you know how it turned out: Acupunture and massage, though relaxing, did nothing for me. Nor did hanging upside down or floating in water. In the end I went in at 37 weeks for a version. It was successful and amazingly fast -- I'm still talking about it a year and a half later. Since this was my fourth, my muscles were sufficiently relaxed for the OB to get a good grip.

The version wasn't painless, but I didn't find it agonizing. He had to grab pretty deep to get under baby, and I had to consciously breathe and keep my muscles relaxed. But it went by quickly, and at the end I had a head-down baby!

Jack was born at home on 9/11/08.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


One of the beauties of the computer age is that you no longer have to sit around saying, "Someone should publish this," or "Someone should make a commercial like this."

I wish the McCain campaign had it in them to address issues like this head on, but since they don't, someone has done the job for them.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Pill and Mate Selection

This has been bouncing around the Catholic blogsphere due to being picked up by the blog at First Things, but I post it here in hopes of perhaps drawing a comment out of Razib or someone else with some more serious biological knowledge. It would seem that evolutionary psychologist Stewart Craig Roberts has a paper coming out in the current issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences in which he presents data that women show different odor-based preferences in regards to men when they are pregnant and when they are on The Pill (which uses hormones to reproduce some effects of pregnancy, thus surpressing ovulation.)
While several factors can send a woman swooning, including big brains and brawn, body odor can be critical in the final decision, the researchers say. That's because beneath a woman's flowery fragrance or a guy's musk the body sends out aromatic molecules that indicate genetic compatibility.

Major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes are involved in immune response and other functions, and the best mates are those that have different MHC smells than you. The new study reveals, however, that when women are on the pill they prefer guys with matching MHC odors.

MHC genes churn out substances that tell the body whether a cell is a native or an invader. When individuals with different MHC genes mate, their offspring's immune systems can recognize a broader range of foreign cells, making them more fit.

Past studies have suggested couples with dissimilar MHC genes are more satisfied and more likely to be faithful to a mate. And the opposite is also true with matchng-MHC couples showing less satisfaction and more wandering eyes.

"Not only could MHC-similarity in couples lead to fertility problems," said lead researcher Stewart Craig Roberts, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Newcastle in England, "but it could ultimately lead to the breakdown of relationships when women stop using the contraceptive pill, as odor perception plays a significant role in maintaining attraction to partners."

The study involved about 100 women, aged 18 to 35, who chose which of six male body-odor samples they preferred. They were tested at the start of the study when none of the participants were taking contraceptive pills and three months later after 40 of the women had started taking the pill more than two months prior.

For the non-pill users, results didn't show a significant preference for similar or dissimilar MHC odors. When women started taking birth control, their odor preferences changed. These women were much more likely than non-pill users to prefer MHC-similar odors.

"The results showed that the preferences of women who began using the contraceptive pill shifted towards men with genetically similar odors," Roberts said....

"When women are pregnant there's no selection pressure, evolutionarily speaking, for having a preference for genetically dissimilar odors," Roberts said. "And if there is any pressure at all it would be towards relatives, who would be more genetically similar, because the relatives would help those individuals rear the baby."

So the pill puts a woman's body into a post-mating state, even though she might be still in the game.

”The pill is in effect mirroring a natural shift but at an inappropriate time,” Roberts told LiveScience.
Obviously this is just one factor in relationship dynamics, but it does strike me as interesting in that it seems me that birth control is a fairly culturally disruptive technology which generally speaking was taken up without a whole lot of thought about anything other than the obvious benefits.

It's also an example of the ways in which things we don't think of affect our feelings and actions. No one, I'm sure, would think, "Boy, my boyfriend just doesn't smell alluring anymore." (Unless, perhaps, she was about to tell him to go take a shower rather than plopping down on the couch next to her after returning from the gym.) But a thought of, "He just doesn't seem exciting anymore" or "We just don't seem to have a spark these days" might well include a response to senses that we do not actively think about.

UPDATE: Razib puts up a good post on the question here. And provides a link to the original study here.

Worth noting is the confluence of interests that gives this story so much play. In the mainstream press, it's a quirky result about something which nearly everyone takes -- probably good mostly for a laugh. "Hey, did you hear the one about how your girlfriend is more likely to dump you for her brother when she's on the pill?"

Meanwhile, in the small subculture of those who have rejected birth control, it serves as a bit of an "I told you so".

In the end, it strikes me as a bit interesting -- more as an example of how a physical reaction can unconsciously affect our personal choices than as a proof that women on the pill will form bad relationships. (After all, there's nothing that would necessarily make a relationship with someone who happened to have a more similar immunity profile a "bad relationship".) Much more concerning, if one is listing off reasons to be cautious of the wide use of birth control, is that having fertility be strictly optional removes the biological incentive from a lot of ancient social structures that we pretty much take for granted, and don't want to see go away.

100 Philosophical Works Meme

Brandon of Siris provides a variant of the various 100 Books memes that have wandered the blogsphere recently.
The basic idea was this: a list of a hundred books, each providing a relatively accessible portal to philosophy, likely to have something of interest to a very wide range of people, in order to encourage a wider reading in philosophy, and perhaps an interest in philosophy among those who might be turned off by anything too academic. So that constrained the list to philosophical works available in English, not too difficult to find (at least with a good library), not too overwhelming (e.g., not too long or too jargonish), potentially enjoyable to all sorts of people; there was also the constraint, considerably more limiting, that only books I'd read in some version or translation or other could be included, since only if I had read the book at least once, at some point, could I be sure it was a reasonable candidate for the list. I also tried to limit relatively recent philosophical work in order to compensate for the bias of recency. Also, with a few very readable exceptions, I have bypassed standard college course fare. The result was as follows, in no particular order. (I have linked to those available online in some form. Needless to say, and although some of the editions are quite good, this does not always or even usually indicate that this is the best edition available. The rest should be accessible through a descent university library or good bookstore. Also, it should go without saying, but might not, that inclusion on the list, while it shows that I think the work interesting, does not show that I necessarily agree with it in any way.) I have a defense of each one's deserving a place on this list, if you have any questions about a particular entry. Did I miss any good ones? Which ones have you read? If you were going to make your own list, what would be on it?
You can see why I find this irresistable...

Here's the list. I've bolded the one's that I've read:

1. Voltaire, Candide
2. Dante, Divine Comedy
3. Plato, Apology
4. Xenophon, Apology
5. Berkeley, Alciphron
6. Aquinas, Collationes super Credo in Deum
7. Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Part II
8. Scotus, A Treatise on God as First Principle
9. Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
10. Descartes, Discourse on Method
11. Hume, "Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences"
12. O. K. Bouwsma, "Descartes' Evil Genius"
13. Gilson, Forms and Substances in the Arts
14. Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis ad Deum
15. Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi; attr.), Zhuangzi
16. Fa-tsang, Treatise on the Golden Lion
17. Xuedoe/Yuanwu, The Blue Cliff Record
18. Sartre, No Exit
19. Chesterton, Manalive
20. Shaw, Saint Joan
21. Anscombe, "Modern Moral Philosophy"
22. Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers
23. Darwin, The Descent of Man
24. Kingsley, Hypatia
25. James, "The Will to Believe"
26. Carroll, "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles"
27. Whewell, On the Principles of English University Education
28. Faraday, The Chemical History of a Candle
29. Masham, Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Virtuous Christian Life
30. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World
31. Lull, Book of the Gentile
32. Ibn Tufayl, Hayy ibn Yaqzan
33. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
34. Butler, Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel
35. Epictetus, Enchiridion
36. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
37. Johnson, The History of Rasselas
38. More, Utopia
39. Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces
40. Bacon, Essays [I've read some, anyway]
41. Justin Martyr, First Apology
42. Minucius Felix, Octavius
43. O'Brien, The Third Policeman
44. ***, IV Maccabees
45. Langland, Piers Plowman
46. Lewis, Abolition of Man
47. ***, Cleanness
48. Mill, Utilitarianism
49. Anselm, On Freedom of Choice (PDF)
50. Abelard, Historia Calamitatum
51. Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy
52. Kant, "Perpetual Peace"
53. Cicero, De Officiis
54. Pascal, Pensées [I've read some not all]
55. Sun Tzu, The Art of War
56. Clausewitz, On War
57. Shelley, "Queen Mab"
58. Pope, An Essay on Man
59. Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
60. Beattie, An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth
61. Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond
62. Casanova, History of My Life
63. Lucian, Hermotimus
64. Lorris/Meun, The Romance of the Rose
65. Sophocles, Antigone
66. Christine de Pisan, Book of the City of Ladies
67. Augustine, Confessions
68. Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance (PDF)
69. Erasmus, The Praise of Folly
70. Abbott, Flatland
71. Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
72. Gilman, Herland
73. Saadia, Beliefs and Opinions
74. Lessing & Mendelssohn, "Pope a Metaphysician!"
75. Hume, "A Dialogue"
76. Menkin, The Love of the Righteous
77. Lessing, Nathan the Wise
78. Chateaubriand, The Genius of Christianity
79. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
80. Eliot, Romola
81. Maritain, Theonas
82. ***, The Great Learning
83. Stapledon, Sirius
84. Eco, The Name of the Rose
85. Novalis, Heinrich von Ofterdingen
86. Vico, De Nostri Temporis Studiorum Ratione (On the Study Methods of Our Time)
87. Fichte, The Vocation of Man
88. Edwards, Freedom of the Will
89. Rousseau, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences
90. Shaftesbury, "Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humor" (PDF)
91. Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua
92. Dooyeweerd, In the Twilight of Western Thought
93. Kant, "On the Question: What is Enlightnment?"
94. Austen, Mansfield Park
95. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria
96. Duhem, German Science
97. Diderot, Rameau's Nephew
98. Dryden, Religio Laici
99. Chaucer, The Parson's Tale
100. Teresa of Avila, Life of Teresa of Avila, by Herself

Given that I don't reckon myself much of a philosopher, 20% probably isn't too bad. Most of the items I'd have to suggest probably fell under the "standard college fare" exclusion. I would have perhaps suggested the following:

Plato: Euthyphro, Phaedo, Republic
Aristotle: Ethics, Metaphysics
Aquinas: Selections from Summa
Anselm: Discourse on the Existence of God

But those are, of course, very, very standard. (What can I say, I guess I'm a standard sort of guy... )

I was glad to see that Lucretius made the list, as he's long been a favorite of mine.

I scored an unexpected point by having read Romance of the Rose -- though it strikes me as more interesting as a medieval cultural curiosity than as philosophy.

And I'm rather ashamed to admit that a few of the ones highlighted above, which I know that I read, I can recal virtually nothing about.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Public Service Announcement

For any forgetful Catholics out there (who are as bad at looking at calendars as I am): Tomorrow is The Assumption, holy day of obligation.

Murray on Testing Out Of College

Charles Murray has an instict for disruptive ideas. In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, he had an editorial entitled "For Most People, College is a Waste of Time" in which he argued that the BA should be almost universally dropped as a job qualification and that instead there should be developed a set of comprehensive national tests (not national as in government administered, but nationally recognized like the CPA exam) in various subjects which would show to what degree people actually possessed skills or knowledge in certain areas.
The merits of a CPA-like certification exam apply to any college major for which the BA is now used as a job qualification. To name just some of them: criminal justice, social work, public administration and the many separate majors under the headings of business, computer science and education. Such majors accounted for almost two-thirds of the bachelor's degrees conferred in 2005. For that matter, certification tests can be used for purely academic disciplines. Why not present graduate schools with certifications in microbiology or economics -- and who cares if the applicants passed the exam after studying in the local public library?

Certification tests need not undermine the incentives to get a traditional liberal-arts education. If professional and graduate schools want students who have acquired one, all they need do is require certification scores in the appropriate disciplines. Students facing such requirements are likely to get a much better liberal education than even our most elite schools require now.

Certification tests will not get rid of the problems associated with differences in intellectual ability: People with high intellectual ability will still have an edge. Graduates of prestigious colleges will still, on average, have higher certification scores than people who have taken online courses -- just because prestigious colleges attract intellectually talented applicants.

But that's irrelevant to the larger issue. Under a certification system, four years is not required, residence is not required, expensive tuitions are not required, and a degree is not required. Equal educational opportunity means, among other things, creating a society in which it's what you know that makes the difference. Substituting certifications for degrees would be a big step in that direction.

The incentives are right. Certification tests would provide all employers with valuable, trustworthy information about job applicants. They would benefit young people who cannot or do not want to attend a traditional four-year college. They would be welcomed by the growing post-secondary online educational industry, which cannot offer the halo effect of a BA from a traditional college, but can realistically promise their students good training for a certification test -- as good as they are likely to get at a traditional college, for a lot less money and in a lot less time.

Certification tests would disadvantage just one set of people: Students who have gotten into well-known traditional schools, but who are coasting through their years in college and would score poorly on a certification test. Disadvantaging them is an outcome devoutly to be wished.
As with many disruptive ideas, this one has a lot of interesting elements, but it's hard to see how one gets there from here. One of the senses in which I consider myself a conservative is that it seems to me that large institutions (among which I would class our country's education and business infrastructures and cultures) do not tend to move in starkly new directions unless there is some sort of total collapse and rebuilding involved -- and total collapses are generally to be frowned upon.

Still, perhaps such a thing could be backdoored in, beginning rather like the GRE or G-MAT as something taken after college, but allowing those without an undergraduate degree to take it as well. Perhaps if it gained respect over time, the bachellor's degree would fade in importance compared to the tests.

However, I found myself thinking while reading the article that employers do not really treat the BA as a measure of competance anyway, except in a few fields such as engineering or if you're going on to get a graduate degree in the same topic. Even for a first job out of college one is invariably asked about experience: Show me something you've written. Do you have any examples of programs you've written? What's a site that you've designed? Describe an example of a situation in which you took leadership. Describe a time when you provided excellent customer service. Etc.

And most cynically of all: College is partly a way of keeping people under 22 out of the full time work force, while trying to encourage them to develop the ability to schedule their own time, work hard and live on their own. Sure it's silly to demand a BA or BS for many of the jobs for which it is listed as a requirement, but in many ways it's just a shorthand for: "We'd like somoene 22 or over with some degree of adult responsibility and work ethic."

Still, its a fascinating idea, and it makes me curious to read Murray's forthcoming book.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Well, To Tell the Truth...

Now that MrsDarwin has blown our cover with her hairstyle post from earlier today, I might as well go ahead and post a picture of us, now that I've worked on my look:

Sure, my ugly mug may not be much to look at under those golden locks, but MrsDarwin looks pretty spicy for 36 weeks pregnant, wouldn't you say, folks?

Hair today, gone tomorrow; or, It's a Mad Men World

NOTE: for all you blog-lines readers: THIS IS MRSDARWIN. Not Darwin. Due to a clerical error, this post appears under his name, but I, MrsDarwin, wrote it.

Hey media-savvy readers, anyone got a copy of last week's TV Guide with the Mad Men article? It's not that I want to read up on it (though I would be kind of curious to see the show sometime; maybe we'll get the first season from Netflix); it's that I want to get my hair cut like the dame in the photo. I could try printing it off, but I think actually having the magazine in hand will give the stylist a clearer image. That TV Guide was in stores yesterday; today not so much.

Drop me a line if you've got a copy you can send me.

Me being MrsDarwin, although I'm posting under Darwin's name by accident. No, he doesn't want a sixties bouffant hairdo -- that would be me, MrsDarwin.

Good Analysis on Brideshead Movie

Waugh's Brideshead Revisited has remained one of my favorite novels since I first read it, and the 1981 TV adaptation is, to my mind, one of the best adaptations of a novel to a screen medium that I have seen. Thus, I'm curious to see the new film adaptation, though from all that I've read I have no expectation of liking it at all. (Think of it as the literary equivalent of needing to go witness an execution.)

However, the movie has not yet made its way out to our region of Texas, and so thus far I am restricted to reviews. Of these, I'm surprised to say that by far the best review (in terms of assessing the book in a fashion I find accurate and discussing how the reviewer thinks the movie does and does not reflect that) is one that MrsDarwin found yesterday in Commonweal, of all places. (I believe that Sayers called the technique I use above "praising with faint damns".)

Though I don't think I've ever liked anything I've read in Commonweal before, this review strikes me as coming from someone who's understood both the literary and the Catholic elements of the novel very, very well. Which I'm sure says something or other about the importance of judging a work by what it is, rather than where it appears -- or as the Dutchess would say: "And the moral of that is..."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

This 'n that with the Darwins

For those of you keeping score at home, today is one month from Baby Boy Darwin's due date. I've been going through a spurt of nesting energy (powered, no doubt, by Friday's impending 36-week deadline for having homebirth supplies in order). After five years here, we've replaced the disintegrating blinds in our bedroom. I've changed the a/c filters and vacuumed the fan blades, scrubbed the shower, and am eyeing the weekend sales for new towels. I have a washed stack of baby boy clothes that have nowhere to go. My baby shower is next weekend.

Oh, and after three fruitless attempts with the parish secretary, I finally went straight to Father, who had no problem in assuring me that we could count on our baptismal date. Lesson learned: following the rules is for schnooks; the only way to get things done is to pull strings. And for those who are feeling impeded, here are the relevant excerpts from canon law and the Catechism (my emphasis):

Can. 867 §1. Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks; as soon as possible after the birth or even before it, they are to go to the pastor to request the sacrament for their child and to be prepared properly for it. (To the pastor, note; not to the secretary.)

Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called.50 The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth.51


The floor is also finished, and I'd love to post pictures except that in all the chaos we lost the cord to the digital camera. There are still some fiddly bits of trim to be nailed up, caulked, and painted (which means that there's still a stack of molding sitting on the living room floor), but overall, the house is getting back to usable condition. There's still some assorted furniture in random places. However, the important thing is that we have the couch back. One of the unexpectedly difficult parts of the flooring process was having nowhere to sit. And our books are slowly being reshelved, which means the bookcases look settled again and we can reclaim the bedroom floor space that the boxes occupied.

We've had a lot of people tell us, "Oh, we're thinking about putting down hardwood floor one day too!" Overall, we're quite glad we did it ourselves as we must have saved at least $4000 in labor costs, but here are some considerations for those thinking about undertaking the process.

1) How great a tolerance do you have for chaos? I don't mean clutter or even mess; I mean the house torn up for weeks on end, nothing accessible or where it should be, the dust and debris tracked all over, the bones of the house exposed. If you're one of those people who don't like their routine disrupted, this is not a job for you.

2) How well do you and your spouse work together? Darwin and I make a good team and find that we prefer to work on a huge job like this with each other rather than with outside help. We also don't carp and snipe at each other. However, if you and your spouse have even a mild tendency to pettiness, snapping, making biting remarks at each other's expense, or get moody, then don't jeopardize your marriage by throwing yourselves into a huge home renovation project from which you can't escape.

3) What about the children? Although our marriage didn't suffer, we did feel like our parenting slipped several notches. Although we tried to let the girls help with little tasks at their level, we were nervous and short-tempered with them underfoot. Although we had several generous friends take the girls for stretches, this kind of job goes much faster without the small fry getting into things. (Let's not even talk about my fears over the nail gun.) As neither of us have family living within a thousand miles, this was a more difficult and time-consuming job than it would have been with dedicated baby-sitting. Fortunately, the children are resilient and will probably remember this as a fun time when they got to play with scraps of wood and tear up the carpets with impunity.

4) Are you pregnant? Hey, I did my fair share, but moving around grew increasingly difficult -- not to mention the contraction scare at 30 weeks... The difficulty is not necessarily in getting down and doing the work, it's in getting up again. Some of my finishing work that involves dragging myself along the floor (caulking, painting) is looking rather onerous to me right now.

But! Although the floor ate our summer, we have a floor! And it looks pretty darn good. And I'd post pictures, but I can't find the cord to the camera...

Responsibilities We Should Be Glad Not To Have

Blackadder has about as good a set of posts as I've ever seen addressing the moral question of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from a contrarian position. (And Part II.)

This is a debate into which I generally refrain from inserting myself, in that there are three overall reactions that I have to the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan: I am glad that they successfully ended the war without the immense bloodshed (American and Japanese) that an invasion of the home islands would unquestionably have involved; I am deeply shocked and saddened at the incredible destruction that was wrecked upon a primarily civilian city (just as in the massive firebombings of both German and Japanese cities); and I am tremendously grateful not to be in the position having to make the decision that President Truman was confronted with.

There a certainly disturbing things which can be noted about the decision to drop the bomb on the particular targets that we did. Most especially of those that I have read, the desire of the targetting committee on the scientific side to pick a fairly untouched (thus, necessarily, militarily non-central) target in order to see clearly the effects of the bomb on a city.

There are also a number of other paths that were clearly considered, which might have been better than that which we eventually took. Blackadder links to primary source material about General Marshall's advocacy for using the bombs first against more exclusively military targets. And according to Truman's own diary, it was the intention to issue a warning to the civilian populace of the target city before dropping the bomb -- something which did not happen.

However at the same time, the very thing which makes alternative paths beguiling is that since they were not taken, we do not know what their results would have been. Thus, we can always allow ourselves to imagine that some alternative course would have had results as good as or better than what actually happened -- but we can never know.

While when I was younger I was a fairly vociferous defender of Truman's decision in regards to dropping the atomic bombs, I think I have lapsed into a position more of being willing neither to strongly endorse nor to condemn the decision.

Living, as we do, in a democracy, we rightly consider it our duty to consider the past and potential actions of our leaders and weigh their morality. And yet to the extent that we are a representative democracy, we still have leaders whose final duty it is to make certain decisions. Among those was Truman's decision to use atomic bombs against Japan.

Had I been in Truman's place, I might have chosen differently than he did -- though without being in Truman's place and knowing what he did and did not know at the time, it's hard to say. Or perhaps, I would have acted as Truman said he did in his diaries -- which either because he was not fully informed of what was going on or because his wishes were not fully carried out do not fully match what did in the end happen. (See Blackadder's first post for quotes from Truman's diaries.) But more than anything else I'm simply glad that I do not have the burden of making the decision Truman was faced with -- knowing that hundreds of thousands of people would die in horrible ways whichever way he chose. To be a leader in time of crisis is a truly great burden, and if anything it has become more so as the size of nations has swelled into the hundreds of millions of souls and our technology has put more destruction in the hands of fewer people.

This is not to say that we can never judge the actions of our leaders. Some of their actions are clearly right or clearly wrong. But there are other choices, and this was one, which I in no way envy them.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante finds in Ante-Purgatory a valley full of famous rulers who are not yet ready to enter the active purgation of Mt. Purgatory itself. Their obstacle to holiness is that they have for too long focused on their energies on securing earthly safety and prosperity for their countries. It was, in Dante's view, a responsibility which was ordered to the good, but not the highest good. And so they waited in the outskirts of Purgatory until they were sufficiently recentered on the ultimate good to begin their journey upwards.