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

Friday, October 31, 2008

Stories for All Hallows Eve

Having stood up for All Hallows Eve as a legitimate time of spookification, it seems only right and proper to suggest some appropriate short stories and novels that deal with ghosts and other such creatures.

High Spirits, by Robertson Davies is a collection of ghost stories the celebrated Canadian novelist told at Christmas gatherings at Massey College, of which he was Master. These are humorous ghost stories, and among them can be found: "The Ghost Who Vanished by Degrees" about a truly perpetual grad student; "The Kiss of Khrushchev", in which a Russian bass finds himself under the evil eye; "The Cat That Went to Trinity" about a Frankencat; and "Einstein and the Little Lord" in which the ghost Little Lord Fauntleroy appears.

Expiration Date by Tim Powers is set in the streets and suburbs of modern Los Angeles, among the sub culture who trade in vials containing ghosts. If you inhale a ghost, you can experience in a rush the memories which compose this cast of shell of a soul which long ago left the world. A typical Tim Powers novel, Expiration Date describes a world shot through with the supernatural, yet imagined a way that leaves you wondering if this is indeed how the real world works.

Hobberdy Dick by Katherine Briggs is the best window on classic English superstition and folklore that you'll ever find -- perhaps not surprising as Briggs was a serious academic folklorist. The title character, a hobgoblin, is guardian of country manor, which has just been taken over by a Puritan family after its Cavalier owners found themselves on the wrong side of the English Civil War. Anyone with an interest in the real English folklore traditions, of hobs and lobs and grims and ghosts and witches, should read it.

Face In The Frost by John Bellairs begins so lightheartedly that one little imagines how seriously terrifying it will become at times as wizards Prospero (not that one) and Roger Bacon (that one) seek to find an enemy who seems to be bringing the world to an end. Though the novel definitely shows much of Bellairs characteristic humor (and background in writing mysteries and ghost stories for young readers) Face in the Frost holds up as adult reading as well.

Feel free to post your own suggestions in the comments.

A Short Halloween Rant

Today is Halloween, or for those traditionalists out there, All Hallows Eve. Not a bad day to put a jack-o-lantern in the window, put out a bowl of cream for your local hob or nob, and read some ghost stories around the fireplace. (Except here in Texas where it'll be 80 degrees today.)

The girls are eager to go to the parish Halloween party and lark about with their friends in princess costumes. And here, unfortunately, is where the rant comes in. Because the party at the parish tonight is not a Halloween party -- it's an All Saints Day Party. One is not supposed to come as a princess or fairy or night or (as our eldest ambitiously proposed) Lyle the Crocodile, but rather as one's favorite saint. Every year some people flaunt this and come in normal custumes, which is probably what will happen with us this year, but I'm assured by the daughter-in-law of one of the organizers that, "It really drives them nuts when people do that."

I don't have anything against the idea of having a saints themed costume party on All Saints Day -- there's no real tradition behind it, but it's not a bad idea. However, All Saints Day is Nov. 1st, not Oct. 31st. And I'm not really sure why we as Catholics should feel the need to counter-program against Halloween parties. Certain Protestant groups, certainly, are convinced that all that surrounds Halloween is evil superstition, but there's no reason for Catholics to go off the deep end about this stuff.

Indeed, as a Catholic, it annoys me a bit to see All Hallows Eve (with all of the cultural texture that originally surrounded that day) turned into an All Saints Day party. Not that modern American Halloween is much in touch with older traditions surrounding All Hallows Eve, but if we're going to insist on changing it as Catholics, we should get in touch with some original All Hallows Eve traditions, not do a All Saints counter program to American Halloween.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Don't be panic!

This is made of awesome, especially if you watch it at 1:00 in the morning, after offering moral support while your husband writes a powerpoint deck in corporatese. But it's also funny just because.

And this one too.

Because everything Spanish is dangerous!

These are by the same guy who made Baby Got Back -- Gilbert and Sullivan style, but Darwin won't let me post that one.

Immigration Thoughts

Unless you are a loyal reader with clear memories of the stuff I was putting out back in 2005, this piece up today at American Catholic on the immigration issue is probably new to you.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

This one's for you, Dad

The Phillies won the World Series. They're opening the sweater drawers in Hades.

I said to Darwin, "If the Phillies win the series, my dad can die happy." Darwin suggested that it might be nice to have him around for another forty years. That sounds about right: he can die happy the next time the Phils are world champs.

Cheesesteaks on me, guys.

Why Read Fiction

Quite some time ago, bookmarked a posting on the First Things blog because it reflected comments I'd heard from several other quite intelligent people my age that I've run across:
A few days ago our editor, Joseph Bottum, observed with a shake of his head that none of the many Junior Fellows at First Things in recent years reads novels with any regularity.

I had to confess I was no exception, thus perfecting his despair. “The dominant Western literary form for the past two hundred years” he said “but you all say, ‘Nope, we’re done with that.’”

Why is this? I can’t speak for anyone else, but, for my part, I just don’t get drawn into fictional narratives the way I did as a child.

I turned towards the philosophical and historic in my mid-teens, which gave me Plato’s kind of impatience with lying poets. At some point I found that I had to force myself to turn the next page because I really did not care in the least what happened to imaginary persons. The only narratives I now read with easy pleasure are travelogues, histories, and biographies, packed as they are with the red meat of the real.

But I’m making a good-faith effort to regain a taste for novels. I’ve started with Jane Austen, hoping that the goodly helping of edification will help me painlessly transition from my addiction to propositional truths to a healthy appreciation of the formal properties of a well-wrought story. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and am now in the middle of Persuasion. She’s quite as wise, perceptive, and delightfully ironic as everyone says, but I’m still having the hardest time staying interested in the plot.
Now, I don't share Mr. McDaniel's hang up in this regard at all, though I do find that I don't read as much fiction as I used to as a teenager. But as I say, several good friends have surprised me by expressing similar opinions. Helene Hanff who wrote 84 Charing Cross Road and Q's Legacy, two of my favorite books about books, observes at one point in 84, "I never can get interested in things that didn't happen to people who never lived."

Some of this is, I think, simply a matter of personal taste. However I wonder if some of it also has to do with a modern idea of what fiction is. There are two contradictory ideas of fiction which I hear often:

1) I am the author and I have created this story, which is mine and is precisely what I say it is, for your entertainment. Read it and be diverted.

2) The author has created a text which does not necessarily have an inherent meaning. You as the reader must encounter this text and determine what it means to you.

Both of these, if one actually internalizes them, strike me as rather boring. If a story is simply something which a particular author thought up in wholly artificial fashion and presents to you for amusement, what exactly is the point? Why should I care that that author made up that particular sequence of unreal events? If the story does not have meaning in and of itself -- if meaning is something that I apply myself -- why should I care about the story? Clearly, anything worth knowing is already in my head, and reading the story is like staring at an uncarved block of stone and imagining a sculpture.

On the question of why we read and write fiction, the works of ancient authors like Homer and Virgil have always struck me as interesting. Both to some extent, I think, believed in the myths they were recording. (Virgil less so than Homer, and neither in a literal sense, perhaps.) Yet both knew they were making up the details of these stories as they went along. And their readers in the ancient world both knew that the stories they were hearing or reading had been composed by human authors, and also believed that they in some sense reflected real stories about the gods and heroes.

The key insight here, I think, is that worthwhile fiction describes something that is at root true -- indeed it shows reality in a more distilled fashion than actual observation -- even if the details are made up. When fiction ceases to be seen as describing something true, it ceases to be worth reading.

The story of my prayer life

The truth is the Rosary can be a real chore. St. Thérèse, the Little Flower, was being more honest when she said, “I am ashamed to confess it, but the recitation of the Rosary costs me more than to use an instrument of penance. I feel I am saying it so badly. Try as I may to make myself meditate on the mysteries, I never manage to fix my thoughts on them."

This is a quote that speaks to me as I'm trying to make the rosary novena for the elections.

(h/t to Matthew Lickona)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Weary of Wonkery

Whether the next four years are spend under an Obama administration or a McCain administration, one thing that may be said with certainty is that conservatives are going to have to do some serious thinking over that time in order to come up with an agenda that can bring conservatives back into political success -- and bring the GOP back into something like conservatism. Either administration will be enough to make principled conservatives cringe -- though I think that an Obama one would visit greater damage upon the country.

There are lots of contenders out there wanting present the new conservative policies that will bring the GOP back to relevance. Ross Douthat is very much at the forefront of that, with his Grand New Party out in bookstores.

And there are plenty of interesting proposals out there from a consumption or flat tax to a per capita income tax to private retirement accounts replacing Social Security to college scholarship programs for public service programs to proposals for a radical overhaul of the US elementary education system. Many of these are interesting, some of them are admirable, and perhaps a few are good ideas. And yet as one combs through all the contenders for the next killer platform plank, a certain weariness sets in, at least for this particular conservative. Because the fact is that policies are not our daily bread. Indeed, ideally, government policies should have fairly little impact on our daily lives. We should be able to go through most days busy with the doings of our families, churches and businesses and not really have it impinge on us often what state or country we live in.

This, it seems to me, is the dilemma of the policy wonk -- and the conservative one in particular. Perhaps this is otherwise for progressives (I leave it to our principled progressive readers to speak to that point) but for conservatives the activities and policies of the state ought not impinge on one's daily life much. The state should keep us from being attacked, but not involve us in unneeded conflicts; help those in desperate need because of natural disaster, unemployment or illness, but not insert itself and its programs into the normal and natural cycle of life, work, education and leisure; enforce laws and punish crimes for the common good, but not seek to proscriptively rule every aspect of citizens lives.

In this regard, the conservative movement is in a difficult position if it seeks to bring itself back to prominence through coming up with exciting new policies that everyone will love, because at a fairly basic level, the remolding society through detailed government policies is fundamentally un-conservative. (And also, I would argue, unrealistic.)

So conservatives are faced with a difficult task as they find their way again and seek to rebuild their movement: We must present a politically attractive and viable message while at the same time convincingly communicating to people that not every problem is a nail for which the federal government is the ideal hammer. This is hard, especially when running for federal office, in that one's message then becomes, "Vote for me. I'll present a vision for our country in which I can't fix all your problems."

When running against someone whose message is essentially, "Vote for me; I can fix all your problems." This requires that one be a much better communicator and a communicate a much more attractive cultural vision than one's opponent. And right now, the opposing candidate is a very good communicator.

[Cross posted]

Monday, October 27, 2008

Warts and all

So I figured it was time to get in shape, what with my sister getting engaged and knowing that I'll need to look svelte in a bridesmaid gown to impress all those people I haven't seen in years. (Darwin says, "What, it's not enough to look good for me?" Sorry, hon.) My plan was to go down to the rec center this weekend and renew my membership and start the sleek-ifying right away.

Actually, I spent this weekend limping around the house, yelping in agony and barely able to walk. Was my malady something romantic like a sprained ankle or an ingrown toenail? No. I suffered from plantar warts.

Even the word "wart" sounds disgusting. It conjures up images of frowsy crones muttering over steaming cauldrons and cackling, "Eat the apple, my pretty!" or "And your little dog too!" Well, I'm not ashamed to say it. Wart. Wart. One on the heel of my right foot, and one on the ball of my left foot.

The podiatrist, a fresh-faced fellow who admired my baby and told me all about his, swabbed something brownish on each spot and told me that by Saturday morning I might feel "a little sore". Understatement of the year, doc. By breakfast time my feet were burning and stinging and stabbing each time I applied any pressure to the afflicted areas (by, say, walking). The girls thought it was delightful that I hobbled around on the ball of one foot and the heel of another, and limped cheerfully around the house in imitation. "Does it hurt, mommy?" asked one, jabbing my heel. My voice rose several octaves. Clearly I had underestimated the importance of the bottom of my feet.

But at least I saved on the gym membership fee, what?

The One Percent Delusion

Last week a co-worker was explaining to me, in veiled terms, his exciting new business plan. "In five years, this will be a $40 billion dollar industry," he told me. "If I could get just one percent of that, I would be a rich man."

The one percent delusion is a common one for the drafter of a business plan -- it's one that I myself suffered from some years back when I was writing a business plan. People fall into it because it sounds so modest. "Only one percent." And yet if the reason one wants to achieve this goal is because capturing one percent of an industry means running a business with annual gross revenues of $400 million, it doesn't make it any easier to get to that $400 million figure that that represents "only one percent" of the industry. One still has to build a $400 million business, and that's very hard.

It occured to me the other night that there's also a personal version of this, which I think might be called the thirty minute delusion. I gazing at my bookshelf and noting all the books which I really ought to read or reread one of these days, I formed in an instant a vision of a system by which I would put together a list of great books that I would read over the year, and devote thirty minutes a day to working through these. Surely I waste thirty minutes in any given day, and yet this is three hours a week (taking Sundays off) and thus 156 hours a year. Think of all the great reading I could do in those 156 hours!

The problem, of course, is that although thirty minutes is a short period of time, and one does indeed waste thirty minutes several times over in any given day, that does not mean that it is actually easy to successfully schedule a thirty minute block in six days a week. The fact that thirty minutes is only 2% of a day does not mean that it comes free.

Certainly, you can pick a couple of activities which you'll fit into a spare thirty minutes here and a spare sixty minutes there. For me, clearly, one of these major ways I spend that time is writing. Bits also go to reading, studying Russian, walking, cycling, etc. But unless you're already massively uncerscheduled you really don't have thirty extra minutes every day to devote to some new project without deprioritizing something else.

Because the period of time (Just thirty minutes!) sounds so short, and because most of us don't actually have a very precise understanding of our schedules, we almost always feel confident that we must have that extra bit of time available somewhere. Sure two or three virtuous thirty-minute-a-day commitments could be added! But it's not so. Just because thirty minutes is only 2% of a day (assuming you never sleep) does not mean that you can simply grab those thirty minutes without cost.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Douglas Adams, Conservative

If someone was to ask me to sum up briefly why I am generally skeptical of government solutions to large social problems, I would be tempted to reply with this section from the original Hitchhikers Guide of the Galaxy radio plays:
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western spiral arm of the galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this, at a distance of roughly ninety million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet, whose ape descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. This planet has, or had, a problem, which was this. Most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small, green pieces of paper, which is odd, because on the whole, it wasn't the small, green pieces of paper which were unhappy.
If you haven't heard the original Hitchhikers, or if you did long ago but don't have them on MP3, you can find them here:
[Warning: Google says this is a known attack site using javascript vulnerabilities -- though I downloaded the MP3s from here some weeks ago without any problems.]

Friday, October 24, 2008

Efforts to Stem Dropouts

Sorry things have been slow on the posts this week -- things have been getting busier for me at work lately, and I find that the authorial mind is best at producing ideas in whatever are one's mind has been on the most, which for me has been politics lately, resulting in lots of American Catholic posts, but few here.

There was an interesting article earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal about big cities attempt to stem the rising tide of high school dropouts:
According to one study, only half of the high school students in the nation's 50 largest cities are graduating in four years, with a figure as low as 25% in Detroit. And while concern over dropouts isn't new, the problem now has officials outside of public education worried enough to get directly involved.
"In a global economy, the single most important issue facing our country is an educated work force," says Houston Mayor Bill White. "Somebody who lacks a high school education will have lifetime earnings that are only about 60% of those of somebody with that education. That's just the impact on personal income. There are the social costs as well."
Detroit has the lowest four-year graduation rate in the study, at 25%, according to America's Promise. Officials there are revamping the high schools. So far, the school system has started a high school redesign at five sites. Among the steps being taken are better counseling services and efforts to design curricula at schools in particular locations geared to industries in the same area.

"The number of students are falling away at such a large percentage that you can't point to any one factor or any one solution," says Steve Wasko, spokesman for the school system.

Houston has embarked on a wide-ranging plan, including a program called Reach Out to Dropouts, where volunteers, including Mayor White and school superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, visit the homes of students who haven't returned to school.
Several things struck me reading this:

  • It's rather inspiring, in a way, to hear about officials right up to the mayor of a major city taking these issues seriously enough to invest the personal time and effort in going door to door -- though the businessman side of my mind can't help wondering if that's the most effective use of the mayor's time when it comes to reducing dropout rates.

  • I suppose I'd be considered a wishful thinker in regards to education -- especially considering the dire straights that many in Detroit and similar cities must already be in by the time they arrive in high school -- but I can think of few prospect more likely to inspire in one the desire to drop out (out of sheer boredom if for no other reason) than a curriculum geared to my local industries. Idealist that I am -- I can't help thinking that the best way to keep people in school is to teach them something interesting.

  • To college-educated-America, this must be a nearly invisible problem. I recall being shocked to read that nearly seventy percent of Americans do not have a BA or above. If you'd asked me before, I would have guessed that half of Americans had completed college.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Sound of Silence

It's struck me on a few occasions lately how little used I am to not having anything to do.

Earlier this today I arrived in a conference room three minutes after the start time for the meeting I was rushing to, and found myself alone. Knowing who else was supposed to attend, I was pretty sure that they would show up eventually, but I had nothing in hand but my cup of coffee -- my laptop and notebook having been left behind at my desk since I didn't think I would need them at the meeting. It was oddly disconcerting to sit there with nothing to do, to read, to listen to for five minutes until people showed up.

I think this effect must especially kick in when one is in a man made environment -- a white walled corporate conference room being a prime example. My car radio died a while back, and since my normal commute (when I use my car -- which due to laziness and tight scheduling is unfortunately most of the time) is under ten minutes, I haven't bothered to get it replaced. But when I have to drive in to Austin or otherwise drive more than ten minutes, I run into exactly the same sort of phenomenon -- with an urge to either call someone or put in one earbud from my iPod or otherwise do something to relieve the silence.

It's not exactly silence that I find difficult. I'd be perfectly happy in a silent conference room with a book to read or an internet connection so I could browse or write. But after a time one becomes used to always having some sort of mental or sensory input. Reading or listening to music or writing or talking or experiencing all the little sights and sounds of the natural outdoors -- all of these provide grist for the mental mill. But that unnatural silence of a blank white room -- or even the instinctual sights, sounds and reflexes of long distance driving -- leave someone used to the constant interaction of the modern world feeling curiously restless.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Worst Since the Great Depression How?

As the Dow continues on its 8000 to 9500 oscillation/roller coaster, we continue to see more news articles solemnly observing that this is "already worst economic disaster since the Great Depression."

I'm certainly not enjoying the looks of the stock market, and I fear that unemployment and poverty numbers will get worse before they get better. (If you asked me to take a guess -- I'd predict that unemployment will climb, slowly, for about six months before leveling off and going down.) However, the levels of unemployment are unlikely to go much beyond that of 92-93, must less 82-83 when unemployment hit a high of 10%.

The Great Depression comparisons are made because of the large percentage and absolute point drop in the stock market (the high for the Dow Jones Industrial Average was over 14000 in October of last year and it's dipped down into the mid 8000s -- a 40% drop) and the dangers of bank failure.

However, while one doesn't want to sugarcoat our current situation, historical parallels out of context can get irresponsible. The US of the 1930s had an economy far more primitive than our current one. A much larger percentage of the population was involved in small scale farming, and when the sale price of farm produce plummeted, the "dust bowl" hit making it harder to grow food in many parts of the Midwest, and farmers who had been taking out mortgages against their farms in order to meet bills in bad years found themselves unable to meet their payments -- the sudden transition from small scale to large scale farming pushed large numbers of low skilled unemployed workers into cities at exactly the time that unemployment was at a high anyway. Because our country is simply so much richer, and so much more productive, and thus able to produce basic goods and services much more easily, we would not see a human catastrophe on the level of the Great Depression in our modern country without a total governmental and social collapse.

So while it's true that in terms of the percentage decline in the major stock market indices we're seeing the largest financial decline since the great depression, in terms of real social chaos and human suffering we will in no way approach the level of what went on in the 30s.

I suppose it may seem like a pedantic point to those who find themselves struggling to pay the bills right now, but I'm always in favor of keeping a sense of historical perspective.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Mother is not angry, dear.

Life lessons for two-year-olds:

1. This is number one. The most important thing. If you feel like you have to poop, do it in the potty. I cannot stress this enough.

2. If your diaper starts to leak, do not move around. Stay in one place, and I will come to you.

3. If you leak onto the kitchen floor, do not attempt to clean up the mess with a broom.

4. Do not hide your cleaning attempt under a kitchen towel.

5. Do not then step in the other mess, while I'm cleaning up the first, after I told you not to.

Ancillary advice for older sisters: When I ask you to watch the baby while I clean up his big sister, do not make him fly. For my sake, if not for his.

I feel like I'm always harping on the same damn theme.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Failures of Negative Example

Children seem to show a near immunity, at times, to the power of negative example. I recall a girl I knew well growing up who, immediately after reading Harriet The Spy, began a surveillance program listening in to her parents on the other phone -- until she was caught and roundly punished. Somehow the lesson that spying on people had got Harriet into trouble had been lost, and the fascination of eavesdropping and writing things down in a notebook had remained.

In similar vein, MrsDarwin recently attempted to give the girls an illustrative example of how she had, at a very young age, not understood the purpose of the mass, and had thought that she was being left out of a "snack" at communion time. That this was presented in contrast to the truth that we believe it is Christ who becomes present on the altar was lost on the girls, who proceeded to demand repeated: "Mommy, why did you want a snack in mass? Can I have a snack?" Quieting them down in time to actually go to mass proved a challenge. (Note to selves: No creative attempts at catechesis right before mass.)

This seemed odd to me at first given the numbers of fairy tales that center around the horrible consequences visited upon those who go astray. Surely centuries of negative examples would not have been dreamed up if the technique simply did not work upon the young. But as I thought about it, such stories are always simply and clearly constructed: Introduce character, the character makes a fatal mistake, the character suffers grievous consequences. This construction, children seem to understand quite readily.

The difficulty comes when an essentially sympathetic and realistic character does something which is, by adults, intended to be a negative example. If this character does not seem to be an essentially "bad" character, young children seem to have great difficulty in understanding that this is a bad choice and should not be imitated.

The boy who cried wolf can be readily understood as an object lesson for the very reason that there is no more to his character than that he cried wolf. But if that boy were named Brian and there was a whole children's novel about him, in the middle of which he carried out the crying wolf stunt, I suspect that many children would think it sounded like good fun and want to give it a go themselves.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Nasty Canasta

Seeing as posting has been light this week, here's one last classic for your Friday:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Brief Workday Rant

I am informed that tomorrow is Boss's Day.

As it happens, I like my boss and indeed his boss as well -- but is there any more idiotic example of a Hallmark holiday that "Boss's Day"? At least with the other celebrations like Mothers' Day and Secretaries' Day and Peasants' Day and Political Prisoners' Day we celebrate those whom we forget, neglect or otherwise abuse the rest of the time. But Boss's Day?

Best. Thing. Ever.

You guys.


Ohio peoples, I'll see you next year.

That is all.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Some American Catholic Highlights

If you haven't yet become a regular of The American Catholic, but enjoy a bit of Darwin political commentary every so often, you might want to check out:

"Preferential Option for the Middle Class?", on how both political parties strive to buy elections by pouring benefits on the middle class.

"Abortion Will Not Go Away", on how outlawing abortion would not end it -- and why we should outlaw it anyway.


"The Scary Thing Is, We Really Mean It" on the growing rift between beltway and flyover conservatives.

Also strongly recommended is:

"Humanity Without Limits" by Zach on the dangers of a society where every form of "progress" is seen as not only possible a very nearly a right.

"Tom Cruise, First-Rate Philosopher" by Chris Burgwald -- you'll have to click through to see what lies behind that delightful title.

And a heartwarming story about a Protestant and a rosary by Donald McClarey.

The Peripatetic School of Russian

I did indeed follow through with my intention of starting to learn a new language, and the language I eventually picked was Russian. The more I thought about it, Russian was the logical choice because I have a great fondness for Russian literature, and so I'd be much more likely to use a knowledge of Russian and keep it up. While Persian and Arabic strike me as interesting because I'm interested in Islam and the Middle East (and because I just find the Arabic script which both languages use attractive) but present rather less that I'd be actively interested in reading. (Though I did pick up a few books on Persian from the library and get through learning part of the alphabet.)

So I ordered a copy of the Penguin Russian Course by Nicholas Brown from Amazon, and from the library I picked up Pimsleur's Basic Russian at the library.

I've been progressing through both programs slowly. In the Penguin text, I've worked through the alphabet and some basic words, but am taking some time to be able to write reliably, due in part to the fact that handwritten Russian script is in a few cases drastically different from the printed alphabet. For example: the Russian "t" sound is represented by a letter that looks pretty much like an English "t" or Greek tao -- but the cursive version looks like an English cursive M. Almost makes me tempted to forget about cursive (as I long ago did in English) and just write the exercises as if they were typed. But some it seems like one ought to try to do the thing properly.

With the Pimsleur audio course, I've been extracting the lessons to my iPod and listening to them while taking my afternoon walk around the corporate campus. I'm now moderately proficient at saying things like "Excuse me", "Hello", "Goodbye", "Do you understand English?", "I don't understand Russian very well", "I'm American", etc. However it's been making me realize how essential spelling (and the instincts coming from knowing the phonetics of English, Latin and Greek) is to my language acquisition skills. In English, and to an extent in Latin or Greek, I can hear a word and pick it up pretty quickly because I'm fairly confident as to what phonetic sounds make it up. I know enough of those languages to know how a word is likely to be spelled -- and thus what phonetic sounds I am likely to be hearing.

However, I have no such instincts when it comes to Slavic languages as of yet, and so I find it very difficult to tell if what is being said and say it correctly. For instance, the word for "hello" is (spelled very roughly phonetically) edravstvoyte. However, to hear it (even with many, many repetitions) it was hard for me to tell if it ended in an "itche" or "oyte" kind of sound.

Clearly, we must originally learn language without giving any thought to spelling, but it seems that I at least have lost much of any ability to address things in that manner. I find it very hard to feel confident in using a word if I don't know for sure what phonetic sounds compose it, and in a langauge I'm not yet very familiar with, I can't feel confident in knowing the phonetic compostion without knowing the spelling.

So while I'm enjoying the walking and listening approach (and it assures that I get my daily dose of Russian) I'm finding that as of yet there is no replacement for book learning.

More Classics for children, or, Screwball

Continuing our journey through the classic children's compilation: The Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 1.

Ain't I a stinkah?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Krugman Wins Nobel in Economics

To most of the reading public (including me) this looks like a classic example of the politicization of the Nobel Prizes -- however I've consistently found very smart economics that I read online to say that Krugman is in fact a very good economist when he's dealing with economics, though a total hack when writing for the NY Times.

For those interested in reading about "the other Paul Krugman", Marginal Revolution provides a good and readable explanation of Krugman's academic work, and his achievements in trade theory. Also readable (and very short) is Arnold Kling's post on EconLog.

Friday, October 10, 2008

One more time, with feeling

Yet again I wish that a description of my day's work as "cleaning up sh*t" wasn't quite so literal.


At first having a boy wasn't much different from having a girl, and then I took him in to be circumcised. The event itself had an oddly spectacular feel, as the room was crowded with women -- the assisting nurse, two young blonde med students, and their supervisor -- cooing over a furious Jack. The doctor himself was all business, explaining each aspect of the operation to the med students, who nodded sagely. I was prepared to be jolted to tears by a sudden shrill scream from the child as he underwent the knife, but the tone of his yells remained constant throughout. What seemed to anger him most was being strapped snugly to the baby-shaped board (trade name: Circumstraint). He exacted his revenge on me by sleeping soundly for the rest of the day, despite my best attempts to wake him up to nurse.


I suppose that if you want to showcase a television's image quality, you let the customer see it in action. However, in that case you want to play the same movie on all the sets. The two televisions on the floor in the back corner of the Salvation Army store were out of sync. On the left glared Waterworld, the Heaven's Gate of the 90s, the saturated colors sloshing and glinting off all the shiny junk on the nearby shelves . (In an ironic twist, I recognized the box office flop because I'd been one of the few people to see it on the big screen.) The caliginous glow of Sleepy Hollow frosted all the knick-knacks on the right. The odd juxtaposition and muted sound robbed Sleepy Hollow of any terror, and I gazed on beheadings and impalements with detached curiosity, until I realized that my children were watching with the same bemused fascination.


The same trip to the Salvation Army netted me the funniest book I've read in a good age, a novel that had me rolling on the couch weeping from laughter and gasping for breath as I tried to read bits aloud to Darwin. Yet I'm divided over whether, in good conscience, I can possibly recommend it to anyone (except Matthew Lickona). However, since I've brought it up: When Sisterhood Was In Flower by Florence King, an author to whom the overused descriptor "profane" applies in spades. Here she's skewering the feminist movement, ca. 1971. Much of it is hilariously unquotable on a family blog (at one point the narrator takes to writing cheap porn novels), but I can excerpt this bit from a women's issues talkshow:
"Now I know what your question is, " said Ms. Garrison-Talbot. "Everybody always asks it. You must be worried about the baby's soft spot."

I was worried about hers. She turned the birth bucket on its side so the camera could pick up the interior.

"You have to put something soft in the bottom for the baby to land in. Ancient Egyptian women used crocodile dung. It's not available here in Massachusetts, but if you plan to give birth in the Gulf Coast area, your husband or the father of your child can gather it for you as mine did. It's a good way to test his supportiveness. Remember, though, it must be fresh dung. The best way to gather it is to wait behind a crocodile who is moving his or her bowels. When the dung emerges, thrust a skate board under the anus to catch it. Do not use plastic bags! Their crinkly sound tends to anger the crocodile."

"Is it possible to get the dung from zoos?" asked Polly.

Ms. Garrison-Talbot's eyes hardened. "The zoos have ben totally unsupportive."

"What are the chances of setting up a meaningful dialogue with zoo directors?"

"Nonexistent," Ms. Garrison-Talbot said grimly. "We've tried to get our dung through the proper channels but we met with mockery at every turn. My car was even defaced. Someone wrote 'baby sitter' on the windshield and a male veterinarian referred to me as the 'ding-dung' lady'."

Polly Bradshaw grimaced in disgust. "We'll never be free until they stop calling us ladies. Grace, what are your plans for the Birth Bucket League now?"

"Polly, we're going to fight for our rights to crocodile dung. We're setting up a letter-writing campaign to put pressure on the zoos, and my husband is chairing the Ad Hoc Dung Now committee from his hospital bed in Everglades Memorial. We're not going to give up until every woman is able to purchase crocodile dung from the zoo of her choice."

"Beautiful! Right on!" cheered Polly Bradshaw.

"In the meantime, I can recommend some substitutes for crocodile dung. Moldy bread is the best. Crumble it and line the bottom of your birth bucket with it. It's soft, and a natural source of penicillin, which means it's sterile. And best of all, it's easy to obtain -- every active, involved woman's kitchen is full of it.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

A Financial Conscience

Reader J. Christian dropped me an email pointing me towards a piece to today's WSJ about the importance of good and honest financial information -- as underlined by our current crisis. From it comes this description of John Moody, the originator of Moody's Investor Services:
When Moody published a statistical manual in 1900, followed by a system of rating securities with categories Aaa, Baa etc, and a series of investor-advice books, he provided reams of information to everyone, for just the price of a few books. These beginnings led to the development of Moody's Investor Services and other rating agencies. The securities rating system has now spread from the United States to the whole world, and helped make possible the capitalist explosion of growth and prosperity.

Moody left behind an autobiography, "The Long Road Home," 1933, and so we can glean some of his motivations.

Though Moody was a democratizer, he was not acting out of populist philanthropic motives when he launched Moody's. As he makes very clear in his autobiography, he did it to make money. But there were other things he cared about besides making money. People asked him around 1900, why give away all this information so cheaply? They told him he might expect to make a lot more money as an underwriter, middleman or bond salesman. But he recognized that was not his personality, and that "there was that 'literary' or writing bent of mine. To bring out a book -- even a mere compilation -- fired my imagination far more than could any dreams of becoming a successful banker."

He called it a "writing bent" but as is plain from his autobiography, it might be considered an impulse to speak perspicaciously and openly to the people. A "writing bent," connotes an impulse to consider the interests of a broad reading public, and publishing tables of statistics and ratings, as well as the various investing advice books Moody wrote for retail investors, is just that.

Moody was not selfless but he cared about people, and he cared about ethics. His autobiography was filled with admonitions about speculative bubbles that draw in unsuspecting investors (as he himself had personally experienced). He wanted to provide the careful information that would prevent financial misfortune for the average family. He was obsessed with ethical behavior and musings about his traditional Roman Catholic religion. He wrote about moral dilemmas, and his refusal to accept money under terms that would bias his ratings.
I know little else of Moody other than that, but what the article says I found charming, and a little inspiring. We could use more like him.

And, gratuitous baby pix

And for the three of you wondering how the floor turned out:

Educating kids in the classics, or, Leopold!

You guys would not believe how long it takes me to write even a non-substantive post these day. Maybe that's because I'm busy schooling my children to appreciate a long and noble tradition going back to Plautus and Aristophanes: slapstick.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Predictions Game

I deal with data. Much of it has to do with looking at sales over the last 3-12 months, and then making predictions as to how many units of a product we would sell at a particular price point. This is predictable up to a point. A product which has never responded to discounting before probably won't respond to it next time. And one that has always done so before will probably respond again.

However making predictions about the future is vastly more inexact than analyzing what went on in the past -- and a lot of people seem to have difficulty dealing with that ambiguity. When looking at an upcoming sale, I might give a sales estimate with a huge amount of deviation: "We'll sell 2000 to 3000 of those cameras at $199." When looking back, it's easy to say, "Well, sales were soft because Circuit City came in with a more aggressive offer; macro economic scares had people reluctant to make major purchases; and we're headed into the season trough where people but off purchases until the holiday season." Is any of true? Probably to one extent or another, but none of it is stuff that is easily to factor in reliably before hand. (We have models for the seasonality, the rest is after the fact guess work.)

This has been striking me in particular as I read about the global financial problems. Financial columnists cheerfully explain what the reasons for a sell off or recovery were, as if these were some sort of easily analyzed or predicted system. But really, these are only explanations that can be applied after the fact. They're stand-ins for the multitude or reasons that might have caused individual people and fund managers to sell particular assets are particular times.

There are broad themes to a set of events made up of millions of unknowable individual decisions. People experience fear and uncertainty and so they're reluctant to lend others money and eager to divest themselves of assets they believe will fall farther in value. But within those themes are uncountable and unknowable numbers of individual decisions that we really can't, as analysts, know much about.

Taliban Splits With Al Qaeda, Seeks Truce?

Taking this to be accurate, I'm surprised that I stumbled on it burried a few layers back on One would think that it would be a moderately important story.

Life's burning question answered

And that question is, "What if the Beatles were Irish?"

Tip of the black hat to Man With Black Hat.

Monday, October 06, 2008

American Catholic

I've been invited to join the blogging team at a new group blog focusing on the intersection of politics and Catholicism: American Catholic. I've accepted, and you can see my first post up there today, along with some great content from some of the eleven other authors.

This also gives me the chance to make some changes in the overall blog-life balance around here. I'll be funnelling most of my political posts over to American Catholic, so if you enjoy my more partisan side I strongly encourage you to join us over there. I'm also going to be reducing the post frequency on DarwinCatholic to probably 2-3 substantive posts per week -- though we may have short links and such up on other days. And for those who can get a bit tired of my election season partisanship -- the DarwinCatholic posts will be going back to your normal, non-election-year balance.

The last couple weeks my time commitment at work has been ramping up as I switch to a new set of responsibilities (more time in meetings and less time sitting around crunching data and blogging in between queries.) Also, with the new school year, I've realized that if I don't get my rear in gear with the Humanities Program it will take me upwards of a decade to work through it. And I don't want that. So I'm going to be putting more time in over there and thus necessarily less here.

All that said, DarwinCatholic will most certainly not be going away -- nor will MrsDarwin and I.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Welcome to Texas (again)

I never had allergies before moving to Texas. Never. I was happy then, and I didn't know it. Now I'm not happy, because the pressure my sinuses are putting on my head it throbs I've just taken some allergy medicine it makes my head oh so heavy... This stuff works fast -- I only downed my pill ten minutes ago. Good thing I didn't take it while driving.

I've always found "non-drowsy" to be false advertising. Nighty-night, ya'll.

Quick Debate Follow-up

For my fellow political junkies: A debate thread.

Following up on my Palin post yesterday, I'd say that Governor Palin turned in a solid but not outstanding performance at the vice presidential debate last night. She had no particular gaffes and she held her own against Senator Biden. She was honest and charming and almost always sounded like she was talking rather than reciting.

However, I would have liked to see her go on the attack a bit more. Biden got away with some insanely blatent falsehoods. For instance, he claimed that we've spent less in the entire Afghan war than we do in any given month in Iraq. So far we've spent over $170 billion on the Afghan war, and the Iraq war costs roughly $10 billion per month. So Biden was wrong by nearly a factor of 20x. He also lied in saying that McCain had voted "the same as Obama" to cut off funding to the troops int he field. McCain opposed a Democratic funding bill (which Bush had promised to veto if it passed) which included a demand for a scheduled pull out -- but he supported the bill which actually passed, and which Obama opposed. And perhaps most blatant of all, Biden claimed that McCain "wants to give $4 billion in special tax breaks to Exxon Mobile". This is true only in the sense that McCain wants to cut corporate taxes on all companies to bring them in line with those in Europe and Asia and keep American companies competitive. The others require a bit of googling (which one can't do in the middle of a debate) to look up the facts, even if you immediately know that Biden's claims ring false. But that last one is huge, blatant and easy. And it would have been a great chance for Palin to call him on the carpet for lying to the American electorate.

And as a principled conservative I'm not at all impressed with some of the standard populist lines which she came out with about "Wall Street greed". I'm sorry: If you buy a 300k house when you could only afford a 100k house (to use the example she gave) you are at least as at fault for your resulting troubles as the lender who was foolish enough to give you the loan. You should know your situation better than your lender does, not count on them to tell you what you can afford.

So while I thought Palin turned in an overall solid performance -- vastly exceeding the expectations set by the "she's an idiot" chorus of the last couple weeks -- I didn't think it was stellar, and I wish that it had been.


Thursday, October 02, 2008

An Idea on Pricing Bad Assets

One of the many points of worry about the bailout is the need to find a balance between buying enough mortgage backed securities to get the credit markets flowing again and relieve fears about bank collapses, while at the same time not massively overpaying and thus having the government take a bath in the process while rewarding people who bought junk (and deserve to take losses as a result.)

At first glance, I like this toss-out idea from Warren Buffet:
But Buffett described a plan he thought of Thursday morning on the way to the Summit that would allow Treasury and private investors to buy assets together. He said his proposal would quickly kickstart demand for mortgage-backed securities and help find a market price for these troubled assets.

"One easy way to do part of the program is to say to anybody - hedge fund operators, Wall Street firms, or anybody else - that the Treasury will lend you 80% of the purchase cost of a bunch of distressed assets," he said, explaining the concept of his proposal. The investors benefit from borrowing at lower rates, but Treasury would get first claim on the sale of those assets, which means it would get its loan back plus interest and possibly turn a profit.

"Now you have someone with 20% skin in the game," he explained. "Believe me, I won't be overpaying if I'm buying with that kind of leverage. And you have someone [the investors] to manage the assets to the extent they need to be managed."


Like, I suspect, many conservatives, I can't help feeling a little nervous about how the vice presidential debate tonight will go. Governor Palin is, from what I can tell, fundamentally sound when it comes to a conservative outlook -- and the vice presidency, I think, a better place for an up-and-comer than for someone who thinks he is more experienced and skilled than the president and will proceed to attempt to run his own shadow administration. But though I generally like McCain's choice of VP, there is certainly the possibility that Palin will struggle a bit tonight -- and so it seems more honest, if I'm to post on this topic, to get it out before the debate rather than after. Making the call while the cat is still inside the box, so to speak.

There are a lot of claims going around that Palin is "obviously unqualified" to be vice president -- fueled by increasily silly reactions to her recent interviews. For instance, when Palin failing to name, in response to questioning by Katie Couric, another Supreme Court decision other than Roe v. Wade which she disagreed with, opinion makers immediately rolled out the meme, "Palin can't name a single Supreme Court decision other than Roe." When asked the same question by Couric, Biden refered to the Supreme Court's rejection of his attempt to make all violence against women a federal crime. He failed to give the name of the case, and claimed that they should have supported his law, because violence against women affects interstate commerce in that "Women who are abused and beaten and beaten are women who are not able to be in the work force." (Text of both candidate's answers.)

I'm disappointed that Palin didn't have the presence of mind to fire back, "The Dredd Scott decision -- which I think actually has a lot of parrallels to Roe in that it was decided on the basis of what the justices wanted the constitution to say rather than what it said." But at the same time, I'm frankly pretty horrified by the asinity of both Biden's justification for Roe (he basically argues it was a good compromise regardless of whether it correctly interpreted the constitution) and his claim that assault should be federalized because of its effect on interstate commerce. If you asked me which of these two is likely to cause damage to the Republic through his/her ignorance, it's Biden all the way to my mind.

As if commentariat hysteria could not get any sillier, Palin's refusal to list off which newspapers she reads in a response to Couric (which, incidentally, I think was a bit foolish of her -- she should have gamely listed off a few papers, though it's a dumb question) had bloggers screaming, "She can't even name a single major newspaper!" and "She doesn't read!"

Indeed, the general consensus among those who pound keyboards for fun or profit seems to increasingly be that Palin is dumber than pond scum and that it's gravely irresponsible of McCain to have picked her. (Some commentators, even on the conservative side of things, are urging that she bow out and let McCain replace her -- an odd suggestion given how well that worked for McGovern.)

So, is Palin unqualified to be vice president?

Let's look at this honestly: To my knowledge, every single person elected president in the last 100 years has been a current or recent governor, senator or vice president. Nearly every vice president has been drawn from the same pool, though I'm a little less sure there. Cheney springs to mind as someone who had not recently been in elected office -- and he doesn't have a lot of fans at the moment. Gerald Ford was a representative rather than a senator when he was appointed vice president.

Working from that prescident, this means that there are 200-250 people out of a population of 300,000,000 at any given time who have the career track record to be vice president. (And half of those are of the other party, so McCain and Obama effectively each had a pool of 100-125 prospects.) Palin is one of that select group. Within that group of current and recent governors, senators, vice presidents and well known members of the House of Representatives, her track record is fairly short, but it's also pretty accomplished. Still rather green, but promising, is how I'd describe it.

But she's not Ivy League! But she isn't a lawyer! But she hasn't been on Meet The Press! But she's been flustered in some interviews! But she hasn't been "vetted"!

All true to one extent or another. But frankly, there's something a bit self congratulatory about much of the commentary that's being put out about Governor Palin's alleged lack of qualification. The complaints basically boil down to: "Palin is not enough like me."

Those who spend a lot of time writing and reading political columns doubtless imagine they would sound very, very intelligent if put in front of Couric or on Meet The Press or if otherwise allowed to pontificate on policy in public. And the propensity of Senator Obama to think out loud and wonk up new policy on the fly certainly appeals to such people. However, while reading up on issues and speaking about them clearly is an important part of being a successful and effective politician -- it is most certainly not the sum and total of it.

In my own life in the corporate world, I recently worked under a divisional VP who had never gone to college and was frank in telling people that he hadn't read a book cover to cover in ten years. To which my immediate gut reaction was, of course: "What an idiot. I could do that job better than him."

But I couldn't, you see. He'd been in the world of business for 30 years and had been a moderately successful COO and then CEO of a fairly large company before coming to our very large one. He made some good decisions, and some bad ones, but overall I'd say that he was more effective than his predescessor, a Warton MBA with the tendency to head off in vastly varying directions based on whatever her wonkish close set decided was the direction of the moment. The ability to pick a good staff of experts, listen to their advice, weigh it, and make the right decision requires a combination of skill and talent which not many people have. (Few to none, I would suspect, of the media and blogsphere types declaring Governor Palin to be so obviously unqualified, either have this quality or indeed much understanding of it. They are seeking a bigger version of themselves for president -- a wonk and commentator writ large.)

Does Palin have the skills to be a good vice president? I don't know -- though I certainly hope so as I am quite convinced that Obama and Biden have the ideology to be an absolutely disasterous administration. I would feel much more confident in my support of her if she had six or eight years of successful governorship behind her rather than only two. But to claim that she is "obviously unqualified" is clearly wrong. If you're one of the one out of every million Americans with the career qualifications to be a vice presidential candidate -- you're qualified.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Some Light Thoughts On A Potentially Dark Matter

Bernard of A Little Light From the East provides an amusing tour of the economics behind the "bailout".

Carnivores But Not Killers

I had to run out and do some errands during lunch, and then picked up a hamburger to eat at my desk. These two facts cause me a little reflection because up here north of Austin, when you drive around on the interstates you constantly see cattle out eating in their fields, even here in what is in effect suburbia. Indeed, as I sit here in my corporate office building, if I headed out the door and walked across the street and down the road, perhaps a fifteen minute walk, I could gaze across a barbed wire fence at cattle grazing.

However, though I very much enjoy a good hamburger or steak on occasion, I have never killed and cleaned a cow -- or any other food animal. I don't have any particular objection to doing so. Indeed, it seems to me that at some point in my life I should go hunting or help slaughter farm animals, simply in order to have an appreciation for how this everyday act of eating meat ties in with the greater fabric of life and human experience in other times and places.

I suspect that a solid majority of Americans, especially city-dwellers, have never killed and cleaned their own meat. (Sure, lots of people hunt -- but think its a minority, and probably a shrinking one.) And I can't help wondering if after a generation or two that that starts to change cultural attitudes on a range of issues -- some of which would seem at first to be only tangentially related to food.