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

Friday, January 30, 2009

Empirical Methodology vs. Human Nature

Sorry to be naught but a linker this week, but things have been busy...

This New York Times Magazine article, interviewing three female researchers studying female desire, struck me as an interesting example of how scientific methodologies are of limited use in describing the human person. Many of their conclusions and ideas are interesting, and you can see how they reflect lived experience to a limited extent, but the fruits of all this research are also startlingly inadequate in describing something as universally experienced as human love and sexuality. And necessarily so, I would tend to think.

Real Living

This is for Jennifer: a candid snapshot of my girls' bedroom, unretouched.

Note the unmade beds (par), the stuff all over the desk (par for every flat surface in our house), the half-opened drawers, and the near-lack of wall adornment. On the other hand, I made those curtains myself.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Everything Gets Cheaper Except Satisfaction

(Via Ross Douthat) Economist Brad Delong has a fascinating little piece at The Week where he talks about Keynes' idea that goods would one day become so plentiful that people would stop focusing on the need for them:
Nearly eighty years ago, John Maynard Keynes did the math on economic growth and concluded that within a few generations—by the time his peers' great-grandchildren came of age in, say, the 2000's—the persistent economic problem of too-scarce resources and too-few goods would no longer bedevil a substantial portion of humanity. He was right—even in the midst of our current hard times, he is right.
Keynes thought that by today we would have reached a realm of plenty where "We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin."

As an example of how cheap goods have become, Delong makes a comparison after my own heart:
Our goods are not only plentiful but cheap. I am a book addict. Yet even I am fighting hard to spend as great a share of my income on books as Adam Smith did in his day. Back on March 9, 1776 Adam Smith's Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations went on sale for the price of 1.8 pounds sterling at a time when the median family made perhaps 30 pounds a year. That one book (admittedly a big book and an expensive one) cost six percent of the median family's annual income. In the United States today, median family income is $50,000 a year and Smith's Wealth of Nations costs $7.95 at Amazon (in the Bantam Classics edition). The 18th Century British family could buy 17 copies of the Wealth of Nations out of its annual income. The American family in 2009 can buy 6,000 copies: a multiplication factor of 350.
Personally, I'd probably go dig up a nice hard cover copy more analogous to the original 1.8L edition, but I'd still be able to do so for less than .1% of the median US household income.

I love historical examples that put our current travails in this kind of perspective. Yet what Keynes seems not to have taken into account in his speculation is human nature, which in any situation is able to quickly acclimate itself enough to want more. Delong's estimation strikes me as much more in keeping with fallen humanity:
But no dice. I look around, and all I can say is: not yet, not for a long time to come, and perhaps never. I'm convinced that everyone I know can easily imagine how to spend up to three times their current income usefully and productively. (It is only beyond three times your current spending that people judge others' spending as absurd and wasteful.) And everybody I know finds it very difficult to imagine how people can survive on less than one-third of what they spend—never mind that all of our pre-industrial ancestors did so all the time. There is a point at which we say "enough!" to more oat porridge. But all evidence suggests Keynes was wrong: We are simply not built to ever say "enough!" to stuff in general.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Troubles of the Rich Man's Woman

It is, of course, terribly wrong to rejoice in the suffering of others. But perhaps it's not entirely in appropriate to be mildly amused by this New York Times article about the travails of the wives, girlfriends and mistresses of Wall Street titans during the recession. To their credit, it sounds like they're a bit amused themselves.

Rerun: The Miss Manners Guide to Junk Movies

I've been reading Miss Manners lately, and it's inspired me to recycle this post from 2006:

Judith Martin, more popularly known to the reading public as Miss Manners, has a long and varied list of accomplishments. One of these was reviewing movies for the Washington Post once upon a time, and one of the movies she reviewed was The Empire Strikes Back.
To call "The Empire Strikes Back" a good junk movie is no insult: There is enough bad junk around. And surely we're getting over the snobbery of pretending that it is undemocratic to recognize any hierarchy of culture, as if both low and high can't be appreciated, often be the same people.

But when light entertainment is done well, someone is bound to make extravagant and unsupportable claims for its being great art. You will hear that this sequel to "Star Wars" is part of a vast new mythology, as if it were the Oresteia. Its originator, George Lucas, has revealed that the two pictures are actually parts four and five of a nine-part sage, as if audiences will some day receive the total the way devotees now go to Seattle for a week of immersion in Wagner's complete Ring Cycle.

Nonsense. This is no monumental artistic work, but a science-fiction movie done more snappily than most, including its own predecessor. A chocolate bar is a marvelous sweet that does not need to pretend to be a chocolate soufflé; musical comedies are wonderful entertainment without trying to compete with opera; blue jeans are a perfect garment that shouldn't be compared with haute couture. There are times when you would much rather have a really good hot dog than any steak, but you can still recognize that one is junk food and the other isn't.

This is a distinction that is too rarely made when dealing with movies that touch, however peripherally, upon matters of philosophy or theology. I recall when the first Matrix movie came out and friends were encouraging me to see it. "It's deep!" someone exclaimed. "It's really a very Catholic movie, and it deals with the whole question of reality and philosophy. I think it's my new favorite movie!"

Now keep in mind that we are speaking here of The Matrix. This is the movie in which Keanu Reeves ran around looking tousled and dazed and uttering lines that, when analyzed, generally carried a subtext of "Dude!" It was entertaining, and perhaps could serve as a glossary of various popular existential ideas, but it was by no means highbrow or great or even memorable for anything besides the shooting technique bullet time. And even that has lost its novelty, since every action movie since has parroted the style. The Matrix was a junk movie -- entertaining, superior to many other junk movies in style and concept perhaps, but junk. You want a good movie dealing with heavy intellectual discusion, look for Copenhagen. If you you're seeking a movie to assure that perhaps your lousy day job is just an illusion after all, that's where the Matrix comes in handy.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Doesn't Test Well

Last week I hovered anxiously behind my six-year-old as she sat at the computer taking a short reading-assessment test. As she clicked menus and selected answers, it took a Herculanean effort on my part not to "teach" the whole test. ("Are you sure that's the answer? Here, let's look at these words. Do you know what this word means? Now, let's read the whole sentence." Ad nauseam.) She thought she was simply playing a game on the computer; I had to leave the room so she could finish the test in peace.

There's always a danger that parents will get so caught up in their children's lives that they refuse to let them make a wrong choice. I don't think it qualifies as parental smothering to want to use every teachable moment -- after all, that's how I roll most days. When we're reading a story, I explain the new words. When we're working on math problems, I make sure the girls are paying attention to the problem and that their process is correct. So it's an almost irresistable temptation to treat a test just like a regular lesson, and try to "teach" it. *

The problem with that approach, however, is that without letting my daughter work on her own I don't know whether she can do the work on her own. A few months ago, I held myself back and allowed her to completely flame out on a math test. Until then, I hadn't realized that she wasn't grasping some basic concepts. The disastrous results led me to change programs and try a new method that's been very successful.

My father pointed out to me that if it's that hard for me to watch the girls fail at something I could easily have them correct, how hard must it be for God the Father to watch His children make the wrong choices over and over again?

*In fact, I'm at the computer writing this post because my girls are doing a five-minute math drill and I don't want to drive myself nuts by watching them work.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Looking Back at 2008 Reading

At the beginning of last year I started keeping a list in the sidebar of all the books I'd finished. More than anything else, this was in order to keep some sort of record of what I read, an oddly slippery thing for someone with a lot of books to keep hold of.

One of thing I've come to realize, looking back, is that my memory of how long it's been since I've read various books is rather fluid. Some of these I feel as if I'd read a very long time ago, while other books I feel as if I read very recently and yet judging from this record I must assume it's been more than a year.

I'm not really sure how many books I expected to find that I read during a year, but twenty seems a moderately respectable total. Though as I look over the list, I feel as if I am not quite as weighty a reader as I sometimes fancy myself to be. Below I break them up according to rough genres:

Light Fiction
The Red Pavilion: A Judge Dee Mystery
The Lacquer Screen: A Chinese Detective Story
van Gulik's early books of Judge Dee stories are translated and only slightly adapted from original Chinese stories, but these are van Gulik's own novels, based on the medieval Chinese detective genre.

Brother Odd
I'd been meaning to try one of Dean Koontz's Odd books for quite some time, though by accident I picked up the third one at the library.

Comrade Don Camillo
Giovanni Guareschi's Don Camillo books are so good that when I picked this up to read one or two of the chapters (which were written as sequential but essentially stand-alone stories) I found myself reading the whole thing in the course of a day or two.

The Foreign Correspondent: A Novel
One of the most recent of Alan Furst's series of espionage novels set in the early years of World War II, this story of Italian anti-fascists in pre-invasion France is enjoyable but not Furst's best. I'm eager to try his more recent The Spies of Warsaw which reviewers have said has him back at his best.

The Horse and His Boy
The Silver Chair
We've been working through the Narnia books with the girls -- our six-year-old being the primary audience -- but between parent hand-offs I tend not to get the whole book unless I go off and read the whole thing on my own, which I did with these two, which are among my favorites.

Quality Fiction
The History Of Our World Beyond The Wave
This was a second or third pass through this peculiar, yet beautiful, novel about the aftermath of a giant wave that cleanses the globe of civilization and most of its people. Anyone expecting a realistic science fiction novel would be deeply disappointed, but for anyone with a love of books and prose style this book is hauntingly evocative.

China Court
JulieD got me started on this Rumer Godden novel through her podcast read alouds, but I found myself so involved in it that I had to go finish reading it the old fashioned way: in print.

A Soldier of the Great War
I continue to owe Kyle an in-depth review of Mark Helprin's novel, but for now I'll just that I strongly recommend it for its evocative imagery and it's prose style, but there were elements of it which I also found mildly frustrating.

One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer
Nathaniel Fick's account of Marine training and fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq is fascinating, and of an even-handedness to interest all but the most ideological on both sides of the war debate.

The Great Pyramid: Ancient Egypt Revisited
Romer's book is the first really serious study of the Great Pyramid to come out in a number of years, and its a fascinating read, covering the history of Egyptian pyramid building, with its culmination in the Great Pyramid, the history of the Great Pyramids surveying and excavation by various teams of archeologists, and a fascinating discussion of what the physical remains at the site tell us about the survey and construction methods. Technical, but very interesting.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
I considered creating a "popular science" category for this, as I didn't really come out considering it serious history, but it was an interesting read for what it was. I enjoyed it enoug to try Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed but I found that much of what had annoyed me about the intrusions of Diamond's opinions and worldview into Guns, Germs, and Steel was present in even greater quantities in his editorializing on collapsed societies of the past and how they might be similar to our own, and it eventually got returned to the library unfinished.

The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-day Sacrifice
A fascinating group biography of Company A, a national guard unit turned army during WW2 and assigned to the first wave on Omaha beach on D-Day.

A Soldier From the Wars Returning
Written by a veteran who fought in the British army in both the Great War and WW2, this account of the Great War and life as a junior officer in it is a fascinating first hand account, and also a somewhat revisionist one as compared to the sometimes overplayed stereotypes built up through the poetry and writings of authors like Sassoon and Graves.

Five Days in London: May 1940
Lukacs' incredibly up-close history covers the first days of Churchill's prime ministership, in which the question of whether Britain would remain in the war or follow France's lead in seeking terms with Germany (and whether the British would have any army left to stay in the war with) remained in question.

Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945
Catherine Merridale's book is as much a social history of the Red Army as a military and political history of the Eastern Front, and both elements are fascinating for anyone with a serious interest in World War II.

Designing the New Kitchen Garden: An American Potager Handbook
Hobby Farm
It's a Long Road to a Tomato
This family being what it is, setting up a household vegetable garden could not be done without extensive reading -- though as it happens most of the reading took place after the plants were safely in the ground. The Potager Handbook was interesting for its attempt to come up with an aesthetic approach to vegetable gardening which produced a garden that was beautiful to look at throughout the year (rather than just your farm-style rows of like pants) while also being timed to produce food for the table during as much of the year as possible. You can tell, however, that this was based on the author's grad school thesis. Long Road to a Tomato was an enjoyable set of essays by a New Yorker who deciced to abandon city life to make his living off an upstate organic farm and the New York City farmers market. Every so often, however, one would be hit with very jarring cultural references that reminded me how far apart the author and I were on nearly very conceivable topic.

The New Rules of Lifting
Big Tex recommended this book and it's companion volume for women to MrsDarwin and me, and thus far its been highly useful, though grueling. If you're serious about getting into shape, it's not a bad way to go.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Age of Data

As someone who earns his daily bread and crumpets by doing data analysis, yet has a deep affection for the worldviews of times past, it has struck me more and more of late that "data" has become a term granted incredible reverence in our modern world. Constantly I hear people who are educated and move within educated circles, but who have no particular understanding of data itself, insist that they must be "shown the data" to believe something.

Some little while ago I asserted in conversation about youthful sexual morality that it was entirely possible for a young person to, should he or she so choose, remain chaste until marriage. "The data doesn't support that," I was told. When I responded that data on the topic merely showed that many people do not so choose, but that it was nonetheless entirely possible to pursue this course (and mentioned my own experiences and those of a few friends by way of example) I was informed tendentiously that, "The plural of anecdote is not data."

Others address problems which might rightly be addressed via data, but have no understanding of what data means. "It's shocking that in this day and age half our students are still below average in reading ability," I was once told. I'm afraid I laughed.

Or slightly more less obviously foolish, "The bottom 20% of earners don't make any more, after you adjust for inflation, then they did twenty years ago." This is true in a certain statistical sense, but it fails to account for the fact that individual people move through these classifications quite fluidly. The nineteen-year-old who was in the bottom 20% ten years ago is by no means necessarily still there now.

From my vantage point as a producer of data, it strikes me that the illusion under which far too many people labor is that data itself tells you something, and that it tells you this clearly and with authority.

Data is a highly modern phenomenon. When William the Conqueror commissioned the Domesday book in 1085, it took a year to complete and the feat of cataloging with relative accuracy all the people and their property in England was so remarkable that it is remembered to this day. The project required sending people out on horseback throughout the kingdom to interview people and write down the results over the course of a year, and no one attempted anything of similar scale again in England for several hundred years.

Today computers and telephones not only make it easy to collect census and survey data, but all manor of transactions (performed on computers) pour out fast quantities of data as a sort of golden waste product. In a modern corporation such as the one I work for, it is impossible to sell people things and ship them out without in the process producing so much data about who bought what, when, and for how much, that we "data monkeys" are challenged to drink in half the available insights from the firehose stream of information turned upon us.

Data sits out there in tables: thousands or millions of records of individual facts or events which those of us who access them can sum and average and graph and flip this way and that in pivot tables. Sitting at my computer I can take millions of rows of data which are the by product of a week's worth of consumer electronics orders and in an hour or two's worth of work in Access and Excel tell you how often certain products were bought together, what people think is a good price for a 42" TV, or whether a glossy insert in the weekend newspaper sells more digital cameras than our website. The sorts of functions I can run against a data set in moments represents levels of analysis that would almost certainly have been impossible more than fifty years ago. In the days when people really did wear green eye shades and sharpen pencils, it would simply not have been possible to gather and casually experiment with hundreds of thousands of rows of data in the way that I so casually do every day.

The fact that there is simply so much data around in the modern world allows us to investigate all sorts of interesting questions using data. But what must be realized is that "data" is simply the collection of lots of individual records about individual events. It may not be the plural of anecdote, but the it is the plural of event. And data does not itself have obvious meaning. One must seek to find some sort of pattern in it, and that pattern may not be right, in the sense that it may well not accurately describe the experiences or motivations of most or any of the people who were involved in the individual events whose descriptions are now "data".

And this is what people need to understand about data. Data is not the deeper essence of the universe, the real world of which mere events are but an imperfect instantiations. Rather, data represents the partial leavings of reality. Traces of past events. Footprints and shadows. Clues left behind by the real events, which can only at times be accurately deduced from them.

There are amazing insights that can be gained from data analysis, not only about present day events, but about the past. (Some fascinating historical research I've read lately has been based on analysis of data built off the centuries of data recorded in parish registries from throughout Europe, now entered into databases by historians.) But these insights are only good to the extent that a good analyst is able to correctly identify patterns which reflect reality.

I'm glad that we live in the age of data. All other things aside, I find it fascinating to play with, and it gives me a good living. But given the modern obsession with data as a defining source of truth, people need to see through the hype and recognize what data actually is and isn't. Data is simply the collection of a set of records which tell you "someone did this" or "this person had this characteristic". By looking at the frequency with which people did some given thing or possessed some given trait, we can learn some very interesting things. But data can never answer qualitative questions for us, though it may provide us with the inputs to make qualitative judgments.

Data cannot tell you what people are capable of or what they should do, but it can tell you what people often do do. Data cannot tell you what the best health care system is, but it can tell you the life expectancies of people with various illnesses in different countries, the average cost of treatments, or the average wait times for procedures. Data cannot tell you what marriage is or what culture has a desirable family structure, but it can tell you who gets divorced and how frequently. And data cannot tell you how accurately data answers all the worlds problems -- though there is data on how much more data we produce very year. Indeed if the data I've seen on that point is accurate, the age of data is just beginning.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bush: Truman or Nixon

One hears rather often that George W. Bush has ended his presidency with record low approval ratings. Some articles I've read have said (apparently incorrectly) that they are the lowest ever.

The above was sent to me yesterday, and it provides an interesting comparison. Two presidents left office with approvals as low as Bush's: Truman, who faced a struggling post-war economy and a increasingly difficult situation in the Korean War; and Nixon, who was in the middle of being impeached when he resigned.

History has been far kinder to Truman, overall, than Nixon. Indeed, I suspect that few people know that Truman ended his presidency as unpopular as Nixon and Bush. Certainly, I hadn't realized it. It remains to be seen whether, in 50 years time, Bush will be seen as more like the former or the latter.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Road Trip

The Darwins just returned yesterday from a weekend trip. You guys, I used to think I was a fairly competent driver. Not all that much phases me, and audio books make the time flow easily for the kids. (I'm not so sanguine about overly-frequent bathroom stops, but this too shall pass.)

But I've discovered my driving Waterloo: a perfect storm situation consisting of a high-construction area, a semi in the right lane, and a concrete barrier that's right up on the white line of the left lane. I really don't like driving next to concrete barriers at the best of times (though Darwin points out that unlike a car, a concrete barrier isn't going to move at you). But at night, wedged next to a semi, at 60 MPH? My shoulders and knuckles still ache from being tensed.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Let's go to the movies!

It's been a long time since I've been to a movie theater, and I've had the yen to sit in a seat with cupholders and eat high-cholesterol popcorn in the glow of the screen. What to see, what to see? I'd been thinking about Doubt or Slumdog Millionaire, but maybe I should wait for some of 2009's stunning line-up, as previewed by Iowahawk:

Dark Spinach: Brooding, conflicted superhero sailor man (Matt Damon) must face his own inner demons and canned vegetable addiction to save his anorexic lover (Gwyneth Paltrow) in the violent screen adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel. Featuring Mickey Rourke as Bluto.

The Royal Fluffers: Lovable band of misfit stoners with Jew-fros trick Queen Elizabeth into filming a porno in this sweet coming-of-age teen fart bong sex comedy from Judd Apatow. Starring Jonah Sethberg, Seth Justinstein, Jay Justin Jonahbluth, Ron Jeremy, and Helen Mirren. (British release titled “On Her Majesty’s Secret Cervix”)

Angel Soft This: In a shocking and sometimes humorous indictment of the toilet paper industry, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock documents the ravages he suffers after 30 straight days of non-stop butt-wiping.

Fearful Deadly Fear: Blacklisted 1950’s screenwriter Damon Runyan (Tim Robbins) writes a secret screenplay about the the McCarthy-era blacklists, in this 1950’s blacklist drama set against the background of the McCarthy era blacklists.

Lotta Splainin: Javier Bardem plays a verbally abusive Cuban bandleader and Cate Blanchett a neglected woman with a secret Vita-meata-vegamin addiction in this beautifully filmed marital drama set in the repressive 1950s. With Larry the Cable Guy and Kate Winslett as Fred and Ethel.

Lunch Lady: poignant story of school cook turned playground serial strangler has generated advanced Oscar buzz for star Scarlett Johannson, who reportedly gained 400 pounds, facial tattoos and gum disease for the role.

There's lots more where these came from.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Intimations of Mortality

We all know it, of course, but lately I've been confronted with the fact that life may end suddenly, at any stage. This past week, an old friend dropped dead of a heart attack at age 30. And yesterday, my 15-year-old brother was walking to the bus from school when some guy came out of a parking lot, pulled a gun on him, and demanded his backpack. Fortunately my brother was unharmed and the most important thing that was lost was his American History textbook (he had his cell phone, his iPod, and his wallet in his pockets), but WHAT THE HECK? This crazy person might have killed my brother over a bag of schoolbooks. A brother, a son, a friend, and an all-around good guy might have been lost to the world for the sake of the few items someone thought a schoolkid would carry.

My brother is taking it all in good stride, though he was understandably shaken. I'm full of gratitude today that the people I love are alive and unharmed, which seems a bit less certain than it did yesterday morning.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

How to Get a Job

One of the things that's been keeping me busy lately has been hiring. Contrary to the overall economic environment, the particular segment of Large Corp. Inc. that I work for has been growing rapidly, and the team that I work on has been hiring for five slots over the last couple months. So much of my time has been spent looking at resumes, doing phone interviews, in-person interviews, and discussing who fits what role.

I hope none of our readers will find themselves involuntarily in the job market over the coming months, but on the off-chance that you do find yourself writing a resume in the near future, a few thoughts from someone who's just finished reading a lot:

- Keep it short. I've received resumes of up to six pages, and in no case has there actually been enough valuable information there that it needed to be more than two. Try as hard as you can to stick to two pages or less.

- Bullet. Like many others who love prose, I weep for the powerpoint-ization of modern communication. However, think of the poor soul sitting reading a stack of resumes and trying to grasp them quickly while keeping up with his other work. 3-4 well written bullets for each past position (plus bulleted sections on your skills and your highlights) makes for much easier reading than big block paragraphs.

- Pick one or two themes for your overall resume and focus everything you say around them. One good friend of mine who recently landed a job told me he was writing his resume with an eye to emphasizing "resourceful" as his primary quality. When I ran the finished product by my boss, literally the first words out of his mouth were, "He certainly sounds like a resourceful problem solver."

- Don't "google bomb" your resume. As at many large companies, we get submissions through an online interface. One person who was "resourceful" in the wrong ways took a dozen keywords and phrases out of a job description we posted and simply included the phrases as bullets at the top of the resume as "core competencies".

- Sound good, but don't lie. If you say that you were "responsible for a project which saved the company $15 million in annual expenses" and in an initial interview it becomes clear that you were a minor player on the team that achieved this and can't even describe the project all that clearly, you end up looking rather bad.

- Don't get too cute. Use a normal, readable font for your resume. Don't print on funky colored paper or put it in a special binder. Don't include letters of introduction or samples of your work (especially lots and lots) unless you're asked to.

- Personality can help. If there's something genuinely fascinating about your history which can be stated briefly, that will sometimes provide the hook which gets a second read or lands you in the interview pile. "Spent one semester in Rome where all classes were taken in Italian." "Hobbies: I am an expert cook, play the drums, and have five children." "Spent a year as a one room schoolteacher in an African tribal village." It won't get you hired if you're not qualified, but if there are a lot of basically qualified resumes it may get you brought in simply because you sound like an interesting person to meet.

When interviewing:

- Try to be as concise and linear as possible in answering questions.

And yet at the same time:

- Make an effort to explain clearly in terms that your audience will understand what your past positions involved and why they were important to the company. If you simply say something along the lines of, "A lot of it was insurance industry stuff, it's pretty different from what you do." the interviewers will take away from this the impression that you either didn't understand what you were doing very well or didn't care about it very much. We can't understand every detail of another industry, but being able to explain things in broad terms (especially if you can explain how it might be similar to what we do) is much more impressive than not trying.

A Letter to the Apocalypse

Via Ross Douthat, I ran into this Slate article about the Letter of Last Resort:
At this very moment, miles beneath the surface of the ocean, there is a British nuclear submarine carrying powerful ICBMs (nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles). In the control room of the sub, the Daily Mail reports, "there is a safe attached to a control room floor. Inside that, there is an inner safe. And inside that sits a letter. It is addressed to the submarine commander and it is from the Prime Minister. In that letter, Gordon Brown conveys the most awesome decision of his political career ... and none of us is ever likely to know what he decided."

The decision? Whether or not to fire the sub's missiles, capable of causing genocidal devastation in retaliation for an attack that would—should the safe and the letter need to be opened—have already visited nuclear destruction on Great Britain. The letter containing the prime minister's posthumous decision (assuming he would have been vaporized by the initial attack on the homeland) is known as the Last Resort Letter....

According to the reporters for BBC Radio 4, the safe containing the safe containing the Letter of Last Resort is to be opened only in the event of a nuclear attack on Britain that kills both Prime Minister Gordon Brown and a second, not identified person—the person he's designated as his alternate nuclear decision-maker in case of his death.

Slate author Ron Rosenbaum's reaction to this situation is not positive:
With all due respect to our British cousins, this seems, well, insane. Or it highlights the fact that the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction—insanity that was obtained during the Cold War and that we thought we'd left behind—still exists as real policy, however deeply problematic it remains in this and many other respects. (The fact that British defense officialdom allowed the reporters to know about the Last Resort Letter suggests that they're proud of this system, evidence that a kind of group madness grips Her Majesty's Royal Navy.)

The old-fashioned, pen-and-ink-on-paper quality of it all (quill pen, perhaps?) somehow makes the system seem like it emanated from a 19th-century madhouse out of Wilkie Collins. Which makes it even more profoundly shocking that the system is still in place.

Perhaps it all has to do with how one deals with the idea of worldly authority and with one's approach towards human history, but I don't at all share Rosenbaum's hysterical reaction. That within the first weeks in office a PM is called on to set aside the jubilation of party dominance and plans for consolidating new-won power and sober himself to write by hand five copies of a letter to the end of the world (or at least, his world) strikes me has having a certain tragic grandeur, and providing a valuable reminder of the incredible temporal responsibilities that rest on our modern world leaders.

I suspect that the US approach to these things is less evocative, but frankly I'd be encouraged to know that our president-elect would be pulled away from the cheering crowds for a few hours during his first weeks in office and told to think a little bit more soberly than the "Yes we can!" Bob-the-Builder slogan which swept him into office while penning a letter that would shape a world in which the US no longer existed.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Your Daily Dose of Laughter

It's high past time I added Dr. Boli's Celebrated Magazine to the blogroll. Along with Wondermark, it's my daily dose of absurdist Victoriana humor.

Guided story writing

Seems like when Darwin and I were in grade school, there was a craze to teach poetry by having youngsters jump write in and write a poem, regardless of the fact that the youngsters had been taught nothing about what a poem is or how to write one. ("It rhymes!") To my mind, the first step in learning to write is to listen to poems and stories in order to develop a taste for the mental flavor of prose and poetry. The next step is guided writing.

A child develops a skill first by watching someone perform a task, then by doing the task with help (while imitating what they've observed). Once the child has practiced the task with help and correction, he's ready to try it on his own. We're at the helping stage here. I have the girls narrate a story and provide plot elements, and then I write it down as a narrative, explaining how I'm crafting the ideas and dialogue into structured sentences, and developing the flow. For example, here is this morning's project, with our work in parentheses.

Rose Beauty

("What's the name of your character? Where does she live? What did her parents do?")

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Rose Beauty, because she was a beautiful as a rose. She lived in a house painted with blue and red and orange squigglezags. Her father died when she was eleven ("When did her father die," I asked. "When she was born?" "When she was eleven, " said Eleanor firmly.), and her mother was a scrubwoman.

One day she met an old witch woman. (We debated on how to describe this character -- a sorceress? An old hag? "Witch woman" was the preferred descriptor.)

"Good day, old granny," Rose greeted the woman. (At first Rose just said hello, but I suggested some alternate greetings, and Julia wanted the witch called "Granny" rather than "old mother". And instead of just writing "said Rose", I added the greeting.)

"Please give me a drink of water, my dear. If you don't, I will cast a spell on you."

"Here you are, granny," said Rose, fetching a cup of water.

"Now my must wash my dishes, or else I will cast a spell on you." (Julia liked the spell formulation.)

"Yes, granny," said Rose, and scrubbed the dishes clean.

"Now you must sweep the floor," said the witch, "or else I will eat you." (Eleanor got tired of the spells.)

"I'll make it shine, granny," said Rose, and she swept the floor clean. (I suggested this as a way of pepping up the usual "Yes, granny".)

"You're a good girl, Rose, and you deserve a reward," Granny told the girl. "If you go to the stable, you'll find a surprise."

In the stable, Rose found a red horse with wings.

"You're so beautiful!" exclaimed Rose. "I'll call you Scarlet." The horse nuzzled her hand. (Julia wanted to name the horse Black Beauty at first, but I pointed out that it was an odd name for a red horse, and suggested Scarlet.)

They flew off to seek their fortune. On a beach ("Where did they go?") they discovered a chest that was fastened with huge brass locks. (Description of the chest built up through discussion.) Next to the chest there was a hill of sand with a shovel stuck in it. Rose began to dig. Two feet down she found a rind of heavy golden keys. (The girls were all for the keys being buried, so I asked them how Rose would know the keys were buried. Eleanor liked the shovel, and Julia wanted two feet down.) The keys fit perfectly in the locks. Inside the chest were heaps of coins, precious jewels, and beautiful dresses. On top of everything sat a note on yellowing paper that read:
My dear, I give these riches to you because you have a kind heart. Be sure to use these riches to help the poor.
(Julia came up with the idea that the old witch had left the chest for Rose.)

Rose married a prince and they were always kind to the poor. They lived happily ever after.


Some of the story was direct transcription, but much of the final form was me crafting suggestions aloud as I wrote them down. The girls get a sense of the different ways a basic formula can be developed and structured. When they get older I'll let them write stories on their own and then edit them for grammar and flow. Hopefully by then they'll have had enough exposure to the way a writer can use the tools of the craft that any flaws in their writing will stem from exuberance, not ignorance.

Conspicuous Compassion

I'm always taken with a good turn of phrase, and so I very much enjoyed Blackadder's post on Conspicuous Compassion.

Culture Clash

It was as the priest was incensing the altar (after the presentation of the gifts and before moving into the main text of the Eucharistic rite) and the choir was giving its all to a rendition of Flow River Flow that it occured to me: One of these things does not belong with the other.

Friday, January 09, 2009

What Makes a Job "Best" or "Worst"

The Wall Street Journal published the results of an annual ranking of Best And Worst Jobs.

There are some interesting picks in there. The #1 best job is Mathematician and #12 is Philosopher, coming in right behind #11: Economist. Academic jobs overall did well (#4 Biologist, #7 Historian, #20 Astronomer) though other high skills office jobs ranked as well: #2 Actuary, #3 Statistician, #5 Software Engineer, #9 Industrial Designer, #10 Accountant.

One thing that struck me was that nearly every job in the top twenty involved sitting at a desk and thining a lot (with the biggest exception being #14 Parole Officer.) Of the bottom 20 we have: #181 Firefighter, #182 Child Care Worker, #187 Auto Mechanic, #196 EMT, #199 Dairy Farmer, and #200 Lumberjack.

Looking at the methodology from Career Cast, working outdoors, physical labor, and struss/urgency were all considered to be negative factors in rating careers. I can see why many people might have these preferences -- especially if they are college educated analysts sitting at desks over at Career Cast -- but that makes it a bit more of a "careers like mine" ranking more than a "best" ranking.

I wonder what would happen if you specifically rated based on the satisfaction of workers with their own jobs, how highly they rate their expectations continuing in that career, how much they would recommend their career to others, and how satisfied they are with their current income and future income potential.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Fr. Neuhaus on Death

Good writing provides, in this mortal world, a sort of temporary life after death -- allowing us to continue to communicate, though one-sidedly, with those who have since gone on to meet their maker. And so it seems quite appropriate that on the day of Fr. Neuhaus's death, First Things reprints an article of his about how our lives lead up to dying.
We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already underway. The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well. Most of us are at ease in discussing what makes for a good life, but we typically become tongue-tied and nervous when the discussion turns to a good death. As children of a culture radically, even religiously, devoted to youth and health, many find it incomprehensible, indeed offensive, that the word “good” should in any way be associated with death. Death, it is thought, is an unmitigated evil, the very antithesis of all that is good.
Do read it, and take a moment to say a prayer for a man who has helped so many to appreciate the unity of faith and reason.

Researcher Ravages Virginity Pledges

This was originally going to be a post about how stupid or ideological reporters took a study and drew unreasonable conclusions about it. Then I read the original study and realized it was actually a case of a researcher trying to draw conclusions that do not even remotely follow from the results of her study.

It seems that Janet Elise Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins University did a study entitled, "Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Matched Nonpledgers," which was published in the January 1st edition of Pediatrics..

The methodology was to compare teenagers who took virginity pledges with teenagers who were similar in all other respects (religiosity, family life, attitudes towards sex, etc.) but did not take the pledges.
SUBJECTS AND METHODS. The subjects for this study were National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health respondents, a nationally representative sample of middle and high school students who, when surveyed in 1995, had never had sex or taken a virginity pledge and who were >15 years of age (n = 3440). Adolescents who reported taking a virginity pledge on the 1996 survey (n = 289) were matched with nonpledgers (n = 645) by using exact and nearest-neighbor matching within propensity score calipers on factors including prepledge religiosity and attitudes toward sex and birth control. Pledgers and matched nonpledgers were compared 5 years after the pledge on self-reported sexual behaviors and positive test results for Chlamydia trachomatis, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, and Trichomonas vaginalis, and safe sex outside of marriage by use of birth control and condoms in the past year and at last sex.

RESULTS. Five years after the pledge, 82% of pledgers denied having ever pledged. Pledgers and matched nonpledgers did not differ in premarital sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and anal and oral sex variables. Pledgers had 0.1 fewer past-year partners but did not differ in lifetime sexual partners and age of first sex. Fewer pledgers than matched nonpledgers used birth control and condoms in the past year and birth control at last sex.

CONCLUSIONS. The sexual behavior of virginity pledgers does not differ from that of closely matched nonpledgers, and pledgers are less likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease before marriage. Virginity pledges may not affect sexual behavior but may decrease the likelihood of taking precautions during sex. Clinicians should provide birth control information to all adolescents, especially virginity pledgers.
Watch the slight of hand here: Previous studies had showed that people who take virginity pledges delay sex longer and have fewer partners, statistically, than those who don't. However those who take virginity pledges are generally much more religious, come from stabler and more religious families, and have more negative attitudes towards premarital sex and birth control than the general population. So this study takes those who have taken virginity pledges and compares their outcomes to people with the same levels of religiosity, family support, and sexual attitudes -- and (surprise, surprise) finds that people who take virginity pledges and those who share their beliefs and lifestyles but haven't taken pledges have very similar outcomes. The piece of paper itself does not prevent premarital sex! Who would have thought?

Now the study author has a point that whereas the number of virginity pledges signed is often taken as a measure of success for abstinence-based programs, it could well be that these programs are simply making more measurable a segment of the population who are already showing a higher than average propensity to delay sex till marriage. Of those in the study who had taken virginity pledges or who had similar characteristics to those who had, roughly 55% had had pre-marital sex by around age 25. By comparison, a 2002 survey found that 75% of all Americans have had premarital sex by age 20. (There's some fuzziness here in that from the working I think the data in the Pediatrics study may only be the pre-marital sex rate for those who are unmarried -- but I would assume that the pre-marital sex rate for those who are married would not necessarily be higher than for those unmarried so I'm assuming that the statistic holds.)

The real question one should ask, if trying to judge the worth of abstinence based sex ed programs in schools, is whether these programs create a larger demographic of young people who have the characteristics of the pledge takers -- or at least reduce defection rates among those who already have those characteristics -- not whether the piece of paper itself is instrumental in keeping people from having sex. This study does nothing to show whether abstinence based programs increase or decrease the number of students with the cultural characteristics that would assist in saving sex for marriage. Indeed, as constituted, the study doesn't really produce any interesting or useful results at all.

My guess, if someone were to ask, is that public school abstinence programs do not actually achieve much of anything (indeed, the evidence is that no kind of sex ed works) because the principles of cultural and religious impartiality at play in our modern public school system preclude giving students much support in developing a worldview in which saving sex for marriage would seem a worthwhile endeavour. However, one would have to conduct a different study to prove that.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Nationalism and the Problems of the Middle East

One of the books I've been reading off and on over the last year has been Avi Shlaim's The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. Shlaim is a one of the Israeli New Historians, which is essentially a "post-Zionist" revisionist school of Israeli history, who criticize the "old historians" of Israel of being too personally involved in the 1948 war and its aftermath, and thus writing history which is essentially apologetics for Israel.

There are places where I get the feeling Shlaim is leaning too hard in the other direction (for instance he spends a good deal of time on the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel in 1948, but glosses over the expulsion of Jews from surrounding Arab countries.) However, given that you know where his leanings are, it's a fascinating read because it's closely based on documented sources, and it focuses on the very real problem of Israel's relationship with the Arab world. Among the things it made me realize, however, was how alien the modern sense of nationalism is to citizens of the US.

This may seem a strange conclusion at first, as it's become a commonplace of a certain kind of rhetoric to accuse the US of being highly nationalistic. This determination is generally made through the simple equation which many modern commentators (especially, it often seems, of a progressive variety) that "patriotic" = "nationalist". So if you think well of your country for any reason at all, you're a nationalist. However nationalism has a definition other than "being fond of your country", and knowing that definition is important because nationalism has played such an important role in the last 150 years of world history.

Nationalism might be defined as that way of thinking according to which regional, cultural, racial or religious groups have a right to political self determination and/or statehood based upon that shared sense of identity. Nationalism seemed a particularly attractive way of thinking to freedom advocates and reformers in the late 19th and early 20ths centuries, confronted as they were with a number of gradually weakening empires with extensive colonial holdings. Italy and Germany had unified in the middle of the 19th century, movements which were given force by a nationalistic sense that there was "One Italy" and "One Germany" in some powerful cultural sense. The Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires, old rivals which each held dominion over many disparate cultures and regions most of which had at various points in the past been independant countries, were faced with numerous regional independence movements, many of them fuelled by a nationalistic sense that each regional people (Greeks, Bosnians, Serbs, Coatians, etc) should rule itself. In the more robust colonial empires of France and Britain, local populations were also increasingly demanding independence based on a sense of national identity and desire for self determination.

As people placed an ever greater emphasis on those cultural elements which were seen as providing a unifying nationality, it is hardly surprising that Jewish intellectuals, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, began to feel that the Jewish people would be perpetually out of place. Significant Jewish minorities were present throughout Europe, yet nowhere did they form a majority, and they had no homeland to congregate in. As the countries in which they lived placed ever greater emphasis on national identity, they naturally felt ever more the outsiders.

In 1896 Theodor Herzl, a secular Jewish intellectual living in Vienna, published a book titled The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat) in which he argued for the creation of a Jewish homeland and made two suggestions as to where it could be done: either in Palestine, because of its historic associations with the Jewish people, or in a vacant area of Argentina. Herzl went on to organize the First Zionist Congress which met in Basil, Switzerland in 1897 and produced the resolution: "The aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by law."

With this aim set, Herzl embarked on a flurry of diplomatic activity, meeting with the Ottoman Sultan, the German Emperor and representatives of the Russian and British governments in an attempt to achieve state sponsorship for creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which was then a loosely controlled province of the Ottoman Empire. The looming difficulty with the Zionist project, however, was expressed by a group of rabbis from Vienna who went on an exploratory trip to Palestine and cabled back, "The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man."

Seeing as by 1900 most attractively habitable (to European culture) parts of the world were already occupied by one people or another, this was the great difficulty for a people in search of a homeland. (The British in 1903 made the Zionist Congress an offer referred to as The Uganda Programme, suggesting that they take a 5,000sq/mi region of modern-day Kenya as a Jewish homeland, but among other difficulties, that region too was populated by other people who had no desire for an influx of outsiders.)

Thus, while encouraging both piecemeal Jewish immigration into Palestine and diplomatic attempts to secure sponsorship of a Jewish homeland in Palestine from one of the great powers, the early Zionists mostly attempted to assure themselves that the sparse Arab population in the area would be glad to see them. Herzl published a speculative novel entitled The Old New Land in 1903 charting out the way in which the founding of a Jewish state might go, and in it presented a local Arab character who said of the new state, "The Jews have made us prosperous, why should we be angry with them? They live with us as brothers, why should we not love them?" In the novel, political rights of Jews and non-Jews were the same, and local Arabs gladly adopted the hybrid Jewish-European culture of the new country.

Of course, as increasing numbers of Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine and started making concrete moves towards achieving their own state, things did not work out like this -- to a great extent because the local Arab population was undergoing its own birth of national identity, vastly accellerated by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the Great War, and aided by the thought of European Orientalists such as T. E. Lawrence. There was a Syrian-Palestinian Congress in 1921 which issued a demand for national self-determination by Arabs in the region.

Here we find the source of the intractibility in the conflicts of the Middle East: Arab nationalists want the region of Palestine to be ruled by a country that is specifically Arabic in culture and population. Jewish nationalists want a homeland for Jews in Palestine which is of a politically viable size. And arguably, the 1947 UN-proposed boarders of Israel and the Arab-Palestinian state did not provide either with a viable territory. The map as originally proposed bears a certain resemblance to two squid locked in mortal struggle.

The 1949 armistice map does, arguably, provide Israel with a viable territory, but does not really do so for the Palestinians -- at least, not as Palestinians qua Palestinians. Here we run into nationalism yet again. According to the 1949 armistace, what are now the "occupied territories" in the West Bank were made part of Jordan (itself a new country resulting from the partitioning of former Ottoman lands by the British in 1946).

Jordan was among the countries that attacked Isreal in the 1967 War, and after the war Isreal kept the West Bank, which was strategically positioned and contained both water resources and important historical sites in the history of ancient Isreal. Thus, a large population of Arab-Palestinians (some of them in turn people who had been expelled from Isreali territory back in 1948) found themselves under Israeli control for forty years -- providing plenty of time for fostering a sense of nationality and grievance.

As I said, I think modern Americans are often peculiarly ill-suited to understand these long-simmering (and at times outright flaming) conflicts fed by nationalism, because we are ourselves quite explicitly a large country made up of many diverse ethnic and cultural groups. Certainly, there is a unifying American culture, and attachment to that is one of the characteristics that it at times labeled as American nationalism. But we clearly lack any sense in our national experience that it is necessary for one to live in a country which is defined both by one's cultural and regional identity.

To me, with my American background, it seems obvious that the Palestinians should either seek to re-unify with Jordan and simply be happy as Jordanians, or else seek full integration into Israel and enjoy being Israeli-Arab citizens. And if those in that part of the world could somehow be cleansed of nationalism, those would seem to be the two options that would most lend themselves to peace. (A two state solution could potentially work as well -- but given the small size and strategic importance of the West Bank, not to mention its recent history, it seems hard to imagine a stable, prosperous and friendly government coming into being there.) But short of that there is an intractible situation with no obvious solution. The Israelis (not surprisingly given what the Jewish people has suffered in the last century) want to have a state they can call home in Palestine, and the Palestinian Arabs want to have a state which is a Palestinian Arab state in precisely the same place. There is not a way to reconcile those two desires.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Contraceptive or Abortive?

Clearly as Catholics, we're not supposed to be doing either one, nor do I have any desire to, but in regards to questions of conscience and regulation the facts of the matter are clearly important. It's been discussed often in pro-life circles over the years that oral contraception is designed such that it sometimes allows fertilization but prevents implanation -- thus in effect causing a spontaneous abortion several hours after conception. This is generally applied even more so to "morning after" pills, which is a reason why some pharmicists have conscience objections to dispensing such medications. Given that that Protestant half of the pro-life movement is often fairly comfortable with birth control in concept, this "the pill causes abortion a certain percentage of the time" argument has often been used to help unify the pro-life movement against birth control.

Regardless of whether it's true, I think that clearly the contraceptive mentality and the approach to sex it entails is certainly a major cause of support for abortion.

All that said, I'd very curious as to the reaction of Catholics more educated in the precise medical details of human reproduction than I am to this Slate post, which argues that the evidence for abortificant properties to The Pill and Plan B is slim to none.

I've no particular interest in endorsing Saletan's opinions generally, he's the one who made the to my mind rather nutty argument a while back that Planned Parenthood was overall an anti-abortion organization because contraception prevents unwanted pregnancies. But if it's correct as a matter of medical science that it's very, very rare for oral contraceptive and even "morning after" pills to cause spontaneous abortions, we'll do nothing but make ourselves look unconcerned with the truth (and the scientific truth of embryology is very much on our side when it comes to what the pro-life movement says about abortion as opposed to what the "just a clump of cells" people say) if we keep pushing it.

Feedback from those with medical or scientific knowledge of the issue would be appreciated.

Getting Involved in a Land War in Germania

Generally speaking, the Romans pulled back on making further progress into northern Germany after the massacre at Teutoburg Forest late in the reign of Augustus. However, archeologists appear to have found a battle site just south of Hanover (in Lower Saxony) where a Roman legion squared off against Germanic tribesman in the mid 3rd Century A.D. Science Magazine has one of the more complete versions of the story.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Year in review

Via Melanie, the Blog in Review Meme:
Post the first sentence of your first blog post of each month. You can also add a favorite picture from each month.
No pix because I didn't feel like it, but here are the sentences.

When the Darwin children tore the wrapping off their Christmas presents last week, they bore tags like "From Mom and Dad" and "From Grandma" but not "From Santa".
UPDATE: TS writes to inform us that an update has been posted to the link below, in which CleanFlicks denies that the offender ever worked for or was associated with them.
I got a call from my younger sister tonight. "Darwin, do you know if a consecration with bread that is probably leavened is valid?"

A National Review piece by Arthur C. Brooks today notes an interesting study result:
In 1996, the General Social Survey asked a large sample of Americans whether they agreed that, “The government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality.”

My daughters' preferred method of selecting library books is to sweep an armful off a shelf into a basket and stagger over to a table to peruse them.


“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.
Over at Teeny Manolo, Glinda has put up a list of the pros and cons of having only one child.
A couple weeks ago, MrsDarwin and I drove by the tea shop in the "old down town" of our area (a single street with difficult parking which is not within walking distance of anywhere and not easy to get to, but features a dozen picturesque old buildings on each side of the street and the public library down at the end) and saw that it was closing its physical premises and becoming an online-only business.
Our ability to speak, not just communicate but truly use language, is one of those things that sets us apart from the rest of creation.
I had to run out and do some errands during lunch, and then picked up a hamburger to eat at my desk.
As if to make sure I can't spend too much of my time reading and writing political blogging, the job has me in training the first half of this week.
Taking a quiet Saturday morning to catch up on reading the newspaper, I was perusing a WSJ article on the lost virtue of prudence in our modern American society when I came across this jarring note: "The puzzling thing is that, under normal circumstances, our Americanus prudens should be flourishing."
I'm glad to see that one of these features what seems to be our most popular jump-off: "I was reading this article in the WSJ..."

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Happy Epiphany

C + M + B

For those of us who are gentile Christians, the feast of the Epiphany holds a special meaning, as it recalls that Christ was done homage as a king by Magi from the East at the time of his birth. Though Matthew's gospel provides few details, the Magi are traditionally recalled as three, with the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

The traditional date for Epiphany is January 6th, but since our bishops have seen fit to put the feast on the nearest Sunday, I hope that no one will take it amiss if I wish everyone a happy Epiphany today.

I first encountered this classic orchestration of We Three Kings by Eugene Ormandy when I was a child, watching my dad give the annual Christmas Star Show up at the Griffith Observatory. Since the recording is hard to find, and there too it the music provided background to a montage of artistic representations of the Three Kings, I took the liberty of putting together a YouTube video for the occasion.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

History Bleg

Does anyone have any suggestions for a book on early American history that would put things in perspective for a 15-year old guy having a hard time keeping the details straight?

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Buckle Your Seatbelts

This is going to be a fun ride.

The blogger formally known as The Raving Atheist is now The Raving Theist, and shows that conversion in no way impairs one's sense of humor.

Just so.

Reading some of the "I wonder how this guy went from being so rational to being a godidiot" comments (getting linked to by PZ Myers doesn't exactly raise the tone of one's commentariat -- though to be fair the "godidiot" term was one used frequently by Raving Atheist before becoming a Christian) I've been rather struck by degree to which those who spend lots of hours frequenting online atheist watering holes refuse to admit that one can be rational and still be a theist. For people who supposedly take all their pointers from science, this seems a rather odd view, since one of the obvious corollaries of the scientific method is that there are almost always multiple rational explanations for a given set of evidence. However, two different explanations as to what underlying process produces the evidence will generally produce different predictions about the world. And the scientific process involves trying to see which (if any) of these sets of predictions bears out in reality.

The question of God's existence gets prickly, in part because atheists and theists often not only do not agree on what the predictions of theism and atheism would be, but they also don't agree on what evidence currently exists. Speaking for myself, I think that a form of atheistic materialism is a rational conclusion given a certain body of evidence that one might have personally experienced or read about -- however I think that the predictions which atheistic materialism would make about reality do not fit with my experience of reality. (For instance: I do think that free will exists. And I do think that qualities such as Justice and Goodness have objective existence.) Thus, I reject atheistic materialism. However, I think one can hold it perfectly rationally -- so long as one is willing to also assent to its implications.

The difficulty with the louder of the Raving Theist's commenters is that they do not seem to see it as remotely possible that one could be rational and come to the conclusion that theism is true. The which suggests to me, at least, a certain narrowness of viewpoint -- and perhaps a lack of understanding of how evidence, theory and prediction work when applied to something philosophical or theological rather than the question of which ball will fall faster off the Tower of Pisa.