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

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lenten Meditations on the Divine Comedy: Our Story So Far

It's Lent, and so on DarwinCatholic it's time to return to Dante's great Christian spiritual epic, the Divine Comedy. Over the last two years we've worked through the Inferno and the first twenty-one cantos of the Purgatorio. This year we'll cover at least the remaining 12 cantos of the Purgatorio, and hopefully a good chunk of the Paradiso as well. But first a little review, as a help for readers old and new, and also to get myself back in the Dantean groove.

Too many people recall the Divine Comedy, if they recall it at all, as that weird, dark, violent medieval poem that they had to wade through in college, written by that dour Italian guy who put all his enemies in hell. This image is hardly helped by the fact that while many people are assigned to read at least parts of Inferno, few read Purgatorio and fewer still read Paradiso. And yet this really is too bad, because it is only through reading all the way through Dante's great work that his purpose comes fully into view.

A Catholic to the core, Dante's story which ranges from the torments in the deepest, frozen pits of hell (for Dante's hell has indeed frozen over) to the beatific vision, is at core a story of conversion and the cleansing of sins. The first lines of the Inferno read:

Halfway through the journey we are living
I found myself deep in a darkened forest,
For I had lost all trace of the straight path.
(Inf. I, 1-3)

At middle age, the in the jubilee year of 1300, Dante finds himself off the path towards Christ, and lost in a wood of sin and attachment to sin. He tries to struggle back to the path unaided, but is overcome by the figures of the vices he is attached to. And from thence he is rescued by Virgil, the great Roman poet, released from Limbo by command of a lady in heaven to guide Dante through hell, up the mountain of purgatory, and at last to heaven. Virgil must lead Dante through the first two thirds of his journey, because Dante has lost his faith so thoroughly that it is through the humanism of art and natural virtue, as symbolized by the great pagan poet in whose work many in the Middle Ages saw prophetic echoes of the messiah to come, that he must rediscover the nature of sin and, rejecting it, develop virtue.

Thus, as the poets descend through hell Dante comes to understand the nature of sin. In upper levels of hell, where the sins of indecision (see: The Lost) and mis-placed love (see: Swept Away by Sin) are punished, Dante often finds himself sympathizing with the damned and questioning how God could be so hard as to punish them thus. But as they travel deeper and Dante's vision becomes clearly, he comes to see the repulsiveness of sin. Yet along the way humanity is never lost. Dante has a tearful conversation with one of his old teachers among the burning sands of the sodomites. And in the frozen lake at the center of hell we read the equal parts pitiable and shocking story of betrayal and hate feeding upon itself.

At last the poets and the reader as well are battered and sobered by all the horrors they have seen. They reach the very deepest part of hell, where Satan himself, giant in size and chewing on the souls of Judas, Brutus and Cassius -- history's three greatest traitors. To leave hell the poets climb down Satan's shaggy fur, through a channel in the ice, until they pass the center of the globe and reach a winding stair that leads them up to the other side of the world where Mt. Purgatory stands.

While Inferno is increasingly dark and terrible, Purgatorio seems saturated with sunlight as it opens. A ship of souls approaches the shore, driven by an angel whose flapping wings send the vessel skimming over the water. As the souls disembark, they are soon running at full speed down the beach, eager to make progress towards the salvation they are not certain of.

The poets follow them, and as they do so meet groups of souls who are purging themselves of those vices which keep them from God. First among these are the late repentant and those so enwrapped in earthly power and glory that they paid little attention to God until their deaths. Traveling up the mountain, the poets meet those purging pride, envy, wrath, sloth, and greed.

And there, with Dante's upward journey, I will be resuming. The path through purgatory spiral ever upward until Dante reaches the earthly paradise which serves as a launching pad towards heaven, where images of sin and its purgation are replaced with example of virtue, drawing ever closer to the beatific vision, in whose presence Dante's artistic powers at last fail him:

As the geometer who sets himself
To square the circle and who cannot find,
For all his thought, the principle he needs,

Just so was I on seeing this new vision
I wanted to see how our image fuses
Into the circle and finds its place in it,

Yet my wings were not meant for such a flight —
Except that then my mind was struck by lightning
Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.

Here powers failed my high imagination:
But by now my desire and will were turned,
Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,

By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
(Para. XXXIII, 133-145)

I do this first of all because I enjoy doing it. I look forward to it each year, though somehow when the discipline of Lent falls away, my ability to keep up the Dante posts falls away as well.

And I hope in the process to share some of the text and images and lessons of one of the greatest literary works of Catholic culture. The Commedia is beautiful both as an artistic and humanistic work, but also as a work of devotion and a guide to the spiritual path, from that gloomy wood halfway through life's journey to the eternal vision of God, which we are called to tread.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by AllenMandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Pre-Lenten Scotch Tasting

Bracing myself for a dry forty days, it seemed a good time to pull down every bottle of Scotch that I currently have in the liquor closet and do a tasting.

If you are somewhat shocked to discover that anyone should even want to own four different varieties of Scotch, this may not be your post -- unless you find such pleasure in the flow of my prose that you can overlook the self-indulgence of the dedicated whisky drinker. If, on the other hand, you had expected to see at least six bottles in the picture above, you are my man (or woman -- though MrsDarwin might have a thing or two to say about that).

While I would not wish to violate the Wedding of Cana Principle, that one should begin with the best drink and proceed to the lesser quality once it's impossible to tell the difference, in this case I chose to begin at the bottom and work up. My reasoning here is that if I begin with the richest flavor, I will find it impossible to recognize those virtues which the milder varieties have by the time I get to them.

Thus we begin with Teacher's Highland Cream, an old-school blended Scotch which was a big seller in the US at the beginning of the last century. I ran into Teacher's via the WSJ drinks column focusing on "recession Scotch". Teacher's got high marks as surprisingly high quality for a blended Scotch which sells under $15/liter. This is a surprisingly good Scotch, better than many of the less expensive single malts that I've had over the years. After I introduced a good friend out here to it a couple months ago, he passed the recommendation on to his father-in-law, who abandoned his brand of twenty years to adopt Teachers. It's not a miraculous quaff, but this is a solidly good Scotch. A little smokey (though not an Islay smokestack by any stretch), the very slightest hint of malty-sweetness, with hints of caramel and wood. This isn't great, but it is very good. And if you are looking for a good basic Scotch to pour over the rocks or knock back as a night cap, this bottle belongs in your cupboard.

Next up, The Balvenie 10 Year Single Malt. MrsDarwin gave this bottle to me as a birthday present, and we've moved up the price range a bit. This bottle will set you back $40-50. You can tell, too. The smell is deeper and the taste is fuller. Switch back to Teacher's now for a sip and it tastes pale and more like fresh grains, still rough and un-aged. (Teacher's is only aged 36 months.) This isn't an old Scotch at ten years, but it's full, more orangey then yellow in color, and has deeper tones of malt and wood and smoke and that peculiarly Scotch-y taste which is often called a "hint of iodine", though I would imagine none of us sit around drinking iodine. Do not put ice in this Scotch. At most a tiny bit of spring water, but I'm all for straight up. And get it in a glass where you can smell it, perhaps even a small brandy snifter. This is a very polished Scotch, and without any of the quirkier tastes which can make some Scotches harder to learn to love.

Third we have The Glenlivet, 12 Year Single Malt. This (as with all my single malts at this time) is a Speyside Scotch, and as such it's fairly accessible. This is darker tasting and more medicinal than the Balvenie, however. Though both Scotches are matured in Bourbon barrels (with typical Scottish thrift, Scotch is always matured in recycled barrels from other liquors or wines) you can taste the Bourbon much more clearly here, though the color is actually a little lighter. Not smokey, but a little more burnt and perhaps a hint of malty sweetness under it all. Glenlivet is one of the top selling brands of Scotch, and one can tell why. I like it but all things considered I don't know if I'd buy more if it. It occupies a middle ground between the deep mahogany Scotches and the lighter more stringent ones. The lingering note is a bit medicinal. A refined and respectable Scotch, but I think one wants to go more out towards one or another of the peripheries.

And last of all, we move to the deep amber Macallan Cask Strength Single Malt. This is a serious Scotch, bottled at a full 58% alcohol and costing about $60/bottle. (Though compared to other cask strength scotches, that's actually cheap.) Put this in a glass with some space -- the shot glass I'm holding here doesn't do it justice. It has a strong nose of caramel and malt and sherry and sheer alcoholic power. And as I drink it straight up (as is my habit with all Scotches) it's a bit of an assault on the tongue, though given its strength its fairly smooth. This is aged in Sherry casks, and you can tell. It's the only one of the Scotches to have a fruity taste -- though we're talking dark, aged fruit here. No girliness. There are medicinal/iodine undertones here too, and caramel and the slightest bit of sweetness. Cask strength Scotch (at least straight up) is not for the first or second time Scotch buyer, but this is the real thing. Any of the other Scotches will taste like pale whiskey if you go back now.

This is dark and primal. A taste of the moors and the fens and bogs. A dark, cold, Scottish taste. Unwashed, kilted, violent. No pansy orange importedgermanmonarchsforthisscotch... Real. dArk. BloodY. CLayMorE. Kill, dark, peat, iron, kilt, oatmeal, thrift, presbyterianenlightenmentcapitalismtheoryofmoralsentiment work e t hi c thi ngy...

Tell that woman to stop shouting in my ear and critiquing my spelling. I'm not drunk. I'm only being taken captive by my muse. And her Scotch. My that muse can drink Scotch.

Now into the cupboard my bonnies. I'll see you at Eastertide.

A House made for a Family

So you want to live in Cincinnati -- specifically the west side. You have a growing family and need room. You want to be within walking distance of both a Catholic parish with a parochial school and a large girls' high school. You want a house which has enough corners and nooks that everyone can be around and yet not be under someone else's feet. And beautiful woodwork would be a nice plus.

Well, look no further. My dad finds it time to downsize and and is wanting to put his house on the market soon.

Here's a house that's been tried and proven by a large family. This is a traditional foursquare, built in (I believe) 1910. Downstairs we have four large rooms, plus a hall and a bathroom. There are beautiful old wood floors, french doors from the living room to the sitting room, a bay with a stained glass window in the dining room, and an antique stove in the kitchen (still in daily use!). The living room has a elegant mantelpiece (the fireplace is defunct, but the wood glows so warmly that you won't mind).

bonus shot of MrsDarwin in the mirror

Upstairs we have three bedrooms (two with a connecting door, one of which is above the dining room and also has the bay with the stained glass window; the master has a sitting area and another lovely mantelpiece) and a bathroom. There's also a hidden back staircase leading to the back yard. The attic has two bedrooms, a big dormer window, and a large closet. The top floor has been completely renovated and has up-to-date wiring. The roof is brand-new.

The back yard is large and would be wonderful for growing a big family garden. The basement is open and could come with a bonus small electric organ.

The house can be a bit of a fixer-upper in places, but it's gorgeous and it's perfect for lots of people -- just ask my five siblings.

Anyone interested? Drop me a note.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Linguistic Politics

It's fascinating the sorts of things a people's language can tell you about them. Some of these things are basic. For instance, though the Indo-European languages share words for a variety of animals and natural features, they lack a common word for ocean. The Indo-Europeans originated on the steppes of Eastern Europe, far from any sea.

I was listening to a recorded lecture on the fall of the Wiemar Republic yesterday, and the instructor pointed out that when we talk about a military overthrow of the legitimate government, we have two words we generally use: coup, which is French, and putsch which is German. We have no English word for it.

Makes you think.

Language can also be a key element of a nationalistic movement. Modern Greek is a very recently standardized language -- formulated from a combination of what was spoken around Athens in the mid 1800s and attempts to bring Classical Greek back into use. The purpose of the language standardization was very specifically to achieve a common Greek identity and culture with connections to its classical history.

A less formal but perhaps even more important process is going on in the Arab world, where the regional dialects of Arabic are gradually being replaced by Modern Standard Arabic, which has become the language of some pan Arab newspapers and TV channels. Until the advent of MSA Arabs from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Lebanon would actually have had a fair amount of difficulty understanding each other. And although theoretically Koranic Arabic was a language everyone was familiar with, Koranic Arabic is more often memorized than understood and spoken, perhaps along the lines of Latin's place in Europe circa 1800.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Reading But Not a Reader

In response to MrsDarwin's Book Check post, MelanieB mentioned Great Books by David Denby. The description appealed to me so much that when we went down to the library last night (so that MrsDarwin could look at the graphic novel 300, which is a whole other story) I looked for and found it.

Denby is a New York Magazine movie reviewer who found himself, in the early 90s, suffering from a sort of literary mid-life crisis. Among the symptoms of this was his reading lots of articles about the place of the "Great Books" in education, and finding himself angry at both his fellow liberals who decried them as the products of "dead white males" and of conservatives who he believed enshrined the Great Books as political and cultural treasures without truly encountering them. (This characterization I disagree with, but like anything I suppose it fits someone, somewhere.) After delivering one too many rants on the topic to his wife, she tells him to go back to Columbia, his alma mater, and re-take the two one year Great Books courses which he recalls enjoying as a freshman in 1961.

The book is the story of his return to Columbia and re-acquintance with the Great Books. In his first chapter, on Homer of course, I was struck by this section where he talks about realizing (as he sinks into reading "great literature" for the first time in a long while) that he had in many ways ceased to be "a reader", although he was constantly reading:
...I no longer had the concentration or the discipline for serious reading; I had lost the habit of just falling into something the way real readers do, devouring it on the bus, in the tub, at the lunch counter. Movies more than satisfied my desire for trash, but when I picked up a serious book, my concentration often wandered after twenty pages. I wanted to read it, but vagrant thoughts came charging in, and the words from the book got caught at a bottleneck leading to my attention. M rhythm had changed. I was a moviegoer, a magazine-reader, a CNN-watcher. Following a breaking story on CNN, I would watch updates at certain points of the day, and then pick up the story again when a car alarm woke me in the middle of the night, then catch the denouement in the morning. This business of being "informed" could be almost nightmarish: If you stayed with the story long enough, you began to feel as if you were a ball rolling over and over, or the hands of a clock coming back to the same point.

I flatter myself that I've never quite reached this point, but one of the reasons I try to make sure I read at least a couple "serious" books each year is that I do often feel this sort of approach to reading/information creeping upon me, though in my case my downfall is the internet and the endless reading and conversation it allows. The staccato tempo of read this, follow a link to that, respond to this, go back to the first, read a bit more, open a linked piece is a separate tab, go back to reading, switch tabs, etc. is addictive, and I often fear that I feel it creeping into how I read "real" things as well as blogs and online articles.

As exemplified by the fact that I stopped reading this book in order to type up this post...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Inequality and the New Aristocracy

Running into this article the other day, I was startled to find how many of my own intellectual hobby horses it touched upon. Arnold Kling and Nich Schulz are economists, and their topic is in equality in the modern economy. They cite Google co-founder (and billionaire) Sergey Brin as an example of many of the forces they believe are driving inequality and list the following major forces:
Technology: Brin’s wealth comes from the famous search engine he pioneered with cofounder Larry Page. Their company is a mere ten years old. And yet in the blink of an eye, he has become one of the richest men in the world.

Winners-take-most markets: Certain mass-market fields tend to simulate tournaments in that they produce just a few big winners along with many losers. These include technology/software, as in the case of Google, but also entertainment (CĂ©line Dion), book publishing (Stephen King), athletics (Tiger Woods), and even some parts of academia, finance, law, and politics (as the impressive post-presidential earnings of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton demonstrate).

Family structure: Both of Brin’s parents were highly educated mathematicians. This increased the likelihood that Brin, too, would be well educated. He studied computer science at the University of Maryland and was in graduate school at Stanford when the Internet business he had built lured him away.

Immigration: Brin was born in Russia, and his family moved to the United States when he was six. He and other foreign-born executives such as Andy Grove of Intel have built wealth at the top of the income distribution. At the same time, a large influx of hard-working but low-skilled immigrants has enlarged the bottom of the income distribution, at least until they achieve the assimilation that historically has required a couple of generations.
There are, I think, a pretty good list of the factors that lead to inequality in the modern economy. Particularly incisive too, I thought, was a distinction they make between kinds of inequality:
Income inequality in the United States consists of two gaps. The first gap is an upper-lower gap, between those with a college education and those without. The second is an upper-upper gap, between those with high incomes and those with extraordinarily high incomes.

The upper-lower gap reflects changes in the structure of the economy. New technologies place a premium on cognitive ability. Harvard University economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have dubbed this “skill-biased technological change.” In today’s economy, more value added comes from knowledge work, and relatively less comes from unskilled labor.

The widening gap between the incomes for college graduates and those for workers who never attend college raises a question. Why doesn’t the supply of college graduates increase? Indeed, despite the benefits that come with higher education, the rate of high school graduation is actually falling, according to the American Bar Foundation’s Paul A. LaFontaine and Nobel laureate James Heckman of the University of Chicago.
It's a little simplistic to use college education as a stand-in for skilled versus unskilled workers, but you get the point. What I do think is quite important, though, is the three-way distinction drawn between lower, upper and upper-upper. The upper-upper group is honestly very, very small. And since one only gets that rich by owning or running companies (directly or via investments) the fact that the upper-upper group is so rich doesn't strike me as worrisome. They may make a good bloody shirt to wave for those wanting to stir up class envy, but they are not "keeping us down" in any economic sense.

The upper group is not keeping the lower one down either, but it is a more troubling barrier because it is in some ways less porous. There are still plenty of jobs to be had that rely primarily on direct manual labor (skilled or unskilled) but as productivity increases, the number of people required to do the work goes down. This has been happening in the manufacturing sector over the last half century:

And happened in agriculture in the first half:


Compounding this is the danger for those going into highly manual work of this kind, is the danger that if one's industry dries up when one is middle aged, it is a lot more difficult to switch to one of the more productive "knowledge worker" industries in middle age. One is more likely to be sucked down into low wage service industry work, which is less amenable to being eliminated through productivity gains -- but tends not to be valued very highly.

The predictor of where one will fall in this income spectrum is, they write, family structure much more than class, ethnicity or nation of origin:
The Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz, in her book Marriage and Caste in America, has documented that for upper-income Americans marital stability has recovered from the disruptions of the 1970s. But for lower-income Americans the problem remains. Since 1980, the proportion of never-married mothers among college graduates has stabilized near 3 percent, while the proportion among high school graduates has risen from 3 percent to 10 percent, and the proportion among high school dropouts has doubled to nearly 15 percent. These figures are important because, as Hymowitz points out, “Virtually all—92 percent—of children whose families make over $75,000 are living with both parents. On the other end of the income scale, the situation is reversed: only about 20 percent of kids in families earning under $15,000 live with both parents.”
Their next argument is, however, a bit of a reach:
A trend is underway in America for marriage to be increasingly “assortative.” That means children of well-educated parents tend to marry one another and the children of less educated parents tend to marry one another. This was less the case a few generations ago. For example, sociologists Christine Schwartz of the University of Wisconsin and Robert Mare of UCLA found that beginning in the early 1970s there was a striking “decline in the odds that those with very low levels of education marry up.” And they found that between 1940 and the late 1970s the likelihood that someone with only a high-school diploma would marry someone with a college degree dropped by over 40 percent.
What they're not taking into account here, I think, is that there was a major change in social conventions between the 40s and the 70s. In 1940, it was not at all required that an upper class young woman go to college, though she certainly might. By 1970, it was an absolute assumption that members of the upper class would send their daughters to college. So I doubt that we're seeing increased like-to-like marriage here so much as that a college education has become more universally the marker of a certain social and economic class.

It's true that once a family tree moves into the upper tiers they are unlikely to send many members back down again, but the reason is, I think, cultural rather than class-based in the sense in which "class" was used in the past. As the society of the US and other developed nations becomes ever more affluent, it becomes necessary to work in very high productivity, high skilled occupations in order to "keep up". And as research increasingly shows, one of the determining factors for education and the ability to deal with knowledge intensive work is the extent to which one is read to and otherwise placed in a learning-friendly environment during one's first four years of life. Thus, people who do "knowledge work" have a much increased propensity to raise children capable of doing the same.

The good news in regards to this kind of class barrier is that it's eminently bridgeable. Any parent with the determination to do so can raise his or her children to be readers and learners (and workers of sums and figures). But it's a much more difficult task for those who lack that background themselves, and thus come to it late. In that sense, the truism that education is today's civil rights issues is... true.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Stress Positions

You would think, given our Darwinian moniker, we would understand the value of fitness, and indeed there has been a gradually escalating attempt in the Darwin household over the last several months to get into shape. Those with long memories may recognize that much of this has to do with MrsDarwin's sibling inadequacy issues.

Reader and family friend Big Tex had recommended this book to MrsDarwin, and since it's easier to keep obligations that we share, MrsDarwin bought me the original men's The New Rules of Lifting as well.

A little over two months in, I've found that there's a deep satisfaction in the mechanical feeling of moving correctly through a lift. Though I've always made intermittent efforts to go to the gym at work, I'd always "worked the machines" and frankly had never seen any results. Doing free lifting is much more satisfying, though I find it difficult to do sets as close together as instructed. (Instead I stand holding a silent conversation with the barbell. "One more set. But this is going to be heavy. Oh man... One more set and then a full rest." Etc.)

However, though the traditional lifts are intimidating to the extent that one does them with more weight, what actually leaves one sore for the next day are the "combo moves". My current bane in this departments is the t-push up. You grab a pair of hex weights (I'm using a pair of 10lb ones, which may sound cream-puffish, but don't knock it till you've tried it) and get down to do a push up. After each push up, you rotate one arm out in an arc until you're vertically up on one arm with the other straight up in the arm, turning your body into a diagonal T. Then back down and do another push up. You alternate sides. Three sets of ten of these is plenty to kick my proverbial ass -- a burro which is getting increasingly cranky with all the abuse he's been taking lately.

(And no, despite my efforts I do not look remotely like the above specimen.)

These sorts of exercise regimens often suggest that you consume a protein shake after working out. Eating we're down with, and besides after doing this sort of thing slurping down something cold and semi-liquid is just what you want. However, most people (including all the smoothie chains) seem to make a protein shake with ice, and this is, to our minds, a big mistake. So the following is the Darwin workout shake recipe.

First off, you must buy bananas in bulk. At least 5lbs at a time. This is because the aptly nicknamed monkeys will steal half of them while they're sitting on the counter working on ripening. If your grocery store discounts bananas which are turning brown already, these are perfect: snap them up.

Peel and freeze gallon ziplocks full of slightly over-ripe bananas.

Now you're ready to make your shake.
Drop two frozen bananas into your blender.
Add milk to bring the level up to the 2.5 cup mark.
Add two scoops of protein powder (don't use chocolate or anything too sweetened -- ours is a basic vanilla)
Add 2-4 heaping spoonfuls of cocoa powder.
quick splash of vanilla extract

Blend. (Makes two adult size shakes.)

Part of the key here is to use lots of cocoa powder. The bananas are already plenty sweet, and the protein powder may be a bit sweet too. So the cocoa powder provides that bitter chocolate balance. It also makes it a lot richer.

And hey, you've just worked out, so you deserve a nice rich shake, right? Knock these back for a few months, and ice cream shakes actually start tasting rather paltry by comparison. Which is another healthy side effect.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Book Check

Darwin and I have been discussing what we want to read next. He's thinking about The Leopard; I'm working through Socrates' dialogues and waiting for Proust and the Squid to arrive from Amazon.

Consider this an open reading thread: tell us what you're reading now, and what you plan to read next.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Seven Quick Takes, Feb. 13

I'm the last one on the boat, I know, but here it is: MrsDarwin does Seven Quick Takes. At least I'm still holding out on a Facebook account.

1. I've been pondering a subject that's close (if not dear) to every parent's heart: poop. Specifically, why does my daughter who is two weeks shy of her third birthday not show any signs of wanting to deposit in the toilet rather than her diaper? And what does it mean that the five-month-old has curds in his? Does this mean he's ready to digest solid food? And why isn't my college degree insurance against spending my days contemplating excrement?

2. Going to see Slumdog Millionaire with friends tonight, after two months of schedule negotiations as to when both couples had a free weekend and we could all get babysitting.

3. Why was it, that when I knew Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
had a two-week limit and I couldn't renew it because it had a hold on it, I started reading it on the thirteenth day? I'd love to tell you all about it, but I only got a third of the way through it.

4. I'm not really a big fan of Valentine's Day not because it's a Hallmark holiday (though it is) but because it's the anniversary of an unhappy event in my life unconnected to any romantic relationship. Anyone else in the situation of having a holiday also be an unrelated sad occasion?

5. A few weeks ago I looked in the mirror and realized that I had suddenly acquired a chipped tooth, with no memory of the event itself. I don't know how or when it happened, but I find it a bit alarming that pieces of me can fall off without my knowledge.

6. I'm reading Socrates' Apology and realizing that it would make a great dramatic presentation. Some theatre company should work up a stage version -- cast a fine elder-stateman actor as Socrates, have the jury and Meletus onstage, and use the Apology as the script. I'd pay to see that.

7. Philip of Macedon would have been about the most important figure of antiquity -- if his son hadn't done everything he did on a larger scale, and at a younger age.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Funny Money

I'm no economist or politico, so I don't have a lot of original thought on the current economic situation, but I did enjoy reading John J. Reilly on the current economic situation:
This is not your average recession. Actually, it's not even a recession at all, in the sense of a historically familiar inflection of the business cycle. It's a technology failure. I have always recoiled at the use of the term "technology" to refer to anything but hardware. I have been particularly annoyed by the way that intellectual property laws now treat financial algorithms like patentable gadgets. Nonetheless, the behavior of the financial system in recent months was a essentially a design failure. Twenty-five years of financial models turned out not to work. The enterprises that grew up to make use of them, and particularly the housing industry, are in many respects morbid; we should not want them to revive, not in their former state. We particularly don't want to "revive" the housing market. We want to anaesthetise it like The Blob in the various movie remarks of that names and carefully dispose of all the pieces. Home ownership can be wonderful, but there is no shame in renting.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Fire Has Been Kindled... the wallets of techno-toy loving bookworms.

Amazon's Kindle 2 is available for pre-order, and I must admit that if I had the toy money I'd almost certainly buy one. The first one struck me as not quite "being there" on the hardware design, but the 2.0 version looks to have cleaned up its lines a lot. And there's something deeply tempting about the idea of being able to carry 1500 volumes around with you all the time. (That this is naught but techie temptation is shown by the fact that it would take me roughly 75 years to read 1500 volumes at my current rate. But hey, they'd be there.)

Family needs and the economy being what they are, I don't see a Kindle making its way into my hands any time soon. Though the consumerist side of me quietly whispers that if I had one I'd be able to carry around the full four volumes of the Latin/English breviary, Pepys' diary, Johnson's complete Rambler and Addison & Steele's complere Spectator -- because of course then I'd have time to read these all on the appropriate days, right? Sigh...

Well, I certainly don't enjoin you to buy one. But if you do, I do humbly ask that you buy it with the handy DarwinCatholic Amazon account, so that at the very least we can continue to feed our book habit in the manner that civilization has done so since the invention of the book.

And perhaps if ten of you buy one, MrsDarwin will suddenly realize that I deserve one too. (It's as likely as eating the 10,000 boxes of cereal in order to win a guaranteed ticket on the first commercial moon flight, right? I hope my ticket is still on reserve...)

Monday, February 09, 2009

Blogging in the Grudge-o-sphere

In the last four years I've learned a great deal about a host of topics, including my Catholic Faith, while blogging, reading other people's blogs, and participating in comment box discussions. And yet there are some notable dangers that come with blogging as well.

A few months ago, I did myself no great credit in a combox discussion on a friend's post. Someone against whom I carried paper left a comment I disagreed with, and rather than sticking with a basic refutation I went all out: questioned motives, brought up old arguments, put words in his mouth, the works. An hour or two later I got an email from my friend. "Wow. Next time tell us what you really think..."

But I knew I was right. I his reply and was pouring out the reason I'd been 100% justified in behaving that way at 70wpm. A year and a half ago, this other blogger and said such-and-such. And when I'd pointed out his obvious errors, he'd said that. And then there was that other time. And remember when over on that other guy's blog he's said this in the comments? And...

I took a moment to stare at the paragraphs I'd written and realized this would sound a lot more appropriate coming out of my six-year-old as an explanation for why she'd hit another kid than coming out of a thirty-year-old man who fancies himself intellectual.

As bloggers we sometimes live by the word in rather the same way that a duelist lived by the sword. And slights which, when explained to anyone else, would immediately sound small and petty, fester and become long term rivalries.

Given the source of my recent embarrassment, I've tried to make it a rule to think how I would feel writing an explanation of my behavior in any given conversation to a disinterested party. Given my pride, this is a strong incentive to charity, or at least calmness. Naytheless, the temptation remains. I suspect that it is a built in feature (or bug) in an avocation such as blogging.


Sunday, February 08, 2009

Blogger Meet-up

Some worry that online life is in danger of drawing people away from their "real" communities and sucking people into a "virtual world" in which they know no one in person. I suppose this is a danger to an extent, but not only have I spent many a pleasant hour getting to know people online, but on those occasions when we've had the chance to meet fellow bloggers in person we've invariably had a wonderful time.

Thus it was with great joy that we hosted a Catholic Blogger Moot at the Darwin house yesterday, in which Jennifer, Dom, Melanie, Rick, Opinionated Homeschooler and Betty Beguiles were in attendance.

There was food and drink aplenty and also much of that easy, pleasant sort of conversation which is possible among those who have known each other for a long time -- except in this case some of these people I had not met in person more than once before.

We'll certainly be hosting similar gatherings again. If you're a Catholic blogger in the Austin area (or who visits the Austin area every so often) and you'd be interested to be included in future events, do let us know.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Historical Delusion

I just finished reading Norman Cantor's Alexander the Great: Journey to the End of the Earth. It's a short biography of Alexander (under 200 pages) which is hardly intended to compete with the massive volumes by Green, Fox and others written over the last sixty years. It is, however, written in the erudite yet playful and accessible style which made Cantor's textbooks on Ancient and Medieval history some of the most downright enjoyable college level textbooks I ever encountered. (His classic The Medieval World has apparently been replaced by The Civilization of the Middle Ages which I haven't read, but I remember the former fondly and would certainly give the latter a try.)

The book on Alexander was apparently the last that Cantor wrote before he died and was published posthumously. Unfortunately, it is marred by one glaring mistake in the first couple pages: it refers to the wars between the classical Greeks and the Persian Empire as the "Peloponnesian War", when the Peloponnesian war was in fact the war between the Athenians and Spartans several decades later. One could wish that his estate had treated the draft to a proofread by another academic rather than simply sending it off to be printed.

Besides this one lapse, which put me off on rather the wrong foot with the book, it's an enjoyable and accessible read. I'd certainly recommend it for an interested high school student, or any interested adult with little background and little time but wanting to get a feel for Alexander and Hellenistic civilization.

In my momentary loss of faith after reading the first few pages, however, I went and looked up the Amazon reviews of the book. These were rather mixed. Many faulted it for not being a long and scholarly biography -- which strikes me as unsurprising given the book's diminutive size. One, however, was very much a hoot. The reader loved the book, but in great part because he thought it underlined how much greater a leader Alexander the Great was than George Bush:
Alexander, like Achilles, Caesar, King Arthur, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, embodies the spirit of the times and the people of their eras. Alexander and Achilles were heroic; Caesar and Arthur were innovators; Lincoln and Churchill gave words to enhance the decency of great nations.

Lincoln, to cite an example, did not invent democracy in America. However, when he defined democracy as government "of the people, by the people, for the people", he greatly sharpened and enhanced already existing attitudes. Alexander did the same in his time; he did not invent war, but he set an ideal seldom matched and thus established the warrior ideal for much of the Mediterannean. King Arthur does the same with his round table; Churchill gives credit to the British people for stopping Hitler.

Now, consider George Bush with his Texas swagger and flight suit while strutting across the deck of an aircraft carrier to announce "Mission Accomplished" as if he were a warrior. Alexander, in contrast to the coddled and well-protected life of Bush, survived numerous serious wounds acquired while leading his troops from the front. Whether it's Bush or Clinton or Reagan, there's a vast difference between Alexander and the perspiration and spin of today's leaders. As Canton aptly shows, it's why "the Great" title is retired.

Intended or not, there are numerous subtle parallels between ancient and modern events in the Near and Middle Easts. Alexander was successful because he responded immediately and brilliantly to local events rather than try to rule from afar; instead of being an ideologue, he worshiped every God he met along the route of his conquests.

Because he was handicapped by "faulty intelligence," when he reached Afghanistan and India he realized it was time to listen to his troops, then "cut and run". Why? To quote Cantor, "One of the old soldiers, a man named Coenis . . . . gave the speech of his life, ending with these words: 'Sir, if there is one thing above all others a successful man should know, it is when to stop'. Instead of trying to stay the course, Cantor says "Alexander sulked for two days but then tried to find a way to make this defeat appear to be a victory."

Cantor offers an intriguing psychological assessment of Alexander; not only was he "the supreme exemplar of that old pagan world" but he also knew how to sulk and then accept the will of his troops. Perhaps that is why there are no modern Alexanders; today we tend to look at his heroism, courage, strength and vision but overlook his ability to sulk.

Now, past question, Alexander was a leader of far greater stature and import to the history of civilization that President Bush. Don't question that for a moment. But that hardly means one would want to live in Alexander's empire or want modern politicians to emulate him. Alexander was, as Cantor amply shows, a man of great abilities, but also a more than borderline psychopath by any modern standard. Even Napoleon, another great leader in whose historical or geographic proximity I have no desire to be, would have been a far preferable leader to actually live under than Alexander.

Indeed, one of the things that interested me very much in Cantor's final chapter was his discussion of how Alexander was a quintessentially pagan figure -- and how the myth of Alexander was modified in the medieval period in order to adapt him to Christian heroic models. Which, in turn, makes me rather curious to dig up some time Fox's Pagans and Christians, which Cantor cites with approval.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Not My Fault

The annual world summit of the world's worthies at Davos, Switzerland is always good for some surrealist humor, and this year's (self-consciously held in the midst of economic downturn, with the organizers handing out pedometers to attending billionaires and heads of state to encourage them to walk and reduce their "carbon footprints") is no exception. I was particularly struck by this item from Federico Fubini on the Foreign Policy website:
A survey I personally conducted at Davos this year of 60 top central bankers, financial market regulators, fund managers, and industry opinion-makers gives an idea of what this shield looks like.

When participants were asked whether they think they have done something in their career which "might have contributed, even in a minor way, to the financial crisis," 63.5 percent opted for a clear "no"; 31.5 percent went for a "yes," often adding in the same breath that nobody in the industry can honestly claim otherwise; and 5 percent said "maybe."

The "yes" people were then asked to explain what triggered their wrong decisions. They had three options: "too much optimism" (68.7 percent), "I felt I had to keep dancing while the music was playing" (31.3 percent), or "greed" (0 percent).

David Rubenstein, cofounder and managing director of the Carlyle Group, expressed surprise at the results. "How strange," he said. "I thought 100 percent of them would say they had nothing to do with it."
This strikes me as unsurprising, and indeed utterly human. Few people are sufficiently self examined and honest to publically blame themselves for things that go wrong, and yet when dealing with something which we imagine to be "someone else's fault" we are usually quick to assume that their failings were grave and obvious. It's been a commonplace (especially because the economy went into freefall in the midst of an election season and thus people had much to gain through emphasizing populist answers to the problem) that our current financial problems were caused by "corporate greed" or "Wall Street greed". Yet "greed" is a motive which few assign to themselves, especially as a simple motivation for their business practices over the last decade. After all, if it works out it's usually called "wealth creation" or "financial innovation". At the height of housing/lending madness, people could confidently pat themselves on the back and explain that they were helpig more Americans than ever before own the houses of their dreams while making lots of money for their companies/customers -- and incidentally receiving a nice fat cut for themselves as well. The difference is that in this case it didn't work out, and so people are eager to figure out who was to blame.

It strikes me that saying a problem was caused by "greed" is often basically a way of saying, "caused by other people who aren't like me", which is, of course, why none of the worthies at Davos (many of whom did indeed probably have a great deal to do with how businesses were run over the last few years) saw other less dark motives as having been at work.

A tale of two toilets

I take this post verbatim from an email to a friend.
Did you hear about that? Sunday morning, as we're getting ready for church, we had to give the downstairs toilet its morning plunge [this is a daily occurrence] and while I was pulling up the float thingie to keep the water from overflowing, it snapped off. So now I'm trying to hold down the button with my thumb and plunge with the other hand while [Darwin] is trying to keep water from spraying all over. Eventually we got the stupid toilet plunged and the water shut off, and we decided heck with it, it's time to buy a toilet that freaking flushes.

Behold, a toilet that freaking flushes.

This post is dedicated to TS, who first acquainted me with the term "toilet poor".

Forgot to mention: Don't be jealous, St. Blog's guys, but installing a toilet is twice as fun when Rick Lugari is there to help.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Michael Dubruiel

Please keep Amy Welborn and her family in your prayers. Her husband Michael Dubruiel died today.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Availability Replaces Ownership

I bought a DVD the other day, something which was mildly notable in that I almost never buy any DVDs anymore. Once upon a time I had a movie library instinct which worked on nearly the same scale as my book library instinct. I had a steadily growing collecting of VHS and later DVDs of the sort of movies (many of them either foreign or obscure) that I liked and yet could never find on the shelves of the local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video.

What initially stalled the growth of my movie library was the lack of time for watching non-kid-suitable movies which afflicts many tired young parents, but over the last couple years we've gradually reacquired our evening leisure time (though sometimes only at the expense of many tears when 8pm rolls around and the monkeys are marched upstairs) and started to watch movies or TV shows on DVD 1-2 nights a week. And yet now we almost never buy movies, and the ones we do have are sealed up in boxes in the garage.

The difference is Netflix.

Since Netflix has practically every movie on DVD available on three days notice, it's become very easy to overcome my library building urge when it comes to movies. In essence, having access to Netflix becomes a substitute for owning the movie, and so the only movies I've picked up in the last several years have been movies that we'd be likely to want to watch all the time (some kids movies, and a few movies that we often feel like crashing with when tired and stressed.)

This strikes me as an interesting example of how a community resource can replace the need for people to own things individually. No one has restricted my ability to own movies, but having been provided (at a fairly nominal monthly cost) with a resource that replaces (and expands on) the benefits of building a movie library, I simply have no desire any more. For those who worry greatly about the impact to society and the environment of everyone wanting to own more things, Netflix is perhaps a good example of the sort of thing which declutters the world while actually pleasing people more.

The challenge is, many of the suggestions for reducing consumption which are pressed upon us are significantly inferior to the more consumption heavy alternative. Public transit is all very well, but for many of us it simply doesn't go where we want to go when we want to go there or is in fact more expensive in absolute terms than driving. One may appreciate the virtues of the old urban neighborhood with everything near by, but not enough to want to cram a family of six into a small flat. Etc.

But if one can come up with a collective resource which actually provides a better experience than personal ownership, people will quite happily jump aboard.

I find it had to imagine ever dropping my book acquisition instinct, but I imagine that if I had truly easy access to a library large enough or fluid enough that I could reliably find nearly any book that I wanted in it, I would drastically reduce my book buying activities. (As it stands, our local public libray is mostly only useful for children's books, very basic non fiction needs, and fairly common or best-selling fiction.)

Monday, February 02, 2009

Gratuitous Baby Picture

That's my boy! He'll be five months old next week.