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

Friday, January 29, 2010

Tutor this!

Enbrethiliel (who is settling in at her new home, Shredded Cheddar) needs to be star of her own movie about the tough-yet-wise tutor:

Will anyone argue with me when I say the time had come to find the right bar of soap to stuff into Doctor Nemesis' foul little mouth?

As with most of my best teaching ideas, insight into what that right bar could be came to me on the spur of the moment, springing from my head fully formed, like Athena from the mind of Zeus.

The first thing I did was change where he and I usually sit. After the first few times he bolted up from his seat and made me chase him, I elected to sit next to him, all the better to throw a leg over him or spring at him. Today, I resumed sitting across from him . . . all the better for him to see the new tabs I was keeping on his language.

"Every time you say a new bad word," I told him, slapping a blank sheet of paper between us on the table, "I will write it down. I will keep a tally of everything you say so that I have a record for the next faculty meeting."

His eyes nearly bugged out of his head. "Why? WHY??? It's not fair! You know I have Tourette!"

"Yes, I know you have Tourette . . . I also know that you take advantage of it. I'll bet that if you really tried, you could control it."

"F*** you! Why don't you believe . . . Hey!"

I had written "F*** you" on the paper and made a note that he had said it once.

Read the rest

My Favorite Movies and How They've Changed

I enjoyed reading Kyle Cupp's series of posts on his favorite movies made during his life time.

One of the things that struck me as making Kyle's list particularly interesting is that it's not simply a list of what he thinks are the best movies, but rather the movies which he enjoys watching most. However, thinking about this, it occurred to me that my list of favorite movies, in this sense, has changed a lot over the last 5-8 years. This is not generally because I've changed my mind about whether or not movies are good, but rather that what movies I feel like watching (and certainly which movies I feel like watching again) has undergone a shift.

Aristotle, who was a bloke who knew a thing or two, argued that the purpose of tragedy is to make us feel pity and fear, and that through experiencing these emotions intensely while watching (and participating as an audience member in) a drama we purge ourselves of our pent up feelings and thus arrive at the end of the play refreshed and calmed.

The thing is, I find myself a lot less eager put myself through excess pity and fear these days. Perhaps because, these days, on reaching the end, I'm more likely to feel tired than refreshed or calmed. 8-10 years ago, when I was a serious movie watcher, I truly enjoyed a well made movie that thoroughly put me through the wringer. These days, while I continue to recognize some of those movies as very good, I have much less desire to ever actually sit down and watch them again. Many of the movies I bought back then now sit quietly on my shelf, unlikely to be watched again any time soon.

This is not to say that I only want to watch pop-corn movies, but looking over some of my old favorites that I no longer want to watch, I recognize a certain sort of artistic brutality -- not necessarily movie violence, though some of them were indeed very violent movies, but rather some sense in which they were movies that treated their audience to the more extreme ends of the human experience. While these days, I seldom feel so venturesome.

Also, I find it simply impossible to stick to only movies made during my lifetime, as some of my very favorite movies are more than thirty-one years old.

In an effort to give some sense of what I'm talking about, while also imitating much of what I found fascinating about Kyle's list of movies, I will list off "favorite" movies (in the sense of movies that I not only think are good, but enjoy watching -- desert island movies, if you will) of which one list will be movies made during my lifetime, and the other before. I'll also list some movies that I would once have listed among my favorites, but would no longer, even though I continue to consider them very good and well made movies. (I was going to do ten of each, but precision and discipline failed.)

Favorites From My Lifetime
Gosford Park
Princess Bride
Spirited Away
Henry V
Babette's Feast
Wag the Dog
My Neighbor Totoro
A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott)
O Brother Where Art Thou
Apocalypse Now

Favorites From Before My Lifetime
The Third Man
Lion in Winter
Big Country
The Thin Man
The Godfather
All About Eve
Palm Beach Story
Barry Lyndon

Former Favorites (Again, I mostly continue to think these are very good movies -- I just don't plan to see them again any time soon.)
Pulp Fiction
The Funeral
The Addiction
The Passion
Being John Malcovitch
Thin Red Line
The Mission
Rob Roy

Bonus Round: A few guilty pleasures These are movies that for one reason or another I do not think are actually great movies, but which I could (and often do) watch again and again with pleasure:
This Is Spinal Tap
Office Space
Tropic Thunder
Master and Commander
Independence Day
Men in Black
Mission Impossible

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Little Children

Last year, when I was feeling free and easy about my future as my youngest was only growing older, my good friend J and I decided to teach a First Communion class at our parish. There was a slightly self-serving aspect to this: we wanted to make sure that our own second-graders had a solid class. More importantly, however, it's become more and more clear to me how important it is to work within the framework of our parish family. Do you know why pastors sometimes find homeschoolers hard to deal with? Because they often ask for exceptions.

So we became RE teachers (RE standing for Religious Education, of course; apparently the term CCD is no longer in vogue). And it's been an education for me. I've never done classroom teaching before, and it seems that the methods that are quite successful for homeschooling one or two children at a time are not that efficient for instructing 17 children at a time -- who'da thunk? But we manage, though some weeks are more difficult than others.

Let's talk a bit about boys -- seven-to-eight-year-old boys, specifically. Darwin has told me that he was always a great favorite with his CCD teachers back in the day, and he never knew why, because he found class boring and said so every now and then. I can tell him why now. Many of the young guys in my class (I have eight) are loud, slightly hyperactive, a little rude, and inclined to be silly. I can't blame them -- they're boys, after all, and class is at 4:30. They're hungry, they're tired of school, they want to go home. But there are a few boys in class who are bright, polite, focused, and can turn off the goofiness. These boys are the joy of my classroom time. They're willing to give answers, but they're not know-it-alls like the girls. They're fun, but they're not rambunctious, and they don't always have to draw attention to themselves. Some of them are quiet and some are more talkative, but I can tell they're giving me their attention. I've fallen in love with those boys.

Studies have shown that males fall across a wider spectrum of abilities and quirkiness than girls, and I can believe it. My girls are in basically two categories: either they know everything and need to tell you about it, or they're quiet. (I'm sorry to say that my own seven-year-old is in the know-it-all category, compounded by her inexperience with classroom ettiquette, such as raising one's hand and being called on before one shouts out the answer.) All my girls are basically competent at reading and writing and listening. The boys vary from rapt attention to la-la land -- not including the native Spanish speaker who can barely read English. I read all instructions to him.

The books we use in our class are mediocre at best, though they do seem tailored to a second-grade level. We find the most success in hands-on activities: looking at a Mass kit, passing around a book with pictures, coloring pages. One of the biggest hits in the classroom is practicing for receiving communion. It goes something like this:

"Okay kids, listen up: this is very important. We're going to get in a line and practice how we'll walk up to receive Jesus. Everyone stand up straight! Would you slouch like that in church? ("NOOO!") Here's how we'll hold our hands. We make a throne for Jesus with our left hand on top and our right hand underneath. This is the left hand, see? No, cup your hands, like a bowl. Otherwise, the host will fall on the floor. Wouldn't that be awful? "(YESSS!") Carlos, cup your hands. John, go to the back of the line. Next time you'll have to sit at the table.

"Okay. We're going to practice with small crackers. Listen, this is important: this is NOT Jesus. We're just practicing. I want you to pretend that you're in church. Make a sign of respect when the person in front of you is receiving. Bow your head. When the host is held up, the priest will say, 'The Body of Christ'. You answer, 'Amen.' What do you answer? ("Amen!") When the host is placed in your hand, you IMMEDIATELY pick it up gently with your right hand and put it in your mouth. Alexa, do not walk off with the cracker -- eat it right away. Come back and we'll try it again. Kyra, I said consume it IMMEDIATELY. Austin, you don't just shove the host into your mouth -- pick it up with your right hand. Don't forget to make the sign of the cross afterward..."

Good thing we're practicing for this -- I can't imagine what would have happened if the first time they had to try this was on the day of their First Communion...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Economics Rap Battle

Habemus Episcopum!

Austin has a new bishop: Auxiliary Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of the archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

From the Austin diocese's website:

Pope Benedict XVI has named Auxiliary Bishop Joe S. Vásquez, of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston as Bishop of the Diocese of Austin. Bishop Vásquez will be the fifth bishop of Austin and the first Mexican-American to lead the diocese.

"I wish to thank Pope Benedict XVI for the confidence he has placed in me in naming me shepherd of the Diocese of Austin," he said. "I also offer prayers of gratitude this day for Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza and the priests, religious and laity of the Archdiocese for forming me as a bishop. Most of all, I give thanks to God for the gift of priesthood, which has brought me such joy for 25 years. I trust in the Holy Spirit to enlighten me for this next step in my journey."

The Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Pietro Sambi, made the announcement in Washington on Tuesday morning.

And from Whispers in the Loggia:

And in just six weeks, the "Texas triangle" has completed itself.

Seven months after B16 transferred Austin's fourth bishop back to his hometown after a decade of exponential growth and a staggering spike in vitality, this morning the pontiff named Auxiliary Bishop Joe Vasquez of Galveston-Houston to the boomtown church in Texas' capital, home to some 50 seminarians and a Catholic population of 500,000 that's more than double what it was two decades ago... and, indeed, is projected to double again in size over the next 15 to 20 years.

The first Hispanic prelate tapped to lead the 25-county Central Texas diocese -- and as bishop of the capital, become the church's lead public presence in state government -- the 52 year-old pick will be installed on 8 March at a location still to be determined.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Whose Problem Is That?

I'm darkly amused by the picture of a pro-abortion counter-protestor to the March For Life carrying a sign which says, "Won't Get Laid Without Roe v. Wade". Why, precisely, does the bearer think that anyone else should be worried by this?

Greeks and Romans

The fatigue associated with growing a new Darwin has frequently been sending MrsDarwin to bed at the same time as the children lately. The silver lining to this lack to together-time is that I've been able to put some serious time into following through on my commitment to get back to actively writing for the Humanities Program. I'm working through early Rome and Roman mythology for the Elementary Program.

During the last week I finished off an introduction to the Romans, and the story of Aeneas. Romulus and Remus are in progress, and should be up later this week.

Last year's production was decided paltry, though I did get together decent drafts on Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Stranger in the Photo

The other day someone dropped by my desk to ask me about something, and I had to ask him to wait while I finished sending an email. My cube has built up a fair number of pictures over the five years I've worked at Big Tech Corp. My visitor leaned over to look at a wedding picture of me and MrsDarwin and after a moment asked, "How long have you been married?"

"Eight years."

"You look very different in the picture."

Once I'd dispensed with his question, I found myself looking at the picture. Had I really changed that much in eight years? Certainly, I looked very young in the picture, but it's been one of my charges against myself for some time that I look too young to be taken seriously.

Thinking on this, I realized that one of the hardest things to know is what oneself looks like. It often seems to me that pictures do not "look like me" or that pictures of my wife do not really "look like her." Perhaps, though, this is because it is the people we know most closely of whom we have the strongest mental image -- an image which may not actually bear the closest relation to reality.

Looking at the pictures on my desk, perhaps the most extreme example of this is the picture I have of my father, taken a few years before his death. My father, like me, is someone of whom there are few pictures, since he was almost invariably the one behind the camera. And almost invariably, pictures of him look wrong to me. This one looks to old -- I never picture my father with white hair. A sprinkle of gray perhaps, but nothing more. Recently I find a family picture dating from when I was in second grade -- something which I had apparently salvaged when cleaning out my grandmother's house and then forgotten about. There my father looks too young. Or perhaps he looks the right age, but he is rounder-faced that I remember.

The real source of all this, I think, is that we carry in our heads mental images of those we love most which are composite images -- formed over time and influenced by how we feel about a person. Of ourselves, even more so, we have an image formed around how we think about ourselves. What we see in the mirror, who we think we look like, what we think are our best and worst features. Yet this image may not be the same as what a camera, in its mechanical dispassion, will record.

In this sense, we probably see strangers most clearly. The unknown face in a photograph or painting is something we can look at as an image and nothing more. While the face of a loved one, however much it may remind us of that person, does not look the way we see a person. Because when we look at those we love, we see the person, not the image.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Contradiction of Religious Freedom

Perhaps one of the most cherished freedoms of liberal democracy (in the sense of classical liberalism, not modern progressivism) is the freedom of religion. Much though I admire many elements of Western Civilization prior to the modern era, I cannot help thinking that the end of the formal confessional state has generally been a good thing not only for the state, but even more so for the Church. It has given the Church, no longer tied down by the need to support explicitly Catholic regimes, the freedom to speak more openly and forcefully on the demands that Christ's message puts upon us in the public and economic realms.

That said, it seems to me that there is a built in contradiction in the place of religious freedom in classical liberalism: While religious freedom is a central element of classical liberalism, the ability of a state to function as a liberal democracy will collapse if a large majority of the population do not share a common basic moral and philosophical (and thus by implication theological) worldview. Thus, while religious freedom is a foundational element of classical liberalism, only a certain degree of religious conformity makes it possible.

Why do I argue this? If there is a basic agreement throughout society about what is right, what is wrong, what constitutes the common good, under what conditions people are meant to live, etc., then it is possible for the institutions of a liberal democracy to be used to allow people to sort out how to achieve these ends. Disagreements may be passionate, as people will not agree on the pragmatic questions of how it is best to run a country. But compromise will at least be possible, and the democracy is likely to survive.

If, however, there is fundamental disagreement among the populace about basic issues of right and wrong and what the purpose of the human person is, the victory of the other side will increasingly look to the defeated like an unacceptable tyranny, and the state will risk coming apart at the seams.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Fr. Fox, behind the collar

Father Martin Fox, who posts the best Sunday sermons on the web at Bonfire of the Vanities, is the focus of the Cincinnati Vocation Office's latest video in a series called The Man Behind the Collar. We've had the good fortune to visit with Father Fox twice. Besides being an all-around interesting guy, he has the most pastoral sensibility of any priest I've ever met.

H/T Rich Leonardi.

Continuing Education Book Bleg

Back in the heady days of the beginning of this fiscal year (my company's fiscal year runs offset from the calendar year), when I as filling out my annual performance plan, I added a section for "personal and professional development" in which to assign myself to read books. Last year, I'd done this without authorization, and so the assignments were designed to fit my existing reading habits:
At least one book each from each of the following categories:
1) Literature
2) History
3) Philosophy or Theology
4) Science
5) Economics or Mathematics

This year, when I queued up the same performance plan item again, my boss sent it back with the advice that I try to be a bit more "relevant", with the result that I ended up with:
At least one book each from each of the following categories:
1) Economics
2) Mathematics or Statistics
3) Leadership

However, I'm promptly forgot about this less self-indulgent assignment, and so as I near the end of the fiscal year I realize that I've only hit the first of the three.

So, in the interest of not having to give myself a poor assessment on a strictly voluntary performance plan item (though given the show-off-ish nature of the assignment, perhaps it's no more than I deserve) I ask our knowing readers: Do you have any books you would particularly recommend which I could make the case fit 2) or 3)? These certainly don't have to be textbooks, and I'm prepared to make a creative case that something fits one of the requirements. (For instance, I've contemplated reading Machiavelli's The Prince again in order to cover "Leadership", if a better idea doesn't come along.)


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Road Trippin'

Gentle readers! Who lives along this route?

View Larger Map

Google gives three different routes; I'm not married to any of them, though I would like to pass through Blacksburg, VA, as upon a time it was my stomping grounds.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Raising Consciousness through Easy Virtue

I've been watching more than my usual share of movies lately -- a function both of feeling brain dead after a particularly busy and stressful couple weeks at work, and the fact that MrsDarwin (rounding the corner from first to second trimester) often crashes right after the kids do, leaving me with nearly bachelor levels of free time late at night. Last night I made an attempt at The Constant Gardener, though in the end I dropped it after a bit over half an hour. I was in the mood for something much more noir like, not the earnestly quiet improbability of recent John le Carre. (Now if someone would start making movies of Alan Furst novels, I'd be all over it.) I could take a story about Big Pharma running illegal human testing rings in the third world and killing beautiful young activists who see through their plans in a silly action movie sufficiently punctuated by explosions and chases , but it's rather uninvolving in a movie that takes itself deadly seriously.

But what struck me in particular was that Constant Gardener had the same inciting incident as a more entertaining movie I watched earlier this week, Iron Man. In both movies, the hero is a front man (either the quietly earnest Ralph Fiennes or the wildly amusing Robert Downey Jr.) for evil organizations without really knowing it, and his path towards eventual heroism begins when an attractive and earnestly progressive female reporter confronts him, asks uncomfortable questions, accuses him of apologizing for an evil organization, and then is next seen taking her clothes off with him in bed.

Tony Stark in Iron Man is protected by his loyal personal assistant Pepper Potts the next morning when she (in her own words) "takes out the trash" and so the Christine Everhart character is restricted to showing up at key intervals to ask Stark probing questions and move the plot forward.

Justin Quayle, on the other hand, has no such protector, and the quiet and polite Englishman soon finds himself in a sudden marriage-of-convenience with Tessa, the young activist who (after landing in bed with him after confronting him about the Iraq war in a press conference he was giving for another diplomat) demands that he take her with him to Africa where his next assignment is.

Two instances, of course, do not make a trend. I'm trying to think of other examples in which movie writers decided the best way to raise the consciousness of their male hero was to throw an idealistic female reporter at him, leading to salvation through one night stand. Thank You For Smoking would count, except that the anti-hero never turns around, he just gets out of his current difficulties and carries on.

Do we have a trend here? Perhaps this is the inverse of my long standing assumption that more traditional mores are likely to win out in the end because they perpetuate and are perpetuated by stable families: Progressive ideas are destined to win out because hot female proponents will sleep with anyone who doesn't agree with them. Then, after we spend the next two hours of screen time fighting big corporations, the world will be a better place. (This does seem rather rough on the men who already agree with progressive ideals, though. Do they get any time?)

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Brotherhood of Man

Darwin and I watched How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying last night. I'd never seen it before, but I did recognize the signature song The Brotherhood of Man. Back when we lived in California, while waiting for Darwin to complete his two-hour commute home, I used to park my more and more vastly pregnant self in front of re-runs of the Drew Carey show. Every now and then the cast would break out into a musical number, one of which was The Brotherhood of Man. (For whatever reason, the two seconds of choreography in which the guys dancing down the stairs slapped their knees has remained indelibly engraved in my mind.)

So, for Friday:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What Are the Chances?

A bloke in the UK modifies the Drake equation (used to calculate the likelihood of our contacting an alien civilization) to calculate the likelihood of his finding a girlfriend in London. His final conclusion:
So, what this means is that there are 10,510 people in the UK that satisfy these most basic criteria for being my girlfriend. That is 0.00017% of the UK and 0.0014% of Londoners, which doesn’t seem so bad. On a given night in London, there is greater than a 1 in 1000 chance that I will meet an attractive woman between the ages of 24 and 34 with a university degree. Of course this does not take into account the fraction of these women that will find me attractive (depressingly low), the fraction of these women who will be single (falling with age) and, perhaps most importantly, the fraction of these women who I will get along with. Including such factors would greatly reduce the above figure of 10,510. A rough estimate puts the number of potential girlfriends accounting for these three additional criteria (1 in 20 of the women find me attractive, half are single and I get along with 1 in 10) at 26. That’s correct. There are 26 women in London with whom I might have a wonderful relationship. So, on a given night out in London there is a 0.0000034% chance of meeting one of these special people, about 100 times better than finding an alien civilization we can communicate with. That’s a 1 in 285,000 chance. Not great.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Quote of the Day: Hayek on Individualism

From "Individualism: True and False" (1946)
...[T]he state, the embodiment of deliberately organized and consciously directly power, ought to be only a small part of the much richer organism which we call "society," and that the former ought to provide merely a framework within which free (and therefore not "consciously directed") collaboration of men has the maximum scope.

This entails certain corollaries on which true individualism once more stands in sharp opposition to the false individualism of the rationalistic type. The first is that the deliberately organized state on the one side, and the individual on the other, far from being regarded as the only realities, while all the intermediate formations and associations are to be deliberately suppressed, as was the aim of the French Revolution, the noncompulsory conventions of social intercourse are considered as essential factors in preserving the orderly working of human society. The second is that the individual, in participating in the social processes, must be ready and willing to adjust himself to changes and to submit to conventions which are not the result of intelligent design, whose justification in the particular instance may not be recognizable, and which to him often appear unintelligible and irrational.
Quite as important for the functioning of an individualist society ... are the traditions and conventions which evolve in a free society and which, without being enforceable, establish flexible but normally observed rules that make the behavior of other people predictable in a high degree. The willingness to submit to such rules, not merely so long as one understands the reason for them but so long as one has no definite reasons to the contrary, is an essential condition for the gradual evolution and improvement of the rules of social intercourse; and the readiness ordinarily to submit to the products of a social process which nobody has designed and the reasons for which nobody may understand is also an indispensable condition if it is to be possible to dispense with compulsion. That the existence of common conventions and traditions among a group of people will enable them to work together smoothly and efficiently with much less formal organization and compulsion than a group without such common background, is, of course, a commonplace. But the reverse of this, while less familiar, is probably not less true: that coercion can probably only be kept to a minimum in a society where conventions and tradition have made the behavior of man to a large extent predictable.

This essay is one of twelve collected in Individualism and Economic Order.

Parental Dilemmas

As I snuggled next to my sleeping 16-month-old son last night, I pondered the great questions that afflict parents of boys:
1) How can I keep him always this safe and warm and secure, without having him always nestled in my armpit?
2) What can I do to get this boy to keep his pants on?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Credit Cards and Market Intelligence

The other day I ran into a link to this NY Times article about credit card companies using information about what people buy to attempt to "profile" customers and see who is likely to default on their consumer debt. I'm not sure if I'm particularly cynical or hard hearted, but I don't find myself as shocked as I gather the author is that credit card companies would do this. Credit card debt is unsecured, and so if someone declares bankruptcy, they often get almost nothing. Because of this, credit card companies are often willing to write off 50% or more of what someone owes in order to keep them from declaring bankruptcy.

Clearly, at that point, they face a huge amount of risk. They make up for that with interests rates much higher than you'd pay on secured debt, but even so I find it hard to blame them for wanting to gather what information they can based on customer activity to decide whether to extend someone more credit, or rein them in.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on the Theme by Thomas Tallis

Many of my favorite pieces of music I associate with the night sky. This is because my father, who was throughout my life a planetarium director, often used his favorite pieces of music as background during planetarium shows. Being the oldest, I frequently had the chance to tag along to planetarium shows, and sit under the dome, listening to my father's voice. And so now, when I hear something like Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on the Theme by Thomas Tallis I find myself thinking of the constellations, and I also find myself oddly misty about the eyes.

Random Linguistic Thought

Is it just me, or is English one of the few European languages which does not roll its R's in some way? I wonder why that is.

Friday, January 08, 2010

No More Debt, in theory and in practice

A few weeks ago Darwin's favorite economics podcast, EconTalk, featured Megan McArdle, a libertarian blogger he reads frequently. The topic was Debt and Self-Restraint, and a good portion of the podcast was devoted to McArdle discussing how she'd worked out of debt by establishing a budget, using cash instead of credit cards, and paying off loans as fast as possible. Of course these are pretty basic principles, McArdle allowed, but "pretty basic" does not translate into "universally followed". Even we, who consider ourselves basically financially savvy, found ourselves writhing guiltily as we pondered our lack of firm budget and our reliance on credit cards as our normal financial tool.

McArdle had been inspired to financial self-control while researching Dave Ramsey for an article she wrote for The Atlantic. We had never heard of Dave Ramsey, but it seems he's a financial guru with a radio following of 3 million listeners. So we bought Ramsey's latest book The Total Money Makeover (on Amazon, using a credit card), and read and discussed it over the holidays. In the book Ramsey says that people tell him that his book was the first one they'd read in ten years, and (to be honest) it does read rather at that level, but his process in a nutshell is:
1. Quit using credit cards
2. Make a budget in which every last dollar of income is accounted for.
3. Save $1000 as an emergency fund.
4. Start paying down debt (except your mortgage) with every extra dollar, starting with your smallest debt. Pay the minimum on all other debts.
5. As you pay off a debt, roll that money into paying off your next smallest debt.
6. Once your debt is paid, save a larger emergency cushion, perhaps equal to three months income.
7. Pay off your mortgage at an accelerated rate.
8. Invest, Give, and Have Some Fun with your money.
Our debt, we thought, lay in four categories: Student Loans, Mortgage, The Van, and The Dryer. In an act of self-delusion, perhaps, we never considered ourselves in credit card debt because we pay off our card each month. But, as we contemplated moving to an all-cash system, we had to confront what we knew intellectually but hadn't considered practically: that, if you pay your card on the due date each month, you're really two months in arrears. You have the month you're currently spending on, and the previous month for which you have the statement and the bill. This works out fine if you intend to keep paying your statement balance every month, but if (as we have for years) you do all your spending on the card, then when you decide that you want to switch to an all-cash economy you're faced with, well, debt.

So. Today is the first payday of the new year, and it's the day for the switch. We plan to follow Ramsey's basic outline, except that we're not going to pay down the smallest debt (the dryer -- which is at zero interest for another 8 months anyway) first. First, we're going to get out of credit card debt.

UPDATE: (A word from Darwin) The really tough thing, contemplating all this, has been accepting the idea of ceasing to use the credit card, going to an all cash budget, and then paying off the credit card over a series of months as a debt. I don't think I'd realized up until I contemplated this how much of my pride is wrapped up in the words "I don't carry a balance." Sure, at several points in our marriage, after a major expense (giving birth, etc.) we'd carried a credit card balance for a couple months, but in each case we'd budged very aggressively until we were back to paying off the entire credit card every month. I drew a lot of pride and satisfaction from thinking (when I read about how the average household carried 10K+ in credit card debt) "But we don't have a problem, we don't carry over a balance." thus putting ourselves in the group who cash in credit card rewards (in our case, we get Amazon gift certificates equal to 1% of our purchases) while never paying interest or fees.

The kicker, however, was realizing that if we ever had a major financial emergency (like if I lost my job) we'd have between one and two months complete spending already out there. Suddenly we'd be carrying a pretty substantial balance. And so we gritted our teeth and made the decision to step off the carousel voluntarily now, rather than finding ourselves pushed off at a time when it would represent a major crisis rather than a budgeting choice.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

International De-lurker Day!

I looked for a graphic for this post, but it seems the two "De-lurker Day" badges are slightly less than savory...

Anyway, apparently it's International De-lurker Day! So, if you lurk around the site, come on out and say hi in the combox. Especially if you're international.

h/t to Bearing.

Pope John Paul on How to Live

"It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards "having" rather than "being," and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself."

--Pope John Paul II

(h/t to Happy Catholic)

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

A Republic of Masters

Over the last few months, I've been gradually working my way through a set of lectures on the history of the United States by professors Staloff and Masur of the City College of New York -- emphasis on the gradually as several months and 22 lectures in I'm around at around 1800.

One of the things that has been striking me is the discussion on the ideas about how a republic ought to function current among the colonists and the Founders' generation. In early America, it was generally only male property owners who could vote -- sometimes with an additional limitation on how much property you had to own. This was not, however, out of a desire to exclude the poor and empower the rich. (Though one could certainly see it that way, and I'm sure that some people did.) Rather, it's purpose was to assure that only "masters" had a voice in the running of the republic(s). I use the term "master" not in reference to slavery, but in an almost feudal sense. A master was a man who owned property in the sense of owning some means of support: an estate, a farm, a business, etc. But this wasn't just a position of power, it was also one of responsibility. A master was expected to assure the well-being of all those who worked for him or lived in his household/estate. Sometimes, these were one and the same. A master craftsman might well have one or two apprentices living in his house, with his family. Journeyman laborers might live in the shop, or also in his house. Even if his workers lived under another roof, a master was not merely an employer, he was also a patron and head of household to all who depended on him.

Thus, only masters were permitted to vote as a way to minimize the power of the wealthy masters over poorer masters (or farmers or craftsmen who owned property but weren't rich enough to employ anyone.) It was assumed that all those in a master's household would follow the master in his politics, and so if you had universal male suffrage, you would have been giving more votes to the masters who had more workers.

Further, since someone was not a master was in a state of dependence, it was assumed that allowing such a person to vote would present him with too much of a temptation to vote self-servingly: to support policies which would better his own condition rather than policies which would be to the common good. Masters, it was believed, would be able to be able to set self interest aside when guiding a republic, because they already had their basic needs assured. (Clearly a somewhat optimistic idea, but there it is.) This is one of the things which led the founders to recoil from "democracy" (which they equated with mob rule) while embracing the idea of a republic.

Now, one could theorize that this was always a fiction, that the idea of a republic ruled by masters with the common good in mind was a story that people told themselves in order to justify giving power only to the relatively well-off. But I'm not sure that this would be a believable claim. The revolution itself (and the escalating series of protests which led up to the actual revolution) gave ample opportunity for an oppressed and numerous underclass to gain power and demand universal suffrage (and through that suffrage, policies to economically limit the masters and better themselves.) This did not happen. And I think one fairly decent explanation for why is that the idea of masters taking care of their dependents worked -- at least enough of the time that a majority of non-masters were not ready to create social disturbance and disrupt the system.

That this set of obligations within society worked moderately well at the time would explain, in part, why the Founders placed such great emphasis on political liberty -- because non-state mechanisms were already functioning to assure the basic well being of society. It was over the coming decades, as employers grew larger and began to abandon the idea of being masters in the feudal sense, that those without property turned increasingly to the state for protection. Industrialization, a mass society, and a breakdown in traditional social obligations would lead future revolutionaries to seek a direct relationship between the individual and the state in order to assure basic needs -- something which at the time of the American Revolution it was assumed would be met through existing social structures of mutual obligation, and through escape valve of a massive and sparsely settled continent spreading out to the west of the colonies, where those feeling dispossessed could go seeking to become their own masters.

Happy Real Epiphany

C + M + B

Wishing all of our readers a blessed Epiphany.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Continuing Education

I gather I'm late to the game here, as it was rated on CNN's top 50 sites of 2009, but this is a really cool site. I'd run into Yale's free online video courses a couple years ago. These are not simplified public outreach courses designed for non-students, they are complete college courses by highly rated lecturers which are filmed while being taught and then made available as a whole on the web.

AcademicEarth aggregates those Yale courses along with more video courses from other top level universities. There are currently about 130 courses available.

At Least I Know I'm Free: A Myth That Unites

I was talking with a relative recently who was telling me about an incident a while back where the maintenance staff at the building he worked at had gone on strike and were picketing the building. Emails had gone out from the building management telling people not to get into arguments or cause incidents with the picketers, and it became a source of quite a bit of topic around the office. My relative was amused to hear expressed several times the sentiment, "That's what makes our country different from the rest of the world. Here, they have the freedom to hold a protest like that."

It if, of course, true that they have the freedom to picket their employer here. However, that's not necessarily a contrast with the rest of the developed world. They could do the same in thing in Canada, or the UK or France or Germany, etc. There is, as my relative pointed out, a tendency at times for Americans to assume that because our country was very consciously founded in order to secure certain freedoms, that this means that people who don't live in the US don't have the same freedoms. Obviously, some don't. One's freedom of political and economic expression is severely limited if you live in North Korea or China or Cuba or some such nation. But there are many other countries in which people enjoy basically all the same freedoms that we do.

This American tendency to assume that we are the only ones to enjoy the freedoms outlined in our Bill of Rights is something which very much annoys many people who consider the US to be dangerously nationalistic, or who would prefer that we see the US as just one other region, not better or worse than others. They have, thus, a strong reflex to squelch these kinds of slightly misguided patriotic outbursts when they hear them.

I do not argue that it's better for people to be ignorant of the legal conditions in other countries than otherwise, but there is, I think, a certain virtue to Americans' tendency to see America finding its uniqueness in being "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal".

Americans have traditionally identified our freedoms a defining characteristics of what it means to be an American. As Lee Greenwood song that seemed to be playing all the time a few years ago went, "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free."

Before people get angry about Americans acting like they have a monopoly on freedom, however, they should keep in mind that all countries are built around some sort of uniting characteristic. The US is moderately unique in that its uniting characteristics are abstract and essentially philosophical: ideas about political freedom and limitted government as laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, as well as a host of other writings ranging from Common Sense and the Federalist Papers to the Gettysburg Address and the I Have A Dream speech. Other countries tend to be founded fairly explicitly on the basis of a ethnic or cultural commonality. This idea that any unified cultural group deserves it's own country in some deep and important sense can lead to a great deal of conflict, especially when two culturally separate groups live mixed together (Israel and the Palestinians, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, etc.) or when a culturally dissimilar group has traditionally been incorporated into a country run by some larger groups (as with the Basque independence movement in Spain or the conflict over whether Russia should control Chechnya).

I'd much rather have Americans occasionally displaying ignorance about the civil rights available in other countries when talking about how essential they see freedom as being to our republic, then have people building their sense of identity and patriotism around being of suitably Arian stock, or some other sort of ethnic or cultural characteristic. Freedoms are something which not only can, but should, be extended to all people who live within our borders, and as such I can think of no better characteristic to base a sense of national identity. A sense of identity rooted in our political liberties not only makes it harder to interfere with the liberties themselves (which is doubtless a good thing) but also provides a unifying potential which is quite the opposite of the more traditional ethnic and political sources of national identity.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Mahna Mahna!

My sister and I have been singing the song from the Muppets all week -- the one that starts off with the guy bellowing, "Mahna Mahna!" So I resolved to search it on youtube and see the original.

"How are you going to find it?" she asked. "By searching for 'mahna mahna'?"

"Sure," I said. And lo and behold, when I started typing "muppets", youtube offered me a variety of options, the second of which was "muppets mahna mahna". So without further ado, here's "Mahna Mahna".

Feast Day Grumblings

It inordinately annoys me that driving up "church row" (the street on which our church is situated has a Presbyterian church, a Bible church, an Episcopal church, and our Catholic church) I saw the Episcopalians advertising on their sign board an Epiphany service which is actually on Epiphany. Whereas we, of course, have Epiphany today, on the tenth day of Christmas so as to celebrate it on the nearest Sunday.


I understand the bishops' desire to have people actually at mass to hear about feast days, and thus to move them to nearby Sundays, but treating a feast day like a bank holiday to be rounded off to the nearest convenient day (especially a feast day which has always been celebrated specifically on the twelfth day after Christmas) seems to take away rather from the importance of the feast as well.

So if you can forgive my reactionary tendencies, I shall be wishing everyone a joyous epiphany on the sixth.