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

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Lure of Authoritarianism

There seems an odd attraction towards Chinese-style authoritarianism among certain more technocratic/elitist segments of the left-leaning political elite. On the one hand we have we have people like Thomas Friedman arguing that Chinese one-party-autocracy is more efficient in passing the sort of regulations ("green" energy and nationalized health care) that he cares most about. On the other, we have Harold Meyerson's claim that China is doing a better job of providing clean political process and economic recovery than the US, and that if Republicans don't get in line behind Obama's agenda the rest of the world will resolve to follow China's autocratic example rather than American-style democracy.

There so much to mock in these forays its hard to decide where to begin (and thus perhaps its better not to do so in too much detail.) For instance, despite Friedman's worries that China will steal all our green jobs if we don't install a carbon tax soon (in other worries, they may steal all our broken windows and thus exceed our glass-making economy) their superior ability in crafting green legislation seems to have left a few loopholes as compared to the US.

I think the quickest and most telling way to examine the validity of Friedman and Meyerson's worries, however, is simply to look at the direction of immigration world-wide. There are a great many Chinese people who seek to study and then settle permanently in the US. There are notably few US citizens who seek to make the opposite journey. (I have several Chinese natives on my team at work, all busily pursuing green cards.) Similarly, however successful Chinese funded outlets may be in badmouthing the US in South America, Africa and other developing regions (it is, after all, rather easy to dislike the US for a number of reasons -- we are, as the saying goes, over-paid, over-sexed, and over here) it doubtless means something that people from these developing regions apply in large numbers to emigrate to the US, and yet do not seek to emigrate to China. (Yes, China is rather restrictive on immigration, but one does not exactly see people crushing to get there the way people do in response to our own immigration restrictions.)

So much for that

Well, I was going to write up the clever vacation post with pix and commentary, but one of the girls is down with the stomach bug today and that just puts me off my blog feed.

So, here's a picture of sweet, silly Wendy Margaret in her baptismal gown, the same one my father wore more than 50 years ago. This picture does not do it (or her, of course) justice: it's replete with cunning tucks and embroidery, as is the matching bonnet.

My own baptismal gown, which all the little Darwins have worn, has aged to a distinguished ivory, but Wendy's was as white as the new-driven snow. We have Darwin's gown (also handmade) as well, but he was a much larger baby than his children have turned out to be, and so no one has been big enough to fit into it.

The Sex Life Fallacy

[This is a re-post of a post from back in 2007, as prelude to developing some further thoughts on the topic.]

A couple weeks ago I wrote a bit about bonobos, the "sexy ape" which is sometimes referred to as the kinder, gentler counterpart to the sometimes violent chimps. A commenter later pointed out an article written by primatologist Fraans de Waal in the eSkeptic (an organ of the Skeptics Society) taking exception to the New Yorker article which inspired my post, in which article he was presented as something of an outlier, reaching exciting but perhaps somewhat exaggerated conclusions based on research only on bonobos in captivity.

It seems that Dinesh D'Souza had written a blog post based on the New Yorker article, and this had pretty much convinced de Waal that the entire thing was a conservative attempt to co opt discussion of his "sexy" apes. The Skeptics brought their own ax to grind to the table, remarking in an editorial note, "it is interesting that so many people wish to deny the undeniable relationship between humans and chimps, and at the same time cannot seem to help finding political meanings in primate behavior that supports either a liberal or conservative agenda."

The de Waal article is marginally worth reading, but it strikes me that in his overall defensiveness (perhaps a combination of his less than flattering treatment in the original article and the fact that D'Souza, whom he clearly despises, picked up the story) leads him to engage in some poor rhetorical moves.

For instance, he says that all the examples of purported violence among bonobos are from captivity, and yet two of the examples in the article are recounted by Hohmann as having occurred in the wild.

On another occasion, he dispenses with what strikes me as a legitimate question as to whether or not all of the activity between bonobos which is usually described as group sexual activity for social bonding purposes is actually sexual (as in, whether the bonobos are relating to each other sexually, or just touching each other in what to humans would be sexual ways) by quoting the Bill Clinton/Paula Jones case. Clearly, that's not answering the question as to whether actions which would be sexual among humans actually carry that connotation among bonobos, and it's unfortunate to see that kind of unseriousness in response to what struck me as a pretty balanced, well researched article.

However, all this talk about whether the "hippie primate" who "makes love not war" is indeed the sort of gentle, oversexed creature that it is reputed to be got me thinking about the whole question of a "sex life".

You see, the thing that makes bonobos seem a bit unusual compared to many other animals is their tendency to engage in mating behaviors when not "in heat". While a tiny bit of this has been observed in chimps, chimp males are usually only interested in females when the females undergo the physical changes that indicate they're fertile.

In this sense, one of the things that has excited people about bonobos is that they seem to be interested in sex all the time -- just like many humans. While those of us who use NFP often note that Topic A becomes a bit more compelling during fertile periods, the signs of fertility are not widely observable among humans, and as a species we're pretty open to mating behavior at all times (headaches aside).

It's pretty common in popular culture these days to talk about the necessity of a "good sex life", a somewhat vague term which I take to mean having the openness and opportunity to have sex fairly often and enjoy it a lot. Well, that sounds pretty nice, doesn't it? And here's the bonobo to show that it's not just a human thing, it's a way that primates can get along and relieve tension so they don't fight all the time.

This fits pretty well with the human-as-mental-creature picture which has dominated our intellectual landscape since the Enlightenment. Here we've got this great thing we can do that forms close personal relationships and is a lot of fun as well. Shouldn't we all make sure to fit regular practice of it into our schedules?

Sounds like fun, but I think it fails to take into account our existence as physical creatures with biological systems that have specific purposes. There's a reason why they call them "reproductive organs", and it doesn't have to do with xeroxing.

Now this works out fine for creatures like the bonobos. Most species have a pretty scattershot approach to keeping the species going: every time you have the chance to conceive, you do; and if there isn't enough food or parental care to go around, the child dies. Most animals, left to their own devices, will get pregnant just about as often as their bodies and nutrition will let them. Pop 'em out, let 'em go.

However modern, first world, human society has managed to work itself in expected pregnancy to be very rare (and never to come unexpectedly) at exactly the same time it's decided that everyone needs a healthy and active sex life. Basically, we want to mate like bonobos, but not have every female going around the jungle either pregnant or with a small baby clinging to her back.

Modern birth control (and abortion) has made this possible to an extent, but holding mother nature in check with technology tends to add other complicating factors. It seems moderately hard-wired in humans for sex to create emotional pair-bonding, of the sort that you need between a pair of mates raising offspring that take 13-17 years to reach biological (much less intellectual) maturity. Taking the reproduction out of sex reduces the need for pairbonding, and so we provide ourselves with all sorts of ways to make ourselves unhappy why pursuing the "sex life" ideal.

I'm not saying that biological realities mean that sex should simply be a matter of closing ones eyes and thinking of England (though a vacation sounds like a good idea now that you mention it), but it seems to me that from a creature point of view we put ourselves into awkward places when we try to focus on having a "sex life" without admitting that we're really talking about a "reproductive life".

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Christianity and the Miraculous

Today, Palm Sunday, and throughout the rest of Holy Week, we devote ourselves to the central mysteries of our faith as Christians: Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The Last Supper, which instituted for us the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. The suffering and death of Christ on the cross. His resurrection on the third day.

These miracles are the very center of our faith. As Saint Paul said, if Christ did not rise from the dead, then our faith is in vain. Or to paraphrase Flannery O'Connor's use of rather more modern parlance, "If it isn't true, to hell with it."

This central miracle, Christ's death and resurrection, is the miracle which gives our faith meaning and sets it radically apart from the "he was a good man killed by the authorities for standing up for the poor" substitute which some propose. For if Christ was not God, if He did not rise from the dead, if He did not offer to us eternal salvation, then "he was a good man" is no half-way-there substitute. The resurrection is a miracle so unlikely, so scandalous that we must either embrace it wholly or reject Christianity with scorn. The events of Holy Week are not something we can accept half-way, and by accepting them we accept something which goes utterly and completely beyond the natural and predictable world. A miracle.

Given how central this acceptance of the miraculous is to our faith as Christians, I am unsure why it is that people seem at times to choke at Christ's other miracles as related in the Gospels. In recent decades, one can hardly make it through parish religious education without hearing inventive explanations of how Lazarus had in fact been in a coma but not dead, the miracle of the loaves and fishes was primarily that everyone shared what they had, Christ did not really cast out demons because of course there are no demons, etc.

Why, I find myself wondering, strain at these gnats when if we are to be Christian at all we have already swallowed the camel or Christ's divinity, incarnation, death, and resurrection? I'm far from being one of those who tends to see the miraculous in everything. I'm intensely skeptical of visions, private revelations, and the like, and I am perhaps more likely than many Christians to chalk events up to coincidence rather than the granting of prayers. But when we're talking about the life of Christ, another dynamic seems to come into play. If we once accept that Christ was in fact God incarnate, is it so very unlikely that he could feed five thousand with a few loaves and fishes, or that he could raise a man from the dead? It is not as if we have other differing accounts or witnesses suggesting some other interpretation.

Surely, it is not normal for people to be brought back to life or for large crowds to be miraculously fed, but then, it's not normal for God to become man and walk among us either. On what particular authority do we accept the testimony of the gospels over the one issue and but reject it on the other? Or is there some fig leaf of rationality that people reach for in saying, "Well, of course, I think many of those stories had a perfectly natural explanation."

In every day life, I am well aware of what the possible explanations for an event might be. It could be that Saint Anthony put a set of car keys on the dresser, or it could be that I put them there myself when unloading my pockets the night before. Asked the judge, I'll tend to assume the less miraculous explanation. But when reading the gospels, we do not know the surrounding circumstances. Reading in some other explanation ("The apostles had never seen someone tread water before, so when they saw Jesus doing it, they thought that he was walking on water and assumed it was a miracle.") involves making up circumstances which seem more to fit with out ideas of the normal. And this in the face of the fact that the gospels are written specifically to chronicle that which is not normal: Christ's life on earth.

While not advocating biblical literalism by any stretch (I would imagine that my chosen cognomen illustrates my divergence from that approach on at least one topic) it seems clear that the gospels often explicitly claim to describe miraculous events performed by Christ, and if Christ is who we believe Him to be, it is hard for me to understand how the simple objection of "we know that doesn't normally happen" is enough evidence for re-forming the narrative to one's own taste. Indeed, if one accepts the central tenets of Christianity, to revise the gospel accounts of Christ's actions without some additional source of evidence seems less rational rather than more so.


MrsDarwin and I found ourselves reading a relationship quiz. Towards the woman it asks, "Do men ever accuse you of being manipulative or controlling."

MrsDarwin, "I don't think I've ever had a man tell me that. Do you find me manipulative or controlling?"

Darwin, "No."

MrsDarwin, "Good. If you said you did, I might have to cry."

Like Paolo and Francesca, we read no more that day. But in this case because we were laughing uncontrollably.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Health Care Predictions

In the debate over the now-passed health care reform bill, a great number of statistics were brought out as to why the US desperately needed a bill like this: Numbers of bankruptcies supposedly caused by high medical costs and lack of insurance. Numbers of people who supposedly died each year because of lacking health insurance. Infant mortality rates, etc. With the bill now passed, Megan McArdle is curious to see those who supported it make some firm commitments as to what the results will be over the next five years:
1) Ezra Klein is confidently predicting that it will save hundreds of thousands of lives.
2) Nick Kristoff expects miraculous improvement in our national life expectancy.
3) Michael Moore thinks this will stop people from getting thrown out of their homes in a Medical bankruptcy.
4) At least one of you must be willing to claim massive improvements in infant mortality, after you've cited those statistics to me over and over.

These sorts of things should all be pretty easy to measure, and McArdle goes on to make her won eight predictions in regards to the effectiveness of the bill:
1) Conservatively, Ezra's arithmetic implies a reduction in the death rate of people between 18-64 of at 20,000-45,000 a year. Let's take the low bound--20,000 deaths a year--and assume that we should see that, or something close to it, by 2020. That's about 3% of deaths in the relevant age group, which would show up as a very noticeably kink in the death rate. For comparison purposes, the entire fall in mortality between 1980 and 2000 was about 2.7%.

Contra Ezra, I am predicting that this will not happen. I'm about 75% confident that you will not be able to discern any effect from the health care reform among the statistical noise. But I am 95+% confident that the effect will not be as large as 3%.

2) I'm pretty sure that Kristof read the table he was drawing from wrong--he was looking at life-expectancy at birth, but he interpreted the data as if it was about adults in the 1940s. Still, age-adjusted mortality fell about 15% in just 10 years, an achievement that hasn't been matched since. If Kristof is right, and this had more to do with health care access than antibiotics, we should be able to get a similar improvement this time around--especially since we're already seeing terrific reductions, with a 10% decline in age-related mortality just between 2001-6. Hell, both Ezra's numbers and Kristoff's imply that we should be able to knock down the death rate by at least 20% between 2014 and 2024, when we add their improvements to the existing trend.

I do not think that there will be a noticeable kink in the trend line around 2014. The death rate jumps around quite a lot, so there may be a big drop (or increase) in 2014, neither of which would be meaningful. By 2025, however, I'm skeptical that we'll see a major inflection in the trend.

3) David Himmelstein claims to believe that the majority of all bankruptcies are related to medical issues, and that this is a strong argument for national health care . . . i.e., he claims to believe that medical bills rather than income loss are the main causal driver here. That's the data Michael Moore is citing. I will make a bold counterclaim: the bankruptcy rate after 2014 will not fall by half. It won't even fall by a quarter. This is among the easiest effects to measure, as if the people citing these statistics are right, we should see a sharp and immediate reduction in bankruptcy rates in the first year, with the full effects evident by 2018.

4) Infant mortality should be no greater than that of the Netherlands by 2018. Again, I predict that this will not happen, and indeed, that infant mortality rates may not fall at all.

[read the rest]
Somehow, however, no one seems eager to take up this task from the other side. Indeed, Ezra Klein writes to McArdle insisting that he not be pinned down to having predicted any measurable results for the bill.

Of course, this is partly the result of the traditional political tides: Before a bill passes, supporters promise the moon if it passes. After is passes, they start under-promising in an effort to make sure that they don't get caught with "it didn't work" accusations during the next round of elections. Of course, all this is made even trickier when the authors of a bill intentionally frame it so that it doesn't take effect until after two more election cycles, thus taking advantage of the collective ADD of the American voting public. Democrats may have believed that the bill would save tens of thousands of lives a year, but they didn't believe it enough to want to save those lives between now and 2014 more than they wanted to be spared the effort of explaining themselves in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.

This isn't a strictly a liberal phenomenon either. Wise Republicans would be hesitant commit to any specific number for increased federal tax revenues because of a tax cut and get no more optimistic than predicting that the tax revenue trend of the previous ten years would continue over the next ten years without a noticable long term impact. Still, given that this program will become one of the top ten line items on the federal budget, it is disheartening that its supporters are not even willing to commit to its having any measurable positive effects at this point. One is left wondering, if its effects will be so small as to be lost in the statistical noise, what exactly are we getting for our $200 Billion a year (plus even more in individual and business expenditures on insurance premiums?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Quick Thoughts While Traveling

As in the wider society, equality and diversity are difficult values to balance. We'd purchased a pile of activity and coloring books for the crew, but since they are all different, this allows the ladies to fight about who gets the current favored one. Of course, if we'd got them all the same, they would claim boredom.

Speaking of favored coloring books, if you have young ladies in the family there is no perfectly designed coloring book for the heart of the 4-8 year old girl than the Dover coloring book Princess Leonora, which features the little girl's dream of princess life and finery without any of the Disney or Barbie marketing layered in.

Every time we allow ourselves to break our rule that each time the car halts, every child will go to the bathroom, we regret it about thirty minutes later.

I've been enjoying listening to an audiobook of Galileo's Daughter, which seems to successfully navigate the thorny issues and prejudices which frequently cloud the Galileo story in popular writing. Though since it's of limited interest to the young ladies, we've spent more time listening to Dancing Shoes (which somehow bears a startling resemblance to Ballet Shoes and Theatre Shoes) and the Oxford Book of Fairy Tales.

I keep getting it into my head, at times like this, that what I really want is a fast food burger with fries. And yet, if I get one, it never tastes like what I have in my head. Someday, I'll find the Plato's Cave Burger & Malt stop, where the ideal burger in the mind of God is found. But until then, it is wiser to stock the ice chest with decent food before leaving and only stop for coffee.

Speaking of coffee, traveling underscores the value of brand. When in my natural environment, I tend to scorn Starbucks coffee, because I find their pretensions annoying and their coffee beans are of equal price and lower quality than other smaller brands. However, if one is traveling and wants to buy decent coffee on the road, it is invariably the Starbucks sign that I look for. Because while it may not be the best coffee available where one has the time to do research, it does guarantee a minimum quality of coffee throughout the country without the necessity of doing any research.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

First Person

"I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience."
Thoreau, Walden

For whatever reason, Thoreau seemed like he might be a decent person to read while traveling -- perhaps an odd choice given that Walden is entirely about remaining in one very small locale. I recently heard a bit about Emerson and Thoreau and Transcendentalism in a set of American History lectures, and found feeling I should go read Thoreau so that my only association with him would no longer be the Calvin & Hobbes strip in which Calvin's parents are trying to decide how to simplify.

Monday, March 15, 2010

I'm an Aunt!

This is Wendy Margaret, born at 7:20 this morning, 7 lbs 7 oz, 20.5". Look at that sweet wrinkly chin!

My sister was in labor all night, so of course I'm exhausted.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Wheels of Memory

Among other forms of preparation, we spent an hour this afternoon at the library loading up on audio books for the coming journey. My approach to this is to go through the Juvenile audio book section and pick up anything that looks familiar to me which I haven't heard before, then spin through the adult section to pick up one or two things in case Mommy and Daddy actually get to listen to anything on their own. Since, unlike my more literarily omnivorous mother, I don't normally find myself reading juvenile novels these days, this means primarily pulling classics I've heard and haven't read (for me, a "classic" in regards to children's literature is something written before 1960) or more recent books that I read as a youth. This makes the collection rather thin on the stuff written in the last 15 years, but this is not necessarily a great lack.

Part way down the shelf, I found myself looking at a copy of The Railway Children -- I book I've actually never read, though we own a copy. I did see a BBC adaptation many years ago, which I seem to remember liking. The thing is, I really remember only one thing about it, other than the basic plot: Children and mother go to live in the country after father is accused of something or other and (unbeknownst to the children, who think he's traveling) thrown in prison. The children become fans of the railroad and the local station keeper, and eventually receive help in clearing their father.

What sticks strongly with me, however, is one detail. At the very beginning, on the night when men come to see their father about something going wrong at his business (and in the end take him away) the little boy in the family is working with his father on a new present: a working model steam locomotive. Something goes wrong with the locomotive, and it isn't fixed until near the very end (at which point the station master helps him fix it.)

The broken locomotive somehow seemed an incredibly powerful image of life interrupted by the unexpected. As I say, it's really the only scene I recall from the adaptation.

Perhaps the power of this image is its similarity to life experience from many years ago. When I was seven my youngest brother died of SIDS. It was the morning of Epiphany, and one of the small number of scenes I can recall with perfect clarity from that day was that I was playing with a toy car in the living room at the moment my mother went to wake the baby and found he had stopped breathing during the night. It was a science kit car, powered by a rubber band. Through its translucent plastic body you could see how, when you rolled the car backwards, the rubber band twisted tightly. Red wheels with black rubber treads gripped the floor, and little gears worked against each other to turn the untwisting of the rubber band into forward motion of the wheels.

In later days, I never could quite get that car to work. I'm not sure what happened to it. Life is not as neatly plotted as a children's novel, and oftentimes our greatest troubles are never solved. I seem to recall I always felt odd, later on, playing with it. It took up residence in a drawer and was later thrown away without much thought.

Friday, March 12, 2010

From Sweat-shop Workers to Business Owners

The Oregonian features an article on how Chinese workers who spent years working in factories for American brands like Nike and Columbia Sportswear have become a major source of business startups and wealth in China's rural interior.
WUHU, China -- Years after activists accused Nike and other Western brands of running Third World sweatshops, the issue has taken a surprising turn.

The path of discovery winds from coastal factory floors far into China's interior, past women knee-deep in streams pounding laundry. It continues down a dusty village lane to a startling sight: arrays of gleaming three-story houses with balconies, balustrades and even Greek columns rising from rice paddies.

It turns out that factory workers -- not the activists labeled "preachy" by one expert, and not the Nike executives so wounded by criticism -- get the last laugh. Villagers who "went out," as Chinese say, for what critics described as dead-end manufacturing jobs are sending money back and returning with savings, building houses and starting businesses.

Workers who stitched shoes for Nike Inc. and apparel for Columbia Sportswear Co., both based near Beaverton, are fueling a wave of prosperity in rural China. The boom has a solid feel, with villagers paying cash for houses.

"No one would take out a mortgage to build a house," said Wang Jianguo, 37, who returned after a factory injury in a distant province to the area near Wuhu, west of Shanghai. "You wouldn't feel secure living in a house you didn't own."

In the end, market forces and ambition, not activism or corporate initiatives, pushed up wages and improved working conditions. The forces originally unleashed by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping still drive China's economy, producing a manufacturing labor shortage and giving villagers viable choices beyond factory work.

Improved living standards don't negate criticism by activists who castigated the outsourcing industry, especially Nike, a 1990s lightning rod for allegations of low pay and onerous working conditions. Abuses continue in some plants, especially those unconnected to international brands.

But longtime activists acknowledge that the sweatshop issue has lost steam, at least concerning China. Conditions and wages have improved, says Jeffrey Ballinger, a critic who still dismisses corporate-responsibility programs -- in which Nike, Columbia and other companies set standards and inspect factories -- as spin.

"My complaint always was they should have been able to make that kind of wage without working 70 hours a week," said Ballinger, a McMaster University doctoral candidate in political science. He wants the Obama administration to push countries to require higher "living wage" levels.

This is not to say that life is easy for Chinese factory workers, but it does sound like rather than being helpless victims of the "capitalist machine" many of these workers are bringing the same work ethic to factory work that they previously applied to farming -- an occuption which itself often involves putting in 70 hours weeks. The difference is that many workers see the opportunity to make their children's lives significantly better than their own have been. The stories here are fascinating, and underscore both how much harder these people are working than many in the US, and at the same time how this allows them to open up possibilities previously unimaginable for them:
The average employee at Ever Rich Knitting Garment Co.'s plant near Guangzhou, China, makes $220 a month, which can double during busy seasons.

The pay is minuscule by Western measures. But Mon Xijian, a 31-year-old who has worked at Ever Rich since 1996, has saved enough with his wife, who also works there, to buy a six-unit apartment building back home.

The couple don't recommend the lifestyle. They see their two children -- who live at home with Mon's in-laws 1,200 miles away -- every year or two. Yet Mon far prefers factory work to farming. He's saving to send his son and daughter to college so they can escape both.

"I want them to get as much higher education as possible," said Mon, who irons Columbia garments.

Chu Zhiling, a young woman at Beijing Topnew garment factory, sends 80 percent of her income home to Inner Mongolia -- a region with 19 percent economic growth last year, the highest in China.

"I'd like to open a shop, like my friend who has a boutique selling coats," Chu said. "Now that I've seen the world, I have so many more choices than my parents had."

U.S. journalist Leslie Chang followed young Chinese assembly-line workers for her recently published book, "Factory Girls." Chang says money sent home, and migrants moving back, are changing rural China.

Line workers, she says, can earn several times the average $200 annual income of a farm family.

"They're sleeping 12 in a dorm, and it looks like a pretty crappy life," Chang said. "But you don't hear workers say, 'Oh, I have no hope, I'm a slave.' They say, 'I want to save some money. My dream is to be Bill Gates or to own a restaurant.'"

Chang views sweatshop critics as condescending. She notes that the 19th-century U.S. industrial economy developed in a similar way, as Vermont and New Hampshire farm girls migrated to work in Massachusetts textile plants, sending savings home. She says savvy Chinese workers, not preachy activists, are securing better conditions and wages in China's fast-developing economy.

Yet critics did push Nike and other companies to develop factory standards and inspections.

the people interviewed talking about working these crushing hours so that they can later start their own businesses and work closer to home on things that they enjoy more.
That formula is working -- after two decades -- for Chen Laixiang, a 40-year-old villager from Anhui province, long one of China's poorest inland areas. Chen's face is weathered and his hands callused from working outside for 20 years, pouring concrete in cities ranging from Nanjing to Beijing.

Now Chen and his brother, a woodworker, are back -- starting a business in Zhi Chang, their native village. They won permission to lease land and enlarge a pond.

The brothers are stocking the pond with fish. As 50-50 partners, they took a small-business class and invested $22,000 to build a fishing resort.

"I don't want to live in other cities anymore," Chen said. "I want to promote the local economy."

Nearby in the town of Nan Hu, returnee Zhang Litian operates a one-van taxi service. He used to drive a forklift at a chemical factory in Anhui's capital city, saving almost $1,500 a year.

"Staying home is better," said Zhang, 42, a father of two. "Now I can earn much more money than working outside."
Does this mean that "free enterprise will solve all our problems and we just need to deregulate and let it work"? No. A libertarian utopia is as unlikely as any other kind. But it does serve to emphasize that for all the difficulties, polution and disruption, the global economy is not some inhuman machine mindlessly chewing up helpless victims in developing countries. Faced with new opportunties, and new difficulties, distributed free-market systems allow millions of people to make individual decision, weighing the difficulties against the benefits, and gradually work towards what they consider a better life for themselves. The apparent disorder masks millions of people individually seeking out ways to better themselves, their families and their communities.

And while it is certainly admirable for people to seek better conditions and wages for those in the poorest nations, it is absolutely essential that people not in the process choke off access to the opportunities for betterment which local people are taking advantage of -- however unattractive those opportunities may look to spectators from more wealthy countries.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Ruins of Detroit

Matthew Lickona links to The Ruins of Detroit, Marchand and Meffre's photographs of a dying city. (The book is coming out this year.) I can't stop looking at these images -- they're sobering and heart-rending and elegaic. The scale of these ruins is unbelievable, especially for a city which is still inhabited, if barely.

This abandoned station was alive, once. How many people passed through it each day? What was the life expectancy of this building, that it was constructed on so grand a scale? Can this building be salvaged? My heart aches to see such a gracious structure pass into irreparable decay, and yet the damage has already been done.

This is abandonment and decay on a Titanic scale -- mammoth theaters and ballrooms and factories untouched by human presence, quietly crumbling through years of man's destructive absence. Detroit must be a city slowly collapsing in on itself to have so many grand buildings just abandoned.

This is the eeriest photo of them all -- a library. The inkjet printer on the desk testifies to a more recent abandonment. There are still books on the shelves. It must have once been an exceptionally comfortable place to read -- look at the fire place and the craftsman windows. If this library could just be abandoned, the neighborhood itself must have died.

Here's a fine set of Detroit photos from J. Griffioen's Flickr collection.

Why Touchscreen?

I don't understand why it is that so many computer manufacturers (though perhaps significantly not Apple) seem convinced that what people really want in an all-in-one desktop computer is touchscreen technology. People claim this is a "family computer" feature that everyone should want. As it is, I spend far too much time scolding my kids for touching the monitor, and cleaning their fingerprints off it. Why would I want a computer which encouraged them to touch it?

I understand why you'd want touch on a smartphone or a check-out terminal. But on a home computer, no thanks.

You Can Go Home Again

Of all the various stops on our vacation to look forward to, the one I'm anticipating most is Blacksburg, Virginia. That's where we lived until I was twelve, and though I haven't seen it for twenty years I remember it as being one of the most beautifully pastoral places on earth. We had nine acres out in the country, down a quarter-mile driveway, with cows on two sides and a horse farm on a third. (The back side of the property faced the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.) It was the ideal place to be a kid -- fresh air, countryside, lots of stupid cows on the other side of the fence. Of course we were always respectful when we had to walk down the driveway on the other side of the fence. Then the cows stopped being just stupid and seemed actively malevolent. But I digress.

While researching our trip on Google Maps, I discovered the feature that lets you take a street view of the address you're looking up. And then I discovered, to my delight, that some things don't change, except for the better: the driveway looks just like I remember it, only with an appropriate twenty-years-worth of tree growth.

View Larger Map

I spent a fascinating hour "driving" the roads around our old home, and everything looks exactly as I remember it. There are plenty of places that change in twenty years, but I'm overjoyed to find that my childhood memories are more than fulfilled by the present reality.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Various and Sundry, Boring Edition

I procrastinate, therefore I blog.


Nashville peoples, we will be stopping in your fair city on the evening of Wednesday March 17, but we'll be arriving too late to meet up. If you'd like to do breakfast somewhere, let me know. We have to leave the area by 10 AM on Thursday at the latest.


If you'd be so good, please keep my sister in your prayers -- she's a week overdue, and baby seems exceptionally comfortable right where she is.


We're trying not to give way to full-blown panic at the thought of leaving on a big vacation in a week. Packing starts today. I'm tempted to just keep the kids in one outfit all week and get all their stuff safely stowed away early. I'm sure they'd love wearing the same clothes for seven days.


On top of vacation stuff, we have First Communion in six weeks. I've found a dress for the young communicant (maybe it would be a good idea to order it instead of just looking at the picture online), but other stuff like veils and shoes have not even been on my radar. And parties afterward, and out-of-town guests.


When the dishwasher first broke, we thought, "Oh, maybe this is a chance to simplify and get back to basics." And for a week, we kept on top of the washing and the counter was even clean. Now, a month later, we wash what we need before meals, cursing the hiding silverware. The repair guy comes today, and I say, "Simplifying is for the birds."

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Software Bleg

Does anyone know of a Mac OS application that acts like graph paper? I don't need a full drafting or design application, just the ability to define a grid size and draw shapes that snap to it. Seems like something that ought to be readily available, but I can't seem to find something basic (and preferably freeware or shareware).

Thursday, March 04, 2010

On The Difficulties of Career Feedback

The main reason I've been fairly quiet on the blog the last couple weeks is that I'm currently facing the full brunt of some new team management responsibilities at work. When I'm adjusting to new or larger responsibilities, I often find that (aside from having very little free time) I find it difficult to give much mental energy to anything else. Books sit unread, blog topics cease to come to mind, etc.

One of the things that's been keeping me particularly busy lately is preparing end-of-year performance reviews. Knowing how frustrating it can be to get a cursory written review from the manager you've only had for a couple months (which in this case, is me) I want to make sure that I give people thorough and fair feedback.

The process, however, brings up some basic contradictions in my deeply held assumptions and ways of dealing with people. In the employment sphere, I generally find myself assuming, "Most people are able to do well if they are given the opportunity (and appropriate guidance on what they're supposed to do and resources to do it with) if they apply themselves." And yet, in my personal interactions with people, I contradictorily assume, "It is generally not possible to change people, and causes unnecessary conflict to try."

Here's the problem (or as we say in corporate speak, challenge): For various reasons, certain types of skills and personalities are valued more than others. So, for instance, say that someone is the sort of person who is very good at routine. He is willing to come in day after day and do the same thing, and do it right. But he is not the sort of person who comes up with suggestions on how to change processes, or who will proactively go find things to do if he's not given tasks. Such a person can be valuable in certain slots, but unless he "develops" by becoming the sort of person who develops and implements new or improved businesses processes, shows initiative, etc., he will always get middling performance ratings, low raises, and will not be promoted.

So, do you provide such a person with feedback about how he needs to step up and be more innovative? Or do you just leave him alone? My social instincts tell me that you simply accept people as they are and work around any limitations or annoyances that may come with them. You don't address negatives, because that causes conflict. But implicit in the modern workplace is the idea that everyone can and should improve. And given that my own experience is that I am pretty successful in improving and innovating within any given role, if I write off people's ability to do this I'm implicitly saying, "I'm able to do the things which the company environment here values, but you're not." Which is not the sort of thing that "all people need is opportunity" types of people like me want to admit. It feels to much like saying, "You're not as good as me."

Not only can providing feedback about things people can't change (or may not be able to change) contradict one's deeply held assumptions, it can also cause significant personal pain. A couple years ago, when it was annual review time, I ran into a woman on another team who was close to tears after getting her annual performance feedback. One of the major pieces of feedback she's received from her manager essentially boiled down to, "A lot of the people on the team really don't like your personality. Please act differently." She didn't know what to do, and was deeply offended. And, of course, the most difficult thing about the whole situation was that the manager was right: she had a certain manic-kindergarten-teacher approach to doing things which was annoying and unprofessional. But what could you do? That's simply the way she was, and if people didn't like it they should have considered that when they hired her.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Homeopathic FAIL

This seems a popular topic, so I'll keep it going.

From all accounts, either homeopathic stuff works right away, or it's not going to. On that score, my foray into the homeopathic realm is an utter fail. My veins have not cleared up -- on the contrary, last night I was bent double standing over the sink, trying vainly (pun! ha!) to take some pressure off the area. I foresee appalling support garments and lots of external witch hazel in my future.

For the record, continuing our discussions of bizarre midwife tendencies, I want to say that my midwife is quite competent and very accepting of charting and NFP. The homeopathic recommendation was only one in a raft of suggestions for managing veins -- I was hoping that a "magic" remedy would work for me instead of having to start an ongoing treatment regimen. Guess what? Magic don't work.

When I was first looking into homebirth, three kids ago, I called up the only Catholic midwife I knew of in the area, but she was just getting ready to start with the nearest birthing center. In the intervening years, she's switched from the birthing center to homebirths and back again a few times, stranding a friend of mine either way. So that doesn't work for me. But I like and trust my current midwife, who's seen me through two births and a miscarriage, and I'll put up with one homeopathic recommendation in the five years I've been with her.