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

Monday, May 31, 2010

Enemies No Longer

The American Civil War was the bloodiest in our history, a total war of attrition waged on our own territory, which an at times none to congenial peace. It is, thus, all the more inspiring to read about the reunion which was held at Gettysburg in 1913, celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of the war's bloodiest battles. An open invitation was made to all those who had served in either army, north or south, and been honorably discharged, and more than 50,000 men came to the three day event.
Personnel from the United States Army Quartermaster Corps and Engineer Corps arrived at Gettysburg National Military Park in 1912 to plan military and civilian support for the encampment. The engineers surveyed the field adjacent to the fields of "Pickett's Charge" where they laid out the arrangement for "The Great Camp", divided into areas for Union veterans and for Confederate veterans. Soldiers installed utility systems, erected hundreds of tents to house the veterans, built picnic tables, benches, and boardwalks throughout the camp. By the first of June the sprawling Great Camp occupied 280 acres, included 47 1/2 miles of avenues and company streets, was lit by 500 electric arc lights, and 32 bubbling ice water fountains were installed. Over 2,000 army cooks and bakers manned 173 field kitchens, ready to provide three hot meals per day for veterans and camp personnel alike....

The first veterans arrived on June 25 and within days the Great Camp swelled to overflowing. Every veteran was provided a cot and bedding in a tent that would hold eight men. Meals were served from a kitchen at the end of each company street and varied from fried chicken suppers to roast pork sandwiches with ice cream for desert. By the end of the reunion, the army kitchens had supplied over 688,000 meals to reunion participants. Invariably the days were hot and the thermometer topped 102 degrees on July 2. Heat exhaustion and physical fatigue resulted in hospitalization of several hundred veterans. Over 9,980 patients were treated by medical personnel for ailments ranging from heat exhaustion to stomach disorders. Remarkably, only nine veterans passed away during the week-long encampment. Despite the heat and often dusty conditions, nothing could keep the aged men in camp and hundreds wandered the battlefield. Many visited battle sites where they or their comrades had been fifty years before. Confederate veterans especially were pleased to find old cannon mounted on metal carriages to mark the locations where their batteries had been during that fateful battle. Invariably, the presence of khaki-clad US Army personnel caused a lot of excitement. The soldiers were there to guard camp supplies, give demonstrations, and provide services to the veterans who delighted themselves discussing the modern weapons of war. Many an aged veteran was eager to explain how much things had changed in fifty years to any soldier who was handy and army personnel were constantly entertained by the old soldiers at every turn. [source]

One of the major events of the reunion was a reenactment of Pickett's Charge. Confederate veterans assembled to walk the three-quarters-of-a-mile across open fields towards Union lines, retracing the charge which on which fifty years before 12,500 men had set out and suffered 50% casualties. As union veterans watched the men in gray approaching them across the field again, many eyes were far from dry. And as the Confederate veterans approached the wall, their old adversaries broke ranks and came forward to meet them, not with lead and steel this time, but with the embraces of friendship.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

You Are A Priest Forever

We just returned from the priestly ordinations for the Diocese of Austin. Our new bishop, Joe Vasquez, ordained seven men, including one of our good friends, Fr. Matthew Kinney. It was a beautiful and moving experience -- Darwin had never been to an ordination before, and I'd only been to one, years ago. The church was absolutely packed almost an hour before Mass began, so many people were eager to attend.

Reading the biographies of the new priests, I found them a fascinating cross-section of the church. Several were late vocations. One knew his vocation in high school and pursued it right away. Two had been married -- one with three children, the other with six. One was from Africa, one from Korea. Some had seen military service. One had worked for Wal-Mart! They bring a breadth of experience and a wealth of grace to the church in central Texas.

Please pray for our new priests in Austin, and that God will continue to send us more vocations of the same caliber as these good men.

Fr. Matthew Kinney
Fr. Adrian Chishimba
Fr. Charlie Garza
Fr. Mark Hamlet
Fr. Wade Russell
Fr. John Kim
Fr. Steve Sauser

Friday, May 28, 2010

In Praise of Late Bloomers

I've been working my way through the first volume of Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative, which I've been enjoying quite a bit. While describing the ups and downs of Lincoln's career (the latter at least as frequent as the former) Foote remarks of the period from age forty to forty-five when Lincoln largely withdrew from public life and focused on his law practice while doing a great deal of reading of "the greats": Lincoln, like many great men, was a late bloomer.

For whatever reason, I always find this kind of thing reassuring. I frequently feel like there's a great deal more that I want to read and understand and write and do, and thus it's encouraging to hear that there's still time. Indeed, that it is unusual, in life, for people to already have their major accomplishments behind them by their forties.

Similarly, whenever I start to let myself get too frustrated about things at work, I recall an article I read a number of years ago which said that years of highest earnings in a man's career are from ages 50 to 55.

Foote himself was something of a late bloomer as a historian, starting his Narrative in his late 30s. The first volume was published when he was 42, and the last when he was 58. And the series did not reach its peak of popularity until he was in his early 70s, when he featured in Ken Burns' Civil War documentaries. Reading a little about Foote, I was particularly amused by this anecdote:
Foote labored to maintain his objectivity in the narrative despite his Southern upbringing. He deliberately avoided Lost Cause mythologizing in his work. He gained immense respect for such disparate figures as Ulysses Grant, William T. Sherman, Patrick Cleburne, and Edwin Stanton. He grew to despise such figures as Phil Sheridan and Joe Johnston. He considered United States President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest to be two authentic geniuses of the war. He stated this opinion once in conversation with one of General Forrest's granddaughters. She replied, after a pause, "You know, we never thought much of Mr. Lincoln in my family."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

St. Francis de Sales on Anger

" Humble goodness is the virtue of virtues, very highly recommended by Our Lord. Hence we should practice it always and everywhere. Evil must be avoided, but calmly. Good must be done, but always serenely. Follow this rule: that which you can see be done in charity, do; what cannot be done without dispute, do not do. In other words, peace and tranquility of soul must always take preference over all actions."

"If possible, never become angry and always reject any pretext for allowing anger to gain admission to your heart, for once it has entered, you will no longer be able to banish it when you desire, or moderate it. If, however, you find that because of your weakness it has gained a foothold in your heart, summon all your will power and see that you set your heart at peace. But you must do so serenely, never violently."

"The means of overcoming anger are: 1. Forestall such feelings as much as possible, or at least banish them at once by thinking of something else. 2. In imitation of the Apostles when the storm arose on the sea, have recourse to God, Who will restore peace to your heart. 3. While you are boiling, do not talk nor offer any opposition concerning the point in question. 4. Strive to be humble and courteous towards the person with whom you feel angry, especially if he has shown resentment in any way.''

Too Hot To Handle

There is little more dull than hearing others recite their perceived slights, and so I was at first unsure if I should bother posting about this. Still, it may be very mildly interesting to others, and as a cached browser managed to return to me that which I had strongly believed to have been lost, I thought I might as well get a post out of the situation.

Blogger David Wheeler has a post the other day over at Vox Nova, in which he talked about the difficulties he had as the liaison between his parish council and the Cincinnati Archdiocese on "green" topics.
I don’t know why, but my parish approached me last year about becoming the parish liaison between our parish council committee and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s Task Force on Climate Change. I guess it had something to do with the fact that I drive a Prius and use Buckeye Eco-Care on my lawn. But, honestly, I don’t know…

After a few meetings in Cincinnati, I finally had the opportunity to report back to our parish about what we as a parish are being asked to do about global warming by the hierarchy in the Church.

The gist is that several people on the parish council reacted very negatively to the diocese's suggestion that they become a flagship "green" parish, with solar panels, etc. Wheeler was frustrated that there was so much opposition to this, as he sees the command to be good stewards of the earth as a moral one.

Having spent time on a parish council, and feeling like I was able to give a fair approximation of why more conservative Catholics had trouble with the green=moral line of thinking, I left the following comment, and received the following response:
DarwinCatholic says:


FWIW, I would imagine that for many on the parish council who objected to the idea of being a “flagship green parish”, it seemed to them that that recommendation represented a tendency to focus on politics rather than morality. (And yes, I agree that the “how about if we frame greenness as supporting our troops” idea was downright moronic.)

As for why many “conservative” Catholics are not more eager to lead in applying environmentalism and other social teachings — and speaking as something of an insider to the conservative approach in this case — I think it has a lot to do with people finding it hard to envision environmentalism in the sort of moral terms they are used to. What most Catholics active in their parish are concerned about are basics of personal morality: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t use violence unjustly, don’t have sex before marriage, don’t get divorced, don’t commit adultery, don’t use porn, don’t use birth control, don’t have an abortion, etc. The moral framing of these rules is simple and clear: Action X is wrong because it violates natural and moral principle Y.

Environmental concerns seem harder to fit into that kind of formulation, especially because they seem so relative. So using rechargeable batteries is “more moral” than using one-use ones. But is it even more moral simply not to use the sound system? Does plugging in and recharging the batteries really use much less resources than buying new ones? Is using a solar panel more moral than using the electric grid? Is just setting the A/C to 80 instead of 76 better than using the solar panels, since after all building solar panels themselves is a messy and energy consuming process, which the panels themselves may not actually prevent enough pollution to justify?

These are all very relative trade-off discussions, and so while I think you would probably get little disagreement from most conservative Catholics that “be good stewards of God’s creation” is a moral law, most would not tend to see the choice between disposeable and rechargeable batteries as a moral choice, with one option being sinful and the other virtuous.

I think also, for political reasons, people are often concerned that there’s something very mee-too-ish about showy “green” measures by churches. Almost as if to say to a segment of society, “Sure, I know you disapprove of what we say about marriage and birth control and abortion — but look, we’ll be pretty quiet about that and talk about solar panels instead! Do we fit in now?”

drdwheelerreed says:

Good thoughts DarwinCatholic… but this brings me back to what my colleague said, “If we Catholic would’ve just obeyed our Scriptural mandate to take care of the earth… then these discussion would be irrelevant… we wouldn’t even be having them…”


Later in the day, when I checked back, I saw the above, plus a number of other comments, including several from a conservative commenter questioning whether there was in fact a scientific consensus over global warming, and Wheeler's responses to those comments, which cited Al Gore's writing several times. I left the following reply:
DarwinCatholic says:

but this brings me back to what my colleague said, “If we Catholic would’ve just obeyed our Scriptural mandate to take care of the earth… then these discussion would be irrelevant… we wouldn’t even be having them…”

Well, this assumes a couple of things. For instance, I doubt that many people say, “If I thought we had a duty to take care of the earth, I would do so, but since we don’t I’m going to actively work to trash it.” Most people probably argue that they do a moderately good job of taking care of the earth, and it’s not entirely clear that some of the most popular “green” activities (building wind farms, putting up solar panels, driving hybrids) are necessarily less hard on the environment than simply using less. For instance, though China has an absolutely terrible record in regards to pollution (example) the fact that China is overall much poorer than the US means that the average Chinese actually has far less impact on the environment than the average US environmentalist. And similarly, Al Gore’s lifestyle is much more polluting than mine — though he buys “carbon offsets” and I don’t.

Nor is human impact on the environment a result only of technology. Humans were pretty clearly responsible for the extinction of a large number of species in Europe, America and Australia in the period 20-40 thousand years ago, and the combination of deforestation and soil exhaustion is believed to be a major cause of the “dark age” at the end of the Bronze Age around 1000 BC.

“And Global warming IS the scientific consensus.”


That has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, beyond scientific scrutiny.

I think, Theresa, one can certainly argue about how much of global warming is actually caused by human activity (rather than natural cycles), to what extent continuing emissions trends will actually impact the climate (or whether natural dampening factors will kick in), and to what extent the amounts of change that we are likely, as a society, to be able to achieve would make any difference in the trend. However, I don’t think we can really deny that there is a scientific consensus, at this time, among those in the field, that global warming is real.

That said, scientific consensus and reality do not have a one to one correlation by any stretch, and many environmental advocates (Al Gore very much an offender in this regard) tend to distort the scientific consensus in order to make it more exciting and serve their own ends.

As you can clearly see, something is going on… something is causing the snow and ice to melt.

This is DATA, what used to be accepted among critical thinkers as FACTS! Today, opinion has become God, and facts, well… I guess we don’t use Reason anymore… maybe we don’t even use Faith…

The point is… you can disagree with global warming, but you’ve got to come up with an alternative to why glaciers are melting… and you’ve got to come up with an alternative as to what we’re going to do about it!

While your passion is admirable, it is at times the argument of amateurs that gives a movement a bad name. For instance, in regards to questions like “Why are the glaciers melting” someone can simply point out that through the majority of the history of life on earth there have not been glaciers. We are, still, at a period of abnormally high glaciation compared to Earth’s overall norm — an interglacial period in an ice age. And Earth has, at times, sustained CO2 levels significantly higher than what we currently have, with no damage to it as a planet. Compared to other disasters that have afflicted life on this planet (Permian/Triassic extinctions, KT impact, etc.) the effects of human civilization on this planet are as nothing.

Further, some popular environmentalists (such as Al Gore) tend to make statements about weather effects and speed of climate change which are drastically out of keeping with anything the IPCC puts out. For instance, claims that “catastrophic weather” has gotten worse because of global warming are very, very hard to sustain by any real data.

What should, however, concern people is not that we will destroy “the planet” but that our civilization as currently organized relies on the earth’s climate patterns not changing very much, regardless of whether than change is natural or anthropocentric. Comparatively sudden changes could result in widespread displacement or hunger, if they came, regardless of their origin. But the planet, qua planet, will be just fine.

Several hours later, both of those comments of mine had been deleted, and the thread closed, though oddly enough his reply to me remains in place. I'm not really sure why the comments suddenly were perceived to cross that threshold over which blog owners feel they cannot allow people to tread. But if nothing else it does certainly seem to be an example of how touchy people can become once they start demanding that people "look at the facts" and explain them.

Orphan Openings: The Unequal Marriage

Few would have disputed that Maria-Lucia was one of the most beautiful girls in the village, with fine, dark hair, delicate features, skin like new-skimmed cream, and full lips that smiled often, showing even teeth. As she neared womanhood, the legs and arms which had been merely thin assumed the subtle curves which drew men's eyes, and her waist and bosom the less subtle curves that held them. Yet she had no pretensions about her, was quiet and dutiful towards her elders and devout to just such a degree as to seem a "good girl", but without excess. And so there was surprisingly little jealousy directed towards her, until the time of her marriage.

Her offense, when it came, was not of the usual and forgivable sort. Had she married a rich old man, heads would have nodded indulgently as they observed that she was very pretty after all, and from a poor family, and so who would blame her? Many voices would have "hoped she would be happy." Similar hopes would have been expressed had she married one of the more attractive young men -- hopefully in the sort of hurried fashion which would allow people to meditate with satisfaction that beauty was not an unmixed blessing, and be thankful for their own daughters' virtue.

Opinion was, thus, outraged to see itself defied when Maria married Giuseppe. He was a quiet man, five years her senior, with no living family left. His farm was small and his looks were plain almost to the point of ugliness, with very large ears and nose, and a mouth that drooped as if sad, though when he spoke it almost always with cheer and kindness. His hair was naturally disordered, his skin burnt brown with many days under the sun, his shoulders slightly stooped, his arms long and his pace very slightly shuffling, such that when they were first seen entering the parish church together after the marriage (which had been small, with only the families and a few friends in attendance) one sharp tongue remarked afterward, "With his looks next to hers, it looked as if he were a pet ape moping along behind her."

Though the marriage had seemed sudden enough -- or at least, if they had spent much time together in the months beforehand, few had marked it -- few could imagine it was because of necessity, save for a few who darkly muttered that she must have come to grief with a man who wouldn't marry her, and only Giuseppe would take her in that condition. Time, however, proved this not to be the case. There was, of course, speculation that she must be unhappy. And that fall Giuseppe found more than the usual number of young men coming to see if he needed hired laborers for the harvest -- though if he suspected that they had actually come in hopes of finding his wife eager for other male company around the farm, he gave no definite sign of the knowledge as he turned them away.

Though Giuseppe's farm was no more remote than most, they were treated almost as if they lived on the other side of the river, in La Rocca, and if they were mentioned at all it was with the observation, "But surely the children will be ugly."

But that was not in fact to be the case.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Frank Breech of Trust, revisited.

No, baby #5 is not breech, thank God! She seems to be firmly head down here at 33 1/2 weeks. But, for whatever reason, the post I put up in 2008 about Jack being breech is one of our biggest Google hits, so I'm reposting it for whoever is out there looking for info on breech babies.

So we're at 36 weeks now. Everything is in readiness for the home birth. I've got my kit, I've packed all the supplies I need where the midwives can find them easily, I've cleaned my room and the bathroom. We're all set except for one thing: baby has flipped breech.

The problem with this is that these days, not so many people want to deliver a breech baby vaginally. My midwife, with almost thirty years' experience, has only assisted at three or four breech births. Doctors are reluctant to allow vaginal breech births because of the slight risk of the cord getting pinched and cutting off oxygen to the baby -- and I'll grant that, if it happens to your baby, the statistics on the low incidence of occurrence mean nothing. So we're looking at opposite ends of the medical intervention spectrum -- if baby flips head-down, we can have a home birth; if he stays breech, we have to go to the hospital and have a c-section. Needless to say, I'm rooting for the former.

It turns out there are various methods for encouraging a baby to rotate, one of which is for the mother to lay pretty much upside down. This is about as uncomfortable as it looks (though less uncomfortable than a c-section, I keep telling myself). The awkward part is not in maintaining the position for twenty minutes at a time, but in getting into it in the first place. Baby does respond, especially when I put a bag of ice on his head to encourage him to wriggle away up toward the pelvis. (Image from

Other low-intervention methods include massage, chiropractic adjustment (though my friends tell me that no chiropractor will see you without an x-ray, which seems counterproductive in this case), acupuncture, and swimming. I have a massage scheduled for this weekend, and I'm going to need it after laying on my neck and shoulders for twenty minutes at a stretch. I also have an appointment with a doctor to discuss external version, should the at-home fixes fail. This involves the doctor rotating the baby from the outside, sounds to be quite painful ("Like ligaments tearing," the midwife suggested), and needs to be done after 37 weeks in a hospital with ultrasound monitoring in case baby gets tangled up in his cord and needs an immediate c-section. I'm praying we don't have to take it that far.

UPDATE 1/27/10: This post seems to get a lot of traffic from people searching for information about breech babies, so I'll let you know how it turned out: Acupunture and massage, though relaxing, did nothing for me. Nor did hanging upside down or floating in water. In the end I went in at 37 weeks for a version. It was successful and amazingly fast -- I'm still talking about it a year and a half later. Since this was my fourth, my muscles were sufficiently relaxed for the OB to get a good grip.

The version wasn't painless, but I didn't find it agonizing. He had to grab pretty deep to get under baby, and I had to consciously breathe and keep my muscles relaxed. But it went by quickly, and at the end I had a head-down baby!

Jack was born at home on 9/11/08.

Celebrity Pay

People often demand to know why it is that we as a society consent to pay movie stars and professional athletes such obscene sums of money, while teachers and other people clearly providing greater benefit to society are paid so very little.

There are a great many economic and social explanations one can go into, but one basic point that probably bears pointing out is that society does not in fact spend more on Hollywood or on professional sports than it does on teachers. Nationally, the US spends an average of $10,000 per year on each student in public schools, and average college tuition (blending public and private) is roughly the same. Thus, a person with a four year college degree has had roughly $170,000 spent on his education -- almost certainly more money than he will spend over his lifetime on movies or watching sports.

The reason why teachers make so much less than movie stars or professional athletes is that the total amount of money collected by these entertainment celebrities is spread over a much smaller number of people. There are under 500 players in the NBA, around 1700 in the NFL. The number of actors who make truly large amounts of money (especially when averaged over a career which often has long dry periods) is at most a couple thousand. By comparison, there are over six million teachers and three hundred thousand college and university professors.

Entertainers make so much money because modern means of communication allow large numbers of people to enjoy the performances of a comparatively small number of people.

Monday, May 24, 2010

What Your 18-Year-Old Needs to Know

Darwin's in a conference all day, and I just don't have anything interesting to say, so here's a rerun from 2006 that garnered lots of comments at the time. Feel free to add your own ideas.

For the record, now that my kids are of homeschooling age, I like the What your X-Grader Needs to Know series, just as a point of reference.

When my folks were getting into homeschooling back in the mid eighties, there was a really popular series of books for parents out there, each titled What Your X Grader Needs To Know. I don't know if these are still around and popular -- the monkeys are rather young yet, and MrsDarwin and I have a rather blase approach to homeschooling since we feel like we've been there before.

But for whatever reason, I was thinking this weekend about things one ought to know before being turned out into the world to college or work of basic training of wherever it is that you head off to at eighteen. This is a pretty rough list, and I'd love to see what else readers would suggest. It's not so much meant to be a sum-and-total of necessary education, but sort of a minimum required list for being civilized and functional.

By the time you leave home at 18 you should:

  • Read two out of these three: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid
  • Read four of Plato's dialoges including Apology and Phaedo.
  • Have read all books of the Bible at least once.
  • Read Augustine's Confessions.
  • Read Beowulf
  • Read at least one of the volumes of the Divine Comedy (Inferno or Purgatorio would be the recommended choices).
  • Read Introduction To The Devout Life.
  • Read The Little Flowers of St. Francis and The Little Way of St. Therese.
  • Read Brideshead Revisited and Lord of the Rings.
  • Read C.S. Lewis' The Four Loves.
  • Read at least one novel by each of the following: Dickens, Austen, Dostoyevski
  • Read/see at least four Shakespeare plays including Hamlet and Macbeth.
  • Read the Constitution of the United States.
  • See Citizen Kane, The Third Man, Casablanca, The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge Over the River Kwai, Chinatown and at least one Hitchcock movie.
  • Know how to calculate the profit and loss and balance sheets of a small business.
  • Know the basics of how a relational database works (e.g. a database with order, order detail, products, and customer tables)
  • Know the basics of how to use excel.
  • Know how to calculate compound interest.
  • Know how to replace a hard drive, add additional RAM and reinstall an operating system on a computer.
  • Speak a foreign language well enough to communicate on a basic level.
  • Know how to drive a manual transmission car.
  • Know how to change a tire and change your oil.
  • Know how to operate basic power tools safely and build simple furniture (like a bookshelf or table).
  • Know how to cook at least five different meals.
  • Know how to do your own laundry.
  • Know how to shoot and clean a rifle and handgun.
  • Be able to run mile in under nine minutes.
  • Memorize the Nicene and Apostle's Creeds, the Gettysburg Address and at least one piece of poetry longer than 100 lines.

I can't claim to have done all this stuff by the time I was 18, but I never claimed to be fully civilized or fully functional. Still, I wish I had done all this stuff by 18, and it doesn't seem impossible to do so.

MrsDarwin adding on here:

By the time you leave home at 18 you should:

  • Know how to change a diaper
  • Be able to bake a loaf of bread from scratch
  • Hear Handel's Messiah, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
  • Know the table of elements
  • Be able to start and to finish a conversation politely
  • Be able to compose a thank you note, a letter of sympathy, an essay, and a job application
  • Know how to read music, and play at least one instrument
  • Understand how the human reproductive system works (both male and female)
  • Have spoken in public at least once
  • Know how to lay a fire
  • Know how to thread a sewing machine and sew a straight stitch, and know how to sew on a button by hand
  • Have nurtured a simple vegetable or flower garden
  • Know how to set a table and use a cloth napkin
  • Know how to draw basic three-dimensional shapes
By popular demand:
  • Know how to balance a checkbook
Another Update:
Opinionated Homeschooler has some good thoughts on the list.

Also, to clarify a bit -- wanting to keeping the post down to something like a vaguely reasonable length, I tried to make some decisions about scope that would make sense. For instance, I think everyone should have read Winnie The Pooh, but since most people do this by the age of eight, I left it off. Other things, I assumed were covered by higher level items. So I assumed that between calculating compound interest and being able to produce a simple balance sheet, you must therefore also know how to manage checking and savings accounts and deal with a credit car or home loan.

The list was also pretty clearly a Catholic list. If you weren't Catholic, St. Francis, St. Therese and St. Francis de Sales would drop off, though I think anyone in Western Culture would do well to read the Bible, Augustine and Dante.

Opinionated Homeschooler is dead right in adding some Aquinas plus math through calculus (sorry MrsDarwin) to the list, as well as knowing the rules to football, baseball and poker.

The great stumbling block for me was trying to think of what you ought to know about science. Some things are so basic it seemed hardly worth mentioning: Know the names and the order of the nine planet. But the tricky thing with science is that it's not based on a few basic seminal works that you to understand the field. That's what strikes me as the weak point of great books programs where science education consists of reading Origin of Species, Newton's Principia, and several of Einstein's seminal papers. Reading "great works" of science is certainly helpful, but it doesn't really get you there.

I continue to be stumped by the science angle, so I'd be eager to hear suggestions -- seeing as some of our readers know a great deal more about science than I do. The one thing I'm pretty sure at this point should go on is:
  • Be able to explain and use Newton's universal laws of motion.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Homestead Day!

I hope you're all having parties to celebrate Homestead Day today, the 148th anniversary of the signing of the Homestead Act by Abraham Lincoln!

The Homestead Act was one of several United States federal laws that gave an applicant freehold title to up to 160 acres (1/4 section, 65 hectares) of undeveloped federal land outside the original 13 colonies. The law required three steps: file an application, improve the land, and file for deed of title. Anyone who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government, including freed slaves, could file an application and evidence of improvements to a federal land office.

The original Homestead Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862.[1][2][3][4][5][6] Because much of the prime low-lying alluvial land along rivers had been homesteaded by the turn of the twentieth century, a major update called the Enlarged Homestead Act was passed in 1909. It targeted land suitable for dryland farming, increasing the number of acres to 320.[7] In 1916, the Stock-Raising Homestead Act targeted settlers seeking 640 acres (260 ha) of public land for ranching purposes.[7]

Only about 40 percent of the applicants who started the process were able to complete it and obtain title to their homestead land.[8] Eventually 1.6 million homesteads were granted and 270,000,000 acres (420,000 sq mi) of federal land were privatized between 1862 and 1934, a total of 10% of all lands in the United States.[9] Homesteading was discontinued after 1976, except in Alaska. Individuals may no longer homestead on public land as a way to acquire title.

This week we've read a book about the Homestead Act (which is why we know that the anniversary is May 20th), watched the new movie of Little House on the Prairie (some historical inaccuracies, but surprisingly good -- the ladies enjoyed it thoroughly), started reading The Long Winter, with its early chapters on harvesting hay on a homestead, and read about the new farming machinery that allowed Pa to farm 160 acres of Dakota prairie.

Today we're going to braid hair like pioneer girls and make ginger water, which, being a bit sweet and gingery, was easier on stomach on a hot weary day than plain cold water.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

School-ish musings at the end of the year.

It's that time of the year again -- the time when all of our school supplies have dried up, vanished, or been sharpened to nubs. We're scrounging for crayons, pencils with erasers, pencils without erasers, paper, tape, children's scissors, etc. Of course, you say, there's always the store -- go buy some! Yes, but we need so many things that I'm hesitant to start buying for fear I may not stop.

We've had mixed success this year. I do think the girls have more knowledge than they did at the beginning of the school year, yes. I see more math skills, or at least a bit more problem-solving acumen. I like the Miquon Math that we've been doing, but some of the more conceptual parts are going over the girls' heads. Right now, after some recent math fails with the oldest, we're doing a page of drill each day, and next year I'm going to start Singapore Math.

Reading has improved, and most importantly, both older girls (8 and 6) have found a love of quiet reading and will sit curled up with a book -- usually one of the A-Z mysteries that our library stocks in droves. That's fine -- I'm not one of those, "Well, as long as they're reading something..." people, but these are unobjectionable, and the pride on my six-year-old's face when she says, "Look, Mom, I'm already on page 40!" warms the cockles of my heart.

But... we just never got any scheduling off the ground. After a strong start, we all came down with the flu in September, and it took us a good month to fully recover. Then I unexpectedly fell pregnant (an English turn of phrase) in October, which kind of scratched our November. Then it was Christmas, and who gets much schoolwork done in December?

All year we had lots of extra-curricular stuff. I'd made several large time commitments before getting pregnant, so all year I taught Eleanor's First Communion class with the two youngest in tow. I'd also promised a friend to write and direct a condensed version of Peter Pan to go along with my girls' dance recital, so we had dance classes and play practice all spring. Directing is not a low-commitment or low-energy activity, so by the performance two weeks ago I was about ready to collapse. (Not to mention that a minor injury to my lead actress had me thinking for ten minutes on performance day that I would have to go on and play Peter Pan at seven months pregnant.)

We went over to a good friend's house every week for a French class, which the girls thoroughly enjoyed even if I can't get them them to pronounce "Est-que je suis une petite fille?" correctly. However, due to the marvelous snacks each week, the girls can ask for pain avec chocolat like natives. Nutella, you're the best spread ever!

The big girls have been in piano all this year, and have been enjoying it for the most part. Having the outside accountability makes it easier for me to make sure they practice. The six-year-old is very diligent and will just sit down and do her practice -- she seems to enjoy the precision of her exercises, and practicing a piece until it's right. The eight-year-old, though she has some talent, has been demonstrating some very real problems with focus and attitude -- she's not a perfectionist, like her sister, but though she's bright, she gets easily irritated when she can't do something easily, and would rather pout and sulk in a babyish fashion than just do the work. Fortunately the teacher won't put up with the attitude during the lesson, but we haven't made much headway in improving this disposition, either in this instance or generally. I'm glad that these character issues are coming to light now so that we can work on them, but Darwin and I have been taken aback and a bit unsure at how to deal with this persistent problem -- scolding, encouragement, cutting allowance, and other solutions haven't made much impression.

We've done a quantity of writing -- not enough, though, and handwriting is something that could be improved. The six-year-old is pretty proficient, but the eight-year-old is sometimes all over the place. However, I think I may do cursive with them this summer, since we're heading into 3rd and 2nd grade. 3rd grader needs to learn it; 2nd grader has the art and handwriting skills to master it. Plus, whatever new thing one does, the other has to do as well. I'm torn between continuing on with the Italics cursive, which I think is elegant and clear, and teaching them traditional Zaner-Blosser cursive. I'd just do Italics, but I hear from people who never learned traditional cursive that they wish it was a skill they'd learned. Maybe we'll do both -- both girls enjoy calligraphy-style alphabets and copying fancy letters, and if it's presented as a low-stress summer activity then it'll just be a fun art project.

(For the record -- I learned Zaner-Blosser cursive in school, and I've never liked my cursive handwriting, yet I can't shake some of the forms. So I dunno, maybe it's best to just leave Z-B out of the picture. I think D'Nealian cursive is just ugly. For a look at these and other handwriting styles, see this link.)

My four-year-old has been remarkably resistant to sitting down and learning her letters from a book or in formal instruction, yet I've noticed this spring that she likes to practice her "writing". She'll copy letters from our alphabet chart, and has been practicing with some of the letters in her name. I haven't seen this translate that much into trying to decipher sounds -- she knows a few basic phonemes, but loses any interest if I crack our copy of Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. She likes looking at workbooks, but doesn't want me to show her how to pronounce the letter on the page or do the activity. She enjoys playing with Cuisinaire Rods and can count just fine, but doesn't care to be instructed in numerals. (She does know the number 2, after pushing the button in the elevator all year to go to dance class.) And really, that's fine. I don't have the time to put a lot of work into coercing a four-year-old with a newly discovered disposition to throw tantrums that she has to do schoolwork. I tried that with my oldest, but I had more energy and less commitments then.

The baby, at 20 months, is an unstoppable force of destruction. (I shouldn't call him "the baby" any more, because despite being a very small guy, he's definitely all toddler boy. He's a madman.) He prefers to be on the table while the girls are trying to write, or else he's pulling chairs up to the counter and trying to snitch bananas. Or he's throwing toys over the bannister or pulling books off the shelf. We did buy him his very own light saber, which is apparently the very best toy a little boy could have. Now he sleeps curled up with it. The guy is the craziest, sweetest little boy ever, but I wish he'd settle down for a minute. Or at least that he could be placated by something other than throwing the Cuisinaire rods on the floor during schooltime. I'm a bit concerned as to how we'll keep it all together when he's two and I have a newborn.

For the summer: baby is due at the beginning of July, so I'm not really planning to go out that much. We're considering some summer classes for the big girls, but we're not sure how that jives with our Dave Ramsey-ish desire to pay off the van by Christmas. Here in Texas, there's a period in the middle of the day when it's just too hot to go outside, so I want to use that time for a bit of scholastic endeavor. The oldest will do some daily journal writing -- just a page a day on whatever subject -- and we'll have plenty of reading time, of course. And probably plenty of movie watching, realistically.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Class: Mermaidia

All right, something doesn't add up here.

Given that mermaids have a fish tail, I would assume that they have fish-like reproductive organs. But if so, why the mammary glands? Are they merely decorative, or do they serve some functional purpose? (And if so, what?)

Why does one never hear of swarms of tens of thousands of tiny mer-people in the earliest stages of development? I suppose that given that they lack souls, and turn into sea-foam on death, we don't have to deal with questions of at what stage of development they are ensouled. Do mer-people themselves have any rules as to at what stage of development killing or eating mer-children becomes a serious crime?

Inquiring minds...

Friday, May 14, 2010

Talking About Sinful Lifestyles With Children

Eric Brown wrote a post about the question of whether children of same-sex-couples should be allowed in Catholic schools the other day, which generated some interesting conversation. One of the problems that lies at the root of this controversy, I think, is the question of how to deal sinful lifestyles when talking to your children.

Obviously, one of the duties of a conscientious Catholic parents is to successfully pass on to their children belief in Catholic moral teaching. We believe, after all, that living according to the Church's moral teachings is key to both the happiness and salvation of our children, and both of these are things we ought to care about a good bit.

This much, at least, is widely agreed upon. Why, however, should that be a reason not to want your children exposed to the children of a same-sex-couple? Isn't that simply a great chance to talk about the Church's teachings about marriage and sexual morality?

Frankly, I (and I think many other Catholic parents) would rather not have to rush that one. Why?

Both thinking back to my own childhood and also about my children (currently ages 8 through 1.5) one of the things that stands out to me very clearly is that children are naturally dualistic. There's a reason why the fairy tale is a genre so enjoyed by children -- children like clear heroes and villains. The adult my be interested in why it is that the wicked witch became wicked, and whether she really thought she was wicked, but to a child, the fact that she is wicked is all they need. Heroes do good things, villains to bad things, and children under the age of 10-12 have a great deal of difficulty seeing people in between.

This is one of the reasons why my wife and I are very careful about what books and movies we expose our children to: Once someone is "the good guy", everything he does is admired and imitated. The flawed hero is not something that children are good at understanding. You see this when children interact with their real life friends as well. The girl down the street who is a "best friend" one day is "that mean girl I just hate, hate, hate" when she offends.

Thus, when I seek to keep my children from running into certain types of sins (divorce and remarriage, adultery, fornication, homosexual relationships) it's not so much because I don't want to explain these sins to my children, though that's part of it. It's more because I'd rather not have to deal with the delicate balancing act of trying to explain the "hate the sin, love the sinner" concept to a mind which is little capable of making the distinction.
"Daddy, there's a new girl in RE class named Heather. Instead of a mommy and a daddy, she has two mommies. How does she have two mommies?"

"Well, Virginia, only a man and a woman can make a baby together, that's how God made us. Miss Jennifer and Miss Jean may have adopted Heather, or maybe one of them had Heather before they met each other."

"But are Miss Jennifer and Miss Jean married?"

"No, women can't be married to each other. It would be very wrong for two women to live together as if they were married. God tells us that only men and women can marry because only men and women can have babies together. But some women try to live together as if they were married anyway."


* * * *

"Daddy, I told Heather that her mommies are not really married and she cried. Then she said I was a big liar. And one of the boys asked her if she was a dipe. What's a dipe?"

"I think the boy was trying to say a very mean word, and I don't think that you should use that word, Virginia. It was very mean of the boy to say that to her."

"But why did she say I was a liar? Her mommies aren't married. You said so. They can't be."

"Sometimes people don't like to hear things even if they are true, honey. Maybe it's better if you don't talk to Heather about her mommies."


* * * *

"Daddy, I asked one of Heather's mommies, Miss Jennifer, if she was really married, and she said she was! Then I told her you said God didn't like that and she said you must be judge-mental. Are you judge-mental, Daddy?"

"Not everyone understands what God tells us about marriage, Virginia. When Miss Jennifer said I was judgmental, she meant that she disagreed with what God tells us about marriage."

"Miss Jennifer said that God made some women so that they love each other, and so God means them to get married. Is that true, Daddy?"

"No, dear. Miss Jennifer is wrong."

Yes, it could be done, but no sane parent wants to get into these situations.

It's not a teaching opportunity, teaching only works well with people able to understand. It's an aggravation and confusion opportunity. Children have three modes when dealing with these situations: Assuming something is okay because the person in question seems nice; deciding to loudly despise the person because "he's bad"; and pestering all people involved with awkward questions. Since none of these are desirable, parents would prefer not to have to deal with the "two mommies" kind of problems unless family connection forces them to. Just as they'd rather not delve into the fact that the nice woman named Phyllis who comes to family functions with Uncle Edgar is not actually his wife, and will fail to draw a "teaching moment" from the fact that Aunt Belinda's oldest child was born two months after she got married.

Of course, family connections often result in children being forcibly exposed to sex out of wedlock, divorce, adultery, etc. But at least in my own experience, when these realities do in fact make themselves known to children the results are usually less than illuminating. Children are inveterate side takers, and if they do not (as they are surprisingly able to do) remain blithely unaware of a situation going on before their very eyes, they will tend to be the ones who say hurtful things loudly at gatherings which leave all the adults glaring at each other.

And if it's difficult to explain to children about a nasty divorce without the children deciding they need to make their moral indignation known by behaving badly in public toward one of the parties, it is that much harder to explain a situation to a child in which the sinners are apparently happy and united in their sin. If one makes a big deal of it, the child is likely to take things to far and attempt to do a little of their own evangelizing (with disastrous results.) If one is circumspect, the child will assume this is just fine, and is unlikely to believe you years later when you attempt to explain that such things are wrong.

While it may seem like singling out homosexuals for special scorn, the "same sex marriage" is perhaps the most difficult lifestyle sin to explain to children. Divorce, because it fractures a family, is naturally disliked by children. Adultery, if it somehow becomes known, will be so only in its home-breaking sense, and thus rejected similarly to divorce. Same sex marriage, however, is unique in claiming to be a marriage when it is not. And thus is by far the most difficult to explain to children. I don't think it's unjustified for parents, who care strongly about presenting a good example of what marriage really is to their children, to not want to have such an issue brought up to their children before the children are of sufficient mental and moral maturity to be able to understand the situation and the Church's response to it.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ladies: Better Support through Engineering!

This one is for the ladies (or for those men who are well-bred enough to refrain from making stupid comments -- which will put them in a higher class than the chauvinist pigs over at the WSJ site, apparently). For the men who quake with passion at the mere mention of a breast: just go away. You need more help than we can offer you here.

I do not belong to that poor benighted class of women who could burn bras in the 60s and actually feel like they were liberated. Unfortunately, most bra manufacturers (including the ubiquitous and near-useless Victoria's Secret) only cater to a small range of rather unexciting sizes, which makes them worse than useless to me. (Worse, I say, because either the saleslady looks at you blankly when you request a size they don't carry, or she says blithely, "Oh, we'll just go up a band size and it'll fit!" Ladies, if you ever hear that from a saleswoman, RUN.) So I was pleased that the WSJ ran an article yesterday on better bras for larger cup sizes, a theme near and dear to my heart.

A well-made bra tends to cost more than $50 and often closer to $100. Why so much? Bras are engineering challenges that have been compared in the industry to suspension bridges. In a bra, the wires, straps and other engineering features redistribute the weight in the bra to the band around the torso.

...Good bras can have more than two dozen working parts. Seams support stress points and create shape. Rigid stays prevent the fabric under the arm from crumpling. Stretch lace at the top of the cup looks decorative, but it has a function as well: It ensures a smooth fit even when a woman's breasts aren't exactly the same size. The straps don't actually support the weight in a bra, but they do need to be firmly anchored into the band to distribute tension.

All that engineering is the reason that most lingerie stores advise washing bras by hand. Even putting bras in a lingerie bag won't protect them against machine detergents, which take the life out of lace, elastic and other materials. A good bra should last for at least two years, says Jenette Goldstein, owner of the Jenette Bras shop.

...When a woman with a chest circumference of 32 inches buys a 36-inch bra, the band often rides up in back, leading to sagging in front. "It's the see-saw effect," says Ms. Goldstein. "The more you crank the straps, the more it pulls up in back."

One of the worst things a woman can do for her figure or her posture is wear a poor-fitting bra, and I say this as someone who wore the wrong size for 15 years. Wearing a bra that fits correctly is a revelation and a joy and suddenly reduces a lot of stress on a woman's shoulders and back. And your clothes fit better, which is a not-insubstantial perk. If you can afford to eat nothing but beans and rice, that's one thing. But most American woman can find it in their budgets to invest (and it is an investment: in your appearance and in your health) in a good bra or two.

Let me say this to the nervous: a mis-placed idea of modesty is no excuse to wear a bad bra. Good support is not immodest; it is prudent and elegant. If a woman's goal is never to have a man think about you, she can certainly achieve that by wearing an ill-fitting bra. But ugly has never been synonymous with virtue.

Check out the slideshow after you read the article. That last bra is so fabulous I might have to buy it, even though I'm about to be relegated to the ghetto of the (well-fitting) nursing bra.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Genetic History Bleg

Could anyone point me to some articles or studies on comparative DNA studies of burials from Roman Europe and modern Europe which would provide concrete evidence as to the extent to which the Germanic tribes that invaded Briton, Gaul, Spain, in the 5th and 6th centuries actually replaced the original inhabitants, as opposed to imposing at thing and eventually absorbed elite?


Same question in re the Slavs replacing the original inhabitants of Illyrium.

Again as regards Arabs replacing the earlier Mesopotamians.

Were the ancestors of the Vikings in Denmark and Norway back in the Roman period, or did they move in there from farther East in the late Roman period?

Suggestions as to good books dealing with these mass migrations welcome.

However, I'm specifically looking for materials which substantiate with genetic evidence whether there was true replacement (or extermination) rather than merely cultural imposition. I'm not looking for something which just talks about language, culture and artifact changes. I want to know: to what extent was the old population pushed out/wiped out by the new population.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Red vs. Blue Families

It's fairly common for advocates of more liberal social policies to point out that "red states" tend to have higher rates of divorce, teen pregnancy, etc than "blue states". This is taken to suggest that, however much conservatives may go on about "family values", it is actually more liberal social values which are best for families. Ross Douthat does a good job of addressing this mentality in his column from last Sunday, in which he takes a closer look at some of these "family values" statistics.
Today, couples with college and (especially) graduate degrees tend to cohabit early and marry late, delaying childbirth and raising smaller families than their parents, while enjoying low divorce rates and bearing relatively few children out of wedlock.

For the rest of the country, this comfortable equilibrium remains out of reach. In the underclass (black, white and Hispanic alike), intact families are now an endangered species. For middle America, the ideal of the two-parent family endures, but the reality is much more chaotic: early marriages coexist with frequent divorces, and the out-of-wedlock birth rate keeps inching upward.

When it comes to drawing lessons from this story, though, the agreement between liberals and conservatives ends. The right tends to emphasize what’s been lost, arguing that most Americans — especially the poor and working-class — would benefit from a stronger link between sex, marriage and procreation. The left argues that the revolution just hasn’t been completed yet: it’s the right-wing backlash against abortion, contraception and sex education that’s preventing downscale Americans from attaining the new upper-middle-class stability, and reaping its social and economic benefits.
Conservative states may have more teen births and more divorces, but liberal states have many more abortions.

Liberals sometimes argue that their preferred approach to family life reduces the need for abortion. In reality, it may depend on abortion to succeed. The teen pregnancy rate in blue Connecticut, for instance, is roughly identical to the teen pregnancy rate in red Montana. But in Connecticut, those pregnancies are half as likely to be carried to term. Over all, the abortion rate is twice as high in New York as in Texas and three times as high in Massachusetts as in Utah.

So it isn’t just contraception that delays childbearing in liberal states, and it isn’t just a foolish devotion to abstinence education that leads to teen births and hasty marriages in conservative America. It’s also a matter of how plausible an option abortion seems, both morally and practically, depending on who and where you are.

Whether it’s attainable for most Americans or not, the “blue family” model clearly works: it leads to marital success and material prosperity, and it’s well suited to our mobile, globalized society.

By comparison, the “red family” model can look dysfunctional — an uneasy mix of rigor and permissiveness, whose ideals don’t always match up with the facts of contemporary life.

But it reflects something else as well: an attempt, however compromised, to navigate post-sexual revolution America without relying on abortion.

On additional point which Douthat does not draw out is that the high divorce rates in red states are closely related to the fact that marriage continues to be fairly common in these states. For instance, the Massachusetts divorce rate has hovered around a low 2.2 from 1990 through 2007, while Alabama had a divorce rate of 6.1 in 1990 which was still 4.6 (more than twice MA's rate) in 2007. However the marriage rate in Massachusetts was 7.9 in 1990 and declined to 5.9 by 2007, while Alabama's marriage rate only declined from 10.6 to 9.0 during the same time period. Obviously, if yo never get married int he first place, you can't get divorced. The fact that increasing numbers of Massachussets residents are simply not getting married does not necessarily speak to the strength of the "blue state" approach to marriage. [source data]

Back yard pastoral

Here's another shot of the birthday girl.

For bonus points: find the two sandals, one from each of her sisters.

For brownie points: tell us what this clover is that's invaded the backyard, spreading runners over the real grass and choking it out, and putting little stickers that get sharp when they dry up.

Monday, May 10, 2010


I remember being eight years old, and so it's rather a shock to find that my oldest is now really and truly eight years old. (As opposed to me telling people she's eight because it's easier to round up when the birthday is so close.)

So: Happy birthday, Eleanor!

Make Hummus, Not War


Sorry, Doctor Seuss, but this beats the didactic Butter Battle book hollow.

Friday, May 07, 2010


While we're talking of rural, try this slideshow of images from around the world.

The Horror! The Horror!

If you thought my adventures in homeopathy were harrowing, check this out:
The world has been placed on a heightened security alert following reports that New Age terrorists have harnessed the power of homeopathy for evil. ‘Homeopathic weapons represent a major threat to world peace,’ said President Barack Obama, ‘they might not cause any actual damage but the placebo effect could be quite devastating.’

The H2O-bomb has been developed by the radical New Age group, The Axis of Aquarius. In a taped message to the world, their leader, Professor Hubert Pennington, said: ‘For too long the New Age movement has been dismissed as a bunch of beardy weirdy cranks and charlatans. But now we have weapons-grade homeopathy and we demand to be taken seriously.’

Homeopathic bombs are comprised of 99.9% water but contain the merest trace element of explosive. The solution is then repeatedly diluted so as to leave only the memory of the explosive in the water molecules. According to the laws of homeopathy, the more that the water is diluted, the more powerful the bomb becomes.

...The severity of the situation has already resulted in the New Age terror threat level being raised from ‘lilac’ to the more worrisome ‘purple’ aura. Meanwhile, new security measures at airports require that all water bottles be scanned to ensure that they are not being used to smuggle the memory of an explosion on board a plane.

Fortunately, the Homeopathic ER is ready to handle any emergency.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

New lows in bravery

After falling all over themselves to completely censor and then hide an episode of South Park which could have been offensive to Muslims, the brave folks at Comedy Central are trying to get their edge back:
As part of the network's upfront presentation to advertisers (full slate here), Comedy Central is set to announce "JC," a half-hour show about Christ wanting to escape the shadow of his "powerful but apathetic father" and live a regular life in New York City.

In the show, God is preoccupied with playing video games while Christ, "the ultimate fish out of water," tries to adjust to life in the big city.

The Anchoress's slapping hand is in fine form:

This move by Comedy Central is like watching the ultra-hip smart-aleck in the cafeteria who, having peed himself during an encounter with a bully, is now trying to re-establish his edgy bona fides by making fun of the non-threatening AV Crew; high school bravado, nowhere near as sophisticated as it believes itself to be.

Offend An Author Day

Yes, folks, it's Offend An Author Day. Time to describe what author's work you could read under circumstances most inimical to the author's sensibility. First up:

Read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death on your iPhone while talking on the phone and watching TV.

The only rule is: Your choice has to be either something you could actually do, or at least so inventive as to be forgivable. "Reading Jane Austen at an orgy," is right out, unless you in fact frequent orgies. Indeed, now I think of it, "at an orgy" is probably out regardless as being too broadly applicable and thus not inventive enough.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Best Days

Those were the best days in the life of Tancredi and Angelica, lives later to be so variegated, so erring, against the inevitable background of sorrow. But that they did not know then; and they were pursuing a future which they deemed more concrete than it turned out to be, made of nothing but smoke and wind. When they were old and uselessly wise their thoughts would go back to those days with insistent regret.

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Multi-level Needling

Move over, you people who make crafty stuff to sell on Etsy. Look, I can crochet* purses!

Now that it's clear I have a marketable skill**, anyone want to subsidize my lifestyle by paying me big bucks for my as-yet-non-existent wares? Or better yet, who wants to sell them for me, for a cut of the action? Hey, it works for the people who participate (and want everyone else to participate) in multi-level marketing programs.

*Crochet: a two-century old art that any fool can learn. Seriously.

**Half of the handle and the blue whipstitching on the sides were contributed by Julia, age 6.
And actually, it's her purse.

Monday, May 03, 2010

What If A Law Can't Be Enforced?

The discussions here about Arizona's new attempt at enforcing immigration law have set me thinking about a more general question: What should we do as a body politic in a situation in which a law we have passed seems impossible to enforce?

In a sense, no law is enforced perfectly. Cannibalism is against the law, yet it does still, on rare occasions, happen that someone kills and eats someone else. We don't generally describe this as the laws against cannibalism "not being enforced". Rather we describe it as someone breaking the law.

When we talk about a law not being enforced, we generally mean that a lot of people are breaking it, and yet few of them seem to be suffering the consequences. Thus, although murders take place on a daily basis in our country, we generally do not hear complaints that no one is enforcing the laws against murder, since we at least see the police and prosecutors going through the process of trying to arrest and prosecute people for those crimes.

According to the criteria I've listed above, two obvious candidates for laws "not being enforced" would be our laws against narcotics and our immigration laws. While staggering amounts of resources are devoted to enforcing both of these, most of us have known people who use drugs at least occasionally and seem to face no legal repercussions, and most of us have met a fair number of illegal immigrants who, by their presence, clearly have not been deported. When we turn to the news or to studies, we find our impressions supported with data showing that vast numbers of people use drugs and large numbers of illegal immigrants are in the country. This causes many people to conclude that these laws are not being enforced, or at least not enforced sufficiently.

But there are other laws which are flaunted at least as often (and have a far smaller percentage of infractions punished) than these laws which do not cause us similar levels of concern. For instance, speeding laws are routinely broken. Police often won't even pull someone over unless he is going 5-10 mph over the limit, even though technically any speed in excess of the limit is an infraction of the law. And numerous speeders are never seen by a policeman. Another example is the drinking age. Sure, plenty of people are punished for violating the drinking age, but the number of times someone under 21 drinks beer or wine is vastly more. And frankly, most people really couldn't care less if somewhere a 19-year-old is quietly having a single beer in the confines of his home or dorm room. In cases like the speed limit and the drinking age, people clearly aren't concerned if many infractions go unpunished so long as the general norms they seek to enforce seem to be basically in place. (With the drinking age, it's hard to see how even that is the case, but for whatever reason, it's not considered a national emergency.)

I would argue that immigration and the drug laws actually have something in common with the drinking age and the speed limit in that truly enforcing these laws to the extent that 90%+ of infractions were punished would require such incredible excesses of an intrusive police state that we would consider the side effects worse than the cure.

Now, I'll start with the less controversial examples: While I could support lowering the drinking age a few years, or raising the highway speed limits a little, I have no problem with those laws existing despite the fact they cannot be wholly enforced. Even with insufficient and at times inconsistent enforcement of these laws, there do serve a social function and value. Thus, in their regard, I think it's okay to have laws which it is impossible to fully enforce.

But what of drug laws and immigration laws -- laws which arguably deal with issues which can have graver impacts to society and to individuals?

While I understand the argument that the "war on drugs" has caused far more suffering than either legalization or lax enforcement would (since it creates a niche in which the drug cartels thrive) I must admit that I am also hesitant about the idea of legalizing drugs. Yet it's hard to see how "we should fight harder" is the answer here. While I don't feel bad about killing or jailing members of the drug cartels, our fighting them seems to enable them more than defeat them (perhaps because defeating one group just helps one of their competitors.)

With immigration, given that we have a 2000 mile land border with Mexico, plus access to both coasts by sea, it's hard to see how any amount of resources spent on enforcement could truly stop illegal immigration from Mexico. The US is simply too attractive, and too many American employers are happy to not ask questions when it comes to hiring cheap labor. I'm sure that we could have better enforcement than at present, but there really is a limit to how good it could ever be. And yet, even as an advocate of far looser immigration restrictions, it's hard to say, "We'll institute better laws, but we'll never be able to enforce them anyway." Though even imperfectly enforced immigration laws surely have some utility. While imperfect enforcement benefits law breakers while disadvantaging those who follow the law, no immigration laws at all could clearly result in a much greater influx than we currently see.

Forcing Mechanisms: Cash Budgeting

The Darwin household has now been operating for about four months on a modified version of Dave Ramsey's budgeting ideas. This means that we've basically stopped using the credit cards (though contrary to Ramsey's advice, we still carry them for emergencies and have a few recurring bills that post to them each month) and even the debit card, and instead pull out an allotment of cash for all in-person purchases each pay cycle.

This at first felt very alien to us, as both of us have, by habit, not been people who carry much of any cash around. Going down to the bank and withdrawing anywhere from 500 to 900 dollars in cash still feels strange, this compounded by the way that the teller's eyebrows go up as she says, "And what kind of bills do you want for that?"

However, of all the Ramsey suggestions, cash budgeting is the one that we've found the most useful and followed most closely. The reason is that it makes keeping to one's budget very, very easy.

As inveterate planners, we are both very fond of budgets. There's a precise pleasure to planning out exactly how things will work for the next several months and seeing the rows and columns neatly add up. The problem is that while we both enjoy planning a great deal, we are both very bad at actually following a routine consistently. Self denial we can handle, and so a couple weeks of very low food spending and no "extras" is easily accomplished. But saving receipts and totaling them up every night is something we have never been able to do consistently. And so the analysis as to how closely we were meeting our budget would fall by the wayside, and after the initial burst of frugality, things would fall apart and we'd go back to that magical equilibrium in which outflows equal inflows and extra loan payments and extra savings don't seem to be happening.

Pulling out an allotment of cash based on planned in-person spending makes budgeting pretty much automatic. If you know that you have $500 to make all in-person purchases during a two week period, you don't need to to keep receipts and do nightly tallying-up in order to see how you're doing. Every time you open your wallet, it's clear how much money remains. Indeed, though we have a spreadsheet where we keep track of in-week spending by category to compare with our budget, we've stopped using the "envelope method" of splitting cash up into allotments for each spending category (thus avoiding the discussions of "Are diapers grocery or household if I buy them at the supermarket at the same time as groceries? Are gardening supplies household, home maintenance, entertainment or personal spending?) and started simply using a single slush fund of cash for each pay cycle which we split between the two of us based on who is doing the major weekly shopping runs. We have spending broken out by category in the budget, in order to arrive at the total amount of cash to withdraw, so we have a basic idea of what we can and can't afford in the current paycycle. But actual budgeting within the paycycle does itself by means of the simple "How much do I have left?" calculation.

Thus, while I don't share Ramsey's horror of credit cards themselves, cash budgeting is probably one of the tools that we will continue to use most consistently from here on out. It acts as a forcing mechanism in regards to budgeting. You no longer really have to put any thought or effort into staying in budget, so long as you don't spend more cash than you took out.