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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

School Day Diary

Started off the morning with a big argument over whether the instant oatmeal would be heated in the microwave or with boiling water. Kids eat breakfast while I check the email and read around. Reading around takes longer than it ought; kids are running around and baby is crying by the time I finish.

Take baby upstairs to nurse, while yelling at kids to come up and read in my bed. Kids take their time. Finally everyone is assembled, but Jack won't hush, and Isabel won't hush hushing him. It irks me no end to read aloud when there's so much noise it seems like no one is listening, so I order them out of the room, but they won't go. We reach compromise level and read: Sts. Monica and Augustine, and then some selections from Confessions. Lots of good stuff in Confessions for the kids (we read St. Augustine's ponderings on his infancy) -- I wonder if anyone's ever done a picture-book version for kids. Eleanor listens and is able to tell me what we read; Julia is busy making place cards for her birthday part. I notice in passing that she's spelled almost every one of her friends' names wrong; that's our spelling work for later.

We've been talking about the late Roman Empire, hence Augustine. Trying to buy some quiet time so I can take a shower, I assign Eleanor a chapter from a book about St. Helena ("Did you know that St. Augustine was born about forty years after Emperor Constantine decreed that Christians would not be persecuted anymore?") and tussle with Julia over what's she's to do. She doesn't want to read, she's tired of hearing about saints, she wants to do crafts. Fine.

I take my shower, though I don't get any privacy -- all five kids make their way through the bathroom at some point. Julia has done art: she's drawn a portrait of Eleanor with vacuum. Eleanor has read all of three pages of her book. Time to change gears and write.

Mutiny at the table. Julia refuses her copywork outright, glowering at me under angry brows. Jack scribbles on her neglected copy book and tears out a page. Eleanor doodles and misspells her way through her report on what she's read. Isabel sasses and pouts so much that she's sent to her room. I finally get it out of Julia that's she's not pleased about copying a nursery rhyme, so I write out for her Psalm 117, which we memorized last week. She's still angry but copies the first line. We discuss how even in regular school you don't get to do whatever you want and sass the teacher and refuse to work.

While they write, I call Isabel down and read to her on the couch. Jack tumbles all over us, but finally settles. Eleanor finishes her corrected paragraph and brings her math work (writing out some multiplication tables) into the living room, using a book on cheese to bear on. I realize I've gotten all the copy work out of Julia that can be expected, so I ask her to bring that in and I'll circle my favorite letters.

Julia is prancing and wriggling around as I read, and I realize that although she's tall for her age and mature about some things, she's young for the grade work I'm setting her. I need to revise down and make sure I'm not overburdening her with a constant stream of school work that's too hard for her.

After a multiplication bee, I give into Eleanor's request (formed upon flipping through the book on cheese) that we do a cheese-tasting. We compare Parmesan to Cheddar, and then we taste Cheddar by itself and with apples. Seizing the opportunity to make it educational, I have Eleanor write down the our descriptions of the cheeses and the apple. At last everyone is cheerful and engaged -- the way to a kid's heart is through her stomach.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Days Are Just Packed

This is one of those articles I'd had sitting up on my desktop in a browser window for several days -- hesitating over whether blogging about it would be too great an irony given the subject matter. I suppose I'm actually more unplugged than many these days. I carry an old-fashioned flip phone, so although I can be rather reclusive at large gatherings I will not be the one you see bent silently over an iPhone, tapping away. Though I sometimes feel like, for want of time, most of my interaction with people who are outside my immediate family is via facebook, email, blog, etc., I have at least not reached the point where I compulsively check these while on the run. I don't have an iPad or Kindle yet, though I'll admit my keep wishing I had an excuse to justify the expense. And I continue to hold out against twitter, though this is perhaps an empty virtue given that I'm clearly too verbose for it anyway.

This is of little help in that my work puts me in front of a computer for 9-10 hours a day, and at home the computer is always on and available. A walk through the living room seems to necessitate a quick check to see if "there is any news" in the form of a new email or something going on on Facebook. At work, "taking a break" often means pulling a web browser up over my Excel window for a few minutes "browsing around". And when I have busy-work of some sort to get through I often end up listening to a podcast or audiobook while working.

And while I can at least claim to actually cover territory (walking, jogging or cycling outside in the real, non-air-conditioned world) or lift real weights while exercising -- I often do so while listening to an audiobook or music.

It's not so much even the desire to be entertained all the time, but rather the flailing sense that there is never enough time. It's hard to read even a portion of the books I'd like to have the chance to get through, and I don't get to spend time in person with friends as often as I'd like, and so I find myself trying to cram bits of reading and social interaction into smaller and smaller pieces of what would otherwise be spare time.

Though I can't help wondering to what degree this destroys time rather than optimizing it. For all that listening to Shelby Foote's monumental Civil War, A Narrative for an hour while covering four or five miles at a walk allows me to feel like I'm not "wasting" the time that needs to go into keeping my body from completely atrophying into an appendage of my desk, I wonder sometimes if I waste equal amounts of time with repeated five minutes checks of facebook, blog comments, etc. at intervals far closer than is necessary -- simply because it's a brief exercise that fits well into moving from one task to another on the ever-present computer. (Or perhaps more honestly -- serves as a timewaster during the 5-10 minutes I put off moving to the next task.)

A while back, a friend got me to take a couple hours out of a weekend morning to go play ultimate frisbee for a couple hours despite the Texas heat, and I was struck by how different it is, mentally, to spend some time doing physical activity without simultaneously having your brain engaged in some unrelated, information-based task. It was something so mentally refreshing I know in my heart I should find some way to commit to doing that sort of thing much more often. And yet, that would mean giving up time to just one thing...

Friday, August 27, 2010

Americans Are A Credulous Bunch

Via Ross Douthat, Many have expressed shock that 18% of Americans were found, in a recent poll, to think that President Obama is a Muslim -- despite the fact he denies this and there's no reason to think he is. However, this is perhaps put in perspective when you consider that 41% of Americans believe in ESP and 25% believe Astrology works.

Douthat quotes G. K. Chesterton, and there's a sense in which I see his point:
“It’s what I call common sense, properly understood,’” replied Father Brown. ‘It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr. Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr. Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand … ‘”
However, I'm unwilling to give benefit of the doubt to thins such as Astrology the way I might be to a something more generally otherworldly such as whether than can be such thing as a ghost.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Proxy Morality: Advocacy and 'Solidarity'

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post on how we sometimes impute excessive virtue to ourselves for being on the right side of historical conflicts, though a sort of proxy morality. I'd like to follow-up on the theme with the other area in which I think we often fall into a mentality of proxy morality: issue advocacy and solidarity with oppressed groups.

Let me start by trying to lay out a little bit more clearly what I think proxy morality is and why I think it is a danger to us. Proxy morality consists of drawing a strong sense of virtue or righteousness from identification with some cause or group. It is, I think, a dangerous tendency because it allows us to indulge in a great deal of pride and righteousness, while at the same time running of the risk of both excusing ourselves from taking any direct moral action in regards to the issues which we congratulate ourselves on due to proxy morality. It also presents the temptation of telling ourselves, "I'm a basically good person because of my support for X, Y, Z, and thus my minor failings A, B and C hardly matter." Indeed, more generally, I think there is always a big of backslapping going on between Screwtape and his associates when one of us self-awards the "basically good person" label.

One area in which I think we often develop a sense of proxy morality is in regards to advocacy -- often political advocacy. For those of us on the right, this may be in regards to opposing abortion, same sex marriage, euthenasia, and other clear social evils in the voting booth. This is clearly a good thing, and I think there is often significant moral wrong in not opposing these evils. However, casting a ballot or publicaly agreeing with a political stance is something that typically costs us very little at a personal level, and does little if anything to help specific other human beings. So while it would certainly be wrong if we didn't oppose these evils, it is dangerous if we give ourselves too much credit for doing so. As the Chris Rock line goes, "What? You want a cookie? You're supposed to do that!" For those of a more progressive persuasion, a similar sense of proxy morality is often felt by those supporting environmental regulations or programs intended to reduce poverty, etc. Leaving aside questions about whether such measures are successful in achieving their objectives, it must at the least be admitted that casting a vote or engaging in advocacy has significantly less impact on these matters of concern than actually living a "greener" life or doing something yourself to help those in proverty.

A related area of proxy morality is declaring oneself to be "in solidarity" with some particular group recognized to be suffering. If one is actually out living in Neuvo Laredo or Juarez and helping those suffering there, one can make some legitimate claim to be "in solidarity with the poor" -- if on the other hand one simply means, "I really feel for the poor from the safety of my computer desk, unlike those nasty people who clearly don't," then one is engaging in proxy morality.

Similarly, declaring oneself to be "supporting" women in crisis pregnancies or women oppressed by traditional Islamic cultures is a rather empty boast if it is unaccompanied by any particular action (other than talking about it) and should be no great source of feeling virtuous.

Again, I do not want to imply that people should not take these stands or have these sympathies. Doing the opposite (opposing good policies or not sympathizing with those who are suffing) would clearly be bad. However, we accomplish very little actual virtue by taking these stands and we should never allow ourselves to believe that once we have done so our work is done.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What We Don't Hear

I recall blogging about this back when it came out, but for some reason the other day (perhaps because I've been finding work to be rather all-absorbing lately) I was reminded of this article about an experiment in which world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell spent half an hour playing in a major DC metro station -- performing some of the world's greatest classical music on his Stradivarius-made violin -- and virtually no one noticed.

Tantrums and Control

There was a little girl
With a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.

And when she was good
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.

I have this child (minus the curl). She throws tantrums. Most children do, I guess. And most parents don't see how other people's children behave in private and so can't gauge their own child's tantrum behavior. Still, I think my daughter ranks up there with the greats in terms of attitude and anger and rage. I'd like to be wrong on this.

Parents often tell their children, "I hope one day you have a child like yourself." That would be easy: when I see my own traits (good or bad) pop up in my children, I know how to deal with them. But neither Darwin or I threw screaming tantrums, so we're in unfamiliar territory here, and we're still trying to devise coping strategies.

Spanking usually isn't the answer. It doesn't "break" her out of her mood, and she fights so hard against it that by the time one gets her held still enough to spank, one is tempted to hit way too hard. Isolation (with a parent holding tight to the doorknob of the room) at least keeps her off the scene, but she rages in her room and throws things and says stuff that I would have been horrified to say to my parents.

It's finally become clear to me that my daughter throws tantrums because she hates feeling powerless. The tantrum is a way of controlling the scene, making everyone dance to her tune. As a result, any action on our part is escalation, even trying to isolate her, and she escalates harder. She resists, sometimes violently, to being carried up to her room, and her rages are such that I fear one day she'll hurt someone -- she has enough self-interest not to hurt herself, but not enough foresight not to hurt someone else, such as her parents holding her down. Some evenings and I Darwin just stare wearily at each other across the doorknob of her room, wondering what it is we're supposed to be doing.

Heading off the tantrums at the pass seems the best option, and so we've begun counteracting our own natural tendencies by trying to stick to a schedule. That way she knows what goes on when, and bedtimes and lessons don't seem like draconian parental measures designed to punish, but just what happens when. And it works, mostly. I also spend a quantity of time reminding myself, "I'm the parent. I'm the parent." I don't shy off correcting her when she gets fresh, because I don't want to tolerate sass. But I do try to give her choices when possible so that she feels like she has a modicum of control. And when we see her building up a head of steam we remind her not to "lose her mind", which sometimes brings her back from the brink.

Perhaps this sounds a bit desperate. It's not, really. These huge tantrums don't occur all that often, and usually she's a fairly well-behaved, if strong-willed child -- far more helpful and organized than her sisters, most of the time. But when she does tantrum, it's memorable. And coming off the easy days of summer into the more structured school year is making Miss Control a bit manic. Her sister, on the other hand, deals with the change by becoming very lazy. I don't like that, but at least I recognize it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Just Build the Damn Thing

Travelling in the second half of last week, I had occasion to realize how pervasive the TV news coverage of the "ground zero mosque" has become -- perhaps in part because it is doubtless a dream situation for TV news producers: All you have to do is draw 3-4 people into the studio and have them debate the question for twenty minutes, throw in a couple of commercial breaks, and voila! you have another 1/48th of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. I was reminded again of how glad I am to have cancelled the cable TV subscription and never put up an antenna.

As I think about it, this seems to me a made-for-TV controversy in more ways than one. For all the talk about this being the "ground zero mosque", the location two blocks away will not be visible from the WTC monument itself, and is currently occupied by sacred precincts such as the offices of the University of Pheonix, Marty's Shoes and the Dakota Roadhouse. This is New York, for goodness sake. A thirteen story building isn't exactly going to stick out. And the visible symbols of religion closes to Ground Zero will remain St. Peter's Catholic Church, St. Paul's Episcopal, and John Street United Methodist. (If anything, it's a little disappointing the plans for the mosque look rather like a vertical shoebox with abstract patters on it -- no minarets here.)

Aside from the necessity of selling news, this project would be a mildly notable local event, leading to a mildly distinctive-looking building that people would rush by every day without thinking about it very much in that teeming mass of diverse humanity which is New York. The most "bridge building" likely to go on would be people stopping in at the halal food court for lunch.

But the media must earn a crust and find a way to fill the time, and so it's time that we have one of these tiresome "national conversations" -- this time about religious freedom and forgiveness and building bridges and the nature of Islam. Perhaps I've turned grumpy or obtuse, but I think it's rather a tremendous waste of time. The idea that much of anything would be out of place in New York seems rather hard to credit. And once all the fuss has died down, and it's become clear that there's really not much of anything that can be done about how the owners want to develop this particular piece of real estate, then the thing will be built and people will walk by it every day, and it will be just as forgotten as all the other national conversations we've felt the unaccountable need to have over the last few years.

And if I may stray further into heresy against conservative orthodoxies: I think we need to get over our 9-11 exceptionalism a little bit here too. Given our place and preeminence in the world, the question pre 2001 was not so much whether the US would suffer a major terrorist attack, but when. Chances were good we'd eventually be attacked for foreign terrorists. Chances were good those terrorist would be of an Islamic background. And compared to the Tom Clancy type visions people had been reading for years, the real thing was actually a lot less destructive than it could have been. Goodness knows I'm all for sober recollection of the dead, but this is teeming, bustling New York. Build a monument where the WTC stood, and then just get on with live elsewhere. This isn't some half-abandoned Mainstreet USA where we need to sit around agonizing with the city fathers about every building that's renovated or put up.

Perhaps I read too much Heinlein at a formative age, but I'd tend to picture the US as the sort of dominant power which says to the world: "You're welcome to come here and enjoy our liberties so long as you behave yourselves and follow our laws. If not, we'll level your cities and depose your leaders. Once we're done, we'll rebuild your cities better than before, give you a better government, and leave you the hell alone unless you make the mistake of attacking us again in which case God help you."

Let them build.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Two More Snow White Take

This is my favorite version of Snow White: Willa: An American Snow White, set in 1915. The jealous stepmother is an aging actress who's retired early so that she may only be remembered as young and beautiful; the "dwarves" are three performers in a travelling medicine show, and the prince is a young Englishman who wants to make them new-fangled moving pictures. The sets and costumes are beautiful, and the performances are pitch-perfect, especially "Chief Tonka", the medicine show Indian who's actually an Irish clown.

(The Amazon price is outrageous, but might give you enough information to find it somewhere else.)

And here's what Snow White's body language translates to in a real person:

Snow White and the Seven Quick Takes

1.I've been seeing a lot of Snow White lately, courtesy of the nice folks at Netflix. The movie is certainly lovely, like a storybook brought to life. Critics have called it a masterpiece, and I guess that's accurate in a certain sense. A cinematic masterpiece, an artistic masterpiece, yes; a dramatic masterpiece, no. Snow White is not a dramatic heroine. She undergoes no change through the course of the movie. She acts not; she is acted upon. She reacts reflexively to circumstances. (This is literal: at one point a dwarf taps at her knee with a drumstick and her foot kicks up.) The prince is a dud and the dwarves are mere comic accessories. The queen is the only dramatic figure. She acts. She chooses. She dominates, until she's run off a cliff and smashed by a big rock.


I had always found Snow White's voice to be extremely annoying until I saw this video of Adriana Caselotti, the singer who recorded Snow White. The woman has a sweet bubbly personality that makes her voice seem real. If anything, the animation fails to capture the individuality of the voice.

3. I had always heard that J.R.R. Tolkien was so appalled by Snow White that he put it in his will that Disney could never make a movie of any of his books. Google isn't giving me much help in verifying that, though. Anyway, in The Two Towers, the song of farewell that Galadriel sings to the Fellowship begins, "O Snow-White!"

4. Of the prince, all I can say is, "Dude looks like a lady!"

5. The dwarves: weird, sexless little men. I love the interior of the dwarves' cottage, though it beggars belief that such bumbling fools could have produced such intricate carvings and artistic flourishes.

6. Want to see a real little princess with hair as dark as ebony, lips as red as the rose, and skin as white as snow?

7. The DVD goes back to Netflix today.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


They say a change is as good as a rest, and maybe it is, but a change is not equivalent to a rest. They're two very different things, and we've been long on the one and short on the other.

Darwin is off to another state for a job interview. The changes are already starting: the realtor from church is coming on Sunday to assess the place; the garage is getting cleaned out; the cell phone bill is swollen with the contact demands of not one, but three long-distance job prospects. The view alters day-to-day as we consider and reconsider real estate affordability, dream job vs. proximity to family, the latest interview call, and the dead prospect that suddenly springs back to life. The days are busy and exciting. The evenings are filled with abortive attempts to debrief each other over the roar of hungry and sleepy children.

Tonight we got in the wrong lane driving away from the airport and ended up on a farm-to-market road which ran mostly parallel to the efficient toll road. At first I sought to turn around as soon as we could, but the road stretched on through Texas countryside like the straight and narrow path, unsullied by crossroads or driveways. I didn't know where I was, exactly, but I knew where I'd probably end up. On we drove, gradually soothed and then seduced by the beauty of the hill country and intricacy of the light playing through the creeping storm clouds. Soak up the scenery now, girls, I urged; the days are growing short.

Yes, very soothing, and then the clouds opened and a downpour of diluvial ferocity attacked us as we sat in construction traffic. Change: not restful.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Diversity: Individual vs. Collective Good

The Wake County Board of Education is considering significantly modifying one of the largest remaining efforts at school busing for diversity -- in this case, economic diversity, given that busing for racial diversity has been overturned legally.

Opponents of the planned change charge that this represents a return to segregation, but reading about the motivations of those pushing to reduce busing suggest it's more a question of individual versus collective good.
When Rosemarie Wilson moved her family to a wealthy suburb of Raleigh a couple of years ago, the biggest attraction was the prestige of the local public schools. Then she started talking to neighbors.

Don’t believe the hype, they warned. Many were considering private schools. All pointed to an unusual desegregation policy, begun in 2000, in which some children from wealthy neighborhoods were bused to schools in poorer areas, and vice versa, to create economically diverse classrooms.

“Children from the 450 houses in our subdivision were being bused all across the city,” said Ms. Wilson, for whom the final affront was a proposal by the Wake County Board of Education to send her two daughters to schools 17 miles from home.
Now, it's possible to read all sorts of dark racist or classist motives into these kind of conflicts, but it strikes me that the real difficult here is in reconciling private and public goods.

There is a clear logic to the idea that if a school has a highly diverse student body in terms of wealth, race, background and academic ability, the most stake of the more fortunate and more able in the school's overall success will result in the entire group being pulled up.

However, at the same time, it is utterly and completely reasonable that a parent, given the choice of two schools -- one with better teachers and less crime than the other -- would pick the better school for his children.

Now, in a situation in which the community is small or mobility is low, it may be that there's really only one possible school to choose. In that case, people find themselves in the same boat by necessity and those will the means to do so will exert themselves in order to improve the school. However, in a mass society with a high mobility, a parent is faced with a very different situation: Moving to a neighborhood with better schools (or opting out of the public school system in favor of private schooling or homeschooling) can make a very big difference in the future of his own children, while the removal of just one more affluent and more academically able student from a school composed of hundred will be of no measurable detriment to the more disadvantaged students. And yet, if all of the parents with more money or more concern about academics remove their children from a struggling school, the school will not only do worse on average (having removed the upper end of the curve) but may even serve the poorer and underachieving students worse than before, since they will now lack the resources and influence of the higher-achieving students who left.

Government can try to force students into undesirable schools in order that they may exert some sort of upwards pressure on them, but since efforts will naturally be resented and resisted since parents naturally want the best for their children.

There is no obvious trade-off which helps everybody.

Friday, August 13, 2010

For Your Friday: The Rodinator

My younger brother has spent the last summer in an epic battle with a gopher, so it's no surprise that he found this video hilarious. However, I'm convinced the appeal is broader. It almost makes me wish I had gophers.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Proxy Morality: Taking Sides in History

Generally speaking, I think we would say that moral behavior consists of choosing to do right in one's actions. However, there are a number of instances in which we tend to think of ourselves as behaving virtuously despite not having actually undertaken any action. These are means by which we tell ourselves that we have demonstrated we are "good people" without the burden of actually doing good things.

There are several different ways we do this which I'd like to address under the description of "proxy morality", by which I mean instances in which someone assigns virtue to himself through no more action than identifying himself with some good which is performed by someone else. The first of these, one which I think people of all ideological persuasions fall into at times, is that of taking sides in history.

It is by now an old saw that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and I think there is a good deal of truth in this. Further, it can be of some moral benefit for us to look to history for people and actions to admire. The moment in which we find ourselves suddenly faced with some difficult moral decision is typically not the moment at which are most un-biased or deliberative, and so having clear examples to follow, if they are well chosen, can be a significant benefit.

However, all too often, we assign too much virtue to being "on the right side" of a historical event. Sometimes this happens very shortly after an event. In post-war France, it was often observed that if everyone who claimed to have been part of the resistance had actually been so, the occupation would not have lasted a month. Similarly, I recall reading a civil rights writer observe, "Every [African American] says he would have been a freedom rider. Most people just stayed home. Everyone says he would have marched with Martin Luther King, but people just used the water fountain they were told and watched it on TV."

The fact of the matter is, identifying the right side of history is easy -- indeed so easy that it's easier if one doesn't actually know much about history. So easy that there is virtually no moral action involved.

To be sure, choosing the wrong side of history can be a significant moral wrong. To support the Nazis or support slavery or support Stalin in this day and age shows a deeply twisted moral sense. But to oppose these three is so easy, and so obvious, from this point in history, that there is little to no virtue involved.

To congratulate oneself for admiring the right side of history is to assign oneself virtue one has not earned. Indeed, it is often more a sign of pride than of virtue. Without question, we should admire those in history who acted virtuously, but we should not consider ourselves to have performed any great virtue by doing so. Nor should we be quick to consider ourselves the superiors of those "ordinary people" in history who failed to rise to the standards of our heroes. We look at their actions with all of the clarity of distance, and none of the danger of immediacy.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Devotional Edition

When Betty tagged me to write about my five favorite Catholic devotions, I started making a list in my head of this and that and composing little snippets of prose in my head, already crafting what I was going to say about various forms of piety. But then I thought that perhaps I ought to assess not just what I like, but what I actually do. It's one thing to say you like a particular devotion, but what does it avail one to like a devotion but never practice it?

1. The Holy Name of Jesus

Before considering this meme, I never would have thought I would embrace such an old-timey devotion, but then I realized: any time I utter a spontaneous prayer in the day, I turn to Jesus first, by name.

2. The Divine Mercy

Over at Betty's, I commented, "I too love the chaplet, because it's so straightforward. I need mercy, and the best way to ask for it is to offer God something He can't refuse: His son's suffering and death."

Well, to be fair, I don't know if I can say accurately that I'm devoted to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, since I rarely say the whole thing in its proper form, with the beginning and ending prayers attached. But I frequently find myself praying, "For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world," under my breath.

3. Liturgy of the Hours

We have a prayer book that used to belong to Darwin's mother, a one volume pre-conciliar Liturgy of the Hours. The canonical hours flow like poetry: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline. When I'm nursing the baby, I turn to this book. The blessed simplicity of one-week cycle is refreshing, as is the format: every hour included in every day, so there's no flipping or wrangling with ribbons to get in the way of the prayer.

Every night our family closes our set of children's prayers with antiphon from Compline: Protect us, Lord, while we are awake, and safeguard us while we sleep, that we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in his peace.

I'm going with the three devotion variant instead of the full five, because although there are other devotions, such as the rosary, that I like, I don't say them often enough to call them favorites.

Here are my taggees:

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Too Darn Hot

Once upon a time in Texas, men and women did things. Blood feuds were enacted, brooding Gothic novels were written, railroads were built, ranches were fenced off. The men fought, drank, swung hammers, sang. The women bore children, sewed quilts, slaved over hot stoves, and glowed (not sweated). And they did it all without air conditioning.

Man, those guys were tough.

Now it's 2010, and we, hot house flowers all, huddle in our cooled enclaves and wilt when we step out into the blistering heat of a Texas summer. I don't know how the pioneers and ranchers and authors did it. We've been without air conditioning for a week now, and the heat has sapped all creativity or energy here. I can't understand how anyone got anything done. I can't fathom why any children were ever born in May.

The typical image of a Tex-Mex hacienda is a cool low-roofed adobe structure with tile roof and floors and sparse furnishings. Know why? It's because when it's hot, you just can't stand clutter. Those overstuffed Victorian living rooms are a product of the great white north -- you would go insane if you had to look at all that junk in this heat. The very idea of an antimacassar is disgusting.

Not cool.


Some crank has recently written a book called Losing Our Cool, about the evils of air conditioning and how it's ruining the planet. Whatever, buster. If Al Gore can maintain his green cred and still have four HVAC units cooling his supermansion, I think I'm entitled to my one puny unit.

Note the four HVAC units on the left of the house.

I will lavish plenty of invective on the damn fool architect who designed the cheap, mass-produced house which I call home. Even when the thermostat upstairs is hovering cheerfully at 92 degrees, there's air moving by the windows. I can feel the breeze, taunting me. If only it would waft its way into the house, it would be bearable, if not comfortable. And yet it does not come into the house, because the house is designed to be shut up when it's hot. Even box fans in all the windows can only compensate so much for poor architectural conception. Maybe if architects and developers and builders had to work in offices with no air-conditioning, we might start to see some real advances in green building.

In the meantime, it's too darn hot.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Parish & Homeschooling Bleg

I've been hesitant to do this because of the danger of freaking out the many people we know in the real world (locally and family) who read the blog, but I want to get any results back in time to have this be a meaningful part of decision-making so here it goes:

There is a chance (perhaps not even a large chance, but a chance) that the Darwin household would be pursing career opportunities in the Silicon Valley area in the near future. Obviously, this involves a lot of considerations regarding real estate, family, etc. However there are two which, with no close friends or relatives in the Bay Area, I'm hoping the readership might be able to help out with:

1) Does anyone have any experience with parishes in the Silicon Valley area? Are any with decent liturgy and catechesis -- by decent I basically mean non-cringe-inducing and giving some sense of reverence to one's children. I'm a bit put off by the Diocese of San Jose pastoral letter mandating standing from the Agnus Dei through the end of communion. (We took a look for at the diocesan-approved Tridentine parish in the diocese, but had our hesitations there as well -- again we'd appreciate thoughts from anyone with personal experience.  Reading through back bulletins, some things like the prayer that priests without true vocations would hurry up and leave gave me an odd impression.) Advice from current or recent residents of the area very much desired.  With five kids going through their most formative years, one of our biggest hesitations about whether to follow through on this career opportunity is whether we'd be able to provide them with an appropriate parish environment out there.  I've gone through periods in life of feeling like I was trying to remain a good Catholic despite my parish, and I don't think that kind of seige mentality is good for children in the least. (Feel free to email instead of comment if you're more comfortable with that.)

2) Anyone with experience homeschooling in the area? Is there a Catholic homeschooling group, or a Christian or secular homeschooling group which might be congenial for the Darwin family? Recent experience of homeschooling in the area?  Looking around on the web I found a Well Trained Mind group there, but not much else seemed immediately in evidence, and I know how regulated homeschooling is in California can vary quite a bit by school district.

3) As we search for housing that is semi-affordable, doesn't normally hear gunshots, and is within 30min drive of the big tech companies in Silicon Valley (one of which I'd be working for) does anyone have advice on neighborhoods to particularly look for or avoid.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Culture War

People justly tire of the term "culture war" and find themselves asking, like the philosopher Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along?" And yet watching the disparate reactions to yesterday's Federal Court ruling overturning California's Proposition 8 (for now) it struck me that the culture war terminology is quite apt. What is termed the culture was is essentially a zero sum game over which of two roughly equally numerous groups will be allowed to define the dominant understandings of culture and society in our country.  By taking this to the federal level, same sex marriage advocates have made it clear that no degree of regional acceptance is satisfactory -- their understanding of the nature of marriage must be the single dominant understanding enforced throughout the country, and those with a traditional understanding of marriage must be the ones who find themselves aliens within their country. And, presumably, if same sex marriage advocates lose, they will in turn consider themselves aliens within the country. Given that it is the most basic units and purposes of society which are in dispute, it seems hard to see how it can be any other way. And while the dispute is to an extent regional, it is much more so philosophical and ideological, making the culture war more resemble the Spanish Civil War than the American. Every city and region has representatives of both sides.

Judge Walker clearly lays out in his ruling the extent to which the question is of how society is to be defined and that there can be only one dominant definition. That section reads like an inverted version of the compaints many orthodox Catholics have been making about the state of modern marriage for some time:
The evidence at trial shows that marriage in the United States traditionally has not been open to same-sex couples. The evidence suggests many reasons for this tradition of exclusion, including gender roles mandated through coverture, FF 26-27, social disapproval of same-sex relationships, FF 74, and the reality that the vast majority of people are heterosexual and have had no reason to challenge the restriction, FF 43.

The evidence shows that the movement of marriage away from a gendered institution and toward an institution free from state-mandated gender roles reflects an evolution in the understanding of gender rather than a change in marriage. The evidence did not show any historical purpose for excluding same-sex couples from marriage, as states have never required spouses to have an ability or willingness to procreate in order to marry. FF 21. Rather, the exclusion exists as an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage. That time has passed.

The right to marry has been historically and remains the right to choose a spouse and, with mutual consent, join together and form a household. FF 19-20, 34-35. Race and gender restrictions shaped marriage during eras of race and gender inequality, but such restrictions were never part of the historical core of the institution of marriage. FF 33. Today, gender is not
relevant to the state in determining spouses’ obligations to each other and to their dependents. Relative gender composition aside, same-sex couples are situated identically to opposite-sex couples in terms of their ability to perform the rights and obligations of marriage under California law. FF 48. Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals.
It's also worth noting that this is a highly progressive approach to understanding society, one in which human relationships and human nature itself is fully mutable. The danger of this approach from a traditional perspective is that it makes it almost impossible for advocates of traditional marriage to make their case. Any examples or evidence drawn from the past can be summarily dismissed as discussing only the "old" version of marriage. It represents victory for the cultural revolutionaries almost by definition.

Caaaarl, call your office

As the heat soars here, we're going to reach this point eventually...

Just watch it in German already:

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Save us from the fires of hell...

"If a man could see what awaits him in the next world in return for work well done, he would occupy his intellect, memory and will only in performing good deeds, not paying attention to whatever fatigue and hardship he might have to endure."
St. Catherine of Genoa

This is something to hold onto this week, as the A/C is down until at least Monday...

ADDENDUM: Oh look! This week there's a coronal mass ejection, driving up temperatures! We're all advised to stay indoors because it's going to be extra crispy!

Privacy or Anonymity

The Wall Street Journal has been running a series on the business of online "spying" for marketing information about web browsers. From today's installment:
You may not know a company called [x+1] Inc., but it may well know a lot about you.

From a single click on a web site, [x+1] correctly identified Carrie Isaac as a young Colorado Springs parent who lives on about $50,000 a year, shops at Wal-Mart and rents kids' videos. The company deduced that Paul Boulifard, a Nashville architect, is childless, likes to travel and buys used cars. And [x+1] determined that Thomas Burney, a Colorado building contractor, is a skier with a college degree and looks like he has good credit.

The company didn't get every detail correct. But its ability to make snap assessments of individuals is accurate enough that Capital One Financial Corp. uses [x+1]'s calculations to instantly decide which credit cards to show first-time visitors to its website.

In short: Websites are gaining the ability to decide whether or not you'd be a good customer, before you tell them a single thing about yourself.

The technology reaches beyond the personalization familiar on sites like, which uses its own in-house data on its customers to show them new items they might like.

By contrast, firms like [x+1] tap into vast databases of people's online behavior—mainly gathered surreptitiously by tracking technologies that have become ubiquitous on websites across the Internet. They don't have people's names, but cross-reference that data with records of home ownership, family income, marital status and favorite restaurants, among other things. Then, using statistical analysis, they start to make assumptions about the proclivities of individual Web surfers.
Examples of this technology in action are described as follows:
To gauge the system's accuracy, the Journal asked eight people to visit the credit-card page of Capital One's site and note the credit cards they were shown. The Journal also analyzed the computer code that zipped back and forth between the testers' computers and Capital One.

Separately, the Journal asked its testers to click on a custom website that [x+1] built to demonstrate its technology. After the testers clicked on that site, [x+1] described to the Journal what it knew about each person.

Throughout both of these processes, the testers didn't reveal any personal information.

[x+1]'s assessments of the testers were generally accurate, though some specific details missed the mark. For instance, [x+1] correctly placed Ms. Isaac, the Colorado Springs mom, in a Nielsen demographic segment called "White Picket Fences." People in this group live in small cities, have a median household income of $53,901, are 25 to 44 years old with kids, work in white-collar or service jobs, generally own their own home, and have some college education.

All of those points were correct for Ms. Isaac—to her surprise. "They pinpointed my income more accurately than I remembered it," she says.

But the "White Picket Fence" category wasn't 100% accurate. It suggested Ms. Isaac might read People en Espanol, watch Toon Disney and drive a Nissan Frontier truck. In fact, she doesn't speak Spanish, doesn't subscribe to cable TV and doesn't drive a truck.
I'm curious what others think of this.

This is the sort of "privacy" issue which I find it difficult to get worked up about. While I'm not exactly crazy about companies tapping into my browsing history, I can't get chills to go up my spine about the idea of some marketing company classifying me as a married man, aged 30-45 who reads the Wall Street Journal, has kids, shops on Amazon and reads a lot about religion and economics. Big whoop, as the saying used to go.

Certainly the technology could be mis-used in the wrong hands -- mostly as a way of identifying people as having "enemy" tendencies. Imagine if when you filed your taxes electronically the IRS quickly downloaded your browsing history and assigned people who read National Review and Fox News frequently to the audit list. I'm sure everyone, in every part of the ideological spectrum, could come up with some sort of nightmare scenario using this kind of technology. However, I don't see any particular reason to be upset about the particular uses described in this series. (Nor do I honestly foresee such politburo tactics coming into use in the US in the near future.)

It seems to me that this kind of marketing profile tracking is not very much of a privacy invasion, since names aren't assigned to the data and it's really just a means of assigning people to a profile -- much as a real life salesperson might do visually in the moment of sizing you up as you enter a store.

Should this kind of thing be considered a privacy worry, or does it merely fall in the harmless to slightly annoying range? Is it important that we retain absolute privacy online (except where we choose to divulge information intentionally) or is anonymity enough?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Scouting in a Fractured American Culture

The New York Times runs an article about how the national leaders of the Boy Scouts of America are seeking to address concerns about shrinking membership as they celebrate 100 years of boy scouting in the US. The number of boy scouts has declined 42% since it's peak in 1978, with 2.8 million boys currently in the Scouts.

To judge from the commentariat at the Times, you would think this is entirely the result of the BSA remaining firm in their ban of gay scout leaders and statement that "homosexual conduct is inconsistent with obligations in the Scout Oath." Not to mention saying that boys who refuse to recite the Scout Oath because of its references to God and reverence may simply not have a place in the program. Commenters claiming to be Eagle Scouts line up one after another in the comments to announce that no son of theirs will ever be a member of the Scouts while it remains homophobic and theocratic.

I find this rather hard to believe -- especially as girl scouts (who have chosen the other side of the cultural divide, with acceptance of atheist girl scouts and an open door for Planned Parenthood to provide sex education through the organization) have suffered identical membership declines, with only 2.3 million girl scouts in the US as they near their own centenary.

What I think this underscores is rather two related but separate trends:

1) The US have become culturally fragmented to an extent that an organization such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts is not capable of appealing to the entirety of American culture. These organization must, by their nature, have a philosophy of what it means to be a responsible and maturing young person, and in formulating any set of principles along these lines they will necessarily estrange a significant portion of the country. Be assured that for parent claiming he will never let his son join the boy scouts because they are homophobic, there are other parents who would never allow their sons to join a troop led by an gay scoutmaster, or to belong to an organization which assured boys that homosexual activity is "normal and healthy".

2) The scouts thrive in a culture in which there is some degree of father/son culture, and in which people are excited about outdoor activities. Certainly, some of the boys who benefit most from Scouting are boys without fathers -- and many other boys from stable families have fathers who don't have time to be "scout dads" and come to all the meetings and camp-outs. (I was among that latter group, as my dad worked many nights and weekends.) But if virtually no dads are willing to put time into helping to run a troop and do outdoor activities, scouting simply won't happen. Adult leadership is always an essential component. And although troops can thrive in urban or suburban settings (my troop was sponsored out of our working-class parish in the old suburbs of Los Angeles) it has to be at least possible to interest boys in the idea of camping and hiking and trying knots and building fires. For people to whom the idea of going camping seems totally pointless, scouting will have little point.

As a result of these two, it strikes me as unsurprising that scouting finds less fertile ground in some parts of the country and among some cultural groups in the modern US. But so long as it remains true to its core values, the Boy Scouts will continue to thrive among those open to its values, and where scouting does thrive it will continue to provide boys and young men with a chance to learn skill and independence while gaining an appreciation of the great outdoors. I certainly look forward to the day my son is old enough to join.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Norse Mythology Comes to the Humanities Program

My little sister spent her wild young days studying Old Norse and Old English at Oxford, before settling down as a mild mannered web-programming lay Dominican, so it was of course irresistible to ask her to tackle Norse Mythology for the elementary Humanities Program (volume two covers the "dark ages"). First up, the Norse creation story:
In the beginning there was Múspell, the realm of fire, and Niflheim [niv-uhl-heym], the realm of ice. Between them there was nothing except a vast emptiness called the Ginnungagap [gin-oong-ga-gahp]. For many ages there was nothing else. But gradually, sparks began to fly out of Múspell while icy fogs billowed out of Niflheim. They met in the middle of Ginnungagap, which became as mild as a summer's day; the fog condensed into water-drops, and the drops were given life by the sparks.

Out of the mixture condensed Ymir [ee-mir], the first giant....
However, you must read the whole thing to find out about the giant who gave birth via his armpits and about the world cow.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

No more heathen babies in this house

Her head still smells delightfully chrismatic.