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

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Iron Man 2: A Review In Three Bullets

My brain was in a condition such that opening any of my current reads seemed too challenging, and my internet connection too was showing signs of fatigue, declaring itself too sluggish to deliver Netflix, so I betook myself to a nearby RedBox and picked up a copy of Iron Man 2.

  • The first Iron Man was, to me at least, unexpectedly and rawly fun. One felt as exuberant watching it as the irrepressible Tony Stark. In this installment, Stark is in a nearly endless hangover as a result of side effects of his magic chest power source thingy. And the movie too lacks the boyish enthusiasm which made the original so delightful.
  • I don't know why it's so hard for the writers of these comic book action franchises to grasp the idea that one need not square the number of plot threads the side characters in each additional installment of a series.
  • That Scarlett Johansson of all people reported she needed to lose a lot of weight in order to log her cat-suited-female-superhero-side-character role underscores how far off the normal curve of female biology that archetype resides -- however grateful the world's men may be for her taking one for the team in this respect. And yet it's actually more interesting to watch Pepper Potts struggle with her unwanted CEO job than it is to watch Johansson give significant-yet-never-fulfilled glances to Stark, and occasionally take time out to bounce off walls and kill people in gymnastically unlikely ways. There must be something wrong with that...

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cancel the Christmas Suicide Watch

Sometimes a claim seems to tell such a reasonable story that no one ever thinks to check to see if it's true. Such a one, it seems, is the annual think-of-those-less-fortunate story that family holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas see the highest suicide rates of the year. I must confess, the idea seemed plausible enough that I never thought to question it till a friend shared the Snopes link.

Of course, the other story is equally credible: holidays are enough to cheer up even deeply troubled people, at least for a few days. Whether that story is more reflective of what goes on in people's heads I have no idea, but at least it fits the facts. Though not quite as good at tugging the heart strings.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Stuffing

Every year, without fail, I go out to the grocery store on the eve of some major holiday and wonder who all these people are and why they're clogging up the place when I just want to grab a few things.

Today I'm heading out to pick up the last ingredients for the cornbread stuffing, our family's major Thanksgiving tradition. Hope the crazy people out there have left me some celery...
  • 2 boxes Jiffy cornbread mix, enough to make a 9x13 pan of cornbread (you can make your own, but the sweetness of the Jiffy works well with the stuffing; I prefer it.)
  • 2 c. celery, chopped
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 c. onions or scallions (I often use green onions)
  • giblets from turkey to make broth (or 1 can, about 2 c., chicken broth)
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 Tbs. parsley
  • 1/2 tsp. basil
  • 1/4 tsp. sage
  • 1/4 tsp. thyme
  • 1/4 tsp oregano
  1. Bake cornbread and put it into a large bowl. Don't crumble it too much yet.
  2. Boil giblets and neck to make turkey broth (my mom says just cover them with water, but it works out to be about 2 cups.) Alternatively, boil chicken broth.
  3. Add celery, bell pepper, onions, and butter to broth; boil until tender.
  4. If using giblets and if desired, chop up giblets and neck meat and add to corn bread.
  5. Add all seasonings to cornbread along with salt and pepper to taste, mix.
  6. Pour broth with vegetables over cornbread mixture and stir just until everything is moistened. This can be refrigerated for several days (makes great leftovers!) or you can put it in a pan, dot the top with butter, and heat through. Serves lots.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Home Sweet Home

Because there can never be too many new house pix.

St. Margaret and Macbeth

My confirmation name is Margaret, after St. Margaret of Scotland, queen and mother. (I've emulated her in one aspect, if not in the other). Brandon of Siris provides some historical background on Margaret, including her tangential connection with Macbeth (the real guy, not Shakespeare's version).
I really do think this would make a more interesting television series than most things you find on television. Who doesn't like Vikings, Scottish kings, Anglo-Saxon political bickering, and Norman Invasions, all rolled into one big story?

Waiting for Blood

I've been ending day lately with an hour or two of reading Jose Maria Gironella's, The Cypresses Believe in God, a massive novel set on the eve of the Spanish Civil War. Given the novel's sheer size, and that it starts out spending so much time just giving a sense of early 30s Spain as a place and time, as the civil war itself begins to approach one feels with the characters a certain creeping unreality, as the descent of politics and then society as a whole into factional violence seems to become first imaginable, then possible, and finally inevitable.

Having fallen asleep, as it were, in 1935 Catalonia, it was with an odd sense of unreality that I clicked on a link this morning and found a New York Times columnist declaring it impossible to work with his political opponents peacefully and darkly predicting "there will be blood".

Monday, November 22, 2010

When Are Points Not Worth Making?

The media firestorm swirling around Pope Benedict's discussion of morality and condom use seems like a good illustration of the problem of great trouble and anguish being caused by making completely true and reasonable points. The pope's comment itself is both true and sensible: there is nothing magically wicked about condoms in and of themselves, rather it is using them in order to render sexual relations sterile which is immoral. However, because the pope is such a uniquely high-profile figure in the world, both those (inside and outside the Church) who are desperately eager for the Church to approve artificial contraception as morally licit, and those who live in constant fear that the faith will somehow be betrayed to the ravening hoards outside, immediately went into full freak-out mode.

Various writers who consider the Church's stance on birth control to be hopelessly backward immediately declared a "first step".

Nervous traditionalists took pause, yet again, to publicly worry that Benedict is betraying them.

And, doubtless, many people (Catholic and otherwise) who don't pay much attention to such issues noticed the headlines, didn't read any in-depth coverage, and quietly filed away in the backs of their minds, "Oh, so Catholics can use birth control under some circumstances."

This kind of thing can be frustrating to those who care deeply about exploring the nuances of moral points. On the one hand, what the pope said is completely true. On the other, the way in which it became publicized will doubtless lead more people into error than into truth. Does this mean that such nuanced discussion of high profile moral issues should simply not happen? Or that it should not be undertaken by someone as high profile as the pope?

It seems anti-intellectual to say that issues sufficiently borderline as to present the danger of leading people astray should simply not be discussed. And yet, at a certain level, the purpose of our Church is to bring people to heaven -- including ordinary people who are easily unsettled or deceived -- not to serve as a debating society for a small number of people who are educated in the finer points of theology. Ideally, it would be possible for the pope to discuss such issues in venues primarily read by those capable of understanding what he is saying, and not have his comments distorted and repeated out to those who are likely to be confused or upset. Yet in a world of mass global communications that seems clearly impossible.

The same technology which makes it more possible than ever for anyone, anywhere to access Church documents and other sources of Catholic teaching which were much harder to come by only a few decades ago also makes it all to easy for a line or two to be pulled out of context from some longer statement and flooded all over the world in a matter of hours. Whether that means that prominent thinkers must now be more circumspect in what they choose to discuss at all than was the case in the past is probably a question worth giving at least some thought to.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ticking Time-Bomb Molestation

You all remember the ticking time-bomb torture scenario: what it -- what if? -- we had a terrorist in custody, and it was known that he's planted a time-bomb somewhere. Couldn't we torture him, just a little, in order to save all those lives that would otherwise be blown up?

It seems to me that this TSA pat-down/strip search flap is this very scenario put into practice, but without the imperative urgency of the time-bomb. Someone out there might be carrying something dangerous on a plane. What if -- what if? -- we could prevent this by fondling children in airports? Don't you think it would be worth it? Aren't you concerned about lives that might be saved, if only you'd consent to be searched, or let your children be searched?

My answer to someone who would insist that searching me was only for my safety: of course it's not for my safety, if you're searching me. It's not for my child's safety, if it's my child being searched.

Check out Bearing's thoughts on what to do if ever confronted with this situation in an airport

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Cthulhu in the Basement

The house passed inspection with flying colors, though parts of the basement retain their terrifying aspect.

Where Cthulhu sleeps:

Where Cthulhu goes potty:

But the house is pretty:

Friday, November 19, 2010

Good House Cheer

I've been sitting here reading Simcha and trying to laugh quietly so that the baby doesn't wake up, only it comes out as little snorts and guffaws and then my nose starts running. Now I feel bad that all I do around here anymore is complain, so I'm going to try to dredge up something cheerful to discuss, like our new house.

First, let's talk about asbestos! Asbestos is the stuff that gets in your lungs and kills you in a horrible gurgling way, but not before you hire a high-priced lawyer and get a settlement for mucho dinero from The Man. Less widely known is that it has fire-resistant properties, and so it used to be used in homes for insulation, I guess. At any rate, that's what it's doing in the basement of the house we want to buy: insulating the pipes. If that's all it were doing, it wouldn't be a problem. Modern practice is to just seal the stuff up and let it keep working its fire-proof magic; it's only once it gets into the air that it seeks to embed itself in your lungs, like so many small children trying to worm their way into your nice cosy bed on a cold morning. But when, for example, it's crumbling off the pipes, it has to be removed.

Good news: this only takes one day.
Middling news: the health department needs ten days' notice.
Bad news: it costs mucho dinero.

We knew all this before making our offer on the house, however, which should tell you how much we like it.

Now, let's talk about the basement. The house is 150 years old, but it was given a complete renovation about sixty years after it was built, so in the 1920s. It's got this Hollywood Tudor look going on, which makes you forget just how old the place is. When you go in the basement, you remember. It's so old it really has to be called a cellar. The massive stone foundations are a bit unsettling, but moreso is the toilet room. It has no door. What it does have is padded walls. Someone, in the distant past, thought it would be cozy to put up some kind of padded fabric, studded with upholstery tacks, in this tiny toilet cell. The toilet itself looks like it might fetch mucho dinero on eBay or Antiques Roadshow. I worry that someone might break into our house and start filming Saw XI.

Our burglarizing filmmakers would be delighted as well by the room next to the bathroom, which, though not original to the house, was added far enough in the past to give me the creeps. Like the toilet room, it has no door. What it does have is the remnants of a chain lock on the inside. Also, it has a closet-like door that opens only to the stone wall.

So that's a little weird, but okay. It does not adequately prepare you for The Boiler of Doom. I have never before seen such a massive heating element in a basement, because they can only reside in cellars. There is another boiler downstairs, added later, for which they just ran the pipes through the original behemoth, so the two are intertwined in an ungodly embrace. On our second visit to the house, I moved to open one of the hatches on the beast, then stopped. I just didn't want to see what was in there. Let it keep its secrets.

There's the egress for the laundry chute in the cellar, but the previous owners were wise enough to move the laundry room up behind the kitchen. We'll close up the drop to the cellar, even though that will leave an open disused passage in the walls in which something could nest.

Speaking of disused passages, about the time of the kitchen renovations (early 80s, if the style is any guide) someone closed up the back staircase. Upstairs, you have an odd closet with a high ceiling and a transom window, in which the floor suddenly changes texture and becomes uneven towards the back.

Downstairs, in the kitchen, is the ugliest pantry ever, with a side wall that begins at the top of a step.

Kitchen, with glimpse of ugly pantry side wall.

So, closed up, is an empty staircase. Walled up. Silent. Alone.

But we like it! Look at this awesome bathroom!

Oop, wrong bathroom. How about this one?

Pretty vintage, what? These are but two of the five bathrooms* in the house, so we should never have a line -- or any water pressure.

We have our inspection today. Light a candle in front of St. Joseph and please pray that there's nothing unlivable about the house -- other than the asbestos and the haunted laundry chute and the Empty Staircase of Madness. Home sweet home!

*The toilet cell in the basement is not included in that number. Perhaps it's not a room if it doesn't have a door?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Doors opening...

Four days before Christmas, this will be my front door. Offer accepted; please pray that the inspection goes well, and only tells us about the problems we already know about, like the asbestos.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Big Government and Small Society

The Democratic Party suffered a historic drubbing a couple weeks ago. However, one of the things with which several left leaning commentators publically consoled themselves was that demographics are in their favor. The parts of the electorate which tend to vote for Democrats are growing, while those who tends to vote for Republicans are shrinking. Progressives like to focus on the examples of this they feel proud of: the non-white percentage of the US population is growing, and non-whites tend to vote Democratic. Young people also lean more heavily progressive on a variety of issues than previous generations did at the same age.

From a progressive point of view this sounds pretty good: progressivism will succeed in the end because it is supported by young and diverse people, while conservatism will die out because it is supported by old white people -- and no one like them anyway, did they?

I'd like to propose an alternate reading of the data: Progressive policies are more widely supported by those who are isolated within society and thus forced to rely on their relationship with the State for support rather than their relationships with family, friends, church, etc. However, the number of people who are living such a socially isolated experience is growing, and with it is growing support for progressive policies.

Democracy Corps and the Women's Voices, Women Vote Action Fund (two progressive advocacy groups) put out a report just prior to the election this year in which they talked about the need of the Democratic Party to reach out to and excite voters in the "Rising American Electorate" or RAE. The RAE consists of unamarried women, non-whites(who have lower marriage rates than whites) and young people (who marry less and marry later than earlier generations.)

And while organizations sucxh as Women's Voices, Women Vote Action fund are naturally most interested in the voting preferences of single women, polls which distinguish voting preferences of married vs. unmarried men show that while there is a 37% gap in party preference between unmarried women and married women, there is a 29% marriage gap for men as well, with unmarried men slighly favoring Democrats and married men strongly favoring Republicans. (This example is from April this year.)

For those who consider the family to be a thing of the past, this may be just fine. But for anyone who considers the family to be a basic building block of society, the fact that support for progressivism is expanding only as a result of the breakdown of other relationships than that between individual and state should be concerning. It also opens an obvious question: Do people come to support an all-consuming relationship between individual and state because other social institutions have already broken down for them, for some unrelated reason, and they have nowhere else to turn for support, or is it the growth of a state which leads to the breakdown of other social relationships, as the guarantee that one can be supported at some minimal level as an individual makes other personal relationships unnecessary?

Jane Eyre!

I first read Jane Eyre when I was thirteen. I remember staying up all night, in my aunt's guest room, reading voraciously and sobbing a bit when Jane declared to Mr. Rochester, "I am not an automaton!"

Enbrethiliel posts the trailer for the new adaptation of Jane Eyre
, over which I'm drooling. It looks extremely gothic, as it should. I loved the version PBS aired a few years ago, with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens, but if there's one thing the world can use it's more Jane. Bring it!

(Also, it looks like the new one gets it right that Blanche Ingram had black hair, not blonde.)

Monday, November 15, 2010


If you want to know what I'm thinking, just read Betty Duffy.

And read Betty Duffy

Emily J.'s take on Erica Jong's take on motherhood. I love Emily's comments; what struck me about the Jong article was that it never seemed implied that a mother might actually love her children and want to do what was best for them, regardless of whether that choice was AP or working full-time.

A meme about books which brought back good memories.

Speaking of memories, the worst book I ever read.

The Crazy Season

I'm so grateful for all the readers who are so generous with their prayers and love. Your comments cheered and encouraged me when I really needed it. I'm glad that we have such a generous and gracious readership. I would like to clear up concerns, however, that I'm either depressed or suffering from SAD. I love fall weather and the early darkness and the gray half-light of winter, but in fact it's been bright and gorgeous almost every day of our sojourn in The North. I also would never lightly dismiss signs of depression, since in my time I've lived with people who suffer from it and have seen what it can do to relationships and families, but that's never been something that's affected me -- thank God! I was hesitant to post because I feared sounding crazy, but this is a crazy season.

My biggest problem is really that my husband is gone five days a week. We knew going into this that it would be tricky, but I just wasn't prepared for the gaping hole this separation would rip in our family structure. The kids need Dad around for stability and love and discipline, and I need my husband for support and encouragement and love. We see Darwin every Friday night, of course, but it seems like it's Thursday each week when everything blows up. Of course!

We're starting to gather the threads together and start patching our existence back together. Darwin and I went back to Texas this weekend to be godparents to the prettiest little girl, and that time alone was just what we needed to shake off the difficulties of the week. This week I'm finally meeting up with people I know in this area, so the kids will get out and play with friends and I'll have some congenial adult company. We have in an offer on a perfect house for our family, and we're waiting for a response from the sellers. (And we got Ohio temp tags, so hopefully there's no more harassment from Cincinnati's finest.) We're weaving the strands back together -- for today, anyway. I don't think the crazy season will end any time soon. But I'm looking forward to the normal zany family craziness to take over from the unsettled fatherless moving craziness.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

This Too

I've always had this image of myself, and I think it's pretty much borne out by reality, of being rational and level-headed and overall a clear thinker. I don't have a reputation for being high-maintenance. And I thought I was pretty equal to most situations. And maybe I still am, but this move is testing the limits of my emotional equilibrium.

I don't often write about being in a bad mood or feeling out-of-control, because I know that what's written is written, even when the moment passes, as it inevitably does. But lately, I live on the edge. It's been about eight weeks since we left Texas, and each week has been more difficult than the last. Perhaps that's to be expected: we're finally coming up on making an offer on a house in Columbus, with all the stress that entails; we're encountering frustrating delays with the relocation company regarding our house in Texas; we only see Darwin on the weekends (and the baby is four months old, with all the cyclical unpredictableness that entails); and the kids are unsettled and acting out. But I don't like my metamorphosis into some who's often on the verge of tears all day. I don't like the shaky panic I feel in my stomach when it's 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon and I remember that Daddy's not coming home tonight. And I don't like the increasing frequency with which I take all this out on the kids, who in turn have discovered that Mommy will allow them to watch hours of old cartoons after lunch so that she can just get some peace and quiet.

All this culminated this morning in my bursting into tears while bargaining with a policeman I discovered attempting to tow my van for having expired Texas plates. (And I'm delighted to discover that profiling is not practiced in the state of Ohio, since the cop solemnly declared of my four-year-old minivan bursting with children's paraphernalia, "Sometimes drug dealers use cars with expired plates and park 'em on the side streets here.") He magnanimously desisted after my strangled yelp in response to his suggestion that since I didn't have a permanent Ohio address, I could get temporary tags in my dad's address and bring them to the impound lot, but I was left with a citation and my dad's uniquely unparkable garage in which to house the minivan that dare not show its plates. This was compounded by the oddly out-of-body experience of weeping maudlin thanks to the sympathetic neighbor -- me! crying in public! To a person I've only ever nodded at! MrsDarwin, I hardly knew ye.

I know that this is not the end of the world, or even all that horrible a problem. People around the world are starving, are ill, are being abused or wondering if that dreaded knock on the door will come today, and my big issue is how to register a van in a new state before I fly to Texas tomorrow night. My life is not that bad, but it is wildly chaotic, and I'm dismayed to find that I can't handle it like I thought I could.

Today is Veterans' Day, and I salute all the military wives and mothers who hold up their families and our country. You're braver than I can be.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Hunting of the Snark

A while back, I'd downloaded the free sample chapters of Bill Bryson's new book At Home: A Short History of Private Life to my Kindle app and found it quite delightful, the sort of light non-fiction brimming which the author's curiosity which is infectiously fun to read at odd moments -- yet shrunk from buying the full Kindle version because paying $10 for an ebook just rubs me the wrong way somehow. So I made my way down to the library to look for a copy. There I found that some fifty people had already done likewise and placed reservations on the book -- so rather than join the throng I picked up another of Bryson's books which happened to be in. I'd never ready anything by Bryson prior to stumbling on At Home, but the premise of The Lost Continent seemed appealing: Having lived and worked in Europe the author decides to take a road trip through small town America and write about the interesting (and odd) things he finds there.

Yet somehow the infectious curiosity which had made At Home so enjoyable to read was wholly absent here and replaced with that particularly modern mode: snark.

Now, Bryson is clearly a good writer, and he draws the reader along in an engaging way. Yet somehow the snarky tone breeds a certain frustration in a book-length work, as opposed to that child of the snark, a blog post. As the author's unremitting put downs, however creative, of everything he finds build up in chapter after chapter you want to shake the author by the shoulders and say to him, "All right, we get it. This was a lousy idea. But you're no longer a sulky kid sitting in the back of the family station wagon. You're an adult driving the car. How about if you turn around, drive to a big, cosmopolitan city, and write about something you like? Stop being professionally miserable and get a move on!"

Though really, my beef with snark is not that it's negative. It's that it's shallow. Snark, including Bryon's here, is usually of the, "Would you beeeeelieve this shit? I get into this town, which is not even a one horse town. It's a half horse town. The horse was cut in half by a semi on the main road a couple weeks ago and people haven't yet finished exclaiming, 'Would you look at that, now!' to each other and moved on to actually getting out of their chairs and moving the animal. And like all other half horse towns in Iowa, half the establishments are owned by someone named Vern. I'm not talking about Vern's Fusion Bistro or Vern's Art House Theatre, either. No, it's always Vern's Grocery. Vern's Hardware. Vern's Christian Bookstore. Vern's Tavern. So I went into Vern's Motel and asked the lady behind the counter, with her hornrimmed glasses and beehive hairdo, if there was a room available."

Now, this is in fact fun to write. I had fun parodying it just now. Snark is fun. That's why throughout the world people dash off blog posts full of snark on their lunch break for the delectation of other people on their lunch breaks who can in turn leave snarky comments, or post lolcats, or link to it on Facebook with the universal modern question, "Have you seen this? WTF?"

But I'm not at all sure it works to write a work longer than the average blogpost in snark-ese. Especially since a book lacks a comment box in which the reader can participate by making original contributions such as "LMAO". Indeed, after the first twenty pages or so, during which I kept thinking, "But he'll get down to real writing shortly, right?" I found myself reading further mainly in order to see if someone would eventually dose out a comeuppance to the author. But thus far, no.

I don't know if I'll finish it or not, but I'm disappointed.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Just everything

Cincinnati is a city of steeples. On every hill (and the hills are legion) you see a spire or a pair of towers reaching above the trees. Many of these steeples I know only by sight, but some I can identify from the highway: down in Northside, off 75 and 74, is St. Pius X, where I was confirmed. I know St. Peter in Chains, off 75 downtown. Immaculata, in Mount Adams, where the pilgrims pray the steps every Good Friday, crowning the city above the merge from 471 to 71. Fr. Al Lauer once said that the history of the Catholic Church in Cincinnati can be traced roughly along Glenway Ave: St. Lawrence, St. Teresa, Our Lady of Lourdes, and St. Jude.

Columbus, I have to say, is not Cincinnati. Ah well...

Here, have some pix: here's the kids on Halloween.

And (cross your fingers) this is what we hope might become the new Darwin manor:

Friday, November 05, 2010

Friday Quick Takes

Somehow, a fractured existence seems to lead to lots of post stubs, so I'll jump on Jen's bandwagon and do a quick takes to round out the week.

-- 1 --
Last year, I was in the middle of assuming a new job within the company I worked for, and so despite an odd yearning to take National Novel Writing Month (nor NaNoWriMo) as an excuse to get back into writing, I decided, "There's no time. Next year." Well, here's this year, and I'd driving back and forth between Cincinnati and Columbus several times a week while starting a new job. Humph.

Some day...

-- 2 --
Speaking of NaNoWriMo, I'm always up for a good piece of curmudgeonry, so I had to click on this piece entitled "Better yet, DON'T write that novel". The authors contention: When many first time novels see a print run of only a few thousand and only sell a few hundred copies, it's not the production of more novels that needs to be encouraged but rather readership.

As I was reading this it was striking me that part of the problem is that the market for novels is essentially national. Novels are published nationally and all the first time writers are struggling for attention from the same limited number of reviewers at the same limited number of magazines, and hoping that people in virtually identical Borders and Barnes & Nobles across the country will happen to pick up their work. Wouldn't it be easier on authors if readership was local? If readers tended to keep up with the small pool of local novelists, and then the best novelists from outside their region?

Then it struck me this is pretty much how blogging works -- though few people blog fiction. Blogging creates virtual neighborhoods and makes it fulfilling to have a couple hundred readers interested in your own corner of the world. I know a few bloggers who post fiction, but I wonder why more writers don't take this approach. Perhaps because it's hard to monetize? (Not like novel writing leads to profit for most anyway...)

-- 3 --
It had always struck me that the single people I knew ate surprising amounts of take-out and prepared food. If there's no one jumping all over you when you get home, wouldn't you be more inclined to cook up fun dishes for your own enjoyment?

Well, trying the experiment, not so much. It's far less enticing to cook from scratch when there's no one to cook for and no one to talk to while cooking. I still mostly shun take out but I seem to have fallen into meals that work like this:

Dump frozen garlic-potato wedges and frozen green beans in a pyrex bowl. Put sausage on top. Place in oven. Open beer.

Dump frozen artichoke hearts, frozen green beans and frozen potato wedges in pyrex bowl. Put frozen battered shrimp on top. Place in oven. Open beer.

Dump half bag of salad in huge bowl. Sprinkle with dressing. Grab a piece of cheese to cut up as a "side dish". Open wine.

Open can of soup. Dump in bowl. Heat up frozen mini-baguette. Open beer.

Note the frequency of the words "dump" and "frozen" in these recipes... It's not so much that I'm short of time, nor even that baking frozen stuff like this in the oven is actually much faster to prepare than a lot of the sort of recipes we normally make at home. It's just that the idea of preparing food in solitude seems bleak rather than homey. And eating the same left-overs for the next 2-3 days looms rather darkly as well. It's hard (at least for me) too cook in small quantities.

-- 4 --
Of course, if I don't like living alone, MrsDarwin has been having the much rougher time of it all. One of the older girls explained the evening like this to me the other night.

"Jack was so bad today. He was just crazy. He got in trouble, like, twelve times. Or maybe it was fifteen. He got into markers. And he colored on himself. And he dumped a pot of peas on the floor. And he spilled lemonade. And he threw the block of cheese in the spaghetti sauce. And he would NOT take a nap."

She paused, overwhelmed by the catalog of her brother's crimes.

"Have you been a good big sister and helped Mommy keep Jack out of trouble?" I asked. "Do you stop him when you see him getting into things?"

"Welllllllllll," she drew the word out as if this would make up for lack of truth. "Sometimes I do."

-- 5 --
Watching the election results come in, I'd found myself thinking, "I sure feel validated in choosing to move to Ohio over California."

Others had, it seems, been thinking equally and oppositely. A die-hard progressive friend posted the Facebook the next day, in response to someone's post on the elections, "I sure am glad I live in Portland, OR."

I wonder to what extent this kind of ideological sorting has increased -- especially among those of the upper part of the middle class who have often go to college in parts of the country far from where they grew up and then have national options as they look for jobs. Certainly, I've felt more at home in Texas and now Ohio than I do now back in my native Los Angeles.

-- 6 --
I've had a lot of time to listen to books or lectures on tape over the last few weeks, due to large amounts of time spent on I-71 between Columbus and Cincinnati. One of the things I've revisited is the original BBC radio dramatization of The Lord of the Rings

If, like me, you've come to cringe at the dialogue in Peter Jackson's movie adaptations (even though some of the visuals remain incredible) now that the first blush has worn off the movie adaptations, these are seriously worth a try. Although at ~13 hours, there is a lot of shortening in this adaptation, it keeps a lot more of Tolkien's verbal style in the dialogue and narration. And it's got some great voice actors, including Ian Holm as Frodo. (Of course, there's nostalgia in these for me as well. I listed to these again and again on cassette tape when I was a kid.)

-- 7 --
Speaking of listening to things... Anyone out there use Audible or similar subscription audio-book services? Is it in fact a cheaper way to get audiobooks? (And if it's something popular, not subject to the vicissitudes of a city library system with an addiction to reservation lines.) Feedback?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Narrative Failure

There's nothing more annoying that excessive crowing over an election, but I can't help taking just a moment to observe that there's something which doesn't quite fit about the idea that the GOP (and in a number of cases, the Tea Party wing of the GOP) did so well yesterday because the electorate was outraged that Obama and congress didn't tack harder left in the last two years. Yes, it's true that it was moderate Democrats, in many cases, who lost, but that's mainly because those moderate Democrats were elected in 2010 in districts which were to the right of them, districts which had previously been held by the GOP. But the fact that Pelosi was reelected while Driehaus lost doesn't mean that the electorate as a whole wants people on the hard left -- it's because Pelosi's district is in San Francisco while Driehaus's was in Cincinnati.

What both rightists and leftists should keep in mind after elections like this one and 2008 as well is that elections in the US are decided by a swing bloc which might charitably be described as pragmatic/a-political (or uncharitably as generally ignorant of political ideology and policy.) In 2008, that bloc looked at the landscape and said to itself, "Things aren't going so well, and Obama seems like he has exciting new ideas." This year, those same people looked around and said, "I keep hearing about 'stimulus' and debt and the health care bill, but all I can see right now is that a lot of people are out of work and insurance costs are going up. Let's throw the bums out."

Obama bet big that either he would have the magical ability to fix the economy, or it would fix itself, within two years. He lost that one. Now Republicans are betting that things will either look better in two years, or it will be possible to pin remaining problems on Obama. Only time will tell.

As someone who does have a formed political and economic philosophy, it's frustrating to me that elections are decided the way they are, though probably less so than for progressives since gridlock is not all that bad a thing according to my philosophy, while theirs require that the helping hand of statism shepherd us firmly and rapidly into the brave new world that is ahead.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Super Secret, Mystical Recession Cure

For some reason, I found myself reading through Paul Krugman's recent NY Times material. Perhaps it was a desire for a little mental vaunting, what with the direction the elections seem to be taking, and if so I should have come away quite satisfied as Mr. Krugman is in full Chicken Little mode. A GOP takeover of congress will be a disaster, and we should all be very afraid. Stupid people are allowing their emotions to run away with them and will destroy the world economy through getting all moralistic about debt. And of course, the reason why the entire world doesn't see things Krugman's way is because macroeconomics is too hard for them to understand.

Well, I'm certainly prepared to admit that Krugman's expertise in macroeconomics is greater than my own -- and I'll even stretch and say that my understanding probably goes farther than that of the average bear. However, I can't escape the feeling that Krugman is somewhere between singing:
The intelligent lot, the intuitive lot,
The infallible lot we are.
The marvellous mugs, miraculous mugs,
The mystical mugs we are.
But since he's rather less exuberant than Chesterton he says it like this:
The greatness of Keynes is illustrated by the trouble people who consider themselves well informed have, to this day, in understanding the basic principles of how a depressed economy works.
It's true that most people are not very good at understanding complex systems with many, interdependent moving parts. This is why most people are confused by macroeconomics, or come to that microeconomics at the theoretical level. But then, it's also why even terribly clever people who think that they have a solid grasp of macroeconomic theory get themselves in trouble by believing that they understand all the factors in play and drawing up charts which demonstrate that unless we pass the President's recovery plan, unemployment might go as high as 9%.

Don't get me wrong, macroeconomics is indeed different from everyday business experience, as Krugman touches on:
Businesses are open systems; the world economy is a closed system, with feedback effects that are crucial but play no role in ordinary business experience. In particular, an individual businessman, no matter how brilliant, never has to worry about the fact that total income equals total spending, so that if some people spend less, either someone else must spend more, or aggregate income must fall.
But when the explanations become too mystical, I can't help (perhaps because it's just my simplistic, middle brow, self) cocking an eyebrow:
The years leading up to the 2008 crisis were indeed marked by unsustainable borrowing, going far beyond the subprime loans many people still believe, wrongly, were at the heart of the problem. Real estate speculation ran wild in Florida and Nevada, but also in Spain, Ireland and Latvia. And all of it was paid for with borrowed money.

This borrowing made the world as a whole neither richer nor poorer: one person’s debt is another person’s asset. But it made the world vulnerable. When lenders suddenly decided that they had lent too much, that debt levels were excessive, debtors were forced to slash spending. This pushed the world into the deepest recession since the 1930s. And recovery, such as it is, has been weak and uncertain — which is exactly what we should have expected, given the overhang of debt.

The key thing to bear in mind is that for the world as a whole, spending equals income. If one group of people — those with excessive debts — is forced to cut spending to pay down its debts, one of two things must happen: either someone else must spend more, or world income will fall.

Yet those parts of the private sector not burdened by high levels of debt see little reason to increase spending. Corporations are flush with cash — but why expand when so much of the capacity they already have is sitting idle? Consumers who didn’t overborrow can get loans at low rates — but that incentive to spend is more than outweighed by worries about a weak job market. Nobody in the private sector is willing to fill the hole created by the debt overhang.
Now, as a stand-alone economic model, this makes a great deal of mathematical sense -- and that's hardly a surprise as Krugman is a smart guy with an ability to understand complex mathematical models. Yet it's a model, it's not the real world. And as such, it's only as useful as its resemblance to the real world.

Mathematically speaking, if demand is not coming from one source (businesses and individuals spending money which they have or which they have borrowed) then you can make up for that demand from another source (the government spending money it has borrowed) and the effect will be the same. The two main problems I see, however, have nothing to do with the mathematics of the model -- they have to do with the relation of the model to reality.

First off, however much it clearly annoys Krugman that this is the case, voters simply do not like the idea of the government spending endless amounts of borrowed money on projects which might not otherwise be funded because it's important to "prime the pump" of the economy. People can't escape the idea that this is their money, as taxpayers, which is being spent, and that they're going to have to pay it back. During a recession, people are particularly troubled by their own debts and bills -- and since one of the bills that they see every so often is a tax bill, they don't like thinking about the government racking up endless debts which they are going to have to pay back later. So while in theory government spending could make up for a private demand shortfall and keep the economy up, it seems to me that in practice it's simply not sustainable in a situation where that public spending would have to be financed through massive borrowing, because since people would be thinking "that's borrowed money" they would continue to be afflicted by economic anxiety and to sit tight on their savings. Knowing that the public money being used to "prime the pump" was "fake" demand would keep people from recovering their confidence and prolong the lack of private demand.

The second big issue that comes up, it seems to me, it the question of what the government should spend its money on in order to stimulate demand. This was comparatively easy during the New Deal programs of the Great Depression -- a significant percentage of the country was employed in manual labor, and many major public works projects required large numbers of manual laborers, so it was easy to start up a big project, pay the workers, and expect that money to filter out into the economy. Today's workforce is much more heavily focused on skilled/specialized labor, and so even if we assume that the government could use deficit spending to employ lots of people through public spending, this brings up the question of what the government should spend on which wouldn't cause mal-investment in capital and labor training.

Say, for instance, the government were to announce a major project of putting up wind farms. Huge amounts of money are spent, lots of new wind turbine making factories are built and wind turbine makers and installers are trained. All this spending helps get the economy back on track, as those wind turbine installers head down to Wal-Mart and spend their paychecks. After two years the program is a success, and so the wind turbine program ends. Now what happens to those workers and the capital investments in those factories? How easily are they turned to other work, and how long are they unemployed in the interim? Do we simply end up with another economic slowdown as a result of massive unemployment in the windfarm industry?

The problem is, even a wonderfully complex economic model dreamed up by an intelligent lot, and intuitive lot, and infallible lot of marvelous, mystical mugs will end up being simpler than the actual world. And as a result, it's not always as easy to get the real world to do what you want as it is to get a model to do so.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Choice and Information

One of the persistant worries of pro-abortion advocates is that pro-life crisis pregnancy centers may maliciously trick women into not having abortions. How, after all, could one be so wicked as to call oneself a "pregnancy center" without offering the where-with-all to end a pregnancy?

Pentimento has a thoughtful and moving post up, spurred by an NY Times article reporting on CPCs versus Planned Parenthood vacilities in light of an upcoming New York City Council vote on whether or not to require pregnancy centers to disclose on all advertising what services they do (and do not) offer:
The bill was triggered by a recent study undertaken by NARAL, which aims to show that the pregnancy centers use deceptive advertising to lure young women in crisis and . . . not give them abortions. Chris Slattery, a member of my old parish in the Bronx and the director of Expectant Mother Care, which runs pregnancy centers in some of New York's poorest neighborhoods, believes that this proposed legislation is an attack on the work that the centers do, because, while technically it doesn't seem like a bad idea to require businesses to be specific about what they do and don't offer, in the case of the emergency pregnancy centers, this forced disclosure could very likely lead to loss of life. If an abortion-minded woman in a crisis pregnancy goes to an EMC center without knowing that abortion is not on the menu, it's easier for the staff to persuade her to change her mind. This, NARAL says, is a very bad thing indeed. The fact that a woman may be talked out of having an abortion apparently does grievous harm to her freedom of choice.

I was fascinated today to read this article in the New York Times, in which a pregnant newspaper reporter took herself on an investigative-journalistic tour of two crisis pregnancy centers and one Planned Parenthood clinic. She went first to one of Chris Slattery's centers, and was overwhelmed by what she freely calls the love with which she was welcomed. She also admits that Planned Parenthood was the only one of the three places that had "a financial stake" in the choice she made vis-à-vis her (in real life, non-crisis) pregnancy.

But most salient for me in this story were the reader comments -- or, I should say, one of the reader comments, which twisted my heart (most of the other comments were just what you might expect): [continue reading]