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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

So Baby Has A Skull Fracture

The drama, though not, as it proved, the events, started when I got home from work on the Tuesday night before Christmas, scooped up eighteen-month-old Pidge, and noticed that she had a soft, squishy lump on her head, slightly above her right ear. She had just started to walk consistently the weekend before -- by far the latest walker of the five -- and with five boisterous children in a house with hardwood floors the occasional lump is not unexpected, but I'd never encountered a soft lump before, except with the post-partum hemotoma our oldest had had. The lump didn't seem to bother her, however, and she had not had any notable accidents since taking a dive off the changing table the week before, so we decided to take the "wait and see" approach.

The lump remained for the next few days, and seemed like it was perhaps growing slightly, and so like the typical modern parent in times of nervousness, I began to consult Google. Soft lumps on toddler heads, I found, are usually associated with skull fractures. However, skull fractures are generally associated with vomitting, loss of balance, partial paralysis, loss of consciousness, etc., and Pidge seemed more healthy and full of personality than ever as she walked around the house talking to herself and others.

By Friday, however, with the lump no smaller and the prospect of the weekend and Christmas making doctors particularly hard to get hold of, we got nervous and took her in for an appointment at our doctor's office. Her usual doctor was on vacation, and the doctor who saw her pretty much echoed what I'd found in my online research: normally this kind of soft lump would be associated with a skull factor, but since she wasn't showing any symptoms at all, we should keep an eye on her and head straight to the emergency room if she showed any neurological symptoms. He advised we bring her on Tuesday for a followup with her usual doctor.

Pidge continued to seem as healthy as ever, but as the lump seemed to go down a little it seemed, to our nervous parental fingers and those of various visitting relatives as if there were lumps and depressions underneath. In the very center, it seemed like you couldn't feel the skull beneath it. By the time that Tuesday rolled around, we were well ready to get her usual doctor's advice.

Again, he confirmed that this kind of lump is usually only found with skull fractures, but that the total lack of symptoms seemed to make a skull fracture unlikely. However, to be sure, he sent her across the street to the hospital to get an x-ray. On the x-ray it turned out that she did indeed have a skull fracture. As best as we could figure out, it must have resulted from the fall off the changing table, at this point a week and a half in the past.

This left open the question of what, if anything, to do next. It turns out that there's not much that can be done about a skull fracture itself, other than giving the body time to heal itself. The danger comes in if the brain underneath is damaged -- either by the initial trauma itself, by a piece of bone pressing in on the brain, or by blood or other fluids building up inside the skull and putting pressure on the brain. The lack of symptoms seemed to suggest that none of these we going on, but the doctor wanted confirmation from someone with more experience dealing with toddler skull fractures, so he sent us down to Children's Hospital downtown to have them look at the x-rays and determine if a CAT scan was needed.

The specialist at Children's was able to fill in some basic questions that had built up:

- A skull fracture can result from a comparatively minor fall, one of his sons had also had a skull fracture from falling off a changing table.

- Even if it is a simple linear fracture (meaning there's a line of fracture but neither piece of bone is depressed) as the blood built up under the scalp (which is what forms the soft lump) drains and clots it can feel as if there are dips and bumps under the lump.

Once the radiologists finished looking at the x-rays that had already been taken, they were concerned that it looked like the two sides of the fracture were slightly out of alignment, which if it was causing pressure or bleeding on the brain could necessitate some kind of surgery to realign the bones. They wanted to do a CAT scan. Knowing that by this point we were going to have passed our deductible on the insurance anyway, we agreed to the CAT scan, but were seriously hesitant about the idea of signing up for skull surgergy on an apparently healthy child. If it came to that, we were going to have a lot of questions first.

Fortunately, Pidge was eminently calm as they wrapped her up like a papoose for her CAT scan. Her little face peering out of the restraints, with her yellow pacifier quietly bobbing up and down, was so incongruous in the room full of technology that I wished I could take a picture of her, but it was a "no cell phones" room.

The result of this was, thankfully, anti-climax. The CAT scan revealed that the bones of her skull were aligned enough that no intervention was necessary, and it made clear that there were no buildups of blood or fluid inside the skull. We had a very healthy (if thoroughly scanned) girl with a skull fracture, and were enjoined once again to watch out for vomitting, loss of balance, loss of consciousness, etc.


- A comparatively minor fall can in fact cause a skull fracture.
- A soft lump does indeed often indicate a skull fracture beneath.
- But, a skull fracture can turn out to require essentially no treatment, so long as the brain isn't being put under pressure and the bones are aligned to heal properly.
- As the lump over even such a harmless fracture goes down, it can feel like are all sorts of depressions or lumps on the skull, but as the blood continues to clear away these go away.

Pidge continues to toddle around happily, unconcerned by it all.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Lest Anyone Should Think It's Just Muslims and Jews Who Can Get A Bit Crazy About the Holy Land

Monsignor Charles Pope writes on the Archdiocese of Washington blog about his own experiences of tensions and near violence from and among Orthodox clergy over proper sharing of the holy sites in the Holy Land, in light of the recent spectacle of Greek and Armenian Orthodox priests and monks beating each other with brooms in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Music for Angelico

Per Angelico's request, here are some carols.

The Wexford Carol (bell courtesy of Eleanor):
The Coventry Carol, with outtakes:

WWII-era? Well, it's a cappella, anyway. Sh-Boom:

And for good measure, my brother Will's funky guitar on Embraceable You:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Return of Anna

Happiness is having all six siblings in the same house.

And here's the sort of thing that happens when we all get together: music breaks out. Here's the famous Anna Egan singing Lied Der Braut at 1 AM.

Featuring Pidge and her expressions.

Six of us, plus my brother-in-law and his twin. There will be Irish music and Christmas music and standards and my brother singing "Don't Stop Believing" in a very creditable falsetto.  Put in a request, and maybe we'll record it and post it for you.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

To The Man Without Morals

Via audio book, I've been reading the second volume of William Manchester's magisterial biography of Churchill, The Last Lion, (I finished the first volume a few weeks ago) and am thus working through the lead up to World War II.

There was an evocative little snippet that I heard the other day in which British Lord Halifax went on a diplomatic visit to Hitler's Berchtesgaden retreat in 1937 to discuss various issues. Over dinner, Halifax's tenure as Viceroy of India came up, and in reference to the then current troubles relating to the British rule there, Hitler advised that the solution was simple, "Shoot Gandhi!"

Manchester reports that Halifax took this as a joke, and related it to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on his return as such, to good effect. With the benefit of hindsight informing Hitler's character, it seems fairly clear that the suggestion was probably meant quite seriously -- though he may well have assumed that the British hadn't the stomach to follow through on such advice.

Whether in the civic or the personal sphere, basic guardrails of moral acceptability ("You just don't do that!") can seem like boundaries of reality -- until they aren't.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

One Horse Open Sleigh

I'm not generally a fan of "Jingle Bells", but this version (going under the title "One Horse Open Sleigh", under which the song was originally published in 1850) I have always really loved. Sadly, it's hard to get hold of. It appeared on an album entitled A Victorian Christmas by the Robert DeCormier Singers and Ensemble back in 1984, and it is currently out of print. Some used copies are at times available on Amazon, but they can be pricey. (According to the above link, there are currently none below $20.)

However, it seems sad not to have such a good version available, so I've ventured to put it up on YouTube, hoping that this somehow constitutes fair use since there's no way to currently buy the album in a way that benefits the artists.

Enjoy. And a Merry Christmas to all our readers.

"...All occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons."

From a sermon of John Donne, Christmas Day 1624.
God made Sun and Moon to distinguish seasons, and day, and night, and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons: But God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies; In paradise, the fruits were ripe, the first minute, and in heaven it is alwaies Autumne, his mercies are ever in their maturity. We ask panem quotidianum, our daily bread, and God never sayes you should have come yesterday, he never sayes you must againe to morrow, but to day if you will hear heare his voice, to day he will heare you. If some King of the earth have so large an extent of Dominion, in North, and South, as that he hath Winter and Summer together in his Dominions, so large an extent East and West, as that he hath day and night together in his Dominions, much more hath God mercy and judgement together: He brought light out of darknesse, not out of a lesser light; he can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the wayes of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, though have been benighted till now, wintred and frozen, clouded and eclypsed, damped and benummed, smothered and stupefied till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the Sun at noon to illustrate all shadowes, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons.
May God abundantly bless your Christmas season with his innumerable mercies.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Giveaway Winner!

And the winner of The Years With Ross by James Thurber is:


I wish I could send something to everyone who entered, but as I haven't even sent a Christmas card to my grandmother yet, I can but blow good wishes your way. (Andy, I gave the hat a special shake in honor of Jordana's youngest, but it didn't cooperate).

There are plenty more oddball or esoteric tomes that we inherited from the former owners, so stay tuned. I think we'll have more giveaways in the future.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Christmas Music Post, Radio Version

The good, the bad, and the random from the girls' favorite easy listening station, which has been playing Christmas music since before Thanksgiving, I kid you not.

Here's what I like this year: Michael Buble singing Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You". I can't stand the original, maybe because Mariah sings it, and she can't leave the vocal acrobatics alone long enough for anyone to hear the sound of her voice. But Michael Buble transforms it into something I actually want to listen to, again and again.


 Carrie Underwood and her Christmas music seem to be all over the radio these days. It could be that she has a pretty voice, but pop-style belting seems an odd choice for some of the more classical carols.


Here, Carrie, let a master show you how to lilt a carol. Allison Krause sings the Wexford Carol, with Yo Yo Ma.

Josh Groban has a fine voice, and I appreciate listening to someone with good training, but I'm saddened that he's whoring out his talent by singing sugar-laced dreck like this "Believe" song. Yes, I know it's from the movie Polar Express, but I only heard it this year, and I barely restrained myself from shouting, "What the hell?" in front of my children.

It's too bad, because he seems like a genuinely funny guy, as evidenced by his send-ups of his own persona. Here he is, hosting an episode of a British music game show. (I honestly do not remember how much content is in this video, but it's late-night BBC, so be warned.)

And finally, for those of you who need to kick it like it's 1987, here's RUN-DMC with "Christmas in Hollis" (h/t to the Korrectiv Office Party playlist).

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Vader, Did You Know?

I really don't know what I'd do if the internet disappeared. Between a nasty sinus headache and trying to read my novel on hardcopy, the internet is the only thing keeping me awake. It keeps me awake because it amuses me. Youtube amuses me. Here's what I mean.


 With apologies to anyone who likes the original song more than I do.

"Whatever would you DO if the internet were to disappear?"

Wondermark is reminding me of my complaints about the social effects of Youtube.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Do Greeks Work Harder Than Germans?

Matt Yglasias has a piece in Slate attempting to counter the "if the Euro is going to work, Greeks are going to have to learn to work hard like Germans" line of thinking.
It’s true that Germans and Greeks work very different amounts, but not in the way you expect. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average German worker put in 1,429 hours on the job in 2008. The average Greek worker put in 2,120 hours. In Spain, the average worker puts in 1,647 hours. In Italy, 1,802. The Dutch, by contrast, outdo even their Teutonic brethren in laziness, working a staggeringly low 1,389 hours per year.

If you recheck your anecdata after looking up the numbers, you’ll recall that on that last trip to Florence or Barcelona you were struck by the huge number of German (or maybe they were Dutch or Danish) tourists around everywhere.

The truth is that countries aren’t rich because their people work hard. When people are poor, that’s when they work hard. Platitudes aside, it takes considerably more “effort” to be a rice farmer or to move sofas for a living than to be a New York Times columnist. It’s true that all else being equal a person can often raise his income by raising his work rate, but it’s completely backward to suggest that extraordinary feats of effort are the way individuals or countries get to the top of the ladder. On the national level the reverse happens—the richer Germans get, the less they work.

Closer to the mark is the observation that Germans (like the Dutch and the Austrians) are thrifty, net savers who consume less than they produce and therefore export more than they import.

Even if there is some sense in which Germany’s trade surplus and attendant thrift is admirable, it simply isn’t possible for all countries to emulate Germany and export more than they import. Your exports are my imports. Your saving is my borrowing. Your assets are my debts. Living within one’s means certainly sounds like a good idea, but it’s not really advice that everyone can take. If every European country strives to reduce government and private borrowing simultaneously, a severe recession and steep decline in output is the only possible outcome.
The statistics Yglasias is referencing are from the OECD and can be found here. (Just select the country you want to view and scroll down about two thirds of the way.)

I think that, first off, he's probably engaging in a bit of statistical malpractice. The data being cited here is based on a household survey of all workers, both part time and full time, so this doesn't just tell you about how many hours the average full time worker works in a week, and how much vacation they take, but also how many people are working full time versus how many are working part time. By that point, I have to think it's a somewhat un-useful measure. And the survey produces some very odd results. For instance, this shows the only two countries in which people on average work more hours than Greece as being Chile and South Korea. While notoriously slacking Japan logs only 1772 hours per year and the US only 1792. Something here just doesn't smell right to me, given what I've read about standard full time work weeks and vacation hours in these various countries.

But leaving that aside, it strikes me that there are a couple of interesting lessons which can be drawn out of here -- though none of them are Yglasias' apparent conviction that Greece is somehow more economically deserving and Germany is exerting some sort of unfair advantage over them.

Being Poor Often Does Mean Working Harder
While the common place that working hard is a good way to improve your lot, this certainly doesn't mean that people who make less don't work hard. Many comparatively low paid jobs are absolutely back breaking. Here I am, after all, composing this post off and on during free scraps of time during my workday, while sitting comfortably at a desk with my cup of coffee and my MP3 player within reach. You can bet that someone who picks fruit all day or cleans toilets or frames houses is a lot more tired at the end of the work day than I am. Many of the world's poorest people in this day and age live by small plot subsistence farming, using tools that haven't changed much in hundreds of years. Unquestionably, that is a very hard life. So if those people are poor, it's certainly not because they aren't working hard.

Value Is Created By What You Get Done, Not How Long You Do It
Let's think about that farming example for a minute. Take a look at these two pictures:

The farmer in the first picture is doubtless working much harder. However, the farmers in the second picture are making a lot more money. Why? Because the technology and work methods they are using mean that at the end of a day's work, they will have far more grain to show for their work. Their productivity is higher. So assuming that grain is itself something which people value about the same no matter who they buy it from, the modern farmers are going to make far more money than the traditional farmers, even while doing less work.

Typically, the amount that someone is paid for doing some sort of work is measured by how much other people value the product of that work. This relates not only to questions of productivity, but of the relative value of the things being produced. If someone works ten hours a day selling tourist postcards for 0,20€ each, that person is likely to make less money than someone who spends seven hours a day assembling Volkswagens that will be sold for $30,000 each, even if the former is putting in more hours. It's not just a matter of how much effort someone puts in, but of how much other people are willing to pay for the product of that labor. The amount that people are willing to pay for the product of an hour's auto assembling is more than the amount they're willing to pay for an hour's postcard selling. It's not just a matter of how hard or skilled the work is, but also how much people need a car (and how much they value a good one over a bad one) compared to how much they need postcards.

There are a host of reasons why Germany is a wealthier country than Greece, but at root, one of the most basic is that Germany produces a total output of goods and services per capita which people value significantly above the per capita output of goods and services which Greece produces. "Germans work harder than Greeks" may not be the clearest way to express that, but it does come rather closer to the truth than implying that it is rather the result of Germans just happening to save a bit more and to have got to the export table first and gobbled up all the export surplus before Greece arrived on the scene.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Giveaway: The Years With Ross, by James Thurber

Merry Christmas, gentle readers!

I've long wanted to have a blog giveaway with a inherited book from our library, and I think I've found the right volume for the purpose: The Years With Ross, by James Thurber.

Harold Wallace Ross was the founding editor of the New Yorker, and, if Thurber is to believed, a Character of outsized contradictions. Swearing came as naturally to him as breathing, yet he was alarmed and bashful in the presence of women, a sex he feared (and yet his marriages numbered three). He apparently couldn't bear the company of young women, whom he judged to be flighty temptresses.
"I want you to fire So-and-so," he said, changing the object, but not the subject, of his wrath. So-and-so was a young woman, long since in heaven with the angels, who wrote one of the back-of-the-book departments. "She makes me nervous," Ross said. "Last night, at Tony's, she was damn near sitting in the lap of the man she was with." It happened that I had been at Tony's the night before, too, and had seen the couple, sitting and drinking and talking like any other couple in Tony's, and I told Ross that. Then he came out with one of his accusations that were pure, patented Ross. "They were talking in awful goddam low tones," he said. It wasn't often that I laughed in the inner sanctum in those first months, but that was too much for me. Then I said, "Don't you know your Shakespeare: Her voice was ever gentle and awful goddam low, an excellent thing in woman?" Ross turned away so that I couldn't see his grin, but his torso had one of those brief spasmodic upheavals that so often served as a sign of his amusement in the art meeting when he looked at a drawing he thought was really funny. When he turned around he was scowling. "Goddam it, Thurber, don't quote things at me," he said. The firing mood was gone.
He ran the New Yorker almost by sheer force of his personality, but was so financially oblivious that he had $71,000 stolen right under his nose by an unscrupulous assistant. He had both an eye for talent, and a gift for driving it from his magazine through overwork. In the early years of the New Yorker, Ross, Thurber, and E.B. White wrote much of the magazine themselves, and the book is chockfull of big names of mid-century American literature: Noel Coward, Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufmann, Henry Luce, H.L Mencken, and, a bit incongruously, the Marx Brothers. Here's Dorothy Parker making an appearance in the magazine's early days.
Meanwhile, the New Yorker kept going downhill. From an original runoff of fifteen thousand copies in February, its circulation fell to a pernicious-anemia low of twenty-seven hundred copies in August. One evening, during that summer of Harold Ross's greatest discontent, the harried editor ran into Dorothy Parker somewhere. "I thought you were coming into the office to write a piece last week," he said. "What happened?" Mrs. Parker turned upon him the eloquent magic of her dark and lovely eyes. "Somebody was using the pencil," she explained sorrowfully.
Ross, worn down by cancer, died on the operating table a month after his fifty-ninth birthday. The Years With Ross grew out of a series of articles Thurber wrote for the Atlantic Monthly.

Want a chance to read more wry Thurberian wit? Leave a comment on this post (and don't be anonymous!), and on Christmas Eve we'll toss all the commenter names into a hat and draw a lucky winner. This is one of the few uninscribed volumes of the inherited books -- the previous owners of the house were fond of putting names and dates into their books -- so we'll even inscribe it, if desired.

Bonne chance!

Three Hundred Words

It's time now to rectify a great error: I've added Christopher's Three Hundred Words blog to the blogroll. Christopher, whom I had the pleasure to meet once in Austin, has the gift of making little-known details of historical incidents come to life in the short space of -- wait for it -- three hundred words. Here's a sample.

Henry stood outside of his rented Richmond home staring at the approaching wagon. He’d had time to consider this moment for some time but now that it was upon him, his mind drew blank. The tears that had left their tracks on his cheeks were gone and his mouth was dry and numb, unable to form the words he’d wanted to say even if the words had come. 

He stepped out into the road as the wagon passed slowly by. In the back, covered with a canvas awning, sat a pregnant woman and three children, all in chains and crying. Henry reached out and grasped the woman’s hand and walked beside them until the pace of the wagon quickened. He remained motionless in the middle of the street as the faces peering back at him grew smaller and smaller. 

“Out of the way, slave!” 

Henry narrowly avoided the second wagon coming from behind and he felt the hot breath of the horse team on his neck. He looked up blankly at the driver. It was the Methodist minister who’d purchased his wife of twelve years, along with their children, for work in the swamps of North Carolina. The minister leaned over and spoke down to him calmly. 

“Don’t pout; you’re permitted to find another wife...” 

Twenty-five years later, Henry was living the good life. He’d become a successful author, speaker, and showman in England – as a magician. He worked hard to refine his act and the crowds that came to see him as the “African Prince” had their favorite tricks and would call them out to him at each show. But Henry Brown’s best trick, he’d only performed once – on March 23, 1849, when he stuffed himself into a 3’ x 2’ box and express-mailed himself to freedom in Philadelphia. 

 I'd heard the story of the slave who mailed himself to freedom, but I never knew any of the rest of the story.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Boiler, in photos

Heat, my darlings! Precious heat!

In case anyone has been wondering: here is a boiler. The old boiler. It doesn't look like much, but by gum, we missed it when it wasn't doing anything.

This is the interior of the burned-out boiler. It wasn't particularly charred, but you can see the quantities of rust. We are told that the previous owner must have skimped spectacularly on maintenance, as the old thing hadn't been cleaned out in ages. Apparently the fire was caused not by the cracked heat converter, but because the valve that measured the silt and gunk in the system was so clogged up that the automatic shut-off failed. When that happened, the burners kept running until the system became so overheated that it caught fire.

The interior of the new boiler -- much the same as the old boiler, but with 100% less fail. A boiler, it seems, consists of a series of large interlocking plates through which a large pipe runs. The pipe, I presume, carries the steam to the radiators? Don't be jealous of my intense technical knowledge.

Here we see the turbocharged burner. Each pipe has dozens of gas jets.

The old boiler, in pieces. You can see the plates and the hole for the pipe. Note the extensive rust. Note also the charming crack in my kitchen window. This house has character, in spades.

The new boiler assembled. It's less than half the size of Cthulu, the old coal-fired boiler. Cthulu was never moved out because it's too big to get out of the basement.

The lovely pot was in place for the purposes of flushing out the radiator system. Several buckets of junk were cleared from the pipes; the repairman was appalled. It's pretty obvious that the previous owner had  let the system languish pretty disgracefully. The inspector should have noted the problems with the boiler before we moved in (less than a year ago, still), but I guess not everyone can be an expert in PREVENTING EXPENSIVE BOILER FIRES. The little valve over the pot allows us to flush the system ourselves once a month; the intense steam occasioned by flipping the valve means that no children set foot in the basement until we can cordon off this area in a very secure fashion.

On the plus side: the whole heating system is likely to run far more efficiently now. The radiators get much hotter these days. Jack has already learned not to sit on the one in the living room to toast his bottom.

And did I mention we have heat?

The Deification of Political Opinion

Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic is discussing the legacy of Christopher Hitchens and the reactions to his death by various commentators, including discussion of whether "not speaking ill of the dead" should apply to public figures. I was struck by this quote of a quote:
As Cook put it: "it must not be forgotten in mourning him that he got the single most consequential decision in his life horrifically, petulantly wrong"
Is this someone being rather hard on Hitchen's strident atheism, which went to extremes such as loudly mocking Mother Teresa and her work in the most excessive and vulgar terms? Is some health nut going after his heavy smoking and binge drinking? Is some woman upset by the way his literary bad boy persona spilled over into his relationships? No, the topic is Hitchen's opinion on the Iraq War:
indeed: "People make mistakes. What's horrible about Hitchens' ardor for the invasion of Iraq is that he clung to it long after it became clear that a grotesque error had been made..."
I could see someone arguing that the Iraq War was the "single most consequential decision" in President Bush's life, or Dick Cheney's life, or even that of some major military figure. But Hitchen's was a literary and opinion journalist. That his thoughts on the Iraq War could somehow end up being the most "consequential" in his life suggests a view in which simply having a political opinion on some issue of the day is more important in one's life than anything one actually does.

This seems like an increasingly common way of thinking. As people decide that they are "basically good people" and banish morality from the bedroom, the living room, and the board room, they come to see morality as being the alignment with larger groups on the big issues of the day. Only the scrupulous worry about the morality of the mundane. Instead, morality is determined by how one addresses the big capitalized phrases of the moment: the War on Terror, Poverty, Inequality, Gay Rights, the Environment, etc.

This, it seems to me, couldn't be more backwards. Sure, what one thinks on various matters of the day is indicative of one's moral and personal choices, but the most consequential decisions of our lives are those we make about how we treat those around us on a day in and day out basis -- and whether we accept as the ruler and guide of those decisions our Maker.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Pinker's Bogus Statistics in Better Angels of Our Nature

I have yet to read Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature, though I've read one or two of his articles expounding it's central thesis: that over time humans have become less violent.

I'd tend to think that the basic thesis is probably true, at least to the extent that we consider this as personal, physical violence. Humanity has become more affluent over the centuries, and in general more affluent people are engage in personal violence less. Further (and this Pinker does not seem to take into account) European/Western culture has become increasingly dominant the world over, and that brings with it a bit of vestigial Christianity and Christianity's opposition to revenge and needless violence.

However, while Pinker's central point seems to have some amount of validity, he seems to have engaged in a fair amount of "too good to check" acceptance of very shoddy figures in support of his thesis. Humphrey Clarke of Quodlibeta has been doing a very good series of posts digging into the bogus statistics, odd assumptions, and misrepresentations that crept into Pinker's work. His most recent highlights some particularly egregious claims. For instance:

The three founders of Protestantism, Luther, Calvin, and Henry VIII, had thousands of heretics were burned at the stake, as they and their followers took Jesus literally when he said, “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.”

Protestants certainly killed their share of heretics over the years, but as Humphrey points out, the three individuals that Pinker accuses can't really be accused of killing "thousands". More like "about a hundred". That distortion, however, is nothing compared to the next:

Christian conquistadors massacred and enslaved native Americans in vast numbers, and perhaps twenty million were killed in all (not counting unintentional epidemics) by the European settlement of the Americas.

However, not only is it hard to come up with any rational way of arriving at this number after you exclude diseases, but Pinker apparently arrived at this number simply by averaging some estimates provided on the website -- estimates which the author of the page states to be unreliable guesses on the part of the authors of the studies involved.

This may not undercut Pinker's basic thesis, but it does certainly call into question whether he had any business writing a book (rather than a brief essay or two) if his research was going to be so sketchy in places.

Mary, Did You Know?

 Perhaps I'm the wrong person to be weighing in on this, because I simply don't like the song very much, but I was pleased by Jake Tawney's line-by-line analysis of the pop worship anthem "Mary, Did You Know?" at Roma Locuta Est.
The Charge Mary, a faithful Jewish girl, was guilty of ignorance regarding the facts about the coming Messiah… her own Son, Jesus the Christ.
The Prosecution Your Honor, I call Mary to the stand.
Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary Yes, I did. The Old Testament foretold that “He alone stretches out the heavens and treads upon the crests of the sea.” (Job 9:8)
The Prosecution Did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Mary Yes, I did. The Lord told our prophets, “Say to those whose hearts are frightened: be strong, fear not! Here is your God, He comes with vindication; With divine recompense He comes to save you.” (Is 35:4)
The Prosecution Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new… that this child that you’ve delivered will soon deliver you?
Mary Yes I did. The angel Gabriel greeted me saying, “Hail, full of grace (kecharitomene – Lk 1:28),” so I knew I’d already been delivered, actually. I then told my cousin Elizabeth that, “My spirit rejoices in God, my savior.” (Lk 1:47)
It's a Protestant song, and so it's no surprise that it reflects an incomplete Marian understanding, but it does seem a bit twee to suggest that Mary might have been surprised by the divine origin of her son, considering the circumstances of His conception. ("How can this be, since I do not know man?")

(Darwin was recalling last night how in his Confirmation program, the teachers were very fond of the "They Didn't Know!" school of theological speculation. "What would Jesus think if he could have seen 2000 years into the future? He didn't know there would be this huge church!"

"Well, yes he did," the teenaged Darwin replied. "I mean, he is God."

There was silence. "Yes, but did he really know?" insisted the teacher.)

Melanie Bettinelli feels that Jake is taking things too seriously, though, and comes through with an interesting defense of the song.
The rhetorical questions don't really imply that Mary didn't know the answers. Sure, on a literal level they are directed to Mary; but I think the listener isn't so much meant to linger on the state of Mary's knowledge so much as be drawn toward contemplation of the mystery of Incarnation. It reminds me of the list of rhetorical questions in Pink Floyd's "Mother". The "mother" character isn't really the point of the song, we're not meant to think about who the mother is or what she will think or how she will answer; she's just a rhetorical device. 
The song moves the listener away from the iconic scene of the Mother and child in the stable and toward the rest of the Gospel story. In a post-Christian culture where most people never move beyond the Christmas card picture to think about Who that little baby is, this song tries to get them to do that. 
I don't think the song needs rebuttal because it isn't really making the claims you say it's making about Mary. The one detail that I agree is off is the line about "the child you've delivered would soon deliver you" and yet I can forgive the bad theology. First, because it's a pop song and not a hymn. Second, because the focus of the line is a play on the word "deliver" not on the "soon". And last but not least, Christ's sacrifice on the cross did happen in time, a specific moment that fell after the moment of Mary's conception, obviously. The grace of that act saved Mary outside of time. I think it is well within the bounds of poetic license to juxtapose the moments and is a bit tendentious to impose rigorous theological language and categories upon a song.
I don't think there can be any conflict, however, that this is not an appropriate song to play at Mass (and yes, I've heard it there), because it is not at all "tendentious to impose rigorous theological language" upon the words sung during the liturgy, especially when they conflict with a Catholic understanding of basic doctrines of the faith.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Critiques of Economics and Keeping Economics in its Place

Greg Mankiw links to a brief talk given by fellow Harvard professor Steve Marglin as part of an "Occupy Harvard" teach in. Marglin offers a course via the course called "Economics: A Critical Approach", and most of this talk is devoted to explaining why he thinks it's important to criticize "mainstream economics" and how Marglin was unable to get much of a hearing from his fellow members of the Economics Department at Harvard -- indeed he says he basically doesn't talk to them. He complains that the economics profession has become monolithic in accepting certain things, such as the efficacy of markets and the importance of efficiency, which he believes should not be so uncritically accepted, and as such that basic economics textbooks and courses (whether taught by "conservative" economists such as Mankiw or liberal ones such as Krugman) offer a univocal and uncritical examination of the issues at play.

There are actually two very different types of critique of mainstream economics which Marglin says that he deals with, though it's not clear from his talk whether he sees these types of critique as distinct. Firstly, there are what I would term economic critiques of "mainstream economics". One he mentions in particular is Keynes' critique of the idea that the normal state of an economy is full employment. I'm not clear that full employment is widely assumed to be a natural state for an economy these days -- certainly, economies with truly "full employment" are virtually never seen outside of very unusual circumstances. But this is definitely an economic critique. He also mentions more vaguely some "very good" Marxist critiques of economics. He doesn't go into detail as to what these are, but I would assume that these also deal with actual economics.

Most of the critiques he discusses, however, are what I would term moral critiques of economics. He talks about a critique from inequality -- as to whether a distribution of income in which some people have much and many others have little is right. He talks about an environmental critique -- as to whether means of growth are sustainable and environmentally just. He talks about Catholics Social Teaching (and though he doesn't state what this critique is, I assume he must then talk about the concept of the "universal destination of goods"), etc.

Now, although I imagine that Marglin and I see eye to eye on few political issues, I would very much agree that "what is economically efficient?" is very from from being the sum and total of thought one should give to many economic problems. Economics, to the extent that it is a study of how things work, doesn't answer questions of "what ought I to do". At best, it gives some idea of what happens in a system when you make some change. While it may tell you what the results of an action might be, it won't tell you whether the action (or the results) are good.

Personally, I'm fine with that. I don't see that economists have any especial ability to discern "the good", and so I'd be quite happy to have them stick to "what happens" and let people go off and discuss "what is 'the good'" via more established means of philosophy and theology. I like the idea of economics being a lesser science.

Marglin, however, seems to want to pull those questions of "ought" into economics itself and address them there. In this sense, his approach reminds me a bit of the Creationist or Intelligent Design objection that the physical and biological sciences don't give sufficient consideration to God and morality. For my part, while I can see the value of addressing economic critiques of mainstream economics in an economics course (though clearly, as Marglin concedes, one would actually need to learn the mainstream economics first before the critique) I don't think that addressing moral critiques of economics in an economics course is necessarily a good idea -- other than acknowledging that economics is not itself a full life guide to policy and action.

How We See The Other Side

Kyle links to a "pro-lifers are mean" comment by pro-choice advocate Amanda Marcotte and counters that while the behavior she describes is bad, it is not typical of what he has experienced among pro-lifers, that pro-lifers tend to be focused not on disdaining women (as Marcotte seems to think) but on protecting unborn human life.

Part of the problem, I think, in each side estimating the extent of unloving attitude present in the other is that people remember slights against their side far more viscerally than slights against the other.

I went to clinic prayer vigils exactly twice in my life -- protest is not something that my intellectual and emotional makeup makes me good at, regardless of the topic, and after spending those two occasions (as a college freshman at Steubenville curious about what it was all about) standing tensely over to one side with the police officers, watching what was going on but unable to really focus on praying at all, I figured it pretty clearly wasn't the place for me.

On both occasions I noted with chagrin that some of the non-University protesters were doing things I considered counterproductive: holding pictures of aborted babies, shouting "stop killing babies" at the clinic staff as they went in in the morning.

At the same time, what I remember so viscerally that I can feel my blood rising in an instant just thinking about it is the behavior of the "pro-choice escorts" who were there to make sure that sidewalk counselors didn't dissuade anyone from getting an abortion. They wore bright yellow t-shirts over their clothes (it was winter, so we were all bundled up) saying "Pro-Choice Escort" and their basic tactic whenever a sidewalk counselor got near someone was for one to throw herself between the counselor and the woman approaching the clinic, put her arms out in basketball blocking stance, and scream as loud as possible (so that the counselor couldn't get a word in) a stream of, "She doesn't want to talk to you! Get back! If you tough me it's an assault! Get back! Officer, he's touching me! [this almost invariably a lie which the police ignored] Get back! She doesn't want to talk to you, you pervert!" etc.

The sidewalk counselors were trained to take this with equanimity, but just watching it tended to wind me up. What I really remember, however, is a a middle aged pro-choice escort with close cropped grey hair who seemed to have appointed herself the protester taunter. She zeroed in on a student who showed voice and body language signs of being retarded and imitated him all morning, as he prayed or sang hymns with a guitar. She'd prance around singing back at him in a "retard voice" and every so often pause and say, "Your mother wishes she'd come here."

I imagine that if Marcotte had been at the same protest, she would have remembered the misbehaviors of some of the pro-life protesters much better than I do, and this woman she would remember not at all, or as a minor misbehavior in a trying situation. But to me, the pro-choice movement will always be that gray haired woman taunting an apparently disabled young man that his mother must wish that she had killed him.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Catholic Sexual Morality vs. Population Growth Fears

Quite some time ago, a reader asked my thoughts on a New York Times article focused on the "Seven Billionth Person" milestone. Most specifically, she asked:
I will say, that, as pro-life as I am, and as religious (I am currently practicing as a Lutheran although raised Catholic with a devout mother, to whom I am very close), time and time again, I come back to the realization that the way population biology works, is that there are boom and bust cycles, with the busts driven by intense competition for resources, die-off and predation.

I acknowledge and understand the terrible consequences of the Pill, as it renders females utterly available and at the mercy of the intense male libido, however I maintain that, within a committed marriage, non-abortive birth control methods make sense.

Also, to your point about the slowing of world birthrates, and the low birthrates in developed nations: true...but this has been achieved not ONLY via women's education and later marriage, but significantly through widespread contraceptive use and sadly, abortion. If you could show me a nation where the TFR hovered around 2.2, and all or most participants practiced NFP as the sole method of limiting births, then I might reconsider. Again (I have been on your site before as mary lee I think), I have no qualms whatsoever with any specific couple lovingly, and honestly deciding to bring many children into the world, but my view is shaped by an understanding that many other couples will contracept while others never marry. I live in a state with a European-style TFR (Massachusetts), so a large family here and there is a beautiful thing to see.

If you read the comments section for the article I sent you, you see an unrelenting hatred of people who have many (or even several) children. Many seem ill-informed and ignorant, but many others truly believe that abortion and contraception are absolutely necessary to keep our numbers in check.

Also...many Catholics I know urge early marriage, as a way to stop the ridiculous prolongation of adolescence in our culture through the twenties (something I agree with), and to place the intense erotic desire of the twenties where it belongs--in marriage--rather than let it drift through numerous premarital encounters.
It seems to me that there are at least two distinct questions here:

1) Is it necessary for us to engage in some sort of conscious fertility management in order to avoid a boom and die-off cycle?

2) If it is necessary for us to consciously manage our fertility in order to avoid this kind of boom and die-off cycle, is it possible for a society to do this using the means approved of by the Catholic Church, or is artificial birth control necessary?

I'll do my best to deal with each of these in turn.

In dealing with 1), I think it is worth pausing to consider whether the boom and die off phenomenon which we see among many animal populations is in fact something we see or are likely to see among humans. At first pass, it may seem odd to ask this. We know that a human population can reach a point in which it is unable to continue to exist on the resources it has available. If resources available to human populations are limited, wouldn't we expect to see humans subject to the same population boom and bust dynamics that other animals are?

I'm not sure, however, that this is as much the case as it would at first seem. We humans are far, far more adaptable than animals. While a gazelle can eat only certain plants, and live only within a certain range, we change our ranges and our food sources radically based on need. Since the '70s we have reached a point in which world food production significantly exceeds what would be needed to feed the entire population quite healthily -- famines tend to be the result of political manipulation (some people keeping others from getting food) or from crop or climate catastrophes in those areas of the world in which people are still living on the basis of subsistence agriculture rather than participating in the global food marketplace. The NY Times author refers to this obliquely when he observes that the Earth can in fact support a population even significantly larger than 7 Billion -- just not necessarily in what we in the US consider a "normal" lifestyle. Because people tend to move around or come up with new innovations when they come under resource pressure, it seems to me that it's particularly hard to sit down and form expectations about what our problems will be in 50 years or 100 years based on population growth. Back in 1900 or 1950, deciding that we needed to radically limit our fertility would have been one "out" from what looked like a lot of space and resource pressures. However, modern technologies and the green revolution have done far more to improve living standards across the world than simply assuring that people bred less would have done. And all those innovations were the result of people who were born. The greatest resource of all, for humanity, is human beings themselves.

Starting to deal with 2): The same consciousness and flexibility which makes it far easier for humans to move to other regions or seek other sources of food also renders the question of what is "conscious fertility management" much more difficult. In our current society, with artificial birth control as an assumption, we tend to think within the context of most people entering into sexual relationships around the time they reach cultural adulthood, and we assume the main question is whether those people will have lots of children or instead use birth control or abortion to avoid that. We assume that like animals we will virtually all become sexually active at a certain point in our physical developments, and that the question is simply whether we will, like them, continue to reproduce until we exceed our resources, or whether we will use artificial means to limit our fertility.

However, when we look back to times and places where human populations found themselves under serious resource pressure, what we see is not just changes in how people comport their sexual activities, but changes in a host of cultural norms and structures that determine whether people enter into sexual relationships at all. People often married later, and a lot more people didn't get married at all. This could mean going into the religious life, or some other occupation which ruled out marriage, but often it simply meant extended families in which unmarried siblings or uncles and aunts were part of the household on a long term basis. This is how a lot of Western European countries (particularly resource poor ones like Ireland) maintained fairly steady population for long periods of the late Medieval, Rennaissance and early Modern eras. It wasn't just that people died earlier and child mortatily was higher in these societies, people made life decisions about marraige based on their perceptions of their ability to support a family. I'm short of Googling time to uncover the reference again, but I seem to recall that Ireland pre 1800 was one of the more extreme examples with an average marriage age for women around 27 and less than 50% of reproductive age women being married at any given time (as in, of the woman at any given time between 15 and 40, less than 50% were married).

Now, I'm betting that none of this is sounding like much fun. Most of us want to get married, we want to have our own households, we want to have kids. I tend to be something of a technological optimist, and so I think that our ability to provide for ourselves with the resources available will tend to grow with our needs. However, I also think that our expectations and culture are shaped a lot by signals that we get from our circumstances without even thinking about it. Things that seem standard (whether living in a stand-alone house, driving a car, or eating a meat heavy diet) will start to seem unnecessary luxuries if our society really comes under resource pressure. Getting married young would start to seem a lot less attractrive, and living with your parents while working would start to seem a lot more attractive, if we really were strapped for the resources to maintain current lifestyles.

Given our flexibility and our inventiveness, I think that rather than maintaining an unsustainable lifestyle right up to some sort of population catastrophy, we'd tend to see our lifestyles and culture change due to resource pressures being felt and responded to.

How does all this relate to Catholic prohibitions of birth control and sterilization? Well, I think that we tend to adapt to circumstances using whatever tools we think of as available. If, culturally, we think of sterilization and contraception as available, and they may form part of a "solution" to certain pressures that seems more attractive than Catholic suggestions. However, I think that taking them off the table we're still very much able to adapt as individuals or as a society to circumstances of tightening resources.

Those of us living as Catholics in the modern, secular West have a slightly different problem. We face a society in which certain coping mechanisms (contraception, sterilization, abortion, cohabitation) are often used in order for people to balance their desire for pleasure and relationships with their desire to lead a certain kind of lifestyle. Our society as a whole is built around those assumptions, and so as a small minority those who eschew these find ourselves working uphill. Many in the Catholic subculture solve this disparity by simply having more children than the norm, and accepting the lifestyle trade-offs that involves. But I don't think that necessarily means that a culture in which most people were Catholics faithful to Church teaching would look like our culture, but with most people marrying young and having 4+ children. I think such a culture would look, overall, a lot different from ours, and would achieve its own balance between resources and population through other cultural means than "just add birth control".

Monday, December 12, 2011

La Guadalupana

In honor of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, here are Emmanuel and Alexander Acha, Mexican father and son pop stars, singing La Guadalupana in a very catchy arrangement. I've become a softy in my old age, but Juan Diego here chokes me up.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Eight Cold Whiny Takes

1. So here's what happened with the boiler. Several weeks ago, I woke up to a faint beeping and thought, "No wonder we have so much trouble getting up! The alarm is getting quieter and quieter." But it wasn't the alarm, so Darwin and I started scouting through the house, trying to find the source of the beeping. Turns out it was the fire alarm in the basement, which was full of smoke. Our basement is laid out like a labyrinth, so we had to wind our way around through the thickening smoke to find the source of the fire. And there was the boiler, not belching forth flames, but clearly ablaze inside. Darwin had the fire extinguisher, and was going to spray the thing, while I stood behind the wall in case of explosion, and begged, "Hon, don't spray that. Hon, move away. Darwin, come on, let's go upstairs. Hon, I'm going to call the fire department. Get away from the boiler, please." Reason prevailed, and I made my first 911 call ever.

2. In which we learned that everyone had to vacate the house. That meant waking up five sleepy children and my mom, just out of the hospital, and shuffling out to sit in the icy van while the firemen (whose sirens I heard while still on the phone with the 911 dispatcher) checked everything out. They had one of those nifty heat sensing guns which informed us that the center of the burning boiler was a cool 600 degrees. The fireman let Darwin try it. "See? You just aim it at something to get a read. Here, try it on the chief."

"Oh, sure," says Darwin. "There's an icy blue spot right in the center of his chest."

The chief rolls his eyes. "Somehow everyone who tries it knows that gag."

"Every office has the same jokes."

3. So now we're running space heaters, and living shut up in the back of the house like distressed nobility. The kitchen and breakfast room (where we do schoolwork) can close off, and so can the library. We heat two bedrooms, and they stay tolerable. Lots of blankets work well, but getting up in the morning is more difficult than usual.

4. We are not the 1%, nor yet the 5%, but we do pretty comfortably. However, having to rustle up umpteen thousand dollars for a new boiler is trying to anyone short of Donald Trump's economic level. We're at the awkward point right now where the money for the boiler has been procured and forked over, but we're not yet receiving the benefit of forking out an amount of money that would have more  than paid off my remaining college loans. So it's cold and we're in debt, and I'm not only reluctant to go stock up on sweaters at Lands' End, I'm reluctant to go stock up at Goodwill. Darwin thinks I'm overreacting a bit -- it's not like we're going to starve -- but we have had to make a strategic realignment of spending priorities. Like that twelve-seater van we were hoping to trade up to next year? Um, no.

5.  Living in an old house is fun! We tried to run a heater to the dining room last night, but the outlets in the dining room are unimproved, so we plugged the heater in in the hall. The result was that we blew the breaker (not just the fuse, no) -- the breaker on which resided the hall outlet that the library heater is plugged into. (We can't plug the heater in in the library for fear of frying the computer circuit.) So we're running an extension cord from the kitchen to the library, but people keep tripping over the cord and unplugging it.

6. Our house is a cool 4000 sq. ft., and right now all seven of us habit an area that's about the size of a two-bedroom apartment. We can, of course, walk through the frigid core of the house (48 degrees this morning, according to the thermostat in the dining room), but the warmish space is smallish. One gains a new appreciation for the pioneers, or anyone who lived before the advent of consistent heating. The one bathroom we're all using upstairs has a ceramic wall heater, but lately I've been loathe to subject any of the children to the rigors of the chilly bath.

7. But hey! The new boiler should arrive Monday, and then the guys just have to remove the old one and get the new one regulated. Darwin nearly had a fit on the phone the other day, when the manufacturer asked if it were important that they ship the boiler before they closed for a two-week inventory period. Alway something, friends! Always something.

8. Everyone is invited up to pat our boiler once it's up and running. Why should we keep such riches to ourselves? Heat for all!

Friday, December 09, 2011

Sebelius' Morning After Pill Decision: Politics or 'Anti-Science' Pro-Life

On Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled an expert panel at the FDA which had recommended allowing children under 17 to purchase the "morning after pill" Plan B One-Step over the counter. Under current regulations, Plan B is available without a prescription to people 17 and over, but those 16 and under would need a prescription in order to purchase it. The pill is designed to be taken within 72 hours after having "unprotected" sex and is claimed to reduce the chances of pregnancy from such sex from 1 in 20 to 1 in 40. It does this by preventing ovulation through a boost in hormones. Like other forms of hormonal birth control, it also serves to make the uterine lining more resistant to implantation by a fertilized egg, so even if ovulation does occur (or has already done so) it can make spontaneous miscarriage/abortion of the zygote far more likely. As such, it is often considered potentially a form of early abortion, though the frequency with which it acts through preventing a zygote from implanting (versus acting through preventing ovulation) is not known.

In prior policy moves in relation to Plan B, the Bush Administration had originally overruled a request that the pill be made available over the counter, but eventually allowed it for purchasers who were 18 or over. The Obama administration acted in 2009 to make Plan B available to those 17 and over, but until now has continued to require a prescription for those young. This means that the pill (which costs around $50 per dose) is generally held behind the pharmacy counter and provided without a presciption to those who show ID proving they are 17 or over.

This latest move on Plan B has many left leaning commentators up in arms, accusing the Obama Administration of ignoring 'science' and bowing to the interests of the religious right. James Fallows at The Atlantic compares the move to something one would expect from a Michelle Bachman administration and suggests Sibelius and Obama should be criticized accordingly. The New York Times says:
“Very few medications are this simple, convenient and safe,” said Dr. Kathleen Hill-Besinque, an assistant dean at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy.

Jeanne Monahan of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, said that making Plan B available to young women without a prescription would mean fewer chances that doctors would be able to save them from sexual exploitation, abuse and related diseases. “Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was right to reject the F.D.A. recommendation to make this potent drug available over the counter to young girls,” she said.

Kirsten Moore, president of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, said Ms. Sebelius had no credible scientific rationale for her decision. “We are outraged that this administration has let politics trump science,” she said.
It's probably inevitable that people will ask whether pro-lifers should consider this an olive branch from the Obama administration, though this seems hard to credit given Obama and Sibelius' hard line support of abortion in all circumstances and the recent moves by Sebelius' DHHS to punish the Catholic bishops for political support for moral causes by defunding Catholic run charitable programs.

The far more likely explanation is that this represents a basic political and cultural calculus on the part of the Obama administration as it nears reelection season. While on the cultural hard left, the only question may be a scientific one of whether Plan B will work as intended on children and young teens, for much of the country situations in which young teens would think they need to take Plan B have a moral dimension as well as a scientific one. While in some sectors of our society there is an almost magical belief that "birth control and abortion make anything better" (I actually read commenters on some articles suggesting this was a bad decision because it might force a 11 or 12 year old girl being sexually abused to have to talk to an adult about the fact she feared she needed Plan B, rather than being able to purchase it without trouble) a lot of people would react against Obama if Republicans were able to claim, "Obama wants your twelve year old daughter to be able to buy the Morning After Pill without talking to you or a doctor!" While most Americans are fine with birth control and probably accept as a given that their teens will eventually have sex outside of marriage, the idea of the government actively making it easier for their children to pursue birth control and abortions without talking to their parents is not widely popular among those parents.

As such, this can be seen as some mainstream positioning by the Obama administration. The cultural far left, after all, has no where else to turn to. Obama is reaching for the cultural center. If he wins, this decision may well get reconsidered in 2013.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Assuming Meaning

A while back, Jennifer Fulwiler wrote a piece about her conversion from atheism to Catholicism, in which she talked about how Christianity answered the question of why we act as if life has meaning when in a strictly materialist world it would appear not to. This post drew a fair amount of criticism from atheists (and some believers) who insisted that even if we assume that humans are strictly material, deterministic organisms (with free will, goodness, etc. being mental constructs/illusions) that doesn't mean that life isn't beautiful and full of meaning.  After all, we naturally act like life has meaning, why not just assume that life has meaning to the extent that we act like it does? (via Leah) Ross Douthat tries to put together a thought experiment to address this line of argument:
Suppose, by way of analogy, that a group of people find themselves conscripted into a World-War-I-type conflict — they’re thrown together in a platoon and stationed out in no man’s land, where over time a kind of miniature society gets created, with its own loves and hates, hope and joys, and of course its own grinding, life-threatening routines. Eventually, some people in the platoon begin to wonder about the point of it all: Why are they fighting, who are they fighting, what do they hope to gain, what awaits them at war’s end, will there ever be a war’s end, and for that matter are they even sure that they’re the good guys?

…At this point, one of the platoon’s more intellectually sophisticated members speaks up. He thinks his angst-ridden comrades are missing the point: Regardless of the larger context of the conflict, they know the war has meaning because they can’t stop acting like it has meaning. Even in their slough of despond, most of them don’t throw themselves on barbed wire or rush headlong into a wave of poison gas. (And the ones who do usually have something clinically wrong with them.)… Instead, given how much meaningfulness is immediately and obviously available — right here and right now, amid the rocket’s red glare and the bombs bursting in air — the desire to understand the war’s larger context is just a personal choice, with no necessary connection to the question of whether today’s battle is worth the fighting.
One of the things that strikes me about this exchange is the extent to which it underlines different modes of thinking. From Douthat and Fulwiler, we have have an essentially teleological mode of thinking, one in which the question "why is that?" and "what does that mean?" in some final sense are the most important human questions. The opposing view in this case is a functional view which seems to draw a lot from engineering and scientific methods of the more procedural sort: "Okay, look, we're not really sure why we should think any of this has meaning, but clearly we do so that's functionally good enough to go with for now. Let's get on with other stuff."

I'm somewhat flummoxed as to how one would find it remotely satisfying to address a question such as "meaning" from a strictly functional perspective. Though perhaps that just shows how much in the former camp I am. However prone to skepticism I am, and it's a straing that runs strongly in me, one of the things that makes Catholicism so much more intellectually satisfying to me than the alternative of agnosticism is that I don't see how one can answer questions like "why do we exist" and "what is our purpose" with a shrug of "Well, we seem to be here, so who cares."

Monday, December 05, 2011

I Remember MrsDarwin 7: Epic Edition

We are told that when Julius Caesar was 33, he wept at the sight of a bust of Alexander the Great, mourning that he had accomplished so much less than Alexander had by that age. Poor Julius. His problem was that he didn't have any lying friends to comfort him with mendacious tales of their world-famous exploits. Fortunately, I don't lack this consolation. So for this year's I Remember MrsDarwin challenge: Tell me what epic feats we accomplished before my 33rd birthday. Why should I have all the fun writing fiction?

As always, here are the rules:
If you read this, if your eyes are passing over this right now, even if we don't speak often, please post a comment with a COMPLETELY MADE UP AND FICTIONAL MEMORY OF YOU AND ME.
It can be anything you want--good or bad--BUT IT HAS TO BE FAKE.
When you're finished, post this paragraph on your blog and be surprised (or mortified) about what people DON'T ACTUALLY remember about you.
Brush up on six previous years of egregious falsehoods

Profiles in String 30: The End

With thanks to Darwin, who wanted to read it more than I wanted to write it sometimes, and to Nicole and Brandon for sharing their writing as well, so I didn't think I was the only crazy one.

Dedicated to Blanche Hodge and Elsie Bennett.


   The haze of the last week was beginning to clear as I journeyed home through the quiet morning streets, and so was the mental fog that had enveloped me since Emma’s death, or before. As I drove I whispered the story to myself, adding details and spinning words so that the threads became woven into a tapestry of experience, and the isolated events that had buffeted me over the past weeks were revealed as mere slubs in the texture of the fabric. Even Emma’s death seemed to trace out, however tortuously, from the tangled cords of her sickness. Only Martin stood out, a strange golden string knotted ostentatiously into the front of the tapestry and weaving a shining, incongruous, gorgeous line across the whole.
   I arrived home, unremarked, and sat on the edge of my bed. It was 8:00 -- I didn’t need breakfast, it was too early to call my parents, and I didn’t have the serenity to fall back asleep. I showered, got dressed, and went to Emma’s room. Jane Eyre was sitting on her bedside table. I dropped into her cozy chair and snuggled under the quilt that had been laying over the arm, and took up the book. At first I was conscious of the still house and the faint sounds of the neighborhood coming to life, but soon I was reading as I used to do before grades, before professors and classes and cold analysis; I was reading for the sheer joy of reading, pressing along too fast, skimming passages and having to go back; reading favorite bits aloud; absent-mindedly answering the anxious calls of my parents and oblivious to their presence once they arrived; skipping meals and mechanically gnawing the sandwich from the plate my exasperated mother banged down on the table next to me. I read until I finished, and when I finished I stretched my cramped limbs and looked with red and bleary eyes at the clock to discover that it was 3 AM. I staggered to my room and fell into bed with the weary satisfaction of one who has done a good day’s work.
   The next day, after Mass, my mother was firm. “You’ve had your day of rest,” she proclaimed, “so don’t even look at that book today. You can go through Emma’s closet for me and start sorting out what needs to be donated and what should be kept.” She parked a complex organizational system of boxes in the doorway to keep me from wandering out of the room.