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

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Past Expiration Date

Every so often, as a parent, you make the mistake of trying to get one last thing done even though it's past the kids' bed time. This evening I fell into this trap in attempt to make Julia (age 7) and Isabel (age 5) clean their room before bed. The following dialog ensued:
Darwin: Julia, you're the expert on fashion. You pick up all the clothes that are on the floor and see if they are dirty or clean. Clean clothes go in the appropriate dresser, dirty clothes go in the basket I'm taking down to wash.

Julia (angrily piling clothes in the basket): I'm good at telling if clothes look good, not if they're clean.

Isabel (perched on top of the radiator -- not picking up toys as directed -- and kicking her legs): Oh, that's easy. Just smell them, and if they smell disgusting, they're dirty.

Julia: That would be all of your clothes.

Isabel (indignant): No! ... Just two or three.
Bed time for Bonzo...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mercy On Us

I wanted to write a post about sterile ethical quandaries like the trolley problem, and contrast that with real-life situations in which people had to make horrible decisions. So I started Googling to see if I could turn up the article I read a few years ago, in which a man from Rwanda, a Hutu, was offered a choice by the mob: either kill his Tutsi wife, or the mob would kill his whole family. The wife begged him to kill her instead, and so, machete in hand, he chopped at her as she sobbed and implored him to do it quickly. His children saw the whole scene. Later, the family immigrated to Canada, where the man is still haunted by the screams of his dying wife.

I couldn't find the article. Instead I stumbled upon the account of a Tutsi woman who, during the 100 days of genocide in 1994, was raped in her own home by 500 men while her children cowered in the next room. Now I'm too sick at heart to write witty prose on the trolley problem. Jesus, have mercy.

Thought process started by Enbretheliel's post featuring a short film called Black Button.

Listening to Long Books

In the next couple days I should be wrapping up listening to War and Peace. The unabridged reading I'd found ran to about 60 hours, which covered two months of commuting. Though Tolstoy has his frustrations, I've been glad to get through War and Peace again, at a rather more leisurely pace than when reading it for college, and thus retaining more. And using the commute time to do it seems like an enjoyable way to pass time that would otherwise be spent listening to the news or some such.

I've been trying to decide what to listen to next. My criteria are basically:

- Sufficient length that the book fill most of a month (thus, at least 20 hours -- 1/3 the length of War and Peace)
- The sort of book that I feel like I ought to read or re-read, but am unlikely to find the time to get to any time soon
- I'm trying to avoid strictly fun-read books, of the sort I'd tear through by staying up late or reading all through a weekend, in that when in the past I've tried listening to that sort of page-turner-ish book, I've ended up ditching the audio book half way through and tearing through the rest in print where I can find out What Happens faster.
- Something that isn't such a prose masterwork (or something I'd want to flip around and take notes on) that I'd feel hampered by listening rather than reading.

Possibilities I've got in mind thus far are staying Russian by switching to Dostoevsky and listening to Crime and Punishment or The Idiot (both of which, I must confess, I've never read, though I read and loved Brothers Karamazov) or switching to Dickens and listening to Bleak House.

Does anyone have suggestions for other long books which might be suitable for listening? (At the rate of one a month, there should be plenty of room on the wish list.)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Augustine's Confessions: An Elusive Love

Book 3 finds Augustine studying in Carthage. On the personal front, the adult Augustine accuses his late-teen self of being consumed by lust, but he hasn't yet found a specific person to get into trouble with.
I had not yet fallen in love, but I was in love with the idea of it, and this feeling that something was missing made me despise myself for not being more anxious to satisfy the need. I began to look around for some object for my love, since I badly wanted to love something.
Of course, from his authorial vantage point, Augustine sees that what he was searching for in the most final sense was God. Lacking God to love, he sought about for other things -- sex first among them -- which he thought would fill that lack.

Yet even acknowledging that God is our deepest and ultimate need, there's also something that's very familiarly human about Augustine's phrasing here. He talks about searching for an object for the love that he has. It's not simply that Augustine wants to be loved by someone else. He feels himself full of some good, brimming over with something which he desires to give to someone else, if only he can find someone willing to value it. For all that Augustine is talking about what he sees as his sinful past, it strikes me that this underlines the way in which human yearnings can teach us virtue.

But it's certainly not all high-mindedness.
To love and to have my love returned was my heart's desire, and it would be all the sweeter if I could also enjoy the body of the one who loved me.
Also, on a sort of side note, I was struck by this brief passage:
I defied you even so far as to relish the thought of lust, and gratify it too, within the walls of your church during the celebration of your mysteries.
Yes, Augustine, was indulging in girl watching at mass. The saints are but men as we are, it seems. Perhaps I'm engaging in too much creative interpretation here, but reading that line I recalled that the girlfriend Augustine eventually settled down with for over a decade (and who bore his son, Adeodatus) was a catechumen (as he is too at this point, never having been baptized.) I can't help wondering if the girlfriend (or mistress, to use the term that shows up in most translations -- the relationship itself, as we shall see, has something of the ancient and something of the modern in it) who stuck with him so long, and went into a convent after they separated, was a girl he met at church. She seems to have had something of the "nice girl" about her, despite the irregularity of their relationship. I wonder if she was always overawed by Augustine's mental gymnastics in regard to faith, or if she, like Monica, was always quietly praying for his return to Christianity during his theological wanderings.

At this time, Augustine is searching in more ways than one. He's doing well as a rhetorician, which as with being a high-end lawyer today involves being able to argue persuasively for either side, and he moves in a fast set (where he's ashamed to admit he's not actually all that wild in his personal life) but God's light begins to shine into Augustine's life again from an unexpected quarter. He reads Hortensius by Cicero and is deeply affected by Cicero's recommendation that the reader study philosophy. Cicero, who lived in the first century B.C. during the last days of the Republic and was killed at the orders of the Second Triumvirate after the death of Julius Caesar, was one of the greatest Roman rhetoricians and politicians. In this regard, he would have been a key model for Augustine in professional life, and Cicero's speeches would have been a major area of study for him. However, Hortensius was a dialog (now lost) dealing with issues of philosophy -- an area in which Cicero was not a great original thinker but certainly a devoted enthusiast.

After reading Hortensius Augustine is determined to devote his mental powers to The Truth, but where is he to find it? Since Augustine is a catechumen (on the indefinite delay plan, as far as baptism goes) it occurs to him that the Bible might be a good place to start:
So I made up my mind to examine the holy Scriptures and see what kind of books they were. I discovered something that was at once beyond the understanding of the proud and hidden from the eyes of children. Its gait was humbe, but the heights it reached were sublime. It was enfolded in mysteries, and I was not the kind of man to enter into it or bow my head to follow where it led. But these were not the feelings I had when I first read the Scriptures. To me they seemed quite unworthy of comparison with the stately prose of Cicero, because I had too much conceit to accept their simplicity and not enough insight to penetrate their depths. It is surely true that as the child grows these books grow with him. But I was too proud to call myself a child. I was inflated with self-esteem, which made me think myself a great man.
Having tried to read the Bible without guidance, and found it less than he expected, Augustine falls in with a set more to his liking -- a group of young men who can talk all about God with all the same names that Christians and Jews apply, but who believe that they have got at the real truth which most Christians don't understand. They also have glib answers to questions like "Where did evil come from?" and "How could God have endorsed or allowed actions in the Old Testament which we now know are evil?" These are the Manicheans -- a dualist sect who believed in both a good and an evil principle (the evil god created the physical world) and who had, it seems, fused together Hellenistic and Mesopotamian mysticism and elements of Christianity to produce a cult which claimed to see deeper into the Scriptures than Christians did. In the late Roman world, this filled much the same place as some sort of Buddhist-Christian-Pagan-Kabbalah fusion might among today's cultural elite.

St. Monica is, of course, incredibly upset at the thought that her son has wandered into heresy, and prays fervently for his return. She also finds a bishop who is a convert from Manicheeism and begs him to argue with Augustine and set him straight. He advises her to continue praying and assures her that under the veneer of sophistication their teachings are so nonsensical that Augustine will eventually read and study enough to see through them and return to the true faith. She's granted a consolation which many a parent of present day lapsed Catholics yearns for -- a dream in which she is assured that Augustine will return to her faith. This reassures her (despite Augustine's glib attempt to argue the dream actually meant she would become a Manichean) though she does not slacken her praying.

The edition I'm reading is the Penguin Classics edition of Confessions, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin.

You can also access a full, modern translation of Augustine's Confessions by Alberet C. Outler online, courtesy of Fordham University

Monday, March 28, 2011

Left Out

I'm heading in to the last lap of War and Peace, in which we see how things turned out for everyone. One person for whom things do not turn out terribly well is Sonia, seen through the lens of her cousins' guilt here:
From the time of his marriage Sonya had lived in his house. Before that, Nicholas had told his wife all that had passed between himself and Sonya, blaming himself and commending her. He had asked Princess Mary to be gentle and kind to his cousin. She thoroughly realized the wrong he had done Sonya, felt herself to blame toward her, and imagined that her wealth had influenced Nicholas' choice. She could not find fault with Sonya in any way and tried to be fond of her, but often felt ill-will toward her which she could not overcome.

Once she had a talk with her friend Natasha about Sonya and about her own injustice toward her.

"You know," said Natasha, "you have read the Gospels a great deal—there is a passage in them that just fits Sonya."

"What?" asked Countess Mary, surprised.

"'To him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away.' You remember? She is one that hath not; why, I don't know. Perhaps she lacks egotism, I don't know, but from her is taken away, and everything has been taken away. Sometimes I am dreadfully sorry for her. Formerly I very much wanted Nicholas to marry her, but I always had a sort of presentiment that it would not come off. She is a sterile flower, you know—like some strawberry blossoms. Sometimes I am sorry for her, and sometimes I think she doesn't feel it as you or I would."

Though Countess Mary told Natasha that those words in the Gospel must be understood differently, yet looking at Sonya she agreed with Natasha's explanation. It really seemed that Sonya did not feel her position trying, and had grown quite reconciled to her lot as a sterile flower. She seemed to be fond not so much of individuals as of the family as a whole. Like a cat, she had attached herself not to the people but to the home. She waited on the old countess, petted and spoiled the children, was always ready to render the small services for which she had a gift, and all this was unconsciously accepted from her with insufficient gratitude.
What seems particularly sad here is that Sonia is so left out, by circumstances not her fault, that this is all she gets -- a few paragraphs near the end. There's a whole life sketched briefly here. And yet, it wouldn't be correct to say that a whole other novel could be written about Sonia, who is here written off so briefly by her relatives, because part of the injustice is that Sonia has been denied a story. She wouldn't be an interesting main character, because circumstances (having been the poor cousin that Nikolai fell in love with young, yet could not think of because it was only possible for him to marry someone with money) have given her a life in which not much happens. Condemned by circumstance to be a side character.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

It's Electric!

Darwin was going to go all high-falutin' here and post about Augustine, but real life has just been smokin' here.

When we moved in, we inherited not just vintage clothes in the attic and records in the closets, but a thirty-year-old stove, a venerable and hulking piece of junk. None of the burners was even. The timer did not work, but no matter; the equally old microwave, though a bit tetchy in the heating department, worked well as a timekeeper. Immediately the stove showed its evil genuis, as all the knobs for the burners were in reverse positions from our old unit, which meant that time and again we walked in to find the coffeepot sitting cold on the back burner while the front coil glowed maliciously. The tilt of the burners meant that omelets cooked unevenly and the pancakes singed. The stove was thorough in its catalog of inconveniences: the oven handle was not designed for the hanging of towels, although it was situated just across from the sink. We yearned to replace it with a plummy gas stove, but the time was not right. Not yet.

Last night after dinner, Darwin noticed smoke coming out of one of the burners and found that the inside of the oven was retaining an unusual amount of heat. To the vast delight of the children, who were pleased to congregate at our elbows, we took out the electric coil. We took out the round drip-pan thingie underneath. We lifted the cooktop. And there, through the disintegrating surface, smoke was drifting up from the no-man's land above the oven. So we broke out the the screwdriver and the crowbar and the flashlight and banished the yelpers from the room, and there nestled in the insulation, were glowing embers emitting acrid fumes of the sort that give one chemical headaches. And here all day I'd thought that the source of my headache was caffeine withdrawal (I gave up tea for Lent), but it turns out that I'm just too quick to dwell on my own privations.

And lo, we had a fire extinguisher on hand for perhaps the first time ever. The kids were clamoring at the doorway to see the fun as I bellowed at them (through the pounding in my head) to get back before the stove exploded and singed their faces. They squealed with delight. There were lights, and there was action, but one thing was missing.

"Darwin, get the camera!" I ordered. "Let's post this!"

One day we'll spring for a fancy gas stove, but this day Darwin went down to the scratch-n-dent warehouse and picked up one of the cheapest electric models on hand. It's a win-win situation: we spend less money, and anything, anything is better than the Smoking Stove of Wrath. And the warehouse said if we brought down the old stove, they'd give us twenty bucks for it, which is twenty dollars more than it was worth.

This morning I hauled out the old stove to the back porch, assisted only by a hammer and a jump rope. And nestled against the wall, where the stove used to lurk, I found a silver spoon. Truly, this house contains wonders.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

House as Home Rather Than Investment

We love our house. And our neighborhood. But every so often -- like the other night when the weather was so springy that we had to divest the children of their wheeled conveyances and make them take a walk with us around the nearest couple blocks -- we see the houses that were for sale when we bought ours that are still for sale and think: It's a good thing we're not planning to sell any time soon. This can be a little scary, given the uncertainly of the current economy.

However, I'm very much in sympathy with this Megan McArdle piece:
Although I may spend odd moments cruising through the listings to see what neighboring houses have sold for, my husband and I agree on one thing: “Who cares? We’re not going to sell,” he said the last time I told him about a comparable house that sold for less than ours.

We didn’t buy our house for an investment; that’s what our investments are for. Our house is to live in. We bought mostly because we wanted to commit to a place, and to make it over to suit us exactly. Landlords get testy when you rip out walls and replace the stove; besides, who wants to spend money installing custom blackout curtains only to have the place sold out from under you?

Before World War II, Americans recognized that housing was a consumption good, not a savings plan. But for a number of reasons—higher incomes, zoning restrictions that limited supply, and longer-term mortgages that enabled people to afford pricier homes—postwar housing prices started rising faster than inflation. When people began retiring on the proceeds of their homes, their children and grandchildren started thinking that was the natural order of things. But for most of history, housing has been a lousy investment: expensive to maintain and hard to sell.

On the other hand, houses have always made very good homes. And they still do. If we sold today, we might get less for the house than we paid for it. But to us, it’s still worth every penny.
Given that we're committed to staying pretty much within this area now we've got here, in order to remain close to family, and that we love our house, I would think of it much more as a consumption good than an investment good.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Augustine's Confessions: Sin for the Sake of Sin

In Book 2, we find Augustine (the character) as a teenager, while Augustine (the author) takes the opportunity to think about what makes us sin. The connection will be familiar to us all. Augustine talked about Original Sin in Book 1, that tendency which we can see even in very young children towards selfishness in which we can see the rooted tendency towards self over others which is at the root of sin. But that selfishness of childhood is largely unthinking. It is as we enter late childhood and early adolescence we attain the ability to think about sin in a way much like that of adults, but with the drives almost unique to adolescence. Augustine sees this in his past self and doesn't like what he sees:
For as I grew to manhood I was inflamed with desire for a surfeit of hell's pleasures. Foolhardy as I was, I ran wild with lust that was manifold and rank. In your eyes my beauty vanished and I was foul to the core, yet I was pleased with my own condition and anxious to be pleasing in the eyes of men.
In this book, the story of what's going on in young Augustine's life (versus his examination of the human condition) struck me, with the ways that it seemed both familiar and alien.

This book primarily deals with Augustine's 16th year. He's done well at school, but he's taking a year off from his studies because his father wants to send him off to a more advanced school of rhetoric (Augustine has shown a great deal of promise in school) but can't afford to send him yet. In Late Antiquity, rhetoric was something that could take you far. Augustine's father is not among the richest men in the town -- in modern terms Augustine's family is solidly middle class, though that was a smaller segment of the population then than now. But Augustine's abilities seemed to promise the chance he could rise to the big leagues. Think of this along the lines of Augustine's father thinking his son could make it into Harvard Law and make it as a top lawyer -- but he doesn't have the money to send him yet, so they're taking a year to save up.

This is also the year that adolescence hits Augustine full force. As an adult, looking back on the history of his soul, as it were, what strikes Augustine is not so much that this was the pause before he took a shot at an ivy league education and high powered career but rather that this is there year when lust took control of his life. And looking back, it seems to the adult Augustine that others were surprisingly unconcerned about this:
No one had anything but praise for my father who, despite his slender resources, was ready to provide his son with all that was needed to enable him to travel so far for the purpose of study. Many of our townspeople, far richer than my father, went to no such trouble for their children's sake. Yet this same father of mine took no trouble at all to see how I was growing in your sight or whether I was chaste or not....

One day in the public baths he saw the signs of active virility coming to life in me and this was enough to make him relish the thought of having grandchildren. He was happy to tell my mother about it, for his happiness was due to the intoxication which causes the world to forget you, its Creator, and to love the things you have created instead of loving you, because the world is drunk with the invisible wine of its own perverted, earthbound will. But in my mother's heart you had already begun to build your temple and laid the foundations of your holy dwelling, while my father was still a catechumen and a new one at that. So, in her piety, she became alarmed and apprehensive, and although I had not yet been baptized, she began to dread that I might follow in the crooked path of those who do not keep their eyes on you but turn their backs instead.... I remember well what her wishes were and how she most earnestly warned me not to commit fornication and above all not to seduce any man's wife.
However, Augustine sees a bit of worldliness even in Monica's concerns, for though she worries about her son's morals she does not encourage him to marry and thus give a lawful vent to his desires. She too is concerned that he focus on his studies and his career.
This was because she was afraid that the bonds of marriage might be a hindrance to my hopes for the future -- not of course the hope of the life to come, which she reposed in you, but my hopes of success at my studies. Both my parents were unduly eager for me to learn, my father because he gave next to not thoughts to you and only shallow thought to me, and my mother because she thought that the usual course of study would certainly not hinder me, but would even help me, in my approach to you.
Augustine the narrator seems to see some degree of fault with this -- though given what we as the reader 1600 years later know of Augustine's later career, one can't help seeing Monica's desire to see him complete his studies as being well-founded. And thought Augustine is justifiably regretful of some of his actions in the intervening years, his studies did, in the end, form him into the Father of the Church we know today. Encouraging a promising young man to get married at 16 would have been about as unusual in the 4th century as it would be today. From the sound of it, one gets the impression that Patricius took the approach that boys will be boys, while Monica prayed that her son would be a "good boy", yet considered it a normal and acceptable risk to put him on a good career path and expect him to find a way to put his hormones on hold for ten years. Questioning, as he does, the value of worldly success in general from his current vantage point, Augustine as the author gives these concerns less weight, but the actions of Patricius and Monica will sound familiar and sympathetic to any modern parent.

Of course, one can't write about Book 2 of Confessions without talking about pears, and the reflection on the attractions of sin which takes up more than half of the book.

One of the moral questions Augustine is trying to examine in this portion of the story of his life is what makes us want to sin. According to the Platonic tradition, one only ever desires something because it is good. Thus, if one wishes something bad, it is either because one imagines it to be good, or because it has some good in itself which we are wrong in loving only to the extent that we do so immoderately.

Yet often, we sin not out of desire for some concrete good thing, but rather out of the simple joy of transgression. To illustrate this, Augustine tells of an escapade during this year he spent at home:
There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night--having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was--a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden.
The pears were clearly not the object here because, as he restates several times in examining the act, the pears weren't even good pears -- the boys knew that tree produced pears that were hard and indigestible.

Thus, this is not, Augustine concludes, like those sins committed for some simple good, as when one steals something because one wants to have that thing. The joy he and the other boys experienced was the joy of breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules. This desire to be a law unto oneself and break rules for the sake of disobedience is an inversion of our desire for God. When we love God, we desire to follow His laws. However, when we want to break laws simply for the sake of breaking them, what we really want is to experience ourselves as the make of all laws -- as God. The excitement and enjoyment we feel in violating rules is the excitement promised by the serpent who said, "You will become like God."

The edition I'm reading is the Penguin Classics edition of Confessions, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin.

You can also access a full, modern translation of Augustine's Confessions by Alberet C. Outler online, courtesy of Fordham University

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Union Impressions: Rules vs. Work

All of the discussion in the Catholic blosphere, and the wider public square, about unions (and public employee unions in particular) has given me cause to think a bit about my attitude towards organized labor. There are a lot of rational political, economic and moral reasons I can give for why I don't like labor unions as they exist in the US, but as is so often the case with deeply held opinions, my most basic reaction to unions has a lot to do with my personal experiences relation to work and to unions. As such, it seemed like a good way to address the issue is through the lens of the experiences which have helped shape my opinion of unionization.

1. Most of my exposure to unions was through my father, who held a staff position at a community college for twenty-five years, retiring just a month before losing a multi-year battle with cancer. (In a state college, the major divide is between staff -- which includes basically everyone who is neither an instructor nor a manager -- and faculty, who are the actual instructors. Since he only had a bachelor's degree, Dad's position was classified as staff, and staff positions were represented by a state school employees union which is a member of the AFL-CIO.) The college was not unionized when Dad got his job, but it became a union shop half-way through his time there, via an election which he always wondered about the validity of. (Union members and non-union members were given different colored ballots, so it certainly would have been easy to cheat if someone had wanted to.) Not only were the union's politics diametrically opposed to my father's (he always used their "state issues" political mailing to decide how not to vote) but the union supported people for the college board of directors who hired a college president who eventually drove the college into the financial ditch, resulting in constant fear and occasional layoffs. His more daily frustration, however, was the effect of the union's vigorous protection of people who did not do their jobs well.

Key among these was the department secretary, who was supposed to support his department as well as another one. She was unquestionably a sweet and kind lady (and a loyal and enthusiastic union member) but she steadfastly refused to learn how to use a computer for anything other than her hour of reading the LA Times in her office every morning over coffee. She diligently went to the campus mail room, and occasionally did xeroxing, but the work of typing and formatting department schedules, announcements, tests, maintaining the mailing list -- in short, anything she could not do well with her electric typewriter and file drawers -- she simply insisted she could not do. The department could not get funding for another secretary, for the fairly logical reason that they already had her. And when attempts were made to pressure her to actually do her work, she successfully filed union grievances to the effect that she was being given a hostile work environment and unrealistic expectations.

So since Dad was the other person in the department who was staff rather than faculty, and because he wanted to see the department running successfully, most of the work the secretary should have been doing devolved on him. And since he already had a full work load running the planetarium, much of that work ended up happening on nights and weekend. (Unpaid, of course.)

Now, it's certainly true that if Dad too had filed union grievances, the union would have been happy to insist that he didn't have to do the department admin work either. But what they had no interest in was actually seeing that someone did do the work -- that things got done and the department functioned smoothly. Their job was the protect the person who wasn't doing the work, not to make sure the work got done. And so, since Dad cared about things working well, he got stuck with the extra work.

These other examples are briefer and much more minor, but this theme of caring about rules and rights over work continues.

2. As a teenager, when I was completing my Eagle Project for the Boy Scouts, I had to go down to a Park Service office in order to make a number of trail signs. The first task was to take a notebook full of text which had been approved by the naturalist who had planned the trail I was organizing the building of, and turn that text into a series of signs. There was an engraving machine that cut the text into sheets of plastic, which could then be mounted on poles, but my task was entirely non-mechanical: sitting at a computer and typing all of the text into a computer program which would then run the engraver. I showed up at 9:00 AM when the office opened, and one of the park rangers showed me into an office where the computer was and went off to do other things. And hour and a half later, he stuck his head in and announced, "Smoke break."

"I don't smoke," I said. "I'll just keep going." I hadn't seen anyone for the last hour-and-a-half, so it hardly seemed to matter if people were on break or not, and I wanted to get done so I could move on to the next thing.

"We fought for these breaks, everyone takes them," announced the ranger. "Come on. If you don't smoke, you can just sit around."

So I obediently went outside and sat around while one of two of the rangers smoked, and the rest stood around outside the building. After fifteen minutes, I was told we could go back in, and I returned to work.) An hour and a half later, I was called out for another smoke break. About an hour after that I was finished and told the rangers I had the file ready to go to the engraver. They looked at the clock.

"Well, it's only fifteen minutes till lunch, and the engraver will take longer to run than that. How about you wait till after lunch before we start the run."

So I waited. Breaks are sacred, it seems.

3. Early married life found MrsDarwin and I back in California, where she, with her fresh theater degree, was trying to get backstage work at a theater. MrsDarwin found an internship at a regional theater for the summer season (one of their plays, perhaps appropriately, was a revival of a 1930s piece of union propaganda called "Cradle will Rock"). The union which deals with theater jobs is called Equity, and like all unions they look after their own. Members of Equity have to be paid a certain amount per hour. A theater which is an Equity house can hire non-equity people, but they have to be unpaid interns (often, as in this case, paid a little under the table via audience tips or money from the director's pocket.)

But what struck me even more than the irony of an entity supposedly around to ensure just wages mandating that other workers not be paid was the rigidity of union rules. I recall one night when I was hanging around, waiting to watch the show from the light booth, and MrsDarwin was bustling around stage to re-set after the rehearsal and before the show.

"Hey, are you going backstage?" she asked an actor who was ambling by.


"Do you mind taking your prop" (it was on the stage right next to him) "back to the props table while you're going by."

"Can't. Equity rules."

(MrsDarwin would like the record to show that being new at the time, and not knowing all the Equity rules, she hadn't realized that actors are, by contract, not supposed to move props or scenery under any conditions. Coming from college and amateur theater where everyone works together on everything, this hadn't occurred to her. -- Myself, however, I've never been in a work environment where it would be unreasonable to ask someone to drop something off somewhere where he was going anyway. I thought he came off seeming like a total jerk.)

The theme which all of these (and many other anecdotes and experiences I've heard from others) seem to me to underline is one of putting rules above desire to actually see things get done and done right. My approach to work (probably learned from my father, as the first anecdote illustrates) has always been that everyone should pitch in out of a desire to see things get done and come out right. This has led me to usually be the one who's willing to stay late, to take on extra tasks outside my normal responsibilities, and to volunteer to learn new skills. It's a tendency that's served me well. Sure, it sometimes means giving your boss more than he's paying for -- for a while. But it also allows you to build skills and experience for free. This approach to learning on the job and expanding my skills is a lot of what I credit by career advancement over the last ten years to, and it's served me very well.

But more than that, at some deep and emotional level, if I'm going to put the work in to do something, I always want to see it done right. It's never just a, "They pay me to be here for a set number of hours with the clock punched, and after that, who cares," kind of thing. And so the idea of bargaining so that you can do less, or protecting workers who don't work, just feels very wrong to me. I won't work because I want to follow set rules and never be asked to do anything beyond those. I work for a paycheck, yes, but I also work for the satisfaction of seeing things done. And that always seems to mean thinking like an owner -- not thinking like a union member.

Here's an Inheritance I Would Support Taxing Heavily

This is for you, Joel.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nuclear Reactors in Japan

There's been a fair amount of worry the last couple days about the situation with several nuclear reactors which were hit by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The difficulty is, of course, that most reporters know nothing about nuclear energy or physics, and there is a tendency (in TV news in particular) to focus on whichever "experts" are most exciting. Combine that with the fact that when most people near the word "nuclear" they picture a mushroom cloud and it's easy to produce hysteria.

While the events at the Fukushima plant reactors are serious, they also underline how many layers of redundancy and safety measures are built into modern nuclear power plants. There's a good blog post by an MIT engineer (expanded and corrected by the Nuclear Science and Engineering department as MIT) which covers the basics of how this type of reactor works, what happened to the reactors at this plant which are having problems, and what the relevant dangers are. I'd strongly recommend this post over most mainstream media coverage. Members of the Nuclear Science and Engineering department have continued posting additional updates on the topic at this blog.

Augustine's Confessions: Growing Up Human

The second half of Book I (Chapters 7 to 20) deal with the earliest years of Augustine's life, starting with his infancy. One of the things I find kind of charming about this section is the approach Augustine brings to examining his earliest years:
I do not remember that early part of my life, O Lord, but I believe what other people have told me about it and from watching other babies I can conclude that I lived as they do. But, true though my conclusions may be, I do not like to think of that period as part of the same life I now lead, because it is dim and forgotten and, in this sense, it is no different from the time I spent in my mother's womb.
This is one of those fascinating things about Augustine. He's never just talking about himself and his memories, even if that is the theme which drives his narrative. He's perhaps more interested in the experience of being human, and of humanity in relation to God, than he is in telling us about his experiences in particular.

Of course, when Augustine thinks about the experience of being human, he immediately starts thinking about original sin, and some find him rather dour because of this. Augustine is one of the few people you'll find talking about infants sinning:
It can hardly be right for a child, even at that age, to cry for everything, including things which would harm him; to work himself into a tantrum against people older than himself and not required to obey him; and to try his best to strike and hurt others who know better than he does, including his own parents, when they do not give in to him and refuse to pander to whims which would only do him harm. This shows that, if babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength.
Read in isolation, this can sound rather cold and severe. Of course babies cry, they have no other way of making their needs known! But Augustine recognizes this, and indeed notes that people never blame or scold babies for being selfish, because of course they can be no other way. I think Augustine is trying to get at two things with his was of describing babies' actions here. First, he seeks to show us how naturally selfishness comes to us as human beings. When infants, we care for nothing but What We Want Right Now, and it is only gradually that we learn that other people may rightly not satisfy our every desire immediately. Second, Augustine is very deliberately drawing a comparison between how babies react to the world which to us seems so clearly understandable (and yet to them so cruel and unreasonable) and how we react to God. Just as a baby cries and strikes out at his parents when he doesn't get some toy or food that he thinks he desperately needs, so we strike out and cry out against God. And like the baby, our trials are very much rooted in the fact that we do not understand the world as God understands it, and so every trial seems strange and unaccountable.

Moving on into his boyhood, Augustine talks about his struggles with being made to learn Greek in school -- a section I remember with particular fondness and clarity because I spent a couple days in college working my way through chapters 13 and 14 in Latin. Augustine, who spoke Latin as a native, is talking about the difficulty he had in learning Greek, and specifically about how learning a foreign language from a grammar book is so completely different from the natural process of picking up a language from hearing it spoken around you. These days, of course, there's virtually no other way to learn how to read Augustine's language. Language changes, but being a schoolboy remains the same.

Augustine also speaks so movingly of the plight of the schoolboy, motivated primarily by the fear of being beaten, trying to conform himself to the seemingly arbitrary desires of the adult world that one almost pictures him sitting down with Rousseau for a chat -- except that for all his talk about infants sinning one gets the impression that Augustine actually likes children rather more than Rousseau did. Augustine's sympathy for his boyish rebellion against the wishes of his teachers comes not from some mistaken belief that children are naturally good, and that it is only society that corrupts them, but from the more balanced realization that while the process of civilizing children enough that they stop hitting others and taking their toys does impart a certain degree of real virtue, but that very much of what society considers virtue (which in Late Antiquity involved such skills as a thorough knowledge of the classics, the ability to argue persuasively in the law courts and in politics, knowing all the right people and respecting them for being "the right people", etc.) is in turn so much arbitrariness and self regard. Augustine's total focus on God and our final purpose causes him to see not only his won priorities as a boy as often being selfish but also those of society as often being mere vanity. If there's a bit of the rebel in Augustine, it is not because he wants to "do his own thing", but rather because he understands that conforming to God is of such infinitely greater value than conforming either to society's expectations or to his own will.

The edition I'm reading is the Penguin Classics edition of Confessions, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin.

You can also access a full, modern translation of Augustine's Confessions by Alberet C. Outler online, courtesy of Fordham University

Hating the Near and Loving the Far

At the risk of being all-books-all-the-time around here, (and really, if one is going to run risks, that's not a bad one to run, is it?) I can't this. I've been working through a lot of analysis at work lately, which involves long periods of sitting at my desk alone wrestling with Excel and Access, and to help stay on task I've been listening to John Cleese reading C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. It's probably been ten years since I read Screwtape, and I'd forgotten how quotable it is.

These two sections particularly struck me. The first about the tactic of getting the temptee to focus on loving those he doesn't actually know, while disliking those he actually interacts with on a daily basis.
[from Screwtape Letter #6]

As regards his more general attitude to the war, you must not rely too much on those feelings of hatred which the humans are so fond of discussing in Christian or anti-Christian periodicals. In his anguish, the patient can of course be encourage to revenge himself by some vindictive feelings directed towards the German leaders, and that is good so far as it goes, but it is usually a sort of melodramatic or mythical hatred directed against imaginary scapegoats. He's never met in real life. They are lay figures modeled on what he gets from the newspapers. The results of such fanciful hatred are often most disappointing. And of all humans, the English are, in this respect, the most deplorable milksops. They are creatures of that miserable sort who loudly proclaim that torture is too good for their enemies and then give tea and cigarettes to the first wounded German pilot who turns up at the back door. Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence as well as some malice in your patient's soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remove circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real, and the benevolence large imaginary.

There is no good at all inflaming his hatred of Germans if at the same time a pernicious habit of charity is growing up between him and his mother, his employer or the man he meets in the train.

Think of your man as a series of concentric circles: his will being the innermost, his intellect coming next, and finally his fantasy. You can hardly hope at once to exclude from all the circles everything that smells of the enemy, but you must keep on shoving all the virtues outward till they are finally located in the circle of fantasy, and all the desirable qualities inward into the will. It is only insofar as they reach the will and are there embodied in habits that the virtues are really fatal to us. (I don't, of course, mean what the patient mistakes for his will, the conscious fume and fret of resolutions and clenched teeth, but the real center, what the Enemy calls the Heart.) All sorts of virtues painted in the fantasy or approved by the intellect or even, in some measure, loved and admired, will not keep a man from our Father's house: indeed they may make him more amusing when he gets there.
It strikes me that this is a temptation which those of us who are particularly into politics are very much in danger of falling into. After all, we associate with the good guys, and we are in favor of lots of good things: the common good, freedom, democracy, all that great stuff. And certainly, I wouldn't say that one shouldn't be in favor of all these things. But it's terribly easy, once one knows one is on the "right side of history" to then go around despising half the people one deals with in daily life since, after all, they are on the "wrong side of history".

And as if that weren't enough cause to make sure one is careful with one's politics, the next letter zeroes in on the temptations of the Christian political activist in particular:
[from Screwtape Letter #7]

I had not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them. Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the "Cause" is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal. Even when the little group exists originally for the Enemy's own purposes, this remains true.

We want the Church to be small not only that fewer men may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity and the defensive self-righteousness of a secret society or a clique. The Church herself is, of course, heavily defended and we have never yet quite succeeded in giving her all the characteristics of a faction; but subordinate factions within her have often produced admirable results, from the parties of Paul and of Apollos at Corinth down to the High and Low parties in the Church of England.

If your patient can be induced to become a conscientious objector he will automatically find himself one of a small, vocal, organized, unpopular society, and the effects of this, on one so new to Christianity, will almost certainly be good. But only almost certainly. Has he had serious doubts about the lawfulness serving in a just war before this present war of serving began? Is he a man of great physical courage—so great that he will have no half-conscious misgivings about the real motives of his pacifism? Can he, when nearest to honesty (no human is ever very near), feel fully convinced that he actuated wholly by the desire to obey the Enemy? If he is that sort of man, his pacifism will probably not do us much good, and the Enemy will probably protect him from the usual consequences of belonging to a sect. Your best plan, in that case, would be to attempt a sudden, confused, emotional crisis from which he might emerge as an uneasy convert to patriotism. Such things can often be managed. But if he is the man I take him to be, try Pacifism.

But whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the "cause", in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favor of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours—and the more "religious" (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here.
And as an aside, John Cleese does a pretty brilliant job of reading Screwtape. It's not often one finds such a thing available free (though the quality of the recordings is low) and I'd strongly recommend it to anyone who has the time and interest.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Augustine's Confessions: Contemplating the Infinite

Book I of The Confessions seems to me to fall into two parts: Chapters 1-7 grapple with the very concept of an infinite and eternal God, while Chapters 8-20 discuss the human experience of growing up and attaining some degree of youthful self awareness. I'll cover this first half of the book today, and the second half tomorrow, so that each post can be relatively short.

Augustine sets out to tell the story of his own life in relation to and in relationship with God, and he opens the book by addressing God. Right here in Book I, Chapter 1 we run into one of the handful of quotes from Augustine that practically everyone has heard, whether or not they actually know it comes from him:
[T]hou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.
That restlessness will provide much of the matter for Augustine's story, but here he asks the more basic question of why an eternal and perfect God concerns himself with all too mortal and fallen humans:
How shall I call upon my God for aid, when the call I make is for my Lord and my God to come into myself? What place is there in me to which my God can come, what place that can receive the God who made heaven and earth?
This idea of God being in something while also being both infinite and the creator of all things is something which an inquiring mind must necessarily poke at, and Augustine pokes with a sense of imagination which seems, in some ways, oddly modern:
Do heaven and earth, then, contain the whole of you, since you fill them? Or, when once you have filled them, is some part of you left over because they are too small to hold you? If this is so, when you have filled heaven and earth, does that part of you which remains flow over into some other place? Or is it that you have no need to be contained in anything, because you contain all things in yourself and fill them by reason of the very fact that you contain them? For the things which you fill by containing them do not sustain and support you as a water-vessel supports the liquid that fills it. Even if they were broken into pieces, you would not flow out of them and away.
Clearly, this is not the sort of guy who'd have trouble with the mind games we have in modern physics -- ideas like the space of the universe expanding, or the universe itself (which is everything) having somewhere into which it is expanding. Yet Augustine isn't just playing games with the idea of space, and how God could be infinite yet in things, the creator yet in his creation. He's addressing a set of points which far too many modern thinkers (both Christian and skeptic) seem to have difficulty grasping.

If the universe appears to play out without any "gaps", does that mean that there's no evidence for God? That the physical laws explain everything? No, Augustine would tell you. Something occurring according to "natural laws" does not mean that hit happens without the need for God (as if God only touched creation once in a while when He stepped in to cause a miracle) but rather, what we call natural laws are the orderly playing out of God's plan for the function of the universe. The universe is not some separate thing, but rather is encompassed and contained by God.

Augustine is similarly fascinated by the concept of God's relationship with time as we experience it. As he considers that God knows and contains all of his past, and also his future, Augustine describes the "eternal now" in which God, as an eternal being, experiences all time as present rather than sequential:
For you are infinite and never change. In you 'today' never comes to an end: and yet our 'today' does come to an end in you, because time, as well as everything else, exists in you. If it did not, it would have no means of passing. And since your years never come to an end, for you are simply 'today'. The countless days of our lives and of our forefathers' lives have passed by within your 'today'. From it they have received their due measure of duration and their very existence. And so it will be with all the other days which are still to come. But you yourself are eternally the same. In your 'today' you will make all that is to exist tomorrow and thereafter, and in your 'today' you have made all that existed yesterday and for ever before.
How far God, seen through Augustine's eyes, is from the "old man up in the clouds" of whom people ask "how can he possibly know everything that is going on at once in the world, much less hear every prayer. Does he have secretaries?" Augustine sees God in a sort of mathematical grandeur. Infinite and eternal, God is in all things because all things are contained in Him, and God sees and knows all things at once, because as an eternal being He stretches infinitely before and infinitely after every temporal event. The entire temporal timeline, thus, contracts in on itself, with infinite stretches before and after it. All of cosmic history is a point of simultaneous existence, both created and perceived in the mind of God who is it's eternal Creator.

The edition I'm reading is the Penguin Classics edition of Confessions, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin.

You can also access a full, modern translation of Augustine's Confessions by Alberet C. Outler online, courtesy of Fordham University

Friday, March 11, 2011

Napoleon Founds the EU

Listening to War and Peace the other day, this bit struck me in that the justification for his invasion of Russia which Napoleon is described as giving is basically that he wanted to found a European Union:
Not only on that day, as he rode over the battlefield strewn with men killed and maimed (by his will as he believed), did he reckon as he looked at them how many Russians there were for each Frenchman and, deceiving himself, find reason for rejoicing in the calculation that there were five Russians for every Frenchman. Not on that day alone did he write in a letter to Paris that "the battle field was superb," because fifty thousand corpses lay there, but even on the island of St. Helena in the peaceful solitude where he said he intended to devote his leisure to an account of the great deeds he had done, he wrote:

The Russian war should have been the most popular war of modern times: it was a war of good sense, for real interests, for the tranquillity and security of all; it was purely pacific and conservative.

It was a war for a great cause, the end of uncertainties and the beginning of security. A new horizon and new labors were opening out, full of well-being and prosperity for all. The European system was already founded; all that remained was to organize it.

Satisfied on these great points and with tranquility everywhere, I too should have had my Congress and my Holy Alliance. Those ideas were stolen from me. In that reunion of great sovereigns we should have discussed our interests like one family, and have rendered account to the peoples as clerk to master.

Europe would in this way soon have been, in fact, but one people, and anyone who traveled anywhere would have found himself always in the common fatherland. I should have demanded the freedom of all navigable rivers for everybody, that the seas should be common to all, and that the great standing armies should be reduced henceforth to mere guards for the sovereigns.

On returning to France, to the bosom of the great, strong, magnificent, peaceful, and glorious fatherland, I should have proclaimed her frontiers immutable; all future wars purely defensive, all aggrandizement antinational. I should have associated my son in the Empire; my dictatorship would have been finished, and his constitutional reign would have begun.

Paris would have been the capital of the world, and the French the envy of the nations!

My leisure then, and my old age, would have been devoted, in company with the Empress and during the royal apprenticeship of my son, to leisurely visiting, with our own horses and like a true country couple, every corner of the Empire, receiving complaints, redressing wrongs, and scattering public buildings and benefactions on all sides and everywhere.

Napoleon, predestined by Providence for the gloomy role of executioner of the peoples, assured himself that the aim of his actions had been the peoples' welfare and that he could control the fate of millions and by the employment of power confer benefactions.
The Napoleonic wars were the European-wide wars of nationalism (and like later European-wide wars, had some spill-over onto other continents, though less than the Great War a hundred years later, and much less than WW2.) After WW2, the elites of an exhausted Western Europe started to push hard for a European Union. But it's interesting that the idea was circulating so much earlier.

Augustine's Confessions: Getting Started

For several years running, I did a series of Lenten reading posts focused on Dante's Divine Comedy. It's been a couple years, and I never did cover the last couple cantos of the Purgatorio, for which I am sorry. Perhaps some day the time will be right to go back to it. However, this year I had the itch to re-read Augustine's Confessions, which is a conveniently Lent-length work. And so as a form of discipline, and also in hopes it may be interesting or helpful to a few people, I'm going to write my way through Confessions this Lent in a way similar to the Commedia posts of past year.

Before plunging in, a few brief notes on what we're getting into. The Confessions was written by Augustine when he was in his mid-forties, in 397-398 AD, just a few years after he was made bishop of Hippo in North Africa. This was ten years after his adult conversion to Christianity which is the culminating even of Confessions.

Confessions is a very approachable work. It's about 300 pages long in a paperback edition and although it deals with a number of philosophical and theological issues, its basic format is that of a spiritual autobiography written in the first person and addressed to God. It is not only perhaps the first spiritual autobiography, but also the first book-length personal autobiography in Western Literature. Other classical writers had written about themselves to one extent or another (perhaps most famously Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars and Civil Wars and Xenophon in his March Up Country) but had always done so in the guise of a third person, objective history.

St. Augustine unabashedly writes about himself as himself, and does so in a manner so introspective that you come away feeling that you know him. Far from being a "just the facts" biography, Augustine takes the story of his life and conversion as a means to examine questions of what it means to think back to your past, understand your past motivations, to examine the human condition and the relationship of the human person to God.

As I said, Confessions is a highly readable book. If you're going to read one book by the Church Fathers, Confessions is arguably the most accessible and yet one of the deepest. This will be my third time through it in English (I also struggled through the first three books in Latin in one college course -- which mostly underlines that my Latin was always very schoolboyish, as it's not very difficult Latin at all) and I hope that if you enjoy these posts and you haven't read it you'll give it a try. My approach here will be to work through the book in order, writing about each of the thirteen books in one or two posts, quote or describe particularly interesting or famous parts, and talk about some of the major themes. I'm not an Augustine scholar by any stretch, this will be more like a book club discussion, and I hope anyone with an interest (whether you've read Confessions or not) will feel free to join in that spirit in the comment boxes as the mood strikes.

The edition I'm reading is the Penguin Classics edition of Confessions, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin.

You can also access a full, modern translation of Augustine's Confessions by Alberet C. Outler online, courtesy of Fordham University

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Fasting on (Liquid) Bread and Water

Many of the great ales of Europe originate in monastic breweries, and one of the purposes of those thick, malty brews was to help sustain the monks through periods of fasting. Odd as drinking beer while fasting may sound to modern American ears, when beer is seen mostly as a recreational drink, beer was drunk daily (often even at breakfast) in the pre-modern world as a nourishing and relatively disease-free quaff rather than an intoxicant. (Though goodness knows, a slight buzz doubtless brightened the day of many a peasant when the beer barrels were full. You need to find your job perks where they are.)

Homebrewer and beer-blogger J Wilson is tapping-into this tradition by setting out to fast on beer and water for the entirety of Lent this year, drinking a doppelbock modeled on German brews that originated in monasteries. (The most widely available of these is Pauliner's Salvator) You can follow his project at Diary of a Part-Time Monk.

The Comforts and Fears of Legalism

Quite some time ago, a good friend said something along these lines to me:
"I've been trying really hard to defeat spiritual legalism. When I think about sin legalistically, I'm constantly terrified that I've committed a mortal sin recently which I haven't confessed, and that if something were to happen to me I'd be damned instantly. I try to remember that if at the personal judgment I truly embrace God, He won't turn away from me."
I think this is certainly a valid way of thinking about things from a Catholic perspective, and I don't want to speak against it, but it did strike me as a very foreign viewpoint when I heard it. Foreign to my own experience, that is.

You see, my experience is pretty much the opposite: As someone who seldom feels a strong relationship with God, I find the idea that when I've gone to confession my sins really are forgiven, whether I feel like it or not, very comforting. On the other hand, relying entirely on the idea that when faced with the full experience of God I would unhesitatingly rush to him is, for me, a little terrifying. Unhesitating rushing is not something I'm known for. I'm not the rushing type. The idea of being face to face with God is more than a little terrifying for me -- as perhaps it should be.

As such, I find a more traditional (some would say: dour) approach to Lent intensely comforting, as opposed to the "this is a great time to work on your relationship with God" approach. Even in my married life, I'm not sure how you "work on your relationship" -- but I do know how to say "I love you", spend time talking together, go on a date, or buy a present. Similarly, I don't know how to "work on my relationship with God", but if fasting, prayer and alms-giving are what builds our relationship with Him, those I know how to do.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Anna Egan Sings the Standards

We were fortunate enough to have the famous Anna Egan as our artist-in-residence this weekend. Since many of you have been so generous as to contribute to her Salzburg fund, we decided to make a few bonus videos as a perk for DarwinCatholic readers. Our intimate salon served as the stage for these fine arias, and the audience was properly attentive, howling in appreciation and trying to pound the piano. My phonograph machine was plumb out of whack, so we had to use the dated technology of Anna's laptop to record. Sorry for the hiss.

First up: Come Raggio Di Sol, by Antonio Caldara, Mezzo: Anna Egan; Accompaniment: Jack

It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing), Crooned by Anna Egan; Accompanied by a Hack.

Inequality, Heritability and the American Dream

Ever since people finished identifying "the American Dream" -- the idea that in the US in particular and the New World in general somehow allowed people to escape the hidebound social structures of the Old World and better themselves via their own efforts -- people have been worried that it is on the point of dying. Americans continue to show an an unusual degree of belief in the ability those who work hard to better themselves by their own efforts. For instance, in the 1999 International Social Survey, 61% of Americans agreed that "people get rewarded for their effort", whereas only 41% of Japanese agreed, 33% of British and 23% of French. This belief has actually increased in recent decades. In 2005 the New York Times reported that while in 1983 only about 60% Americans agreed that "It is possible to start out poor, work hard and become rich" by 2005 nearly 80% of Americans agreed with that statement.

And yet, those who study inter-generational income mobility have been increasingly worried in recent decades that despite American's belief that people can work hard and get ahead, that it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to actually achieve this in the US. In a lengthy report by the liberal think thank Center for American Progress, Tom Hertz of American university brings together a number of the recent studies on intergenerational income mobility in the US as compared to other countries, showing how people who are born into the lower income quartiles in the United States are less likely to reach the top levels of income than in other countries such as Germany, Sweden or Denmark.

To give an idea of what is meant by this intergenerational mobility, it helps to look at a particular study which Hertz quotes in detail. In this study, researches tracked 4000 children originally surveyed in 1968 and compared what the household incomes of their parents were in the 1967 to 1971 period to what those children's incomes were in 1994 to 2000. The intergenerational correlation in family income between parents and children was .42, and the implications of that for the children themselves are shown in the this chart:
Family incomes are inflation adjusted.  On the left column you see quintiles of parental household income in the original 1967 to 1971 window.  In the column headers you see the quintiles of household income for the children.  (The numbers are higher despite inflation adjustment because the group as a whole was better off in the late 90s than in the late 60s.  On average, people within the bottom 20% had higher incomes in the 90s than people in the bottom 20% in the 60s.)

In regards to intergenerational mobility, you can see that of the children of parents in the bottom income quintile in the late 60s, 41% of those children wound up in the bottom income quintile themselves in the late 90s.  24% made it into the second quintile, 15.5% into the third, etc.  Only 6% made it into the top quintile.  Of those born to parents in the top income quintile in the late 60s, 42% were themselves in the top income quintile in the 90s, while only 6% were in the very bottom quintile.

Now, it seems to me that a lot of the question as to whether the American Dream still holds true relies on to what extent we can assume that there is an equal distribution of ability and effort among all children across all income ranges in a study such as this. Yet, when we start to look at this, we (particularly because as Americans we have a great attachment to a variety of ideas relation to the American Dream) run into all sorts of contradictory emotions.

For example, let's take two typically American Dream statements:
1) If you work hard and save, you can work your way up and become rich.
2) If you get your kids a good education and teach them how to work hard, they will do as well as or better than you.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that both of these are true, and look at what happens over two generations. In generation A, people work their way up and become rich to the extent that they work hard and save. They have children: generation B. Now, generation A does a great jobs of getting generation B a quality education and teaching them to work hard, with the result that the children of B who work hard and save all do as well as or better than their parents. A few children of people in A whose parents did not work hard or save also work hard and save, and they become rich too, so we see some movement upwards movement from the lower earning families in generation A -- but given that the middle and upper earning families of A did such a great job of teaching their kids and giving them a solid work ethic, we have the appearance of very little social mobility -- because people are doing a very good job of teaching their children the skills that allowed them to achieve their current space on the income ladder, and so the only room for movement is if some people who themselves did not work hard or save manage to teach their children to do differently.

So, if the kind of abilities and behaviors that result in doing well economically are heritable or teachable, then after the first generation we would probably expect to see less intergenerational income mobility. If your abilities and work ethic are fairly similar to your parents, and if your parents economic success was determined by the extent to which they worked hard and saved, then in all probability your success will be a lot like your parents'.

On the other hand, if there is a great deal of chance involved in how one's ability to work hard and save translates into household income, then one would actually expect more intergenerational variability in income. If your parents worked very hard, saved, etc. but through bad luck or lack of opportunity made very little, and yet they taught you to also work hard and save, then if you experienced better luck in translating your hard work and saving into higher income, you would do significantly better than your parents.

Similarly, if until recently people's economic success in a given country did not reflect their efforts, but then something changed so that in future greater effort resulted in greater success, one would expect to see a period with a lot of intergenerational income mobility, and then a settling out.

Of course, all this is working off the assumption that the traits which might result in higher earnings are heritable. Some characteristics such as measured IQ appear to be quite heritable. One's adult IQ has a .75 correlation to the average of one's mother's and father's IQs -- a significantly stronger correlation than the one between one's income and one's parents' in the US. But other determining factors in how much one makes (willingness to work hard, the amount one is interested in making more, the type of career one is interested in, etc.) are much harder to quantify and may quite possibly be less heritable.

All of which is to say: It seems to me that discussing whether or not Americans are right in believing that "anyone can succeed in America" with hard work and ability is much more difficult than simply looking to see how often people whose parents were in the bottom income quintile end up in the top income quintile. Moreover, the fact that one country has higher intergenerational income mobility in recent years does not necessarily mean that it is more of an opportunity society than the United States (though that's one of the possible meanings of that statistic), especially if the two countries have significantly different histories in recent decades.

Monday, March 07, 2011

As Far As East is from West

We went to Confession at our new parish two Saturdays ago. We had not gone as a family since we moved from Texas, and I had a nice stockpile of sins to lay out. During the week before we went (and I had to schedule it out on the calendar to make sure that we finally stopped planning events that conflicted with the Confession time), I fretted over my sins and scripted out further amplifications should the priest press me for clarification on anything. I was prepared, not to justify, but to elaborate and to disparage.

And when I went into the confessional and laid out my sins, the priest paused for a moment, and said, "The Lord has forgiven you." Just that.

And I was not prepared for pure, gratuitous forgiveness.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Fertile Attraction

One of the things that sets humans apart from most other creatures is that we don't have a "mating season" or period of going "into heat" which is the only period during which we're interested in getting it on with the opposite sex -- we are notoriously interested in Topic A all the time. However, several recent studies have been digging into the question of whether, unconsciously, men can actually sense when a woman is fertile and respond to her differently as a result.

The New York Times wrote up one of these stories a couple weeks ago in which Florida State researchers had various men come into their laboratory, and spend a few minutes playing Legos with a demure 21-year-old research assistant:
The 21-year-old woman was carefully trained not to flirt with anyone who came into the laboratory over the course of several months. She kept eye contact and conversation to a minimum. She never used makeup or perfume, kept her hair in a simple ponytail, and always wore jeans and a plain T-shirt.

Each of the young men thought she was simply a fellow student at Florida State University participating in the experiment, which ostensibly consisted of her and the man assembling a puzzle of Lego blocks. But the real experiment came later, when each man rated her attractiveness. Previous research had shown that a woman at the fertile stage of her menstrual cycle seems more attractive, and that same effect was observed here — but only when this woman was rated by a man who wasn’t already involved with someone else.

The other guys, the ones in romantic relationships, rated her as significantly less attractive when she was at the peak stage of fertility, presumably because at some level they sensed she then posed the greatest threat to their long-term relationships. To avoid being enticed to stray, they apparently told themselves she wasn’t all that hot anyway.
This is, it seems, part of a growing body of data suggesting that while we as humans are not consciously aware of when a woman is fertile, there are in fact observable differences in how women behave and how men react to women that correlate to the woman's fertility cycle.

One major question, however, is how exactly it is that men get these queues to which they respond differently. Is it some sort of physical difference? Does a woman look or smell different when she is fertile, in some way that men are not consciously aware of but respond to? Or is it that women unconsciously act differently?

In one recent study, it was found that women tended to give more attention to their hair, make-up and clothing when near their peak fertility:
Using a sample of 30 partnered women photographed at high and low fertility cycle phases, we show that readily-observable behaviors – self-grooming and ornamentation through attractive choice of dress – increase during the fertile phase of the ovulatory cycle. At above-chance levels, 42 judges selected photographs of women in their fertile (59.5%) rather than luteal phase (40.5%) as “trying to look more attractive.” Moreover, the closer women were to ovulation when photographed in the fertile window, the more frequently their fertile photograph was chosen.
And perhaps most interestingly, though firmly in the "don't try this at home" category, a group of researches got exotic dancers to provide daily information about the tips they earned from lap dancing and also their ovulatory cycle. Dancers received dramatically more tips during their fertile days:
Eighteen dancers recorded their menstrual periods, work shifts, and tip earnings for 60 days on a study web site. A mixed-model analysis of 296 work shifts (representing about 5300 lap dances) showed an interaction between cycle phase and hormonal contraception use. Normally cycling participants earned about US$335 per 5-h shift during estrus, US$260 per shift during the luteal phase, and US$185 per shift during menstruation.
The kicker? Exotic dancers on The Pill did not show the fertility peak in earnings, and earned less overall than the non-pill using dancers. The authors of the study seem to think this probably suggests some sort of subtle scent or appearance difference during fertile times, though (going from our experience as a married couple charting fertility over the last decade in relation to NFP) I would strongly suspect that it's instead that the non-pill using dancers in some sense telegraph more sincerity or desire when fertile.

Whatever the reason, it's a mildly interesting area of developing research. And for those NFP-using husbands out there who find fertile periods frustrating, this now provides scientific evidence that it is not just their imagination: their wives really are hotter than most other women.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Primary Ranting

Lord knows I take no pleasure in writing about politics. I don't keep track of the likely contenders for mixing it up in the primaries, and if you laid out a slate of presidential hopefuls before me, I wouldn't have much to say to it. At this stage of the game, I just don't care. I'm not ashamed of that; we can't all be policy wonks, and since Darwin enjoys such stuff, I leave it to him.

However, today I saw an article about Newt Gingrich forming a committee to raise funds for his as-yet-undeclared candidacy. I don't know a great deal about Newt Gingrich. The Contract With America went down while I was still throwing aside the front page of the paper in favor of the comics and "Dear Abby", and my main memory of the political tenor of the heady days of the early '90s was the Washington Post's contest calling for the best limerick to include both "Lewinsky" and "Kaczynski".

What I do know about Gingrich is that he's been married three times, and that his second and third marriages sprung from affairs started during the previous marriage. I find that to be somewhat less than inspiring. Everyone has his own political line in the sand, some standard by which he makes decisions about the person for whom he'll vote. Here's one of my standards: If you can't be faithful to your wife, I don't particularly care to have you running the country. I know that Newt has converted to Catholicism; good for him. But I won't support his presidential bid.

While I'm getting politics off my chest, let me say that if Sarah Palin throws her hat into the primary ring, she'll hear my scoffing all the way in the Peoria Holiday Inn. No. You don't resign governorship in mid-term and then pop up and announce that now you think you might try your hand at Presidenting. And for all our sakes, cancel the reality show. And Bristol's publishing contract to write her memoirs.

That is all.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Tolstoy's Theory of History

I've been really enjoying listening to the unabridged War and Peace (I'm listening to a reading by Neville Jason) as a commuting book. It's episodic enough to be good when listened to in half hour increments, and it's good enough to be a pleasure to hear while not so stylistic in its prose as to be make one feel as if one ought to be reading it rather than listening. However, this morning I hit one of Tolstoy's chapter long theory-of-history sections, and was startled at how little sense it made. This is a chunk of Book 9, Chapter 1:
From the close of the year 1811 intensified arming and concentrating of the forces of Western Europe began, and in 1812 these forces—millions of men, reckoning those transporting and feeding the army—moved from the west eastwards to the Russian frontier, toward which since 1811 Russian forces had been similarly drawn. On the twelfth of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.

What produced this extraordinary occurrence? What were its causes? The historians tell us with naive assurance that its causes were the wrongs inflicted on the Duke of Oldenburg, the nonobservance of the Continental System, the ambition of Napoleon, the firmness of Alexander, the mistakes of the diplomatists, and so on.

Consequently, it would only have been necessary for Metternich, Rumyantsev, or Talleyrand, between a levee and an evening party, to have taken proper pains and written a more adroit note, or for Napoleon to have written to Alexander: "My respected Brother, I consent to restore the duchy to the Duke of Oldenburg"—and there would have been no war.

We can understand that the matter seemed like that to contemporaries. It naturally seemed to Napoleon that the war was caused by England's intrigues (as in fact he said on the island of St. Helena). It naturally seemed to members of the English Parliament that the cause of the war was Napoleon's ambition; to the Duke of Oldenburg, that the cause of the war was the violence done to him; to businessmen that the cause of the war was the Continental System which was ruining Europe; to the generals and old soldiers that the chief reason for the war was the necessity of giving them employment; to the legitimists of that day that it was the need of re-establishing les bons principes, and to the diplomatists of that time that it all resulted from the fact that the alliance between Russia and Austria in 1809 had not been sufficiently well concealed from Napoleon, and from the awkward wording of Memorandum No. 178. It is natural that these and a countless and infinite quantity of other reasons, the number depending on the endless diversity of points of view, presented themselves to the men of that day; but to us, to posterity who view the thing that happened in all its magnitude and perceive its plain and terrible meaning, these causes seem insufficient. To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England's policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolensk and Moscow and were killed by them.

To us, their descendants, who are not historians and are not carried away by the process of research and can therefore regard the event with unclouded common sense, an incalculable number of causes present themselves. The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence—apart from the cooperation of all the other coincident causes—to occasion the event. To us, the wish or objection of this or that French corporal to serve a second term appears as much a cause as Napoleon's refusal to withdraw his troops beyond the Vistula and to restore the duchy of Oldenburg; for had he not wished to serve, and had a second, a third, and a thousandth corporal and private also refused, there would have been so many less men in Napoleon's army and the war could not have occurred.

Had Napoleon not taken offense at the demand that he should withdraw beyond the Vistula, and not ordered his troops to advance, there would have been no war; but had all his sergeants objected to serving a second term then also there could have been no war. Nor could there have been a war had there been no English intrigues and no Duke of Oldenburg, and had Alexander not felt insulted, and had there not been an autocratic government in Russia, or a Revolution in France and a subsequent dictatorship and Empire, or all the things that produced the French Revolution, and so on. Without each of these causes nothing could have happened. So all these causes—myriads of causes—coincided to bring it about. And so there was no one cause for that occurrence, but it had to occur because it had to. Millions of men, renouncing their human feelings and reason, had to go from west to east to slay their fellows, just as some centuries previously hordes of men had come from the east to the west, slaying their fellows.

The actions of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose words the event seemed to hang, were as little voluntary as the actions of any soldier who was drawn into the campaign by lot or by conscription. This could not be otherwise, for in order that the will of Napoleon and Alexander (on whom the event seemed to depend) should be carried out, the concurrence of innumerable circumstances was needed without any one of which the event could not have taken place. It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power—the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns—should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals, and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes.

We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events (that is to say, events the reasonableness of which we do not understand). The more we try to explain such events in history reasonably, the more unreasonable and incomprehensible do they become to us.
Now, yes, it's true that Napoleon could not have invaded Russia if all of his soldiers had suddenly decided that they didn't want to go. Such a thing has even happened a few times in history -- not all of Alexander the Great's charisma could convince his soldiers to go any further into India. But clearly, it was much more possible and likely for Napoleon to choose not to invade Russia than it was for his army, after his decision to invade, to spontaneously decide not to sign up for another year.

The are wider societal, economic and cultural forces that drive historical events, but that by no means suggests that people do not in fact have choices. And although history is the sum of innumerable actions by individual persons, many of which will never appear in history books, and yet which help to shape and give character to the tenor and events recorded therein, there are most certainly some actors who have more influence on history than others. If one person refuses to serve in an army, we usually don't hear about it. (Though sometimes we do.) And unless tens or hundreds of thousands do likewise, it does nothing to stop a war. Yet someone like Napoleon was in a position to choose to invade or not invade Russia. In that instance, massive historical events which cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives depended on the actions of just a few people.

I simply don't see how one can assert the contrary, as Tolstoy seems to do here, and make any sense at all.