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

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Novena for Order, 2012 -- Day 2

How much do I need order? We started this novena yesterday, but I didn't get around to posting until today. Looking through the archives, I said almost exactly the same thing the last time I prayed this novena in 2009. Perhaps that's a sign that I need to be seeking divine order more than once every three years.

I'm praying St. Thomas Aquinas' Prayer for Ordering a Life Wisely, found in The Aquinas Prayer Book from Sophia Institute Press.  It's well worth having; the Prayer for the Forgiveness of Sins is perfect while waiting in line for confession. St. Thomas said this particular prayer every morning in front of an image of Christ.

For Ordering a Life Wisely

St. Thomas Aquinas

O merciful God, grant that I may
desire ardently,
search prudently,
recognize truly,
and bring to perfect completion
whatever is pleasing to You
for the praise and glory of Your name.

Put my life in good order, O my God

Grant that I may know
what You require me to do.

Bestow upon me
the power to accomplish your will,
as is necessary and fitting
for the salvation of my soul.

Grant to me, O Lord my God,
that I may not falter in times
of prosperity or adversity,
so that I may not be exalted in the former,
nor dejected in the latter.

May I not rejoice in anything
unless it leads me to You;
may I not be saddened by anything
unless it turns me from You.

May I desire to please no one,
nor fear to displease anyone,
but You.

May all transitory things, O Lord,
be worthless to me
and may all things eternal
be ever cherished by me.

May any joy without You
be burdensome for me
and may I not desire anything else
besides You.

May all work, O Lord
delight me when done for Your sake.
and may all repose not centered in You
be ever wearisome for me.

Grant unto me, my God,
that I may direct my heart to You
and that in my failures
I may ever feel remorse for my sins
and never lose the resolve to change.

O Lord my God, make me
submissive without protest,
poor without discouragement,
chaste without regret,
patient without complaint,
humble without posturing,
cheerful without frivolity,
mature without gloom,
and quick-witted without flippancy.

O Lord my God, let me
fear You without losing hope,
be truthful without guile,
do good works without presumption,
rebuke my neighbor without haughtiness,
and -- without hypocrisy --
strengthen him by word and example.

Give to me, O Lord God,
a watchful heart,
which no capricious thought
can lure away from You.

Give to me,
a noble heart,
which no unworthy desire can debase.

Give to me
a resolute heart,
which no evil intention can divert.

Give to me
a stalwart heart,
which no tribulation can overcome.

Give to me
a temperate heart,
which no violent passion can enslave.

Give to me, O Lord my God,
understanding of You,
diligence in seeking You,
wisdom in finding You,
discourse ever pleasing to You,
perseverance in waiting for You,
and confidence in finally embracing You.

that with Your hardships
I may be burdened in reparation here,
that Your benefits
I may use in gratitude upon the way,
that in Your joys
I may delight by glorifying You
in the Kingdom of Heaven.

You Who live and reign,
God, world without end.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Ethics of Price Discrimination

To our modern ear the very term "discrimination" sounds bad. However, in the pricing discipline, "price discrimination" is not necessarily a bad thing. The term refers to creating a pricing and product structure which finds a way to charge customers with different willingness or ability to pay different amounts.

Examples include:

The price of clothes in a department store vs. in an "outlet" store.
The price of a newly released novel versus a backlist novel.
Name brands vs. store brands in grocery stores.

In most cases, price discrimination involves creating a situation in which customers can make a trade off between convenience and price or quality and price in order to get fairly similar products for very different prices. This ends up being good for both customers and companies. Companies are able to maximize their sales, allowing them to pay their employees, grow, and produce profits for their investors. They're able to do this by getting the most money from the customers most able to pay, and providing customers with the least ability to pay with the best deal.

However, some forms of price discrimination work more like an intelligence test. One of these I was reminded of recently when setting up travel arrangement for some upcoming trips. Most car rental companies now offer an option where the customer is offered the chance to pay for a tank of gas up front, usually at a rate $0.10 to $0.40 lower than the standard gas station price in the area. This seems like a great deal, until you remember that it only works out as a savings if you return the tank entirely empty. If you return the tank half full, you get no refund for that half tank, and you end up effectively giving the car rental company an extra $20 or so. By making money on the pre-sold tank of gas, the car rental companies are able to offer lower daily rates, allowing them to win more business, pushing other companies to lower their rates and make their money back in other less obvious ways like pre-paid gas, car rental insurance, etc.

This does offer customers who can think through all the offers they're given an opportunity to pay less, so it clearly benefits some customers. However, rather than doing so based on the willingness of customers to make small trade offs in convenience or quality, it does so based on their ability to problem solve. The pre-paid gas is particularly tricky, because at first pass the pre-pay at the lower price actually seems like a way to save money, but in most cases it will turn out to be an extra fee.

These kinds of price discrimination seem more ethically troubling, and yet it's very hard for companies to resist such approaches when they catch on, because "hiding" profits through this kind of pricing allows the companies that adopt such tactics to offer lower up-front prices.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Friday Linkage: Virtuous Sex Edition

I want to write (as much as I ever want to write, anyway), but unlike Darwin I am not gifted with rapid loquacity and I Have No Time. So here, a few quick links on Topic A.

Over at the National Catholic Register blog, Simcha Fisher posts on the sometimes ugly presentation of abstinence-based sex education, and on the right ways to talk to teens and pre-teens about chastity. In the second post, a commenter recommends a program for tweens called Purely You, which we are considering using with our now-ten-year-old.

Brandon posts a selection from Aquinas's commentary on 1 Corinthians. I've been meditating on this for a few days.

Hence it should be noted that the conjugal act is sometimes meritorious and without any mortal or venial sin, as when it is directed to the good of procreation and education of a child for the worship of God; for then it is an act of religion; or when it is performed for the sake of rendering the debt, it is an act of justice. But every virtuous act is meritorious, if it is performed with charity. But sometimes it is accompanied with venial sin, namely, when one is excited to the matrimonial act by concupiscence, which nevertheless stays within the limits of the marriage, namely, that he is content with his wife only. But sometimes it is performed with mortal sin, as when concupiscence is carried beyond the limits of the marriage; for example, when the husband approaches the wife with the idea that he would just as gladly or more gladly approach another woman. In the first way, therefore, the act of marriage requires no concession; in the second way it obtains a concession, inasmuch as someone consenting to concupiscence toward the wife is not guilty of mortal sin; in the third way there is absolutely no concession.

I'm not Aquinas, but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that when he says "concupiscence", what he means is not arousal, which is a natural effect of the attraction between man and woman, but the lustful thoughts and fantasies and actions that can become entwined with sex, even in marriage. Note that he doesn't even touch on the quality of the sex the couple is having, because he is concerned with the motive and intent. Wild passionate sex in a marriage can be not just good, but meritorious if it's performed with charity; it can involve venial sin if it strays into concupiscence; it can be a mortal sin if it's mere satisfaction of lust. Bland and unexciting sex can be not just good, but meritorious it it's performed with charity; it can involve venial sin if it strays into concupiscence; it can be a mortal sin if it's mere satisfaction of lust. We don't always get to control our bodies. Couples meet at different temperatures sometimes, due to hormones or stress or illness or weariness or past experience. Bad sex is sex that involves mental or physical sin, not sex that isn't mind-blowingly fantastic. That said, spouses have an obligation to total self-giving, whether that's the gift of honesty about one's physical readiness ("I really am exhausted tonight") or the gift of surrendering oneself to be pleasured by the other.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Does Not Follow: Pagan Edition

I suppose it's cheap to write a post about "bad logic I found in a blog post some stranger linked to on Facebook", but this struck me as such an obvious example of a type of bad reasoning that people engage in on a variety of topics that I couldn't help myself.

I ran across a link to this post on a pagan blog, which seeks to make the point that Europe became Christians through the persecution of pagans by Christians. The post opens:
Christians complain a lot about the “persecutions” they allegedly suffered in ancient Rome. Given that they were trying to destroy the heathen spiritual values that had made Rome great in the first place, it is not surprising that the heathens tried to defend themselves.

The Christian apologists also try to imply that heathenism somehow just melted away before the Christian religion, as if the heathens somehow saw “the error of their ways” and leapt to accept the Christian god as soon as he was offered to them.

What the Christians don’t like to remember is the very real persecution they inflicted, as soon as they could, on heathens who chose to retain the faith of their forebears.

Here is just a small sample of the atrocities that led to the Christian destruction of heathen Europe:
What follows is a long list of occasions on which pagans were attacked or persecuted by Christians, starting after Christianity became legal in the Roman empire. (The post dates this to 315, but I imagine that what the author has in mind is the Edict of Milan which was issued by emperors Constantine I and Licinius in 313 AD.)

While the list is one-sided, and given that it gets the date of the legalization of Christianity wrong by two years I would tend to assume it contains other errors of fact, it's certainly true that on many occasions Christians used violence and coercion against pagans.

At the end of this list, we get, out of the blue, this statement:

It is clear that Christianity prevailed over European heathenism solely because Christians resorted to torture, murder, and other clear breaches of the law that applied in those times, while the heathens upheld the prevailing “rules of engagement” that they considered to be honourable.
The problem is, this doesn't follow at all. The fact that on a number of occasions Christians used violence and coercion against pagans does not prove that therefore Christianity prevailed only because it used violence and coercion. All the list of atrocities proves is that Christians used violence and coercion on a number of occasions. That's bad, but it doesn't answer the question of why Europe became Christian rather than pagan. You can't get from "Christians used violence and coercion" to "Christianity prevailed only because it used violence and coercion". The one doesn't follow from the other. And yet, this rhetorical ploy is fairly commonly applied. Group X treated other groups badly. Group X prevailed in some historical sense. Therefore, Group X only prevailed because it behaved badly.

Similarly, a list of atrocities against pagans by Christians does not in any way prove that pagans were holding themselves to a higher standard and not using similar atrocities against Christians. It's a logical possibility (though clearly contrary to any fair reading of history) that pagans held themselves to a higher standard in regard to violence and coercion than Christians did, but simply listing occasions on which Christians treated pagans badly doesn't actually demonstrate that. However, it's commonly assumed that if group X treated group Y badly, and prevailed, that group Y must necessarily have been "better" than group X. I think there are two tendencies that come into play here. One is that people tend to assume that in any situation in which two groups are opposing each other, if one is bad the other must be good. The other is that we have a tendency to romanticize history's losers once they are nothing but romantic visions of the past.

In a trivial reflection of this: As a boy, I was a great collector of toy soldiers, not just the little green army men but the metal ones which I would buy and paint. It was a trend noted by many of the manufacturers of these model soldiers that it was almost invariably the losing side that was more popular with collectors: French Napoleonic troops over British ones, Confederates over Union Soldiers, Nazis over Allies, etc.

Since I'm getting random, I'll close with a real account of Christians mixing it up with "Odinists" from the always readable Njal's Saga:
Shortly after Olaf Tryggvason became King of Norway he decreed that the old faith should be discarded and replaced with Christianity. His decree extended also to the islands of Shetland, Orkney, and Faroe.

When news of Norway's conversion reached Iceland, it was received by many with great anger. "It is monstrous," they said, "to forsake our ancient beliefs."

But Njal, a respected leader known for his ability to foresee the future, replied, "I support the new faith. I believe that Christianity is a better religion than our old one. Those who accept it will be happy."

King Olaf of Norway made preparations to convert Iceland. To this end he sent Thangbrand, son of Count Willibald of Saxony, on a mission to Iceland. Accompanied by the Icelander Gudleif Arason, a renowned warrior, Thangbrand set sail for Iceland aboard a ship named The Bison. They landed in the eastern fjords at a place called Gautavik. They were met there with hostility. Most Icelanders of that district refused to sell them provisions or to trade with them, but Hall of Sida opened his house to them and offered them hospitality.

One morning -- it was an important feast day -- Thangbrand sang mass, and Hall asked him, "In whose honor is this ceremony?"

"In honor of the angel Michael," answered Thangbrand.

"Does he have great power?" asked Hall.

"Yes, he has great power," replied Thangbrand, then continued, "The angel Michael will be your friend and guardian if you will promise yourself to him in God's name."

"That I shall do," promised Hall, and a short time afterward he and his entire household were baptized.

The next spring Thangbrand, accompanied by the warrior Gudleif and the new convert Hall, preached Christianity throughout the land.

At Stafafell a farmer named Thorkel challenged Thangbrand to a duel. Thangbrand accepted the challenge and went to battle using a crucifix for a shield. Victory went to Thangbrand, and he killed Thorkel. Then Thangbrand and his companions continued to travel from district to district, converting many prominent families to the new faith.

Frightened at the Christians' success, the heathens at Kerlingardale hired a sorcerer named Hedin to kill their leader Thangbrand. The sorcerer accordingly went to the Arnarstakk Heath where he conducted a great sacrifice. At the time Thangbrand was riding westwards, and the ground suddenly opened up beneath his horse. The horse disappeared into the earth, but Thangbrand miraculously pulled himself to safety.

Thangbrand's companion Gudleif searched out Hedin the sorcerer and killed him with a spear.

Next they preached the new faith at Fljotshlid, where they met great opposition from Vetrlidi the Poet, so they killed him. From there they went to Bergthorsknoll, where Njal and his entire household were baptized.

At Grimsness Thorvald the Ailing had gathered a large band of Icelanders against the missionaries. They attempted to ambush the Christians, but one of their number warned the missionary group. Forewarned, Thangbrand, Gudleif, and their followers rushed the would-be ambushers. Thangbrand threw a spear through Thorvald, then Gudleif cut off his arm, and Thorvald died.

The missionaries then rode on to the Althing. Thorvald's kinsmen had assembled there to avenge the death of their relative, but Njal kept the two warring groups apart.

At the Althing Hjalti Skeggjason, a new convert to Christianity, composed a poem that stated in verse:
I dare mock the gods.
I believe that Freyja is a bitch,
And that Odin in a dog,
Or else the other way around.
Later that summer Thangbrand's ship, The Bison, was wrecked. It is not stated whether Thangbrand himself was aboard at the time, but in any event, he continued his missionary activities. This shipwreck caused some heathens to claim that their god Thor's giant-killing hammer had struck dead the Christian bison, thus proving that Christ was powerless to confront a challenge from Thor.

To this Thangbrand replied, "Thor lives only at the will of the Christian God. Without my God's permission, Thor would be nothing but dust and ashes."

At Hagi a man named Gest Oddleifsson held a feast for Thangbrand and sixty of his followers. Some two hundred heathens had gathered there as well. They expected to be joined by a berserk named Otrygg. It was said that Otrygg feared neither fire nor sword.

Thangbrand declared that he would use the berserk to test the power of Christianity over that of the old religion. "We shall light three fires," he proposed. "I shall bless the first one, you heathens shall bless the second one, and the third one shall remain without a blessing. If the berserk walks through your fire unharmed, but is afraid of my fire, then you must accept Christianity."

Gest, the leader of the heathens, believing that the fearless berserk would walk through all the fires, accepted this challenge.

When Otrygg the berserk was seen approaching the house, the three fires were lit, and two of them were blessed according to plan. Without hesitating, the berserk walked through the fire blessed by the heathens, but he stopped at the Christian-blessed fire. Agonizing with unknown pain, Otrygg raised his sword to strike out at his foes, but as he swung the sword upward, it caught against one of the crossbeams of the house. Thangbrand struck him on the arm with a crucifix, causing Otrygg's sword to fall to the ground, and then ran a sword into the berserk's chest. Gudleif attacked him as well, cutting off Otrygg's arm. Others entered the fray and helped to kill the heathen berserk.

Having thus seen the power of Christianity, many leading households were now baptized.
Talk about inculturation, this is clearly the kind of priest that Icelanders could understand.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Give That Woman A Drink

Clare over at Babes in Babylon laments the fact that drinks that are specifically targeted to woman are so lousy. It's true. In general, you don't get much lower down than the "girlie drink". In fact, my understanding is that in an early draft of the Inferno, Dante had Satan sunk waist deep in a frozen lake of chocolatini, but the image was too horrifying even for him. Clare asks:
If I’m not drinking beer, I’m usually drinking something amber in a shot glass or tumbler–sure, sometimes I’ll suddenly realize that my drinking habits are acceptable for neither the company nor the venue, and I’ll have what he’s having, but my heart’s not in it. I realize though, that this is an irrational fear, and that I need to get over it if I want to become an elegant and savvy woman who occasionally says witty things over sophisticated drinks.
Well, never let it be said that Pappy Darwin left a damsel in distress when she was seeking cocktail advice. Luckily, the "girlie drinks" fad is fairly new. When men were men, women were drinking, and everyone was black and white, ladies with class drank many of the same drinks that men with class did. Just consult Nora Charles, in the wonderful Thin Man movies, whose capacity for martinis was nearly as great as that of her husband:

And here, I think, we find the answer. If you are seeking the sophisticated drink to say witty things over, you need to stick to classic cocktails. Let's start at the top and work down.

The Martini
This is the classic of classics. Get a quality gin and a if possible a quality vermouth. I'd recommend Plymouth gin, but Citadel or Bombay (London Dry or Sapphire) will do just as well, depending on your taste. Some of the more unusual gins like Hendrick's can create a someone unusual martini taste, and are perhaps better straight. Sadly, it's got harder to be exclusive about one's vermouth. Noilly Prat used to be, to me, the gold standard. But they changed their formula a few years back and the new, sweeter dry vermouth (designed for Europeans who drink the stuff straight -- which just shows they don't know any more about cocktails than they do about maintaining a currency zone) just doesn't cut it in the dry martini. So go with the standard Martini & Rossi if that's what you can find, or branch out into something unusual (say, the California-made Vya) if you can find it.

The making is simple, though a shocking number of bartenders manage to slip it up anyway. Here's my stab at the classic:

1.5 oz gin
0.5 oz vermouth
1-2 dashes orange bitters (NOT Angostura bitters -- if you can't find orange bitters, don't use any)

Pour ingredients over ice is a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously. (If you're a true purist like Nick Charles in the above clips, shake it to a waltz tempo.) Strain into a cocktail class and garnish with an olive.

Yes, you can substitute vodka for gin, but really, do you want to be that kind of person? (Admittedly, I've been known to engage in such perversity at times, but don't say I didn't warn you.)

The Manhattan
Just as classic as the Martini is the Manhattan. The ratio here depends on the type of ingredients you have. Here's one I love, though it's a double (don't drink before driving):

4oz (rī)1 rye whiskey
2oz Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
3 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Regan's Orange Bitters

Like a Martini, this drink is best shaken vigorously over ice and then strained. (Yes, shaking actually does give a different taste than stirring, though the difference dissipates after the first sip or two.) The Manhattan is traditionally garnished with a maraschino cherry, but I never do. My excuse is that it's not canonically required the way that the olive in the martini is.

You can make a very good Manhattan with Bourbon instead of Rye. The Rye is more traditional, but make sure it's a good Rye. (No, Jim Beam will not do.) However, Bourbon is canonical in a Manhattan in a way that Vodka is not in the Martini. Again, quality matters. Use your favorite Bourbon. (I go for Eagle Rare.) The vermouth is also important. If Martini & Rossi or some other cheap sweet vermouth is all you can get, cut the ratio down to 1 part vermouth to 4 parts whiskey, as cheaper sweet vermouths tend to be sweeter.

The Gimlet
If a drink features prominently in Raymond Chandler novels, I think it counts as classic.

Actually, what I drink is slightly heretical when it comes to the Gimlet, but reprobate that I am I recommend that you follow me into my heresy by adding a dash or two of bitters to your Gimlet. Here's my recipe:

2oz Gin
0.5oz Rose's Lime Juice
2 dashes of Angostura bitters

Rose's is pretty sweet and dominates the drink with its sweet/bitter mix, so this can be a bottom shelf gin. I use Burnett's.

The Old Fashioned
In the classic comedy It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a character leaves the controls of his small plane to mix an old fashioned. "What if something goes wrong?" he's asked. "What can go wrong with an Old Fashioned?" he responds. The crash follows inevitably.

However, crashes do not necessarily follow an Old Fashioned, so fear not.

In the bottom of an Old Fashioned glass, mix 1 teaspoon sugar with 2 dashes of Angostura bitters.
Add ice and 2oz Bourbon, then stir.

Yes, you can garnish it with fruit (a cherry, lemon peel and an orange slice, to be exact) but it's not required, and it's certainly not a "girlie drink". What indeed can go wrong with an Old Fashioned?

For wisdom on these and many other classic cocktails, there's no better guide than Eric Felten, the former WSJ drinks columnist, in his charming book How's Your Drink?: Cocktails, Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well. Not only does he provide outstanding classic cocktail recipes, but he serves them up with all the appropriate history, book and movie references.


Died Without Issue

A news story today underlines a problem which sounds like it would come out of some kind of ancient mythology (for instance, when the Egyptian god Osiris was killed and dismembered by his brother Set, Osiris's wife Isis had him put back together and resuscitated so that she could bear him a son to avenge his death someday) but in this case is the result of modern technology:
The Supreme Court ruled Monday that children conceived by in-vitro fertilization after their father's death aren't automatically entitled to Social Security survivors insurance benefits, resolving a question posed by modern fertility methods that has divided lower courts.

Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Congress intended the benefit not to assist "needy persons" in general, but for the more specific purpose of alleviating a family's hardship upon a breadwinner's death.

To that end, the Social Security Administration was entitled to rely on state inheritance law to determine which survivors are entitled to benefits. And in the case of Robert Nicholas Capato, a Pompano Beach, Fla., resident who died 18 months before the children were born, state law didn't consider them his heirs.
Of course, in this case, these events were the result not of magic or a battle between the gods but of frozen sperm and in vitro fertilization.

The ruling in question is actually very narrow. It doesn't seek to determine whether someone can legally claim someone as a father if one was conceived after his death, it simply holds that social security benefits are determined by state law, which in this case means that the twins conceived nine months after their father died are not considered his legal heirs for purposes of social security.

However, the general topic struck me in relation to a much boarder issue: What exactly does "fatherhood" mean anyway. Given our scientific leanings, there's a strong tendency to define a father as whoever provided the male half of the genetic material for a child. Thus, a little while back there were news stories going around about a prolific sperm donor who had "fathered" dozens of children without ever knowing any of them. I'm inclined to think that, at a minimum, one can't consider someone to have "fathered" a child if he doesn't do so through physical union with the child's mother. Thus, one of the several senses in which conceiving a child with the help of an anonymous sperm donor is wrong is that is deprives the child of having a father.

In a situation like the one related to this legal case, though it appeals to a certain dark romanticism ("Even death could not end their love!") I am actually inclined to think the same. If you were conceived after your father's death, he's not really your father.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday Viewage

Aw, it's Friday, and I don't need any more excuse than that. I present Sir Mix-a-Lot's Baby Got Back, as interpreted in a Gilbert and Sullivan style.

"Well I do say, when it comes to the fairer sex, the publication Cosmopolitan has little to do with my selection."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Avoid Porn, Develop Aesthetics

Jennifer Fitz of Riparians at the Gate asks in her 3.5 Time Outs this week:
Bleg: Boys, Porn, and Chastity. Had a friend in for tea Sunday afternoon, and she gave me a timely head’s up on the reality of tweenage boys and the very rapid transition into Exceedingly Immature Manhood that is somewhere on the horizon for our boy. (Right now, the only girl he likes is the dog.) Since I know that at least a few of my readers are:

  1. Men.
  2. Fathers of teens boys and former teen boys.
  3. Catholic of the Chastity is Good, Sin is Bad type.
  4. Remember what it was like to live inside the body of a teenage boy.


  1. Are married to such a person.


  1. Are the grown son of such a person.

Want to offer any advice? Practical. Links, comments, a post of your own and link it back here. I’m all ears. Anything helpful. Thanks!
Young Man is currently not-quite-four, so I'm speaking here as a "Remember what it was like to live inside the body of a teenage boy" and also a "terrified on behalf of my daughters" father, since with out oldest two girls at 10 and 8, it's not so many years until I have to start wondering if the boys they play with are learning about women via the nastier portions of the internet. I'm also not entirely sure how this will go over, so I'll give it a shot and see what the reaction is.

Thinking back to my tweens and early teens, two things that formed me in ways that I am deeply grateful for stand out.

First of all, my father was a truly sterling example of a strong and upstanding man who never treated women (in person or in image) in a degrading way. The dads of many other boys I knew kept swimsuit calendars out in their workshops or showed by their actions that it was an okay and manly thing to flip open a playboy every so often. Dad was never like that.

Secondly, however, Dad was not at all a prude. It was made clear to me that there were certain books I was not yet allowed to read and movies I was not yet allowed to see because I was not yet mature enough to deal with the sexuality or nudity in them, but that when I was old enough to have solidified my moral compass it would be alright for me to encounter them. While the parents of some other strictly brought up Catholic kids I knew would fast forward through certain scenes in movies or black out sections of books, I was kept away from such things entirely until it was judged I was old enough to handle them, and then I'd be allowed to watch (usually with my Dad) or read all the way through.

And while there was certainly not anything sleazy around the house, there was a lot of classical and renaissance art to be found in the big art books in our family library. These weren't hidden from me, and indeed we looked and and discussed a number of such paintings and sculptures when covering art history in homeschool. This also was different from many of the other strict families that we knew where anything from National Geographic to the Sistine Chapel which showed the unclothed human body was strictly censored.

Like a lot of boys that age, I was intensely curious about what women's bodies looked like. Since what I had available to me most conveniently (and without much sense of guilt) to satisfy this curiosity was our collection of art books. This meant that I developed and aesthetic of female beauty based on art rather than based on Sports Illustrated or Playboy.

Now, I think some conservative Catholic parents would suggest that they'd rather their tween or teen sons not be looking at art depicting nudity any more than poring over Playboy. Obviously, it has to be clear that using any image (or writing) simply to stimulate yourself is always and everywhere wrong. But a boy in his early teens is also developing his ideas of beauty, and those ideas are going to stick with him for a long time. At the risk of sounding permissive: He is going to get his ideas of beauty in relation to the naked female body somewhere. The key, it seems to me, is for that idea of beauty to be formed by images that really are beautiful and which are designed to convey a beauty of form rather than simply to provoke lust. If he's not not helped into forming that idea of beauty in a positive aesthetic way, chances are strong he's going to be formed by the kind of images that pop culture puts out instead.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Why The Government Can't Get Out of the Marriage Business

As the US continues it's "national conversation" on same sex marriage, it's fairly standard for someone to suggest that it's time for the state to get out of the marriage business and have marriage be a strictly religious/personal arrangement. This seems like a fairly neat way to sidestep the issue of having to reach a state consensus on what marriage is, with the inevitable one-side-tramples-the-other problem that suggests. However, I'd like to suggest that it's an impractical and illusory solution.

To start with, I think we need to look at why the state is involved in marriage in the first place. I'd suggest that the reason has little to do with managing morals or family values, it has to do with the essential function of government: being an arbiter in disputes, primarily about property. In this regard the state ends up needing to define marriage and know who is married in order to answer two questions: who owns what and whose kids are whose.

Say two people have been spending a lot of time together for the last five years. Now they've had an argument and want to not see each other again, but one of them claims that some things in the possession of the other are actually his. Are they? The state gets pulled into these questions because its job is to arbitrate disputes rather than leaving people to solve them the old fashioned way (which was by raising themselves up on their hind legs and bashing each over the head with flint axes.)

Marriage is a relationship in which property and resources are shared, and so when one breaks up the state ends up negotiating the breakup. People who are not married own the things that they themselves hold title to, and if they have a fight and stop seeing each other, the that shrugs its shoulders. My wife can claim title to a portion of the car or the house even if it is my name that appears on the deeds. My friend cannot.

Since the state also likes to tax people and make sure that they're taking care of their dependents, it also needs to know who is married in order to know who can claim to be a household for the purposes of taxes, child custody, etc.

For this reason, any state which isn't borderline anarchic is going to have to know who forms a household, which traditionally has meant knowing who is married. Despite this, "civil marriage" is relatively new. In the past, figuring out who was married was pretty easy: someone went down to the church register and checked to see if a couple were married, or you just asked the neighbors, "Were these people married?"

As cultural consensus has broken down and society has become more mobile and impersonal (and also as the state sought to replace religion and culture as the primary context of people's existence) civil marriage was instituted to give the state a clear and easy way of knowing who formed a household: If you were married, yes. If not, no.

And here is where we run into the problem: In our modern world, living arrangements have become more complex than ever. Almost everyone has enough property to fight over -- as anyone who's ever been stuck watching Judge Judy in a waiting room knows -- and due to changing morals and the affluence that allows people to turn their attention away from the basic "survive and produce the next generation" household structures which have characterized most prior societies. (For instance, despite all the talk about homosexuality in the Classical world, even men who preferred their own sex were expected to marry and produce children, whatever their extracurricular activities. In our modern world, this expectation no longer exists.)

The state cannot duck the situation, because arbitrating property disputes is one of its most basic purposes, and determining who constitutes a household is one of the basic elements of resolving property disputes. And yet, any modification to the definition of marriage/household as recognized by the state is necessarily fraught with cultural and moral significance because it effectively means changing the definition of what a recognized or proper family is.

Monday, May 14, 2012

David Copperfield for the Young

The month of May is just redolent enough of summer that it's hard to be motivated about anything, but homeschooling is getting especially sluggish. I reassure myself on two points: 1) the math book is almost finished; and 2) we're reading David Copperfield aloud, and Dickens is an education unto himself. 

It has weighed upon me that my girls are getting older, and that their lives have been wholesome, happy, and easy. We are blessed that so far our family has been sheltered from the real ugliness of life. I don't regret that the last death in our family occurred before any of them were old enough to remember, or that we've had little to no serious illness or injury. I'm not sorry that they don't know any families sundered by divorce, except my own. I thank God that none of their friends have been abused or hungry or homeless. But there is a big world out there full of people who don't know such a warm and comfortable life. One day they will encounter the vale of tears personally. I want to shepherd them through their first vicarious brush with the harsh fact that life is not so kind to every child.

Hence, David Copperfield. Young David is emotionally abused and beaten by his cold and controlling stepfather, sent to a brutish boarding school, is bereft of his mother, forced to fend for himself in the big city while working at a degrading job, and has to tramp alone across country, all before he turns 11. There's lots of dramatic potential there, and Dickens works it for the full Dickensian effect. The girls have been following along quite well. At a third of the way through the book, we've had many good conversations about how adults should treat children, about bad forms of education, about trust and self-reliance and people who will take advantage of others. Dickens's prose has settled in their ears and his plot in their imaginations and his themes in their minds.

Until now I've been reading unabridged, but I've run up against my first insuperable obstacle. David, on holiday, has once again met up with Steerforth, his eidolon, and they have traveled to Steerforth's home. There Dickens gives us Steerforth's idolatrous mother and her companion, Rosa Dartle. I cannot get a handle on Rosa. She loves, she hates, she insinuates. She is all smothered intensity and desire and fury. All this is well and good. But I can't find her voice, and if I can't interpret the character for the girls, they lose interest. Rosa's brand of repressed sexuality and rage is not interesting to the 10- and 8-year old, to say nothing of the 6-year-old. When I'm struggling through a passage trying to work out some tactics and motivation while the kids are hanging upside down on the couch with their legs kicking in the air, I know I'm beat.

I consulted YouTube to see what various film adaptions had done with Rosa, only to find that she seems (at least in this early appearance) to have been excised from the story. So I'm doing the same right now. We'll skip ahead to Yarmouth and let Steerforth have his first fateful encounter with Little Em'ly. Miss Mowcher the dwarf comes up in a few chapters, and she too may end up severely edited or on the cutting room floor. We need to move on to Dora, a character so ridiculous that all the young ladies will howl at her silliness, and David's too. Puppy love is a familiar, if goofy, concept to them.

And of course they're already asking when they can see the movie.

Three Links That Made Me Think

Catching up on a bit of reading between meetings this morning, three posts really struck me as interesting.

Bearing has a post on gluttony which made what I thought was a very apt observation:
Americans don't grok gluttony because they don't grok sin and human failings in general. We believe in an essential dichotomy: Either a man's failing is his own damn fault, so we stigmatize and punish it, and maybe (if we are religious) call it "sin;" or it is someone else's fault, so we try to pass laws and social programs, and de-stigmatize it and raise awareness. The only difference as you move from Left to Right is which failings are your own damn fault and which failings are someone else's.
I was going to write some amplification and summing up, but after a couple tries I realized Bearing's next paragraph is better than anything I'm coming up with:
But the reality is that we each participate, with varying degrees of freedom, in the flaws and failings that nature and society have thrust upon us. Sin and failings beget sin and failings -- sometimes in other people -- so they spread like a disease. And so it can simultaneously be true that a fat person is sick through no fault of her own, and that she struggles with the sin of gluttony.
So just go read it.

* * * * *

The TOF Spot has a post on the coming and passing of the all consuming state. Rather in the way that one sometimes has to half close one's eyes while looking at some very busy image in order to see the underlying pattern come out, OFloinn takes a high level look at several hundred years of history as relating to "the state" and makes patterns pop out. One I was particularly grateful for was his point about how absolutist monarchy was in fact an early modern invention, something which one didn't see in the Middle Ages. It's appalling, how often one runs into the claim that ideas of a limited government grew up as people threw off "medieval" ideas of the absolute power of the monarch.

He also touches on something really interesting near the end as he talks about the way in which centralization of state power hit a natural barrier in the decentralized resistance, making "Big Brother" harder and harder to imagine in the modern world.

* * * * *

Gabriel Rossman who is guest blogging for Megan McArdle had a fascinating post about the way in which apparent correlations can result from selection factors:
One of Pearl's most interesting deductions is the idea of conditioning on a collider. If a case being observed is a function of two variables then this will induce an artifactual negative correlation between the variables. This is true even if in the broader population there is no correlation (or even a mild positive correlation) between the variables.

For instance, suppose that in a population of aspiring Hollywood actors there is no correlation between acting ability and physical attractiveness. However assume that we generally pay a lot more attention to celebrities than to some kid who is waiting tables while going on auditions. That is, we can not readily observe people who aspire to be actors, but only those who actually are actors. This implies that we need to understand the selection process by which people get cast into films. In the computer simulation displayed below I generated a population of aspiring actors characterized by "body" and "mind," each of which follows a normal distribution and with these two traits being completely orthogonal to one another. Then imagine that casting directors jointly maximize talent and looks so only the aspiring actors with the highest sum for these two traits actually get work in Hollywood. I have drawn the working actors as triangles and the failed aspirants as hollow circles. Among those actors we can readily observe there then will be a negative correlation between looks and talent, even though there is no such correlation in the grand population. If we see only the working actors without understanding the censorship process we might think that there is some stupefaction of being ridiculously good-looking.

Friday, May 11, 2012

How I Got Here From There: Classics to Marketing

Things have been moderately absorbing at work lately, and since this has had my mind running in a work mode even in off hours, I thought I'd put this to use in writing on a topic I'd been vaguely meaning to get to for a while: How did I get here, career-wise? I wrote about a post on this theme six years ago, but there's been a lot of water under the bridge since then, both in regards to my career and also in how I write, so I wanted to do a follow-up and expansion of sorts.

Previously I wrote in the form of tips. This time I'm going to be more autobiographical, though I'll try to draw out any useful applications as I go along. I've always been somewhat over-interested in how people progress through their careers, perhaps in part because (with my parents and many of their friends in semi-academic careers or very, very stable careers at one company) I have often felt confusion as to what to expect when, and thus a lot of curiosity as to how other people's careers have worked out. Now I begin to have enough history, though still rather little, to satisfy the curiosity of my younger self, so this is, in a sense, written to the twenty-two-year-old me.

Going into college, I was sure of three things:
- I wanted to major in one of the liberal arts (I started out in History and switched to Classics after a year for a bit more of a challenge), both for the experience of studying something that fascinated me and because I couldn't stand the thought of studying "business" for four years.
- I did not want to go on in academia.
- I did not have specific career plans, but I was determined to "go somewhere".

Throughout high school I'd written a lot of fiction, and I had vague ambitions of trying to get into some kind of creative work. I looked into taking a professional program in film editing back in LA after graduating. However, I wanted to get married right out of college and with the looming likelihood of children to support, I didn't think I could afford to get more education or try to get into an industry that many people were eager to work in but only a small percentage "made it". A solution suggested itself when a web hosting company set up offices in town and I managed to snag an entry level job in their sales office the summer before my senior year, with no more qualifications than being well spoken and knowing my way around office software. For six months I proudly talked about myself as working for a dot-com, until it did what a lot of dot-coms were doing in 2000 and landed itself on the rocks financially. Thus, I got the experience of being laid off before graduating college. With six months to go and the need to pay rent, I hunted around for another job in the Steubenville area that I could talk my way into based on six months experience in sales. Next thing I knew, I was making the princely sum of $10/hr (more than I had before) across the river in West Virginia as one of the managers in a telephone call center. The best thing I can say about that experience is that it taught me that I could soldier on through a job I really didn't like.

First Job Out of College
The plan was that upon graduation we'd move out to Los Angeles, where my family lived, get married, and live there. But although I'd spent my whole life prior to college in the LA area, I didn't have any connections who would be useful in finding a job, and I needed one fast. So I went down to a temp agency, talked with one of their placement agents for an hour, took a few tests on computer usage proficiency, and was fortunate enough to get sent out on a job interview two days later. I did the interview and got the job: working as a sales assistant in a small company selling chemicals to the manufacturers of personal care products (lotions, shampoos, etc.) The job did not pay as much as I'd hoped (my salary out of college was $28k/yr) but I had got it in less than a week and it allowed us to sign the lease on an apartment for MrsDarwin to live in until the wedding.

The sales assistant job was relatively undemanding. I'd take calls from customers who needed chemical samples, pull all the data they needed on the chemicals they were interested in, xerox the data sheets, and send both samples and data off to them via UPS. Aside from that, I was supposed to type up sales call reports (and anything else needed) for the four salesmen, and cover the switchboard during the receptionists break. The work wasn't hard, nor did it take my whole day, but I quickly got frustrated with having to pull studies and data sheets out of badly organized file drawers. I told the owner this and advised him that the data should all be in a database. He pointed out that I had MS Access on my computer, handed me a company credit card, and said I could go to Barnes & Noble to pick up some books on how to use it.

I picked up two brick-like tomes on Access and over the course of the next few months I built a database which listed all the products. Once it was done, anyone in the company could pull up information on the products and email relevant data off to customers without leaving his desk.

By now, I was 23 and we were expecting our first child. Quick financial calculations revealed that although MrsDarwin hadn't been making much money, we would no longer be able to pay the bills once she stopped working. My six month review came up and I got a raise of $0.75/hr. Meditating on how built a database for the company's benefit, and that my friends who had majored in Computer Science and now held tech jobs made twice what I did, I was furious. I started looking for another job. There were better entry-level jobs than the one I had found out there, but I needed to plug a $10k hole in our monthly budget and none of them paid that much more than I'd been making. Getting desperate, I took a sales job which promised to pay lots of commission if things went well. I went in to my boss and quit, telling him that since they couldn't pay me more I was taking another job. He asked me how much I was going to be making. This felt like an attack on my pride, so I quoted the number which I'd been told I might make in commission "if things went well": $40k. "Well, don't tell anyone you're quitting yet," he advised. After talking with the owner he took me out to lunch and asked if I'd stay if they matched the $40k.

I'd spent so long being angry that the company didn't appreciate me more for the work that I'd done thus far, that I was strongly tempted to leave anyway. But sanity and self interest prevailed. I became a "Marketing Manager" (which meant I continued to work with my database, but also took over responsibility for all the company's own brochures, catalog, etc.)

Starting a Business Young
I'd been working on a side-plan to get myself into a better job -- trying to start a web-application business with some college friends. Originally, I was supposed to just be the marketing and sales side of the business, but since what we needed at first was lots of web work, I picked up a couple more books and taught myself how to write HTML, MySQL, and PHP.

It was to try to get things off the ground with this business venture that, when we had been married two and half years, we moved out to Austin. There's a lot that could be said about the start-up itself, but that would be a post until itself. We learned a lot. I in particular learned a lot of technical skills I hadn't had before. We also repeatedly found ourselves in over our heads -- not so much technically, but in regards to running a business. Good clients seemed to keep passing us over. Looking back, I can see why a group of guys in their mid-twenties wouldn't seem like a good bet for your expensive development project. As a result, we tended to win the customers who had big plans but very little money, and we did so by coming up with highly optimistic estimates, that we bound ourselves to rather than charging hourly. So while we learned a lot and managed to make a little bit of money, in the end we found ourselves burnt out, discouraged, and having lost our start-up capital. What I know now, that I didn't know then, is that optimism and the willingness to work unlimited hours are not sufficient foundations for founding a successful business.

Second Job and Moving Up
In Texas, I wanted a steady paycheck to supplement the money I was earning via the business. I looked at the ads and sent resumes out, but the way I actually got a job was by looking up the staffing company that filled temp-to-perm positions at the big computer and consumer electronics company that was located very near our house. This landed me a contract job that at an hourly rate paid a little less than I'd been making in LA, but since it was hourly I made a point of making up the lack by trying to squeeze in a couple hours of overtime each week. Time-and-a-half does wonders for the paycheck.

The job I'd got was on a team that audited calls at overseas call centers and then provided ratings and feedback to the call centers. Determined to stick out somehow, I built a database to store all the audits in. This worked so far as it went, but the group in charge of call center quality like the idea of having "third party" auditors, so were were stuck as contract workers indefinitely.

I had been spending my spare time helping out a woman who had moved into the cube across the aisle from me. She had just been transfered into a job that required a lot of work in Excel, and she was struggling with it. When things completely fell apart for her, she asked her manager to hire me on an hourly basis (since I was a temp) to get a big project done. A couple weeks later, she managed to get transferred to a job that was a better fit for her skills, and I was offered her job as a permanent employee.

I spent the next couple years working as a marketing analyst and gradually accreting responsibilities. I was working within the marketing organization, and it turned out that in marketing there were a lot of people who wanted to run tests or promotions or compile mailings lists or measure the effectiveness of advertising, but very few people who actually knew how to do the data analysis necessary to support that work. I found I was able to pick up how to do this kind of work on the fly, while many couldn't or were afraid to try, and in the end it proved to be a better way of getting notice and promotion than being one of the larger number of people struggling to get hold of the few "sexy" jobs managing high profile brands or dealing with advertising.

Finding a Specialty
They say that connections are essential to career advancement, and I used to think on this with great frustration since I felt I didn't have any. One thing I have learned since is that "connections" aren't necessarily "rich guys your Dad knows from the country club" or "people you met at your ivy league college". The connection that made my career what it is today formed when one of the constant moves that occur in the cubicle lands of a large company brought a new neighbor into the cube next to mine. As I was watching him unpack I saw him set up framed pictures of four young kids on his desk, then add a framed ultrasound to the end of the line. Immediately I thought, "This guy and I are going to get along."

We did. He was Evangelical rather than Catholic, but we had a number of things in common religiously and culturally. He also proved to be of like mind in that he had a background in the liberal arts but had become adept at data analysis. He built statistical models in Excel that allowed him to predict how many products could be sold in a week, based on what price the products were sold at. We shared tips and tricks in the way that Excel gurus tend to, and although six months later the endless shuffle or re-orgs and moves put us in separate buildings, we kept in touch. A couple years later, he was put in charge of a whole team of pricers, and he was able to offer me one of the open positions on the team.

This provided me with a welcome raise and an increase in responsibility.  It also provided me with the opportunity to become a specialist in a field (pricing) in which there are a moderately small number of people with extensive experience. Pricing analysis has boomed as a discipline just in the last decade, so having five or more years of experience puts you in a relatively strong position. I discovered this more or less by accident. During one of the recurrent lay-off scares, I had put together a fairly detailed LinkedIn profile, which among other things showed that I'd then spent just over five years as a pricing analyst and pricing manager. To my surprise, I started getting emails from recruiters every couple of months asking if I was interested in pricing related jobs at other companies.

One of these caught me at a particularly frustrating time (re-organizations, layoffs, manager I didn't like, etc.) so I said I was interested, and for good measure started a full-on job search.  Two months later, after various ups and downs and trips out to interview at different companies, the call that had started my search resulted in a job offer in Ohio and I took it.

Where I Am Now
While my title at my new company is similar to that I left at my old one, I'm the only person who does pricing analysis for the company, so the responsibility is greater.  It's also been a huge learning experience setting price in a thousand individual brick and mortar locations rather than on a single, nationwide website.  In the process, I've had the chance to use the products of some very good companies producing pricing analysis and test/control analysis software, which has been by turns interesting and frustrating after the build-your-own environment at my previous company.

From this vantage point, some things which worried me a lot when I was starting out on my career are no longer an issue.  My undergraduate major is now just an interesting conversation point at work.  No one worries about whether a Classics degree makes me less qualified for my job because I've got a track record in a fairly specialized niche.

As I look towards the future, I wonder if my lack of an MBA will eventually become an issue.  In my current job I report to a director (I'm technically a manager, though I don't actually manage anyone) and a logical career progression would be to try to become a director myself someday.  Most of the directors I know and virtually all the vice presidents have MBAs, a degree that I've long been prejudiced against, and I haven't got close enough to that point to know whether it will become necessary for me to look at getting one if I want to keep moving on, or if I'll be able to push on through on the basis of experience.

The other big career change that would loom if I attempt to move higher would be the need to generalize again.  Specializing has been a big advantage to my career over the last few years, but to progress higher I'd have to generalize again.  I still often feel like I'm working without a pattern.  I never like it when I'm asked the "where do you plan to be in 5 years?" questions at work, because looking back I know that at each point in my career my prediction would have been wrong.  But I can't complain.  Indeed, I feel embarrassingly fortunate.  Thinking back to the post I linked to at the beginning, to which this is a long winded reply, I wish I could read the sort of post a six-more-years-older me would write to the current me.

While I realize that crime of publishing such a long-winded post on a Friday afternoon is nearly inexcusable (this is what happens when I indulge in writing a post over multiple days), if any readers have actually survived reading it and feel inclined to share their own "how I got here from there" stories, please do.  Verbosity is not required, though I would be the last who could disallow it.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Somebody Marry These Kids

Calah of Barefoot and Pregnant wrote a good post a little while back about the situations she and her husband found themselves in as she was trying to come into the Church and they were trying to get married under circumstances that were (as is often the way of events that push one into making massive changes in ones beliefs and moral life) a little messy:
If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know by now that our first daughter was conceived out of wedlock when I was a drug addict. Obviously, neither the Ogre nor I were living virtuous lives at the time, but the reality of a child on the way forced us to try and straighten ourselves out.

We began seeing a wonderful Cistercian priest who helped us work through that difficult time. One of the biggest issues facing us was the question of what to do when the baby was born. The Catholic Church doesn't allow couples who conceive a child out of wedlock to marry in the Church until the child in question is a year old. It's a wonderful rule, one that not only discourages shotgun weddings but also encourages the couple in question to spend that year discerning whether or not it is God's will that they should marry each other or marry at all. It also shows the Catholic Church's concern that people learn to live an open, fully integrated human life; no covering up the results of sin with quickie nuptials. No, the couple must learn to bear the consequences of their sin (the consequence historically being public shame, NOT the baby itself) and rectify their lives publicly.

But it left us with a dilemma. If we followed traditional moral advice (which we received unsolicited from several people), we should live apart during that year. Obviously the responsibility for caring for the baby would fall to me, the mother, and the baby would live with me. But this would leave all three of us in dire straits at best. I was emotionally and mentally unstable at the outset of the pregnancy, issues which only marginally improved during the pregnancy. The Ogre was trying to finish his undergraduate degree while working nearly full time at a steakhouse to support us. He would have very little time to see me and the baby if we lived somewhere else, and wouldn't be able to contribute substantially to her parenting for an entire year. I was in no state to live alone with a baby, but strained relationships with both of our parents left me with no viable alternative. Furthermore, there was no way the Ogre could afford to pay rent or utilities for two separate apartments.

The other option was that we live together but maintain a chaste relationship. "Live together like brother and sister" was the phrase we heard repeated over and over. This is a task that is widely acknowledged to require heroic virtue from even the most virtuous, yet the likelihood that two people who hadn't attempted to live virtuous lives basically ever would be able to accomplish it was somehow not of interest to solicitous advice-givers.

It was of interest to our priest, however. He was interested in a great many things everyone else overlooked. He spent hours with the Ogre and I, together and separately, figuring out our strengths, our weaknesses, our fears, our limits, our feelings for each other and our hopes for the future. I suspect he recognized that we had both lived in a state of chronic, habitual mortal sin for years and quickly decided that a quick "get out of mortal sin fast" card was not what we needed; at least, not then. I believe his ultimate goal for us was not short-term but long-term. He was trying to figure out how to bring both of us into a state of grace, how to practically, emotionally and spiritually help us learn to love God, each other and our child, and how to begin building a foundation that might one day support a solid family.
The whole post is worth reading. It gave me an incredible respect for the difficulties that priests face in providing moral direction to real people in difficult situations.

However, it also reminded me of a bit of an issue I have with the current practice in the church here in the US in regards to marriage, which I wrote about some years back in relation to a couple we know who got married under somewhat similar circumstances.

In part to try to stem the tide of divorce among Catholic couples, and to avoid marriages which might later claim to have grounds for annulment, many dioceses have come up with increasingly stringent guidelines for marriage. Most diocese enforce a six month waiting period for any couple between when they request to get married and when the marriage takes place. Some parishes and diocese specifically require that the couple be registered and actively participating at the parish they want to marry at for up to a year before even being able to request to be married there. There are very sensible reasons for this. The church doesn't want people who aren't actually practicing Catholics showing up and using the parish as a set for a church wedding, and given that so many people seem to go into marriage without thinking it out very carefully, you can see why it's thought a good idea for couples to have at least six months to think things over. However, I'm not sure that it's universally a good idea to make couples wait at least six months after getting engaged to get married, and for young couples who are often in a state of flux because of college/jobs/grad school, a rigidly enforced you-must-be-registered-in-the-parish-for-a-year-prior policy be a serious obstacle to getting married.

Similarly, one can very much see why the church is reluctant to officiate over "shotgun weddings", especially given the scandalously high rate of annulments in the US and the fact that being pregnant at the time of the wedding is often cited years later as a reason why the couple did not freely consent (and thus can be annulled.) Also, people who are pregnant out of wedlock have already made at least one or two bad decisions, and so in general it seems reasonable to want people to stop and really think about whether this is indeed the right person to marry.

However, taking these kind of general rules and making them absolute strikes me as really problematic. It strikes me that diocesan rules put the priest who was helping Calah and the Ogre in a very difficult position. Clearly, he came to the decision that it was best for the three of them to function as a family, yet he couldn't marry them, so he was put in the position of having to advise them on how to live as a family until they could marry in the Church. But what is marriage for other than to provide Christians with the grace of a sacrament in order to allow them to live out their vocations as a family? While I think it's admirable that the Church in the US is trying to get serious about marriage, it seems to me that such inflexible rules are actually a moderately serious problem.

Obviously, it's a whole other situation where there's some real obstacle to marriage -- such as one member of the couple being married already. (All sorts of heartache is caused by people dating and even getting engaged while one or both are, in the eyes of the Church, married to someone else.) But while I applaud the Church's efforts to reign in Catholic marriage breakdown by making sure that couples have thought seriously about it before getting married, I'm concerned that some of these rigid administrative rules on length of engagement and waiting a period of time after any child conceived out-of-wedlock is born actually make things harder on some couples when simply marrying them would be better for all.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Sory Abowt That

As I mentioned in a recent post, we've been watching The Adventures of Tintin, a Canadian TV series from 1991. One of the joys of watching, besides the multifarious adventures, is the collection of assembled accents. Whenever an English character appears, he utters syllables that surely have never passed the lips of any citizen of the British Isles. However, Tintin's dulcet Canadian tones more than make up for other abuses. We don't often get the chance, in our neck of the woods, to hear a genuine Canadian accent, and Tintin's is a doozy.

What stands out, particularly, is his pronunciation of the word "sorry". I'm going to render it as "SORE-y", though it could also be spelled "sory". At one point he has to apologize profusely to a room of tourists. "SORE-y!" he exclaims. "Sory, everyone. Sory abowt that!"

Delightful, eh?

This started me thinking about how I pronounce "sorry". Although I've standardized a good deal throughout the years, I still carry some of the cadences of my Virginia childhood and my mother's Baton Rouge roots. When I need to apologize a la Tintin, I might say "SAH-ry uh-BAOUt THAt." (The small t at the end denotes not a dropped letter, but a closing without a distinct explosive sound.)

Darwin grew up in Los Angeles and can have a quick monotone West Coast delivery at times. My best approximation of his off-the-cuff apology ("Hey hon, say "Sorry about that", will you?") is "Srry'bouthat".

Eleanor, age 10 in about 30 minutes, has appeared in the library complaining of growing pains. When asked to speak the phrase, she produces a perfect "Sorry about that" with no discernible accent. Is it a good blend of West and South? Do Darwin and I use better diction when speaking to the children? I don't  know, but her pronunciation needs no apology.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Kidnapped by Pirates is... Economic?

One of the perverse joys of economics is taking some exciting topic like being kidnapped by pirates and analyzing it as a market transaction and game theory situation. Gabriel Rossman, one of Megan McArdle's guest bloggers, has a delightful post doing exactly this, and he gets extra points by framing it with the story of Julius Caesar's youthful kidnapping by pirates:
A couple years ago NPR's Planet Money podcast had an episode about Somali pirates. (The pirate part starts at 9:35). There was all sorts of interesting stuff about division of labor, allocation of shares, pirate venture capital, etc. Some of this paralleled early modern piracy (as given a scholarly analysis in Peter Leeson's work and a romantic perspective in innumerable books and movies since Treasure Island) but in other respects it's very different. In particular, whereas early modern piracy was mostly about seizing cargo and the crews were left alone if they surrendered promptly, Somali piracy is more similar to piracy in antiquity in that it's basically maritime kidnapping. The typical instance of Somali piracy isn't that different from what a young Julius Caesar experienced when he was kidnapped by pirates and held for ransom on his way home from political exile in Asia Minor. One interesting detail in Plutarch's report is that, "When these men at first demanded of him twenty talents for his ransom, he laughed at them for not understanding the value of their prisoner, and voluntarily engaged to give them fifty."

It's not entirely clear if we should take Plutarch's report at face value (he also tells us that Caesar constantly insulted his captors as being, for instance, too uncivilized to appreciate his poetry) but for the sake of argument let's accept that Caesar rather brashly gave away too much information in the game of price discovery. According to a hostage negotiator quoted by This American Life, giving away this information is apparently typical of hostages and is counter-productive to their release as it narrows the bid-ask spread. Economists would describe hostage negotiation as a bilateral monopoly price negotiation that is structurally just a special case of chicken. That is, unlike a barrel of oil or a freight car full of soybeans which can trade on an extremely liquid market with innumerable buyers and sellers, a hostage has exactly one seller (the kidnappers) and exactly one buyer (the employer and/or family of the hostage). When there is only one buyer, the opportunity cost for ransoming the hostage is zero. Likewise, the employer and/or family has no realistic alternative means to recover the hostage. In order for everybody to walk away happy, we need a cooperate-cooperate outcome: the kidnapper has to give up the hostage and the employer/family has to give up a ransom. This structure also characterizes art theft, which in practice is not a matter of fencing art on the black market but ransoming art to a museum's insurance company.

If we model a bilateral monopoly negotiation only two things should matter. The first is, as always in a game of chicken, the willingness to accept failure. The more willing you appear to walk away, the more bargaining power you have. In a more protracted game this can cash out as willingness to delay which we can treat as a defect-defect outcome on the installment plan. In fact in the Planet Money episode on Somali piracy, the hostage's party did balk and break off negotiations for weeks at a time until the pirates were willing to come down on price.

The other thing that should matter is the capacity to pay. If the pirate knows for an absolute fact that the hostage's people simply can't raise more than a million dollars then it would be pointless for them to demand two million dollars. Of course there is an issue of information asymmetry in that the hostage's party has much better information on its assets than do the pirates and so the pirates may be skeptical of the hostage's party pleading poverty (especially if the hostage has foolishly told them how much money they can get). We see this at work in the TAL story's point that kidnapping insurance holds the condition that you can't tell anyone you have kidnapping insurance.

Here's something that the econ model tells us shouldn't matter: the going rate. In normal markets the going rate matters, but only because it provides the opportunities for substitutes and this creates the "law of one price." For instance, when I go to a grocery store and see a loaf of bread for $4 I won't buy it. An economist would say I forgo this purchase because I know perfectly well that the going rate for a loaf of bread is about $2.25 and so I can go elsewhere and get bread cheaper. Similarly if I go to the Honda dealer to buy a Honda Accord, it is relevant for me to mention price quotes offered by other Honda dealers for an Accord or even how much Toyota dealers ask for a Camry because it is entirely credible that I'll walk off the lot and go to rival car dealers offering very close substitutes for this dealer's cars. However if my sister is locked in a basement in Ciudad Juarez and the kidnappers can credibly commit to not letting her go unless I raise $x, it is completely irrelevant that in the past kidnappers accepted ransoms of $x/2 since I don't have the relatively good fortune of dealing with a kidnapper who demands $x/2 but am stuck with one who demands $x. There are no other places where I can buy the freedom of my sister and so the only price that matters is the one being demanded by her particular kidnappers. (Note to any cartels reading this: I don't have a sister).

Read the rest for a discussion of how "fair market price" concepts may or may not creep into such negotiations, and for the conclusion of Julius Caesar's kidnapping story.

The Politics of Drinking

The Campaign Stops blog had a discussion of "nanotargeting" in the 2012 election, zeroing in on all sorts of preference differences between those who lean Democrat and those who lean Republican in order to target advertising dollars more precisely. Of course, I can't resist the breakdown of alcohol preferences.
It turns out that I'm a slightly center-right drinker. (None of my favorite beers place, so I had to pick via hard liquors.) Gin is a distinctly left of center drink, with 45% of adherents leaning Democratic and 33% leaning Republican. Scotch is centrist 40% of Scotch drinkers leaning left and 38% leaning right. However, whiskey in general is preferred by 41% of those on the right and only 36% of those on the left, Bourbon leans right by 42% to 36%, and Rye trends GOP by 42% to 32%.

Cognac is the most Leftist drink while, to the shame of conservatives everywhere, the most conservative is Amstel Light.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Sick Day

This Thing has been going around. It is the Thing That Has No Name, to be identified only by its symptoms: fever, chills, mild nausea, lethargy, the ineluctable urge that drives children to pad through the night to hover beside their parents' bed. And the parents let them in, because parents are suckers and just want to get some sleep. I say parents, but the children always seem to materialize on my side of the bed and lay their flushed and germy faces on my pillow. It's a form of love, I think.

Today was declared a Sick Day. Two have the fever, two are recovering, and one of the convalescents has poison ivy. The happy exception to the fevered masses is Eleanor, whose 10th birthday looms ominously on Thursday, as if to provide a convenient target for an incubating ailment to suddenly irrupt. But today Eleanor was content, because sick children get to lay on the loveseat in the library and watch videos on Netflix, and when sick children hit a critical mass, even their healthy sister gets to veg. The children arranged themselves neatly on the couch, sans the kicking that usually accompanies too many bodies jockeying for position on a small sofa, for there was much anticipation: we are working our way through The Adventures of Tintin.

Tintin! The intrepid boy reporter! We never see him research anything or take any notes, nor yet send any reports in to his editor or bureau chief, and yet his reporter status confers on him a thrilling intrepid quality that can only be described as Intrepidity! He is brave and daring, even if he's a bit slow on the uptake sometimes. ("What's going on here?" he demands of a bad guy waiting for him with scimitar unsheathed.) That's okay, because between Tintin and Snowy, his little dog, the day will always be saved after plenty of adventures have ensued. The kids are absolutely hooked by the mysteriously adventurous theme music and the non-stop action.

The first fictional character on whom I had a crush was Encyclopedia Brown; I think Eleanor's will be Tintin. This sums up something fundamental about our personalities: Eleanor is drawn to derring-do and swashbuckling. When she is considering a book, her question is, "Is the whole world in danger?" (She prefers it to be saved by teenagers, but with No Kissing.) Whereas I have always liked the smart guy, and looking back to when I was circa Eleanor's age, I can see the roots of this preference. I was a small and mousy child in elementary school, neither popular nor pariah. The smart boys at school tended to be nice. One could have intelligent conversation with them on the playground. One could have swing races and shout out grandiose terms like "Altitude!" and "Longitude!" (even if one was shaky on the definitions of these fine bits of vocabulary). These boys knew how to be kind as well as witty. The handsome swashbuckling boys, by contrast, were brash, loud, overconfident, and not particularly inclined to civility or erudition. They could be mean, and they could be crude, and they teased knowingly, if ignorantly, about sex. I shrank from them, and despised them.

Eleanor, however, does not go to school, and she does not know any mean boys with their playground ways. All the boys of her acquaintance are basically good eggs, whether they like sports or science or board games. She doesn't know any jokes about sex. I'm in the happy position of raising a child who is more innocent at her age than I was at mine. In such innocence does real personality have a chance to flourish. It makes me wonder, would I like Brad Pitt more now if he didn't somehow remind me of the jerks in third grade?

Eleanor may get plenty more chances to bestow innocent admiration on Our Hero's prowess. I'm trying my best to ignore the achy sensation threatening to radiate from my spine and the subtle tightening of my skull. Oh well. If I have to spend tomorrow in bed, I'm not really worried -- I know Tintin will keep my girl safe.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Proust Mows the Lawn

Every so often, when I say that I'm currently "reading" a book, and then talk about it in such a way as to reveal that I'm listening to it as an audiobook, my interlocutor will say, "Oh, you mean you're listening. That's not really reading."

I don't hold that listening to an unabridged audiobook is such a different experience that one can't claim to have really "read" a book if one has listened to it, but there are some differences in the experience. One of these, I was thinking on today, since I was starting in on Swann's Way (superlatively read by Simon Vance, who has just the voice for Proust, though perhaps this I feel this way only because I am so attached to Vance's reading of Dance To The Music of Time, which is in many ways similar to Proust, but which thus far I prefer) while I was mowing the lawn. As Proust's narrative slides forward and backward in time, spurred by sights, sensations or events which remind him of others, I found myself thinking on the way in which listening to audiobooks over the last few years while working, driving or walking has attached specific bits of story to very particular places.

In our house back in Texas, there was a place that it was tricky to mow, under the children's slide, which I necessarily always associated with a letter written by Winston Churchill's wife Clementine, and recounted in John Lukac's The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler. Refinishing the back windows of that house I would always associate with the Union capture of New Orleans as recounted in The Civil War: A Narrative. A particular stretch of our lawn in the new house I always associate, when mowing it, with Levin's disdain for local councils in Anna Karenina and a hilly bit of the front yard always recalls Clemenceau's request to be buried standing up and facing Germany, as recounted in Margarent MacMillan's Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World.

Reading in print form, although I do usually have a book with me in case I have time to read, never seems to be so strongly associated with a single place, to the extent that, even several years later, I recall the place and the words invariably together.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Alone With The State

Politics is often very much a matter of worldview. As such, that which attracts people on one side will often repulse those on the other.

President Obama's campaign has put together a slick little Flash site called "The Life of Julia" which details the 67+ year life of a woman named Julia who has, though great providence, managed to live out her entire lifespan during the administration of President Obama.

When we first meet her, Julia is 3, and she has been enrolled in Head Start so that she'll be ready to "learn and succeed" in kindergarten. Under Romney, we are warned, the Head Start program might be cut 20%, and so Julia might not get her pre-school education.

We follow Julia through the rest of her life, as she benefits from Federal school programs, takes out federally subsidized student loans for her seven year odyssey through college, benefits from the contraceptive mandate, is protected from unfair pay practices by equal pay for equal work legislation, enjoys federally mandated maternity care when she "decides to have a child" at 31, sends her child to a public school full of federal programs, and eventually manages to fulfill everyones dream of retiring on social security and working in the community garden. All along the way, Obama is there, a benevolent presence protecting her from the rapacity of the Romney/Ryan budget.

I'm sure that Obama campaign would not have put out such a highly visible advertisement if they didn't think that it displayed all that was most wonderful about ObamaWorld. But to those who don't see their primary relationship in life as being with the all-protecting state, it's actually a mildly spooky piece of work. Julia is utterly alone. You never see her with parents, siblings, friends, boyfriend (or girlfriend, for that matter), or spouse. We see her pregnant once when she "decides to have a child", and we see her with her six-year-old son Zachary once when he goes off to his federal-program-filled kindergarten. But he's never seen again, nor is any other human being. Clearly, once Zach is under the sheltering arm of the state, he has no need to see his mother again. Nor does Julia need to see parents or siblings. She doesn't even need a spouse or other "life partner". She's got the state to watch out for her, and she has a fulfilling life with equal pay, a SBA loan to start her web design business, and a community garden to work in when she retires on social security. So in each image she appears alone. Safely cocooned from the need to rely on or interact with others. All she needs is the state.

I just hope they've legalized drugs too. It's a brave new world out there.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

This Old Bathroom

When we first looked at our house, it was clear that the window in one of the upstairs bathrooms would need some work. Even through the storm window we could see the water damage, the rusted metal, the paint so bubbled and deformed that the latch couldn't catch, the rotted sill. The window is original to the 1929 restoration, as are most in the house. We didn't want to lose it. We want to restore it.

A month or so back, we had a representative of the Super-Duper Historical Restoration company out to assess the damage and give an repair estimate. The guy was very affable, very professional, very competent. He knew about previous work that had been done on the house, about the great attic collapse before our time, in which the ceiling had been so rotted out that the whole thing had fallen in. His company had done the repair work on that, and a good job it had been too. Indeed, the wallpaper is so fresh and clean upstairs that one feels the very air of 1910 stirring as you look at it. And a week or so later, the company sent us an estimate, neatly laid out on letterhead with clean graphics: $4700.

I don't even mind laying out that figure for the collective eyeballing of the internet, because it was so stratospheric that we were beyond being conflicted after we finished gasping for air. $4700? It is to laugh. Even after we asked for a reformatted estimate which assumed that we ourselves would do the refinishing work -- hey, I can strip paint with the best of them, but removing a window from the second story is a bit beyond my capabilities -- the ludicrous figure budged, but not enough.

Fortunately, about this time we were given the phone number of a guy the next street over, who has done restoration work in the neighborhood for years. He came over and chatted with Darwin about the house, the area, the work he's done around. I've seen his jobs in various homes. He knows the lathe, the plaster, the fixtures, the styles, and the local contractors. He bills hourly, and his estimate was thousands of dollars lower than than the Super-Duper guys.

Along with the window work, we're getting lights installed in the showers so we don't have to bathe in the murky shadows.

Maybe we'll have him put outlets in the library so we don't have to run the computer off extension cords. Three-prong outlets! The mind boggles.

After the window, the paint. The bathroom is tiled green, with a border of yellow tiles the same color as the wall (see under the tub, above). The walls are painted the same yellow as the tiles, which can be a bit... overpowering, not to mention dated. I love choosing paint colors, so much so that I'm paralyzed with indecision. The strong yellow afflicts me with an excess of choler, which may explain my irritability at bathing three splashing children at once.

(These photos were taken before we moved in and in no way reflect the cleanliness and clutter level of our lives.)