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

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Stuff for your Saturday


Biggest thing first: January 2014 marks the publishing debut of Darwin's sister Rosamund Hodge. Her YA novel Cruel Beauty is a steampunk/Greek mythology/Victoriana retelling of Cupid and Psyche set in a world with a paper sky. Here's a sneak peek at the cover, plus an interview in which she reveals how publishing a book is just part of a grand plot to get back at Darwin.


Speaking of beautiful girls with death wishes, here are some exploding Disney princesses:


Speaking of things that might not make everyone laugh, here's the most intellectual jokes that Slate can compile, with explanations for those who may get it. Here's what made me laugh out loud:
 “Two women walk into a bar and talk about the Bechdel test.” 
Why it’s funny: Because “Bechdel test” is actually the name of a guy the first woman is dating.


Speaking of things that people don't understand, io9 has an increasingly incensed Q&A on the Star Trek: Into Darkness plot, which sounds like a hot mess. People who've seen it assure me that it makes sense while you're watching it, but I dunno. Lots of spoilers at the link, which didn't matter to me because Brandon already totally spoiled the movie for me, except that I didn't believe him until I read it here because it sounded so ludicrous.


We watched The Muppets the other night, and I thought it was a mixed bag. Overall, it was mostly sweet and feel-good, but the theme of nostalgia didn't seem in keeping with the tone of the other Muppet movies, and it wasn't as wall-to-wall funny either. I don't think that the meta-theme of Muppets as The Muppets will hold up as well as The Muppets Take Manhattan or The Great Muppet Caper, in which it was just taken for granted that these characters fit into society just as they were (except for Gonzo, of course).

It was a curious commentary that after we saw a movie with four or five new songs, the one we all hummed afterwards was "Mahna Mahna".

Friday, June 28, 2013

99 Years Ago Today: The Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and His Wife

On June 28th, 1914, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, fifty-year old Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo by a 19-year-old Bosnian-Serb nationalist. The assassination began an at first slow-moving diplomatic crisis which would result a month later, July 28th, in Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia.

The assassination plot itself was so badly botched that its success is one of the surprising events of history. A group of Bosnian-Serb nationalists (half of them teenagers) -- who wanted Bosnia-Herzegovina to be independent from Austria-Hungary and integrated into a pan-Slavic state -- had received bombs, pistols and cyanide pills from officers in the Serbian army sympathetic to their cause. They planned an assassination attempt against the Archduke and his wife and stationed themselves along the route which their open car would travel through the city. Several of the assassins failed to make any move when the car passed and another threw a bomb at the car, however the bomb bounced off the folded convertible hood, fell behind the car, and exploded, disabling the next car in the motorcade and injuring a number of bystanders. The assassin who had thrown the bomb bit a cyanide capsule and jumped off a bridge, but the cyanide only made him sick and the fall wasn't far and the river nearly dry, so he was quickly arrest by police (though not before members of the angry crowd beat him.)

Determined to show they were undaunted by the failed attack, Archduke Ferdinand and Sophie performed their visit to the city hall, where they were formally greeted by the major and the Archduke made a brief speech in which he mentioned the attack but thanked the people of Sarajevo for their supportive response to him.

The Archduke and his wife then decided to visit those wounded in the attack and got back into their motorcade to proceed to the hospital. The motorcade took a wrong turn, and one of the would-be-assassins, Gavrilo Princip, (who had repaired to a delicatessen when the assassination attempt failed) stepped out into the street and saw the Archduke's car, which had taken a wrong turn, gone to reverse, and then stalled. Princip rushed the car and fired two shots at a distance of five feet, one of which pierced Franz Ferdinand's jugular vein and the other of which wounded Sophie in the stomach. Both were dead by the time the car reached the governor's residence where they were rushed for medical treatment. Franz Ferdinand's last words were, "Sophie, Sophie! Don't die! Live for our children!"

When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia mobilized its armies to potentially intervene in protection of Serbia. Germany demanded the Russia cease mobilizing, and when it failed to do so declared war on Russia on August 1st and France and Belgium on August 3nd. Thus began the First World War.

Princip was spared the death penalty because he was a month short of the legal age of 20 at the time of the assassination. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison, but died of illness in 1918.

Alive and Kicking

I'm in that nice part of pregnancy in which I can almost forget, at times, that I'm pregnant. Oh, you know what I mean. I love Baby, but it's good to be able to sit around and feel normal, not queasy or exhausted or too heavy or full of the thousand natural shocks that pregnant flesh is heir to. Particularly lovely is to be able to lay in bed in mostly comfort and to poke at the baby.

Baby is precocious. I've never felt a child quicken so early. At the tender age of 14 weeks it started giving kicks and flutters and rolls that I can discern as movement and not just intestinal rumblings or the pulse in my stomach. And I've never felt a child so articulated so soon. This is not just a blob of baby. It has a back, a head, little hands and feet, and I can feel them through my stomach. I can't imagine this is just a case of the grand multipara knowing what to prod for. This is unmistakeable. Baby floats up near the top a lot when I'm laying down, and, well, there Baby is, large as life.

Large as life, indeed. This morning my seven-year-old and I lay in my bed and looked down at the huge lopsided lump on the right side of my stomach. We poked it, feeling the long smooth back, and it gave such a lurch on the on the other side of my stomach that I yipped. Maybe it's payback -- I spend so much time laying on my back, nudging baby in amazement that I can actually feel it, that Baby is getting mad at me.

That's part and parcel of life here. I feel like I've lost control of the laundry, the cleaning, the cooking, the grocery shopping, almost everything. Not that those things don't get done, but that all system has broken down, and everything happens on an as-needed basis. And yet we have clothes to wear and food keeps appearing on the table at roughly dinner time and no one has collapsed from rickets or scurvy or an overdose of cheerios.  The kids down the street make blithe comments to the effect of, "Gee, your house sure is messy!" and yet keep coming over, day after day, to play here for hours. Baby's rapid growth is startling, but that early squdging around is a benefit I hadn't counted on. It seems life keeps on kicking whether or not I've got all my ducks in a row.

The next month is packed almost to overflowing with life-changing events: my baby sister gets married, my friend gets married and my nephew gets baptized. My little brother gets married at the end of summer. Everything is growing fast, getting bigger and livelier and more chaotic and better than anyone could have planned. None of these things require my intervention. They happen, and happen well, without my having to put a hand in, and thank God for that. All I have to do is show up and let these kids kick me around.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Left Discovers Inheritance Taxes Are Unfair

Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic has a post approving of yesterday's ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act. His jumping off point is a NY Times piece that explains the lawsuit with which the DOMA challenge originated as follows (I can't find this paragraph in the NY Times article he linked do, though I do find copies of that paragraph elsewhere, so the NYT may have edited the article since posting):
The case on the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307, concerned two New York City women, Edith Windsor and Thea Clara Spyer, who married in 2007 in Canada. Ms. Spyer died in 2009, and Ms. Windsor inherited her property. The 1996 law did not allow the Internal Revenue Service to treat Ms. Windsor as a surviving spouse, and she faced a tax bill of about $360,000 that a spouse in an opposite-sex marriage would not have had to pay. Ms. Windsor sued, and last year the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, struck down the 1996 law.
Coates's reaction to this is:
The state repossessing a couple's wealth because it finds them icky, is wholly unjust.
It is wrong to strip people of wealth because you are bigot. It is wrong to strip people of the right to name their caretakers because you are afraid. It is wrong to make war on people because you can not get over yourself. And though today we may say that we have advanced, through much of this country, the wrong continues unabated.
Now, this was kind of interesting to me. Generally speaking, when people on the left talk about inherited money, they talk about it in terms of society taking a fair share of money that one rich person passes on to another rich person who doesn't deserve it. I've even heard progressives suggest that the state should automatically confiscate all money on someone's death, allowing no inheritance at all. But here we have the claim that an inheritance tax is "the state repossessing [someone's] wealth because it finds them icky".

Let's think about that one for a moment. Say that I have a child who is dependent on me long term (lives with me, I support him, etc.) I die, and I've designated him as my heir. If the estate that I leave is large enough, the state will tax that estate. Does that mean that the state finds the parent/child estate "icky"? Not to my knowledge.

How does inheritance tax work different for spouses than for other heirs?

The normal way the estate tax works is that a certain amount of inheritance is "exempt" and then the remainder of the estate above that exemption is taxed at some rate. So, for instance, in 2009 (when the partner of the plaintiff in the DOMA case died, the exemption was $3.5 million (not counting life insurance and other fully exempt source of money) and the maximum rate of the table of rates charged against the inheritance above the exempt amount was 45%.

However, because spouses are seen as forming a single economic unit, the estate tax has normally exempted occasions in which the surviving spouse inherits from a deceased spouse.

So, what is it that Ms. Windsor suffered as a result of DOMA? If the IRS refused to recognize her as a spouse, she would have been taxed at some rate on the money in excess of $3.5 million. Apparently this would have resulted in a tax of $360,000. So, Ms. Windsor would have inherited some sort of amount over $4.1 million (assuming the top rate) but instead she apparently inherited some amount over $3.8 million.

Now, I actually agree this is unfair. Money which is inherited has already been taxed when it's earned, and the really rich mostly find ways to get around the tax anyway. I think we should just abolish the inheritance tax entirely.

Assuming that we keep the estate tax, any decision as to what sort of heirs are exempt and which aren't is going to be necessarily arbitrary. Is it fair that a financially independent spouse would be exempt while a financially dependent child would not? What about a sibling? Why can someone you live with be exempt only if you have an officially recognized sexual relationship but not a non-sexual relationship?

To an extent, I think the blanked amount exemption is meant to deal with these potential unfairnesses. Sure, the rules on who can inherit without paying tax may be arbitrary, but the first $3.5 million (back in 2009, now extended to $5 million in inflation-adjusted 2011 dollars) of your estate is exempt no matter who you leave it to. So even if you're impacted by the estate tax at all, you already have a fair amount of money in hand.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

We Pray Always for Your Good

Perhaps many will soon find themselves in the position that my family was in recently, on the announcement of a relative's impending homosexual union, recognized in that state as marriage. The announcement could not go unanswered, and yet what could we say? This person is very aware of my family's observant Catholicism and knew that we would not endorse this behavior. However, we love our relative very much and didn't want to cause an irreparable breach in our relationship.

Some combatants in the cultural wars think that it is an ironclad defense to assert, "Well, you may be dogmatic about issue X, but if it became personal, if it was your family member who [comes out as a homosexual, gets pregnant out of wedlock, has an unhappy marriage], you'd change your views pretty quickly." Not so. Our faith is built upon a rock and does not sway with the shifting tides of circumstance or personal tragedy. The question was, not should we embrace this event, but how best to give an answer rooted in God's own love, without implying our consent to this event.

In great agitation, I went down to sit in adoration, only to find that the church was closed. So from the parking lot, which was the closest I could get to the Eucharist, I sat and tapped out this reply in the name of the family:
Dear [Name] 
We all love you very much and acknowledge what a happy time this must be for you and [partner]. Even though you know that we all believe that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, I hope you also know that we pray always for your good and that you will always know God's will for your life. Keep us in your prayers as you are in ours.
Our relative was thoughtful enough not to invite us to the ceremony, knowing we would not attend.

This matter has been a cause for intense grief and heartache for us, and though we seem to have maintained this relationship, hateful words have been hurled at my family from other quarters. Again, what can we do? We can only meet hate with love and ignorance with understanding, and pray that God's will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Speak the speech... trippingly upon the tongue"

...And when we hold our Shakespeare reading, we're all going to speak the way Shakespeare intended.
Inspired by working with Kevin Spacey, Sir Trevor Nunn has claimed that American accents are "closer" than contemporary English to the accents of those used in the Bard's day. 
The eminent Shakespearean scholar John Barton has suggested that Shakespeare's accent would have sounded to modern ears like a cross between a contemporary Irish, Yorkshire and West Country accent. 
Others say that the speech of Elizabethans was much quicker than it is in modern day Shakespeare productions. 
Well, now you can judge for yourself.
 Close on twelve years ago, Darwin and I went to a production of Measure for Measure directed by Sir Trevor Nunn. The program mentioned his interest in recapturing Shakespeare's original accents, and the vocal design of the production was supposed to be based on his research. I don't remember much how it sounded; we were up in the nosebleed section, so many of the nuances of the performances were lost on us.

What strikes me on listening to the selections is not just the beauty of the voices, but how good it is to hear Shakespeare acted, and acted well. I'm used to reading Shakespeare in print, or reading it aloud to the kids, or (occasionally) hearing it recited either as monologues or in groups reading scenes or plays. But recitation is not acting, and Shakespeare is, first, for acting.

All Same-Sex Couples Are Infertile

Back in my native state of California, ever at the cutting edge of cultural change, the State Assembly has passed a bill, AB-460, which is now being considered by the State Senate. This bill (which Matthew Shadle blogs about cogently over at Catholic Moral Theology) would extend the state of California's currently requirement that medical insurance plans "offer coverage for the treatment of infertility, except in vitro fertilization" and enforce that requirement "without discrimination on the basis of age, ancestry, color, disability, domestic partner status, gender, gender expression, gender identity, genetic information, marital status, national origin, race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation."

In other words: Insurers would now be required to provide infertility treatments to same sex couples.

Of course, the thing is, no one has ever become pregnant as a result of sexual activity between two people of the same sex. It just can't happen. This is biological reality. Two men engaging in sexual activities together, or two women engaging in sexual activities together, will never result in conception. As a result, it seems like calling this problem "infertility" is more than a little odd. The reason why same sex couples do not conceive children is not that there's something wrong with how their bodies work -- it's that what they'd doing isn't capable of producing children.

As Shadle points out in the above post, classifying the failure of same sex couples to conceive children on their own represents a fascinating philosophical about-face by proponents of same sex relationships. When proponents of traditional marriage have insisted that only people of the opposite sex can get married because only people of the opposite sex can have children together, the response was that having children did not necessarily have a place in modern marriage. Marriage is just about a loving relationship. If some people choose to have children, that's their own affair.

Now, however, the tune has changed, and it's being argued that since people in loving, committed relationships can expect to have children, if they can't conceived children together there is obviously something wrong and insurance should cover medical procedures to solve it.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Teacher Fired: Blaming the Victim to Avoid Risk

In one of those local news stories that catches the popular imagination, second grade Catholic school teacher Carie Charlesworth made first local and then national news when Holy Trinity School of El Cajon, CA told her that they could not renew her contract for the next school year (and also that her four children could no longer attend the school), in order to assure the safety of the school's students. Ms. Charlesworth had been the victim of domestic violence by her ex-husband. She had a restraining order against him which he had repeatedly violated, resulting in 911 calls by her. The ex-husband then showed up during school hours in the school parking lot, resulting in the school going into "lockdown" procedures and the ex-husband being arrested.

Charlesworth and her four kids, who also attended Holy Trinity School, have not been back since the January incident. A letter was sent home to parents the following day, explaining the situation and noting Charlesworth and her children were being put "on an indefinite leave.”

While Charlesworth’s husband went to jail on two felony charges, she says she felt like a criminal too.

“And that’s what it felt like, the kids and I were being punished for something we didn’t even do,” she told NBC 7 San Diego.

Three months later, another letter arrived in the mail delivering a crushing blow. Charlesworth was fired for good, and after 14 years in the district not allowed to teach at any other Diocesan school.
The letter stated:

"We know from the most recent incident involving you and Mrs. Wright (the principal) while you were still physically at Holy Trinity School, that the temporary restraining order in effect were not a deterrent to him. Although we understand he is current incarcerated, we have no way of knowing how long or short a time he will actually serve and we understand from court files that he may be released as early as next fall. In the interest of the safety of the students, faculty and parents at Holy Trinity School, we simply cannot allow you to return to work there, or, unfortunately, at any other school in the Diocese."

When asked for a response, Tom Beecher, Director of the San Diego Diocese Office for Schools wrote in an email to NBC 7 San Diego: “The diocese does not make public comment about personnel issues.”

Obviously, only one side of the story is being covered, since the school and diocese probably can't legally air all their thoughts since they involve personnel decisions and an ongoing lawsuit, but this certainly looks like the workings of a risk-averse bureaucratic mindset failing to take into account the human problems at play. The "anything to keep the kids safe" mentality seem to be at play here. And indeed, a number of parents of other children at the school have apparently spoken up in favor of Charlesworth's dismissal on those grounds.

Some critics have tried to tie this story in with news stories about Catholic school teachers being fired for violating Church teaching. Many Catholic schools have in their contracts a clause requiring teachers to live in accordance with Catholic teaching, and thus teachers have ended up being fired for offenses such as having a "same sex marriage" or deciding to become a single mother via artificial insemination. However, that seems to do an obvious miss-use to Charlesworth's case in order to score culture-war points. The problem with what happened in this case is that, at least according to the story as we know it, the school and the diocese decided to cut a teacher (and four students) off on the theory it was safer to do so than to deal with the possibility that her ex-husband might attempt some sort of crime against her while she was on school premises. Given that the last time he even showed up on school grounds, the school successfully called the police and he landed in jail for 6+ months, it seems like the degree of threat is pretty minor, and obviously the repercussions for Charlesworth and her children were potentially very large. (A private school in the Los Angeles area has apparently now offered Charlesworth a new job, so one hopes she will, in the end, get a more secure home and job out of this.)

In cases where teachers violate the morality clause in their contracts, however, they not only break the terms of their employment, they also undermine the reason-for-being of Catholic schools, which is to provide an environment in which Catholic teaching is lived and taught. In Charlesworth's case, it seems rather that it is the school which, in its rush to avoid all appearance of risk, is failing to live and teach Catholic morals.

Seven Quick Takes for Monday

It's hot, and my big girls are out of town so it's quiet, and maybe it's pregnancy but the whole house smells like ashes despite the fact that I cleaned out the fireplace thoroughly two months ago and the window have been open ever since. I haven't had an interesting thought all day, so here's some vapidity to bring you down to my level.


The Beach Boys remixed, or unmixed, or unhinged.

This is totally how it sounds when my siblings and I sing together. H/T Jen.


If the world were run like airlines.


Despite the less than stellar reviews, I have this urge to see The Great Gatsby on the big screen. Darwin is not necessarily pressed to do likewise, and I don't think it's worth spending babysitting capital on (a big calculation in my cinematic calculations), so what I ought to do is go see it on my own. But do you know, I don't think I've ever gone to see a movie in the theater by myself. For years I've gone, when I do go, with Darwin. Before I knew him, I went with friends. (High in the tales of ignominious movie confessions: In my youth I went with a boyfriend on his sixteenth birthday to see Waterworld, making me one of the ten people in the nation to financially support that debacle. I think I paid, too. The whole incident was a metaphor for that relationship.)


Paul Giamatti is joining the cast of Downton Abbey in Season 4 as Cora's brother. The burning question: will this be enough to overcome our apathy and nudge us toward watching the last three episodes of Season 3, or are three seasons enough for any TV show?


Actually, the real Downton question is: Will Season 4 show the wizards finally using their magical powers?


From a list of The Ugliest Churches in the World, the very first example:

Touchdown Jesus, in front of Solid Rock Church, in Monroe, Ohio, off of I-75. I've driven past it more than once. However, this list is out of date. Touchdown Jesus was struck by lightning and burned to the  ground several years ago. Undaunted by this traditional sign of divine disapprobation, the church vowed to rebuild, but decided to tone down the camp.

Well, it's an improvement. But as we drove past it Saturday night, I was seized with pangs of nostalgia for the old statue. There's not much to look at between Dayton and Cincinnati; Touchdown Jesus was a landmark in swath of fields and flea markets.


If you're looking for something a bit more substantial, check out Darwin in his radio debut, speaking about Catholicism and evolution.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Reading

Every year, friends of mine throw a big bash on the weekend closest to Midsummer. This involves drink, zany costumes pulled from a big store kept especially for the occasion, lots of laughter, and of course, a reading of A Midsummer Night's Dream for which all participants are randomly assigned parts by pulling scrolls out of a hat. This is the sort of silliness that ensues:

I drew Titania; the scroll is tucked into the top of my dress. (No pockets, you see.) Darwin's costume and attitude are inspired by Monty Python. Photo credit to JS.
This year's party is this weekend, and we are fully prepared to have delightful times and look ridiculous and throw ourselves into bit roles, because you can't get Titania every year, though you can trade up if you catch someone with a big part who doesn't like to read in front of people.

It is events like this that make me wonder why we so seldom do the things we find most enjoyable. I've taken part in a handful of dramatic readings over the years, from Midsummer to Love's Labour's Lost to The Jeweler's Shop to Matthew Lickona's Surfing with Mel, and each one has left me wanting more. Putting together a play reading is easier and less time-consuming than throwing together a musical in one's uncle's barn, but I've never moved to organize one myself. And yet, who doesn't have access to a copy of the Collected Works of Wm. Shakes.? Everyman or Our Town or Murder in the Cathedral can be found in every library in the US.  It's slightly more difficult to organize a cadre of interested and able readers, but that's where the party comes in. Food to bring 'em in, and drink to keep 'em there, and by the second act everyone's brilliant.

Ah well. Whenever I host my own dramatic reading, you're all invited to come and raid the stash of 50s and 60s outfits in my attic, and if someone brings a record player we can play the stacks of wax up in the in the closets, and we'll horse trade until we're all kind of satisfied with our parts, and then we'll make the Bard proud.

Friday, June 21, 2013

On Re-Reading

One of the interesting things about following blogs of several different types is that one ends up running into conversations that wouldn't necessarily occur to you in your primary milieu. I was struck by the conversation that followed when Art Carden posted over at EconTalk on the topic: Which Books Should We Re-Read?
My last entry mentioned a re-reading of Atlas Shrugged, which got me thinking about the books people should not merely "read wholly, and with diligence and attention," but re-read, perhaps several times.

Which books (fiction and non-fiction) fit the bill? Off the top of my head, I'd say Atlas Shrugged, Les Miserables, CS Lewis's The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity, 1984, Animal Farm, The Brothers Karamazov (which I've read once but which I know I'll be re-reading carefully), and obviously a bunch of others I'm forgetting. In economics, I'd put Mises's Human Action and Hayek's Individualism and Economic Order at the top of the list. I'm also planning to read and re-read as much of the collected works of Adam Smith as I can over the next year or so.
I'd mostly pick different re-reading targets, but this is the sort of thing that I'm a sucker for, so I immediately figured I'd write a post on books that I've re-read most often and books I plan to re-read soon. But first I started skimming down the comments, and that's where I ran into the difference between this audience and that of some of the more bibliophilic blogs I normally read. Commenter Hadur writes:
I can understand why some non-fiction books might be objectively worthy of multiple readings, because the ideas contained therein are important and perhaps not obvious the first time around. Of course it is highly arguable whether understanding a non-fiction book itself is actually important, or if what's more important is to understand the ideas therein: why re-read Adam Smith when you can get the same from reading the secondary literature on it?

But are any fiction books truly "important" in the same sense? Seems a lot more subjective: people should re-read the books they think they will derive pleasure from re-reading. Perhaps some novels are so complex that they typically have to be read several time before the reader "gets it" to the full extent the author intended (or even beyond), but it seems like an equally rational response to those books, in the presence of limited time, is to toss them.

F. Lynx Pardinus responded:
I think you get more than just "the same" from reading the secondary literature. I had a conversation a few days ago: A (religious) relative had decided to re-study one of the books in the Bible for the umpteenth time. I suggested that, instead of limiting herself to her own perspective, she grab a few religious and historical commentaries on the text from the local library to open herself to other perspectives. I would imagine it's a similar experience reading a few pieces of secondary literature on, say, Adam Smith.
And Hadur replied:
I am inclined to agree. I think that reading the great books or the "classics" is more or less a form of conspicuous consumption. People do it to appear smart or cultured or what have you.

Literally millions of people have read these books before you. Chances are that at least a few of them are one or more of the following (i) smarter than you; (ii) a more insightful reader than you; (iii) a better writer/summarizer of others than either you or the author of the great book, and a few of them probably left behind secondary literature.

Should we, as people who read a free market blog, not defer to those experts to produce our understanding of great books, much as we would defer to an efficient pin factory for our pin-making, instead of making pins at home?
These bring up some interesting questions about re-reading, or indeed reading, at all -- questions I wouldn't normally even think about because the value of reading and re-reading seems so blindingly obvious to me.

Reading Primary vs. Secondary Sources
I think one can come at this question in terms of information, an approach which might be familiar to the people bringing the question up. Certainly, it makes sense that, if a work is acknowledged as "great" there are probably a lot of people who have read the work before you and written about it. Many of them may be smarter than you or know more about the general topic than you, so it stands to reason that reading their works about the work itself may be of benefit to you. However, you, as an outsider, don't have a good way of knowing which of these people are insightful and which are howlingly wrong-headed, and if you never read the great work itself, you'll have no basis for assessing how well their assessments of the work align with the work itself. It can take often take more expert knowledge to ascertain who is (to your mind) the best expert to read on a great work as simply to read the great work itself.

Arguably, the best balance, if this is a great work you care about a lot, is to read the work, then read several pieces about it by people who are acclaimed as experts, and then read the work again with their commentary in mind. This allows you the chance to benefit from their expertise while grounding it in the reality of the work.

What Do You Read Fiction For?
Underlying these and several other comments, it seemed to me, are varying ideas as to why one would read fiction anyway. Do we read fiction only for entertainment? Can fiction books convey ideas, or do we merely read them to find out what happens?

Arguably, some books are simply pleasure reads. We read them to find out what happens, to escape to another place, to follow some interesting characters. Sometimes we read in order to vicariously experience what it's like to live in some time or place very different from our own. Also, we at times read for the sheer enjoyment of experiencing a good author's prose.

However, I would say the primary reason for reading fiction, to my mind, is that in fiction we experience a distilled and meaningful version of reality. A fiction author takes character, events, and indeed the whole world, and zeros in on the things which he thinks are significant. As such, in a sense, the author, by choosing what to convey, is telling us: This is what things mean. This is how people work. This is how the world works. This is what turns events into a story.

In real life, we are constantly bombarded by events and sensations. Figuring out what things mean and where things are going can be difficult. Fiction seeks to answer these questions by selecting those things that are significant, those things that make experiences a story, and presenting only those.

As such, we read fiction in order to understand something about the world -- or at least, how the author thinks the world is. In this regard the purpose may be very similar to that in reading non-fiction, but the process is very different. In non-fiction, the author tells us "this is what happened" or "this is how the world words" and we, the readers, try to compare that explanation to our experience of life and see if we agree. In fiction, the author shows us the world, but a world filtered down to only those events which are meaningful. We look at that world-in-small and draw conclusions from it. Based on our own beliefs and experiences, those conclusions may or may not be the same as the authors. Thus, fiction is a more wide-open means of communication than non-fiction, though at the same time in some ways a more subtle one. A sufficiently good author can create a world real enough that different people will draw different things from it, and the same person will draw different things from it at different points in his life.

Why Re-Read Fiction?
That last point points toward one of the obvious reasons for re-reading a good book. Re-reading is not simply a matter of refreshing one's mind as to what happens in the story. Coming at a good story again, one notices new things because one's interplay with the reality presented in the story is different. You get new things out of re-reading a novel because you are different than when you read it before.

One way in which you are different is moderately trivial, but it can result in catching meaning and themes you might not have before. When you are re-reading, you already know "what happens" and so you have a certain leisure to look around -- just as when you are diving a familiar route you have more opportunity to look at the scenery than when you are trying to navigate some unfamiliar place for the first time. Thus, you get new things out of a good book when you re-read simply because you are different as a reader.

However, a book can also benefit from re-reading when one is at a different stage of life, when one comes back with different experiences and beliefs. This different background will cause you to notice things and draw conclusions that you might not have before.

The book that I've re-read the most times in my life -- leaving aside the picture books which I've read aloud scores of times for the benefit of various young listeners -- is probably Lord of the Rings. It's been five or six years since I last read it, though, and I'm starting to have the urge to read it again, though I don't know how soon I'll have the chance. Other most re-read novels would include Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time novels, and Tim Powers' Declare and Last Call. I'm sure I've read LotR more than six times, and the others listed at least 3-4 each.

I haven't been re-reading much recently, because I've been trying to get through a very long novel-research reading list as quickly as possible, but the next re-read I have planned is a third pass through War & Peace. Some of Tolstoy's philosophizing about history (and life in general) drove me up the wall, yet overall I think he did a very good job of writing the Big Historical Novel. Since I'm trying to plan a Big Historical Novel myself, I figure it's something I should pass through again with a special eye towards how it's constructed.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

In Death, Eternal LIfe

Donald McClarey, whose son died a month ago yesterday, posted a prayer in time of grieving yesterday which all of us will find ourselves in need of at some points in this life:

God of life and death, You have taken a beloved one from me. My heart is very heavy. I recall that Your Son, Jesus Christ, became man in all things except sin and that He groaned in sorrow at the death of His friend, Lazarus. I unite my grief with Yours dear Jesus, as You stood at the tomb of Lazarus.

O Virgin Mother, you know what it was like losing your husband Joseph, and then your child. dying suspended between earth and heaven, with a sword piercing your sweet soul. To you do I come in sorrow, begging strength from your intercession, from you who fully understand what it is like to lose one so dear and close.

Share with me, dear Mother of God, the courage, the strong faith that you had in the future resurrection. Even after Jesus came back to life and ascended into heaven, you knew you were to be left alone for many years before your own assumption into heaven. You comforted the Apostles as their Queen and Mother during those years. Grant comfort to me now as I sorrow in pain at the loss by the separation that has come as a result of the sin of our first parents and my own sins. Wipe away my tears with the merciful love of your Immaculate Heart as you unite me with my loved one through the grace of the Sacred Heart of your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

He also notes the profound difference that Christianity makes in our understanding of death and of life after death:
Without God my dead son would be nothing, I would be nothing and all that I love would be nothing. With God, this brief life is a mere doorway into splendor unimaginable and a love that surpasses understanding. In the grief I experience now I truly understand, with my heart, as I always have with my mind, my utter and absolute dependence upon the grace, mercy and love of God.
Too often, with the help of a modern world which seeks to hide our mortality, we miss Christ's central message: He came to forgive sins and to offer us eternal life with the Father in heaven. That is what we are made for. When we lose sight of the place of death and eternal life in Christianity, we lose track of the meaning of Christ himself, and turn our faith into a mere social improvement club.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Charles Darwin's Great, Great Great Granddaughter Becomes Catholic Apologist

Laura Keynes is a descendant of both biologist Charles Darwin and economist John Maynard Keynes. She's also now a Catholic apologist. The UK's Catholic Herald has her story:
‘Are you related to the economist?” People sometimes ask when they see my surname. I explain that, yes, John Maynard Keynes is my great-great-uncle – his brother Geoffrey married Margaret Darwin, my great-grandmother. “So you’re related to Darwin too?” Yes, he’s my great-great-great grandfather. Eyes might fall on the cross around my neck: “And you’re a Christian?” Yes, a Catholic. “How does a Darwin end up Catholic?”

The question genuinely seems to puzzle people. After all, Darwin ushered in a new era of doubt with his theory of evolution, and the Bloomsbury Group, of which Keynes was a part, influenced modern attitudes to feminism and sexuality. How can I be a product of this culture, and yet Catholic? The implication is that simple exposure to my ancestors’ life work should have shaken me out of my backwards error.
Among my family members religion is seen as an anachronism at best, a pernicious form of tyranny at worst. So where do I get it from?

Mum converted to Catholicism shortly after I was born, having been Anglican prior to that. My parents’ marriage was a mismatch of personalities and values. It was annulled soon after I came along. Mum worked full-time as a single mother, while raising my brother and me in the Faith, attending Mass at Blackfriars in Cambridge. Fortunately, she remained on terms with my father and the extended Keynes family. If there was any sense in which they saw my Catholic upbringing as indoctrination, or “child abuse” in the way Richard Dawkins has characterised it, I had no inkling of that, except perhaps once when my father asked me what sins a 10-year-old could possibly have to confess. He was a near contemporary of Christopher Hitchens at the Leys School, and a product of the same cultural forces that formed Hitchens’s brand of atheism.

By the time I was in my teens Mum had become a Buddhist. My brother rejected any form of organised religion that contravened his ethic of autonomy. My only link to the Church came through school, St Mary’s, Cambridge, which I left at 16 for college. Away from any contact with the Church, secular values prevailed and I drifted into agnosticism. It wasn’t until my mid to late 20s, while studying for a doctorate in philosophy at Oxford University, that life gave me cause to reassess those values. Relationships, feminism, moral relativism, the sanctity and dignity of human life: experience put them all under my scrutiny.

By this point Dawkins had sparked “the God debate” with The God Delusion, and my great-great-great grandfather’s theory of natural selection by evolution was being used to support New Atheism. Aware that Darwin himself said “Agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind” and “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent theist and an evolutionist”, I followed the debate carefully. Did evidence for evolution necessarily imply atheism?
...I read central texts on both sides of the debate and found more to convince me in the thoughtful and measured responses of Alister McGrath and John Cornwell, among others, than in the impassioned prose of Hitchens et al. New Atheism seemed to harbour a germ of intolerance and contempt for people of faith that could only undermine secular Humanist claims to liberalism. Moreover, it could not adequately account for the problem of morality, discussed by C S Lewis in Mere Christianity, without recourse to an inherently contradictory argument.
Read the whole piece here.

I used to blog more about evolution, though I eventually left it off because I felt like I'd said most of what I had to say, and the whole "do Christianity and evolution contradict each other" debate seems to go in circles rather than progress. However, soon-to-be-family-member apparently thought of me first when it came to commenting on the story, and so I ended up doing a brief radio interview the other day for the Son Rise Morning Show on Sacred Heart Radio dealing with Laura Keynes' reversion to the faith. If you have any interest in hearing it, I'm told the interview will play tomorrow (Wednesday June 19th) morning at 6:35AM Eastern. You can hear it online here. The piece may re re-run on Thursday the 20th at 7:45AM Eastern.

Prepping for the discussion, I had occasion to go back over my old evolution posts and realized that since they were mostly written to respond to specific posts or questions, they were kind of spotty and disorganized when it comes to presenting an overall discussion of the issue. Maybe it's time to revisit the topic with a more mature eye.

Contrition as the Pre-requisite for Forgiveness

The gospel from last Sunday struck me with unusual force. The story is the familiar one in which Jesus is dining with a Pharisee and a woman known as a sinner approaches Jesus and washes his feet.
Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping
and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”

Jesus said to him in reply, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Tell me, teacher, ” he said.

“Two people were in debt to a certain creditor; one owed five hundred days’ wages and the other owed fifty. Since they were unable to repay the debt, he forgave it for both. Which of them will love him more?”

Simon said in reply, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.”

He said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
Something that strikes me as interesting about the parable that Jesus tells is that both creditors are unable to pay their debts. In that regard, there's an extent to which it's immaterial that one debt is larger than the other. They might as well both be infinite. However, the knowledge that he's been forgiven a larger debt makes the one creditor more grateful than the other.

In the real life situation, Jesus isn't confronted with just one sinner. All the people who he meets are sinners. However, because the Pharisee thinks of himself as righteous, he's not actively seeking forgiveness the way that the woman is. Both will need to be forgiven if they are ever to be with God. No person can win his way into heaven based upon his own virtues. God's grace and forgiveness are gifts. But only one of them fully recognizes this and asks for forgiveness, and she does so because she recognizes herself to be a sinner and thus has contrition.

I think this is also where the "Jesus always seemed to feel most comfortable around people society labeled as sinners" line of thinking goes clearly off the rails. In the gospels, we again and again see people who are widely considered to be sinners turning to Jesus to seek forgiveness, while people who consider themselves righteous often question him or ignore him. Jesus, for his part, requires only that people ask for forgiveness, and immediately grants their requests. However, when we hear the "Jesus hung out with sinners" argument now, it's usually in the context of arguing that what society labels as sin should not be seen as such -- that the people in question don't need to ask for forgiveness.

The sin of the Pharisees was pride. They didn't see themselves as needing Jesus, because they were sure they were pretty good already. In modern society, we seem to have two factions of Pharisees.

On the one hand, there's pharisaical righteousness, in which we identify ourselves as belonging to a group of 'basically good people' and congratulate ourselves on that.

On the other hand, we have pharisaical lowliness, in which we identify ourselves with one of the "out groups" which we imagine Jesus would have felt affinity for, and thus conclude that we are basically good people and congratulate ourselves that we're not like the righteous Pharisees.

Both of these, however, are wrong, because they miss the thing that really drew sinners to Jesus and Jesus to sinners: the fact that they acknowledge that they needed forgiveness and asked Jesus for it, a request that he was and is always ready to grant.

Our Readership

Thanks to all who completed the DarwinCatholic reader poll. The results were as follows:

Roughly 170 readers completed the poll. The site usually has 200-300 visits a day, of which a number appear to be one-time visits directed by Google searches, so I suspect this captures a good portion of our daily readership.

We've been writing since 2006, and our readership isn't huge, so our readership seems to reflect the tenure of the blog:

18% of DarwinCatholic readers have been following the blog for less than a year.
37% for 1-3 years
44% for "Longer than I'd like to admit"

One thing I'd been fairly curious about was how many readers primarily accessed the blog through RSS rather than visiting the site. That breakdown appears to be:

59% visit the site itself
41% follow via RSS
4% follow via Facebook

I'd suspected for a while that we'd shifted to a majority female readership. Come to that, I say shifted, but for all I know we may always have been. The current breakdown is basically 60/40 female to male.

I also figured that we probably had a heavily Catholic readership, though I'm not sure I realized how lopsided the split is. 164 (95%) of respondents were Catholic while 9 were non-Catholic.

Monday, June 17, 2013

That All Should Be Counted

The DarwinCatholic reader demographic polls (seen on the main page above the posts -- if you're reading via RSS click through) are open for another 12 hours. If you haven't already, click on through take thirty seconds to answer the four questions.

So far, there are roughly 140 responses registered. Among other things, I'm curious how many regular reader we actually have here at DarwinCatholic. I know there are about 300 visits a day, but that doesn't count people who read via RSS (thus far, that appears to be about 35% of our readers) and it does count a lot of people who stumble upon one old post or another in the course of researching a topic via Google.

Thanks to all who have participated!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Saturday Review, 1952: Do Women Make Good Poets? by Rumer Godden

Up in the attic I found, in a stack of yellowing magazines, a Saturday Review dated January 5, 1952 which featured a cover article by Rumer Godden: Do Women Make Good Poets? (You can read the complete article online; the first two pages are here, and the third here, page 39.)
There are many women writers who write good prose; in the novel especially women are the equals, if not the betters of men. Why have not more of them written good poetry? 
Woman is emancipated now. She can vote, she can own property, she can work -- though not on equal pay; almost all professions are open to her if she can find the means to follow them. Then why does she so seldom follow that of the poet? The woman poet has always been a rarity; she is still rare today, yet all she needs is a few pieces of paper, a pen... and herself. Is it that last that balks her?
She explains her concept of self as hindrance to women poets:
The womanly woman is beset with little [little has been clarified earlier as meaning personal and intimate - MrsDarwin] visions, and the poet needs a large vision. She is attached, and the poet must be detached. A poet must have the power to inhabit space, to float, to disappear, like Ariel, in an essence of himself; most women are too personal to disappear. Fo all woman's emancipation, for all the professions she may follow, she is still trammeled by herself. Ann [sic] Elliot's cry from the heart is still the cry of most women: "We live at home... (even if we are not there, even if we are out following our bent as lawyer, doctor, economist)... our feelings prey upon us." Ann Elliot is still right; it is, and always will be, very difficult for a woman to free herself, to leave the walls and hedges of her home, to escape whole from her feelings. 
But, surely, feeling is the first essential for a poet? It is the first, but only the first. The rest must follow, and too often a woman can travel no further than the range of her own feelings.
Rumer Godden, a gifted novelist, is no tool of the patriarchy, so as much as phrases like "little vision" may cause a knee-jerk reaction, it's worth parsing out what she is saying. To have a personal or intimate vision is not a sign of inferiority or a mark of weakness, nor is "most women are too personal to disappear" a pejorative statement; often those acclaimed for their large vision have lost sight of essential humanity. If women are responsible for much writing that is sentimental, schlocky, or trite -- "as warm, as sensuous, as easy as theatre organ music, syrupy sweet", as Godden says of the "poetesses" who stand in contrast to the serious woman poet -- it is men who tend towards writing that is impersonal, devoid of human characteristics and feeling, whether action-packed or abstract. As it is, many men who pride themselves on their hard rigorous writing would do well to remember that since God is both Love and Truth, any feats of cold logic which despise mercy as weakness and emotion as pathetic are little more than exercises in intellectual sterility. But such men do not tend to write poetry.

Speaking of Christina Rossetti, for whom she has great admiration, Godden says, "In the end, she married only her poetry, she lived with it, keeping herself for it. It is this, this wholeness of gift, this dedication, that marks the true poet; and I think this is the reason that so few women attain this stature."
A woman, leading a woman's life, can never be whole; she is constantly drained in a way that a man is not.To write a poem is an experience into which the whole of the poet must go; in it he must be reborn and one cannot be born oneself if one is continually giving birth. This is what a womanly woman does; she spends her days creating and re-creating...
Godden does not contend that a woman with a family is necessarily cut off from the poetic muse, but she does believe that
The woman poet is more set apart from other women than the male poet from other men. No doubt women despise her because she is not deft. She is often a little inept, clumsy about the practical things of life... The woman poet has nothing to say to other women, except through her poetry. In proportion to her power she eschews herself with male detachment; she must consent to be unwomanly, she must consent to be apart. She may not like her loneliness, particularly when she is young. Perhaps it is that that gives to the best of her work a power of penetration, a pathos, that is like an inner voice, a voice like light rising from the sound of the poem, from the exquisite shell of its texture and shape.

The rest of the magazine is a fascinating glimpse of literary life in mid-century America. The whole can be viewed here, ads and all.  Of course there are many worthwhile articles, but I was particularly intrigued by the quality of the personal ads, compelled by space constraints to assume a Twitter-esque brevity:
ENGINEER, young, naive, moderately sincere, slightly weary only trees and mountains, would eagerly correspond carload lots female correspondence. Box 755-J 
SLICK WRITER needs young man assistant 20-28 years, with serious ambition to write, college and research experience preferable but not necessary. Opportunity for expense-paid travel, independent assignments, U.S.-foreign. Complete resume, photo if possible. Immediate. Box 760-J 
IS THERE mature male seeking feminine and interesting correspondence? Box 765-J
MATURE GENTLEMAN interested in music, theatre, cooking, ordinary pleasures, invites correspondence with lady. Box 792-J 
YOUNG MAN, music lover, avocations audio engineering, furniture design; seeks exhange of ideas and suggestions for better design of audio equipment and furniture with young lady of like enthusiams. Box 784-J 
GENTLEMAN, adventurous, bored, will not answer dull letters. Box 795-J 
WOULD VENTURESOME lassie escape boredom corresponding mature but audacious male with widely diversified interests. Box 796-J

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Time Warp, 80s style: C-I-N-C-I-N-N-A-T-I

Lo, more than a quarter-century ago, I went to a slumber party at which we watched, on broadcast TV, a version of Babes in Toyland. I remember almost nothing of this unmemorable drama, besides the fact that early on, it had people in a car, driving in the snow, singing a song about Cincinnati. That was probably the first time I ever heard the name of the city to which my family would move a few years later.

Behold, the power of the internet: here is that strange song, sung by a young Keanu Reeves and and even younger Drew Barrymore.

And here are the lyrics to this forgotten gem:
Jack, Lisa Piper, George, Mary: [singing] C-I-N-C-I-N-N-A-T-I, Cincinnati! The best town in O-H-I-O, Ohio, USA! At first they called it Cincy, but since Cincy is so natty, they named it Cincinnati, so they say. Hey, the girls are really pretty in this pretty little city, the fellas are the feistiest I've seen. And when it comes to ball teams, the Reds and Bengals maul teams, they knock the socks off all the other teams. I mean to argue's indefensible, the facts are common sensible, Cincy is invincible, know what I mean? Cincy's more than merely natty, she's Ohio's Maserati, Cincinnati's at the center of the scene!
I want the world to know: I like Cincinnati and its seven hills, but contra Keanu, it is not known for its skiing. I might grant her the title of "Ohio's Maserati", though, seeing as the chief competition is Columbus, Cleveland, and Chillicothe.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Poll For the Weekend

The day is stacking up busy here, so I thought I'd try something mildly indulgent for a data monkey like me and post a couple of polls to get a feel for the shape of our readership these days. If you don't normally read via the website itself, the polls are pinned to the top of the page. Please click through to the site and answer a couple questions to satisfy my idle demographic curiosity. There are just a couple questions. It'll only take a moment to fill out.

I'll post a summary of results early next week, though you can see them as they accumulate.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

High Class Soap Opera?

There's a class of show which functions as a soap opera for those who like to feel they're above soap operas. Make it a period drama or give it British accents, you see, and its classy. I'm not immune to the charms of this genre. We avidly watched two and a half seasons of Downton Abbey until suddenly we realized we didn't care if we saw any more episodes, and so we didn't.

I'd always had this vague intention of watching Mad Men. But I kept not getting around to it, and then a year or two ago the pieces I read by people who did watch it started sounding odder and odder. The other day I read into this massive spoiler (there's your spoiler warning) on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog:
To recap: Don's real name is Dick Whitman. His prostitute mother died in childbirth; his dad, her john, beat him. His fundamentalist stepmother called him a "whore's child." Then his father got kicked in the head by a horse, and the stepmother moved in with her sister, herself a prostitute, living in a brothel. The stepmother, heavily pregnant with Don's half brother, prostituted herself to her brother-in-law, as the teen-age Don knelt outside her door. He watched them, through the keyhole, have sex. C'mon, now. This is no longer the backstory of a serial adulterer; it's the backstory of a serial killer.

We haven't even got to the part where Whitman goes to fight in Korea, accidentally blows up his superior officer, Don Draper, steals his identity, forms a secret relationship with his widow (she's motherly, yet also somewhat prostitute-like, since he pays for her upkeep), becomes a greaser, and seduces a model who is also concerned primarily with appearances. Eventually, he gets into advertising, and when his half brother, Adam, finds him, Don rejects him, and Adam hangs himself. It's not that none of this makes sense, or could make sense; it's just too much, overdetermined. None of the other characters has this sort of reverse-engineered psychology, and for good reason: it's a lazy way to impose meaning.
I'm not sure I've ever watched a whole episode of a soap opera, but I can't help wondering if this kind of character backstory manages to take things beyond even where soap operas go. Indeed, when I first read this, I had the idea that it was some sort of extended joke, but given how Coates responds to it, I take it this is actually the exposition which has been provided by the show. Wow.

Risk and Morals

It strikes me that one of the things that people aren't very good at doing is dealing with moral questions that seem to involve risks or probabilities. Some time back (and unfortunately I didn't save the link and can't find it now) I ran across roughly the following argument (this is me giving my fairest shot at expressing the argument I remember):

You all know the concept of Russian roulette. Take a revolver with six chambers, put a bullet in one chamber and leave the rest empty. Spin the chambers. There's a one and six chance that if you put the gun to your head and pull the trigger, you'll die. Would you do it? Almost certainly no. Indeed, we'd say that it's immoral to engage in such a risky activity for no reason.

However, we all engage in risky activities all the time. When you go swimming, you risk drowning. When you go cycling, you risk having a crash (or being hit) and dying. When you drive to work you risk dying in a crash. The list goes on. Even doing nothing carries a risk since a sedentary lifestyle increases your risk of various health problems. And yet everything you could do instead of sitting on the couch carries risk as well.

So, how many chambers does the revolver have to have for you to be willing to play Russian roulette? At what odds does engaging in a dangerous activity just for fun become moral? At what odds does engaging in a dangerous activity for a practical reason become moral? Is there a difference between these two?

Googling around for an example, I find a pair of statistics that you have a 1/2,000,000 chance of a fatal accident for each ride you take on a bike and a 1/2,800,000 chance of a fatal accident for each drive you take I a car. These are activities we feel pretty good about. Would it be moral to play Russian roulette with a two million chamber gun? How about a one million chamber gun? A one thousand chamber gun?
It strikes me that the problem with this line of argument is that it splits off the question of risk from what you are actually doing, and thus acts as if when you choose to do some thing which involves risk, you're simply playing Russian roulette.

When I hop in the car and drive, I'm not doing so with the object of facing down a 1/2,800,000 risk of death, I'm doing so to pick up groceries at the store, or go to work, or visit family. My object is to perform that action. The means by which I perform that action (driving) carries a certain risk, but I consider the risk to be acceptable. If the risk was much different (say, if there were a 1/100 chance of dying every time you drove) I might decide that some of those things weren't worth the risk.

The problem with comparing this to Russian roulette is that there is not, so far as I can tell, any particular purpose to Russian roulette other than to face down a 1 in 6 risk of dying. In this sense, it doesn't even compare well to highly risky activities, because there isn't really any activity involved in Russian roulette other than risking death.

Say that your favorite activity is a really dangerous extreme sport. Let's say your chance of dying each time you participate in this sport is 1/5,000. Is participating in the sport the same as playing Russian roulette with a 5,000 chamber gun? Unless you're participating in the sport solely with the intention of experiencing a 1/5,000 chance of death, I would assume not. You participate in the sport because you enjoy the activity itself.

I'd argue that it's never moral to play Russian roulette no matter how good your odds. Risking your life as an end unto itself is wrong regardless of the degree of the risk. However, that doesn't tell us anything about the morality of doing some particular thing, with a purpose other than risking ones life, which nonetheless carries with it a certain predictable risk to one's life as a foreseen side effect. There it's necessary to make some sort of judgment balancing the purpose one has with the risk one incurs -- and weighting that risk, in turn, against the likely effects of one's death or injury on others as well as on oneself.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Online Privacy and Online Exhibitionism

With various "national conversations" taking place in regards to online privacy in the wake of the NSA revelations, Ross Douthat quotes a writer who argues against the "think twice about what you put online" conventional wisdom:
… we now find not only kids, but adults (especially new adults) getting constantly dinged with the dire warning that Social Media Lasts Forever. I think this is probably patently untrue in a purely physical sense; it strikes me as probable that fifty years from now, the whole electronic record of our era will be largely lost in a sea of forgotten passwords, proprietary systems, faulty hardware, and compatibility issues. But it should also be untrue in, dare I say it, the moral sense. Educators and employers are constantly yelling that you young people have an affirmative responsibility not to post anything where a teacher or principal or, worst of all, boss or potential boss might find it, which gets the ethics of the situation precisely backwards. It isn’t your sister’s obligation to hide her diary; it’s yours not to read it.
I'm not sure that I'm just barely older than the social media generation, or just that I have a stronger sense of reticence than many, but I've definitely been one of those who shakes my head at some of the things slightly younger people write on blogs and on facebook. This reticence is why I blog semi-anonymously. I don't make it the hardest thing in the world to figure out my real name, but I'd rather that this blog was not the first thing to pop up on Google if someone searched my real name.

The thing is, unless one takes a number of precautions, what one writes online is not like a diary. A diary traditionally kept on paper in a book that is kept in a private place and provides through it's appearance some appearance of being not-meant-for-general-consumption. (Until one is dead and famous, at which point the full critical edition of one's every thought can be published. Which is, of course, why the Victorians had a habit of burning their papers late in life.)

When one writes online, however, one generally writes with the specific intention that people read it. Certainly, when I write here, I do so in hopes that people will read it, that reading it will cause them to think and perhaps that they will even respond in some way. Facebook is slightly more private, in that many of one's activities there are (or can be) restricted so that they can be seen only by one's "friends". However, friends lists tend to be rather long, and especially among the young people often don't seem to think very much about who exactly is on that list when they go posting pictures, rants and links.

I would agree that it's rude and inappropriate for a co-worker or boss to try to sneak into areas of one's online life that are intentionally kept private. But one also needs to be aware that when one writes things online under one's own name, people who are simply looking for business-relevant information about you, they may stumble across your public online activities. And if those activities involve posting pictures of roadkills wearing wigs, or your advocacy of white supremacy, or your grisly fantasies about how to kill Sarah Palin, the friendly coworker who stumbles upon the information is not going to think about you the same way in the future.

This isn't something that is unique to the modern world. Anytime we show one persona in some circumstances and another in others, we open ourselves up to the sudden convergence of social sets one had meant to keep separate. So, for instance, if a high school teacher has a sideline as a member of the Chippendales and one day the mothers of several of his students happen to attend his show, these women have not invaded his privacy. He is the person who has chosen to publically engage in activities that perhaps he wouldn't like everyone he knows to be aware of. Similarly, if one is at a party gleefully telling an embarrassing anecdote about another person, only to realize that person is standing behind you, that person is not spying on you. The fault if yours for choosing to say something that you would be uncomfortable having the subject hear.

The online world is similar, except that it's even easier to forget who may be standing behind you, because the space behind your back is large in both space and time. You could write that very satisfying rant about your sister-in-law now, only to have her read it by accident three years hence after your mother has bragged to her, "Did you know that Alfonse writes an incredibly popular blog?"

It's at times frustrating to keep this in mind, because the incredibly enticing thing about the online world is that it allows one to open up and talk with like-minded people (and debate different minded ones) in a way that would often be uncomfortable in person. You all have a pretty good idea what my political opinions are, but most of my coworkers don't, and I generally make no effort to make them aware of my political opinions nor to become aware of theirs. Since I have to work with them on a daily basis, it's a lot easier if they aren't aware of any of my beliefs that they might find reprehensible and vice versa. I probably miss out on some good friendships because of this reticence. Since I avoid bringing up controversial topics in many settings, I probably know people who share my beliefs and yet never realize the commonality. I probably also miss out on conversations and friendships with people who do disagree with my beliefs, but are capable of discussing and respecting them nonetheless. However, given how many people aren't capable of getting along well with those they disagree with (and that I'd really rather not have to know about the offensive beliefs of some of those I deal with daily) I keep this reticence up. The internet is, thus, the area in which I'm able to discuss a much wider array of topics much more openly. It works well for that because people who are offended can easily leave (and those who become offensive can be blocked.)

However, it's precisely because the internet is such a good place to have the kind of conversations we'd be hesitant to have in many of our usual social circles, that you should think twice about what you put out there under your own name in public venues. If you choose to post writing or images extensively under your own name, you had better be prepared for the writer's curse of everyone knowing what you think (or at least what you say you think.)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug trailer

Watch it here.

Oh. Oh Peter Jackson. Please step away from cinematic adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's work, and go straight to making the video games. Look at those CGI elves chasing the dwarves down the river, whipping out arrows in unnaturally pixelated displays of agility, just like you read it in no Tolkien book ever. Look at the King of the Woodland Elves telling Thorin all about his quest "to reclaim a homeland and slay a dragon", because how does he know about it because Thorin never told him, which was the point of them all being in the dungeons? I'm not going to quibble about Legolas showing up -- it would be almost odd if he didn't; he's the King's son -- but Evangeline Lilly playing a kick-ass lady elf named Tauriel manufactured from such whole cloth that the name appears neither in the indices of LOTR or the Silmarillion? Do we trust Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens to be making up elves now? And where in this section of the book would we be seeing goblins or trolls?

But maybe this time around we'll be spared the turbo-charged rabbits.

Cocktails for Two

Here's a bit of Spike Jones for your Tuesday afternoon. I've heard this for years on Dr. Demento's 20th Anniversary Album, but I never knew that Spike Jones made theatrical shorts.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

This and That: Ingratitude, Relativity, Dyseloquence, and Cat Beards

Dyseloquence is a word now.

I have wanted to write lately -- I even have some posts in the works -- but I have felt stupid and heavy of head, too exhausted to say anything coherent. So here are a few random things.

1. Brandon is writing a series on vices; this past week's focus was on ingratitude.

2. The shrinkwrapped brick in front of our door when we arrived home from vacation turned out to be Restoration Hardware's various spring catalogs. Our style overlords have finally allowed that maybe some people like a bit of color in their lives. They have devoted three -- three! -- pages to chairs in colors such as pale spruce and pale amethyst before they drape the remaining catalog full of upholstery in sand linen, sand brushed twill, sand velvet, and sand cotton duck. Of course, this marries well with the fifty shades of neutral decor that the professional designers have so carefully leached of any tone that might suggest life. Because when we have money to spend, we want to buy a room full of depression.

3. Think you know pretentious? Ah, but Restoration Hardware has launched a line of tableware. From the introductory essay at the beginning of the Tableware Catalog:
"The world as we created it is a result of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking." 
Clashing with authorities as a child and writing that the spirit of learning and creative thought was lost in strict rote and repetitive teaching, Albert Einstein went on to challenge conventional wisdom and redefine many of the sacred scientific theories developed and embraced. His great intellectual achievements and originality have made the name Einstein synonymous with genius. 
Einstein refused to let his thoughts be defined by current thinking, often stating his belief that "Imagination is more important that knowledge." His curiosity to look beyong the current realities enabled him to constantly define new ones.  
That is the philosophy we embraced to imagine our new tableware collection. Beginning with a quest to develop the perfect plate, one that would inspire us to replace our existing ones, we reconsidered every aspect - the material, the shape, the size, the weight, and the glaze - developing prototype after prototype until we explored every possibility and exhausted every option. 
...Now, we're not trying to claim that our new tableware collection can be compared to Einstein's theory of relativity; but we do believe that like the bending of light, with a change of thinking, one can re-imagine almost anything, even a plate. Then again, it's all relative. Thank you for teaching us that, Albert.
4. Albert didn't teach us that "it's all relative." That’s called relativism, not relativity.

5. I was tempted to make my only commentary on the tableware pomposity something along the lines of, "I mean!", but I realized that would be playing into one of my current pet peeves: the inability of writers, particularly on the internet, to write like adults. Apropos of nothing I want to discuss, I recently ran across a piece about the puppeteer of Elmo, who was embroiled in a scandal in which a young man accused him of seducing him when he was underage. (The pair were in a relationship; the young man was not underage.)
Some people seem to think Clash should be fired even for the legal age difference alone, that a 45-year-old having sex with an 18/19 year old is sketchy and gross enough. (Others are simply horrified to learn that the voice of Elmo is gay, which: GTFO.) While on the other end of the Internet Commentary Spectrum, there are plenty of folks who don’t think an older, experienced man having sex with a 16 year old is that big of a deal anyway. Which: Also GTFO.
I have nothing to say on the substance of the matter; the quality of Sesame Street has gone so far down since the days when the psychedelic pinball machine counted to twelve that I never turn it on, and Elmo is too annoying to watch anyway. But I do want to say that no matter your opinions on underage relationships or homosexuality, GTFO is neither an argument, an intelligent commentary, or a conversation starter. It is a statement that if you do not agree with the author on these two points, discussion is pointless because she's already stated that your voice should not be heard. And OMG, if we were, like, teenagers who were all,  "When I hear people being intolerant, I just wanna go GTFO, you know? Because, I mean, intolerance sucks!", this might indeed be an understandable, if not an acceptable, means of expressing oneself and one's vast realm of emotional experience that is just soooo hard to capture in mere words. But using words, and using them effectively, are the point of using writing to convey thought, and no amount of typing in ALL CAPS, YO, or being hip to the slang, or #psuedocategorization, or a bit of coding < / sarc >, or a wink and a Tumblr, is a substitute for what we in the biz* call "Using Your Words". Style and substance are not interchangeable. And if any reader thinks that makes me a tight-laced pedantic killjoy: GTFO.

*The biz, that is, of teaching young children to express their thoughts in clear verbal fashion, as opposed to grunting and pointing and playacting and being cutesy to get what they want.

6. If you are one of the many people with whom I've recently started a conversation with the strange juxtaposition of, "I'm thinking about painting my house. I read this article in the Wall Street Journal," here's the article about the creamy color of Paris.

7. Proving that leisure is not the basis of culture: your iPhone has more computing power than NASA in the 1960s, and you use it to look at cat beards.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Amoral False Equivalence

I keep The American Conservative in my RSS feed because they have a number of writers who are thought provoking, though I seldom agree with them. And then they have Pat Buchanan. Buchanan peddles a lot of the sort of writing which I'll read and think, "Responding to this is too cheap a shot. It's so obviously wrong that it's just showing off to point it out."

But then, if everyone thinks that way, the obvious problems never get pointed out. His post today on Americans being tried for undermining the Egyptian government is one of these sort of things.

A Cairo court has convicted 43 men and women of using foreign funds to foment unrest inside Egypt in connection with the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.

Sixteen of those convicted were Americans. All but one, Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute, had already departed. Becker fled this week rather than serve two years in an Egyptian prison.

And U.S. interventionists are in an uproar.


Yet the questions raised by both the Cairo and Moscow crackdowns on U.S.-funded “democracy” groups cannot be so airily dismissed.

Then comes the false equivalence:
Is it not understandable to patriots of the original “Don’t Tread on Me” republic that foreigners might resent paid U.S. agents operating inside their countries to alter the direction of their politics?

We have a right to advance our democratic values, we say.

But for the United States to push, for example, for freedom of speech, press and assembly in the People’s Republic of China is to promote political action that must lead to the fall of Beijing’s single-party state. Do we not understand why that might be seen by the Chinese Communist Party of Xi Jinping as subversive?

In the Cold War Americans learned that not only was the Communist Party U.S.A. a wholly owned subsidiary of Joseph Stalin’s Comintern, that party had deeply infiltrated the U.S. government and Hollywood. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, America was convulsed over communist penetration of our institutions.
If we were apoplectic that Soviet-funded communists were seeking to influence our culture and politics, why ought not other countries, with cultures and institutions far different from our own, react even as we did?
Now, this sort of thing has a sort of superficial fairness to it. "You wouldn't like it if other people messed with your country, so you shouldn't mess with other people's."

But except for the most blind nationalists, people don't tend to object to the introduction of good influences from other nations or cultures. Indeed, in such cases, we don't necessarily see the outside influence as being foreign. We just see it as a good example of what our country should do.

Many Americans objected to communist infiltration of our government not because they reflexively hated the idea of something from Russia influencing the US, the objected because they considered communism pernicious and they didn't want to see it influencing the US regardless of who was doing the influencing. And on the flip side, those Americans who did want to see the US become more communist tended not to object to the fact that the Russians were trying to infiltrate the US government. Indeed, it tended to be Americans who wanted the US to be more communist who were doing the infiltrating on behalf of the Russians.

The real issue at play in Egypt is that the new government no more (and in some ways less) desire than the previous one to allow freedoms of the press, religion, political dissent, etc. That Americans are among those helping to fund movements pushing for these freedoms may be a nice nationalistic peg to hang the objection on, but the real root of the objection is pretty clearly to the freedoms themselves. Home grown demands for them are no more welcome than foreign funded ones, except to the extent they are easier to squash.

Now, this isn't to deny that national and ethnic chauvinism exists. It, of course, does. And there are going to be times and topics on which people do not want to hear their flaws (or potential improvements) discussed by people of some disliked outside group. Americans may well constitute such a group for many nationalities. Among Americans, ethnic, religious and political identifications can cause similar problems. There are criticisms of behavior by Catholics that I am much more open to hearing from other Catholics (who are "in the family") than I am to hearing the same criticisms from "outsiders".

However, while realism necessitates remaining aware of such non-rational responses, there is not a principled objection to members of one group urging changes upon members of another group. And it is precisely this which Buchanan tries to do in his piece:
We may deplore this, but where do we get the right to intervene in the internal affairs of these countries if they do not threaten us?
Keep in mind, the only "intervening" being objected to here is that of American citizens providing support to organizations within Egypt seeking certain basic freedoms. Why, should we, as per Buchanan's earlier example "push... for freedom of speech, press and assembly in the People’s Republic of China"? Because those rights are aspects of human dignity that people should have. Unless we think that what is right in the US is not necessarily right in China or in Egypt or in Saudi Arabia, there is no reason principled why we should not support those seeking these freedoms in other countries. At times there might be cynical reasons for restraining this urge. (For instance, a comparatively "enlightened dictator" in certain cultures might in some ways protect minority religious and ethnic groups from persecution more than a government expressing the will of the people, and so one might wink that the dictator's suppression of political dissent.)

However, the implicit idea that all cases of citizens of one country advocating changes in another country are somehow equal is obviously wrong unless one accepts complete amorality. The comparison of Americans advocating greater freedoms in Egypt to communists attempting to impose communism in the US are completely wrong-headed.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

The Diminishing Returns Surveillance State

In the latest abuse-of-government-power scandal, it turns out that the National Security Administration has been collecting data from Verizon on cell phone calls placed by Verizon customers. And we're not talking just a few "persons of interest". The NSA is getting data on all calls placed on the Verizon network. This is data, not "listening" to calls, but nonetheless, if you have a Verizon cell phone, our National Security Administration knows who you called, when, for how long and from where.

This is the sort of situation in which a libertarian take is pretty apropos, and Megan McArdle delivers. One of the big issues here, which I think she correctly identifies, is that there are a lot of potentially "harmless" things that the government can do with the object of "making us safer". After all, it's not as if no one had this phone data before. Verizon had it, and doubtless used it to do research on customer behavior in order to improve their operations and plan changes to the phone plans they offer. So why not let the government have access to the same data in order to make us safer?

The answer, I'd argue, is that all of these seemingly harmless government incursions, from monitoring phone usage to making us take off and x-ray our shoes at the airport, result in more and more acceptance of state intrusion into our lives for less and less real return. The number of lives saved by having everyone take their shoes off at the airport is doubtless so small as to be close to zero. Ditto for tracking phone usage. Sure, I suppose this data is handy to have around when they find themselves tracking a suspected terrorist, but that's what warrants are for. And I think that libertarians are on to something that it's worth keeping the government's nose out of these things just because. We shouldn't have to explain why it's a problem for the government to be getting cell phone usage data. The default should be that they don't get it.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Fr. Barron on Episcopalian Bishop's Bizarre Inclusiveness

A couple weeks ago MrsDarwin found that the best way to read Bishopess Katharine Jefferts Schori's sermon, in which she accused the apostle Paul of intolerance for casting out a demon, was through the filter of Gizoogle. Fr. Barron has a slightly more serious take which is worth reading.
Some years ago, The New Yorker ran a cartoon that perfectly lampooned the loopy ideology of “inclusion” that has come to characterize so much of the Christian world.

It showed a neat and tidy church, filled with an attentive congregation. The pastor was at the podium, introducing a guest speaker. “In accordance with our policy of equal time,” he said, “I would like now to give our friend the opportunity to present an alternative point of view.” Sitting next to him, about to rise to speak, was the devil, dressed perfectly and tapping the pages of his prepared text on his knee.

I was put in mind of that cartoon when I read a sermon delivered recently by Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. Addressing a congregation in CuraƧao, Venezuela, Bishop Jefferts Schori praised the beauty of (what else?) diversity, but lamented the fact that so many people are still frightened by what is other or different: “Human beings have a long history of discounting and devaluing difference, finding it offensive or even evil.” Now I suppose that if one were to make the right distinctions—differentiating between that which is simply unusual and that which is intrinsically bad—one might be able coherently to make this point.

But the Bishop moved, instead, in an astonishing direction, finding an example of the lamentable exclusivity she is talking about in the behavior of the Apostle Paul himself. In the 16th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we find the story of Paul’s first visit to the Greek town of Philippi. We are told that one day, while on his way to prayer, Paul was accosted by a slave girl “who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling” (Acts. 16:16). This demon-possessed child followed Paul and his companions up and down for several days, shouting, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Having finally had enough of her, Paul turned to the young woman and addressed the wicked spirit within her, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her” (Acts. 16:18). And the demon, we are told, came out of her instantly.

Up until last month in Venezuela, the entire Christian interpretive tradition read that passage as an account of deliverance, as the story of the liberation of a young woman who had been enslaved both to dark spiritual powers and to the nefarious human beings who had exploited her.

But Bishop Jefferts Schori reads it as a tale of patriarchal oppression and intolerance. She preaches, “But Paul is annoyed, perhaps, for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it.”

The Bishop correctly points out that the girl was saying true things about Paul and his friends, but demons say true things all the time in the New Testament. Think of the dark spirits who consistently confess that Jesus is the Holy One of God. That a Christian bishop would characterize the demonic possession of a young girl as something “beautiful and holy” simply beggars belief.

But things get even more bizarre. We are told in Acts that the girl’s owners are furious that Paul has effectively robbed them of their principal source of income and that they therefore stir up controversy and get him thrown in prison. But on the Bishop’s reading, Paul is just getting what he deserved.
Read the rest.

From time to time I've run into interpretations of Biblical events which would seem, similarly, to be utterly at odds with the story itself. (The one that takes the cake, from my point of view, is the school which reads the Book of Ruth as a paean to Lesbian romance and fidelity between Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, and as such an endorsement of gay relationships.) I can't help wondering if this level of "creativity" in interpretation springs from people reaching a type of belief in which they really don't see Christianity as historical at all, but rather a set of nice and inspiring stories which we can interpret in whatever way we want because, after all, we're far to sophisticated to think about thing like whether or not they are true.