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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Calling From the Future

As the turn of the year at midnight approaches, I'm reminded of the New Years that MrsDarwin and I spent apart during college. We'd started dating (and seriously at that) a few weeks into our freshman year, but being from opposite parts of the country (Los Angeles and Cincinnati) we were far separated during the vacations. New Years, of course, falls during Christmas Break, and so MrsDarwin-to-be would call me up shortly before midnight Eastern Time, and we'd talk until after midnight Pacific Time, spending the three hours in between talking to each other across the year's divide. Aside from satisfying out desire to be talking to each other all the time, the symbolic talking across time's divide seemed to emphasize that we intended things to last through the years. And they have.

A happy New Year to all of you, from the Darwins. (Including the youngest Master Darwin who currently has the hiccups.)

Connections in the Facebook Age

A couple weeks ago, Kyle Cupp vanished from Facebook. It's a move I can sympathize with, and various friends have taken it before. Today things calmed down enough around here that it occurred to me he might have written a post about it. Given the quality of his recent short story (and the fact that my own recurring temptations to cut down my online presence all have to do with making more writing time for The Novel) I wondered if he was clearing the decks for some big writing project.

Kyle did have a post, and his reason for leaving Facebook turned out to be everyday, though also familiar:
I’m still thinking it through. I made my decision hastily, but so far I feel better for it. Perhaps the stage just got too big for me. Like a Peter Jackson adaptation, I got stretched too thin. I used to disagree with the philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s belief that one can have only a few friends, but now I’m thinking there’s truth to it. At least for me.

Every day I’d scroll through my feed after making sure that the page showed all activity and not only the top stories, but as my eyes passed over each status update, I rarely read every word or paused to think about the people telling me something about their lives. It dawned on me this past week that, cruel as it sounds, I just don’t care too much about what my almost 600 friends have to say on a daily basis. Now that I’ve deactivated my connections with them, I don’t for the most part feel as though I’m missing something special, even though the network was the only place where I had any connection with a lot of old acquaintances.
Being on a conservative temperament I have the occasional pause about the nature of friendship in the Facebook world myself. Is a world of "likes" and "shares" and "friend requests" a world of real human connections, or are we increasingly isolated even amongst all our "social" media? Also, there's the simple fact that I sometimes spend too much time on Facebook. In a very busy phase of life, the free time I have (say, holding the new baby when he decides to be up late and at night and MrsDarwin needs a rest) is often when it's not practical to head out and socialize with people in more traditional ways, so when I do have odd scraps of free time I'll find myself constantly refreshing to see if "anyone says anything".

I don't see myself leaving Facebook, though. For one thing, I actually value quite a bit being able to keep up with far away friends and relatives that I'd otherwise seldom hear from. Sure, the conversation may consist of re-posting cat pictures at times, but it's better than nothing.

Then, also, for those of us who are intellectual and religious minorities, online life provides a way to socialize with people with similar interests and experiences. Sure, one could either seek out a real life like-minded ghetto, live in isolation, or conform, but I think there are good reasons to prefer getting some of my socializing online to any of those options.

The online world can be a pretty shallow place at times, but frankly, so can the in person world. I often find myself comparing my daily online interactions unfavorably to deep in person conversation that, if I pause to think about it, I don't actually have the chance to have all that frequently with people other than my wife. Sure, it would be great if my options were either to have deep conversations on a daily basis with people in person, or else interact with people in a more ephemeral way on Facebook. That would be an easy decision! But the realistic fact is, I'm not passing up any chances to walk more with people in real life because I'm too busy online. I get to have conversation over morning coffee with a friend every few weeks, I occasionally have a chance to catch up with neighbors on the street who have similar interests, but all of that is very occasional. There are no constant conversations by the village well that I'm passing up to spend time online. And come to that, some of the most enjoyable conversations that I've had in person in recent years have been with people that I met and primarily interact with online.

None of this is meant to be an argument that those who leave Facebook, or the greater online world, should come back. I continue to have a certain admiration for people with the ability to simplify in that way. But the fact of the matter is that for me, this it is one of the neighborhoods that I live in.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Nietzsche Pajama Boy

It suddenly occurred to me, this evening, while I was in my cups, that what Pajama Boy really needs, like Family Circus, is Nietzsche. An so I present: Nietzsche Pajama Boy.

Though in the end:

Go thou and do likewise.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Time is a Funny Thing

Baby William is three days old now, and as sweet and round and suspicious as can be. His popularity is off the charts with his siblings, whom I've had to beat away from him on several occasions as they try to lavish him with love and kisses and stuffed animals and fresh blankies. He's even a neighborhood celebrity, having arrived at home on Christmas, and several times I've looked up blearily to find the kids and their friends standing in the door of the bedroom, asking if they can look at William now.

William is also a literalist, and I'm going to have to be careful in how I make requests of him. I always had the vague desire to have a Christmas baby; he showed up precisely then, five days late. I looked at the clock while I was in labor and determined that I would have the baby by 9:30; he refused to budge before that time although I could feel that he was down there, just about ready. I wanted a healthy child; here he is tipping the scales at a good pound heavier than any of the others. On the other hand, I hoped he would have dark hair, and so he does, a good head of sweet soft fluff that's perfect for nuzzling.

His birth was a little different from the others in that my water started leaking at 9:30 am on Christmas Eve, 24 hours before he was born. This was something new for me, and it had us all on tenterhooks all day. I didn't go to Christmas Mass for the first time in my life. I gushed and dripped all day and all night, until contractions started at 4:10 am Christmas Day.

Labor and birth was uneventful, unexceptional, uncomplicated, and relatively fast at less than six hours. I had warning to call the midwives, and they arrived in good time. It was also completely horrible. This was not the amazing contractionless labor of last time. It was brutal and grinding, worse than any of the others. The contractions were almost pleasantly mild at first -- I could tell they were about to start by the moment of complete blissful peace right before the muscles began to tighten, and I could work myself through them by rationalizing that this was just how it felt to dilate and get ready for birth. That worked, for a time. But you can't talk yourself out of intensifying pain forever. Eventually I was just surviving it, using my lifeline of one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and one Glory Be, said slowly to gauge the time. And after a while even that wasn't working, as the contractions grew longer and had multiple peaks and no seeming end, and I clutched Darwin and rocked on my toes and breathed as best I could through the clenching, gut-rending pain. I did remember that I'd promised to pray for people, and I did, by name or by intention or just in flashes of images.

The pushing was pure vicious agony, the worst thing I've ever done. I can write about it now without shaking, but I wonder if I won't have post-traumatic stress flashbacks to wailing, "Jesus, please!" for two minutes straight of sheer excruciating torment, without having the mental strength to complete the thought: Jesus please make it stop, Jesus please take this away, make it end. Time is a funny thing. Right before I had to push, I kept thinking, "It's almost over, but it's not over yet. It's still coming." And once it had come, the last bitter moments, I wished I could have stayed indefinitely in that antepenultimate instant of waiting, putting off the worst forever. And once it was over and baby was out, there was no relief or triumph. I heard him cry, but mainly I heard myself cry, unable to move or look at the baby (though I was cognizant enough to hope that the kids, down watching a movie in the living room, couldn't hear me). When the baby was handed me, I still couldn't move, and I had to be put in bed by others because no part of me worked. And for the rest of the day, if I needed to shift position or go to the bathroom, someone had to come and roll me carefully or lift my legs because I couldn't do it. Someone put a plate of Christmas dinner on the table next to my bed, and although I was hungry it was better to be hungry than to reach out for it. I told Darwin, "I never want to do this again," just as I've said five times before, but with the difference that this time I really really meant it. Never again.

What's the point of writing all this up? I have my sweet perfect little baby (well, he's a bit tongue-tied, but that's not inconveniencing anyone but me), and he is precious and loveable. And of course, there's no point in saying, "I'd do it all again for him!" because I don't have to. Time is a funny thing. There are no do-overs. I've given birth to him, and it's in the past now. That exact experience will never happen again. Good has come from it, and that particular pain is now just a memory, fading faster than it should in the continued presence of William's soft newborn smell. So why dwell on it at all at the risk of scaring newly expectant mothers or women thinking about conceiving?

Because it happened. It was real. The cruel pain happened, and it meant something that it happened. This labor existed, and it can't be undone. It matters -- it must matter -- that for this particular William to be born, this particular experience had to be endured, and I was the one who had to endure it, the only one who could have endured it. And now it's fixed in time, and time is a funny thing for those of us who live through it -- this sacrifice doesn't have to be re-presented. It's real, but small and temporal. Through some pain, perhaps contraction, perhaps afterpain, I thought of Julian of Norwich saying that although the pain of Christ was greater than the pain of all who ever lived, it was infinitesimal compared to his joy in suffering it for us, because the pain was for a time but the joy was eternal, without beginning or end. And I tried to find the joy in my suffering, and I couldn't, but I did offer it for someone. And now the pain is fixed and frozen in time, but the offering, because it was tied to Christ's eternal offering, goes on and on. Here I am in the present, with my sweet one next to me, and whenever this will be over, it's not over yet.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Unto Us A Son Is Given

The youngest Darwin addition arrived, like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, in his own time, which turned out to be 9:46 AM on Christmas Morning.

William Oliver weighs in at 9lb 4oz making him the most weighty Darwin yet. He and MrsDarwin are doing well and resting up.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Confessions of a Santa Skeptic

Our oldest daughter came into our room this morning and asked, "What do you think Santa would like this year to drink with his cookies? Last year I gave him gin, but I don't know if he likes that." (For the record, it was actually Teacher's blended Scotch, but at eleven she can be a bit confused as to the types of liquor.)

What's odd about this is that we've never made any particular effort to instill belief in Santa into the children. They put out their stockings on Christmas Eve and those stockings are filled and presents appear under the tree. However, presents all say "Mom & Dad" on the "From" line and we've never made any effort to spin the tale of Santa coming down the chimney with his sack of toys.

They're heard it, of course. It's on the radio, in movies, and repeated by neighbor kids. A couple weeks ago one of their friends from down the street was over with a print outs of the iPod Touch that she wanted. "My dad says he'd never buy a present for me that expensive, so I'm counting on Santa," she explained. (The kids later asked me if Santa would give them an iPod Touch. "No," I said.)

The results has been the kids deciding for themselves. Our oldest expresses a seemingly sincere belief, though at eleven I'm fairly confident it's feigned. The second is a determined skeptic. The rest span the range.

I've been somewhat bemused to see this range of belief spring up, since I myself was a determined Santa skeptic as a kid. Questioning and literalistic, I was the sort who demanded to know how Santa visited houses without chimneys, how he could move fast enough to visit every house, how he knew who was good and bad (this was before the Santa Industrial Complex deployed its goose-stepping hordes of elves to the shelves of the world to spy on everyone), and why was it that he gave presents exactly like the sort of thing Mom and Dad would give? My parents, who have both enjoyed Santa traditions as kids, were hesitant to lie directly in the face of this onslaught, and pretty soon it was admitted that if Santa couldn't go everywhere, probably parents helped him. "That means he's not real," said four-year-old Darwin. "I knew it."

I was eager to provide everyone with this new-found knowledge, and I became the Richard Dawkins of Santa-ism (not to mention the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny) at school. In third grade our teacher was reading us a book (at this distance I can't recall what it was) and when she reached a section where the main character's older brother revealed that Santa didn't exist, she skipped a few pages and picked up after the Santa incident. Out of the 43 kids in the class, I was apparently the one reading along in the book (and annoying enough to make a stink about it) because I was the one whose hand shot up and who blurted out, "Why did you skip the part about Santa not being real?"

The teacher temporized, a girl burst into tears, and in the end I was sent to the principle's office.

For the longest time, however, I remained somewhat convinced that St. Nicholas really was the one who put chocolate coins in our shoes on the night before his feast day. First of all, it seemed dangerous to question the actions of a real saint. And secondly, I'd conducted an experiment which proved the existence of St. Nicholas. There were some half-Jewish, half-Protestant kids who lived in the next apartment over and were a source of envy because they celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. However, they'd never heard of St. Nicholas. Figuring this was a great opportunity so see whether St. Nicholas's presents were the work of my parents or not, I talked up St. Nicholas to them and convinced them to put out their shoes on the evening of December 5th.

They did, St. Nicholas delivered, and I remained convinced for a long time that he really was the source of candy in shoes on his feast day. It wasn't till years later, discussing this with my mom, that I heard the explanation for this. The neighbor kids had talked up their St. Nicholas expectations to their parents, the parents had been afraid to disappoint them, and so they'd put candy in the shoes. Yet another worthy experiment destroyed by a tainted sample.

If you have to ask...

Are you chumps still coming here looking for baby pictures? I got news for you. There is no baby. In fact, there never was any baby, and this whole pregnancy has been a nine-month publicity stunt on the blog. So there. Why else would my mom have left this morning to go back to work, and Darwin and my brother be heading down this afternoon to go take in The Hobbit? Nothing to see here, so go away.

Even my kids are fooled. This morning, Jack ran in, pulled off my blankets, and announced, "No baby!" to the disappointed peanut gallery in the hall. Little do they know that there will never be a baby, and I'll just have this huge lump in my middle and lay around for the rest of my life. I don't mind, though. Now that I've hit the advanced age of 35, I've accepted the fact that no one cares any more whether my ankles are neat and trim. When you get old like me, people just expect you to waddle around with strange bulges in your midsection. At least I don't jiggle.

In the meantime, I'm going to keep up this charade a bit longer just to see how long I can make people fetch things for me and do all the bending down and dishwashing and housekeeping while I sit with my feet up and laugh behind my hands. Suckers!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Paying Out The Ass for Poop Coffee

No, this isn't some strained analogy to teach a moral lesson, it's apparently a real coffee trend. From the WSJ's pop economics column this weekend:
During a recent trip to Los Angeles, I stopped by a coffee shop offering a very expensive coffee called kopi luwak, or civet coffee. I asked about the steep price, and the barista told me the story of the special process required to make this coffee: A catlike Indonesian animal known as a civet eats coffee cherries and then poops out what are basically beans. People then collect these "processed" beans and use them to make a highly unusual brew that is said to be smoother than its journey. It can sell for hundreds of dollars per pound. I was curious but not interested (or brave) enough to buy it—let alone drink it. Can you explain why people are willing to pay for this?

The promotional material that I found says that civets know how to pick the best coffee beans and that their digestive systems ferment the beans, reducing their acidity and providing a much better coffee. (I have no idea how this works, but the story piqued my curiosity, too.)

So why are people willing to pay so much for civet coffee? It is probably for the novelty and the story—and because the amount (and type) of labor involved is clearly so much higher than for your average cup of Java. People are generally willing to pay more for something that requires more effort to produce even if the product itself isn't better—and civet coffee sounds like a prime example of this effort-based-pricing principle.

Finally, I wonder how much people would be willing to pay had the beans passed through an American human rather than an exotic Indonesian animal. My guess: That would be too strong a brew for any of us.
Personally, I'm quite comfortable with my coffee only being digested once, by me, but I had to find out more. Apparently this cute little fellow is the source of all this excitement:

Apparently people discovered this way of getting coffee because the native workers on Dutch coffee plantations in Indonesia were forbidden to have any coffee beans for themselves, so they started collecting the droppings of civets which got into the plantations at night, ate beans, and then dropped them out later. The coffee turned out to be strong and mild, and soon the plantation owners were drinking it too. More recently, word of the product was spread by globe trotting coffee connoisseurs and the specialty coffee industry stumbled onto its most expensive product.

Of course, the problem with getting coffee drinkers all over the world excited about the idea of something which is produced by such a circuitous process (and thus is so rare and expensive) is that it creates a demand far too high for the original method of production. So apparently these days people have tried to increase the supply of civet coffee by caging the civets so they can be fed more coffee and their droppings collected more easily.

Animal rights advocates report that the civets, who are naturally nocturnal and solitary, do not do well in the cramped conditions of caged living, and also that since it's the process that has such cache unscrupulous operators often feed the civets low quality coffee varieties which wouldn't fetch a high price otherwise.

In our mass society, there's still a desire to discover that unique item which only people-in-the-know can get hold of. Yet there's a reason why these sorts of finds were traditionally only enjoyed by locals and the occasionally traveler. Quirky local finds aren't the same when you try to mass produce them for all the consumers who want to think they're in on the quirky local find game.

In this case, this is probably something which should remain a fascinating story for the travel literature, not a mass consumer product, while the civets go back to wandering the trees and pooping our beans wherever it seems best to them.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

40 week visual

Here's yer baby picture for today:

Friday, December 20, 2013

Sound and Fury, signifying nothing

You thought you'd stop over here and check out cute photos of Baby Darwin, who would surely have arrived by now? Heh. Don't hold your breath. Baby is entirely too comfortable where he is. He's the only one who's comfortable, but he works it. I think Diana, 3 1/2, is starting to think we're making it up that a baby is actually going to come out of Mommy tummy. I think she believes that Mommy is just unaccountably, incredibly fat.

On a hunch, I checked my ultrasound stats, and they placed the due date at 12/22 instead of 12/20. Back in July, those two days were a statistical blip. I feel it keenly now, I assure you. He feels it too. He knows he's just received an extension on his lease. Ha ha, Mom, you thought I was moving out of your basement? I'm covered until age 26 now!

I'm nervous about leaving the house and I'm nervous about any impending signs of labor, because it's almost past hoping that I should have another miracle painless labor like last time. I'm trying to avoid any of the orgasmic bullshit  by remembering that things could be worse. Labor is better than living in a North Korean prison camp. It's easier than being one of the North American martyrs (bonus photo of previous baby boy in that post). And it ought to be over quickly, because although I'm not dilated yet, apparently my cervix is thinned to the point where once labor starts, I'll be at 5 cm already. And now I'm nervous about catching the baby myself because everyone is off somewhere when I realize that I really have to push.

Despite laying around, I've not been idle recently. I spent portions of last week snuffling over Mrs. Gaskell's North and South, and then I binged on the 2004 BBC adaptation featuring Richard Armitage as John Thornton, which means I feel no pressure to see him as Thorin in the reputedly craptastic second installment of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Literature. On the other hand, now I'm scouring Youtube for the older BBC version of North and South with Patrick Stewart. With hair.

Maybe this baby will have hair and not be bald like his brother was for so long.

Also, I risked my blood pressure by running out to Wal-Mart and buying a TV antenna so we could watch the live broadcast of The Sound of Music a few weeks ago. It was fun to see the sets and get a bit of the thrill of live theater, but were there no better actresses than Carrie Underwood to play Maria? On the other hand, it afforded me a day or two of innocent amusement as I mentally restaged and rechoreographed the Do, a Deer scene. Why are the kids all standing around in a cluster? That doesn't make any sense, even in the world of musicals. Why not use the scene to dramatize the conflict going on instead of being a cute singalong set piece?  After Maria tells the children, "At ease," chaos breaks loose. Liesl throws herself on the couch and starts reading a magazine because she's too cool for a governess, the younger kids start ransacking Maria's belongings (how they find the guitar, after all), Gretl hangs on her, the boys start scuffling over something or other. Maria has to get their attention, which she tries to do by teaching a song, but no one except the youngest are paying attention (except maybe Friedrich, who might secretly want to learn the guitar but won't show it). Maria gets up to "Do re mi fa so la ti...", realizes that hardly anyone is paying attention and she can barely hear herself, and blows the whistle. Everyone jumps up and stands at attention where they are, Maria is a little appalled at the instant result and shoves the whistle back into her pocket, and says, "Let's make this easier," crosses downstage, and...

But I could go on and you're already tired of this. I'm now ready to direct The Sound of Music for schools or community theaters; rates on request. 

Also, while sitting around in bed I wrote Christmas cards. I like writing a note in each card; I like getting fancy with the lettering on the envelopes; I like seeing what designs the girls will draw on the back of each. Alas, about 2/3 of the way through my list my hand was too numb to keep going, and after a few days, when I was back to being able to write, the moment of virtue had passed. Now I'm crocheting baby an afghan, which is pacifying my creative impulses while pinching the same nerves as card writing does. I did try a little painting when Darwin was cutting in the corners of our bedroom, but that accelerated the hand numbing process so much that I had to give it up after half an hour. 

The room is still halfway painted. Perhaps baby is waiting for his backdrop to be finished before he deigns to appear.

Oh, the library ceiling is almost finished, for those keeping track at home. Darwin will take some photos with his new camera, which, though nice, was the lamest Christmas present ever. "Just pick something out and buy it for yourself, hon," I said, my inspiration shattered and any memory of my dear husband's past year worth of desires, wishes, or vague hopes erased by the constant pressure on my joints and bladder. Sorry, hon. I love you, and I'll really buy you a birthday present. I mean it.

But baby, all I want for Christmas is you.

Paul Ryan and the Poor

There's an interesting Buzzfeed article going around about Paul Ryan's increasing focus on policies to help the poor, one apparently inspired by experiencing during the last election and fueled by his admiration for Pope Francis. A few parts of the article betray a bit of an editorial sneer towards conservatives, but in general it's well written and fair.
Ryan was there for a meeting that the Romney campaign brain trust had seemed, for months, intent on stopping. Since joining the presidential ticket in August, the Wisconsin congressman had been lobbying to spend more time campaigning in diverse, low-income neighborhoods. Ryan, a protégé of the late, big-tent GOP visionary Jack Kemp, argued the visits would show the country that Republicans cared about the poor. The number-crunchers in Boston countered that every hour spent on inner-city photo ops was a lost opportunity to rally middle-class suburbanites who might actually vote for them. Eventually, they reached a compromise: Ryan could give one big speech about poverty in Ohio and hold an off-the-record roundtable with community leaders who work with the poor — but the campaign would have to vet them all.
And then, as Ryan prepared to leave to deliver his speech, a tattooed minister who had arrived at the meeting via motorcycle asked the congressman if he could lay hands on him to pray.

Ryan looked momentarily panicked, according to some who were in the room, but then he shrugged and smiled. “I’m Catholic, but I’m cool with that,” he responded.

Secret Service agents tensed up as the group surrounded him and the man placed his hands on Ryan’s shoulders — inches away from his neck, a nervous aide noted later. The candidate made the sign of the cross, and the minister called on the power of God to give Ryan strength, and help him fulfill his divine mission. Several people present, including Ryan, became emotional.

Ryan left the meeting, gave his speech, lost the election, and returned home to Wisconsin. But several weeks later, he couldn’t stop thinking about that prayer. Speaking with a close aide, he said it was the most powerful experience he’d had during the campaign — and that he felt strongly he needed to act on it.
Ryan has spent the past year quietly touring impoverished communities across the country with Woodson, while his staff digs through center-right think tank papers in search of conservative policy proposals aimed at aiding the poor. Next spring, Ryan plans to introduce a new battle plan for the war on poverty — one he hopes will launch a renewed national debate on the issue.
[T]hose closest to him say Ryan’s new mission is the result of a genuine spiritual epiphany — sparked, in part, by the prayer in Cleveland, and sustained by the emergence of a new pope who has lit the world on fire with bold indictments of the “culture of prosperity” and a challenge to reach out the weak and disadvantaged.

“What I love about the pope is he is triggering the exact kind of dialogue we ought to be having,” Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel this week, adding, “People need to get involved in their communities to make a difference, to fix problems soul to soul.”
“Paul is someone who is very cognizant of the social magisterium of the Catholic Church… which encompasses everything from how we care for our neighbors to the idea that there’s hope and purpose and goodness in every human life,” said Flaherty, who recalled slipping away from the Republican convention in 2012 to attend mass with Ryan. “It also includes the ongoing duty of the strong to protect the weak — which I know drives Paul and his effort to help lift people out of poverty.”

Like many conservative Catholics, Ryan uses the doctrine of subsidiarity — which favors individual freedom and local governance over the power of large, central authorities — to reconcile his concern for the poor with his general suspicion of federal welfare programs. In this, Ryan has found inspiration in the teachings of Pope Francis, who said in 2009, “We cannot respond with truth to the challenge of eradicating exclusion and poverty if the poor continue to be objects, targets of the action of the state and other organizations in a paternalistic and aid-based sense, instead of subjects, where the state and society create social conditions that promote and safeguard their rights and allow them to be builders of their own destiny.”

Ryan echoed the sentiment in a commencement speech in May, putting the message in more distinctly Republican terms. “Concern for the poor doesn’t demand faith in big government,” Ryan told the graduates of Benedictine College. “It demands something more from all of us. If we continue to believe that the war on poverty is primarily a government responsibility, then we will continue to weaken our communities. We will drift further apart as people.”
A number of smart young conservative writers (both the ones who spring to mind for me, Ross Douthat and Ramesh Ponnuru are Catholic as well) have been writing for a while that in order to re-find the grassroots popularity that it enjoyed under Reagan, conservatism needs to move past the focus on top income bracket tax rates which was more relevant in the 1970s and focus on the difficulties faced by the poor and the lower middle class. While there's a lot of moral preening on the left about focusing on the poor, there's a reasonable conservative argument to be made that the progressive policies of recent decades have little to offer them. But the case can't be strictly negative. Conservatives would need to refocus on policies and messages that actually help and resonate with the working poor on issue other than God and guns. Perhaps Ryan will become that voice.

Moral Prudence vs. Moral Law in the Modesty Debate

Brandon had a great post over at Siris the other day dealing with modesty. He rightly points out that the way in which we talk about "modest dress" in our current day and age is actually only a small subset of the issue which was traditionally discussed. Modesty was primarily discussed not in terms of being overly revealing but rather in terms of vaingloriousness. Another too-seldom-discussed point which came up for discussion, however, was the difference between moral law and moral prudence.

In our modern culture there is a great tendency to behave as if all moral questions are relative. "Well, that's not right for me, but of course for some other person in some other culture..." Christians rightly react against this and point out that certain actions are wrong in and of themselves, although someone's knowledge or culture may make them less culpable for violating such moral laws.

However, having found the moral hammer, as it were, there's a certain temptation to see every moral situation as a nail. And yet, not everything that you might advise someone not to do for moral reasons is inherently immoral. Indeed, many aren't. Many are instead morally imprudent.

I think part of what causes the confusion is that we fall into the habit of thinking of things which we tell people not to do (or which we choose not to do) as simply being bad. For instance, when I take my daughters shopping, I shoot down outfits which I consider to look sexually suggestive, whether it's by the cut and fit or by featuring phrases I consider inappropriate. (Aside from obvious things like the large "JUICY" across the bottom, the two I recall striking me as most appalling were "Sweet Tart" and "Melts In The Mouth" on snug little tween shirts.)

However, the reason I don't let them buy those clothes (whose defects at 10 and 11 they are oblivious to) is not that it would be sinful to wear those clothes, but rather because it would be imprudent. You do not have a moral obligation not to wear such clothes, and someone might very well wear them quite blamelessly, so it's important that you do not assume that someone who is not following your prudential standards is doing wrong or lacking in morals. However, that doesn't mean that it's the best choice.

Unfortunately, this idea of prudence seems to be very difficult for many people. In our liberty-based culture, people seem to want to think that either no one should do something, or else there is no reason why you shouldn't do it.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Economics of A Christmas Carol

We just finished re-watching A Christmas Carol: the George C. Scott adaptation, which is to my mind by far the best, not just because of George C. Scott's acting, but also because it has the best adapted script. (Among other things, the screenwriter recognized the importance of Scrooge's nephew Fred to the plot and Scrooge's redemption.)

I was reminded of this old post on the economics of A Christmas Carol. Since writing it I've also seen Alastair Sim's old 1951 Christmas Carol, which has yet another twist on Scrooge's business, adding a plotline in which Scrooge bought out and looted Fezziwig's business. This seemed somewhat apace with an overall adaption approach which seemed bent on adding extra plot frills to up the stakes (it also had a dying Fran entrust the care of Fred to her brother Scrooge, an odd choice given that her husband was standing right there at the time.)

Here's the original post:

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is among my favorite stories. This year, I've been reading it aloud to the family for the first time. (I started off reading it to the girls, but MrsDarwin has proved a more apt audience. Dickens' prose remains a bit beyond 5 and 6-year-old tastes.)

I'm far from being alone in my affection for A Christmas Carol, and so there are any number of movie adaptations available as well. This particular year, it happens that I saw two versions, the George C. Scott adaptation which is an absolutely superb film, and also The Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine.

A number of comparisons might spring to mind when watching two such different treatments a few days apart, but in this case what struck me immediately was the way in which each movie attempted to convey the heartlessness of Scrooge's business methods.

Dickens himself is rather sketchy about what exactly Scrooge's business is, other than that it consumes all his attention. Scrooge sits in a counting house through the day, and in the outer office Bob Cratchit is seen copying letters -- a clerical task generic enough it could pertain to any business. It's also mentioned that Scrooge makes short term loans or securities on the Exchange. Or at least, that is how I take the line:
This was a great relief, because ``three days after sight of this First of Exchange pay to Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge or his order,'' and so forth, would have become a mere United States' security if there were no days to count by.

Doubtless merchant financing and options trading seemed far too complex for a children's movie, so in the Muppet Christmas Carol, Scrooge has been turned into a writer of mortgages -- or a landlord of rental properties, the scriptwriter can't quite seem to make up his mind. In the opening scene Scrooge gleefully tells Cratchit (Kermit the frog) and a small army of small clerks (the rats) to write up the next day's foreclosures to be delivered on Christmas. Gleefully rubbing his hands together, he declares that this is the best season of the year for mortgage lenders.

Later, however, when Marley's ghost (in the Muppet version transformed into the Marley Brothers, played by the hectoring old men from the Muppet Show) appears, they reminisce about the good old days when they evicted people from houses they couldn't afford the rent on. "Remember the year we evicted the whole orphanage? There they were, shivering in the street with their frosted teddy bears!"

Clearly, the point here is to portray Scrooge as being in the very worst possible sort of business, but what the screen writer seems to have been unclear on is that if you hold a mortgage as a lender the very worst thing that can happen to you is having to foreclose on it. If the homeowner had enough equity in the house to cover the balance owed, the homeowner would obviously sell the house, pay off the loan, and keep the balance. So foreclosures are only going to happen when the house is worth less than the balance on the loan. The lien holder sells the house to make back as much as possible of the lost money, but it'll invariably be a loss for him. If Scrooge is writing our reams and reams of foreclosures, he's probably about to go out of business. (After all, if foreclosures made lenders rich, our financial industry wouldn't be in such trouble now.)

Similarly, although a landlord stands to start making money again if he evicts renters who can't pay and replaces them with ones who can, he obviously loses rent in the mean time, and has to go through extra work getting rid of the old renters and finding new ones. A landlord would make much more money by finding good renters who can afford his rents in the first place.

So while the Muppet Christmas Carol seeks to make Scrooge out as the ultimate in greedy businessmen, they mostly only succeed in making him look deeply incompetent. How he could get rich by such means is totally unclear.

The George C. Scott adaption has a rather more historically and economically literate approach to Scrooge's business dealings. In an early scene, Scrooge goes down to the exchange where he meets with three men seeking to buy a warehouse full of grain which Scrooge owns. They ask him if he has reconsidered his price since the day before. Scrooge replies that he has: the price has gone up 5%. That's outrageous, they reply. No, says the imperturbable Scrooge, it's business. But if grain prices rise, the poor will suffer. That's their look out, says Scrooge. You'll end up with a warehouse stuffed with grain, they warn him. Surely, he replies, that's his own lookout. He then warns them that the price will increase another 5% if they wait until the next day -- on which threat he succeeds in closing the deal.

From what I've read about the mid 19th century British economy what Scrooge is probably doing here is using his considerable capital to buy up futures on the harvest for the year. Because it was a period of instability for many British farmers, it was often possible for a money lender to buy up the harvest in advance at vastly reduced prices. This relieved the farmer of the risk of a bad harvest, but lost him most of the benefit that would otherwise have come from a good year -- with the profits from a bountiful harvest instead going to lenders and traders like Scrooge. With sufficient dominance in such a market (and enough capital to be able to wait for scarcity to set in) Scrooge could also attempt to corner a market and wait for times of scarcity in order to sell his grain.

If one feels the need to imagine a business model that fits with Scrooge as presented in the story, this seems like a fairly reasonable way to go.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What Oppression Does To People

This piece from Harpers about living thirty days as a Cuban is fascinating. The author went to Cuba determined to see if it was possible to live on a Cuban wage. According to the state pay scale, as a journalist his monthly pay should be $15, so that's what he attempts to live on in Havana. Needless to say, the resulting experience makes the "food stamp died" look like a walk in the park.
There wasn’t much of me left either. In mid-February I walked one last time to the Riviera, weighing myself in the gym. I was down eleven and a half pounds since my arrival. More than eleven pounds gone in thirty days. I’d missed about 40,000 calories. At this rate I would be as lean as a Cuban by spring. And dead by autumn.

I finished out with a few tiny meals—the last of the ugly rice, a last sweet potato, and the quarter of a cabbage. On the day before my departure I broke into my emergency stash, eat- ing the sesame sticks from the airplane (60 calories), and opening the can of fruit punch I’d smuggled in from the Bahamas (180). The taste of this red liquid was a shock: bitter with ascorbic acid, and flooded with sugar, to imitate the flavors of real juice. It was like drinking plastic.

My total expenditures on food were $15.08 for the month. By the end I’d read nine books, two of them about a thousand pages long, and written much of this article. I’d been living on the wages of a Cuban intellectual, and, indeed, I always write better, or at least faster, when I’m broke.

My final morning: no breakfast, on top of no dinner. I used the prostitute’s coin to catch a bus out toward the airport. I had to walk the last 45 minutes to my terminal, almost fainting on the way. There was a tragicomic moment when I was pulled out of line at the metal detectors by men in uniform because an immigration officer thought I had overstayed my thirty-day visa. It took three people, repeatedly counting it out on their fingers, to prove that I was still on day thirty.
One of the things that struck me most in reading it, however, was not just the hunger and desperation but the moral corrosion of living in an oppressive society. It's not just that Cuba is poor, the controlled economy means that the only way to make more is to steal or resort to the black market (which is itself mostly dealing in stolen goods.) The author quickly finds himself contemplating theft, but is held back mainly because everyone else is better at it than he is:
Every day I was approached by Cubans who said, in one phrase or another, Give me money. My own options would be grim in the weeks ahead. Should I stand on the street corner, demanding dollars from strangers? How hungry did you have to get before you became like the teenage girl I overtook on a Vedado sidewalk that afternoon, who, holding a baby on her hip, turned to me and said, Deseas una chica sucky sucky?

If I was going to suck something, I knew what it would be. I found myself watching the Ladas as they rolled past, trying to see how many had locking gas caps. With some tubing and a jug, I could get five liters of gasoline and sell it through a friend in Chinatown. But all the cars in Cuba had locking gas caps or were themselves locked behind gates at night. Too many men, harder than I, were already working that line. This was no island for amateur thieves.
Friends are able to give him occasional work, and food, this too based on theft and the black market economy.
Havana was changing, as cities do. The historic zone had been placed under the control of Eusebio Leal Spengler, the city historian. Leal had been given special priority for building supplies, labor, trucks, tools, fuel, pipes, cement, wood, even faucets and toilets. But this was not why the people loved him. Instead, my friend explained, the “privileged” access to supplies simply meant that there was more to steal.

A friend of mine was renovating in hopes of renting rooms to foreigners, and indeed within a few minutes there was a screech of truck brakes and a great horn blast. Her husband signaled to me urgently, and we threw open the front door. A flatbed truck was waiting. In sixty seconds, three of us unloaded 540 pounds of Portland cement bags. The husband passed some wadded bills to the trucker, who promptly roared off. They had made money off cement destined for some construction job. We spent half an hour moving the bags to a dark corner in a back room, covering them with a tarp because they were printed with blue ink, marking them as state property. Green printing was for school construction. Only cement in red-printed bags could be bought by citizens, in state stores, at $6 a bag.

Unlike most Cuban functionaries, Leal had actually made a difference in people’s lives. He rebuilt the old hotels; my friends took 540 pounds of cement for their new tourist bungalow. He restored a museum; they looted tin sheeting for roofs. He sent trucks of lumber into the neighborhood; they made half the wood vanish.

The State owned all. The people appropriated all. A ration system in reverse.

Helping to steal the cement was my first great success. For half an hour of labor, I was paid with a heaping plate of rice and red beans, topped with a banana and a small portion of picadillo. At least 800 calories.
I think this helps to explain why it is so hard for a country which has undergone this kind of repression to recover culturally. Once you've ingrained in people for a long period of time that the only way to survive is to steal and cheat, those habits die hard. In this sense, that fact that, in the absence of free markets, an illegal black market that looks a lot like a free market tends to spring up actually makes it harder for a culture to later shift to a free economy.

It's appalling that, even as people like to pretend that no one really support Stalin and other communist dictators back in the day, there are still plenty of people in our country sympathetic to the Castros. Their regime not only takes away people's most fundamental human freedoms and condemns them to grinding poverty, it also does everything possible to force them into participating in actions they innately feel to be wrong in order to survive, and it creates in them a set of customs and dispositions that will make it harder for them to later develop a free and functioning society.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Susan Pevensie, Feminist?

There's something about a truly, shockingly bad piece of writing that is almost inspiring, and this Ink Splotch piece trying to imagine the post-Narnia life of Susan Pevensie falls distinctly within that territory:
Can we talk about Susan’s fabulous adventures after Narnia? The ones where she wears nylons and elegant blouses when she wants to, and short skirts and bright lipstick when she wants to, and hiking boots and tough jeans and big men’s plaid shirts when she feels like backpacking out into the mountains and remembering what it was to be lost in a world full of terrific beauty— I know her siblings say she stops talking about it, that Susan walks away from the memories of Narnia, but I don’t think she ever really forgot.

I want to read about Susan finishing out boarding school as a grown queen reigning from a teenaged girl’s body. School bullies and peer pressure from children and teachers who treat you like you’re less than sentient wouldn’t have the same impact. C’mon, Susan of the Horn, Susan who bested the DLF at archery, and rode a lion, and won wars, sitting in a school uniform with her eyebrows rising higher and higher as some old goon at the front of the room slams his fist on the lectern.

Susan living through WW2, huddling with her siblings, a young adult (again), a fighting queen and champion marksman kept from the action, until she finally storms out against screaming parents’ wishes and volunteers as a nurse on the front. She keeps a knife or two hidden under her clothes because when it comes down to it, they called her Gentle, but sometimes loving means fighting for what you care for.

She’ll apply to a women’s college on the East Coast, because she fell in love with America when her parents took her there before the war. She goes in majoring in Literature (her ability to decipher High Diction in historical texts is uncanny), but checks out every book she can on history, philosophy, political science. She sneaks into the boys’ school across town and borrows their books too. She was once responsible for a kingdom, roads and taxes and widows and crops and war. She grew from child to woman with that mantle of duty wrapped around her shoulders. Now, tossed here on this mundane land, forever forbidden from her true kingdom, Susan finds that she can give up Narnia but she cannot give up that responsibility. She looks around and thinks I could do this better.

I want Susan sneaking out to drink at pubs with the girls, her friends giggling at the boys checking them out from across the way, until Susan walks over (with her nylons, with her lipstick, with her sovereignty written out in whatever language she damn well pleases) and beats them all at pool. Susan studying for tests and bemoaning Aristotle and trading a boy with freckles all over his nose shooting lessons so that he will teach her calculus. Susan kissing boys and writing home to Lucy and kissing girls and helping smuggle birth control to the ladies in her dorm because Susan Pevensie is a queen and she understands the right of a woman to rule over her own body.
Susan's briefly hinted-at after story has often presented a stumbling block, particularly for those hostile to Lewis's religious and moral beliefs, but this probably takes the cake as the worst take I've read. Susan the feminist power-girl who goes on to become an American liberal politics version of Forest Gump. In a perverse imitation of Lewis's tossing together of disparate mythologies, the author takes every trope and event of American progressive mythologizing about the mid twentieth century and crams them all into Susan's life.
She starts writing for the local paper under the pseudonym Frank Tumnus, because she wants to write about politics and social policy and be listened to, because the name would have made Edmund laugh.

She writes as Susan Pevensie, too, about nylons and lipstick, how to give a winning smiles and throw parties, because she knows there is a kind of power there and she respects it. She won wars with war sometimes, in Narnia, but sometimes she stopped them before they began.
Susan is a young woman in the 50s and 60s. Frank Tumnus has quite the following now. He’s written a few books, controversial, incendiary. Susan gets wrapped up in the civil rights movement, because of course she would. It’s not her first war. All the same, she almost misses the White Witch. Greed is a cleaner villain than senseless hate. She gets on the Freedom Rider bus, mails Mr. Tumnus articles back home whenever there’s a chance, those rare occasions they’re not locked up or immediately threatened. She is older now than she ever was in Narnia. Susan dreams about Telemarines killing fauns.

Time rolls on. Maybe she falls in love with a young activist or an old cynic. Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe Frank Tumnus, controversial in the moment, brilliant in retrospect, gets offered an honorary title from a prestigious university. She declines and publishes an editorial revealing her identity. Her paper fires her. Three others mail her job offers.

When Vietnam rolls around, she protests in the streets. Susan understands the costs of war. She has lived through not just the brutal wars of one life, but two.
Because, you know, everything's better if it's American. We wouldn't want the author to be forced to learn what the liberal orthodoxies of Britain were in order to place Susan there -- better to bring her here.

There are so many things wrong with all this. For starters, the author clearly hasn't read the books with any care. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe appears to take place during the Blitz, so probably during the summer of 1940. Susan's age is not given in the book, but internal evidence would suggest she's around 12. Lewis was no great stickler for continuity, and the war is not mentioned in future books, but at a minimum I think we can say there's no way that Susan could go off and be a nurse during World War Two, she'd be in her early teens.

And what's with this deep belief that one is only a "strong character" if there's a tinge of violence about one? The line "She keeps a knife or two hidden under her clothes because when it comes down to it, they called her Gentle, but sometimes loving means fighting for what you care for," is more distant from the realities of world wars than Lewis's kingdom of dryads and fauns. You want to show a real tough as nails nurse during World War Two? Have her explicitly conscious of the fact that for a woman where she is, bringing a weapon into play to defend herself could make a very bad situation even worse.

This is just another symptom of the underlying problem with the author's vision, however. She (I assume, somehow I'm having trouble finding an author attribution on the site) has constructed an entire fantasy around the idea of Susan as powerful. Susan misses the power of being queen, and this drives he to do all sorts of things because she's a woman who knows how to use power.

It strikes me how much this contradict's Lewis's own thinking about power and kingship/queenship as shown in the Narnia books. In The Horse and His Boy, when Shasta discovers that he is actually Prince Cor and will one day be king, his father King Lune tells him, "For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land."

The post-author see's Susan as having been a powerful and talented administrator, someone who made the trains run on time, and she sees Susan as wanting to wield that power again. Indeed, she sees Susan as, in a sense, the best of the lot of Narnia kids, because she imagines this central will to power (and ability for wielding it) in her character.

But for Lewis, leadership is sacrificial rather than self-aggrandizing. Indeed, the sort of "I'm powerful and I want to make things work my way because of that" attitude displayed by the post author is what Lewis portrays with the White Witch and with the Calormen rulers shown in Horse and His Boy, a style of wielding power that Lewis clearly means to spotlight as corrupting and destructive.

In this sense, she's got the message of Lewis's choice to have children brought into Narnia and made its kings and queens exactly backward. She imagines this is hugely empowering and Susan will find it hard to let go of being the power-wielding woman that she was in Narnia. Lewis doesn't see power-wielding as what a good ruler wants or does. That's why children are made kings and queens, not because they have the talent for being powerful rulers but because they won't be powerful rulers. They are put in charge, after all, by Aslan, Lewis's stand-in for Christ. They come to him like children, and although Lewis describes them growing into respected young kings and queens, their virtue as such is, I think, in Lewis's vision partly the humility of having come to their positions through being chosen, not through being the strongest or most able.

Susan's fall, which we see in its beginning stages in Prince Caspian, is her increasing desire to set herself up as superior to such things. Even being back in Narnia, the dismisses the possibility that Lucy could have been seeing Aslan, because she's becoming dismissive of things outside of or larger than herself. When in the Last Battle her siblings describe her falling away from Narnia entirely, it's in terms of her dismissing Narnia as something they used to imagine, something too big and unsettling and nonconformist to fit with the place that she's come to envision for herself in the "real world".

Friday, December 13, 2013

Grace on a Desert Island

The inimitable Elliot Milco has written a high school theology class quiz which makes you think he's the teacher you wish you had (though, of course, when I was in high school the referenced movie hadn't come out yet, so oh well.)
1. Tom Hanks is stranded alone on a desert island with only a volleyball to keep him company. He knows that as a member of the Church, missing Sunday mass counts as "grave matter" for a mortal sin. He wants to go to mass, but when Sunday comes around, he doesn't go. Has he committed a mortal sin? Briefly defend your answer. (3 points)

2. Several months later, Tom Hanks is still stuck on the island. A storm comes and washes away his beloved volleyball, Wilson. After weeping over the loss of his best friend, Tom Hanks raises his eyes to heaven and curses God. Despite all appearances to the contrary, he is in full possession of his mental faculties, and knows what he is doing. What kind of sin has he committed? Briefly defend your answer. (3 points)

3. A few more months pass, and Tom Hanks begins to feel bad for what he has done. He realizes that he may die on the island, and doesn't want to end up in hell, because from what he has heard hell sounds pretty unappealing. He wishes he could go to confession, but since he's alone on the island, he can't. He prays for forgiveness, but his desire to renew his relationship with God isn't based on Love, just a concern about his own soul. What kind of contrition does Tom Hanks have? Briefly defend your answer. (3 points)

4. After being rescued from the island, Tom Hanks encounters a Deacon on board the ship that saves him. Can the deacon perform the sacrament of confession if Tom Hanks asks him? Explain.
(2 points)

5. After getting back home, Tom Hanks is exhausted and just wants to be left alone. Sunday comes around and he really just doesn't feel like going to mass. He knows he should, and is completely capable of making it to a church, but decides sleeping in is more important. Compare this with the situation in question 1. What kind of sin is Tom Hanks guilty of? Explain. (3 points)

6. After regretting missing mass, Tom Hanks finds a priest and goes to confession again, just in case the confession to the deacon wasn't valid. But he only has imperfect contrition! Is that good enough for his confession to count? (2 points)

7. During his confession, Tom Hanks remembers the time on the island when he cursed God, but he is too ashamed of this sin to tell the priest, and so he leaves it out and just confesses missing mass. Has Tom Hanks met the requirements for a valid confession? Explain. (2 points)

8. During his confession, the Priest reminds him that the reason Catholics are required to go to Sunday mass is that it draws us closer to God and helps us receive divine life, which makes us better people and more open to the knowledge and love of God. What special kind of grace do we receive at Mass that makes us more capable of knowing and loving God? Why is this grace so important? (2 points)

9. After leaving confession, Tom Hanks thinks about what the priest said, and he realizes that he’s been thinking about his spiritual life incorrectly. Instead of seeing the Church as an imposing rule-maker that forces people to feel guilty all the time, he starts to understand that the commandments and obligations that come with Catholic life are guidelines to help us draw closer to God. In a moment of conversion, he is filled with a profound love of God above all things, and becomes very clearly aware of his faults. He goes back to the priest to make a full confession. What kind of contrition does Tom Hanks have? (2 points)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

La Guadalupana

Darwin posted a few days ago about guilty music pleasures, so here's one of mine that's appropriate to post again today: La Guadalupana:

I watched this on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe for about five years running, and I don't care how cheesy it may be, Juan Diego here always makes me teary-eyed. Also, our pop stars' accents don't correspond to any Spanish I ever heard in Los Angeles or Texas, but I love the way they pronounce "Mexicanos". Castilian Spanish is supposed to be noted for its lisp; is this at all related? Of course, the way American pop stars sing English doesn't match most spoken usage either.

Happy feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe!

This is Your Dog On Selective Breeding

Posting has been thin lately because I've been working long hours on a series of projects at work, and MrsDarwin continues on bedrest while her mother has been ably running the house. My attempts at blogging lately have mostly been along the lines of "I started to read this article which would be good to blog about, if I can finish reading it some day and then write about it."

Here's something interesting, though: how one hundred years of inbreeding have exaggerated the physical characteristics of pure bred dogs. A blogger collected photos of dog breeds from the 1915 book Dogs of All Nations and compared them to pictures of modern purebred dogs.

The most extreme example is the Bull Terrier, which these days is a pretty exceedingly ugly dog, but apparently back in 1915 was not.

(Go check out the original article for a number of additional examples.)

Obviously selecting for certain traits and breeding exclusively within a set population can produce increasingly extreme results. This has me wondering what the appropriate approach would be if you were breeding for stasis rather than breeding for increasingly extreme characteristics. I imagine part of the solution is simply not always picking the most extreme representatives of the population to pass on their genes, but it seems like you'd also have to cycle through outside genes with occasional outbreeding as well.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Christmas in California

I may not be the most California of California boys, but this song touches on a lot of memories, from warm Santa Anna winds to wreathes of chilies and Christmas tamales.

From my uncle the rocker.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Bad Music Worth Listening To

I imagine everyone has some guilty pleasure music: music you know is not actually very good, but which you sometimes enjoy listening to more than good music.

Christmas ranks high in this area for me, and so I might as well go ahead and confess right off that I'm listening to Trans Siberian Orchestra while working today. Sure, there's the excuse that I haven't got around to loading the fairly heft Darwin collection of Christmas music onto my iPhone yet (not because I'm a stickler for not listening to Christmas music during Advent, but because I simply haven't got around to it.) But truth be told, I'd probably be listening to Trans Siberian Orchestra anyway. Sometimes one craves utter bombast over quality.

What are your musical guilty pleasures? The guiltier, the better.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Universal Destination of Goods

My mother-in-law was taking the bus up from Cincinnati to come help with the bed-resting MrsDarwin for the next week. With the Columbus area getting 4-6 inches of snow, both the bus and I had arrived late, but within minutes of each other. MegaBus doesn't stop at a terminal, however, they pull off at the side of the street in Downtown Columbus and discharge their passengers on the sidewalk. So for ten minutes my mother-in-law and I were wandering up and down the sidewalks in the wind driven snow trying to find each other in the vicinity of the Nationwide building.

We found each other and shivered out way back to the car. She'd had a long wait for the bus in the cold and wind on the Cincinnati side too. I turned up the heater as we drove home, and, finding out that she hadn't had any lunch, pulled off at the first Panera we could find to get her some hot soup.

It was an unfamiliar part of town and I turned into the wrong parking lot and had to circle the block. On the corner, as I waited for the light, a forlorn figure in a big old blue parka was standing on the corner and approached the window -- a woman who looked around fifty who asked if I had any change, claiming she needed seven dollars to get into a homeless shelter. I'm a cynic about these things: I didn't believe that the homeless shelter charged or her claim that she hadn't eaten in three days. But I'd been out in the driving snow a while before and I was willing to hand someone money to get them out of the cold for a bit. A ten dollar bill was what I had in my wallet, so I gave her that, thinking that if that were a lot for a panhandler maybe it made up for all the similar people I'd refused to make eye contact with in less inhospitable weather.

She hurried off down the street, and by the time we'd parked behind the Panera and gone in ourselves, she was seated inside with a big guy in a nice track suit who had a large duffle bag on the floor next to him. She smiled nervously and waved to us as we ordered. The guy was talking to her and gesturing towards the outside. We'd been scammed, I figured. A team effort with the more sympathetic one out in the snow, or some guy with a hold over this lady was making her collect money for them to split. Who knows. But I'd given her the money in good faith, and I figured at least she was in from the cold for a while, enjoying a coffee. After a while they left together.

We finished our soup and coffee and left as well. I let my mother-in-law into the car, went around to my side, and saw the smashed window, back driver side. Her bags gone and my work backpack too.

We looked at the tracks in the snow. There were very few. Probably someone pulled another car up next to it for shelter, threw the bags quickly in their car, and drove off. I talked to an owner of a nearby shop. "That homeless woman was out here again," he said. "This stuff always happens when she's here." Who knows. And in a sense it doesn't matter. Someone did it, and in the end whether it's someone I handed money to or someone completely unrelated doesn't matter much since either way it's someone I don't know and who sees me as a source of a few items of disappointing value.

I called the Columbus police department and was informed that unless someone had been injured or I knew the name and address of the person who had broken into the car, I need to use an automated system to file the report. So we drove home, with the wind and snow thrumbing through the back seat as we reached highway speeds.

It took a few hours of phone calls to deal with the various issues relating to being robbed. My mother-in-law got her cards stopped -- though not before whoever stole our bags had used her debit card to buy $25 of gas at a UDF. I reported my work laptop stollen via the IT helpdesk at work. The dispatcher took it stoically.

"Happens a lot," he said. "Though usually in airports. We'll get you a replacement by Monday, or at least a loaner. At least they didn't get your iphone or someone they could actually get money for. Those corporate laptops don't even sell for a hundred bucks at a pawn shop."

This morning I called around a found a place that can replace the window today.

The things that have me feeling low aren't the cost of the window or the few slightly valuable things (work laptop, my own portable hard drive) which were taken. Money got them and money will replace them. A few hours of my wages will go for paying for the loss, and the people who took them are surely a lot worse off than I am -- though what they took did them little enough good.

What has me feeling low is the different values assigned to things taken by us and by those who took them. My mother-in-law's prayer book, with little notes and pictures of many years tucked away in it. The two slim notebooks full of four months worth of research notes for the novel which were in my backpack. The rosary that a friend had given me years ago, which I kept in my backpack but used less often than I should.

These are things that meant a lot to us -- not in money but in thoughts and memories and history -- which have no value to those who took them. I doubt they got a second glance before being thrown away.

In the wake of the pope's recent exhortation, various fellow Catholic geeks have been arguing about topics like the universal destination of goods and the non-absolute nature of private property. It's one of these things that people like to argue about in the abstract: For the starving man taking the loaf of bread is not theft, because it's owed to him.

I'm not hear to say that's false, but I do think that when people get too caught up in thinking about the theoretical deserving poor and the injustices of society and the situations in which something we'd normally think of as wrong might be okay, it's easy to forget the real social disruption that's caused when one person decides to take what is another person's. Our loss was much greater than the thieves' gain. So much of what was taken had value to us but none to them, or even if it had value to them had much less than it did to us. That dead loss is the result of one person taking from another -- a deliberate rent in the social order that involves more than the transfer of value from one person to another. Value is lost. Trust is lost.

"We should pray for whoever did it," my mother-in-law said last night. It was surprisingly easy to do. They gained so little. They are so lost.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

I Remember MrsDarwin 9: Circle of Life Edition

It's the most wonderful time of the year, and not just because I'm hitting Advanced Maternal Age today. No, it's the ninth annual festival of lying liars: I Remember MrsDarwin!
If you read this, if your eyes are passing over this right now, even if we don't speak often, please post a comment with a COMPLETELY MADE UP AND FICTIONAL MEMORY OF YOU AND ME. 
It can be anything you want--good or bad--BUT IT HAS TO BE FAKE. 
When you're finished, post this paragraph on your blog and be surprised (or mortified) about what people DON'T ACTUALLY remember about you.
This year, in honor of my being laid up for so long, let's contemplate mortality:

What did I confess to you on my deathbed?
What gift did you give me at my christening?

Bonus points for those who "remember" both, because I'm stuck here in bed with nothing to do but refresh the comments every three minutes.

Brush up on egregious falsehoods from the past eight years.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Can You Talk About "True Islam"?

There is a section of Evangelii Gaudium that I'm not clear I agree with, but it's not the economic sections. Near the end, Pope Francis has some pointed things to say both about toleration for immigrating from Muslim countries and about the necessity that Muslim countries protect the safety and religious freedom of their Christian residents. However, he wraps up by saying:
Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.
One hears this sort of thing every so often, but I'm not clear what it means to talk about "authentic Islam" or a "proper reading of the Koran".

It could mean, "To the extent that Islam is true, it rejects violence as a means of spreading its beliefs," and if so, I can certainly agree with that.

But what people seem to mean when talking about true Islam being a religion of peace is that somehow those Muslims who believe that their faith endorses the use of force at times to spread the faith of punish unbelievers are incorrectly interpreting Islam and that if they were better Muslims, they would reject violence.

However, it's problematic to say what is "true Islam" and what is "false Islam" -- especially given that I don't think Islam is actually true, except to the extent it happens to hold things which are also held by Catholicism (such as, say, the existence of God.)

There are some things one can say definitely are, at least, held by Muslims. For instance "there is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet" would seem to be something held by Muslims, and I think that even an outsider could be confident in saying that if someone believes in no God or many gods, or if he doesn't believe that Mohammad was God's prophet, then that person is not a "good Muslim" or a "true Muslim".

When it comes to a point which is disputed among Muslims themselves, however, I'm not clear how to distinguish right from wrong interpretations. There is no central authority in Islam similar to the pope in the Catholicism, and even with Catholicism, if you're an outsider and don't believe that the Church is Christ's true Church on Earth, who is to say that the magisterium is actually "true Catholicism" and not some distortion of it. At most, it seems like one could talk about "what Catholics believe" in some sociological sense.

This isn't a problem unique to Islam. For instance, do "true Protestants" believe in predestination? I'm not clear one can answer that claim. Some Protestants believe in predestination and others don't. Who is to say who the "true Protestants" are? Unless you are Protestant and you're committed to believing a specific set of beliefs within the range of what various Protestants believe, I'm not clear how you can rule on that question.

Certainly, I think that Muslims should not endorse religious violence, and I support those who believe their religion rejects it. However, I'm not clear how we can claim one way or the other what "true Islam" says on the matter.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Educational Programming

With MrsDarwin on bedrest much of the time, the small fry have been getting away with more than their usual quota of screen time. Some of this is spent doing schoolwork on the computer (Kahn academy for math, etc.) but some is also spent watching stuff on Netflix.

For the few weeks until the baby is born and MrsD is back on her feet, this is something we're okay with, but since school is getting somewhat shorter shrift as well, we'd like to mix in a bit more of the educational programming type stuff. Our oldest could watch animal special until the crack of doom, but we've gone through much of what's available at the library and a fair number of Netflix and the other kids (who are less interested in animals) are starting to revolt. So...

What educational programs would you recommend? Since we've gone so heavy on animal specials already, I'm leaning towards other topics: history, art, science not involving animals mating and killing each other

The age range is 11 through 3 and the youngest couple are willing to sit through almost anything the oldest three are willing to watch, so we're mostly shooting for the 11-7 demographic. I can't stand the super cute and bouncy, fast-cutting, low brow kind of kids programming, but aside from that we're pretty open. I never get the chance to see anything these days so I'm low on ideas.

We Shouldn't Turn to the Church for Economic Analysis

Last week saw the publication of an apostolic exhortation written by Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium. The wide ranging document (over 200 pages long) is self described as "on the proclamation of the gospel in today's world" and opens:
The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is consistently born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church's journey in years to come.
So, naturally, everyone decided it was about economics.

Yes, the document does touch on economics. Page forty-six has the section that generated headlines:
We have created a "throw away" culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society's underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised -- they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the "exploited" but the outcast, the "leftovers".

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and I the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.
There's something a bit frustrating about this one section out of a wide-ranging document which addressed everything from the need for a personal discipleship to Christ, to the importance of marriage to how homilies should be written to abortion and the sacredness of unborn life becoming the one passage which people reading news coverage of the exhortation hear about. It seems typical of the urge, both inside and outside the religious community, to reduce any complicated message to its most political application. "Pope Condemns Capitalism" is a headline which allows one side of the political spectrum to cudgel the other, while "Pope Calls Everyone To More Personal Relationship With Christ" just doesn't have that conflict-driving ring. Though, of course, it's the latter message that we arguably need to hear more. Given the way this reaction has developed I can't help but be reminded of the intro to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio play:
This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
Francis, I think, gets this, and the focus of his exhortation is not primarily economic. Be that as it may, Pope Francis did certainly choose to include the controversial section, and so it's not unreasonable to address it, though I think people should be spending more time on the rest.

The Pope's comments have received attention even outside Catholic circles. For instance, Harvard economist and textbook author Greg Mankiw offered the pope's remarks a pretty skeptical reception. There have been a range of Catholic reactions as well, from politically left-leaning Catholics trumpeting "I told you so!" to politically right-leaning ones muttering that the pope does not know what he's talking about on economic matters.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has provided a more thoughtful approach in First Things with a piece entitled "Let’s Listen to Pope Francis on Economics". Arguing that Catholics should allow their preconceptions to be challenged by the pope, Gobry writes:
I’ve long believed in free market economics and believed that the Church would do a lot of good in the world if it embraced it. And I still believe those things. But what the financial crisis has laid bare is that the most conventional version of free market economics was actually dead wrong.

It would have been a pastoral, doctrinal, and theological disaster if the Church had, over the past twenty years, blindly subscribed to what I’ll now refer to as the Washington Consensus. What in 2006 looked like the invisible hand of the market leading the financialization of the economy turned out to be a disastrous instance of crony-capitalist central planning. And when the Pope denounced it, I was among those condescendingly explaining to him that he didn't get it. What it turns out is that economists actually know very, very little, and that a lot of what we thought we knew turned out to be wrong. Given this hard-to-swallow fact, the prophetic voice of the Church that reminds us of what must be the ends of economic activity is very salutary.
I do think that free markets have allowed a great increase in economic growth throughout much of the world, and that this has been a great human good, but I don't think that the Church would "do a lot of good in the world" if it embraced capitalism. Indeed, I very explicitly think that the Church should not endorse capitalism.

Why not?

Because the Church is not on earth to conduct economic analysis any more than it is on earth to decide whether the sun is at the center of the solar system or the manner of the origin of species. Its job is not to figure out what sort of economic system will result in the highest growth or the greatest equality or any other such thing. Its job is to transmit God's graces to us through the sacraments, and to preserve and pass on to us His teachings. These teachings are not simply abstract, and throughout history (including the modern social encyclicals) the Church has sought to apply the teachings of Christ to the changing situations (the "new things" of Rerum Novarum) in which Catholics find themselves living out their lives.

However, while the application of moral principles to new situations most absolutely includes situations which we think of as "economic", and thus may have a certain appearance of being "economic teachings" they are not in fact economic analysis of the sort which we normally think of under the term. The Church's insight here is moral rather than economic. The Church teaches on how we ought to treat each other as people, not what actions will result in the greatest efficiency, the greatest growth, or the greatest profit. As such, the best response to Church teaching on economic interactions may not be "the state should require that everyone behave the way the Church says they should", since that may well not have the intended consequence. (For example, it may be far more beneficial for society to have need based programs which assist the working poor than to have a high one-size-fits-all minimum wage, in part because doing this would remove from employers the dilemma of either paying some workers more than the market value of their work because of their needs, or else being undercut by those employers who do.)

Reading Francis's exhortation with care (and in the light of some of the translation issues which have come up) I think it's fairly clear that Francis is not denying the efficacy of markets as functioning economic mechanisms, but rather condemning those who imagine that because markets allow for greater growth, and growth tends to help society as a whole, that by supporting markets we have now fulfilled the whole of our obligations to our fellow men. Far from it, the fact that on average people do better in a given situation does not mean that some people are not still doing very badly, and that we have a duty to help those people in every way we can.

Importantly, this critique applies no matter what one's economic preferences. Even after supporting what one imagines to be the right economic policies, one still must help those who find themselves in difficulties in whatever the prevailing situation may be. This applies to slacktivists on the left just as much to the misguided free enterprise fans who seem irresistibly drawn to writing defenses of Scrooge this time of year.