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

Friday, August 29, 2014

Catching a Free Ride on the Cost of Raising Children

Every so often the government reports on the increasing cost of raising children. This latest one tells us that the average cost of raising a child to the age of 17 is now $245,340. With six children in that age range, that math gets pretty staggering. Divide that number by 17 and you get an average of $14,431 per year. Multiply by six and you get $86,591. That is less than I make, so if you work on the theory that raising a family is most of what I do, I suppose that's theoretically possible, but it's certainly not an amount which one must spend.

One of the things that always makes these reports sound so large is that they aggregate spending over a long period of time. Just dividing the number by 17 does a lot of the work. The median US household income is $51k. If you say that a median family size is two adults and two kids, and you just divide that $51k by four, you get a per-person spend of $12.7k, which is not much shy of the $14.4k number suggested by the "cost of raising a child" study. If you think of raising a child as a hobby, it's an expensive hobby. If it's simply a portion of the amount you spend on your household which is related to spending on kids, it's really not.

However, at these times, people always stop to ponder questions of "how much more will it cost me if we have kids". Or one more kid. Megan McArdle had some thoughts on the report which got me thinking, as the parent of a large family:
The last 50 years have seen a massive shift away from the basic expenses of keeping your kid alive and toward competitive expenses. Now, those education expenses are a bit misleading -- as the report points out, many families basically have no expenditures in that category. Still, it’s remarkable how the averages have shifted. And that reflects a great difference in how we view the basic task of launching a child into the world. It’s no longer enough to make sure they’re fed and clothed; you also have to make sure they can beat the other kids in the education race.

If you’ve ever watched "19 Kids and Counting" and wondered how the Duggars (and families like them) do it, the answer is: They don’t do much beyond the basics. They spend a huge amount, more than $2,000 a month, on food. But before they became television personalities, the Duggars were living in a three-bedroom house with 14 kids. They buy all their clothes at thrift shops. They vacation in an RV. They home-school, and no one’s on a sports travel team or in dance classes. If they buy toys, it’s at a secondhand store. If average-size families did this, no one would be complaining about how expensive it is to have kids.
This strikes me every time I have to go clothes shopping for the children. I remember a Easter Vigil a while back when I was standing in the back of church with our two youngest at the time, and then-four-year-old Jack was talking with a little girl from a family we knew.

"That's a very nice blazer you're wearing," she said. "Where did you get it?"

"It's from Once Upon A Child," said Jack.

"Oh. Those are very nice shoes you're wearing."

"They're from Once Upon A Child," said Jack.

"I don't think I know that clothing store," the girl said, with the mature solemnity of a six year old. "But it must be very nice."

Well, it is very nice. It's the second hand kids clothing store we frequent, and it allows me to get used to spending $2-4 per item on kids clothes. I'll walk away with a bag full of barely used clothes from nice brands for far less than I would pay for much more cheaply made new stuff at Target or Walmart. We also get free hand-me-downs from all the two child families on the street. So between all these the kids are constantly awash in clothes, and nice clothes at that. It's MrsDarwin and I that have small wardrobes and get frustrated by how much everything costs. (Those with massive patience seem to find nice used adult clothing, but it always seems to me that the pickings are incredibly slim on anything other that the kind of clothes I might wear while doing yard work. With that latter exception, I buy all my clothes new.)

One of the advantages of the upper middle class culture of spending a lot on a small number of children is that it creates more cast offs than the second hand industry can well handle. I remember this article going around a while back with comments like "no one wants your used clothes".

The Quincy Street Salvation Army may be on a quiet out-of-the-way street, but it is the main distribution center serving eight Salva­tion Army locations in Brooklyn and Queens. It processes an average of five tons of outcast clothing every single day of the year, and much more during the holiday season when donations spike. From that astonishing mass, the sorters choose exactly 11,200 garments a day to be divided up equally between the eight thrift stores they serve. I asked Maui if they’ve ever hit a dry spell, where the donations dipped too low to fully restock each stores with their share of the 11,200 items. He laughed, “We never run out of clothes. There are always enough clothes.”
Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable unwanted clothes. According to John Paben, co-owner of used-clothing processer Mid- West Textile, “They never could.”

There are thousands of secondhand textile processors in the United States today, mostly small family businesses, many of them several generations old. I visited Trans- Americas Trading Co., a third- generation textile recycler in Clifton, N.J., which employs 85 people and processes close to 17 million pounds of used clothing a year. Inside Trans-Americas, there is a wall of cubed-up clothing five bales tall and more than 20 bales long. “This is liter­ally several hundred thousand pounds of textile waste, and we bring in two trailer loads of this much every day,” Trans-Americas president Eric Stubin told me. The volume they process has gone up over the years alongside our consumption of clothing.

Without textile recyclers, charities would be totally beleaguered and forced to throw away everything that couldn’t be sold. Charities might even have to turn us away. The only benefit to this doomsday scenario is that our clothes would pile up in our house or in landfills, finally forcing us to face down just how much clothing waste we create.
Most of our donated clothing does not end up in vintage shops, as car-seat stuffing, or as an industrial wiping rag. It is sold over­seas. After the prized vintage is plucked out and the outcasts are sent to the fiber and wiping rag companies, the remaining clothing is sorted, shrink-wrapped, tied up, baled, and sold to used-clothing ven­dors around the world. The secondhand clothing industry has been export-oriented almost since the introduction of mass-produced gar­ments. And by one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume, with the overwhelming majority sent to ports in sub-Saharan Africa. Tanzanians and Kenyans call used clothing mitumba, which means “bales,” as it comes off the cargo ships in the shrink-wrapped cubes like the ones I saw at Trans-Americas and Salvation Army. The bales are cut open in front of an eager clientele and buyers, who pick through it for higher-value finds.
It would appeal to people's sense of neatness for there to be only exactly the right amount of used clothing. People buy no more than they need, wear things, pass them on, and there's only just as much as people want to buy used. But the massive excess is hugely beneficial for those of us trying to get by on less than the average when raising children. The excess is what allows us to find so much good among the leavings.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Cool Maps: Where Each State's Population Comes From

This map (details visible as you mouse-over all the details on each state) is a fascinating piece of data visualization, as well as showing off some interesting demographic data. I am now one of the less than 1% of Ohioans who was born in California. (Indeed, at 75% Ohio has one of the highest percentages of natives in the country.) For a while, I was one of the 3% of Texans who was born in California. Louisiana appears to have the highest percent of natives (79%) while Nevada has the lowest at 25%

For some related interesting data visualization, here's a historical view of where people from each state went to or came from. I'm part of the 25% of native Californians who has left the state, and the only 3% who have gone to the Midwest.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Detention by Quota

Every so often I'll see a news story and think, "That smells wrong, it can't be true." At which point, I have a compulsive desire to look into it until I can get some feel for whether or not it is in fact so.

This morning I saw a link to a piece in The Nation which made the claim that the ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is required by law to detain a quota of 34,000 illegal immigrants at any given time. I was suspicious of this because the quota was apparently that the ICE fund 34,000 "beds" which suggested to me that what that quota actually dealt with was capacity, not the necessity of detaining 34,000 people at a time whether they needed to be detained or not.

However, after some poking around, it appears that one does not necessarily do well to defend the rationality of the Federal government. Here's the most exhaustive piece I was able to find on the detention quota. In some sense, it sounds like my instinct was correct. The law allocates funds to pay for 34,000 beds worth of detention space. However, apparently the ICE (and some members of congress) believe that they must actually have 34,000 people in detention at any given time. Obviously, it's not very hard for law enforcement to detain 34,000 people out of the estimated 10 million people in the US illegally at any given time, but there's something particularly obnoxious about the idea of requiring a specific number of detentions regardless of need.

Some of this sounds like cushy government boondoggle:
Some of the additional money provided by Congress will be spent filling beds at places such as the brightly painted Karnes County Civil Detention Center, which opened here last year amid bobbing oil derricks on the rolling plains south of San Antonio. It holds more than 600 detainees, but ICE prefers not to call them that.

They are “residents,” guarded by unarmed “resident advisers,” and they sleep in air-conditioned, unlocked “suites” with flat-screen TVs overlooking volleyball courts and soccer fields. The low-security facility, built and operated on the government’s behalf by a private contractor, the GEO Group, offers computer labs, libraries and microwaves for making popcorn.

“This place is great,” said one young man from Honduras, strumming a government-issued bass guitar in a recreation room, along with newfound band mates from El Salvador and Guatemala.

Most detainees here are Central American migrants picked up along the border. Having requested asylum, they await an ICE interview to determine if they have a legitimate fear of returning home.

In the meantime, they can earn $3 a day working on cleaning crews or in the laundry room, and there are free English classes, “life skills” instruction and tutorials in Microsoft Word and Excel. They dine in a cafeteria cheerfully appointed with Southwestern art and Georgia O’Keefe prints.

The jail has become a showcase for improved detention conditions, especially as ICE relies less on the low-cost bed space offered by aging, rural county jails and signs contacts with for-profit private detention companies that include incentives such as guaranteed minimum-occupancy payments.

Congress’s expanding detention goals have been a boon to the contractors, especially Florida-based GEO Group and Tennessee-based Corrections Corp. of America.

A significant portion of those detained by the ICE are criminals, though in many cases ones who could be dealt with safely at lower cost than jailing them:
Of the 33,391 immigrants held in federal custody on Sept. 7 — a single-day snapshot provided by ICE — 19,864 were convicted criminals, according to the agency.

Yet ICE’s definition of criminals includes a broad range of offenders, and a 2009 internal review found that only 11 percent of detainees had been convicted of violent crimes.

Jose Luis Vargas, a legal U.S. resident since 1986, was arrested by San Antonio police three years ago after neighbors reported a marijuana plant growing in his garden, among his tomatoes and prickly pear cactus.
Immigrant rights advocates say detainees such as Vargas, who was two years shy of paying off the 30-year mortgage on his San Antonio home, should be allowed to remain under cheaper, less severe forms of ICE supervision, such as GPS-enabled electronic monitoring.

Those alternatives can cost less than $10 a day, they say, while the cost of keeping someone in immigration jail exceeds $150.

“The explicit purpose of ICE detaining people is to make sure they show up for their immigration hearings, so it would make sense to consider less costly, more humane alternatives that meet that same goal,” said Ruthie Epstein, legislative policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union.
While all this makes the quote sound less irrational than the (unsurprisingly) heavily slanted Nation article, it still sounds likely that this involves both spending more money than necessary and jailing (however humanely) people who don't need to be jailed. (And that's leaving aside the point that we'd be better off simply having a looser immigration policy generally. While I want to see respect for the law as much as the next fellow, the lowness of the immigration quotas and the difficulty of the process practically encourages illegal immigration.)

Friday, August 22, 2014

Open Carry is Color Blind

With the protests (and riots) going on in Furguson, MO, there's been a lot of discussion going on about policing and race relations. One particular meme that the left has apparently taken up is that in the US there is "open carry for Whites but open season on Blacks". This relates in particular to another police shooting this year: 22-year-old John Crawford was shot in a Dayton-area Walmart after a 911 call was placed to police saying that a young man was waving around an "assault rifle" in the store. Police ordered him to put down the gun, which later proved to be a BB gun styled to look like a military weapon, and shot him when he did not comply as quickly as they desired.

Clearly, there wasn't an objective need to shoot someone with an unloaded air gun. At the same time, it's stupid (though not normally fatally stupid) to be capering about a store with a gun that looks real. I kind of have to wonder, too, how much effort this stupidity took. Having bought air rifles before, I can tell you that the Crosman MK-177 air pump rifle that Crawford was carrying when he was killed should have been in a cardboard box. They are not sold loose, though occasionally stores will have an un-packaged one on display in a case which customers can ask to see and handle. Perhaps such a case was left open and unattended, allowing Crawford to pick up the loose gun and move around with it (prompting the 911 call) but at a minimum this is a tragedy that didn't simply result from someone carrying a piece of merchandise to the checkout register.

Be that as it may, it's not actually similar to what open carry protesters do. Now, I want to be clear: I'm not supportive of open carry activism. There are decent reasons for it not to be illegal to carry a gun openly. But holding protests in which you rub people's noses in your ability to carry a weapon in public strikes me as socially disruptive and generally unhelpful to the gun rights movement.

That said, while I can see how to people who are deeply uncomfortable with guns and ignorant of gun culture, open carry might look like "running around with a gun", what the open carry activists do is actually pretty well planned and calibrated not to scare police. Open carry activists tend to keep hand guns holstered and long guns slung over their shoulders. If they hold long guns, they always keep the muzzle pointed up in the air or down at the ground. They don't point guns at people and they keep their fingers away from the trigger. This is the kind of behavior that is incredibly deeply ingrained within gun culture. There is no faster way to get yourself reamed out at a shooting range than to have bag muzzle control (point your gun at someone by accident) or have your finger on the trigger when the gun is not pointed downrange. Open carry activists know that they're being transgressive, and so they're being extra careful with their actions. The result is, they look fairly safe to police.

Nor is it necessarily only a white phenomenon. Gun culture is heavily white, but there are minority members of these groups, and there are also specifically minority gun rights groups. A case in point hit the news yesterday, with a group calling themselves the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, after the founder of the Black Panthers, held a protest in Dallas where they marched with long guns (including the much maligned AR-15) in protest over police shootings.
“We think that all black people have the right to self defense and self determination,” said Huey Freeman, an organizer. “We believe that we can police ourselves and bring security to our own communities.”

Police monitored the black-clad demonstrators, some of whom had rifles slung over their shoulders. As they walked down MLK Boulevard, many chanted “black power” and “justice for Michael Brown,” the black teenager shot by police in suburban St. Louis.

At one point, the group stopped at Elaine’s Kitchen, and one of the organizers told those who were armed to display their weapons in a “safe, disciplined manner.”

Freeman said they planned to patronize several South Dallas businesses to keep their money in the community and teach their neighbors about their “right to self-defense.”

The march came to a peaceful end about 90 minutes after it began at a car wash at Malcolm X Boulevard and Marburg Street. [Source]
Police did monitor the protest, but caused no trouble, and these men and woman sound like they handled their weapons responsibly and thus caused no alarm. There is, actually, a history of Black Power groups using open carry, and it's one that I can't help admiring a bit.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Empty Heads

I had so many things to write about. I could have told you about my fabulous family vacation, a week with my mom and my five siblings and their families in a big rustic house in the Poconos. I could have told you about how living for a week with my two pregnant sisters, one in the deepest throes of morning sickness, gave me an outside awareness of just how hard it is to nurture new life. I could have told you about my insight into the passage of Jesus speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well and what that has to do with the upcoming Synod. Heck, I could have just written my novel.

But no. All of that is out of my head right now, because today I'm pulling things out of other people's heads. Things like this.

That's a piece of foam that had been stuck in my four-year-old's nose. For more than a month, probably.  During that month, we put a lot of time into combatting the strange head funk she'd developed. It wasn't her hair. We'd washed it and cut it and made sure she couldn't chew it. It wasn't her teeth. She'd been to the dentist and received a clean bill of health. We made her stop licking her hands and sucking her fingers. And still, the odor persisted. It seemed to come right from her forehead.

Fearing she had a sinus infection, I moved her check-up up a week, but I was still uneasy. She wasn't complaining of pain until I asked her if her nose hurt, and suddenly, yes it did, right up here, Mommy. And then, in a stellar example of why I'll never shut down my Facebook account, I put out a query, and a nurse friend suggested a foreign body in the nose, and I held the four-year-old's head up to look, and there was something huge and gray in her nose.

Let me tell you that it is a delicate operation to stick a pair of tweezers up a four-year-old's nose. It requires the right blend of reassurance and gentle words and dire threats about what the doctor will do if I have to take you into the emergency room to have them pull this out, and then they'll strap you to a board, and how about you just let Mommy get it right now HOLD YOUR HEAD STILL FOR FIVE SECONDS. And then we both stared at the gooshy wad of stinking, moldering foam at the end of the tweezers, as blood dripped gently out of her nostril. And I did not faint and I did not throw up (both of which seemed like very viable options), but I washed off the little girl and asked her blow her nose, and sent her off to play. And then I sat on a stool in the kitchen with my head in my hands, wishing it would all just go away, until a distant shrieking informed me that the big sister who was supposed to hold the sleeping baby had put him on the bed, and he'd just rolled off and fallen on his head.

One day I'd like to have deep thoughts again. One day I'd like to have some energy. One day I'd like a good night's sleep, the kind from which you wake up refreshed, without aching joints and a stiff neck. But today, I'm going to settle for defunking sinus cavities, which should really feel like a more worthwhile, fulfilling, productive activity than it does.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Pope Francis on Science and Religion

On his flight back from Korea, Pope Francis gave one of his airplane interviews which have such a tendency to make headlines. If you hear about this one, you'll probably hear the buzz resulting from a typically ignorant American reporting putting up a click-bait post claiming that the pope was calling for a tenth crusade against the ISIS in Iraq. (Don't gratify Vox by clicking that link, go read the sensible Thomas McDonald about it instead.)

However, there's a section of the full interview which is far more intellectually interesting, though you'll probably never hear it on the news. A reporter asked the pope about his rumored up-coming encyclical dealing with environmental issues, and Francis's reply ends up being about the relationship between religious teaching and scientific inquiry:
Q. There’s been talk for a long time about an encyclical on ecology. Could you tell us when it will be published, and what are the key points?

A. I have talked a lot about this encyclical with Cardinal Turkson, and also with other people. And I asked Cardinal Turkson to gather all the input that have arrived, and four days before the trip, Cardinal Turkson brought me the first draft. It’s as thick as this. I’d say it’s about a third longer than "Evangelii Gaudium." It’s the first draft. It’s not an easy question because on the custody of creation, and ecology, also human ecology, one can talk with a certain security up to a certain point, but then the scientific hypotheses come, some sufficiently secure, others not. And in an encyclical like this, which has to be magisterial, one can only go forward on the things that are sure, the things that are secure. If the pope says the center of the universe is the earth and not the sun, he’s wrong because he says a thing that is scientifically not right. That’s what happens now. So we have to do the study now, number by number, and I believe it will become smaller. But going to the essentials, to that which one can affirm with security. One can say, in footnotes, that on this there is this and that hypothesis, to say it as information but not in the body of an encyclical that is doctrinal. It has to be secure.
I'm sure that there are plenty of people who would encourage the pope to endorse as gospel whatever the current scientific theory is on a given topic, while others would encourage him to pronounce "scientific" findings based on scriptural interpretation while ignoring whatever the current scientific opinion is. The pope's response here, however, suggests that he has a healthy respect for the nature (and thus necessary uncertainty) or scientific inquiry, and at the same time the senses in which it is able to provide insights into the physical workings of the world which theologians should respect rather than ignore.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Vacation From, Vacation For

It's the last day of vacation -- a week in a big vacation house with all MrsDarwin's siblings and their families. It's been a good week, with games of Monopoly and cards, lots of singing, cousins tearing all over the house having fun and adults cooking, reading, and consuming a somewhat startling quantity of beer over the course of a week.

This morning, as I was sitting on a balcony looking out over the forest and drinking a cup of coffee, I was thinking about what I had and hadn't done over the week. I finished one of the books that I'd brought with me, but not the other two. I did very little writing. I didn't go running as often as I'd intended. But for all that it was a good time.

My days tend to be taken up with office duties, and then in the off hours with kid-related duties. When thinking of a vacation, I usually start with thinking about doing the things that I wish I had more time for during a normal week but don't. I think of having quiet time by myself. I think of reading a book for hours on end. I think of having quiet time with MrsDarwin. I think of getting some uninterrupted writing time before 10PM.

There's nothing wrong with any of these, but in a sense they're very much ideas for a vacation from my normal life. A day like any other day, but with less responsibility and more of what I want to do.

That might work if I was going off with just MrsDarwin. One thing we'd both like someday is the chance to get away together to some luxurious place where someone else does all the cooking and chores while we divide our time between reading, writing and talking to each other. But this is a family vacation, not an escape from reality, and so one of the points is to be with people, not to be away from people.

In some ways that is less restful. Getting 22 people including assorted babies out the door to go hiking and see a waterfall is a whole new kind of busy-ness. And yet, having a vacation for family life rather than a vacation from family life is actually a very good and needed thing -- even if it's not the thing which I most immediately think of when I think of "vacation". It's less self centered, less controlled, but in a real way fulfilling. The schedule is loose here and no one has to get angry if the kids are up late, or we don't have dinner done on time. We can finish a game of Monopoly even if that means the kids being up way past their bed times. If it takes an hour or two longer than planned to get everyone organized for some activity, none of these are activities which truly have to be done anyway.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

When Babies Cry

The Darwin clan is on vacation with extended family, and the living is easy. The youngest member of the family, however, was not living easy the other day. We had eight hours of driving to get through and seven-month-old William did not find that living easy. He would scream until we stopped, be cheerful for as long as we remained at the rest stop, and the resume screaming as soon as he was put back in his car seat.

People who aren't around babies as much seem to get frantic during one of these hour long crying jags where you know there's nothing really wrong and that you'll never arrive at the destination if you pull over every fifteen minutes. There's a deep conviction that when babies cry there must be something Wrong that needs to be fixed.

But the fact is, babies don't only cry when they're sick or hurting. At seven months old the world can be a confusing place. Things happen for reasons that seem unclear. On some days, people strap you into a seat where you can't move much and keep you there for many hours before you magically arrive at a place that looks and smells somewhat different from the usual house, even if the people are the same.

While the rest of us, who have the luxury of understanding why we're in the car for long hours out of the day, may express our discomfort by becoming sullen or sarcastic or arguing, for the baby there is only one option: to cry. Just as you can't make others in the family snap out of their mood induced conversation tactics, there's not really anything you can do to stop the crying. Baby is cramped and tired of his seat and does't want to be confined in the car anymore. The car can't stop. And so, because crying is his only way of expressing his frustrations, he cries.

At some deep level, we're programmed not to sit easily when a baby is crying. Our instincts tell us to make it better and stop the sound, which in many cases would indicate that there was something wrong. But when you have to cover miles and it's the car seat that's causing anger, there are limited options other than to let baby express his entirely human feelings in the only way that he knows how.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Fruits of Division

This was an interesting piece, about the plight of Black Democrats legislators in the South, though as much for what it leaves unsaid and unthought as what it says.

Prior to the 2010 election, the Alabama House had 60 Democratic members, 34 of them white and 26 black. Afterward, there were 36 Democrats—ten white, 26 black. Meanwhile, in the Alabama Senate, the number of black Democrats remained seven, while the number of white Democrats fell from 13 to four. The casualties included Barron, who lost to a first-time Republican candidate.

All of this was enough to give the GOP supermajorities in both chambers. Hubbard assumed his role as speaker of the House, and Marsh was elected Senate president pro tem. Having wrested control of the statehouse, now they could begin to change the state.

Clearly, for a long time, the Democratic Party ran things in the South by uniting who constituencies (white and black) who had little politically in common. As the parties have both increasingly nationalized in their agendas, whites started voting for the Republicans who more closely fit their politics while the black majority districts remained intact but are no longer able to achieve much since they are part of a minority party in a deeply divided legislature.

This nationalization of the political issues is apparent in some of the bits where it talks about Sanders' work in the legislature: fighting hard to block legislation which would restrict availability of abortion to children and prevent people from having to look for work before getting welfare. With priorities like this, it's not surprising that conservative southern whites don't vote for the Democrats anymore -- but the incidental casualty of the self marginalization of the Democrats is their inability to put through legislation to help their local communities.

Vatican Middle Eastern Realpolitik?

There's a John Allen analysis piece being linked to frequently at the moment examining the question of why the Vatican is taking a "pro-United States" approach to the crisis in Iraq -- to the point of making some noises in support of limited US military intervention.

As Allen points out, the support is there and it is surprising given past history:
Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, the pope’s ambassador to Baghdad, told Vatican radio that the American strikes are “something that had to be done, otherwise [the Islamic State forces] could not be stopped.”

Lingua spoke plaintively of the ordeals faced by an estimated 100,000 Christian refugees from northern Iraq – many of whom, he said, are children – to account for his view of the American campaign.

“You can see these kids sleeping on the streets,” Lingua said, adding, “[there is so much] suffering.”

In a similar vein, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s envoy to the United Nations in Geneva, told Vatican Radio that “military action in this moment is probably necessary.”
This is in contrast to strong Vatican opposition to the US-led war in Iraq in 2003 and the UN and US-led war in 1991. Even in 2001, with the US attacks against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Vatican reaction was mixed to negative. Allen attributes this to a kind of stark realism on the part of the Vatican which has not passed its time:
One core reason the Vatican opposed the two Gulf Wars, as well as any expansion of the conflict in Syria, was fear that the fall of a police state in the Middle East would lead to the rise of a radical Islamic theocracy in which Christians and other minorities would find themselves in the firing line.

That’s no longer a theoretical anxiety. It’s the lived reality of the new caliphate proclaimed by the Islamic State, which means that the Vatican and other Christian leaders are no longer so worried about the aftermath of a conflict. They’re much more preoccupied by the here and now, and thus more inclined to back anyone who seems prepared to do something about it.
This certainly seems like a plausible ex post rationale, but is there any evidence that in 1991, 2003, and 2013 Vatican thinking was indeed driven by the idea that it was better to keep Middle Eastern police states in place in order to prevent radical Islamist regimes from coming to power? I remember vague discussion about violence never solving anything, but I don't recall anything specifically making this argument and in some ways it seems out of character.

This is not actually the first time that the Vatican has come out in support of US-led military intervention in the last few decades. While John Paul II was strong in his criticism of every other US military intervention during his pontificate he was actually quite supportive of the US intervention in the former Yugoslavia to prevent ethnic cleansing and mass killings. Indeed, the Vatican was in some ways ahead of the US supporting humanitarian intervention with military means, something which some Balkan actors continued to resent till John Paul II's death.

One common thread here is clearly a willingness to support the use of force to halt an immediate humanitarian catastrophe, but not to remove a rogue state government. However that doesn't appear to be a constant principle. I don't recall the Vatican being open to military force being used in Rwanda or to halt mass killings during the Syrian civil war. However, think the common thread which could be identified is one of rarely supporting military force in a "humanitarian intervention" context, subject to certain other criteria -- not some sort of realpolitik in which it's better to keep repressive governments in the Middle East in place in order to preserve order and prevent an Islamic State.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Ratting Out Landmines

We're busy and sleep deprived here at the Darwin household, but here's a strange and fascinating story for your Friday: In parts of central Africa which have been plagued by recurring wars, getting landmines and other dangerous munitions cleared is a major obstacle to land use. Clearing landmines is a hugely dangerous operation, but people have recently found a unique ally in the work, the African Giant Pouched Rat.
The rats have an exceptional sense of smell and can be trained to find buried landmines by scent. They can find the mines faster than a human with a metal detector, and they're light enough that they don't set the mines off when they step on them. They're also local, disease resistant, and with a lifespan of around eight years they provide lots of return for the time spent training them.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Name the Stillwater Meme

Calling Stillwater readers! 

I'm stuck on a dumb point: I can't think up a name for the meme inspired by Ian and Sophia's disastrous TV appearance.

The camera panned over to focus on the white face of Sophia Spencer Dalton, gaping in shock at Ian Winter next to her. His arm was draped over her shoulders but he couldn’t seem to turn his eyes away from the train wreck on stage. A weak smile was still plastered on his face. 

It's only a passing reference, but it's driving me nuts. Help me out and tell me what the title of the meme is and what the memebase description would be. If it strikes my fancy, I may just use it in the next installment. More importantly, you'll recharge my creative juices so I can post the next section before I go on vacation next week.

We're only about three installments from the end of the story. So close, so close...

Lydia Bennett, Sexy Heroine?

Once an author turns a book loose upon the world, there's no telling what readers will do with it. This seems to be even more so the case with books get a "fan" following, as fandom often seems to involve an over-identification with characters which inspires a desire for wish fulfillment and bending a story's meaning in order to suit the self identifications one has layered on top of it.

Such a case is this strange post in which the author considers the idea that in Lydia Bennett in Pride and Prejudice might be a liberated feminist icon.
Lydia is presented throughout the book as, to say the least, problematic. She’s not a villain exactly, but she’s presented as not at all a good person: she’s shallow, frivolous, self-absorbed, short-sighted, concerned only with trivialities, and inconsiderate of the feelings of others. Her life is consumed with flirtation, gossip, dancing, fashion, and handsome men in uniforms. (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking — there are worse things, right?) Austen describes her as “self-willed and careless,” “ignorant, idle, and vain.” And yes. She is all of these things.

But she’s also something else.

She is a woman who thinks of her body, and her life, as hers.

She’s a woman who — in defiance of the powerful social pressures of 19th century England — decides that who she marries, and when, and when they do or don’t have sex, is nobody’s business but hers. (Well, hers and her partner’s, obviously.) She’s a woman who — when everyone around her is clutching their pearls and freaking their shit over the fact that she had sex before marriage — doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. (“She was sure they should be married some time or other, and it did not much signify when.”) She’s a woman who — shortly before her wedding, when her aunt is lecturing her about the wickedness of what she did — is ignoring her, and instead is thinking about the man she’s about to marry, and what he’s going to wear. She’s a woman who — after the marriage has been patched together — has the audacity, much to the horror of her father and eldest sisters, to not be ashamed, to take pleasure in her life, and to look forward with excitement to her future.

She’s something of a pioneer. I find myself having a sneaking admiration.
In that world — where the cage around unmarried women’s virginity was locked tight, and the social penalties for breaking out were severe — Lydia Bennett decided, “Fuck that noise. The rules are fucked up, and I’m going to ignore them. My body, my right to decide.” And she snuck out of the cage, and ran off into the night.

Good for her.
She goes on to talk about how she could envision writing a fanfic exploring Lydia's later life:
I’m thinking of her, older, not very wise but certainly more experienced, looking back on her bawdy life, and looking back on her elopement and defloration — and seeing it as a moment of liberation, the moment when her new life began. I’m imagining her looking at her disappointing and difficult marriage (there’s no way that’s going to turn out well, George Wickham is vile) — and looking at the life she’s had, versus the life she would have had — and deciding that, on the whole, she made a good bargain.
There are various peculiar things about this approach to the novel.

It enshrines self-will as a sort of highest good -- though only, presumably, in a certain space. In the early 21st Century, people no longer seem to want their Nietzsche unconstrained. However, there are certain circumscribed areas in which people still find the idea of doing what you want simply because you want it admirable, and the bedroom is often one of those.

The dislike of Wickham thus strikes me as kind of interesting, in that it underscores the subjectivity of this kind of approach. If we're to admire an approach to life in which people say "my body is mine and I'm going to do what I want with it regardless of how other people feel about it", you would think that Wickham would actually be a sort of hero. Lydia is, at root, a pretty shallow character eager to define herself by how attractive she is to men, particularly men in uniform. Wickham, on the other hand, really is someone simply out to get what he wants regardless of how other people feel about it.

By the subjective standards of modern mores, his conduct is seen as bad in the context of the story only in that we have main characters who are those he seeks to prey upon in satisfying his desires. Lydia is given a pass on this because it's held that her family had no particular right to expect her to behave a way that didn't impoverish her and disgrace them. But really, there's no reason Wickham couldn't be given the same pass if one made the subjective decision to consider him the main character instead. Wickham is, after all, willing to discard not only sexual convention but class conventions as well. He's doubly liberated!

At the root of all this confusion is the mistake of seeing "freedom" or doing what one desires as an end in and of itself. What Austen rightly sees as the problem with Lydia is that she has no interest in pursuing what is good (i.e. virtuous) rather see simply seeks gratification, whether in the form of having many officer flatterers, or having all the neighbors recognize that she is now married.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

This Is How It Is

Last night I broke a streak of nights with five hours sleep, went to bed without writing, and got more than eight hours sleep. It was great.

This morning, as I was gradually working my way towards consciousness, the children trooped in to collect their allowances from my wallet so they could go attend yard sales up and down the street. I put the pillow over my head and went back to sleep. Half and hour later people had apparently latched on to the idea of having our own, unplanned yard sale and began collecting things from all over the house to take outside. At this point, it seemed that perhaps it was time for me to get out of bed.

The old records and National Geographics from the attic failed to attract any buyers but we did unload four old trunks for twenty dollars. Flush from this success, we purchased three aluminum baseball bats from a neighbor for a total of two dollars and decided to go out for hamburgers tonight. Then it started raining. And it wasn't yet 10:00 AM, so the day still lay before us.

I don't know if that sounds like a fun and inspiring family morning. The reality is frustrating in away that gets you down. One box of vintage clothes didn't make the yardsale because some animal of the house proved to have peed in it. Drama ensued when it turned out the kids had harvest all the squash from the garden but then left it somewhere in the house and can't remember where.

Some years back I remember a parent whose children were getting older saying that you're given exactly enough grace to get by at any given time, but that it never "gets easier". In an odd negative way I find that comforting, in that it suggests that it's not just because we have six kids and a massive old house and two somewhat defective cats and a couple of novels in progress that everything seems chaotic and maddening. In all probability, even if we had 2.5 kids and a new house and dutifully watched whatever the newest show was, it would still seem maddeningly difficult.

Perhaps one of the prime ways that my own personal Screwtape tries to get at me is by suggesting all the time, "If it weren't for this," or "If you only had this," it would all seem easy and peaceful and decorous. If we had a new couch. If the floors got picked up more often. If we weren't up to our necks in children. Just some one, not-quite-attainable little thing and it would suddenly become Me World, in which everything happens to Darwin's ease. There is no such world, of course. But I constantly find myself tempted by the notion that there could be.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Reading and Listening

I just finished listening to The Fellowship of the Ring on audiobook. This was, somehow, an odd experience, because it's a book that I've read in print perhaps a dozen times over the years but never listened to as an audiobook before. (I did, however, used to listen to the BBC radio dramatization of LotR constantly as a child.)

I've known people who consider listening to an audiobook as somehow "cheating", as not being real reading. I certainly can't come to that, in that some of the most formative reads of my life were books that I heard my father read aloud when I was a child. However, listening to a book does feel a bit different than reading one.

For one thing, even listening along in a car, there's a sense of not being utterly alone with the book. Some website I was on the other day was advertising the audiobook of 50 Shades of Grey, and I thought: How could you possibly want to listen to a porn book? You'd feel like someone was right there with you all the time.

I suppose listening also takes away a certain kind of focus and difficulty which can, at times, accompany reading. When I'm commuting and listening to a book, I'm hardly going to set it aside and pick up another. I only have the one book loaded on my iPhone at a time, and so I tend to always finish. If a book might not be totally involving in print, I can still get through it on audio because I have nothing else to do. By the same token, I don't know if I pay quite as much attention when listening rather than reading, though I try to. This is why, as a parent and educator, it annoys me a bit when the kids insist that they'd rather listen to a book I like on audiobook than read it themselves. Although I give myself full credit for "reading" a book that I listen to, I worry that if they only want to listen to a book that they aren't sufficiently developing their reading skills.

How would you relate the experiences of reading and listening to a book? Do you let your kids listen to books or do you insist on them reading them on paper?