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

Monday, June 29, 2015

Greece and the Euro: The Dangers of a Sort-Of Union

Banks and financial markets are shut down in Greece for the next week, until the country holds a referendum on Sunday to decide whether or not to accept the financial austerity measures which would be imposed on it if it is to remain in the Euro and continue to borrow money. After years of low simmering crisis, they may mark the point where Greece finally bails on the Euro. If so, it will mark the failure of an attempt at European semi-union which was designed to provide the benefits of a US style "united states" without actually having to... well, unify states.

The idea of a true United States of Europe goes back a good ways. Where you mark the beginning depends in part on where you put the dividing line between attempts to conquer all of Europe and attempts to unite it. Napoleon envisioned a united Europe, but he envisioned it as an empire which he rules, though with varying degrees of local autonomy. During World War One, many writers imagined that once the war had purged Europe of militarism, the way would be ready for a united Europe. French soldier Eugene Emmanuel Lemercier wrote in a letter to his mother in 1914:
Nov. 15, 1914: “Let me go a little into details concerning my views of a better future to be brought about by this war. These events are preparing the budding of a new life -- the United States of Europe. When this conflict is ended, those who have performed all their filial duties towards their country will find themselves brought face to face with still greater responsibilities, which cannot be realized at the present moment. But here is the paramount duty -- to try now to make the future secure. They must stretch every muscle to do away with all the causes of trouble between nations. The French Revolution, notwithstanding its shortcomings, certain backward steps in practical things, some weakness in its constructive measures, nevertheless impressed on humanity what was meant by national unity. Now the horrors of this war must do the same thing for European unity, for race unity. This new condition can be brought about only through suffering, spoliation, contests for years to come; but there can be no question that the door has been opened on a new horizon.”
(His posthumously published letters can be read here.)
After the war, however, it proved that far from burning away the last obstacles to a United Europe, the slaughter had created new resentments and barriers to such a union. After World War Two, which was in many ways simply a continuation of the first, there was a desire for a united Europe among the liberal leadership that took charge of the Western democracies. However, this time things moved very slowly. Things took several steps around 2000 when the Euro was introduced, passports were no longer required for travel between EU countries, etc. However, although the EU has a single currency and a united banking system, it definitely is not a union on the order of the United States of America, and this seems to be creating tensions that could well destroy it. Understanding this requires thinking about the various components that go into a modern union such as our own, as it's developed during the 227 years since our constitution was written and the 150 years since our Civil War was won.

We have a national currency, the US Dollar, which our government backs by its faith and credit. That currency is used by the US to collect taxes and to pay for anything the government buys (wages, goods, etc.) The states all use that currency as well.

Since the federal government issues the currency, it has the ability to inflate the currency by issuing more than it brings in. However, it usually does not do this. Instead, it borrows money. Since the US has a very good history of paying on its debt, we're able to borrow very large amounts of money at very low interest. The states do not have the option of printing money and inflating the currency, and they are also prohibited from declaring bankruptcy by the contract clause of the Constitution and by the US bankruptcy code. As a result, states potentially have to take draconian cuts to staff and services if their income falls significantly short of our their outlays. The federal government, however, can mitigate this to a great extent in the modern US, because total Federal spending is greater than state and local spending combined. Many government programs and services are paid for directly or indirectly by the Federal Government. This means that while states may have to take severe cuts if they run into financial problems, there's a limit to just how bad things can get for citizens within the state.

This works in part because there's a fairly strong feeling that "we're all Americans" and so while there are arguments about how much the government should be spending, and occasionally people will put together maps of "giver" and "taker" states based on the ratio of federal taxes collected to federal spending by state, people don't actually get incredibly upset about helping our fellow Americans. Currently the state with the highest unemployment is West Virginia at 7.2%, while the lowest state rate is Nebraska at 2.6% (source), but the taxes of people working in Nebraska help cover the unemployment benefits of those not working in West Virginia.

The EU is a much less tight union than the USA, and people seem to think of themselves as French, German or Greek first and as European second. The structure of the union reflects that. There's one currency, and you can travel from one country to another and work in other countries within the union without needing a visa or passport. However, spending is pretty much all done at the state level, not at the EU level. Thus, although the German unemployment rate is 4.7% and the Greek unemployment rate is 25%, Greece needs to figure out how to solve its own unemployment problems. German taxes do not go to pay Greek unemployment benefits.

In addition to using a common currency, the governments of the member states all get to borrow money on common terms, but in return they're expected to behave with common responsibility. During the first decade or so after the currency was put in place, it seemed like this was going pretty well, and the Greek government took advantage of its new borrowing terms to fill the gap resulting from a social democratic sized social safety net combined with a culture of tax evasion. (They even covered up how bad their debt ratio was getting, allowing them to get further into debt than they should have according to EU agreements.) However, when the global economy hit the skids, weak economies such as Greece was things slow down much more than countries like Germany, and so Greece saw its already large gap between tax collections and government spending balloon as more people needed government benefits and fewer people paid taxes. (After all, when 25%+ of your workforce is unemployed, there are a lot less people to tax.)

With their own currency, Greece could have devalued their currency, making their exports more competitive in other countries and making tourism in Greece more attractive to foreigners (both of these because Greek money would be worth less compared to the currency of other countries.) However, with the Euro that's impossible for Greece and they're effectively stuck. They can't use inflation to kickstart their economy and their tax and spend system seems to have gone into a death spiral where people don't pay taxes because they're making no money, and because everyone is out of work they need government money to help people out.
While sticking with the Euro and living through long term austerity in hopes that eventually they'll figure out how to get their economy growing again is a painful prospect, getting out of the currency union is likely to be deeply chaotic in the short term. There hasn't been a Greek currency in fifteen years.
To make they conversion, they would need to freeze everyone's financial assets and forcibly convert them into Greek Drachmas (or whatever they decided to name the new national currency.) Of course, people wouldn't want to have to make the switch, because the value of the Euro will doubtless remain fairly stable, while the whole point of switching to the Drachma would be to allow its value to fall at first in order to reset the Greek economy. So if the vote on austerity is "no", it's possible the Greek banks will remain closed until the new currency is declared in order to prevent a run on the banks.

Of course, it may also be that the Greeks will vote to accept the austerity program that will allow their government to stay in the Euro and keep borrowing.

Either way, this serves to underscore the difficulty of easing into a union such as that of the United States. The nations of Europe have a lot of differences and independent history which naturally make them reluctant to enter a union as close as that of the USA. However, by trying to have a currency union similar to that of the USA while not having the centralized taxing and spending authority of the Federal Government, they've created a whole other set of problems which may cause the union to splinter or at least shrink down to a couple core countries with similar economic strengths.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 12-2

There's one more Walter section to go, which I'll have up within less than a week, and that will mark the end of Part 2. I'm going to take a break during July and catch up on good things like sleep. But when I get back, we'll head East and pick up with Natalie.

Near Etrepilly, France. September 9th, 1914. Walter took his canteen and poured it over Alfred’s face, the water coursing away the blood and grime.

“Is that better?” Walter asked, crouching over his friend.

Alfred’s eyes were set, staring past Walter. His jaw trembled, as if he were chattering from the cold despite the hot September afternoon. He made no move to wipe his face, the water running down in rivulets and dripping off his chin. Walter dabbed at him with a handkerchief, a lingering trapping of civilization, his initials sewn into it by his mother in red thread.

“I thought that I’d lost my eyes,” Alfred said. “The shell burst, I heard the whistling of the shrapnel, and then I felt something hit my face and I couldn’t see anything. It was…” His eyes met Walter’s and he started to cry as he had not even on the day that his brother had been killed. Great wracking sobs, which left his face twisted in horror as they poured forth. “I reached up to touch my ruined face, and I felt hair. It was his scalp. God. His scalp was blown off and hit my face.”

His voice gave out and he relapsed into helpless sobs.

Walter put his hands on his friend’s shoulders, pulling him close, their foreheads touching. He knew, as he felt Alfred’s body shaking, that the man was done, at least for now. Perhaps later he would be ready to fight, but for today he had given already everything that a man could give. If he did not get out of the line, Alfred would sob here until he was killed, or until he lost consciousness and received the blessing of oblivion. Yet Walter knew that if he simply told Alfred to go to the rear, he would refuse. He must find some errand on which to send the man that would allow him to leave the battlefield with his pride intact.

[Continue reading]

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Flag, A War, and Remembrance

A week ago, a 21-year-old loner who had become involved with White Supremacist groups went to a bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. After an hour, he pulled out a gun and murdered nine people. This kind of racial terror attack on a Black church in some ways evokes the church burnings of 1960s, but there is an encouraging difference: In attacks such as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, witnesses often refused to talk, and perpetrators escaped prosecution for years. In this case, even the murderer's own family assisted law enforcement. There is no longer sympathy or tolerance for racial terror attacks. That's a change, and an important one, which should not be forgotten in the inevitable jockeying for political advantage which follows a shocking national event.

One area in which controversy has flared up is the display of the confederate flag. At the South Carolina state capitol, governor Nikki Haley (herself of Sikh ancestry, and thus a sign of how much this deep Southern state has changed since the 1960s) ordered that the US and South Carolina flags at the capitol be lowered to half mast to acknowledge the tragedy in Charleston. However, a nearby Confederate battle flag at a memorial to Confederate soldiers was not lowered: it can't be, as it is chained to the top of the pole in accordance with the contentious compromise which resulted in its removal from the state capitol building fourteen years ago.

Confederate Battle Flag flying at the Confederate
Memorial near the South Carolina Capitol Building

The connection between the Confederate flag and the killer in Charleston is not tenuous. He posted multiple pictures of himself online holding a Confederate flag, including one in which he poses with both the flag and a handgun. (He also posted a picture of himself burning the American flag.) And while not all people with an attachment to the memory of the Confederacy are attached to its history and to its flag for racial reasons, it's not by chance that some white supremacists also like the Confederate flag. The Confederacy as founded specifically to protect the institution of slavery. Some apologists try hard to soft pedal this, but reading the declarations which the seceding states wrote to justify their actions makes it clear that right from the beginning, in 1861, slavery was the primary reason for Southern secession -- even at a time when the North was not by any means yet radicalized enough by the war to endorse the abolition of slavery.

There have been a number of calls for the Confederate flag to be taken down and Governor Haley has asked the state legislature to repeal the legislation which mandated its display at the memorial. I think this is a good idea. The Confederate flag is rightly seen by Black Americans as symbolizing slavery and racism, and it is, after all, the symbol of a group which rebelled against our government, fired upon our army, and resulted in the bloodiest war in American history.

So I think it would be a good idea if the state of South Carolina did not fly the Confederate flag on the capitol grounds, even at a memorial to Confederate soldiers. However, as with many such topics of discussion, this seems to quickly turn into an opportunity for moral preening and for vindictiveness. Over at the conservative National Review, editor Jason Lee Steorts has a piece arguing in strong terms against any respect ever being given anywhere to the Confederate flag or the memory of the Confederacy.
The Confederacy was a rebellion founded on the incoherent idea that the sovereign authority of the United States might be shucked off at the states’ pleasure, and the Confederacy’s primary reason for being was to preserve racial slavery — that is, to violate natural rights rather than to secure them. That is what Confederate soldiers fought for. Whatever else their battle flag may mean, it has to mean that. It did not become a banner of white supremacy in the mid 20th century when racial segregationists took it up. It was a banner of white supremacy, and of lawlessness, from the beginning.

And that is more than enough to disqualify it from respectability. Valor and skill deployed in the service of evil do not deserve honor. If your ancestors fought for the Confederacy, I do not respect their “service” or their “sacrifice.” I can accept that some of them may not have grasped the enormity of the Confederate project, and so are not to be blamed personally, but neither should they be celebrated. Citizens of the nation they rebelled against should consider it a breach of civic manners to display with sympathy the symbols of their cause. And there simply should not exist memorials specifically to Confederate soldiers. The telling of history does not require them. There should be memorials, rather, of the Civil War, with the American flag flying over them.

Over at the The New Republic (which since its change in ownership is always eager for the latest left-wing hot take) Brian Beutler wrote a piece a couple months ago on the anniversary of Lee's surrender to Grant which has received a lot of linkage over the last week, proposing that the defeat of the Confederacy be made a national holiday, that army bases named after Confederate generals be re-named, that the president no longer lay a wreath on both the Union and Confederate war memorials at Arlington on memorial day, that Confederate memorials be taken off the list of historical landmarks, and even that the grave stones of Confederate soldiers no longer be maintained.

I think this is wrong for two reasons.

First, it's cheap virtue. Identifying long after the fact with the right side of a struggle requires no particular effort or sacrifice, and flogging both the memory of the Confederacy and the modern South can be an easy way for modern Americans to forget about the all too recent and real ways in which our country has oppressed Black Americans.

Second, though, this kind of "good guys and bad guys" approach to history misses the tragic sense of history which is so important in understanding the way that real people have lived in other times and places. Not all Southerners sided with the Confederacy. Obviously, Black Southerners were not fans, and those who could escape in some cases fought for the North. But around 100,000 Southern Whites also went so far as to go north and fight for the Union. However, in general, those who were from the South fought for the South.

Yes, the South absolutely did secede because of slavery, and yet at a human level, people do not fight only or even primarily for ideas, they fight for their region and for their friends and family. There is no easy separation between "fought for slavery" and "fought for Southern independence" because they were both different and the same. People legitimately fought for their homes and for their way of living, and yet even for the large number of Southern soldiers who were not slave owners, home and culture could not be easily separated from the racial subjugation which was the economic and political cause of the war. Those who fought for the South cannot be separated from slavery, and yet they did not fight only for slavery, nor can our modern rejection of slavery allow people to completely separate from their history.

Historical connection is a funny thing. I'm five generations separated from the quarter of my ancestry that came from Ireland, and yet due to cultural connections and a common faith, when I read about the Easter Rising or the Black and Tans or some other example of fighting between the Irish and English, I instantly feel myself emotionally involved on the Irish side. And that's despite the fact that I'm at least three generations separated from any disadvantages stemming from Irish ancestry. Despite the fact that I have never in my live been to Ireland. In the South, people are still living near their history. A huge number of Southern whites fought in a devastating war, many died, and in the end they lost. Their region was occupied for ten years, and it remained economically backward compared to the North for another hundred years and more. Liberals in particular like to point out that Southern states are mostly net receivers of Federal money and top the lists of the percent of population on food stamps, but that's partly to say that in some ways the economic impact of defeat and humiliation are still with the South.

Does that make the Southern cause in the Civil War any better? No. But it does explain why (in the US no less than in parts of the world like the Balkans or the Middle East) we are still living with history. Defeat and humiliation create cultural scars -- and not only in foreign countries or among people who belong to racial minorities -- and one of the responses to those scars is to identify strongly with history and with what one can identify as good in it. The memory of Southern pride and nobility is in part a response to Southern defeat. Liberals can understand this when it's said about people in some far away country, but somehow when it comes to those they don't like in their own country, some seem convinced that if they could just stomp on the defeated a bit more it would go away.

Somehow in the US these discussions always go back to the increasingly mythologized "good war": World War II. I've seen a number of people ask why it is that we haven't banned the Confederate flag, just like the Nazi flag was banned in Germany after WW2. The first answer is: As Americans we have commitments to personal freedom that we don't necessarily extend to defeated peoples. The idea of banning anything (including Nazi symbols) as thoroughly in the US as the has been done in modern Germany runs contrary to our current interpretation of our Bill of Rights.

It is true, however, that we and our allies (you know, those arm and cuddly people like Joseph Stalin) were pretty ruthless in stamping out any attachment to the Nazi regime. I'm not sure why the WW1 peace has the reputation of being so much more punitive. It's in WW2 that we completely crushed and then replaced the German government, ethnically cleansed whole areas of the country and gave them to other nations, and wrote pacifism and rejection of the previous regime into the German constitution. We had good reasons for doing it, but it was a brutal business stamping all pride out of a people, and even so people can't walk away from their history. You don't lose five million men and simply forget about it. Recently I watched a German historical drama mini series, Generation War, which had been billed as a sort of German version of the hit American WW2 series Band of Brothers. It's a moderately good series, and worth watching. Some accused it of whitewashing German participation in the war. That's both true and false. It shows just as honestly as any American WW2 drama the horrific things done by German forces during the war, but at the same time it works very hard to separate its characters into "good Germans" who are swept up in the war but come to realize it's evil and Nazis who are the ones directing all the evil. There are bits of truth to this, but the extent to which it shows ordinary Germans out of sympathy with the Nazis is, quite honestly, a stretch. (The series' bigger area of real unfairness is in its portrayal of Polish characters, particularly the non-communist resistance fighters.) Yet what we see here is a culture's attempt to sort out real suffering and sacrifice from the evils related to it -- even when those evils are of the most extreme kind.

While the German example is perhaps the "good" one of stamping out cultural connection and memory, other attempts to do this relating to World War 2 have gone less well. The extent to which the communist Yugoslav regime tried to modify memories of the war, pretending that the only resistance to the Nazis came from Tito's communist partisans and that any non-communist groups were fascist, resulted in a sort of historical blowback when the communist regime fell in the early '90s. For decades people had resented being told to forget their dead if they had not been communists. As the communist regime fell and nationalism swelled, out came the symbols of the nationalist Balkan movements of the 1940s.

WW2 era memories have also been uncovered in some of the Baltic states. For instance, there are celebrations of Latvian Legion Day, and their resistance against invading communist forces. There's just one catch: the Latvian Legion resisted the communists as a Waffen SS unit. And here we come to one of the key dangers of trying to crush out all regional pride and remembrance. After the communist regime insisted for decades that only fascists and Nazis would oppose them and have any positive memory of those who resisted communist invasion, some of those who remained attached to their region, their dead, and their history have taken them at their word and decided that fascism wasn't so bad.

In the end, I think there are several things which, in justice and in humanity, we need to keep in mind:

Symbols matter, and history matters. This means that the symbols of the Confederacy will ever be painful to those citizens of our country who have suffered from slavery and racial oppression. It also means that a partial attachment to the history and the dead of the Confederacy will not go away among their descendants.

I think that people need to think seriously about the message they are sending before they fly a Confederate flag, or wear clothing or use gear emblazoned with the symbols of the Confederacy.  They are symbols with a dark side.

And yet, proposing that memorials and graves be left to oblivion lacks basic humanity. The experiences and sacrifices of those who fought and died for the Confederacy deserve to be remembered and memorialized with dignity because they are human. And people who want to carry vindictiveness beyond the grave, to leave graves unmarked and sacrifices without memorials, need to consider that if you tell someone that they must choose to either despise their history, region, and ancestors or endorse racial resentment -- they may drive some people to pick racial resentment.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Making Marriage Hard

Arguments within the church continue at a low simmer as various factions prepare for the second round of the Synod on the Family in October. Some groups seem convinced that the synod can change (either explicitly or in practice) the teachings of the Church on issues such as the indissolubility of marriage, same sex marriage, etc.

On the matter of doctrine, I believe that the Church cannot change, and in matters of discipline I hope that the bishops will not choose to make changes which would lend the appearance of doctrinal change, confusing a world already far too confused on the nature of marriage.

With all this tension in the air, it was a surprise to me to read a piece I agree with in the National Catholic Reporter on the issue of making the process of getting married within the Church less burdensome. This isn't dealing with the "hot button" issues like changing the annulment process, but rather the ways in which the bureaucracy of  large parishes and the American bias towards massive wedding celebrations have come together to make it increasingly hard for couples to get married.

A May 25, 2012, NCR report looked at church-led efforts to address the growing challenge of getting young Catholic couples to a Catholic altar. In that story, San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop Robert McElroy, now bishop of San Diego, spoke of church requirements -- among them the six-month advance notice, marriage preparation costs and wedding location rules -- that "throw up a lot of barriers."
Following their December 2013 engagement, Katie Hernandez and Philip Trejo did what most Catholic couples do: began searching for a date and parish for their wedding.

They first turned to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lancaster, Calif. -- Katie's home parish, where her mother has worked since 2000 and where Philip worked for five years. Despite those connections, the response they received was the same one her sister had heard six years earlier: If you're not registered parishioners, you can't get married here.

Frustrated, the couple moved quickly to find a new church, turning to St. Mary Catholic Church, where Katie has taught physical education for two years. At the Palmdale, Calif., parish, they found a more welcoming environment, something Katie credited to her job and friendship with pastor Fr. Vaughn Winters.

Though they secured a church, the hurdles didn't disappear, with the process appearing at times more bureaucratic than sacramental. Both Katie and Philip had difficulty tracking down their sacramental records, with a priest at one point telling Katie she couldn't get married until proof was presented. A list of various fees that compounded as they went through the six-month marriage preparation had her wondering, "It's a sacrament, and we're paying for what?"

Later, she witnessed a priest move another wedding because the bride hadn't paid the proper deposit -- a rescheduling that benefited Katie, but left her thinking, "That's crazy. How do we do these things to people?"
Karmen and Eduardo Mayorga had been married around two years when they decided in 2013 to have their union blessed in the Catholic church. By then, the couple had an established life together: They shared a home and Karmen had become a mother to Eduardo's three children.

When they approached their parish priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in El Paso, Texas, he informed them that Eduardo, who was baptized in the Catholic church but raised in the Jehovah's Witness faith, must first receive the sacraments of Communion and confirmation. While friends thought the blessing could come first, the El Paso diocese told Karmen that marriage preparation requirements differed from parish to parish.

Work conflicts led the Mayorgas to explore taking sacramental classes at other parishes. In the process, the response of some parish staff and priests was more administrative than congratulatory. It felt to Karmen more "like getting your driver's license" than prepping for a sacrament.
These sorts of stories rang familiar from back when we were trying to get married, as well as dealing with baptisms at some parishes in which the process seemed more designed to check boxes on a form than to grant children the graces of baptism promptly.

We lucked out in our own preparations to get married. The difficulty was that we were graduating college in Ohio and moving out to the Los Angeles area, where we wanted to get married as soon as possible. We weren't members of a parish and several parishes had rules that you had to have been a registered parishioner for six months before you could sign up to get married in the parish and begin yet another six month waiting period between when you asked to get married and when you could actually get married. Luckily, my parents' parish was willing to treat us as parishioners, so we got on the marriage schedule during our senior year of college and were married six weeks after graduating.

Other barriers can be financial. Sometimes the required marriage prep classes come with fees. The parish where we got married required that couples hire the parish approved wedding coordinator to organize things.

A number of these rules are put in place to deal with the problem that at times people who are not practicing Catholic want to use the church as the setting for a big church wedding. Others are designed to try to keep people from entering into marriages that are likely to fall apart later.

I'm sympathetic to these lines of thinking. Marriage is a sacrament, and we want people to be taking it seriously despite a culture in which far too often people do not. And yet, if we allow how parishes deal with weddings to seem like they are acting as gatekeeper to a huge, fancy ceremony -- doling it out only to those who show themselves deserving by jumping through certain administrative hoops -- I fear that we inadvertently reinforce the tendency already all too common in our culture to view marriage as a capstone achievement: First you live together, you get a good job, you buy a house, and get ready to have kids, and then you get married to show that you've "arrived" in life and are ready to settle down and be a successful family.

It's encouraging that people perceive marriage as something they want to "get right", but since we know that having sex outside of marriage is a mortal sin, we don't want to be encouraging people to live together until their household has sufficiently "arrived" to bless it with marriage.

In this area, I think there are two things we should think about:

First, a number of the hurdles, in regards to both time and money, are designed to manage the scheduling of the church for large "church weddings". However, the sacrament itself does not require an organist, white dress, phalanx of bridesmaids and groomsmen, and hundreds of guests. There is absolutely nothing to prevent a Catholic marriage from being celebrated quietly: priest, couple, witnesses, perhaps a few family and friends. In our culture of conspicuous consumption, there may not at first be much desire for such a quiet ceremony, but it should at least be clearly presented as an option, rather than making one Friday night wedding and two to three during the course of Saturday be some sort of a hard cap on the number of weddings which can be performed in a large parish.

Second, we need to take a serious look at some of the requirements which are put up in order to make sure people are serious about marriage, and ask ourselves if they are actually doing anything to help prevent people from entering into vows that they will not keep. All things considered, we went to a pretty decent set of marriage prep classes, and yet the only effect they had on our relationship was to prevent us from participating in the play the theater was putting on our last semester of college (the marriage prep classes overlapped with rehearsals.) Maybe other couples who hadn't had three years of dating to think through issues ("Have you talked about how you will manage finances?") received some benefit, but I kind of wonder. It often seems to me that this is more an exercise in do-something-ism: We should do something to help make sure that people understand the nature of Catholic marriage and that those likely to divorce don't get married. This is something. Therefore, we should do this.

But is it helping? Is telling couple to wait six months and attend a couple of desultory classes really going to do much to inspire fidelity to the Church's view of marriage or to help those with serious relationship problems to realize it in time?

A particular area in which it seems like there should be some streamlining, especially if people are not trying to schedule a big church ceremony, is when people are trying to get an existing union of some sort blessed: whether that's a marriage outside the Church, or a situation in which people who are nor married have been living together for some time and perhaps have children together.

Obviously, if there's a situation in which either the man or woman is possibly already married, there is a need to stop and look at whether that was a valid marriage and thus whether they can be married in the Church at all. However, if no such impediment exists, a delay means either asking a couple who have been living as if married for some time to stop doing so (which needless to say would involve various relationship challenges) or else winking at the fact that they are not married (which is morally a problem.)

In cases where the couple have simply been living in sin together, some hold that they should be encouraged to separate and live chastely for some period of time before being married. I used to have a lot of sympathy with this approach. However, more recently I've come to think that this is misguided. Marriage is not a reward for living chastely prior to marriage, it is a vow to live together as husband and wife, open to children, until death. If people have been living together in an un-blessed version of such a relationship, telling them to break up their household and live apart in order to be able to receive the sacrament so that they can then live together again seems a wrongheaded approach, and one which puts up unnecessary barriers before people who are making an attempt to right their lives in the eyes of the Lord. The solution, I think, is simply to insist that they make a proper confession, receive absolution for their sins, and then marry them quickly and quietly.

There's a similar tendency these days, if a couple has become pregnant out of wedlock, to insist on the couple waiting for a significant period before getting married, sometimes until a certain amount of time after the baby is born. I think one of the ideas here is to make sure that the couple does not feel unduly pressured by the pregnancy to get married, perhaps only later to decide that they're not actually willing to stick by the vows they entered into so quickly. Another perhaps goes back to the big-event-scheduling approach to marriage: why should you get priority and be able to bump someone else's slot in a crowded schedule just because you got pregnant? Clearly, it would be a problem to bump some other couple's wedding so that a pregnant couple could have a big church wedding sooner rather than later. However, setting aside the question of event planning, which is arguably not how we should be thinking about the sacrament anyway: If a couple is going to raise a family together, and is already expecting a child, I'm not clear that telling them to live apart through pregnancy, or asking them to live together "as brother and sister", or tacitly encouraging them to live together in sin is particularly good for them. What is being accomplished? Why not simply marry them and let them get started with living as the family which they have so precipitously formed?

It assuredly is a big problem that for many Catholics, living together outside of marriage seems like a reasonable thing to do. However, I don't think that we necessarily help that situation when we make it increasingly difficult to get married.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 12-1

This installment begins Chapter 12, the last chapter of Part 2. There will be three installments of this chapter. In tonight's, Walter makes a trip to the field hospital and gets some unexpected news.

Near Etrepilly, France. September 9th, 1914. It was three in the morning when a hand gripped Walter’s shoulder. Panic jolted him awake. A scream died in his throat as a hand pressed over his mouth. He clawed out with his arms, fighting to his feet.

“Shhhh,” came a whisper near his ear. “It’s all right, Walter. It’s me.”

The fear ebbed away and he stopped trying to fight, recognizing the voice and touch of Georg, with whom he shared his fighting hole.

5th Kompanie had dug their defensive line on a slight rise, half a kilometer east of Etrepilly. The field was planted with beans. The leafy vines had withered to a golden brown in the September heat, and the dry beans rattled in their pods. In peace, they would by now have been gathered and stored, to be sold for eating during the winter months or planted in the spring. Now instead they were being threshed out by the tramping of soldiers’ feet.

Once again the mobile kitchens had not appeared. Hopes had risen when after another long hot day of fighting off French attacks the regiment had been ordered to fall back a kilometer and dig in around Etrepilly, but it was merely a re-position, there was still no re-supply.

As they dug their fighting hole -- four feet deep by four feet wide, just enough for one man to curl up at the bottom and sleep while the other stood on watch duty-- Walter and Georg had gathered all the bean pods that they could. The beans themselves were already dry and chewy, but with Alfred and Karl in the next hole they had contributed all they could and then cooked up a soup in a mess tin using the last slices of Alfred’s Erbswurst sausage. The greenish-brown pucks of dried pea flour, fat, pork belly and spices melted into the warming water, the beans softened, and if the soup was still thin and the beans a little hard when Gefreiter Fabel yelled at them to put the fire out before it grew dark enough for the French to see its light, it stood out as the only hot meal that they had day, one they had sucked down greatfully.

Walter looked off west, towards the French lines. The tangle of bean plants seemed to add an extra foot to the level of the ground so that only his head stuck out above the leafy tops as he looked around in the pale light of the waning gibbous moon which was nearly straight overhead.

“I’m sorry to startle you,” Georg said. “I tried to speak to you first, but you wouldn’t wake. And I could tell you were having some sort of nasty dream.”

Walter shrugged. “It’s all right. I’m sorry I grabbed at you.” A pause, and the breeze made the field of beans rustle and wave. He shivered, though the cool was certainly a welcome change from the day’s heat. “I’d give a lot for a cup of coffee.”

“Or a nip of schnapps before bed,” said Georg, as he settled down in the bottom of the hole.

Georg settled down in a half sitting, half lying position at the bottom of the hole and after a few minutes his breathing became regular. Walter shifted his feet and rolled his shoulders, trying both to stay awake and to work out the cramps from having slept curled up in the hole. However uncomfortable a bed it might be, the combination of daytime exhaustion and taking turns at sleepless watches during the night had rendered him capable of dropping off to sleep at any moment in which he was still. And yet he must not sleep now. He made himself scan the horizon, looking for landmarks and signs of enemy activity, anything to keep awake and alert. Within the next hour Gefreiter Fabel would be coming along the line to check that the watch was awake, and Walter was determined to be found alert when the NCO arrived.

Away to the north, he could see occasional flashes and hear the distant sound of artillery like summer thunderstorm, but otherwise it was quiet. An hour passed as he struggled to fight off sleep. Then there was a pop, a hiss, and blinding white light brought him instantly awake, blinking against the illumination round whose flare was now floating slowly downwards, casting light over the whole area. More distant booms, and then there was the flash and puff of smoke above as shrapnel shells burst in the air. Walter ducked his head down, feeling sure he heard the whistle and thud of shrapnel passing near and hitting the ground.

[Continue Reading]

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Thinking About Climate Change

Tomorrow the Vatican is scheduled to release an encyclical letter by Pope Francis entitled Laudato Si dealing with ecological concerns. This has a lot of people fairly worked up, including people on Catholic left who haven't felt compelled to listen to any source of Catholic teaching other than their consciences since Humanae Vitae was widely rejected in 1968 and others on the secular left who pretty much don't listen to the Church on anything. I suppose that for those who consider the main function of religious doctrine to be to provide out-of-context pull-quotes to bludgeon their ideological opponents with, this will at least be a source of some additional quotes. However, overall I'm not sure why there is so much fuss, because I kind of doubt that there will be a whole lot in the encyclical which will impinge on people's daily lives in obvious ways. We all are affected in our daily lives by teachings on marriage and the family, we all are responsible for our personal devotions and our behavior towards others, but very few of us set national budgets, invent new technologies, or enact global environmental treaties.

Nonetheless, it seems like a topical day to martial a few thoughts on the climate change issue, which is one that I don't touch on a whole lot because of the frustrations and tensions of the issue and its partisans.

Why I Don't Get Along With Conservatives on Climate Change

I'm a pretty partisan guy, and I'm a conservative on most issues, so one of the reasons I don't talk a ton about the climate change/global warming issue is that I don't necessarily agree with most conservatives on the issue. For a variety of reasons, American conservatives in particular are pretty protective of free markets, technology and capitalism. Social conservatives are protective of the family and traditional Christian sexual morals.  Environmentalists tend to be politically on the left, and a lot of their advocacy centers around limiting emissions of greenhouse gasses via government regulation, demanding a smaller economy, and insisting that people have fewer children because humans are seen as "the problem", occasionally even as a "cancer on the planet".

Because trying to prevent climate change due to human release of greenhouse gasses fit well with various narratives and desires already present on the political left, that's where the issue came to live, and because American conservatives already disagreed with the left on a lot of those other issues, it came naturally to dispute the climate change theories. It's now pretty much expected for conservatives to dispute that there is any impact of fossil fuel burning on the climate due to the release of greenhouse gasses. In this, conservatives are wrong.

Sure, there are a ton of idiotic things said by someone like Al Gore (and his own lifestyle is one massive carbon emissions disaster, so he's easy to mock), but at a basic level there are some things that "the environmentalists" have right:

- While CO2 is not the most efficient greenhouse gas (methane and water vapor both trap more heat) it does appear to act that way and we really are increasing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. When plants grow, they take in CO2 and emit oxygen, while using the carbon (along with other elements) to produce... themselves: wood, leaves, stalks, seeds, flowers, etc. Carbon is one of the building blocks of life on earth. That's why in SciFi shows they talk about "carbon based life". If you take wood (like the big pile of firewood in my backyard from the maple tree we took down last winter) and burn it, the carbon in the wood combines with oxygen from the air to form CO2 during the burning, and that CO2 is now back in the atmosphere. So long as trees are taking the CO2 out and we then release it again by burning the left over plant matter, we have a closed system and the level of CO2 remains the same. However, when we dig up coal or oil and burn it, we're taking carbon which has been out of the system for millions of years and adding it to the atmosphere. There's doubtless plant matter getting buried somewhere in peat bogs and lakes and such which may someday turn into coal and oil, and that's taking carbon back out of circulation. But we're re-releasing ancient carbon via fossil fuels a lot faster than the burial of plant matter is sequestering modern carbon, so on net we're increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

- It really is getting (slightly) warmer. The climate is a massively complex thing. Our real worlds is not like in a SciFi movie, where you have ice planets and desert planets and jungle planets, and you can imagine the whole planet changing temperature. The temperatures that climate scientists are talking about are average global temperatures, adjusting for all sorts of regional and seasonal noise. That noise is the weather we experience on a daily basis. And regionally, an overall increase in global temperatures might result in some parts of the world getting colder while others get warmer. But while there's some room for dispute on how much the temperature is rising and what will happen next (much more on the latter than the former) the tendency to dismiss it all as fraud or fuzzy science is incorrect. While there may well be feedback cycles we don't understand well that will moderate the effects of warming (and if anything, the temperature does seem to be going up less than would otherwise be expected) overall the idea that temperature is going up in a way that is linked with the CO2 level going up is the best supported view.

Why I Don't Get Along With Progressives on Climate Change

So why is it, given the above, that I'm not a big environmentalist cheerleader?

Well, first of all, I do disagree with a lot of the progressive tendencies I mentioned before which made concerns about global warming so congenial to the political left. I don't see people as a cancer on the planet. I think that human beings hold a special place in God's creation, and while I think that we do have a duty not to wantonly destroy the other things God created I don't think the earth is some sort of nature preserve that we need to not affect and maybe pursue voluntary extinction in order to leave pristine. I mean, seriously, there's a lot messed up about secular environmentalism.

But my differences aren't just ideological. Because worrying about greenhouse gasses and climate change is so congenial to certain instincts of the left, the environmental movement jumps on a lot of bandwagons that simply do not make sense at a basic scientific level.

We may be nearing a sort of tipping point, but up until this point, a lot of the "green" technologies have actually taken more energy (typically fossil fuel energy) to put in place than they produce or save. So while there has been all sorts of advocacy for wind farms and solar panels, and demand for those technologies is doubtless providing the money for research which will eventually get us to real, usable, worthwhile technologies, the pieties around adopting green tech are often delusional.

Also, in their willingness to say that we put too much emphasis on profits and that there are too many people in the world, environmentalists tend to forget that innovation (such as the invention of new and cleaner technologies) tends to be driven by two things: economic growth and people. If we have less growth and less people, not only do we suffer from a lower standard of living and fewer unique souls with their unique gifts to offer the world, but we won't even have the technological breakthroughs which might actually make pipe dreams like getting a lot of our power from the sun or wind possible. (Or that cold fusion reactor that's been back-ordered since the early '90s.)

Finally, although some of the basic facts are got right by the left (yes CO2 levels are rising, yes the world is warming a bit) there is a HUGE amount of hysteria and misinformation that gets associated with "global warming alarmism", such as attributing every single weather related problem to "climate change", as if we'd never have hurricanes if everyone drove a Prius.

The Planet Will Be Fine

One of the phrases that I think throws people off is the constant discussion of the need to "save the planet". This is a problem, but not because we shouldn't care about our planet. It's a nice planet.  It's been given to us to take care of, and we'd rather see it beautiful and full of interesting creatures than a barren wasteland. But the fact is, the planet itself can survive quite a lot.

65 million years ago, the planet got hit by a massive asteroid, plunged into a global night and winter, and most species of land and sea animals went extinct. And yet, the planet remains beautiful and wonderful and now it sports creatures such as us, rather than dinosaurs. Things change, but the planet itself is in a state of constant change, both affected by the creatures on it and also by outside forces such as that huge piece of rock which hit it one very bad day at the end of the Cretaceous.

If the CO2 level in that atmosphere increased enough and the average temperature increased enough, there could be a whole lot of changes and many species of plants and animals would experience the effects. Some would die out or migrate or change their habits. But the planet has had higher CO2 levels in the past, and it hasn't turned into a barren desert planet. We're not Venus, nor are we going to become so. But the plant itself would survive and continue to be a beautiful and wonderful place. However...

Change Is Bad

What we really need to worry about in regards to the extent to which our burning of fossil fuels could be causing a long term warming of the planet is not the planet, it's us. The planet would be fine with a higher ocean level. The planet would be fine with different weather patterns.

We, however, have based the location of our cities and populations across the world, the foods we grow, and the way we live, on what temperatures and ocean levels have been like for the last few hundred years. We could adjust to a warmer world with different weather patterns, but periods of human migration and disruption tend to be painful and costly. So rather than thinking about anthropogenic (human caused) climate change as mean old humanity messing up the perfect balance of the nature preserve world which is meant to not show our fingerprints, we should think about it in terms of whether the effects of warming might be ones that would be hard on human civilization.

Humanity Finds a Way

One of the things that scares environmentalists about humanity is that we are an incredibly adaptive and tenacious species. We want to live and thrive, and we do so in more parts of the world than any other animal of our size. We have a significant impact on the land we live on (not like other species don't) and as with other species, that could be a threat to us.

But that's just the beginning. We have the ability to invent new ways of producing energy that won't have the side effect of releasing long buried carbon as atmospheric CO2. We may simply grow out of the needing to burn so much fossil fuel. Or we may find other ways to deal with the problem. Maybe we'll come up with some new means of capturing and making dormant the CO2 which we've released -- maybe something similar to but much faster than the process whereby plants fix carbon within themselves and then get buried as inert matter to become fossil fuels over millions of years. Or there are a number of proposals to cool things back down again if the world does warm undesirably.

A lot of these mitigation ideas are not popular with environmentalists, in part because they don't achieve the side objectives of regulating the economy and shrinking the population, and in part because the idea of people artificially messing with the climate is kind of worrying. After all, imagine that for one country, cooling is desirable, while for another warming is desirable. One could imagine things getting really messed up if some major government like China decided to go rogue and try to tweek the world climate to suit their own needs without worrying about how those efforts would affect other.  And, of course, unintended consequences can be a bear.

But one thing is for sure: A little realism on issues relating to greenhouse gasses and climate change does NOT necessitate taking on the kind of doom-and-gloom attitude and vision of humanity as a cancer which seem to underlie a lot of environmentalist thinking.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Seven Continents Book Challenge

Inspired by Enbrethiliel, Melanie Bettinelli has created the Seven Continent Book Challenge: name favorite books and authors from each continent. We're playing a bit fast and loose here, as we're not necessarily picking favorite works or writers, but things that evoke a region for us (a bit of a stretch in places, but you'll forgive us),

1. What is your favourite book set in Europe? Who is your favourite European author?


 A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor, a young Irishman with a prodigious memory and talent for languages, set off in 1933 on a walking tour of Mitteleuropa from the mouth of the Rhine to Constantinople. He traverses the broad and beautiful heart of Europe and gives life and richness to places I'd always pictured in Communist gray: Romania, Transylvania, Hungary, Slovakia, Yugoslavia. The third, posthumous volume, The Broken Road, is finally published, but we've not had time to read it yet.


Spain: The Cypresses Believe in God by Jose Maria Gironella is the first of a set of three novels dealing with the Spanish Civil War.  The story follows a group of characters centering around the Alvear family, the husband from an anti-clerical family in Madrid, the wife a devout Catholic from a Basque family.  As such, their network of friends and relatives spans the sectarian and geographic divisions which exploded into war.  Gironella himself was a nationalist, but he does a good job of showing the pressures and feelings which drove members of both sides.

Italy (and points East): Comrade Don Camillo is one of a number of books by Giovanni Guareschi tell stories about Don Camillo, a two-fisted priest who is pastor of a small village in the Po River Valley, and his friend/enemy the village's communist mayor Peppone.  They're all delightful and give a strong sense of rural Italy in the 1950s and 1960s.  This particular one is among the later books.  Peppone has become a member of the Italian Parliament and has been chosen to take a group of party loyalists on a tour of the USSR.  Don Camillo blackmails him into including him in the group, disguised as Comrade Tarocci.  The book is the most novelistic of the Don Camillo collections (the rest are really collections of short stories, though they sometimes have a story arc of sorts) and it gives an Italian's-eye view of Russia in the period just after Stalin.

2. What is your favourite book set in North America? Who is your favourite North American author?

First, from our great neighbor to the North: The Salterton Trilogy, by Robertson Davies. Davies is a Canadian author, and of his work we best prefer the three books set in Salterton: Tempest Tost, about an amateur theatrical production of The Tempest; Leaven of Malice, a tempest in a university town teapot, touched off by a false marriage announcement in the local paper; and Mixture of Frailties, about the world education of a young opera singer from Salterton.

Davies is the master of dry humor, and though in some of his other books he can descend into a rather dark and grotesque view of humanity, in the Salterton Trilogy his touch is light and unerring. Here we must reproduce a rather long selection from Leaven of Malice, in which a young author is talking up his planned epic about Canada:

"Could I talk to you for a minute, about the novel? I'd appreciate your help, Mr. Ridley."

"This is rather a busy time."

But Rumball had already seated himself, and his shyness had fallen from him. His eyes gleamed.

"It's going to be a big thing. I know that. It's not conceit; I feel it just as if the book was somebody else's. It's something nobody has tried to do in Canada before. It's about the West--"

"I recall quite a few novels about the West."

"Yes, but they were all about man's conquest of the prairie. This is just the opposite. It's the prairie's conquest of man. See? A big concept. A huge panorama. I only hope I can handle it. You remember that film The Plough That Broke The Plain? I'm calling my book The Plain That Broke The Plough. I open with a tremendous description of the Prairie; vast, elemental, brooding, slumbrous; I reckon on at least fifteen thousand words of that. Then, Man comes. Not the Red Man; he understands the prairie; he croons to it. No, this is the White Man; he doesn't understand the prairie; he rips up its belly with a blade; he ravishes it. 'Take it easy,' says the Red Man. 'Ah, drop dead,' says the White Man. You see? There's your conflict. But the real conflict is between the White Man and the prairie. The struggle goes on for three generations, and at last the prairie breaks the White Man. Just throws him off. 

..."But there's just one thing I'd like your advice about. Names. Names are so important in a book. Now the big force in my book is the prairie itself, I just call the Prairie. But my people who are struggling against it are two families; one is English, from the North, and I thought of calling them the Chimneyholes, only they pronounce it Chumnel. The other is Scandinavian and I want to call them the Ruokatavarakauppas. I'm worried that the vowel sounds in the two names may not be sufficiently differentiated. Because, you see, I want to get a big poetic sweep into the writing, and if the main words in the novel aren't right, the whole thing may bog down, do you see?"

End of Track is a memoir by James H. Kyner, who enlisted in the Union Army at the ripe underage of 15, immediately lost his leg at at Shiloh, and went on to be a contractor grading and building Western railroads. You don't get a whole lot more American than that. He published his story in 1937, and it's good reading.

Not representative of the country as a whole, but does draw characters from all over North America: the U.S., the Caribbean, even Canada: Absalom, Absalom! , by William Faulkner. Faulkner is heavy going, but this strangely compelling story lingers long after you've finally deciphered his sentence structure.

And speaking of the Caribbean: Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, a native of Dominica. Rhys, disturbed by Charlotte Bronte's depictions of the Caribbean in Jane Eyre, set out to write a companion volume which told the story from the Creole perspective.

3. What is your favourite book set in South America? Who is your favourite South American author?

One Hundred Years of Solitude , by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This was, I think, one of the first of the wave of "magical realism" lit that's become so prevalent, and Marquez, a Colombian author, does it better than most because (as far as I know, anyway) he's not imitating someone else's style, but developing something new.

4. What is your favourite book set in Asia? Who is your favourite Asian author?


An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro tells the story of Masuji Ono, an aging painter living in post-WW2 Japan.  Ono's school of painters had become deeply bought into the nationalism which led to the war, and he had participated in a committee of artists policing unpatriotic activities.  Now everything which his generation and his movement stood for has been rejected, and Ono struggles with the meaning of his life and his responsibility, trying to sort out whether there is genuine nobility and accomplishment to be defended against the rejection of the younger generation.  Ishiguro's family left Japan in 1960 when he was five, and he is a British novelists, not a Japanese one, but he uses the setting of his ancestral country to work through themes which are universal as well as specific.  (Ishiguro is perhaps most famous for his novel Remains of the Day, which was made into an outstanding movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.)

The Master of Go, by Yasunari Kawabata is a Japanese novel originally published in 1954, relating a climactic game of Go, a Japanese strategy game, between an aging master and a fast rising rival.  The game was real, played in 1938, and the book was recommended to me when I was learning Go.  If you have any interest in the game, it's worth reading on that front, but the book also stands on its own both as a window into Japanese culture and as more universal look at a transition point from an old tradition-guided way of doing things to a modern, analytical one.


Captivity, by Mary Ann Harbert, subtitled "44 Months in Red China". In 1968 Harbert and a friend were planning to sail around the world. They strayed into Chinese waters and were "detained" -- not imprisoned -- until 1972. One can question certain details of Harbert's narrative and still be drawn in by her descriptions of trying to deal with the puppets of the Cultural Revolution and find out exactly what her crime is so she can go home. (No torture, for readers like me for whom that matters.)

Dusk, by F. Sionil Jose. Dusk was recommended to me by Enbrethiliel, my favorite Philippina blogger, who has been educating her Western readers on the literary heritage of the Philippines. The book is the first of a five-volume series set in the town of Rosales, and chronicles the hardships of the transition from the Spanish rule of the Philippines, and the American invasion.

5. What is your favourite book set in Australasia? Who is your favourite antipodean author?


We realized that we're pretty weak on literature from Australia and New Zealand, but one novel from  an Australian author that I did recently read is The Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally.  It tells the story of two sisters, both of them nurses.  As the book opens, they are dealing with their mother, who is in the last stages of cancer.  Shortly after her death, World War One begins, and both sisters become military nurses, traveling to Egypt, as hospital ship off Gallipoli and finally France.  The novel overall is very good, though a postmodern touch in how Keneally brought it to a conclusion frustrated me.


Ngaio Marsh was a mystery writer from New Zealand who was ranked with the "Queens of Crime": Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Agatha Christie. It's been years since I read her books, but I remember liking them quite a bit, especially as many of them involve the theater.

6. Have you ever read, or do you know of, any books written by authors in Antarctica/ the Arctic?

H.P. Lovecraft's giant blind albino penguins are about the only thing that come to mind... Oh, and Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr,, the novella that introduced the world to The Thing.

We haven't read Shackleton or Peary or Amundsen writing about their various polar expeditions, but there is good lit out there about the icy extremes of the earth.

7. Who are your favourite African authors and books set in Africa?


I really enjoyed The Lion Sleeps Tonight: And Other Stories of Africa, a book of essays by South African journalist Rian Malan.

Master Harold . . . And The Boys is a play by South African playwright Athol Fugard, about the complex relationship between a young man and the black employees in his father's tea shop.


We think of him as a French author, but Albert Camus was in fact from Algeria -- French Algeria -- and the African sun is the inciting factor in The Stranger.

Joseph Conrad was form Poland and emigrated to England, but his classic novel Heart of Darkness is perhaps his most famous work, telling the story of seaman Charles Marlow in a journey up river the Belgian Congo to find Mr. Kurtz, an agent of the ivory company who is reported to be one of the most effect ivory agents. As he does so, however, he finds himself going deeper and deeper into the results of European greed and cruelty. Belgian Congo was notorious in turn-of-the-century Europe as the site of the some of worst abuses of the colonial era.

Friday, June 12, 2015

2006 In Review

Darwin did a much more disciplined job of pulling out some retrospective posts for 2005, but as I flipped through the archives I kept hitting old favorites. So this list is mainly for me, but feel free to click a few links.

 2006 was the year that I had three children under three for a short while (and I found a lot of posts about chaos in the house and how tired we were), it was the year I tried too hard to teach a child too young to read, and it was the year that we all prayed for little Jack as he was dying of cancer. This was the golden age of blog commenting: I saw a lot of familiar names popping up, having great discussions.


While we were waiting for the birth of #3, Darwin started a series on What We Know.


I contemplated the new baby, and we watched a lot of TV, including Crunchy House Manor and a Trojan Man commercial. In a packet of pictures on a shelf, Darwin discovered photos of his late father.


While snuggling with the new baby, I thought about God getting up off the couch, and remembered my miscarriage.


In one of our recurring Google magnet posts, Darwin wrote about Rod Dreher looking East. A reader asked us to analyze our time at Franciscan University of Steubenville. I wrote more about college after Bishop Williamson, SSPX, said girls don't belong in universities.


In Which I Joined The Liturgy Committee And Made A Felt Banner


Another Google favorite: my review of the book Guests of the Sheik.

July was a busy month, apparently: I re-read Fellowship of the Ring, a roach broke our bed, Darwin wrote about gender, terminology, and reality, reflected on the problem of Clean Flicks editing movies for "Christian" consumption, and went on to examine how permissible it is to alter art.

In a prime example of us at our most opinionated and arrogant, the ever popular and controversial What Your 18-Year-Old Needs To Know. Time has beaten our know-it-all-itude out of us, people.


Darwin wrote about getting moral reasoning backward.


A rambling post on family size, and on not having 22 children.


We watched My Neighbor Totoro, and Darwin asked if Christians can believe in ghosts.

Two big themes for the year were guns and data, and Darwin combined them in You'll Shoot Your Eye Out.

An almost typical week in the Darwin household at this time.

The proper voices for reading Winnie the Pooh.

Darwin's "advice for a classics major trying to bet into the computer science industry."


I allowed love to break through my protective armor and found my defenses breached. Darwin wrote about Evidence, Belief, and Will, and in the comments, a combative reader challenged Darwin, "Where is He?"

It's Rough to be First

For whatever reason, I was trying to remember what had happened to Laika the other morning. You may have read about her. She was the first dog to make orbit around the earth -- on Nov. 3rd 1957 aboard the Russian Sputnik 2 space capsule.

I thought that I remembered that (in typical Soviet fashion) Laika's trip was a one-way stunt, and she died in space. Looking it up, it seems I was right, though the plan had been to put her down quietly via poisoned food. Unfortunately, the Soviets hadn't yet got space capsule construction figured out very well, and she died a few hours after launch of stress and overheating.

An American chimp named Ham had better luck in January 1961, when he flew in a Mercury space capsule and was returned safely to Earth via parachute and splash landing -- just like the later Mercury astronauts. While in orbit, he performed a number of trained tasks in response to stimuli like blinking lights and negative reinforcement from electrical shocks to his feet. (Now I think about it, negative reinforcement from electrical shocks to the feet might have been useful in reining in Mercury astronauts from our own species who ended up in Congress...)

Ham lived 22 more years after his flight and is buried at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico.

However, it turns out that Ham had a number of less lucky cousins who get less press coverage. The first American monkey in space was named Albert and flew on a modified V2 rocket in 1948. He suffocated during the flight. Albert 2 (couldn't they come up with a new name if they were going to keep wasting monkeys?) survived his flight on a V2, but died on impact. Albert 3 died when his V2 blew up in flight. And Albert 4 died on impact. (It doesn't say if there was any attempt to have the V2 land differently than its military cousins in WW2.)

Yorick, another monkey, survived his flight on an Aerobee rocket along with 11 mouse crewmates in 1951, but he died two days later. Alas, poor Yorick.

In 1958 a squirrel monkey named Gordo (and nicknamed Old Reliable) successfully flew on a Jupiter rocket. Unfortunately, his vehicle was less reliable and he died as a result of parachute failure on re-entry.

All together, it seems to have been a brutish and short life being a space animal in the 50s. Still, perhaps we have them to thank for having had relatively few human deaths in the early space program.

(Repost from March 27, 2006)

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Matter, Form and Sanity

If you hang around certain sectors of the Catholic blogsphere much, you probably hear from time to time about this thing called "formal causality" that some people wish could get a little more respect. However, if you're not in the habit of reading Aristotelians or Thomists in your spare time, you may not be sure what is meant by it.

First of all, the word "causality" will lead you astray. In standard parlance "cause" is generally used in terms of "cause and effect". However, Aristotle's four causes (material, efficient, formal and final) cover a rather wider stretch of ground.

According to Aristotle's way of thinking, the universe is made of up matter and form. Matter in and of itself is just stuff. (If Star Trek had been written by Aristotelians, they would have constantly encountered beings with made up of matter and animate souls but no form -- the Aristotelian version of The Blob.)

Say you have a coffee mug sitting next to you (mine is already empty). That mug is made of matter. It also conforms to the 'form' of mugness. The form consists of those essential elements of mugness that make a mug be a mug, instead of a tumbler or a cocktail glass or what-have-you. So the material cause (the stuffness) of my mug is ceramic and glaze. The formal cause of my mug (the form) is 'mugness' -- whatever that is.

Now why, you may be wondering, do people feel this is such an important thing to consider? It sounds almost like a tautology. (This mug is a mug because it is like a mug.) Well, form may not seem much of a big deal when you're dealing with a mug. Indeed, I think one is right to question whether there really is an ideal form of "mug" or if mug is simply a human invented category which is useful in sorting the contents of your kitchen cupboard. However, form becomes very important when considering certain moral questions.

A couple years back, I was discussing gay marriage with an earnestly liberal Christian who was also a medical doctor. She asserted that the existence of hermaphrodites proved that gender was a loose set of descriptive categories, and therefore one should marry whomever one felt attracted to. I claimed that humans were meant to be males or females capable of reproduction, and that the fact that some people are born without clear or functioning gender characteristics no more meant that people were not supposed to mate male on female than the fact that some people are born blind means that people are not supposed to be able to see. The fact that there are deviations from the norm does not mean that a norm does not exist. After some consideration, she said that concepts lick sickness, disability and disfunction were all relative to arbitrary ideas of how a human "ought" to work, and that now she thought about it she could think of no objective definition of "health" vs. "sickness" for human beings. Awkward predicament for a doctor, eh?

The defect in this doctor's thinking was that she had discounted any idea of there being a "form" to which we as humans are meant to conform. And having dispensed with the idea of form, she no longer could say anything was actually a defect.

Now, when we start speaking of "defects" in regards to people, it's important to be clear on what we mean. From the point of view of Catholic morality, there is an inherent dignity to the human person by virtue of identity -- by the mere fact that it is a human person. The dignity of the person does not stem from the degree to which it conforms to the ideal. Someone who is born blind is not less of a human because he lacks a characteristic which humans are meant to have. Nor is a hermaphrodite less of a human because he lacks correctly formed gender features.

Further, there are some characteristics which pertain to the human form, and others which are merely accidents (surface features that do not pertain to the essence of what it is to be human). So while we might say that it is in the essence of a human to have eyes capable of sight, there is not particular value to a certain color of eyes.

Formal causality (like most of Aristotle) isn't taught much these days. Yet, as you can see, it's necessary to be able to make any kind of sane analysis of what a person, thing or animal is, and what it is supposed to be.

Many point to the predominance of science in the modern mind as the reason why few people understand formal causality anymore. And yet, in a sense, modern science should give us a good, realistic grounding in at least certain kinds of formal causality, though because of its limitations it clearly doesn't place a particular moral value on conforming to form.

Take, for instance, the question of hermaphrodism which my acquaintance brought up. From a biological point of view, it's clear that an individual who has unformed or malformed gender attributes, and thus is incapable of or uninterested in reproduction, is in some sense not the way an individual is supposed to be. After all, if all individuals were that way, there wouldn't be any more. It's an evolutionary dead end. However good one might feel about being a hermaphrodite, or how affection one might have for him/her, it's clear that from a biological point of view something isn't right in that picture. Although biology doesn't produce moral precepts, it's at least clear that hermaphrodism cannot be considered 'normal' and thus perhaps it's a bad idea to use it as the basis for your moral analysis.

Certainly, modern science doesn't concern itself with questions like "what is the essence of being human" but there is a certain rough realism about it which, if taken seriously, should help to reign in the wilder impulses of our modern, relativistic, moral feel-good-ism.

[this post originally written in Feb, 2006]

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Small Groups Are More Likely to Excel, and That Means Nothing

A Megan McArdle piece this week on why the US can't necessarily become Norway referenced an old Marginal Revolution post by Alex Tabarrok which pointed out that the reason why small schools often appear in lists of top performing schools may well be mostly probability rather than performance. It's a good post, but as soon as I read it I wanted to play with some visualizations, because I think it's the sort of thing people can grasp a lot more easily with some visuals.

Say we're looking at ranked performance of any type. Since this is inspired by Tabarrok's piece on schools, we're say there's school children who've taken a standardized test and are now ranked in terms of percentile: 1st to 99th.

I created a completely random data set with 1,000 data points using Excel's RANDBETWEEN() function. So I now have a list of the scores of 1,000 students in my imaginary town. This is a totally average town. It's 1,000 students have an average test score in the 50th percentile. If we look at how many student fall into each decile, it's pretty clean.

Now let's start to break the students into groups. Remember, our students are one long list of random numbers from 0 to 99, so we're going to take that list, which is in no order, and start dividing it. The differences between those divisions will be nothing but statistical noise. We cut them into groups of 500 and then into groups of 250.

You see what's happening. Even though these group assignments are totally random, we now have a five point spread between our best and worst "school" of 250 students within our town of 1,000. As we break down into smaller and smaller groups, the probably range of variation becomes wider.

Obviously, with 1,000 students, half of whom are above the 50th percentile and half of whom are below, you could randomly assign them to two groups of 500 and have one group be all students below 50th percentile and the other all students above the 50th percentile, putting their average scores fifty points apart (25 versus 75) but that is very, very, very unlikely.

As the groups get smaller, the chances of outliers become higher.

This difference in score distribution based on group size becomes important if we compare groups of different size.

Let's now say we have four towns, each with 1,000 students.

Town A has two schools of 500 students each.

Town B has four schools of 250 students each.

Town C has ten schools of 100 students each.

Town D has 20 schools of 50 students each.

Remember, each town has exactly the same set of student scores and all differences in school average scores is based on random variation: which students are randomly assigned to each school.

The county now decides to put together an honor roll of the best 10 schools in the county. Which schools are on the list?

Town D with its 50-student schools hold seven of the top ten slots on the Honor Roll. Town C with its 100-student schools gets two slots. Town B with 250-student schools gets one slot. The highest performing 500-student school is number 15 out of 36.

Of course the flip side is: The bottom ten is exactly the same breakdown: seven schools from Town D, two schools form Town C, one school from Town B.

The larger the school is, the more statistically representative it will be of the population as a whole. Thus, 500-student schools are very, very close to the average of the town as a whole. However, when we break the population up into smaller groups, random chance starts to play a larger role. It's far more likely that you get a disproportionate share of high performing student assigned to a group of 50 than to a group of 500.

You can see the same effect with the classic coin toss. Flip a coin ten times, and there's a decent chance you'll get a lopsided result. Flip is a hundred times and you'll start to get a lot closer to 50/50 in your results. A friend of mine who was a high school math teacher used to assign a project where students had to flip a coin a large number of times and record the result. He could usually detect the students who tried to fake their results because in an effort to show "realistic" results they would show too even a distribution of heads and tales within small groups of tosses. It's actually fairly likely that when tossing a coin a hundred times you'll have it come up heads four or five times in a row at some point. But students trying to save time by faking results seldom had these longer runs of luck.

Now, all of this is simply looking at what happens when we take a population of students that already varies and assign them to schools of different sizes: large schools will look more average while the highest and lowest performing schools will be from among the smallest size ones. However, in real life, there's also an averaging effect to large organizations when it comes to performance. If you had a small, independent school teaching only 50 students, a lot of your success would rely on a small number of teachers and how well they did their jobs. Having one or two really great teachers could make your whole school look amazing. Whereas, having a couple of really bad teachers could tank your scores. In a really large school, a lot of those effects would average out. You might have one teacher who does a really great job with her twenty students, but if those students are hidden in among 480 others, the effect will be a lot smaller.

So when we're looking at information of this kind, it's very important to look at the sizes of the groups involved. Ranking groups of radically different sizes (such as schools that vary in size by a factor of ten) can result in a lot of the difference you think you are seeing being the result of statistical noise.