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

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

We Are Not Gods and Cannot Fix All Wrongs

A friend who is a professor of ethics at a Catholic university posted this clip from the 1992 film Last of the Mohicans and asked:

For those of you who (like me) hold the principle that it is always wrong to aim at the death of an innocent person (whether as a means or as an end) do you think what Daniel Day Lewis' character did in this scene was wrong? If your answer is "no", I'd be interested to know your reasoning.

Michael Mann's The Last Of The Mohicans (1992) ~ "...I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans" from Schmeichler on Vimeo.

I was stuck because the movie was a pivotal fictional experience for me. I saw it when I was thirteen and was deeply impressed by the blend of music, cinematography, and minimalist storytelling. However, I was also deeply troubled. My parents had been fairly strict with what movies I was allowed to see, and this was one of the first cases where I saw a movie in which basically admirable characters were shown doing things I considered deeply wrong for reasons that were still in some sense honorable.

[In the scene shown, one character offers himself in place of another to be burned alive by an Indian tribe that has captured all the main characters. As this burning is happening, the main character (thankfully renamed Nathaniel Poe in the movie rather than Natty Bumppo as in Cooper's original novel) shoots the man being burned alive in order to spare him further suffering. Both the scene itself and the movie as a whole as very much worth watching.]

One thing that surprised me about the conversation which proceeded on the ethicist's post was that so many people working from a Christian moral background wanted to come up with a way to justify Nathaniel's action.

One common approach was to attempt to apply the principle of double effect and argue that Nathaniel only wants to end the other man's suffering, and that the other man's death is merely a foreseen but undesired side effect of the only means available for ending suffering (shooting him.) The reason why this doesn't work is that in this case killing is not merely a side effect (as, for instance, might be the case in using a very high dose of pain killers to relieve the suffering of someone with a terminal illness while ignoring that such high doses increase the risk of fatal side effects) but rather the direct means chosen. Shooting someone only relieves his suffering if you succeed in killing him.

Another approach was to argue that the tribe which decided to burn the man to death was the one which incurred the guilt for creating an evil situation, and that Nathaniel took the only possible action in that situation which would relieve the suffering of the man being burned alive.

This latter argument strikes me as hinting at the heart of the problem here, and one which I think is relatively common in modern moral thinking, in that it assumes that the human actor must take an action which fixes the suffering or other earthly evil which is he is confronted with. Nathaniel is faced with a situation in which someone is being made to suffer horribly, and therefore there must be some action which Nathaniel can morally take which relieves that suffering. If shooting the man being burned alive is the only way to end his suffering, then Nathaniel is justified in taking that action.

I think implicitly this puts humanity more at the center of the universe than we in fact are. There may be cases where we are confronted with suffering that we do not have any moral means at our disposal to end. We are not God. We do not have it in out power to end all suffering. Sometimes our fellow humans will cause evils we which do not have the ability to end without ourselves joining them in committing evil.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Potty Talk with Elijah

Yesterday my eight-year-old had to read 1 Kings 18:17-39, in which Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a to a contest to see whose God will respond. Our piano teacher, over at the time, said, "Oh, that's my favorite story, especially the part where Elijah asks the prophets if their god can't answer because he's going to the bathroom."

I remember my dad telling me that as well, and how disappointed I was when I read the story and found that those weren't the exact words. Or are they? The version that Jack was reading, the New American Bible, Revised Edition, has 1 Kings 18:27 as, "When it was noon, Elijah taunted them: 'Call louder, for he is a god; he may be busy doing his business, or may be on a journey. Perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.'" Now, "doing his business" is as good a phrase as any for using the bathroom, in my mind, but what did other translations say? We pulled out the Bible translations we have around the house to check out Elijah's trash talk.

New American Bible: " Call louder, for he is a god and may be meditating, or may have retired, or may be on a journey."

Revised Standard Edition: "Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened."

New Jerusalem Bible: "'Call louder,' he said 'for he is a god: he is preoccupied or he is busy, or he has gone on a journey; perhaps he is asleep and will wake up.'"

King James Version: "Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked."

These all seem like pretty weak tea: "meditating", "musing", "preoccupied", "pursuing". For comparison, I pulled out our Latin Bible and looked up Liber Tertius Regum, XVIII, 27:

"Clamate voce majore; deus enim est, et forsitan loquitur, aut in diversorio est, aut in itinere, aut certe dormit, ut excitetur."

Now, I'm no Latin scholar, but going solely according to cognates, it looks like Elijah is saying that Baal is diverted. Not exactly potty talk.

But what's the Greek? Courtesy of

2532καιAnd1096εγένετοit became3314μεσημβρίαmidday,2532καιand3456εμυκτήρισεν[4sneered at1473αυτούς5them*Ηλίας1Elijah3588ο2the*Θεσβίτης3Tishbite],2532καιand2036είπενhe said,1941επικαλείσθεCall1722ενwith5456φωνή[2voice3173μεγάλη1a great]!3379μήποτεperhaps96.2αδολεσχία[3in 5meditation5100τις4some1510.2.3εστιν1he is1473αυτώ2himself],2532καιand260άμαat the same time3379μήποτεperhaps5537χρηματίζει[2executing business1473αυτός1he is],2228ηor3379
μήποτεperhaps2518καθεύδειhe sleeps2532καιand1817εξαναστήσεταιshall rise up.

Well, okay, but still not enlightening.

But the original language holds some clues. Here's a fascinating article about the Hebrew phrase Elijah uses at this point to mock the prophetskî śîah wēkí śîg lô. The word śîah and śîg, used together, can be linked to phrases in other Semitic languages that deal with excretion or defecation. So, the scholars have spoken: Elijah, not exactly known for being dainty, is telling the prophets that Baal can't answer because he's off taking a crap.

Photo courtesy of Ryan Hoggatt, from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Great War, Volume Two: Chapter 1-3

This took a little longer than I'd hoped. I guess I'm still getting into the swing on turning out wordcount. I am, however, pretty pleased with the results.

Incidentally, the events in this chapter are drawn very closely from an incident in the WW1 diary which future priest Yves Congar wrote as a young French boy living under occupation in Sedan.

This concludes Chapter 1. Chapter 2 will focus on Henri.

Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. May 13th, 1915. Pascal returned home on a Saturday afternoon. Even before his call of, “I’m home!” brought his sisters thundering and squealing down the stairs, he received his first greeting from Yves. The dog had been lying on the entrance rug wondering when someone would think to take him out for a walk. When the young master opened the door, Yves was instantly upon his feet, barking excitedly, and then clambering up to rest his paws on Pascal’s shoulders while showering his face with doggy affection.

It was a sight which caused Philomene a pang when she arrived a moment later to greet her son with her own maternal hugs and kisses. “Not tonight,” she told Grandpere, as Pascal went up to his room to change from his dirty work clothes. “There will be time to tell him tomorrow.”

Louis shrugged. “No longer, then. We’ll have to get it over with.”

It had only been two weeks, and Pascal seemed already to have changed. Could he have become taller? He was certainly browner. And yet there was still so much of the boy about him. He played with his sisters, leading them in the backyard adventures which had been listless without him. And he romped with Yves so happily that Philomene felt it weighing upon her heart.

The dog, only two years younger than Pascal himself, and thus in the children’s mind as established a member of the family as any of them, had become the most difficult resident of the household to maintain. Before the war, the pork butcher, Monsieur Jobart, had often thrown in a pound of scraps for Yves without charge when filling the family’s order for meat. Now meat of any kind was becoming scarce, and there were people who were eager to pay good prices for the scraps which before had gone to Yves and others of his kind. The family had made attempts to adapt him to a diet of beans and potatoes such as they themselves increasingly lived on, but while he happily ate whatever was put before him, such meals seemed always to make an untimely and catastrophic re-appearance from one end of the dog or the other. And so Yves continued to eat meat, even as the family got less and less. Philomene shuddered at the expense, and felt pangs of guilt when she thought of that some people went hungry in the village even as she fed a dog, but when she saw how tenderly the little girls and Pascal clung to the animal who was a constant from the happy and peaceful days before, she had always relented. Now, however, it was out of her hands.

[continue reading]

Monday, February 20, 2017

Baby Boy!

My sister had a baby around 3 am, so of course I was up all night.

Welcome to my nephew Robert Fulton! Robert is a family name, and Fulton is for Fulton Sheen, of course. Young Robert (or Bert) is very intense here, but I've seen his older sisters make that same face.

Say a prayer for the handsome new fellow, and for his happy but tired parents.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Play to Your Strengths

I know I said somewhere that I was done offering homeschooling advice, but it's February and everyone's burned out. So here's my offering to everyone considering overhauling everything next August:

Play to your strengths.

I had a chance to talk to Bearing when her family visited us over New Year's, and she made a remark that stayed with me: Each homeschooling family is running a magnet school, focused on their own interests. Some families are going to be big on scientific experiment and field trips. Some families like structure and are very good at sticking to a plan and getting prescribed work done on a schedule. Some families love literature and art. Some excel at hands-on stuff. And that's fine. My homeschool doesn't have to look like your homeschool, which doesn't have to look like her homeschool. That's why specific advice is often unhelpful, because it grows out of one family's particular way of functioning.

My strength is that I like to read aloud, and I like good literature. We're not aces at science, we're basic with the math, and I hate getting people out the door, but I could spend all day sitting in the big chair reading to people in the living room and discussing what we read. So each morning, that's what we do. We start with prayer, read the daily Mass readings and talk about them as we go, read a meditation and have about 30 seconds of silent prayer, and then a chapter or two of our current piece of literature (right now it's Emma). In the afternoon I sit with the 1st and 3rd graders and read a chapter of a book (Charlotte's Web) and a chapter of A Little History of the World.

This is fun and easy for me. I repeat: this is not onerous. I don't feel like our day has properly started if for some reason we have to miss our readings. I think literature is extremely important, and I think that reading aloud to children has many benefits that manifest throughout life, but also, I like doing reading aloud to the kids. It's my strength, so any homeschool revision we do has to take that into account. For example, in past years when I've worried we weren't getting enough science in, we didn't add a bunch of labs that would be tended eagerly the first week and forgotten the next. We added a science book to our readaloud time.

If you love something, that's probably a good sign that you should be incorporating it into your homeschooling as much as possible. And the things you don't love, but you know you need to be doing anyway: we're still working on that.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Difference Exhaustion

I blocked out my morning next Tuesday to go with MrsDarwin to her 20-week ultrasound and get a first hand look at Septimus. The half day absence on my work calendar serves as a reminder that I haven't actually told my team at work yet that we're expecting another baby.

There's a limit to how much longer I should put that off, but I so far I've delayed because I'm not looking forward to it. I work with nice people, and I don't expect to be given any lectures on how I'm overpopulated the planet or neglecting my existing children. I don't expect anyone to be intentionally rude or even critical. People will be surprised, congratulate me, and the memorable thing about me will get just a little bit more memorable. "Oh yeah, you're the one with a million kids!" (Modern people are kind of like the rabbits in Watership Down when it comes to counting children. One, two, three, four, a million!)

It's hard to explain why being well known around the office for having a lot of kids annoys me. It's not something I'm ashamed of, nor do I have any desire to adhere to the two kids, two careers, two travel sports per kid model of family life which so many of my coworkers seem to follow.

Yet even though I don't have a desire to follow the majority family model, the subtext of the "Darwin has a million kids" jokes eventually starts to read as a constant refrain of: You're different. We're the same. But you're different.

I think this must be part of the frustration that members of minority groups (whether ethnic, religious, or sexual) sometimes talk about. Even well meaning references to minority status eventually start to sound like endlessly repeated reminders that, "You're not one of us." Even if you don't want to be "one of us", you eventually start to just want to say, "Shut up all ready. I get it."

In turn, it's what's comparatively relaxing about hanging out with other large families. Not only are there certain basic experiences in common, but you're also free for a little while from the constant wonder are your fecundity.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Great War, Volume Two: Chapter 1-2

Village of Chateau Ducloux, France. March 30th, 1915 The one person who had been distinctly unsatisfied with the resolution to the relief committee question was Madame Perreau, but she was someone who had a gift for sharing her feelings with others. After a campaign of conversational needling waged every morning and evening over the dining room table -- a sequence of battles whose first casualty was Justin Perreau’s wife, who began to take her meals in the nursery with the children in order avoid her mother-in-law -- Justin at last promised his mother to speak to the commandant.

It was at the end of a long day that Justin was ushered into Major Spellmeyer’s office -- what had in peacetime been the mayor’s office -- and stood before the big mahogany desk. Justin’s own office was small, a room once inhabited by the town clerk. The commandant did not look up as Justin was announced by the orderly, and the mayor had time to wonder if the timing of his visit would prejudice his results. Still, it was too late to flee. He planted his feet firmly, overcoming the nervous urge to shift his weight from foot to foot, and tried to focus his mind on the peace that would return to his home once Madame Perreau’s sense of injustice had been relieved.

The commandant signed the document he had been reading with a satisfied flourish and favored Justin with a smile. “A long week, and it’s just Tuesday! Can I offer you a drink, Mister Mayor?”

He pulled open a desk drawer and brought out a bottle of cognac. It was not a luxury that was easy to come by. Surely it was a good sign as to the level of respect the commandant had for him that he was willing to share something of which there could be no more supply so long as the war lasted. The Cognac region was on the other side of the lines, and so it was necessary to conserve what bottles were left or develop a taste for German Schnapps, or American Rum or Whiskey.

Major Spellmeyer took a pair of tumblers out of the drawer and splashed large portions of the amber liquid into them. Justin was shocked at how generously the major poured.

“Thank you, Major.” He accepted the glass, which must have held twice as much as a proper cognac class would have. Nor was it a cheap vintage. Rather than any harsh taste his first sip offered a refined bloom of well aged flavors.

“I just had three cases of this seized,” said the commandant, knocking his glass back with a casual glug that genuinely shocked his guest. Without a pause the officer refilled his own glass before corking the bottle and putting it back in the drawer. “Smugglers, God bless them. There’ll be a commendation for suppressing illegal activity, no ill will from the local citizens, and a goddamn good deal to drink, eh?”

He knocked back the second glass, unfastened the top brass buttons of his tunic, and leaned back in his chair. “Yes, now that’s nice. All right, Mayor. Tell me what it is you wanted to see me about.”

The thing had seemed so easy when Justin had rehearsed it in his mind earlier in the day, one man of authority asking another for a little favor. Now he came to it, however, the mayorship his mother’s force of will had won for him from the Germans, a position that he had at for years dreamed of as a fitting proof that he was a worthy holder of the family name, long before the war put it suddenly into his hands, did nothing to increase his sense of dignity and confidence and he stood before this foreigner. He felt more like a schoolboy, standing before the headmaster to ask for some undeserved privilege.

“It’s about this relief committee, sir,” he said. He found himself shifting from one foot to the other, exactly the boyish habit he had been seeking to avoid. “I’d had my doubts about the Serre woman as an administrator, but the other committee members overruled me. Now as she begins her work I am more than ever convinced she was a poor choice.”

[Continue Reading]

Friday, February 10, 2017

Emma at Hogwarts

It is a truth universally acknowledged that ranking people by what Hogwarts house they would be in is one of the shallower ways to assess character. That said, we had some fun this morning using the Sorting Hat on the characters in Emma, our current readaloud. This is not a book heavy on Ravenclaws -- you have to go to Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility for those (or to my favorite, Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey). But Slytherins and Hufflepuffs abound.

Emma is a Slytherin. She may be kind and loyal to her father, but her pride and snobbery, the way she uses her influence to manipulate, her attachment to her various schemes regardless of their intersection with reality, and her blindness to her own flaws put her solidly in green and silver territory.

Mr. Knightley: Gryffindor. He says what he thinks, he forges ahead while others dither, he will not be overborne, and he's brave enough to speak his love to Emma without knowing what response he'll receive.

Frank Churchill: Another Slytherin. Charming, cunning, and able to manipulate situations so skilfully that others end up doing exactly what he wants while thinking it their own idea. Secretive and willing to put the reputations of others at risk to preserve his own schemes.

Jane Fairfax: Gryffindor. Probably the bravest character in the book. She faces her future with clear eyes and makes straightforward plans to make her own living by the unpleasant task of being a governess. She bears up under the condescension of Emma, the machinations of Frank, the tediousness of her aunt, and the odiousness of Mrs. Elton. Would have been a better heroine than Emma, we think.

Mr. Elton: Slytherin. Oily, insincere, and able to turn quickly from one prestigious plan for a match to another. Also with a touch of cowardice, and the willingness to humiliate social inferiors.

A pack of Hufflepuffs: Mr. and Mrs. Weston, Harriet Smith, Miss Bates, Mr. Woodhouse.

Mrs. Elton: A muggle, for sure.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Reading and Empathy

I've been largely taken up lately with work on the novel, an unusually busy period at work, and also a reluctance to write on my usual topics due to the burn-out I'm feeling with many political and cultural topics as I watch the extremes of pro and anti Trump opinion wage scorched earth battle against one another. Given the topics I have been keeping up with, however, I found this piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education about reading and empathy an interesting read.

The author, a newly minted literature PhD, cheerfully starts off by telling her American Literature for non-majors class that reading literature makes us more empathetic.

One of her students (a diligent engineer of a conservative political bent) finds her choices of readings to be overly pessimistic:

Henry lingered after class to talk to me about how troubling he found our reading. The American literature I was teaching, Henry asserted, had nothing good to say about the United States, or about humanity, for that matter. It wasn’t uplifting.

He had a point. Our reading was a little on the bleak side. Benito Cereno interrogates the notion of good intentions; Kate Chopin’s "The Story of an Hour" sees marriage as an arrangement in which "men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature"; and Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson exposes race as a social construct but offers no way out of its grip.

So I made the case to Henry that literature is often, if not always, critique. The greatest writers don’t engage in blind celebration, I told him; their writing shows us what needs to change.

He didn’t buy it. Literature should model character traits like gallantry, courage, and perseverance, and he thought British literature did so in spades. Henry had a taste for the epic, and the books on my reading list couldn’t hold a candle to stories of heroes vanquishing obstacles to save the world. "If this is the best American literature has to offer," he opined, "then I’d say American literature is pretty terrible."

Trying to stifle my defensive response, I pointed out that using literature as a tool for critique wasn’t solely the province of American writers. Shakespeare was a critic. Sure, his plays have heroes, knights, and kings, but Macbeth’s anatomization of power isn’t uplifting, and The Merchant of Venice doesn’t have hopeful things to say about relations between Christians and Jews. Henry hadn’t read much Shakespeare, though. When I asked him to give an example of a British writer he did admire, he offered the name G.A. Henty.

"Have you read any Henty?" he asked. I had not. I had never heard of him. But I later learned that he wrote children’s historical fiction in the 19th century, "boys’ stories" filled with risk-taking, travel, and adventure. Beyond that, Henty was an unapologetic proponent of empire whose fiction traded in ethnic stereotypes and, in the view of some, racism. This was the writer my student held up as a literary ideal.

Later the same student tells her that he's gone to reading the SparkNotes rather than the full texts because he's leery of aligning himself too closely with some of the subjects she's chosen:
Not long into our drama unit, he came to see me, starting our meeting off with a confession: "I stopped completing the reading for this class long ago. Now I just read the SparkNotes so that I can pass the quizzes, and I do just enough of the reading to be able to write the papers." I’d never have known had he not told me. Henry was passing the quizzes, no problem, and was even writing pretty perceptive close readings. This was not a student who didn’t want to put in the time. He had a principled objection to reading the books.

Quoting the Bible — Philippians 4:8, "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" — Henry explained that he didn’t want to expose himself to an envy-ridden, infighting family with a son who may be repressing his homosexuality (Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) or to a philandering former thief guilty of manslaughter (August Wilson’s Fences). The characters and conflicts were not "pleasing," and they certainly weren’t "pure." As he would later write to me, "I did not want to be affected by the material."

Different as we were in our tastes and our politics, Henry and I both believed in the transformative power of fiction, and he did not want to be transformed. There I’d stood on the first day of class with my "Reasons We Read" PowerPoint, an evangelist for reading as a profoundly ethical experience. I’d referred to a study reported on in Scientific American in 2011 showing that the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others and that adults who read less fiction report lower levels of empathy. I’d referred to research in cognitive science showing that readers of fiction score higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than do readers of nonfiction.

In short, I had tried to make the case that literature generates empathy, and that empathizing with those unlike us is valuable because it expands our sense of whose lives matter. It goes hand in hand with open-mindedness and tolerance. Henry didn’t disagree. The question for him was, what would our shared reading make him tolerant of?

It wasn’t that he decried empathy, in theory. But the prospect of spending time inside the mind of a character whose behavior he’d been taught to revile made him profoundly uncomfortable.

If these snippets make the author sound a bit self satisfied, she is. But she's also moderately self examining. For instance, at one point, she points to where she thinks an author is calling on readers to identify behavior which is culturally accepted now but may be regarded with horror in later times. She expects answers like "eating animals, playing football, capital punishment", things which she considers wrong but which many others accept. Henry one-ups her by suggesting abortion -- something which she culturally accepts without question, but which he points out people may one day find deeply shocking as a common cultural practice.

It strikes me that her student implicitly has two different criticisms of the books she's asking him to read.  One is that he simply doesn't find then enjoyable.  He comes to books looking for an enjoyable and to some degree uplifting experience.  She is instead picking books which she sees as presenting critiques of the parts of the culture she thinks need changing.

The second critique, however, is that as she emphasizes to him that the purpose of literature is to cause us to empathize with others, by putting us into their experiences, he is cautious about what people he wants to empathize with.  Does he really want to put himself in the positions of the characters she's introducing him to, or will that tend to corrupt is morals?

It seems to me that the first of these is mostly a matter of taste, but the latter gets to a deeper question about empathy and understanding others which the author of the piece does not seem to think about. She argues that literature leads to empathy and that empathy leads to open-mindedness and tolerance. This she sees as a key reason for reading literature. Empathy is often thought of this way in modern society: Though empathy you come to like and understand someone. Through liking them you come to approve of them and their actions.

In this sense, I think that the heavy emphasis on empathy is based on the modern moral approach (I hesitate to call it reasoning) which holds that if we like someone, they must be a "good person", and if they are a good person, then what they do must be basically good.

There lies, I think, the problem. Fiction can indeed provide us with a way to see from the inside a character whom we might not otherwise meet, or with whom we would not naturally sympathize. This close perspective on a person very different from us can and should lead to understanding why and how that person, as a person with the same basic human emotions and powers of reason that we have, acts and reacts the way that they do.

However, the fact that we can now understand how another person feels and acts does not necessarily mean that we should approve of that person. Whether in fiction or in real life, understanding enough about someone's experiences, feelings and reasoning to know why they do what they do should not necessarily lead to approval of what they do. Indeed, sometimes properly understanding what leads to a person's actions help us see how those actions are choices that can be wrong, rather than seeing others' actions as simply being a necessary aspect of who they are.

This is where, for an adult reader (deciding what is appropriate content for children to deal with in fiction is a whole separate issue) I think the student described in the essay gets things wrong. We can encounter truth even in reading about people who sin and cause suffering in major ways. It's by watching good and bad actions play our in realistic ways that we come to understand moral struggle via fiction.

But his teacher is not doing his understanding any favors by seemingly portraying the sort of empathy and going into the experience of another which we perform when we read (or watch) fiction as logically leading to acceptance. The student is right not to want to become more 'tolerant' of what is wrong. And by suggesting that reading about a character will lead to being more tolerant of people like that character (if we take "tolerant" to mean: accepting of people who make similar moral choices) the author is actually laying down a rather dangerous lesson and potentially driving people away from an deeper encounter with fiction.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Stayin' Alive

Ah friends, please excuse the lack of posting. Between Darwin writing late every night on The Great War, and my falling asleep right after putting the kids to bed, not much bloggy stuff happens in our free time. And my energy periods are right when I should be homeschooling, which is good, I guess, for homeschooling, but not so much for writing.

But I am trying to exercise! I like to do the modified version.

When I finally finish my readthrough of Love's Labour's Lost, I'll try to write up some more extensive thoughts on it. It's not Shakespeare's best or most rounded, but it's my current favorite right now.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Jolly Good Fellow

Yesterday I went down to the Pregnancy Resources Center in town because they were looking for volunteers past 14 weeks of pregnancy to help them learn their new ultrasound machine. I had a lovely long look at baby, and was told, "Definitely a boy."

Now this threw us all a bit, because we were all convinced we were having a girl -- just because that's happened so often before, and because of the literary antecedents of five daughters, etc. At least now we don't have to all stake our positions for our favorite girl names, but now we're back to square one because we didn't have a boy name in reserve. Also, I've never had two boys in a row, so hoo boy. I expect it's going to get hairy around here in a few years.

But the young man is already fine fellow. The guy was kicking and squirming, thrusting his legs straight out in exuberance or protest or just baby fidgets. The tech caught a clip of it on the monitor and replayed it so it looked like baby was dancing. "If you ever see those videos on Youtube where it looks like the baby is clapping to music, that's just me fooling around with this function," he said. Baby himself did no clapping, but he did push some hands around. At one point he had a hand up near his jaw. "Watch, I'll make him move," said the tech. He pushed down on the stomach, and baby immediately punched back. Also, he kicked the ultrasound wand.

Baby is in the pink of health, it seems. We saw the four chambered heart and the two halves of the brain, and the carotid artery and the three vessel umbilical cord and the epiglottis. There was his little empty stomach and his bony feet, and there was his little you-know floating around between his legs, large as life. It was a treat to see him.

I wish all of you could have the opportunity to see a live ultrasound. There's nothing like matching the sensations to what baby is actually doing -- although watching a newborn gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of fidgets babies have. And donate to your local pregnancy center! They do great work, and necessary work, giving mothers who might not have the opportunity otherwise the chance to see their babies in wonderful action. Donate newborn or preemie diapers. Almost no newborn ever, no matter how big, fits right into the size 1 diapers. Even if it's only for a few days until baby fills out, the smallest diaper sizes fit more snugly -- key for a period when a baby is going to be pooping black meconium, which stains like the deuce. Ask me how I know.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

News At The Speed of Gratification

There's been a lot of talk about "fake news" of late, in part as the media establishment tries to figure out how it could have both been wrong about who was likely to win the presidential election and also how someone they dislike as much as Trump won it. I tend to think that the phenomena of "fake news" (taking the term for now to mean the peddling of wholly fabricated news stories that confirm some group of partisan's worst fears about the world) is rather over-emphasized. The problem with the idea that fake news was somehow instrumental in the outcome of the election is that in general it spread simply by providing confirmation for things that people already believed or wanted to believe.

This story about researches trying to dig into the effects of such fake stories I think highlights the point:

Hunt Allcott of New York University and Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford commissioned a survey in late November hoping to discern just how deeply some of the fake news embedded itself with American voters. The two asked people, among other things, whether they had heard various pieces of news that reflected positively or negatively on one of the candidates — of three varieties.

There was completely true news: Hillary Clinton called some Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables,” for example, or Mr. Trump refused to say at a debate whether he would concede the election if he lost.

There was fake news, as identified by fact-checking sites like Snopes and PolitiFact — big things like the Pope Francis story and smaller items, like Mr. Trump threatening to deport the “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda to Puerto Rico.

The third category was most interesting. The researchers created “fake fake” news. That is, they invented some headlines that were the type of thing fake sites produce, but had never actually been published during the campaign. One of these placebo headlines was that “leaked documents reveal that the Clinton campaign planned a scheme to offer to drive Republican voters to the polls but then take them to the wrong place,” and its inverse in which it was the Trump campaign scheming to take Democrats to the wrong polling place.

There is some good news in that more people reported having heard, and believed, the true statements than the false statements. Only 15.3 percent of the population recalled seeing the fake news stories, and 7.9 percent recalled seeing them and believing them.

The more interesting result: Those numbers are nearly identical to the proportion who reported seeing (14.1 percent) and believing (8.3 percent) the placebos, the “fake fake” news stories. In other words, as many people recalled seeing and believing fake news that had been published and distributed through social media as recalled seeing fake news that had never existed and was purely an invention of researchers.

What I think this shows is that in many ways "fake news" is more a reflection of pre-existing views and the way that people are interacting with news in the social media world than it is a true changer of opinion. In this sense, fake news may be responsible for increasing partisanship, but I don't think it's likely to have changed many minds.

The really interesting thing here, to my mind, is the way that people are interacting with news (fake and real) in a world of social media. Traditional, passive forms of receiving news (the nightly news, news magazines, news papers) are all on the wane. People see much of their news on their phones and computers, and via social media sites in which they see a feed consisting of links, capsule summaries, and comments. A news story gets wide play not simply by being in a major venue (say, being on the front page of a big city news paper, or being in the first ten minutes of the nightly news) but when lots of people make a point of passing the news on to others: sharing it, re-tweeting it, etc.

What news do people pass on? In the human realm, things that pull at the emotions: Isn't this terrible! This inspired me! I'm so excited to see this!

But in the political realm, a key reason people share news is because it fits into some existing set of beliefs and opinions they have. A story about someone finding tens of thousands of fake Hillary votes in an Ohio warehouse fit into a narrative that some people already wanted to believe that Democrats were dirty tricksters who were going to try to steal the election. A story claiming that Trump's treasury pick owned a bank that foreclosed on a 90-year-old woman over a $0.27 underpayment fit into a narrative that bankers are evil and Trump is aligned with unscrupulous people. A story claiming that a judge has ruled doctors can refuse to treat women who have had abortions or people who have had sex change operations fits a narrative that people who ask for religious conscience protection simply want to be mean to others.

One of these stories is totally made up, the other two are based on massive mis-reporting and selective reporting of the facts (which ends up with the stories as reported being basically false) but the way that people interact with them is the same. For instance, the last of these got wide play online because Star Trek actor George Takei shared it with his massive audience of Facebook followers. Many people probably only read the headline or the summary online before sharing it around, making comments on it, etc. Fewer still went so far as to click the link to the ruling (which turns out not to be a ruling at all, but rather the granting of a preliminary injunction) and discover that the articles being passed around on the topic totally misrepresented the point at issue and the nature of the judge's action.

To my mind, that fact that a news story can become just as "viral" when it's totally made up (indeed, sometimes more so, because then the story can totally fit the mood of the intended audience) is in a sense a symptom. For many people, the news is not a way to find out what is going on in the world, but rather a way to confirm the ideas they already have about the world. This, combined with the incredible speed of social media -- where a satisfying bit of "news" can travel the world in seconds and a less satisfying clarification never get spread at all -- is going to result in people reading a lot of self-confirming and often biased/incorrect "news" whether the stories are consciously made up or not.