Sunday, May 31, 2015

Dangerous Beliefs

I have many nice, well-meaning people on FB who post all sorts of advice about meditation, ill-defined concepts of being present, and other lite versions of Eastern religions and general mysticism.  (Even those who purport to be passing along Native American wisdom are just reconfiguring some Ameribuddhist tropes.) Just posters with little sayings, simply declaring some banality to be true, and important. Sometimes the sayings are true, or true enough - letting go of anger, forgiving, rolling with the punches, that sort of thing.

There is a darker underside in that I know the people and some of them have anger issues which they play out in this guise of gentleness and wisdom.  But some don't, or not obviously.  Some are fine folks, people you might take advice from on any number of issues. Still, my initial reaction to this posts is to be irritated by the unfairness of much of our public discourse, which regards these religious expressions as benign and acceptable, but Christian expressions to be intrusive and aggressive.  In American mode, I regard this as unfair.* One branch of religions - and not the ones which had any part in the rise of Western Civilisation - gets a free pass as harmless, while Christianity is perceived as a great danger.

Having noted this, however, once one steps out of American mode of measuring the fairness of the public square and into an eternal perspective, I see that this is absolutely true.  Our message is dangerous, intrusive, and aggressive, however winsomely we present it. Contrary to the medieval perception of the great danger of all occult and nonChristian teachings, the Bible usually regards such things as useless and powerless distractions from the truth.  God is angry and jealous, not because we have chosen the other side in the great battle between Satan and Michael (there are those who do, but they are few), but because we have chosen No Side, a sort of oblivion of gods who babble nonsense and cannot save. The two "sides," if you will, are Him and Not Him. The wide varieties of Not Him may not be ranked as we would predict.

So no, it's not fair, and it doesn't matter, because at a deeper level it recognises a more important truth. Those offended by the gospel may be sensing their danger very clearly.

*However, I have friends at church who post Christian encouragement and messages all the time, and in their circles, there is seldom any objection.  This is also true, and it likely seems a bit oppressive to non-Christian.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Aid To Dependent Children

Harry Harpending proposes that government support go through the father rather than the mother, and gives reasons based in biology and incentives. I admit to being dumbfounded and very suspicious.  However, it would never have occurred to me and I thus have not thought about it in the least, so I reserve judgement. Part II to follow, and I will certainly wait for that.

Charitable groups in poor countries tend to give aid to women, or directly to programs such as schools or cooperative agriculture, because the men are more likely to spend the money on alcohol or gambling than the women are. In western cultures, women have long been the default parent, the one who is stuck with, or gifted with, the children. Upending that seems risky.  One can easily imagine terrible scenarios where the children's needs are completely neglected in favor of the father's choices for the money.

On the other hand, that occurs now with some women already.  My Romanian children were neglected by both parents, perhaps more by the mother than the father.  Would it happen more with men?  We think so, but I doubt there is data that is not thoroughly contaminated by the laws and customs of any place.  If the number of horror stories is similar, and there is some other cultural gain that would be a long-term advantage, perhaps it should be considered. Go over and join the conversation.

Or here.  Here is good.

Good News, Bad News, It's Not News

When writers and researchers break out the demographics, it’s hard not to root for your “team.” We like to think that our generation is the most generous, our state the smartest, our profession the most honest, or our ethnic group the best-looking.  Even when we don’t say it out loud (because our people are also humble), we notice.

I detect that tone when people write about their religious groups as well. I’ve done it myself, especially in reference to charitable giving, where we find that the religiously affiliated give more and volunteer more, even to secular causes. There is a normal but unfortunate tendency for folks to want to prove their “method” works better than other peoples’ way of living in the world. There is a type of preacher that takes pains to illustrate this in reverse as well, ruefully noting that Christians, including evangelicals, have premarital sex, divorce, and substance abuse about as much as other populations. 

If only those latter were true.  There are reasons why those numbers don’t measure what they say they do (which I leave as an exercise for the student). If you like to root for the evangelical “team” in that way, you still have moderate reason for rejoicing.   Yet that is not a reason to rejoice.  Mark 2:17 Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” The church is supposed to be attracting those who need her, those who are in crisis, those who are broken. We should hope that the life histories of our people include more divorces, more arrests, more homelessness. We don’t hope that, because we remain very human. 

We’re not complete washouts in this, because we do feel comfortable with bad news if it’s far enough in the past, so that it becomes a testimony or rescue and redemption. Churches work at closing that gap of how far in the past something has to be before we’re comfortable with you.  It’s not easy.
It’s easier to see the problem if we imagine it extended.  When the day comes that the unchurched world has all the unwed mothers, prisoners, and unemployed people, while churches are populated only with the prosperous and those with Buffy’s keen fashion sense, we will have finally been defeated.

Monday, May 25, 2015

One-Sided News

It's a good thing to follow news from a one-sided source.  The old saw that bank tellers are taught to detect counterfeit bills by handling genuine ones would be a great thing to be able to apply to news as well.

The problem is, I can't think of an unbiased news source to use as our standard, to train us in the genuine. There is no large pool of genuine $50 bills to handle when it comes to news.  What most of us do is to try and fine the source(s) that come closest to being accurate and evenhanded. I propose that sources with identifiable points of view might be better, so long as one recognises what the POV is.  CS Lewis suggested starting with books from earlier eras, because we cannot read the books of the future, but must have something to set against our own age.  An older book - even a little older such as 50 or 100 years - has enormous biases that were unseen at the time but leap off the page to us now.  We get into the habit of correcting mentally.

Reading a biased news source now can also be instructive.  It demonstrates how one can lie with the truth, by reporting some things and leaving others out. This in turn can awaken suspicions about the sources we usually rely on.  Now that we know how the card trick is done, we might detect it more readily.


Many uses of the word obvious are in fact not obvious. I don't think this a mere rhetorical device to shame the listener into agreement, though I believe that is also present. Something subtler about cognition is happening here. Perhaps I should write to Steven Pinker, or John McWhorter, or Jonathan Haidt about this.

The expected meaning, that the speaker intends, is that something is so clear that it requires no further comment or evidence. He was wearing an obviously-fake disguise. That is, if you saw it, you would instantly agree that it is not a convincing disguise. I came to the obvious conclusion that Stella had not come home that evening. The information I have presented, that there were no footprints in the snow or tire-tracks in the driveway is enough evidence by itself. It was obvious my arrival was unexpected. There was no place set for me, and everyone looked surprised as I came in. In all cases a painstaking case might be made, but the instantaneous apprehension of the truth is a central piece.

But consider some recent usages about public figures:

Roger Goodell obviously doesn't wan't this to go to court.
Obviously, Hillary Clinton doesn't want us to see what's in those emails.
It's obvious we should never have invaded Iraq in 2003 (or obvious we should never have left in 2011, depending).

People make pronouncements like this all the time.  They may even be the majority of our everyday uses.

Any of these statements might be true, but what they emphatically are not is obvious. People disagree with them. Different people see different things. This is not, or not always, a mere ruse, either. In both the legitimate and illegitimate cases the speaker "just sees," all in a moment. The experience of understanding immediately is what seems to prompt the use of the word "obviously," not its unassailability in logic. Something fits our narrative or expectations so neatly that nothing more need be said.

Sometimes we're wrong.

In the first years of this blog one of my most common themes was to reflexively question what everyone "just knows," because those are almost by definition the areas that no one is actually thinking about very much.

Added:  Gay marriage is a particularly good example of people saying "obviously," and sometimes quite unable to see any other side.  One group presumably says it's obviously okay because they know some nice gay people, and it seems similar to prejudice against blacks.  The other (I guess, but with some evidence) believes it's obviously wrong because it is historically almost unheard-of, and has no possibility of resulting in reproduction, which is the natural function of all creatures. When these sort of standoffs occur, I have deep suspicions of anyone who still says "Well, obviously..."

36 Righteous Men

There is a Jewish legend - I believe it is Hasidic rather that medieval or ancient - that the world is held in existence by 36 righteous men.  In some tellings, they have awareness of this, but usually, they are unaware, with the implication that it could be you. Everything depends on you.

I would not be quick to say there is nothing biblical about this. Were it so it would likely be a repeated theme, certainly. But absence is a risky proposition for interpretation. Abraham seems to think there is some reasonableness to sparing Sodom and Gomorrah if a few righteous persons can be found, and God seems to go along, at least for purpose of discussion.

Some days this just scares me to even think about. That it might be me is an obvious worry, but statistically, we might all breathe a partial sigh of relief over that. I worry that it is a principle that might be true in lesser things, even if not the greatest matters of existence. Many things may hang by a thread, and others unseen may depend on us nonetheless - or we on them.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Ion Mihai Pacepa

My reasons for paying attention to the man are many.  He defected to the West in 1979, the highest ranking defector from the Soviet Bloc ever.  Interesting memories this man has...The Secret Roots of Liberation Theology.

HT: Maggie's Farm

Monday, May 18, 2015

Hooray For Hazel

The all-sweetness review. I went looking through the Tommy Roe oeuvre to see if all of his songs had lyrics as poor as "Hooray For Hazel" and "Sweet Pea." (They do rhyme.) It is far worse than that. Sweetness and sweet foods dominate: Jam Up and Jelly Tight, Sugar, Sugar, Heather Honey, and I think Yummy, Yummy, Yummy has to count. Then the first word of "Sheila" is sweet and "Cinnamon" was a minor hit. It gives new weight to the descriptor "bubblegum," dunnit? "Hooray For Hazel" looks positively experimental in comparison. There is no food mentioned in the whole song.

Kids these days with their meaningless lyrics.

Radio Shows

The Story Lady:  My previous pastor put me on to this incredible repository of old radio shows and shorts, which can be downloaded as podcasts, if you want to listen to the Detroit Tigers play the NY Yankees in 1934, for example, while you power walk.

The Story Lady is  1 minute shorts, similar to the Fractured Fairy Tales of the Bullwinkle era. I recommend "Rumplestilskin."  And then "The Frog and the Grilled Cheese Sandwich."

Plenty else:  Grantland Rice, PG Wodehouse, A Canticle For Liebowitz, the Aunt Jemima Show, the Goon Show.  You could get lost here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


Harry Harpending has a eugenics update over at West Hunter.  It's here, we haven't thought it through, and it's too late now.  It will be patch-as-you-go in terms of ethics from here on out. 
Genetic improvement is becoming a market phenomenon—a situation discernible as long ago as the 1980s when Daniel Kevles, the leading historian of eugenics in the USA, quoted a biotechnology expert thus: “‘Human improvement’ is a fact of life, not because of the state … but because of consumer demand.”
Remember Future Shock, where we were warned that not only change, but the rate of change, would exceed our capacity to keep up? I think of Toffler a lot these days.

For example, privacy in the usual sense no longer exists and will not come back.  In twenty years people will not only wonder why we were so obsessed with it, they will wonder why they themselves were obsessed with it.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Different Spin

Campus sexual assault, rape culture, false accusation and the like have been big topics the last few years, especially 2015 itself.

Because I believe good statistics are more important that good advocacy, and that the rights of real individuals are more important than group impressions of where the culture is and where it's going, it should be clear where my views are going to land.  But there's another side to this that I think is getting missed.

Older and wiser heads have looked at college party/hookup culture for years and said this is a very bad situation for everyone, but most especially for women. This is not sustainable.  While there is overlap between how women and men react to sex - both sexes are from the same species, and youth is programmed to enormous amounts of display and sexual energy, after all - there are general differences.  there are simply a lot of things in life where women have a range of 20-50 while men have a range of 40-70. All still normal, but the difference bears noticing.

College feminists are noticing Hey, this whole campus alcohol/recreational sex situation is not working for women - it seems to be enabling predators, and they also tend to have the courage to speak up about it. I think their prisms distort reality and some of their proposed solutions are dangerous on more than one level. The temptation to say "Well, yeah, we told you so" may seem justified, but is largely unfair.  People told me so about a dozen things in college that I just couldn't hear.

Say that they've got it 10% right, 25% right, or 50% right, I don't care.  I can't imagine that they will ever acknowledge that folks like me had any prescience about this anyway.  But we can acknowledge the part they've got correct, even if it's not reciprocated.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015


Update: Percentiles corrected.

What to say, what to say...

Everyone is wrong here.

My Bing and MSN news feeds are full of links from liberals commenting on how bad unemployment is, how white people just don't understand the frustration, how endemic the police brutality is, and how unfairly the decent people of Baltimore are being portrayed.  The idea that feelings of powerlessness lead to some semi-justification is common.  Only a few stories that would be cheered by conservatives sneak in.  My FB feed is more mixed, with a lot of the above from my liberal friends, and a lot of complaint from conservative friends that these cities have been run by Democrats for two generations, mayors, councils, police forces, schools, and this is what you get.  Lots of blather from all sides about lack of fathers, lack of opportunity, systemic racism, the nonsense they teach in schools these days...

You can summarise all this yourself better than I can, because some of you have TV and are exposed to the popular culture responses more fully than I am. Takle a moment to recall there standard cliches of the last few weeks.


Two things, one on each "side" irritate me most: conservatives who point to something-or-other and say "I too have experienced prejudice."  No, you really haven't, not so thoroughly, unless perhaps if you have a severe physical or mental disability.  You may have individual incidents of being hated or discriminated against, including prejudice from black people - and you may have lived in an area where some other group was equally ostracised, but the pervasive prejudice experienced by African-Americans is just different. From a hundred meters away people are judging you and you are always trying to get up over.

On the other side, the claim by liberals, especially black journalists, that they understand what the African-Americans in Baltimore are feeling and thinking, is ludicrous.  They are projecting what they themselves are angry about, and assuming that the young men of Baltimore must, simply must, be thinking the same thing.  They are reinforced in this by the genuine downtrodden of Baltimore, and Detroit, and St. Louis, who nod their heads and say "Yeah, that's it."  This gives the journalists the impression that they are giving voice to the voiceless and all that.

It's not true. While there is overlap in the experience of blackness whether you live in inner Baltimore or nicer suburbs, the experience is not the same. Ta-Nehisi Coates does not actually understand that culture.  He could potentially understand it better than I do, but he doesn't because he deludes himself into overlooking the obvious.  That nearly all my life examples of sub 80 IQ are white, I actually have some advantage.  Race is no distraction.

Let me explain what's different. The people who were able to escape the cities and get a leg up in the world are different from those who haven't managed it. There are a lot of qualities that could possibly go into succeeding in life.  The Dungeon and Dragons categories (following the necessary virtues for medieval adventure) were Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma. Of these, only three are that measurable: Strength, Intelligence, and Dexterity. All three are essentially genetic.  We don't know about the others so well, but the dial is starting to point that way for those as well.

Strength and Dexterity still have their uses, especially in athletics and the arts, but they aren't worth what they used to be.

Charisma can indeed overcome a lot of obstacles, but it's hard to count on. Wisdom may be mostly ability to keep one's temper and delay gratification, plus some empathy. Those are turning out to correlate strongly with Intelligence.

It's not the only good survival quality, but it is enormously necessary in Western culture (and increasingly in worldwide cultures), and it is very measurable.

But inner-city Baltimore hasn't got it.  The counties around Baltimore include five of the top nine most affluent areas for African-Americans. Many of those folks came out of Baltimore over the last 40 years. Inner Baltimore, according to its school test scores, has an average IQ of 80 (Black 76, white 86). I don't know much about Baltimore, but I know a fair bit about IQ 80. I don't think most people get how low that is, how limited the abilities of people with those scores are. A hundred years ago, there were still plenty of jobs for them to do.

I believe we are moving into a world where fewer and fewer of us will have (decent) jobs.  The citizens of Baltimore are the canaries in the mine.

Remember percentile scores on your gradeschool standardised tests? 86 is 16th percentile.  80 is 10th percentile.  76 is 4th percentile. 80 is about the lowest score where you can graduate highschool - if you have other good qualities like determination, friendliness, resilience.  Without those, you aren't graduating without help. Consider this graph, which shows what the range of IQ's are for various jobs. If you have a large housekeeping staff where you work, a few might be grandfathered in who score as low as 76.  But usually, the knowledge of chemicals, rules, and techniques require more than that. Restaurant dishwashing is barely in range, bussing tables barely in range. At a construction site, IQ 80 is mostly only able to do what is directly ordered.  Being a carpenter is out of range.

Conservatives have to stop saying that it's just a matter of expecting more from people and not rewarding pathology.  Incentives do work in the real world, but they have to be attainable. I have no idea what will work in Baltimore in the short or long run, but just  being stern and having good role models or higher standards is not going to work.  It's just cruelty.

Liberals need to stop pretending that racism is the cause of failure, just because it sounds more encouraging.  Racism is real and has some effect, but it's not the main cause.  Racism was far worse 50 and 100 years ago, and the more able have benefited from its reduction. But that reduction has not benefited the left half of the bell curve.  It just hasn't. I don't know what will.  But having more blacks on the police force, teaching in the schools, being on City Councils, or getting elected mayor has not had any noticeable effect anywhere on crime rates or test scores.  There are 3000 counties, each with different cultures, demographics, salaries, training, and expectations, and they all have much higher violent crime rates among African Americans.  They can't all be equally racist.


Bonus understanding:  John Derbyshire got in trouble a few years ago for what he called The Talk: Nonblack Version. Derb is a better mathematician than I, but I think he misread the data and got his numbers wrong.  He focused on the 1SD lower score of African-Americans in general, and just assumed that this leftward sliding of the curve applied automatically to the black people he meets. It doesn't.  John Derbyshire does not meet that many African-Americans from the left side of the Gaussian distribution. (Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn't meet that many more.) So when he meets a black waitress, she is not, on average, 15 points down the scale from the white waitresses.  5 is more likely, 10 at most.  Within range so that other factors, such as charm, experience, attention to detail, and effort could outweigh the disadvantage.  And when we are considering individuals rather than populations, even that much assumption is as likely to blow up in your face as prove out.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Art Is Manipulation

I posted on FB when I got back from a production of Les Miserables last night.  My brother, a lighting designer who has forgotten more than I ever knew about theater, commented that it is a very manipulative show, and very good at it. I responded that art is pretty much manipulation.

I still think that this morning. Theater, painting, music, writing - all are attempts to move us or convince us of something in a non-logical manner.  I do not say illogical, because there are artists who are able to defend with reason the ideas they put forward, or at least, there are allies who can do so even if the artist himself cannot. I mentioned CS Lewis and the ideas of afterlife in the previous comment section.  What he illustrated in The Great Divorce and parts of other works of fiction he lays out as theology in his nonfiction. The successive schools of painting, now devolved into an irritating low-intensity warfare, were about ideas, not just technique: how Jesus should be portrayed, who is important enough to be painted, what is the nature of reality, what is worthy of our attention.

Manipulation is a loaded negative word, and if you wish to substitute another I don't much mind.  I did not seek a milder synonym myself, as I wanted to keep the arresting quality of the word. We complain about manipulation when we disapprove of the idea and appears to be working on others. Jaed mentioned "Jesus is my boyfriend" worship music, which is not that different from the poetry and diaries of medieval mystics, or even Song of Solomon. I find it uncomfortable, which allows me to notice and dislike the manipulative quality. Yet all other worship music is manipulative, just a different brand, appealing to a different taste, and highlighting other aspects of God.

That's what music is. It is true of comic songs, celebratory songs, patriotic songs, despairing songs - all tweak emotions and associations via shortcuts. A playwright focuses on a single individual to tell the story of many people, even a whole nation.  But he can manipulate the action on the stage to "prove" that virtue is rewarded, or that it is not. I thought of Philip Yancey's The Jesus I Never Knew (or was it What's So Amazing About Grace?) even before I got to the theater last night, because the episode of Bishop Myriel forgiving the theft of silver by Jean Valjean figures prominently in Yancey's exhortation that we should do likewise. I remember being irritated at the time at Yancey's treating the episode as if it were a real incident. Hugo can make Valjean learn and repent, or not.  (Jesus tells us to forgive because we have been forgiven, not because it is a strategy that works to improve others.  It might, but that is barely noticed.)

Our films come out of a particular culture, and so things get thrown in that seek to influence us. I recall how much my gay friends in college liked the changes in Cabaret from the stage to film versions, in that homosexuality is treated as the major subtheme. The regarded the lines "Screw Maximilian.  I do.  So do I." much as others would regard hearing mention of their hometown. Multiply this by a hundred movies (100 plays, 100 novels, 100 TV episodes) and the culture views homosexuality differently now, especially among those who follow those particular arts closely. If you approve, you see it as good advertising, or accurately reflecting reality, or advocacy. If you disapprove, you see it as manipulation.

Yes, even messageless music has a message: let's forget about all that and just dance, just have fun, just have sex. That particular manipulation seems to be working pretty well these days.