I wake up in the morning with a song running through my head. I clean my floors with a song running through my head. I walk the dog with a song running through my head. This only gets annoying if it is the same song day after day. The human mind may need to have a song running in order to function.
I say "a song" but the particular aspect that I'm considering is the rhythm. What roles the melody and harmony have is beyond me. Good drummers are a legitimate target of envy because they have rhythms flowing through their bodies all the time (and not because they annoy others by expressing those rhythms throughout the day). The reality is that we all have rhythms flowing through our bodies all of the time. We talk, breath, and sleep in rhythm. We can't help it. The evidence suggests that our minds may be the rhythms of our brains -- not the brain but the rhythm, the patterns of activity in the brain.
There is rhythm within the cells of our bodies, rhythm in the flow of blood, rhythm in muscle contractions, rhythm in our brains. There is rhythm in our music, rhythm in our speech, rhythm in our work schedule, rhythm in songs. In important ways, rhythm is what we are.
No doubt there are more and less effective ways to play with rhythm in the actual reality game, although I'm not prepared just yet to lay out what plays make better use of the rhythms that we are. I'm sure that a rhythmless life -- living in a way that minimizes the rhythms of life -- would be an ineffective life. Rhythm is a fundamental gift and reality of which an effective player makes good use.
Yet I remain uncertain just how best to use the repeating rhythm which is running through my mind this morning. I have no method of writing down the rhythm directly, so I need to share the pattern through the associated words.
Oh, orange and grapefruit, / Oh, orange and grapefruit, / Oh, orange and grapefruit, / And once in a while a lime.
Alan Bennett ("A Plant Breeder's History of the World", Science, 23 July 2010, page 391), referring to the early ages of civilization, says, "Societies facing rising demands for crops found it harder to expand production than to conquer new lands or to encourage commerce; thus political investments favored the military and trade rather than agricultural improvement."
Bennett then goes on to comment, "Much changed during the 17th and 18th centuries."
Yet it seems to me that political investment continues to favor the military and trade. A review of the 20th century would certainly show increased investment in agriculture and food security, but my guess is that you'd be hard put to make a case that such investment swamped the privilege given to either military or trade investment by any society. Military investment has changed in character, in that conquering new lands was much reduced as a military objective; "conquering" market areas for tade largely superceded military conquest. Nevertheless, social investments in military and trade continue to be favored above other categories.
Plant breeding (the topic of Bennett's book review) and other aspects of improving food production have not lacked interest from political entities. Significant investments have been made. The history of the University of Wisconsin's College of Agriculture would make one case study to support that thesis -- or Iowa or any of many others. What agriculture and food security investment seems to have lacked is not interest but confidence.
Urbanization and industrialization in the United States was possible only because of the success of an agricultural revolution, but that revolution took something like 150 years to unfold (at least since the McCormick reaper of 1834) and often it was unclear how and how far the changes could extend. The Green Revolution of the late 20th century was more fuly strategized and more scientific but has similar uncertainty in its future prospects. Bennett's observation that "the returns from improving agricultural crops were far too slow to be widely appreciated" remains too close to the truth even in the 21st century.
Military options have likely been fully played out; I believe you could make the case that military investment in the future will yield diminishing returns on every metric. Investments in trade and commerce appear to be near or possibly beyond the peak of their value.
The open question is which replacement strategies societies should invest in. Should we build on plant breeding, expand agricultural reform, begin large-scale genetic engineering, or take some other approach? The game continues, but the strategy must change.
There once was an advertising campaign for tapioca which claimed people either love it or hate it. (If you hate it, they're lumps; if you love it, they are surprises.) I just watched a movie that seems to have the same sort of effect on people.
The movie is August Rush. The actors (excepting Robin Williams in a supporting role) are pretty much lightweight. The individual scenes are sufficiently realistic so as to maintain a veneer of verisimilitude, but the overall plot is entirely implausible. And many people see nothing of value in the film. They hate it.
But I didn't.
Now, it is true that I didn't believe the plot, not after the first few minutes. And it is also true that the beautiful people portrayed by the adult leads are a bit beyond what I can accept as realistic -- although I do point out that in the flashback to their first meeting, despite the dreamlike character of the scene, several physical imperfections are allowed to remain visible.
The music is good, but I'm not near enough to being a musician that I can tell how good the music is. The various melodies should have flowed together, and they should have supported the plot at some deep level of harmony and counterpoint, and I think that maybe they did, but I'm not skilled enough to be sure.
What I did find in the movie was a statement of faith. Faith that in some way we are all interconnected. Faith that to some extent, at least, we may be able to touch each other outside of the distant and objective means with which we usually conduct our affairs. A faith which in this movie is expressed by the metaphor of music. Music which is everywhere, if you can hear it.
I think that if this faith touches and echoes your own, if it stands parallel to your own experience of life, then you would be among those who love the movie and you would call the implausibilities "surprises". But if this is not your experience of life, you will certainly find the movie to be full of lumps.
This is only appropriate, if my interpretation is correct. If the movie is about being connected with life in a way that you have never been connected, how can the movie touch you? How can you connect with an artistic statement about something which you have never experienced? But if the story expresses life as you know it, life as you have found it in some deep and unexplained way, then for all of its flaws it will touch you deeply.
I don't know if loving and hating are truly typical of people's experience of tapioca pudding; I can't see any reason why there shouldn't be a continuum of appetite for any particular food. I can see how a movie like August Rush can divide its viewers into separated camps based on whether each person has had this experience of life or has only had experiences of other kinds.
A tapioca movie is good for those of us who love it. I give this one five stars out of five -- for myself.
But a tapioca movie only touches audiences where they are now. A truly great movie would draw us from where we have been to something beyond our past experience. A truly great movie would rate five stars out of five for somebody else. In the context of August Rush a great movie would convince the doubters that a universal connection to other people and to the universe at large is plausible, that the music is truly there to be listened to.
We are led astray when we consider the teachings of Jesus to be some sort of a "how-to" book on the religious life. We are facing the wrong direction entirely when we discuss the beatitudes as if they were instructions for the personal spiritual life.
The words of Jesus are profoundly a political challenge:
Who are favored by God? Not the Roman legions. Not Herod, nor the Herodians who follow him. Not the priests who sold their office for an illusion of national sovereignity. Not the Zealots itching for bloodshed.
When God's kingdom is established on the earth, will the security experts get favored treatment? the politicians? the business leaders? the professors of theology or the leaders of the religious congregations? No!
When God's kingdom is established on the earth, who will be the ones named "Friends of the King"? Who will be the ones who will be allowed to walk into the king's presence?
Can you be confident of your future safety because you are rich now and have a lot of powerful friends? No!
Are you confident of God's favor because you are descended from Abraham? No!
I will tell you whom God favors.
God favors those who have nothing to offer. They are the citizens of God's kingdom.
God favors those who are mourning their sons and daughters, murdered by oppressors both military and economic. God will give them the ownership of the land.
God favors those who love what is right more than food. They are the ones who will eat their fill.
God favors those who are forgiving. They are the ones who will get forgiveness from God.
God favors those who are not two-faced. They are the ones who can see God eye to eye.
God favors those who work for peace instead of power. They are the ones who can claim God as Father.
God favors those who are beaten and starved and lynched. They are the citizens of God's kingdom.
And what of you? Are people insulting you and telling lies about you and doing everything they can to discredit you, just because you want to be citizens of God's kingdom? Then good for you; that's the path the prophets walked.
My experience with actual reality is that nobody ever understands what anyone else says. The goal is only to achieve an approximation which is good enough to function. Better approximations, better functioning.
The reason for this is simple enough, but hard for introverted technical people to deal with. Language is imprecise. (As I've said before, the glory of the English language is its wonderful ambiguity.)
On top of that, our experiences are relational and not declarative, and each person has a different context in which to live.
What we do when we speak or write is to lay out symbols which we hope will inspire in the mind of our audience some semblance of the thoughts which are in our own minds. The very best communicators incite very similar thoughts in numbers of people, but even so no two would reconstruct precisely the same sense of the idea.
Besides, the very best communicators typically rehearse and revise their message many times over. (How many times did Martin Luther King give variations of "I have a dream" to various audiences?) Most of us never get beyond making one faulty attempt to share any particular idea with any one other person.
If no person understands what I say, what makes an "understanding" person? I think that is one who tolerates the inevitable failures in communication and continues to function in a relationship with the other person. In other words, the understanding person is the person who recognizes that I'm talking right past her and listening around her and moves on to another attempt to contact me. Such a person seems understanding to me.
In general, communicating well is a good tactic in the actual reality game, and so, in general, is being resiliant in communication -- being "understanding". But I think we are all so poor at both these things that neither can be elevated into a strategy in itself.
Conservatism of the Poor
A couple years ago the government determined to rebuild Military Avenue. Military is a west-side business strip, but from my perspective it is primarily an obstacle to biking (and walking) farther west. Over the years, however, I had established routes and tricks which allowed me to get across and beyond Militray Avenue with, if not convenience, at least predictability.
My reaction to the decision was largely negative. I knew, of course, that the existing road was inadequate and in disrepair. But the process of rebuilding a major street introduces a multitude of new obstacles which spread beyond the street itself. During demolition and reconstruction, Military Avenue, most crossings, and many of the neighboring streets would be difficult to navigate. Then, when construction was finally completed (which happened last fall), it would be necessary for me to reanalyze all my routes and to develop new methods for accessing regions to the west.
And so it proved to be. All during construction, there was neither ease of movement nor predictability in access. Every attempt to travel in any mode between the east and west side of Military Avenue required a bit of exploration and a bit of luck.
When construction ended, some routes were restored and others lost. Bicycles lanes were constructed along the rebuilt street, so that it is now feasible (if still not completely comfortable) to travel north or south along Military by bike -- an idea which was preposterous in the past for anyone with any desire to finish the trip in safety. On the other hand, some useful crossings were eliminated and some difficult crossings became more difficult.
The overall result is that I need to re-explore the entire area along Military Avenue to discover what routes and methods are now the most effective ways to travel.
Those of us who live lives of wealth or of power are at time puzzled by the depth of conservatism typical of the poor and powerless. Why is it, we wonder, that those who have the least to lose and the most to gain from almost any change whatsoever are frequently the least supportive of social change?
The answer is that the poor are like bicycle riders in a world of motor vehicles. They have little power to shape the changes which occur. They are disproportionately impacted by the process of change itself. When the change has been made, they need to spend time and effort, of which they have little to spare, in the effort to relearn how to navigate the system.
I don't have to cross Military Avenue at all, if I don't want to. I can spend as much time as I need to in learning all about the changed traffic patterns along the rebuilt road. Nevertheless, my first reaction to a project which added bike lanes to a previously unbikable route was negative: I had almost figured out how to live with the road we had, and now I would need to make large new investments of my time if I were to use the road we were going to have.
The poor and the powerless have far more to lose in social change than did the bike riders crossing Military Avenue, and less time available to invest in making corresponding changes in their own lives. It is not surprising that in actual reality the disenfanchised would be resistent to changes in the systems on which they rely to live.
Tonight the "Great Books" discussion is to be on the play, or dramatic poem, Nathan der Weise by G.E. Lessing. As I was unfamiliar with this work, I borrowed a copy from the St. Norbert College library and with it a copy of a scholarly review of literary criticism of the work over the centuries. (Nathan the Wise was written in 1779 and the review includes criticism up to 1991.)
There was much divergence of opinion among the critics both as to whether the poem has any significant literary value and, if it does, for what reasons. The one thing all critics were able to agree on was that when they review a work it "means what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less".
All the king's horses probably can't put Lessing's play back together after this history of scholarly attention.
That scholars can't even begin to agree about the meaning, literary qualities, or social value of the work is intriguing. Why can't they agree? Why do they feel compelled to comment? If the poem is so obscure (or so poorly written) as to communicate nothing in particular, why is it worth so much scholarly attention? On the other hand, if Nathan the Wise is a great literary work, how could it be so frequently and so wildly misunderstood?
For the critics have variously held that the play is a call for the emancipation of the Jews in Europe and a justification of their continued repression; a manifesto for Deism, an appeal to atheism, and a celebration of Protestantism; a prequel to Marxist classism; and an argument for civil tolerance -- among other possible interpretations. Those who have held these views have argued further about whether the play is a masterpiece of German literature, a flawed but perhaps excusable effort, or incompetent drivel. It seems implausible that all these interpretations can be correct.
The critical opinion which most discomforted me was that of the National Socialist critics, the Nazis. (Nearly everything I know about the Nazis discomforts me.) According to the scholarly review, the Nazi interpreters argued, with a variety of nuances, that Lessing certainly would have been anti-Semitic had he lived 150 years later. Perhaps, some said, he had been willing to tolerate the elite among the Jews (Moses Mendelssohn was Lessing's friend), but Lessing had not intended this tolerance to be applied to the poor and common Jews. Or perhaps he simply did not recognize, at that early time, the full extent of Jewish meanness and hypocrisy; he had been deceived, his good character played upon. Some Nazis explained (in the very epitome of hypocrisy) that later Jews had promulgated a false interpretation of the play, and at least one concluded (apparently irrelevantly) that Lessing's family and then Lessing himself had been murdered by Jews -- a Big Lie accusing others of creating a Big Lie. The entire interpretation by the Nazi critics is not merely wrong, not simply false, it is preposterous. And irrefutable.
The technique of arguing what Lessing would have been was in no way limited to the egregious claims of the Nazis. Many other critics, far less evil but equally preposterous, also claimed that had Lessing been alive in their day, then certainly he would have been thinking as they thought. Such an argument is preposterous on its face; it is intrisically speculative and entirely untestable, and in any case is irrelevant to understanding an author who, in fact, was not alive in their time.
In the particular politic tumult of this season -- it does not matter very much in which political season I am writing -- the question which keeps recurring to my mind is how one can refute a preposterous argument.
Nathan the Wise actually lampoons the supercilious reasoning of those in power and pleads for, if not complete tolerance, at least some humility in our judgements, which are so easily and so often mistaken. (You can trust my interpretation; I am not misled by my prejudices in the way that every preceeding critic appears to have been.)
To offer such an interpretation is to invite the counterclaim that of course I have been misled by my prejudices; after all, it could be easily shown that I have previously argued for tolerance and humility, and against blind acceptance of any reasoning which plays directly into the hands of power. (One need only read the rest of my comments on actual reality.) Why should my established position be given special preference in comparison to my opponent's established position? And is this not especially true in a case where anyone -- that is, anyone who already shares my opponent's bias -- will easily, and without recourse to complex rational argument, see that it is my opponent's position which more closely aligns with their own pre-established point of view?
I realize that this is a circular argument; my point is that it is not possible to get to the root of a circular argument in order to refute it. One would have to attack it in toto which becomes harder to do as the argument is built up of more and more utterly preposterous assertions.
That Nathan the Wise could be, and in actual reality was used to support the Nazis, the Communists, the Jews, the Protestants is a warning to all players of the actual reality game.
Echkardt, Jo-Jacqueline. Lessing's Nathan the Wise and the Critics: 1779-1991. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1993.
Leaping From Inadequate Analysis Into Unfounded Speculation
Many of my observations seem to concern themselves with the advantages of recognizing the uncertainties of our understanding of life. This comment is also about Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. I really don't know why I never read The Jungle previously; it was mentioned throughout school but never required of me, although I regularly expected it to be included in some class. From the comments I heard in those days, I expected the book to be about the meat packing industry at the start of the 20th century. To be sure, meat packing is the setting for a large portion of the story but the subject of the story is the abuse of working people and the potential cure to be found in the coming socialist revolution.
The publisher's comments note that by the time of Sinclair's death his analysis and prescription seemed to date from another era.
Many changes during the 20th century alleviated the plight of people living and working in the capitalist societies (and socialist thought contributed to the changes which actually were made). But the socialist speakers in Sinclair's book do not appear prophetic. They sound just as deluded as everyone else, if rather more benign.
A single example will demonstrate how foolish it was for the socialists to leap from an inadequate analysis of economics and society at the time into wildly speculative predictions for how life would change in the future. The example comes from the pontifications of Sinclair's Swedish socialist, a former professor of philosophy who evinced a deep certainty about how the world worked. His example was washing dishes.
In the Swede's analysis, dishwashing is drudge work and one of the burdens holding down the working family. He supposed that the average household is 5 people and that washing dishes took up at least half an hour of hard work every day, wearing down the women who were, thus, less able to contribute to human progress. The Swede's solution was to form communes, for in each of these communities there would be a machine to peform the drudgery of washing the dishes.
Sinclair's Swedish socialist professor could not foresee what really happened. He did not imagine that these dish washing machines would become available to working families and would be found in nearly every household. That change implies both a remarkable advance in technology and what to the Swede would have seemed (absent a socialist revolution) a highly improbable reform in income distribution and status of the working families.
The decline in average family size might have been just as astounding to him. Nor would this character be able to anticipate the revolution in food processing which provides varied and nutritious meals without significant cooking -- indeed, many families go days without more than heating prepared food. Both of these changes dramatically reduce the cost of washing dishes. Then there are the dramatic advances in detergent engineering to consider.
The choice of washing dishes as an example was surprisingly astute: It is commonplace, simple to understand, and yet touches a wide range of social and economic considerations from wage rates to chemical engineering. But the analysis of dishwashing was simplistic and the prescriptive solution was pedestrian. What western society actually did to ameliorate the drudgery of washing the family dishes was more imaginative, more far reaching, and more successful than the solutions proposed by the socialist activitists in The Jungle.
Everyone An Introvert
Everyone who knows me knows that I tend to be introverted if not something a bit more. I've always assumed that the other 96% of the population is differest. After all, most people in the USA behave differently than I do in a great many settings.
Just recently, however, I've begun to speculate that perhaps all these apparent differences are mostly just differences of scale. I've often noted how poorly I performed as a second-shift computer operator whereas others are very competent at similar jobs and make themselves indispensible. I've attributed this difference to a difference in our preferred time horizons. Specifically, I'm always thinking over the medium term -- what to me is medium term, something from 6 months to 3 years ahead. A good computer operator is more typically thinking from 15 minutes to 3 hours ahead (at least while they are working).
My representative to Congress wrote to me in response to my message about immigration reform. One point he made in his reply was, "First, we must secure our borders." A lot of people would agree that in terms of immigration that is quite properly placed first -- too many to all be introverts. So I conclude that extroverted people want to put up barriers.
Introverted people are always putting up barriers. From some of us at the extreme side of introversion, much of life is managing barriers to protect ourselves from threatening situations (and, especially, from extroverts). So we introverts know barriers. But what, I wondered, are extroverts doing with barriers?
The difference, I speculate, is a difference of scale. I tend to throw up a barrier about 18 inches from the center of my body; maybe as far out as a meter when I am very relaxed. The barrier my Congressman is talking about is roughly 1500 miles away from the center of my body.
To me, raising a wall on the Mexican border makes no sense at all. I have some good, rational reasons for thinking that, topics for some other essay. In actual reality I know that a part of my mind is simply classifying Texas as being just as far and just as foreign to me -- potentially, I suppose, just as dangerous to me -- as neighboring Mexico; 1500 miles or 1520 miles does not seem significantly different to someone who normally sets a barrier at less than 2 feet.
There's research going on about the nature of altruism which finds the in-group and out-group distinction to be significant to changes in people's behavior. That makes sense. (Isn't that the definition of the in-group? The subset of people toward whom one behaves differently?) My speculation here is that for a more altruistic person the in-group is understood as being larger; the very spiritual Christian finds a unity with all humanity in Christ, indeed with all of creation. One can find similar perspectives in Buddhism and elsewhere. Few people ever live out such ideals in their lives, but many more see such breadth of community as being the ideal.
In other words, might altruistic behavior also be founded in a broadening of scale?
I speculate. My speculation runs rather broadly. I'm uncertain how one would be able to confirm even a narrow hypothesis concerning only introversion, or only immigration policy, or only altruism. My speculation, however, is that they all are founded on the scales of time, geography, and humanity which individuals encompass in their customary thinking.
As with computer operations, in actual reality might there be a need for people who think most easily at different scales?
Fundamentals of Education
We tend to look for what is fundamental in education in the various subjects to be taught to students -- in the proverbial reading, writing, and arithmetic, for example. But if education is to be true to its etylmology and lead people out of childhood into responsible adulthood, it must do something more fundamental. I propose four basic skills.
The skill of receiving information is first. For human society to function, its members must be able to discover what others know, and what they need and want. For society to persist, the young must receive traditions, knowledge, customs, and skills from previous generations. We expect our citizens to be able to read books and ballots, to listen to campaigns and conversations, to watch movies, hear music, and follow maps.
An active citizen is presenting ideas to others, contributing to society by sharing information and opinion. The educated person therefore learns to write, to speak, to draw, to perform.
Questioning is the third basic skill. The educated person is constantly asking whether assertions are true and positions are consistent, whether programs are helpful or informants are reliable, what more there is to be known on any given topic. The basic skill of questioning expresses the recognition that none of us are omniscient and that each of us and all of us -- individually and together -- can grow more informed and more competent.
Asking questions leads naturally to verifying the answers. Educated people search out reliable sources, conduct experiments, perform calculations, and take careful account of events in order to validate our understanding of actual reality.
I offer these four, receiving, presenting, questioning, and verifying, as the true "basic skills" of the educated citizen. Specific techniques must be used to implement these skills. For example, reading English prose is one specific technique for receiving information from others; oil painting is a technique for presenting ideas to others.
(A single technique may be used in the service of multiple skills. David Haines uses poetic English composition in presenting philosophical and scientific questioning in his song "Bacteria" in the choral work "Powers of Ten" when he writes, "What am I in truth? What am I in reality? When only one in 10 of my cells in genetically humanity?" Haines' work represents multiple skills exercised in concert -- and performed in a concert.)
There are higher skills which are built over the basic skills. I think of the skill of cooperating to accomplish a goal by working in concert with other people as exemplified in sport, theater, and management. I think of the skill of anticipating future needs through planning, legislation, or design. These skills are secondary only in the sense that they depend on mastery of the four basic skills; they are in no way secondary in their importance to society.
I would like to see elementary and secondary education reformed on the basis of these basic and secondary skills.
I get the logic of the economy driven by business model but has it ever been played out in such a way that the common good are benefited?
I think the underlying fallacy is to assume that what you know about the world contains the outline of what there is to know. This is likely to be built into our brains. I'm reminded of the socialist agenda as presented in The Jungle by Upton Sinclair: It made perfect sense within the framework known to the socialists of the time, but is inconsistent with reality as it actually developed. Their error was to assume that because some kinds of change had not happened, they could not happen -- from election reform to household dishwashers.
The same fallacy is seen in the arguments of very bright anti-theological scientists (such as Richard Dawkins or Steven Hawking) who argue that postulating God is not required within the context of their own theories. That's true enough, but the postulates which they do use may be as off base as was the aether for transmission of light and Platonic solids for defining planetary orbits, as pointed out by Silk in a recent review of Hawking's book.
I see the same thing in arguments presented by amateurs against global warming. What possesses a CPA or an IT person to explain away 40 years of careful scientific data with the impressions they've collected from their personal experience? ("I'm freezing my butt off this morning," said one IT acquaintance to explain why the average temperature of the entire planet could not possibly be 0.5°F warmer than in the past.) It the fallacious assumption that his experience encompasses the totality of reality.
Last Tuesday, I presented Dylan with the question, "If you meet a person named Dylan, how old is he?" He picked (correctly) the answer "0 to 20 years", but his reason was "because that's what I am". The correct reason is that Dylan has only been a popular name for that period of time. Again, the fallacy is to assume that personal knowledge covers the full range of knowledge. ("I don't know any other Dylans.")
Now you ask quite legitimately whether the business-based economic models have ever been applied in ways that benefited the common good. I think probably not. (Leave aside the question of a clear definition of "common good" for the moment.) Large majorities of Americans may have disagreed at certain periods, even so recently as the 1990s, and their opinions would have been based on the evidence of their own, still personal, experience at the time. After all, the economy gave evidence of responding to the predictions of that model: business was being given a free hand and the economy was booming. I felt that they were deluding each other, and later I felt vindicated, unhappily, when the bubble burst.
Following the thread of this essay, let's translate my opinion into the assertion that the majority's economic model was incomplete, that it was flawed by not accounting for sufficient breadth of actual reality. Is it not possible that the business model of the economy could be expanded to include additional risks which have been previously ignored, and to account for additional benefits which have not been adequately tracked?
An example of how this expansion can occur may be found in the modern accounting of the economic effects of worker safety, which has profoundly changed such businesses as construction. With an improved tracking of costs, the old attitude of indifference to injury and death was no longer tolerable.
Required to fail
A society passes judgement on itself whenever it requires one of its members to fail. The opposite attitude is the one expressed by the high school principal when I commented on his serving as a doorman after the band concert. He said, "Whatever you need."
What brings this thought to mind is a particular student I know who is struggling with his high school classes. That he is struggling is important to my point. This student is willing to work hard; his frustration is that long hours of effort do not bring success. (My diagnosis is that that he is unskilled in extracting key ideas, especially hierarchies of ideas.) The response -- the only rational response -- is to avoid making large investments of time wallowing in efforts that are not rewarded.
Unfortunately, we have not offered him a more effective alternative. We have merely demanded a kind of success which he is not currently able to achieve.
In the process of evaluating this student's situation, it was noted that he did not have an "Individualized Educational Program". Having an "IEP" allows the institution more flexibility in identifying and responding to a student's specific needs.
In fact, every student should have an individualized education program. Some students are provided an instutional IEP by the school bureaucracy. Others have parents who can shape their individualized education. The students who are most adept at navigating the educational environment create their own plans.
That is what I did in actual reality. I set my own goals and determined my own path to achieve them. Sometimes the institutions thwarted my plans, but other times they were strongly supportive.
In high school, for example, I was prevented from achieving some goals for breadth of education (the school wouldn't enroll me in some classes that were not in the college track) and they weren't quite ready to allow a student-invented philosophy course for credit (although they did listen to the idea and even put it on the official agenda). On the other hand, I was supported in doing some of my math classes as independent studies, in creating an uncredited computer science program, and in leveraging the resources of the university.
The same approach worked during my years of employment, at least most of the time. My goal was to have access to large, powerful computers so that I could play at my hobby -- and get paid for it. In return, I would create software which would help the organizations perform their functions better. When that program finally failed (after 37 years) I simply walked away.
Which is precisely what this high school student is being tempted to do. The plan he has isn't working. Who wouldn't walk away? But -- to what? When I walked away from employment I had a new plan for supporting myself and for achieving my goals. For my high schooler to succeed, he does not need new admonitions to succeed; he needs a new plan. If he had the right set of skills, he would already have made that new plan himself. He does not.
What should we be providing to this student, who works hard but misses the point? We should offer him what his high school principal suggests: Whatever he needs. If society judges itself whenever it requires failure, it also judges itself when it permits success. I prefer the latter.
Gender Differences in Physics Education
A research article from Science last November provides quantitative evidence that the educational gender gap (specifically in physics test scores) can be dramatically reduced by "values affirmation".
"Values affirmation" is a technique previously demonstrated in ethnic minority education which basically has the student spend a few minutes writing on whatever is most important to the student before proceeding with the coursework. It is so trivial an intervention that it is puzzling why it works at all, but in fact it provides measurable and lasting grade enhancement. I think I did something analogous when I was teaching, but not under that name and not as a grade-enhancing technique.
"In many science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines, women are outperformed by men in test scores, jeopardizing their success in science-oriented courses and careers. The current study tested the effectiveness of a psychological intervention, called values affirmation, in reducing the gender achievement gap in a college-level introductory physics class. In this randomized double-blind study, 399 students either wrote about their most important values or not, twice at the beginning of the 15-week course. Values affirmation reduced the male-female performance and learning difference substantially and elevated women's modal grades from the C to B range. Benefits were strongest for women who tended to endorse the stereotype that men do better than women in physics. A brief psychological intervention may be a promising way to address the gender gap in science performance and learning." [abstract]
This article also shows a small negative effect among the men. In other words, asking men to expound on their most important values may have a negative effect on their test grades, although smaller and perhaps less durable than the positive effect on women.
The grades are shown only in the aggregate, so the gender effects are not clear from this report.
1. Perhaps gender differences are directly influenced by values affirmation. It isn't clear what the gender differences themselves would be.
2. There might be an interaction between values affirmation and socialized gender identity. This interpretation may be supported by the observation that the effect is "strongest for women who tended to endorse the stereotype". (This is also consistent with the large effects on minority middle school students previously reported.)
3. Gender differences may not be directly involved. Suppose for example that there are some people who are affected positively, others who are affected negatively, and perhaps still others who are not significantly affected. The distribution of positive and negative responders may be gender-biased, but there could be both types of responder among both men and women.
The difference in interpretation could be important ethically. If the positive responders change their scores upward more than the negative responders lose downward, there could be more students who are affected negatively by this intervention (even among the women) than are helped. That may be unlikely, but it certainly is not implausible; if true, this intervention could be ethically unsupportable, at least if applied unselectively.
What we know is that there is a trivially simple intervention which in the aggregate improves women's performance in physics (as well as that of minority middle-school students of both genders). The results are robust enough that we should start to consider applying this intervention broadly, wherever there is a persistent difference in performance between socially defined categories of students.
What the report leaves us unsure about is whether values affirmation may have significant negative effects on some students. The potential harm is large enough that, even if we feel this unlikely, it is ethically necessary to proceed cautiously and to study the effects more closely.
In this specific instance, it would be at least foolish to avoid values affirmation in light of its demonstrated success. But it would surely be dangerous to apply this intervention universally without consideration of the hints of possible harm.
It is sometimes said that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing", but in actual reality all our knowledge is profoundly limited. It would be dangerous to presume more certainty than can be justified by the knowledge we actually possess; it would be foolhardy to ignore the knowledge that we have discovered.
David P. Mindell, of the California Academy of Sciences, wrote a review of the book Evolution Since Darwin: The First 150 Years which appeared in in the journal Science ("At the Sesquicentennial of Origin"; 24 December 2010, page 1747). At the end of this review, Mindell writes that evolution is "the root for natural explanations of human origins ... and ultimate impetus for human moral behavior and values".
To say that evolution is the impetus for morality seems to be true, although still surprising to many of us. How can genetic fluctuation and varied reproductive success be the driving force, the impetus, which brings about cooperation, let alone systems of morality and social and legal judgement? Even among evolutionary scientists, that proposal seemed to stretch credulity until a few decades ago. Now, mathematics, observation, and experiment appear to confirm that the process of evolutionary change not only can but did provide the mechanism which brought such complexity to life. Evolution, it now seems, truly is the "impetus" for moral behavior.
Mindell, though, adds a more questionable qualifier. He writes "ultimate impetus", which sounds very much like "original driving force" or even the "prime mover". That latter is historically a theological term and I mention it specifically to point out how the phrase "ultimate impetus" verges on speculation somewhat removed from evolutionary biology.
Can we not ask what is the impetus for evolution? Depending on your point of view you might suggest, for example, that cosmic rays interacting with molecules of DNA in germ cells is an impetus which brings about evolutionary change. And there is a further driving force behind the cosmic ray. Then in what sense can evolution be an "ultimate impetus"? Logically, a cause which is itself caused is not an ultimate cause. Let's leave the question of ultimacy to the philosophers.
It is better, I think, to use language which clearly names evolution as a process or a mechanism, one through which truly remarkable changes are taking place. It is evolution's role as the proximal mediator of anatomical, physiological, psychological, and even social change which makes evolutionary theory so astonishing.
As I write this, the United States is mired in a grand debate over whether or not to pay out previously promised funds to creditors, employees, states, and retirees, among others. A commentary from R.W. Baird included the astute observation that "The length and rancor of during this financial crisis has raised the question of the United States' willingness to service its debt. This is much more troubling to many creditors than the inability to repay."
Vince Lowery mentioned a distrust of historians during his talk at the Neville Public Museum last night about our public memory of the Civil War. I think, however, that this is a far broader phenomenon than a social disregard for people who work very hard to understand history. There is a general distrust of all disinterested experts. More specifically, I think, there is a suspicion that anyone who presents as disinterested actually has a hidden bias.
This way of thinking reminds me of a time when I was an editor of my college newspaper. A representative of some Communist propaganda sheet was promoting his paper through the dorm. He asked me, "Are your reports entirely unbiased?" Of course, they can never be completely free of bias, and I admitted this. "Then it would be better to stop pretending," he suggested, "and be openly biased like we are."
I disagreed, and still do. I believe that holding onto the goal of fairness and working constantly to get closer to that goal is a far better way to play the actual reality game.
In the talk, Dr. Lowery commented that "Few tourists travel in search of oppression." There are two points in that observation. First, people prefer to give their attention to pleasantness; in terms of history tourism, that means viewing the past in a way that is not threatening to the present situation. Second, we tend to give precedence to business considerations when deciding the scope and content of public memory.
My hypothesis is that people postulate that every opinion, or at least everyone else's opinion, is inevitably biased in favor of what the person wishes to be true. The effect of this postulate is exacerbated by a carelessness about differentiating offhand remarks from studied conclusions. All of them are "just opinions" we hear, suggesting that the first thought that comes into my head is just as valid as the conclusion of a three year scientific study by a group of people who are each expert in the topic.
This hypothesis could explain a wide range of oddities in public attitudes:
Going Home To the Reservation
Not being a Native American, I can't fully understand the experience of going home to the reservation. And yet, yesterday when I biked to the intersection of highways E and EE on the Oneida Reservation, and went into the Oneida Nation Museum there, and looked at the exhibits, and saw the maintenance and museum staff people working, and watched the video tribute to Purcell Powless, and then rode back on Lambie Road, I thought it felt like going home to the reservation.
I had the same feeling watching the movie Frozen River (which is set on and near the Mohawk Reservation in New York). That struck me as odd, not only because I'm not Mohawk but also because I've never been in upstate New York. It never was home. How could it feel like going home?
Obviously, the sense of being "home" is not dependent on knowing the place or the people who are there or on having close genetic ties -- since none of these apply. Any of these connections may help to establish a sense of being "home", but my experience suggests that familiarity and past associations can equally be antithetical to the sense of being at home.
What is it, in actual reality, that we want to find when we try to "go home"? What is the actual reality of home for us? Right now I'm not entirely sure. I think I could play the game better if I knew the answer.
Old Stories On a New Day
The weather was nice this morning when I took the book back to the library. I don't often give up on a book, especially a novel that I've read 3/4 of, but in this case I just didn't care anymore about what happened to the fictional characters which populated the wandering narrative.
So, as I said, I took the book back to the library. Then I took out a different book and a movie. But the weather was too nice to ignore. Instead of heading for home, I turned my bike the other way and headed off through the familiar residential area of Spence Street first, to the west, and then South Oakland Avenue, to the east. I came across from west to east on Western Avenue and Clinton Street -- that used to be south of the railroad yard, but the yard is pretty well reduced to just a few tracks; in any case, it is south of the tracks.
I didn't want to ride across Ashland Avenue; it is too busy to enjoy. The traffic on a Friday morning wouldn't necessarily have delayed me inordinantly but it would have required my attention. I was making a pleasant meander through a pleasant summer morning; there was no call to give undue attention to motor vehicles.
Instead, I turned on South Oakland Avenue. The right of way for Oakland Avenue crosses the remnant of the east end of the yard, but the street itself has long been cut off there in order, I suppose, to avoid the dangers from the railroad switching which formerly was incessant in the yard. The sidewalk, however, has been continued. I was pleased (and a little surprised) to see that the walkway has been recently improved where it crosses the tracks, so that it is again possible to ride the bike, rather than having to carry it across the tracks.
With this advantage, I coasted easily into Seymour Park. The South Oakland Avenue, used to run through the park, just as once it ran through the rail yards. Recently -- to my almost 60-year-old mind -- the park has taken over the street and cars have to turn through what had been an alley to reach Ashland Avenue (which still runs through the park, one block to the east). There also is no walkway on the old street within the park, but that doesn't mean that bikes are barred; it only means that we need to shift down in order to run on the grass. Which I did, reconnecting with the traffic lanes on the far side.
As I rode the block north of Seymour Park, I noticed a car pull into a driveway and a boy there stand up, greet them, and proceed to retrieve some material they desired. As I rode easily past the scene, I slowly began to make some rational connections.
"That was Josh," I said to myself.
"I should stop and say hi," I thought.
"I'd have to turn around and go back."
"Where could I turn around?"
"I could turn here at the intersection."
"I should go slowly, so that the car can back out and leave."
And so it happened that I returned to the driveway and found Josh sitting next to a white 1979 pickup truck with automotive paint in his hand.
"1979," I mused. "What was I doing in 1979? Oh, yes, I was in Madison wasting my time." Which is a bit of an exaggeration, but accurate enough for casual conversation on a summer morning.
"You didn't have to go to Madison to waste time," Josh said. And so we continued in conversation about his truck, the rust which was mostly well remediated, the dent in the left front fender and the possible solutions to that, the mileage he can expect to get with it, and the contrast between the 17 miles per gallon he found on an internet page for this vehicle and the ridiculously poor mileage of some much newer vehicles -- I cited the Hummer specifically -- which other people, adults no less, have foolishly embraced.
As we talked, I noticed the flowers which Josh's mother raises along the foundation of the house. Suddenly, a monarch butterfly approached one of the blossoms and perched. It was shortly joined there by a large bumblebee.
"It's unusual for me to see a butterfly and a bumblebee sharing the same flower," I observed. "If I had my camera I would try to get a picture, but they'd fly away as I approached, and anyway I don't have the macro lens to really get the shot even if they didn't. So it's probably better that my camera is at my house."
This reminded me of my friend Randy, who is a better photographer than I, but a poorer analyst even within the realm of photography. At one point we convinced him to take a photography course at NWTC, since after all he lives across the street from there. He couldn't get into the basic photography course so he was taking the advanced course.
"Was that because of scheduling or because they wouldn't let him into the other course?" Josh interrupted.
"I'm pretty sure that it was the schedule," I said, struggling to remember whether I really knew the answer to this question. I think I did at the time, but I'm not so sure any more.
In any case, I continued to tell how Emory, one of Randy's classmates, had been taking pictures of dragonflies. In fact, he still does. Emory was recently invited to the museum to show some of his dragonfly photos, and Randy went to see. Emory also talked about his equipment and the camera settings which he uses in order to get impressive closeups of insects.
Subsequently, Randy has made renewed attempts to add insect portraiture to his reportoire; he sent me two of the better examples and also reported his enhanced appreciation of Emory's choices in equipment and settings.
"One of the things I've noticed," I told Josh, who is only 17, "is that once you get to some age over 50 you have so many stories that gets difficult to stop telling them."
"I've noticed that about you," Josh said tolerantly.
The book that I gave up on was a long and wandering narrative with excessive discursions into matters which could have been important for some other story, but not for the one in the book. I'm pretty sure that in actual reality the author must be a garrolous old man. Like me.
Every time I sort clean clothes I get upset with the math community. I realize that sounds odd at first, but bear with me.
More precisely, it is not the mathematical community per se but the nerdy logic puzzle people who upset me. Unfortunately, these are not mutually exclusive categories. The mathematical logicians haven't done anything (or not enough) to quash the insidious warping of intellectual capacity.
There is a problem posed, over and over, something like this: "You have 10 pairs of black socks and 10 pairs of white socks, except that they are just now tumbling out of the dryer and so they aren't actually pairs at all but just 20 socks of which half are white and half are black, so my saying that you had pairs of socks was really not meaningful at all. For some mysterious reason you can't actually see any of them right now as they come out of the dryer, and it is late so you need to grab some socks quickly. Of course, later on you will be able to see the socks you chose." (I've never quite understood the nature of this temporary blindness, but in the math puzzle world you are expected to suspend credulity. Anyway, that's not what upsets me.) Now for the question: "How many socks should you pull out of the dryer in order to be certain that you have at least one matching pair?"
The answer is 11, one more than half the socks.
Oh, I can hear them screaming already, and I haven't even saved the text yet. Patience, little minds, patience.
They will tell you, falsely, that you only need to pull out 3. They truly believe this, which is why you so often see math nerds wandering around with a low-cut sock on the left foot below a hairy, pale left leg and a knee sock covering their right calf. If you question them, they will stare at you blankly and say, "My socks match. They're both white." Or black.
In actual reality 2 white (or black) socks do not necessarily make a matching pair, even if they are both your own socks. The socks may be of different lengths, different styles, different yarns, different knits, different amounts of wear. They may even be different shades of black (or white), especially if they are of different ages and have been washed a different number of times.
If you want a matching pair, 3 socks isn't always going to do the job. Drawing 3 socks -- given that there are only 2 colors -- will always insure that you have 2 of the same color.
Examples of this puzzle appear ubiquitously in the logic puzzle literature.
I offer a few currently available examples from the internet:
Yesterday I biked to Seymour, all by myself, had lunch and then returned, still by myself. This is a pretty normal sort of thing for me to do, biking alone on the back roads, seeing few people, meeting no one that I know.
My thought this morning is how connected I was on my trip.
About half of the relationships that I noticed on this trip are centered in the past; others are ongoing; one is purely transient. I'm not sure that friendships with people who have moved away are necessarily less valuable to me than current ones. Certainly past connections to my heritage are still relevant in the reality of daily life. Even the passing greeting of a stranger on a town road ties my life to theirs and links us both into humanity.
There are times when I feel a dearth of strong interpersonal ties, but riding alone to Seymour was not such an occasion.
On my desk is an article from the January 14th, 2011, issue of Science titled "Why Loneliness Is Hazardous to Your Health". That's a topic of some concern to me, especially as I get older, but the article contains some interesting observations. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago says, "Loneliness isn't at all what people thought it was". Daniel Russell of Iowa State University at Ames says, "Some people are socially isolated and they're not lonely. By contrast, some people are lonely even if they have a lot of social contacts."
How is loneliness hazardous to your health? The article says, "It's as if loneliness prepares the body for some looming threat ... by keeping the body in alert mode." I guess that would be like riding your bicycle on busy county highways all the time instead of along the lonely back roads. Especially if while riding the back roads you think about all the people with whom you remain somehow connected.
The problem for most of us is not being connected with others. In actual reality it is hard to live in modern western culture without being connected to other people. Rather, the challenge lies in being aware of how connected we are, and perhaps in being aware of how valuable are those connections even when they don't meet some Utopian ideal of connectedness.
The NRA has been phoning me recently. Well, not the NRA itself; some independent contractor with a tape recorder and an automated dialing machine has been using the NRA's phone number to call me. I don't take the calls -- why would I want to talk to a machine that emulates the listening inability of its sponsoring organization? -- but the letters "NRA" on the caller ID do cause me to think more about the NRA's various positions.
You know, it is a funny thing, but the more often any position is raised in conversation, no matter how illogical or inconsistent it might be, the less absurd it begins to sound.
In the case of the NRA, the one idea which comes up incessantly is the registration of some firearms leading inexorably to the eventual confiscation of all firearms from all people. I used to think that was a bizarre thought; short guns, maybe, but certainly never long guns. Not in this country. But the NRA has been relentless in raising the idea over and over and over again.
I have to say that registration and confiscation is sounding a lot more plausible now.
Maybe it wasn't just the NRA's publicity juggernaut which has accustomed my mind to this non-traditional view. That pair of terrorists who used long guns some years back in the D.C. area may have helped, for example. But the truth is that I hardly ever think about those 2 guys shooting out of the trunk of their car. The memory wouldn't have come up now if it weren't for the whole topic being raised again by those letters "NRA" on my telephone's caller ID display.
I am in favor of fewer firearms overall, though I'd start with the sorts of weapons used mainly for shooting up civilian villages. I do think anyone who chooses to own a firearm of any kind ought to have extensive safety training -- lots more than is exhibited by the typical trespasser on my property.
I'm particularly in favor of the complete annihilation of the international arms trade. I think that I'd even prefer to see most of the world's handguns go the way of the floreana mockingbirds of Ecuador. But if ever I extend these ideas so far as to include the shotguns owned by farmers and sportsmen, you'll know that the NRA has been a big part of the change.
An alumnus of Wheaton College reminded me that the college's nickname was changed from the Crusadors to the Thunder. "Crusadors" was never a very happy choice, being rooted in some of the most apostasical events of Christian history. About the only thing in its favor might be that it is a word taken from some point in the Christian heritage. "Thunder", although an ear-catching phenomenon, has no particularly Christian ties. In actual reality school nicknames do a poor job in representing the personal and social values espoused by their institutions.
These reflections got me to wondering whether we couldn't do somewhat better than we have done at picking nicknames for our schools. As the population increases and the opportunity to found new institutions of education opens before us (never mind that all these new schools may be run over the internet in virtual reality) it seems this might be an opportune time to offer a few suggestions for Christians intending to found new institutions that are true to their religious heritage.
It may be difficult to imagine the Marion Moravian Meek conquering on the football field, but in the end they will inherit the entire earth. Elsewhere among newly founded Christian schools in our area we might find the Reedsville Reformed Repenters, the Freedom Faithful, the Mishicot MCC Metanoia, and the Chilton Charity, all named in consiliance with the core of their founding faith.
It will be interesting to see how their athletes fare in competition with the Neshota Nestorians or the Anston Arians.
Of course, there will certainly be new schools which are founded on a philosophy of religious inclusivism rather than denominationalism. I look forward to following the progress of the Allouez Alliterates.
It seems to me that we need a new alternative for complaining.
Currently, there are only a few options when things start
to go wrong:
It is true that sometimes your friends will listen to you, no doubt hoping that you'll return the favor in the future. But if you are so lucky as to have a friend who is actually interested in your complaint and concerned enough to want to help you -- well, you should be very careful about using such a friend for complaining about any but the most severe troubles.
On the other hand, if you call the telephone number presented on the web page of the offending corporate entity (or "person" in the Newspeak of the U.S. Supreme Court) you will have the opportunity of expressing your frustration to an individual who has been trained to ignore all your distress. Occasionally, when the underlying problem is specific enough, such a person (in the Oldspeak sense) will even be able to bypass the trouble for you.
Some people seem to find satisfaction is posting their complaints in various web forums. Perhaps just writing the matter down is sufficient for cathartic release, but I suspect that many who post such commentaries do so under the illusion that someone, somewhere, at some time will read their complaint with some interest beyond merely laughing at the unknown complainer. The chances of making such a connection with another human being over the web is, however, rather remote.
Now a tree is is physically present in front of you; in this way it is entirely the equal of any friend you might have. Like a friend, too, is the tree's gentle murmuring response to your running commentary. (Use a conifer during wintertime.) Unlike a human friend, however, the tree will never be exhausted by your complaining. Never! You cannot wear it down with talk. Indeed, if it is a mature tree, you may even beat your hands against it over and over without driving the tree away. Do not try that with a friend!
In actual reality, then, unless your troubles are so serious that you truly and honestly need to put a friend on the spot, your best course of action is to put on your jacket, step into the backyard or down to the neighborhood park, and address your complaints to the most sympathetic looking tree you can see there.
Them and Us
Currently there is a diffuse protest running on Wall Street in New York City with people camping on the streets and signs bearing a variety of messages. Reuters reports 5,000 people at one day's rally, spouting generic lines such as "I want a better world for my children."
One gets the feeling the protesters may intend to stay until someone can tell them what they are complaining about. That might be quite a long time.
My best guess is that the underlying cause of complaint is that the people who are protesting had assumed that they were among the "us" of "us and them". They may have felt that they were part of the family at the corporations where they were employed -- until they were laid off. They may have believed that they could depend on the wealth which was based on highly inflated real estate prices -- until the bubble burst. Or they might have assumed that health insurance was assured -- until they lost coverage.
They had joined the ranks of "them". Didn't like it. Still want to be "us".
I'm not confident from the news coverage that the protesters have developed any sympathy for the people who already were "them", the people who didn't have highly paid jobs to be laid off from, who didn't own expensive houses with even larger mortgages, and didn't have health insurance to lose. The quotations from the protesters sound like people who thought they were among "us" and want to return to being "us". They sound like people who want to play by rules which they thought were were governing the game previously.
I don't think you can go back to those rules because I don't think those rules were ever in play. When I was employed by a gigantic corporation, I never believed that I was part of the "us" who ran the place. The corporate leaders often said that we were all part of the family but there was precious little support for anyone doing the work. For years I cringed each time I heard about a family who had decided to move into a house that was beyond their means, and there were plenty of such stories to be heard. When the recession crashed down, I mentally sighed and said, "Surely you saw it coming. Those are the rules for this game."
The real rules say that if you accept risk you may be rewarded -- or you might lose everything. In the novel The Triumph of Caesar Steven Saylor wrote, "There is nothing so unsure as the plans we make that rely on the sensible behavior of another human being." In this case, the plans depended on the sensible behavior not of one other but of thousands of other human beings, each of whom was partially blinded by personal self-interest.
The difference from the rules these protesters seem to wish for and the real rules runs deeper than that, however. The real rules say that financial security, comfortable housing, and payment arrangements for health care and other needs are all transient benefits, not the goals of life. They are useful tactics but ultimately to be cast aside. The real rules say that everything which defines the "us" of "us and them" is so much haze, to disappear when morning comes.
One observer in New York opined that the protesters "have reminded everybody about the realities of this country." I think that overstates the case. I think the protesters are asking for a return to illusion, not for facing reality. They want their own lives to matter, but in misty terms. They want to be able to believe again that they are "us".
In actual reality, the ones who will finally matter are "them".
Blossoms of a Christian People
When my father died, the assisted living residence where my parents lived provided a hibiscus plant with bright orange blossoms for the funeral. Some months later, when my mother was stricken with her final illness, the hibiscus bloomed again. She moved it with her as she transferred among nursing homes and hospital rooms. My mother was, in fact, quite emphatic about making sure that this plant transferred each time that she had to change locations over the several months she was ill. Throughout her final illness, the plant kept on blooming. (It bloomed one more time the next year. One stem of the plant is still alive, and apparently in good health, but it hasn't bloomed again.)
My mother had always liked living plants around her house, inside and out, and this was not the first time that a blossoming plant had been a comfort for her following a death. Finding a connection to my father's memory through the blooming hibiscus was not out of character for her. It was special to her because it was a connection to my father. That plant, with its bright blossoms, was a living gift to my mother.
In the Moravian congregation where I have become a permanent visitor, there is another sort of living gift which the members give each other, a different kind of blossoming which helps to remind us of our connection with God. This gift is the gift of leadership in the congregation.
The distinctiveness of this particular group's gifts of leadership may be most visible in worship. There are many members of the congregation who regularly read the scriptures, others who will lead prayers or the childrens' message, some who will plan the worship service and present the sermon. On most Sundays, some of these people are helping to lead worship and sometimes all of worship is led by members of the congregation. Each task of leadership is like a blossom on the growing plant of the congregation.
Other forms of leadership are less immediately visible. I think of the work of the trustees, for example. Recently they've dealt with issues ranging from mowing the grass through the leaking roof and revamping interior lighting to the installation of a 20 kV solar energy system with confidence and competence. Many churches and other organizations enjoy similar leadership in at least some of these activities, although I think the number of such blossoms as a proportion of the congregation may be higher here.
Some of the blossoms of this congregation are deliberately hidden away. I think of the care members give to each other -- listening, visiting, praying, sharing. These are often labelled "pastoral" care, as if only a designated shepherd could provide such service. This is not an area I've been tasked to work (not for this place and time) so I often do not even know these services are blooming. When on occasion I learn of them, I am often surprised to learn who is providing this servant leadership. There are, I am convinced, many more such hidden blossoms than I would guess.
In these and other ways, the congregation with whom I most often gather is a living gift, a beautiful, growing, blossoming plant forming a living connection to Jesus, the Chief Elder of the Moravian Church.
My thoughts today bring to my mind a poem from 1984 I called The Rosebush. In part it says,
Pray your whole life out to God, thorns and all, but let your blossoms be at the very tips where the spirit may blow by and thouch them and their scent may mingle with the wind. ... For in every true beauty lies a perfect usefulness and in every true prayer a perfect love.
In actual reality our living is the only gift we have to offer.
The Benefits of Laziness
I've often remarked that a good computer programmer must be lazy. The same thought has been applied to mathematicians and others. I don't recall that it was ever said of politicians.
To understand the thought, one must make a careful distinction between laziness and procrastination. The good programmer does not put work off to the last minute. Why? Because it will be harder to do then. At the last minute, you never have everything you really need and you have no time to get it. You don't have all the knowledge you should have to do the job and worst of all you don't have the time to think about what you know. If you start the project at the last minute, you can't differentiate between the fundamental and the incidental, and so you have to give just as much effort to every aspect of the work. If you start the project at the last minute, you haven't laid any groundwork for yourself and so you have to address every little detail at the same time.
Let us take an example. The coding system for medical diagnoses, affectionately known as ICD-9-CM (or even just ICD-9 for short) is going to be replaced by a new version, the ICD-10-CM. Among other changes, the length of the codes is increasing from 5 to 7 and the format of the codes is also changing. We've know about this since 2003. A procrastinator would wait until the new system is to be implemented, at which time every data field containing a diagnosis code would be altered, along with any program that checks for the correct format of the codes, and the new set of codes would have to be loaded into a reference file. That's a lot of work.
The good programmer, on the other hand, would have used the past decade to expand the size of all the fields as might be convenient. You don't have to work very hard to change the size of one field, especially if you are working with it anyway. Besides that, a good programmer might have made a copy of the new codes; after all some manager had probably asked about them at some time and when the programmer looked up the information on the internet, there were the codes themselves, ready to be stored. It was easier to keep the codes when stumbled upon than to try to find them again at the last minute. So when that last minute comes -- soon now! -- the good programmer has nothing to do. Why? Because the good programmer did a few easier tasks here and there as the opportunity arose. That is, the good programmer did it the easy way.
This entire train of thought arose when I was at West High School the other day. When I arrive, I need to sign in as a visitor. I am issued a visitor pass which (in theory) I wear visibly at all times. Students are required to wear their individual picture IDs for all to see and the faculty and staff have the same requirement. Attendance is taken in every classroom each of the 8 period of the day and reported to the attendance office, where the data is recorded. Students who go to the Student Services office must sign in when they arrive there; if they are seeing me or another tutor, we ask them to sign in again. And we tutors make notes about which students we work with each period. That's a lot of work.
In view of this, it is not surprising that if any particular student is wanted, no one in the entire school (who is not physically in front of the student) knows where that student is. If any student is wanted for any reason, a search is initiated. There is a record of where each student is assigned to be, and the search begins and often ends there, because most students are regularly where they have been told to be. But what if they aren't? Then the school staff follows various leads and hunches until the student is found or until the effort exceeds the perceived need to find the student. That's a lot of work, too. Over and over again.
In actual reality it would pay for the schools to become a lot lazier about tracking the students. If they would stop doing all these tasks which are not working and replace them with a few that do work, the total amount of effort would be far less.
"Acting out" is a potentially useful term which has been inappropriately objectified. It is the beginning of a phrase, or rather it is the beginning of a collection of phrases such as acting out frustration or acting out anger or acting out emotional dissonance. The point of this collection of phrases is this: When people are unable to verbalize their experience, acting may become the dominant method of communication.
There is a tendency to take the two common words at the beginning of these phrases and objectify them as if "acting out" were a thing in itself, separated from the true object -- the frustration, the anger, the dissonance, the pain. Or the joy, the pleasure, the love, or whatever else is the objective reality which underlies the acting. This tendency to objectify the two common words is partly mere shorthand, which is convenient if the full underlying reality is not forgotten, and partly an expression of our human need to group and categorize, which recognizes the similarity of all types of "acting out".
There is nothing wrong with shorthand or with categorization, provided that the reality which lies behind them is not lost. A person who is "acting out" is always acting something out. The acting itself is not the problem, but that something may be a problem. Objectifying the phrase "acting out" can limit our attention to the mode of communication, the acting, and in that way can become a barrier to seeing the content of the communication.
But seeing the content may be the one thing no one wants to do. If the content being communicated is painful, frustrating, dissonant -- if that is the experience which is being acted out, then protecting yourself from that content is natural.
In actual reality we all act out our thoughts and emotions. Our language-based culture means that verbalization often dominaties our communication, but words do not negate behavioral modalities which can range from hand gestures through tone and volume modulation of our voice to our choices about when to be present or absent for specific activities. All is acting.
When we experience life as being harmonious we act harmoniously. This seldom attracts much attention.
When we experience life as inharmonious, we act out conflict. When we experience life as painful, we act out pain. More than just words, and especially when words fail us, our acting transfers some of the dissonance and pain to those around us. That is very often noticed.
Thus "acting out" often successfully communicates the reality of our personal experience of life to other people near at hand. People near at hand are very likely to respond by wondering, "Why are you communicating pain and dissonance to me? I don't want your pain and your frustration and your anger." This is a reasonable and normal response. But what comes next? Is it, "Let's try to eliminate the reality which you are experiencing"? Or is it, "Stop communicating your life to me"?
Concealed Carry and Climate Change
Calling themselves conservative in an unconscious self-sarcasm, a cadre of citizens are currently conniving against the very concept of competence. A couple of their constituencies are advocating for the carrying of concealed weapons and dismissing the research on climate change.
A measure of their nefarious success is that the issues of concealed carry and climate change are seldom linked.
The argument in favor of concealed weapons seems to boil down to a simple assertion: "Without any specialized training, I am as competent to wield deadly force against my fellow citizens as highly trained and closely supervised peace officers." Such an argument makes light not only of the hours of weapons training which candidates for law enforcement position undertake, but also requirements for understanding the principles of law and the psychology of persons under extreme stress.
In other words, the argument for concealed carry is essentially that whatever superficial thoughts may flit through my mind are entirely sufficient for the maintenance of public order.
The argument in opposition to dealing with climate change, or sometimes even to admitting that any change is occurring, seems to boil down to this simple assertion: "Without any education in the subject matter, and without spending any time collecting, analyzing, or reading any data, I fully competent to understand completely whatever is happening with the world's climate." Such an argument makes light not only of the years of study which researchers undertake to understand the physics and chemistry which lies behind our climate, but also of the decades of concentrated effort and wide public discussion designed to understand what actually has changed through the centuries.
In other words, the argument for ignoring climate change is essentially that whatever superficial thoughts may flit through my mind are entirely sufficient to understand everything about climate.
One would not take such positions if one believed in the diligence and care which gives rise to competence. In actual reality, competence is the result of hard work.
My mother used to ask why a time capsule would be opened after only 50 years. "There are people around who still remember that long," she said.
It's a good question, even though part of the answer is fairly obvious. Often the span of time that a capsule is to remain buried is set by younger people who have a hard time imagining 50 years into the future. As the time capsule is buried, five decades seems like a long time to them. Then, too, people may have a desire to be a part of the remembering. If the question were raised, "Shall we open the time capsule now, or leave it in the ground for another 50 years?", people might well answer, "Let's open it now. I won't be around after another 50 years and I don't want to be left out." And when the contents of the capsule are laid out for everyone to see, the old folks will be heard to say, "I remember that ... I haven't thought about that for 50 years!"
To the extent that a time capsule's purpose is to tie personal history into an integrated whole, half a century is long enough. And if the purpose is to open an opportunity to link experiences between one generation and a successor, then 50 years is long enough. But if the goal is to archive some tokens of how life is experienced today for the edification of future generations who have no link to our time, then 50 years is something of a joke.
The question, as is so often the case, comes down to the primary purpose for burying the time capsule in the first place. Who are the intended beneficiaries? What benefit will they receive? How will sealing a few objects into a capsule and then burying it in the ground or sealing it into a wall help bring that benefit? Is there some better way to accomplish the same purpose?
If the goal is merely to integrate the lifetime memories of a few people, a get-together at the local senior center with old photographs and other memorabilia would likely serve the purpose far better. If the goal is to link the memories of one generation to those of the next, a decennial retrospective by the local museum, library, or achive center would be a possible alternative.
If the goal is to preserve tangible evidence of present-day life for people who no longer have direct contact with that history, fully funding broad-ranging historical preservation centers would likely be the best approach.
Of course, making that last play in actual reality requires a longer view and a larger commitment than just burying a tin can.
"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
[Dick the Butcher. From William Shakespeare's "Henry VI, Part Two"]
The television was working the other day and I caught a bit of a lawyer show. It seems (based solely on the evidence of the TV script) that criminal courts are a venue for professional pleaders to argue social philosphy. Apparently I need to resume visiting courtrooms so I can reaquaint myself with the purpose and practice of prosecution and defense.
Prior to discovering this Truth on Television, I had been under the misapprehension that the function of prosecutors was to present facts in the most incriminating manner possible so as to make entirely believable the possibility that the accused is culpable. Contrariwise, I had thought the function of the defense attorney was to present the facts in the manner most favorable to the accused so as to raise all manner of doubt about the defendent's guilt. In my earlier understanding, it would be for the jury of citizens to pass judgement between the conflicting points of view.
My old, naive view of the law had this sweet and comforting feature: Were I ever accused of some heinous fault -- falsely, of course -- I would need only to find a skillful attorney to have my view of the case portrayed in court. The lawyer, I had imagined, would not prejudge my innocence, but would merely present the facts in the best possible light and would defer to the subsequent judgement of my peers. In this way, a player in the actual reality game is given some protection from certain egregious plays of other players by the concerted action of nearby players; the scope of play is constrained by local rules of law and government, for in my former view judgement cannot be made nor sentence executed until a best case has been made.
Now, however, I have learned the Truth on Television and see that this is not the way of things at all. Were ever I so accused, I know now that it would be incumbent on me to seek out an advocate who not only is skilled in the ways of court and in presentation to juries, but also understands my social philosophy and is in agreement with it. What's more, this attorney would need to be able to present this social philosophy in such a way as to justify my actions.
All of this is decidely problematic, first because (as I already said) I might be falsely accused and thus have done no action to defend. Then too I might have no coherent social philosophy relevant to the charge. Indeed, readers of this commentary will each have their own opinion on the question of whether I have a coherent philosophy on any matter. Supposing that I have such a philosophy, how would I go about the task of finding a skilled orator who both understands and agrees with me? It is, I say, decidedly problematic.
If the Truth on Television is the truth in life, then no one is safe from calumny and persecution under the guise of law. My only hope is that television does not portray actual reality after all.
My worst fear is that the portrayal of a lie so consistently may out of itself produce a truth which would be inimical to us all.
"We'd like to sing the national anthem in honor of our men and women in uniform without whom we couldn't be here tonight." I heard this said at the beginning of a high school choral concert. It might have been anywhere, certainly anywhere in the United States, and it wouldn't have been any more true had it been said elsewhere.
Never mind that a national anthem ought to be sung in honor of the entire nation, a group which includes far more men and women than just the ones currently wearing military uniforms. No, my dispute today is with the second clause of this sentence.
Running down a list of typical activities performed by military people, from sandbagging riverbanks to sandbagging suspected terrorists, from deafening sea mammals through reasearching biological weapons to antagonizing allied Asian governments and shooting Afghanis, I am at a loss to find anything which bears on our ability to gather at the local school to listen to children sing innocuous songs representing the majority cultural tradition of this area. We need not restrict ourselves to the immediate present; looking back across the lifetimes of the students, the lifetime of the teacher, nay even across my entire lifetime, the military has done nothing specific to safeguarding our ability to listen to 40 minutes of juvenile musical performance.
Of course, they've done something; the military has been busy. But where has there been a military threat to the operations of the local schools which our "men and women in uniform" might have quelled on our behalf? In actual reality there have been no such threats.
But mere truth doesn't interfere with the repetition.