icons/world1.png arg.20080107.1141.html Only Child

1/7/2008 11:41

Only Child

For about 50 years, my self-identity was that of an only child. Since then I've thought of myself as someone whose siblings both died. The change in perspective came when my parents grew old and moved out of their house (so that I spent more time with the old memories) and it was reinforced by the 50th anniversary of their deaths in 1955.

I thought about this as I was walking to Fleet Farm in the cold, late November rain (very, very late November, since it is January now) and found that I was missing my brother.

Upon which I began missing my sister, also.

In actual reality, how well does a 3-year-old know his siblings, or anyone? After 50 years, who is it that I'm missing? Not the little children who died and whom I know only vaguely from fragmented memories, photos, and stories, but the adults whom I wish they had grown to be. My longing is real enough, but the people that I imagine have never really existed. I can hope that the sister and brother I imagine are well rooted in the people they really were but I am never sure that they are.

We can have this same experience with people who are alive and in regular contact with us. I mean that the people we imagine them to be have never existed in actual reality.

One could argue that this is invariably so, that we never really know anyone else (perhaps not ourselves either), and that everyone in our acquaintance exists for us as figments of imagination. The difference may lie only in how well-rooted our imagination is in the reality of their lives. People with whom we talk and work, with whom we exchange cards, letters, or email, whom we ourselves see and hear, and about whom we hear from others, provide us with more clues about themselves. Against these clues we can test and correct our imagination of them. Or not. If we do not test our images of people, then I expect that we will find that the real people do not live up to the roles we imagine for them -- something that happens often enough even when we try our best to form an accurate view.

If Phyllis and David had lived through 1955, and through every year since, they would not be limited to the experiences which I can imagine for them. I can only imagine experiences which are similar to my own or to those I've seen in others. They would have had unique, real experiences which I never thought of. Instead of being mostly creations dependent on my limited imagination, my real sister and brother would be able to extend my own experience and imagination by adding experiences from their lives.

This is what I miss and long for: to add our lives together, as much as we are able, and to that extent make each of us bigger than we are. This is what all human community is meant to accomplish.

icons/world1.png arg.20080110.1941.html Independent and not Isolated

1/10/2008 19:41

Independent and not Isolated

I've been telling this near-dream the past few nights, a story told to myself in the twilight of wakefulness, The lord of a castle is in the field, looking for his enemy, when a messenger from the castle arrives to tell of an flying attack which was repulsed. The lord and his second interrogate the young man extensively about the battle and about the actions of the chamberlain, who had been left in charge.

A key point of the dream (for purposes of this essay) is that the chamberlain is an administrator, not a fighting man, and the warrior lord and his second are interested in the chamberlain's performance under fire.

Cornell, the messenger, is required to recite in detail how the defense of the castle was managed. In short, his story is this: The chamberlain, being advised that the enemy was advancing on the castle, first appointed one Gregor as his second. He does this both to insure an orderly succession, should the need arise, and to provide himself with expertise in tactics and military operations. Gregor is an experienced warrior, so the choice was a wise one (as the lord's second points out).

The chamberlain's next decision was to position the fighting teams around the perimeter (that is, on the castle walls) and to give their captains authority to command their own teams throughout the battle. Gregor, the warrior second, was assigned to coordinate their actions. The chamberlain himself did not abdicate responsibility for defending the castle but, trusting that the military judgement of Gregor and the captains exceeded his own, busied himself with overseeing administrative tasks in which he had the greater expertise. In this way, the defenders on the walls had continuing supplies of food, blankets, and repair services.

The lord and his second demanded to know how Cornell's own team had been placed, since they were experts not in fighting but rather in communications. The answer was that this special team had been dispersed among the captains, where they facilitated the flow of information from castle wall to castle wall. Cornell's own captain had attached himself to Gregor's side throughout the battle. Thus if the enemy detached from the south wall to round eastward, Gregor and the captains on the east wall knew instantly by signal to expect renewed opposition.

Such is the near dream.

Now, in actual reality there is no castle and no battle, but there is a lesson to be learned.

FIRST, each group left at the castle was assigned work consistent with their skills. The commander took the administrative tasks, the smiths performed repairs and the cooks cooked, and the captains led the warriors.

SECOND, each leader was permitted to exercise his own authority. The captains were not usurped or undermined by the administrative head of the castle, or even by his warrior second.

THIRD, no one was left entirely on his own. The captains were supplied with what they needed to support their warriors. They were also provided with tactical intelligence so that they could adapt their defense in a coordinated manner.

In other words, the captains were allowed to be independent but not isolated.

In actual reality the opposite is often true; people of good will find themselves to be isolated from the larger campaign but yet with no independence of action.

This was a near dream, a story told to myself in the twilight of wakefulness, but the ideal that I imagined is strong enough to stand full consciousness.

icons/world1.png arg.20080112.0912.html Intellect, Control, Identity

1/12/2008 9:12

Intellect, Control, Identity

One adolescent I'm thinking of is noticably intelligent and tends to deny or diminish this fact. Earlier, this youth often claimed he was not smart but that was so patently false and so quickly dismissed by the adults that it became an untenable position. More recently, the statement has been, "See? I can be smart when I want to be." Undeniable reality has intruded into the situation, but the phrase "when I want to be" is used to imply that "I can be like everybody else." With this youth, the fear of being different from others (and presumably distanced from them as a result) seems to be the motivation for the behavior.

One adult I am remembering is naturally adept at social manipulation. This person consistently denies any desire to lead other adults by becoming a manager, for example, although leading youth is sufficiently non-threatening. (I would like to lay out the claim that I am not very susceptible to social manipulation, and that the resulting conflict has highlighted the natural talent of this person.) Nature will tell and talent will show, but so far the dissonance between statement and behavior remains contained and therefore unmodified. The reason for this behavior is not completely evident. My guess is that a greater potential dissonance exists between the exercise of this person's talent and the person's understanding of the world. (Perhaps the specific area is categorical ethics and whether any social manipulation can ever be "right").

Here I believe we have people with intrinsic abilities who choose to deny their indisputable talents in favor of conforming to their sense of normality. Human beings are a curious lot, but we are not generally irrational. Why would any of us want to be less intelligent or less powerful than we really are? The facts are that most of us make such claims, and that we have reasons for doing so.

We may be unwilling to accept the burden which comes with the gift. The burden of leadership, for example, is seldom placed on those with no talents for leading.

In claiming exceptional ability we define ourselves as a target for social leveling: "You claim to be so smart," we've been told, "and yet you couldn't even figure this out."

We may be afraid that exploiting a particular talent is inevitably contrary to our understanding of our proper role in life and society.

Yesterday I heard the commentary by Michael Jeck on Akira Kurosawa and The Seven Samurai. Once in Kurosawa's youth his older brother Heigo took him to see the destruction of a great earthquake, including not only the rubble but piles of corpses. The story is that by doing this Heigo taught Akira that if he faced reality directly, there was no terror. I suggest that the lesson could be applied even to the less terrifying truths about our own capabilities. I would not suggest, however, that doing so is simple, or easy, or without any fear at all.

Facing reality head-on, can we accept the kind and scope of leadership appropriate to our abilities?

Admitting our strengths while claiming our weakness, can we enrich our neighbors wihtout losing our modesty?

Knowing that all our talents come from God, can we be willing to expand our vision so as to see the way to use every gift?

I'd like to think that we can. But I am loath to judge those who have not done so, knowing full well that there are parts of the actual reality of my own life that I am not yet willing even to admit into consciousness.

icons/world1.png arg.20080203.1816.html School Security Game
icons/world1.png arg.20080208.0653.html Modern Lack of Poetry

2/8/2008 6:53

Modern Lack of Poetry

Why would anyone write in verse? It's a manner that's far too terse. Ask the writers from long ago; they, if anyone, surely know.

Today our writing is mostly prose. Why that should be, God only knows. Do we observe less mystery? I hypothesize; could it be?

Memory is another choice. Also, printing has changed our voice. Egalitarian points of view mean conversation is what we do.

As commuters do not ride steeds, writing changes to meet our needs. What those needs are I do not know, that they're changing our writings show.

icons/world1.png arg.20080215.0032.html Civil War

2/15/2008 0:32

Civil War

The term civil war is something of an oxymoron, made to seem all the more so by the multiple meanings of the word 'civil'. No war is fought with civility, after all, and a civil war perhaps less so than some others. A civil war is one fought by and among a nation's own citizens. It is within the family, so to speak, and everyone is angry that other members of the family should have resorted to violence against themselves.

A colleague recently commented that the issues of the American Civil War could never really be resolved, and certainly not by force of arms. There will always, he suggested, be disagreement about where to draw the line between central (national) and distributed (state) authority. Thus he betrayed his southern roots.

My colleague is right enough about the philosophies of centralized authority, but he is wrong about the American Civil War. From the North's perspective, questions about state's rights were suppressed temporarily in order to deal with the more critical issues of Union and slavery. There were strong opinions in the North about the appropriate distribution of authority between state and federal governments, but Federal Rights was never a rallying cry to raise troops and moral support for the war. On the other hand, the abolition of slavery (even though it was not an official cause of war) was a rallying cry throughout the northern states. So was preservation of the Union, and that was the official cause of war from the Federal perspective. It was the permanence of the federal union which justified military action by Lincoln; the questions of States' Rights and of Abolition could, in this view, be fought out politically without recourse to arms.

The military historian John Keegan (in The Mask of Command) described the two sides as "the first truly ideological armies of history". The odd thing is that they weren't fighting from opposite positions concerning the same ideology; they were supporting differing interpretations of differing ideologies.

The citizens did not agree with each other on several ideological issues of importance, including slavery, balance between levels of government, and the nature of the union of states -- and of course economics -- and everyone knew this. The two sides also disagreed about which disagreements had led to the escalation of argument into battle.

After 150 years, and the passing of multiple generations, we still do not discuss the Civil War in common terms. It is a problem common to every family and every workplace that in many cases we argue vociferously our position on a question that our opponent is, at least at the moment, not contesting.

icons/world1.png arg.20080301.0812.html Good deeds, Good motives

3/1/2008 8:12

Good deeds, Good motives

A recent article on the best places to work in Madison, like every recent article on the best places to work, emphasized that businesses are resonsive to the human needs of their employees not because the companies are altruistic but because it is good for the company's profits. In the context of business corporations, clean and safe workplaces, education, food services, recreation, and a sense of personal relationship are never provided because they are good in themselves but because they contribute to another, lesser good: increased economic value for corporate shareholders.

A for-profit stock company is a "person" under the law, but it is a very limited kind of person. A corporation can enter into contracts, incur debts, and represent the financial best interests of its owners. The corporate directors have a fiduciary duty to increase value for the shareholders. [Wisconsin law does have an explicit provision which allows corporate directors to consider the effects their decisions will have on employees, suppliers, and customers. Section 180.0827 Wis. Stat. Even this defines the others only in terms of their relationship with the corporation.]

If treating your employees well increases shareholder value (or treating your customers or suppliers well), then it should be done.

The ideal of treating employees well is not entirely new; one can find articles about careful and caring employers at least as far back as 1833, although the standard used to measure benignity has changed over the centuries. [Penny Magazine, No. 104, November 16, 1833.] Overcoming parental objections in order to employ child labor would not today beconsidered an example of enlightend employment policies; rather it is explicitly unlawful. What has continued is the understanding that providing clean and safe workplaces, education, food services, recreation, and a sense of personal relationship provides a real and measurable benefit to the business.

Increasing value is not intrinsically evil; helping others to have greater wealth is not bad in itself. But as the only motivation, it is limited and impoverished and does not participate in the fullness of human life. Nevertheless, a better worklife for corporate employees may be a result of this impoverished motivation.

So in actual reality good deeds can arise from poor motives.

In last Thursday evening's Killeen lecture, Scott Bader-Saye used the example of Star Wars: Episode III to illustrate that bad deeds can arise from good motives. In this movie, Dr. Bader-Saye explained, we learn that the chief character turns to the Dark Side for the purpose of preserving the life of his wife. This is a good, or at least fairly noble, motive, yet the result was a life of many evil deeds.

Bader-Saye also shared a remark by Vice President Cheney on Meet the Press (September 16, 2001). As reported by the White_House the Vice President said: "We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We've got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we're going to be successful." Cheney's comment was in reality as well as in appearence a close parallel to the imagination of Star Wars. Giving Cheney credit for the fairly noble motive of preserving the life of the nation, he advocates stepping aside from moral judgement and abandoning the public conversation which is the essence of democracy.

Since then, the United States launched 2 wars, one of them predicated on fabrication, and has caused the deaths of and order of magnitude more people than were killed in the original attacks. The actual reality is that evil deeds can arise from good but impoverished motives.

We tend to expect a strong and direct link between the direction of our motives and the quality of the results. Reality does not bear out this expectation. Poor, weak motivations are unable to sustain the course of events and therefore may lead to good or bad ends.

icons/world1.png arg.20080307.1551.html Life, Actually

3/7/2008 15:51

Life, Actually

We tend to take far too mechanistic a view of life. It must be something about our human nature, or else it is deeply embedded in our cultural history.

Back in the 1600s and 1700s, more or less the dawn of both physics and mechanical industry, the whole universe as well as life was frequently spoken of in terms of machines: Life as a clock, for example, was a metaphor used by John Amos Comenius and by Deists in America.

One of the flaws of the mechanical view of life is that it leaves little room to recognize change and growth, which are central to our actual experience of being alive.

Today, at the dawn of molecular biology, the dominant metaphor of life seems to be the computer program. One might have expected me to name our time "the dawn of the information age", especially in view of the programming metaphor, but the metaphor is drawn out from an analogy between computer programs and the genetic information encoded in deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. It is not uncommon to speak of DNA as a "program" for a human being.

The program metaphor is useful in some contexts but, like the clock metaphor, should not be pressed too far. Even an actual computer program is not self-defining. The computer program is nothing but an ordered series of numbers; you need to have a receptive environment to transform those numbers into any practical actuality. For computer programs, that environment includes the processor chip, operating system, power supply, and all the electronic interconnections among them. For a living cell, there must be functional proteins, mitochondria, and the cellular organization provided by lipid membranes and a molecular cytoskeleton. Otherwise, nothing happens; the program doesn't execute.

Following the metaphor of the program of life can lead to defining a life, in particular a human life, by the unique program code - the inherited DNA. This extension of the idea is clearly false, of course; one need only to think of identical triplets who have one genetic program but three lives. (There are many reasons why the DNA does not define a unique life,even without leaving the mechanistic view. We know that there effects of environment, which must be at least slightly different even among identical triplets. Molecular silencing of certain genes can, cell by cell and with approximate randomness, turn off either a father's or a mother's gene.)

Many people accept a more subtle extension of the programming metaphor for life. This is the idea that once the program is "written" a life is immediately begun. For diploid sexual organisms like us, that means the moment when an egg is fertilized. This has a very reasonable appeal, as metaphor. As a literal statement of actual reality it is just as flawed as limiting human life to the content of the DNA program.

For example, not every combination of DNA strands is a valid program for a human life. Some possible sequences of nucleic acids encode a "program" which is inconsistent with a living being. This doesn't even take us outside the programming metaphor, since it is equally true that not every sequence of numbers forms an executable computer program. But if the DNA of the fertilized egg is not a "program" for a human life, could life exist when that sequence was finalized at fertilization? One could arrive at a tortuous definition of life that would make this true, but the more parsimonious approach is to simply answer "No".

I don't want to overemphasize the example the special case of a completely nonfunctional genome. What I want to point out is that a DNA "program" by itself is not a sufficient definition of a life. There is something else in addition to the DNA which is necessary for a life to exist. At the least, there must be some external definition of what constitutes a valid program. Conceptually, this is the key point: For the genetic data to define a human life, there must also be something beyond the DNA.

My phrase, something else, is deliberately vague. What could this something else be? Must it be only one other thing? Of course not. This something else certainly includes the realities of molecular themodynamics; the DNA molecule must be conformable to transcription into RNA and (subsequently) into proteins; the chemistry of the cell must be able to turn genes on and off appropriately to sustain life. This something else must include some sort of higher semantic structure, though the possible nature of that higher structure could range from a rational design to a purely emergent property of the physical and chemical nature of the cell.

And, of course, there could be a soul. Surely there remains opportunity to write another essay.

icons/world1.png arg.20080312.2032.html Unity Disunity

3/12/2008 20:32

Unity Disunity

We humans have a enormous desire for community, for being a part of something larger than ourselves, for joining, for conforming, for being like other people who are like us.

We have also a penchant for excluding, for separating, for dividing each other, for identifying us based on our defining them.

Why should it be that creatures who hunger so much for unity should spend so much effort on division? What fear drives us away from creating and building what we desire? Why is it that we have (in the title of Arjun Appadurai's book) a Fear of Small Numbers of people joining our group, of increasing our community?

I think we are afraid that we are all different. Not afraid that we might be different; no: we are all different and we are afraid of that. We are afraid that when someone who has not been thoroughly assimilated is welcomed into our group and says something different from what we ourselves understand -- no, from what I myself understand, that then another in our group may say, "Yes! I understand what you are saying, I have felt something like what you feel." We are afraid that we do not have any more in common with the members of our present community than we have with someone outside our community.

We are afraid that our sense of unity, that sense which we have so carefully cultivated to fill our deep hunger for unity -- we are afraid that it is what it actually is: an illusion of unity.

The hunger to join together, to become one, is a gift which God has given us. It is one of the greatest of all natural human gifts. And we, warped, limited beings that we are, we try desperately hard to substitute some little approximation of community for the real thing. And we know that this is not the real thing; we can feel it, we can see it, we can demonstrate it, we can deny it.

In our warped, little way we see some glimmer of human community and we say, "This is it! This is true community! This is all there is!" We try to twist our hunger to fit within our shadow until we ourselves are warped and twisted and small, so small, in fact, that we believe ourselves when we say that this little cupful of community is the whole wide ocean to which we have been called.

And then, should someone from the outside step one foot into our cupful of everything, and some of everything should splash out and we should hear it dribbling into the ocean, then -- what have we then? Even less than a cupful. Even less than an illusion. Nothing.

Therefore we are afraid.

How could we not be afraid? Only if we could straighten out, only if we could become less twisted around, not contained by our little cup. Only if we could be as big as we actually are and if we could touch the ocean of unity that is as big as big as it could actually be. Only then could we not be afraid of losing a little of our cupful of everything.

icons/world1.png arg.20080321.0724.html Theodicy

3/21/2008 7:24


The "problem of evil" is a strange subject. In the first place, there is the implicit assumption that there is a problem. That there is evil can be demonstrated objectively, dependent only on an acceptable definition of evil. The belief that evil is a problem requires additional assumptions about how the world ought to be.

We who claim to set great value on personal liberty are poor ones to advocate a world without evil. A large portion of evil would appear to result simply from the combination of free will and limited skill or perspective. I would consider the death of a young girl by gunshot to be a significant evil. My experience suggests that such deaths occur, but that they are rarely the result of deliberation. Instead, the gun is shot with the intent of hitting someone (or something) other than the child or even for purposes of celebration, as a noisemaker.

The death of the child is, in such cases, a secondary and unintended result. The secondary result might occur because the shooter is unable to target effectively, for example; or because the target does not contain the projectile, or because the shooter does not give sufficient consideration to what could happen to a stray bullet. None of which lessen the evil of the resulting death, although the level of evil attributed to the shooter could vary substantially among the various possibilities.

Similar comments can be made about hitting people with moving vehicles or about deaths resulting from the collapse of construction cranes. Very seldom are such deaths intended results of someone's actions. (I have never heard of a case of first-degee murder by construction crane collapse). These evils are the result of failures of skill, failures of forethought, failures to take preventive actions, or failures of awareness -- not knowing a person was present.

One can make a coherent argument that an actor's failure to think through the effects of his actions is, in itself, an evil of omission. However, the reality of the world is that every person is limited in knowledge, in reasoning power, and in time. Thus it follows that we must necessarily be satisfied with some limited approximation of forethought.

We also accept that there is less culpability as the person performing an overt action is more constrained. That is, the loss of freedom of action reduces the level of evil we assign to specific actions.

So it would appear that a perfect world implied vast factual knowledge which converts into foreknowledge, or constraint where there is ignorance. This conclusion contradicts our experience of freedom and discovery as two of the greatest goods in human existence. (I leave the wonders of discovery for a different essay, but that delay does not impinge on my blithely using the supposed conclusion to bolster this argument.)

This is so striking that I offer the possibility that, in the actual reality of this world, the problem of evil is self-contradictory.

Let us reexamine the issue. How is it that we identify this "problem"? Evil exists, but merely that something exists does not define a problem. What philosopher spends a career on "the problem of air"? We do not like evil; at the least, we each dislike certain specific evils which are distasteful to us. Evil seems to be preventable and, in fact, we discount the evilness of an event as it appears to be more nearly inevitable.

So, then, the only problem of evil is that those things we don't like are not inevitable.

We humans created the airplane engine and, for the most part, we generally find that creation to be a positive good. We don't consider the airplane engine intrinsically evil. It is true that people have been killed by the moving parts of airplane engines, walking into propellers or being sucked through jets, and it is true that these deaths were not inevitable. The deaths were therefore evil. We humans responded by building fences: literal fences, and also virtual fences of training requirements and operating protocols. We did not invent dynodicy.

If an airplane engine is not evil in itself, then certainly the engine which conveys heat across the planet and makes the earth's surface habitable for us is not in itself evil. It is true that people have been killed by the moving parts of this global engine, especially cyclonic windstorms and their accoutrements. We humans responded by building weak houses in exposed areas and by inventing theodicy.

We humans seem to be on the verge of curing genetic diseases by replacing missing or defective genetic material. We generally believe that is good, but we still consider the existence of the tools for accomplishing genetic insertions to be evil because -- like airplane engines -- those tools can do harm as well as good.

Is there a problem with retroviruses and hurricanes only because we were handed the tools ready-made, and didn't create them ourselves? Let the creator deal with all subsequent consequences. Not that anyone alive today invented axes or rifles or even automobiles, or that their inventors are held accountable for the evils that are perpetrated with them by and against our neighbors today.

The "problem of evil" -- no, indeed, it is the problems of a multiplicity of evils -- is that innocuous objects and processes are misplaced, or misused, or treated with inadequate respect, or (to throw in an allusion to Genesis) have not yet been brought under the dominion of beneficence. If there are problems of evils, the correct response is this:

First, to uncover the proper relationships between us humans and the creatures, substances, processes, and inventions which, when misused or direspected or allowed to run amok, can cause suffering.

Second, to establish those proper relationships with respect and skills which will (with an allusion to Paul of Tarsus) overcome the evilness and allow their goodness to be expressed.

icons/world1.png arg.20080401.0423.html Drug Testing

4/1/2008 4:23

Drug Testing

There are many things to be said against mandatory drug testing programs. The use of drug tests place the burden of proof on the accused rather than on the accuser. Entire classes of people stand permanently accused on the basis of their membership in the group: all employees (or just all hourly employees), all students, all football players. The tests have the potential of false positives. The required tests are poorly targetted; they look for the presence of chemical substances rather than for the impairment which is the legitimate concern and which justifies the programs.

Each of these concerns is worthy of at least one essay (and possibly all the thousands which have been written). Today, however, I raise a different point.

There is more information in the blood or the urine or the breath than the presence of drugs and drug metabolites.

Let me read your diaries so I know whether you went to a party last Thursday. Show me your credit card statements so I can tell if you went to the store on Tuesday. Give me some of your blood so I can tell whether you took illegal drugs.

Oh, and I promise not to read the rest of the information about your private life.

Yesterday, I willingly shared bodily fluids with my doctor's lab technician. My intent was to provide a great deal of information about my life and my health to my physician. From these samples, they will be able to make excellent guesses about many present and future health conditions that I might be facing. My expectation, of course, is that I will receive useful and well-founded advice of benefit to me.

The sharing of bodily fluids for drug tests is not truly voluntary and is often strongly coerced. The purpose is to protect another person in some way: from the potential of accidental harm, for example, or from the likelihood of lawsuits or public outrage. The expectation is, most often, that no benefit will accrue to the person being tested. (In some cases, a true positive may result in beneficial support being provided to the person. In the case of coercive testing, the individual would be harmed by not cooperating.)

But my point is that there is more information in the blood or the urine or the breath than the presence of drugs and drug metabolites. The person being tested provides a large amount of information which could potentially be used to discriminate against that person. Much of the information (including the presence of drug metabolites in some cases) is sufficiently ambiguous that it can be misinterpretted either from incompetence or from malice.

In most actual cases, this additional information is simply thrown away and wasted. (That in itself suggests the inefficiency of the process but would require at least another essay to explore.) The potential does exist for that information to be exploited.

In the case of financial information provided to the US Internal Revenue Service and the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, many strong barriers are erected in law and practice to prevent the use of private information for other purposes, even quite legitimate ones. The same is true for personal information provided to the US Census Bureau. In the case of drug testing, the personal information not so well protected. It is typically collected by third-party contractors and the results are given to the employer or agency (the second party). Some legal protections exist but the sheer number of entities involved make any practical protections uncertain and unpredicable.

The weight which should be given to these observations can only be ascertained within the context of the whole conversation on the topic of drug tests. Perhaps that is the primary point: We need to consider the full range of issues with all the implications rather than become obsessed with only one or two concerns, however valuable they may be in themselves.

icons/world1.png arg.20080411.0957.html Telephone Wall Centers

4/11/2008 9:57

Telephone Wall Centers

I know other people use the term telephone call centers because making a telephone call is the step you take to get in contact with the centers. (That's the first thing I dislike about them.)

I prefer the term telephone wall center because the primary function of the center is to serve as an impenetrable wall between the company and the customer. The only published phone number is the wall center number; the only people you can talk to are at the wall center; the only answers you get are the ones in the script.

To be fair, telephone wall centers are very effective when a number of common conditions are met: (1) You want an answer which is available in the script. (2) Enough script readers are employed to take the calls. (3) The wall center employees can read the script. When these conditions are met, you can get your answer right at the outside wall of the corporate fortress. There is no need to go inside and find your way around.

The down side is that the wall center wall has no door. When your question is not part of the wall center script, you are pretty much out of luck. No alternative access is provided. You'll either get an irrelevant answer or none at all. And that's that.

The faceless, unresponsive corporation is nothing new to American business history. What has changed is that today's technology is cheaper and more effective than Pinkerton men at the doors and hole-in-the-wall complaint departments. The angry customer is farther away and even the loudest screams of frustration can't be heard in the corporate offices.

A corporate executive might counter that we are all free to do business with the company or not. The fact that hundreds of people call the wall every day is proof, to the remote executive, that people are choosing to participate in the game according to the rules the company has set up.

Likely it is true that hundreds of people are compliant with the company's rules; I've heard many of them complaining about it. Most people are fairly compliant with any demand presented with the trappings of authority; that's part of what makes civil society work. The corporate wall centers are simply abusing a positive human trait for their own convenience.

True also is the assertion that we have freedom not to do business with the offensive corporation. For example, if the problem is with the power company, we have the option of moving to an apartment where the landlord deals with the utility. If the problem relates to our automotive warranty, we have the option to write off our contractual rights and either pay for the repair ourselves or simply junk the vehicle. So it is narrowly true but it is not reasonable for the wall center owners to assert our liberty. Besides, it covers over their corporate culpability for manipulating us into this position of dependence.

When the kids in my neighborhood play games, the rules are pretty fluid. Any kid can call out a new rule pretty much any time. Anyone else can say, "No." Sometimes the game has to stop while the players renegotiate the rules. Sometimes someone will feel cut out and go home, but that's not the preferred outcome and in any case they'll be back playing the next day.

The telephone wall center is entirely one-sided. The scope of the game and the rules of play can only be set by the side who controls the phones. They say, in effect, "You can go home if you want, but I'm going to keep the ball."

icons/world1.png arg.20080420.0646.html What Is Art?

4/20/2008 6:46

What Is Art?

Yeah, so I went to like this play? And it was really funny? But there was like this really dark theme, you know? Like, "What is Art?" 'Cause this play was about this guy? who was this girl's art project? Or maybe it was about the girl. I don't know. So it was like, can a guy be an art project? 'Cause it was immoral and stuff. But it was pretty funny.

Like, what's the big deal about art? Everybody keeps asking "What is Art?" Well, not everybody, but like you keep hearing that, like it's some big deal or something, you know?

Don't you like get a vision in your head and then try to get it out so other people can see it? And if you you get it out? That's art, right? But if you don't, then that's nothing 'cause you really didn't do anything. But if you have this vision or whatever, it's really hard to get it out, to express it, you know? So that's the art, if you can do it. You know, get it out?

And, like, if that thing you see is immoral or something, then maybe it's immoral art? I mean, if you can express something? and somebody else can understand it? Then that's still art, right? But it could still be immoral. Like, if you did immoral stuff to get it out. So like if you hurt somebody to express this, like, vision or whatever in your head, then you're doing something immoral.

Or like if it is really ugly. I mean if the thing you see isn't ugly but the painting or the play or whatever is ugly then you're just a bad artist. But, like, if you see something really ugly and then you can get me to see that same ugly thing? Then maybe you're a good artist but it's ugly. So like, ugly art?

I mean, you can't just say "art" and mean everything. There's moral art and ugly art and immoral art. It's not just that's it's art. Or not. There's other stuff to say about it, whatever it is.

icons/world1.png arg.20080429.2116.html Swimming With the Flow

4/29/2008 21:16

Swimming With the Flow

Imagine a river in spate. The water level is high, the current is fast. You can hear the flowing water as it rushes down.

You are in the river. You are floating in the current; the water is too deep for you to stand up and the current is too strong to stand in even if you could touch the bottom. You are being carried downstream. The trees on the banks are slipping by as you are washed away.

What do you do?

In this rushing river, the safest option is probably to swim toward the shore, especially if there is a quiet backwater there where you won't be dragged downstream by the current, or if there is shallower water where you can stand. Even if the flood current is rushing right up to the banks, there might be a chance to grab a branch or an exposed root and pull yourself out of the water onto the ground. The objective of the safe option is to escape the river.

"Swimming against the flow" is proverbial for the quixotic attempt to fight the current. You don't have the speed of the river, you don't have the weight to balance the mass of water, you don't have the endurance of gravity. You can try to swim upstream, but at the best you may be swept downstream a little less swiftly. Most likely, you will exhaust yourself with nothing to show for it.

Perhaps you can accept your situation and enjoy the ride. Face downstream and let the river carry you until it is ready to drop you off, perhaps miles away, perhaps until the river flows at last into a lake or ocean. If you know the river well enough, if you know the commitment you are likely to be making, if you are confident you will not be riding over a dam, there is much to be said for enjoying the ride.

Or there is the fourth option. You can swim downstream, with the flow. You can add your own strength and speed to the power of the flowing river.

I can't think of anything much scarier than swimming with the flow of a river in flood.

If the actual reality you find yourself in is an actual river, I strongly advise taking the safe option and getting out of the water.

But there is a reality for which the river is an allegory: If the river's flow is the Spirit of God, then the call of God may be that you should swim with the flow. If the river's current is the Love of God, then the command of God may be to add your strength and effort to the power of that river and swim with the flow.

Even in the allegory, I can't think of anything that is much scarier than swimming downstream in the flood of God's power. I'd much rather sit on the bank, out of the river, and watch the power go by. I'd rather be like Moses on the mountain, to sit in a protected spot on solid ground and watch God go away from me, than to be like Jesus and live in the middle of the stream every day of my life.

It is good news to hear that God understands. It is good news to learn that Moses and Elijah and Simon all felt much the same. Yet the call is still there, audible above the rushing waters, to jump back into the river and swim with the flow.

icons/world1.png arg.20080506.0709.html Idylls at NDA

5/6/2008 7:9

Idylls at NDA

Last night, for reasons not quite clear, I went with a friend to Notre Dame Academy's football field to hear some high school rock bands and watch people toss footballs around. In actual reality they were not only tossing footballs but also throwing frisbees, kicking soccer balls, playing keep-away and lacrosse, spinning hula hoops, and engaging in several other joint activities in a quietly exhuberent, unstructured way.

And, I might add, unsupervised. So far as I could see, there were 5 adults present (including my friend and I), none of whom had any apparent responsibility for the activities. That doesn't include a few former students of NDA who had returned from college and joined in.

As the bands played on the sideline, the rest of the people played cooperatively with their balls and other toys. The various groups playing their various games continually adjusted their space to accomodate their neighbors who were playing different games. The soccer players sometimes had to play through the football game, the footballers would toss back the frisbees which floated into their scrimmage, players of one sport would drift into another game, and sometimes drift back again, and in general everyone adjusted to the needs of everyone else.

I was a little bit unhappy that there were so few adults.

It seems to me that adults tend to get over idealism. It is adults more than teenagers who have the need to witness a little bit of Utopia lived out in actual reality, even if only for a few hours.

But never mind. The people who were there on the football field will soon be the adults running the world. And maybe they will remember that the prophets could be right and that the vision of living peacefully together is not a fantasy but a vision of reality, a picture of life not only as we might wish it to be but as it is really is, even if only for a few hours.

icons/world1.png arg.20080510.0638.html Faith in Chemicals

5/10/2008 6:38

Faith in Chemicals

Western culture would seem to have a high level of faith in chemicals which modify our environment. In general, we prefer to use chemicals to control ants, to remove ice, or to kill weeds rather than using physical processes. There is a huge market for chemicals to perform these and other, similar tasks.

There is no question that our society uses chemicals for daily tasks, but it is not quite as clear that we have faith in these chemical tools. Walking around town in the winter, I observe that ice on sidewalks and porches is almost always attacked by liberal applications of salt. Such huge amounts of salt are applied, in fact, that I question whether the homeowners have any faith in the efficacy of the salt as an ice remover. The amount of salt actually applied is often enough not only to soften the winter ice but also to dissolve the cementitious matrix of the underlying pavement.

In the summer, some residents address anthills by applying borax. Vast amounts of borax. (Other residents use more pernicous chemicals but I am unable to visually estimate the quantities.) These residents choose neither to dig out the hills nor to build up balanced environments in their yards, but do they exhibit much faith in the borax?

I suspect that people are choosing chemicals more out of fear of physical effort than from faith in the chemicals. The extreme quantities and frequent repetitions suggest that people generally do not respect the power of chemistry to accomplish the desired effects. They seem to be saying, "Yes, I will use the chemical, but since I think it is weak and nearly impotent I will apply an order of magnitude more than recommended."

Perhaps if chemical effects were visible at the time scale as people's attention to the effort they would have more faith. People who are willing to give 5 minutes attention to the problem of ice on the sidewalk may expect to see the ice melting within 5 minutes. Or perhaps even if the chemicals effects occurred at the same rate as the motion of the sun (which is not directly visible to human eyes) people might be more accepting of its reality. But borax affects ants over several days, and salt eats away concrete when spring comes.

Whatever the reasons, the evidence is that people are not faithful to their chemical agents. They do not keep faith with the borax on the anthill or the salt on the patch of ice; they do not allow it to do its work but instead add more, superfluous borax, hindering or diverting the effects and creating waste.

In the use of chemicals in residential life, the chemicals are entirely true to their nature. They are faithful, in the limited way of minerals. But the people applying these chemicals are not always faithful to the chemicals, or we might say the people do not have faith in the chemicals.

Faithfulness is a bi-directional relationship. The employer must have faith in the employees' work just as the employee must have faith in the managers' decisions; otherwise nothing is done. The teacher must have faith in the student's learning and the student must have faith in the teaching; otherwise nothing is taught. If the student doesn't believe the teacher, all the lessons are dismissed and forgotten. If the teacher isn't faithful to the student, the student isn't given the opportunity to learn as much or as completely as could be.

The homeowner who is not full of faith in the salt, who is not faithful to the salt, wastes the salt and the concrete beneath it. What are the costs when we are not full of faith in each other?

icons/world1.png arg.20080517.0628.html The Purpose of Mathematics

5/17/2008 6:28

The Purpose of Mathematics

"The function of mathematics is to allow you to be absolutely certain of things which you cannot possibly know at all."

I quote myself. I'm not sure how long I've been promulgating that definition of mathematics, but only recently -- while reading a biography of Isaac Newton -- has it occurred to me that this truth about math lies at the heart of the apparent conflict between science and religion.

We all know from the Letter to the Hebrews that faith is being certain of things which are not seen. We also know that, at least since Newton, mathematics is the language of science. Now I say that math permits certainty about unknowable things. It is easy to form a fuzzy syllogism concluding that science is the new faith.

This is not entirely false. There are people for whom experiment and theory, the processes of science, are the sole basis of their conscious faith. For these people, science is the only way to truth.

For most of us, science is one way by which we can recognize truth, but not a sufficient method to encompass all truth about the universe and not an infallible method, either. For us, having faith in science means that we faithfully allow the processes of science to discover, confirm, and refute whatever pieces of the whole truth are amenable to scientific investigation. More specifically to mathematics: We gladly have mathematic rigor applied to those problems for which a mathematical model can be formulated. We recognize that there are questions for which a comprehensive mathematical model does not exist, and we observe that some models may later prove inadequate statements of actual reality.

In fact, my pronouncement about mathematics is ambiguous. If you are certain of things you cannot possibly know, does that mean that previously you could not know but now mathematics has opened a new route to knowledge? Or does it mean that these things are truly unknowable and you have become certain where certainty is unwarranted? Both interpretations may be true. (Perhaps they can even be true at the same time.) Mathematics provides us with unparalleled power to achieve certainty about our intellectual models, but this is not necessarily the same as being certain about what is true in actual reality.

This is why in science experiment must test theory and theory must explain experiment. The two cross-check each other and this requires that models and reality must align with each other. It is a very good system, for everything that can be expressed in mathematical terms, in every part of reality for which we have both metrics and models on which theory and experiment can be based.

Mathematical science is a new means to faith. The question about the apparent conflict between science and religion can only be understood in terms of a conflict among faiths.

icons/world1.png arg.20080618.0753.html Brave Soldiers

6/18/2008 7:53

Brave Soldiers

I got a letter from my dentist the other day. No big surprise there; he just moved his office and is looking for as many excuses as possible to remind us of where we should send our friends and relatives who are looking for dental services. (Curiously, I did have a friend looking for a dentist recently, but it turns out that yet another friend had already mentioned this particular dentist so I didn't have a chance to claim a referral credit.) These letters cover a variety of topics and always come on business stationery with a map to the office, so they can be paid for under business development account.

This particular letter had no direct relationship to the dental practice. Hello! it read. We wanted to inform you that we are gathering supplies to send to Iraq, showing our support for our brave soldiers who are fighting for our rights and freedoms.

My first surprise was that they are only intending to support the brave soldiers. What about the other soldiers? I would think that frightened soldiers would be at least as much in need of small comforts from home. And then there is the question of how they will be able to distinguish the brave soldiers from the others.

But my whole line of thought is gratuitous. The adjective was not meant as a discriminator. The implication is that every soldier is a brave soldier. I doubt that the dental staff is consciously engaging in military propaganda; I think instead that they are merely caught up in the illusions fostered by the military and its supporters.

If every soldier is brave, and every dead soldier a hero, then it is a little bit easier to explain why we allow our friends and colleagues to be thrown into extreme danger to be ingured, maimed, and killed. They are brave; they are heroic; they are facing death because of the greatness which is within each and every one of them.

Or not.

And because they are brave and heroic, the loss of limb or life is somehow just a little bit less awful than it would be if they were merely human and driven into battle by despotic masters uttering lies and half-truths.

Or not.

The folks at the dental office say that they want to make life in Iraq a bit more comfortable. But their reason is not that the military personnel there are suffering human beings. (That would be a noble sentiment but it would open up the possibility of providing further support to the Iraqis, who are also suffering from this battle, and even to other people who are suffering in other places.) No, the reason to provide some small comforts to brave soldiers is because the brave soldiers are fighting for our rights and freedoms.

Truth is less of an issue.

There is good reason to doubt that the battle in Iraq was ever about rights and freedoms, for us or for anyone else. The original motivations are probably lost forever and it is likely that many different motives impelled different people who were involved in the decision to go to war. Today, however, many of the possible motivations for fighting have already been discredited and it is the Supreme Court of the United States where the battle for our rights and freedoms is being waged in connection with the Iraq war. But if the military is facing dangers for the sake of Iraqis, that isn't a good enough reason to send them music and magazines.

If the motive is not selfish, it isn't acceptable.

I suggest that this is not because Americans in general are so unusually selfish, but because the leaders who developed the techniques of propaganda over the centuries are themselves motivated only by selfishness. I'm suggesting that the masters of propaganda and persuasion honed the techniques which they knew in their own lives and applied them to the rest of us. Those techniques work, and so they are repeated and cultivated from generation to generation, from war to war.

icons/world1.png arg.20080620.1151.html Mental Hash

6/20/2008 11:51

Mental Hash

Nobody can take a powerful idea and turn it into hash like he can, I said to myself about a colleague at work.

The problem seems to me to be that he doesn't have a deep understanding of the concept he is working with. He is intelligent enough to recognize that the idea is powerful and to get excited from being in touch with a profound insight, but in some way he is unable to internalize the concept sufficiently so that it takes root and lives in his own intelligence.

That's a picturesque way of describing the matter, but it doesn't quite define what I mean by a deep understanding. In my own experience, as a former math major and the holder of a license to teach mathematics, the first illustration which comes to mind is quadratic equations. Quadratic equations aren't so difficult to understand at a more superficial level; most high school students master the ability to work with them, to match the equations with graphs and calculate the trajectories of imaginary baseballs thrown upward in a rectilinearly uniform gravitational field in a vacuum. Certainly I never had any particular difficulty with them.

When I became a student teacher and presented quadratic equations to high school students, I realized that my understanding of this class of equations was not very deep. I remember knowing that the constant factor of the squared term is a scaling factor, but what does the x-squared itself signify? And why are the quadratic curves the same as the conic sections? Unfortunately, I haven't yet gone back to understand them better.

Recently, I had a similar experience with matrix multiplication. In the last few decades there has never been much reason to work with matrices, and none at all to combine them. Something I read induced me to think about matrix multiplication and, having forgotten the technique, to look up the algorithm. It is simple enough, but what does it mean to multiply matrices? Having rediscovered the method, I realized that I had no understanding. No wonder I forgot how to do it! The operation had no deep significance for me; it had not, as I said before, taken root in my understanding.

The issue is not limited to mathematics. This week I'm working on a sermon about Jan Hus, the leading reformer of Christianity in the 1400s. It occurred to me that the opponents of Hus read the scriptures but never attained a deep understanding of anything they said. Hus preached from the 34th chapter of Ezekiel, which is something of a diatribe against the kings and priests of Israel. The opponents heard the criticism, and the implications of that criticism for the kings and priests of 15th Century Europe. They did not seem to understand the deeper promise of that chapter, which is that God is personally interested in the welfare of the people and will not leave peace, justice, and prosperity entirely to human leaders.

We could consider the Constitution of the United States. Nearly every citizen knows that it is against the Constitution for Congress to "establish" someone else's religion. That is, the Government may not force Baptist Christians to sacrifice chickens in a Santeria ceremony. For many people, it is not as clear why Congress should not mandate the beliefs and practices of their own religion. Without a deep understanding of the reasons behind the anti-establishment clause, without a memory of the historical abuses of religion by government, the idea of making the United States into a "Christian" nation does not seem unreasonable at all, at least to Christians. With that deeper understanding, however, it becomes clear that identifying faith and secular power is a danger to religion and to people of faith. (It seems particularly odd to me that anyone who professes to be any kind of Baptist would be willing to cede to any government the right to define their religion.)

Perhaps advances in neuropsychology will eventually allow us to distinguish deep understanding from operational competence in a more rigorous way. Until then, I will remain susceptible to the illusion that I understand quadratic equations.

icons/world1.png arg.20080721.0705.html Shock and Awe

7/21/2008 7:5

Shock and Awe

Overall, evil doesn't shock us. We use it for entertainment.

Don't push that point too far; we may still be shocked by finding evil where we don't expect it. Finding a serial killer living across the street from your house may well be shocking to you. But it isn't so much the evil that is shocking as it is the failure of good order; what shocks you is that the evil wasn't kept as far away as you had learned to expect.

Neither do I mean that you won't be afraid of evil. People tend to be afraid of the unfamiliar, whether evil or good or merely different, and for us this generally is expressed as anxiety and in patterns of avoidance. It isn't the evilness that gives rise to such fear, but the strangeness or a lack of the skills with which to control the unfamiliar situation.

Were you to begin writing a novel or a movie script, I would expect that you would begin with some truly terrible evil: a murder, a rape, a war, possibly a person of great gifts who has turned them toward enslaving other people. Who makes movies about raising carrots?

Now, there may be excellent social and psychological reasons why human beings make stories out of evil. Those stories may be a fundamental method for learning to cope with the vast amounts of evil that can be found in the world we inhabit. It may be essential for our mental health. My point is that we do entertain each other with evil, and that we are not usually shocked by hearing about evil.

Given that this is so, why do humans so often attempt to influence others by shocking them into submission?

The terror attacks on New York's World Trade Center in 2001 may be one example of this mindset. The evil there was so great and so far out of good order that people all over the world actually were shocked, but, whether they were near the towers or far away, people continued as functional and rational beings. Even an evil sufficiently great that it did engender shock failed to suppress either reason or will. Despite that experience, the initial strategy for the war by the United States against Iraq, which arose out of the aftermath of those terror attacks, was based in part on the concept of shocking people into submission with a show of vast amounts of death and waste.

This same attitude can be discovered repeatedly by visiting the records of wars through the centuries and the records of conquerors and usurpers across many human cultures. It seems to be nearly as prevalent as the illusion of the invader or despot as benefactor and friend. (Curiously, the two illusions can coexist.) You can discover the same expectation of the power of dramatic destructiveness to shock others into compliance by honestly examining your own mind. This is an illusion so commonplace that I suspect it must have some basis in reality.

Nevertheless, a strategy of using the shock of evil to conquer the minds of your enemies is destined to failure. Evil doesn't shock us.

icons/world1.png arg.20080721.1712.html Ground Ivy

7/21/2008 17:12

Ground Ivy

I close my eyes. I see a runner of ground ivy.

Not every time, mind you. When I close my eyes, I usually see something, and I've been closing my eyes rather often recently. But ground ivy has been appearing more frequently than I would expect.

There is a bit of actual reality in ground ivy. I mean that my yard is infested with the stuff and that I have been spending considerable time in recent weeks pulling its runners out of my flowers. But am I so obsessed with the ground ivy that it fills my waking dreams? I don't think so.

Ground ivy is a rather pleasant looking vine, or would be if you could confine it to its proper place. The plant itself believes that its proper place is winding under, through, and over all other plants. The leaves are small and roundish with a nicely serrated edge; the flowers small and purple. I pull it out because it hasn't learned to share.

Early in the growing season I begin, trying to give the violets, ginger, and trilliums an advantage over the ground ivy. But you can never get it all, and weeks later I need to repeat the process. Now it is July and each week I've spent some time raking out the runners with my fingers in one part of the yard or another.

This won't be the last time, either. The weed comes back, comes back, comes back.

Well enough. It grows, I pull. When I close my eyes, I see a runner of ground ivy. A runner, loosed from its entanglement with plants and earth, solitary and pure. When pulling the ground ivy from the flowers I lift gently, breaking the bonds but not the stem, or at least not too soon. With a good motion, I raise out of the flower patch the runner, or a handful, long and perfect. I throw them on the pile to be green manure.

I, like Camus' Sysiphus, must be happy.

icons/world1.png arg.20080801.0723.html Ants and Government

8/1/2008 7:23

Ants and Government

If you only see ants in your kitchen, said the man on TV, you will think of ants only as pests. Or, if you are only aware of viruses when they cause you disease, you will think of them as pathogens.

That same manner of thought applies to how we often think of government. People who do not notice the government except when it is collecting taxes will naturally conceive of it as a money-bloated entity.

Governments, like ants, have many functions besides taking food from your pantry. There is, however, a certain invisibility which is intrinsic to good government. It arises from the fact that good government is very much about the orderliness of life. If crime is being prevented and traffic accidents avoided because good order is being maintained, then the activities of the government fade into the normal background of daily life. So long as the monetary system is stable and waste is removed from the cities and children play safely in the parks, there is no reason to think about government. Even in the case of disaster, a well-prepared and resiliant government will have only a flicker of visibility before services are restored, alternate travel routes are designated, and the injured and displaced are cared for.

The problem is that people try to kill the ants. Ants in your kitchen are not providing you with any valuable ecological services, but while you are killing the ants you are not doing useful work, either, and you may be doing positive harm to yourself as by chemically disrupting your own environment. Killing the ants is mere wastage.

The question ought to be, "How can the ants and I work together to benefit us both and the rest of the world?" Too many people, I fear, might just dismiss that question saying, "There is no way." Some say the same about government, or of certain nations or ethnic groups, or indeed of almost any category of existence. And if you cannot ask the question, there is a high probability that you will not find the answer.

icons/world1.png arg.20080907.1838.html Government by Assassination

9/7/2008 18:38

Government by Assassination

There seems to be sufficient historical evidence to say that dismantling the government leads to increased crime. That isn't a bizarre notion; one of the leading services which governments provide is the suppression of crime. If no functioning government exists, it would not be surprising to find that this suppression of crime is not being performed.

The historical evidence would come from cases of wars, revolutions, and natural disasters. This essay is not the place (and my commitment is not sufficient) to examine the facts with the minuteness they deserve; I leave that as an exercise for the reader. What I believe such an examination will show is that during interregnums, at the ends of devastating wars, after urban conflagrations or hurricances, there is a period of increased theft, property destruction, and often assault and social conflict.

Assuming that I am right in this -- of course I am right in this -- a military invasion of another nation which results in the destruction of that nation's government will inevitably result in criminal activity. In the case of a war, there is the added problem of leftover partisans. People who supported the losing cause have the opportunity to utilize the breakdown of government as a way of continuing the struggle. In other words, they may use lawlessness as a cover for continuing the war. This is why reestablishing civil authority is a military concern in addition to being a moral imperative.

Now there is a report from Bob Woodward suggesting (although without quite telling us) that as a substitute for effective government in Iraq, the United States has instituted a policy of assassination.

I feel certain that war is bad and murder is worse. Why faceless killing should be less evil than targetted killing is not something I would like to be asked to explain; it may be that there is no distinction at all, but I am loath to tar every soldier with the same degree of guilt as the urban hoodlum or the Nazi Gestapo agent.

There are some who posit that because assassination is given by some sort of official sanction, it is not murder, properly understood. It is, in this view, merely an extension of justifiable warfare. (One needs to work out the concept of a just war in order to make that case persuasively, and any war that is not justified cannot be extended to encompass a concept of righteous assassination.) If, however, even a justifiable war has come to the point where the victorious army is occupying the entire territory of the enemy, such an argument begins to ring quite hollow.

The goal at such a time should be to establish legitimate civil authority and to bring an end to criminal activity in the occupied territory. Failing that, is it reasonable to offer assassination as a substitute?

Perhaps, if one accepts the premise that even a government of criminals is better than no government whatsoever. There is certainly an argument to be made along those lines and I think there is adequate anecdotal evidence from the aftermath of most modern wars to weave a persuasive story along that line. But how does such an argument avoid hypocrisy in the case where the war was originally undertaken to depose a functioning but criminal government?

icons/world1.png arg.20080912.2047.html Teenaged Drivers

9/12/2008 20:47

Teenaged Drivers

The generally well-respected Insurance_Institute_of_Highway_Safety has now recommended that states raise the minimum age for issuing a driver's license to 18, or at least 17. Let me admit right away that I haven't read the IIHS research summaries, so I'm not offering comments on their research per se. But I do already have opinions on the policy direction.

My opinion is that we don't need any more categorical discrimination and status offenses in the United States. We already have plenty of agism around here, prejudices against both the too young and the too old. The old at least don't face laws which create crimes dependent simply on their age. The young do, however. That's the actual reality or a part of it.

What we may not have enough of is actual, rational discrimination. I mean decisions based on a discriminating evaluation of the competence of the individual to be a driver.

A person who has forgotten the rules of the road, or who knows them but fails to practice them, should not hold a license any more than someone who never learned the rules of the road in the first place.

A person who has lost the ability to see, or who doesn't have the strength to control a vehicle, or whose reaction time is not sufficiently rapid for safety, should not be driving.

Someone who habitually drives in a chemically impaired state should be taken off the road, and so should anyone who is medically impaired in such a way that their physical mental capacity has been lost or is not reliable.

Conversely, any person who knows and implements the rules, has the physical capabilities and does not impair them, should be allowed to drive. What does age have to do with any of these criteria?

Along those same lines, the AP article on the subject included the statement: "Karen Sternheimer, a university of Southern California sociologist who studies accident statistics, cited federal data from 2007 showing that drivers ages 25 to 34, as well as those ages 45 to 64, were nearly twice as likely to be involved in alcohol-related fatalities as 16- to 20-year-old drivers."

The problem with taking such an approach is obvious. Certainly it is more fair and almost as certainly it would improve safety on the highways more than would a blanket, age-based rule. But it would be harder to implement.

It is fairly easy to examine the year of a person's birth and rule them in or out of the privileged class on that basis alone. Many people who are not at all competent to drive (including people who are far too young to have developed the competence to drive an automobile) are perfectly capable of discriminating by year of birth.

There, it seems to me, we may find a criterion for rejecting the IIHS proposal. They propose that a potentenial driver's compentence can be evaluated by a person who is manifestly incompetent to perform the task of driving. On its face, such a proposal should be at least suspect if not immediately rejected. Fairness and equity demands that competence only be judged by someone who is herself competent.

icons/world1.png arg.20080921.0748.html Being Poor Momentarily

9/21/2008 7:48

Being Poor Momentarily

My student friend, the U.S. Postal Service, and my friend's university jointly (but not cooperatively) gave me the gift of momentary poverty. I have to say that I didn't much like it.

There are plenty of distractions from life available without the need to spend time and mental energy worrying about the current state of one's checking account. I have a renewed empathy for those who face that worry on a continuing basis, every month or every payday.

Several people commiserated with me during this time, most of them saying they too had such an experience, some of them recently. And then they'd add, "It was my own fault." It always is, of course, at least up to a point. Generally, you do know how much money you are spending and how much is coming in to balance the expenses, and for the most part you can and should anticipate and plan and never, ever, let the one get past the other.

But even a well-to-do control freak with above average analytical skills can make an incorrect estimate or put excessive trust in an unreliable person or institution. When that happens, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down, because all financial plans are built on estimates and assumptions and will fail when the estimates fail to match reality. Even mine.

I am not especially pleased with how I responded to the situation. In practical terms, I did well enough. A few missteps, yes, resulting in temporary overdrafts (which my banks kindly accomodated, exceeding my estimatation of them), but all in all an acceptable performance in practical terms. Inwardly, somewhat less so. I was too quick to blame (others, not myself), too obsessed with the problem (even during Sunday afternoons, when no practical actions could be taken), too much committed to increasing my control for the future (as if I'm not already obsessed enough with control), too little confident in the future, and too close to maintain a consistently realistic perspective.

Although, in my own defense, I did find it hilarious that a man who regularly keeps a $1000 cushion in both his checking accounts would be the victim of a double overdraft.

icons/world1.png arg.20081010.0943.html Equality of Persons

10/10/2008 9:43

Equality of Persons

The Italian exchange student made a comment about how exchange students from the US are handled in European schools. His claim is that American students in Europe are given academic requirements which are tailored to the Americans' background, rather than being expected to follow exactly the same program as the European students. I said that the European approach made sense, but would never be acceptable here because of our infatuation with the idea of equality.

This led us into a long and very interesting conversation about real differences and how we deal with them. I found myself over and over wanting to say, "Yes, that's true, but really we are all still equal." Although I had started the conversation by saying that the idea of equality was pervasive in US society, the extent to which that ideal is embedded in my own psyche was a bit surprising.

We Americans really do believe we are equal, if only in some vague, undefinable way. This is embedded in our literature and law going back at least to 1750, I said, because I couldn't be sure of coming up with any earlier examples if pressed. One way this is expressed is that we almost all believe that we are in the middle class -- as evidenced by the way candidates for political office phrase their economic proposals, all of which are said to provide benefit primarily to the middle class.

The exchange student pointed out that there is a strong spirit of competitiveness and that Americans are quick to take any opportunity to make themselves less equal and more different, especially if that involves becoming wealthier. Of course that's true; it is another aspect of the idea of the American Dream. I suggested Dick Resch as a local example of a wealthy person still connected in many ways to our expansive "middle" class. I don't know Resch (although I've known people who did) so I base most of this on the public media coverage along with what I've heard of his reputation. Resch is clearly no longer middle class in any realistic sense of the term. He has money and uses it to plaster his family name across the community: the Resch Center, the Resch Auditorium, the Resch Trail, the Resch Aquatic Center. (One may note that these gifts primarily benefit the real middle class.) I also said that his grandparents were not rich and we assume that his grandchildren will be middle class, just like all the rest of us. There is some sense, however improbable it might seem, that what Resch did anybody else might have done.

A colleague at work recently argued that Presidents of the United States aren't necessarily more intelligent than the rest of us. He went on to say, in effect, "I could be President, too, if I had those same unfair advantages that George W. Bush had." This illustrates our insistence (against the evidence) that somehow we are equal, even in fundamentally individual attributes like intelligence, while at the same time we denigrate actual and undeniable differences.

I concluded by pointing out that our insistence on human equality and our acting on that belief makes that equality become true, at least partially. Our society is heavily biased against rich and powerful people who separate themselves from the middle class or who lord their wealth over others. The greatest compliment to a rich person (and perhaps the most commonly given) is that he "didn't lose touch with the common man".

We have a presumption that the wealthy and powerful actually are approachable by anyone on the same basis that we approach neighbors and colleagues. To a large extent, people actually act on this presumption; we walk up to leaders of the community to complain about our grievances and we expect the opportunity to shake hands and converse with United States Senators in their offices or at fundraising dinners.

It is true that there are real differences between people, both in themselves and in their circumstances. It is true that we can't clearly define what kind of equality we believe applies across all the people. Nevertheless, we create an actual reality of egalitarianism in the United States by acting out our belief.

icons/world1.png arg.20081017.1654.html The Functions of Style

10/17/2008 16:54

The Functions of Style

Curiously, I'm not speaking of style in any metaphorical or even intellectual sense, but the commonplace idea of style in clothes and hair such superficial nonsense. For which I see some unexpectedly positive functions.

I won't pretend to be an expert on style. To the best of my knowledge, the acknowledged experts only know what they wish the styles would be -- and not what the style actually is. The only people who know what the style actually is are the people who live with it, and from what I've heard the teenagers can't agree, either.

As far as the current observation is concerned, I am thinking primarily about why styles change. Why do styles change? Why, to be different, of course. But why be different? Especially in the matter of clothing or hairstyle, where the obvious reason for having a style is to conform. (Otherwise, why not just do what you like?)

And all that mental and emotional effort spent in thinking about style! What's the point? My suggestion is that is the point. To be somewhat less obtuse, I suggest that one point of style is to raise awareness of one's own body, of other people, and of the connections between people.

You take on a new style of clothing, in part, so that you escape from the lack of thought about your clothing and the body which the clothes cover. (If I'm right about this, there is an obvious reason why teenagers would be more involved with such changes of style. That is, they are in the process of discovering their adult bodies.)

You take on a new hairstyle, in part, in order to have new thoughts about your body and, thus, about yourself. Or it could just be that you are older and male and any earlier hairstyle is now impossible. Either way, style is both a discovery and an expression of new thoughts about yourself.

Equally, we are much aware that other people exist and will look at us. Generally speaking, other people don't see much of our bodies. (There are exceptions worth some other essay.) They do see our clothes, our hair, quite likely they way we walk, all of which are subjects of style. The reality is that they notice a lot less than we think, but they are more likely to notice if any of these change. At a minimum, one person's changing style increases the notice given to that person by other people.

Changing styles can be a way of exploring the thoughts others have about you. In actual reality it can be difficult to know what other people really think. They may be too polite to say. They may not care enough to say. They may not even know what they think.

In lieu of direct statements, you can evoke an indirect response which will give you some information about other people's thoughts about you. If you change your clothes and all your friends begin to shy away from you, that tells you something about the relationship between you and your friends. If you change you hair and casual acquaintances start wanting to be close to you, that tells you something. (The exaggerated view of guys that a change in style will instantly attract swarms of girls is probably not actual reality. The effect I'm thinking of is somewhat more subtle.)

It is my contention that such changes and responses is not only factual but also useful. I suggest that changing styles have the salutary effect of increasing the amount of personal and social information available to the person who changes, and that this increase in information is beneficial and an underlying reason why styles continually change.

icons/world1.png arg.20081109.0643.html Black President Tuesday

11/9/2008 6:43

Black President Tuesday

It's about time, I said. We just elected an African-American to be President of the United States and I wasn't sure that even I was ever going to see that. I flew my U.S. flag the day after the election and I was surprised to see how much more beautiful that flag was now, flying on November 5, 2008, than it was the last time I raised it at my house.

Others said other things:

First time – in a while – I'm proud of our country.

It's like a weight's been lifted from my shoulders that I didn’t realize was there.

I'm still getting a bit of 'lump in throat' from time-to-time myself.

These are all comments from white people of my acquaintance. We believe, from what we hear and see, that the emotion runs deeper for Black Americans and we think that our experience as white Americans is not broad enough to understand the full significance of what we have all done.

I don't pretend that we have entirely achieved what Martin Luther King expressed 45 years earlier in his most famous speech, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

We did take a great stride forward toward that dream. What may be most significant fact about this election is that the evidence says that Barack Obama won the Presidency neither because of his racial heritage nor in spite of it. Voters were obviously aware of his race and considered it, but the best information is that it was not decisive.

Indeed, one the the biggest stories for the rest of the week was what kind of dog the Obama family would bring to the White House next year. And perhaps that really was the biggest story, now that the election of November 5, 2008, has finally happened.

The United States has not reached national perfection we we can be happy with what has been achieved. We can celebrate with each other in the way Dr. King opened that famous speech: "I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation."

icons/world1.png arg.20081109.1520.html Do Not Resuscitate

11/9/2008 15:20

Do Not Resuscitate

November 2, 2008 -- "Just over 100% of all local churches are in the wrong place," according to Dr. Gorton Hindfoot, a District Inspector for the Untied Moccasin Church.

"There are two possibilities," Dr. Hindfoot explained. "Either the local church building was in the wrong place when it was first constructed, or the population has shifted since it was built, or the church will be left behind by future changes."

Dr. Hindfoot was speaking at a congregation which was shut down early in the twentieth century.

Borrowing a term from health care, Dr. Hindfoot proposed putting a Do Not Resuscitate order on local congregations.

"Many local congregations are terminally ill, while others have already expired but nobody has yet noticed," he explained. "A DNR order will allow us to concentrate scarce resources on the few churches which will survive denominational attention."

Hindfoot, himself firmly stuck in the mud, advised others not to be afraid to "take a flying leap".

"I'd like to tell churches with problems to get rid of their buildings and meet over the internet," Dr. Hindfoot said, "but unfortunately I can't even figure out email."

Dr. Hindfoot's remarks received a generally warm welcome, with one person remarking loudly, "I can't hear him, either."

(The Alternative Reality News Service contributed to this report.)

icons/world1.png arg.20081127.0919.html The IRG

11/27/2008 9:19


The Ideal Reality Game: An expansion of the Actual Reality Game, expanded to encompass improvements to the world as it is.

In my ideal reality the gutters are always clean. (Not only does this improve bicycle safety, it is also ecologically sound by reducing the nutrient loading to the streams and bay.) In actual reality homeowners push all their "yard waste" into the street in the fear that leaving it on the terrace will kill the grass (not likely) or at least turn it yellow. Killing the grass is anathema, unless it is death by motor vehicle tire in which case it is sometimes celebrated as evidence of the residents' internal illusion of power.

In my ideal reality nobody ever becomes old except of course the people who are already old, who do not become young. Some accomodation may have to be worked out for the children who are currently young. The essence of being young is incessantly discovering aspects actual reality that have existed unchanged since time immemorial. (It might be time memorial if the rest of us don't get old.) There might be some limit on how much reality a person can discover before becoming no longer young.

In my ideal reality I'd have the chance to work on holidays (like today) and to visit friends on other days when they are not too distracted to converse. In actual reality holidays mean sitting at home, waiting for some scheduled time when I will join too many people who are too little organized, and finally retreating back into my real isolation when everyone else joins the virtual reality of televised professional football.

In my ideal reality there wouldn't be any such thing as "professional" football. I don't see how there can be professional sports even in actual reality. It's just a game! The business is entertainment and illusion, not football.

In my ideal reality we would all be attuned to the true, the beautiful, the good, and the useful (shades of ancient Greek here, please notice). In actual reality we settle for the familiar and the comfortable and we complain when faced with the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable.

In my ideal reality there would be no foolish people and no foolish moments that I am embarassed to recall. In actual reality thinking about alternatives to reality is the tool we use to distinguish between the ideal to be attained and the idiotic.

A little whimsey now and then can bring us some delight and sometimes gently turn us from the wrong into the right. 1979

icons/world1.png arg.20081213.1840.html Chiefs Enough

12/13/2008 18:40

Chiefs Enough

Not so many decades ago, the adage of complaint was "too many chiefs and not enough Indians", meaning that an organization had more than enough people with responsible-sounding titles but too few people tasked with accomplishing the work of the organization.

(I'm not sure why the Native American analogy was used; it may have been a result of the prevalence of Hollywood westerns when the speakers were growing up. In moderately regimented organizations, "too many officers and not enough fighting men" would have been at least as appropriate a phrase. It is possible that there was a desire to avoid any implication of criticism of the military, which actually did have too high a ratio of officers.)

In modern business bureaucracies, the problem may often be too few chiefs. I remember my time in Wisconsin's civil service where some first-line managers held the title of "Section Chief" or "Team Leader", depending on the level of formality in the department. The section chief coordinated the efforts of several professional people who did the actual work of the section or team.

The key aspect of the chief's role, as I see it today, was that this person was able to respond to the needs of the whole organization. the chief was the responsible person, both in theory and (usually) in fact. The chief was the person to whom others would come to ask for services, the person who would decide how to prioritize the work, and the person who had to answer for delays or failure. And could answer -- this is the key point -- could answer because the chief had the authority to set the priorities and schedule the work.

What I see in many organizations is a lack of chiefs. No one seems to be responsible in this sense, no one seems able to respond to needs and requests, to advance or delay a particular task, to pace the effort in a way that most closely meets the demands of policy objectives, to match the available resources with the work at hand. Instead, the people who are assigned the work are not given the authority to manage the work, while the people who might have the authority give their attention to different matters.

The result is not paralysis so much as confusion. Some tasks are completed, but not in the order needed. Some work is done by more than one team. Other tasks never quite get done, because the workers are diverted to something else. Sometimes work gets done too early, and has to be redone when the scope is redefined.

Having Chiefs enough is the minimum requirement for an organization to work effectively.

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