Pink Clouds…

Hard to see in this picture taken on my cell phone, but a very striking cloud formation lit up pink just before dawn: a vertical pillar intersects a thin horizontal cloud, making a gigantic pink cross in the east:

It was much more striking (and much less washed out) in real life.

More Dumb Tests

The NYT has this little essay analyzing an 8th grade graduation test from 1895 which many astute combox readers snope out.  (Has the verb form of ‘snopes’ become current yet? It’s about time it did! We’d have to drop the awkward final ‘s’ – to snope, snoping, I snoped it. Works for me. Maybe I should Google it first.)

Many correctly point out that this test is impossibly hard off the top of one’s head chiefly because it requires knowledge of now-obscure measures – bushels, rods – and tests for stuff we no longer consider important. We could pass it, it is asserted, if these were the sort of items we’d just spent the last few years studying.

Be that as it may, here’s a couple points that seem largely missed:

– Kansas, from where the test originated, was about 80%+ farmers  in 1895, and a huge majority of their kids would have been educated in one-room schools.

– Recall that the teacher in a one-room school taught at the pleasure of the farmers of that ‘section’ – the construction and staffing of the schoolhouse was up to the farm families within each section wherein the school resided. So, the test reflected to some degree what farmers thought was important. Thus, bushels and rods and writing a check and a receipt.

– Students in Kansas in 1895 were likely to spend a small fraction of the time students today spend at school and doing homework. So, if in fact time in school and homework correlate positively in any way to learning, we should expect modern students to be much superior to the farm kids in 1895.

Given the above, this 1895 test raises for me a bunch of different questions.

– Given that we spend vastly more time and money on schools today than in 1895, shouldn’t we expect vastly better results? Are we getting them?

– What are today the areas of expertise that correspond to farming? In other words, if a kid in 1895 needed to know conversion factors for bushels and rods to get along in his world, what do kids today need to know? Are we testing for it? Are we even talking about it?

Finally, I’ve looked at today’s tests, specifically the Star tests from California. They, too, require instant regurgitation of obscure knowledge. The difference is that some 80% of Kansas 8th graders in 1895 actually needed the knowledge we consider obscure to get by in their normal daily lives, while I’d bet maybe 5% of the obscure stuff we test for today has any relationship to the lives those kids will be living once they get out of school.

What’s a Fellah Got to Do to Get Impeached These Days?

Here’s the Oath of Office for the President of the United States:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

The Constitution, Article II, section 3, laying out the duties of the President, lists:

he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed

Apparently, lurking in a penumbra of an emanation someplace invisible to all but Constitutional law professors, it adds: ‘unless he or she really, really doesn’t like the law, in which case he or she needn’t bother either with trying to get Congress to change the law like any other citizen, or letting the Supreme Court do its job and rule on the constitutionality of the law, but can just, you know, decide to uphold the law in the sense of pretending it doesn’t exist and having the Justice Department do likewise.’

My primary beef with the gay rights movement is that there’s an express assumption that if you take an ax to the root of our current civilization, what will spring up in its place will be a bouquet of surpassing sweetness and light, not, say, the Reign of Terror or the Cultural Revolution. Do the gay rights advocates not realize that, like Robespierre, their own personal Committee of Public Safety is going to put *their* necks on the block just as soon as it is expedient to do so? Do they think those seeking political power and using them as tools to get it really owe them any allegiance? If the power-hungry manage to get power in a world clear-cut of any of the cultural restraints that have grown up over the centuries to reign power in – such as rule of law, and the ideas that human life is sacred, and it is worthy and even expected that a good Christian citizen would lay down his life to defend his fellow citizens, even when his fellow citizen is a gay man – do gay rights advocates think they will be safe? The moment they cease to be useful to the power hungry, they will become just another irrelevant and annoying squeaky wheel – and, in the brave new world, squeaky wheels get the ax.

So, be careful about striking at the rule of law – it’s an annoyance when it keeps you from doing what you want, but it’s a literal life-saver when it keeps your opponents from doing what they want.

Scary Prayer

I’m bad at prayer.  Distracted, bored, falling asleep, rote – the usual. However, I do keep after it, nudged by who knows what heavenly patrons and the example of my beloved wife – no credit to me, that’s for sure. I’m counting on maybe getting points for effort. In fact, I’m hoping I get a chance to forgive somebody totally undeserving at some point before I die, so that I can plead that whole ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’ defense before the judgment seat of God. I have no back-up plan.

So, a while back, I’m being blessed with upwards of 30 whole seconds of being able to direct my attention to listening to God. ‘O.K., God – your will be done. What You want, not what I want. But you’re going to have to do it” when the thought forms instantly in my mind: kids? And just as instantly, faster than thought, I answer: No!

Come on, God can be a bit of a goof. Have you seen some of His favorite saints? Can’t my kids just grow up to be good parents and spouses? Do we have to be open to the whole over-the-top martyr business? I finally get my mind calmed for a few seconds, and I get THIS?

I’m not the deal-maker kind of suppliant – I get that all we can reasonable ask of God is that His will be done. We lay out our problems, concerns and questions, ask God’s blessings and help, but always wrap up with ‘Your will, not mine, be done.” Right? But this kid thing – please, God, be reasonable here. I have to love and raise them, do I also have to hand them over to you? So that you can make a St. Catherine of Siena or a St. Francis or a St. Phillip Neri out of them? Can’t we cut a deal? No? Really? That’s kind of tough – You ask a lot, you know.

Thy Will be done.

The Gift of Fast Typing…

I don’t have it. Even a short post takes time. I’m a little cowed and awed by those folks out there who throw up half a dozen (or more) posts per day, or – I’m talking to you, John C. Wright – spit out a several page essay in an hour or two that would take me all day or more to write.

Got a backlog here at the Yard Sale of the Mind. Had to, you know, *work* for a living last couple weeks, and there’s no slowdown in sight. Several more christian iconography bits, some notes on the news, music at Mass reviews – stuff like that.

While there is no point whatsoever to this post, I feel a little better because, hey, look! It’s done!

Christian Iconography: The Basics

Iconographical symbols are natural object and colors with deep, pre-logical meaning. Signs are more conventional carries of meaning, which may or may not use symbols to help bolster the clarity of their message. Christian iconography uses both symbols and signs to get across deep, pre-verbal messages and the specific identity of the persons and events portrayed.

First, a useful distinction – consider a stop sign:

This is a sign, which communicates meaning via convention and the word ‘Stop’: there is nothing about a red octagon that, in itself, means stop;

The color red, on the other hand, is used in the stop sign symbolically – unlike the word ‘stop’ and the octagon, red has meaning that precedes its use in a road sign. That meaning comes from universal human experiences, not from any conscious choice. Further, the meaning of the color red is at a deeper level than words – saying red represents blood and divinity and burning power, while true, does not mean that anyone *gave* those meanings to red.

A red octagon is a very good choice for a stop sign – easy to recognize, attention-grabbing color, plus the octagon shape is rare in nature, so the sign is unlikely to be mistaken for a natural object – a good thing, given its purpose. It is a convention built on common human experience. A green circle would not be nearly as good a stop sign, because the color and shape conflict with the intended meaning.

Christian iconography is like the stop sign, only much richer. It starts with colors and other natural objects redolent with meaning and uses them to communicate something deeper. It is a subset of the more general presence of symbols in Christianity, many if not most of which come straight out of Scripture: water, bread and wine, the cross, lambs, fish, and so on – it is not only or even primarily that these symbols are used in representational art – they dominate the poetry, the prayers, and the rituals of the Church, and have since the time of the Apostles, who lived the New Testament and were steeped in the Old.

These same symbols are used for icons of the saints, plus a new set of signs and symbols proper to the saints themselves. For example, St. Lawrence, an early deacon and martyr, is always portrayed with a grill, because he was famously grilled to death. St. Catherine is portrayed with a wheel, the means of her martyrdom. Less grim to modern sensibilities, St. Dominic is often portrayed accompanied by a Dalmatian dog holding a flaming torch in its mouth – because the Dominicans wore black and white – the colors of the dog – and Latin phrase ‘Domine Canes’ means ‘dogs of the Lord’ – so the Dominicans were the Lord’s Dogs, spreading the light of the Gospels – thus the torch. Puns and other jokes are embraced by the iconographers, as long as they get the point across.

If the iconographers are doing their job well, a single set of conventions, with a small number of variations, will develop for each traditional subject – no one had to make this happen, apart from the artists efforts to get the image right. The icon is right when the viewers understand it and see the deeper connections clearly. At that point, changing what has now become ‘traditional’ will become merely confusing – it will look wrong. For example, if you portrayed the Blessed Mother dressed in bright green, no one would believe it. The Blessed Mother wears a red or white with gold trim gown, or just maybe a gold gown – but that’s pretty much it. To the viewer, is you portrayed her dressed otherwise, you’d be trying to tell them something – it couldn’t just be ‘because I like green better’. If she’s wearing a cloak, it will be blue – almost always midnight blue – or black. You could just maybe get away with brown, but you’d have some ‘splainin’ to do.

To sum up: Iconographical symbols are natural object and colors with deep, pre-logical meaning. Signs are more conventional carries of meaning, which may or may not use symbols to help bolster the clarity of their message. Christian iconography uses both symbols and signs to get across deep, pre-verbal messages and the specific identity of the persons and events portrayed. Each subject commonly portrayed  – a saint, a biblical story, a martyr’s death – will have quickly developed a set of symbols and signs which become conventional because they strike everybody as ‘correct’. An artist who deviates from these conventional representations risks losing his audience.

What You Need to Know About Sex

We outliers – monogamous faithfully married heterosexual people with families – have a somewhat different view of sex than the one popularly espoused.

Shocking, I know. I hope you were sitting down.

I think one reason this contrary view is largely unknown or, when known, is dismissed is that, to happily married people, sex is something deeply personal, in the sense of being something shared with one and only one other person in the world, in this sense correctly referred to as your ‘lover’. To a married person, sex is not some disembodied abstraction that can be talked about in public like your favorite breed of dog. Sex is something that is shared concretely with one other person, to whom one has become, via sex, linked in a permanent, inseparable and  mysterious way – it’s way, way beyond words. Talking about it casually does violence to the reality.

Nevertheless, I’ll here risk mentioning a few general traits of sex as understood by happily married couples with families, to show why the current view of sex is not rejected out of some prudish defect in thought or emotion, but rather because it rings very false to real experience. Continue reading “What You Need to Know About Sex”

Contemplating Our Mortality at a Young Age…

Ah, yes – it is with grim satisfaction that I note that it is never too young to start pondering our ultimate fate. I was a bit surprised to find this stern warning in the school kitchen – don’t know that I’d advise trying to jump start this sort of grave meditation amidst so many sharp objects.


Science was my first love. Was fortunate enough to go to school in a time and place where, as long as you were keeping up and weren’t distracting other students, the teachers were willing to leave you alone. Got to spend grades 5 – 8 basically reading stuff while making a very occasional and token contribution in class.We had a pretty decent little library for a small working-class Catholic school – at least, it kept me happy for a couple years. The public library was only a couple blocks from school, so, when I was ready, I ‘graduated’ to it.

Worked my way through the Time-Life science series first. In the one on electromagnetism, there were instructions on how to make a working electric motor out of paperclips, tacks and wire. I made one for the science fair – it worked great, but was very fragile. I failed to make sure that the teachers saw that it worked when I dropped it off, because, by the time the show came around, it didn’t – don’t know why, something was out of alignment or the batteries died, who knows. It didn’t do well, which irritated me, because *I* thought it was cool, and way fancier than most of the stuff the other 10 year olds were making, but to the judges it must have looked like a pile of wires.

I relate this story only to give some idea of why, despite my great interest in science, I never studied it formally outside of a few classes in high school and college – I lack something, call it the experimental knack. In college, I once caused the evacuation of the science lab by failing to consider that, once I’d reduced a liquid to powder in a crucible over a Bunsen burner, it would be a good idea to let it cool before titrating some nasty chemicals into it. Sigh.

But the theory – man, I was all over it. Unlike many famous scientists today, I understood instinctively and from a very young age that there were things science could tell you and things science could not (which, I think, is why I ended up studying philosophy).

So, for the last 35+ years, I’ve been very suspicious of anybody who figuratively (and sometimes literally) stands up at the podium, looks down his nose, and pronounces that science has shown this or that. Similarly, the phrase ‘scientific consensus’ sets off all kinds of alarms – I’d like someone to point out to me some great scientist, someone whose contributions reverberate around the world and fundamentally affect what people do and think – Newton, Einstein, Planck, that level of scientist – saying ‘the scientific consensus’ somehow settled something. I’d think, rather, that claim would merit a sneer or a laugh, for one very good reason – these are the very guys who made their marks by *upsetting* the consensus of their day.That’s often how science works.

Experiment, data, falsifiable theory – that’s science. Browbeating questioners with claims that the *real* scientists all agree is not, especially when the argument is fundamentally circular: real scientists are the ones who agree.

The point isn’t that claims of ‘consensus’ prove any wrong, but rather that they prove nothing at all. There’s a scientific consensus, for example, that water boils at 100c at sea level and under normal pressure. It’s a consensus *because* anybody so inclined can check it out for themselves. The experimental data backs it up.

In an earlier post, I discussed how people with an agenda, if they are at all smart, are always on the lookout for their Guy Fawkes – that guy on the other side who behaves so egregiously that he creates sympathy. “See! See!”, you can claim, “our opponents are dangerous lunatics!” In Guy Fawkes’s case, he stands in for all the perfectly sane and reasonable people willing to die for the belief that the Crown of England was not and could not truly be the head of the Church in England. When admired judges, bishops and young mothers are willing to die for this belief, it makes the other side look bad – and so, in the nick of time, mad bomber Fawkes appears, to supply the kind of opponent the Crown needed.

In the same way, Andrew Wakefield is useful – see, he’s a fraud! See the kind of people who oppose the scientific consensus! And look at all the gullible people who follow him!  And, it’s all true – Wakefield is a fraud, and millions of gullible people still follow him. And Fawkes really did want to blow up Parliament. But what none of this proves is that those who oppose a scientific consensus are, by that fact alone, shown to be frauds or nuts. Only the data can do that.

What pains me is not when some nut or suffering parent is wrong, but when scientists who should know better start playing the ‘we know better’ card. So often, it’s a guy like Wakefield, who’s in it for the money, or Sagan, who was in it for the fame, who use science as a club to beat us lesser mortals into submission.

And, here’s the kicker: it has always been thus. The history of science is full of grandstanding self-promoters (Galileo, for on  prominent example), petty back-stabers (Newton) and frauds (too many to list – how about Freud and Kellogg?).

The data is sacred. Bad data yields bad science. Theories only mean anything when based on good data. Problems with the data result in problems with the theory. And the frequency of saints among scientists is no greater than among financial advisers.