Damn Lies and Statistics Update: School Shootings Data

As noted in the previous post, I was surprised to find on NPR something even as mildly critical of accepted wisdom as an article pointing out that, no, there have not been 230+ school shooting in one year (2016, I think) but rather only around 11, and only 2 of those might be what non-hysterics think of as school shootings – somebody with a gun trying to kill a lot of kids and teachers on school grounds.

I stopped listening to NPR 20 years ago except for the occasional accidental flip through the station in the car. We used to be supporters, like $10 a month. So it’s not like I don’t know their shtick. Their shtick is to provide a thin yet thoughtful sounding veneer on progressive politics without ever saying: we are promoting progressive politics. After a while, their standard practice of dwelling on only explanations that comported with their biases and remaining mum on those that didn’t wore me out, even when they’d interview the occasional token person who might actually have  thought they didn’t agree with.

Yet somehow, the producers let a segment get through that ran the real risk of revealing to even those of very little brain that, at the very least, the Department of Education did a comically incompetent, amateur job of collecting shooting statistics. The USDA knew the numbers thus collected were nonsense  – yet published them anyway. See in the article the number of issues and questions around the survey question. Any reckoning critter would know that mechanically summing up and reporting on data collected amid such a miasma of confusion and misunderstanding is nonsensical.

In the good old days of 20 years ago, such a segment would garner very little reaction. NPR’s core audience would barely stir from their dogmatic slumbers; as the report washed over them in their dream state, they’d reflexively interpret it as only some vague call for better statistics or more money for the USDE, while approving of the truthy-ness of the reported numbers – there’s a school shooting crisis, after all! Only haters would quibble over arcane reporting problems!

The few that noted it at all at a conscious level, and did a little rational analysis, might tell their family and friends or even write a sure to be ignored letter to the editors. In short, criticisms of the USDE and of panic mongering in general engendered by this segment would die a quick and nearly silent death.

But not today. Ah, the wonders of the internet! Someone on Twitter linked to this segment; I read it and posted on it, and maybe as many as 100 people (I flatter myself) read my thoughts on it. A few even clicked through to the NPR website! Woohoo!

But I and the person who tweeted the link are not alone! My humble efforts were evidently matched by dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of other readers and critics, so much so that this NPR segment was getting all kinds of social media coverage. Perhaps even millions of people were being exposed to all sorts of wrong think, such as USDE statistics not being reliable, and the school shooting crisis being largely a hoax, and the possibility the USDE is not exactly apolitical, and…

So much so that Facebook censored mention of it.

We have always been at war with Eastasia.

 

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Assorted Thursday Links & Comments

A. Cool maps: How land is used in the contiguous 48 states.

useage map
From Bloomberg https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-us-land-use/

Comments: heard somewhere that the entire world could be fed from California’s Central Valley alone. Given the commentary accompanying these maps, that’s not hard to believe: only a relatively small fraction of US farmland is used to directly grow food for humans. Mostly, it’s ethanol, animal feed – and fallow land. The Central Valley is, like so many things here in California, upscale – they grow almonds, watermelons and sweet corn instead of wheat, rice and beans. Nothing wrong with comparative ‘luxury’ foods, and I’d imagine the ‘feed the whole world’ claim might ignore the need to lets fields rest occasionally, but it’s easy to imagine a world’s worth of rice and beans coming from the world’s single best agricultural region.

The enormous amount of land classified as ‘grazing’ also gave me pause. Included are vast swaths of Nevada, Utah and New Mexico where, having seen those area, I’d have to think if you were a herdsman, you’d be grazing not too many very tough animals, like longhorn or goats. Those areas look a lot more like deserts than pastures. Be that as it may, having driven through them occasionally, I have never seen very many cattle. Classifying land as grazing land doesn’t seem to mean anything much is grazing on it.

Finally, the Eastern quarter of the US seems to be largely forests. This comports with my experience. As soon as you get out of the larger cities, you more often than not end up among the trees. (Of course, I’m driving, so these areas = what you can see from the road in my experience.) My experience of California is that about 1/3 of it is covered in forests as well – but the classification system puts national and state parks in another category, so those forests are not forests. Still, driving around or flying over the northern third of the state would certainly give the impression you’re seeing pretty much contiguous forests. But, hey, it’s a government classification system versus my lying eyes – who you going to believe?

B. Stopped clock division: School Shootings. Or not. Suffice it to say that, like Mark Twain’s death, the number of school shootings has been greatly exaggerated. Just under 240 show up on the US Department of Education’s report. NPR (doing some actual reporting. For once.) managed to confirm – 11. 238 is a little different from 11. I have a minor in math, so you can trust me on this.

There’s this concerted effort – NPR, SciAm, NYT and 538 are in on it, at least – to shake collective heads (heads often positioned above lab coats, after all) and declare that Science is Hard when presented with examples of Science! being stupid, dishonest, and laughably incompetent in some combination.

In this case, the takeaway should be: if the US Department of Education were to tell you the sun rises in the east, you’d probably want to stick your head out the window some early morning and verify. I occasionally have pointed out egregiously self-serving numbers from this source. Graduation and drop-out rates? I’d expect no more accuracy in them than in the school shooting numbers from the link.

The USDE does have a difficult task: it needs present government controlled compulsory schools as both successful enough to warrant our continued support, yet dismal enough to warrent continued calls for more money, more time, more homework – in effect, more school. Round up those drop-outs! (and home schoolers!) More homework and before and after school programs! Free college all around! Because the solution to people failing and bailing school, to graduating without a measurable trace of education is: More school!

That these claims contradict each other is never to be mentioned.

C. Not a link – who needs it, at this point? We live in an age where character assassination is not only an acceptable response to allegations we don’t like, but is frankly the only acceptable response. Used to be the sign of an educated person that they could separate the argument or claim from the person making it, and deal with each separately. A scoundrel might speak the truth, after all, and a saint might be in error.

We’ve progressed beyond such simple, might I say even binary, thinking!

A few brief highlight along the road we took to get here:

Hegel: Classic logic, including especially the Law of Non-contradiction, is for the little people. Real philosophers, who can be identified by their agreement with Hegel, just know stuff. The enlightened are enlightened by their enlightenment, and no argument, especially a logical argument, can gainsay them!

Marx: Hegel was correct, except true enlightenment consists of agreeing with Marx. We’ll call such agreement being on the Right Side of History.  If you persist in disagreeing with Marx or are even simply unaware of Marx’s views, you are on the wrong side of History, tools of oppression, and have marked yourself for culling at the earliest opportunity.

Freud: You only disagree with Freud because you’re sexually repressed. Your outrageous demands for evidence, replication, acknowledgement of other theories, and so on just mean you’re really, really sexually repressed.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: There are work-a-day lawyers and judges out there for whom my fine theories are too elevated. But you enlightened lawyers and judges, who of course can be identified by your agreement with me, have figured or are ready to figure it all out.

And so on.

Lesser minds than these 4 gentlemen will see the weapon here without feeling in the least encumbered by the wall of words disguising it. Cutting to the chase: if you disagree with me, you are not just wrong, but evil! We have no duty to understand or even acknowledge your position or claims, there could be no point to that, because you are a bad actor acting badly!

In other words, argument has been reduced to simply asserting your opponent is a bad actor. Trying to reason about it is simply more evidence of evil. Kafka trap is now the norm, and has been for decades.

This right here is a key feature of the modernism all those 19th century popes were condemning.

A Comment or Two on the Current Unpleasantness

In the Church.

In general, I follow the rule of not getting emotionally or intellectually involved in the dirt, and not saying anything bad about priests. I recommend it for us peanut gallery folks.

Today, however, want to point out something subtle and pernicious and so very modern in the way many church leaders seem to think think.

Take this, for today’s example:

https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/cardinal-cupich-pope-bigger-agenda_Chicago-491855581.html

cupich

Here we have Cardinal Cupich explaining that:

  1. the Pope has a bigger agenda than dealing with the sex abuse scandal
  2. It’s a rabbit hole – dealing with it would derail more important things
  3. The pope has a record of acting when actionable information is made known
  4. People don’t like the pope because he’s Latino
  5. It’s not just about the Catholic Church.

So:

  1. It is not the primary duty of the Church, the Bride of Christ, to be holy. The personal holiness of all Catholics and most especially of Her priests, ordered to their salvation, can be set aside for the sake of the environment and migrants, for example.
  2. Seeking justice and truth is a far too involved and time-consuming activity when other more pressing goals are on the table.
  3. The pope acting on credible information – isn’t that the question being asked? It is a rabbit hole to ask it? Seems a fairly straight forward question. Either Vigano’s information wasn’t actionable or was never known by the pope. Well? Is this the denial Francis himself would not make?
  4. This is simply too absurd for serious consideration. Really? People were all cool with Italian (or Polish or German) popes, but an Argentinian pope (of Italian ancestry!) is just too much? This reeks of deflection and desperation.
  5. The church somehow can only act if EVERYBODY gets on the sex abuse bandwagon? We now *follow* in moral issues, instead of lead? Or does the Church get a pass because gym teachers also abuse people?

The basic attitude here is political. Some powerful subset of the bishops has long seen their role as primarily political, of trying to get the state under the guidance of Democratic party to do the good works of the Church. Worries about the spiritual well-being of their flocks and priests are easily classified as rabbit holes, things that merely distract from their *real* job of using political influence to create heaven on earth.

It’s no surprise that this is being said by Chicago’s archbishop – a city long given to big Catholic funerals and weddings for criminals, mobsters and murderers who, nonetheless, were the political powers and so could not be offended. Habitually letting the personal criminal behaviors of the people you are courting for political reasons slide for Higher Goals in the Big Picture, ignoring their advocacy for sins like abortion and sodomy because they never met a union or refugee they didn’t love, is a habit of contempt for Christian charity. Let them die the second death, so long as we get to unionize and outlaw capital punishment!

They all seem to think they’re Cardinal Richelieu (as if that would be desirable). They’ll let others loose their souls, and loose their own, if they go to bed at night having been patted on the head by the right kind of politicians.

All those saints, starting with John the Baptist, who called out the sins of the powerful and got persecuted, banished and murdered – pray for us! Pray for our priests, bishops and pope! And pray we have the strength to do the same.

Update: Week 2 of the Writing/Job Hunt Project.

(I’ll ease up on these updates, which it’s hard to imagine many people find very interesting except, perhaps, as cautionary tales, once I get it more in a grove and whatever feeble novelty wears off. Do have a couple book reviews to do…) 

Image result for sisyphus
Not remotely like this. 

  • First week of The Plan: got one story – the White Handled Blade – finished, read it aloud to the family, revised in response to their criticisms, now need to contact existing/find some additional beta readers. So: if you’ve already said you’ll beta read additional stories for me, expect emails; if you haven’t and want to read this (YA Arthurian fantasy), please contact me using the email under the ‘About’ page here.
  • Also, as mentioned before, did revisions to Rock based on beta reader’s feedback, for which I will always be grateful. I’ve decided to let it sit for a bit, maybe until the end of this week, and take one more pass at tightening it up in response to some recommended changes/clarifications I couldn’t quite figure out how to work in the first pass. After that, it’s done. Next will be finding possible markets, which is proving to be a daunting task – I only know maybe three SF&F magazines personally – Asimov’s, Analog, Sci Fi & Fantasy – and that largely from the distant past when I used to read the dead tree editions. Rock doesn’t seem right for them to me (I have other stories/ideas that would be better fits IMO, but I got to write them/finish them first).  People have helpfully compiled lists of markets on the internet. You want a time sink? Try checking out SF&F/YA markets you’ve never heard of. The only real way to get a feel is to read the stuff they publish. That can take a while.
  • Now working on It Will Work, the flash fiction exercise that grew into a 6-7,000 word short story. Because it began as flash fiction in seven parts, I was shooting for a shocking twist and cliffhanger in each section. Do that seven times, and you got yourself a whole lot of plot to tie together. Lots of fun. Will end up about twice as long as the sum of the sections that have appeared here.
  • Phone interview for London job Wednesday morning 7:00 a.m. Should be interesting.
  • Getting so close on finishing the next phase of brickwork out front. Will post pictures.

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More like this.

Here’s one amateur’s experience trying to be disciplined, writing every day for at least a few hours. It’s fun, so far, since I’m not on a deadline nor needing to sell stuff to put bread on the table. I’m aware that makes me the worst kind of dilettante.  But that’s where I’m at for now.

Over 6 writing days, only had to really force myself to work on stuff a couple times. Mostly, the 4-5 hours fly by. Of course, at this point, there’s a lot of just finding and organizing stuff accumulated over the years in various formats and on google drives under various email addresses. It’s writing time, sort of, since I need to find what I’ve got in order to work on it. That should be over soon. So I might get a job offer I like and that will push me back into having a couple hours a day, tops. Or I might not. We’ll see.

Rock has gotten to the point where I’m thoroughly bored with it (it will pass, I think). It only really has two characters and it’s short, so there’s not a lot thickness to them. It’s a piece of fluff, frankly. Shooting for making it at least a good piece of fluff. But, hey, at the very least it was a good exercise. Now to collect some rejection slips for it! Woohoo!

The White Handled Blade I like a lot, much more fun with the characters and their arcs. The main character is, I think, likable and sympathetic. There’s a clown car’s worth of secondary characters, which it was fun to try to make interesting and different in a few lines. Seems OK. Let’s see how much I like it once some readers have beat it up a little…

It Will Work is likewise a blast so far, despite having only two maybe three characters with much screen time. While I try to keep the action coming, I’ve also laid and set off a number of emotional landmines. This is important practice, at the very least, as the Nameless Novel will need a lot of that action – I’ve outlined a lot of  very complex and emotion-charged relationships that need to unspool satisfactorily over time for the novel to work. So, as of this morning, I’m loving It Will Work. Beats the alternatives.

Hope to finish it this week. Then will be faced with the choice of trying to knock off a couple more half-finished and half-baked stories, picking a new one to try off the Story Ideas list,  working on the novel, or starting in on the education history book.

We’ll see how that goes.

 

Polanyi’s Great Transformation, pt 1

(Note: I’m reading this work in preparation for reading Patrick Deenen’s Why Liberalism Failed simply because, over dinner, a friend casually mentioned that it figures into Deenan’s argument somehow. Let’s see how this goes. Kinda busy writing these days, (huzzah!) so may be a while before I get to read and report on the rest.)

A third of the way through Karl Polanyi”s the Great Transformation (That’s a .pdf. If you want other formats, here.)

The unambiguously good part: Polanyi makes near constant references to events, developments, tribes, people and so on about which I know next to nothing: 19th century English history, enclosure, the Trobriand Islanders, kula, various politicians and thinkers and on and on. I’ve spent nearly as much time on the web reading up on these topics as I’ve spent reading the book itself. As usual, I’m left shaking my head at the holes in what I know more each time I learn something new. But it’s still a good thing, and I plan to continue this practice as I go on.

Polanyi sets out to show that free markets and the thinking behind them are myths and frauds. There is no such thing as a natural and near-universal practice of truck & barter among primitive and not so primitive peoples. Such trading as did occur was generally ritualized and often symbolic. Free markets as we now understand them were a creation of the late 18th and 19th centuries, complete with a counterfactual mythology about how markets arose naturally and dated back to the earliest times when tribes traded with tribes or among themselves.

The next step – and here, I’m mixing in what the authors of the prefaces say about Polanyi with what he says himself, on the assumption that he’ll get around to it later – is to show how any economy prior to our current free markets was embedded in and a function of society in general, and then show how central management of economic activity was and remains the true ‘natural’ development, one we’ve discarded at great cost and continued peril.

Before we get into details, two asides. Can’t find the source at the moment, but Polanyi is described as having a ‘complicated’ relationship to Marxism. In my experience, that generally means he is a Marxist who picks a few nits with Marx and would like to distance himself from the atrocities of Lenin, Stalin, et al. And, sure enough, his intellectual companions are, with few exceptions, Marxists. He was ‘attracted’ to Fabianism, whatever ‘attracted’ might mean. I’m thinking, based on what the Fabian Society says about itself and its goals, that he was a Communist and a liar. But I’m harsh that way, taking what people say their motives and practices are at face value.

Be that as it may, one thing clearly evident in this book so far is what I would call a Marxist approach to history: regardless of what has happened, there are only a few acceptable explanations available, each having as its chief characteristic the dismissal of individual human actions in favor of gigantic faceless Forces. He’s gone light on Oppression so far, but big on Progress and Capitalism. I assume he’ll catch up later.

Another characteristic of the Marxist approach is to torture facts to meet the needs of theory. We’ll get to that in a minute. Suffice it to say that reading Polanyi so far reminds me of my youth when I read a couple Erich von Däniken books claiming that space aliens were responsible for much of human progress. (Hey, I was a kid, they were lying around) He had a recurring and annoying habit of employing the rhetorical flourish of concluding arguments with variations of ‘what other explanation could there be?’ Even in my youth, I’d start in with ‘I dunno, how about X, Y, and Z?’ Polanyi’s accounts of ‘primitive’ peoples are more sophisticated, but amount to the same claim: that the facts only support his conclusions. I dunno, how about X, Y and Z?

Second, and this may be that I’m just ignorant, I do not recognize what exact argument in favor of global, self-regulating markets Polanyi is refuting. Unlike the Scholastics, he does not provide a description of his opponents views that they would accept as accurate, but simply assumes his audience knows what he’s talking about. Now, I’m only lightly read in economics – dismal science, indeed – but I’ve never heard an argument that states that free markets should be the be all and end all of all economic activity under all circumstances. In fact, what I like about the idea of free markets is that they exist among free people – and that freedom of the people is logically and practically prior to the freedom of the market. Therefore, if and when markets might act in such a way as to impinge upon the freedom of the people, for example, in creating monopolies or in the selling of uranium reserves to an at least potentially hostile party, political action could be taken to block such a sale for the common good. More fundamentally, in a free society, individual action could be taken. Don’t spend money on people who hate you, for example.

Polanyi argues instead that the logic of the free market demands that not only the market be free in some absolute sense, but that society be made to conform to the needs of the market. This is among several conclusions he leaps to so far that basically come out of left field. Then again, Marx, following Hegel, believes that truth doesn’t have to make sense. You either get it or you don’t. Law of non-contradiction be damned.

A ‘believer’ in free markets could hold many things, say God, family, country, to be more primary and important than free markets. Heck, they could even believe that free markets, in the sense of letting people keep what they work for and sell and buy what they want – subject, of course, to God, family and country, to stick with the example – falls out of the same basic understanding of human nature and reality that lead them to elevate God, family and country in the first place.

But Marxists believe that lived experience falls out from whatever huge forces History has unleashed on us at the moment. It’s the system, man. Instead of families forming communities that form governments that reflect more or less imperfectly the interests of the people in those families, History dictates Oppression of one sort or another in the form of Capitalism or Feudalism or whatever. But salvation is at hand! A Mighty Fortress is Our Socialism! For reasons neither Marx nor his sycophants have ever explained,  this time History will inflict happiness on us all by means of Socialism, if only we are sincere enough and keep watch in the pumpkin patch or something. Having learned from Hegel, they write fat books, coin lots of neologisms and throw down the big words and use other words in ways no one else ever does to cover up the fact that their ideas, when stated plainly in words everybody understands, are infantile.

By the end of the first third of the book, Polanyi makes his strongest and most important point, the one upon which he hangs the idea that free markets of necessity destroy people and nature: that the logic of free markets demands that all the components of economic activities be treated as commodities. Free markets demand that anything that can be bought and sold on the market is free to be bought and sold on the market, and that such a market be free from outside (governmental) interference. In modern free markets, this includes money, land and people. Free markets inescapably demand that labor is just another commodity, to be regulated by the dead hand, and so people having their livelihoods and lives destroyed is a logical and even desirable outcome if that’s what the markets determine should happen. Similarly, the planet will be raped, since whoever can get the most out of it with the least investment wins. He assumes that this means simple, direct and immediate destruction of the planet as a result of consuming resources.

Money, land and people do not exist to be traded on an open market. Yet they are treated as commodities. Polanyi calls them fictitious commodities.

A quibble, yet one that calls into question Polanyi’s fundamental grasp of economics: he’s wrong about money. He asserts that, just as land and people are fictitious commodities, since they were not created to be traded, money was not created to be traded. But that’s exactly what money is created for, even and especially in the sense of money markets. As discussed here, most money in free market systems is created not by government fiat, but by private lending. Because of the fractional reserve system, banks create money by lending far more of it out than they hold in reserves. Yet, the money lent is as real and valuable as money created by government fiat, and is the vast bulk of the money that’s traded on money markets.

Perhaps a distinction could be made between modern money creation via lending under a fractional reserve system and money such as wampum or gold coins or big carved rocks. Polanyi does not do this, for a very good reason from his point of view: the bulk of his examples so far would fall apart if one were allowed to question what, for example, Trobriand Islanders kula trade has to do with any analysis of modern markets (spoiler: nothing whatsoever), or how come Europeans as a whole are much better off  now even after the disaster and injustice of the Enclosure program, if the safeguards that fought and delayed enclosure were banished from the earth by free markets? In other words, making distinctions that logic and simple honesty require is not in the cards, so long as those distinctions do not support the desired conclusions. As I said, Marxist.

The first chapters concern themselves with Enclosure and the so-called Tragedy of the Commons. Here Polanyi follows the well-worn track of every Marxist I’ve ever read: start by describing a tragedy caused by Capitalism or greed, in order to position yourself as the defender of the oppressed and all opponents as heartless reactionaries. Those of us who are not proponents of a flat moral universe might point out that, yes, people can be greedy, heartless and petty, and that such lamentable characteristic exist prior to any economic or political system. We might even point out that not only does Socialism in the real world fail to mitigate these behaviors, their grandest flowerings have taken place under socialist regimes.  Those who take other people’s stuff are thieves, after all – unless they are socialists, in which case they are merely the instruments of History’s inexorable march of Progress. The more equal need their dachas to keep their revolutionary edge, I suppose.

Next, we hear about the Trobriand Islanders and their kula trade. Here Polanyi insists that the ritualized exchange of ritual gifts used to reinforce social relationships among  8,000 isolated islanders with nothing else to trade must be accepted as an example of – what, exactly? Had fun reading up these folks, how pretty much the only resources they have are yams, fish and palm fronds. Anybody can clear a little jungle and grow yams with minimal effort. They developed a system by which the village chief causes a yam house to be built and the villagers hand over their yams to be handed out as the chief decides.  Also, if a man wants sex and/or marriage, he need to show the object of his desire some nice yams, to demonstrate that he’s the kind of guy who can really grow them yams! (The Margaret Mead flavored claim that the islanders don’t think sex and babies are necessarily connected is more easily and believably explained as people pulling gullible Europeans’ legs with a cabbage-patch story. But we’d reveal ourselves as rubes were we to laugh at the people in lab coats.)

In other words, these are subsistence farmers who do a little fishing. They have nothing to trade in the economic sense, and nothing to gain from putting in extra hours working. Instead, their biggest problem – hope you’re sitting down – is acting out the occasional urge to kill each other. War, in other words. The Europeans forbade war, leading to the development of a unique and highly ritualized from of cricket, where they islanders can act out their aggression without (usually) killing each other.

The kula trade is how the islanders confirm their kinship and peaceful relationships with the nearby villages. Ritual objects are given is such a way that, in a decade or so, each object makes its way around the loop of the islands back to the original village.

This, Polanyi assures us, is an example of trade, of a market. We are to learn from this example that markets aren’t free, but are embedded in the culture in which the trading takes place. This lesson will come in very handy next time I’m required to give a ritual object to my neighbors to reinforce our mutual agreement that we won’t kill each other.

The next section is about commodities fictitious or otherwise discussed above.

The writers of the introduction and preface try mightily to show how recent history has proven Polanyi prophetic. Despite a precipitous drop in poverty along with a more than tripling of the world’s population, we are to believe the capital markets are so evil that we need to go back to swapping trinkets and growing yams, to save the planet and ourselves. Seriously, Polanyi and his followers points and arguments dissolve like so much flushable kitty litter when exposed to the least bit of analysis. Once you’re convinced that you’re on the Right Side of History, the only explanations left in your toolbox are systemic oppression of some sort. Just as we’ll get those new soviet men, free from greed and violence, from whom the endless supply of virtuous bureaucrats needed to run all our lives will come, if we only will close and wish real hard, we’ll get the new reality we need, one that, instead of putting all our pet theories to the lie, confirm them!

Very busy these days. Will try to finish this up soon.

 

Update: Day 3. Writing, Home Improvement, Hatch Green Chile

(A bit of thinking out loud here. Sure when/if I get better at this, there won’t be so much. One hopes.)

Day Three of The Plan:

  • Phone interview for job in London set for next Wednesday. Question is really just how wildly overqualified they want to go here, and how much are they willing to pay? If they are in the ballpark, then the next question is the big one: does the family – me, my wife, 14 yr old son, and grandma + an obnoxious cat – want to move to the U.K. for a decade? Stay tuned.
  • Finished the rewrites of Rock based on beta readers’ input. Thanks again, everybody! Now, must let it sit for a few days, reread with fresher eyes. A couple beta readers made points I couldn’t figure how to address, so might be just a tad more work involved. (All this for a 3,000 word story that’s pretty light weight. Normal?) I have really no idea who, if anyone, would be interested in publishing this – that’s the next hurdle.
  • Finishing up The White-Handled Blade, the YA Arthurian story I set aside a year plus ago, with the battle scene and wrap-up to go. Added net about 2,000 words. Drafted the battle, seems OK; have pretty good idea how to wrap it up. One problem: I use a ton of unpronounceable Welsh words in the course of the story. Sometimes, I’ll have one character mention, say, a cyhyraeth, and then later have another character refer to it as a wraith – I’m hoping to have people get the gist without either having to spell out what each kind of eldritch creature in Welsh mythology corresponds to in more common language or eliminating the colorful names. (That they don’t exactly correspond I was planning to gloss over, as in how Juno and Hera aren’t actually the same goddess but who cares?) Don’t want to talk down to younger readers (I hated that, quick end to anything I started to read as a kid) but between place names and boogeymen,  that’s a lot of Ll and Cwn and Gwr for a reader to deal with… Coming in at 10-11K words. Oh, yea – beta readers? 
  • Haven’t begun the education history book. Mostly clean up of dangling incomplete tasks at this point. I think I need to get some sense of accomplishment/yes, I can do this by finishing stuff before I take on a much larger and what is sure to be more frustrating task.
  • Also barely looked at The Novel Soon to Have a Working Title. May want to work on that first, dunno – key is that I’m writing *something* every day.
  • On the maintenance/repairs/cleaning front, trying to finish up the section of brickwork out front, got almost all the path done (ran out of sand, of all things!):

Hope it’s becoming clear how this will look: 2′ wide walk along the curb; 16″ tall brick planter topped by a 3′ iron fence. There will necessarily be a gap to allow access to the in-ground water meter, then an identical planter & fence on the other side. Should be cute, and keep those darn kids out of the fruit trees! (very few darn kids in the neighborhood, but still…)

  • Hatch green chile! August is when they harvest the chile grown in the Rio Grande valley south of Albuquerque. Hatch is a town right in the middle of the chile growing region, and so lends its name to the produce. This is the good stuff, why people who’ve come to love New Mexican cuisine are never completely happy with green chile from elsewhere. Some fresh Hatch green chiles showed up at the local Safeway. This morning, we all had  huevos rancheros, which is over easy eggs on top of a dollop of beans on top of corn tortillas, smothered in red or green or both (“Christmas”) chile sauce and topped with cheese. Whipped up some green chile sauce (roast, peel, de-seed and chop the chiles, simmer in some chicken stock, dash salt). There was much rejoicing. Alas! Fresh Hatch green chiles disappeared from Safeway after just a week!
  • Wednesday was the first day in a week or so where I didn’t feel completely well. Too muddle-headed for much of the day to write. But it may be something that’s just going around, as several other family members seemed to have similar headache/tired/ not quite right days. But, hey, soooo much better than the last 10 months, I’m not complaining. Still got almost 4 hours of writing in.

Textbooks: An Unnecessary Evil pt 3

The subject of textbooks came up a couple weeks back. After some preliminaries I proposed to address three questions:

  1. What are textbooks? – addressed here
  2. Who gets to say what’s in them? – addressed here

Finally, below:

  1. Why do we need them?

John Taylor Gatto, a former New York State Teacher of the Year, used to buy editions of books with his own money to have his kids read, to avoid having framing questions and canned answers at the end of each chapter.  Just as Stalin said he didn’t care who ran, just as long as he got to count the votes, the impetus behind modern textbooks is that they don’t care (too much) what you read, so long as they get to pick the questions and grade you on the answers.

Here I will resist the temptation to wax poetic about the wonder and joy of reading, of being swept up into unknown worlds and ideas, because that not only isn’t the point of textbooks, but positively what they are designed to prevent. The best result from the perspective of the creators of the modern school is that you, the bright, eager student squirming in you desk, waving your hand to be called on, learn to give the correct predigested answer in response to one of the set of allowable questions. 12, 16 or more years of this, with approval tempered or withheld for anything except the right answers, you will have reached the goal of modern schooling as described by its founding light, Johann Gottlieb Fichte:

”Education should aim at destroying free will so that after pupils are thus schooled they will be incapable throughout the rest of their lives of thinking or acting otherwise than as their school masters would have wished.”

(What kicks in next is the process described best, perhaps, in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, where the properly schooled, seeking always approval, seeking always the approved answers, aspire only to be a part of some inner circle, with intellectual and moral considerations poo-pooed and dismissed. But I digress.)

Failing that, the schools will settle for making you hate reading, and thus history, philosophy and so on. Adults trained to seek official approval above all else are good, but just so long as most people don’t get any ideas – good book and even bad books are alarmingly full of ideas – the goal of state management of everything can be achieved.

Math textbooks deserve special mention. They are intended to steer as many kids as possible away from math, since math can be a sort of gateway to actual thought. Only the few, who tend to be geeks and outcasts, are ‘good at math’. They will need to be watched and managed. They most often end up in careers that keep them away from other people.

(Another aside: learning Euclid from the source has been a life-changing experience for many people, regardless of how ‘good’ and ‘math’ they imagine themselves to be. So the Elements is never used in the classroom, except in a few Great Books schools, even though people have learned from it for millennia.)

Textbooks in modern schooling are used to enforce conformity of thought. ‘We’ need them to keep the rabble in line, and to teach them to always seek professional approval.

If you and your children don’t want to disposable cogs in somebody else’ plans, avoid textbooks. Avoid school.

 

Day 2: The Writing Update

Day 2 of the Plan. Day 1, I did get the hours in on ‘writing’ although what that really entailed was getting everything straightened out on my desk (funny how much crap can accumulate on a flat surface if you don’t use it for its intended purpose for 10 months!). So no actual time spent on the book/stories except in getting the files organized (and located!).

Also got one job application out – heard back in just over 12 hours, setting up a phone interview (the job is in London). So – who knows? I could be an ex-pat writing in old Roman Londinium between doing my part to finance equipment internationally. Maybe. We’ll see.

And am feeling well. What do you know? Praise God through Mary, Joseph and the angels.

Today, cleaning up more old business. You guys are the best. Just finished responding to the beta readers for the story Rock – only 4 months later! In my defense, those were some pretty hairy months. I’m humbled and grateful for the feedback & encouragement. A couple of you did very detailed reading and commenting – wow, just for some schmuck on the internet’s beginner’s story. Very generous of you.

Several themes recurred: the opening is unclear/too slow/not informative enough about what’s going on. Fair enough. Will correct. A couple continuity errors cropped up – thanks.

In general, the plan is to spend the remaining hours today making a couple structural changes and tightening it up a little. Then, scan through the markets and send it off to somebody. Thanks again!

Next up, I think I’ll try to finish the YA Arthurian story The White Handled Blade because it’s close, then impose on the good natures of my current (and any future) beta readers.

And lay some bricks out front. Current status of that misadventure:

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Facing North. Impressive weed there at 5:00 o’clock.

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Facing South.

22 year old son in from TAC for a couple weeks did the excavation along the curb (hard on me ‘ol back!) so now I just need a couple hours on my hands and knees to take the little walk out past this segment of planter. Then can start in on the little columns at the ends which will support the iron fence. Really down to the more or less fun, less back-breaking part of the job. Then do it all again for the identical, symmetrical planter on the south end…

Finally, did finish that book on r/K selection (micro review: Um, not convinced) and made further progress with Polanyi’s Great Transformation (micro: there better be serious time off in Purgatory for reading these Marxist goobers) and do want (and in fact, have started) to write posts/reviews of them.

But for now, I got stuff to do! And I feel good enough to do it! Wheeee!

 

The Plan…

Attended a nice couple’s retreat this weekend amid the redwoods near Santa Cruz. Prayed a lot with my wife. Tried to get my head clear. After largely disappearing from this blog for most of the last couple months as we tried to sort out this whole health/unemployment thing, here, with my beloved’s blessing of course, is the plan:

For the next 2 weeks and for as long as I can keep productive thereafter, I will spend 5 hours per day 5 days a week researching and writing; at least one hour job searching, and one hour on household maintenance/repairs/cleaning.

Related image
Slav coal miner. Hole in the ground? You were lucky!

This should help me stay sane. The two weeks is just to see if I can really keep up the writing. If so, I’ll keep it up as long as I can. If I turn up a job that sounds right, then that will happen. If not, hey, lots of delayed maintenance, cleaning and paperwork will happen. Financially, I can keep this up for maybe a year or two. The effect will merely be that retirement (if any) gets pushed back a year or two.

If I can’t do it, reallocate time to the job hunt.

 

As far as writing goes, there’s this book about Catholic education in America I need to write, which will require many hours of reading & research. Some of the stuff I need to research is really depressing, with not only war on the Church by secular powers, but war both between and among bishops, priests and laity, ever more inventive in form and with ever more subtle and disastrous results. I’ve stopped reading in the middle of books more than once.

So, when that education reading & writing gets too heavy, I’ve got half a dozen stories more or less complete:

  • The White Handled Blade, a sort of YA Arthurian story. I’ve read excerpts to the kids, who felt seriously cheated by the lack of an ending (big fight scene, denouement). So finish it, clean it up, and ? Who published such things?
  • It Will Work, the flash fiction that mutated into a story right here on this blog. Only about 1/2 through. It’s been very easy to write so far…
  • Biosphere, a Darwin/Machiavelli mash-up in which a disposed prince is exiled to a planet made of living mashed potatoes. No, really, it kinda works. I’ve already written this story 3 times over the last couple decades. This time, for sure.
  • The Measure of Our Days, an astronomical thriller that just isn’t quite thrilling enough. Shooting for Vance, not quite making it. This is either almost done or in need of a serious rewrite. I don’t know which. 
  • Rock, a story for which, months ago before health and work concerned proved too enervating, I asked for beta readers on. I will get back to you all, I promise! (Ya know, I’m obsessed with nano-machines at the moment. Mech, not so much – invisibly tiny & deadly beats huge, easy to target and deadly…)
  • Threader, a space western of sorts, wherein our hero has got to lasso him one last good ‘stroid or he’ll loose his ship and his girl and maybe his life… All but done…
  • Seed Music, a love story/commentary on modern art & education set, among other places, on an ice ball moon. Which is more hospitable than the university back on the colony…

Then, there’s always the Novel Which Up To This Point Has Not Be Named, for which I’ve got to come up with a working title sooner or later. What if the Medici, Henry Ford’s extended family, and Thomas More’s family were stuck together on a colonization spaceship with a bunch of techies and moderns for a couple-three generations? What could possibly go wrong?

I published a rough draft of an early chapter here.

n preparation for this great endeavor, I kind of cleaned and organized my desk:

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Make it so! With Our Mother of Perpetual Help’s help.

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Not sure who this little guy is, but he got the right attitude.

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Front and center. Three is impossible at this point…

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Cleaning up, found this exercise by my late oldest son Andrew, from when I gave the kids a few drawing lessons. Clearly, I’ve inflicted my Hegel obsession on my innocent kids. Taped it to the wall. Hegel gets to watch me write completely unflattering things about Hegel.

Symbols & Turning One’s Back

First, a digression or prologue: Here are some descriptions of modern art as proposed by their creators, gleaned off the interwebs:

The picture shows how unhappy people which, is dependent on consumption, and as he turns into a cripple.

The painting shows the influence of television on the number of things we purchase.

Pity draws this exercise to a premature close. The artists themselves seem to be charmingly innocent, just trying to do what they’ve been told to do, and I don’t want to just pick on people. Simply, one could never tell, prior to the explanation, what, if anything, the artwork was supposed to ‘show’. It would be cruel, perhaps, to mix and match descriptions to artwork and see if anyone other than the artist could tell the difference.

Key point: great art doesn’t require a program to appreciate it, only, at most, a common cultural background with the artists. You have failed as an artist if you need to tell people what your work ‘shows’.

Let us pick on more deserving targets. Returning to the well one more time, here are snippets from what might be called the program that explains the cathedral in Los Angeles, from its website, with some commentary.

Spanish architect, Professor José Rafael Moneo has designed a dynamic, contemporary Cathedral with virtually no right angles. This geometry contributes to the Cathedral’s feeling of mystery and its aura of majesty.

We are being told here that the proper feeling to have when viewing this:

LA Cathedral

…is “mystery and its aura of majesty.”

Well. For comparison, I choose from among any of the thousands of great Catholic cathedrals that have been loved for generations:

Image result for il duomo siena italy

Does the degree to which you feel the “mystery and its aura of majesty” looking at the Duomo in Siena just like the feeling you get looking at the L.A. Cathedral? In any way similar? (Spoiler – having stood in about the spots each of these pictures were taken: no, the feelz are not similar. While the pictures in each case greatly tone down the effects, they do accurately engender them.)

Let’s pop inside: LA Cathedral Interior

Siena

In the first picture, the lack of right angles is supposed to contribute to our feelings of mystery and majesty. In the second, I think maybe it’s the awe-inspiring beauty that gets that done.

The challenge in designing and building a new Cathedral Church was to make certain that it reflected the diversity of all people.

Really? Who says? A small ‘c’ catholic church building should rather emphasize unity, maybe?

Rather than duplicate traditional designs of the Middle Ages in Europe, the Cathedral is a new and vibrant expression of the 21st century Catholic peoples of Los Angeles.

None of whom were consulted nor approved of this design. Just saying.

“I wanted both a public space,” said Moneo, “and something else, what it is that people seek when they go to church.” To the architect, the logic of these two competing interests suggested, first of all, a series of “buffering, intermediating spaces” — plazas, staircases, colonnades, and an unorthodox entry.

Um, what? Setting aside the weird circumlocution beginning with ‘something else’ that clumsily avoids talking about God and salvation, there’s an ancient tradition of providing transition from the external to internal worlds. Note, for example, the lovely piazza in front of the Siena Duomo leading to steps and awesome huge doors. It’s perfectly clear as you assend the steps from the piazza and approach those doors that you are moving from the public to the sacred. With its steps, levels, plaza, long confusing ambulatory, the L.A. Cathedral merely awkwardly overdoes it.

The Cathedral is built with architectural concrete in a color reminiscent of the sun-baked adobe walls of the California Missions and is designed to last 500 years.

…which adobe was always whitewashed, often painted, and adorned to the fullest extent the people could manage. That ‘designed to last 500 years’ always seemed like a threat, but maybe that’s just me…

The Cathedral’s interior design captures the principle of a spiritual journey.

The painful and unsettling part? Chesterton talks about how Catholic art favors the gentle, suffering Jesus over the ‘Woe and Temple-cleansing’ Jesus because gentle Jesus is easier to approach in prayer. I guess we modern Catholics are tougher than that!

Unlike most Cathedrals, we are not entering through a rear door near the last pews. Rather, we enter the ambulatory which circles the interior of the Cathedral.

This gets to the entire point of this preamble: one would never suspect there was anything wrong or lacking in the approach and entrance to a traditional cathedral unless he were *told* there was something lacking. To recap: one enters a traditional cathedral typically by crossing a plaza to ascend steps, passing through massive doors and under a tympanum which usually depicts the Last Judgement, entering into an awe-inspiring nave, flanked by lines of columns leading to and focusing attention on the high altar. Many, many people over the centuries have commented on exactly how moving that experience can be.

But not in L.A.! Here, we need to be told that we’ve been missing something, and told we should love and prefer a meandering, pointless, artificially long entrance.

Our betters will tell us what to think. If we don’t like it, well, that just demonstrates why they are our betters!

The ambulatory urges us forward, on a slight incline, heightening our sense of an upward journey, past various devotional chapels that open onto the walkway, not onto the Cathedral’s worship space, allowing a more meditative environment for devotional prayer.

The light and diversity of shapes draws people forward along the ambulatory and around the corner to the Baptistery and the enormous public worship space.

Hey! ‘Enormous’ used correctly in its original sense!  Also, note ‘worship space’. Not a church or even a nave, a ‘worship space’. OK, enough of this.

Artist statements we love

When I first began this blog, I wrote a number of items on symbols versus signs. The key distinction: symbols have meaning that does not need to be explained, or, at worst, once explained ‘clicks’ – the church uses red symbolically on the feasts of the Martyrs. Any questions?

Signs, on the other hand, will sometimes employ symbolism, but are more conventional in their meaning. Stop signs are traditionally red, but that they mean ‘stop’ is conventional. Red is a good color for this, but not necessary to get the point across. Blood, and therefore martyrdom, and red are connected in a way that stopping and red are not.

Signs can be made much more powerful by the artful use of symbols. In the old days, banks, which engage in the most abstract and ephemeral of businesses, made their buildings out of stone, as a sign of permanence. Good use of the natural symbolic content of stone – hard, enduring, not going anywhere – to communicate what they wanted to communicate – See? We’re not the fly-by-night operation you might reasonably suspect us of being! Solid as a rock, you might even say.

Gestures can also be symbolic, having meaning independent of social convention. Bowing and kneeling are gestures your dog understands. This doesn’t have to be the case – shaking your head for no and nodding for yes are, I hear, conventional. But I will contend that there is a large range of human gestures the meanings of which are not conventional, or at least have a core meaning conventions hang off of.

The whole preamble of this essay was intended to show how we, in the modern age, often try to gloss over with words of explanation the symbolic content or lack thereof of art, gestures, and actions in general. The L.A. Cathedral is known as the Taj Mahoney, because many people saw right through the pretend taking of input and invocation of diversity as attempting to veil what was essentially a $200M+ exercise in hubris. Both symbols and signs were involved in getting this project through – mitered cardinals in long processions, masses, blessings – but a key was blowing smoke, smoke illustrated in the snippets quoted above. What you see is not what you see – we will tell you what you see.

All this ramble was occasioned by an observation at mass yesterday. One universal symbol, a gesture that, again, your dog understands, is turning you back. Your dog knows that you are withholding approval or showing disapproval when you turn away from him. By dozens of gestures, we turn our backs on the Eucharist both literally and figuratively. As a symbol, this gesture has its meaning and emotional effect regardless of the words – the artistic program – used to explain why that’s not what it means. What you see is not what you see – we will tell you what you see.

This turning has been ritualized to the point where failure to comply makes one stand out, so very few people, even among those who understand what’s happening on some level, will buck the behaviors.

Before I go on, let me say that there are more or less reasonable reasons for many of these gestures. Taken separately, each might be OK in the sense that there is at least a sound theological or practical debate possible on the topic. Taken together, however, and it’s clear the goal is to change theology, or to express a theology already changed.

Let me count the ways:

  • Churches renovated so that it is all but impossible for some portion of the congregation not to stand with their backs to the tabernacle. Maybe it’s the choir, or maybe it’s some pews positioned so that the altar is surrounded. Either way, everybody gets the clear message that the tabernacle, and by necessary and inescapable logic, what is in the tabernacle, is not only not important, but is being actively shunned.
  • Versum Populum. This might be the number one case in point for where there are good historical and theological reasons. The Church has done this off and on over the centuries. But how it was implemented – I’ve heard stories about centuries old altars being jack-hammered because they were too close to the wall to allow the priest to face the people – shows inescapable contempt for history and craftsmanship (I’ve yet to see a new ‘table’ half as beautifully done as many old altars). And you’ve turned your back on the tabernacle, if it hasn’t been consigned to the outer darkness.

These are the most literal and obvious cases of turning your back. Other similar issues:

  • Bowing instead of genuflecting when passing in front of the tabernacle. Again, can be non-stupid reasons. Taken with everything else…
  • Communion received standing in the hand, instead of kneeling on the tongue. Sure, reasons, but since we’ve turned our backs on the Real Presence, traipsed back and forth across the sanctuary like a living room and otherwise worked to actively destroy any sense that this moment is sacred – well, is it sacred? What does sacred even mean?
  • General loss of the distinction of vulgar versus sacred space. Inside the church, a building made sacred by the Real Presence, should be fundamentally and patently difference from the space outside. Is it?

Anyway, I find myself more in favor of any gesture that marks the Mass and the physical church it is celebrated in as sacred. We are a people set apart. High time we started acting like it.