The Scary True Believers

Earlier, I wrote about C. S. Lewis’ graduation address concerning Inner Circles, and how the recruitment and advancement in such circles was illustrated in That Hideous Strength. The ever-increasing entanglement of the victims of such circles is lubricated by appeals to ego: now that you’ve reached our level, you are just so much smarter and cunning than those jokers in the circle you just advanced from. (Pay no attention to how you were played right up until you were welcomed in. That might trigger some actual thought, and we can’t have that.)

Anyone who leaves such a circle must be denounced (or denounced and assassinated, as the situation requires, as Prof. Hingest in Lewis’ book), not merely for the damage they might do by disclosing what they know, but by the psychological damage of such a direct assault on the self-image of the larger circles nearest the inner ring. How could anyone leave something so desirable, so powerful, so knowledgeable, so cool, as the inner ring? It must be demonstrated, for the sake of the little people, that the ex-inner-ringer was a problem, a fool, a traitor, someone to be disposed of.

It helps to appeal to people’s vanity. Hegel, Marx and Freud all use the old ‘of course, only enlightened people like you, the smart people who agree with me, truly understand; those who don’t hold and profess all we hold and teach are hopelessly benighted’ schtick to create their own cool kids club. Such a club is immune to all criticism, since such criticism only proves the critic to be hopelessly unenlightened and evil. Hegel, Marx and Freud are fundamentally Mean Girls; their followers’ deepest belief is that they are smarter than you. Every other belief is secondary: how do we know, say, all statements of being are false yet true insofar as they are suspended in dialectical synthesis, that everything is a social construct, that sexual repression is the origin of all psychological pathologies? Because we’re smarter than you, that’s how!

Since most of the tenets of these systems are, when stated in plain language, kind of stupid, it is required that you use the established vocabulary and phrases to make sure you never express them in words that reveal how stupid they are.

Read somewhere (oops, scholar fail!) that the management levels of idealistic organizations such as charities and religions are full of people with surprisingly little attachment to the professed ideology that supposedly drives the organization. On the more innocent end of the spectrum, they just like the people and the feeling of belonging; at the other end are, I imagine, power-hungry sociopaths. Current events in the Catholic Church and in our fine major political parties would do not appear to contradict this.

I would suppose the rank and file would be where you’d find the true believers, and in those who rise up through the ranks because of fervor and hard work. There must be, no doubt, some interesting dynamics, as the winners under Pournelle’s Iron Law might once in a while need some people who do the organization’s actual work, to keep up appearances. True believers would be handy for this. So I’d expect the higher reaches of an organization to have both those there for the power and true believers, with some interesting jostling when something needs to be done.

These thoughts brought to mind this exchange from Bella Dodd’s School of Darkness, where Dodd, who has finally become an open Communist after decades of working undercover in the New York teachers’ union, placing Reds and sympathizers in positions of power and influence. She gets a job with the US politburo – she is invited into what seemed the inner ring – and needs to go through the files:

As I began to prepare for the work I was assigned to do I was amazed at the lack of files of material on social questions such as housing and welfare. When I complained about this, Gil said: “Bella, we are a revolutionary party, not a reform group. We aren’t trying to patch up this bourgeois structure.”

I began to realize why the Party had no long-range program for welfare, hospitals, schools, or child care. They plagiarized programs from the various civil-service unions. Such reforms, if they fitted in, could be adapted to the taste of the moment . But reforms were anathema to communist long-range strategy, which stood instead for revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat .

What I find amazing here is that Dodd, obviously an intelligent woman, could work for the Commies for years and years, and not get a point that, even to this day, they are constantly making: the goal, the point of all their activities, is to bring about the revolution.(1) Marxists don’t want racial equality, good working conditions and pay, good social services, or any kind of justice. In fact, insofar as any of those things may occur, a Marxist would want to destroy them. Peace, harmony, justice and prosperity are the enemy. According to neo-Marxist dogma, anything that placates people, makes them happier with their lot, helps them live fulfilling, peaceful lives, can only be a tool of hegemonic oppression. Happy people must be made miserable; whatever makes them happy must be destroyed. Any steps taken that might improve things must be just that: steps. Those steps must lead to the revolution

Dodd became a communist in the first place because, in her eyes, they were the only ones doing anything to help during the Great Depression. It was precisely their activism in helping the downtrodden that attracted her. She them spent the next couple decades immersed in Marxist literature:

… I was at last beginning to see how ignorant I had become, how long since I had read anything except Party literature. I thought of our bookshelves stripped of books questioned by the Party, how when a writer was expelled from the Party his books went, too. I thought of the systematic rewriting of Soviet history, the revaluation, and in some cases the blotting out of any mention of such persons as Trotsky. I thought of the successive purges…

…In my time with the Party I had accumulated a large store of information about people and events, and often these had not fitted into the picture presented by the Party to its members . It was as if I held a thousand pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and could not fit them together. It irritated me, but when I thought of the testimony of witnesses before the Congressional Committee, some of whom I had known as Communists, much of the true picture suddenly came into focus . My store of odd pieces was beginning to develop into a recognizable picture. There had been many things I had not really understood. I had regarded the Communist Party as a poor man’s party, and thought the presence of certain men of wealth within it accidental . I now saw this was no accident. I regarded the Party as a monolithic organization with the leadership in the National Committee and the National Board. Now I saw this was only a facade placed there by the movement to create the illusion of the poor man’s party ; it was in reality a device to control the “common man” they so raucously championed.

Yet, somehow, she was surprised to discover that the Party’s interest in actions that might actually improve people’s lives was simply expedient, that it had no interest in improving people’s lives, but only in steps that lead to the Revolution. This goal of destroying the system is hardly a secret, yet Dodd could somehow miss it, even in all the works she’d read in the Party library. She was little more, if, indeed, anything more, than a Useful Idiot.

How many people who think Marx got a bum rap (e.g., every college kid), who think they support the general goals of the Marxists as they understand them, you know, fairness and justice and an end to bigotry and hatred and stuff, don’t realize that the goal is real, live violent warfare and the deaths of millions (e.g., me and mine)? If Bella Dodd can pull living with that level of cognitive dissonance off, how many others are doing so now?

But the scary part: there really are informed true believers, those who know what the goals are and enthusiastically support them. True, most of these folks – Antifa is the poster child – do not get the part where they, the enthusiastic purist revolutionaries, are the first to go once the Revolution succeeds in putting some vanguard or other in power. But that’s another kind of cultivated cluelessness.

And, of course, the top levels are occupied by the kind of sociopaths who generally get those kind of jobs, people for whom all this dogma and maneuvering is just a game. These folks are scarier still.

  1. Read somewhere (man, I got to start taking notes!) that when Mussolini took over and began to suppress the Communists, it was a largely popular move even among workers. For years, whenever they organized and struck, the workers were after improvement, while the leaders were after the revolution. This lead to some conflict and animosity, and worker frustration, to say the least, with the Communists.

Saturday Update, 7/27/19

1 I still need a job. Been a year now. About 1/2 through my contingency savings, so we could (theoretically) skate another year. But that would be bad.

2 We’re having the volunteers from the local Birthright over this afternoon for pizza and other good things the board, of which I’m a member, are providing. Most of the volunteers are retired or empty-nest women, who show up at our little center for a few hours a week to council women in crisis pregnancies. They tend to get attached to the women and their babies, and often form longer-term relationships. Good people. Should be fun. Lot of prep yet to do.

3 This upcoming pizza party occasioned another little Home Improvement Project! If you spend far too much time on this blog and have a scary-good memory, you may recall this pizza oven door I built a couple years ago:

Pizza oven, front, with its late oak door

It was cute. Well, a year or so ago, a houseguest wanted to help out, and, since he had worked as a fireman, I told him he could get a nice fire going in the pizza oven, so we could make some pizzas when I got back. Gave him instructions about how one builds a fire toward the front, then, once it’s going, shove it to the back and starts another fire in the front, then, once both are going, you can put the door in front loosely to trap some of the heat, so that the whole oven heats evenly.

Set up for a sit-com moment? You bet!

I come home, and flames are coming out of the pizza oven’s chimney; branches of the nearby privet are smoldering. And my nice little door is on fire. The door had two thin sheets of galvanized steel sandwiching an inch of high-temp mineral wool on the side facing in. The wood was not directly exposed to the fire. I’d used it a dozen times without catching it on fire. A little singe, here and there, but that’s about it. It took some, um, enthusiasm to set it on fire.

So, finally got around to building a replacement door:

Note the intense soot above the door. Scrap oak, again, but this time with one much heavier sheet of steel toward the fire, 1″ mineral wool insulation, and some high-temp furnace gasket around the edges, not for sealing, but for a barrier to the mineral wool. The fire-facing stuff is rated minimum 1,000F. So, can we not burn the oak this time?

This was a surprisingly frustrating project, took hours longer than it should have. End result looks OK, but man…. Sloppy glue-up required quite a bit of shaping; both the chop saw and the jig saw were having difficulties I could not identify and correct; cracked the board when I got a little too enthusiastic about attaching the insulation… just a bunch of stuff went wrong. Oh, well, it’s done.

4 Finally, and this is harder to write about: I’ve been having empty nester symptoms. True, our 15 year old still lives with us, but he’s been on 3 1-week Boy Scout adventures this summer already. So, it’s me, my wife, MIL and the cat. The older kids scattered to the winds for (Newman List! Don’t leave home without it!) colleges, so they’ve been gone for four or more years already. So, yea.

On the selfish plus side, Older Daughter has moved to Napa, only a 45 minute drive away. So we see more of her, and it is a blessing. She also has a lovely boyfriend there. This is all very good.

Now something my wife and I long suspected may be coming to pass: younger daughter has had this thing about going to Africa as a missionary for years now. Prior to graduation, she looked into a bunch of options, and hooked up with the Salesians. She’s training with them now in New York state. In a couple months, she’s heading off to South Sudan for a year.

She was thanking us for not trying to talk her out of it, but it wasn’t easy keeping my mouth shut. She’ll be with a bunch of other people at a well-established mission, with folks who have been doing this for years, so it’s about as safe as could be hoped. But this is my little girl here!

And – this is the part we’ve suspected – she is loving the Salesian community. She’s not talking about becoming a religious sister (yet), but loves the work and the people.

Well, she’s God’s, not ours, and has always been His. Thy will be done.

Home Improvement Update: BRIX!

It’s been nearly 2 weeks since the last update on the Eternal Infernal Brick Project of Doom. My, time flies.

When we last checked in, the steps into the front yard mini orchard were in this state:

Finished up the steps proper:

From the porch.
From the orchard.

Came out well. The hole on the right and the bare concrete on the left will be the sites of two little brick towers upon which will be mounted a gate.

Meanwhile, out against the street, we left the brick planter/wrought iron style fence, southern section, in this state:

We’ve reached this critical juncture:

Looking south.
Looking north.

So, now I get to hammer-drill a few holes into the concrete, epoxy in some rebar off of which will hang some hardware from which the wrought iron style fence will be supported on either end, build the little brick towers, fill them with concrete, install the fence, add capping bricks to the front double-brick wall (can’t do it until the fence is fitted, as some of the bricks will need cutting or notches for the iron fence uprights to pass through). Similar process for the porch, for the gate hardware.

Then fill the planter in the front and puts some, I dunno, plants in it. THEN build the southern border wall – I hear such things are all the rage – which is similar planter concept, but without an iron fence, thinking more wooden lattice.

Got a month and a half of summer. Will he make it? Stay tuned!

Also, I mentioned earlier that my avocado tree project had failed, and, rather than let prime garden spots lie fallow, I threw in a some tomatoes and peppers – and 4 pumpkins. Which is between 2 and 4 pumpkins too many.

Prime spot. Hot, sunny days. Plenty of water. These suckers are going to take over the yard, the house, and it not stopped somehow, THE WORLD. OK, maybe not, but they are growing like crazy. On the plus side, as they crawl out of the bed and onto the surrounding ground, I’m motivated to clean up and weed, to make room. Two sugar pumpkins for eating, two of some giant variety for fun. Here’s the current status on the Great Pumpkin Conquest of Concord:

They’re only maybe 8 weeks along. I think with a little patience you could see them grow. The giant variety is in the foreground, and will be trained into an open area to the left; the sugar pumpkins are in the back, and will be trained off to the sides. That’s the plan, anyway.

Vermin have discovered my garden and orchard. We have a fair array of furry little bastards – pardon my Urdu – from moles, mice, rats and gophers through possums, racoons and potentially deer (seen plenty a few blocks from here, never seen any this far up our street. The threat is there, however). Damage so far suggests squirrels or rats. In a just world, it would be perfectly acceptable for me to spend a few nights out front with a pellet gun, nail some of whatever they are, and leave their carcasses to rot upon little pike-equivalents as a warning to their vermin kin.

But I think that’s frowned upon.

I do have some commercial-level vermin poison, stuff farmers use, which I of course never use anywhere anything other than vermin can get it, which kind of rules out the front yard. Sigh. So – we’ll see. Will check out various traps. Don’t know what the local policy, if any, is regarding offing squirrels – there are certainly plenty around here, many of whom die trying to outsmart cars. A few garden-fattened vermin would not be missed…

How about a raptor eyre? Probably not viable short term. Seen all sorts of hawks and owls around these parts…

Stay tuned for more exciting old-guy home improvement news!


My crack Blog Post Title Mutation Team identified ‘potpori’ as possibly the lamest blog post title ever imagined. So I’m going with it. It was supposed to be ‘Sunday Potpori’ but then I didn’t get it posted. Join us here on Yard Sale of the Mind as we push the tattered edge of the lameness envelope into uncharted, ragged territory. We live to serve.

1 Lots of nice brickwork getting done. By end of the day, hope to have reached a more photogenic point, and so might post an update. I can just hear you squirming in anticipation! You need to stand up or wear more slippery pants.

2 Through working with the RCIA program the last few years, regularly run into concerns about posture and gesture at Mass – people want to know when to sit, stand, kneel, and so on, and are confused when not everyone at Mass does exactly the same thing, or just generally want to do it ‘right’. We always assure them that if they just follow along with what must people are doing, they’ll be fine, and at any event nobody (much) is going to care if they get it ‘wrong’. If they are still concerned, we point them to the instructions in the missalette.

All in all, this concern to do it right is seen as charming, but not all that big a deal, and we want the RCIA candidates to feel comfortable coming to Mass, not worried about getting every little thing ‘right’.

But is this right? It seems we have not only an instinct to worship, but an instinct to do it right. In Exodus, there are detailed instructions on how to build a proper tabernacle, the furnishing, tent, altars, even the priestly vestments, and what materials to use, correct dimensions where appropriate, as well as explicit and implicit descriptions of the rituals to be performed. These instructions were delivered after the Israelites had build and worshipped the Golden Calf, and received the 10 Commandments, which start off with the command to not have strange gods before the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is important to know there definitely are right and wrong ways to worship God.

The challenge for this next year, which will be starting formal meeting in about a month, is to find a way to address and nurture the candidates’ and catechumens’ instinct for worship without dismissing it trying to calm their anxiety.

3 Despite misgivings, I posted on Twitter about the 7th anniversary of our son Andrew’s death this past Saturday. While I started out on Twitter to follow SciFi authors, I follow and am followed by a lot of nice Catholics and other Christians as well. There is some overlap.

Tomorrow is the 7th anniversary of our son Andrew’s death. He was hit by a car on a rural Indiana road on a pro-life walk across America, 1 mo shy of his 21st BD.

He was a very good kid. I miss him & am honored to have been his dad. Ask for his intercession, tell me what happens— Joseph Moore (@Yardsale_Mind) July 19, 2019

I really don’t know what to make of this, because I truly do not understand Twitter. Over 30,000 people and counting have looked at that tweet, retweeting it approaching 100 times, lots of comments, approaching 1,000 ‘likes’, about 60 new people follow my Twitter account. This is like 3 orders of magnitude more views over my typical tweets; my typical tweets are also generally ignored (no ‘engagements’ in Twit-speak).

I have no idea what this means, but I trust Andrew is interceding for the intentions of all these people.

Image result for lion roar
This is not creepy at all. That nice lion wouldn’t hurt the cute little girl, right? At least, we can count on the nature flick people to edit it out when he does, like how when the wolves run down the little baby caribou, for all we know he then takes him out for a drink and a laugh. That whole disemboweling him alive part doesn’t make for family friendly programming.

4 This Sunday marked the end of our parish’s Summer Bible Camp. According to a tradition that traces all the way back to the Apostles Moonbeam and Kumbaya, all the kids who were roped into free daycare attended camp came up at the end of Mass, assembled in front of the altar, and ‘sang’ this year’s camp song, something about roaring. There were t-shirts with cartoon lions on them. What a coincidence that the live action remake of Lion King also happens this summer. Wow.

I give this here not as an example of liturgical abuse, but rather of, frankly, child abuse. It’s one of those things where people see what they expect, not what is there.

The audience laughed when a couple little girls did flamboyant roars at or near the appropriate spot in the song (there are always a couple 6 or 7 year old little girls in such a crowd who love being the center of attention – they almost all get over it); they clapped not once, but twice (upon the urging of the priest) to show – our appreciation? People, I imagine, saw just another school thing, just another moment when parents get to affirm and reinforce what the schools are having the kids do.

We had seat right up front, since those seats are designed to be easier to access for people like my 81 year old mother in law.

What I saw were 25-30 kids, all but 2 of whom were extremely uncomfortable being paraded before people they mostly don’t know. One boy, maybe 10? 11? stood as if catatonic, doing his best pre-teen I’m invisible act; another boy was fighting back tears and failing. Most were sheepishly doing absolutely the minimum movements the leader was trying to get them to do and mouthing the words, maybe half had an embarrassed smile.

And everybody in the pews smiled and clapped. You know how kids are. You just have to make them do stuff, sometimes. It’s good for them, you know.

Right. Like those boys are going to have fond memories of this summer, and develop a deeper relationship with our Lord, because they were humiliated into standing in front of people and pretending to sing a song.

Yet, this is the only kind of thing most people understand by ‘education’ – this is FUN education. The idea that adults should model and accompany children on their way to adulthood seems lost – instead, we inflict on them stuff no self-respecting adult would ever put up with. Kids are kids, and need kid time. But education, if it means anything, means helping them on their way to adulthood. What we inflict on them today doesn’t do that.

5. It is perhaps helpful to remember in this context that modern schooling has its roots in Fichte’s desire that Prussia have obedient soldiers who don’t spend any time thinking for themselves. The fundamental idea is to break down people as individuals, and turn them into, as Torry Harris put it, “…automata, careful to walk in the prescribed paths, careful to follow prescribed custom.” This is the goal of ‘substantial education’ in Harris-speak. The 1%, who are strangely never discussed, are presumed to decide what those paths and customs are. The Spirit having unfolded Itself to them, if they are Hegelians; History having raised their consciousness, if they are Marxists, such that, despite having their consciousness wholly determined by their class/place in the hegemony, they somehow have ideas that are not so determined. Hmmm.

In the military:

The first few weeks of military basic training is dedicated to breaking you down. During this period, you’ll find that you can’t do anything right. Even if you do it right, it’ll be wrong. Nobody’s perfect, and military drill instructors are trained to ferret out those imperfections and make sure that you know about them.

After you’ve been completely ripped apart, the real training begins — teaching you to do things the “basic training way,” without even having to think about it — you just react. If a military basic training instructor can make this reaction happen, then he has done his job.

From Basic Training for Dummies, copyright © 2011 by Wiley Publishing, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey. 

Every wonder why getting the right answer or already knowing what it is the teacher is putatively teaching doesn’t get you a pass? It’s because the lesson in not the lesson. The only real difference: you can get out of the army after a few years, and you don’t need to pretend that military training is the sole measure of your worth. Schooling goes on for a decade and half, and you are expected to own the identity that school gives you.

6. Finishing up a bunch of books, and have several I need to start soon. Hoping to get a book-review-alanche going this week.

In His Footsteps — Pro-Life Walks Across America

From the Crossroads Pro-Life Walk website:

In His Footsteps

JULY 20, 2019

by centralwalkers

This week, 7 years ago, my parish informed us that a boy walking on Crossroads was hit by a car and passed away early that morning. I was 12 and had known what Crossroads was for as long as I could remember because my parish in Northern Virginia invites walkers to come through and speak at the end of their walks. I remember reading about Andrew and being completely shocked.

This year, I decided to walk with Crossroads, and wow, God’s timing is incredible.

On the first weekend of our walk, way back in San Francisco, at the very first Mass I spoke at, this woman came up to me after and told me she knew someone who did the walk once. I talked to her for a while, and she turned out to be Andrew’s aunt. She said her family was very at peace with what had happened and talking with her was really inspiring and encouraging to me.

On Sunday, I was randomly assigned to speak at St Margaret Mary Alacoque Parish in St Louis, MO. Many parishioners came up to me after and told me Andrew had spoken at this same parish just a couple days before his incident several years ago. They were exceedingly sorrowful, and I had many fascinating conversations with them about Andrew. I told them about how his uncle had walked the rest of the summer in his honor and how the rest of the team that year did end up finishing the walk together. It was really moving, and I was struck by how in 2 days or 2 weeks, or at any moment, something like that could happen to us, but are we really prepared? Are we spiritually prepared?

On Thursday, I was on shift walking, and while finishing the final prayers of a rosary with a teammate, we happened to walk right up to the site of the incident, finding the cross planted for Andrew. It was a chilling experience, kneeling and praying in the middle of the road on the median, while cars drove past all around us. My heart was pounding, and I had goosebumps just thinking about Andrew and how he was killed at that very spot while praying the rosary for the unborn, who do not get a chance to live at all. 7 years later, we walk in his same footsteps, and steadfastly continue to pray for an end to abortion.

I am so grateful I was given a chance to live, and for this chance now to witness the gospel of life to others.

Deo gratias.

Victoria Bliss, Central Walk 2019


Book Review: Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday

Charming, odd, surprising book. If you like Chesterton at all, you’ve probably already read it. If you’re just getting into him, put this on the list. If you’re wondering what the fuss is about, The Man Who Was Thursday is as good a place to start as any what is likely to become a life-long Chesterton project.

Image result for man who was thursday

No spoilers, which means I’ll be brief. The chief feature of the book is that once every chapter or two, everything you thought was going on gets stood on its head. It starts in a newish London neighborhood, where a Mr. Gregory, a pessimistic poet, an anarchistic poet, is holding forth. A young man named Syme is also a poet, but a poet of Order, for whom nothing is more poetical than a train arriving exactly on time, and so the two naturally have at each other. Syme asserts that Gregory is not serious about his anarchism. Gregory sets out to show him that he is serious. Dead serious. Promises are extracted, for a poet, even an anarchist, may be an honorable man. These promises are put sorely to the test.

Thus the adventures begin. There is a secret anarchist council; there is a secret anti-anarchist police force. Each is lead by a secretive man, one flamboyant and larger than life and thus inscrutable; the other invisible. The clash of world views personified in the two poets allows Chesterton to expand on the nature and importance of a man’s philosophy, for lack of a better word. Philosophical digressions are often the death of a story; Chesterton very nearly makes them the life of his.

An introduction to this book I saw somewhere says that, when a bunch of spies and secret agents were asked which work of fiction best captured their world, The Man Who Was Thursday was acclaimed most life-like. Since it is a typically Chestertonian broad and almost cartoonish work, this at first seems odd. What the spooks identify as life-like is, I think, the sense of uncertainty, of not knowing who your friends and enemies are, indeed, of running the constant risk that an enemy may be a friend, or a friend an enemy; that at one moment the man you have to kill might in the next be he who saves your life. Another true to life aspect: you never know what, exactly, your superiors are up to, or even whose side they’re on. You are always acting on imperfect information, sometimes on deliberately misleading information.

Core Chestertonian canon. Read this book.

Filters for Elite Tasks

(My weekly reminder that I need to take better notes, so I can link to sources for my musing – they exist! Honest!)

Image result for plato
Those two. Always jawboning.

Quick thoughts, not sure what, if anything, to make of this: It was said somewhere that Plato, who wanted his academy to train up the future leaders, or at least, advisors to leaders, used math as a filter: the students who had the smarts and dedication to master state of the art circa 300 B.C. Greek math were the ones he wanted to train up as leaders. This, despite how rarely the properties of conic sections and the ability to construct regular solids figured into the proper direction of the polis. Such math was a proxy for the smarts and focus such direction requires.

That’s the theory, at least. Plato did help a few of his star pupils get gigs in some Greek city-states, with some success. The question is rather: would some of those who couldn’t hack the math have made as good or better political leaders? We’ll never know. However tempting it is to impose a basic math test on our elected officials as a requirement for office, that won’t roll back the clock. (1)

My man Feynman famously delivered a series of lectures on physics, accurately if unimaginatively known as the Feynman Lectures. Story I heard is that, at the first lecture, the hall was packed; by the last lecture, the majority of the audience was fellow professors with only a few students. Even Caltech kids, the best of the best of the best, for the most part couldn’t hack Feynman-level physics. Feynman himself considered the lectures a failure, noting that only 2 or 3 dozen students understood them.

I would contend that the lectures were not so much a failure as a filter. What those lectures did was identify the 2 or 3 dozen students who had what it takes to be a top notch theoretical physicist like Feynman. Caltech seems to have naively supposed that Feynman, who has a well-earned reputation as a great teacher, could bring an entire class of students up to somewhere near his own level over the course of a year’s worth of lectures. To catch up to Reds. That didn’t happen, and, in retrospect, was vanishingly unlikely from the get-go.

Image result for feynman diagram
“Get me a 5 year old child – I can’t make heads or tails out of this.”
– Rufus T. Firefly

Turns out that a smart enough kid can grind his way to a fairly high level of competence in physics, just not the way presented in the Feynman Lectures. But such a kid is unlikely to end up a top notch theoretical physicist. Then again, that disclaimer applies to just about all of us. It’s unclear that such a harsh filter, which likely convinced at least a few such kids that they could not hack it, did more good than harm.

In the first case, the filtering was conscious on the part of Plato; in the second, it does not seem to have even been intended. In both cases, the outcome was that at least some of the people with elite potential for very specialized, high value tasks were identified. I’m generally more concerned and aware of the filtering that goes on merely to ensure conformity, such as in schools, especially in colleges, where the chances a student who rejects the current political uniformity on campus will ever get very far in academia. Part of this is self-filtering: who with any integrity would want to fit in with such a crowd?

Not coming up with any more examples of this sort of elite filtering at the moment. You?

  1. Somewhere on this blog I’ve also floated a theory which is mine that the Dialogues were similarly used, probably earlier in the process. They each present at least 3 layers of activity: a superficial one, such that you can say “the Republic is about Justice and Good Government”; a second layer where you notice the setting – outside the city walls during occupation by the victorious Spartans, a victory only made possible by all-but-unimaginably bad decisions by the Athenian leadership; and a third level, where you wonder what all those things taken together mean, where Socrates is concerned with the polis as a giant man, wherein Justice, so enlarged, could be better seen, and then tosses that idea when his buddies point out that they (understandably) wouldn’t want to live in a city that was just as Socrates himself was just – and poor, and despised, and powerless, and so Socrates spins them a yarn that is, basically, Sparta. I’m imagining here that Plato could discuss this dialogue with a newbie, and get a pretty good idea of his intellectual depth within a few minutes. (I’d have gotten Silver if I were lucky. Probably Bronze.)
  2. Not that that isn’t a charming image.

‘Remedial’ College Classes

I took about 2 years of remedial college classes, although that’s not what they were called. I came to St. John’s College in 1976 from a self-identified college prep high school, St. Paul’s in Santa Fe Springs, CA, with a mediocre GPA but killer SAT scores. The reality is that, at that time, St. John’s was in a down cycle, so that anyone who submitted all the essays required to apply (in something like English, I imagine, but maybe that was too high a bar?) got in. That was about the most writing I ever did up to that point, the petulant whining of a kid who was convinced that k-12 had been a total waste of time and had heard the siren’s call of all those wonderful books.

I was about as ready for college, especially the 22-25 units per semester, no ‘easy A’ classes that St. John’s demands, as I was to perform brain surgery.

Almost bombed out. The subject that almost killed my college career was Greek, which also happens to be the ‘remedial’ class. If only I were enlightened enough to be ashamed of myself. Reading education history, I come across random stuff like this, regarding Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, describing her course of study. Starting from before she was 10, and despite (?) being kept out of school:

My favorite studies were natural philosophy, logic, and moral science. From my brother Albert, I received lessons in the ancient tongues, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.

Mary Baker Eddy, a very well educated yet very loopy person. Education isn’t everything, but it beats the alternatives.

She was farm girl, the last of 6 kids, surreptitiously taught by her older brother, since her father thought her brain was too big for her. She evidently mastered them all. This was in the early 1800s.

Eddy’s case might be extreme, but the fact is that a nation of farmers and shopkeepers produced a steady stream of kids who knew Latin, Greek, and even sometimes Hebrew from a young age. Later, when the wedding of math and science had been successfully consumated, an educated kid also knew a bit of calculus, needed, for example, to understand Newton – who wrote in Latin.

Thus, the floor, the baseline, for someone wanting a college education was knowledge of Latin, Greek and calculus – because no self-respecting college was going to waste time getting kids up to speed with what farm girls and boys with any intellectual aspirations already knew.

But that changed. Ancient languages have been disparaged for some time now. In the topsy-turvy world of modern education, knowing ancient languages, far from being seen as the door to a wider intellectual and cultural world, is seen as sign you’re a narrow, musty specialist.

Thus, upon reaching St. John’s, I, like about 99.9% of modern Americans would, needed remedial Greek.(1) Having had no experience studying anything really hard, as in, you simply MUST memorize a boatload of rules and forms before you can make any real progress, I just about bombed out. I buckled down after being vaguely threatened with expulsion after my freshman year (“Mr. Moore knows no Greek,” I still hear my prof saying during don rags, the annual terrifying meeting where all your ‘tutors’ meet and talk about you as if you aren’t there. But you are.)

The happy ending, after a fashion: I really didn’t want to get thrown out of St. John – hey, reading all those books is really fun! – so I spent much of my sophomore year pulling late-nights with Liddell & Scott, a well thumbed tutti i verbi greci, and Sophocles, eventually writing a paper on Oedipus Rex tracing and commenting on every usage of verbs of sight throughout the text – it was good. Didn’t actually learn much Greek, but the paper won the day.

I’m still a terrible student, still know little Greek and less Latin, and could never have gained admittance to a real American college from 100 years ago. My respect for those who did graduate from real colleges is profound.

Back to today. One of my favorite education tidbits, often referred to here, is that about 50% of incoming UC Berkeley students must take remedial English, math, or both. Let that sink in: these are kids with 4.X GPAs, who took all the AP classes – and aced them – who had good SAT scores, who are the best of the best of best – but they can’t write or do math at a college level, as Berkeley imagines it. These kids are bright, so it should come as no surprise that the majority of them ace the remedial classes and go on to ‘succeed’ in their chosen fields.

I expect this percentage to go way down, not because students will suddenly start learning more math and better English before applying to Cal, but rather because Cal will move the goalposts and simply relabel what would have been remedial classes as something else, or eliminate or dumb down the requirements. It’s happened before – Latin, Greek and calculus, anyone?

The sad part, tragic, even, is not that so many need remedial training (however labeled), but that so many get degrees, including Masters and PhDs, without ever having their shortcomings remedied. Mine have not been remedied, alas, but I did get a peek into that larger world. It’s not all accessible to me, but I at least know it’s there.

To get college applicants to know Greek, Latin and math, all that needs to be done is to demand it -if kids 150 years ago could learn this stuff, so can kids today. We’re not born stupider today, we’ve been very intentionally and systematically made stupider. It starts with expectations.

Of course, that would result in many fewer people, under 10% I’d imagine, doing college. As giant, evil corporations, our fine colleges can’t have THAT. Why, if we gave the people what they needed and even in our better moments, wanted, we’d end up with a small population of college educated people and lots and lots of glorified trade schools. Which, in itself, would not be a bad thing.

I’d be in favor of trying to really educate everybody, starting at a young age, and then seeing how it comes out. Man’s gotta dream. Any real education starts with the utter destruction of pre-K – 12 schooling, the instrument by which we are made and kept stupid.

  1. Originally, when the Great Books Program was started, students took one year each of Greek, Latin, German and French. By the time I’d got there, they’d already throttled it back to 2 years of Greek and 2 years of French. To get into your Senior year, you had to pass a French reading exam, which I passed after the manner of St. Joseph of Cupertino: the text for the test was de Tocqueville, from a section I happened to be very familiar with. Lucky me? Still only know a little church Latin. Sigh.

College and the Big Evil Corporation Model

Here’s an idea to keep in mind when thinking about our wonderful universities and colleges: these ivy-infested institutions are, when you get right down to it, rich, evil corporations.

Image result for j p morgan
Super rich titan of industry, or major university president? Why not both?

Now, this notion, like most things this simple, doesn’t explain everything about ‘higher education,’ but, if judiciously applied, should serve to weed-whack some really stupid ideas and clear the ground for some actual thought. Plus, it’s factually true, at least about the name-brand institutions. Harvard, the big dog, has a $38.3 billion endowment, $44.6B in net assets, and an annual operating budget of $4.5B. For comparison, General Motors has net assets of $55.2B.

So, here goes:

Giant heartless corporations try to convince everyone they simply must have their products. You’ll never get ahead if you don’t have a college degree. You want to be a failure, like George Washington, Lincoln, or heck, Harry Truman? You want to live like that poor trade-school educated welder down the street, who owns his home, is debt-free and can get another job in about 15 minutes if he needs to? That’s what will happen to you if you don’t get a degree! Even though it’s patently nonsensical, doesn’t just about everyone you know think a college degree is all but essential to the good life?

To keep costs down and control high, evil corporations sow uncertainty and insecurity among their workers, You’ve all heard the stories about how evil corporations use the threat of replacing workers with a fresh-off-the-boat immigrants, to keep them in line and keep them from demanding more pay and better working conditions? Talk to a college professor lately? They all know that there are hundreds of people willing and able to take their job if anyone on campus finds anything at all lacking in them. Colleges used to offer tenure; now, it’s rare, as most classes are taught by adjuncts and grad students in most colleges in most fields. Not only are those non-tenure track people cheaper, they send a message to the tenured profs as well: we got backup plans if you screw up.

Giant, evil corporations willingly sell cheap, inferior products whenever they can, to maximize profits. To be admitted to Harvard 150 years ago, back when profs got tenure and under 10% of people went to college, you needed to pass a Greek and a Latin exam – and a calculus test. A college education *started* from a baseline that far exceeds the intellectual achievement of most PhDs today. (FYI: Most PhDs today are in education and social sciences.) Since only a tiny fraction of any population is likely to have the inclination and talent to learn Latin, Greek and calculus merely to get in to a good college, for the last century or so, colleges have been dumbing down their offerings to make sure they sell as much product as possible.

The first step was education schools, which generally date back to the second half of the 1800’s. For the last 150 years, inferior students (of course, there are exceptions. I assume.) who could not make it in a traditional college (think: Liberal Arts/Great Books + math, science, music, art, where that Latin, Greek and Calc would be put to use) could major in education, even get a PhD by doing ‘original’ research, and then get faculty positions teaching the next round of unqualified students. Over time – I’m estimating the other shoe fell around 1990 – the unqualified/dumb people with PhDs in participation trophy fields outnumber professors who might have a real education in something, and begin to call the shots and simply quash any opposition. You get stuff like this, for example (H/T to Rotten Chestnuts).

As a business strategy, as a way to maximize profits, this ‘create majors unqualified/dumb people can do’ has been a big winner! All studies fields, plus the non-RAD fields like English, History, Sociology, Psychology and so on, exist primarily to take the money from people who would not otherwise be able to hack college. Comparing such degrees to what a university degree used to be (and still is, in a few Great Books schools and the more RAD disciplines in some major schools) is like comparing finger painting to a Raphael portrait. Which is why the super-well-educated college grad is likely to say the finger paining is just as artistic as the Raphael…

Evil, rich corporations use their political influence to get the government to act in their best interests, despite what is good for or desired by people in general. It would be just like an evil corporation to get the government to all but require their product, create an elaborate tax-payer subsidized finance scheme to put people into debt to buy their product, and then try to get the government/tax-payers to take the bullet when the product doesn’t perform as advertised.

Student loans, anyone?

Enough. I’ve got an Academic VORP follow-up essay I’m working on, but it required real thought. Plus, there were some very good comments I didn’t answer because I wanted to expand on them. Sorry about that. Anyway, it’s now 3 days since I’ve written about bricks. Count your blessings! I mean, um, thanks for reading this humble blog.

What’s New With the Bricks? Thought You’d Never Ask!

It’s been almost 10 days since the last Home Improvement Project Update! How have all you, my many, well-into-double-digits number of readers contained yourselves?

When we last checked in, the front looked a little like this:

Path done; footer for planter/fence done; planter and fence columns not started.

Made a little progress:

First couple rows of the wall/fence laid – 2 more rows to go, then build the little towers that go on either end. Also moved a ton of bricks over into staging position.

Trying to keep it moving, so we don’t have another 2-year delay. Mostly, I worked on finishing the front porch, specifically, the steps down into the front yard mini-orchard. Background: the concrete path and steps leading up to the front stoop had become cracked and raised up in several places by the roots of the very large walnut tree in the front yard. Once that tree was removed, my strapping sons sledge-hammered the concrete out. While appreciated, it left the front door easily accessible – for mountain goats. A little uneven and now featuring one large step.

So I put in a ramp as part of the Deathless Front Yard Brick project. I was rushed, as my mother in law was coming to live with us (that was 2 years ago) so I finished the basic ramp, but did not finish the hand rail and steps down into the yard from the ramp. Finished the hand rail back in April. Here’s where I stand on the steps:

The ramp & porch ended in this unsightly drop-off.
As of about 10 days ago. Had begun to excavate a little and put in some forms for some footings. This is opposite the handrail, which can be seen in the background.

Finished digging, put in minimal forms and a little rebar to tie it all together (you can perhaps see three pieces of rebar sticking out of the footing in the first picture of the non-step above), which required hammer-drilling a couple holes and epoxying in the rebar, then bending it to match the general contour of the steps. Anyway, got here:

View from orchard.
View from ramp. Just mixed up some mortar, about to start slinging bricks.

Did the footings in two steps: first, did the ground level work seen above. Then, added two rows of bricks, the bottom step and the beginnings of the next step level with the ramp. That way, I could pour the next level, even with the current slab showing above, without having to build complicated curved forms. Not too worried about adhesion between the pours, as it’s just holding up some bricks and has no where to go.

Started adding the bricks:

Will sweep dry mortar into the cracks when done, then add water.

Stopped here because 1) I was tired and it was getting late; and 2) I’m going to need to cut a lot of bricks to fill in all the odd spots, and the angle grinder is loud. I’ll shoot for tomorrow afternoon, when most people are gone at work.

Couple more hours, and I’ll have this finished. What then remains for the porch: Mailbox atop one of the brick columns holding up the handrail, and two brick columns on either side of the step (you can see the rebar sticking up on the left for one of the columns) to hang an iron gate from.

Get this checked off, then the planter/fence, then the final simple but large planter on the south side – and I’m sorta kinda done!

Image result for young frankenstein it could work