Mission Church/Checking In

Been busy and a bit under the weather. Checking back in.

Today, the Concord Queen of All Saints Feast and Faith group took a field trip to Mission Dolores in San Francisco for Mass, a tour of the old adobe mission chapel and lunch. There were 13 of us. It was fun and educational, and it’s always a blessing to be able to say a few prayers in a church you are visiting.

Mision San Francisco de Assis was the sixth mission founded by St. Junipero Serra. In October 9, 1776, the official documents arrived establishing the mission, but Mass had already been celebrated at the site on June 29, so, in a sense, the mission is 5 days older than America. From a very early date, the Mission was called Mission Dolores after an adjacent creek named Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores. I imagine St. Francis would be amused by this, and wholeheartedly approve.

Originally, the mission comprised a fairly vast area, with 10,000 head of cattle, 10,000 sheep, many horses, etc., as well as workshops, farms and gardens. In a very real sense, it was San Francisco. Several thousand native Americans lived and worked there. Following Mexican independence, in 1834 the missions were ‘secularized’ meaning, in effect, that all their lands except that upon which stood the church buildings and cemeteries were seized by the Mexican government and given to private citizens. This impoverished the mission and lead to a decades long decline. By 1842, only a few Indians lived at the mission, and what remained of the building fell into serious disrepair.

Mission Dolores in the early 1850's in San Francisco.
By the 1850s, it looked like this. 

Then statehood and the Gold Rush brought a flood of people to the Bay, including many Irish and other Catholics. A new parish church in a Gothic Revival style was built adjacent to the old mission chapel to handle the crowds. The old adobe was clad in clapboard, for both aesthetic (it was looking pretty ratty, as the above picture illustrates) and protective reasons.

The 1906 earthquake destroyed the large brick church but left the adobe intact and largely undamaged. In the following dozen years, a new Mission revival style church was built to replace the destroyed brick church and the old mission was carefully restored. Today, the majority of parish activities take place in the new (only 100 years old!) Basilica, while the old chapel is used for one mass a week and is otherwise mostly a tourist attraction. But they do a very respectful job.

A cemetery used to occupy acres around the old church, with about 11,000 people buried there from the 1790s up into the late 1800s. As the streets were put through and land became more dear, the cemetery shrank and the remains moved until, today, only a tiny plot on the south side of the old mission chapel remains. A quick look at the tombstones that remain reveals many names that now grace San Francisco streets and landmarks.

Also adding to the holiness of the place: two saints (at least) have prayed there: St. Junipero Serra celebrated mass while it was under construction, and Pope St. John Paul the Great stopped by to pray when he visited San Francisco.

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The reredos and sanctuary. Note the ceiling, painted in a pattern used by the Ohlone in their basket weaving. 
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Top center: St. Michael guards the place. As well he should. 

Finally, we went to lunch at the Kitchen Story just up the street on 16th. Highly recommended.

 

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Textbooks: An Unnecessary Evil pt 1

It has been the great tragedy of our time that people were taught to read and not taught to reason.

– Chesterton, of course

A fascinating comment on an old post that’s been getting some attention lately (by the lowly standards of this blog, anyway) got me to thinking about textbooks.

Three questions:

  1. What are textbooks
  2. Who gets to say what’s in them
  3. Why do we need them

After some preliminaries, we’ll treat each of these questions in turn over two or three posts.

Background musings: When reading a book, one is almost always forced, alas, to rely on some intermediary person’s understanding of the materials. Most works I read and want to read are compilations from other sources (almost all history) or are translated into English, or both. Works of fiction and the occasional first hand account written in a language you read are exceptions – in novels and front line stories, the writer is free, more or less, to tell it as he sees it, and you get to interact, as it were, directly with the writer.

Translations are perhaps the obvious challenge. I read a lot of books written in other languages, and am often acutely aware of being at the mercy of the translator’s understanding and biases. The couple years I spent studying German in high school left no trace; the 2 years of Greek and one of French in college (1) had the benefit of making me aware of how difficult the translator’s job is even with the best of intentions. Read any two translations of Dante, let alone Homer, and you will in places wonder if the translators are working from the same sources. I today read very, very little French and less Greek. And effectively no German. Sigh.

The intermediary in this case is the translator, who has a whole passel of challenges and temptations to deal with, not least of which is to simplify and gloss over stuff he may or may not understand. Some of the more intense discussions at St. John’s were occasioned by why Hippocrates G. Apostle (a well known and fabulously-named translator of Aristotle) had translated the same Greek word into more than one English word according to context, whether his assumptions about context were correct, and whether it was ever OK to read into a text in that manner. Many different translations were dragged out for comparison. “Sheer fantasy” was a comment made by one of the more linguistically skilled professors.

St. John’s College is weird. It also should be pointed out that reading anything like a literal translation of Aristotle is nearly as difficult to understand as it is for somebody with two years of Greek to try to read him in Greek. So, we were all sympathetic to Apostle, but I think we, in the end, didn’t much approve.

I tell the above story merely to illustrate how challenging translation can be, and how one must always exercise some degree of caution when reading translated works. In some cases, the translator’s introduction and footnotes can be very helpful in explaining his approach and sometimes biases, and in helping explain tricky words and passages. But sometimes not.

The other main intermediary is the compilers/re-tellers. When reading history especially, the reader is unpacking a Russian doll – there are the original sources which may or may not be brought to the fore, and all the other historians who have looked at the same materials whose influence may or may not be acknowledged. Exactly what you’re getting, particularly in popular histories where the writer is unlikely to let facts get in the way of the story, is difficult if not impossible for the lay person to grasp.

History is a challenging task, where the broad strokes may not be too controversial, but everything else is up for grabs. The trick is trying to capture both the telling details – and upon what criteria is this detail or that deemed telling? – while at the same time providing some context and overarching analysis without simply steamrolling those details.

Not easy – and that’s assuming you’re honest. Some are not, or at least their criteria for selecting and recounting details are biased to the point of lying. Gibbons and Wells spring to mind, the first applying the principle that anything the Catholic Church was involved in was by that fact alone evil, and the second deciding in advance that, according to Marxist principles, everything is marching forward in a completely non-religious way under the guidance of the totally not-God History toward a totally not a paradise myth Worker’s Paradise. In either case, any detail or even higher level events that failed to confirm their narrative, as the kids call it these days, was ignored or mangled until it did. (2)

Again, introductions and notes are often helpful or at least telling. When I read A History of Private Life a few years ago (well, most of it anyway) I had to deal with both translation – it was written in French – and marked biases among the various scholars who contributed. Some were openly Marxist, which means inclined to lie and ignore stuff the moment it becomes inconvenient to their pathology, while others had an Germanic, nearly obsessive fascination with details (I liked those guys – go figure). And some had no obvious agendas. Good series. It helped me at least to have a little heads up as provided by the introduction and notes.

That said, one’s main tool or defense in understanding and getting something positive from reading is having read and tried to understand lots of different kinds of books, particulary old books that introduce one to truly different cultures. (3) That’s what the exercise of a University education used to largely consist of – the reading and struggling with the ideas in books widely recognized as important. In no particular order, you learn or should learn:

  • Many old stories are beautiful. Our ancestors really knew a good story when they heard one, and how to tell it;
  • There are very, very few really new ideas;
  • Most of the really important ideas are thousands of years old, and never go away;
  • The smartest people today are not smarter than the smartest people of the past;
  • Using big words and plenty of them, and having good things to say are not the same thing.

There is a more complicated thing one might learn, about how an educated person sees the world. This is much harder to put into words. The effect is that one becomes aware of perspective, about how the world will look a certain way to someone who has had certain experiences and accepted certain premises. Crucially, one sees the interaction between beliefs, character and action. In many ways, great novels make this more clear than other types of books, although it’s a critical part of Homer and even of Aristotle. I suppose this is what is meant by being broadminded.

What are textbooks?

Simply put, and with notable exceptions, textbooks are meant to prevent learning any of the lessons a student might learn from good books.

Exceptions include attempts to condense and to some extent predigest the fundamentals of highly technical topics. Grammars, and some math and science texts fall into this class.  Textbooks of this type are sometimes highly original and creative in themselves. Euclid, for example, is sometimes considered a textbook on Greek mathematics, but the gradus ad Parnassum structure of the Elements, leading the student logically from simpler to more complex concepts and proofs, was at least perfected by Euclid, and is his greatest lesson.

Most modern textbooks are not exceptions. Consider the fundamental difference between modern textbooks versus the earliest textbooks use in America, say, McGuffey’s Readers. The Readers were literally textbooks, collections of texts written by what the compilers thought were great writers, typically expressing thoughts characteristic of the highest aspirations of the people whose children were to read them.  The readers are hard, at least much harder than the texts we expect children of similar age today to read.

Modern textbooks are not, as a rule, collections of challenging texts. Instead, the materials in them are fresh wrought. These materials tend to be very simple. This is one aspect of Pestalozzi’s methods (such as they are) that Fichte loved: all learning is to be broken down into atoms, and no student is permitted to move on to atom B until the teacher has determined that he has mastered atom A.

A child with the slightest interest in learning to read will get past the ‘See Spot run” level in at most a couple weeks. This step – giving kids simple sentences made up of easily sounded out words – seems to have, historically, been skipped. In America, large numbers of children learned to read from the King James Bible, which no one will ever accuse of being a collection of simple sentences made up of easily sounded out words.

The other feature of modern textbooks that must be noted: the answers are in the back or in the teacher’s edition. The answers are known, even in subjects such as ‘literature’ or history, where the meaning of any text or event is certainly not reducible to a single statement if it has any meaning at all. Even in math, people with any instinctual understanding of math recognize that while there may be one or one set of correct answers, there are usually many ways to get there. Yet the textbook will mark you wrong if you do not take the route described in the textbook. Even being correct isn’t good enough. Thus another defining feature of modern textbooks: by putting the acceptable answers in the teacher’s hands, textbooks place the teacher between the student and the materials, such that the materials to be learned are not allowed to speak to the student except as approved by the teacher

In general, excepting those textbooks that serve the purpose of collecting and organizing complex basics such as grammar and math, modern textbooks are collections of newly created materials, generally fragmented and simplified to some imagined lowest common denominator. They contain the often increasingly arbitrary acceptable answers to a set of predefined acceptable questions. These questions and answers are under the control of the teacher alone.

Next, we’ll discuss who gets to say what’s in them.

  1. Contrary to all expectation, including mine, I did pass the junior year French reading exam at St. John’s, so there was a brief period where I was a *certified* reader of French. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of St. Joseph of Cupertino? A man considered by his peers to be hopelessly stupid? Where, the story goes, in order to advance toward ordination, he needed to give a brief exposition on some scripture passage, and the examiner asked him about the Nativity narrative – the one point in Scripture upon which any of his religious brothers had ever heard him expound with any coherence. He passed, and ended being ordained a priest. Well, the St John’s College French test happened to be on a passage from de Tocqueville with which I just happened to be very familiar. (de Tocqueville also happens to be very easy French). As soon as I started trying to read it, I was all ‘oh, that passage!’ Luck? Divine Providence? You decide!
  2. Confession: it is unlikely I will live long enough to read Gibbons or Wells all the way through. I’m judging them here based on the snippets I have read and their reputations among people whose views on the matter I respect – e.g., Chesterton.
  3. I’ve long said that trying to understand the ancient Greeks and Hebrews is a greater and more fruitful cultural reach than trying to understand any current culture. The Greeks and Hebrews as deep beyond deep, and as alien in many ways as Martians. And yet, they are us!

A Further Thought on Politics & History

Yesterday’s post got off leash and wandered, going places I didn’t start out intending to go. Nothing wrong with that, or, rather, nothing wrong with it that isn’t also wrong with about 95% of the content on this here blog. That said, let’s take up the theme again, see where it goes this time.

I posited that there are two consistent themes in America’s political history, one of which believes that all problems can be solved if the right people – good, forward-thinking people – have overwhelming power. The power is required to be overwhelming, as there exist Bad People who must be overwhelmed. In fact, the problem definition of those who embrace this line of thought always, as in, always, contains the idea that it is only bad people who oppose them, that good people would never dream of opposing them.

Thus, we have a dichotomy: the rhetoric used by such people will always be about justice, fairness, the little people, and how their goals would be simply achievable, inevitable, even, except for the bad people who lie, bully and obfuscate in order to stop them. The rhetoric is ultimately moral; with all morality on the side of those on the team, and complete immorality the defining characteristic of the opposition.

But: the concrete actions proposed are always, as in always, a power grab; the methods are almost without exception immoral by any objective measure. The likes of Dewey and Alinsky even acknowledge this when they denounce any who would hesitate to lie, manipulate or do any other evil to further the cause. Freire, among others, makes it clear that there are no rights except those gained by commitment to the Cause. While life and property are the obvious targets – we kill you and take your stuff  being the logically inevitable next step of these self-appointed messiahs – the right one might imagine one has to be told the truth is, in practice, the first victim of effort. As Dewey, taking a break from re-architecting our modern school system, said in his defense of the Russian Revolution, the end is all that matters; the collective means everything, the individual nothing.

As, I think, Zinn, of all people, points out: the Puritans fled relative religious freedom in England and Europe in order to establish their own theocracy in America. Be that as it may, the founders of Harvard were graduates and professors from Cambridge miffed that that hoary institution wasn’t Puritan enough, but still tolerated less pure and Puritan ideas. So off to America they go, to set up a proper Calvinist state. Per Wikipedia’s article on Harvard: 

A 1643 publication gave the school’s purpose as “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust”; in its early years trained many Puritan ministers. It offered a classic curriculum on the English university model‍—‌many leaders in the colony had attended the University of Cambridge‍—‌but conformed to the tenets of Puritanism. It was never affiliated with any particular denomination, but many of its earliest graduates went on to become clergymen in Congregational and Unitarian churches.

The ‘never affiliated with any particular denomination’ is an odd claim – when the stated goal is to provide replacements for ‘our present ministers’ and the state is an arm of the Church, as it most certainly was in colonial Boston, what would ‘never affiliated’ mean? Also, one might get the impression from the way the above is worded that Congregational and Unitarian ministers were trained together at Harvard in a lovely gesture of ecumenism. What actually happened was that around 1800, a battle raged between the ‘almost certainly damned and there’s nothing you can do about it’ Calvinist Congregationalist and the ‘we’re all saved and there’s no way for us not to be’ Univeralists, which was ultimately won by the Universalists. Because Universalists, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, don’t really believe anything, Harvard quickly fell to the secularists. (1)

The point here is that, while what has proved to be the superficial aspects of religion have been shed, the core belief that, if only they were in charge, the leaders of the Harvard community would bring about some sort of paradise on earth has persisted unabated, and, having shed the restraints of even Calvinist Christianity, is even more hell-bent on the destruction of its enemies.

While really truly Calvinist Puritans despised all other beliefs, believing Methodists, for example, almost certainly damned, they shared with other Protestants a particular hatred of Catholicism. They (we) were the real enemy, the Church the whore of Babylon. Over the last century or so, many ‘good’ Catholics have fallen under the sway of Harvard, and will, as the price of sitting at the cool kid’s table, embrace the project.

Of course, not everyone gets to go to Harvard. But there are workarounds. Early in the 19th century, Harvard ditched its ‘classic curriculum on the English university model‍’ and refashioned itself into a research or Prussian-model University, after the then-new University of Berlin. In the 18th century, various president and scholars at Harvard had prided themselves on their mastery of Latin and the classics; commencement speeches were delivered in Latin. But this began to pass away, as Harvard lost its religious drive and replaced it with the Prussian model’s research drive. It became much more important to discover new things, to advance mankind, than to pass on old things such as Latin and the classics.

As the oldest and most successful University in America, and as the source of key faculty and administration to other American colleges, Harvard was the model to follow. Publish or perish. Get in line with Progress. We are centuries smarter than those old guys anyway.

Everybody learns this wherever they go to school in America. (2)

The dominant position of this take has made assuming those who do not share it are ignorant, stupid and evil as easy as falling down for those who accept it. You, the true believer, owe them nothing but contempt. Following Marx, you would assume there is practically no chance you can awaken them to the enlightened truth, although, out of the goodness of your heart you might try. That’s how it happens that we who disagree get lectured on what we believe by those hoping to convince us, and dismissed with ad hominems when we push back. You either get it and are woke, or you don’t and are broke beyond repair.

The other thread mentioned yesterday, the one championed by Washington and the writers of the Federalist Papers, is the ferocious commitment to being free from tyrants of any flavor. To such a one, the most pathetic belief possible is that today’s wannabe tyrant, arriving in the fullness of time and one the Right Side of History, cares, really cares, about Justice, Fairness and all that is good, and will only inflict the degree of harm on our enemies that is necessary to achieve the Good.

Having seen the world operate under tyrants, under Central Committees and Committees for Public Safety and Five Year Plans, having read about Athens and Florence and Paris and the whiplash of mob rule to tyranny to aristocracy and back, and all the innocents destroyed and all the wealth robbed and wasted, we aren’t buying that now, finally, it will work of only we put a nice man like Bernie in charge. He’ll only seize the wealth of those who have too much (presumably more than three houses and a net worth of a couple million, but I’m sure that’s flexible…) and give it to those who deserve it!

What could go wrong? We, the Enlightened, the Woke, simply won’t repeat the results of EVERY OTHER ATTEMPT THROUGH ALL OF HISTORY to anoint a secular savior. We just won’t, and you’re a meanie, an unenlightened bad  person to even bring it up.

Is it any wonder the Bern wants college for everyone?

  1. I’ve long noticed something I call the Christian Hangover, where those who have drunk deeply of Christian ideals typically stay drunk on them for a generation or even two, all the while claiming their behaviors are not based on Christianity. Thus, we often see rabid atheists, at least for the first generation or even two, behaving more or less like traditional Christian gentlemen. It falls to their children or sometimes grandchildren to reach the logical conclusion that gentlemanly behavior is stupid under their current beliefs. This is why it is a good thing atheists have so few children. Harvard kept up appearances until almost 1900. It went from demanding traditional moral behavior from its staff – a manifestation of its internalized Puritanism – to tolerating bad behavior if you kept it quiet, to tolerating bad behavior out in the open to, today, demanding the enthusiastic embrace of immorality as a condition of employment. Increase Mather’s corpse is doing about 1,000 RPMs.
  2. With, one hopes, the exception of the Newman List schools and some of the committed Evangelical schools. And maybe St. John’s College.

A Brief Thought on Politics & History

Now, I know hardly enough of either subject mentioned above for my opinions here to carry much weight, so I will be receptive to correction by any who know better: Onward!

Two political opinions, let us call them, have existed side by side in America from colonial days, that continue to war with each other. The first, represented by Washington and the Federalist Papers, is the idea that no man can be trusted with unlimited power, that even when a happy accident blesses us with a Charlemagne or a Theodosius, say, he will sooner rather than later be followed by a more typical French king or an Honorius.

This state, where huge amounts of power are held by an unworthy man, is called tyranny or perhaps chaos, and is to be avoided. The best way to avoid it is to never entrust overwhelming power to any man. This is *the* lesson of history in the eyes of the Founders.

The second, a sign of intellectual development arrested during adolescence, is the belief that I could make everything better, if only I had enough power. Since most of us are too lazy to do anything at all to gather ‘enough power’, those in thrall to this belief most often identify someone seeking power who they think shares their goals, and wish him to have ‘enough’ power. They never imagine how this could go wrong, or, rather, they care SO MUCH for fixing the current problem, whatever it is, that all other issues are so much dust in comparison. Only a doody-head would even bring them up!

These attitudes are nothing new here in America. The second, for example, reveals itself in the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, where the question of how best to free the slaves is subsumed under pure religious righteousness. It’s God’s work to go to war; anything less is, by unavoidable implication, the work of the devil. If only we had enough power, in this case an army, we could fix everything! No consideration for what would happen next is allowed to rise to mind.

Leading up to the Civil War, many people who fervently hated slavery nonetheless had practical doubts about the wisdom and ultimate efficacy of waging war to do so. They could point to successful efforts to free slaves and outlaw slavery well short of war all across the Western Hemisphere and Europe. Slavery is bad, but then so also is war, so maybe other options should be considered? They thought the strict Abolitionists were foolish and dangerous, that once a war started no one could say how it would end, and they refused to give any thought to the next steps even if the war was won. (Of course, this is a summary. Things never divide this neatly, but there were certainly plenty of people at the extremes.)

Once the bullets started flying, four score and 7 years of pent up fury was unleashed, until, as Lincoln said, “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” (I think one factor motivating non-belief these days is the thought, deep down, that divine justice on the evils of this age would put even the Civil War’s carnage to shame. This thought must be suppressed. But I digress.)

We have one group of people, of which I count myself a junior member, who think history mainly a cautionary tale, or, rather, one cautionary tale after another, the point of which would be something along the lines of: trust not in princes. We see no evidence of a Capital H History moving dialectically ever forward. Not squinting, not with the rosiest of glasses. All there is is people being people. There’s plenty of beauty in there, but it hard won, and only raises its head above the waves of horror and misery when hard men make great sacrifices.

Great sacrifices have been made. Saints and heroes large and small have gotten us here, today. Our heads are just above the water still.

The other major thread believes that things not only can be fixed, they can be fixed by trying things that were ancient when the ancient Greek cities tried them and fell back into tyranny. History shows that while the strong man’s promises to use his power to kill the enemies and institute a paradise of fairness, the power grab and killing is as far as this sort of action ever gets. The only newish trick, the trick decried by Orwell: putting power into the hands of a dictator, and all his subsequent unilateral self-serving actions are called ‘democratic’; the farcically unexamined dogma imposed to justify this is called ‘scientific’.

And so on.

Years ago, realized that the victims of Marxist fantasies both overt and subtle have, with few exceptions, never heard a real counterargument. They haven’t so much been convinced as conditioned to be unable to imagine any alternatives. That’s the benefit of controlling the schools. The teachers and professors, more or less consciously as the case may be, spout dogmas as simple facts. Years of careful training in regurgitating what the teacher says in order to get the good grades and the other pats on the head schools hand out virtually guarantees that students thus educated will be simply baffled by any arguments or facts that somehow make it past the defenses. Mostly, the reactions are Pavlovian. I’ve seen this in college professors – I’ve seen it especially in college professors.

The only point here, and I think it’s one Trump, for all his bluster, gets: there is no point in arguing with such people, especially once they formed a mob. Individually, maybe, sometimes. But as a member in a reinforcing group, where the threat of losing standing is real and executed with remarkable alacrity, nothing you say will matter. History won’t matter. Facts won’t matter. Only the beauty of the promised paradise and the conclusively presumed evil of any who do not share the vision matter.

And through it all, they will call themselves open minded, educated and reasonable for shouting down all contrary opinions and wishing death on those propound them. It is a truly remarkable thing to behold.

Well, it’s not as bad as all that, really. But this post has gone on long enough.

 

Friday Roundup

Contrary to the above title, I will not be deploying a chemical solution to the weeds of the Internet, but rather plucking a few flowers:

First, David Warren talks about the history of health and medical care. He is the son of a mother who spent her career in healthcare, and so has perhaps a different perspective than most. Much of what he says is news to me: that the adoption of anesthetics, which make life easier on the doctor, was all but instantaneous across the Western world once demonstrated in Boston in 1846, but that the effectiveness of sterile surgery in preventing infections and increasing patient survival chances was demonstrated in 1865 in Glasgow – but was not universally adopted until well into the 20th century – soldiers by the thousands were dying of easily preventable infections in WWI, half a century after it had demonstrated that such deaths were easily preventable. If you sedate patients, you can more easily perform surgery and people will more easily submit to it (that anyone submitted to significant surgery without being anesthetized is frankly amazing) – and that’s good for business. But someone with a bullet wound is in no condition to complain about filthy conditions in your operating room. He’ll be in no condition to complain about much of anything soon enough, most likely.

His point is that what history shows is that doctors are all over changes that make their lives easier, and less ready to adopt changes that impose work on them – while simple enough, it is a lot of work to keep things sterile – even when it benefits the patients greatly. I think it’s fair to say Warren isn’t picking on doctors uniquely here, but rather pointing out how things work among us fallen people.

Image result for surgery
Hardworking, dedicated people. But people, nonetheless, subject to the same foibles and temptations as anyone else.

One of his main points is also one of my main points, made occasionally here: you want to improve people’s health? Sanitation and clean water get you most of the benefits. The formula I usually use: Sanitation, clean water, plenty of calories on a regular basis and political stability.  These cover by far the lion’s share of the improvement in life expectancy that the modern world has experienced.

Then, for medicine, it’s the cheap basic stuff that provides almost all of the benefits: antibiotics, vaccines, and a sterile environment for medical care. Now, I am personally very grateful for some of the more fancy stuff – blood pressure meds, various straight-forward surgeries, and – very big one, this – modern dental care (people died from infections around impacted teeth and dental abscesses, or had their health greatly compromised).

I’ve now made it to 60, which means, historically, I’m playing with house money from here on out.  Life expectancy for an American male in 1900 was 49. While there are many cases like me, of people whose comparative longevity and vigor have resulted from some more advanced medical care, the overall increase is due almost entirely to simple, cheap, proven practices.

Lots more good stuff in that essay – you’d do better reading it than hanging out here, that’s for sure.

Next, some Feynman quotations, in honor of his 100th birthday (he didn’t make it to the celebration). These are not my personal favorites, except for these:

2. “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

As Feynman said in The Character of Physical Law, many people understand other sophisticated physical theories, including Einstein’s relativity. But quantum mechanics resists an equivalent depth of understanding. Some disagree, proclaiming that they understand quantum mechanics perfectly well. But their understanding disagrees with the supposed understanding of others, equally knowledgeable. Perhaps Feynman’s sentiment might better be expressed by saying that anyone who claims to understand quantum mechanics, doesn’t.

I find this comforting, somehow, as I certainly don’t understand it. Also, it illustrates something that would fall out from the assumption that the mind – oops, the brain, which is assumed to be the mind and not merely the organ of the mind – resulted from Natural Selection: we would not expect anything in nature that falls outside the realm of things that affect our survival chances to be understandable by a brain designed by exactly those things which affect our survival chances. Quantum mechanics cannot have had any role in our ancestors’ environment of evolutionary adaptation. They did not shape spears or hunt warthogs better based on their understanding of Heisenberg, with those with a better understanding somehow, all other things being equal, killing more warthogs.

The more interesting question: how is it, under Natural Selection, that anybody cares about quantum mechanics at all? Or about any of the other millions of things humans have been interested in, obsessed over, even, that have no effect on our survival chances? I think the claim that, somehow, understanding quantum mechanics, however imperfectly, or art or music or philosophy and so on falls out from evolutionary theory should be accompanied by evidence that masters of such fields have comparatively many and vigorous children. Otherwise, it is a just so story in the face of contrary evidence.

Natural Selection, while beautiful in its way, cannot be the whole story.

1. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

The best Feynman quote of all (from a 1974 address), and the best advice to scientists and anybody else who seeks the truth about the world. The truth may not be what you’d like it to be, or what would be best for you, or what your preconceived philosophy tells you that it is. Unless you recognize how easily you can be fooled, you will be.

This idea is unknown to most people, it seems, and applied to others first by most who do know it – that guy over there is fooling himself. Rare is the man who consistently applies this to himself first. I aspire to this, but it is hard.

Next, on Twitter, which I use to publicize posts here and follow writers, Catholics, scientists and the various combinations of those traits the real world provides, I’m conducting a whimsical experiment. 20 years ago, I wrote a bunch of jokes for a defunct humor list. No money involved, mostly just the honor of amusing the other writers. While obviously I’m not great at it – I’m working a desk job, and have been for almost 40 years now – I did make the honorary Hall of Fame and have a small pile of fan letters from readers. So, no great shakes, but not totally worthless either.

So I’ve taken to posting a recycled joke or 2 each day, to see what happens. Note: I think I understand Twitter about as well as I understand quantum mechanics. ‘Impressions’ is twitterese for eyeballs (well, eyeballs divided by roughly 2) in front of which pass your tweet. I have a bit over 200 ‘followers’ who, if they all checked their feed every day, should result in about 200 ‘impressions’ per tweet as a baseline.

Some followers are just people trying to sell stuff – they come and go, and at any rate are not checking their twitter feeds every day. The reality is that I’ll get around 100 ‘impressions’ for just some random tweet.  But if people ‘like’ or better ‘retweet’ a tweet of mine, I’ll get well over 100, since the tweet is now exposed to the eyeballs on the likers or retweeters tweets.

Clear?

Once, I tweeted some insults at Carl Sagan, Bill Nye and that Tyson fellow. These resulted in over 100,000 impressions a day for a few days. People took sides, tempers flared, people insulted me back. Good times. Otherwise, I’ll post from 0 to 2 tweets and get 250 impressions on a typical day.  Days go by without me tweeting or even looking. I really have no idea what to make of Twitter.

Anyway, back to my research. What I’ve discovered: using ‘impressions’ as a surrogate for ‘funny’, I have no idea what other people think is funny.  What I mean: if people ‘like’ and retweet a joke, more eyeballs hit it. If they don’t, fewer. So the number of eyeballs could be a measure of how funny a joke is. Maybe. It’s a stretch, but – maybe.

Back when I was writing these jokes, this one, that I tossed off as a ‘meh’ joke, was my most admired quip based on largely anecdotal evidence, for reasons that escape me:

People often wonder what it is that makes the Beatles so great. I think it is probably their songs.

That got a fairly decent response on Twitter. I have no idea why. I’ve only been doing this for a week, but so far, my ‘best’ joke by far based on Twitter metrics is:

The tiny fish gets eaten by the little fish, which gets eaten by the big fish, which gets eaten by the bigger fish, which gets put into a can and fed to my cat.  Personally, I’m holding off marveling at the grandeur of Nature at least until the cat can use the can opener.

Ok, I guess. Over 700 sets of eyeballs have seen this in the couple hours since I threw it up there.

For comparison, here are two of my favorites that still crack me up, in the form of headlines – haven’t tweeted them yet:

Child Development Center Releases Prototype

and

Phlogiston Blamed in Antique Shop Fire

My understanding of humor is, um, idiosyncratic? Is that too nice a way to put it?

 

 

Data

(30 seconds of web searching didn’t uncover one of my favorite cartoons – a solid, no-nonsense business man at his desk, reading a magazine titled “Raw Data”. So you’ll just have to imagine it.)

Two items drifted across my computer screen recently brought to our attention by author and inventor Hans Schantz:

First off, a way-cool map

This is a way-cool map, but brought up a few questions. I responded:

Fascinating. Does this show that Europeans are much better at keeping track of their battles, engage in more formal battles, some combination, or what?

He didn’t know. I didn’t see this information on the map’s web page, but I didn’t really search hard, either. And:

Big picture data collection/validation problems are often ignored. e.g., what’s a battle? 10 guys throwing rock? 20? How about spears? Is a siege a battle? How about an invasion, with little resistance? All those Italian Renaissance ‘battles’ w/ mercenaries & few/no casualties?

A few other considerations: 10 guys throwing rocks might, indeed, be a battle if we’re talking Irish villages of 1,500 years ago or conflicts between hunter-gatherer tribes, while a hundred men with machine guns slugging it out on the periphery of major battle lines might not even qualify as a footnote. Was the bombing of Nagasaki a battle? Why or why not? And so on.

I dig a good map as much as anyone, and admire clever representations of data. But, alas! experience has taught me the sad truth: few, if any, popular maps/data representations are worth the electronic media they are encoded in. This map says, at a glance, that Europeans have many more recorded battles than anybody else. One is sore tempted to think, therefore, Europeans are just that much more violent than other peoples.

Well? Does the map actually say that? We can’t tell without a boatload more information. We do know that, in general, Europeans (and Southwest Asians and Egyptians) were very much into written (and engraved – you get the picture) records than most other cultures at most other times.

Next, this movie of the sun at various wavelengths and enhanced various ways.

Really beautiful stuff, and glorious to see the coronal mass ejections and the magnetic field lines.

But, obviously, we, meaning actual human beings, are not ‘seeing’ any of this directly. All the images of the sun are heavily filtered and enhanced to give us these views. This is true not only here, where simply looking at the sun would blind us, but also for all those glorious Hubble pictures and the fly-by images we get of the planets and other objects in the solar system.

This is a different kind of data problem: we’re trusting that the technicians that worked on this are trying to show us what’s there, in a way. What’s there is, strictly speaking, mostly invisible to us – too bright, too dim, not enough contrast, and so on. I trust the technicians are trying merely to give us the most beautiful and informative pictures they can, mostly because that serves both their mission and their interests. Not so much on the battles map, because it could be used to serve a popular political position. Not saying the map makers are necessarily doing that, just that is very easily could be done. Examples of just such underhanded dishonesty are unfortunately legion.

Data points get made into facts, as Mike Flynn often points out, via the assumptions and theories that surround their collection and presentation. No great landmines in these two examples, but even here it bears keeping in mind.

Currently Reading:

Polanyi, The Great Transformation. According to a friend, this book figures into Deenan’s Why Liberalism Failed, and, since it is available free online, I started there. Will get to Deenan later, I hope.

50 pages of 375 in snapshot: after reading the forward by Joseph Stiglitz and the introduction by Fred Block, and the first chapter or so, had to google who this Karl Polanyi and these dudes were. Stiglitz is a New Keynesian economist with all the awards and sheepskins; Block is a prominent sociologist.

Keynes was the official economist of the Fabian movement – he was General-Secretary and later president of the Royal Economic Society, which was founded by Fabians to promote their communist views. As a New Keynesian, Stiglitz is one of a long line of Fabian economists, and part of the effort to salvage Keynes from the unfortunate (in the eyes of Marxists) success of the modern world in reducing violence and poverty to previously unimaginable levels. More people live safer, more secure and affluent lives now than ever before in history, and the trends are all good – so, who needs socialism, let alone communism? So New Keynesians focus on what, in the big picture, are blips in the overall trends, and ignore the overall story of success. (1)

Reminder: this is the original Fabian Society coat of arm: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Fabians are nothing other than Communists, except even more devoted to lies and deception, if that’s possible.

Keep in mind that while Marx was infatuated with economics and legendarily whiled away several years doing research in the British Museum Reading Room, he’s also notorious for his extraordinarily weak grasp of the actual economic activity of the world he lived in, as well as for his use of nonsensical footnotes and references. (2) He established a tradition, in other words.

Block is a Critical Theorist, as are all prominent Sociologists, although it is customary to portray their devotion to Marx as merely one influence among others and a prompt to acting as gadflies against other, more ossified and less Progressive theories. (See: my theory of filters – once the heirs of the Fabians get control of a university department, they can then filter out the non pliable, let alone any outright opponents. After a couple generations, harmony is achieved. This harmony is achieved at the cost of honesty and academic freedom, which, following Gobels and Alansky, is what those enforcing that harmony claim their opponents are attacking. This would be amusing if it weren’t true.) Critical Theory is Marxism as manifested in academia. Take a gander at the home page of the American Sociological Association, and judge for yourself what they’re up to.

Stiglitz and Block are of course effusive in their praise of Polanyi.

Polanyi was also a Fabian, but is said to have a ‘complex’ relationship with Marxism, which, translated into English, means he did not find it expedient to tout his Marxism always and everywhere. His wife Ilona Duczynska worked in the propaganda department of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and she was a member of the Budapest Central Revolutionary Worker and Soldier Council. So I think we can assume Polanyi had a high degree of sympathy, at least, with revolutionary ideas.

Anticipating a completely predictable read in at least this sense: anything bad or less than perfect that happens where free markets reign will be presented as proof of the conceptual failure of Capitalism; any failures under socialism, up to and including mass murder, will, if acknowledged at all, be attributed to human failings of one sort of another. Further, ‘democratic’ will be used to mean ‘rule by the enlightened few who, as communists, believe they have the right and duty to do whatever they want to the demos in the name of achieving the glorious future.’ This is the sense in which Stalin and Che were men of the people, not despite, but especially when murdering unarmed men, women and children. (3)  History proves socialism correct provided you assume your conclusion as the sole acceptable lens through which history may be viewed.

In the first 50 pages, that’s what I got. Also, there’s the heartfelt sympathy for those poor little people who suffer under the vagaries of free markets that is somehow not present at all for those who suffer under socialism. The theory is pure and correct, after all, so such suffering under socialism cannot be caused by it, while free markets are evil, so that any suffering, no matter how temporal or complicated it causes, no matter how much a blip on an otherwise very hopeful trend, proves that free markets must be snuffed out (along with, as history has shown, any *people* who do not sufficiently hate them. But that’s the small ‘h’ history where people do and suffer things, not the capital ‘H’ History that drives Progress.)

Will review when completed.

 

  1. Marx is said to have been revolutionary in his insistence on viewing economic activity as a whole, taking, one might say, a macro view of microeconomics. History is marching forward – what the little people actually do can only be understood as results or even side effects of this march of Progress. New Keynesians are, according to Wikipedia, involved in using microeconomics to prop up Keynes against the persistent claim that his analysis and policies make no sense, and, specifically, that history over the last 50 years or so has shown doesn’t, you know, work. The irony amuses me.
  2. I’ve heard this ‘Marx’s footnote and references are nonsense’ comment from a couple of sources that I now cannot of course find; I myself will never live long enough to actually look up the copious footnotes in Capital. I long for someone to write a book on Marx’s footnotes – that, I’d try to read.
  3. It’s no accident Fabians were huge proponents of eugenics. especially via the sterilization of the less fit (and one guess who would be defined as ‘less fit’ if they ever gained power).