Thursday, August 3, 2017

Effusive Errata

I think often on my years as an altar boy. I must have been eight or nine when I was first plucked from the pew by the priest and asked to fill in, beginning my 3 or 4 years of service.

I still remember how seriously I took it, and how much my left-wing Catholic upbringing shaped who I am as a man, now almost 30 years later.

Of course, by twelve or thirteen I had gone from credulous earnestness to refusing confirmation and deciding there was no God. I was, of course, wrong.



My nine year old, raised in what I would say is a moral and rules based home, has not been raised religiously, aside from a quick grace at dinner. Even that solitary prayer is interrupted by deities only briefly with a "Dear Lord..." invocation, followed by standard tropes of gratitude, and a context-free "Amen."

Anyway, recently, she told me and her mother that she "did not believe in God."

Not angrily or defiantly, because there was no real weight to it.

We both (somewhat to my surprise) objected strenuously, and more or less told her she is wrong.

She's smart, you see. The conception of God she is able to form in her mind is, of course, very much not God. This is a problem many adults seem to face as well.

An inability to understand, or even properly conceive of the concept of God is definitional. The term should be understood as meaning beyond comprehension or understanding. That's why concepts like the trinity even exist--it's a koan, designed to take you past your understanding to a metaphysical place of wonder, and awe.

Lucky for us, she is nine, and still not infected with a strong sense of self, apart from others.

She is Us still, not really a separate entity.

I think that helps maintain a peace with not knowing, not controlling everything, not understanding all ideas or rules while still being able to accept them.

Her and I have been to mass together, once. Just a random Sunday. It didn't take. I don't want to give of myself to that entity any more, don't want to be used up, or serve the wrong master, or be exploited.

Can the heart exploit the hands? Can the mind abuse the lungs? Does the fascia serve the muscle? At what level do we exist most richly? Better to be a man alone, or the sole of a foot, forever trampled?

Of course, any reader of this era immediately assigns a Voltron-like form to this thought experiment, assigning one as the head/brain archetype, and others as the lowly feet.


Maybe it's better to ask if the oxygen resents the hydrogen in water.

Weird hierarchical brains.







Thursday, May 18, 2017

Emphatically immoral

‘When some people think of empathy, they think of kindness. I think of war...’

In Against Empathy, Bloom provides a thoughtful, considered, empirically-grounded case which challenges many notions that we often accept as good without really thinking them through.



We live in an age in which, Bloom observes, reason is constantly deprecated and emotions celebrated. Social psychologists and neuroscientists insist that humans are irrational creatures. Many philosophers and sociologists claim that the appeal to reason is Eurocentric; Bloom writes of a sociology professor who ‘gently told me that my emphasis on reason expressed a particularly Western white male viewpoint...’

...Reason is what ‘makes us distinctively human, and it gives us the potential to be better to one another, to create a world with less suffering and more flourishing and happiness.’ Empathy, on the other hand, is ‘a poor moral guide’ in almost all realms of life, whether that be public policy, private charity or interpersonal relationships...



By ‘empathy’, Bloom means something highly specific. He is not talking about general sympathy for, or identification with, another’s plight. He refers rather to ‘the act of feeling what you believe other people feel – experiencing what they experience.’

So, what is the problem with such empathy? Bloom has a long checklist. First, empathy is like a spotlight that focuses on certain people, making us care more about them but leaving us insensitive to long-term consequences of our acts, and blind to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathise with.


Source. Emphasis mine

Monday, May 15, 2017

Days of our Lives

[H]ow old do you suppose the hourglass is: two thousand years? Four thousand years?

...Oddly enough, it came into use at almost exactly the same time as the first mechanical clocks. The hourglass is only about seven hundred years old.

...Hourglasses found their place in setting off blocks of time. The time between canonical hours in a monastery, or between watches on shipboard. They ran neither long enough nor accurately enough to be of much use in marine navigation. They were a poor person's timepiece -- a kind of clock for everyman.

Both the mechanical clock and the hourglass found powerful symbolic roles during the Renaissance. The complex mechanical clock with its rotary gears became a metaphor for the heavenly spheres or for the wheel of fortune. But the hourglass, whose sands run out, was a thing of this base earth. It became a metaphor for the running-out-of-sands we all inevitably face. It became, and it remains, a universal symbol of death.



 
Two technologies, one simple, one complex, running side by side -- the clock making a continuum of time, the hourglass segmenting it -- the clock speaking of timelessness, the hourglass showing us finality -- the clock evoking things celestial, the hourglass reminding us of base earth. They are Yin and Yang.

 ...The clock and the hourglass create technological parity. Either, without the other, would provide an unbalanced metaphor, and that subtle fact can be far more important than it might seem.

Source.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Discernment or Discrimination, how fine a line we think we can see

In modern American English, a shibboleth also has a wider meaning, referring to any "in-group" word or phrase that can distinguish members of a group from outsiders – even when not used by a hostile other group...

The term shibboleth can also be extended, as in the discipline of semiotics, to describe non-linguistic elements of culture such as diet, fashion and cultural values.






Cultural touchstones and shared experience can also be shibboleths of a sort.

Shibboleths have been used by different subcultures throughout the world at different times.

The legend goes that before the Battle of the Golden Spurs in May 1302, the Flemish slaughtered every Frenchman they could find in the city of Bruges... They identified Frenchmen based on their inability to pronounce the Flemish phrase schilt ende vriend (shield and friend)...



"Butter, rye bread and green cheese, whoever cannot say that is not a genuine Frisian" was used by the Frisian Pier Gerlofs Donia during a Frisian rebellion (1515–1523). Ships whose crew could not pronounce this properly were usually plundered and soldiers who could not were beheaded by Donia himself.

The Dutch used the name of the seaside town of Scheveningen as a shibboleth to tell Germans from the Dutch...

In October 1937 the Spanish word for parsley, perejil, was used as a shibboleth to identify Haitian immigrants living along the border in the Dominican Republic. The president of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, ordered the execution of these people. It is alleged that between 20,000 and 30,000 individuals were murdered within a few days in the Parsley Massacre...

During the Black July riots of Sri Lanka in 1983 many Tamils were massacred by Sinhalese youths. In many cases these massacres took the form of boarding buses and getting the passengers to pronounce words that had hard BAs at the start of the word (like "Baldiya" - bucket) and executing the people who found it difficult.



During World War II, some United States soldiers in the Pacific theater used the word lollapalooza as a shibboleth to challenge unidentified persons, on the premise that Japanese people often pronounce the letter L as R or confuse Rs with Ls; the word is also an American colloquialism that even a foreign person fairly well-versed in American English would probably mispronounce or be unfamiliar with...

During The Troubles in Northern Ireland, use of the name Derry or Londonderry for the province's second-largest city was often taken as an indication of the speaker's political stance...[t]he pronunciation of the letter H is a related shibboleth, with Catholics and Protestants often pronouncing the letter differently.

Source, with some light editing by me.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Post Partisan Performance Review

Maybe not perfect, but the best I've seen:

In a sense, great leaders transcend the good and the bad. Every good thing they do affects millions, and every mistake can cost hundreds of thousands of lives. In this way, judging legacy is reduced to sifting consequential leaders from inconsequential ones. We try to determine whether those consequences were good or bad for us, in historic terms. But here is where it gets dark.




By ending World War II President Truman was among those who saved western democracy. To do so he ordered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and killed over 130,000 people within four days. Likewise, no appraisal of Obama is complete without considering the near existential threat to world stability that the Syria crisis and its related rise of ISIS unleashed. And it is here that Obama’s “lead from behind” legacy will suffer terribly.

Source.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Take my ball and go home

 I read this book when it came out in 2007. Interesting premise, and the main thrust is that the rich secede from the poor. There is already a plan for California to secede.
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Can a country be like a marriage that has run out of cash and steam, resulting in the inevitable frank discussions about just who is pulling his or her own weight? Eventually, even those who love each other sometimes conclude they cannot stay together.




Juan Enriquez’s unique insights into the financial, political, and cultural issues we face will provoke shock and surprise and lead you to ask the question no one has yet put on the table: Could “becoming untied” ever happen here? It’s a question made especially relevant when we are faced with such unpromising facts as:

• At no other time have we had the unwelcome convergence in which the three key sectors of business, government, and consumers are so tapped out due to debt that each lacks the financial wherewithal to come to the rescue of the others.

• Most assets are not being used for productive purposes but for speculation, resulting in people lacking incentives to create real wealth, focusing instead on buying, selling, and flipping real estate.

• As religion starts to mix with politics, we have a culture that allows us to fall behind what were previously third world nations, because we are now treating science the way we did sex in the 1950s, banning or burying evolution theories and research into promising lifesaving areas such as stem-cell research.








When the enemy was outside—for example, the threat perceived when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and people feared America would lose the brain race—we rallied. Now the enemy is within, and we polarize. Defaming the legitimacy of people on the “other” side becomes the currency of the day, where people in blue states are seen as godless liberal elitists and those in red states are seen as, well, rednecks.

Citizenship, Enriquez says, is like buying into a national brand. If the brand promises one thing and delivers another, could it then have the same fate as a tired product on a supermarket shelf, eroding, losing support, even disappearing? Countries, even one as powerful and successful as America, live on fault lines. When a fault line splits, it’s near impossible to put things back together again. What America will look like in fifty years depends on what we do today to act on the issues raised in The Untied States of America.

Source.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Paper losses, or, elections matter if you're rich

Elections are for deciding whether to fold the blankets in squares or rectangles. Means you have a blanket.
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...The country, to put it mildly, was different back then. Life was harder, and in places like the Texas hinterland – which today forms the big beating heart of the state’s Republican base – it was a close approximation of 14th-century European peasant hell. The vast majority of rural Texans lived without electric power, which meant no refrigeration, no water pumps, no indoor plumbing, no furnaces, no electric stoves, no incandescent lights, no motors to power machines for milking or shearing.
Even for those of us only one or two generations removed from the farm, it’s almost impossible to conceive just how different life was, although the phrase “nasty, brutish, and short” comes to mind.



Among the best guides to that time is “The Sad Irons” chapter of The Path to Power, the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, which delivers a harrowing portrait of life as a medieval slog plunked down in the middle of 20th-century America. To take just one aspect of the slog: water. “Packing water” from the source – a stream or a well – to the house was a daily beatdown that often fell to the farm wife. As Caro writes:
A federal study of nearly half a million farm families … would show that, on the average, a person living on a farm used 40 gallons of water every day. Since the average farm family was five persons, the family used 200 gallons, or four-fifths of a ton, of water each day – 73,000 gallons, or almost 300 tons, in a year. The study showed that, on the average, the well was located 253 feet from the house – and that to pump by hand and carry to the house 73,000 gallons of water a year would require someone to put in during that year 63 eight-hour days, and walk 1,750 miles.

Source.