Friday, February 29, 2008

Giving revisited

The other day I posted something about people who give money to organizations that take care third-world children, that sort of thing. My stand was that it was an easy, effortless, and essentially worthless way of being a caring, loving, individual. It was a moral stand, driven by outrage at people who assume that money is the same as caring.

Like most moral stands, it was a little short-sighted. Ain't it wonderful how your moral structure puts a pair of blinders on you? There are two aspects to helping people in foreign climes that I didn't put into my blog, so now I'm making reparations.

The first aspect is one that would occur to anyone not blinded my moral fervor. It's this: No matter what the motives of the givers, the kids in Zambia end up getting something they need, toothbrushes, or shoes, or books, or reconstructive surgery. That is the reality of it, and so, if you puff your ego by donating to Save the Children, more power to you.

The second aspect is that there are people who help others simply because it needs to be done. They are not righteous about it, certainly not self-righteous, but are people who, quietly, go about doing good. Let me, for instance, introduce you to the Swan Foundation. SWAN is an acronym for "Serving Women Across Nations," and it is the brainchild of two ordinary but extraordinary women who live in a smal town in northern Washington State. The younger of the two is a mother, a wife, and a kind of a human dynamo who is trying to bring shoes to children in Bolivia and to stop Malaria in Africa. She sells ice-cream on the street corners at summer festivals and hamburgers at football games. The money goes into the foundation. She does all this, not out of some version of the "white (wo)man's burden," but simply because there are those of her brothers and sisters out there who need shoes. If someone needs shoes, you try to see that they get them. End of story. Check out the Swan website and give 'em some money.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wise (?) sayings

Y'know, we have some ritualized sayings that we trot out when we are to busy to actually think something through, or when we need to respond to a situation and it's just too much trouble to create something unique. And, there's nothing wrong with that. Cliches are actually good because they are so efficient. Not stylish, mind you, but efficient. I tend to favor Murphy's Law sayings, like "A Smith and Wesson beats four aces," and "The light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train." Or, I like the Parkinson's Law maxims -- "Work expands to fill the time available."

But what happens when the logic behind the saying is flawed or nonexistent? We get a self-perpetuating idiocy. Three of my favorites:

Violence never solved anything. Oh, please. Of course violence solves things. This world was born in violence, evolved in violence, and will die in violence (in spite of T.S. Eliot). Violence solved the problem of Nazi Germany and what to do with the Rosenbergs. There are those who will say, "But the real meaning of the saying is that violence is never the best solution." Oh? And would you have talked Hitler into retirement? Or, people may say, "All right then. Violence is not always the best solution." Well, if that's what you mean, say so. As Alfred Korzybski said, "I say what I say; I do not say what I do not say." (I may have messed up the quote and misspelled his name. So sue me.)

The end does not justify the means. This is a negation of a saying attributed to the Jesuits. They are said to have believed that any action in the service of Jesus (A Jesuit is a member of the Society of Jesus) is valid. Even killing innocent people (Kill them all. Let God sort them out). The problem is that sometimes the end does justify the means. Let's say your dad is having a heart attack. So, you rush him to the hospital, ignoring speed limits. It's justified. Or, you know where a friend is, but you lie about it to her husband because you don't want him to hurt her. Or a man is about to kill your son, so you shoot him. The problem with the statement is that it's an absolute. Remember the saying, "No absolute is worth a damn, not even this one." So, if we modify the saying slightly, we get "The end rarely justifies the means," or some such thing.

If you do this you are no better than they are. Usually said after some nasty guy has stolen the family Bible and the good guy is going to steal it back. This is imbecilic. The saying implies that actions are absolute. One theft is exactly the same as every other theft. It ignores any other considerations, such as motive, context, and ideas like justice and equality (drum roll in the background). It's usually said by some dimwit in some smarmy movie. Totally btw, have you ever noticed how in order to get the plot twists going in a movie, somebody smart has to do something very stupid?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


You know what an ism is – somebody else’s belief system. Of course, there are successful isms and isms that are less so. Shakerism was one of the less successful ones because they didn’t believe in having children (Darwin would chuckle at that one). So, all we have left of the Shakers is some charming furniture and a simple house design.

In order for an ism to be successful, it needs two things.

First, it needs to be self-consistent. It doesn’t need to hook up with reality in any grounded sense; it just needs not to get tangled up in its own tenets. Almost any ism that last longer than a decade has this. Over the long run, a good ism will polish its dogma to eliminate any glaring discrepancies. The long-running religions have all done this. Look back at the history of Christianity, for instance, and you will see a gradual change in doctrine that lets it keep going.

The second thing it needs is an escape hatch. This is a way of explaining away those troublesome times when the ism runs afoul of reality. Spiritualists, for instance, explain that their magic works only in the presence of believers. So, any attempt to empirically test spiritual goings-on is bound to fail, because the attitude of the tester is (has to be) skeptical. Even communism, the most vicious, soul-destroying ism in history, had an escape hatch. When the repeated failures of communism were pointed out, its defenders simply said that communism couldn’t really work until it was the only system in the world. Of course, communism really did work, at least for Fidel Castro, who retired recently quite a rich man.

The escape hatch for Liberalism is Conservatism; the escape hatch for Conservatism is Liberalism. They need each other.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Love thy neighbor as long as they're far away

I made an off the cuff response to a statement that liberals love people by saying that liberals loved humankind but not necessarily people. I even quoted one of my favorite philosophers, Linus (from Peanuts) who said, "I love mankind. It's people I can't stand." I think I need to do two things with this whole idea -- extend it and expand it. The extension is easy. I don't think that liberals have any more love for humanity than conservatives do, not one whit. I don't think that conservatives love people any more than liberals do, not one whit.

Have you ever noticed, though, how gladly we give money and time to people who live half a world away? Save a child in Nicaragua. Save a mother in Chad. Save a family in Dafur. We do, and we store up blessings in whatever non-denominational heaven we believe in. But, do we go to the other side of town and save a child, or save a mother, or save a family? No, not usually. Probably because it's messy and unsanitary and after all these people may have cooties. Is a sick child in Chicago any less sick than a child in Iraq?

Now, clearly, there are people who do this, who delve into the smoky netherworlds of freeway underpasses and flophouses. God bless 'em, they are stronger, purer, and worthier than I am. Most of us, however, are like the lady in one of Chuck Dickens' novels (Bleak House?), who spends all her time, energy, and brainpower gathering money for an African tribe on the banks of some river or another. People hold her up as a paragon of Christian charity. Meanwhile, she neglects her own children, but we do have to make sacrifices for the greater good dontcha know.

So, and since I'm doing the defining, here it is -- If you send money to help out in Africa, Asia, or on the moon, you love humanity. If you stop to fix a flat for a stranded mom with six kids, you love people. There's nothing wrong with helping humanity, of course. After all, someone has to do it. It just seems a little cold and remote to me. In the movie The April Fools, a woman is preparing to leave her husband. He says, "But what about little Juan? The family breakup will kill him." "Who's he?" she asks. Whereupon the husband whips out a picture of a small child that he's sponsoring in one of those "save the children" campaigns. He has, of course, substituted money for real, loving charity, and as the man said, he has his reward.

See the title of my blog

Every time I find a good rock to bash liberals with, I find that I can use it on conservatives as well. Imagine, if you will, two videos side by side with the sound turned off. It’s easy to recognize the groups by dress: Conservatives paunchy or hippy, polyester suits, floral prints, haircuts by Walmart. Liberals chic or earthy or bikey, with beards on the men, mostly. And what are they talking about? Other groups. And what is their conversation like? Opinionated, scathing, narrow-minded, snide, sometimes vicious. In Utah, where I live, liberals love to gather and bash Mormons. Conservatives love to gather and bash liberals. The subjects vary, but the tenor remains the same. I tend to favor Conservatives a little, because their smugness level isn’t quite as high. After all, conservatives feel free to tell everybody else what to do because they have it from God. Liberals feel free to tell everybody else what to do because of their superior moral stature, intellectual capacity, and education. So conservatives are one step removed from being all-knowing, while liberals are the very source.

One other problem I have, though, is the nagging feeling that liberals, obnoxious as they may be, have some very good ideas. This is hard to swallow. Don’t you hate it when people are insufferable and also right?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

When are you dead?

Psychologists note that we tend to make sharp divisions among items arranged in a spectrum. Suppose, for instance, that we have an array of drinking vessels, with what is clearly a mug on the left and what is clearly a glass on the right. From left to right, the intervening vessels become less mug-like and more glass-like. Am I making sense? Okay, at some point, I am going to say, "The ones from here on," gesturing to the right, "are glasses." At some point, you are going to say the same. The catch is that we will probably not make the choice at the same point. However, the choices we make are firm. They call it "discrete perceptual discontinuities." What a grand phrase that is.

We could, at that time, spend a few hours defending our choices and ridiculing the choices of others, and nothing would be lost but time. Except. The same tendency exhibits itself in any situation where a spectrum of possibilities exists. When are we viable entities? In the womb? At the moment of birth? When do we die? How much radiation risk is too much?

We are not happy with fuzzy answers to many of life's questions, so we set firm boundaries. And that's the problem. We assume all along that those boundaries are natural ones. They aren't. We don't discover boundaries; we create them. There is no magical moment when a person becomes alive or when a person becomes not alive. There's a fuzzy area between and someone, sometime, has to decide just where the boundary is. Sort of like in a football game when the referee runs up to a pile of players and plants his foot. That place is where the ball belongs. Not that the ball is really there, but because the ref has made the decision.

Or, to pursue the sports analogy further, remember the old story of the three umpires talking? The first says, "Some is strikes and some is balls, and I calls them the way they is." The second one says, "Some is strikes and some is balls, and I calls them the way I sees them." The third (it's always the third) says, "Some is strikes and some is balls, but they aint nothing till I calls them." Now, this is not a vindication of Schroedinger's cat, nor evidence of how reality flexes, but simply an illustration of how we make decisions about how events should be punctuated.

The problem is, obviously, that we kill each other over where events should be punctuated. Doesn't seem right, does it? A sane world would discuss costs and benefits for decisions such as "Should we have nuclear power?" or "When should we allow an abortion?" or "When can we terminate the life of a person?" If we keep in mind the rights of a human (which are not, T. Jefferson to the contrary, inalienable), the needs of society, and the future of the planet, we might come to some sort of rational policy set. Of course, the minute we try it, someone will say that god has told him to blow us up for blasphemy. Sigh.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Hillary's dilemma

I watched the Clinton/Obama debate then listened to the media nitpicking about it. At one time during the debate, Hillary got quite sharp and referred to plagiarism. Is this what it has come to? Plagiarism? An academic hothouse concept that doesn't really exist outside the musty halls of academe? I mean, who really cares? And what does plagiarism mean anyway? It means taking another person's words without giving them credit. Actually, most definitions say another person's ideas, but substantiating an actual theft of an idea is very difficult. Einstein wasn't the first person to come up with E=mC2 (imagine a superscript there). Joe Biden and Martin Luther King have had charges of plagiarism leveled against them. What you can prove is that person A used the same words that person B did, and that implies theft. Wow! Right up there with child molestation. But, plagiarism, when it occurs, is a rending of the moral fabric, not a crime. Actually, it's not a rending; it's more of a snag in the sweater of consciousness.
Hillary's dilemma is that she can't really get nasty with Obama. This for a couple of reasons. For one thing, she might need him later on. For another, he's higher up the protected status ladder than she is. If Hillary is fighting a white male, she can blast away at will, saying any old thing that she wants. Any attacks against her can be attributed to sexism (The Anita Hill defense). With Obama, anything she says against him can be attributed to racism (The Spike Lee defense: "You don't like my last movie? You're racist.") The racist defense trumps the sexist defense. Please note that I am not saying that either Clinton or Obama (Why do we refer to Clinton by her first name and Obama by his last?) will use these defenses. I'm sure both Hillary and Barak (doesn't sound right) are aware of them, and are also aware that they can be used. But the defensive offenses will not come from the candidates themselves, or even from their handlers, but from the media. Clinton and Obama (still doesn't sound right) know that, and they can both count on it. "A wheel within within a wheel, way in the middle of the air." If I don't say where I got that, is it plagiarism?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Legislators and IQ

What do you do when someone is an idiot but eventually controls your paycheck? You waffle, that's what you do. One of our Utah state legislators recently attacked the theory of evolution, saying, "There are cats and there are dogs, but there are no cogs (or was it dats)" thereby proving that being elected does not mean that you can think your way out of a paper bag or that you have ever studied logic (or that it ever took). Or that you know anything about biology at all. Now the same guy is in hot water for a "racist" remark he made. I put the word in quotes, because I think that muchly the people who make the charges are the real racists ( I stole this idea from the latest issue of Discover magazine, wherein one columnist discusses the riot over something that a Nobel Laureate said. Read that before you jump all over me). Anyway, I'm waffling. However, my good friend Becky doesn't, so go to her blog site redstateblues and see what you think. The girl has a talent for invective.

The election process in all its glory

I can't help it. Come evening there I am glued to my TV set, switching from CNN to FOX, trying to make sense of it all. The New York Times zaps McCain on the basis of (choose one) innuendo, solid fact, farcical liberal prejudice, serious journalism. Pundits pund (if that isn't a verb for what they do, it should be. I like the way it sounds, sort of the way they sound). Most people opine that Obama is our next prexy (even the conservatives). One expert suggested that Hillary's only chance is to back off, give her delegates to Obama, become veep and wait four years, tapping her foot and waiting her turn. Doesn't sound to me like that can happen. It looks like we're into an eight-year cycle. Each party gets two terms, then out, like first downs in football. Then, the electorate, with the hope that springs eternal, turns out the dems and puts the reps in, hoping (heh, heh) that things will get better. So, Hillary would have to wait 16 years, which would put her up there with McCain, age wise. I don't think she's that patient. Plus, a lot can change in 16 years. A lot can change in two weeks.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

IQ, math, and race

I'd better start with a disclaimer, I guess, lest people come screaming into my house and stab me in the rotunda (very old joke, given at the end of this post). Here's the disclaimer: I don't think people vary much in their mental capacities from region to region, from color to color, from race to race. Note that I said "I don't think." That's because I don't know. Nobody does. If someone states categorically, "Race X has a higher IQ than race Y," they are thinking wishfully.

That said, it's important to note that if there is no really hard evidence for differences, there is also no really hard difference for sameness. So, when an esteemed author sets out to demonstrate that differences in race are a matter of geographic accident, he starts from the assumption that there are no differences. That bothers me. I don't think that we should start a protracted argument with an undocumented assertion that we accept as an article of faith.

But that's not what I want to talk about today. Let's assume, just for a moment, just for this discussion, that it could be proven that one race had -- oh, let's say -- a seven point IQ advantage over another. Let's assume moreover that we all agree on what IQ is (fat chance), and that we all agree that the testing is valid (ibid). We'd have to ask the question, "What does that mean?" Does it mean that any given member of Race A is 7 points brighter than any given member of Race B? That's patently rediculous, so it has to mean something else. What it means is that the totality of Race A scores 7 points higher. The problem with such a finding is this: What is true of the aggregate is not true of the individual. The question is whether the data has any predictive force. Look, suppose two people are sitting across from you, a member of Race A and a member of Race B. You have to hire one of them, based at least partly on their intelligence. Does the 7-point rule help? Not at all. The member of Race A could be the dumbest person on the planet and the member of Race B could be the smartest.

So, something like a 7-point difference is meaningless when applied to individuals. I am therefore forced to the opinion that people who froth at the mouth about race and IQ either have no real understanding of what the math says, or lump all people together in one category. In either case, they're not people I want to have lunch with.

Besides, it doesn't matter anyway. I am smarter than some of my relatives, dumber than others. That doesn't affect my love for them one way or another. We're all family.

Oh, the joke. Here it is:
Cassius: "They've stabbed Caeser."
Crassus: "Where?"
Cassius: "In the rotunda."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

My heroes

After going through firemen, policemen, reporters, and nuclear physicists as heroes, I realized, as I think most men do, that their father was one. So, I'm going to skip him. If you want to read about my father, look at my blog Ronnieandtootie, which has memories and pics of my background.
Let me widen the focus here. Which people have done things I consider heroic? I'll list the top three. All three, btw, share one characteristic in common: They didn't consider themselves particularly special. They weren't for instance, raving egos like whatsizname who wrote all those long, tedious, operas. So, here are the three:
  • Charles Darwin. Not only did he stand our theory of the world on its ear (yeah, yeah, I know -- evolution was already in the air), but he provided a rationale whereby evoution took place, and set up a framework that we are only now filling in. F'rinstance, he anticipated the rise of genetics (which had, unbeknownst to him and everybody else, already started with the work of Mendel). But, what really impresses me is that he waited until the last possible moment to make his work known (though, of course, most of the intellectual world already knew). He did this at least partly out of the knowledge of what a firestorm this would bring. I believe that he didn't really want to start a firestorm. He just wanted to look at his corals and worms and suchlike.
  • Mark Twain. The guy has such a dry wit about him and is so quotable (I think all the quotes in the world gravitate toward either Twain or Wilde), that he is a pleasure to read at any time. Nor does it matter whether he's writing a novel or a travelog. Innocents Abroad prepared me for my trip to France. It's not just his wit, however. It is the way he tells us about ourselves by telling us about other people. It's true that his vision of the world got darker as he got older, but remember, he outlived his whole immediate family.
  • Albert Einstein. Kind of a no-brainer here. I tried reading Relativity for the Layman and found that Albert had a concept of layman different from mine. And, try as I might, I can't bring myself to adopt a flyaway hair style (even if I had the hair). I like Einstein for his discoveries, but also for his refusal to accept hypotheses that were unreasonable, even though they grew out of his own theories. I have a feeling that, in the end, dark matter will disappear, and Albert will emerge from the theory wars scarred, but essentially victorious.

Monday, February 18, 2008

What sort of an animal am I?

I've spent the last little while trying to decide what sort of an animal I am, politically. It's kind of difficult in a year when one very conservative writer says she might vote for Hillary Clinton. I think I've decided, though -- I'm neither conservative nor liberal. This for a number of reasons:

  1. The labels tend to shift around a lot. What was liberal last year is conservative now. What was conservative is now reactionary, or (gasp) liberal. So, if the labels don't really label, why take one? And don't give me any post-modern deconstructionist bull#$%^ about language. It's just that the referential models for the labels shift more quickly in some minds than they do in others, so if you label yourself, you stand the chance of mislabeling yourself.

  2. Conservatives have a major flaw in their makeup. They tend to envision conserving a past that never really existed in the first place. It's a version of the old "golden age" myth, I suppose. Things were better in the past.

  3. Liberals, on the other hand, have two major flaws in their makeup. The first is that they want to create a future that isn't really possible. They envision an Eden in which everybody is equally beautiful, equally intelligent (Lake Woebegon). Cain't happen. Second, they assume that if something should be so, then it is so. In the early days of feminist theory, liberals thought that it should be so that boys and girls were, except for essential physical differences, the same. It should be so, therefore it was so.

So, where does that leave a person who trusts evidence above all else? Kind of on the sidelines.

The title of my blog, by the way, is a quote from Shakespeare.