January 16, 2019

The Daily Outrage (film at 11)

A lot of news to process of late. “For we are brought very low,” said the Psalmist and indeed the Church has been humbled. Gone are the days when Catholics could take secret pride in our pontiff before other Christians, be he JP II or Benedict. Gone are the days when we could even trust our bishops to tell us the truth.

There’s something healing in it, like how forest fires destroy but ultimately contain the seeds of rebirth.  There’s certainly a relief in not having to pretend that things are fine. When you’ve been stripped of clothes and are standing naked, you don’t have to try to hide that middle-age paunch. It is what it is.

I’m still taken aback by the downfall of Fr. McCloskey coupled with the devastating early Alzheimer’s onset. I fight against the highly irrational narrative that wants to link the two, either in an early sign of the disease by way of lack of impulse control or as divine punishment (perish that thought, good Lord).

His story is another reminder to embrace the truth about us: we are worthless and we are priceless. It’s a constant effort to keep both in mind given (my) tendency to veer towards admiration or disgust.

Speaking of the latter, Cardinal Wuerl’s denial of previous denials and subsequent admission of forgetfulness after ... oh, heck, it’s way too hard to keep track. It’s all sitcom all the time, Jack Tripper pratfalls and "nighty, nights!"  We're all naked now.

I also felt disgust over the treadmill of outrage (hence this outrage) over so many people clicking on the G*llette video and thus rewarding the company. But it works! That’s what publicizers are paid to do. Create publicity. One can hardly fault someone for being good at their job.  And I certainly engage in my share of hyped outrage so it's hardly fair to quibble with how others get their daily quotient.

Really, this is no time to be an INTJ.  It's too target-rich an environ.  In times like these I wish I were an INTP.

January 15, 2019

Catholicism and Evolution Before Lebron Game

Over the weekend I read an article in Scientific America about how humans have evolved to need activity much more than ape ancestral relatives.  The tone of it was, in the end, off-putting in its assumption of natural selection as the be all and end all. Specifically, one early human variation died out due, presumably, to not having a big enough brain or eating enough meat.  The author implied this was tragic and could’ve been the fate of homo sapiens.

And suddenly my reading went off-track.

This led me to google evolution from the Catholic perspective, ideally something that could be fully researched before the Laker game at 8:30 since I wanted to see Lebron (turns out the game in question is this Saturday).  Given my weak scientific and theological knowledge this Internet survey course seemed a mite ambitious.

I quickly surfed a lot of eye-glazing if important material.  I was surprised by the billion comments on Msgr. Pope’s post alone, many having something reasonably important to say.

Msgr. Pope had offered the important reminder that when science says “random” (merely a lack of cause and effect) we believers say “God”:
"'Mutations in DNA are random, and in natural selection, the environment determines the probability of reproductive success...Organisms are merely the outcome of variations that succeed or fail, dependent upon the environmental conditions at the time.'
"Now what this means is that God is excluded as a cause by an unqualified evolutionary theory. It would be fine if scientists were either silent on the question of God. Or, perhaps if they simply stated that things may be acted upon by an outside force or intelligence but that is beyond the scope of their discipline. But that is not what is being said by many proponents of classical evolutionary theory. They are saying that biodiversity results MERELY from natural selection and random (i.e. non intended or non-purposeful) genetic mutations. They are saying that observable effects of biodiversity are wholly caused by something natural, random and without any ultimate goal or plan.
But a Catholic cannot accept all of this. Even if a Catholic wants to accept that things have evolved in some way (whether through macro or microevolution) a Catholic cannot say that this process is simply random, chance, blind, or with no purpose. We believe that God alone created all things, and that he sustains all things. Neither do we confess some sort of “deist” God who merely started things off and then lets them take their own course. Rather, God sustains and carries out every detail."
Commenter Sarah fixates on my fixation:
"Evolutionary theory presumes death is the prime actor in the emergence of new life forms: Death wipes away some “unfit” forms, and permits the emergence of mutations that eventually lead to higher forms.
If Adam’s creation is forced into the evolutionary framework, it implies failure and death actually set the trajectory for his particular ascent. Was death always Law in the natural world, so it even governed Adam’s rise from the dust? That seems problematic. How may that be squared with the idea that Adam was created immortal, yet lost his immortality by sinning?"
One "fun" if very unpersuasive answer:
"Adam was created with the prototypes in the light-event of Genesis One. Evolution is a fallen process brought about by Adam’s sin. That is why species go extinct. God cursed the Earth as a punishment for Adam’s sin. I think the million dollar question is when Adam and Eve appeared back down on the ground from Paradise. Blessed Anne Catherine suggests that it was a mystical event, and I assume that Adam and Eve were created prior to the evolution of all the types and yet transferred back down to the ground after the Earth had been cycling in a fallen course for many a year. Is this possible? For God all things are possible. And if one accepts the theological idea that Enoch and Elias were taken up to Paradise awaiting Antichrist, this is a similar idea. They are taken up to Paradise, the Earth cycles for thousands of years and then they are transferred back to the ground toward the end of the tribulation."

Elsewhere on the 'net, someone quotes disapprovingly Michael Corey on the loss of the dinosaurs:
Michael Corey concludes Evolution and the Problem of Natural Evil:
“Now we are in a position to understand why an omnipotent Deity would have opted to create the universe in a gradual, evolutionary manner, instead of instantaneously by divine fiat. He presumably did so in order to facilitate the human growth process as much as possible; but in order to do this He seems to have been compelled to implement the same evolutionary processes in the natural world that appear to be an essential part of the Human Definition.”
By this logic, every death and every extinction is significant only insofar as it is the means to an anthropic or human end. Only humans really matter to God.

At the opposite pole from Corey are thinkers for whom evolution is entirely a chance process, with no teleological end involved. Both of these approaches present difficulties for Christians as they think about extinction. The first approach devalues all nonhuman creatures by insisting that they are simply means to an end. The second ascribes little or no value to any particular state of creation.

Is it possible, however, to see creatures long gone as valuable in their own right, as ends in themselves, while not giving up the sense that they are part of a larger providential reality? In her thought-provoking book God and the Web of Creation, theologian Ruth Page refuses to see the deaths of various species as merely a means in the process of creating human beings. Page argues that the life of each creature, and the existence of each species, is an end in itself.
“Teleology is always now! It is with creatures as they live, rather than persuading them further up the evolutionary ladder. Indeed there is no ladder, a metaphor which gives comfort to human beings at the top. Instead, there is only diversity with different skills and lives. . . . [Therefore] creatures who die in the recurrent ice ages, or who are caught in the lava from volcanoes, have their importance to God, and their relation with God during their lives.”
Page discards the idea of an evolutionary ladder and contends that the relationship that God has with each individual creature gives the creature’s life meaning regardless of whether it serves the process of evolutionary development.

In fact, the very notion of “greater evolutionary development” would be suspect to her. The value of any given life is found in God’s companioning of a creature, God’s co¬experience of life and God’s remembering of that life.

This is a foreign concept in a society that idolizes accomplishment. What worth, what meaning, we ask, does a life have that does not survive? What is the meaning of a species that turns out to be an evolutionary dead-end, whose descendants do not have a place among contemporary flora or fauna?

For Page, value is found simply in the act of participation in life. “Fellowship, concurrence or relationship among creatures and between creatures and God is the greatest good of creation. The possibility of such relationships is what creation is about.”

In the creative space of possibility instituted by God in creation, each creature and each species brings glory to God in whatever form it takes. In light of this claim, Page concludes that “neither continuing background extinction, nor the devastation of species in cataclysms, tells against God’s companionship and possibilities of influence in the world.” God’s goodness and love are not called into question by extinction since the worth of the creatures that die is not reliant upon some future good; God was not using their deaths for some larger picture. From Page’s perspective, a world of dinosaurs, or of bacteria, is just as worthwhile to God as the world we currently see, because value is found in being.

As useful as this account is, I don’t think Page tells the whole story. To value creatures for themselves is a good and necessary correction of the anthropocentric approach that has long dominated reflections on the natural world. But it does not necessarily diminish the value of the individual to say that the individual has an impact that is bigger than itself. After all, the world has had a particular history. The chronological march of time gives the world direction, and past events are causally linked to the flourishing and diversification of biological novelty today.

Elsewhere an article quotes a Dominican priest and scholar who celebrates Darwin for loosing us from trouble:
Nature is poorly designed—with oddities such as blind spots built into the human eye and an excess of teeth jammed into our jaws. Parasites are sadists. Predators are cruel. Natural selection can explain the ruthlessness of nature, Ayala argues, and remove the “evil”—requiring an intentional act of free will—from the living world. “Darwin solved the problem,” Ayala concludes.
Another article references a professor from Notre Dame:
Plantinga says Darwin's evolution -- the descent of species with modification, driven by natural selection -- does not suggest either way the viability or inviability of theistic faith. God could have, within that system, caused "the right mutations to arise at the right time," guiding evolution so man was still made in the image of God. It is instead "naturalism," the belief in an evolution that is random and undirected, that pushes both the current limits of scientific knowledge and the boundaries of the hard sciences themselves.
The author of the piece who quoted Plantinga, Chase Nordengren adds:
However, I think the argument is theologically troublesome as well. It is characteristic of a kind of body-soul dualism to separate truth, in some ways a manifestation of the Holy Spirit in our souls, from the neurobiological output of our brains. Further, it treats truth as this concrete, delineated reality, as though truth were not the accumulation of facts and habits across generations and instances.
Truth is, theologically, Christ himself and goodness itself.
Knowledge of truth separates man in that sense, but is (almost by extension) an evolutionary advantage as well. We must fully understand dangers to overcome them. We know each other in order to care for each other. Understanding the world as it is helps us survive.
From both Eden's tree and Kubrick's monolith springs the knowledge that makes the difference for human beings. Whomever, or whatever, put them there, it is the humans themselves who ultimately reached toward that knowledge and accepted it. The reductive notion of a single cause of that leap -- either God or randomness -- fails to consider the breadth of unexplored evolutionary possibilities.

Finally, I was also taken aback by someone asking how Mary could’ve called herself “THE Immaculate Conception” when Adam and Eve were likewise conceived without original sin.  But I’ll reluctantly leave that for another day, hopefully one without a sporting event upcoming.

January 11, 2019

Notes on the Symphony

High tops and cowboy boots. Gosh it's been so long. I want the cosseting again. This was triggered by seeing knee-high boots on the second violinist in the CSO. I'd just arrived at the dress rehearsal.

Twenty minutes before I'd wound through the maze of a nameless parking garage - a forgettable floor inside a forgettable building on a forgettable street that I would surely never find again after the left-brain retreat - so I free'd myself from the labyrinth's clutches and found street parking on corner of Main and 3rd.  Ahhh relief....only about a half-mile walk to Ohio Theatre. Parking may be a pain but concerts are massage therapy for the brain.

I didn't look at the program but the music was instantly recognizable upon entry if not my favorite. Suddenly an unexpected treat: dancers from BalletMet.  I think immediately of Bill Luse's daughter. They form perfect 90 degree straight lines with their legs, rewarding the viewer with the feeling that entropy has vanished and order restored. Seeing the ballerina reminds me of a sometimes overlooked female superiority: the splits. Call it splits envy.

As always, the conductor reminds me of Jeff Bezos in his looks and mien if not wealth.

The music is soaring and powerful, akin to feeling the Caribbean sun on your face in mid-winter.

The pianist comes out with head down, moppish hair with more than a hint of gray through which he occasionally runs his hands. Looks the absent-minded professor type. He totes a leather bag that appears to have no clear purpose and plays without anything in front of him. Dark suit jacket and dark pants, he creates magic using his hands and the ivories.  He's 58, born in Armenia now an American living (where else?) in NYC. I like these itinerant musicians with their glamorous lives of music and travel and ... leather tote bags and good parking spaces.

January 09, 2019

Breakin' that Skein of Self-Reflection

Thomas Merton, like Pope Francis, was big on criticizing and lobbing complaints, particularly at the fellow Catholics around him.  But that's a feature, not a bug, turns out. Interesting to see a “lean in” admission/defense of Merton (by Thomas Moore) in the introduction to the monk's book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
He is an unsentimental monk writing from a basic optimism, but fully aware of the follies and unsophisticated thoughts surrounding him. Don’t demand that he be aware of his own follies; for, every passionate person has to break through the skein of self-reflection, and live and talk with abandon.
Hey, turns out I’m allowed to be passionate and critical on Twitter and Blogger sans guilt! Yay me.

But seriously, I did find the introduction a very good read.  Moore’s comment is not too far afield from what I was thinking not long into Francis’s pontificate, how by definition the passionate crusader must lack self-reflection. I wondered if you can even be effective Leftist voice [with self-reflection] since if you're going to change the world you have to be sure of what you're doing. There's no way Luther starts a Reformation if he was unsure of his rhetoric or if he gave his enemies the benefit of the doubt.

January 08, 2019

Jesus Wanted Open Borders?

Kind of fascinating how Dawn Eden has become radicalized in the Pope Francis era.  Mostly shown by her energetic tweets attacking Vigano and defenders of Vigano.  Yesterday she retweeted someone saying, "Jesus Christ would tear down a wall, and give immigrants the shirt off of his back. I know this, and I'm Jewish. What the hell has happened to Christianity in America?”

I tweeted “This just in! Lost gospel says that Jesus said countries shouldn’t have borders! Don’t tell Joan of Arc.”  An imperfect analogy, of course, given we're not at war with Mexico but I've noticed the whole concept of having a border (which means a wall/fence) is insulting now to the Left, who have moved strongly left on the issue.

Sarcasm aside, it's surreal to me how they see the only authentic charity as "government charity” through force (or lack of force, by abolishing ICE).  The Left might respond, "oh, you feel the same way about abortion, trying to use the government to enforce morality."  I guess.

So it’s seen as the Christian position to open our border and try to save millions of Mexicans and Central Americans while ignoring that our own middle class is falling into poverty and opioids.  Who on the Left cares if you send private charity dollars to Mexico in hopes of building up the economy there?

The lack of nuance of a complex issue is what leaves me breathless. There are huge societal impacts to having large numbers of immigrants without skills come here. There are benefits to be sure as well, even if they disproportionately benefit the well off. There are “unseen” costs involving a much greater need for social services and education, and more visible ones like multicultural tensions and fewer unskilled jobs for current Americans. Not to mention the political risk of tons of new Democratic voters unwittingly hellbent on hastening the country’s decay.

The issue is admittedly not given to easy answers. “How many is too many immigrants?” is a tough question.  What no one on the Left will never consider (which is how you know not to take them seriously) is: “How many immigrants is the ‘right’ number and to what degree should they be educated and have skills?”  Everything else is a cheap trick.

Last year heard a well-connected priest from our diocese (he talks to papal nuncios and bishops regularly about immigration), but he didn't have a solution to the general problem of Catholicism and state, which has been going on for 2,000 years.

But I do have a better feel for why the bishops tend to be so big on the issue.  The gist, according to him, is that Catholicism has always wanted to see the unity of the Body of Christ lived out on the ground as far as there being not nation states, hence the appeal of the Roman empire and later the Holy Roman empire.  The universal nature of Catholicism innately pictures a kingdom of Catholics irrespective of nationality, hence that's the reason the bishops across the world are so supportive of the European Union and the United Nations.

Origin said that the kingdom of Heaven should be mirrored on earth as well as possible; Catholics didn't even evangelize outside the Roman empire in the early centuries, equating Christendom with an earthly empire (in this case Roman) in which Christianity can be lived out more seamlessly, while the Arians did evangelize the "beyond the pale" to the Germanic tribes and thus therein lies much of the success of the Arians.

He said the conundrum was that we need Mexican labor so a wall won't solve that problem;  he said the old Ellis Island days of one port of entry was gone, that you couldn't really do that in this day of social media and instant communications, presumably because illegal immigrants will always find a way around.

January 07, 2019

Coriolanus Calling

Good Kevin D. Williamson piece on the plebes and the elites and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. The problem with reading is everything leads me to something else, endlessly.  Fortunately this led me to Shakespeare.

The conservative Twitterverse was roiled of late by Tucker Carlson’s recent populist/viral pronouncement, about how the elites like Romney don’t care about us - some say he made some good points, others were of the mind (like David French) that he was wrong.

Part of the Tucker thing comes down to the familiar tension between personal responsibility and a leader’s responsibility. It seems almost impossible to square and ultimately is a judgment call that involves the judging of others.

Humans are complex and situations likewise and it’s pretty unrealistic to think anyone can come to a determination (such as where a person’s free will really ends). I was hoping Shakespeare might’ve weighed in on it, and Kevin Williamson quotes the Bard's play approvingly (in fairness, related to a different issue, that of the Twitter mobs) but according to the Globe Guide to Shakespeare says it’s not that cut and dried:
The story is a fable however you look at it, but it points in different directions: in one reading, Coriolanus is a hero deserted by a fickle populace; in another, he is a villain whose arrogance threatens dictatorship. Shakespeare makes room for both those positions and more besides, drawing on the politics of his own day to press home urgent and thorny questions about how democracy should operate.
The play has been used in the past for both a denunciation of democracy and “mob rule” to the opposite. But of course that's what makes great art.

January 04, 2019

It's the End of the World As We Know It...

I recall on Jerry's blog he talked about how he was going into a funk, the “black dog” of depression and anxiety, when his stepdaughter called and told him she wanted to play a musical instrument and asked if he had one. He had indeed played trombone in school and so spent the next couple hours looking for it all over the house with her, and then he taught her the basics of trombone playing.  He said he was lifted out of his depression and it had changed his outlook for awhile.

And just today I heard a podcast with the author of “Tribe”, Sebastian Junger, who said:
“Admissions to psych wards went down during the WWII blitz of London and back up when it stopped.  If you give people an urgent task it gives them the opportunity to stop thinking about themselves, and when you do that you cut short this awful feedback loop of something that’s called ‘anxious rumination’.  If you give troubled folks enough space to think too much and they think themselves into a circle and get more and more anxious and depressed.  A crisis pops them back into the present moment, a sort of zen idea to be in the present moment, right here right now and they can forget about their personal troubles. One British official said in amazement, ‘We have the chronic neurotics of peacetime driving ambulances.’”
Junger said that humans are evolved to deal with trauma, that there’s been traumatic events for all of our history (in the past much more so) and that if survivors of traumatic events didn’t gather food the next day there would be no human race eventually.  He said that what’s different now is that we experience our trauma in an isolated environment. A rat tortured by a cat for awhile and left by itself will develop ongoing symptoms of trauma.  A rat tortured by a cat but immediately reintegrated into the rat community will be indistinguishable from the other rats within a week.

People need to be needed he says.  This seems to explain the inexplicable, such as why my grandmother was aggrieved by no longer being able to cook for live-at-home son Mark.  I'd thought that a great boon to her.

I’m unsure if it’s just a natural condition of aging, that one feels that the “centre cannot hold” (or, more prosaically, that things are going to hell in a hand basket), but things feel tenuous, house-of-card-sy.  Fiscally, for sure, post-2008 (which showed even money market funds aren’t secure).  Politically, obviously. Environmentally. Drug-wise. Idols are being smashed, the handy definition of which being anything that “I can control that will meet my needs.” There’s a confluence at work and it’s writ large in tragic script of the local obits.

Part of me looks at the dysfunction and wonders, “how long?” And yet another part looks at Detroit and thinks, “the Tigers still exist; we’ll muddle through, we always have.” The Christian view is that resurrection follows every death or decline and that “children are an act of optimism—sheer belief that the future will outshine the present.” 

From a Salman Rushdie (“The Golden House”) at the fools’ gold the Boomers discovered:
[They] grew up in fantasyland, the last generation in full employment, the last age of sex without fear...but somehow in their years in the fairy tale had... given them the conviction that by their own direct actions they could change and improve the world, and allowed them to eat the apple of Eden, which gave them the knowledge of good and evil, without falling under the spell of that spiraling Jungle Book Kaa-eyes of the fatal trust-in-me Snake... Whereas now horror was spreading everywhere at high speed and we closed our eyes or appeased it. 
Seems there’s something for everyone these days, dystopian-wise. The environmentalists, the politicians, families, Christians, economists, schoolteachers, health care pros, dog-catchers (“Dogs and cats, living together..”), even (especially) this Pope, who, like the dog who caught the car, now isn’t sure what he wants to do with it. 

December 31, 2018

Death and Hope

Saddened to learn a longtime co-worker died last at a local hospice due to drug addiction related illness. I wish there was something I could’ve said or done. He did cobble together a 30-year career which is impressive given his demons.

Reminds me so much of David Foster Wallace, though Wallace only made it about 46 years and he didn’t commit suicide outright.

Saw a local TV news interview with his daughter who poignantly is trying to find his guitar (he’d pawned it, looking to get money for opiates). She wants to buy it and learn to play it to honor him.

She said Jerry had begun using opiates about 2-3 years ago (2015 or 2016), which would put the timeline right in line with his loss of job. Whether he lost the job due to the drugs, or the drug relapse came without the structure of a job it’s hard to say but at that point there were no brakes on self-destruction. I’d reached out in June of ’17 and he was involuntarily retired at that point and was told he was “doing okay”, but turns out he’d pawned his guitar the month before.

He never quite believed in hope, but then he had the mental condition (depression) that fought constantly against it. Surely that limited his culpability, perhaps completely.

Seeing a picture in the news link of him and his family reminds me that whatever responsibility I had to try to give him light and hope and Christian faith was dwarfed by the responsibility that poor family must’ve felt. In 2014 he wrote:
Winston Churchill's own "black dog" of depression and frequent bouts of bottomless despair are often credited with giving him the mindset that allowed him to fully grasp the grim reality of Hitler's grandiose and dark intentions, while also tapping a deep-rooted resiliency and hope within his people to enable them to carry on, in the face of really bad odds.
Well, I already gave up all the goddamn kibble that kept my own lifelong black dog of depression well fed. No alcohol, drugs, or smoking, yet that loyal depressing f---ker is still going strong, a constant companion by my side.
The paradoxical thing about hope is it’s not hope, really, unless there’s a darkness or obscurity that prevents it from being easily seen. Thus my own belief in hope must include Jerry’s lack of belief in it. He, unwittingly, exercises mine by his lack thereof.

The desire for a neat little gingerbread sense of faith and hope is alluring but not really what the Bible teaches. Just ask Job, or the Jews around the time of the Babylonian captivity, or the apostles on Good Friday. This quote found via Twitter today from Frank Sheed is appropriate:
“Catholic novels have got themselves a bad name, so that even Catholics avoid them. Why? Not, we think for the reasons usually given. It is not simply that too many of them end with a flurry of wedding-bells and a shower of conversions. The reason is more fundamental. The Catholic as a Catholic has been taught that God is everywhere and that all things are overruled by Providence: he has been taught and he believes it. But he sees the hand of Providence best when things fall out as he would have arranged them if he had been God! So that as a novelist the Catholic too often takes his little section of life, and instead of seeing Providence in it, acts Providence to it. As you read you feel that the thing is being maneuvered.” 
“All things are overruled by Providence.” I wanted to see Jerry’s life succeed in visible terms with outward faith and drug-free end. I’d attempted to argue with him a few times on his atheism; I took much joy when he became Catholic presumably under the influence of his second wife, and said what drew him was the Eucharist, specifically the words of consecration: “This is my Body...”. He said he was greatly moved. I was wonderstruck a non-believer could have a change of heart. But the conversion didn’t seem to last, and they got divorced after a dozen years of marriage and he reverted to agnosticism, at least as of March 2016.

This quote on Twitter is timely:
“The Incarnation does not give us a ladder to climb out of the human condition. It gives us a drill that lets us burrow down into the heart of everything that is and, there, find it shimmering with divinity." - Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ

December 03, 2018

Why Ohio Republicans Differ from Texas Republicans

Heard interesting NR “Editors” podcast in which Charlie Cooke asked Reihan Salam why Ohioan Republicanism is different from Texas’s libertarianism:
“Ohio is a state where Gov John Kasich basically reversed his early approach. Soon after coming to office he decided he wanted to curb collective bargaining rights for public employees including firefighters, police officers – so in some ways he was more aggressive than Gov. Scott Walker, his contemporary, yet Kasich then got this intense pushback from organized labor and then he caved. Then he pushed through a Medicare expansion.
"One argument about the Ohio Republican party is that it really did move to the center of opinion in Ohio (whether folks in the Democratic party acknowledge it or not), [since Ohioans] were for Medicare expansion and more pro-life than pro-choice, so that’s where the party went and it wound up being a recipe for the party’s success.

"I guess my big picture thought is that at the state and local level I believe in small government, that’s lean, effective.  At the national level I believe you have to do something about the huge disparities across states. A state like Ohio, or more so West Virginia - has very limited fiscal capacity. What this winds up meaning that 1.5% spent of West Virginia’s GDP on teachers means a very low teacher salary, while 1.5% of New Jersey’s would mean a relatively high teacher salary.

"Those disparities across regions make it really hard to have the kind of decentralized government I’d prefer.  You’re not going to be able to say that Medicare is going to go down to the states and leave them in charge of it when some states just don’t have the fiscal capacity and others do.  That’s why Canada is actually a lot more decentralized country than the U.S. is.  We have to have some sort of redistribution across regions. This isn’t too popular now because the Left, the traditional party of redistribution, happens to now represent all the rich parts of the country.

So I see the politics of Ohio as part of the perverse reaction to how we haven’t gotten things right at the federal level."

All Code Works By Accident

Tweet storm from CTO of VividCortex, Baron Sc​hwartz:
Something that isn’t a “Law,” but has held true through my entire career: when you instrument and measure something, you always learn surprising things.

--The code is doing WHAT?
--That query usually runs in microseconds but sometimes hours?
--We have a server nobody knew about?

This isn’t just database-monitoring-related. It’s true of any system, like… application code; off the shelf software; company finances; my personal health and vital signs—whatever.

Example: what happens to my bodyweight in the 2-3 days after a night of bad sleep? SURPRISE!!!

An example from early in my career as a developer. I discovered that the MySQL protocol has a notion of “warnings” and the number of warnings generated by a query is exposed in the Perl driver. I was curious, so I put a wrapper around our DB access library to check for warnings.

If you’re a software developer, this might not surprise you, but I’m sure some of you wouldn’t believe the broken things I found. I don’t just mean “broken like a tire with low pressure, but the car still drives.” I mean, like the car is in the ditch upside down and nobody knew.

In this specific example, some of the fundamental underpinnings of what the business was supposed to be doing, weren’t working. At all.

The surprises come from realizing your mental model isn’t reality. You think you have awareness of this, but it’s order-of-magnitude wrong. (Meta: your mental model of your mental models’ brokenness, is itself broken.)

You never understand how badly your model of the world and the world itself, have diverged until you measure. Then you’re aghast. But it’s just business as usual. Pick yourself up, go on.

One of the things I learned from that incident was that the stuff I thought was the fundamental, non-negotiable underpinnings of the business was just a nice-to-have.

I didn’t find just ONE thing broken, though. I found dozens, immediately. And many more in subsequent years.

Simple things reveal these totally invisible ways in which your mental models are broken. Quick: pick a server, SSH in, look at any log. Any one. Odds are you’ll find something ghastly.

Pick your system and your tools, do it any way you like. Dig into the bank account statements, look at HR data, whatever. (We recently got a gas+water bill from the city for an astronomical amount.) There’s always broken, weird stuff because NOBODY KNOWS HOW ANYTHING WORKS.

And a lot of what’s broken doesn’t even need to be fixed, despite the engineer’s impulse to make things perfect. The broken world turns on its axis every 24h anyway.
In reply someone said, "All code works by accident." Ha.

November 30, 2018

Raising Alma Mater

So what gives with my alma mater begging for money?  Miami has a half-billion endowment, is the most expensive college in Ohio, has a wealth of new buildings, and gets millions in state monies in addition to tuition.  Kids going to Miami pay, their parents pay, the taxpayer pays, and they want alumni to pay.  Does it take a village to raise a university?

The problem is complex but it’s telling that stats are hard to come by since the colleges only promote the declining percentage of their budget coming from the state. This is partly due to flat-lined state giving (due to other priorities like health care spending, prisons and K-12 education), but it’s also because college education is going up much faster than the rate of inflation.

Fifty years ago 70% of Miami’s funding came from the state and now only 10-15% does. Colleges back 50 years ago didn’t try to rein in expenses because they didn’t have to. So the inflation rate of college education sky-rocketed while the amount of money given by the state barely stayed the same.

Even former Miami president James Garland admits that the university culture plays a role in the problem:
Unlike corporations, public universities have had few purely financial incentives to improve themselves and become more productive.
In my opinion, both the Ohio legislature and the universities are partially correct: the problem of rising public college tuition is driven by a combination of declining state subsidy levels and the inability of universities to exercise the cost discipline that is common for well-managed organizations outside academia.
So should the alumni kick in money to try to prop up this broken system?

On the one hand, if you just let market forces force the universities to seek profit, will colleges become available only to the rich and the intellectually gifted.  Are there too many mediocre students going to college today simply because so many jobs require a college diploma?  Or should there be more low-cost colleges much as Walmart undercut the competition in retail by going for the low-cost angle? 

November 28, 2018

The Case of the Missing Cashier

So today I found out what happened to June, the cashier from whom I’ve bought approximately 12,000 lunches from over the past 25 years.

She didn’t show up a few days before Thanksgiving. It was uncharacteristic since she normally mentioned upcoming absences. Typically it was me who announced absences since I take frequent vacations and she doesn’t get much vacation time. Despite being at least 62 years old and working there for umpteen years.

I first took notice of her when she used to chastise Ham of Bone (of the Bobber beer fame) for his “soups”. In his pre-marital frugality, he’d carefully load up no broth, just the meat. With lots of free packages of crackers, he got a meal for the price of a newspaper.

June was no-nonsense and was so fast at her job that I used to say she must be getting paid by number served. Being a victim of the modern cult of efficiency, naturally I gravitated to her line and I’d do the computations in my head (6 people in line at cashier X, meant if I could be number 9 in June’s line, I’d still come out ahead). Memory like an elephant too - she’d recall trivial things like how much I’d spent the previous day, and in the extremely rare cases of making a cashier mistake in cafeteria’s favor she’d rectify it the next day even though I’d forgotten about it.

There were things I wanted to ask but couldn’t or didn’t. I recall just after the O.J. Simpson trial wondering where she, an African-American, stood on it. It was the most revelatory thing to me ever at the time, to see the disconnect between how white America and black America viewed it. Probably not so surprising to blacks, who likely knows how white culture thinks much better than vice-versa in the same way conservatives know what liberals think better than liberals know how conservatives do, due to the imbalance in media. In hindsight it was probably good not to know.

So because she was fast - and friendly without being chatty which is always a mercy - I ended up buying three lunches a day from her for about 200 days a year times for the past quarter century. (Three lunches a day since I buy one for me, and two more for dinner for my wife and me.) The touching and funny thing was that if I went to another line she saw it (eagle eyes, she has) and would chastise me the next day. One time another cashier tried to woo me to her line and I said, “no thanks” and June grumbled about that gal trying to steal her customers.

She was like ol’ (wo)man river, so much so that though she’s much older than me I’d always expected to retire before her. I’d already planned how when I was in that last week at work, feeling light-hearted at the impending retirement, I’d get her a card and put a $50 in it as a tip for all those years. Make her day for once.

But now, to paraphrase former White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson, she gone. Just like that. Without a goodbye or a last name. I asked the manager what happened and he said she retired. Said she took a couple days off and he guesses she liked it so much she decided not to come back. It seems an impulsive move for a woman so dependable that if she missed work you thought maybe the Apocalypse was upon us. Nothing on earth lasts forever, a timely message in November.

Stray Thoughts

Good long soaking read trying to find answers to quotidian mysteries like...

Why did U.S. faithfully and inexorably reenact France’s failure in Vietnam? From hubris to napalm to trying to piss off the locals to losing 50k+ men to not understanding that to win a piece of land only to abandon it the next day was no way to win a war ... It’s maddening that LBJ or JFK couldn’t sit down and talk with French leaders asking, “so what can you tell us about fighting in Indochina so that we don’t make the same mistakes?”. But we didn’t apparently and arguably the Vietnam War was what helped killed all authority, even extending to that of churches perhaps.

I remember someone saying that the reason the elites don’t worry much is that often they were born on third base and think they hit a triple so there attitude is there is little cause for alarm. And the poor always live precariously and have made it this far, so there’s little cause for alarm.

But the middle class is different because most know privation and surplus and greatly prefer the latter and worry about securing it.

The rich know they can buy their way out of difficulty, and the poor that they’ll never avoid difficulty, so it’s only the middle class perhaps with something to lose.

“Why do demons wish to excite in us gluttony, fornication, greed and other passions? So the mind, under the weight, should be unable to pray as it ought. When the passions of our irrational part begin to act, they prevent the mind from acting rationally.” - St. Nilus of Sinai

Started reading more of the Eric Gill biography last night. One fascinating bedeviled personality is he.

My ambition has always been to lack ambition.  Sort of my super power. But now I realize that lacking ambition is not a good or bad in itself and that the ambition I should have is God’s ambition for me, whatever that might be.  Because God, for sure, doesn’t lack ambition. Just look around. His ambition for some might look slight, but that’s only on the surface.