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September 2011

Two Guitar Pieces

Weekend Music

A couple of Sundays ago I went to a concert by the Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas. The first piece was the Prelude No. 1 of Heitor Villa-Lobos. I'm hoping that most people who read this blog are not overly familiar with it. It's so widely played that I suspect classical guitar fans are tired of it. But it is a really lovely piece, and Villegas played it beautifully. I didn't find it on YouTube, but here it is by Julian Bream. Some would say Bream is not at his best in this kind of music--too cool, too restrained--but I like his precision and delicacy.


Not to neglect Villegas, here he is, with another very well-known piece, Tárrega's Recuerdos de la Alhambra (Memories of the Alhambra). That rapid picking that carries the melody line is very hard to do at all, and unbelievably hard to sustain smoothly and evenly for very long. So guitarists tend to make this a show-off piece, but Villegas isn't doing that here: he's very modest, and is enough of a virtuoso to let the piece sing, and let the listener forget the virtuosity. He played this for his encore Sunday, but unfortunately I missed it because I had to duck out as soon as the last piece on the program was finished, in order to get to Mass. So I'm glad to have this.


Already Obvious in 1831

In a letter to his cousin Louis Kergorlay dated June 29, 1831, Tocqueville goes so far as to say that there are no real "beliefs"--ancient mores, settled traditions, deep-rooted memories--in America, except for the belief in the self-evident rightness of republican government and the truth of human perfectibility.

--from a review of a collection of Tocqueville's letters, Letters From America, in the April 2011 New Criterion

Merton Looks at the World, 1960

We despise everything that Christ loves, everything marked by His compassion. We love fatness health bursting smiles the radiance of satisfied bodies all properly fed and rested and sated and washed and perfumed and sexually relieved. Everything else is a scandal and a horror to us.

That's Merton in a 1960 letter to Dorothy Day, quoted in the October issue of Touchstone, in an interesting piece about their friendship. One thing that strikes me about it is that it's still true, despite the degree to which society has changed since then. The enlightened now despise the 1950s, but still essentially value the same things Merton mentions, though perhaps replacing the bursting smile with an ironic smirk.

But has it ever been very different? The world (in the sense that the Gospels use the term) is always this way. If we are significantly different from times past, it's probably only because we have so many more means of pursuing and preserving our comfort and pleasure.

A Few Notes on the News

Sunday Night Journal — September 25, 2011

Two Executions

If you paid any attention at all to news in (or from, as the case may be) the U.S. for the past week or so, you know that the state of Georgia executed a man named Troy Davis for the 1989 killing of a police officer. And you also know that the execution was widely protested on the grounds that Davis may have been innocent, and on the grounds that the death penalty is wrong, period. I take no position on his guilt or innocence; I've read persuasive arguments both ways, and am generally slow to be convinced one way or another on a disputed factual question on which I have no direct knowledge. I look at Google News, which collects news stories from all over the net partly on the basis of the number of people who read them, several times a day, and can't count the number of stories I saw about Davis's case, almost all of them either clearly opposing the execution or highlighting the opposition to it.

On the same night, a Texas man, Lawrence Russell Brewer, was executed for one of the most sickening crimes in recent American history, the murder of James Byrd, killed by being dragged behind a truck for two miles. The crime was apparently racially motivated, since Byrd was black and Brewer and one of the others were known white supremacists. Brewer's execution attracted comparatively little publicity and almost no opposition, one notable exception being Brewer's son.

I could be described as an unenthusiastic opponent of the death penalty. I accept the current Catholic teaching on the matter, though I think it has tended to create confusion about the much more important teaching against the deliberate taking of innocent life and, worse, political cover for Catholics who promote abortion rights. The Catechism says that although the death penalty is permissible in principle in order to protect society, the circumstances under which it is necessary for that purpose are "very rare, if not practically non-existent."

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."

(The "very rare" quote quote is from Evangelium Vitae.) This strikes me as a somewhat unsatisfactory argument, particularly the point about the possibility of the criminal redeeming himself (an odd phrase for an official document of the Catholic Church). It is far from obvious that repentance is more likely on the part of a man facing decades in prison than one facing death. But never mind that for the moment: surely from this point of view Brewer's execution deserves to be condemned every bit as much as Davis's. The Cathechism's argument starts with the presumption that the accused is guilty; it hardly needs to be said that the innocent should not be punished. Principled opponents of the death penalty should be willing to make their argument for the most detested perpetrators of the most loathsome crimes, but we didn't hear that this week.

 Software Is Eating the World

There seems to be pretty widespread agreement that the American middle class is shrinking, and that fewer and fewer jobs pay a middle-class wage.  I would be amused by the people who on the one hand excoriate the American middle class for its cultural failings, its tacky religiosity, etc. etc., and on the other hand lament that it's shrinking, if the situation weren't in fact alarming. I think the reasons for the phenomenon are complex, but one of them is that the ever-expanding role of technology in the economy has, over the past thirty years or so, caused the value of mental work--everything from law to computer programming--to increase, and the value of physical work to decrease. There is an interesting (if ungraceful) formulation of this by Jim Manzi at National Review Online:

The way I have put this is that workers in our economy are in a race between development of as-yet-non-commoditized cognitive capabilities on one hand, and wage reductions, as capabilities are commoditized through technological advances (broadly defined) on the other. This has been going on for a long, long time, but it does seem to be speeding up — why?

In other words, American workers are having a tough time finding things to do that can't be done by machines or people who are willing to work like machines. You can read the whole thing here. I find Manzi's commentary generally interesting, because he's pretty non-ideological, in the sense that he really makes an effort to see what's there, not what his political views tell him should be there. Also because he's very bright. And the two pieces to which he links are interesting.

However, this raises a question not just about the future of the American middle class but about that of the human race. We're not really supposed to notice this, but the fact is that not everybody is capable of work which is predominantly mental, which requires a fairly high level of abstract reasoning ability and is done mostly at that level. We've all known people who are very good at some form of physical work but not "book learning." And that doesn't mean they're stupid: a lot of them have a high degree of intelligence where the solving of physical problems are concerned. They're much smarter than I am in that way--I may have scored higher than they did on academic aptitude and achievement tests, but I'm an idiot when it comes to building something.

Moreover, there are people who are in fact not very bright at all; they do not have the intelligence to do any sort of very demanding work. But they are people, and there is absolutely no warrant for believing that God prefers the intelligent to the unintelligent. Or rather I should say that it is wisdom, not mere reasoning ability, that God prefers. To the extent that we can plan our society, they must be included in the plan, with the assumption that their intrinsic value is no less than that of anyone else.

Software entrepreneur Marc Andreessen (one of the co-founders of Netscape), in an article called Why Software is Eating the World, predicts that everything which can be automated and software-driven will be, and says

many people in the U.S. and around the world lack the education and skills required to participate in the great new companies coming out of the software revolution. This is a tragedy since every company I work with is absolutely starved for talent. Qualified software engineers, managers, marketers and salespeople in Silicon Valley can rack up dozens of high-paying, high-upside job offers any time they want, while national unemployment and underemployment is sky high. This problem is even worse than it looks because many workers in existing industries will be stranded on the wrong side of software-based disruption and may never be able to work in their fields again. There's no way through this problem other than education, and we have a long way to go.

If his last sentence is correct, then there might as well be a period after the word "problem." I know something about software development. The number of people who can do it is fairly small, and the number of people who can do it really well is very small. And sales and marketing certainly require abilities that most people don't possess (and many don't want to possess). This is only partly a matter of education. Anyone who believes that anyone can be educated to be a computer programmer is living in a fantasy. Human differences in aptitude exist, and no amount of education can make those differences go away.

And anyway, how could one even hypothesize a world in which everyone makes his living working on the machines that do all the work? It doesn't take as many people to program robots to weld auto bodies as it does to weld auto bodies. If we can't or won't think any further or deeper than the old sci-fi dream of eliminating all manual labor, we're headed for trouble. The fantasy used to be that when hard work was no longer necessary, everyone would sit around reading Shakespeare and listening to classical music. Surely nobody believes that anymore. Mindless and sensationalist entertainment will beat Art by a factor of 50 to 1, at least. For that matter, the actual practice of what is depicted in mindless and sensationalist entertainment will beat cultivation of the civilized virtues for some very large percentage of the human race. The idea that people will be happy with enough money to live on, no onerous work to do, and no purpose other than enjoyment is another fantasy; "idle hands are the devil's workshop" is a sounder view.

 I don't have a solution for this problem. I note that it was not very long ago that we were denouncing the soul-killing life of the factory worker, but now that those jobs have either been automated or outsourced to China (, we lament their loss. Should we turn our backs on technological innovation? I don't think that's feasible or desirable.  But one thing we can and should do is fight against the devaluation of physical work, and against the assumption that we can just somehow write off people who don't do very well on intelligence tests.

Why We Need Unions. And Journalists.

 I followed a link from The Atlantic to this story in the Allentown, Pennsylvania Morning Call, though I can't find the Atlantic piece now. It seems that Amazon achieves its shipping efficiency by driving their warehouse workers very hard, and that high unemployment is making it easier for them to do that.

I don't feel obliged to cheer for unions in every circumstance. The teacher's union here in Alabama, for instance, has long been considered one of the more corrupting political forces in the state, and was responsible last year for what I think is the single most disgustingly dishonest campaign ad I've ever seen. And it was, naturally, directed against the candidate who was most serious about improving the educational system.

Nevertheless. The right-wing version of the left-wing fantasy that every poor criminal would be law-abiding if he only had better economic opportunities is that every business would treat its workers decently if the unions and/or the government would get out of the way. I am skeptical, to put it mildly, of the argument that improved conditions for workers and the rise of labor unions were unconnected. I read a lot of anti-union stuff in the conservative press, and I'm sure a lot of the specific complaints are, like mine above, correct. But we always need to distinguish between a bad thing and the abuse of a good thing. Unions came into existence for very good reasons,  and I hope we don't have to go too far back down that road to refresh our memories.

Similarly: like most people of conservative leanings I complain a lot about journalistic bias. But that doesn't mean I think journalism is a bad thing. When I complain about the press, I don't mean that I want it to go away (my son-in-law is a journalist); I mean I want it to do a better job. A free society needs it, and I am alarmed as I watch the almost daily shrinking of my local newspapers. I salute the reporter who investigated the Amazon situation. Here, by the way, is a followup which includes Amazon's response.

More from Benedict

Also from his visit to Germany:

In order to accomplish her true task adequately, the Church must constantly renew the effort to detach herself from the 'worldliness' of the world. ... One could almost say that history comes to the aid of the Church here through the various periods of secularisation, which have contributed significantly to her purification and inner reform.

Secularising trends, whether by expropriation of Church goods, or elimination of privileges or the like, have always meant a profound liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness, for in the process she has set aside her worldly wealth and has once again completely embraced her worldly poverty.

Wouldn't that have earned an anathema, or at least a rebuke, from some popes, even within the past hundred or hundred and fifty years?

Where God is, there is a future. Indeed, when we allow God's love to influence the whole of our lives, then heaven stands open. ... Then the little things of everyday life acquire meaning, and great problems find solutions.

--Benedict XVI, speaking in Germany yesterday

John Coltrane: Impressions

Weekend Music

Nobody like him. Never was, never will be. I'm not a hard-core jazz fan, but somehow over the years I've acquired more recordings by him than of any other non-classical artist. Today is his birthday. This is from my favorite period, between the beautiful but more conventional early and the completely unstructured (as far as I can tell) late.


Another Canadian Birthday


This is one of his less well-known songs, and an old favorite of mine. It's on Songs From A Room, the first of his albums I ever heard. I knew the song "Suzanne" from recordings by others and wasn't crazy about it, but Songs From A Room made me a convert. Mike Wright, wherever you are, I owe you a big favor for introducing me both to Leonard Cohen and The Incredible String Band in the fall of 1969.


We told her she was beautiful
We told her she was free
But none of us would meet her in
The house of mystery

Here he says "could," not "would." But this seems to be a live version, and I'm pretty sure he says "would" on the album. I think that works a little better.

At the time, you did see her everywhere. Not so much anymore, though. Now she's got a hard edge and she expects to get paid, one way or another.

The Netflix War on Me

It seems to be a popular rhetorical device these days to describe any opposition to something you favor as a declaration of war against it. The first time I remember hearing it was some twenty years ago, during one of the periodic battles over the National Endowment for the Arts, in which conservatives object to federal funding of offensive art (or, in some cases, "art"): Andrei Codrescu was on NPR denouncing "the Republican war on art" (or should that be "Art"?). And currently, in a slight variation of the theme, if you believe the rich should be taxed more heavily, some will say that you are engaging in class warfare. Others say that if you believe the rich should not be taxed more heavily, you are engaging in class warfare.

So, in the spirit of the times, I wish to denounce the Netflix war on me--specifically, on my ability to have affordable access to a vast library of movies. As you may have heard, Netflix is about to split into two businesses, one of which will retain the name and will only provide "content" streamed over the Internet. The other will continue the DVD rental business and will be's hard for me even to type this...Qwikster. It is being said by the business-savvy that the company wants to get out of the DVD business because streaming is the future, and that it will either sell or slowly kill the DVD business. And I must say that if I planned to destroy a company I would certainly want to give it a meaningless, yet somehow stupid-sounding, name like...Qwikster. I may end my account just to avoid seeing that name--or, God forbid, finding myself in the position of needing to say it.

Really, this is depressing news. For several years my wife and I have had a Netflix account that allowed us to keep either two or three DVDs at a time, and for the first couple of those years gorged ourselves on a lot of the movies we'd always wanted to see but were too obscure to be available as rentals in local video stores, but too expensive to buy (and anyway there aren't that many movies I want to see more than once). For the past year we've cut way back, because we've been too busy, but we are still steady customers. There are probably close to a hundred titles in our queue. 

As it turns out, according to some comments I've seen, we are exactly the kind of customers Netflix wants to get rid off. The DVD-by-mail business is one of those where the idea is to sell people something they don't use: every DVD that Netflix mails to us reduces the money they get to keep from our monthly fee. They want people who will sign up, get a movie, let it sit around the house unwatched for a week, watch it, and let it sit around the house for another week before remembering to send it back. They don't want people like me who, having watched a movie, immediately take the DVD out of the player and put it back in the envelope, seal it up, and set it somewhere near the front door so they won't forget to put it in the mail the next morning.

I'm sure the rental business won't disappear overnight, and in theory a streaming library containing everything currently available on DVD would be just as good. But I have a feeling it won't work out that way.  More likely it would become the Internet version of cable TV, offering a vast amount of garbage, and making it impossible to get the little bit of good stuff without also paying for the garbage. Business Week already predicts the rental business will be sold. And Megan McArdle of The Atlantic thinks both companies are doomed. It's striking, and rather dismaying, how convoluted the business and technical aspects of these enterprises can become.

Not A City Boy

Sunday Night Journal — September 18, 2011

Now and then I talk to someone who’s visited Rome, and almost always, especially if the person is Catholic, I’m told that it’s a wonderful experience. And I say “Yes, I’m sure it is,” but I always feel a little guilty that I don’t feel more enthusiasm for the idea. I’m not against it, and I’m sure that if I ever do it I’ll enjoy it as much (or almost as much) as most people seem to. And I am interested in seeing the magnificent churches, and absorbing the sense of the Church’s history, etc. But Rome just isn’t at the top of my list of places I’d like to visit.

In fact, no city is at the top of my list. When I think of the traveling I’d like to do if I had the time and money, I think of the American West, or the English countryside, or of the lakes and forests and cold seas of the Nordic countries. There is nothing made by the hand of man that compels my attention, imagination, and longing the way the natural world does.

And I really don’t care much at all for big cities. I recognize their importance as centers of culture and civilization, but I don’t like spending much time in them. I grew up in the country and am never comfortable without a certain amount of space around me, and, more importantly, plenty of green growing things. The blogger who calls herself Pentimento is a native New Yorker, now in exile (as she sees it) and writes movingly of her love for the city. I can appreciate that and enter into the spirit of it, but I don’t think I could ever feel that way. When I think of being surrounded entirely by tall buildings, I feel constricted, confined, cut off, alienated.

It’s not that I’m any sort of outdoorsman. I’ve never been much interested in hunting, though I would enjoy fishing if I had the leisure and skill. I don’t camp or hike, though I did when I was a teenager and perhaps would enjoy it again if life were not full of so many more pressing things. But what’s important to me is not anything in particular that I want to do in the outdoors, but only that it be nearby. In the main I’m content to sit and read near a window, or in the swing in the front yard. I just need to be able to see something other than the man-made, something organic, to which I can feel a physical connection.

I’m not sure whether this has anything to do with the fact that I grew up in the country or not. Perhaps it does, but, just as likely, it’s a matter of natural temperament; others in the same situation dream of escaping to the city (I did, too, but only for a short time in my teens).

This is not a conclusion to which I reasoned my way, nor is it a principle. I don’t hold that my inclinations in this are anything more than that, or that there is anything superior in them.

In the abstract, to erect an opposition of nature and civilization, or nature and art, is useful only for analytical purposes; in life as we actually experience it, we cannot separate them; we are incapable of doing so, because we are creatures of matter and spirit, nature and consciousness. Art and civilization (which for purposes of this discussion are the same thing) are products of our distance from nature; they operate on nature, refining it and, in a sense, purifying it. But nature comes first, and art and civilization are not conceivable apart from it. And it is this given reality (whether one believes in a giver or not) that I prefer, and in fact need, to have near me in my daily life. No city, however magnificent, can inspire in me the sense of wonder and delight that the natural world does. And I don’t mean only magnificent scenic views, the sort of thing that the Romantics called sublime; the very ordinary domesticated environment around my home—the trees and grass and bushes and flowers, the birds and small animals, my beloved bit of shoreline—is quite enough. When I look at the technical and architectural achievements of man, all the complexity of a modern city, I am awed, but more by the skill and ingenuity of the human race than by the things themselves.

I freely acknowledge my need for the city and for civilization. I would not find nature so wonderful if nature were all I had, and I were obliged to spend most of my energy in the struggle to survive. It is from my comfortable house and my comfortable position in the modern world that I can meditate upon nature rather than engage in combat with it; I have no illusions about that, but my preference remains.

There is a loose analogy here to my relationship to the Church. The Church is the city, and the unredeemed wilderness of human life is nature. After my conversion in the late ‘70s, and even more after my entry into the Catholic Church in 1981, I felt a certain obligation to interest myself in the Church as an institution, but I soon discovered that I had little interest in its internal life. I have some interest in theology, but mainly in those areas where the most fundamental questions are treated. I have never, for instance, been able to keep the Christological heresies straight in my mind for very long. I once knew the difference between a Monophysite and a Nestorian, but without looking them up I have at this moment no idea of their doctrines (apart from what the term “monophysite” suggests on its face).

There was indeed a time when I was exercised about denials and evasions of clear doctrine among influential persons in the Church, but that danger is not what it was. I have little inclination to accuse anyone to whom the charge would matter of being unorthodox, and I’m content to leave such things in the hands of the Magisterium; that’s what we pay them for.

I wish we had a beautiful liturgy, but have never had any interest whatsoever in rubrics and vestments and so forth. I have less than no interest in the internal politics of the Church, and never read those web sites that are filled with rumors and speculation about who is going to be bishop of where. I can tell you the name of the pope, and of my bishop and my parish priests, and perhaps one or two others, but beyond that it’s a uniform sea of clerics.

It’s what goes on outside the Church that interests me, or rather what goes on where the Church meets the world. It is the world as viewed from within the Church that fascinates me, and what fascinates me most of all is the dialogue between belief and unbelief. Catholic writers like Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy dramatize this encounter in the most memorable ways. But people on the other side—artists and others—often shed their own sort of light upon it. Even in unbelief they may present the essential questions in powerful ways, or express, as well or better than a believer, the longing for pure unattainable love and beauty which is what I seem to have in place of the sense of the presence of God.

The Church is my home, and without it I could not view the world as I do, or engage it in the same way. (I’m speaking only of the psychology of the thing here; obviously the Church is, objectively, much more than that.) But the world outside gets most of my time and attention. To change the metaphor a little, I live in a sort of borderland, or perhaps one could say on the outskirts of the city, where the fields and forests begin. I’ve often had misgivings about this, since I first began to notice it some years ago: is this not the same thing that has always been condemned as worldliness? If I am really converted, shouldn’t I be more attentive to the Church than to the world? But I’ve become convinced that this is where I belong.

Two Canadian Birthdays

My local paper has a daily "Today in History" feature which includes a list of famous people whose birthdays fall on the day. I read it frequently, I think with a somewhat morbid fascination, bothering my wife with news items such as "Oh look, this actress who was a beautiful girl in that movie is 65 years old today."  I often think of mentioning these events here, but so far have not actually followed through on the notion. Well, today I am, having noticed a couple of particularly interesting ones: Daniel Lanois (60) and Sylvia Tyson (71!). It isn't actually their Canadian-ness that caused me to do it.  At least I don't think it is--I suppose it could be the effects of some new psychic weapon developed by the movement for Canadian World Domination

Lanois is best known as a producer, whose distinctive dark reverb-heavy sound was a major contribution to some of the best (and best-known) work of Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, and U2. But his solo albums are as good as those he produced for others. This is from Shine


Sylvia Tyson was one half of Ian and Sylvia, of whom I have written before. I picked this song for her birthday commemoration because it's one of only a few that she wrote for the duo, but is also their most famous, due its succesful re-working as a Top-40 hit by We Five, which is very different but great in its own right.


Praying for Little Things

Some people think it foolish to ask God for little things, but I do not think it matters at all what one asks for, so long as in asking for anything one recognizes one's own dependence on God.... Sometimes a tiny childish thing brings home to us more than a big thing the intense love which can make Omnipotence concerned, for our sakes, with trifles.

—Caryll Houselander

Jónsi: Hengilas

Weekend Music


Yes, this is the song I had originally intended to post last week. I had a strange experience with it a couple of weekends ago. It was Sunday morning, and I had an online "radio" program playing. This song came on, and although I had heard it before and liked it, for some reason it went straight to my heart. I was having a conversation with my wife and when that falsetto part toward the end started I couldn't talk anymore.  

You might think this is  Sigur Rós, if you know them at all.  Jónsi is the main singer and, it would appear, composer of that group. This song is from his solo album, Go. "Hengilás" apparently means "padlock." There is a translation of the lyrics here.

A bumper sticker (well, actually, a rear-window sticker) that I saw today: "Oh no! Not another learning experience!

On the "spiritual but not religious" trend

Via Image magazine on Facebook, here are two articles by the same person, Lillian Daniels, a liberal Protestant (United Church of Christ) minister: You Can't Make This Up and Spiritual But Not Religious? Stop Boring Me. Surprisingly, the second one is at the Huffington Post. It's just a few paragraphs; the first is more substantial.

She's amusing in places: speaking of the people boast that they see God in nature, not in church, she mentions a man who's very proud of his child for doing so:

The children see God in nature—and because they are children and have bigger eyes and high voices, they do so in much cuter ways. "I think there will be doggies and birdies and grandma's candy bowl in heaven." But let's take that idea a little further. Will there be sharks and snakes in heaven too? How about vampire bats? How do you like that, you little junior theologians?

There's absolutely nothing wrong with seeing God in nature. There is also nothing particularly original or special about it. I think most people who believe in God do so. What's annoying is the presumption that it's evidence of spiritual superiority. One of things that Christianity explicitly and strongly forbids is any such assumption of superiority.

If we made a church for all these spiritual-but-not-religious people, if we got them all together to talk about their beliefs and their incredibly unique personal religions, they might find out that most of America agrees with them. But they'll never find that out, because getting them all together would be way too much like church. And they are far too busy being original to discover that they are not.

In church, we hear scriptures like the one in which Jesus says to ordinary, fallible Peter, "Upon this rock I will build my church." In other words, you people are stuck with each other.


The obsessive hatred of many on the left for Sarah Palin is sick. I'm referring to a soon-to-be-published book of gossip, of which many salacious details have already been revealed. You've probably heard of it. If not, you can easily find out. It gives me a tiny bit of satisfaction not to identify it or its author.

Leaning Tree


It's leaning because the ground was eroded under it by storms last winter. I didn't think it was going to survive the summer, but its roots must be deeper than I thought.

Leave it to xkcd to actually work out the math

I suspect that most of us are either (1) the sort of person who is willing to drive somewhat out of his way to save 5 or 10 cents per gallon on gas or  (2) the sort of person who suggests that the amount saved may not cover the cost of getting there, or in general be worth the trouble.  I'm definitely in the second group. But while I am enough of a rationalist/math-sci personality to have the thought, I'm not enough of one to actually sit down and work it out. But the guy who draws xkcd is. Notice the rollover text.

I sort of liked this recent xkcd, too, though it's not funny. You've seen those decals people put on their rear windows with stick figures representing (I assume) the family's assortment of parents, children, and pets?


Sunday Night Journal — September 11, 2011

It often seems to me that no one of genuinely conservative temperament and instincts is ever entirely at ease in the mental atmosphere of the United States. As has been pointed out many times, the whole spirit of the place is fundamentally progressive, and a major component of what American conservatives seek to conserve is the promise of a continually improving future. But if you’re the sort of person who believes not only that things could get worse but that there’s a fairly good chance that they will get worse, that the capacity of the human race to improve itself is quite limited, and that every improvement is subject to the law of unintended consequences, you just don’t ever feel fully on board the progress train. Whether you’re on the last car, looking back at the landscape disappearing behind you, or up front with the engineer, fretfully anticipating dangerous curves, damaged tracks, and menacing obstacles, you are never very confident that the journey is going to end well, and that you might not better have stayed home.

From this perspective, the American left and right appear to be in fundamental agreement, in that they both believe that tomorrow can and should be better than today: they both believe in some variation of the traditional American idea of progress. The right believes that the bright future is to be attained by unleashing the enterprising genius of the people, with little interference from the government. The left believes that the people need mostly need to be restrained, and that the government must intervene constantly to protect them from themselves and each other. In a nutshell, it’s the old argument which pits equality of opportunity against equality of result.

Also from my perspective, it is immediately obvious that there is some truth in both views, and that in each case that there is a valid point to be made in favor of what they advocate and against what they denounce. Obviously the wealth of this country was produced mainly by enterprise and invention, and it is foolish to contemplate the redistribution of wealth without considering whether your actions will result in there being little to distribute. Equally obviously, enterprise and invention do not always operate ethically when left to themselves (the institution of slavery serves as sufficient illustration of that fact), and there are always predators who must be restrained by the force of law. And there are always those who cannot provide adequately for themselves and must be helped by others.

Both sides tend to press their own case in a Manichean sort of way—forces of good vs. forces of evil, and as we all know this is a big part of the reason for the extreme levels of hostility in political life. But underlying the programs of both is the assumption that we can do something about our problems: most problems can be solved, given the willingness to do so.

This is certainly not a bad thing in itself. It is surely a major part of the reason why we have in fact solved many problems. The conservative voice whispers but the solutions have introduced their own problems and that’s generally true, but surely even the most pessimistic of us can admit that sometimes people really do succeed in making things better, and that to believe the attempt is worth making is not necessarily foolish utopianism.

When Americans see a problem, we think “Somebody ought to do something about that.” And a significant number of us follow that thought with “And that somebody is me.” I am not usually one of these people, and I’m glad we have them. They may sometimes be quixotic, and they may sometimes be partially or completely wrong about what they want to accomplish. But on the whole I think we’re better off for the prevalence and strength of this impulse.

It has its limits, though. It can lead us to think not only that we can Do Something about every problem, but that when we have done it the problem will be gone. It becomes an ideological commitment, in which one believes that even the biggest problems have fairly straightforward solutions, and that the only moral thing for us (that is, society at large) to do is to implement them. Do-something-ism becomes do-everything-ism. It is not content with modest measures, but is determined to be radical, to solve the problem at its root, so that it will cease to be a problem.

It is not enough to help the poor; we must have a War on Poverty. It is not enough to take prudent straightforward measures to protect ourselves from homicidal fanatics; we must have a War on Terror. One of those notions comes from the left, the other from the right, but they originate in the same American confidence that there is a solution to every problem, and that big problems must be addressed by big plans from a big government. The conventional voices of the left and the right all want a big government, either for social justice (on the left) or for national security (on the right); they differ in what they want it to to do, but they agree that it must be very big and very powerful. (I emphasize “conventional” because there are those on the right who question our militarization, and those on the left who question our centralization.)

This is a very American way of approaching things, and one hardly needs to point out the hubris that may go along with it. America has done so much: why should there be anything at all that we can’t do, if we but choose to and set our will to it? With the economy a mess, with social life deteriorating, with our military ventures failing to transform the Middle East, we now seem to be coming to the end of that fantasy. Now that the money has run out, and there has begun to be some recognition that we can’t keep borrowing and printing more of it indefinitely, we may hope to see some lessening of our destructive over-confidence.

There are many good things which might never have been if the people who attempted them had listened to people like me. But sometimes the conservative voice that says you can’t really solve that problem; you can only alleviate it is right. And the more fundamental the problem, and the more grandiose the plan for solving it, the more likely that is to be true. There is, in the end, only one truly radical solution, and that is the Gospel, which never promised an end to trouble in this world.


Although this piece is not specifically about 9/11/2001, it was written with that anniversary very much in mind; specifically, with the ill-advised war in Iraq and the weird, sometimes scary, internal security measures which were responses to that attack in mind. I'm sixty-two years old. I'm not going to live long enough to get over being bothered by the fact that the United States has a Department of Homeland Security.

On the 9/11 Anniversary

Halfway between the September 11, 2001, and today--in September of 2006--I posted this assessment of the event and its consequences. It still represents my view pretty accurately.

I can't quite put my finger on the reasons, but I keep thinking--no, I should say I keep feeling--that there is something a bit unseemly in the ceremonies and rememberances that have been going on for the past few days. The closest I can come to articulating it is the remark by my wife that we are "wallowing in it." Actually she said "wallering," in the southern way, which is not necessarily the way she would naturally pronounce it, but which carries a certain emphasis. Interestingly, I saw the same sentiment mentioned at National Review Online.

More Bad News for (Some) Bloggers

See item #7 on this list of formerly popular dead-or-dying web sites: TypePad and Blogger. TypePad is where this blog is hosted. It does seem pretty obvious that Twitter and Facebook have grown at the expense of blogging. However, there is something amiss with the picture painted by this article. It says that "the streamlined blogging tool" has continued to grow.

I don't know where they got the "streamlined" idea. I've used all three of these services, and I don't think WordPress is any simpler or easier to use than TypePad. Blogger is probably simpler than either, overall, if you're content to use their standard layouts. So why would WordPress be doing better? Because, compared to TypePad, it's just as good, and it's free (or very cheap if you want more ability to customize their designs), whereas TypePad is not. And compared to Blogger, it's better, and also free.

But that doesn't explain why WP blogs would get more traffic--regardless of which platform is superior, I can't imagine that readers decide which blogs to read based on their platform. One doesn't sit down at the computer and go looking for WordPress blogs. So either WordPress is somehow doing a better job of publicizing blogs hosted there, or it has attracted bloggers who have attracted bigger audiences.

Laurel and Hardy Meet ZZ Top

Weekend Music

Every girl crazy 'bout a sharp-dressed man.

The music and the dance don't quite fit. To me they're close enough to be a lot of fun. Others may find it annoying. (Hat tip to Michael Potemra of National Review.)


I had another song in mind to post tonight, a very beautiful song, full of bittersweet yearning. But I changed my mind. 

Pat Buchanan on the Decline of American Manufacturing

One reason I don't talk about politics all that much, and don't talk about economic matters very much at all, is that they're mostly too complex to deal with in a blog post. I think almost all the contending factions have at least some part of the truth, and generally find myself wanting to argue with anyone who seems to think he's gotten hold of the one idea that explains everything. 

But this is not to say that all ideas and insights are of equal importance. This short piece by Pat Buchanan in The American Conservative does not fully explain the difficulties of the American middle class, but it is an important part of the story. In a nutshell, he says that the movement of American manufacturing to places where labor is much cheaper has put millions of American workers out of work or into much lower-paying jobs. This seems pretty obviously true. And he thinks we made a big mistake in allowing this to happen, and I'm inclined to agree with him there. 

And yet to stop with saying, as Buchanan does, that "capital crushed labor" does not take into account some of the most significant forces at work in the process. One of these, and perhaps the most important, is that most Americans consented to and participated in it, by means of their eager purchasing of cheap foreign-made goods. Just as the voters of a democratic nation are ultimately responsible for the quality of their government, so the consumers in a market economy are ultimately responsible for the businesses that provide them with goods and services. It isn't only the manufacturers, distributors, and retailers who look for the cheapest suppliers. It's all of us. 

I see this complaint about the loss of good-paying American manufacturing jobs all the time, and, like I said, I think there's a great deal of validity in it. But how many of us would actually be willing to pay the higher price for, say, a DVD player or a mobile phone, that would be required to support American workers manufacturing those things? Higher prices and, sad to say, quite likely lower quality: look at the way Detroit failed for decades to match the Japanese auto manufacturers in quality. I think we know the answer, because"Buy American" campaigns seem to fail almost completely. 

In economics as well as in politics, the search for the sources of many of our problems has to include a look in the mirror. 

Commenting problems (mine)

For some reason, which I suspect has to do with the anti-virus software on my computer at work, I'm unable to post comments.  The one brief one on the Atlantic thread was done in haste from home this morning--I try to check the comments first thing in the morning because spam comments tend to arrive in the small hours.  This is annoying, as I would like to say more.  But I guess it'll have to wait till this evening.

The Atlantic As Seen Through Its Advertisements

Sunday Night Journal — September 4, 2011

It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that I have a love-hate relationship with The Atlantic, as my feelings toward it are generally not as strong as that. Like-dislike would be closer, though sometimes it tips over into like-hate. Hardly an issue arrives that does not contain at least one thing that causes me to ask myself why I subscribe to it at all, but usually there is also at least one thing that I’m glad I didn’t miss. More broadly, the reason I continue to read it is that it is one of my few substantial encounters with the educated secular progressive world.

I have plenty of insubstantial encounters, of course. The secular progressive worldview dominates journalism and popular culture and the academy, and I have acquaintances whose conversation and Facebook traffic are full of affirmations of that faith (or, more often, denunciations of unbelievers). But most of what one gets from those sources is pretty conventional and unchallenging stuff, easily and best ignored. The vast majority of my reading comes, naturally, from sources which are closer to my own interests and ideas, and these are mostly Christian and mostly conservative. But I feel a sort of duty to be at least somewhat aware of what’s going on in foreign parts.

It is not only religiously and philosophically that I feel myself to be an intruder in a different world when I read The Atlantic; it’s socially and financially as well. The magazine’s advertisements have little or nothing to offer someone like me. Let’s look at the July/August issue, as a handy instance—for brevity, I’ll note only the full-page ads.

The company formerly known as Shell Oil, now apparently just Shell, occupies the back of the magazine, the inside front cover plus the next page, and the inside back cover. That probably represents a pretty good sum of money. And what is Shell advertising? Well, apparently their biggest concern is increasing the fuel efficiency of automobiles and reducing pollution, as three of the four pages deal with those matters. And why did they spend that much money on a magazine with a fairly small readership? My only direct contact with Shell is at the gasoline pump, but I doubt the patronage of Shell stations by Atlantic readers would justify the cost of these ads. Perhaps they’re aimed at investors—as we’ll see in a minute, there’s some justification for that conjecture.

Next comes IBM, which, as you know if you’ve seen their TV commercials, is interested in building a Smarter Planet™. A page further on, after the table of contents, we find a two-page spread for Fidelity Investments (“My client knows his complex investments could be doing more,” says the attractive, but not too attractive, female investment counselor of the handsome going-gray man who is not wearing a tie.)

Allstate Insurance, it seems, is devoted to making the world a safer place to drive; admirable. The Samsung Galaxy tablet computer will allow you to “see more and do more.” Singapore Airlines can provide you not just with a comfortable seat and a lot of attention on your Los Angeles to Tokyo flight, but with a private suite. The passengers pictured in this ad are sixtyish, white-haired, with that sleek and assured look that often goes with wealth; the pearls around the woman’s neck and dangling from her ears are probably real.

Membership in the Hilton Honors club seems to imply the company of a beautiful young woman who appears to be wearing only a sheet pulled from the bed of the luxurious hotel room where she stands at the window, her bare back toward us, looking enticingly over her shoulder. “It’s good to be you,” begins the text, ending with “everyone will wish they were you.”

Buying a Porsche will “turn small errands into short adventures.” No doubt. Novartis (a pharmaceuticals company) is mostly interested in eradicating dengue fever in the developing world. Hitachi is wants to “reduc[e] CO2 emissions and the impact on our environment.”

There is a full-page ad for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese “enjoyed by people with a passion for the very best man and nature can bring to the table.” Delicious, surely, and expensive, more surely. You might buy a Lincoln because “Knowledge is power.... It’s not just luxury. It’s smarter than that.”

Cathay Pacific Airlines repeats the luxury travel motif, though less impressively, with a sort of cubicle rather than a suite. First Republic Bank offers private banking and wealth management, and “always gets the job done,” according to the testimonial from the co-founder and management director of Vantage Point Venture Partners (who is not wearing a tie). The mission of Siemens is “building cities worth building a future in.” The Dyson vacuum cleaner claims to be better than all others, and is no doubt priced accordingly.

Thomson Reuters is interested in “leading scientists to greater discoveries, making financial markets fair and transparent, and promoting the rule of law.” Nice. They have three full-page ads. U.S. Trust (“Bank of America Private Wealth Management”) has two pages, in one of which it discusses the benefits of buying land as an investment. “Investors don’t need to be experts on land, however: leases and property management can be administered by the experts at U.S. Trust....” The investor probably never even needs to see the boring stuff, which is probably somewhere in the middle of flyover country, although of course the ad is illustrated with pictures of a bike rider surveying the wilderness and an old man talking to a child on the shores of a pretty lake.

Mercedes has two pages: “The best or nothing.” And here’s Shell again, in the middle of the magazine: “Sustainable development today builds sustainable energy for tomorrow.” HP invites you to “see what HP can do for the environment and you.” Computers are just an adjunct to the real mission, I guess. Principal Financial Group has created The Dreamcatcher, “a new online tool to help imagine the kind of future you want.” MSNBC believes the reader will be impressed by the words of Chris Matthews. Buick Regal has two pages.

Here’s another HP ad full of environmental concerns. Here’s Boeing, with more luxury travel in the form of the 787 Dreamliner (“It’s more than a dream”), with multicultural, young and casual (the guy is not wearing a tie) but obviously affluent passengers. MD Anderson Cancer Center, in Texas...why would they advertise here? I doubt most people’s insurance policies will pay for specific clinics far from home, so the ad must be aimed at people who can afford expensive treatment in part out of their own pockets. CFA Institute, a professional organization for financial advisors, features an advisor who happens to be an extremely vigorous-looking middle-aged woman in the act of kicking the hell out of a soccer ball. Ally Bank “treats your money like it’s actually yours.”

Well, enough of that, though I’m only two-thirds of the way through the magazine. What’s striking about all the big-corporation ads is that they suggest that making money is at most only a sideline in their real work, which is To Make The World A Better Place. Toward the end, in the book section, there are several full-page ads from publishers, and a good many smaller ads (scarce in the rest of the magazine). The message is pretty clear: the Atlantic reader is expected to be affluent—and I think we can assume that a major publication like this knows who its readers are—and also socially responsible, in a particular way: many of the ads emphasize care for the environment, an uncontroversial yet progressive position.

I am therefore pretty unusual among the magazine’s readers: apart from the books, there is nothing offered for sale in any of the ads I’ve mentioned for which I am a potential customer (with the possible but fairly remote exception of the Samsung tablet). I do have some dealings with an investment management company, but that’s only because the retirement plans of the organizations I’ve worked for are based on investing; my little fund is hardly the sort of thing that financial firms hope to lure with expensive advertisements.

The content of the magazine is, in the main, decidedly left-leaning, culturally and politically, although not radically so. It has tended to become more uniformly left and less diverse intellectually since the sad death of the independent-minded editor Michael Kelly, who was killed in an accident while covering the Iraq war in 2003. “Left of center” would probably be the correct socio-political category. Taken with the magazine’s audience, this is another confirmation of a tendency that has been often noted in recent years, and was especially striking in the 2008 election: wealth, which used to be associated with the Republican party and the right, is now at least as strongly associated with Democrats and the left. The Democrats’ constituency is mostly at the lower and upper ends of the economic scale.

None of this should surprise me very much; there has always been an affluent educated liberal class, and it has always had its publications (The New Yorker, for instance). Certainly not all the audience for magazines like these has been affluent, but most of it must have been, or businesses in search of people with plenty of money would not have continued to advertise with them.

Yet there is something especially irritating to me about the comfortable presumption, so clearly in evidence in both the advertising and the content of The Atlantic, that being “socially conscious” (repellent phrase) is very much compatible with personal luxury, and is in fact a fashion accessory in itself. You, the reader of The Atlantic, are not like those stuffy old rich people of the past, who dressed and spoke with stiff formality and grumbled about Roosevelt and taxes. You don’t wear a tie, but your casual elegance does not come cheap. Your politics obtain for you a pardon for your wealth. You can be simultaneously rich, virtuous, and cool.

The Atlantic was was founded by New England intellectuals of Unitarian and Transcendentalist bent, descendants of the Puritans, and one can still detect in it a distant echo of those older New Englanders who believed that God would reward his faithful in this world as well as the next.

Sufjan Stevens, God, and Art

Via Image magazine on Facebook, here is an interesting piece at pop culture mag Paste: a discussion of Sufjan Stevens and the general situation of the Christian artist in an anti-Christian culture. In general it's not anything that anyone familiar with the thinking of writers like Walker Percy hasn't already heard, but it's interesting that it appears here. It supports what I've long believed: that Christians should stop griping about hostility to their beliefs and concentrate on producing good art. Yes, bad or mediocre non- or anti-Christian art gets accepted while Christian art of equal merit does not, but really good Christian art will find a secular audience.

The Paste writer's theology seems pretty thin: one's encounter with God may first be intuitive and personal (though for some it begins in reason). But that doesn't mean that reason has no place at all.

Here is one of the Sufjan Stevens songs referred to in the article.