Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

It's Hard To Keep Protests Peaceful

Protests quickly turned violent last night in the wake of the announcement that a grand jury had decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.


Probably the only people who will benefit from the burning down nefarious institutions such as a Little Caesar's location in an already poor neighborhood are the major news networks, who got exactly the kind of apocalyptic footage that they wanted to generate viewership.

There's plenty of mis-management to go around. Why in the world did authorities decide to announce hours ahead of time that they had a result back from the grand jury, and then make the actual announcement after dark? If you're going to break potentially riot-inducing news, do it at 7AM, not under cover of darkness.

Various authorities, from the local prosecutor to the family of Michael Brown to President Obama called for protests to the decision to be peaceful. That they weren't is hardly surprising. Since the Civil Rights marches of the '60s became part of our national mythology, there's been an idealization of the power and importance of the peaceful protest in the American imagination.

With something like an organized march along a clearly defined route, on a day long planned ahead of time (whether the Million Man March or the annual March For Life) it's fairly realistic to keep things peaceful even on a contentious topic. However, large crowds are by their dangerous things. People feed off each other's emotions in a crowd, and they're willing to do things together that they would not do alone. Actions and sounds create emotions. Stand with a large crowd, chanting a slogan and waging your fist, and you'll feel more intensely that if you were on your own. Crowds also create group identity. One member of the crowd throws a rock at the police, all the police feel threatened. One protester is suppressed by the police, the whole crowd feels attacked.

Put a large, angry crowd on the streets at night to express their feelings on a contentious topic, and you're fairly likely to get arson and looting out of it. It's not just that some members of the crowd may get swept up in the moment if others start violence. Even those who remain peaceful but on the streets end up inadvertently providing cover for those who are being violent. If the streets are empty except for a few troublemakers, it's comparatively easy for the police to deal with them. If there are crowds of people protesting, and the smaller numbers of people smashing windows and starting fires, the crowd ends up providing cover for the trouble makers and the police are less likely to keep a lid on things.

I think we should be less optimistic about the ability of unorganized crowds to conduct peaceful protests at moments of high tension. Obviously, freedom of speech and assembly is important, and I don't think that we should allow those to be over-ruled, but the fact that something is legal does not mean that it is a good idea. People who actually want to conduct peaceful protests rather than burning down their neighborhood would be well advised to consider the idea of not holding spontaneous protests at the moment when an event takes place. If what you want is a peaceful protest, either conduct it in a naturally peaceful place (such as holding a large prayer service at a church) or organize a scheduled protest when the most raw feelings have cooled a bit, and the protest and be organized and supervised.



Of course, there's the also the matter of people who kind of want peaceful protests, but also want to excuse violent ones. Twitter seemed replete last night with fairly privileged people pontificating about how it was smug of the middle class to decry arson and looting on the part of protesters.

Those who try to come up with explanations for how different dispositions lead to different political alignments often describe conservatives as being characterized by the feeling that we need to maintain order and stave off barbarism. If so, I guess I'm something of a text book conservative. I have pretty much zero sympathy with looting and arson as a way of venting one's feelings about an issue. Some of this may also be personal history. Growing up in Los Angeles, the '92 Los Angeles riots loom large in my impression of such things. We lived in a working class suburb of LA, so my family was not directly exposed to the rioting, but the nearly week-long riots were not that far away either. Schools and businesses were shut down. From where we lived you could see the smoke columns rising up from the arson which eventually totaled 3,767 buildings burned. And since everything was shut down there was a curfew, I spent a lot of time sitting rooted in front of the TV watching crowds loot and burn down my city.

So by disposition my reaction to an angry crowd deciding to loot and burn is not "it would be awfully privileged of us to criticize them for acting out on their rage" but "if we're civilized, we will do something about these barbarians." But disposition aside, those inclined to think that riots are a good way of sticking it to the white and the privileged should consider what's really going on here. One of the things that makse poor neighborhoods poor is not just the low incomes of the people who live in them, it's that on top of not making much money, and not having very good transportation, people are stuck buying goods and services at businesses with smaller selections and higher prices. That sort of problem doesn't get better when a mob decides to teach the powers that be a lesson by burning down a bunch of businesses. Not only is it likely to make the people whose businesses you burn down hate and distrust you, but it also makes your neighborhood even poorer and even more discriminated against.

It will take years for Ferguson to recover from the damage which its residents are doing to it in venting their anger. The fact that it's only a small minority of people who are actually doing the looting and the burning doesn't make that any different. Business owners quite rationally do not want to run businesses in neighborhoods where they're likely to see their livelihood destroyed because people don't like a legal proceeding which the business owner had nothing to do with.

Trying very, very hard to avoid protests turning violent is not just some odd hang up of the secure bourgeoisie. Preventing arson and looting is very much in the interest of the communities themselves.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Great War: Vol 1, Chapter 3-2

[Normally Thursday this week is when I'd put up the next installment, but it's Thanksgiving. I'm inclined to give myself the day off and post the final installment of this Natalie chapter next Monday. However, if there are people who are eager for the next installment and would have time to read it over the long weekend, I'm open to changing plans. Leave a comment if you want the next Natalie section on Thursday rather than a week from today.]


It was just after noon that the train pulled slowly into the Warsaw/Vienna Railway terminus. Passengers surged across the platform. Porters wheeled carts. Paper boys and food sellers called their wares in a babble of Russian, Polish, and German. The Warsaw/Vienna line was still the only standard gauge rail line in Russia, and the massive railway station on the Aleje Jerozolimskie was thus the gateway between Europe and the Russian east.

For reasons that were of interest only to railroad engineers, the railroad tracks that criss-crossed Europe were spaced four feet, eight and a half inches apart, while those of the Russian Empire were an even five feet, like those in far away America. This difference of three and a half inches meant that trains which traveled the rest of Europe could penetrate no further into the Russia than Warsaw. Those intent on going beyond must abandon their European train here and take a tram or taxi to the WileĊ„ska Station, whence they could board a broad gauge railway line for St. Petersburg, Kiev, or Moscow.

Thus it was that the railway platform confronting Natalie was one of the busiest in Russia, with the whole commerce between West and East surging across it. Men in tailored suits and women in silk dresses that could have looked equally at home in Paris brushed past peasants traveling in their best clothes, tunics and dresses made colorful with painstaking embroidery. A uniformed Cossack officer strode down the platform, a more plainly uniformed servant followed him with a cart of luggage. Their progress scattered a group of Jewish men with beards and side curls who had paused in the middle of the platform to talk.

As the steam cleared Natalie sat looking out the window at the people surging past. A round man in a fawn-colored suit and a bowler hat, who had entered the carriage at Grodzisk, opened the door, grabbed his suitcase, tipped his hat to her, and vanished into the crowd. A moment later a porter entered the compartment from the corridor. He pulled her own suitcase down from the luggage rack, and carried it down onto the platform. She followed him. A moment later and she was amidst the crowd on the platform and the porter was handing her suitcase to a boy wearing a hat that suggested some sort of uniform, though he hardly looked twelve years old and the rest of his clothes were of the non-descript grubbiness of street children in any city.

The boy loaded her suitcase onto a little cart and started off down the platform. “Follow! Please, follow!” he commanded in German so accented that it took Natalie a panicked moment to realize what language she was being addressed in.

Too much was happening too quickly. Through the window of the train the foreignness of the scene had looked slightly thrilling. Now it struck her with full force and terror that she was hundreds of miles from all that was familiar. Her chest felt tight and her face flushed as she hurried after the boy with her suitcase.

[continue reading]

Friday, November 21, 2014

Wages and Hamburgers, A Pricing History

In the world of social media, articles can have a curiously restless afterlife, suddenly being passed around again for no apparent reason well after their original publication. In one of these, people starting passing around a chart on Twitter as "one of the most important charts you'll see about the minimum wage" which proved to be from a Mother Jones post from December, 2013 claiming to explain why fast food workers are striking for a higher minimum wage.


This caught my eye because of the fast food association. I have an intellectual interest in the politics and economics of the minimum wage, but fast food I actually know a bit about as I ran pricing analytics for one of the big three hamburger chains for two years. So this allegedly so important chart got me thinking: How has the price of the hamburgers that fast food workers prepare changed over the last 40-50 years compared to the minimum wage? (Note: Contrary to popular belief, a lot of fast food workers make more than minimum wage. Around here, the advertised starting wage at major fast food chains tends to be $0.50 to $1.00 more than the minimum wage. However, the minimum is easy to track so it's what tends to come up in these conversations.)

It took a little research to pull together, and the results are not as complete as the minimum wage data series, but I was able to find enough references to the price of the basic McDonald's hamburger to track its price from when it debuted in 1955 for $0.15 to the present day, where it tends to be an unlisted element of the Dollar Menu. Here's the result, which I think is interesting, though I don't insist that you call it "the most important chart you'll see about fast food pricing and the minimum wage" (though I do welcome such flattery!)


Now, how these percentages work out has a lot to do which which year you pick as your baseline. However, I think this does a pretty good job of showing that basic fast food prices have risen at a rate at or slower than the rate of low wage growth.

However, there's an even more interesting story as you dig into fast food menu dynamics. As I said, the original McDonald's hamburger isn't even listed on the dollar menu these days, though it tends to retail for a dollar. (There's some variation due to regionalization of pricing and the fact that franchisees get to set their own pricing within certain agreed bounds.) The fact that the original hamburger, with its roughly 1/8lb patty, ketchup, mustard and pickles isn't even listed on the menu anymore at McDonald's underlines how the fast food industry has developed over time. The best deals on the menu are mostly contained on the Dollar Menu. The best deal is the McDouble, which consists of two 1.7oz patties (and thus the same amount of meat that's in a Big Mac), one slice of cheese, a bun, mustard, ketchup and pickles. This sandwich(with twice the meat of the original McDonald's hamburger) retails for around $1.19. The food cost (the percentage of the retail price which it takes to cover the cost of the food) is probably around 70% at this point. If you simply need fast food calories for the minimum amount of money, buy a McDouble.

The Dollar Menu (and its equivalents at Wendy's and Burger King) represent the fast food industry's own way of dealing with (and struggling with) inequality. Dollar menu items are much less profitable than the main menu sandwiches. A full size hamburger like the Big Mac, which retails for around $3.99 if you get just the sandwich rather than the fry and drink combo, probably has a food cost of around 30%. However, more than half of the people who go through a McDonald's drive through (excluding breakfast) are going to come away with at least some dollar menu on their ticket. The dollar menu sales are low margin, and the solid majority of tickets include at least some non-dollar menu items, but the dollar menu is a huge element of how fast food chains stay affordable for their working class to middle class customers -- the most loyal of whom are driving through a fast food chain 1-2 times a week (usually to pick up lunch.)

Since dollar menu consumers are motivated primarily by price, it's really hard to extract any extra money at all from them. As beef prices increase, fast food chains are gradually increasing the price of value products, which is why dollar menu is now the "Dollar Menu & More" with items ranging up to $2.00


However, the larger sandwiches are where it's possible to take significantly more price, which is why the Big Mac which was 2.5x the price of a basic hamburger back in 1979 is now basically 4x the price.

Using 1979 (before Reagan was elected and ended what in the mind of pundits like Paul Krugman was the '50s and '60s economic miracle) as the baseline, it's interesting to compare the growth of the minimum wage, and the income of the 90th percentile of households (people making more than 90% of other Americans) to the prices of the basic hamburger and the Big Mac.


As you can see, large hamburgers have increased in price at a rate similar to that of the richest 10% of Americans (who I venture to say don't actually eat that much at fast food restaurants) while value hamburgers have increased in price at a rate similar to that of the minimum wage (and slower than the rates of increase for both the 20th Percentile and the cost of ground beef.)

In order to continue to feed the full range of Americans who are eager to pick up a quick bite on the run, fast food companies effectively have a progressive system of pricing. Value products increase in price at rates lower than their increase in cost and provide a low cost option for budget conscious customers, while up-menu prices have grown at a significantly higher rate in order to keep fast food companies profitable.

What does all this have to say about minimum wage? Not necessarily anything definitive. It's true that fast food companies can absorb modest increases the minimum wage and get by. It's also true that very, very few heads of household make minimum wage. However, when fast food companies appear jumpy about their chances of dealing with a cost increase in the form of a wage increase (they're already dealing with steady meat cost increases, it's in part because they have limited pricing power on a significant portion of their sales volume, the value products, which they are effectively subsidizing with higher priced product sales in order to remain relevant to the lower income consumer.

The Great War: Vol 1, Chapter 3-1

Chapter Three introduces another new character, Natalie, whom I think readers will find interesting.


On the Vienna-Warsaw Railway, Russian Poland. June 29th, 1914 Outside the train’s window, the passing countryside slowed. Natalie leaned closer to the glass and watched. A peasant led a pair of oxen down the road which ran parallel to the railway embankment. He did not look up, but one of his beasts briefly raised its head and for a moment liquid brown eyes seemed to meet hers with a knowing gaze before the train left them behind. The first houses of a village rolled by, then shops and public buildings which slowed as she heard the metallic squeal of the brakes and felt herself pressed back into her seat.

The platform slid into view, and then with a slight bump the train came to rest. The whistle sounded. Steam poured by the window. An army officer and a lady with a wide-brimmed hat got off the train, followed by a porter carrying suitcases. Looking off the to right, down the platform, she could see a crowd of people with cardboard suitcases and parcels done up in string milling about as they pushed towards the third class carriage doors. Above it all hung a sign, the station name painted in large Cyrillic characters. For a moment they were spidery abstractions, utterly foreign and devoid of meaning. Then the scratches resolved themselves into letters and the unfamiliar name sounded itself out in her mind.

This, more than anything, impressed upon her the sense of being far from the convent school where she had spent her last fourteen years. Cyrillic letters had, until now, been relegated to the pages of books. The train began to pick up speed again, the platform vanished behind, and soon there were fields and trees outside the window again, but Natalie’s mind was back in old Sister Maria-Grigori’s room. There, as a girl, she had filled her exercise books with the cyrillic characters of Russian and the Latin ones of Polish while Sister Maria drank strong tea from the samovar and taught her in heavily accented French. In later years, as Sister’s eyesight failed, Natalie had spent their daily hour together reading aloud Russian novels to her and then answering the questions Sister asked in French to see if she had understood the story.

Now, here she was, in a first class railway carriage rumbling across Russian Poland. Was this the sort of train that Anna had confronted in the long, low-roofed station of the Nizhni Novgorod Railway? But no, that was far to the east near Moscow.

Reflecting on how strange it was that she thought of the land that was her home in terms of fiction, she tried to recall her last long trip along this railroad. She had been six years old when Nianka -- old Nianka, crabby Nianka, too busy to be tender except when she kissed her little Natalka goodnight almost like a mother might have -- escorted her to the convent and what was to become her life. Try as she could, however, she could remember no more than storybook images from before she came to the convent school. Nianka, of course, and the pea vines curling up the trellis in the garden, and the little brook that ran through the woods behind the house. There was a favorite window with a deep sill, where she had spent many hours with Lalka, her doll, tucked away between the curtains inside and the garden without, making up stories in which the two of them were brave adventurers who were never scolded or put to bed. But she could recall no definite impressions of her native country, and despite her daily lessons with Sister Maria-Grigori, her Russian and Polish, though adequate, were schoolroom languages less comfortable than the French she’d spoken with the other girls.

The small marks of difference -- the daily lessons with the old Polish sister; her beloved Lalka, whose painted wooden head was so different from the porcelain dolls that several of the other girls had -- seemed of little import to her life until the day that she was called into the formal sitting room in which the convent received guests. This time, however, there was no rich woman being shown the products of the charitable school to which she was thinking of giving money.

Reverend Mother was there alone, sitting behind the tea service. She gestured Natalie towards a seat opposite her and Natalie obediently sat down. Reverend Mother poured a cup of tea and handed it to her.

Tea service was the ritual which brought order to all worldly changes, good and bad, just as the singing of the Office brought order to the convent’s sacred world. If a girl’s relative had died, she was given tea and then told of her loss. If a girl was offered a job or a chance to live with a relative, she likewise was told over tea. Never having heard that she had relatives or prospects, Natalie could not imagine why she had been thus summoned.

[continue reading]

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

An Ill Considered Call to Settle for Porn

Prof Mark Regnerus had a piece in First Things last week arguing... Well, I guess that part of the problem is that it's not exactly clear what Regnerus is arguing. He starts out with some basic survey data on porn usage:

Forty-three percent of American men (and 9 percent of women) now report using pornography within the past week. It’s not an adolescent thing, either, as data from the new Relationships in America survey reveals. For men, porn use peaks in their twenties and thirties before beginning to diminish slowly. Indeed, sixty-year-old men are only slightly less likely to have viewed pornography within the past week than men in their twenties and thirties.

Among women, there is a more linear downward trend in pornography use with age. While 19 percent of women under age thirty report porn use in the week prior to the survey, only 3 percent of women in their fifties say the same. The challenge invades congregations as well: 26 percent of weekly church-attending men reported porn use within the past week.
...
Contrary to what is sometimes asserted, women have the right to be annoyed or upset by porn. It’s not a good thing. It’s spiritually draining. But we often overlook another casualty of pornography (and the human reaction to it): relationships that fail to launch. Breaking off a relationship because of pornography use can be a rational, justifiable, and moral reaction to a problem—the predilection for peering at nudity online—but such actions contribute in ways not often noted to our broad retreat from marriage.
He then follows up with several anecdotes about women saying that they consider porn use a deal-breaker when it comes to picking a man to have a relationship with. Regnerus worries that this will mean that lots of people will avoid getting married at all:
While I’m sympathetic to their concern, I can also promise you that widespread departures—given the dour numbers on porn use—will only accelerate the flight from marriage in the Church and is likely to backfire on women (as many things tend to do in the domain of relationships) who would leave for pastures that may well not be greener.

I would never dream of telling anyone—devoid as I am of information about particular situations—what they ought to do about their boyfriend’s roving eye. However, I have no trouble or qualms in declaring that collectively a categorical call to leave spells doom. Young adults are waiting longer and longer to marry, and fewer are doing so.

To counsel further flight is like asserting that our Christian ancestors should have headed to the hills, as wealthy Romans did, to avoid the plague. You can’t flee far enough, and the Church grew by gutting it out, staying put, and caring for the sick. On the matter of men and pornography, the data suggest you cannot flee far enough. Lots of “prudent” decisions to leave will still lead us to the same place—a widespread marriage avoidance. There’s nothing wrong with being unmarried, but we fool ourselves if we think this is the obvious solution.
And there the post sort of hangs. There's some vague talk about how "the Church will have to learn how to navigate this, and press forward with grace and truth" but he doesn't quite seem to have a conclusion. What it sounds very like is that this is a "you need to settle" genre of article. One reads these from time to time, and whether religious or secular in tone they're almost always intensely annoying because the subtext is invariably that people who are single are so because they are just too dang picky. If only single people would behave as the author advises, they would all find suitable spouses.

Regnerus does not quite go there. While the post is mostly pretty vague on what porn is and how its use might affect a relationship, treating it instead as thing thing which 23 percent of men who go to church weekly also do at least weekly, it does acknowledge briefly that using pornography is wrong and that women are entitled to object to it in a spouse or potential spouse. However, from there on the post simply treats porn usage as a given, and seeks to advise women and the church that they need to adjust their expectations, or else prepare for a life alone.

This is what really bugged me about the post. I can see writing a post along the lines of, "Look, we need to understand that an awful lot of men are going to have been exposed to porn, to one extent or another, during their lives, and so rather than pursuing a draconian purity ethic whereby we permanently write off any man who has ever looked at pornography, we need to actively evangelize on what leading a chaste life (whether in the single or married vocation) means in a porn-saturated world." But the post doesn't deal at all with what is expected of men seeking to lead a virtuous life. It's entirely about how women, and the Church, need to adjust their expectations. That makes it sound an awful lot like the author is ready to wink at the behavior.

In that regard, it's surprising that he cites the early Church as an example. If there's one thing you can say about the early Church, it's that it was not terribly accommodating to the prevailing morals of the late Roman Empire. No, it certainly didn't retreat into the wilderness, but it didn't just accept people as they were either. The early Church issued a radical call to change one's life, and that's what's missing from far too much discussion of evangelization today. Whether it's this article's apparent "this is how it is" fatalism, or the loud calls in certain sectors of the Church today to find a way to ignore Christ's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, too often people are thinking of "evangelization" as if it means "welcoming people into the tent by ignoring moral standards" rather than "calling people to change their lives and follow Christ."

The Great War: Vol 1, Chapter 2-3

This is the concluding section of Chapter 2. Sorry for the late posting. It was a busy day and I didn't have the chance to proof and post until late. The first section of Chapter 3 goes up on Thursday!


At 7:30 PM the electric bells rang throughout the Meyer Cycle Works, signalling the end of the day. The flowing order of the factory, each task repeating within its area as the bicycles gradually made their way to completion, shuddered to a stop. The sounds of machinery decreased and that of talking because audible in the new quiet, as workers finished their last task, stepped away from their stations, and began to move towards the workers’ room where they would gather their things and disperse into the streets.

Walter took a little longer than others that night. He took the frame he had been working on from the jig, set everything in its place, and wiped down his machinery and tools with a rag. All afternoon Herr Meyer’s offer, and his argument with his mother over it, had been playing through his mind.

When the foreman position was first offered to him, the future had gone through one of those sudden realignments of which the mind is capable. Prior to walking into the office, his expectations of the future had been some form of the present continuing on for a time and then, at some hazy point in the future, things getting better in some as yet indeterminate way. The offer had given the future distinct form and by the time he was walking down the metal stairs from the office to the factory floor a future of Walter As Foreman already stretched out with clarity before him. Consulting his mother seemed a right and proper thing to do, a deference to authority appropriate to someone now taking on authority himself, but he did not imagine that formality in any way impeding his progress.

He had now had five more hours of work during which to think about his mother’s opposition. He was no less sure of his intent to take the foreman job, but the argument had added an urgency to his desire. The promotion had shifted from being something that would happen to something that he was ready to fight for, and something he would feel a failure if he did not achieve. All afternoon, as he worked, he had formulated arguments -- sometimes actually voicing them in an undertone as he worked -- and as he stepped out of the factory doors and walked across the cobbled yard to the gates, his desire to discuss the promotion, to voice the arguments, to share his feelings, and to examine the situation from every angle, was overpowering.

It seemed strange that for the rest of the world it was an ordinary workday. Food sellers were crying their wares in the street. Three women workers were dashing for a streetcar, their bags of knitting encumbering them as they ran. Paul was on the sidewalk, leaning against the factory yard fence, his cap pulled down against the evening sun. He pushed off as Walter approached him.

[continue reading]

Monday, November 17, 2014

"The Most Wrong Thing on the Internet Ever"

Tim O'Neill has a book review up over at Strange Notions of the book God's Philosophers by James Hannam.

The review is one of those delightful pieces which not only talks about the book under consideration, but is in itself an extensive discussion of the topic of the book. I'd strongly recommend reading it. It also includes a graph which O'Neill, himself a self described secular humanist, but one who understands the history of medieval thought, calls "The Most Wrong Thing on the Internet Ever"


Read his review to see why, and I put the book God's Philosopher's on my wishlist as well.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Great War: Vol 1, Chapter 2-2


At 1:00 PM the lunch bell rang. The workers at the Meyer Cycle Works stepped away from their tools and began to disperse for the midday meal. Out in the street, food carts and stands had set up offering sausages and cabbage soup and other midday fare to the workers in the district’s factories. Some workers hurried home for lunch, others went to carts or taverns. A number of the women, whose salaries did not stretch to buying hot food, sat in the workers’ room knitting and eating pieces of bread they had brought from home.

Walter took the streetcar home, the cost of getting there and back quickly enough to see his mother and brother at the same time. Soup was bubbling on the burner in the kitchen when he entered. Frau Ilse Heuber was already dressed in her best clothes, the ones she only wore when teaching piano lessons or if she went to service on Sunday. She had put on a large apron to preserve her finery and was bustling around the table putting out three settings of china.

It was already becoming stifling in the flat and sweat glistened on Frau Heuber’s forehead, but Walter left his jacket on when he hung up his cap by the door. Mother did not believe that a gentleman should eat in shirtsleeves. “We may live here among the poor,” she would tell her sons. “But we do not have to live as they do. Never forget that your grandfather owned the best saddlery shop in Eickstedt. He sent all six of us children to school, and we girls had music lessons.”

Erich arrived a few minutes after Walter, and their main meal of the day commenced. After the initial exchange of pleasantries, Walter told the news of his conversation with Herr Meyer.

“Will this mean a raise?” his mother asked. “How much?”

Walter felt his triumph checked. There would be more money. Certainly there must be more money. Meyer had said there would be, hadn’t he? He tried to recall the exact words spoken rather than his own impressions. Perhaps it hadn’t been said, but surely he wouldn’t be made a foreman without getting a raise. He felt his pride suddenly checked, and as a result a flash of anger towards his mother.

continue reading

For Your Thursday

It may be that what you most needed at lunch time on a Thursday was to see a large, marmalade cat photoshopped into many different works of art. If so, you're in luck.







There are many more. Take and read.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Innocence Project Appears to Have Framed Innocent Man

Alstory Simon was recently released from an Illinois prison after serving 15 out of 37 years for murder. The Cook County attorney's office vacated the charges against him after concluding that he was likely innocent of the murder he had pleaded guilty to back in 1999.

As is the case in several other cases of overturned murder charges, the Innocence Project (an anti-death penalty advocacy group which focuses on trying to clear convicted murderers who are awaiting the death penalty) is mixed up in this story. However, unlike many other such cases, the reason why Simon was in prison in the first place is that Innocence Project volunteers are reported to have framed Alstory Simon for murder, in order to get another man originally convicted of the crime (Anthony Porter, who likely was in fact guilty) out of prison and off death row. Jim Stingl of the Journal-Sentinel tells the story:


Last week, Simon walked out of prison a free man after Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez announced that her office, after a yearlong investigation, was vacating the charges against him and ending his 37-year sentence.

The investigation by the Medill Innocence Project, she said, "involved a series of alarming tactics that were not only coercive and absolutely unacceptable by law enforcement standards, they were potentially in violation of Mr. Simon's constitutionally protected rights."
...
Protess and two of his journalism students came to Simon's home in the 200 block of E. Wright St. in Milwaukee and told him they were working on a book about unsolved murders. According to Simon, Protess told him, "We know you did it."

Then Simon received a visit from Ciolino and another man. They had guns and badges and claimed to be Chicago police officers. They said they knew he had killed Green and Hillard, so he better confess if he hoped to avoid the death penalty.

They showed him a video of his ex-wife, Inez Jackson, implicating him for the crime — a claim she recanted on her death bed in 2005 — and another video of a supposed witness to the crime who turned out to be an actor.

They coached Simon through a videotaped confession, promising him a light sentence and money from book and movie deals on the case. Simon, admittedly on a three-day crack cocaine bender, struggled to understand what was going on.

Perhaps worst of all, they hooked up Simon with a free lawyer to represent him, Jack Rimland, without telling him that Rimland was a friend of Ciolino and Protess and in on their plan to free Porter.

At Rimland's urging, Simon pleaded guilty to the crime and even offered what sounded like a sincere apology to Green's family in court. As added leverage to make him cooperate, Rimland had told Simon he was suspected in a Milwaukee murder, though nothing ever came of it.
...
When his abuses came to light, Protess was suspended by Northwestern and has since retired from there. The Medill Innocence Project has been renamed The Medill Justice Project. Protess isn't talking, but he is now president of the Chicago Innocence Project, which investigates wrongful convictions. Ciolino put out a statement saying Simon also had confessed to a Milwaukee TV reporter, his lawyer and others.

"You explain that," he said.

We know now that the explanation was that Simon was snared in a trap set by people who wanted to end the death penalty, no matter what the cost. Once they convinced Simon it was for his own good, he was all in.
As Hot Air observes, if this account of Simon's framing by the Innocence Project is true, there need to be consequences. Not only do they appear to have put an innocent man behind bars to get a guilty man out, but their media pull has arguably kept a lid on this (and Simon in jail) for a number of years longer than it should have taken for the truth to come out. The American Thinker points out that there's been good evidence that the original conviction was accurate since 2005:
The first public clue came in 2005, when Porter incredibly lost his $24 million civil lawsuit to recover damages for his “wrongful” prosecution, conviction and incarceration. In the extremely favorable venue of Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago, after months of favorable press coverage, Porter nonetheless lost because the defense lawyers were able to show that Porter probably committed the murders. It came to light that Northwestern’s alleged witness reversal was overstated and that handfuls of people saw Porter in the vicinity of the crime, several saw him holding a gun, and two saw him fire the fatal shots. Those facts were ignored in the media frenzy at the time of Porter’s release.

As Simon’s lawyers dug into the case, a more sinister side of the story emerged. In a carefully detailed letter to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office asking for a rehearing of the case, Simon’s lawyers are claiming that Protess and private investigator Ciolino illegally coerced the confession from Simon, using a series of questionable tactics and promising him a short “self-defense” sentence and eventual riches from book and movie deals.

The Wonder Game

I recently read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and I was surprised to find myself unmoved. Surprised because Gilead is beloved by many friends whose literary tastes are trustworthy. Surprised because Robinson is a good writer and Gilead is well-written. But it did not grab me. I could not surrender to it. It is a book of much spirituality, perhaps not surprising because the main character is a preacher and has fifty years' worth of sermons to draw on when the narration needs a little religious boost. Our narrator, John Ames, is an old man hastening toward death, writing his testament to his seven-year-old son. Impending death concentrates the mind wonderfully, we are told, and the book is suffused -- no, drenched -- with wonder. We are, to be sure, as Fanny Price says, a miracle every way, but the wonder of it began to wear on me long before the end of the book. 

There are several possible reasons for this. One is that, in my corner of the Catholic internet, there are many fine writers who are able to find the grace of the everyday, so that Robinson's reflections are not as novel as they might be to a reader who encounters no other medium through which to examine the manifestations of the next world in this one. I am used to reading the fine writing of Elizabeth Duffy, for example, and Robinson's writing reminded me of Elizabeth's, only Elizabeth is rather more hard-hitting than the mild John Ames, casting a clear eye on rinse/lather/repeat efforts to find grace in the mundane and often unflattering details of life.
I remember going to watch my sister at one of the state meets, where the girl who was favored to win, I think her name was Jenny, ran the first two miles well ahead of the pack, then not one hundred feet from the finish line, clenched up. Her jaw went tight, her legs stiffened. You could see her force a few steps before she fell down. People passed her, my sister among them, and the gal finally crossed the finish line on all fours.
It seems like I was just getting into competitive running at about that time, and I never was very competitive, because I was very precious to myself and concerned about the onset of pain. Sometimes, when running, I’d start to get a little tight, and think about Jenny and pull back–because her crawling across the finish line seemed like one of the greatest tragedies that could befall anyone. And of course it’s not, I now know, but back then I only knew one kind of glory–and that was staying comfortable. Also…winning, if the two could be combined.
It wasn’t until I had kids that I received my first hint of what my sister gleaned from her endurance–that there’s a point between fatigue and falling down that’s quite lovely, an out-of-body experience. Close your eyes, keep going, and the body just does what it needs to do with the tacit prompt of mind. I’ve felt it in childbirth during transition, and every so often, when I think I have no energy left for putting kids to bed and whatnot, somehow it just gets done.
This weekend we put in the garden. I’ve abandoned a large garden way out back that’s so far away from the house that I forget about it, so my husband made frames for three raised beds right outside the kitchen. In the course of the weekend, we dug out sod, turned over a lot of dirt, loaded and unloaded long boards. I’ve felt a little beat up, with scratches on my ankles and forearms from hard to handle boards, sore back, and restless leg syndrome at night. And none of this is complaint, but rather exultation. I got tired, but I kept working–like people who have babies, run long distance, write novels, or become saints.
Back in the days when I tried to write poetry, I wrote down a phrase in my little notebook, “I want to give glory to God without fear.” I kept thinking something would occur to me to follow that line, but over the years as I’ve looked at it here and again, I can’t think of anything with which to chase it. It’s still a concern of mine, but it’s more of a singular concern rather than one impression among many. I want to give glory to God without fear.
In so many of my endeavors (having babies, running, writing, trying to become a saint), I still hold myself very dear.

Another reason for my less-than-perfect engagement with Gilead is the grace vs. wonder divide. I didn't find the book so much full of grace as full of wonder,  the gentle wonder of a old man seeing life through the lens of death. So much goodness, so much beauty, if only everyone knew how beautiful they were. All very good things. But I've heard Robinson accused of having universalist tendencies, and I can see that in several instances. There is some ugliness in the book, some bad blood, but none of it manifests in the main character needing to make a moral choice right now, this moment, to rely on grace. In fact, what seemed like a crucial situation, in which John Ames fears that he might be leaving his wife and son to the predations of a malicious character, just melts away into a distant topical problem related to the 1950s setting. Ames does not, in the end, have to confront the necessity of depending on the grace of God to protect his family when he cannot. He has written reams of spiritual guidance and explication over the years, and yet when he appealed to as a preacher for counsel, he repeatedly wiggles out of having to give any concrete testimony to his beliefs. No one's really all that bad, it seems, and the malicious impulses of the heart, sin and evil, go, in my opinion, mostly unexamined, and we settle back into the predictable wonder of every day being the last day.

Robinson is, as I have said, a fine writer, and her wonder-ful images are memorable -- a young couple walking down the street, shaking raindrops off trees; a father and son neatening an abandoned, unloveable graveyard; the image, much dwelt on, of Ames's sooty father giving him a biscuit in the lull of helping to pull down a fire-struck church, an image that seems to resonate more with Robinson that with me because bread of affliction, communion actually has a literal meaning to me.  But again, it's wonder, rather than grace, that jumps out at me. Taking a book's cover blurb as any kind of meaningful analysis is an iffy proposition, yet in retrospect, this sentence sums up the book well:
This is also the tale of another remarkable vision -- not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation.
The lack of the corporeal vision of God is a problem because the main wonder of creation is that God became his own creation in a corporeal way. The body becomes a literal, not a metaphorical, conduit of grace. A vision of life as a wondrously strange creation without a corporeal vision of God tends to descend into treacle and nostalgia and soft soap.

Robinson is, of course, a gifted writer, skilled enough to keep her Pulitzer Prize-winning book from straying into the romantic and the purely picturesque. And then, and then, there's the wonder of Ann Voskamp:
Mama can kick leaves in the woods like she’s tearing back the crumpled paper wrapped over the surface of things. 
She walks with a stick. 
She dragged it out from under some maple saplings. And then she pins that trail under her right down. 
Like there’s no loud and flippant way she’s letting anything make her miss the now right under her, no way that that now could just up and slip out from under her. 
You could be a sophisticated cynic and miss your whole life that way. 
You walk a bold, amazed way when you know the destination is right here.
There is, apparently, a variety of wonder-drenched writing which drifts into a precious and almost unintelligible aestheticism, the sort of writing someone described to me as "'the tea-kettle's all dancy on the stove' shit".
What had Mary Oliver defiantly scratched down with an inked stick of her own? 
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.” 
Everyone’s wild to stop feeling overwhelmed – but nobody ever wants everything to stop and be over. 
Mama walks like that through the woods. Like she knows it’s going to be over someday… all over. That your face will come tight right up to it and there’s no stick you can fine anywhere to fight time off. 
And then there’ll be that stark moment when you turn and see what you were married to. You can live your life as the bride married to Hurry, having affairs with Not Enough, Always Stress, and Easy Cynicism. 
Yeah, I guess we all get to choose our own bedfellows. 
Mama always said it and she didn’t care what anyone thought of it: God was her husband. And that ain’t just some metaphor to get the Pharisees all in a prudish knot – it’s brazen Scripture. Take it or go ahead and leave it. We all get to choose our own bedfellows – and who we’ll give our soul to, who or what will get our life. 
Mama’s standing there, already decided. 
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement, vowed to Awe Himself, covenanted to Christ –and I took the whole of everything He gave in this gloried world into my open arms with thanks. 
Because really? Yeah, I guess so — Anybody can be a cynic. Cynicism is laziness in every way. 
The real heroes are the ones who never stop looking for the possibility of joy. 
“Here is good. I think we should do it right here.” Mama taps the ground of the trail with her stick, holding here down. Here always has some good if you look at it long enough. 
“Good light.” Mama looks up. 
So that’s where Levi and I drag the tables to. Haul in stumps to stand in as legs for plank benches. Throw old quilts down as tablcloths and lay out the plates. 
“Are we crazy?” I tug at the end of one of the quilts. Mama raises her one eyebrow — “I mean, not in a general, yes, obviously-we-are-crazy sense — but in a specifically in a trying- to- have- a- Thanksgiving-dinner in- the- woods- sense?” 
Mama grins. Winks. Knowingly. 
Yeah – she doesn’t have to say it. 
Wherever you are – Thanksgiving is always for those crazy enough to see grace for the trees.
Thanksgiving is always for the courageous and Grace is always for the risky. 
We lay out the table and string up the banners and make up our Thanksgiving Tree  —- 
And it’s all ridiculous enough to be meant to be —
This is the sort of lush wonder that never requires one to develop it in a whole paragraph, the kind of cray-cray-crazy abandonment! that's so adorably luminous that to examine it with any kind of critical eye and ask, "What does this even mean?" makes one the laziest of cynics. It's the sort of Pinterest-ready spirituality that makes a brand of turning grace into a species of wonder, a packaged Christianity that makes you feel that maybe your life could achieve the pretty standard set by the author if only you buy her NY Times best-selling gratitude journal and accompanying devotional.

Robinson is better than this. Her wonder actually stands up to cynicism. But for once, for once, I actually yearn for the gritty ugly grace of Flannery O'Connor, because she dares to strip away the coatings and the veneers and the prettiness to show grace in all its raw and destroying beauty. The grace that sanctifies the tedious without stripping it of its penitential reality is a good deal more potent and enduring than the dreamy wonder of a "radically subversive" picture-perfect Thanksgiving table in the woods. The grace that stands in the face of evil and declares that it shall not triumph is more heart-wrenching than the broad and easy path of universalism. Wonder, yes. Enchantment, sure. But only as ancillary to grace, not as its totality.




Monday, November 10, 2014

The Great War: Vol 1, Chapter 2-1

Chapter Two introduces a new main character, Walter, living in Berlin.

Chapter Two

Chapter Two

It was 5:45 AM when the whistle of the Kaufmann Textilfabrik sounded, warning its workers that fifteen minutes remained until their shift began. The bright light of a summer morning was already streaming in through the thin curtains of the Heubers’ tenement flat. Each of the neighborhood’s many whistles had its own familiar sound, and it was to this one, that Walter had trained himself to wake.

He rose from his narrow bed, moving quietly so as not to disturb his younger brother Erich, sleeping on the other bed against the opposite wall. Erich shifted uneasily and pulled the sheet over his head to block out the light.

With practiced quiet Walter dressed, poured water from the pitcher into the washstand, and shaved. He spread the thick coverlet over his bed, then arranged against the wall the overstuffed cushions which, to his mother’s eye, made the beds look more like couches and less like “a working man’s flat.”

The two brothers slept in the apartment’s main room. Their mother, only returned a few hours before from her night shift of cleaning, slept in the windowless bedroom, isolated from noise and light.

In the kitchen Walter cut himself a thick piece of bread and spread it generously with butter. He took his plate to the table by the window, and drawing back the curtain sat looking out into the street as he ate. Pedestrians and people on bicycles were flowing back and forth three stories below in a gradually increasing stream as the morning advanced. A street car whirred by, the contacts crackling against the wires above. The street view made the Heubers’ one of the better flats -- lacking the sight and scent of rubbish that rose from the courtyards on hot days.

Ten minutes after six. Walter stacked his empty plate to be washed and went to give Erich a shake.

“Time to get up for school. I’m leaving now.” Erich obediently struggled into a sitting position and sat rubbing his eyes.

Walter took his cap and thin summer jacket from their peg by the door and let himself out, locking the flat behind him. It was dim in the passage and stairway. The air had a stale, flat smell -- dust, mold, and the lingering odor of cabbage soup dominating other old cooking smells. The stairs were dangerously steep, although there was a certain safety in the fact the stairwell was so narrow that every six steps there was a small landing and a sharp turn. If someone fell, as tenants trying to go up or down the badly lit stairs at night while the worse for drink often did, chances were good that he would land in a heap at the next landing rather than plunging a full floor or two. Walter thundered down them with practiced ease and burst forth into the bright, cool morning of the street.

Paul Ehrlichmann was already waiting for him, lounging back against the wall and reading a copy of the Workers’ Daily News.

“What’s the news?” Walter asked. “There must be something to make you buy your own copy instead of waiting to get a look at one in the coffee house this afternoon.”

“Someone’s shot an Austrian archduke,” said Paul, holding out the headline which said in huge letters: Blood in Sarajevo!

[click through to continue reading]

You Won't Make It Big Young (So Have a Kid)

You've probably seen the articles going around about how Apple and Facebook (as well as other hot tech companies) are offering egg freezing coverage for their female employees in order to "free" them to focus on their careers while young without giving up the chance to have a family. There are moral and medical problems with the increasing consumerization of human reproduction. Freezing eggs may get around certain issues related to age-based infertility, but it doesn't change the fact that the human body is simply older when you're in your forties or fifties, and pregnancy is hard on bodies. At the moral level, this is yet another example of our modern culture seeking to bend humanity in order to "have it all", in this case treating children as something we deserve to have on our own timetable, even if that means completely separating sex and reproduction.

I have to wonder, though, if this even makes sense on its own terms. The theory is that people will want to be totally focused on their careers in their twenties and early thirties (when it's easier to reproduce in the way that worked for grandma, grandpa, the birds, and the bees. And yes, all other things being equal, taking a couple of three month leaves (and making sure you get off work right on time so that you can pick your kid up on time at daycare) can slow down your promotion path a bit in your twenties and thirties.

However, in most people's careers, even among those that make it into executive management, their twenties and thirties are times when they can more easily afford to go slow than their forties and fifties. Yes, we've all heard about the wunderkinds who found companies at 20 and are leading billion dollar companies before their thirty. However, the number of people who do that is about as small as the number of people who are composing violin sonatas and symphonies in their teens. Most people who make it into the executive offices don't hit the vice president level until their forties, and don't hit the C-suite until their fifties. Nor does this only apply to those with exalted careers. Pretty much across the income spectrum, on average people have their highest earning years in their fifties.

So even if you're thinking of this issue totally from a career point of view, it seems like you're more likely to miss out on important career opportunities by taking time off to have kids unusually late, than you would doing so at a more natural time of life. At thirty to thirty-five, which in these late marrying days seems to be when a lot of people in the upper middle class are having their kids, your peak earning years are still twenty years off. Taking things slow for a few years probably won't have as big an effect as doing so ten or fifteen year later.

Why then this idea that you should be utterly focused on your career at these comparatively young ages? I think it's in part significant that this is coming out of tech companies, which tend to be younger (at least in image if not in actuality), but even more widely there seems to be an excessive focus among the ambitious on a script that most people simply don't follow: the brilliant young success story who makes it big at a very young age.

Perhaps part of the problem is that, when we're young, we're not very good at thinking about the future. Just a year or two away seems like forever. Certainly, I know that when I was twenty-five thinking about goals for five years in the future seemed like thinking way, way down the line. Five years away, why I would be old then. I'd practically be nearing the end of my career. I wanted to know what I needed to do right now, this year, to advance at work.

But while people who are wildly successful while still very young make great stories, and thus are the focus of an inordinate share of the news articles and business biographies that you can read, their stories are interesting precisely because they are the exception rather than the rule. It's normal to be impatient when we're young, but it would help if people at least heard a bit more in their twenties and thirties what a normal career path normally looks like. For most people, you're laying the groundwork at that age: getting into a line of work that you're good at and building some expertise. The biggest years for you are still a long way off, even if you work at Apple or Facebook. Chill out and have a kid the natural way, rather than telling yourself it will somehow be easier when you're fifty. If there's one thing that is absolutely not going to be easy for anyone it's running after a toddler in your fifties and dealing with a high schooler in our mid to late sixties. There's a reason why nature has you reproducing while you're still comparatively vigorous.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Sixth Grade Catechist Confidential: Genesis 3

Because I like to hear myself talk, I volunteered to give the main presentation of sixth and seventh grade religion classes, the content which we discuss when we break into our small groups. So, here's me recreating last Sunday's session on Genesis 3 from notes and memory:

Part 1, Genesis 3:1-13

Okay, instead of reading this all the way through, I want everyone to find Genesis 3 in your bible -- Genesis, it's right at the beginning, everyone got it? -- and we're going to step through it verse by verse.

Verse 1: the serpent, huh? Who is the serpent? Who does he represent? The devil, right. Remember we talked about how scripture can be read as an allegory? The serpent is an allegory for the devil. And do you know what title the Bible gives to the devil? Satan, yes. Lucifer, yes, that's one. But he's also called the Father of Lies. Remember that as we work through what he says here. Listen to what he says: "Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?" Do you hear that? "Did God really? Are you sure?" He's trying to sow doubt in the minds of Adam and Eve, to make them question God's word. Do they have any reason to question God? Has he ever lied to them?

So what does Eve say? Verses 2 and 3: "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, 'You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die." So tell me: does Eve know what God said? Yeah, pretty clearly. There's no misunderstanding. It's not unclear. She and Adam know exactly what God commanded.

But let's take a step back. What should Eve have said to the serpent, when he showed up and started trying to mess with her head? She could have ignored him, right. She could have told him to go away. The Bible says, "Resist the devil and he will flee." He will flee! I want to you remember that, when you're feeling tempted. You can make the devil flee by resisting him, by standing firm.

Verse 4 and 5: More lies! The serpent is mixing a little truth in with his lies to make them stronger. Who can tell me what's true? "Your eyes will be opened", yes. Do they know what is good and evil after they eat the fruit? They do. But does that make them like God? No, because they don't have the power to always do the good. And God doesn't just know good and evil. God IS the Good. Adam and Eve can't become like God by only knowing good and evil because they can't become the Good.

Verse 6: So tell me about the tree. "Good for food"? "Pleasing to the eye"? "Desirable for gaining wisdom"? Are these bad things? Is it bad to eat good food? Of course not! Is is bad for something to look nice? No! What about gaining wisdom? That's a good thing, right? But they're temporal goods. Are they more important than obeying God? God who created the tree, and created Adam and Eve, and knows what's best for each of them? Is it worth taking these good things against God's command?

Why did God even put the tree in the garden in the first place? Is it because he wanted to tempt them with something nice they couldn't have, because he's mean? Think about your house. Do your parents have any nice things that you're not allowed to touch? Some crazy piece of china that your grandmother left, and it sits in the living room, and you've been told not to touch it? Why do your parents torment you like that? Oh, they don't do it to be cruel? Maybe it's because it's beautiful, and they'd like everyone to see it. Maybe it's because they trust you not to break it because they've asked you not to touch it? Or do your parents keep medicine in the house? What would happen if the baby swallowed all the medicine? It could be pretty bad. Does that mean that no one should be allowed to keep medicine in the house? And Adam and Eve aren't babies. They can understand what God is asking them: Do not touch. Do not eat. Your parents tell you these things all the time, and expect you to obey, and you aren't even adults. So it is unreasonable of God to ask it of Adam and Eve?

What next? "So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it." Wait, where's Adam? Standing RIGHT NEXT TO HER? Does he stop her? Does he say, "Wait a minute, honey, let's talk?" Does he punch out the snake? Not much. He's heard the whole thing. Does he know what God said? Yes, because he just heard Eve tell the snake! So, who brought sin into the world? Is it all the woman's fault? Yeah, they deserve equal blame, don't they?

Verse 7: "Then the eyes of both of them were opened" -- well, there's the bit of truth the serpent mixed in -- "and they realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves." Well, how'd that work out for them? Are they happy now that they're "like gods"? Do they feel fulfilled? Was it all they hoped it would be? How do they feel? Yes, guilty. Ashamed. Embarrassed. Oh my gosh, we're naked! It's awkward and appalling, and I don't see the snake doing any of the work to help them out.

Verse 8 and 9: When does God visit them? Imagine a perfect summer evening when the breeze has just started, and everything is cool and still and peaceful. That's a little piece of heaven, right? And that's when God comes. Why? Is he lonely? No, God can't be lonely. He doesn't need anything to complete him. He comes because he loves his creation. He loves Adam and Eve and wants to share this perfect day with them. Are they excited to see him? Not so much. They hide. What does God do? He calls out to them. Does he know where they are? Does he know what they've done? Of course! He's God! But he wants them to respond to him, to come out because they love him.

Verse 10: What's the lie in what Adam says? "I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself." Is he naked? No! He just made himself a loincloth in verse 7! It's like someone saying, "Oh, I can't come to the door, I'm in the shower," when he's sitting on the couch scrolling through his phone. It sounds like he knows he's done wrong, doesn't it?

Verse 11 and 12: Does God throw a lightning bolt at Adam's head? Does he punish him immediately? No, but he tells him exactly what he's done. And what does Adam say? "I disobeyed you, and I'm so sorry. Will you forgive me?" He has a good opening for that, doesn't he? No, he passes the blame. "This woman" -- he can't even say her name! -- "whom you put here with me" -- now who is he trying to blame? Yes, God! -- "she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate it." Real nice showing, Adam. Good way to take responsibility and be a man.

Verse 13: Does God yell at Eve? No, it's just like with Adam. He gives her an opening to explain herself. How does she do? "The serpent tricked me into it, so I ate it." Did the serpent trick Eve? Hm. She knew exactly what God commanded. She ate the fruit because she wanted to. And like Adam, she passes up her chance to take responsibility and apologize. Good job with knowing good and evil, guys, if you can't do what is good!

Part 2, Genesis 3:13-24

Does God ask the serpent to explain himself? He doesn't have to -- the angels and devils already have the knowledge of what's right. He knows the serpent has acted out of sheer malice. The serpent hasn't stepped up to defend Adam or Eve, has he? He's glad to see them get into trouble!

God's words to the serpent: should we only read them literally? We can -- serpents slither in the dust, and people don't like them much. But let's read them in a different sense. How does Satan operate? By trying to drag us down into the dust and mire of sin. And when we sin, we feel like Adam and Eve did: like we're crawling on our bellies, wallowing in the dirt. That's where Satan is. God isn't just condemning; he's describing.

Who do you think is the woman who is against the serpent? Yes, Mary. And who is her offspring? Jesus! God is making a promise of redemption, and he's telling how it will come about. If a snake is going to strike at a heel, and the heel is about to crush it, where is the heel going to land? Right in the snake's mouth, right? What happens when a heel goes into the snake's mouth? You have to know that if you put your foot in a snake's mouth, you're going to suffer. As Jesus crushes the snake, the snake's fangs go right through his foot and pierce it all the way through. And he knows that will happen, but he crushes the snake anyway, and what happens? The snake is defeated.

What happens after sin? Creation becomes hard and painful. Finding food isn't easy any more. It's become hard work now, raising up new life from the ground. God tells the woman that bearing children will hurt, and this is very true, and you should all go home and thank your mother. But are children a punishment? No! Children are a good, wonderful thing! Did God create anything after man and woman? No, he told them to be fruitful and multiply. Now man and woman are co-creators with God -- co-creators because it is God who chooses when to give life through their actions. Did your parents create your soul? No. God did, and he works through the actions of the man and the woman to bring new life into the world. And every life is unique. Where is your soul before you're born? No, it's not waiting up in heaven. When does a human receive a soul? When he or she is born? No. When he's old enough to talk? When her heart starts beating? No! God creates a unique soul at the very moment a baby is conceived through the actions of his or her parents. Souls don't just float around in heaven. And God doesn't recycle souls either. You don't go from being Cleopatra to being Napoleon to being someone living in Delaware, Ohio. Your soul is unique, created especially for you, to reveal one more facet of God's love. And every soul exists to love and be loved, even when a person can't do anything else. A baby exists to love and be loved, although it can't do anything useful. We used to live with my husband's grandmother, who was 93. At the end of her life, she couldn't do much. Was she useless? No, she existed to be loved, and to help us to learn to love more. And who do our lives belong to? Ourselves? No. They belong to God, and to each other, so that we can love. Have you heard about this lady in Oregon who wants to kill herself because she's dying of cancer and she doesn't want to suffer any more? Does her life belong to her to end when she pleases? No. She didn't make herself. She exists because she is good, and she is to be loved. My husband's grandmother existed to be loved. A baby exists to be loved. We exist only in God, who is Love itself.

And what does God do, now that Adam and Eve have sinned? Does he cut them off forever? Well, first he gives them better clothes, even though they only need clothes because they sinned. Then he moves to protect them again. What good is living forever, if it means living in sin? Do you get banished from a room after you've broken something your parents told you not to touch? You've shown yourself untrustworthy, even though your parents still love you. Same here: God puts them out of the garden and puts a cherubim to guard it. Do you think you could find the tree of life, if you were like Indiana Jones and you followed all the clues in the Bible and fought off the cherubim? Maybe. Who knows? But there's a better, surer way to eternal life, and it's through Jesus who gave his life to bring us back to his Father.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

The Great War: Vol 1, Chapter 1-4

Here's the last installment of Chapter 1 for your Saturday. Next week I'll be settling into my publication schedule that I'll be doing for the rest of the calendar year, with one installment on Monday and one on Thursday every week. Monday, with chapter two, we'll meet Walter, a German metalworker.

* * * * * *

The day’s first rush of customers had come and gone. Louis stood behind the shop counter, discussing the news of the day with Felix Jobart as they played a game of draughts. Jobart owned the pork butcher shop down the street, but his busiest time of day was already past. By six in the morning every day he was in the kitchen: grinding sausage, cutting meat, cooking black pudding. By mid-morning the day’s meat cuts were laid out, newly made sausages lay glistening in their skins in the window, and Madame Jobart was reigning serenely from behind the counter in her immaculate white apron. Then Felix began a series of visits up and down the street which occupied him until lunch time.

“It will be a good thing for Austria-Hungary,” said Felix. “These Slavic nationalists and bomb throwers do nothing but cause violence. Now the empire can teach them a good lesson and earn some peace.”

Louis placed a hand thoughtfully on a piece and weighed his options. “My son-in-law says they will have to be careful what they are about.” He jumped two pieces, eliciting a grunt in response from Felix. “Henri knows about military matters, and he says that the Serbs have fought and won two wars in three years. When is the last time Austria-Hungary fought a war? Not since I was a boy. They fought the Prussians and lost before we did.” He sighed. “That was a bitter time.”

[click through to read the rest]

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Great War: Vol 1, Chapter 1-3

The third installment of The Great War: Things Fall Apart is up now:

It was a ten minute walk from the Mertens shop to the the Perreau house, but the contrast between the buildings made the distance between them seem much wider. The Rue des Remparts was a street of shops and row houses. Both the Mertens shop window and the green painted door which led into the attached house fronted directly on the sidewalk, with the small garden behind the building, invisible from the street. Only a narrow passage separated the building which contained both shop and house from the next building, which contained Jobart’s pork butcher shop and Boucher’s grocery, each with living quarters above on the second and third floors.

The Perreau house on the Rue des Ragons stood well back from the road, surrounded by a high wrought iron fence, terraced lawns, and formal flower beds. Philomene had left home early, knowing that Madame Perreau was a believer in punctuality. When she reached the gate, decorated with curling iron vines ending in gilded fruits and flowers, she looked down at the watch pinned to her blouse and saw that it was seven minutes before ten o’clock. Rather than approach the house early she walked slowly along the sidewalk outside the fence, looking up at the gardens and the tall grey stone house that rose above them and trying to imagine tables spread out on both sides of the winding stone path that lead up to the house with a crowd of guests, each paying ten francs for the privilege of enjoying refreshments and conversation in support of the new religious school.

Chateau Ducloux boasted two families that could be described as wealthy, of which the Perreaus were unquestionably the older and more respectable of the two. They were not aristocracy. They would have denied the term even had it been applied to them. Georges Perreau had risen to prominence in the town during the reign of the first Napoleon, turning a small inheritance, a government contract for the manufacture of boots, and a sharp instinct for negotiation into a substantial fortune which he spent in buying up landholdings small and large....

[read the whole thing]

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Is The Future of Publishing Without Publishers?

Late tonight I'll be putting up the third installment of The Great War. In the meantime, I found this piece by Matt Yglesias on the future of the publishing industry thought provoking, though I'm not sure that I agree with it:

Of course a world where more people can get more books more conveniently is a better world. It is true that some individual authors may earn less in the new era, while others authors may earn more. But there is no reason to believe that authors as a whole will get less money. Indeed, as Amazon and other digital distributors gobble up some of the publishers' slice of the revenue, it's likely that authors will also get a share and see their total income rise. Beyond money, no book worth writing is undertaken for purely pecuniary motives. In the new regime it will be easier for writers to find readers and reach larger audiences. They just won't find them through the exact same set of middlemen who currently sit astride the pipeline.

Essentially, Yglesias believes that publishers are middle-men (at least as regards e-books) who don't add much value. Authors provide the product. Online venues like Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Apple provide the distribution. Publishers claim they're doing lots of marketing but Yglesias is skeptical they do that well:

When I was a kid, my father was a novelist as were both of my grandparents. So I heard a lot of stories about how useless publishers are at marketing books. Then I got to know other people who wrote books and they had the same complaints. Then I wrote a book, and their complaints became my complaints. But it's easy to whine that other people aren't marketing your product effectively. It took the Amazon/Hachette dispute to conclusively prove that the whiners are correct.

After all, imagine a world in which publishers were good at marketing books. Then it would be almost trivial for Hachette to get what it wants out of Amazon. It could just not sell its books on Amazon! Unlike in the old days when it might have been inconvenient for someone who lived in a town with a Borders but no Barnes & Noble to go get a book that Borders didn't sell, it's trivially easy to click on some non-Amazon website to order a book. But you do need a customer who actually wants to buy the book.
...
The real risk for publishers is that major authors might discover that they do have the ability to market books. When George RR Martin's next iteration of the Game of Thrones series is released, I will buy it. If I can buy it as an Amazon Kindle book, I will buy it that way. If he decides that the only way people should be able to read the book is to get Powell's to mail them a copy, then I will buy it that way. And I am not alone. Nor is Martin the only author with the clout to not worry about the terms of distribution.
Now, if you're George RR Margin, or indeed Matt Yglesias, is probably is true that publishers are moderately useless in terms of getting your book out to people. Yglesias knows journalists and runs a major website, and if he puts a book out himself he can let a fair number of people know about the fact. Martin is already a wildly successful novelists, so if he comes out with another book it is news and people will want to cover it.

However, as someone currently self-publishing a book online (who wants to eventually publish through a real publisher) let me point out that while publishers are not very good at marketing books, non-publishers are generally a lot worse. When my sister's first novel was published by Balzer Bray (an imprint of Harper Collins) their publicity people managed to get early release copies into the hands of so many book bloggers and reviewers who liked the YA Fantasy genre that by the day her book came out it already had 1000+ ratings (most of them positive) on Goodreads and 100s of reviews. My own little publicity effort to get people to follow The Great War as it's published has thus far resulted in 174 page views of the first installment and 74 of the second.

Don't get me wrong, I'm intensely grateful to have the audience that I do, and I'm moderately confident that as I get more out there and convince my existing readers that the novel is good, I can build some word of mouth that will get more people reading it. But if that's how well I can do when I've been blogging for ten years, I think it serves to underscore that while the companies that currently exist in the publishing industry are definitely expendable, getting the word out about previously unknown authors is something that takes work which companies that specialize in that work are going to be better at than is the average author working on their own. And one of the reasons why Amazon lets you "keep most of the money" if you publish directly through them is that they do minimal work themselves to make people aware of your work. You keep most of the profits when you self-publish an ebook with Amazon because you do most of the work which either finds (or doesn't) an audience for your book.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Great War: Vol 1, Chapter 1-2

The second section of the new novel is up. One of the things I decided early on I wanted to do was show a married couple that was essentially a happy couple. I'd often felt the frustration that you see couples get together in novels, and you see them break up, but you seldom have a happily married couple who are characters. One of the things I realized as I started writing Henri and Philomene is that it's a lot harder to write a couple when the conflict isn't between them. However, as I thought about it more, there is a lot of small conflict in even the happiest of marriages. Not necessarily fighting, per se, but the little frictions which we deal with everyday without exactly thinking about them as conflict. As the larger conflict looms, I wanted to deal with those small conflicts in my character's lives as well.

***

Henri watched his father-in-law leave the dining room. He knew it had taken the older man an effort to remove himself rather than continuing the argument. The responsible thing would be to wish Andre a good morning and head back to the little office he had next to the store’s back room.

When Henri had retired from the army and moved the family to his wife’s hometown, it had been clear that Louis’s hope and expectation had been that Henri would join him in running the store. He had made a sort of half-hearted effort, but waiting on customers had been salt in the wounds of his recently ended military career. The only part of the business in which he had excelled was bringing order to Louis Mertens’ somewhat chaotic approach to accounting and purchasing. Henri had been of the new style of officer, trained at the Ecole Polytechnique rather than Saint-Cyr, and turning a practical problem into a mathematical one came naturally to him. And while he had, like most officers, shunned logistics for the combat arms, ten years of signing the supply books had taught him a great deal about the importance of system in maintaining the right inventories of supply.

Louis Mertens liked to say that his business existed because of his relationships with his customers, and this was doubtless true, but although he had little understanding of the systems that Henri put in place, he could not deny that he now kept less money invested in inventory and yet almost never had to tell a customer that he was sold out of some desired item. The impact to his profits was something Louis could readily understand, and Henri now did similar work for his father-in-law and a number of other businessmen and landowners in town for a fee. This was an arrangement far more conducive to family peace than had been the brief experiment of Henri working directly for Louis in the store.

Various projects awaited back in the little office, but the few minutes’ argument about the military situation in the Balkans had been a welcome return to subjects that, ten years later, Henri still thought of as his real vocation.

“What would you think of going over to Carbonnaux’s to read the papers and see what people have to say?” he asked Andre.

The postmaster’s duties sat lightly on his shoulders, and he was usually eager enough for a visit to the cafe. Today was no exception.

“Will you be out long?” asked Philomene.

Henri could hear the disapproval in her voice. She would not ask him to stay or reproach him afterwards, but she always seemed to sense a rivalry between their family life and anything to do with the army.

He went to his, placed his hands on her shoulders, and placed three light kisses on her forehead. He could feel her shoulders soften and see the lines going out of her forehead.

“I hope your call on Madame Perreau goes well. I’ll be back before lunch. Will you tell me about it then?”

She nodded silently. He turned to go. Andre was already standing in the hall by the door, taking his hat from the rack.

“Henri.” Philomene’s voice had just a tinge of urgency. Henri stopped and turned back. She had risen and was hurrying to him. She clasped his arms. “I love you,” she said in a low tone meant for him alone. “I’m sorry about this morning. I’m sorry I--” She faltered, searching for words.

[Read the rest]

Monday, November 03, 2014

What If?

Every now and then my sleeping mind decides to mess with me and send me the most improbable visions. And so last night, or rather, in the early hours of this morning after baby had settled down again and stopped twining his moist fingers in my hair, I dreamed that during our senior year of college, after we were already engaged, Darwin broke it off to marry the most incongruous person, someone I haven't seen in years and years, a very nice girl who didn't deserve to be dragged into my strange subconscious. And they lived in married housing in my dorm (Steubenville doesn't even have married housing, y'all) and I had to walk past their love nest every day, watching them settle in to a new cozy life with plans and dreams I couldn't even understand because they were so unlike what he and I had planned together, and I was disgusted because why on earth would he throw me over to marry her? I had to figure out what to do with my life now, because suddenly being married wasn't the next step. And then I woke up because Darwin's new alarm, which I haven't subconsciously tuned out yet, went off, and the baby was finally sleeping peacefully in the strongman position.

I hate these kind of speculative counterfactuals, even in dreams, because they're so unconducive to happiness in real life. Playing "what if" with events that are unchangeable (and in this case, not even real events!) is generally a useless exercise that distracts from the practice of choosing the right course of action in the present moment. I'm not speaking of matters like disaster preparation, which is a series of practical what-ifs for the purpose of making a plan. I'm not speaking of historical analysis, which allows us to see what went wrong for the purpose of taking correct action in the future ("What if the Titanic had had enough life boats?" "What if I had left ten minutes earlier so I could have arrived at Mass on time?") I'm talking about speculation, a practice of not just examining, but re-creating events to make them less like truth and more like my own image and likeness, to make them more emotionally jerking or satisfying or full of dramatic portent. And I hate it because I myself am an inveterate mental storyteller, always crafting scenes and dialogue in my head for amusement, for entertainment, to ward off boredom. Creating stories is well enough when it comes to reflecting truth in its many facets. It's not well enough when it draws me away from truth, when it becomes revisionist, or a source of grievance, or an idle collection of fantasies.

So instead of building up an alternate history of how my life would have gone if Darwin had really thrown me over to marry What's-her-name (whom he's never even met!), I lay in bed and took the only moral action that makes any sense in light of a bizarre dream: offering prayers of gratitude for the good gifts God has given me, not limited to my sweaty baby, my mediocre pillow, the two cats by my feet, and my excellent husband who had the good sense to marry me.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The Great War: Vol 1, Chapter 1-1

It's November 1st, and the beginning of National Novel Writing Month. In keeping with the day, I'd like to introduce the newest DarwinCatholic novel: The Great War


Chapter 1

It was the summer of 1914, and Philomene sensed that family peace was threatened by her husband’s mustache.

Henri stood, hunched slightly forward, before his shaving table. He had finished with his razor, splashed his face with the aftershave whose scent she liked so much, and now he was plying a small bristle brush in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other, shaping the mustache which he was growing back before joining his reserve regiment for summer maneuvers. His suspenders hung empty at his sides, and she could see the outline of his shoulder blades through his summer undershirt. She tried to judge if those shoulders were tense, if he was still angry. She wanted to go to him, to run a hand over those shoulders, to pull him close and say, “I love you, Henri. I do want you. I do, but--”

It was that but which hung between them, making the two paces between his shaving table and her dressing table seem a gulf.

That morning, as the sun of a summer morning had streamed in through the lace summer curtains of the bedroom, Philomene had lain awake, looking at her husband’s sleeping face, and thinking of the past. She was intensely glad that she was no longer an officer’s wife. No more long, lonely days in small lodgings in some depot town far from home. No more slights toward her accent or her religion from other officer’s wives. And yet, seeing the mustache again, Philomene felt herself drawn back twelve years: Mademoiselle Philomene Mertens on an easter-season visit to Paris, and the army officer with his mustache and crisp blue and red uniform who had approached her as she sipped coffee in a cafe and bowed to her with a smile she never after that moment forgot.

With those memories stirring in her that morning, she had pulled him close and woken him with a kiss, a kiss which he had returned and responded to. For some blissful moments she had felt at one with him, both remembering, both close, both feeling -- until, with his increasing pressure against her, she realized that he thought she had changed her mind. For an instant she’d felt betrayal in that gentle thrusting pressure, a betrayal that made her want to cry in frustration. Surely he could understand that she wanted to be close without wanting that? As quickly she pushed away her irritation with him, feeling angry with herself instead. She knew this path so well, and its inevitable end. Why did she insist each time on setting out upon it, believing that it could be enjoyed without leading to its unwanted destination?

She’d pushed him gently away, rolled over to turn her back, and then drawn his arm around her.

“I’m sorry, Henri.”

She could feel him pressed against her back, but he was still now. He did not reply.

She put his hand to her lips and kissed it. “I’m so sorry. I can’t have it happen again this year.”

Still no words. Then a gentle kiss on the back of her neck, and she felt him throw off the bedclothes and get out of bed. She knew he must be angry with her, must think her a teasing woman to have pulled him close and yet not wanted it -- not wanted what he wanted. Tears were misting her vision and she blinked them away. She did want him, and she wished there was some way to express that feeling to him in a way that would not cause him more frustration. And yet more than anything she wanted to avoid what had happened last year. Last year, in the month before his reserve duty she had given herself entirely over to her feelings. And what had followed? The loneliness of fatigue and nausea during four seemingly endless weeks of Henri’s absence. And two months later, the long night of cramps and blood and sobbing on Henri’s shoulder as that child, whose arrival she had half-resented until it was torn from her, was lost.

She had three precious children, the sounds of whose breakfast were just audible from downstairs. Three children God had given her to raise and all the cares and duties that went with them. Surely at thirty-seven He didn’t ask her to risk fear and pain and heartbreak again. She was too old. And so the image of Captain Fournier and his uniform and his mustache and the way he looked at Mademoiselle Philomene Mertens must be put from her mind.

Read the rest of the section on the novel's website.