wouldn't this be ironic

The New York Times reports that
[two scientists think]... a giant particle accelerator that will begin smashing protons together outside Geneva this summer might produce a black hole or something else that will spell the end of the Earth — and maybe the universe.

Scientists say that is very unlikely — though they have done some checking just to make sure.

The world’s physicists have spent 14 years and $8 billion building the Large Hadron Collider, in which the colliding protons will recreate energies and conditions last seen a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Researchers will sift the debris from these primordial recreations for clues to the nature of mass and new forces and symmetries of nature.

But Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho contend that scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, have played down the chances that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a “strangelet” that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called “strange matter.” Their suit also says CERN has failed to provide an environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Although it sounds bizarre, the case touches on a serious issue that has bothered scholars and scientists in recent years — namely how to estimate the risk of new groundbreaking experiments and who gets to decide whether or not to go ahead.
In any event, I can't wait to see the results of these experiments! They are going to be able to perform experiments to test the validity of string theory. Physics will finally be able to proceed!


the need for constant praise

A humorous exchange from Slate's advice columnist, Prudence:
Dear Prudence,
I'm an ambitious recent college graduate. Six months ago, I moved to Washington, D.C., and was lucky enough to land a well-paying job with great career prospects as an assistant at a law firm. The problem is that one of the partners I assist is particularly challenging. She's intelligent and distinguished, but she is also a perfectionist. She's an extremely daunting supervisor—especially for a legal neophyte and nonperfectionist like me. I'm functioning in high gear all day long, but I struggle to keep up. What's worse is that she is heavy on the criticism and light on the positive reinforcement. A simple mistake like forgetting to put the "Northwest" at the end of a Washington, D.C., address in her appointment schedule will set off a string of negative interactions, while a perfectly orchestrated event will maybe muster an e-mail saying "Tks." Our exchanges often leave me fuming yet stuck without a venue for venting. At what point can I turn to my boss and say, "Hey, I need things to be different around here" without sounding like an ingrate for the great opportunity that I have.

—Deterred in the District

Dear Deterred,
At any point, you can turn to her and say, "I need things to be different around here." She will likely agree and respond, "Let's start by having you clear out your desk by noon." Sure, your job's daunting, but you have chosen to work in a high-pressure field in which every detail counts. (And if she has an appointment, she doesn't want to get in a cab without knowing what quadrant of the city she's headed to.) You may have picked up by now that people don't get to be top partners at law firms because of their "Don't worry, that's close enough" and "Let's put it off until maƱana" attitudes. But it turns out your frustration with your boss is part of common generational miscommunication. Jeffrey Zaslow had a column in the Wall Street Journal describing young workers' need for and expectation of constant praise, and how some employers are realizing that they'd better be generous with the stroking if they want to retain them. But the essential problem for you is that given your boss' personality and demands, she doesn't think "I'm a nonperfectionist" excuses you from doing things perfectly for her. You've only been out of school for a few months, so why don't you think of working for this partner as legal boot camp? It's going to be tough and sometimes unpleasant, but if you stick with it, you will come away with a set of skills no amount of flattery will provide. And when you get one of her "Tks" messages, realize it's the equivalent of getting a smile out of a drill sergeant.



Socialism and "Free Love"

It is no accident, as the Socialists say, that Socialism and Sex (or "free love") came in together as "advanced" ideas. They supplement each other. Russian dissident Igor Shafarevich, his his profound book The Socialist Phenomenon, explains that the Socialist project of homogenizing society demands that the family be vitiated or destroyed. This can be accomplished in good measure by profaning conjugal love and breaking monogamy's link between Sex and loyalty. Hence, in their missionary phases Socialist movements often stress sexual "liberation," and members of radical organizations may impose mandatory promiscuity within the group, everyone sharing a bed with each of the others, each equally related to each. it is the ultimate in leveling....

Few Americans will buy a bottle labeled Socialism. The cunning of the Socialist hive has consisted largely in its skillin piggybacking on more attractive things. Like Sex.
- Joseph Sobran

the status of evolutionary biology

Darwinian evolution happens by random mutation and natural selection. A prominent scientist has a piece in the New York Times discussing the status of our knowledge of this phenomena:
All mutations are accidental changes to DNA. Beneficial mutations are those accidental changes that in some way improve an organism’s chances of surviving and reproducing. Obvious examples from recent decades would be a mutation that confers antibiotic resistance on bacteria that cause disease in humans, or one that confers poison resistance on a rat. Less obvious are mutations that produce hot pink spiders and quartz-dwelling bacteria. But the point is that such mutations allow organisms to evolve to fit their environments better — a process known as adaptation.

Adaptation is the “wow!” factor of nature: when we see something spectacular or exquisite, we are typically looking at an adaptation. And what underpins adaptation is the appearance and spread of beneficial mutations: the process is not possible without them. Yet despite their central role in adaptive evolution, beneficial mutations have — until recently — received surprisingly little attention.
She goes on to discuss some of the details and the direction her research has taken her, concluding with the rather disappointing claim that,
Together, the study of these different mutational strands — the good, the bad and the irrelevant — is weaving a comprehensive picture of the general distribution of mutations, and thus, the spectrum of genetic variation that appears in nature. When this is complete, we will have a more complete view of how mutations of different types impact different paths and patterns in evolution.
It seems Prof. Judson has not heard of Prof. Behe's book.



On St. Patrick's Day:
"It is also worth noting that on this day, there is always one trump card that never fails to gain respect and acclaim. When you are sitting at an Irish bar and someone orders a round of Guinness, you must take a single sip and while the other white people are savoring their drink, you say: “mmmm, I know it sounds cliche, but it really is true. Guinness just tastes better in Ireland.”

This comment will elicit an immediate and powerful response of people agreeing with your valuable insight. This statement also has the additional benefit of humiliating the members of your party who have not been to Ireland (and thus cannot confirm this proclamation). Having not traveled to Ireland and consumed a beer that is widely available in their hometown and throughout the world, they will immediately be perceived as provincial, uncultured, and inferior to you."
DISCLAIMER:quotation of this site does not necessarily imply an endorsement of its content!


Dr. Barbara Rucinska, RIP

Dr. Rucinska, I will forever miss our talks on politics, religion, and life. May the Angels of Heaven welcome you with open arms. Welcome to paradise.

Dr. Barbara Rucinska

STRAFFORD ; Dr. Barbara Rucinska, 59, of Parshley Lane, died March 20, 2008, at her home, after a long battle with cancer.

Born June 3, 1948, in Gdansk, Poland, she was the daughter of Marian and Gertruda (Burau) Dziurla.

Barbara has lived in the United States for the past 25 years, after moving from Gdynia, Poland, with her husband. She graduated from the Gdansk University of Technology and earned her doctorate in computer engineering in the United States. She earned a position at the University of New Hampshire as a senior lecturer of computer engineering, testing and testability, and security engineering. She loved people and people loved her.

Members of her family include her husband of 29 years, Dr. Andrzej Rucinski, of Strafford; and her sisters, Maria Dziurla, who lives in Poland, and Jadwiga Denamps, who lives in France.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be given to the University of New Hampshire Foundation, Elliott Alumni Center, with a note attached that reads, In Memory of Barbara Rucinska to be given to the UNH ECE Department.

A memorial service will be held Sunday at 4 p.m. in the Chapel of the R.M. Edgerly & Son Funeral Home, 86 South Main St., Rochester, NH 03867.

Burial will be in Poland at a later date.


never underestimate the Clintons

A new poll in the swing state of... Massachusetts? shows Obama and McCain tied!


These kind of polls are what will swing the nomination to Hillary...

it is possible to change your mind

David Mamet, a rather profane playwright, reflects on his reflections...
And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.

I'd observed that lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals are giving the world a good run for its money, but that nonetheless, people in general seem to get from day to day; and that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances—that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired—in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.
... and discovers the political implications of original sin.

a letter from R. R. Reno

"But I wrote the essay because a closer reading of the Genealogy of Morals shows that Nietzsche was neither a street-corner existentialist nor a jet-setting professor sermonizing about "the Other". He understood the human condition. He saw that the soul is given life by the invasion of demand into the depths of the human psyche, and he suspected (to his horror and dismay) that a life worth living requires an ascetic submission of individuality to something higher. I never claimed that Nietzsche wanted to see this deeper truth. Nor did I argue that it accorded with his eschatological dreams. I only claimed in my essay that Nietzsche's integrity of mind freed him from easy modern pieties about human flourishing in a secular, disenchanted culture - and forced him toward an Augustinian view of the restless human heart.

Nietzsche thought of himself as a Seer. To a certain degree, I'm inclined to agree. He certainly saw the strange paradoxes of post-Christian culture: the high demands of authenticity, the rigorous self-discipline of Zarathustra, the attractive deceptions of modernity. Yet, like all Seers, Nietzsche could not control what was revealed to him. This master of suspicion seems to have had suspicions about his own suspicion of the ascetic ideal. That he suppressed them should not surprise us. It is very difficult to live without lies. But we need not lie to ourselves about ourselves. In fact, if we would be genuine humanists, then we cannot.
- FT April 2008

a letter from Robert George

"If I understand [him] correctly, however, he thinks that human purpose cannot be discovered or understood, even imperfectly, apart from the light of revelation. I disagree. I would affirm, with St. Paul, that God has created man in such a way that "even the Gentiles who have not the law of Moses have a law written on their hearts," that is, an understanding of purpose and the human good that is sufficient for moral accountability."
- FT April 2008


subprime mortage cartoon



highlights: why Catholics leave the Church

Todd M. Aglialoro says
"...because through some experience with a sect and its members they are led to experience for the first time an intellectual connection with Christianity.

They may hear a Scripture verse placed into the larger context of salvation history, and for a brief second glimpse God's revealed word as something majestic and profoundly true -- instead of as a collection of Hallmark sentiments best used as a jumping-off point for mundane, anecdotal sermonettes. They may hear a "testimony" on sin and conversion, and be bowled over by the radical nature of Christian faith -- apprehending for the first time that it demands a totally new (and often scandalous to the world) series of life choices. Or they may simply encounter theological conviction in an unadulterated form -- be told unflichingly by someone that Jesus is wholly divine, or the Bible is inerrant, or paradise and hellfire are real and one of them awaits each of us, and that this truth has unavoidable implications -- and say to themselves, I want more of this. I want a religion that makes a statement about the way things really are.


How does this bear on the question of why Catholics leave the Church? Because liberal Christianity, being essentially a working compromise with secularism, cannot sustain itself. This is observable both as a historical phenomenon (each time Christianity has engaged in compromise with secularism, it has emerged less distinctively Christian than it was before) and also in reflection upon human nature. For religions retain believers, and especially those most fervent and active believers, when their doctrines and practices are distinct, complex, and engaging -- and lose believers when they're not.

Put into concrete terms: A Catholicism that sets before its believers a broad and strict test of moral and doctrinal adherence will keep its members. A Catholicism that is reduced (and often it is so, ironically, in order not to scare folks away) to "being a good person" will lose them. Because -- and this is the nub of it -- one can be a good person without going to church."
The estimable Russell Shaw argues -
This disastrous situation reflects the impact of secularization on a Catholic community far gone in theoretical and practical dissent and deeply sunk in habits of keeping up with the Joneses that sociologists call cultural assimilation. American Catholics have long craved to be like everybody else, and now they seem to have succeeded all too well. The sex-abuse scandal, weak leadership, and the unconscionable defection of most formerly Catholic colleges and universities have contributed significantly to the general collapse.

At the moment, I have only two suggestions.

First, the Catholic bishops should declare a moratorium on most of the scheduled activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and spend the next two or three years reflecting on the Pew study and the recent CARA study on the basket case called Catholic marriage. On that basis, and with the help of loyal Catholic scholars, they might be able to develop a worthwhile action plan.

Second, the pastors and people of the Church in the United States should halt the continual lowering of the bar for membership in the Church that's been going on for the last 40 years and start raising the bar instead. To be a member of the Catholic Church is an enormous privilege that carries with it enormous responsibilities. People need to be challenged by that message, not coaxed and cajoled to show up on Sunday every once in a while.
Mother M. Assumpta Long, O.P.-
The reason so many Catholics are leaving the Catholic Church is simple, at least in looking at most of the people who have left: It simply makes too many demands of its members. In a culture where morals are a matter of choosing and sacrifice is unheard of, why would a person want to belong to a Church that says one may not live with someone who is not one's spouse, nor marry a same sex partner; must not use contraceptives; must not have an abortion; and use every effort to stay away from serious sin, or even small ones? Added to this, one must go to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, fast on days appointed, and practice voluntary penance. One must keep all the precepts of the Church.

The above is too overwhelming -- plus the fact that many people, for generations now, have not been catechized and don't have the foggiest notion of what they must believe as Catholics. They have little knowledge of the grace and beauty of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the teaching of the Magisterium, and the wealth of Tradition. They haven't become real friends of the saints, especially the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Many leave for "fellowship," which gives them a warm feeling of belonging. Perhaps Catholics need to do more to foster community, but ultimately they will always be faced with the Crucified Christ, an image of which should always be predominate in their Churches, to remind them that a price was paid for their salvation. If they are to follow Christ then they, too, must take up their cross daily. In the long haul, although the Catholic Church makes great demands on its members, it is teaching Truth -- the only thing that will set them free and lead to the Beatific Vision.
Father James Schall adds -
John Paul II once remarked that a scientific survey could not "measure" faith, either its existence or depths. The Pew survey presents a rather bleak picture of Catholic loses due to "affiliation changes": "While nearly one in three Americans (31 percent) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24 percent) describe themselves as Catholic."

Of course, the phrase "describe themselves as Catholic" gives us no indication of just what those who do "describe themselves as Catholic" actually hold. Most heretics usually describe themselves as true believers. One of the main functions of authority in the Church is to keep tabs on just what Catholics, particularly Catholic intellectuals, mean when they "describe themselves as Catholic."

By every criterion, it is difficult to retain one's faith in a hostile culture. I recall reading somewhere that if everyone who was baptized Catholic retained his faith in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the country would long ago have been mostly Catholic. The idea that only Catholics should never lose their faith is at best an odd one.

What the Pew report does not cover is the quality of faith. As I have often said, the Catholic Church today has never been intellectually stronger or culturally weaker. We have had as popes two of the finest and most incisive minds of our time. The conversions to the faith are significant. I myself think that someone who in fact ceases to believe or never really takes any steps to understand and retain his faith ought to indulge what is quaintly called "an affiliation change." Much confusion in the Church itself is caused by those calling themselves Catholic but who are long distant from its meaning and practice.


Science against humanity

Apparently some scientists are so ashamed of our public leaders that they feel the need to defend or at least rationalize their behavior. Psychologically, wrong-doing requires a rationalization. Us humans always have an excuse. See today's New York Times Science page, where Natalie Angier explains that faithfulness is not natural:
It’s been done by many other creatures, tens of thousands of other species, by male and female representatives of every taxonomic twig on the great tree of life. Sexual promiscuity is rampant throughout nature, and true faithfulness a fond fantasy. Oh, there are plenty of animals in which males and females team up to raise young, as we do, that form “pair bonds” of impressive endurance and apparent mutual affection, spending hours reaffirming their partnership by snuggling together like prairie voles or singing hooty, doo-wop love songs like gibbons, or dancing goofily like blue-footed boobies.

Yet as biologists have discovered through the application of DNA paternity tests to the offspring of these bonded pairs, social monogamy is very rarely accompanied by sexual, or genetic, monogamy.
The obvious but implicit argument is that since promiscuity is natural, it's not wrong. Eliot Spitzer was justified because he was just acting according to his nature - we shouldn't expect anything more from him. The scientist has reduced human nature to animal nature.

This is not good! Humans are much more than complicated apes and we cannot afford to forget this essential truth. For further exploration of this idea please see Mortimer Adler's The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes

It's one thing to note that animals are promiscuous. It's entirely another thing to associate this research with a high-profile prostitution scandal and offer it as something of a justification.

Rational Control and David Brooks

David Brooks uses his column to do a Q and A regarding the pending housing crisis:
Who’s to blame?

Who’s not to blame? The mortgage brokers were out of control. Regulators were asleep. Home buyers thought they were entitled to Corian counters and a two-story great room. Everybody from Norwegian town elders to financial geniuses decided that house prices would always go up. This was an episode of mass idiocy.

Why should the government do anything? Shouldn’t people be held responsible for their stupidity and greed?

Our economic system is based on the idea that people take responsibility for their own decisions. It would be ruinous if people felt free to take horrendous risks knowing that the government would bail them out if those decisions didn’t pan out.

Nonetheless, individual responsibility is not absolute. As behavioral economists demonstrate every day, human beings are powerfully and unconsciously influenced by the ideas and assumptions that float around in the social ether. If the financial elites misprice risk and offer delicious loans to consumers, then many of those consumers will end up grabbing the loans, the just and the unjust alike. We should at least see if there’s a way we can ease the pain those people are bound to suffer.

Besides, in case you haven’t been watching the Fed lately, we’re in the midst of a potentially disastrous financial crisis. People worry about moral hazard issues in normal times. But in times like these, they put those concerns on the back burner.
Is this wise? Is it really the job of the government to ease our pain? What do the other conservatives who read this think about Brooks' opinion? (My intuition says that Brooks' is quite wrong). He concludes his piece with a sort of might-makes-right argument that makes me think he is really reaching:
We do seem to have reached some Bernanke-era consensus. In normal times, the free market works well. But in a crisis like this one, few are willing to sit back and let the market find its own equilibrium.
(emphasis mine)

UPDATE: Prof. Robert Miller at First Things answers my questions:
To begin with, no one thinks that every problem should be solved by the free market, just as no one thinks that every problem should be solved by the government. Free marketers will tell you that government should intervene in the market for all kinds of reasons—e.g., to overcome collective action problems, to prevent free-riding, to provide public goods, etc. Traffic lights are a good example of this last. The freest of free marketers agree that the government should supply the traffic lights because the market can’t do so at a reasonable cost. For, if private parties built the traffic lights, charging for their use would be prohibitively costly (think toll booths at very corner), and so the cheapest solution is for the government to tax everyone, use the tax dollars to put up traffic lights, and let us all use them without paying an additional fee. So the issue in the Bear Stearns bailout is not whether the government is intervening in the market but whether the intervention is one that can be justified on classical economic grounds.
Check the whole post out here.


Better Late Than Never

I just wanted to remind everyone about an incredible book by Father Neuhaus that is indispensable Lenten reading. It's called Death on a Friday Afternoon and it is an absolutely beautiful 300 page meditation on Christ's seven last statements while on the cross. Even if you don't have time to read the entire book before Easter, it is worth avoiding skimming the text. Death was meant to be enjoyed slowly. After all, as Neuhaus notes, "If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything." It is a book that is not only about a single momentous afternoon on a mountain named Calvary, but about every single day of every single human life. Resist the urge to plow through the prose; Easter is not the deadline for a work which remains germane for 365 days of the year.

Federalist No. 51

"But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State. "

Intelligent Design as theological error

The First Things article today mentions a subject recently broached here:
Adherents of the so-called intelligent design ideology commit a grave theological error. They claim that scientific theories that ascribe a great role to chance and random events in the evolutionary processes should be replaced, or supplemented, by theories acknowledging the thread of intelligent design in the universe. Such views are theologically erroneous. They implicitly revive the old Manichean error postulating the existence of two forces acting against each other: God and an inert matter; in this case, chance and intelligent design. There is no opposition here. Within the all-comprising Mind of God, what we call chance and random events is well composed into the symphony of creation.
I'm not sure ID theorists posit an opposition between God and inert matter. So what can he mean?


the argument from design rev 2.0

A Book Review in Brief

Darwin’s Black Box
Michael J. Behe

There is no conversation that you can have with a group of scientists that elicits more uncomfortable feelings and disdainful expressions than a conversation about the idea of intelligent design. The neo-Darwinist opinion that life arose through totally random natural processes is orthodoxy; so much as questioning or even exploring how evolution may have happened is damnable heresy. And so it follows that this book, which questions the scientific orthodoxy, frightens people. Even broaching the subject is cause for alarm. The subject, I should clarify, is the plausibility of Darwinian evolution by random mutation and natural selection.

The author is Michael Behe, a biochemist from LeHigh University. In Darwin’s Black Box, he presents a philosophical argument with scientific premises. The scientific premises derive from his work as a molecular biochemist – Behe’s life work is studying the details of life at the lowest levels. The science of biochemistry has progressed markedly in the past 50 years, and Behe thinks the new information has yet to come to bear on the neo-Darwinian synthesis, which happened before the advent of modern biochemistry. So just what is this information?

Behe’s argument is incredibly simple but incredibly powerful, and I will briefly summarize it here. Behe first demonstrates that there are structures analogous to machines that exist on the biochemical level. A good example is the cilium, a locomotion device in eukaryotic cells. These machines do achieve their function unless multiple finely tuned components are in place. Behe terms these machines “irreducibly complex”. That is, the complexity of these machines is not simply the synthesis of a few other basic functions. Why is this problematic? Well, because of how Darwinian evolution supposedly happens. Behe writes,
“I emphasize that natural selection, the engine of Darwinian evolution, only works if there is something to select – something that is useful right now, not in the future.” (pp. 95)
There would be no evolutionary benefit to the various individual components of these machines: if they were to evolve they would not be selected because they serve no purpose apart from the machine. But the machine with all its finely tuned parts exists. So what’s the story? Well, Behe argues, because these machines exist, so also must a machine-maker. Queue the hysteria.

There are many other facets to his argument and I’m not really doing it justice here. I must emphasize that argument is very, very powerful, even if my summary of it is not. The book is very well written and remains interesting even though the basic argument does not take long to establish. If I were forced to come up with some criticism, I would say that the author seems to be delusional about how readily accepted intelligent design will be. At one point he speaks of a time when science will be spurred on by accepting and internalizing this idea. This is ludicrous. Science is too philosophically committed to determinism. But I am nitpicking.

Anyone who wants to think seriously about the origins of life on Earth ought to read this book and try to answer its argument.

- Zach


in search of

hey! i'm not very creative, but i'm sure some of you are. so if you have an idea for a title that can replace "Civics Geeks", I'm all ears.



Obama Posters

From the Campaign Spot:

A Style of Obama Poster Not Likely To Be Widely Imitated

It's a free country, and if Barack Obama's campaign wants to make money from posters ($70 a pop!) designed by the artist Shepard Fairey, they can go right ahead. (The candidate himself thanked the artist, and said that his "images have a profound affect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign.)

And I'm sure I'll be told that the artist uses Communist propaganda imagery in an ironic way, or a satirical way, or in a way of making a pro-freedom political statement that I'm too obtuse to get.

I prefer this picture:


Pi and the Modern Religion

A Book Review in Brief

Life of Pi
Yann Martel

Life of Pi is an enjoyable if cheesy work of fiction from a philosophy major. As such, it addresses some very serious questions in a very modern way. Pi is an idiosyncratic pluralistic religious boy who the author paints as the scourge of his elders. He is firmly devoted to God, and his devotion might be called blind. He feels from a very young age that God is real and that he must be worshiped. He then finds something acceptable and good in nearly every major religious tradition in both the West and East. Which is fair enough! But he continues to assert that none of the different understandings of God make any difference whatsoever. He sees no contradiction between saying Jesus is God and also saying that Vheissu is God. And so the point of the story begins to reveal itself.

After the initial theme is established in the first few chapters, the author tells a marvelous tale of survival which is a quite enjoyable read. This lasts nearly the entire book and there are lots of lame attempts at symbolism along the way. The story is so well told that the cheesiness is easily forgiven. In the final pages, the author retells the entire story and the reader is left to decide which story is true for him or herself. And the author sneaks into the narrative and reveals himself most clearly when Pi declares, “And so it goes with God.” You see, the point of this “soul-sustaining” (LA Times) novel is really quite simple. The most important part about life is that you create your own story – we all know that nothing can be objectively true, so make up a good meta-narrative for yourself. If it’s an entertaining story, why care whether or not it’s actually true! This is actually a good argument for believing in Santa Claus, but I digress.

I can summarize the theme and indeed the book quite eloquently with a quote provided to me by my girlfriend who attributed it to a Professor: “Pi is an irrational number from which rational answers are drawn.” It’s a cool idea, but ultimately wrong.

That said, there is much to salvage in this story. In the first place, it deals quite openly with a modern notion of truth, and this is worth exploring especially in contrast to a traditional understanding of the idea. Secondly, it contains a thinly veiled critique of rationalism and scientific dogmatism that modern readers would do well to heed. And so in the end, the book was surprisingly good. It’s not a classic, but it is entertaining and thought provoking.

- Zach

an enjoyable autobiography

A Book Review in Brief

My Grandfather’s Son
Clarence Thomas

If you are like me and grew up in the 1990’s in southern New Hampshire, you probably don’t have a very good feel for what it’s like to grow up black in rural Georgia prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So it was with great interest that I read My Grandfather’s Son, a very personal memoir from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The book is a very candid exposition of his life that moves from his youth spent in Pin Point, Georgia to his appointment to the Supreme Court. Readers of all stripes stand to gain something from reading Justice Thomas’s story, because fundamentally it is about the good life. Good principles, Thomas says, are essential to the good life. Equally important is actually living out those principles – we must habituate the good and suffer the bad with dignity.

So what are these principles? Quite simply they are the traditional moral virtues – honesty, perseverance, courage, temperance, honesty, self-control, forbearance and so on. These ideas, for Thomas, are not mere platitudes. They are exemplified by his Grandfather, a farmer dedicated to God, family and hard work. As Thomas tells it, throughout his life, his Grandfather was a consistent voice of sanity and wisdom. It was his voice that eventually led him away from the radicalism of his youth. It was his principles and the way he lived his life that forced Thomas to change his own. Richard John Neuhaus has written somewhere that “The truth is that we do not judge the truth; the truth judges us.” This maxim proves itself in the course of Thomas’ story. And so he formed and reformed his life in light of the truth and wrote a great book to teach us.

- Zach

(for a wildly different take, read Dahlia Lithwick at Slate)
The feisty Granite Stater Mark Steyn makes some good comparisons between the U.S. and Canada, and he makes them well; truthfully, respectfully and with wit. He does so in last month's Imprimis ( "first things" in Latin).

"I drive a lot between Quebec and New Hampshire, and you don’t really need a border post to tell you when you’ve crossed from one country into another. On one side the hourly update on the radio news lets you know that Canada’s postal workers are thinking about their traditional pre-Christmas strike—the Canadians have gotten used to getting their Christmas cards around Good Friday, and it’s part of the holiday tradition now—or that employees of the government liquor store are on strike, nurses are on strike, police are on strike, etc. Whereas you could listen for years to a New Hampshire radio station and never hear the word “strike” except for baseball play-by-play."


"But in the space of two generations, a bunch of tough hombres were transformed into a thoroughly feminized culture that prioritizes all the secondary impulses of society—welfare entitlements from cradle to grave—over all the primary ones. And in that, Canada is obviously not alone."

What a great phrase to describe wealth redistribution (secondary impulses) and wealth creation (primary impulses)

I find more and more conservatives (i.e. George Will at CPAC last month) framing the argument for capitalism as "Ok, the people want a welfare state, but they need to realize they need to keep in place free market capitalism because it is the only system that can support a welfare state." Maybe that is a realistic marketing approach, but its foundation seems to be on a slippery slope.




the crazies

Stephen Barr has an amusing post about scientific crackpots over at the First Things blog.
Over the years, I suppose I have talked to, or been sent material by, dozens of would-be scientific revolutionaries. Much of the blame for this kind of thing lies with the Einstein myth. We have all heard that Einstein flunked math in school. We have all heard that Einstein was a nobody, an outsider working alone in a patent office who was, by the force of his untutored genius, able to sweep away all that went before. All nonsense, of course. Einstein did very well in subjects like math and physics in school. (He did poorly in French, though, because he hated it and didn’t study.) Einstein obtained a doctorate in physics. He had a profound and detailed knowledge of the cutting-edge physics of his day. His theory of relativity did not sweep away all that went before but was an entirely logical outgrowth of earlier physics.

It is not just the crackpots who are victims of the Einstein myth. Some graduate students suffer from Einstein complexes, too. They don’t want to work on anything that does not have the possibility of radically revising our view of the universe. Anything less than that is too pedestrian. Not for them the patient step-by-step progress of science. That was not Einstein’s attitude. One of his most important contributions—the one for which he won the Nobel Prize, in fact—came from thinking carefully about a rather dry, technical, and mundane-seeming phenomenon called the photo-electric effect.

The Einstein myth is part of the larger Romantic myth of the genius as rebel: Beethoven shaking his fist at the heavens. Nothing is great unless it’s “transgressive.” Fortunately, science is not much affected by this idiocy. Partly this is because experimental data serves as a reality principle. Partly it is because science is so technical that the crackpot is simply weeded out when he proves unable to acquire the necessary technical skills. It seems that the humanities are not in so fortunate a condition.


Is there more to these stories?

The United States has fired missles at civilian targets in Somalia.
"The strike destroyed two houses -- killing three women and three children, and wounding another 20 people -- Dhoobley's District Commissioner Ali Nur Ali Dherre told CNN. Dherre said the remains of the missiles were marked "US K.""
I'm sure there's another side to this story, but the loss of life seems unnecessary. Is this defensible?

Also, what's up with the Bush administration's policy on torture? I tend to agree with this New York Times editorial. Torture is beneath us. Let'r rip, Dave.

"Super Tuesday II" Predictions

The media needs to assign labels and names to everything and they are calling tomorrow's primaries in OH, TX, VT, and RI "Super Tuesday II".

My prediction is for Hillary to sweep all 4 states. Zach's prediction is that Obama will sweep all 4 states.

Here are the specifics to my prediction:
OH : Hillary +5%
TX : Hillary +2-3%
RI : Hillary +10%
VT : Hillary +10%

Hillary may well end up losing the TX caucus, causing Obama to get more delegates out of TX. But the vulnerability that Hillary will expose on Obama will carry this race all the way to the convention. Long term prediction: the superdelegates will vote for whichever candidate has a better chance of winning the general election in Nov. (i.e. the Dem who polls best in the summer).

Please let me know how absurd my predictions are but also let me know what your prediction is.


As is the case with almost everything I think, someone else has already said it better. And so I turn now to Professor Alan Jacobs of Wheaton for his critical analysis of "blogging". Writing at Christianity Today, he makes the following observations about the nature of a "blog".
There is no privacy: all conversations are utterly public. The arrogant, the ignorant, and the bullheaded constantly threaten to drown out the saintly, and for that matter the merely knowledgeable, or at least overwhelm them with sheer numbers. And the architecture of the blog (and its associated technologies like rss), with its constant emphasis on novelty, militates against leisurely conversations. It is no insult to the recent, but already cherished, institution of the blogosphere to say that blogs cannot do everything well. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the blogosphere is the friend of information but the enemy of thought.
I hope to have more time to consider this in the future, but the Professor is certainly right about this. The short word is that blogging should not replace other habits that are more conducive to the contemplation of ideas. In the TV and internet age, it's tough to find any time to sit and seriously think. And if your goal in life is to be a saint, it is likely that that goal is difficult to reconcile with a habit of compulsive blogging.