Tuesday, June 03, 2003

The Dixie Chicks are back in the news again, losing another concert--probably more fallout from their anti-Bush remarks. This is the sort of thing you can expect when you alienate your fan base, but ...

If a man acts from the courage of his convictions and takes the consequences, you must admire that--even if he is dead wrong. Right or wrong; courage is noble in itself, and not that common either.

Is that what we have here?

  • Taking the last point first, are they accepting the consequences as the natural price of their courage? Not exactly--it sounds more like whining that they were misunderstood. Unfortunately, the New York Times is not the only news source with a cheerful disregard for inconvenient facts that clutter up a juicy story, so I don't actually know for certain all that the Chicks have said on their own behalf. I could spend a couple hours and find out, but I think I'll give them the benefit of the doubt for the sake of the argument. A lot of the moans about 'censorship' were made on their behalf by other folks.

    On the other hand, they very quickly decided on emergency measures to shore up their popularity: getting naked on the cover of a national magazine. I gather that the ephithets sprinkled over their bodies were meant to make this look like a political statement about freedom of speech, instead of the usual "Why can't they put their hands somewhere else?" attention-getter. (Exercise for the reader: "Demi Moore is famous for...?") They revealed their desperation as well as their hips, and the use of the epithets suggest that either they're politically tone-deaf or cynical. I vote for cynical.

  • Convictions is a strong word to use to describe most people's opinions. At least half the people I know, left and right, fell into their opinions instead of thinking their way into them. Since they usually hang out with like-minded sorts, they're never challenged, and never have to deliberately sort out the true from the uncertain. (How often have you heard that the Iraq campaign was designed to help the US oil interests, despite the rather obvious fact that it would hurt them instead? The slogan-shouters never thought through their ideas but merely accepted them on faith.)

    Anybody with a little spare time can research an issue, think it through, and come up with their own judgements on it. With a little more time, they can find a sparring partner to argue the issue with, and sharpen up or even change their judgements. Everybody should--this is what makes a democracy work. But when I hear sloppy ideas, careless reasoning, and flat-out false claims I have to suspect that on this subject at least, the speaker has inherited his opinions and not actually judged the issue.

    What I heard Natalie quoted as saying sounded like sloppy thinking.

  • Were they courageous? If they were from the east or west coast entertainment environments, I'd bet not. In those cultures it shows no courage to oppose war, or indeed anything a Republican might advocate; and from the whining about censorship I hear I suspect that the entertainment business types are so insulated from the rest of us that they have no notion that honest people can disagree with them. However, the Chicks are supposed to be more of a country group; and I don't know much about the Nashville political scene. Natalie issued apologies that I don't think would even be thinkable in Hollywood. So, I guess that their attitudes bucked the local trends.

    The comments that got them in hot water were made overseas, at a foreign crowd. The comments sounded like Natalie getting the sense of a crowd; trying to please the crowd; saying what the crowd wanted to hear. They wanted applause, and got it. Not courageous.

It would hardly seem worth the effort to analyse their few remarks, if it weren't that there's still some stir about them. I tentatively conclude from the above list that the Dixie Chicks are not brave and admirable souls, standing up for the truth as they see it. Too bad. On the other hand, they get enough benefit of the doubt that I can't classify them among the usual fatuous Hollywood crowd.

And, although my daughters regard listening to any country music as a sign of a deep character flaw, I like Long Time Gone.

Saturday, May 31, 2003

Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel by Brian D. McLaren and Tony Campolo is a kind of tag-team book. First one author writes a chapter, then the other writes a rebuttal or clarification. The subtitle of the book spells out the thesis pretty clearly--the evangelical church in America fell prey to cultural influences and neglected the gospel's message, substituting something related but not quite right. The indictments mostly deal with evangelical churches, because that's where our authors come from. The liberal churches notoriously went their own way long ago. The Catholic church seems to have become an umbrella organization covering a wide spectrum of belief and practice. But the evangelicals pride themselves on keeping close to Scripture.

As one example take the chapter that deals with the church service itself. The authors assert, and I can confirm, that many churches work hard to provide an emotional atmosphere that is supposed to be conducive to piety. They calibrate the songs for emotional effect--but they seem to be afraid of silence. And in the end it is not our emotions we meet to get in touch with, but God.

Other points: The Gospels demand that our beliefs work themselves out in action, in helping our neighbors. That requirement is not entirely fulfilled by preaching the gospel to him--it needs to be tangible. (Charles Williams once said that "In the end, all loves must be physical.") I am not better than the notorious backslider--he is just notorious and I'm not. But how easy it is to feel and act superior!

I'm afraid I agree with Campolo that McLaren defines postmodernism entirely in negative, and therefore rather useless terms, and judge it a pretty worthless foundation for studying theology. And I have no idea why they want to try to revisit the adequately clear and humane orthodox doctrine on homosexuality--unless they too have been snowed by the local culture. Aside from my complaints about those two chapters I have no hesitation in recommending the book.

Friday, May 30, 2003

If you assert that some friends have more money than they know what to do with and they deny it, are you entitled to point to their fancy hot tub and announce "J'accuse?"

Given how much I pay for blogger, I can't gripe too much, but things have been pretty tangled up recently. I couldn't update my template with new pointers to the revised index blogs, I couldn't publish a new entry, and republish didn't work from the archive--all efforts going west with some missing script file. Perhaps my heart isn't pure enough--I generally use Mozilla from a Linux box, not IE from Windows; and that has caused problems in the past. (Not this time, though--I tried both).

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

This past weekend we went to a wedding. Great people, and I wish them all the best.

The weather for the trip was great; cool and sunny, with birds and green and few crazy drivers (even in Chicago). I remember my wedding, being overwhelmed with unfamiliar names and faces; and the groom here seemed also dazed. I think it would be a great comfort to offer the couple a "scorecard" with the family trees and who's at the wedding--a "cheat sheet."

The billboards in Indiana were odd--3/5 for casinos and most of the rest for Krazy Kaplan's fireworks. (Would you trust the safety of a "crazy" fireworks shop?)

Sunday, May 25, 2003

War

Everybody else already put their oars in, so I guess it is my turn.

Books

I like to read. I ride the bus. A natural fit... (Who has time to read at home?)

Culture, Music, Humor, Misc

Statement about privacy in this blog.

Science

Things that stirred my curiosity.

I find that I cannot edit long-archived posts and have the results show up reliably on blogger. Thus, in order to keep the index posts up-to-date, I have to repost the index posts from time to time. Major nuisance.

Saturday, May 17, 2003

Scattered, by Gabor Mate, is subtitled How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It. I have to admit that's an attention-grabber. People have said that its description of early life at home was right on, and left them weeping. Parents of ADD kids say they've felt indicted by the book. I can see why.

Mate's thesis is that ADD is largely due to environment, not heredity. He explains that all the correlations explainable by heredity are also explainable by the parental environment (including some of the twin studies: twins tend not to go to radically different environments from each other). On the assertion that environment is the key, he goes on to slay the dragon.

Some people are exceptionally sensitive. If a very sensitive baby is raised by parents who are extremely stressed, the attunement between parent and child doesn't happen enough, and there is empaired brain development. (The brain is extremely plastic.)

It is not that a disorder develops, but that certain important brain circuits do not develop. Interference with the conditions required for the healthy development of the prefrontal cortex, I believe, accounts for virtually all cases of ADD.
And what does that do for us?
The prefrontal cortex may be seen as that policeman. (traffic cop) One of its major tasks is inhibition. It evaluates the myraid impressions, thoughts, sensations and impulses reaching it from the environment, from the body and from the lower brain centers. It must select what is essential and helpful and inhibit input and impulses that are not useful to the organism in the given situation. Our initial response to a stimulus, whether anxiety producing or pleasurable, is unconscious. It comes not from the cortex but from lower brain centers where emotions originate. The cortex has a split second to decide whether to give permission to the impulse or to cancel it. One way to understand ADD neurologically is as a lack of inhibition, a chronic underactivity of the prefrontal cortex. ... Hence the efficacy of stimulant medications: they arouse the inhibuitory function.
(from the chapter titled Forgetting to Remember the Future).

As a baby grows he learns to remember the future, to shut out certain stimuli in order to focus on something of interest. It seems quite plausible that if you inhibit the development of this skill you will develop something very like ADD.

Mate spends some time describing himself (classic ADD) and his extremely stressful (for his mother) early years (a Jew in Nazi Europe), and various case histories. He asserts that a stressed parent cannot bond ideally with the baby. Children pick up very quickly on emotions, and on indifference or distraction. Children predisposed to extra sensitivity don't develop the comfort/confidence to be able to focus on one thing well.

His solution to ADD issues with young children is to deal with the parents' stresses first, and only then look to medication if still needed. The ADD child needs pro-active love and attention, and unconditional love and accptance. He goes on in detail about suggestions for parents and teachers of ADD. Teachers need to have ways of letting ADD kids exercise and be creative without disrupting the other students: something most schools are not at all well-equipped to handle.

He has suggestions for adults with ADD as well. I think these deserve some detailed description. My interest isn't moot: we have an adult son with ADD.

The ADD adult, like the child, needs more than organizational tools and behavior modification techniques. Although these do have their place, they will not address the fundamental problem, which is not how the person manages this or that duty or self-appointed task but in what relationship he stands vis-a-vis his own self. The issue still remains one of relationship, but this time parent and child are combined in one and the same person.
The steps he lays out for the ADD adult are
  • Compassionate curiosity in the search for self-insight. Notice, not judging the behavior and the feelings that drive it, to find out what the underlying feelings actually are.
  • Self-acceptance: tolerating guilt and anxiety. Guilt is intrinsically useful, but can be inappropriate. Learn to decide where guilt is real, and what causes it when it isn't.
  • You don't punish yourself for where you find yourself.
  • Choosing a guide: psychotherapy and counseling. (Can be $$$, but choose your priorities)
  • The physical space. Make a conscious choice about how to live; set small, incremental tasks if you must, with strict time limits rather than job completion goals.
  • Sleep hygiene. The ADD adult is often a night owl: separation anxiety? But lack of sleep undermines your emotional and mental state. Be proactive about getting sleep.
  • Nutrition. Pretty obvious.
  • Physical exercise. Pretty obvious.
  • Nature. Get outdoors, relax away from the urban--even if it is only lying staring at the grass in a yard.
  • Extracurricular duties. Don't overcommit yourself.
  • Recreation. This is NOT the same as entertaining diversions. TV is entertaining "but not a process that re-creates."
  • Creative expression. "It is unusual for me to meet an ADD adult who does not have some secret longing for artistic expression, and almost as unusual to find one actively doing something about it." Creativity and ADD "originate in the same inborn trait: sensitivity." Maybe you won't be a famous artist, but you'll be your own artist (in whatever art form: music or math).
  • Meditation and mindfulness. This includes the obvious: TM-like generic meditation, but also the spiritual exercises of prayer and contemplation. Contemplative solitude, or "any activity, from gardening to martial arts, that promotes mindful concentration will bring benefits."

That many people would feel indicted by the book is no surprise. No parent can honestly claim that they've never been distracted or unstressed and always ready for their child; and the suggestion that this lack could have injured their child is heartbreaking. So pretty much everybody will recognize themselves in the situations, whether or not there is reason to feel guilty. Remember the "refrigerator mother" explanation for autism? This is somewhat kin to it.

Which is not to say that he is wrong. ADD is on the rise at a rate that doesn't seem explainable by superior diagnostic methods. We have a very stressful and child-unfriendly society. I include the TV babysitter among the disasters of our culture. It cuts off real human contact and self-directed play. TV uses shortcuts to attract our attention and focus, and (Mr Rogers being one of the few exceptions) offers frantic changes in topic and scene that can't possibly help develop concentration. How can you develop concentration of your own when the topic changes are not self-directed by determined by the implacable schedule laid down by the director?

I'm not an expert in this field, unless you count trying to raise someone with ADD. But the first rule of medicine is to do no harm, and the suggestions Mate provides can't hurt, and are bound to help make life more pleasant.

I've skimmed a lot. If you have or deal with ADD children, find Scattered and see if you find it useful.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

My earlier comments were not unmotivated, but preparation for this.

Let me begin by asserting my credentials in a backwards kind of way: Most of the public claims of racism are malicious lies. When I hear Jesse or Al complaining that some hapless bystander is racist, I assume they are lying and that the rest of their complaint may be safely discarded. The term has been so abused at the hands of the politically correct and the professional victim class that it has essentially lost all meaning except as unrefutable abuse.

This loss of meaning is dangerous, because there are racists: I've met some--both black and white. While pretending that there hasn't been progress in race relations is culpably deliberate blindness, there's still some attitudes that need some work.

One of them you can see in just about any high school. Count the number of white girls with black boyfriends, and compare that to the number of black girls with white boyfriends. In a big enough school you'll find a few of the latter, but a lot of the former.

Why would black boys be in greater demand in the dating whirl than black girls?

  • Girls are held to much tighter standards of physical beauty than boys, and the female standard of beauty is strongly northern European. You may remind me that some high-paid models are black, but notice how many are of East African ancestry, with facial features much closer to Caucasian than West or Central African. It isn't racist to have single standard of beauty, but it isn't terribly clever, given how dramatically beatiful women can differ.
  • Women are often attracted to the "bad boy" types, and a stereotypically rebellious/dangerous teenage boy stands a fair chance of attracting girls. Here we start getting into racist stereotypes--or sort-of stereotypes. Given the relative rates at which black boys wind up in conflict with the law compared to other groups, it is an easy stereotype to maintain. (In some places the rates are higher than 1 in 3. Not here, AFAIK.)

    Why women are interested in "bad boys" I can't say for certain: maybe it is the same general principle as that behind the "trophy wife," just transposed into an "I'm good enough to tame the very worst." Maybe the "bad boy" is a budding alpha male and she wants a strong protector. Maybe I should ask a couple of women to review this for me...

    At any rate, insofar as the "bad boy" effect applies, it worries me that the black boy can be so easily considered a "bad boy."

  • Our society has a history of the myth of the super-sexual black man. This is somewhat related to the "bad boy" effect, but I think it different enought to deserve its own category. This component is very worrisome, because it springs out of the attitude that the other is inferior, as I described in a previous post. Not just unruly, inferior.

So far so no good. However, there is another effect at work, rather more benign. Both men and women can be attracted to "the girl/boy next door" or "the exotic stranger." The advantage of the familiar is having a stable home life for the kids, and the advantage of the stranger is adventure and mixing up the gene pool a bit. The black boy comes from a different enough environment, even if local, that he qualifies as "the exotic stranger." So should the black girl--but she doesn't seem to. Is this because a super-sexual man is "admired" but a super-sexual woman is "a slut?" Or am I missing something obvious--like social pressures in the black community suppressing black-girl/white-boy combinations? I hope I'm missing something obvious here, otherwise we have a longer way to go than we think.

FWIW, evidence that police stop black men more often than other groups is NOT convincing evidence of racism. Irritating as the policy undoubtedly is, it is merely an efficient use of the limited police resources to target a group much more likely to actually be criminals. Whether police resources ought to be used efficiently is perhaps a political question.

Friday, May 09, 2003

Why do we in the West have a myth that primitive cultures/primitive men are highly sexual? I don't know for sure about other cultures, but from a few hints I think this myth is found in the Mid-East and China as well. How many "Polack jokes" refer to the sexual prowess of the Polish? Think of the Southern (and Northern too) post- and ante-bellum fears of super-sexual negroes, and the lynchings that came of the fear.

Let me make clear at the outset that I judge this myth to be false. Primitive generally refers to the technology and education of a people, not to character traits. People in the most primitive societies spend tremendous amounts of time trying to make sure they have enough food for themselves and their families. They may have many children, but most die because the whole family is living on the edge of disaster.

In White Lotus Hershey suggested that slaves (in his book they were West Coast whites captured by Chinese) found sex a bigger part of their lives because there wasn't much else to do when the day's labor was done. Close but no cigar. I think they are perceived as having nothing else to do. The civilized man finds a multitude of obligations that interfere with climbing in bed with his wife: meetings, social gatherings, late nights with financial issues, taking care of children, and so on. He perceives the "primitive" man in terms of irresponsibility, or lack of responsibilities, and assumes the primitive man would do what he himself thinks he would prefer to be doing.

In addition the primitive man or the slave is quite possibly physically stronger than the civilized man; and it seems plausible that he also possesses greater sexual stamina.

Of course the real slave is apt to be dead tired at night and not have his time his own in the morning, and the real primitive hunter will be thoroughly occupied by finding food and fixing his tools. Our civilized man's perception is mistaken, based partly on projection and partly on non-random sampling. (The slaves' festival dances were the exception, and not common. Of course that's the time the master saw what they were doing: non-random sampling.)

But the master, or the amateur anthropologist, whose time and energies are eaten up by the responsibilities arising from the very variety of opportunities of which he is so proud, feels weak and thinks the primitive man is strong.

Francis Schaeffer noticed long ago that a generation had grown up that didn't use the word truth to mean the same thing previous generations did, and things have only gotten weirder since then. Sin doesn't seem to be a concept most kids in college have a handle on--even some of the religious ones. But ask them this: "Have you ever done something that, if you knew your friend had done it, would break your friendship?" It'll take them a while to sift through that question, but sooner or later something will come to mind. And when they do they're not apt to admit it to you, but they've recognized sin.

OK, so I have trouble resisting a good pun. Or a bad pun.

This blogging is a tad frustrating. I feel a little delicacy about using the machines at work for this sort of thing, and there's always much to do with kids when I get home, and competition for the machine when the little ones go to bed. So, I compose late at night, and most of my stellar insights during the day go begging. Trust me, they were brilliant. Just like yours.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

With so many Brittany-wanna-looklikes, this University is looking more like a Navel Academy.

When The Road to Hell (by Michael Maren) came out I spotted it on the library shelf and grabbed it. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," and what intentions could be better than helping to keep people from starving to death? Around the world, but most especially in Africa, Non-Governmental Organizations and UN programs work to provide famine relief.

The problem is that the hungry people are often spread out over a large area. It is hard and expensive to bring the food to them. So: bring the people to the food!

The results are hideous. The same concentration of people that makes food distribution efficient means that sanitation becomes a major problem. The farmers are uprooted from their farms, and even if they could grow a crop (and they can usually grow something, even if it isn't enough to live off during a famine), they can't. So the amount of food available drops even farther. The farmers that remain on their land can't afford to grow more than subsistence crops, because they can't compete with the free food offered at the concentration camps--so they only grow what they need. If farmers have been encouraged to buy fertilizers or pesticides, they will already be in debt, and so will go out of business completely because of the competition from free food.

In the camps there is nothing to do, unless you can get a job with the NGO. So children grow up (sometimes for a few years) with no traditional children's chores and no examples of parents working, and lose part of the work ethic.

In countries with civil wars, the situation is even worse. The concentration of people and supplies makes them targets, unless the NGO workers pay bribes and hire (generally from among the bandits) guards for themselves and the goods. So the aid workers wind up funding the very civil wars they are trying to ameliorate the effects of.

The aid workers ... OK, let me be a bit more accurate. Some of the aid groups, especially religous ones, try to be more sensitive and spend money as much as possible to the benefit of the locals. But in the more secular ones (the UN groups dramatically so) even the field workers tend to treat themselves in the manner to which they became accustomed in Europe or America, and the generator runs air conditioning for the office in the camp while the refugees swelter in plastic tents without even fans. SUV's for the staff rank in priority right up there with trucks for the food, and don't forget the per diem!

All of this might be dismissed as unfortunate side effects, but Maren uncovered UN documents showing that some refugee relief groups didn't care that their work was worse than useless. Their only significant interests were in maintaining their staffs and the funding levels.

Peter Biddlecomb wrote of visiting one aid/training center which was trying to teach the local farmers how to use modern equipment. Their star tractor driver, Peter discovered, was blind in one eye and so afraid to turn left that he would drive miles out of his way doing right turns to get where he needed to go. He was the star driver because of the number of miles he logged.

An aid group wants to be able to measure how well it is giving aid and number of tons of food imported (not necessarily distributed--see "bribes for bandits" above) or miles driven or number of children in a camp are easy things to measure. The number of people who didn't starve is harder to count, as is the number of farmers who didn't go out of business. The things that actually help aren't always easy to measure.

For example, one proposal for nomadic tribes is a "cattle bank," in which a fellow who is flush with cows or goats in good times can make a "deposit" in exchange for a promise of return in kind or the equivalent in money on demand. When drought strikes cattle can die, and the nomad has nothing to sell for food; but if he has made "deposits" he still has a cushion to support his family.

But how do you measure how well such a thing works to explain it to the donors in the US? By the number of nomads who don't lose everything in the drought 11 years from now? Easier to round up people into camps after the fact, and take juicy photos of starving children to make the donors feel guilty.

Recent years unveiled the sex for food scandals of UN-run camps in Sierra Leone; and the utterly politicized "refugee camps" of Palestine are utter abombinations. NGO's can do good work, even noble work--but the structural problems mean most of the effort is wasted or even damaging. You're safer giving to a religious group, but even there you should consider whether what they do makes sense. Will the people be more self-sufficient after the aid comes through or less?