Thoughts on The Hobbit Trailer

I have things to say (or else why write?), but I suppose you might want to see the trailer, in case you have not yet done so:

Are we ready? Set? Good.

I was initially tempted to call this a review, but that would be too grandiose for the reality of blathering about a two and a half minute series of scenes, some of which may not make the actual movie.  On the other hand, there is more than enough material here to blather about, in some detail.

My major concern is that Peter Jackson simply does not appear to be able to leave well enough alone.  I have written on this subject before in discussing his films of The Lord of the Rings, though in that post I focused on his understanding of character.  Here the problem seems to be a misconception of plot and genre.  He intends, clearly, to tie this film into his previous Lord of the Rings project.  Tolkien, you may remember, did the reverse, and without particularly bothering to make the connections formal in the later work.  True, The Lord of the Rings is clearer for having read The Hobbit: clearer, but the story seems to me perfectly clear without it.  In fairness I should probably say that I did read The Hobbit first, so I could be wrong.  At any rate, there are these two facts: the stories are independent as books; and The Hobbit is first.  Jackson is thus incidentally approaching the project backwards, and in approaching it backwards seems to have fallen into an error of regarding The Hobbit not as a prologue but instead as what we of recent years have dubbed a prequel.  This leads, probably, to two further errors.

In the first place, The Hobbit is not epic in scale.  It is, obviously, something Bilbo would tell Frodo about.  It is equally a story which might, if we can imagine Middle Earth for a moment without the genius of Tolkien to tell its stories in full glory, have been told years later in embellished summary and in simple sentences, with the rain pouring down outside and the children wrapped up in an afghan by the fire.  Or if we allow for Bilbo the novelist (or here autobiographer), a book read in similar circumstance.  It is a novel, an adventure story, even a fairy tale.  Jackson either does not realize this, or is not content with this, and instead appears to be bringing in all the elements which Gandalf, when questioned, left out, as if Tolkien were pointedly reminding us of the nature of this story.  There indeed – and back again.

Which has, in fact, somewhat neatly touched on my second objection.  If the plot of The Hobbit is self-contained, and (but for the Ring) connected only tangentially to anything within the wider world of Arda, the characters drawn in the book are, in comparison to The Lord of the Rings at least, simply and brightly drawn.  The Hobbit is filled with characters which are in places more nearly caricatures.  Bombur does not particularly have Character: he is The Fat Man.  Thorin is the King – or the Exile.  Balin as counselor, or wise man.  Gandalf is a wizard: wizardry is his thing, I am tempted to say his hat.  Even the orcs of the later longer book receive names and characterizations: in The Hobbit they are cut-rate stage-prop villains (except possibly not cut-rate, since Tolkien was, after all, a great author) with two names given between the horde of them.  Yes: at the end of the quest we see a glimpse of greater depth and the wider world – and Bilbo is neatly removed from it, except for the scene of Thorin's death (which provides the moral of the story, if there is one besides that of any adventure), so as not to spoil the tone.  In this I am in fact somewhat encouraged: Jackson is at least capable of understanding levity and humor and the value of breaking an overloaded chair.  At the same time, by dragging in, as he seems to intend, the events of the White Council, he will be unable to retain the simple characterization at least of Gandalf: and the heavy tone of Gandalf's lines given here about the result of the adventure seem to lack the underlying humor found in Tolkien's few similar lines – and to be emphasized in a way almost directly opposed to how Tolkien downplayed that element.

As I noted at the beginning, it is a bit early and a bit silly to say anything purportedly conclusive about the movie, so I think for now I will end.  The score does at least give me one good sign: I think I will say that for now I remain hopefully pessimistic about the final result.


Liturgy, and All That Jazz

Here at Alexandria Presbyterian Church (located, unsurprisingly, in Alexandria, Virginia), it was decided – I feel the passive justified as I do not know who made the decision – that on this coming Sunday, as it will be Christmas day, the service would be held in the evening.  Similar decisions have no doubt been made elsewhere.

I am of two minds.  The latent liturgicist within me protests that this is not a thing which is appropriate: that a piece of existence as important as the worship of the Lord by his saints should not be moved lightly aside to make way for other things, no matter how important, like family, in earthly terms – and goes on further to suggest that on Christmas of all days corporate worship should be not just present but a priority, as we find it on Easter Sunday.

The Hidebound Protestant, on the other hand, drags out dusty verses (or actually not that dusty, unless we go looking for one of the translations I have but do not use regularly) about not being bound to observe days, and the Sabbath being made for man: if in fact it is more convenient for the people of God to gather at an unusual time for one week out of the year (or even to skip services altogether, as happens occasionally when forced by blizzards, floods, fires, wars, and other disasters), why should there be anything wrong with that?

When I moved to Alexandria, I attended for several months at the Lutheran church one of my roommates attends, for various reasons: convenience, some misconceptions about APC (gathered I am not sure how), and some misgivings about Presbyterian polity (which still exist, but currently seem less important at the moment).  Immanuel celebrates an extremely high church service, which I found beautiful: but when after that I first went to APC, I found myself actually welcoming the praise choruses I tend to make fun of.

Mind you, I still make fun of them: musically speaking, they are most often not good.  The lyrics are often, even mainly, insipid.  But what they unquestionably are, at the very least by contrast, is joyful, emotional, expressive.  I am not exactly complaining about the liturgy of the Lutheran church in itself (although I found the hymns settings still jarringly Germanic); I found the service insistent, in a way often forgotten in other churches' presentations of worship, on the grace of God; but with this insistence there also seems to come a division.

The visual example may be the clearest: Immanuel has a rail around the communion table, and calls that table an altar; APC has no rail, and calls it a table.  Bearing in mind that at Christ's death the curtain protecting the Ark itself – God's presence – was torn, there seems no question to me which more accurately represents how God would have us approach him.  (As an aside, I have been reading lately on the history of the early church and find it strange how quickly the church "progressed" from the Ethiopian eunuch's "why should I not be baptized" to requiring months and years before new converts (or repentant heretics) were brought completely into the fold: this desire to "protect the altar" (my phrase) is hardly a new problem for Christianity.)

If then we live not just "under" grace (as before under the law), but in Christ we live in and by grace – go ahead, move the service.  I can find no harm in it.


Review: the Coen Brothers' True Grit

After considering the subject for several hours and maybe getting a little sleep, I have come to the conclusion that it would be difficult to do anything properly resembling a "normal" review of True Grit.  As far as the important questions go: it was a fantastic film, and you should see it.  That recommendation given, I am going to ignore my usual rule of no spoilers and talk about some of the things which I found most noticeable.

The dialogue is the first thing that strikes most people and sticks with them.  The "Western" accent underlies it, but there are remarkably few contractions; surprising, to me, is that this is apparently authentic to the era (some time after the Civil War).  In my contemplations, I was reminded of a friend from Ohio who speaks with a similar odd 'formality'; I had always put it down to a personal quirk, but now I wonder if an older tradition of speech – dialect? – survives somehow in scattered areas.

The thing I find most remarkable is the precise casting of the lead.  The character is supposed to be a fourteen-year-old girl, and is actually played by a fourteen-year old (Hailee Steinfeld).  While she does an excellent job, one thing makes it work, cinematically: she is tall.  By tall I mean my brain automatically registered here as "obviously a younger girl but has to be sixteen or seventeen" – until she declares her age, at which point the mind automatically adjusts everything to account for that fact.  Still, she is involved in serious business, and I feel the main reason the movie can carry its serious tone is because of her height: it makes her simply look old enough to be taking things seriously.  Without that, we end up with too much of a "cute" reaction to a small girl who ought to be out of her depth.  That would damage the tone.

The last thing to mention – and I think this may be a theme with the Coens, given some similarities in nature to O Brother, Where Art Though?, the only other film of theirs I have seen – is that an ending which seems altogether satisfactory is muted by the sudden introduction of continuing challenges.  In a film fitting neatly into a classic genre, the effect is jarring, as suddenly all the conventions begin to unravel.  That there is supposed to be a message, or at least a truth, communicated by this is clear; what that exact moral might be is less so.  It could be mere nihilism: whatever the moment may bring, it does not last.  But if that is the case, it is not a sufficient description: there seems to be an acceptance that the 'moment' matters anyway.


The Internet Liberal

I used the term "internet liberal" on facebook yesterday; a friend said he'd be interested in reading a further elaboration on the coinage.  Since I have a blog, this post was pretty much inevitable.

At the most basic, the internet liberal is simply a liberal who is on the internet.  It goes further than that, in that most of the internet which is not specifically dedicated to ideology is nonetheless dominated by at least quasi-liberal social mores.  Some of this is simply demographics, I suspect: conservatives seem, on the whole, more liable to limit their children's internet time, and thus on the whole I suspect conservatives grow up to have less of an attachment – and less of a presence – on the computer.  (The major exception seems to be in the political sphere, as especially demonstrated by the various right-wing blogmedia groups.)

These habits and expectations are, roughly, tolerance as defined by the modern left wing, and a mostly unquestioned acceptance of social democratic political ideals.  Europe is everybody's favorite place on the internet; America is an ignorant backwater.  Insulting homosexuals (or calling them wrong, or even asking the obvious question, "So wait, if you guys get 'married', which dude is the 'wife'?") is a major offense, as is, quite often, insinuating there might be actual physical differences between men and women when it comes to achieving careers (or on other liberal-sensitive issues).  Abortion is mostly accepted without question and any questioners abused with the usual nonsense about "women's reproductive rights" (to immediately deny the child a chance to ever reproduce).  Religion, especially Christianity, is assumed to be an enemy of science.  In short, the usual denizen of the internet is practically a left-wing stereotype: Occupy Wall Street is mostly viewed as well-intentioned (even when actual methods and results are questioned) while the Tea Parties were roundly mocked.

I exaggerate, a little, in that in most cases the conservatives are at least allowed to have their say, as long as they don't seriously transgress these bounds of liberal taste.  But in short, the liberal on the internet tends to view the argument as over, left-wing progressivism as a clear winner, and anyone who disagrees as the person who is really being "tolerated".

The irony, of course, is that the internet in its modern incarnation is, in most of the world, a shining example of practical conservative laissez-faire policy at work – and where it isn't, or where those liberties are threatened, the internet mobilizes  and complains and spreads the news.

True, the necessary infrastructure is provided by others, by ISPs and webhosts, but as government analogues go, they do pretty much nothing beyond keeping things running while you pay your taxes, I mean bills.  Most importantly, when contrasted to the social democratic government ideal, regulation is practically nonexistent – notoriously, even various illegal materials (either immoral or violating, say, copyright law) are freely available and not hard to find.

If you questioned one of these internet liberals and pointed out this contrast, I suspect the usual response would be something like, "But in the end, the internet doesn't really matter, nobody's life is ever going to be at stake because of something I write on my blog".  It's a good point, as far as it goes – but confident behind that objection I suspect it will be almost impossible to get them to listen to the one point the conservative movement keeps trying to hammer home: there is no – none, zilch, nada, zero – proof that the liberal social democratic regulatory state actually improves things overall even when the outcome does matter (for a thorough exploration of this, see Amity Shlae's book The Forgotten Man).

The internet as an example of a contrary model working (even as a limited test case) still hasn't made a dent in the indoctrinated liberalism of these people.  That's why I talk about the "internet liberal": they're the one class of liberal who really ought to know better, and do know better when it comes to their private hobby horse (the internet), but they refuse to see beyond that.

Math Education: The Problem

As far as I can tell, every student's favorite question is, "Why do we have to learn this math stuff anyway?"  It's a good question.

"But," you say, "Jon, don't you teach math?"

Why yes, yes I do.  I like math; apart from some issues with algebra in high school I am and have been fairly good at it; I majored in math at Hillsdale; now I'm teaching it.  I am not trying to suggest the the study of number is useless or otherwise overrated.  I simply suspect that it is overcomplicated in the modern school.

I would say there are three broad uses for mathematics.  I am going to call these the ordinary, technical, and artistic uses.

The ordinary math is practical.  This is the basic math that enables you to estimate a grocery bill or calculate the length of a trip.  At its most essential, this math is little more than the knowledge of facts like the infamous multiplication table, a grasp of simple concepts like unit conversion and averages, and an acquaintance with the concepts of probability.

Technical math is also practical but of a different order.  For one thing, it includes most math, from the geometry used in surveying to algebraic and calculus models to set theory and probability to frankly I only have the vaguest idea where most concepts are used precisely but you try doing anything tech-y and you run into math.  But the key difference is that the use of this mathematics is defined by the necessities of a profession: unless I wildly miss my guess, a tailor won't need the same math as a nuclear engineer.

Artistic math is math as its own thing – we might also call it pure math.  Whatever we do here may have applications, but that is not the primary purpose.  I think it would also include math puzzles and games like sudoku.

The situation, roughly speaking, with (at least American) math eduction as I have experienced it can be explicated as follows.  The goal is to teach technical math: in order to fit in a "complete" background what is actually be taught is only artistic or pure math: but so much is covered that even this is taught too much in the rote style necessary for practical math.

Do we expect too much?  Perhaps.  In other ways, we expect too little.  I use a widely-standard textbook series: from Pre-Algebra to Algebra 2 is supposedly three years' worth of study, but there's so much overlap that it should be two years... if that.  On the other hand, many of the basic concepts are cluttered up with fancy formulas with little differentiating the necessary from the curious.

My own theories of education, such as they are, draw heavily on a dictum ascribed to Churchill.  He is supposed to have said the important thing was for students to learn good English, after which he would allow the clever ones to learn Latin as a reward and Greek as a treat.  We can of course quarrel about the bare minimum necessary – much of the new classical movement, for instance, considers Latin essential especially considering its influences on English grammar and vocabulary.  The point, however, is that I am not convinced we serve students best by insisting on amassing unnecessary knowledge.  Let me illustrate: for my current work, I don't even need to know Calculus.  Yes, it helps to have a better conception of "the whole"; but the quadratic equation is unaffected by the fundamental theorem – and I teach the stuff.  But the impression I get is that we encourage more and more students to take Calc – either by state standards or private school snobbery – while actual basic match scores continue to fall.

My current conclusion is that we demand too much in terms of quantity (of information) and not enough in terms of quality (of knowledge).  While I have some thoughts on how to improve this, they're relatively incoherent, and my experience is limited, so for now I'm just going to throw the problem out there to remind me to revisit the subject later – I've been meaning to write on this for months now.


The Mud-Slinging Will Bring Down Perry in 3... 2... 1...

If you haven't seen this ad yet, watch it now so you have some idea what I'm talking about:

If you don't feel like watching the 30 seconds, here's the beef: Perry says, in almost precisely as many words, that something is wrong in America when homosexuals can serve in the US military openly, but Christian children can't openly celebrate Christmas in schools.  Let's get the obvious out of the way first: in the current media climate, this was an absolutely suicidal ad to run: even if it somehow won the governor the primary election, after that MSNBC or somesuch would just loop this 24/7 and Obama wouldn't even have to campaign.

So on to the more pertinent question: what exactly is wrong with what he said?  Imagine if he had instead said any of the following were heinous:

"...that Christians can serve openly in the military, but gay teens have to worry about bullying in schools."  Media darling.

"...that gays can serve openly in the military, but Muslims have to worry about discrimination."  Again, mad media props would be forthcoming.

"I'm gay, but I think it's absurd that we have convinced the military to let us serve openly while Christian kids have to worry about not being allowed to pray."  The mainstream media – I guess – would be dumbfounded.  Sort of like they ignore the Log Cabin and other homosexual (or women's) conservative groups.  (Note: I am not suggesting that Perry is a homosexual, if for no other reason than I try not to offend people.  This is a purely hypothetical scenario.  Why do I feel like this CYA disclaimer is necessary?)

And on the facts of what Perry said, it's really not that outrageous.  Recently courts (and the threat of the courts) have been limiting, or trying to limit, not just "official" school prayers, but prayers by anyone associated with a school – even student groups.

As for what he said about the importance of faith (especially Christian faith), we may have "moved past it" in much of the public mind but he's following a long American tradition, going back to Lincoln... the Founders... the colonists... the point is, are we now going to discriminate against a man on the basis of finding his religious faith uncomfortably real?  What's the real difference between that and discrimination against someone because we find ourselves uncomfortable around a flaming gay?

Right... religion.  Christianity is one; being gay isn't.  Which brings me to a constitutional point.  The relevant text would obviously be the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I can see several possible interpretations of this:

Historically speaking, it recognized that religion (meaning as such the various Christian sects, though the extension to other religions follows logically) is a unique category of behavior, and speech; and that given religions exist, we treat the nature of the subject with respect, but studiously avoid all legal favoring of any one religion.  (Incidentally, this renders the National Cathedral an extremely curious artifact, let alone trying to figure out which clergyperson should be allowed to officiate there.  Why do we have the thing, anyway?  Not that it's not impressive.)

A more modern interpretation suggests that religion is to be removed from the "public sphere" entirely.  Driving this are various ideas, from explicitly anti-religious sociology to a reasonable reticence in offending others to a growing casual unbelief.

However, on strict textual grounds, it would seem (and this is the third option, which is both straightforward and tolerant) that while religion is explicitly barred from receiving favored treatment, all speech is still protected – and this includes religious speech.  Which brings me back to the point I think Perry was trying to make.  We preach tolerance, especially for historically persecuted groups... but still prove intolerant of other groups.  The fact that they've been historically favored (in this country) doesn't excuse this behavior.

A secular country – assuming that's what the USA is, and we can make a plausible argument this is true at least in modernity – has to, almost by definition, regard religious speech as just another kind of speech.  To do otherwise is to either legitimize the supernatural in public affairs, or to declare itself not secular (which is to say, sticking to common things) but expressly anti-religious.

Anti-religious?  Not a reasonable option.  I would feel extremely confident in arguing that in the state of Alabama – to pick on the "Bible Belt" – far more death threats are issued each year over the Iron Bowl than over matters of faith or any discrimination "ism".  Obviously we need to ban football from schools.  Or maybe just 'Bama fans, I'm not sure.  After all, we're kicking Christian prayers out while championing idiots suing Catholic universities for not being Muslim...


Moderation, Tolerance – and Reality

A liberal friend was lamenting on facebook today the state of affairs where Newt Gingrich is a moderate.

Frankly, and as a conservative, I'd have to agree.  There's no question he fits the category reasonably well: his own views seem to be more or less in line with a conservative ideology, but he doesn't seem to be over-committed to any of them, is in many ways a "DC insider", and has proven more than willing over his political career to play ball with the big-government kooks.  Hardball, sometimes, but Verlander doesn't stop being a pitcher because no one can hit him.  When conservativism (at least supposedly) favors small government, that all makes him either a hypocrite or a moderate or perhaps both – but I'm feeling polite.

And this is one of the guys supposedly headlining the supposedly conservative Republican candidate selection?  Sheesh.

There's a simple problem with moderation: some topics simply don't allow for it.

If my family are pacifists, and your family believes in a universal draft, and we agree to "compromise" and just draft one person per family, that's not a compromise – your agenda has won in principle, and the rest, as Churchill said, is just haggling about the price.

If some crazy professor thinks we should force abortions to prevent population growth, and some priest thinks abortion is evil – occasionally a medically necessary evil to save more life, but still not a good thing – and the "compromise" is that people can kill infants if they want to, that's not a compromise: the side that thinks killing the babies is okay has won in principle, and the only question is who gets to decide who has to die.

Are we seeing the problem here?

Sure, there are issues on which compromise is possible, but in order to compromise some level of agreement is necessary.  If, for example, I think a car is worth five thousand dollars, and the dealer thinks it's worth sixty-eight hundred, we can eventually compromise, perhaps at six thousand.  But it's only possible because we both agree the car is worth something.  If I'm a Luddite who thinks cars are a deception of the devil, the car has what can only be described as negative value, and any possible sale – even if I were to frustrate the dealer so much he convinced me to buy the car for $1 – is a net win for the dealer who thinks it's worth something.

If you say you think that all violence is always wrong, and I'm in favor of executing petty thieves, but you get argued into justifying self-defense, you've lost the logical argument – only the degree is in question, not the fact of retribution.

Which is why recent politics show up as a lot of nonsense.  For example: One side – supposedly extreme – wants to stop spending money we don't have.  The other side – supposedly backed up by the ivory towers – wants to spend even more money we don't have than we're already spending.  And the supposed "compromise" positions have, at their most conservative, suggested that we should spend less money that we don't have than we're currently spending, but really there's nothing wrong with spending money we don't have… which is a net win for the people who want to spend money we don't have.

In case you've somehow missed the point to this point, here's the short version: if the choices are "all" and "not any ever", "some" is not a compromise: it's a logical victory for the side of "all" and future choices will move further and further towards "all" unless actively overturned.  Political Exhibit A?  Growth of the United States Federal government since... let's say since World War One at the absolute latest.


Challenge versus Interest

NaNoWriMo – more formally known as National Novel Writing Month, and less formally known as NaNoIThoughtICouldWriMo – wraps up today.  I suppose depending where you live it might not end till it's tomorrow for me, but let's not get picky here.  Once again, I thought I would participate, and once again, I find myself staring at a not-really-that-near-20,000 word manuscript, most of it awful writing.  In other words, I'm about a third done.  This will, I tell myself again, be my last year, and I mean it!

The appeal of NaNo to me is the challenge.  Now I'm not always good at going after challenging things, but "it's hard" is something I've mostly learned to see as a good reason to at least try something, even if I'm not good at actually following through.  One reason I'm not actually good at then doing things is lack of interest.  When it comes to writing, simply as writing, that's something I don't have much interest in.  So every time the choice is between, "Write two thousand words today for a story that barely has a plot or a concept and isn't going at all where it was supposed to," or "Write some other thing on a topic I'm interested in," whether here on the blog, or (mainly) on Team Liquid, or, "Do some other thing that's actually interesting to me for what it is," the choice kept coming down to not-NaNo.  The plain facts are that I'd rather blog about NaNo than actually do it, and most of the time I'd probably rather play a game of chess than do either.

For good or bad, all this failure doesn't really bother me.  I knew going in everything I just said above was true, except maybe I thought I was less not good at doing something every day.  So here I am.  It's not exactly a lack-of-accomplishment to be proud of.  I didn't even learn anything, except that being able to type without looking at the keyboard is impressive to some people.



The events at the various Occupy Wall Street protests have made me realize something: I can find it hard to evaluate events objectively when I find myself either opposed to someone's opinion, or even apathetic.  The bald fact is that I have very little sympathy for the OWS folks, for any number of reasons: here are some of them.

In the first place, their grievances are, for the most part, wildly generic, and run in one of two general channels: either the rich should get less, or the poor should get more; in either case The Government should make sure something equitable happens.  (The Tea Party complaint, that the government needs to stop the "bailouts" and super-regulatory state which ends up encouraging these (often publicly-financed) bonuses), is occasionally heard even at OWS but is antithetical to their main complaints.  To illustrate: the Tea Party wants to stop bailouts, period; the OWS folks, even those concerned about the issue, are more likely to try to pass regulations making it illegal to accept bailout money.  The Tea Party would limit government; OWS, the private sector.)  As I happen to believe that less government, beyond necessity, is usually better, and I tend to think that the necessary amount of government is kind of low, ideologically I have no common ground.

In the second place, the nature of the protests has been ridiculous, and not defensible as "free speech".  Camping, as in NYC and elsewhere, is not speech.  It doesn't even fit any reasonable definition of "assembly".  Shutting down a port, as in Oakland, is not speech.  (And what exactly was the Oakland port doing wrong, anyway?)

In the third place, I find the protests – at least as covered in the media – to be disturbingly unpolitical.  There is no agenda.  There is no political organization on any meaningful scale.  There is not even a denouncement of the current political organization, beyond a few particular policy differences.  I'd prefer to deal with out-and-out communists, totalitarians, or shariaists, from an ideas standpoint.  You can't argue with, "Everybody should have food," when the proposed mechanism to make this happen is, "Somebody (meaning somebody else) should figure out how."  Which is to say, the protestors demonstrate a dependent mindset in many ways, which I find childish if not repellant.

At the same time, we are hearing reports of police brutality, in varying degrees; what is hard to tell, very hard to determine, is whether this "brutality" is being provoked – I won't say justified, but at the same time there are also reports of criminal activity (from drug use to thefts to rapes) which would demand a police presence, and I get the impression that the police are largely not welcomed.

If police – or other government force – is being employed illegitimately, this is bad and should stop.  At the same time, I'm finding that I have trouble caring, not because I think the protesters are wrong, exactly, but more because I far as I can tell their wasting time and space and media attention on ...exactly what, anyway?  As regards the protestors, I'm apathetic.


Thought Experiment: NFL and Relegation

One thing I do from time to time is imagine ways to fix various things that don't really need fixing.  One of my favorite hypothetical things to imagine is introducing relegation into the NFL.

For reference, the current alignment of the NFL is in eight divisions, roughly split by geography and/or league history, as follows:

East: New England Patriots, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins
North: Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals
South: Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans
West: Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers

East: New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys
South: Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints
North: Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
West: St. Louis Rams, Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers.

And here's a map, courtesy of wikipedia.  I didn't feel like labeling each individual team, so use your powers of geography and work it out for yourself?

So, relegation.  My plan calls for eight-team divisions.  Since I'm going to be completely ignoring current alignment anyway, I'm simply going to dispense with league history, and attempt to group teams together as closely as possible geographically.*

West: Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs
South: Houston Texans, New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, Carolina Panthers
Midwest: Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns
Northeast: Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills, Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets, New York Giants, New England Patriots

Each division would be re-aligned each year into two subdivisions based on record.  For instance, at the beginning of the 2011 season we would have had:

West A: Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Oakland Raiders, Seattle Seahawks
West B: Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos

South A: Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars
South B: Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans, Carolina Panthers

Midwest A: Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, St. Louis Rams
Midwest B: Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals

Northeast A: New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets
Northeast B: Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Washington Redskins, Buffalo Bills


Every team would play one game against each other team in the division, and against two of the three same-class subdivisions outside their division on a rotating basis, for 15 games total.  (Alternatively, could play all three same-class subdivisions for 19 games.)  Game sites would be determined by site of last meeting (if last home then away and vice versa), modified by last result (can be moved if home win or away loss), so that each team has either 4 away and 3 home or 3 away and 4 home in division, alternating each year; and 8 home and 7 away or vice versa, alternating each year if possible (19 games: 10 home and 9 away or vice versa).  If further movement is necessary, random draw to move games.

Atlanta's schedule this year might have been games against: New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Miami, Houston, Tennessee, Carolina, Chicago, Green Bay, Indianapolis, St. Louis, New England, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New York Jets; West Division off schedule by rotation.

Playoff spots would remain at the current twelve, but the now-artificial AFC-NFC distinction is removed completely.  Seeds would be: 1-4 subdivision A winners, by record (overall record, division record, head-to-head); 5-8 best record from Subdivision A teams, by record (overall record, head-to-head, common opponents, strength of schedule, scoring margin?), unless not enough teams with winning record; 9-12 (plus any extra 5-8 seeds remaining) best remaining record among all teams as before.  Seeds 1-4 would have byes.  5 plays 12, 6 plays 11, etc.  The next round is reseeded so that 1 plays the lowest remaining seed, etc.; after this winner of 1 vs ? plays winner of 4 vs ? and winner of 2 vs ? plays winner of 3 vs ?.  The Super Bowl is the last remaining teams.  (Duh.)

Relegation: Each season each division is re-seeded by record.  Overall record, division record, and head-to-head are considered in that order.  Any playoff team is exempt from relegation to Subdivision B unless another playoff team with a better record in the same division displaces them (this would require 5 playoff teams from one division, which is unlikely but I don't feel like running the math to see if it's possible).

While I'm at it, I'm also going to remove overtime from regular-season games and institute overtime for playoff games as two ten-minute periods, followed by a single sudden-death un-timed period if necessary.

As plans go, it's not brilliant, but it's an idea.


*In the interest of fair competition.  There's some evidence, this years' 49ers notwithstanding, that jetlag, especially on West to East flights, is a significant handicap beyond the "normal" stress of an away game.  The other option would be to split the league horizontally, into several "bands" each encompassing most time zones, but this distributes the problem equally instead of trying to eliminate it.  Also trying to make it work is hilariously implausible.

Lawyers are Not Wealth Creators

The following quotation (pulled from a comment on a friend's facebook post on something only vaguely related) is typical of liberal impressions I have seen of conservative ideals (bracketed edits made by me for clarity or to remove vulgarity):

"Yeah well, [conservatives] been delusional since at least [Reagan's presidency]. I still can't figure out why they think Reagan was so amazing, other than the fact that he won the election and he was a Republican. His policies were [bad] - his "Trickle Down" theory has been [completely] unsuccessful but the campaign [they're] running now is exactly the same as then - "Let the Job Creators keep more money and it will all trickle down". Yeah, trickle down right into their offshore accounts. Trickling golden bathtubs. Trickling Ponzi schemes."

To be completely honest, I've never been entirely sold on the Reagan hype myself.  His message while campaigning may have been "sound conservatism", but his actual policies were a fairly mixed bag (at least by my own essentially laissez-faire standards), as detailed here*.  In fact Reagan's policies, as a mixed bag and considering they did little to nothing to dismantle the structure of the federal welfare program-driven bureaucracy, in fact have not provided any sort of testing ground to prove or disprove the theory he campaigned on.  As far as I can tell, the last president under which the United States had something resembling the ideal currently promulgated of a free market economy was Calvin Coolidge.  And his record shows that it is – or was, at least – possible to lower taxes and the debt, and the way to do that was cutting Federal spending.

The liberals' theory – try to raise taxes, and then raise spending whether or not taxes are raised, and ignore the deficit question almost completely even in the face of Greece (and Spain, and Italy, and Ireland) spiraling into an economic disaster driven by an exaggerated version of these same policies and only slightly mitigated by essentially unwilling action by foreign powers trying to find the least worst of multiple bad choices – completely fails to make any sense, let alone answer these serious concerns.  The most reasonable thing they have to say is that maybe we need to raise taxes to cut the deficit, which at least is a rational and sensible conclusion.  (Whether it works or not at this point is anyone's guess.)

I admit we're talking about a different scale here than we were ninety years ago.  I would hazard a guess that our various governments did not, back then, employ one sixth of the population.  And so trying to draw down that much of an investment – to redirect it to private enterprise and freedom where I think, with most conservatives, that it belongs – will call for more concerted effort and more forethought.  That doesn't make it impossible, or change the fact that it ought to be done.

The fundamental problem with leftist policy is that it diminishes the number of people available to actually accomplish things.  Someone starts a company and hires three people: great.  Add another government program to supplement or subsidize or replace him, and you get four people working and have to find a fifth to supervise a new department, meaning he's not doing something actually useful any more.  Subsidize, replace, or regulate an area of private enterprise, and you get more bureaucrats.  Back in 1998, the IRS – one agency, and arguably one of the at least marginally useful ones, since somebody has to collect taxes – employed over one hundred thousand people.  While those numbers were declining at the time – and notice that they declined with the ascendancy of the Republican party in Congress (although they had risen during Bush Sr.'s presidency, to be fair) – I doubt it has shrunk much more over the last dozen years.  Okay, so that's not that many people, relatively speaking: 0.03% of the population, more or less.  But it would be a pretty large corporation, and it's only one agency.  (Not sure where the rest of the one sixth come from.)  For comparison, if we take that 100,000 number as accurate, it's about one-fifteenth of the size of the US military.  Which means... at this point I have no idea, actually.  I'm just throwing around numbers and trying to make sense of them, and failing.  Which is sort of a point in and of itself: granted I'm not a trained economist or politician, but I have approximately no idea what the US Federal government's current existence actually means in economic or day-to-day fact, or even really what it is.  If for no other reason, I want a smaller government so that I can understand the thing.  It's my job as a voter to understand what I'm voting for, and at this point that's an impossibility on any but the vaguest terms.

This is what we're looking at: unfathomable numbers of government wonks trying to keep track of policies and see them enforced.  There's part of just war theory, dating at least to Aquinas, that says one of the reasons for going to war appropriately is, in all but the most dire cases, possibility of success.  The leftist regulatory and bureaucratic state does not have a "possibility of success", even if we grant that its aims are valid.

Obviously there's a role for lawyers, just like there's a role for soldiers.  There's even a need for tax collectors, police, and firemen.  But these things are due to unfortunate facts of life, and the necessity means they do not exist as inherently good things.  I would like to live in a world where police are unnecessary.  The left largely wants to limit the size of the military for these reasons.  (Then again, so do many on the right, these days, even if they don't have pride of place on the big-party stage.)  The right also wants to limit the size of the bureaucracy, for similar reasons – and are resisted in the name of I'm not even sure what any more.

It's clearly not getting the job done.  Social Security is spiraling out of control: no reforms are allowed.  Medicare and Medicaid are precarious: ditto.  Government agencies keep getting in the way and failing: public schools fall behind the rest of the world and people scrape and save to homeschool or send kids to private schools for the sake of a better education; the public school system demands more money, better salaries, and more compliance with the unions.  The EPA passes regulations or doesn't pass regulations, and nobody understands why.  A company builds a new plant to hire more people while expanding an existing plant, and union leftists threaten strikes and political leftists support them.  And of course there's that 2000 page boondoggle of a medical bill that some clowns passed and nobody understands, even now going into effect, if we knew what the effect was.  Then there are the ongoing assaults against religious liberty in the name of "nondiscrimination" (and "liberty" to kill infants), and so on and so forth.  It makes no sense.

The leftist expansion of government has brought us a government that thinks it can do anything, and is proceeding to do it, regardless of the fact that half the population disagrees with its favored policies.  Democracy?  Heh.  And the people benefitting, for the most part, are the politicians and their lawyer and union friends – not the people stuck on welfare because business owners can't afford to meet the regulations to hire more people because demand isn't growing because people are stuck on welfare because wait I was already here wasn't I.

Bureaucrats and lawyers are necessary, but they're maintenance people, not architects and builders.  They're the people leftist policy pays: this leads me to conclude that leftism is not interested in growth but in maintenance.**  But maintenance depends on having something to maintain.  At some point, a plumber and a cleaner and a painter step back from a building, and say, "We need a builder to come in and fix this wing."  When they find out there are no builders left (because the building code is now three thousand pages long), as the Soviet Union did, the thing falls apart.

Leftist policy will eventually lead to collapse under its own pressure, as in the Soviet Union or Greece, or to draconian measures which please nobody but sort of manage to keep things together, as in modern China – at least until the tyranny falls apart because of its own failings as a system of government, as the Roman Empire did.


* In matters of historical record, I tend to view wikipedia as an acceptable resource, for the following reasons: first, reputation; second, a habit of allowing and actually encouraging an in fact over-critical attitude to anything remotely questionable; and finally, the insistence on citing everything.  Also, for internet discussion, it is a highly accessible source.  At the same time, it must be allowed that the overall attitude of wikipedia's interpretation of facts (like that of much of the rest of "the internet") is fairly left-wing.
** Oddly enough, this is born out by several correlating data points, among which are: shrinking birth rates in more thoroughly leftist countries; the alliance of hyperenvironmentalists and generally unsavory people like "Dr." Singer with leftist causes; an apparently general leftist antipathy towards large families; support for abortion (even apart from the ethical question which renders the practice obviously evil).


Applied Linguistics

I've managed to not-really-learn several languages over the years.  On the whole, it's a good thing, but there's one major problem.  My brain has never quite managed to sort them into "English" and "not English".  As a result, I have a bad habit of peppering otherwise normal conversations with snippets of foreign languages, mostly German.

Occasionally, it sidetracks class.  Today, trying to get a student who was very quiet to speak up, I asked, "Was ist es?"

"...That's creepy."
"What is?"
"You spoke German."
"No one here speaks German."
"Well I do, a little."
"Well it's creepy!"


Quick Review: The Three Musketeers

Somebody decided to make a new Three Musketeers movie.  I suppose in this day of rehashing old plots it's at least a good place to start.  I had seen the trailer, I forget why, and thought it looked suitably silly so last night I went and saw it.

I loved it.  Sure, if historical accuracy or any pretension thereof is your thing, you will end up twitching violently, but we're going to assume for the sake of argument you can deal with that if you know it's coming.  To give you an idea of the flavor, take the original book by Dumas, introduce it to the Foglios (of Girl Genius fame), and put Errol Flynn in charge of the whole shebang.

While I haven't read the novel for a while and disclaim perfect knowledge, one thing that struck me as significant is that despite some of the more creative licenses taken with the setting, the plot set-up and characterizations remain essentially identical to the original.  Of course, it's a well known story, so there are limits to what is practical to change, but still.

I admit I have a fairly low taste in movies at times.  But I tend to think of Dumas as one of the original action writers, so I'm even inclined to think he would have thoroughly appreciated this take on his story.


Review: NSO at the Kennedy Center

Last night I went to hear the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel play a selection of pieces by Romantic composers: the Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, by Berlioz; Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition; and, in between, the Grieg A minor piano concerto, played by one Simon Trpçeski, who is apparently Macedonian and whose name has an entirely different mark on the c (ˇ) but I can't manage to reproduce it and anyway it would probably still be unpronounceable. I mean, four consonants in a row? Seriously?

Ahem. Where was I? Right. The NSO was fantastic. "The Great Gate of Kiev" – finale to the Exhibition – was worth the price of admission by itself. The Berlioz was handled beautifully as well. On a side-note, however: the program informed me that a critic once said Berlioz' music contained no melody. While this is an exaggeration, I think it is a very insightful comment. Berlioz' music contains many themes, but few seem, to me, to reach a successful conclusion: instead they get lost in fantastic harmonies and variations. One moment is beautiful and the next is excellent and the motion is from brilliant moment to beautiful glimpse – but the melody is overwhelmed by the attention. His phrases are memorable; themes as wholes less so.

But mainly I want to talk about the pianist. The musical performance was superb. My impression is that his interpretation was noticeably slower than my recording of the piece (Phillip Entremont, with Ormandy's Philadelphia Orchestra), and the rests and ritards often seemed dramatically exaggerated.

However, his presentation was noteworthy. At first I thought he was a showman type, but I revised that opinion: he simply seemed to be lost in the music: during the orchestral sections, he nodded and motioned along with the most avid fans, with apparently no compunctions from self-consciousness whatsoever. At the same time, it was clear that he took a very personal approach to the music and his interaction with the orchestra. While the program notes said this was his debut with the NSO, Trpceski appeared on familiar terms with the orchestra – and especially maestro Maazel – during the performance. While I thought at times that Trpceski seemed to be deliberately exaggerating some sections to get a reaction from the conductor, I was most sure of it at the end of the second movement, when he repeated the final highest ornament three times: certainly twice. Although, I could be wrong that this was unusual – my only concrete reference is my recording and I can't find a professional review.

All in all, a highly satisfactory night – I also came away with Trpceski's recordings of Rachmaninov's four piano concertos, with the Liverpool Symphony Orchestra.


More Tax Math

Assume for the moment that we cut out all tax deductions and loopholes so that tax rates are actually tax rates, not approximations. Now let's assume for the sake of argument that I make $50,000 a year and pay 10% in taxes, and Mr. Joe "the government calls me a millionaire" Smith makes ten times as much – $500,000 a year – and pays 20% in taxes. If you said the tax ratio is 1 to 2, you're wrong. Mr. Smith, in this scenario, pays $100,000 a year in taxes, twenty times as much as my $5,000. There is a 1 to 2 ratio: Mr. Smith pays twice as much more in taxes than he makes in income compared to me. Bonus information: the facts are that IRS data supports this thought-experiment's point: even with the loopholes that actually exist top earners pay more tax than they "deserve", at least in terms of percentages.

I want to consider another facet of the problem. The fact that I made $50,000 this year and Mr. Smith made $500,000 leaves him with more money to start the next year. How much more? While I tend to spend more than this, I can live fairly comfortably – in the DC area! – for about $1,500 a month. In the above scenario, I would still have $27,000 saved at the end of the year. (I actually make less money than this, and if I did make that much money, I might spend more of it. On the other hand the tax bill would actually be about three times higher, but the point is I'd still end up saving, say, $10,000 that I "don't need".)

Mr. Smith, even if he lives much larger or has a good-sized family (or both) would have about $300,000 left at the end of the year. (Again, in reality I am guessing he would be lucky to have $200,000, unless either taxes are higher than I think they are or he had a chicanerous tax agent.) And I do not really have a problem with that. I think the more fortunate – and so far I have mostly been in that category – have a duty to provide a "fair share" of public money, one that cannot really be more than approximated mathematically. In ancient Athens, you had to bring a horse to the battle: now you have to pay 27% instead of %17. Fine, great, whatever.

But... don't me and my paltry twenty-seven grand deserve some of Mr. Smith's huge pile of extra money? I mean, I worked hard and I cannot even buy a fancy new car at the end of the year, and this guy can go buy a beach house (well, probably not a beach house, but a normal house or a cottage-up-north or a boat, anyway).

I am fairly certain – or at least sincerely hopeful – that we all agree that argument is ludicrous.

However, there is an inherent emotional appeal if we keep the scale but reduce the numbers. If I am still making $50,000, but some unfortunate can only find $5,000 worth of work to do in a year – for the record, this is less than 20 weeks – 5 months – worth of work at a minimum wage of $6 an hour (which is low) – doesn't he deserve some of my money? Surely from that $27,000 I am not going to use I can spare $13,000 to bring him up to a "decent standard of living" – I wind up keeping almost as much as he is getting. That would be "fair", right?

The answer, as far as I can see it, is no. What has this guy done for me? He is not even working most of the year, so he has been unproductive. He has not done anything particular for me. His existence has no effect on mine – except now, to take my money. Since I am not a murderous materialist, the mind rebels at the thought of just ordering any adults who cannot care for themselves shot, but it is an equally "rational" way to solve the problem apart from the minor issues of morality and sustainability as a policy, and it does not take my stuff.

I would say I do have a duty to take care of less fortunate people, as I can. Maybe I should even stop living "comfortably" and scrape by on $12,000 a year instead and throw that extra $3,000 into my own charitable efforts. What I am not sold on at all is the idea that it is any government's role – and, because I like federalism, especially not Big Government's role – to make sure I perform that charitable duty, any more than I want to government trying to make sure I don't cheat on my (hypothetical) girlfriend or do buy a sufficient number of things made in the USA or stop swimming in perfectly good water.

There is a place for what we used to call (maybe we still do) "public works programs" – roads, a competent post service, etc. – and some distribution of welfare payments may be among them. But the important word is "public". What I believe needs to be consciously and vocally rejected is the idea of "wealth redistribution" as some sort of right. It is no such thing. There is no just reason to take what one person has earned and give it to a person who has earned relatively nothing, specifically because they have earned nothing. The mind boggles. The phrase is nothing more than an entirely colorless description of what happens with any tax money. Of course wealth is being redistributed. Wealth is redistributed when it is taken from me and given to my brother because he is a Marine and on the public payroll (though at least there he has earned the paycheck) or paid to Mr. Obama because he serves as our president. The justification for welfare payments also cannot be some nonsense about individual charity. Public money is not individual, and government involvement means at least the threat of coercion, making it strictly not charitable. The only plausible justification is the public good: that such and such a policy benefits the town, or state, or nation as a whole. I think this argument can be made; I suspect it can also be denied; I am not sure who is right, and to what extent.


Science and the Fine Art (of Making Distinctions)

A friend on facebook linked this article today. Like most articles, it has its good and bad points. To the good, it points out that a Christian rejection of reason and science is a bad idea – unfortunately, I am naturally a critic, so I want to talk more about its bad points.

And the bad point is basically this: most Christians don't reject science, and are of all religions the most especially relation on rational arguments. True the premises we accept may differ from the secular mainstream, but premises have to be false to invalidate an argument. The question of falsehood is most notoriously not settled.

Anyway, Dr. Giberson makes a striking error when he offers up as evidence that "fundamentalists" refuse to believe in evolution and global warming. We'll take the latter first, because it's an easier target. To deny global warming is not to in any way disregard science: the peer pressure applied and lies perpetrated to keep up the climate change 'hype' are well-documented, if conveniently forgotten: Forbes (the magazine) on the subject; FOX on a fraudulent experiment; the BBC on how models don't match reality. And then there's the bit where thirty or forty years ago the whole "little ice age" theory was the new big thing. Man-made climate change could be true anyway, of course, but it's not like there's no debate.

And evolution? At least there pretty much is a scientific consensus here. And yes, most people who disagree are religiously motivated – though most of them take good care to find some sort of scientific basis as well (e.g. Ham and ICR's positing that much of the upheaval credited to several million years of existence could also be explained by global flood conditions). At the same time, I'm automatically suspicious of anybody claiming to know what happened 17 million years ago, especially when it might actually be 3 million or 50 million depending what the current "evidence" suggests. I don't say these conclusions are necessarily wrong: but I don't care much, not least because I don't have the expertise to evaluate the claims myself. At the same time, we don't have much but circumstantial evidence on the question. To be facetious, "God said so" seems like just as good a reason to me as "these little rocks say so" when we're talking about things I'll never actually experience myself.

Which is all to say, rejection of evolution or global warming (or other dangerously accepted idea that may not have sufficient backing) is not a rejection of reason. In fact, if anything, it's not much more than a hyper-skepticism, which I thought was supposed to be a good thing. Imagine a conversation: "This skeleton is 250,000 years old." "How do you know?" "Well the carbon here decays..." "How do you know?" "Well we've determined in a lab that..." "Okay, but this wasn't in a lab. What if something changed?" "Well we're assuming nothing major changed." "...For two hundred fifty thousand years? NOTHING major changed in two hundred fifty thousand years?" "...uh, yeah?" (Off the top of my head, wouldn't industrialization over the last two hundred years or so have changed "natural" carbon levels and stuff? Again, I'm not making a decision here on the validity of current scientific research, and I'm well aware that I'm oversimplifying drastically – I'm just pointing out that skepticism may not be entirely out of order.)

Finally, if "everyone knows" something's true... Galileo was wrong. Even if the YECs are off their collective rockers, they're at least a challenge to the scientific establishment, and answering them ought to both prove a valuable exercise and solidify the evidence further, right? Ignoring them does nothing except create ideological martyrs (if they ever get noticed at all, at least).

In other words, the worst you can accuse a Christian skeptic of, say, abiogenesis of is hypocrisy. "So you trust a book you've been told by 'experts' is divine, but you won't trust a bone 'experts' say is a million years old." But you always have to choose which authorities to trust: Hayek or Keynes? Your dad or your friends?


The Ethics of Jobs' Creations

I had somehow not managed to listen to the late Steve Jobs' Stanford Commencement speech before, but as it's been circulating again right after the man's death (RIP), I thought I would do that finally.  He said a number of good things, but one point he made stuck with me.  Paraphrasing, he said that the important thing to him wasn't the money he made; rather, it was making something better for our children.

As it happens, I don't have children of my own, nor am likely to any time soon – but I both am a teacher and have three younger siblings, and so it still resonates with me.  And not only in the realm of private activity: I thought almost immediately that this would be a great measure for almost any political proposal as well: will it make the world a better place in 20 years?  25?  50?  Too often political – and business – decisions are merely made on the basis of, "What can this do for me, right now?"


Thought Experiment: Country Singers and Politics

So ESPN dumped Hank Williams Jr. from his Monday Night Football intro music video spot thing because the singer said that President Obama inviting Rep. Boehner golfing was like Hitler going out with Israeli president Netanyahu.

It was a dumb thing to say.  At the very least it was a farcical exaggeration (which also happened to break Godwin's Law in style).  At worst it was indefensible disrespect to the sitting President.  I lean towards the latter, although I think there was no disrespect intended toward the office, which means I'm not comfortable with just hammering the guy, no matter how much I can't think of a time it would be appropriate to say.

Of course it created a small furor on the mainstream news and on the interwebs.

So I want to take a step back and pose a question.

Suppose some liberal (or African-American, or both) highly public entertainment figure, say somebody on Glee, had said something like:

"It's ridiculous, Obama inviting Boehner to go out for a round of golf is like Sarkozy inviting Hitler to hit the links."

That's almost equally indefensible, and only less so in that Boehner's a Congressman, not our head of state.  Still, you don't compare people to Hitler unless they're actually people like Hitler - looking at you, Joe.  Stalin, that is, not Biden.  In case that wasn't clear.

Would the reaction have been the same?  I'd like to think so, but I'm not comfortable actually predicting it – mainly because we have way too many loonies running around saying almost equally dumb things about the last president without a mass reaction calling them to account.


A Reformed Sticking Point

Reformed churches are mostly fiercely dedicated to remaining with and in the Word of God.  This is commendable.  This dedication does however often extend to insisting on a necessity of preserving in all cases the exact wording of professedly uninspired documents.  We might call this linguistic legalism.  As an example, I want to comment on this condemnation issued by certain Pastors Bayly.  I do not have anything against their words of warning for those who try to use the Gospel 'for profit' (though St. Paul's other commentary on envious preachers comes to mind as a counter-warning against taking such condemnations too far).

But at the end of their pronouncement, the Baylys leave the realm of reasonable warnings.  They accuse Pastor T.D. Jakes – one of those preaching for gain, in their accounting (at least a plausible accusation, given the tone of his ministry's website) – of heresy.  How so?  On the basis of this statement:
"There is one God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in three manifestations: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
The offending word is "manifestations", with its overtones of the various kinds of essentially gnostic heresies throughout the church's history.  The Baylys particularly identify Jakes with the Modalists (that link is original to BaylyBlog: the possible irony of their using a Roman Catholic webcyclopedia amuses me).

To be sure, "manifestations" is not the accepted term "persons" used in the Western translations of the Church's creeds.  And as mentioned, to the historically literate Christian it has unfortunate overtones.  But the charge of heresy is concocted entirely on that poor word choice, with no regard for the rest of the statement.  Take for instance
"Further, [Jesus Christ] arose bodily from the dead, ascended into heaven, where, at the right hand of the Majesty on High, He is now our High Priest and Advocate."
"The ministry of the Holy Spirit is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ..." (emphases mine)
Both these statements accept, even emphasize, even require the traditional and orthodox doctrine of the separate persons of the Trinity.  Nowhere does Jakes' church veer into clear heresy (at least on that score) in their statement.  The charge is ludicrous – and making it worse is that searching for departures from orthodoxy within the ministry of The Potter's House is easy: the Baylys might have started, say, in the church's inclusion of female pastors.  Instead, they appear to be clutching carelessly at any straw of accusation they can find.  That's careless rhetoric, if nothing else, but often is the hallmark of personal attacks – which I doubt either Bayly had in mind at all, but again is an appearance to avoid if possible, for rhetorical reasons if nothing else.

I might have just dismissed the post out of hand and ignored it, but I had been reading earlier today in Henry Osborn Taylor's The Medieval Mind, where in a footnote to an account of Patristic discussions he has this to say:
"... The Latin juristic word persona [is] used in the Creed.  The Latins had to render the hypostaseis of the Greeks; and "three somethings," tria quaedam, was too loose.... hypostasis would have been substantia; but that word had been taken to render ousia.  So the legal word persona was employed in spite of its recognized unfitness." (Chapter III, note 1)
Hypostasis might literally be translated an "under-standing-ness", or more colloquially a thing which stands by itself (while supporting another), thus translations such as "foundation", "substance" (derived from the Latin word with the same literal meaning as the Greek), and the philosophical sense of the English "essence".  Yes, even the "somethings" of quaedam are more definite, more material than Jakes' "manifestations", to say nothing of substantia, Taylor's (and by his account the Church Fathers') preferred word if had been possible.  But we have to recognize that persona – meaning legally approximately the same thing to a Roman that "persons" now does to us, I believe – is itself an approximation, and that makes the charge look even sillier.  "Manifestation" is a poor choice, given that it carries a connotation of appearance only – but none of us are perfect, and perhaps a friendly letter, rather than flinging down a gauntlet?


The Democratic Premise

Support for democracy can roughly be defined as a belief that experts are unnecessary in government.  Many people are not experts in anything, and we find those people who have acquired expertise of some sort in many different fields.  Even among the experts in the "correct" fields for government, the studies of law, politics, and the like, we find disagreements, to say nothing of character and personalities differences or problems.  This is to say, even if the people of a democracy were to listen to the scholars of government, which course they might choose to follow as the one handed down from the wise men is less than clear on most issues.  Further, by the very nature of the thing any argument for a pure democracy puts government among the things that most people know how to do, at least more or less: which is to say, among a list of things like raising children, helping the needy, finding work, settling arguments, and so forth.

By a corollary of sorts – the strict logical connection is difficult to draw, but the analogy is not hard to see – a democratic government will by nature be a fairly limited one in its functions.  After all, if most people know how to do the things government does, most people will already be doing them for themselves.  On the other hand, the extent of the government is by definition as great as possible.  The result would seem to be that in a democratic government – if any such beast were ever found – the line between the public and the private would be blurred.  By way of example, I might suggest the New England colonies, at least up to the mid-1800's.  I was deeply intrigued, reading the first part of de Tocqueville's Democracy in America earlier this year, by his observation that the majority of governmental functions, especially in New England, were carried out by each town separately: his account gives almost the impression that most of the citizens of any given town carried some governmental function, even apart from their votes.

Further, it is clear that any governmental action which begins to prefer some people's judgment to others – not in the natural way of listening in fact to the scholar for an opinion on the law, but by the artificial method of elevating some class into a special legal station – has abandoned the heart of democracy, which is equal voice in and treatment by the government.

Defining democracy is different from determining whether it is in fact a workable system of government.  The expert opinion, if I can still use the phrase without irony at the end of this piece, has tended to be that it in fact is not so possible, whether you look at Plato's philosopher-guardians or the American Founders' careful checks and limits and balances.  If I were to draw any immediate application – and this piece is meant as a definition and therefore a starting place, not an argument by itself – it would simply be this: given the meaning of the word it is strange that the modern states which claim to be "democracies" are characterized by huge governmental structures of regulations, and quite often preferential legalisms (whether we're talking earmarks or loopholes).


Medium and Maturity

One of the chief differences between the okay sci-fi and fantasy authors and the good ones is that the good ones have learned to spell.  As a sometimes-but-not-really aspiring author myself, I can attest that for almost anyone there is a desire to distinguish yourself, to be unique.  Not that this applies only to writing, of course, but in writing, and especially in SF/F, everyone wants to be Tolkien.  Unfortunately, most of us aren't, so the result tends to be mediocre authors naming things.  Badly.

Although I read the novel years ago, I finally read Orson Scott Card's short story Ender's Game last night.  The first thing that struck me was how young Card's style is in the story.  While it is recognizably Card's work, much of the later polish is missing. Many sentences are awkward by themselves, and the story does not flow very well.  And as I alluded to, Card couldn't spell.  Mazer Rackham is stuck with 'Maezr' – overly awkward-looking, just for the sake of uniqueness.

Compared to the novel, the focus is very different.  In the novel, Card focuses on Ender: in this original story, the focus is more abstract.  It feels as though the attempted orienting focuses what is happening to Ender – but not as Ender, more as "the one" of the story.  The story is almost more about the teachers.  The result, though, is a little unfocused: again evidence of a younger author.

If I had encountered the short story first, rather than the novel, I don't know if I would have the respect for Card that I do.  Fair?  Maybe not, but still an interesting thing to note.


The Death of CONVPOL (An Apology, in One Sense or the Other)

Edit: Due to an email I received expressing concern over his future career and certain other things, I have removed all named references to my debate opponent.  Hopefully no damage has been done – take this as a general anti-liberal screed, I suppose, really posted just to make me feel better and achieve closure.  We all know I post enough of those anyway.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a – now defunct – political debate blog going by the moniker CONVPOL, which I forget what it stood for and as it's been shut down I can't look up.  []Its ostensible purpose was to provide a forum to compare, contrast, and debate liberal and conservative views.  I replaced the original conservative writer; [a] shut-down followed as [the moderator] was unable (I assume) to find a second replacement.

The discussion terminated mainly over differences concerning what was appropriate: as those who know me are aware, I sometimes employ a more direct approach than might strictly be considered necessary, to say nothing of politic.  My last submission's premise was, in fact, little more than a more or less polite accusation that [my arguments had not yet been answered], which I followed by a restatement of my position.  I personally would have responded to that sort of a challenge – assuming it was actually answerable – with a detailed point-by-point analysis of how it was in fact a false charge.  I still think that I had made an accurate assessment: what I never meant it as was any sort of personal attack, though others I consulted on the fallout thought I was out of line.  My rational side (such as it is) suspects there may be a point there: on the other hand, I also consider that, by making the charge, I offered to the opportunity to hammer me flat if I were wrong – an opportunity most debaters I know would not turn down.

However the debate in fact came apart, I suspect it might not have lasted much longer due to [] my "anti-intellectualism".  Practically speaking, this seemed to mean two things: that I was not precise enough in citing sources, and that I showed little respect either for the (progressive) liberal mythos or for the [supposed] paragons of academia [].  Anyway, the first lack on my part is perhaps a fault; the second is my only real way to approach the question, practically speaking.  I am a politico neither by training nor profession: the interest I take in political questions is as a citizen first, and an amateur student of history second.  As bases for arguments, the general facts of history are well-enough known enough to go without citation – unless one is referencing a new theory or interpretation, or research on some little-known princedom in the Himalayas three thousand years ago.  I feel no need to take an academic who says something which appears to be refutable nonsense seriously, no matter how many doctorates he has, though I will try to refute the argument if it's actually presented as anything more than an appeal to The Grand Doctor Suchandsuch's authority.  (What is this, the Middle Ages?  Actually yes – but that's a whole different post.  Or book.)

Which brings me to Adam Smith.  While I read at least some of Smith's Wealth of Nations back in high school, and excerpts in college, I recently got it out of the library because I wanted to read the whole thing.  What I was immediately struck by – in light of this ongoing snarl, mainly – was that Smith's methods seem reasonably close to my own.  This is not in any way surprising: the modern researcher, with his citations and footnotes, is in fact very modern.  It's therefore not really a defense of my methods to say that older methods, likely more prone to inaccuracy, agree with me.  What I want to stress is that Smith used the same sort of argumentation I tend to employ: logical argument and practical – by which I mean relatively small-scale – examples to demonstrate his point.  For an instance, we can take the famous pin-maker scenario which details the benefits of division of labor.

Having taken this example, and said that it resonates with me, I want to come back to the subject of the nature of a political argument.  [] I believe if you follow politics nationally, you will notice the following distinction: the liberal is constantly pursuing a general utopia: an ideal pattern for a whole country or world.  The conservative generally is concerned more with specifics: I would say the practical specifics, but some might not agree.  The liberal case, for instance, for Obamacare, has been that it will cover everybody, or at least more or everybody than the current situation.  The conservative objections, while occasionally targeting the absurdity of trying to prescribe a solution that works for 300 million people, have mainly focused either on specific provisions, or specific results.  This section is too vague, too bureaucratic, or unenforceable; this requirement will put so many businesses out of business, or reduce available coverage under these conditions.  True to form, I will not cite either of those allegations, beyond linking to a thing I wrote two years ago that dealt with the various ridiculous things included in the two thousand pages nobody's actually read.

From my perspective, the biggest problem with the debate theoretically happening on CONVPOL was that [my opponent] kept saying, "We have to get here," and I kept saying, "But the way you're trying to get there doesn't actually work!"  A prime example was our discussion of 1984.  [He] alleged that Big Brother was conservative, essentially on the basis that Orwell was a socialist himself.  By analogy, he suggested that it has been the conservatives pushing for that kind of control.  In response, I pointed out the huge difference between conservative and totalitarian, and mentioned that the regimes coming closest to BB – the defunct USSR and the not-so-defunct modern Chinese government – were not conservative but, at best (for the liberal) corrupted socialists.  To say nothing (as I did say nothing) about the police surveillance state that, say, the United Kingdom has become under decidedly non-Conservative governments (for the most part).  Such actual examples – as opposed to the theoretical utopias of liberal visions – [were] brushed off.  This is not unique to our relatively private debate.  Liberal politicians regularly ignore such actual examples in favor of theory, some of it truly wonky when not actively refuted.  President Obama, for example. is campaigning for yet another "jobs bill", despite the fact that none of the measures passed and money spent by the Feds seems to have dented unemployment numbers at all over the last three or four years (and yes, that includes Bush's stimulus).

In a sense, I understand this.  After all, the fact of the Crusades has done little to nothing to make me question my Christian faith.  Assumptions are assumptions, and are hard to shake, let alone change.  But what infuriated me – and ultimately in large part drove my challenge which resulted in the blog's disbandment – is that [many liberals] seemed to be unable to admit that the ideal of a world where everybody has stuff and is free is not just a modern progressive liberal ideal.  I spent the majority of the two argumentative posts I was allowed to make trying to hammer that point home: the goal isn't really the question, but rather the methods.  Yes, there are differences, for example that liberals tend to consider the murder that is abortion to be "freedom", but in the most general terms – people being happy, free, and having stuff – we are agreed on the goal.  Once we accept this fact, the most distinctive mark of actual modern liberal policy is its employment of centralized government power to attempt to achieve this goal, which stands in severe contrast to the conservative ideal of minimizing state power and regulation, or localizing such power as much as possible.  (Not that the conservatives are always good at sticking to their ideals, but the number of liberals willing to admit that any given government regulation (except of the web, oddly enough) might not be a good thing you can probably count on one hand in any given town or college.)

[Adding a note here: my partner in the CONVPOL debate has expressed that one of the things he was dissatisfied with was my "continuing to push a false definition of democratic liberalism" and "false, possibly unintentional, misrepresentation of modern conservatism".  As for the latter, I said repeatedly while a participant on that blog that I was not interested in defending the reigning modern so-called conservative ideals (which are in fact mainly neoconservative, or "Big Government Conservative" as opposed to the more traditional model I support): the 'Tea Party' and its small-government goals is the best "mainstream" (as it were) representation of my sort of conservatism.  For the first, I am really not sure how I have a "false definition" of democratic liberalism (which I think is to be understood as what the Europeans call democratic socialism).  The best definition I got during the debate was the sort of generic utopianist thinking I've referred to above: peace and love and stuff for everybody, with government regulating things to keep people safe.  That's so vague as to be meaningless, and I do not think that – in the absence of tighter definition – I was completely unjustified in taking the liberal Euro-style superregulatory tendency as indicative of the desired direction.  If I missed better explanations in our debate, I apologize.]

This is the contrast: not between final goals – as though one side wanted everyone to be miserable – but between the methods championed to achieve these goals.  Between a theory of benevolent statism on one hand, and that of a free citizenry left mainly to its own devices on the other.  Neither side is actively promoting either extreme of total control or total anarchy, but at the same time the role and extent of government differs greatly between the ideals.  The political argument, at least on a theoretical level, can't be about which politician is a worse money-grubber  (the ad hominems possible if we fall into political score-counting would prevent anything ever getting done), but about which idea works better.  Any practical political argument has to assume at least some commonality of purpose, but I'm not sure that this is still recognized.  I'm not sure that the liberal recognizes that conservatives actually want a free society as much as they do.  I'm absolutely sure [most liberals I know mean] well and [aren't] actively trying to concentrate power in the hands of a tyrant, or even a Brazilian evil bureaucracy (even though I'm very much afraid that's what his championed policies would result in).  I'm not so sure [many of them are] willing to impute a similar benevolence of motives to conservatives in general – [even the ones] at least willing in some sense to debate issues, unlike those Washington types who thought it was reasonable to tell us to pass a bill to find out what was in it.  Only a government that's okay with authoritarianism thinks that sort of thing is okay, and which party was it that pulled that one?



Events in the Life of a DC Teacher

Today I encountered a child who I am pretty sure must be the happiest kid ever to ride on the Metro.  He cheered when we came out of a tunnel.  He cheered when we stopped.  He cheered when we started again.  He was still cheering, "Hurray!", when he got off with his dad.  I feel vaguely guilty that my sense of decorum prevented me from celebrating right along with him.

I also, almost accidentally, found at least one way to tell a joke effectively to high school students.  The key is contrast.  In Geometry, we've gotten to that chapter on basic logic – conditionals, propositions, negations, and so forth.  In defining negation, I offered the synonym "denial".

Then, unable to resist, I embarked on a highly speculative venture.

Says I, "There are two things you need to know about denial."  Blank stares.  "The first is kind of serious, and psychological: denial is considered the first step to acceptance."  More blank stares, and a few shocked looks from the few who have heard this before.

"The second is kind of silly, but everyone should know it."  A dramatic pause.  "Denial is a river in Egypt."

And the room erupted in laughter.  I've never gotten that kind of response to such a terrible – and well-worn – pun before, and I'm convinced the key is the set-up.


On Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings

When the recent Lord of the Rings movies first came out, I was a dyed-in-the-wool Tolkien purist who wanted nothing to do with them. My parents read The Hobbit out loud to me and my siblings when I was very young: I want to say seven years old but that might be early. By 6th grade at the latest I was reading Lord of the Rings at least once a year and had found The Silmarillion on our family bookshelves (along with the complete Sherlock Holmes in two volumes: big books hold a mysterious attraction for me). Persuaded eventually to watch the first two films, I spent more time making fun of inconsistencies – both between the book and the film, and in the internal characterization – than I did considering their actual artistic value. I particularly remember an impassioned objection to Jackson's representation of the Elvish arming, based on wild extrapolations from vaguely worldview-based artistic principles I thought I had divined from Tolkien's writing. (I still think I had a little bit of a point, but I also think now that I was overly impressed then by G.K. Chesterton's approach to symbolism.) My ardor had cooled off enough that I actually went to see The Return of the King in the theater, but Blazing Denethor was enough to put me off again for a good long while. Even now, watching the movies with similarly minded friends tends to dissolve into criticisms and arguments.

My acceptance, and even appreciation, for what Jackson did has grown over the years. I am prepared to accept that different artists working in different mediums will tell a story differently – even have to present it differently. But I still believe that Jackson's films are not, in spirit, true to the point of the story as Tolkien told it. In a simple metaphor, I might say that Tolkien presented a story perhaps with some gray, but told mainly in black and white. Jackson retells the story in shades of gray, which does happen to maintain some white and black at the ends of the spectrum. Tolkien created a tale of heroes, although one with a realism of characterization not found in lesser imitators; Jackson is fascinated by – and expands on – the imperfections implicit in the humanity even of the Elvish and Dwarvish characters.

Jackson's vision increases Aragorn's doubt, and this is the most excusable fault. After all, Tolkien at least wrote that into the original story. Less palatable is his presentation of Elrond as a pessimist, if not a defeatist, a far cry from Tolkien's vision of a kingly Elven prince. But where Jackson really loses a handle on the story is in his portrayal of Tolkien's most heroic characters. Frodo and Sam's unshakeable trust in each other – which even the Ring fails to subdue until the very end – is replaced by an object lesson in trusting your friends, for the sake of which the bond of friendship is disrupted by Gollum, of all people. The same thing happens to Faramir – in Tolkien's hands, a most perfect gentle knight if there ever was one – who falls to temptation, again in order to teach the lesson of trust, or honesty, or something.

In short, all that is left of Tolkien's struggle between good and evil is the struggle against evil. Gandalf, in The Hobbit, questions Bilbo's loose use of "Good morning!", but I do not think he would be much happier with Jackson's idea of 'Good', which seems to be defined merely by an opposition to 'Bad'. Lest I seem to be faulting Jackson too much, I should say that this tends to be a common fault of modern fantasy. The taste for 'realism' has lowered our expectations for artistic heroes, even when it doesn't degenerate altogether – as in much of George R.R. Martin's or Alan Moore's work – into dystopian nihilism. To paraphrase whoever you've decided to attribute the quotation to today, all it takes for evil to triumph is for 'good men' to be merely 'decent', to be nothing in particular.

Tolkien wrote that The Lord of the Rings was not to be seen as paralleling the events of the Second World War, and noted that if it were the Western alliance would have taken much more pragmatic measures. Tolkien was perhaps himself more influenced by earlier wars in his own life, primarily the First World War, where it seemed that some idealistic spirit still endured, even if the nature of the fighting and the new technology with which it was conducted was horrific in fact. But to us now – and I think to Jackson – the idea of the hero, of the good man, has been deeply influenced by the wars fought over the last century, with a nod perhaps to the "Great War", but really beginning with the 'Greatest Generation' that left ordinary jobs and lives to fight totalitarian expansion, and continuing through the sometimes pointless wars and interventions in Asia, in the Middle East, in Latin America...

If I seem to be wandering far afield from mere film criticism, forgive me. If I might be so bold as to pretend to look inside Peter Jackson's mind, he has seen all of these historical events unfold, and to him what rings most true in Tolkien's work is the narrative of the simple man doing what is necessary, because someone has to. Where I see the story as a heroic saga, with Aragorn, Faramir, and the rest as noble examples to emulate, Jackson hears most strongly the sentiments of desirable normality and to him the untouchable heights of Tolkien's Galadriel, Faramir or Imrahil are the artistic inconsistency. I do not think his narrative allows properly for the way in which even Sam – the most 'common man' of the Company – has as an ideal "the brave things in the old tales": praising the people who did the deeds (whom again even, or especially, Sam recognizes as being not that unusual) not exactly for being innately heros, but more for performing heroism: recognizing them not for innate goodness but for the deeds themselves, the Good done. We culturally are used to idealizing the Normal Person in all his humanity and calling that, good and bad together, "good" (or at least good enough), and I think Jackson's understanding of the story is diminished for lacking a view towards anything much higher.