the minor premise

the minor premise

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Why I haven't been posting

I haven't been posting much lately; thus I submit the following list of my activities yesterday by way of an explanation:

Up at 5:15 a.m.; D. got Hon. Son. #2 off to drill team practice before school.
Nap. (Well, it's not as if I'm going to get another chance.)
Up 7 a.m.; got Hon. Son. #1 up for work.
Breakfast. Baby up.
Started load of laundry.
Put away clean dishes.
Started loading dishwasher again.
Started Baby at school work.
Vacuum cleaned living room floor.
Load of laundry #2.
Picked remaining green cayennes; put up in jar with vodka.
Fed dogs.
Fixed lunch.
Finished loading dishwasher, started.
Spelling drill; checked math assignment; sent B. off to reading assignments & music practice.
Started emptying moribund car (that now needs to be replaced) of assorted sporting equipment. Strategically positioned sporting equipment near clothes washer for load of laundry #3.
Swept & mopped kitchen floor.
Application of stain to unfinished wall shelf #1.
Unscrewed blades from hair clippers; cleaned with solvent. This was necessary because one of Hon. Son. #2's clever buds decided on Saturday (during a service project) that it would be funny to slap a glop of black asphalt paint on his head. The only way to get rid of it was to shave him bald.
Baby carved pumpkin in attractive cat design. I washed pumpkin seeds & put to soak in salt water for baking tomorrow.
Dropped Baby off at babysitting job.
Picked up Hon. Son#2 from afternoon drill practice. Got in a round of knitting (preemie hat) while waiting for it to end.
Arrived home to find that Hon. Son #2 had lost keys and gotten into house via a window. Thank goodness my neighbors are used to this.
Figured I had time to get in a grocery run, being pretty much out of food.
Loaded groceries into car; checked time. Concluded I wasn't going to have time to make dinner. Drove thru McDonalds.
Had boys unload groceries. Distributed burger & fries generally. Hon Son #1 took his to go, having an evening class.
Picked up Baby; delivered to soccer game with D. Dinner en route.
Tanked up car.
Returned home; got Hon. Son #2 for Scout meeting.
Ostensible 30 min. troop committee meeting passed 1 hour mark. Excused self and left.
Picked up Baby & D 30 minutes after end of soccer game; swung by all-night printshop to photocopy permission forms for troop.
Returned to meeting; dropped off permission forms; picked up Hon. Son.
Home. Application of stain to shelf #2.
Load of laundry #3.
Bathed 2 dogs.

We'll see about that Neandertal thing in a day or two.


Friday, October 27, 2006

If I bit two friends, and they bit two friends, and so on, and so on...

Hon. Son #2 received the sacrament of Confirmation last night, ergo things around here have been pretty hectic. I suspect that getting Hon. Son #1 into a suit for the occasion probably meets the qualifications for a miracle, even though I did get the question, "I don't have to wear a tie for this, do I?"

We'll get back to the Neandertals next post. Meantime, I recommend the following debunk of things paranormal (courtesy of Associated Press,) in time for All Hallow's Eve.

In response to what he deems widespread gullibility on the part of the public about the supernatural, University of Central Florida physics prof Costas Efthimiou (with coauthor Sohang Gandhi) has published [Sorry, can't seem to get the link working today. It's here: I'll get D to mess with it later.] his debunk of some paranormal phenomena.

He uses physics to argue against the standard claims for ghostly hauntings and disproves a Haitian "zombie" widely cited by zombie aficionadoes (I knew zombie movies had aficionadoes, but not that zombies themselves had any. You learn something new every day!) My favorite, however, is his debunking of the vampirism myth as a typical pyramid scheme. (The table in his paper, which AP did not publish, is a very good visual aid.) Efthimiou begins his theoretical calculations on Jan. 1, 1600 assuming one vampire and 537 million humans. If that vampire sucks one person's blood per month, consequently turning each of his victims into a vampire, the human population would be down to zero (thereby collapsing the pyramid with a resounding crash) by July 1602--after only twenty-nine months. I wonder if this is what prompted Anne Rice's return to the Faith?

It kinda reminds me of that "send a Little Golden Book to each of ten people" boondoggle that some primary school class concocted about fifteen years ago. Everyone I knew with young kids was getting the darn letters from all sides. Somebody made a recruiting attempt during a playgroup I was in once and the sudden chill in the room was palpable.

I imagine the poor clod of a vampire who, when the last of the blood supply has run out, jumps up with the proposal, "Hey, y'all! Let's go find some humans to bite!" Not a pretty thought.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

O Brother, Where Art Thou? A Paleolithic Drama in Three Acts

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: Following is a three-part series on a book I recently finished reading. I have divided it up because once I got started jotting things down the post sort of got away from me. I don't want to drive anyone away screaming, so I'm posting in bite-size pieces. The first piece is a short review and is fairly staid, but after that I start bringing in and elaborating on my own idle musings and it's Katie Bar the Door. The book is a serious, sober book on a serious, sober topic; I am frequently inclined to be neither. If books of science have to be serious matters for you, you may want to skip the whole thing and go elsewhere; I for one have been deadly serious for quite long enough and am determined to have fun with this, even if I make a complete fool of myself in the process. I claim no special expertise (other than a lively interest) in the subject matter of the book, but I do have a long history of dabbling in the Earth Mother business and thereby consider it no impertinence to weigh in in the places where the rigorous scholarly discipline of paleoanthropology brushes against the no less rigorous but scholarship-optional discipline of my own profession. If I can shine a little light somewhere it's needed, I will be pleased. If I'm completely offbase, pleasantly correct me or shrug me off for a fool; there's no lack of serious research out there to be read. This is my humble opinion, and nothing more. Crazier stuff than this has been posited as serious hypothesis before now, and probably will be again.]

Part the First: The Serious Stuff

I finally got to the end of James Shreeve's The Neandertal Enigma. It was published in 1995 so there have doubtless been some updates on the research since that I'm not up on; I'd be interested to see what's been published on this since. Our current public library is growing, but limited, and at the time this book came out we had little access to up-to-date books in English. Aside from what has run in National Geographic, I'm behind the curve on this topic.
Shreeve's book is excellent as an update of paleoanthropological research on Neandertals and 'modern' humans throughout the 1980's and early 90's, and not bad as a history mystery. Having gotten to the end, however, I was left pondering some questions. The funny thing is, they were less about the humans of the mid-to-late Paleolithic than about our own perspectives and how they affect our studies of them. [Warning: there is bound to be a spoiler somewhere in the folowing paragraphs, if you want to read this book without knowing how it comes out!]
The Big Questions about Neandertal Man for years were: What happened to him? Why did he fade away when we are still here? Both topics are rife with controversy and just about guaranteed to bring out the worst in us the survivors (more on this in the book. And they used to say you couldn't ask Leakey and Johanson to the same party.) Shreeve takes us through the ups and downs of the Eve hypothesis, the ancestor hypothesis, the shadowy hints of cannibalism, the indications of cooperation and language in both groups, and haul after haul of frustratingly similar tools throughout much of the two human groups' joint occupancy of Eurasia.

Eventually we come down to the possibilities that sift through when the collective archeological data is sorted:
Recent genetic evidence suggests that populations all over the Old World underwent dramatic "explosions" around the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic in Europe and the Late Stone Age in Africa. (Shreeve) That's an explosion for us, of course; not for the Neandertals (poor guys.) What made the difference? In Shreve's view it came pretty much entirely down to social factors. Our remote ancestors' advantages in brief:
Greater mobility (this was also a physical limitation for Neandertals. According to the fossil evidence they just weren't as well equipped for sustained long-distance travel as we were.) led to increased social contacts with other groups. This could be a good thing or a disastrous thing, but it led to:
The formation of social networks. The thought on this is influenced (a lot) by current studies of !Kung bushmen and their relationships within their ethnic group and views of other Bushman tribes. The idea is that our ancestors (H. sapiens) possessed a level of social awareness that H. neandertalensis lacked. This could have led to more complex strategies that enhanced the chances of survival:
Exogamy. Alliances between groups could be formed through intermarriage; these could then be beneficial to both. (Think Menelaus calling in his chips from all over the rest of Greece after Paris ran off to Troy with his wife. Though that sure didn't benefit Odysseus.) Extending incest taboos to all members of the extended family group or clan could have made this a matter of course.
Monogamy. A number of paleoanthropologists have explained the decline of Neandertals in terms of a simple matter of arrangement of the finds in many digs: the site is effectively split into two main areas, one associated with 'female' things and one with 'male' things. The conclusion? Neandertals din't have family life as we know it. Like elephants, the women and kids all hung together and foraged. The guys dropped in when they weren't otherwise occupied hunting, to mate or take shelter. They didn't bring food to their women and children; possibly they weren't even sure which children were theirs. Neandertal women, like the men and unlike modern women, were robust and could probably handle the tough life on their own. But remains of deceased juveniles indicate nutritional stress and Shreeve suggests that many of them didn't make it through adolescence (see, fathers matter!) Thus a slight advantage in offspring survivability provided by a few simple social innovations could have tipped the hand of fate in favor of Sapiens while Neandertalensis faded slowly away, a poster species for the Red Queen Hypothesis.*

Some final thoughts on the mobility issue: These are probably keen insights into the obvious, but I was surprised Shreeve didn't give them a little space while he was theorizing about the social aspects of mobility. They popped into my head at once while reading about the matter. The first is practically a truism, so I suppose he didn't feel like wasting the space: A population with limited mobility is going to be more at the mercy of outrageous fortune than is one of high mobility. They can't follow the herds or get out of town in a famine. The second is sanitation. If the Neandertals were basically sedentary, hygeine and disease avoidance would have been more of a problem for them than for mobile moderns; these could just pick up and move camp every few months, leaving the last site to self-clean until their return. Maybe it's the amount of time I spend cleaning things and snarling at people about leaving their junk all over the place, but for me this seems like a serious consideration.

*"It takes all the running you can to stay in the same place," said the Red Queen to Alice. "Now if you want to get somewhere else, you must go at least twice as fast as that!" Through the Looking-Glass In other words, adapt, or become extinct.

ADDENDUM: Another matter that had me perplexed was the attachment of the Eve Hypothesis (the folks who analyzed mitochondrial DNA and determined African ancestry of fairly recent origin for all living humans) proponents to what seemed to me a (shall we say?) fundamentalist attachment to Occam's Razor. Now, I'm not arguing that parsimony isn't a virtue, or that Occam didn't have a pretty good point. But Occam's point, if I'm not mistaken, was that the simplest answer is often the best; not that it's the only possible answer. Upholding parsimony as if it were sacred dogma doesn't make you scientific; it just makes you dogmatic. It gets a bit scary for us lay folk when we realize that by changing a few key terms we suddenly can't tell the difference between the assertions of certain scientists and those of certain preachers.

Furthermore, it seems to me that the rule is dependent on one's having all the facts in order. There's an awful lot about paleoanthropology we still don't know; lacking that information one oughtn't to be slashing around wildly with Occam's Razor as if we did. What looks like the simplest answer right now may with another decade of research be as tangled a mess as the worsted I've been undoing for my daughter while writing this. Here's a suggestion: if you're going to pursue parsimony for parsimony's sake, at least make sure all the data fit. There may have been things going on in those days of yore you haven't factored into the equation. If you have a valid reason for pursuing parsimony (other than that it's parsimonious,) please (as your fourth-grade teacher used to say) share it with the rest of us.

The Eve Hypothesis folks collected their DNA stats, which were in all probability reasonably good stats, made trees of all possible permutations of those stats, and chose the most parsimonious result--appparently merely because it was the most parsimonious. Had their fiercest detractors not come off as such obnoxious blowhards, I would have felt more sympathy: their timing doesn't jive with the fossil evidence and in order to accept it you have to assume that the entire paleolithic population of Europe and Asia was replaced (that's completely replaced; not one group absorbed the other,) by a small group of African neophytes fairly (geologically speaking) recently. Interesting idea, but it seems a bit presumptious to sweep away millenia of fossil record with a little DNA analysis. At the very least, you ought to have some better explanation than, "well, these are our data, and the most parsimonious arrangement is thus-and-such" prepared. I'm sorry, but if a large block of facts doesn't fit your thesis, you can't just ignore it.


Sunday, October 22, 2006


Several weeks ago, we tried opening up our combox generally. The result was an immediate barrage of daily spam of the "click here for a solution to the heartbreak of psoriasis" (guess that dates me!) variety. After a week or so of deleting the stuff, D reset the combox, not realizing that he had closed it to everyone except us. Thus we plodded along in ignorance until his sister mentioned the matter in an e-mail a few days ago. The combox feature is now fixed (we hope!) and should be useable by anyone. Hopefully the word verification function will stave off attacks by mass mailers. So feel free to drop us a line (unless, of course, you have a product to hawk!) We do, of course, request that you not exceed the length of the post on which you are commenting; that is what your own blog is for.


Friday, October 20, 2006

Number Games

Recently Lancet, the British medical journal, published a report from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University claiming 665,000 civilian deaths in Iraq since the U. S. bombardment began in March 2003. There has been remarkably little controversy about this figure despite its being wildly out of proportion with most other data out there.
I submit the following sampling:

Iraq Body Count site counter as of last weekend: Min-- 43937 Max--48783
At least 400 civilian deaths were reported between Monday 2 and Sunday 8 October.

From Raed Jarrar's Civilian Casualties Site
The First Fifty Days Table: Casualties betw. 3-20 and 5-8/03
total injured:4959
total dead:1995
War Deaths 20 March 03-31 July 03 Table: 2066 total, boys & men 1573, girls & women 493

From BBC, October '04:
Civilian toll estimates at 10/04
Iraq Body Count: 14-16,000
Brookings Inst: 10-27,000
UK foreign secretary: >10,000
People's Kifah >37,000
Lancet: >100,000

Let's get a few things straight ere we go further. Every death, civilian or combatant, is a horrible tragedy for somebody. In the case of civilian deaths, tragedy is compounded by the fact that these were not combatants. In the best of all possible worlds, innocent bystanders aren't supposed to die. Of course, in the best of all possible worlds there would be no dictators, no extremists, and no need for military engagement in the first place. It would be nice to be able to resolve an international dispute without innocent bystanders getting hurt, but as long as there are bad guys in the world that's unlikely. Innocent bystanders make such handy bargaining chips.

Several of the studies do little to discourage the implications that all these deaths are genuinely civilian and can be laid squarely at the feet of the U. S. Armed Forces. Both assumptions are unfair, especially when it is consistently the "insurgents" who have no qualms about targeting the vulnerable and seem to seek opportunities to do so: driving explosives-laden vehicles into groups of children, raiding school buses for teenagers of the "wrong" sect, strapping explosives to the mentally handicapped, and dissembling about the combat status of their own injured.

Let's look at the Lancet numbers critically, though:
I took the total number given by Lancet, 665,000, and divided it by the number of days in a year (didn't factor in the Leap Day; sorry,) and the number of years since the beginning of hostilities. That came to 3.5 years as of mid-September. The fatality rate I got for 665,000 divided by 3.5 years comes to 190,000 deaths per year. The per day fatality rate for that figure worked out to about 520.5 (let's go easy on Lancet and just call it 520) deaths. That's 520 civilian deaths per day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for the last three and a half years. It's also 500,000+ more than Lancet cited in 10/04, a year and a half into the war, which seems to me disproportionate enough that it ought to raise some eyebrows.

Jarrar's figures above cite 1995 deaths in the first fifty days. Most of those were during the first few weeks so an average doesn't really describe the actual situation, but 1995 divided by fifty comes to an average of 39.9 deaths per day. (If you look at his table, you will notice that the high-casualty days were up in the low hundreds, while late April and May had only a few deaths per day.) Even if we imagine that all 4959 injuries resulted in death (which would be unlikely,) that would still only come to (about) 139 deaths per day for that period. You would have to nearly quadruple the figure to get the Lancet rate for that period.
Iraq Body Count's high-end figure from its counter is 48,753 fatalities. Lancet's figure is more than thirteen times that number. People's Kifah's October '04 figure is 37,000, or about 68 per day for the first year and a half--about one-third Lancet's rate for the same period and almost one-eighth the current study's rate. The Iraq body count statistics for the past week are noteworthy. Recently, much has been made of the spike in violence. If Iraq Body count's number of 400+ civilian deaths in one week constitutes part of a spike, how can Lancet defend a figure of 500+ a day?

The Iraq the Model brothers appear fit to be tied over the Lancet study. They maintain that the numbers are not borne out by their own observations, and condemn the intent of the study:
Among the things I cannot accept is exploiting the suffering of people to make gains that are not the least related to easing the suffering of those people. I'm talking here about those researchers who used the transparency and open doors of the new Iraq to come and count the drops of blood we shed.
In the last 1000 days, Lancet is claiming an average of about 500; over 3000 every week. The reported news notes a few dozens on bad days, hundreds in the week. Where are the thousands of bodies? They're not in Iraqi hospitals or morgues -- I wonder how many death certificates have been made (and who makes them).

Over the weekend I caught part of an NPR interview with the Lancet study's director. He defended his methodology, in part, on the grounds that it had been used in other conflicts; the Sudan, for example. It's really too bad he brought that up, because it's forcing me to question the validity of the fatality rates there, as well--not something I wanted to do. If the Lancet study's researchers are allowing personal agendas to bleed over into their work, they need to consider whether the shock value of their numbers in this one study is worth the potential damage to any good work they have previously done.


Monday, October 16, 2006

The Mindset List

Technically I'm still on holiday from posting, but here's the Beloit College Mindset List for this year's crop of college freshmen. Says Netscape, by way of an explanation:

Every year Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin publishes what it calls "The Mindset List"--fun facts and figures about the incoming crop of freshmen so professors will be able to relate to their new students. Beloit says the list is a reminder that the world view of today's new college students is significantly different from the intellectual framework of those students who entered only a few years earlier. Put another way, it's a reminder that you are getting on in years.

Most of today's college freshmen were born in 1988. They grew up with a mouse in one hand and a computer screen as part of their worldview. They learned to surf the Internet as they learned to read. While they were still in their cribs, the 20th century started to close as the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet bloc disintegrated and frequent traditional wars in Latin America gave way to the uncontrolled terrors of the Middle East. For them: Billy Carter, Lucille Ball, Gilda Radner, Billy Martin, Andy Gibb and Secretariat have always been dead.

Beloit College's Mindset List for the Class of 2010:

1. The Soviet Union has never existed and therefore is about as scary as the student union.
2. They have known only two presidents.
3. For most of their lives, major U.S. airlines have been bankrupt.
4. Manuel Noriega has always been in jail in the United States. [Now, what percent of them know who he is?]
5. They have grown up getting lost in "big boxes."
6. There has always been only one Germany.
7. They have never heard anyone actually "ring it up" on a cash register.
8. They are wireless, yet always connected.
9. A stained blue dress is as famous to their generation as a third-rate burglary was to their parents'.
10. Thanks to pervasive headphones in the back seat, parents have always been able to speak freely in the front.
11. A coffee has always taken longer to make than a milkshake.
12. Smoking has never been permitted on U.S. airlines.
13. Faux fur has always been a necessary element of style. [Ugh.]
14. The Moral Majority has never needed an organization.
15. They have never had to distinguish between the St. Louis Cardinals baseball and football teams.
16. DNA fingerprinting has always been admissible evidence in court.
17. They grew up pushing their own miniature shopping carts in the supermarket.
18. They grew up with and have outgrown faxing as a means of communication.
19. "Google" has always been a verb.
20. Text messaging is their e-mail.
21. Milli Vanilli has never had anything to say.
22. Mr. Rogers, not Walter Cronkite, has always been the most trusted man in America.
23. Bar codes have always been on everything, from library cards and snail mail to retail items.
24. Madden has always been a game, not a Super Bowl-winning coach.
25. "Phantom of the Opera" has always been on Broadway.
26. Boogers candy has always been a favorite for grossing out parents.
27. There has never been a skyhook in the NBA.
28. Carbon copies are oddities found in their grandparents' attics.
29. Computerized player pianos have always been tinkling in the lobby.
30. Nondenominational mega-churches have always been the fastest growing religious organizations in the United States.
31. They grew up in minivans.
32. Reality shows have always been on television.
33. They have no idea why we needed to ask "...can we all get along?"
34. They have always known that "In the criminal justice system the people have been represented by two separate yet equally important groups."
35. Young women's fashions have never been concerned with where the waist is.
36. They have rarely mailed anything using a stamp. [Oh, come on!]
37. Brides have always worn white for a first, second or third wedding. [And it's still tacky!]
38. Being techno-savvy has always been inversely proportional to age.
39. "So" as in "Sooooo New York," has always been a drawn-out adjective modifying a proper noun, which in turn modifies something else.
40. Affluent troubled teens in Southern California have always been the subjects of television series.
41. They have always been able to watch wars and revolutions live on television.
42. Ken Burns has always been producing very long documentaries on PBS.
43. They are not aware that "flock of seagulls hair" has nothing to do with birds flying into it.
44. Retin-A has always made America look less wrinkled.
45. Green tea has always been marketed for health purposes.
46. Public school officials have always had the right to censor school newspapers.
47. Small white holiday lights have always been in style.
48. Most of them never had the chance to eat bad airline food. [You mean there's good airline food?]
49. They have always been searching for "Waldo."
50. The really rich have regularly expressed exuberance with outlandish birthday parties. [Hasn't Beloit ever heard of the Vanderbilts or the Gilded Age?]
51. Michael Moore has always been showing up uninvited.
52. They never played the game of state license plates in the car. [Fiddlesticks. We didn't all have TV's in there.]
53. They have always preferred going out in groups as opposed to dating.
54. There have always been live organ donors.
55. They have always had access to their own credit cards. [In which alternate universe???]
56. They have never put their money in a "Savings & Loan."
57. Sara Lee has always made underwear. [Sara Lee makes what?!!]
58. Bad behavior has always been getting captured on amateur videos.
59. Disneyland has always been in Europe and Asia.
60. They never saw Bernard Shaw on CNN.
61. Beach volleyball has always been a recognized sport.
62. Acura, Lexus and Infiniti have always been luxury cars of choice.
63. Television stations have never concluded the broadcast day with the national anthem.
64. LoJack transmitters have always been finding lost cars.
65. Diane Sawyer has always been live in "Prime Time."
66. Dolphin-free canned tuna has always been on sale.
67. Disposable contact lenses have always been available.
68. "Outing" has always been a threat. [When I was a freshie, it was a really cool club...]
69. "Oh, The Places You'll Go" by Dr. Seuss has always been the perfect graduation gift.
70. They have always "dissed" what they don't like.
71. The United States has always been studying global warming to confirm its existence.
72. Richard M. Daley has always been the mayor of Chicago.
73. They grew up with virtual pets to feed, water and play games with, lest they die.
74. Ringo Starr has always been clean and sober. [Heck, for this bunch he was the first Mr. Conductor on Shining Time Station, and that's about it.]
75. Professional athletes have always competed in the Olympics.
(Source: Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin)

I decided to test out one item on Hon. Son #1, who is a little older than the demographic. "Milli Vanilli,"
I said as he was goofing off on the computer this afternoon.
"Does 'Milli Vanilli' mean anything to you?"
"Uhhh...not much."
I didn't think so. Maybe when he gets back from class, I'll try Flock of Seagulls.


Saturday, October 14, 2006

odds and ends from the blogosphere

He who is punished is never he who performed the deed. He is always the scapegoat.

Hat tip The Shrine of the Holy Whapping
The orignial can be found here.

"May Christian spouses, aware of the grace received, build a family open to life and capable of facing together the numerous and complicated challenges of our time," exhorted Benedict XVI.
Hat Tip:
A Catholic Mom in Hawaii
Orignial at ZENIT news agency.

Newsweek of 12 October contains the following passage:
When President George W. Bush starts using fifty-cent words in press conferences, one has to wonder why [Yes, after all, he’s just a stupid chimp, isn’t he? -ed. (LGF)], and on Wednesday, during his Rose Garden appearance, he used the word “caliphate” four times. . . . . Many people live long, fruitful lives without once using the word caliphate.

How quickly the press forgets when their overuse of the five-dollar word "gravitas" grated on the nerves of readers and listeners all over the U.S. Many people live long, fruitful lives without once using the word "gravitas." Hat tip to Little Green Footballs


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Taking some time to get some work done, catch up on reading. Probably be back late next week.
Yard Eco: Hummers headed to points tropical a few weeks ago, I cleaned and stored the feeders last weekend. Squirrels eschewed the feeders in favor of nuts and acorns for a while; are now back. Even the munchkins are now too big to fit comfortably inside the squirrel feeder, so the peanuts that can't be pulled through the hatch sit inside until I take them out.
Knitting: Finished baby gift--may post pictures later if somebody can show me how. Serious Second Sock Syndrome. Will have to print out that German Twisted Cast-on pictorial if I'm gonna get anywhere. Keeping supplies in car for preemie hats; have finished two more, in pink, during soccer games & such. Started knit vest for D, which is gonna be a marathon. I think I bought 6 skeins for it, if not 7. Charcoal gray wool & very nice (Cascade knits up really comfortable,) but there's a lot of area to cover.


Friday, October 06, 2006

The Foley of Men

Current events in Congress have recently drawn the attention of the Minor Premise parody department . . . .

Apologies to Bob Segar
(DMinor and CMinor)
On a long and lonesome hallway, Washington DC
You listen to the speeches just as dull as they can be
You think of reelection
and your recess back in F L A

But your thoughts will soon be wandering the way they always do
When you're waiting for a quorum, there's nothing much to do
And you don't feel much like voting
You just wish the session through

Here I am, on IM again
I am told, it's all the rage
On email, I'm a stud again
Who will know, text the page

So you walk into this press conference rattled by the polls
And you feel the eyes upon you and their looks are rather cold
You pretend it doesn't bother you
Tho' heads are gonna roll

You claim it was idle talk, an October surprise
But sending smut to teenage boys, was it really wise?
And now the press and Democrats, are circling you like flies

There I was, on IM again
Naughty text, caused all the rage
Could have just, hit the bar again
But instead, text the page

Now I'm in the spotlight, Hastert struggles just to stay
The Democrats are certain that they'll take the House away
ABC reports the rumors
That I'm drunk and that I'm gay

Later on in rehab, my career is dead
Investigators read hard drives to find out what I said
And all the pages' mommas are calling for my head
Should have fled

Here I am, out on my ear again
Wish I had, acted my age
Can't go near, another child again
Because of, that darn page
Now they know, about the page
Now they know
Here I go

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Pottering Through the Courts

I really was planning to ignore the story of the Gwinnett County, Georgia mom who launched a court challenge in an effort to remove the Harry Potter books from libraries in her school district. Really. Campaigns of this sort crop up around here every so often; usually they fizzle pretty quickly. So I was pretty surprised this week when the story actually started garnering headlines in the national press.

It clinched the deal yesterday when I flipped on the radio to catch a bit of news. There was our girl, on CBS, voice choked with tears. She wondered aloud how, in the wake of recent school shootings, our nation could continue to allow such "evil" in our schools. So now, on top of promoting sorcery and Wicca (the original complaint) Harry and his creator, J.K. Rowling, are associated with school shootings.

Well, the patently obvious response to that would be, "Show me clear and convincing evidence that the Harry Potter books have been implicated in any school shooting." I have yet to hear of a such a case. Heck, I don't think you could even make that case for Wicca, and I'm not saying that as a fan of the practice. It's just that when it comes to potential catalysts for incidents of extreme sociopathic violence, Harry's not even a blip on my radar screen. Nor, for that matter, is a flaky, gynocentric New Age spiritual discipline (if you can call it that) that in my experience, at least, seems particularly appealing to women seeking to compensate for an overall lack of control over their own lives and actions. My suspicion regarding school shooters is that you have to be one seriously screwed up pup to do it in the first place. Still, were I going to pin blame on any form of literature or media for the actions of some of those who have, I'd be more inclined to seek out the graphically violent or politically anarchic than a 'tweener fantasy series about kid wizards.

Now that our Gwinnett County mom's fifteen minutes have passed (we hope,) and an actual case is having to be presented before a state appeals court, we can in all likelihood abandon the violence connection entirely and focus on the original complaint against the series: that it glamorizes and encourages Wicca and other occult practices. To this end, a fifteen-year-old "ex-witch" who attributes her fall into occult practices (including seances, which have not, to my memory, been mentioned in the books to date, and Tarot, which was soundly ridiculed) to the books was produced to testify. Her little escapade with "the Craft" reportedly bankrupted and embarrassed her good Christian family. It probably got her attention in spades, too, as it continues to do now. I have to agree with another mom quoted by the Gwinnett Daily Post: if a kid can't differentiate between fantasy in the books and reality out of them, s/he is either too immature to be reading them or has more serious issues than can be addressed by withholding a book. I'd add that, if she was able to dabble in all that stuff to an extent that seems to have required serious deprogramming before the tender age of fifteen, somebody wasn't doing a very good job of minding the kids.

So the question is, do the Harry Potter books encourage witchcraft? While we're at it, are they so dangerous or evil that they should be excluded from school library collections? I submit my humble opinion here. My qualifications are as follows:
I am a practicing Roman Catholic who is at least striving towards orthodoxy, but more importantly toward following Christ. I therefore make an effort to avoid that which interferes.
I have a background in natural science, which leads me to regard Wicca and other forms of neopaganism with, shall we say, a healthy skepticism. Oh, let's dispense with the niceties-- I think it's so much folderol. (G'wan--hex me! I dare you!)
I am widely read--very, very, widely read in children's literature, and have read the entire Harry Potter series to date. I have also seen a few of the movies.
I have children. Some of them grown. All have read the books. None have tried to hex me.

The assertion that the books encourage witchcraft is one I often hear made with great conviction. I respectfully disagree.
The mere fact that they are about magical beings does not make them glorifiers of the occult, any more than are C. S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicles, J. R. R. Tolkien's books, or Roald Dahl's children's books. (I refer to these authors deliberately. Their influence on Rowling's writing, Lewis and Dahl in particular, is not difficult to spot.) In fact, there are quite a few books published for young teens and 'tweens that would give me and most parents far more concern in that regard than the Harry Potter series. (Sorry, I'll have to get authors and titles from Hon. Daughter #1--she's a bit more up to speed on the recent stuff than I am. I know she came across a few some years back.) Magic in the series is a vehicle for plot, action and conflict. Simply put, the books aren't about kids learning to do magic (or magick, if you prefer,) they're about people--including kids--who happen to have magical powers. In the books these kids--some from magical families, others apparently biological "sports" from nonmagical ones--learn, not to acquire power from some occult source, but to control and apply (hopefully for good) the abilities they already have. In many cases, the magic in the Potter books is pretty cartoonish stuff, moreover--no Mists of Avalon stuff, and certainly no Wicca. How seriously can anyone take a story in which the Herbalism prof grows "mandrakes" that at first resemble shrieking infants with leafy tops, go through a moody adolescent phase complete with acne, and are deemed fully mature "once they start trying to move into each other's pots?"

Not only does Rowling not appear to make any effort to glorify the occult, she indicates--repeatedly--a dim view of those who do. The one teacher at Hogwarts, Harry's school, whose courses actually resemble real-world occult practice is Sibyl Trelawney, the Divination teacher. As self-important as she is incompetent, Trelawney is a caricature of a sideshow fortuneteller. Her stocks-in-trade are crystal balls, tea leaves, and card readings; she cryptically encourages her students to "look with their inner eye," an organ she as well as most of them seem to lack. Usually she just recycles the same doomsday prophecies over and over: students report that she predicts the death of someone in her class every year, and is generally wrong. Trelawney's foil is a wise and gentle Centaur recruited to handle the stargazing side of Divination. Where she claims knowledge inaccessible to others that she doesn't have and speaks a lot of nonsense, he actually has knowledge but uses it only with the greatest caution. He points out that, while certain patterns may be seen in the stars by those who know how, there are so many variables at play in matters of fate that determining anything useful--except by hindsight--is wellnigh impossible.

Should the Harry Potter books be withheld from kids? I say no. Not that parents shouldn't use their judgement as to their appropriateness for specific children. The later books in particular contain a few references that are not appropriate for children below the middle grades, and sensitive older children might find parts too dark and frightening for their tastes. If there are any serious concerns about an older child's ability to distinguish fantasy from reality, or if a child is already showing signs of obsession with the occult, I would likewise urge caution. I would also urge counselling. In general, however, I believe these books are fundamentally harmless, and better than much other literature available for 'tweens and teens. I also believe in discussing ideas with one's kids. If the occult is unacceptable in your house, tell them--and tell them why.

As I have already indicated, if one is genuinely concerned about "evil" influences a quick reconnaisance of any public middle or high school library will probably turn up plenty of literature for which there is more cause for concern. Singling out a series of books merely because they are wildly popular makes no sense at all. It is patently absurd to state that the books glorify the occult, and would be hard to read them through without concluding that they have many valuable lessons for their readers. Kindness, fairness, loyalty and courage are upheld in the books; strong, supportive families are exalted. The dividing line between good (and what actions make it so) and evil (ditto) is sharply and clearly drawn. I don't know what, if any, religious affiliation Rowling has (I've assumed, for lack of evidence to the contrary, that she's probably lukewarm C. of E.) but it is clear from her writing that she is well acquainted with Christian themes and their mark on her worldview as outlined in the books is evident. A few Christian writers have as a result devised devotional or religious education helps based on them. Oh, did I mention they even celebrate Christmas in the series? Every single book. Not as an explicitly religious holiday (Rowling does capitulate a bit, IMHO, to political correctness)--but it's Christmas, not Yule, nonetheless. There's even a ghostly monk, and a hospital under the patronage of St. Mungo.

While Rowling is not infallible as a writer (should Hon. Son #1 ever set up his own blog and start cranking out book and film reviews instead of just holding forth over dinner, you may get some detail on this point,) she is a good storyteller with a broad base of general knowledge to draw on, great powers of description, a witty way with phrasing, and a brilliant (I would call it Dickensian, but that's already been done) knack for nomenclature. It's hard to read these books without coming away from them just a little bit smarter than you were before. Best of all, they don't insult the reader's intelligence, and are clever enough that adults can enjoy them as well. Choose to read them or not, I say, but don't make a scapegoat of them. The canon of children's literature available in public schools will be much the poorer if the Harry haters have their way.

I have mentioned it before on this blog, but an excellent read for 'tweens and teens on the issue of censorship is Nat Hentoff's The Day they Came to Arrest the Book. If you can find it on video, the ABC Afterschool Special production (starring Anne Meara as the librarian) is also quite good--what I recall of it is, at least--it's been a while. Book censorship--who does it, and why, and what the implications are for freedom and knowledge are discussed against the backdrop of a challenge to Huckleberry Finn from both ends of the political spectrum. For adults, a more thorough (but unfortunately much dryer) account of the history of school censorship in the 20th and 21st century U. S. and its pronounced effects on our education system is Diane Ravitch's The Language Police

ADDENDUM: I posted this at an obscene hour last night, not reflecting on the fact that I have recently fallen out of the habit of tagging my posts with an appropriate verse or quote. This morning it occurred to me that an excerpt from Sunday's Gospel reading was apt, in a roundabout sort of way. Here it is:

There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us. Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.
Mark 9: 40-41


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Some items on religious freedom and dialogue

Several items from Zenit in recent days:

KOENIGSTEIN, Germany, SEPT. 27, 2006 ( More than a decade after the end of the Yugoslavia war, there is still no "political will to achieve justice," warns a bishop from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Only 3% of Catholics expelled from the Banja Luka Diocese during the war have been allowed to return, according to the bishop. That's out of 70-80 thousand, about two-thirds of the Catholic population there. In Sarajevo, the number of Catholics decreased from 500,000 to 125,000.

Nine priests and one nun were killed during the war in present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina; 99 churches were destroyed and 127 damaged, not counting dozens of other attacks on monasteries and ecclesial centers. An estimated 450,000 Catholics were forced to leave their homes.
Bosnia-Herzegovina has 4.4 million inhabitants. Some 40% are Muslims, 31% Orthodox and 15% Catholics.

SHENZHEN, China, OCT. 2, 2006 ( Two priests were arrested in Shenzhen, in the southern province of Guangdong, reports a U.S.-based watchdog agency.

The priests were arrested upon their return from Europe, with no reason given. A large number of books and photos they had brought back were also confiscated.

Both had previously been arrested in 1999; one for publishing hymn books. He had been imprisoned until 2003.

WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 23, 2006 ( )
The U. S. State Department has submitted its 2006 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.

..."This report is a natural outgrowth of our country's history." says ambassador at large for international religious freedom John Hanford III.

"Our own record as a nation on this and other freedoms is not perfect," Hanford admitted. Nevertheless, he insisted that religious liberty is a precious concept in American history and that the report aims at making the right to this freedom a reality for all humankind.

Singled out for special recognition (yes! that's irony, darn it!):
China (which claimed the report was "groundless," of course,) Saudi Arabia, Myanmar (Burma,) North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, and Vietnam.

What, according to the Report, constitutes abuse of religious liberty?

-- That type carried out by totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, which seeks to control religious thought and expression. In these countries some or all religious groups as seen as enemies of the state because of their religious beliefs or their independence from central authority.

-- State hostility toward minority or non-approved religions. Governments guilty of this type implement policies such as: demanding that adherents recant their faith; forcing adherents of religious groups to flee the country; and intimidating certain religious groups.

-- Failure by a state to address discrimination or abuse against religious groups. "Protecting religious freedom is not just a matter of having good laws in writing," the U.S. report noted; rather, it also requires active work by governments at all levels. Governments should also foster an environment of respect and tolerance for all people, the report urged.

-- Discriminatory legislation or policies that favor majority religions and disadvantage minority religions. This often results from historical dominance by the majority religion and a bias against new or minority religions, added the report.

-- Discriminating against certain religions by identifying them as dangerous cults or sects. This is a common type of abuse, even in countries where religious freedom is otherwise respected, the report observed.

Former Spanish president Jose Maria Aznar commented that, while Muslims the world over demanded apologies from Pope Benedict XVI for his Paleologus citation, he had yet to hear an Islamic apology for invading Spain in 711 and subsequently holding most of the country for 800 years. (Also here) Islam Online promptly responded by sensibly denying that there ever was an invasion of Spain, although they did seem to acknowledge a 'conquest':

Raisouni said Aznar's speech reflected a "crusade tone and spirit."
"The speech brought to the surface the grudges harbored by Aznar towards Islam, which has been a message of peace and love throughout the centuries," he said.

[Why do I feel a chorus of Kum-Ba-Yah coming on?]

He said Muslims neither invaded nor colonized Spain.
"But the Islamic conquest of Al-Andalus (Spain)had given momentum to human civilization and brought human beings closer as manifested in the historic collections left by the Muslims of Al-Andalus," he explained.

[Hat tip:Me Monk. Me Meander.]


Linked below is a viewpoint by a gentleman who spent a year teaching in Saudi Arabia in the late 90's. I found it interesting, especially in view of some of my recent religious discussions.
Observations on Arabs
[hat tip Philokalia Republic]


Sunday, October 01, 2006

Genuine Evidence

If you have read past entries, you will know that I have tried to track down the original periodical The Genuine Islam. The periodical is often cited as having a passage by Irish author George Bernard Shaw lauding Islam. Previously, except for the quotation, I could find no trace of the periodical. In fact, the citation was often distorted, leading me to believe that few people had actually seen the original publication. Since there were no other mentions of the magazine that I could find except for the Shaw quote, I began to doubt the existance of the periodical and the passage. Well, I finally found that non-Shaw reference to the The Genuine Islam. Wardah books in Singapore scanned in an advertisement in March from an unspecified issue with the following explanation:

'Genuine Islam' was a magazine in the 1930s produced by the All-Malaya Muslim Missionary Society (now known as Jamiya), under the auspices of Maulana Abdul Aleem Siddique and Syed Ibrahim bin Omar al-Sagoff. Their editorial office was at 742 North Bridge Road [Singapore].

I will post more as I learn more.

Update 1/09: There is additional information on this question! Go here or to the full thread at the bottom of this post.