Saturday, July 16, 2011
Thursday, May 26, 2011
I learned the Egyptian dialect at BYU, and every time I use Egyptian words, people grimace and laugh; and when they repeat the words, you get the sense that they feel like taking a shower afterward.
Most of the farm labor here is Egyptian, and the social dynamic is uncannily familiar—they’re darker-skinned than Jordanians in general, and you see dozens of them waiting for work outside hardware stores. Polite Jordanians will refer to them as “hard-working”, while others allude to a perceived machismo and lasciviousness. There’s even a vaguely analogous national discussion about illegal immigration—though it’s a lot less vitriolic since the racial undercurrent isn’t as strong.
So, although everyone claims to be quite egalitarian, there is something about hearing Egyptian Arabic from a rich white kid that they find hilariously dissonant. I guess it would be like a Japanese kid learning English in South Central LA, and then coming to Salt Lake and calling everybody “ese”. Which, by the way, would probably redefine the fish-out-of-water genre as we know it. I want to see a screenplay on my desk by next week.
In any event, I’m trying to adopt the Badia dialect, which has its own tough-guy connotations in the city; it will be interesting to see how it plays. One of the shop vendors has already deemed it hilarious and given me and my colleagues free strawberry-pineapple slushes, though, so confidence is high.
Monday, May 23, 2011
(Later): Once the storm subsided, we bought cleaning supplies and groceries, and went to work establishing a little human colony in one corner of the house. The front door has been bashed off its hinges—again, nothing suspicious about that—but handily, there are locks on each interior door, each with its own key. So, we just picked the four rooms we needed and locked ourselves in, leaving the rest of the house to the spiders, vermin, vagrants, and vengeful undead that no doubt already live there.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
We’re staying at the home of Dr. Faisal, a business administration professor who teaches at four different universities around the Badia. His wife, Umm Munther, is the principal of the primary school where we teach English.
Their son, Munther, is about to finish the thanawiya el-3amma, a year of intense study and memorization unlike anything we have in the States, that establishes one’s educational and career options for the rest of forever. You take just a few classes every week, with the expectation that the rest of the day will be spent at home, drilling and memorizing for two big tests at the end of the year. People who can afford it send their kids to cram schools, hire private tutors, plead, threaten, persuade, cajole, and bribe their kids to get this one thing right, because, for universities and employers, nothing else matters.
It’s a pretty dysfunctional system; I’m told that no matter what you accomplish later in life, if you bomb the thanawiya, you’re going to be essentially unemployable. Munther’s family esteems education very highly, and individual behavior reflects much more strongly on the family here than it does in the States, so it’s a time of high expectations.
Unfortunately, Munther is a young man after my own heart. He studies for maybe an hour a day, and then hangs out with his friends or watches TV. Putting myself in his position, it makes complete sense: he’s been told that his choices are (a) to have fun with his friends, bomb the thanawiya, and die poor and lonely; or (b) buckle down and do nothing else all year to qualify for the opportunity of four more years of rigorous schooling and testing, with the possibility (by no means assured) of a comfortable desk job in Amman when he’s finished.
If those were my options, I don’t think my efforts would be particularly inspired either. From our conversations I can tell that he’s inquisitive and bright; the feeling I get is that he has (sensibly) decided that the game is stupid, so he’s not going to play. I understand his family’s exasperation, trying so desperately to motivate him; but I don’t think they could have motivated me either.
I spoke to Dr. Faisal about the possibility of sending Munther to the LDS Business College to wipe the slate clean, like I did; and I learned something very interesting. Obviously if Munther can get into the Business College, he can go on to any university in the country, and his high school grades will be irrelevant. That means he can easily accomplish whatever he wants to—except work in the Middle East. He could earn a doctorate from a prestigious American school; but if he ever comes back here to work, the first thing any Middle-Eastern employer will check is his score on the thanawiya el-3amma.
You can see the problem: Munther’s situation cannot be all that uncommon. Surely there are thousands like him every year—bright, capable, independent thinkers who reject a no-win scenario here in the Middle East and head for the “land of opportunity”. This would not be so problematic, but when they finally make good, rather than welcoming them home to build their country with the skills they learned in the West, they are told that their youthful indiscretions are unforgivable. Go be a doctor or an engineer or a professor in America, because you’re not welcome here.
I’m not worried about Munther, and neither is Munther. He’ll find a way to succeed. What I am worried about is the country that will lose him forever when he leaves.
Thursday, May 12, 2011
Shlash is the oldest of 18, and his family has all their holdings in common in a single, massive account. The men all go to university, and when they turn 30 they marry and are provided with a car, and a house in the village. It’s an artful mix of tribalism and capitalism—their communal finances create a much larger investment pool, which is one factor in their family’s wealth. As foreign as the arrangement is to me, as we toured his rural demesne I could not help being impressed with the results.
The Al-Oun family has built four deep water wells that feed villages and farms throughout their tribal region, and they’re worth about $1.3 million each. I drank directly from the intake, and it was the clearest, sweetest water I’ve ever tasted. It is a strange thing to splash your face with rainwater that fell 65 million years ago, and hasn’t seen daylight since.
The Al-Ouns grow olives, stonefruit, grapes, malt, melons, and wheat on land that they rotate every seven years; and they keep horses, camels, donkeys, sheep, and goats in their stables. When we walked in, Shlash told us to stand back, made a clipped, guttural call, and two massive Arabian horses burst out of their pens and charged across the yard to their trough. They were the horses of a woman’s weird Freudian fantasies; glossy and panting and muscular. With one more shout from Shlash, they jumped from the trough and stormed back into their pens faster than I’ve ever seen an animal move.
The camels were hilarious and ungainly—especially the week-old calf that Shlash delivered, who hadn’t quite figured out his legs yet—but far more interesting was the dog. Arabs don’t keep dogs; they see them as scavengers and pests, something like they way we think of raccoons or coyotes, and the whole time we were in the stables, this filthy yellow dog skulked in wide circles around us, head down, always watching for some morsel to catch, jumping back at any sudden movement. Strange how even a dog will be exactly what it is expected to be.
Driving along rows of olive trees and grapevines draped on aluminum trellises, we drove past Abu Shlash (Shlash’s father) in his pickup truck. His face was dark and weatherbeaten, almost callused, and he spoke to Shlash out of a tracheotomy tube about the need to harvest the malt before the drought kills it, and to put us with “someone respectable” because we are “from Loren’s side”.
Dinner at Shlash’s home was a gauntlet of cultural obstacles. First, my wife was ushered into the women’s area, and I was briefly introduced to Shlash’s wife and daughter. Loren says this is an honor, and was only possible because I am married—Loren, being single, did not meet Shlash’s wife until several months after the wedding.
Without thinking, I immediately moved in to shake his daughter’s hand. She, apparently trying to be polite, hesitantly reached for mine, before I realized that I was making an ass of myself and quickly withdrew and pressed my hand to my chest. I later mentioned the killing of Osama Bin Laden at dinner, which also went over like a fart in church. Better to get these errors out of the way among understanding people, I suppose.
Dinner was a single silver platter of yellow rice and boiled chicken with a yoghurt broth poured over the top, called menzef, the eating of which is apparently an essential Bedouin experience. It can be eaten with utensils, but I’m told you’re not cool until you’ve eaten menzef by hand. They said they would teach me how to eat it, and I said, “It’s eating with your hands; how hard could it be?” but I quickly discovered that there is definitely a wrong way. There is a rather elaborate ritual of tearing the chicken, playing with the rice in the platter, scooping it into your hand, balling it, and then flicking it into your mouth with your thumb; and for now it appears to be beyond my capacity. I made a tremendous mess.
We ate with the shabaab (the boys), and Loren said it best: “It’s like hanging out with five-year-olds, with no girls to impress and no manners to keep.” They didn’t say much while we ate, which I am told is customary, except to tell me, “hand to mouth, not mouth to hand.” After a long silence, Shlash’s brother (cousin? nephew?) pointed to a plate of long, jagged leaves and said, leering, “You eat it. Good for man-to-man.” Then everyone giggled awkwardly, and Loren said (in Arabic) “Enough, enough. He’s learned enough for one day.”
Now, the reader will understand that I was already pretty uncomfortable. They didn’t have a lot of English, and I didn’t have a lot of Arabic, and there’s nothing more unsettling than being in a strange place, alone, while a bunch of middle-aged dudes talk about you in a language you barely understand; but I’m a man of the world. I can handle it. I was even getting used to the way these repressed, macho cowboys cuddled when they were alone together; but nobody had touched the leaves before me, and I wasn't about to 'learn by doing' as far as "man-to-man" was concerned.
When I refused to let it drop, Loren finally told me that man-to-man refers to “performance”. Ostensibly with women. So, hoping against hope that that was the whole truth, I hesitantly took a bite of one of the leaves; and I am happy to report, dear readers, that I have not suffered from erectile dysfunction even once since then; and, as far as I know, I was not drugged and raped by the Bedouin.
Truthfully, apart from the enjoyment they clearly derived from watching me squirm, everyone we've met has been perfectly hospitable and kind. The language and the culture take constant mental effort to navigate, but we're surrounded by patient people, and they seem to enjoy helping us learn. More on our work and our host family in the next post.
Wednesday, July 07, 2010
As a kid, it always amazed me that people would get angry about what was depicted on television, or on the internet... hearing people with that attitude, I always thought, who cares if Babylon thinks that fornication and drugs and violence are acceptable? "The world" will always be hostile to the gospel--God has been telling us this for thousands of years. Why should we expect any different? Why rage and fume at it?
The answer, I find, is fear. I never hated those temptations before, because they seemed foolish to me, obvious. When I was a kid, most of what God said to do was obviously the smart thing to do anyway, whether it was God saying so or not. Don't do drugs, don't have sex until you're married, be good to people. And I got to feel a little smug, too--nobody else was reading the books I was reading, having the experiences I was having (as far as I knew). My spiritual life was an exciting secret, like being a superhero. Even the mission was not that hard of a decision: I loved teaching, and it sounded like an adventure.
In those days, the difference between my life and the advertised "good life" was inconsequential. Most people agree that they'd be better off without the addictions and poor decisions and fumbling adolescent sexual embarrassments that they accrued in their teenage years. Living the gospel always seemed "smart".
But now, living the gospel means making choices that the rest of the world would consider extremely foolish; and I'm reminded of it every time I turn on the television. To choose just one person to be with for the rest of your life--and worse, to choose that person without living together first--nothing about that decision sounds smart, unless the gospel is true. To make, really any promise at age 23 that will define your life for the remainder (and beyond)--that's optimistic to the point of insanity, unless the gospel is true. Especially if you intend to keep that promise.
The world says that kids my age are supposed to be living for themselves, making money for themselves, figuring themselves out while backpacking in Europe or something. They're not supposed to be halfway through undergrad, married, living at home and uninsured. For the first time, the life I chose doesn't sound like such a smug, pat proposition. If the gospel isn't true, I'm missing out. It's scary.
But I got this answer this morning, and it seemed worth sharing.
In Numbers 14, twelve Israelite spies have just delivered their report after infiltrating the promised land. They say Canaan is beautiful and fruitful, but that a race of indomitable giants--the Anakim--occupy it. Ten of the spies say that invading the land would be foolhardy--"We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we... we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight" (Numbers 13:31-32). They call it a land "that eateth up the inhabitants thereof." The other two spies, Joshua and Caleb, see things more clearly--knowing all that God has done to deliver Israel to this point, they testify that God will still deliver them, and keep His promise.
But Israel weeps, saying, "Would God that we had died in Egypt, or in the wilderness!" Having endured so much in their journey, they seem to believe that it has all been for nothing. And if Moses had been merely a charismatic desert sheikh--seeing the situation from a worldly point of view--it would be true. They took the Holy Land with a tiny force, upheld by miracle after miracle throughout the conquest. It was an impossible task, with their strength.
Israel attempts to select a leader to bring them back to Egypt (to what end? To hold out their necks again to Pharaoh's yoke?) and Moses, Joshua, and Caleb fall on their faces and tear their clothes in mourning for the shortsightedness of their people.
It's hard to see myself in the scriptures, because my heart is more often with the wayward children of Israel than with their prophets. I am ashamed to say how often I look back with longing on Sodom and Gomorrha, or the "flesh pots of Egypt." I know God lives, of course; just as surely as if I had walked through the Red Sea with them. But it is so easy to forget, to lose heart; to see only a land "waiting to devour you", not one flowing with milk and honey.
It is encouraging to note that Israel did not go back to Egypt. They feel certain that the Canaanites will destroy them; but, like me, their fear of the Canaanites is overpowered by their fear of God, and He carries them, kicking and screaming and backsliding, into the promised land. But the tragedy is that they had to endure all their trials with such despair. Their distrust of God led them to seek security in idolatry and foreign exploitation--but also, paradoxically, to hate and fear their neighbors, whom God had commanded them to love as themselves.
When faced with that kind of fear, it is surprisingly easy to become paranoid--to see even mild criticism or contradiction as a threat, even when that criticism is only implied--or even unintentional. In that mindset, even a TV show that depicts immorality as wise, sane, and enjoyable gets interpreted as a personal attack on my tenuous spiritual life. And maybe it is, in fact; but it never bothered me before.
It's one of our culture's favorite platitudes that fear breeds intolerance; I don't think I'm saying anything new here. What is surreal is to experience it for myself.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
What came to me was a beautiful metaphor of the supremacy of Christ's new covenant--a simple set of principles, to replace a vast and byzantine arrangement of rules.
Leprosy is not an especially infectious disease; it could have been easily prevented, even in Moses' time, with basic hygiene. Essentially, a person who bathes regularly, drinks clean water, and properly cooks his food, has almost no risk of contracting leprosy.
Moses (or at least God) understood this--the very rules he prescribes betray an understanding of the basics of epidemiology. These principles would have been easy to obey and even easier to explain; but what Israel got was an encyclopedic laundry list of rules , which only poorly contained the plague and ruthlessly ostracized its victims.
Leviticus makes sharp distinctions between of clean and unclean--but was anybody in those days clean, in any meaningful sense? No, they were all filthy; that's how societies get endemic leprosy. But the ritually "clean" got to live normally (even if, as in Lev. 13:13, they were literally leprous "from head to toe"), while the "unclean" were forced into a life of humiliation and desperate poverty on the fringe of Israelite society.
Worse, there was no concept of treatment--you were simply cut off from the congregation, for life, unless by a miracle your illness resolved itself naturally.
Why does this matter? Because the same dilemma can be found in the Mosaic law governing sin. Rather than an explanation of justice, mercy, faith, repentance, etc. (the principles of salvation, which a child can comprehend), Israel was given an endless list of commandments that took an army of lawyers and rabbis to interpret.
Every aspect of life was governed by a surprisingly specific and encyclopedic code of laws. You knew what you were to do, and what you were not to do, in almost any situation--but only occasionally did you understand why. As with leprosy, God did not teach Israel the principles underlying His commandments.
There was almost no room for repentance and rehabilitation--for most sins, the penalty was death. For the few exceptions, there were sacrifices prescribed--but the law did not purport to heal the sinner any more than it could claim to cleanse the leper. The law did not deal in healing--its purpose was to cut out social malignancy. The sinner was not a patient to be healed, but an infected limb to be amputated.
The saddest thing about this policy was that, for all its specificity and cruel rigidity, the law of leprosy was actually less effective in treating leprosy than even a rudimentary explanation of germ theory would have been. Likewise, the law of carnal commandments--a tedious, oppressive extrapolation of a few blessedly simple principles--could do nothing to fight the causes of sin. Sinners were destroyed, rather than healed, and many fell ill who would have remained healthy if they had known how to keep themselves clean. The most drastic and brutal treatment is not always the surest.
Instead of fearing and ostracizing lepers (and sinners), a more enlightened people could have rehabilitated the afflicted, with no risk at all to themselves. Why, then, did God give the law this way in the first place?
For the same reason that children aren't told exactly why they can't cross the street by themselves. Obviously there's nothing intrinsically morally wrong about crossing the street; and if a child could truly comprehend the danger, and could be trusted to remember, to be aware, then such a rule would be unnecessary.
But children can't really understand such rules, so we tell them "You are not allowed to cross the street by yourself, ever" until they're mature enough to understand. Obviously it is not our intention that children live this way forever, and it was not God's intention for Israel to remain under the law any longer than was necessary.
The problem is, Israel never learned that it was okay to cross the street. Instead, they wrote long treatises on what exactly constitutes "crossing the street", and delivered impassioned sermons about the manifold immoralities to which crossing the street inevitably leads. In short, they completely missed the point.
The law of Moses has been called draconian, and certainly it was. But the mainstream Christian idea that God somehow "grew up" into a loving and compassionate Father is ridiculous. We raise small children with rules and penalties that would be ludicrous and tyrannical to impose on adults. Is it because we love adults more than children? Is it because we get nicer as our children get older? Of course not. It's because they become capable of comprehending principles, and no longer need the rules.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
I'm reading this book, "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations", by David Landes; and there's a chapter on the intellectual decline of Portugal and Spain in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition. Obviously the Church is not the inquisitorial Moloch that sixteenth-century Spanish Catholicism was; institutionally, the Church is carefully, self-consciously tolerant. But there is an intellectual dearth that seems inevitable when you surround yourself with ostensibly like-minded people.
I didn't expect it to be this way. One would think that having so much of our intellectual foundation in common, we would save time arguing and be better equipped to explore the frontiers of what we don't know; but unfortunately, it seems that the uniformity is more pretended than real. We are supposed to believe the same things, but our worldviews are far more colored by upbringing, cultural milieu, socioeconomic status, and political leanings than one would hope.
Faith permeates every aspect of our intellectual life, so that you'll find it wherever you cut--and this is a good thing--but it breeds a kind of polite silence on certain issues. Since we use all the same religious materials to defend radically divergent points of view, discussions have a danger of becoming uncomfortably personal.
The beauty of growing up in Texas was that I didn't expect anyone to agree with me. I could talk to my friends about almost anything, and because we acknowledged our vastly different intellectual origins, we could just relax and enjoy it. I want to have that again.
On the other hand, my education is currently 70% subsidized by tithing, and it's hard to say no to $2,000 a semester.
Monday, February 15, 2010
I imagine that guy getting to heaven, and the other dead folks asking him, "So, how did you go?" And when he explains it to them, they say, "...Oh. You woke up at 4:30 every morning and trained all day for twenty years so you could do that? Like, you really couldn't think of one field of human endeavor that might have been a better use of all that time and discipline? A world eating itself alive with war, famine, hatred, disease... you could have worked in a thumbtack factory, and at least then you'd be making thumbtacks. But no, you picked luge."
The strength of character and will required to make it to the Olympics (or, really, any professional sport) only deepens my misgivings about it: these are people who clearly could have accomplished something more meaningful.
And it isn't just sport; this McQueen guy spends his life making weird-ass costumes for waifish cocaine addicts to wear (once), and then when he dies you hear interviews from industry people talking about all his "great contributions", and all he accomplished before he was taken from us too soon.
You can work your whole life to become the best dog groomer or cake decorator or wedding planner in the business, but don't expect the rest of us to pull long faces and talk about how meaningful it was that you "dedicated your life" to your ludicrous profession.
Whitey On The Moon
Friday, January 08, 2010
The problem with a woman who claims to enjoy domesticity is that all that nonsense is actually important to a person like that. I can't imagine the boredom of shambling through a department store behind such a woman, being consulted about which shower curtain "we" want.
Likewise a woman who really knows how to paint her face and tousle her hair just right, and does it absolutely every day; that can be admirable, until she opens her mouth and you find out everything she isn't thinking about in the time it takes her to get that done.
Or those kids who kill themselves to get into business school or law school or medical school even though they couldn't give a crap about business or law or medicine; who somehow manage a 3.95 GPA while learning absolutely nothing interesting (I'm looking at you, Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.)
I have some admiration for tight schedules and early mornings, the stuff we are told temporal success is made of--but in conversations with that sort of person, I have to wonder just what occupies their thinking in quiet moments. We have sixteen hours of consciousness in a day, and it can't all be aimed at accomplishing your five-year plan.
These are not unintelligent people; are they really just endlessly running over their to-do list and mentally checking their pockets, all day long? Even on the john, or at the bus stop? Certainly they aren't thinking about anything else, or they'd be more interesting to talk to.
And if that's the case, can such a creature really be classified as sentient? No matter how sophisticated the solution may be, amoebas and crustaceans and roundworms have for millions of years managed the same problems effectively enough. Ants know how to get things done. I need to get out of BYU.
Friday, October 16, 2009
So that's over the top. They're mostly just quiet math kids, harmless and humorless. But still, it's unnerving. When I say something funny, you laugh, dammit.
I got asked on a date this week, which was a first for me, as far as I can remember. It was fascinating to see the struggle from the outside. Not that she had a particularly hard time, but she phrased it very carefully, so as not to be misunderstood: "...was wondering if you would like to go with me to the such and such, as-my-date."
Of course, I would love to accompany you to the such and such on Friday at 7 pm as-your-date. I have never been conscious of being someone's date. She bought the tickets, she's going to pick me up and everything; I don't have to think about it at all until it happens. It's fantastic. More girls should ask me out.
I've got a couple date ideas now, but I haven't had opportunity to try them out. Submitted for your approval:
1. I liked the idea of a girl making up her story, so I think I want to build a date around that. We ask each other all those boring first-date questions, but we make up the answers. I think I could learn more about a girl from her fantasies than her reality. But it's a high-stakes game; there's the possibility that even her fantasies are boring, and then what can you do? Answer:
2. Stealth Kite. Buy a kite from the store, tear off the sail, and replace it with cellophane. Then you use some kind of thick, dark yarn instead of the line it comes with; the idea being that when you fly it, it looks like the string just goes up into the sky, not connected to anything. I'm not sure how hard it would be to make; maybe I should try it on my own first.
Alternately, you could buy those little thin glow sticks and tape them to the skeleton of the kite, and fly it at night. I wonder if they'd be bright enough.
Monday, October 12, 2009
We need some secret sign, to identify each other. Tell me you want to be a masked vigilante when you grow up. Tell me you were raised on a leper colony in the South Pacific. Tell me your life's ambition is to break the world record for tallest tower of Jenga blocks. It's okay if you're a nursing or elementary-education major just like every other girl in this school; just lie to me for a minute.
And when I tell you what I want to do with my life, don't look at me like I'm a jerk for wanting to do something real and then ask if I wouldn't be better off majoring in Business Management. I'm going to keep a list of the names of all those idiot girls, and in twenty years I will write them a letter from Mogadishu or Nepal that will make them loathe the balding, swelling, disgustingly practical marketing executives and middle-managers and accountants they married. They will watch them scream at the TV during Monday Night Football, and quietly contemplate murder.
And to the pretty blonde at the frozen yogurt shop: it's okay to be friendly while you ring me up. I'm sure you get lame passes from BYU guys all the time, and I can tell by your body language and demeanor that you really, really don't want anything to do with me--which is fine, I get that--but you can make eye contact with me, and I will smile and say thank you, and pay for the frozen yogurt, and that will be it.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
In a speech in Prague last April, President Obama stated his commitment to "seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons". That would seem to be a rather inoffensive sound-byte, a typical safe thing for a politician to say; and I sincerely hope that's all it was, because peace and security are the very last things we would get from a world without nuclear weapons.
We have experienced, since 1945, what may be the single most peaceful, stable era in human history, and it's precisely because of the atrocity embodied in nuclear weapons. Does anyone really believe that a Cold War without nukes would have stayed cold? Consider how close we still came, contemplating our extinction as a species, to going to war anyway. Without that looming horror to dissuade us, it would have been a practical certainty. It would have been a shorter war (let's hope), maybe a more decisive one; but America likely would have left her ascendancy behind on the Russian steppe, just like Napoleon or Hitler, along with a few million frozen corpses.
Or, consider how long we could have fought the Japanese if we hadn't horrified them into submission in 1945. Vietnam is our nation's current metaphor for insane Pyrrhic conflict; but imagine an enemy equally entrenched, equally zealous, and equally comfortable with suicidal guerrilla tactics, only with twice the population and three times the funding. And not trying to kill each other, too. It would have made Iraq look like Granada. (It was to be called Operation Downfall, read all about it; particularly the quote about a "fanatically hostile" indigenous population).
Then consider the broader implications. Buried in Japan through the end of the 1940s, it seems unlikely that the United States could have afforded the epic levels of foreign aid that constituted the Marshall Plan, rebuilding Western Europe and stifling Communist uprisings that were already brewing there. Seeing it all as prosperous and stable as it is today, it's hard to imagine what a desperate and precarious place Europe was in 1945, and how close it came to a disastrous experiment in Marxism.
The Soviet Union would then have succeeded where Hitler failed, creating a "Fortress Europe" and monopolizing the whole productive capacity of the continent; and the world would have spent 60 million lives to trade one insane dictatorship for an even stronger and more murderous one.
Often, similar "what-if" nightmare scenarios are concocted in books and film to illustrate the terrible consequences of nuclear war, and that's important; but it's also important to realize that war has always had terrible consequences, of which nuclear weapons are an indispensable reminder.
Since he gets quoted in fifteen-second sound clips and lacks the privilege of sitting down for a few hours and hammering out an essay, I can see why President Obama would stick to the socially-acceptable bumper-sticker rhetoric that "nuclear weapons are bad". Thankfully, in his actual policies, he seems to be much more nuanced. We don't need to be able to glass the entire planet three times over, and we don't need to piss off the Russians with a missile shield in Poland; 1,500 nuclear weapons is scary enough, and we need them pointed at actual 21st-century bad guys.
As long as this already is, I'll make a separate post on non-proliferation, which is the more philosophically interesting issue.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
The book effectively neutralizes some common objections to the theory of evolution--the sort of folksy, common-sense arguments you find in email forwards from the sort of people who still send email forwards: i.e. "there's no way that random chance could have produced complex life"; "the existence of a watch implies the existence of a watch-maker"; "evolution is a theory, not a fact"; evolution's supposed contravention of the law of entropy, etc. And then there's usually like a .gif of a waving American flag or an eagle, or that twisted-steel cross in the wreckage of the WTC towers, or something.
I believe that God can create universes any way that suits Him, and He's told us repeatedly and emphatically that He's not going to give us all the details. So I am theologically and cosmologically cool with it. But I don't think that the theory of evolution as we currently understand it is the final stop; and it's unfortunate that scientists like this author have become so emotionally invested in defending the theory from these shallow criticisms, that they miss an opportunity to criticize and refine the theory themselves, intelligently.
It's a kind of siege mentality, a sense of shared persecution, which inevitably begets the sort of orthodox esprit de corps that is good for some professions, but not for scientists. We like our scientists wildly disunited and doing their best to disprove each other, because that's how good ideas get better (a cultural example of natural selection to which Wilson refers in the book). Still, it's an edifying read, and it raises some interesting questions.
For instance: we observe natural selection as it affects all sorts of individual, immediately-advantageous traits in a given population. The predators with the sharpest teeth, the most efficient digestive system, the keenest vision or hearing, survive to reproduce in greater numbers; and in the long run, that's how species are refined to fill their niche in the ecosystem.
But there are some traits that could only confer reproductive advantage if they were introduced as a system, out of whole cloth. Birds are the best example of this that I can think of. In order to fly under their own power, birds need all sorts of body adaptations that, by themselves, would be an extreme liability to any animal that can't fly. Porous, brittle bones to reduce weight; big, awkward forelimbs with a whole lot of unnecessary surface area; a hyperactive cardiovascular system with a correspondingly hyperactive metabolism, etc.
How could these adaptations have survived for all those millions of years with no payoff? Introduced individually, in the slow, iterative process of natural selection, it's hard to imagine any of those traits even surviving one generation, much less conferring the sort of clear reproductive advantage that leads to speciation. But for some mutant strain of reptile to acquire one crippling mutation, and then another, and then another, and then another, and survive each step for millions of years before finally achieving flight, seems to defy reason.
It's just Bio 100, and I'm sure the question has been asked before, but I've never heard a decent answer. Any Biology majors in the house?
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Why Free-Market Health Care Doesn't Work
1. Emergency services do not respond normally to the law of demand which regulates free markets.
When one's house is burning down, consideration for the price of help is minimal. If a "freelance" fire truck were to drive up and offer to put the fire out, one's response would be the same whether their asking price was $50 or $5,000: "Fine, whatever, just put the fire out!" In economic terms, we call this a "perfectly inelastic" demand curve--one that is not meaningfully responsive to changes in price. The potential for extortion is obvious, and there's actually historical precedent for that very situation.
Marcus Licinius Crassus, a Roman politician, operated his own personal fire brigade on free-market principles: when he heard there was a fire in town, he would rush to the scene with a team of slaves, and offer to buy the home at an obscene discount. If the owner refused, the offered price would fall until he was forced to frantically accept, and Crassus would send in his team to put out the fire and salvage what they could.
There's a similar precedent for contract police forces: the Huns called it "tribute", and organized criminals call it "protection money". That's why we have "socialized" police and fire departments: because we want those industries kept as aloof from the profit motive as possible.
Normal commodities respond favorably to market forces; we get faster computers, more fuel-efficient automobiles, longer-lasting light bulbs, etc. because the consumer has the power to choose between commodities or to go without altogether. It's this power of choice that drives innovation, lowers costs, increases efficiency--which is almost nonexistent in emergency services.
When I had my appendix out last February, I couldn't choose a discount hospital, or a luxury hospital, or the one with the most efficient billing and coding system--I just had to drive as fast as possible to the nearest hospital and beg them to anesthetize me. And even if they had told me at the time that it would cost $12,000 (they send you the bill a couple weeks later), my response would have been no different. I needed to not die, at whatever the going rate for not dying happened to be.
2. True Free-market Health Care does not exist--and shouldn't.
As our system currently operates, free health care is already available to every individual within driving distance of an American hospital, provided that their need is life-threatening and immediate. Emergency rooms don't ask before they reattach your arm if you are a legal US citizen with valid health insurance--nor should they.
But if you want something close to a functional free-market system, at least one side (supplier or consumer) has to have the power to refuse the transaction. It is illegal in the United States for a hospital to refuse treatment to an ER patient on the basis of their ability to pay; so we don't have a truly free health care market, and the very idea of such a system ought to be repugnant anyway.
Still, someone has to foot the bill, and you can bet it won't be the hospitals. To cover the cost of all that free health care (which is huge, given the number of Americans who can't afford it but still need that bullet out), they inflate prices across the board; but the insurance companies don't want to eat it either, so they pass it on to you, enlightened consumer, in the form of higher monthly premiums.
In effect, then, American health care is already socialized; but instead of spreading the cost across the 70% of Americans who pay income tax, we spread it across the 60% of Americans who have health insurance--thus, as the Republicans love to say, "punishing the successful and rewarding the unsuccessful", just the same. The only difference is that--
3. Waiting for the ER Vastly Increases the Cost of Treatment
You could see this all over the place in Memphis: middle-aged, inner-city African Americans suffering from long-term, treatable illnesses for which they couldn't afford treatment until they could sell it as life-threatening to the ER. Obviously, sometimes these diseases were stupid, and manageable if the person had any sense. Obviously I'd rather not pay to pharmaceutically manage someone's diabetes, when the patient weighs 450 lbs. and puts away a 2-liter of soda with every meal--but that's not the choice we're presented with.
We can either pay for the treatment (and maybe some mandatory education and counseling) in the early stages, when it's relatively cheap, or we can pay for it when it's $50,000 to amputate an infected foot. We're not going to let them die of their stupidity; that's just not on the table. Our choice is how we will bear the cost of their stupidity.
And that is, of course, an extreme case. Even then, the moral imperative is clear, but there are thousands of other cases in which people get sick through no fault of their own, and we are presented with the same choice. We're going to have to pay for it either way, but prevention and management is cheaper than emergency care.
What drives me crazy about this whole situation is that the quality of the debate is so unbelievably dim. Republicans have tried to sell it as a Communist conspiracy to overthrow the Constitution, which is about as anachronistic as blaming it on pirates. We won that war 20 years ago, guys... pick a new villain.
Meanwhile the liberals have phrased their entire defense in the lame language of complacent American entitlement... don't sell me health care reform by telling me what "everybody deserves". Everybody deserves to have a good family, and nobody should get picked on in school, and nobody's dog should ever die; but it happens. Life is hard. The state of the economy is enough to keep that important fact fresh in the American consciousness; so you're never going to sell this thing if you keep talking like a bunch of damn brainless hippies.
Saturday, April 04, 2009
The missile stopped briefly in Tokyo to make like it was going to punch Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, and is reported to have laughed derisively as he flinched and wet himself, before establishing a stable orbit over the American West Coast. Upon re-entry, the Taepo-dong II missile is expected to move in with Mr. Aso's mom and boast loudly about their intimate relationship whenever Mr. Aso is in earshot.
President Obama issued a written statement promising to immediately talk about this some more, and possibly even petition the UN Security Council to issue another resolution. Mr. Obama is reported to be "not mad, just disappointed" and asked the North Korean President if he even wanted to be friends, or what. He vaguely alluded to the potential for economic sanctions if talking about it a whole lot more doesn't do the trick. Kim Jong Il texted the following response from his fortress of doom, 5 miles beneath Pyongyang:
"OMG NOT SANCTIONS! WE MIGHT BECOME THE ISOLATED, IMPOVERISHED, FAMINE-STRICKEN A**HOLE OF EAST ASIA--OH WAIT! LOL! GTG PLAY WITH MY NEW ORPHAN CANNON, L8R"
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Well, "current" for the symphony-going set apparently means "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog", but it was enjoyable. The conductor began with a narration of how the concept of a pops orchestra began in 18th and 19th century Vienna, when that city was essentially the cultural capital of Europe.
It interested me that the city through which practically all of Europe's leading philosophers, scientists, and artists passed for 200 years should now be so seldom heard about. It's certainly not a ruin or a backwater or anything, but it's not the intellectual engine of Western civilization, either.
They played several pieces from this Viennese golden age, followed immediately by a series of iconically American jazz and swing pieces from the 1930s, and I couldn't help wondering what will be remembered of our culture when the spotlight leaves, as it did for the Habsburgs.
Placed as it was, right alongside Mozart and Strauss, the American music seemed to epitomize what it means to be an American--or what it used to mean, or what it ought to mean, depending whom you ask--but it was bold, and brash, and living; the product of exuberant freedom and a unique convergence of cultures. I decided that if that's how we're remembered, it wouldn't be such a bad thing.
I doubt Benny Goodman or Count Basie thought of themselves as the voice of any big ideas; but maybe that's why it's believable. The best artistic expression is hardly aware of itself. The orchestra played "The Stars and Stripes Forever", for which I had no special feelings--but "Sing, Sing, Sing" made me love my country.
Interesting that a nation that thinks of itself as more open, free, and liberal than it used to be, should now have so much to say about angst, frustration, alienation, and fatalism (and that's the good music)--to say nothing of the maudlin pop ballads and commercial jingles we churn out daily.
Maybe in the long run, we'll find that there were some "greats" operating today, and we just have to wait for history to kill all the noise around them. Or maybe our ridiculous pop icons will become enshrined in our consciousness like the Beatles, and in 2040 bearded college professors will hold classes discussing the political significance and artistic merit of Pink and the Jonas Brothers.
(And yes, I do think it's a fair comparison. Have you listened to the Beatles?)
Thursday, March 19, 2009
I smiled and said, "Maybe I am," and her boyfriend said, "Keep on walkin'!" Which reminded me pleasantly of being a missionary.
I arrived just as the overture ended and the curtain rose, and I squeezed in between two elderly ladies near the middle of the theater. I was hot from the long walk and uncomfortable in my jacket, but I felt like I wasn't allowed to take it off.
Behind me were two heavily painted overweight women in their late twenties who were apparently writing a review of the performance, and kept talking about whether or not the farce was over-done. They seemed to know what they were talking about, so I tilted my head as if to look across the audience, to hear their conversation better. I wanted to talk to them during the intermissions, but I got the impression that they would have been very impatient with novice questions.
Speaking of which: I didn't know this, and maybe you don't either, but The Marriage of Figaro is three hours long, with three intermissions; and with each one, the audience thinned out perceptibly. Most of the deserters seemed to be middle-aged couples who appeared to be there partly out of a desire to dress up fancy, and partly out of a sense of duty. Interestingly, all the young hipsters and klieg-light homosexuals seemed to be there for art's sake, and endured the whole thing.
It wasn't something that entertained me in its own right. I didn't have to speak Italian to know that the subtitles were seriously deficient--at best a synopsis of what was being said, and with none of the poetry. The language barrier, combined with an extraordinarily convoluted plot, made it a bit like watching a Japanese cartoon: which either implies that opera is really lousy, or that I need to revise my assessment of Japanese cartoons. And I was inclined to agree with the big ladies behind me that it was a little over-acted; although if you're not going to explain what is being said, the actors have to be a little more demonstrative.
So it's conceivable that I might have enjoyed it more under different circumstances. But what interested me most was the audience; a bizarre package of incongruous cliches, literally elbow-to-elbow. Seemingly at home in this sea of wilting elderly faces was the spray-tanned homosexual with the ironically loose necktie and ironically tousled hair, and the "artist", with (seriously) a beret, and a scarf, and a beard, and square glasses. There's nothing better to me than seeing a non-conformist in uniform.
Then there were the once-attractive middle-aged women in expensive dresses meant for younger bodies, for whom "showing some skin" is like airing an open wound, ravaged by ultraviolet radiation and cellulite. And their men, who had so obviously bought opera tickets only under extreme duress; who wore exactly the same petulant grimace as the nine-year-olds who had been brought by their grandmothers.
But in the midst of this darkly amusing human train wreck were a few remarkably beautiful women a few years older than me, having adult conversations with remarkably tall and well-dressed men. Their faces were so bright and expressive and interested--a real conversation--and I wondered where I was going to find that kind of woman; or even just a woman, in general. I have dealt with so many girls who don't know who they are, or what they want, or even what they like, and conversation feels a lot like playing tennis with a brick wall. Just overhearing a real conversation gave me some hope that it could be different.
Needless to say I felt a little out of my element, but I made friends with the two old ladies who sat next to me, and they asked me very kindly about my school and my plans, and gave me a little education (having seen a lot of opera in their time, apparently); which was a pleasant distraction from my admittedly cynical people-watching.
There is something appealing about being out late, downtown, in a suit. Walking back to my car I was simultaneously enjoying that sensation, and thinking about how Batman's parents got whacked, walking home late from the opera downtown. Salt Lake City is no Gotham, but I did have to walk past Pioneer Park, where they keep a port-a-john because of all the vagrants who would otherwise do their business in the alleyways. Nobody else parked that far away, so it was awfully quiet, and I looked over my shoulder once or twice.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
It got me thinking, though, that's the point. If you replace every constituent part of a human being one by one, do you still have a human being? And is it the same human being? You don't need cybernetic implants to face that paradox, though; all the cells in my body die and regenerate at regular intervals, and even they are composed of circulating molecules that are broken, reordered, replaced, recirculated constantly within and among the cells.
As far as anyone can prove, I am a chemical process between trillions of organic molecules, regulated by a self-replicating chemical "program". Under an electron microscope, you can't see the forest for the trees; but that's because a forest is just a word we use to describe a whole lot of trees all together.
If I am only the sum of my constituent parts, then the oldest part of me is seven years old; and what am I, if not a thief, a usurper? My infant body has been dead for fifteen years, flushed out piece-by-piece and excreted by a different sort of body, which was gradually rejected and destroyed by another, and another, and then I killed that one and here I am.
My memories of being fifteen, or eleven, or five, then, are just the ghosts of those dethroned kings, haunting me on the periphery of my thoughts. I didn't do any of that; I stole it from the old and dying neurons I replaced. And when this body dies, you won't notice; but will I? And will I haunt the new possessor of my identity with vague memories of "his" ill-spent twenties?
I reject all these suppositions, but it's a good thing to scare yourself with before bed. A scientist from the 1700s, knowing nothing about radio waves or satellites, might empirically examine a cellular phone in the middle of a call and determine it to be a sentient thing, as he could find no external source for its intelligence. The only evidence he would have against this hypothesis would be the voice's own insistence. Likewise, I believe I am more than just an elaborate, self-amplifying chemical reaction; but my own insistence is all I have to go on.