A Boy Leaves Home

A Boy Leaves Home:

In this scene from La Nef's "Perceval: La Quete Du Graal", Perceval asks his mother to get him something to eat... for he is leaving her, to follow a roving band of knights.

The opera is worked around an old Irish ballad, "The Star of the County Down." It is a rollicking piece when it is done as a folk song; but La Nef is probably right to think of it as something older. The tune is simple, and beautiful, and has probably lived long past the time that men can remember where its fountainhead lays.

Here is the folk song:

And here the opera's version:

Sir Perceval is originally the knight who finds the Holy Grail. In later versions it was Galahad, Lancelot's son, who did: a perfect knight, without flaw inside or out. We have lately discussed how Galahad borders on blasphemy; but Sir Perceval has no such troubles. He is full of flaws, and misunderstanding, but at last brings the quest to a close. "You have wars you hardly win, and souls you hardly save."

In Sir Thomas Malory's version, Perceval's sister is the exemplar of true virtue. She readily lays down her life to save a wicked lady who has preserved herself only by slaughtering maidens to drink their blood: but so little cares Perceval's sister for this world that she gives her blood freely, to save even a wicked life. I reflect on how such spiritual generosity might prepare one well for the next world, but poorly serves this one. Such kindness to the cruel and the wicked only empowers them. It is better to strike them down: the Bible says that God reserves vengeance to himself, but perhaps he might forgive us. What otherwise are we for, and what chivalry, and what justice?

Perhaps only to be forgiven; but, by God, to be forgiven for something.

Professor of Law

Professor of Law:

The lady gives him too much credit. It was not expertise in the law that led him to bait the Supreme Court before the unified Congress.

Instapunk is in despair.

Now, I tend to think Instapunk has been overwrought of late, but he's got a point here.

I want to know how the President says "Peace Corps" now.

Intellectual my ass.

Play Deguello

Play Deguello:

The end is nigh.

Press does not know economics

Press: Actually, We Haven't The Slightest Idea What's Up With The Economy

For several months, every time an unemployment report showed unemployment remaining high or going up, the press reported it as happening "unexpectedly." That suggests that the expectation was that unemployment would go down, right? I mean, we spent all this TARP and stimulus money.

Today, good news on unemployment: it seems to have declined slightly. What's the press' reaction? How unexpected!

Come on, guys. Just admit that you have no real expectations, because you haven't any idea at all what's going on. It's OK: we know. Just report the facts, and quit trying to act like you understand the facts. People who were paid millions of dollars a year to predict the course of the economy blew it; there's no reason you should be expected to act as an oracle here either. Just say, "Unemployment is now at X%, up/down Y% from the last report." We'll be OK with that.



Looks like fun.

As much as I like a kilt, though, I'm not sure it's all that effective as a political ploy.

One of the things that the media is making a big deal about is that this is a for-profit movement. That shouldn't be considered a negative: it should scare the crap out of the existing political class.

This removes one of the main obstacles to success for conservatives: normally having a full-time job, they can devote very little time to politics. Even though they have money to support such a 'habit,' they can't leave off their job for a year every two years to help contest the face of Congress.

If it proves that you can make a profit fighting for small government, though, a whole lot more people are suddenly free to do that full time.

The scariest thing in the world for the political class ought to be a for-profit movement to reform the government. That means it is a movement that is genuinely sustainable: it won't run out of money, because it's making money.

Wallop The Cat

The Beatings Will Improve Morale:

According to my morning's email, Tartanic has agreed to come down to play in Georgia for the first time. Who is Tartanic, you ask? They're not the band that likes to beat on cats.

They're the band that likes to beat on knights. (At least, those with a sense of humor.)

Should be a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, once the long winter is over and the spring has finally come. Ded Bob will be there, too.

Art & Duty

Art & Duty:

What do we make of a case like this? (H/t: Arts & Letters Daily.)

[Children's book author Remi] chose to spend the war in his German-occupied homeland, where he continued to work unmolested, thanks to longtime links to right-wing figures. The help of powerful collaborators enabled him to publish new adventures in spite of a severe wartime paper shortage. Most damningly, he accepted work with a Belgian newspaper, Le Soir, which had been confiscated by the authorities to serve as a propaganda organ. The German-controlled paper published, among other things, defenses of fascism and anti-Semitic screeds. Hergé’s cartoons provided a great boost to the paper’s popularity in the face of a boycott of its pages by many well-known Belgian writers and artists. Indeed, his role led the resistance, on the eve of the liberation, to brand him one of the forty leading journalist collaborators....

Even as a collaborator, Remi was relatively innocuous. His worst crime was going along where he ought to have resisted. He is a study not in the banality of evil but simply in the banality of the banal.
A citizen has a duty to defend his nation, but it's worth remembering how quickly the Belgian government collapsed. Indeed, the whole war gets one sentence in the Wikipedia article on Belgium: "The country was again invaded by Germany in 1940 during the Blitzkrieg offensive and occupied until its liberation in 1945 by the Allies." That's the whole war, right there, from the perspective of Belgium. Notice that the sentence is in the passive voice -- Belgium "was invaded... and occupied" until it 'was liberated.'

So, if the government collapses entirely, and there is now lawful army nor authority to which you might apply as a defender of your country, what really is your duty as a citizen? I think we might say that, in such cases, a man who is inclined to fight in the resistance might be praised for his courage -- but he is praiseworthy because he is doing more than his duty requires.

The laws of war, meanwhile, will not necessarily recognize him as a lawful combatant. Depending on his mode of fighting, he may be committing what are technically war crimes. Some of what the French resistance did was clearly against the laws of war, such as shooting soldiers while pretending to be civilians. We excuse this because they were Nazi soldiers, but the action is a war crime all the same. It undermines the principle of noncombatant immunity just as much when the French did it as when the Taliban does.

Finally, from the perspective of a Belgian, this was hardly the first time this had happened! The French and German governments had been invading each other since Napoleon's day. Joining the resistance to the German occupation, in any of these previous wars, was likely to lead only to French occupation instead of German. One can imagine a quiet-minded man, the sort who likes to sit and write children's books, for not feeling like he wanted to get killed over the ping-pong game of two poweful neighbors. 'Fine, let them fight each other if they must! I'll carry on with my books.'

All that would be fairly satisfying, if the Germany of the 1940s had not been Nazi Germany. Had it been simply a resurgent Imperial Germany, bent on reasserting German pride and claims, and revenging itself on France -- but not on extermination of peoples nor racist totalitarianism -- we could say that he had no further duty but to sit out the war. His country was caught between two powerful neighbors who were always fighting; there was no lawful army he might join, since his government had collapsed, and the resistance there was had chosen to fight in sometimes unlawful ways; and fighting against one of his country's neighbors would probably only lead to a new occupation by the other. Bad times, you might say, and let it go: except for the matter of evil.

A citizen needs only to defend his nation, but a gentleman has a duty to defend his civilization. Countries come and go, and governments; but evil is eternal, and we must always resist it. An artist, specially placed to be able to resist in powerful but subtle and nonviolent ways, is not excused from this duty. If anything, his power gives him a special duty.
Heh. Just Heh.

I have a couple friends like this guy.

It's good to have friends.

Shut Them Out

Shut Them Out:

The Politico reports:

President Obama's back is against the wall, so he's getting in touch with his inner Agnew, hitting the neo-nattering nabobs of cable and the net.

“If we could just -- excuse the press -- turn off the cameras," he told Democratic Senators at their annual retreat. "Turn off your CNN, your FOX, your MSNBC, your blogs, turn off this echo chamber … where the topic is politics. … We’ve got to get out of the echo chamber.
Why would this be so important to his agenda? Well, stories like this one.
With the developments in Illinois and Indiana over the past 24 hours, the Cook Political Report now carries 10 Democratic-held seats in their most competitive categories -- meaning, theoretically, that if Republicans ran the table (and lost none of their own toss up seats in Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio) they could get to 51 seats and the Senate majority.
Also this one, which demonstrates that a key myth that members of the Democratic Congress have been telling themselves is false: passing health care won't save them in November. That's got to be discouraging.

The fear that reality might scare people out of 'voting the right way' may not be all that's in play. Consider this poll, and confer it with this one from before the election.

What we see in every case is that Democrats, and also groups likely to vote democratic in disproportionate levels, have less actual knowledge about the world.

That may be a correlation, not a causation; but just in case, I can see why the President wouldn't want to take the chance!

Easy = True

Easy = True:

The Boston Globe has a story about how the brain handles difficulty. Short version: it's very suspicious of it.

A handful of scholars have already started to explore the ways that advertisers, educators, political campaigners, or anyone else in the business of persuasion can use these findings. And some of the implications are surprising. For example, to get people to think through a question, it may be best to present it less clearly. And to boost your self-confidence, you may want to set out to write a dauntingly long list of all the reasons why you’re a failure.

Our sensitivity to - and affinity for - fluency is an adaptive shortcut. According to psychologists, it helps us apportion limited mental resources in a world where lots of things clamor for our attention and we have to quickly figure out which are worth thinking about.

Most of the time, the shortcut works pretty well....

Our bias for the familiar, however, can be triggered in settings where there’s little purpose to it. In the 1960s, Zajonc did a series of experiments that uncovered what he dubbed the “mere exposure” effect: He found that, with stimuli ranging from nonsense words to abstract geometric patterns to images of faces to Chinese ideographs (the test subjects, being non-Chinese speakers, didn’t know what the ideographs meant), all it took to get people to say they liked certain ones more than others was to present them multiple times.

More recent work suggests that people assign all sorts of specific characteristics to things that feel familiar. Like beauty. Psychologists have identified what they call the “beauty-in-averageness” effect - when asked to identify the most attractive example of something, people tend to choose the most prototypical option. For example, when asked to identify the most appealing of a group of human faces, people choose the one that is a composite of all the others....

One thing that fools us, for example, is font. When people read something in a difficult-to-read font, they unwittingly transfer that sense of difficulty onto the topic they’re reading about. Schwarz and his former student Hyunjin Song have found that when people read about an exercise regimen or a recipe in a less legible font, they tend to rate the exercise regimen more difficult and the recipe more complicated than if they read about them in a clearer font.
This is part of why J. R. R. Tolkien has had such an outsized effect on culture versus, say, analytic philosophers like Williamson (below). Tolkien was no less intellectual. He knew deep things about the roots of languages, and the magic that underlies them.

What he could do was take that knowledge and present it as a story. It was easy to join the story, and easy to follow it; and at the end, you had gone where he wanted to take you.

This is important to remember.

Putnam's Example

Putnam's Example:

We've been discussing Williamson's epistemology in the comments to a post below. The book is actually available online, if any of you are interested in considering his ideas in a more in-depth way.

One of his examples reminds me of this whole spending/belt-tightening thing. Can you explain to me how it is that, having just said you were going to make hard choices and tighten the government belt, you've instead presented a budget of massively increased spending and debt?

"Putnam's example," captured on page 76, is just this sort of problem:

Professor X is found stark naked in the girls' dormitory at 12 midnight. Explanation: (?) He was stark naked in the girls' dormitory at midnight -ε, and he could neither leave the dormitory nor put on his clothes by midnight without exceeding the speed of light. But (covering law:) nothing (no professor, anyhow) can travel faster than light.
So, how did you promise belt-tightening but deliver an orgy? 'Well, we wrote out the budgetary bill, and we made the required number of photocopies, and then it was sent down in a van along with an escort to ensure that it arrived in an undisturbed form before the proper Congressional officials.'

Yes, indeed, professor, that does offer a complete explanation. Except...

Shorter than usual

Shorter Than Usual:

Didn't we just hear the President say that government needed to tighten it's belt?

Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.
That was just a few days ago, right? I mean, not even a week.
Released to Congress Monday morning, the president’s spending plan anticipates $5.08 trillion in deficits over the next five years and seems almost a cry for help in the face of what he sees as intransigent Republican opposition.
If it's a cry for help, it may be a cry for some other kind of help.

I can understand how you can believe two different, contradictory things. It can happen because there is no context that causes you to reflect on the fact tha these two principles you believe are actually in contradiction. It can also be an act of will: presumably at least some people who shoplift believe they are doing something wrong, but do it anyway because they put aside the sense of the wrongness in return for the immediate need or desire that they are gratifying. Doubtless you can both believe that it is wrong to drink to excess, and also "...believe I'll have another drink."

Still, this seems unusually abrubt and sharp. It's as if he said what he said in the hope that you wouldn't notice that he's doing what he's doing. It's the opposite of Clinton-style triangulation: instead of figuring out where the middle is and going there, you try to satisfy one side through speech, and the other side through action.

As long as the people you're trying to satisfy through speech don't realize you're playing them for suckers, that should work just fine. Only one problem: it's already too late to hope they won't realize.
The Sun, Moon, And Stars:

"...shall sail under thy feet."


New CPR Method:

I have to admit, since this came from DL Sly, that I didn't look it at first in the assumption that it was a joke of some sort. That proves not to be the case; it is a method of lifesaving, which sounds reasonable on its face.

Something to consider, that you might better do your duty to be prepared to help those in great need.

GHBC 24-33

Grim's Hall Book Club: Bendigo Shafter, Chapters 24-33

Two things happen at the beginning of this section that are of special interest. The first is the letters that Ben gets while he is on his cattle drive. The second is his conversation with Henry Stratton, whose function in the story is to give an outside perspective on the town.

The letters move the plot substantially, but the conversation with Stratton is an interesting one. Stratton is a man of experience, a "watcher" who does not get involved in local affairs but who is capable of handling himself. He gives a verdict on the town: he does not think it will survive, or that it ought to survive.

Ben's reaction is to say, "A mistake is really only a mistake if you persist in it." Stratton avows that is a "rather profound remark."

In spite of this, at least for the moment Ben seems ready to double down on the town. He enters the election for Marshall, wins it, and begins to clean up the bad element that has entered his town. He buys a printing press, and obtains a contract to cut logs for the railroad. They settle in for a second winter.

The section ends with him being attacked by a mountain lion during a hunt for meat, and the aftermath of that attack. He is continuing to read everything he can find -- including newspapers, which give him a grounding in the greater world around him, to go with the deep historical perspective he has begun to gain from Great Books.

He begins to consider not just reading but writing: to add to the store of wisdom, now that he has a few things to say.

Questions for discussion:

1) Do you think that the town is a mistake? How long should he persist in it, if it is? How would you know when to cut loose?

2) This is an interesting account of writing. We teach children today to write fairly early, but Ben is only just about to start. He has an extraordinary experience of the world to inform his writing, though: rescuing children from a snowstorm, building houses, hunting elk, fighting mountain lions, a cattle drive, and being marshal of a small town. Louis L'amour himself was like this too. He read stories and lived stories for a long time before he began to tell stories.

How important is having something to say to being a good writer? In educating our children, should we focus less on teaching them to write, and more on making sure they have experiences that give them something to write about?