Monday, April 20, 2015

Sippican Cottage: I Must Not Do It

I can hear the echoes.

I hope the book comes out soon.

Sippican Cottage: I Must Not Do It


I have repeatedly stated my admiration for Jonathan Haidt's work, but because I am who I am with natural suspiciousness, I usually only note this in the context of my main point of disagreement. It is unfair of me.  I find his books informative but difficult to read, but that shouldn't prevent me from praising his name in the gates.

Haidt's research shows that conservatives make moral decisions on the basis of five factors, liberals only two.  If you are conservative, you think that this is because conservatives are less simplistic, more nuanced, more philosophically aware of complex moral issues.  If you are liberal, you think this is because your two axes are the important ones, and the other three extraneous.

My objection has always been, from the first time I read his research a decade ago, that the distinction is not that absolute.  Liberals also evaluate morality along the other three lines - of purity/disgust, especially.  His original questionnaire just didn't pick that up, because of the bias he (initially) brought to that study.

Here is another example. Purity/disgust is indeed part of the liberal repertoire of moral decision.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


That is, Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders.  The teaser over at HBD chick's was "Yes, You Can Catch Insanity," so of course I had to follow that up.

It's very strange to start such an article and instantly see your town mentioned.  I looked up the McCune's and I walk past their house on some of my hikes. (Note to locals - over by Karanikas's.) What a harrowing experience to watch your child suffer and his personality disappear, and be helpless to do anything.  The boy is a year or less older than my granddaughter, who lives nearby, so their paths may cross in the future.

The article itself is also quite good.  Inflammation is one of the New Big Things that turns out to cause everything. (Junk DNA and gut bacteria are next.)  But even though the claims are usually overblown, these excitements usually do result in more things being understood and becoming treatable. People escape from misery, and life improves.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Skimming Is Better

A nephew who is many years into grad school sent this article about skimming instead of reading closely. He worried that he would feel he was cheating a bit if he only skimmed material, though he is feeling the pressure at the moment of very little time for pleasure reading.

The article's strongest point is to question whether there was ever a time that we read closely. It may be a false impression because of media. When we used to hold a book in our lap or on a table, it looked, in contrast to our click-click of today, that we were engaging in a much more sustained activity.

I'm pretty sure I wasn't.  I have skimmed most of what I have read all my life.  What I felt needed further explanation I looped back on, automatically, endlessly.  I did the same with things I read for pleasure. It has always been leap, review, leap, review, leap, leap, leap, review, leap, leap, review, review, all across page after page. Sometimes it will be leap, leap, leap for chapters at a time, with little doubling back.

I imagine there is a place for close reading.  I'm sure I've done it somewhere, sometime in my life.  Memorising lines for a play, or preparing a teaching for a Bible lesson...

Recipes.  You can get into trouble skimming recipes, and part of why I find them difficult to hold in the mind is that I apply my automatic reading style to them.

Small Group Guides

I have a longstanding dislike for small group guides for Bible studies or Christian books. They seem to leap from the overspecific What does Paul tell the Colossians God has rescued them from ? (v.13) to the overgeneral How do you think you can apply the lessons in this chapter to your life this week? in repetitive fashion.

When I saw the study guides at the bottom of a CS Lewis page, I wondered - hoped, really - that they would be better.  They are.  At least, they look much better.  I haven't tried them.

Life is good.

Hating The Outgroup

Many of you have likely seen this long essay in Slate Star Codex from last fall, I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup. It needs an editor, but his style is engaging enough that it's not a chore to read.  The content is very insightful.  That is to say, I agree with it, he says it much better, and adds both illustration and extension of what I have said myself.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Who Is Evil?

Three of us who have been in the NH mental health system for many years, at different agencies, were discussing a heartbreaking patient we had all encountered a few times each over the decades.  In particular, we were discussing his mother, who was his guardian most of his adult life.

Nick was my age, born in Hungary in 1952 or 53.  He came with his parents to America during the revolution of 1956.  His mother was Jewish, I believe his father had been as well.  She had lost most if not all of her relatives in the camps during the Holocaust.  We don't know much about his father, because he went back to Hungary after a few years here. (That may say something about the marriage.)

Nick was as severely disorganised a schizophrenic as I have ever met. He was nervous, did not understand the world around him, and evoked deep sympathy among all who treated him, even as he was assaultive, accusing, and difficult. He was tormented every day of his life by what went on in his head.  His mother told us his father was also mentally ill.  she told us that Nick had been brilliant, especially in mathematics, as a child.  This was entirely believable, but mother was the only source for this.

We went years in battle with his mother, trying to get him adequately treated, but she refused, always wanting L-tryptophan instead.  He had been tried on it repeatedly, as each new psychiatrist who treated him wanted to establish a working rapport with the woman.  It was never enough, or the right way, or complicated by other medications we were giving him, or undermined by providers who just didn't understand him. It was always some excuse why we could not ramp up on the antipsychotics and see if that would work.

She lived in town and came to see her son almost daily, and always had criticism for the nurses or doctors who treated him. They didn't see, didn't appreciate, didn't care about him as she did. I worked with Nick a half-dozen times over the years.  I hated her.  I wanted so badly to see him tried just once on adequate doses of antipsychotic medication, to see if that would relive his torment.  We went to court to have her removed as guardian and twice failed.  Courts everywhere are reluctant to remove involved family members as guardians, and this is observably true in New Hampshire. Plus, judges had great pity for her as well.  She had nothing else in all the world.  She had only her boy and their two ruined lives, and one friend she corresponded with, hundreds of miles away.

One of the other two people present felt great pity for her and thought I had always been too harsh on the woman (which is likely true in any event.)  "I used to listen to her a lot.  She just wanted to be heard."  I acknowledged that she was indeed sad and pathetic, but still saw her as straight out of M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie, a malignant narcissist who expressed her rage and pain through the only thing she had left, which was also the destruction of her son's life.  The third person sided about 60% with me that she was in some way evil , but had worked well with her and deeply sorry for her.  He is a nicer person than I.

He had eventually convinced a judge to remove her as guardian, have a public guardian appointed, and Nick finally received adequate dosing.  After so many years there was not much hope he would recover much, but he did improve quite a bit.  He was less confused by his environment, he stopped pacing and circling, and even his face grew calmer, less lined and preoccupied.  He stopped talking to voices, though he told us he still heard them sometimes. (He had been unable to even answer that question for decades.) 

She died within a year, and the friend at a distance wrote to the mental health center and the public guardian to accuse them of killing her. That may at some level be true. Nick was visiting at her house when she died, and he only visited rarely. He did not speak of it after, but remained calm, less troubled.  He was still in need of constant supervision.  He was transferred to a more appropriate placement an hour away, and died about two years after.

Pat Buchanan

I heard Patrick Buchanan on the radio, and I have read his recent writings over at Unz, where he is called Mr. Paleoconservative.” He is in favor of the recently-negotiated deal with Iran, in contrast to most conservatives. His reasoning, if I understand correctly, is that many countries and leaders are indeed fanatic, corrupt, and dishonest, including Iran.  But they are not crazy in the sense of being oblivious to their own self-interest.  Whatever they spout about, threaten, and complain, they do not actually want war with the US. We can therefore trust them, not be honest and abide by terms – they will start in breaking faith immediately – but to be predictable about protecting their own butts.

There is a great deal of sense in this, and it’s not the worst approach we could take. It stems from one of Buchanan’s core ideas – that war always costs more and gives back less than we estimated, a sentiment it is always at least partly true, even when it is not the final truth.

Here is my objection.  One of Pat’s other core ideas is that we have allied ourselves far too deeply with Israel’s interests, and his response to that is almost reflexively to go in the opposite direction.  If Israel is for it, in all probability it is bad for us, he suspects. Additionally, I think his approach is one that works great until the day it doesn’t. More than once it has led to speculation that even WWII should have been artfully avoided, in the hopes that Germany and the Soviet Union, as well as China and Japan, could even more fully offset and exterminate each other and leave us out of it. That has always struck me as a possible but unlikely alternate history.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


Van der Leun posted this today. It hits me at my greatest area of temptation, I think.

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire,  God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


I have concluded that I am trying to understand two, and perhaps three separate phenomenon about Nice People, which causes it all to be muddled.  I will regroup and try again.  In the meantime, a few things occurred to me today.

Jumping off from terri's Southern Ladies, who sorta fit my description but don't quite, I went looking for some other equivalent.  The southern ladies who drop racist explosions in the cloakroom might think of themselves as nice people and thus are similar.  Yet I think if one told them they weren't being nice they would acknowledge that, however many excuses and ignorant rationales they put forward. They would agree these were insulting things to say about black people - just deserved.  My Nice People do not understand what you are saying when you challenge them. They are so focused on who they are being nice to and defending that they do not even see that this constitutes and attack on someone else.

One analogy that occurred to me is those folks who are always concerned with What Is Going On In The Schools, and finding covert satanic influences or softening the kiddies up for impending dictatorship. These days it's the belief that Common Core is not merely misguided education, but some active attempt to inculcated dangerous values in children.  They start with some very real complaints and concerns, but lead you into this constricted maze of reasoning soon enough. Some go so far as to forbid CS Lewis and Tolkien because of MAGIC!!! and put forth Medieval rather than biblical theology in support of this.  As no one is really much of a fundamentalist anymore, not even the cults, this oversensitivity is something of a positional good of more-Bible-believing-than-thou. (The link describes PC as a positional good, but I think it applies to fundies quite nicely. Useful concept.) At some point you start shaking your head and say "Do you realise you are not just calling these other people wrong and thoughtless, but satanic and evil?  Do you really think that?" And the answer is not an embarrassed evasion but an oblivious one: Satan uses many methods, children are especially vulnerable, this world is headed toward catastrophe...

You just can't get them to the point of what terrible things they are saying about others, and do they mean that?

My Nice People are more like that.  There is a competitive niceness that drove them into ministry or social work.

I may sort all this out in the next few weeks.  Maybe not.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Punching Up, Punching Down

Garry Trudeau, who I have criticised roundly before, has a recent piece in the Atlantic about Charlie Hebdo magazine's staff being killed in France.  He comes pretty close to saying that they deserved it, because they were punching down against disadvantaged Muslims - and cites the general sympathy of most Muslims in France against Charlie Hebdo as evidence that they must obviously have gone too far.

There are lots of takedowns of this essay, and it will be more fun for you to discover your own.  One clever comment from the site Why Evolution Is True was noted specifically in a friend's email:
Again, the inanity of trying to arrange the world into a neat hierarchy of “privilege” or “power”, with all criticism directed “up”, is breathtaking to me. I hate to go all Goodwin (sic: Godwin) here, but there was a time when the Nazis were just powerless, downtrodden, brownshirts. Had we lived then, would the prescription have been to spare them from ridicule for the vile things they preached, because, hey, they are oppressed by Versailles, they are “powerless”? Are we only allowed to criticize dangerous, vile, and violent ideas AFTER they attain the power they clearly announce that they seek, only AFTER they are a existential threat to the rest of us? That makes no sense whatsoever.
Trudeau may have been punching up when he was a young college cartoonist and Nixon was still president - though the Democrats did take over Congress in 1958 and have seldom relinquished it, so they can't be really considered "down" - but certainly within a few years he was just punching across.  There was, and is, a liberal elite and a conservative elite, with underlings who fight their cultural battles. Who? Whom? applies in many directions.

Reading Trudeau, I think there is some of the definition of who is "down" that is just installed in our psyches and we respond to it, even when it makes no sense.  Don't hit a girl can quickly become Don't pick on a girl. It just seems wrong. Criticising a black person just feels like punching down. Yet when the examples being considered are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, that's just silly.  It's impossible to punch down on the POTUS and his SOS.  Yet I feel it. It seems mean and low. Decent people just don't do that. It's crazy, but I understand it.

It's got a high school feel, or even younger.  If yelling at a person in school would have seemed like bullying then, it still carries a whiff of it today. It seems like Trudeau is responding in some similar fashion now. North African Muslims would have been a vulnerable minority in his town growing up.  Therefore saying bad things about them is still bullying and hate speech now, even with the recognition that they are armed and have the support of both some governments and some international organisations.