Monday, July 31, 2006


The name of Richard von Mises ( 1883-1953), applied mathematician and engineer, philosopher, and authority on the poetry of the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, may sound familiar at first only because it vaguely recalls the name of his more famous economist older brother Ludwig von Mises (1881-1971). To humanists, the name of Richard von Mises is not as familiar as it deserves to be, since it would be reasonable to say that he anticipated much of what is best in the humanist program under the positivist label, which at this time is not a popular one in academic philosophy. Few people in any age have a right to an opinion about how the world works. Von Mises had that right, and also wrote a great book in which he started from what we know scientifically and how we know it, and strove to examine the connections between scientific thinking and such fields as art and religion.

Von Mises was born in the city then called Lemberg, Austria, now Lviv in Ukraine, the son of parents Jewish on both sides, whose families had risen as distinguished Austrian professionals. As a young man, he was converted to Catholicism, then and now the dominant religion of Austria. In 1901 he graduated from the Academic Gymnasium (advanced secondary school) in Vienna at the age of 18 with honors in Latin and mathematics, and already showed a serious interest in poetry and philosophy. Mechanics was in the 19th century the unifying model for all physical sciences, which exponents of each emerging branch of physics tried to emulate. At the Vienna Technical University, v. Mises studied mechanical engineering, and after receiving his engineering degree, he went in 1906 to Brno (now in the SE Czech Republic) to work as assistant to the professor of mechanics there, and in 1908 he received his doctoral degree in technical sciences in Vienna, with a call soon thereafter in 1909 to Strassburg as assistant professor of applied mathematics. Even his early work was distinguished by a striving towards formal mathematical models for physical systems which combined clarity, elegance, and mathematical rigor. His work on fluid mechanics led to his work on aeronautics, in which he gave the first university level course in the world in 1913. He could design, build, and fly airplanes, which was the basis for his activity during WWI, when he designed and had built what was then a mammoth 600 HP aircraft for the Austrian army. At the close of WWI, v. Mises joined the University of Dresden in 1919 for a year, and then moved to the University of Berlin in 1920. His versatility and personal dynamism made the Berlin institute of applied mathematics which he headed a great center, comparable to Goettingen in this area. With the physicist Philipp Frank, a student of Boltzmann and Einstein's successor at the University of Prague, he revised the treatise on applicable mathematics which had grown out of the lectures of Bernhard Riemann into a famous two-volume treatise on the mathematics of physics (1925), which together with the two-volume work by Courant and Hilbert on the methods of mathematical physics (1924) contributed greatly to the mathematical tools underlying the new physics of the 1920s. Being of Jewish provenance, v. Mises left Berlin when Hitler was unmuzzled in 1933, and took a professorial position in Istambul. He left it to join Philipp Frank in 1939 at Harvard, where v. Mises continued to work on mathematics, statistics, and applied mechanics as professor of aerodynamics and applied mathematics. He died in Boston in 1953.

In 1950, v. Mises completed a translation and slight revision of a book that he had written in German and published in 1939. The original German edition bore the title Small Textbook of Positivism (1939; reprinted 1990). The English-language version was entitled Positivism. A Study in Human Understanding and was published in 1951

v. Mises book came out of the sort of impetus that underlay the great work of A.N.Whitehead and Bertrand Russell which aimed to tie together logic and mathematics into one continuous whole. Positivism is almost a humanist breviary. When I was a student, I had the honor to know v. Mises' collaborator Philipp Frank (then emeritus), whose work was an important backdrop for v. Mises, and who was as much a philosopher of science as a physicist. I recall the framed photograph of Bertrand Russell, looking very foxy, which he had on the wall near the entry way into his apartment near the NE corner of the Cambridge city park north of Harvard Square, where it set the stage for the sort and level of thinking that one could expect in that company.

This book of v. Mises is nearly 400 pages long, and quite readable. He gave a synopsis of it in a report to the fifth International Congress for the Unity of Science in Cambridge, Mass. in 1939, which is reprinted in the second volume of his selected papers. Rather than summarize a summary (dry!), I quote the words of Philipp Frank, who wrote a description of it in the introduction to a posthumous volume in honor of Richard von Mises, published in 1954 by his friends, colleagues, and students.

"In Positivism, a study in Human Understanding, v. Mises gave us a summary of his views on many topics in science and life. In this book the word "positivism" is not meant to designate a sectarian doctrine of some philosophical school; v. Mises uses it rather to characterize a way of presenting his views that takes its cue from the methods of science and should establish understanding among those willing to drop prejudice and accept what reason and experience suggest. Throughout the whole book v. Mises does not fail to emphasize that the role played by human imagination is not less important in the invention of scientific theories than it is in the works of art and in religion. Perhaps it is best to characterize this book by the author's own words. "Positivism does not claim that all questions can be answered rationally, just as medicine is not based on the premise that all diseases are curable, or physics does not start out with the postulate that all phenomena are explicable. But the mere possibility that there may be no answers is no sufficient reason for not looking for answers, or for not using those that are attainable." He stresses the point that too many people interpret the present world struggle [the Cold War – LF] as a battle between two ideological systems of extremely metaphysical character. "If this goes on", writes v. Mises, "the predictions of those who believe that the next step towards the solution of the basic sociological problems must come from physical annihilation of one of the two groups of people will be borne out."

"In our opinion, the only way out is less loose talk and more criticism of language, less emotional acting and more scientifically disciplined thinking, less metaphysics and more positivism."


Sunday, July 30, 2006


I've painted the downstairs in preparation for my hosuemates moving in. I've done a lot of running around, but I haven't blogged much this weekend.

I've read Chuck Palahniuk's Lullaby, which is really good. In some senses it is a dystopia novel, but while I'm no big fan of dystopia novels, I did think it had some good things to say.
The people who loved that Joe Bageant essay a few months ago would probably like it especially.

In other news, tells me my interests are as follows:

Adult Alternative British Chaos & Systems Classics Cognitive Psychology Comic Computer Mathematics Cosmology Evolution Fiction Historical History History of Science Indie Rock International Literary Love & Romance Marriage & Family Physics Post Grunge Punk System Theory United States Women Sleuths

That's actually really accurate. I'm kind of confused that they left out Religion given the number of religious books on my wishlist, but yeah, I guess you can tell a lot about a chick by her books.

That's it for now.


Friday, July 28, 2006

Countries with Walmarts don't go to war with one another

-Or "Why Israel is making a big mistake."

I was distressed to read a Salon article on the Beirut bombings this morning. It's not so much that 600 civilians are dead, though that, of course, sucks. (Too put it way too mildly.)

The Salon article talks about a film crew that had gone to Beirut to film a travel documentary about Beirut's developing culture and how that developing culture is effectively dead.

Now, I will be the first to admit that the moneyed Beirutis who keep drinking at the rooftop club while Israeli jets circle overhead suck. But they were the future of Beirut, and that's a future that cares about making money and having a good time, not ethnic hatred.

The moderates in Lebanon were the future of the place. Once people start watching Baywatch, radical Islam becomes a much harder sell.

In destroying all this infrastructure, and more importantly to my point, destroying all these restaurants and nightclubs showing Beirutis how much fun capitalism and sophistication could be, the Isrealis are really giving the radicals the upper hand in this region, IMHO. The bombings in South Lebanon were much more reasonable and arguably justifed. Bombing Beirut itself is punitive, and ultimately against Israel's interests, IMHO.

(TheCSO's theory is that Israel is trying to get NATO to move in to Israel's border so that anyone who tries to attack Israel from that direction will be attacking NATO. Even if that works, I don't think it was worth it.)


Thursday, July 27, 2006

I have a pretty liberal standard for "weird," but this qualifies

A Zombie dance party?


Art. Nifty, nifty, art.

A favorite artist of CC's is Ron Mueck. Check out some pictures of some of his work.

(Link not work safe, unless you have an extremely enlightened workplace.)

The statue of the naked old guy was in the basement of the Hirshhorn Gallery here in DC for awhile.


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Should psychologists take the Hippocratic oath?

Salon has a good article this morning about a debate within the American Psychological Association about the ethics of Psychologists participating in interrogation sessions. Before reading the article, I hadn't really thought about the problems in that one, though of course it all seems obvious in retrospect.

Psychologists have the means, one would assume, to break prisoners down more quickly and efficiently. And with less physical means that don't leave visible scars. (For contrast, both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association have some out with strong statements against, well, hurting people.)

Thinking over this one, my instinct is to say "Gee, psychologists should have to swear to 'first do no harm' like doctors do."

But I always try to check myself when I am tempted to say "Gee, SOMEBODY should MAKE those people stop doing that." And indeed, the issue may be more complicated than I'm seeing. Surely the marketing firms for fast food companies and tobacco companies hire psychologists to convince people to consume things that may be harmful. That's basically bad, but I am hesitant to want to legislate against it. (Naturally, the legislation would be within the APA anyway.)

Any thoughts?


Monday, July 24, 2006

Quotes made for the Chaliceblog

Bart: So, according to creationism there were no cavemen.
Homer: Good riddance! Their drawings suck and they look like hippies!


How did I miss this?

THIS looks like great television. But I can't believe I missed the tryouts.


UU Blog Carnival part deux

I'm hosting the UU blog carnival here in a few weeks. I will cite some posts that I think are particularly good, but I'd live to see posts on the theme of the carnival: Religion words that move us, religion words that don’t.

This is inspired, of course, by the recent discussion about “Lord” that sprung up in response to Peacebang’s post about how wonderfully evocative she finds “Lord.” But in the last month of so, we’ve also seen the Presbyterian church taking steps toward gender-neutral language.

Astrologer Rob Brezny reports that his drinking toast begins “To the Divine Trickster formerly known as God.”

We’re all talking about God and spirituality and using new words to do it.

Was the first time you heard God spoken of in female language a revelation for you? Are you rediscovering the power in the religious words of your childhood faith?

Or does your own difficult childhood make “God the father” a problematic phrase for you?

(I’m sure my Christian background has colored my examples. But you get the idea. People from non-Christian backgrounds doubly encouraged to participate here.)

Let’s talk about the language we use when we talk about faith.


Sunday, July 23, 2006

Teacher Evaluations

I've learned a lot about teacher evaluations since I started to teach. There's a lot that college students don't seem to understand about teacher evals, most importantly that bad reviews can get a professor canned. I gave very few bad teaching reviews in college, and have gotten very few teaching test prep. But I've never forgotten the ones people have given me. And the non-nasty criticisms I've really taken to heart.

Some people are really awful in their reviews, though. I had a migraine one night and ended class 15 minutes early. A student came up to me and wanted an explanation of a problem. My head was killing me and I told her so, offering to meet her ten minutes early for the next class. She said "No, that's OK." and turned away. I felt so bad that I chased her down and offered to teach her what she wanted right there. She said it was OK again and left. Next class, I asked her again and she said she'd looked over the stuff and she understood it.

The problem is, I made her mad later in the course. Near the end of the course, she came up to me after class and said "I didn't bother to use the techniques you taught us on the easy problems you assigned, and now I don't know how to use them on the hard problems."

"Well, that's why I told you to use them when you were doing the easy problems."

"But I didn't because they were easy."

I, gently, I think, told her to go back and use the techniques on some of the easy problems and she would probably find that would make her more comfortable with them and she should have a better time doing the hard problems. But she went away in a huff as if I was making her do her homework a second time to punish her.

Needless to say, I got an extremely nasty review about how if I were going to end class early, I needed to be available for students with questions.

All of this comes to mind because I just wrote the mid-class review of my LSAT teacher (we do teacher evals twice a class at my test prep company.)

My instructor is doing a good job, and he was my friend before I even started the class, so I wrote the following:

Plato, Anne Sullivan and that guy from “Stand and Deliver” all pale when one is in the presence of pedagogical greatness like that of Moe “money Mo’ Problems” (last name redacted in blog version.) Moe’s LSAT class is more exciting than the movies, sexier than a strip club and cheaper than Broadway. One time in New Orleans, I saw a talented and convincing drag queen in a gold lame’ mini dress do a just show-stopping rendition of “Goldfinger.” Watching Moe talking about logic games is better than that.

I laugh, I cry, I want to take his class again and again.

Yet it isn’t just the entertainment. I truly feel that Moe has improved the quality of my legal mind. Just sitting in his class, I can feel the insides of my brains expanding. When decades from now I am on the Supreme Court and have written the unanimous opinion on some crucial decision, people will read it and go “Oh, THAT Justice must have taken her LSAT prep class with Moe.”

And someone else will go “Didn’t they all?”

Silly, yes, but it was certainly fun to write.


Ps. If you're interested in Teacher Evaluations and you want to help out a psychology student you could click here. Of course, you will be asked to rate imaginary professors based on a description of a few charictaristics of the class and the professor, actual quality of teaching not included. So I think it's weird and didn't participate. But you can if you want.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

A smoking ban even my readers might find a little unnecessary

In this news story about Australian prostitutes complaining that illegal Asian immigrants are stealing all their business, I think the buried lede is that Australian brothels have to operate under a smoking ban.


Friday, July 21, 2006

Tell all your friends about the Nigerian Scam

Because apparently it isn't famous enough.


Interesting, yet sort of obvious

I was searching for something unrelated on the web and turned up this article about what your password says about you. It turns out, the answer is "nothing very surprising."

If you use you kid's name as a password, you're "family-oriented."

CC's passwords range from inside jokes with the CSO to her "camp name" from Girl Scout camp in the 6th grade. Doesn't say much about that, but I can extrapolate from the article that inside jokes and connection are important to me (true) and that girl scout camp was a time that I particularly valued (false.)


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Marriot hotels ban smoking...

..presumably because they thought that to do so would be profitable.

And the government didn't even have to force them to.

Most restaurants in my area are non-smoking for exactly this reason.

Seems like the best reason to me.

(Ever notice that when a restaurant bans smoking few people complain, but when the people impose their views by trying to get government to ban all smoking in restaurants, it becomes a divisive issue for the community?)

who will re-clarify that banning smoking in public buildings is OK with her, but she thinks restaurant owners should be allowed to make their own decisions.

And who isn't a smoker, FWIW.

Disorganized thoughts and lots of links.

So, yesterday, I'm complaining that I'm feeling a mite short on blog inspiration these days and somebody suggests I write something about stem cell research. "But I don't really have anything new to say about stem cell research," I whined.

My lack of enthusiasm for writing about this topic partially comes from the fact that Fausto did such a great job with it last year.

(That post was one of my nominations for the UU blog awards.)

Then I see that the UU enforcer is writing about the Ute Indians. I read it feeling knowledgeable as I just did an LSAT reading comprehension passage on their attempts to keep their tribal language alive two days ago. I am amassing all sorts of useless knowledge from my LSAT studying. The other night I was telling Linguist Friend how the snout of a playpus is basically a sensory organ, covered with little hairs. When a platypus is hunting for food, he swings his nose back and forth in the water. Naturally, LF was skeptical on this one, but I looked it up and it's true.

I read the Pew Research Study on Bloggers yesterday which was sort of interesting. They had asked people "how important is blogging to you." I realize I don't have a good answer. I do it every day, but I don't really view myself as a part of any subculture, I don't make money off of it. I just like to write.

Children of the 80's, if you haven't seen the "human space invaders" video, you really should, if only for a minute or so as it actually gets dull after that.


Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Poverty, Chastity and Obediance are like my three least favorite things

That said, what the Rev. Sue Spencer is doing seems really cool.

I don't know why the monastic, contemplative life has a sort of pull for me. I'm really, really obviously unsuited for it. I don't remotely have the attention span, for one thing. The article suggests that Spencer will literally be doing more prayer before breakfast than I do in a month.

But I'm still intrigued, fascinated even. I find myself wishing she would write a book about her life.

I guess there's something amazing in loving something so much and feeling so connected to it that you're willing to give up everything else in the world for it.


Happy Birthday CSO!

Had to say it.


Naked eight-year-olds and the world we live in

Salon recently ran this story about a guy who took naked pictures of his kids on a camping trip. The oldest kid was an eight-year-old boy. The guy also had taken a picture of everybody peeing out the fire.

A friend's wife took the disposable camera to Eckard's and everyone involved was put into month-long battle with child protective services.

As usual with Salon, the most interesting part of the article is the comments.

Salon being Salon, the standard array of bobo schmucks is like "How DARE anybody suspect a man of something freaky just because his photos include naked children and urinating?"

As much as I hate the offended tone, I basically agree with the sentiment that you should be able to take naked pictures of your own kids.

The other school of thought on this one is the: Child Protective services investigated him, didn't charge him and let him go. Sorry he felt traumatized by the incident, but taking naked photos of the kids and letting the camera out of your sight is questionable parenting in the first place. If you absolutely have to take nudie pics of your preadolescent boy, go digital, dumbass.

And I agree with that, too.

TheCSO and I both knew familes that had suboptimal encourters with CPS. At least in my case, the little boy was anemic so he was always covered in bruises. CPS did make him get tested over and over again to prove he was anemic. But to hear the kid's (totally unbruised) older sibling tell the story, the kid had discovered how much he liked the attention he got from his teachers and the adults in his life when he avoided their questions and acted evasive.

I'm sure some CPS workers are overly agressive and some are clueless and incompetent. That's life.

But I am curious what other folks here think of the case and the issues around it.


Monday, July 17, 2006

Check this out.

I've mentioned before that I am a fan of blogger and Cato Analyst Radley Balko.

Well, he wrote a paper on Paramilitary Police Raids that was released today. This is good, if depressing stuff.


Accentuating the positive

Happy Feminist has an interesting post about accents up. One of the commenters writes about the commenter's father leaving rural Georgia to get and education, changing his own accent and trying to show everyone how to talk.

While it's not something I would do, I can for Henry Higgins reasons understand why a father might want to teach his kids to talk like a New Englander rather than a southerner.

When my dad was a kid, he did the opposite, though. The ChaliceDad was a child prodigy opera singer. (You've heard of Amal and the Night Visitors? The ChaliceDad was Amal in a major ciy's production.) However, my dad was growing up in Texas and when he got into Interlochen in Michigan, he knew that no matter what, the other kids would hear his accent and think he was a hick.

So he decided to lay it on really thick. He bought himself some boots and a cowboy hat and made his accent even heavier before going. He was determined to be "that cowboy kid from Texas" and to hear my aunt tell the story, the sheer oddness of that at a snobby boarding school in Michigan made for a quick introduction to the campus and my Dad became very well-liked.

George W. Bush apparently did the same thing at his high school and my more liberal pals have been known to hold this up as an example of the man's phoniness. But in both my father and the president, laying the Texas on thick strikes me as the act of savvy young men who made the best of what must have felt like a bad situation. Would that I would have had the other kids so figured out in high school.

Added later: The Salon story about a man who saw an article on the Onion and wrote a blog post about it not realizing it was a joke, and is now claiming that this happened because he was raised in Germany and Germans have no sense of irony, is sort of a related issue.

"A Scanner Darkly"

Yesterday, we saw A Scanner Darkly. I can't say I reccommend it exactly, but if you do see it, I'd love to talk about it with you. I had what feels like a complex reaction to the movie. I didn't enjoy myself in the theater much, but relatively few movies have me leaving the theater pondering the nature of reality and talking about Kafka with theCSO.

I am about as anti-drug as a person can get in my personal views, yet I find Philip K. Dick is more so. Normally, I find any depiction of brain damage extremely upsetting, yet somehow, it wasn't as hard to watch here, perhaps because the movie more depicted personalities coming apart than losing intellience. I find depictions of conditions I to some degree share interesting and watching the paranoia here was a lesson in the dark places my own head goes at times. (But naturally, there was the standard scoience-fictiony twist that somebody really was out to get the paranoid people.)

If you're going to go see it, be aware that Robert and Fred are not aware of one another. That's not a spoiler, that's a peice of information that the movie isn't very clear in telling you but that you need to know to make sense of things.

I am normally quite good at predicting what is going to happen in a movie. And indeed, I saw the two major plot twists in this film coming, but I still left the theater feeling I hadn't really understood what was going on. That left me thinking about how sometimes even this most philisophically-complicated stories share a few basic constructions and literary conventions that make them in some sense easy to map in one's head.

(I don't like to be overly repetitive in my sentence construction. In the first version of this post, almost every sentence had an "A, but B" construction and I had to go back and heavily edit to make the writing flow in a more interesting rhythm. I don't usually have this problem and I credit it to my complicated feelings about this movie.) `



The CSO and I hung out a lot with my friend's stepkids this weekend. I thought it went well, until I had a dream that I was sitting in a chair with zombie children grabbing at me, climbing on me, etc.

Their teeth were yellow and quite pointy.

I realize how silly this sounds, but it WAS rather scary while I was having it.


Sunday, July 16, 2006

The baby shower went fine BTW

Though I didn't get a picture of the centerpeice, I can assure you that cutting off the top left quarter of a watermelon, scooping it out and leaning two slices of orange against the sides makes for a badass baby carriage that you can fill with fruit and cheese. Twas a hit.

I also made heavy appetizers. Of what I made, the lettuce wraps turned out best. Some cooked chicken, a few sliced green onions and some water chestnuts mixed with thai peanut sauce. Put inside a little "bowl" of lettuce and sprinkle crushed peanuts on top. Good stuff.

But the easiest, most sophisticated-looking appetizer ever is cooked tortellini, cherry tomatoes and mushrooms marinated in Italian dressing and skewered.

Now TheCSO and I are going to the movies.


Saturday, July 15, 2006

If you're not a fan of

you should be.

I didn't think anything could get me interested in the world cup, but his post on it made me smile.


How an Academic writes vs. How a blogger writes

On a whim, I decided to rewrite LF's most recent post as I would have written it. It's really striking how different people present similar ideas.

At some point in my UU life, somebody told me a joke about a Unitarian who is testifying in court and insists on swearing on the dictionary. I don’t know that we UU’s literally treat our dictionaries as gospel, but recent debates in UUism and indeed on the blogosphere make it quite clear that language is a very important thing to us and much depends on how we define our terms.

The best one can do for definitions of terms is a dictionary. But there are a lot of dictionaries on the market. (Many of them titled “Webster’s,” by the way, a name that isn’t copyrighted and really doesn’t mean anything.) I love dictionaries. I have, at last count, eight. All in English, not counting specialized dictionaries such as a dictionary of the bible.

Dictionaries can do a lot of different things. They define words of course, and the number and quality of definitions a dictionary provides is very important. But we look to dictionaries for other things as well. We use dictionaries to figure out pronunciations and where the word comes from. Some dictionaries provide a word in context, such as a literary quotation, which is something I’ve always found useful. Some dictionaries provide additional information, such as listing the population of a country, but such information quickly becomes out of date.

(Which is not to say that one can’t learn some interesting things about another time from their dictionary. In my 1917 Webster’s New International Dictionary, “masturbation” is defined as “self-pollution!”)

But what makes one dictionary better than another one? And which dictionary should you buy to meet your specific needs?

Probably the most famous dictionary in the world is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED.) The real one is twenty volumes long (even I don’t have one,) but you can also get it on CD Rom. For most purposes, the Shorter OED is going to be your best bet. It is the best researched dictionary in the world and can tell one, on the basis of huge documentation, about how individual words and our language in general has changed, providing information on the chronology of different meanings and how even individual meanings of a word have changed through history. It’s good stuff. (If you complain about how Unitarians now shouldn’t call themselves “Unitarians” because they aren’t using the word by its historical meaning, it’s the one for you.)

Most American dictionaries have taken another path, focusing on language as it is now. (If you use the word “Humanist” to mean “Atheist,” which is generally understood to be implied in “Humanist” in most contexts, but which hasn’t much to do with the Humanism movement of the renaissance where the term comes from, these folks are your camp.)

Some of the best of these American dictionaries are Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition, and the Webster's Third New International Dictionary.

The second edition has lots of encyclopedic information and has more pictures, but as I’ve mentioned encyclopedic information quickly goes out of date. The third edition is more interesting to me because it follows how words are actually used instead of talking about how they should be used, a notable departure from previous dictionaries.

Another good American dictionary is the the American College Dictionary. It is a useful desk dictionary and followed an encyclopedia-like model of having biologists define biology terms etc rather than having lexicographers defining things like scientific terms. This produced a desk dictionary that is still useful today despite its age.

The ACD formed the basis for CC’s personal favorite dictionary, the The Random House Unabriged or, as they called it at my old newspaper in South Carolina, “the Big Dog.” It has lots of encyclopedia information and a far more contemporary feel than any of the other dictionaries I’ve listed so far. It doesn’t have the historical focus that the OED does, of course, but it’s the dictionary I turn to when I need to define a term and is the dictionary of reference for settling word arguments on TheChaliceBlog.

But not everyone is a Chalicechick or a Linguist Friend and not everyone wants a 24 pound dictionary. (As the Big Dog is. LF sent me one at work when I worked for the paper and the secretary who had to haul it in from the post office never really forgave me.) For everyday, non-word-obsessed use, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is an excellent choice. It has lots of color illustrations and an unusual amount of encyclopedic information.

One of the ultimate sources for contemporary English is the Encarta Dictionary of World English, which was touted when it came out as “the first new dictionary in thirty years.” It is well-illustrated and has the modern words and slang you won’t find in older dictionaries.

But I still like the Big Dog.



Dictionaries of the English language will be necessary for many people for the foreseeable future. They are indispensable in a family, especially one in which children are growing up, in many professional offices, in schools, in reference facilities, and in many other circumstances. But, if you go to a bookstore, what should you look for?

What is the role of dictionaries? First, they are a guide to how we think about the world. This is the area of definitions. There may be many meanings of a word, or many fixed phrases of which it is part, or it may have a single specific sense which is identical all over the world wherever English is spoken. In the dictionary entry, the definitions may be arranged in sequence corresponding to the frequency of occurrence of a particular meaning in the language in modern times, with the most common meaning first, or in order of the historical development of the word's use in the language, with the earliest recorded meaning first and then the successive meanings as meaning changed. Examples of the use of a word and literary quotations may be absent or abundant, and the type of formal or informal, written or spoken language that serves as the base for a dictionary may vary. Irregular forms and alternative formations should be listed for each word.

We may want information about the history of a word, which is a linguist's definition of etymology. Some dictionaries emphasize the history of the elements of the word (root-etymology), while others emphasize the development of its form and use, and borrowing. Many English words are borrowed from French, Latin, Greek, or other European languages, with a smaller native group stemming from the Anglo-Saxon (early Germanic) and Celtic languages spoken by the inhabitants of Britain at the time of the Norman invasion (1066 AD) which preceded the creation of modern English.

To the extent that dictionaries include encyclopedic material, they may contain much information about such fields as history, geography, and science. However, encyclopedic information may age rapidly, since the population of Upper Volta, for instance, changes over the years. Although encyclopedic material is useful, this effect may date a dictionary while its basic lexical material is still valuable.

Dictionaries may be relied on for information about correct pronunciation of English, which of course differs in different parts of the world, so that several different pronunciations may be offered and may need to be discriminated. For many people, dictionaries are a guide to the usage of a foreign language (English) which the user may not be able to pronounce or use correctly, or they may help a speaker of a non-standard dialect of English to learn how a word should be pronounced in some form of standard English.

We want our dictionary to contain many different words. The unabridged English dictionaries, such as you might find on a good library reference shelf, include a quarter of a million to half a million entries. This discussion will focus on the unabridged dictionaries of English, and the shorter dictionaries based on them or constructed on comparable principles so that they have reference value.

The first lines of design of our modern English dictionaries came from a scholarly English archbishop, Richard Trench (1807-1886), who recommended in 1857 in papers presented to the Philological Society that the material in entries in dictionaries should be chronologically arranged and based on collections of citations from texts. Trench's papers supported the already growing impetus toward the creation of a new scholarly English dictionary. The result of this movement, the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles or Oxford English Dictionary (NED or OED), primarily edited by James Murray (1837-1915) amid many difficulties, involved the fundamental redesign by its editor of the genre of dictionaries, and was completed in 1928. A biography of Murray by his granddaughter K.M.Elisabeth Murray is almost a creation–history of this great work. A second edition of the OED with about 290,000 main entries and another 157,000 combinations and derivatives, has been in print since 1989. The first edition required the collection of millions of examples and tons of paper slips with quotations from English texts written on them, while the second one is maintained as an enormous computer database, and in a published CD-ROM format the dictionary is computer-searchable.

The OED is a lexical monument and scholarly resource to which there is no parallel for any other language on earth, but it is not affordable or necessary for most people. A smaller and affordable two-volume New Shorter OED (1993) edited by Lesley Brown is remarkably well done, although the earlier versions of the shorter OED edited by C.T. Onions (mostly in single-volume editions) on the basis of the first edition of the OED are in general still highly serviceable.

Two different tracks of development led to the main American unabridged dictionaries. The very small pioneering American dictionary (first edition 1806) of Noah Webster (1758-1843) eventually became the namesake of many American dictionaries. At this time, the term "Webster", by court decision, is simply a generic term for a dictionary and refers to no particular publisher, size, or scholarly standard. The G. and C. Merriam Company (now Merriam-Webster Inc.) developed the scholarly line of Webster's International dictionaries in the later 19th century. Two 20th century unabridged dictionaries from this firm still have great value. They are the Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition (1934 and revised reprints) edited by William Neilson and Thomas Knott, with over 550,000 entries, and the Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961), edited by Philip Gove, with over 450,000 words, for about 285,000 headwords. Both editions were published in several different bindings. The third edition has fewer illustrations and less encyclopedic material than the preceding edition. It also evoked many criticisms at the time of publication, because it was less prescriptive than some dictionaries have been. By this is meant that to some extent it followed the policy that a dictionary should reflect actual contemporary usage rather than instruct writers in usage from a normative point of view. Any dictionary, of course, must steer between these opposite extremes. Both books are superb reference tools, and any institution or professional office in which words or writing are important will want to have both editions.

A second major line of American dictionaries has come from a more complex background. In the mid-19th century, the greatest American specialist in the study of language was the Sanskrit scholar and linguist William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894). He contributed to the Webster's unabridged dictionary published in 1864, and published many important works on Sanskrit, the classical language of ancient India, and its earliest texts. The Century Company engaged Whitney as editor in chief of a great new multi-volume dictionary, The Century Dictionary (CD, first edition 1889-1891). Its second edition of 1901 (one of my prized possessions), with eight volumes of text, one volume of proper names, and a last volume of atlas, contains over 530,000 entries. A two-volume abbreviated edition under the title The New Century Dictionary (NCD) was in print into the 1950s.

Random House obtained rights to use the CD and NCD material, and also that of the Dictionary of American English edited by W.A.Craigie and J.R.Hulbert , and in 1947 published the American College Dictionary (ACD), a smaller intermediate sized dictionary which is distinctive for the quality of its basic lexical material, extensive encyclopedic information, and logical selection and arrangement of its material. It contains about 75,000 headwords. It was edited by Clarence Barnhart, who studied under the great linguist Leonard Bloomfield, and Jess Stein, and it has a modern aspect compared to other American dictionaries published in the same period, because it drew on the advice of a number of distinguished linguists in its construction. It also followed the model of the Merriam-Webster dictionaries in turning to many outside experts on subject matter. It is better, for example, to have your definitions of scientific terms reviewed by scientists than by lexicographers. Although now it is dated in terms of the encyclopedic information and inevitably it lacks modern technical and colloquial terms, the ACD can be easily purchased and is still a work that can be used with profit for most applications where a desk dictionary is convenient.

After the mixed response to the Webster's Third New International Dictionary edition of 1961, Random House expanded the ACD framework into the Random House Dictionary (1966) under the editorship of Jess Stein and Lawrence Urdang. With rich encyclopedic information, and about two-thirds the length of the Webster's International dictionaries, it immediately provided a worthy alternative to the Merriam-Webster's unabridged dictionaries. The second edition of 1987 under the title Random House Unabridged Dictionary (RHUD), with a minor revision of 1993 which claims over 315,000 entries, provided the advantages of an up to date unabridged dictionary plus considerable encyclopedic information, a small atlas, and short dictionaries of common European languages. With several different formats, the lexical material has been reprinted in an inexpensive form as the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (2nd ed. 2001) with a slightly awkward binding, while a newer deluxe version has an elegant cloth binding and incorporates richer ancillary material. CD-ROM versions can be found. When I gave a copy of the RHUD to a friend who worked as a reporter in a southern newspaper office that relied on a college dictionary, the value of the RHUD was soon recognized and it was labelled as "the Big Dog" in terms of an unprintable southern proverb which expresses dominance. In terms of general utility, lexical breadth, and encyclopedic material, I know of no modern English single volume dictionary that outdoes it. For general reference, it is usually the first work I consult. If my curiosity is still unsatisfied, then I look at the Webster's International dictionaries.

More briefly, we will consider the most common intermediate-size dictionaries that are offered for home usage. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD) was planned after criticism of the Webster's 3rd New International edition (1961) created a market opportunity. The AHD (now in its 4th edition, 2000) was edited by William Morris for Houghton Mifflin, and first appeared in 1969 in an intermediate size, smaller than the Webster's 3rd and larger than the desk or college dictionaries. Its abundant color illustrations in the margin and rich encyclopedic information are distinctive. Usage recommendations, one of its original motivations, are limited compared to e.g. the indispensable Garner's American English Usage (2003).

A distinctive feature is a fascinating appendix by one of my teachers, Calvert Watkins, on the Indo-European language which is the source of most of our English words, with an analysis of most etymologies in terms of the roots from which words are derived, and a dictionary of Indo-European roots, a unique feature now supplemented by a appendix and dictionary on Semitic roots.

A second noteworthy dictionary in this intermediate size range is the Encarta Dictionary of World English (1999), edited by Kathy Rooney as editor in chief with Lesley Brown (editor of the New Shorter OED) as the senior lexicographer. Contemporary linguists have profited from the opportunity to use computer data-bases incorporating enormous quantities of English written texts instead of the tons of paper slips that went into the original OED. The Encarta dictionary, with about 100,000 main entries, provides outstanding coverage of contemporary English. It is the first place that I look for modern colloquial phraseology and slang, which earlier was covered by the now dated dictionaries of slang by Eric Partridge. It is well illustrated and includes much encyclopedic information.

Dictionaries can be precious resources if you learn the strengths of each. A very browsable and enjoyable further guide to this general area, which has been drawn on here, is Tom McArthur's Oxford Companion to the English Language (OUP, 1992).

And the list of people I've outlived continues to grow...

Longtime readers, by which I mean "people who were reading the Chaliceblog this time last year," will recall that every year I become a whiny bitch on my birthday.

For whatever reason, and although I hate people who are like this, my adjustment to the fact that very few people remember your birthday or care once you're over the age of ten has been rough. As I'm turning 28*, I've now had 18 years to get used to it, but for whatever reason I'm still cranky every year. My mother especially amazes me. She's told me several times that I was so painful coming out that she couldn't stop vomiting and she forgets the anniversary of that? I would think the being in so much pain one keeps upchucking would be like the Kennedy Assasination or the Columbine Shooting or another date that one simply doesn't forget. (She usually remembers within a few days.)

TheCSO went running off with a package last week so I'm guessing I'm actually getting a present on my actual birthday, which didn't happen at all last year. (I didn't get theCSO's birthday present until October. It kicked much, much ass when I did get it and I still love it, though.) I don't really expect presents from people outside my immediate family and best friends. (And indeed, TheCSO and I have two spiffy presents for my June-birthdayed Mother-in-Law, whom I thought was visiting sometime in June and didn't end up doing so, still sitting in the kitchen. I should mail those if this posting is going to have any credibility at all, shouldn't I?)

But I'm still cranky. And I probably won't write much today unless my mood improves because taking one's crankiness out on one's blog readership is a uniquely gen-x way of being pathetic.

You can help me out, though, if you've ever thrown/attended a baby shower that didn't suck. I scheduled Honorary-Sister-in-Law-Tina's baby shower for the day after my birthday in hopes that I could avoid whiny bitchitude by throwing myself into housecleaning** and room decoration. My baby shower book says I'm supposed to play cheesy shower games, but all the games they list sound stupid. I think I'm just going to provide food and chairs and let people eat and talk and give stuff to Honorary-Sister-in-Law Tina.

But if anybody knows any shower games that don't suck, I am interested.


*Yes, last month I inadvertantly wrote in a post that I was 28. I don't know why I start thinking of myself as a year older a couple of months before my birthday, but I do. I also do it for anniversaries and I have ALREADY told somebody that theCSO and I have been together for seven years when that won't be the case until December 5. (We've been married for slightly under two years. CC is a fan of long engagements.)

** If you've seen my house, you know the look I'm going for is "reasonably neat, as thrift shops go"

Friday, July 14, 2006

What IS it with CC and hippies?

DISCLAIMER: This mostly applies to Gen X/Gen Y hippies, sometimes called "Neohippies." I'm not necessarily talking about older hippies, though if you see yourself or your older hippie friends in this, that's not my fault. That said, some older hippies seem to have had a genuine committment to changing the world and really tried to do things in effective ways. Props to them, but I don't see hippies in my generation doing that really at all.

My thing against hippies dates back to at least my college years, though I have certainly had experiences since that have confirmed it.

There was an entire dorm full of hippies at my college and my experiences with them were mostly negative. Probably the most dramatic of these was during my senior year. I was president of the "Egghead Dorm" where all the science majors lived. I had won on a platform of "Vote for me and we won't have a dorm-wide party. We will buy a hammock for the courtyard and some picnic tables instead." I had a meeting every Sunday night where I would gently dole out advice to the suite leaders under me, basically running things under a "don't be an asshole' shall be the whole of the law" sort of philosophy.

Our dorm was non-drinking, the only non-drinking dorm on campus, and there was a tacit agreement with the administration that we got away with a lot of minor rule violations but the campus police wouldn't walk through often because we were slighly out of the way and we were so darn well-behaved on the big stuff.

Then the administration decided that since our dorm was SO good, that they should move a few of the biggest hippie troublemakers into our dorm. Maybe that would make the troublemakers behave.

Of course, it didn't work that way. Pretty soon, a solid quarter of the science majors were partying all night and the dorm always smelled like pot and nobody could study. Every meeting was a mix of self-righteous hippies bitching at me because I was trying to enforce the rules, sometimes assuring me that if I just used drugs I wouldn't care so much, and appalling things like a guy in a wheelchair saying "PLEASE make everyone be a little bit more responsible with their glass bottles. I'm getting broken glass caught in the treads of my chair and it's cutting up my hands!"

So basically, my sweet little meetings became hell. Five years later, I would read the Tipping Point and start to understand what had happened.

Since college, I've continued to see evidence that hippies tend to have certain qualities that drive me crazy in a human being. I tend to think that people who have these qualities are drawn to hippiedom, which reinforces them. If a self-declared hippie does not have these qualities, I can get along fine with them, it has happend before.

SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS-- There are many decent examples of this, probably the best being the Andressohn case in Florida. These were hippies who were raising their five children on a raw food diet. One died of what appeared to be malnutrition.

That article doesn't have much on it, but the parents' defense was that the baby had a congenital disease which they didn't know about because they don't believe in the medical establishment.

Had they taken their kid to a doctor when it only gained a few ounces in its first six months of life? Of course not. A doctor would call that "failure to thrive" and start running tests, but they knew better than the medical establishment. They're hippies. So they treated the kid with wheatgrass enemas. As far as I've read on the case, if the parents even understood that they could have saved their baby's life by taking him to a doctor, they never acknowledged it. Their way was the only way.

The prosecution contended they starved the baby to death.

Needless to say, several hippies I have known have brought this case up as an example of the horrible discrimination raw foodists face. When Christian Scientists do this kind of thing, I hate it too. But at least with Christian Scientists they are doing it for religious reasons. For hippies, it's about showing off that you know better than the establishment.*

Do most hippies take it this far? Of course not. But the number of defenders this couple has, and the amount of "anything mainstream must be bad. I always know better because I'm hippie" attitude one sees other places is enough to turn me off.

POT SMOKING--- People who smoke pot smell really bad and don't seem aware of that. And if you smoke up every time life gets hard, you become a little kid emotionally who expects the world to revolve around you because you don't have the maturity that dealing with unpleasant experiences like an adult brings.

LAZINESS AND SELFISHNESS- Hippies like to complain about politics, but when they do anything about politics, it's usually something pointless like a protest march. (And nothing makes a protest march less effective than a plurality of hippies. People going by look at them and think "This march isn't full of people like me. It's just a bunch of hippies." PLEASE people, if you must attend a protest march, wear your dockers.) The hippies I have known like to bitch and moan but are almost never up for anything actually effective because effective things involve sustained effort. IMHO, they like to bitch more than they like to improve things.

And LOTS of them live off their capitalist parents.

SPECIFIC TOLERANCE: "You can believe anything you want to, as long as it is what I believe. If you differ from my beliefs in any way, politically, nutritionally, morally, etc, then I have the right to lecture you endlessly. Because if you really understood the world, you'd see things my way." (I thought of it as a part of self-righteousness, but someone just emailed me making the case that this deserves an unattractive quality category all its own.)


*Clarification: If ADULTS want to go and live off in the woods free of capitalism and the medical establishment, they have my blessing. But the ones who break a leg, then call for capitalism and the medical establishment to send a helicopter, get fixed up and then go back to bitching about capitalism and the medical establishment suck.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

I find this really interesting

A transsexual scientist is saying some really interesting things about life as a female scientist and life as a male scientist.

A transsexual friend of mine in a place I used to live said similar, though less extreme things. She found her new status as a women meant increased attention from shop clerks and less respect at work.

Ben Barres, once Barbara Barres, talks about much more serious problems in his career. I've faced a few unpleasant situations as a result of my gender, but I never faced the level of discouragement Barres did.

But then, I wasn't trying to be a scientist.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Sigh. Internet Gambling Bill Passes


I don't like gambling either, but I still think we should have the freedom to do it if we want.

Anyway, you can look at the interesting vote split here.

I hate it when Don Young votes the right way. I really pretty much despise Alaska's entire congressional delegation and I don't want to feel any sympathy for them.


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

On discussing the DaVinci Code as a non-expert

PB said a few days ago:

Probably many times, especially with those who come musing about their reactions to some religiously-themed item from pop culture, such as The DaVinci Code. Instead of just listening to their thoughts about the possibility of a married Jesus, I jump immediately to correct their credulous ignorance, greeting their enthusiasm with Important Information and establishing myself, not as a sister seeker, but as an Authority On the Subject.

I have an advantage on this one.

I'm not an expert.

As the non-holder of a theology degree, I can assure you that discussions about the DaVinci Code among the non-theologically educated I've had included the following points.

1. The book was a fun read.
2. the movie was a little slow.
3. Who cares if Jesus was married? Most people are married?
4. Shouldn't somebody have sex with Sophie really soon? What if she gets struck by lightening and there are no more Jesus relatives?
5. I hear the book was factually pretty crappy, but I don't know the details.
6. Weren't the Dead Sea Scrolls Jewish? How could they have talked about Jesus?
7. Maybe they talked about the messiah in general.
8. That's not what Teabing said.
9. I wonder what it would have been like if Jesus was born a girl.
10. Probably no one would have listened to her.
11. So is the Catholic Church pissed because of the Jesus marrying thing or because the movie makes them look evil?
12. I think it's mostly the evil part.
13. So did Sophie heal what's-his-name's headache? Does she have Jesus powers?
14. I didn't finish it.

So there y'all go.


Martha: It's OK to not love muppets.

So I woke up in the middle of the night last night and wasn't really in the mood for a detective show. (TheCSO is in California on business.) I decided to check the "suggestions" category on my tivo, where the tivo saves a few shows it thinks I might like. I had an episode of the Martha Stewart show where she did a segment on composting with Oscar the Grouch.

As we all know, morbid curosity is the only reason I get out of bed at all some days, so I had to watch.

Martha does not like muppets. That much was clear.

I feel for the woman, because here she is trying so hard to improve her public image and be this sweet motherly person and it is so not working. She has no chemistry with muppets whatsoever.

At one point, Martha holds up some carrot tops in front of Oscar and asks:

"At the store, they often say 'Do you want the carrot tops or not, ma'am?' What do you say when they ask you that?"

Oscar responds "I say 'Why are you calling me Ma'am?"

I laughed out loud, but that answer really seemed to throw Martha. I strongly suspect the line was an improv just because her reaction was sort of weird. It made her nervous and suddenly she was talking really fast and looking down. A control freak discovering that Muppets are sort of inherently unpredictable?

I realize given Martha's audience, she does have to be to some degree sweet and snuggly, but it annoys me that she can't just be her cranky bitchy self and just be really good at what she does.

At the end of the segment, Oscar admits that he kinda likes pretty flowers, but asks Martha not to tell because he's a grouch by trade. She admits that she can be grouchy too sometimes and Oscar starts hitting on her, which was again really funny. Martha handled it a little better that time.

Go for it, Martha. Embrace the grouch.


The church that was too friendly, and the church that was just oddball enough

Several years ago, I lived in a small town with no Unitarian Church. There were two bigger churches in bigger towns in opposite directions from one another. Usually church shopping takes me a very long time.

This time, it didn't.

The first church I went to seemed initially more promising. It was bigger, with a better young adult program and a really good minister.

They were so nice over there. A little too nice. As I remember the visit, multiple people came up and talked to me with great enthusiasm. (Actually, getting people to talk to me has almost never been an issue at any church I've visited. I guess I just look like a Unitarian.) I mentioned that I was also considering the second church and one lady whispered "Oh, you don't want to go there. They have *problems* there."

At least one person hugged me. (CC is not a hugger of strangers. CC has that WASPy who-are-you-and-why-are-you-touching-me thing. Which is not to say that she doesn't basically go along when hugged.)

I sat alone, which was something of a relief. At the first UU church I ever visited, an old lady insisted on sitting with me, telling me she had to spy on me during the hymns to see if I would be a good addition to the choir. That was charming then, but I wouldn't have appreciated it on the morning some years later that I visited the first church.

Probably the final nail in that church's coffin was during the Oprah-style joys and concerns when a perky young hippie stood up and was allowed to go on quite a bit about how proud she was of herself for completing a paganism course on the internet. The audience clapped and cheered.

We're cheering for a paganism course on the internet? I was out of there. (Item: I've grown a lot cooler with pagans since then, sort of ironic because the next minister I would have was a pagan who would talk from the pulpit about how pagans were going to take over UUism. But I'm still not a big fan of hippies.)

Anyway, I went to the second church, which did indeed have *problems.* My first Sunday, I asked around after church if some people wanted to go to lunch. I ended up eating with a sweet-tempered Schizophrenic and a guy who said that marijuana and the love of a good woman had cured his mental illnesses and he was running for governor. His good woman came too.

Needless to say, I felt right at home.

At the end of lunch, the schizophrenic looks at me with doe eyes and says,

"You're coming back next Sunday, aren't you? It's mental illness Sunday and I'm going to sing."

Like I could say "no' to that?

Mental illness Sunday turned out to be a lay service that absolutely defied description, though the Schizophrenic's rendition of "Still Crazy after All these years" literally brought tears to my eyes. But that Sunday, an older chap who had been out of town the previous week greeted me at the door and told me all about the church, encouraging me to come to the humanist discussion group.

He'd gotten his PhD in Linguistics.

I would still be going to that church if I hadn't moved. It was great. I still go back every Christmas as it is close to where TheCSO's parents live. And, of course, Linguist Friend and I are still close amigos.

Item: Some months later, I would mention my experience at the first church to some of my new friends from the humanist discussion group. They all were mildly insulted and twittered at me that I shouldn't dare insult the first church as its members were wonderful people and its minister was a great guy.

I don't think there's a fine line between being welcoming and being too damn extroverted, I think there is a wide band. But a church can cross it.

I think this story mostly came to mind because I read some really good posts that The Wild hunt linked to about an internet paganism course called Witch School. Apparently, at least the Pagan Jason links to who wrote a thoguhtful review of WitchSchool found it quite lacking in intellectual content.

Judging by the pagan's description, I strongly suspect that was the course the hippie was so pleased to complete these many years ago.


Monday, July 10, 2006

Six days from the baby shower

And the Bree Van De Kamp within is very much on the loose.

I have the best idea ever for a centerpiece. I'll post photos if it works...


When everyone's an expert

As a moderate with many liberal amigos, it was really weird to work for Republicans. Here I was, constantly told by my friends (1) What the Republicans were doing (2) How they explained the justification for what they were doing and (3) their real evil motivations.

And I actually knew different, and could usually prove it about the first two. When I heard from a UU pulpit (!!!) that the Republicans in Congress were plotting to privatize social security, I knew that information was largely wrong, both because I knew how ambivalent my clients seemed on it and because “Senior citizens scare easily and vote in huge numbers; don’t mess with social security if you’re worried about re-election” is a general Washington principle. (Second-term President Bush was the one pushing it, not congress. Especially not the House. Some folks, especially in the Senate, said good things about it, but not many. If Sen. Lindsay Graham isn’t on your side on your conservative issue, you’ve got problems.)

I’ve talked before about the many conversations I’ve had that ran approximately like this:

Liberal: "Head start! How could you POSSIBLY be against greater funding of HEAD START! Don't you CARE about the POOR at all? Or are you some sort of SELFISH CONSERVATIVE who doesn't care about kids in the inner city?"

Me: "Um... Head Start does sound really good in theory. Teaching kids during these formative years should have a permanent effect. But it doesn’t. When psychologists have studied it, they have shown that the effects of head start wear off. Even if you send a kid to the best nursery school in the world when you send them on to a badly underfunded inner-city school later, by fourth grade they are going to be right where the other kids are. So it seems reasonable to me to take the money you'd use on Head Start and use it to improve the schools at higher grades or do something else with it, because if what we're doing is wearing off, we're wasting the money now."

Liberal: "Oh. Well, I still disagree, but OK..."

And I had to correct several people who had heard about the Kelo decision and bitched about the conservative members of the SCOTUS who made it. (Twas the liberals.)

I don’t know as much about what’s currently going on in Republican heads as I used to, though I can typically make some reasonable guesses and ask around if I’m still unsure.

Politics is a weird field where everybody thinks they’re an expert and tells you so.

Now there are some good things about that, obnoxious though I personally might find it. In a Democracy, it is everybody’s duty to become to some degree an expert. A Democracy can’t run without an informed populace, after all.

To some degree, the same deal applies to UUism. Everyone thinks they are an expert on religion. We do have a pretty informed populace.

Unfortunately, this can lead to us being obnoxious about it, or being perceived as obnoxious when we were trying to be helpful.

Peacebang, as us politics folks like to say, “I feel your pain.”


Sunday, July 09, 2006

Is your four-year-old REALLY ready for PG-13?

Jess' Journal has a great post on Parental Responsibility.

I've written before about how furious I was that a crying little kid messed with my enjoyment of the 11:30pm showing of King Kong.

I normally like Bitch, PhD but thought her defense of taking her little kid to the Pirates of the Carribean movie smacked of someone who knew what she was doing was obnoxious and did it anyway and things turned out fine for her, so there. (Kid crawled into her lap twice because he was scared, she had little conversations-during-the-movie to reassure him and then in the end things were fine and he didn't have any nightmares. How the people sitting next to her felt about said conversations and crawling around went unreported. The potential for the kid creating greater fuss was assumed to be negligable.)


Saturday, July 08, 2006

Avoiding the Holy Altar of Television

OK, so the CSO and I like having a TV in our bedroom where we can watch it from the bed. Right now our TV is on a small stand on top of a cabinet, maybe four feet off the ground. It's OK for all practical purposes, but I hate it for aesthetic reasons.

I really hate that the TV is the focal point of the bedroom. I want to put the TV in a cabinet, or on a bookshelf, or do something so it doesn't look like we have a shrine to TV in our bedroom. But all the specialized furniture sold for that (since TVs are big and heavy) is really expensive.

TheCSO doesn't care but is willing to go along. He says eventually we will get a flat panel and then we can surround it with pictures on the wall. I agree that this will be OK.

But for now, any ideas? What do y'all with TVs in your bedrooms do?


When the black haired nurse wants to know how close a friend you are.

They've raised the parking fees at the hospital again.

I know this because I'm at the stage of life where I go to the hospital a lot. In the past year, I've been to see my friend Margaret, my grandmother and theChalicerelative when she had knee surgery. (To ministers, this probably doesn't sound like much in the way of hospital visits. For a layperson, it feels like a lot, particularly since each person got multiple visits.) In less than two months, Honorary-sister-in-law-Tina will have her baby.

So today when the Chalicerelative called to say that her best friend had been in a car accident and was in the hospital, I knew the drill.

I should mention that I do not have a friendly family. I have an angry, snarky family with lots of mental illness and crime. We do not have "family friends." Or at least not many of them. Linguist Friend has become one. Mary-who-Dances is one. The ChaliceRelative's best friend Nancy Lee is one. That's really it.

So when Nancy Lee was in the hospital, I knew what to do.

I went. I went and I saw the raised parking rates with some disgust and I parked and I went to the ER first, and then the ICU, where I was told it was time for the change in shifts, so I went to the cafeteria and waited for an hour and studied LSAT, then I came back up and got in to see Nancy Lee.

The black-haired nurse followed me in and introduced herself. I introduced myself.

She asked who I was in relation to Nancy Lee more directly.

"I'm a friend."

"How close a friend?" She wanted to know.

"Like, on a scale of one to ten?" I asked.

She explained that when people who are in the ICU have a whole bunch of visitors who aren't close friends, they tend to find that agitating. I didn't see any point in mentioning that Nancy Lee was, in fact, asleep. And if I sat next to her and quietly watched her breathe for half an hour or so, she would probably never even know to say nothing of finding it agitating.

I didn't know what to say. How do you say "there are about five people on the planet whom my father can stand and she's one of them" or "I would have moved my wedding reception if I had realized in time that the hall was inaccessible for her" or "One time she was in the hospital and I made her a 'bluebird of happiness' where I took a stuffed animal bluebird and drew an issue of 'Presbyterian Survey' on a folded file card with headlines she would love to see and sewed the magazine to the bird's wings so it appeared to read it" or "She took me to lunch every year for my birthday when I was a kid" or "She has consistently taken my side against the ChaliceRelative at times when that was very, very necessary."

(Actually "She threw my wedding shower" would likely have been sufficient, but I didn't think of anything as succinct as that then.)

Nancy is one of nature's sweetest, most benign creatures, and I realized that I hadn't a clue how many lives she had touched as much as she had touched mine. Maybe I wasn't very high on the list. Maybe I was. I could make a case for either in my head.

So I just said "Can I leave a note?" and the nurse said yes and I pulled out a business card, wrote on it that I loved her and that I'd come by to see her and that next time I would claim to be her minister so I could stay longer. And I folded the card and drew a cartoon of myself waving "hello" on the blank space, setting it on her bedside table like a place card.

And I went out to the car.

On the way out, I noticed the parking garage was offering a deal. A ten visit parking pass for twenty bucks.

I went ahead and bought one.

PUBLIC SERVICE MESSAGE: For goodness sake, get an advance medical directive.



The name of the electrical engineer (EE) Charles Proteus Steinmetz (1865-1923) is known from the same time period as that of Thomas Edison (1847-1931), but the two represent entirely different intellectual directions. While Edison was a crude but persistent experimenter, Steinmetz was scientifically well trained with excellent mathematical skills. From a different point of view, Steinmetz's Unitarian minister, Ernest Caldecott, wrote of him "He saw how religious ideas had developed and he had great respect for them. But he held to none of them himself." Caldecott adds an intriguing footnote: "However, Steinmetz was not opposed to his own understanding of what he called 'true Christianity.'" What was he doing in a Unitarian congregation?

Let us start by going back to who Steinmetz was. When I moved to Los Angeles, I briefly stayed with my uncle, an EE specializing in instrumentation, and my aunt. One day I picked off his technical bookshelf a book on engineering mathematics by Philip Alger. Although little of the material was new to me, I found it unusually lucid. Soon I saw that it was a revision of a book by Steinmetz, written for the electrical engineering profession and General Electric Corporation, for which he worked. Indeed, it was one of twelve such books that Steinmetz wrote to embody the results of his work on alternating current electrical circuits, of which EE Ronald Scott has written that "since that time [1897] no one has had any excuse for not understanding AC circuits."

Steinmetz was born in 1865 in the city of Breslau in eastern Prussia, which can be understood to be the part of western Poland that was then in German hands. Although this sounds obscure, it can be viewed in a different way. During Steinmetz's lifetime, the German scientists Richard Courant and his classmate Wolfgang Sternberg, Ernst Hellinger, Otto Toeplitz, Heinz Hopf, Max Born, Otto Stern, and Erich Hecke, came out of the schools of Breslau. Something special happened in them. Steinmetz studied in a classical gymnasium (advanced high school). He learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Polish, and French, with their literatures, philosophy, and mathematics, and received unique recognition for his scholarship on his graduation from the gymnasium in 1882. One gymnasium instructor, Fechner, particularly instilled into him the concept of what science meant. Although some sources state that the background of the Steinmetz family was Jewish, by that time the family had converted to Lutheranism, and Steinmetz submitted to a confirmation ceremony, from which he later recalled the words of the pastor: "You may find that as you pursue your university studies, you will have no use for religion in your own lives. Still, you should not forget that ignorant people need it; therefore everyone should respect and preserve religion, since it is necessary to a certain extent." Perhaps religion has had few such striking condemnations.

At the University of Breslau, Steinmetz aimed to become an engineer, and studied basic science, physics, chemistry, and applicable mathematics, with which he had a special intoxication. The student mathematical society was his introduction to student fellowship, and he received the nickname Proteus, which he later adopted as his legal middle name, for his intellectual versatility. He was outstanding in the classes of the mathematician Schroeter and of the astronomer Galle (the discoverer of the planet Neptune). He progressed intellectually, and in graduate school in Breslau he became involved in a socialist group, with the result that eventually he had to flee from Prussia with a finished mathematical doctoral dissertation but without having received the corresponding doctoral degree. After a short stay in Switzerland, in 1889 he took ship to America with a Danish friend whom he met in Zurich. He established himself as an EE working with the German immigrant Rudolf Eickemeyer in Yonkers, learning to deal with the design of electric motors at a time when the underlying scientific concepts were hardly known. The General Electric Company was formed in 1892. It acquired Eickemeyer's company in 1893, with Steinmetz, who eventually moved to upper NY state to become the greatest scientific figure of the company. Its administrators gradually came to an enlightened understanding of how to use research engineers such as Steinmetz. He had a glorious career there in which his position was less that of industrial engineer than consultant and resident scientific guru. He held some 200 patents at the time of his death, and had about 260 journal publications. He was honored by president Theodore Roosevelt as America's greatest electrical engineer.

But also picture Steinmetz as a hunchbacked cripple, with awkward spoken English. Like Handel and Joseph Fourier, he never married and had no sexual relations, not wishing to propagate the deformity that he shared with his father. This separateness was in addition to the isolation which is inevitable for those whose knowledge and ability exceed those of others in their working and personal environment. But he could not bear to live alone, and occasionally would invite young engineers to share his home. One to whom he became close was Roy Hayden. When Hayden eventually marrried, Steinmetz became close to his family, who eventually introduced him to the young minister of the All Souls Unitarian Church of Schenectady, Ernest Caldecott. This inaugurated a running dialogue between the two men on the relations between science and religious belief. Caldecott himself must deserve much credit: at times a sleepless Steinmetz would telephone him at night, and then Caldecott would visit him at home and the two would talk until late. Steinmetz reciprocated in terms of generosity to the church. Steinmetz eventually would sing in the choir and gave sermons in Caldecott's church, and formulated his views on religious and social issues in a number of magazine articles and one book. Some of these publications together with extracts from longer works were published after his death by Caldecott and the engineer Philip Alger in a book entitled Steinmetz the Philosopher (1965). Caldecott saw Steinmetz as not only a research engineer but also as a sociologist, whose progressive social views were the real continuation of his youthful socialism. He also saw him as an agnostic, and saw rumors of a turn to conventional religion by Steinmetz as inaccurate, writing "If Steinmetz had turned to prayer, his minister would have known it." Steinmetz to him was "an all-around thinker", with "a deep and abiding concern for the social good." Although "somewhat left of center" politically, he was pragmatic, not doctrinarian, with a wonderful sense of humor which included at times the infliction on visitors of practical jokes, often based on electricity.

Caldecott must have been an effective pastor, who could break through Steinmetz's isolation and establish a link which made it possible for Steinmetz to be as human as he could be in the context of the Schenectady church, and to bring out aspects of his humanity for which there was no place in his technical role. Caldecott seems to have been largely responsible for the airing of Steinmetz's views on religion, although he disagreed with them. As a pastor, rather than playing on Steinmetz's weaknesses, he developed and made visible his strengths. So be it.

Choice can sometimes suck, but do you have a better idea?

Dan Harper raises some very provocative questions in his recent post about the power of choice. Citing examples like people choosing to shop at Walmart and ending up with fewer choices and how open selection of ministers allows congregations to practice discrimination, Harper implies at least that greater choice doesn’t always make us happy or encourage us to do the right thing.

And that’s a fair point. But I still like choice.

I bought Linguist Friend a hat for his birthday once. I didn’t know a thing about men’s hats other than he’d mentioned needing one offhand some months before and that he had trouble finding hats that fit his rather large head. I knew what style of hat I thought would look nice on him and had a vague idea of what that might be called. I researched hats online, looking at probably a hundred hats sold out of businesses literally all over the world. I eventually saw that one brand made London got frequent raves online as having good quality. Knowing then what I was looking for, I found a small hat shop in Ohio that sold this brand and style of hats in extra-large size at a price I could afford and made my order.

That’s probably an even better example of the power of choice that the guy who chooses Wal-Mart in that I decided what I wanted to give Linguist Friend, carefully shopped for several hours looking for the right mix of niceness and price, giving preference to companies other people spoke well of*. I didn’t just have Walmart and my local businesses to chose from, I looked at stores in London and Tokyo. It would have taken literally months to look at the number of hats I did had I been driving around to local small businesses, especially because there’s no surplus of hat stores in my area. I can’t help but note here that I have never heard middle class people criticized for hurting local businesses by shopping online. What you hear constantly is poor people criticized for shopping at Walmart. (Would I have even considered going to Walmart to buy Linguist Friend a hat? Of course not. I wouldn’t buy a birthday present for a friend at Walmart. Forget covenantal bonds with the highest ideals, my reasons are far more basic. If I’m buying my best friend a hat, I’m not buying it someplace where the hats will be of poor quality and out of style.)

Actually, the question of choice raises cultural questions that it is beyond the scope of this blog to answer. At one point, I read that there was a study about how poorer people like to have the same things as their neighbors. In a working class neighborhood, if one man buys a truck and another man goes out and buys the same make and model, the second man is seen to be affirming the first man’s choice and that’s a good thing for all concerned. But in a richer neighborhood if one man buys one kind of car, his neighbors are inclined to buy different cars because a feeling of individualism is more important. That seems to basically match my observation and if true sheds some light on the question of how we get these two different ideals of consumerism.

Choice is power, and this isn’t a case where I believe in taking away a power because people sometimes misuse it. To be fair, Harper doesn’t directly advocate taking away choice either, he simply notes that there can be consequences to having more choices. Fair enough, but as I wrote in my headline, do you have a better idea?

We sometimes limit our choices ourselves, and that’s fine. Open relationships aside, when we chose someone for a permanent relationship, we are choosing our relationship with them over all our other choices, in theory forever. That’s fine with me. If we chose to become vegetarians, cool. If I decide that I want to tape and watch mostly detective shows out of all the billion shows on a billion channels my DirectTv offers, that's fine. If you decide that navy blue is the best color on you and you want only navy blue shirts from now on, Peacebang may object on fashion grounds, but have at it. We’re limiting our own choices there, but again, if that leads to greater happiness for ourselves, great.

But I can’t see doing that for other people. The only way to limit the number of choices people have is to make their choices for them, and I don’t really know anyone whom I consider qualified to make choices for me. The unintended consequences of choice are significant, but I can't imagine that the unintended consequences of limiting people's choices wouldn't be worse.

I haven’t a clue what to do about white congregations picking white straight male ministers, other than to note that if they are determined to do so, they will pick the one straight white male minister off the list if presented with a short list. Unless we purposefully give them a short list with no straight white male minister and while forcing diversity on people is appropriate sometimes, I don’t think minister selection is one of those times.

Putting aside the polity questions on that one, which of course are legion, I have to wonder who would be making that choice and how well they would know the congregations involved and what their sources of information would be.

Would the choices they made for the congregation really be better than the choices the congregation made for itself?


*Yes, I’m quite compulsive about giving people presents. My parents never put much time or attention into present-shopping and thus gave me crappy stuff (one time when I was a teenager, they put off shopping until Christmas eve and bought me a cheap makeup kit. That alone would have been OK. But they didn’t look at the makeup kit enough to notice that this brand of makeup kits is put together by skin tone and hair color. My Christmas present was a non-returnable makeup kit for a natural orangey redhead. All the makeup was orange and gold and completely unsuited to the skin tone of a brunette.) So I have a thing about finding presents that are just right and display that I have listened when my friends talk about what they want and thought carefully about what I’m giving.