Friday, March 27, 2015

Shalom!

It’s been a week and I’m still not hungry.

Last Friday we headed off to O’Hare International Airport for our first flight east to Philadelphia since 2007.  That was the year we discovered that the girls were old enough that we could drive that trip and arrive with whatever sanity we had when we set out, and given the draconian nature of air travel in modern America that was a switch we never regretted.  But sometimes you have a schedule to keep, one that does not allow the two-day drive, and so you fly.

Naturally, this is the day that Philadelphia gets six inches of heavy, wet snow.

We had no idea that this was happening when we set off.  It was 50F and sunny in Wisconsin.  And the other four days we were in Philadelphia it would be 50F and sunny there too, so by the time we left pretty much all of the snow was gone.  But that day was a mess in the airport, with canceled flights, delayed flights, and a general sense that the weather gods were not happy about the notion that we wanted to be in Philadelphia.

Recall that our last planned trip out there – a drive scheduled for Thanksgiving – was canceled because of an unusual snowstorm too.  And note also that while we were there it snowed here in Wisconsin.  We are the Snow Gods.  We could rent ourselves out to ski resorts and retire on the proceeds.

We made it out there safe and sound, though, drove the rental car to my parents’ house, and immediately had cheesesteaks, because that’s what you do in Philadelphia.  I have no idea why Wisconsin – a state full of beef and cheese – cannot produce anything approaching a decent cheesesteak, but there you have it.  It is a mystery.

This gave us the vim and vigor necessary for that weekend’s Event.

Saturday was my nephew Josh’s bar mitzvah.  For those of you who are not Jewish or who did not – as I did – grow up in an area that was inhabited by a majority Jewish population and thus learn early that the notion that the US is a “Christian nation” is remarkably ignorant of both historical and current reality, a bar mitzvah is quite a significant event.  It marks the transition from childhood to adulthood in the life of a Jewish male.  It is something to put on your calendar, in other words.

We thought it was worth pulling the girls out of school for a few days.

The ceremony was lovely.  It was in what would be called a side chapel if the synagogue were a church (I’m not sure what term they use for it in the synagogue), one that was big enough for the lot of us but still felt nicely cozy and bright.  We found the synagogue with no problems and quickly got our assignments blocked out – one of the thoughtful parts about the ceremony was that it involved many family members in supporting roles, a trend that was even more apparent afterward at the reception.  Kim and I shared a short reading, for example, and Tabitha and Lauren went up with their cousins Matthew and Aaron to open and shut the ark.  Most of the time, though, the ceremony went along the way most religious ceremonies do – prayers and exhortations, lessons and song, and there was enough page shuffling and bobbing up and down from seated to standing to make the Episcopalian contingent feel right at home.  Much of it was in Hebrew, but the books did come with English translations for the newcomers and you have to appreciate that.

The star of the show was, of course, Josh.  He read and chanted, and we were all suitably impressed.  He did a marvelous job of it.  My personal favorite moment of the ceremony was when his maternal grandfather presented him with the prayer shawl that he used for his own bar mitzvah – as a historian, that sort of family tradition always makes me happy.


There was a period of picture taking after the service, since no photos were allowed during the actual ceremony and you have to let people take their pictures afterward or they’ll just explode.  I would, anyway.










And then there was lunch.

Well, first there was a period of mingling and snacking, during which the kids disappeared off to the side to take full advantage of the foosball table and basketball set-up that had been carefully placed there to burn off their energy – a masterpiece of planning, actually.












There was also music, provided by a family friend and her fellow musicians.


And before there was lunch there was a lovely little candle-lighting ceremony that involved a wide spectrum of family members.  I have no idea what the actual significance of the ceremony was, but it was a nicely inclusive sort of thing and we all had a good time.








Before lunch there was also the bit where you carry people around in chairs.  I remember this from Keith and Lori’s wedding, but I don’t recall ever having done this at any of the thousands of bar mitzvahs I went to during what seemed like every waking moment of 7th-grade.  Of course, things may have changed since 1979.  We had a grand time hoisting the folks up into the air and carrying them about, though I cannot speak for the people in the chairs.





And THEN there was lunch.





One thing that really does deserve special mention is that everything at that reception – from the hors d’oeuvres to the main dishes to the cake – was safe for Tabitha to eat.  That kind of anticipatory thoughtfulness is hard to find and even harder to implement with a catered affair, but it made the event just so much easier and more pleasant.  So we owe a big thank you to Rolane and Steve, Josh’s maternal grandparents, who made that happen.  Thank you!


Eventually, having eaten everything there was to eat and drank everything there was to drink, we rolled back to our various vehicles, wedged ourselves in, and headed over to Rolane and Steve’s house, where we hung out in a rather more relaxed atmosphere and continued to eat and drink.  Because food, that’s why.

I understand that there was actually dinner served after we left to go back to my parents’ house.  For our part, we didn’t eat anything again until the next morning, when we went back to Rolane and Steve’s for a brunch.  There was food, family, and conversation, and really what more can you ask of life?


After that we went back to my parents’ and had hung out for a while.  It was a warm day by then and the kids mostly spent their time on the roof of the family room, the way I used to do back when I was their age, but eventually we celebrated Josh’s bar-mitzvah with ravioli because my side of the family is Italian and once you get past the theology the primary difference between Italian and Jewish culture is that the carbs come in different shapes and sizes.  With a family event of this magnitude, you have to honor the whole family.

There was more to our trip – more food, more fun, more family, more friends – and perhaps I’ll get to it here soon.  But the main event was about Josh.

Mazel Tov, nephew!


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

News and Updates

1. I’ve been working on a post on the subversives currently gathered together in Congress under the GOP banner, but it’s not going well.  Mostly, I suspect, because every time I sit down to work on it I just get so blisteringly angry that such aggressively ignorant specimens are not only serving in our nation’s once-proud legislature but are actually likely to be re-elected to the same by the ideological bubble-dwellers they have gerrymandered into their districts that I lose focus and end up ranting at the walls, mostly silently when others are home but not always.  And not good ranting either, the kind you can just write down and have a decent post.  This is incoherent ranting, the kind that, ironically enough, one often hears from these selfsame Congressional urchins.  Sad as it is to admit they have brought me down to their level, and I may never finish that post.  It’s a shame, really.  It starts with Edmond Genet and ends with the foreign minister of Iran having to take time out of his day to explain to those Republicans exactly how our Constitution actually works, which is a depressing thing to see as an American.  It had potential.  Maybe someday.

2. We are down to four turkey chicks now.  This is what happens when you breed animals for meat and not survival instinct – you end up with things that are literally too stupid to eat.  The first one went last Thursday.  He was bumping around blindly in the bin, so Lauren and I went to the pharmacy to get some glucose tablets to make into a liquid for him, but by the time we got home he was gone.  We had a nice little burial out in the back yard.  The second one followed shortly thereafter along much the same trajectory, though Lauren did spend a couple of hopeful days squirting glucose down his throat beforehand.  That burial was Sunday.  So far the others seem to be surviving.

3. I will admit that I have a certain sympathy for those birds this week, now that I am getting over my stomach bug.  I wasn’t all that interested in eating either, really.

4. Kim and I have decided that any sports team that is called the “Magicians” should require its coaches to wear top hats.

5. I am not entirely sure why I should care that Jeremy Clarkson has been behaving like an ass on the set of Top Gear.  It is abundantly clear to anyone watching that he is an ass of long standing and that this is in fact the main focus of his appeal.  That’s why you watch him.  I think they should just fine him for being more of an ass than usual and get on with the show.

6. I have filled out my March Madness bracket.  They go so quickly when you have no actual clue what you’re doing.  Oddly enough I ended up with two local schools from different eras of my life in the championship game.  There is no conceivable way this could be due to familiarity, wishful thinking, or general laziness on my part. 

7. I am so far behind in my grading that I may have lapped myself.

8. Today we started covering WWII in my classes at Mid-Range Campus.  WWII is the gateway drug of American history – it’s the thing that sucks people in and gets them interested in the rest of it.  At least that’s how it worked for me.  The first serious work of historical scholarship I ever read was a 500pp history of US naval operations in the WWII.  I was twelve.  It is not an accident that I ended up in my current career field.

9. Every once in a while I like to throw the phrase “Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries)” into this blog just to entice the folks monitoring social media for him to come and visit.  Hi guys!

10. Now and then my students remind me why I do what I do.  Those are good days.

Friday, March 13, 2015

On the Passing of Terry Pratchett

I first read Terry Pratchett’s work on an airplane, high over the North Atlantic.

It was 2004, and I was headed back to Wisconsin from Europe, where we had spent a lovely few weeks visiting friends.  We’d spent some time with Julia and Richard in the UK before heading off to Sweden to visit Mats and Sara, a trip we enjoyed so thoroughly that we did it again eight years later.  Before we left for Sweden Julia handed me a book she thought I’d like, which turned out to be The Truth, one of the later Discworld novels.

I will always treasure the friendship Julia and I shared, for any number of reasons.  This is just one more.

I’d never heard of Discworld before, which all things considered is quite a feat.  It was an eye-opening experience to fall into this world that Pratchett had created.  And – in a move that will surprise nobody who knows me well – I decided that I needed to read all of these books.

In order.

This was a big project.  Even then the number of Discworld books was well over two dozen and closing in on three (depending on how you count it’s now closer to four) and at that point I owned exactly one of them.  It became a project, one that I wanted to complete without resorting to the “log in to Amazon and order one of each” strategy if I could help it.  So I started with the first one and then haunted used book stores in multiple states until I found the next one in line.  That fall, for example, Kim had a conference out in Monterey, CA, and I went along as a trailing spouse.  There really wasn’t much for me to do during the day – they kept conference attendees busy until after dinner, so I was on my own while the sun was up.  The hotel was at the base of the peninsula, so one day I walked all the way out to the point, stopping at every carefully-mapped-ahead-of-time book store on the way.  It was a gold mine, as I recall.  And then I had to fly them home.

Eventually I caught up.

And then I read them all again in 2012.  I’ll probably repeat that sometime soon, too. 

I’ve since read pretty much everything else he’s written too.  The Bromeliad series.  The Johnny Maxwell series.  Nation.  Dodger.  The various city maps and guides.  Short stories.  Non-fiction.  And the gorgeously funny Good Omens, co-authored with Neil Gaiman.  You can read nothing but Pratchett for a long, long time and consider that time well spent.

The thing about Pratchett’s books is not that they were funny, though they are – you can always count on a few laugh-out-loud moments in each book, and more than a few things that make you smile quietly on top of those.  That’s how he started, after all – the first few books are little more than a slash and burn satire of the fantasy genre as it existed in the 1980s, a ripe target if there ever was one – and he never lost that humor, a gently probing sort of wit that demanded you consider things in ways that had probably never occurred to you before.  In The Truth, for example, the photographer for the new city newspaper is a vampire.  Every time he takes a flash picture he (logically enough, when you think about it) crumbles into dust and has to be reconstituted with a drop of blood.  Eventually he learns to wear a thin glass globule containing a small amount of blood on a cord around his neck, which smashes on the ground whenever he turns to dust and thus automatically reconstituting him.  When asked why he puts himself through this he replies, aghast that anyone would even ask, “For my art!”  In hindsight it all makes sense, but it’s probably not anything you’d have thought of ahead of time.

Had he stopped there the books would have been fun, but hardly worth memorializing or handing off to one’s friends.  But they were more than that.  Pratchett had an almost unparalleled ability to make you think while you were laughing, and that’s a very difficult combination to pull off.  I doubt I could name more than a handful of other authors who come anywhere near his skill with that combination.  It took him a while to find that rhythm – you don’t really begin to see it until the third book (Equal Rites) but by the eighth (Guards!  Guards!) it has become fairly consistently part of his style.

Underneath the humor, underneath the venal wizards, the corrupt city, the Machiavellian leaders, the ethnic strife, the gender politics, the poverty, violence, and general slovenliness of the world he’d created was a strong humanist moral code, one that emerged naturally from the characters, one that stood both in stark contrast to and of one piece with that world, and one that could get quite angry in its expression.

Pratchett believed in people not as perfect beings but as worthwhile in their many imperfections, and he had Granny Weatherwax – along with Sam Vimes, the moral center of the Discworld – several times point out that evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.  Rigid bureaucracy appalled him and was invariably treated with contempt and opposition.  The Auditors – grey beings who seek to run the universe by unchanging rules applied without pity to living creatures – were the enemy.  His take on religion as something easily abused by human Auditors in the name of gods no more moral or just than the people they claimed to rule followed naturally.  It all came down to people, of whatever their many varieties.  People matter.  Kindness matters.  Everything else was secondary.

He believed in justice, particularly economic justice.  His long explorations of poverty and inequality in Ankh-Morpork, the main city of the Discworld, can stand with any academic discussion of the issue that I’ve ever read.  Look at Sam Vimes’ theory of boots, if you want an example of how poverty entrenches and perpetuates itself.

He believed in facing the hard choices and doing what needed to be done, regardless of propriety or surface morality.  The Lancre Witches – Granny Weatherwax and her colleagues – were the embodiment of this.  They were out there on the front lines, necessary but often scorned for it by those who regarded themselves as the guardians of virtue, and they were more heroic for that than any puffed up fool with their nose in the air.  “'We look to the edges,' said Mistress Weatherwax.  'There’s a lot of edges, more than people know.  Between life and death, this world and the next, night and day, right and wrong, … an' they need watchin'.  We watch them, we guard the sum of things.'”

He believed that Death – an anthropomorphic character in the series who spoke in small capital letters – was simply part of life, and one that should be neither feared nor hated.  The character of Death is portrayed as a craftsman, someone who likes people but doesn’t quite understand them.  He has a job to do and he does it well.  Death has what I have always felt was the best line in the entire series, a cry from the heart against his own master: “Lord, what can the harvest hope for, if not for the care of the Reaper Man?”

I made sure to read the Tiffany Aching subseries to Tabitha and Lauren when they were younger.  Tiffany is a strong female lead character – all too rare in modern literature – and watching her grow up over her four book series, learning the ways of the Lancre Witches, guarding the edges, making the hard choices, all the while surrounded by the gleefully anarchic Nac Mac Feegle, was both howlingly funny and deeply thought-provoking.

Pratchett died yesterday, and the world is a poorer place for that.

I know that his daughter has been appointed to continue the series, and part of me doesn’t mind the idea that there will be new Discworld books in the future but honestly, most of me just thinks the characters should be put to rest with the author.  It was a singular world, and to have it picked up as a franchise feels wrong to me somehow.  I don’t get a vote, though.  And I’m honest enough to know I’ll buy them anyway, at least the first couple, just to see how she does with them, just to visit that world again.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Song of the Turkeys

I've been trying to write a post about the current foreign policy idiocy of the Teabagger intelligentsia, a group of subversives whose feeble grasp of law, Constitution, and basic foresight and planning has never been more starkly displayed than this week, except that it has been very difficult to keep up with the flaming stupid.  Every day there is more, every bit more is just that much less credible as something a human being capable of walking erect would even consider let alone actually do, and every revelation is more insulting to the dignity and corrosive to the survival of the American republic.  This is a group that needs to be removed from power, heavily sedated, and kept away from sharp objects and writing implements for their own good and the greater good of the nation and the world.  I'm still working on that post, but in the meantime life is happening all around me and I'm going to write about that for a while.

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The turkeys were singing last night.

Ordinarily this would be a metaphor.  I could be talking about the neighbors, or the cloud of young men who infest Our Little Town with their glass-packed 12L 6000-horsepower 4x4 Compensators, reminding us all of their shortcomings in the wee hours of the night.  I could be talking about the mentally deformed members of Congress who have emerged from out of their dark caves to make the US a more unstable and dangerous place or their supporters, who stand in stark disproof of the theory of natural selection, which if they understood that they'd find ironically cheering even if the rest of us just tremble at the thought of them having free and unfettered access to firearms.  I could be talking about a lot of things.

But no, I'm talking about turkeys.  Actual, literal turkeys.  Feathered things, not that bright, generally roasted for Thanksgiving.  The things that Mr. Carlson swore, as God was his witness, he thought could fly.  Six of them in fact, in their infant stage and currently residing in my living room.

Spring is in the air here in Baja Canada, and this means it is time to gear up for another round of 4H events.  The Drama group is rehearsing on Tuesday nights.  The Cat group is doing whatever it is they're doing, though without us this year as neither of our cats will survive another go-round of that.  Art and Photography projects are a-borning.  And Lauren is restarting her Poultry project.

You can only show chickens once in the 4H, unless they're layers - and then all you're really showing is the eggs.  So last year's birds have been retired from the fair.  We still have five of them out at our friend's barn - three hens (Venus, Puff, and Rocky) who have been supplying about 90% of our egg needs since last fall, and two roosters (Sully, the special-needs chicken, and Rosie, my personal favorite).  The others have either been sent off to other flocks, or, sadly, are no longer with us.

Lauren has a long list of chickens she wants for this year, representatives of many breeds and varieties, but we have been slow in acquiring any.  Thanks to a number of obstacles, including an incubator failure at the farm where we buy most of the chicks we get, we were limited to two Sultans.

Why we needed two more Sully's I don't know.  Perhaps the three of them together could come up with a dozen functional brain cells, but I doubt it.  If there were any breeds I didn't think we'd be revisiting after last year it was Sultans, but there you go.  That's what they had, so that's what we got.

They're cute, though.


The two of them were doing fine in their little bin in the living room.  The cats are used to this routine by now and don't really trouble them.  And they are fairly quiet.  They've been there a week or so, now, doing whatever it is that chicks do.  We got them a mirror and they have had a grand time pecking away at the other birds who keep coming up to them.  And you know what?  Every single time they hit them right in the beak!  Every time!  Who knew such a thing?

Then last night Kim and Lauren went back to the farm and came home with six turkeys.

And one more Sultan, but I will skip over that lightly for now other than to ponder the general absurdity of life.

They're cute little things right now, those turkeys, all blotchy black and gold.  And they're small enough to fit the whole half dozen into a bin next to the one the chickens are in.

But sweet dancing monkeys on a stick do they yap and babble, all night long.  Do they even breathe?  They must have some kind of air-recycling mechanism that allows them to bring in air from somewhere else on their bodies (no, don't even think about it) and expel it through their mouths.  Does the military know about this?  Seriously - we could be eating our next superweapons.

Perhaps tonight they will calm down.  I hope so.  They're too small to make a decent meal, so we will have to deal with them for a while yet. 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Food, Sex, and Enlightenment

We covered Thomas Malthus in class this week.  Malthus is one of my favorite figures in Western Civ II, mostly because he manages to start with three fairly simple observations – none of which come as any surprise to anyone reading them – and ends up undermining the entire Enlightenment.  I’m surprised I haven’t put this bit up here before, and I’m going to rectify this now.

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In 1798, an English vicar – what in the United States would likely be called a parish priest – by the name of Thomas Malthus published a book with the gloriously eighteenth-century title of An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers.

The wonderful thing about eighteenth-century book titles, as anyone who has ever had to read Moll Flanders will tell you, is that once you have slogged your way through the entire title you rarely ever have to read the actual book.  It’s all pretty much laid out there for you.

Malthus was a relative unknown when he published this book, but the book almost literally made his name.  His name actually becomes a word in the English language, one that you will run into now and then if your interests move you in a certain direction.  If you ever take a particular kind of biology or political science class, for example, you will run into the phrase “Malthusian logic” or “Malthusian cycle,” phrases that come from “Thomas Malthus” and that come from this book.

The thing about Malthus is that he is one of the early figures in perhaps the most important cultural and intellectual development of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the backlash against the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment has been the bedrock of Western Civilization since it emerged out of the 17th century Scientific Revolution.  While other civilizations have come to adopt pieces of it as it has proven useful to them to do so over the centuries, the Enlightenment nevertheless defines Western Civilization as separate from all other forms of civilization on the planet.  Pretty much all of Western Civilization today exists either as an extension of the Enlightenment or as a reaction to it.  But any time you have a movement that powerful and pervasive you will get a backlash.  That’s just how humans are wired.

While the Enlightenment is a complex and sprawling thing, it can usefully be simplified to three basic points. 

First, that human reason is a powerful and effective tool for examining and understanding the universe.  How do you know what you know?  Not because an authority – living or dead, corporeal, textual or spiritual – told you so, but because you figured it out using only the reason that all humans come with hardwired into their heads.  The social and political implications of this are staggering. 

Second, that there are such things as natural laws.  A natural law is a predictor – it says that if you start with these conditions and you take that action you will get this result, and you will get it every single time.  In other words, that the universe is predictable, orderly, and in many ways harmonious.  It is not chaotic or random.  The universe is a machine, say Enlightenment thinkers, and natural laws are the rules that govern how the machine works.  Furthermore, the Enlightenment holds that you can figure out those natural laws simply by using your reason.

Third, that progress is not only possible but also – in the purest form of the Enlightenment thinking – inevitable.  Using the tools of the Enlightenment (reason and natural laws) we can tinker with the machinery of the universe and make it work better.  This is the purpose of the Enlightenment.

Malthus sits on the leading edge of the Counter-Enlightenment, which comes in two overlapping stages.

First, there are people who accept the tools of the Enlightenment – who agree that reason is a powerful way to examine the universe and that natural laws make the universe predictable and orderly – but who argue that these do not actually lead to the purpose of the Enlightenment, progress.  You can use your reason, discover natural laws and end up no better off than you were before, and therefore why bother?  Malthus is here.  Eventually Darwin will be too, which is not an accident – there’s a lot of Malthus in Darwin.  And so on.

Later there will be a second phase of people who reject not only the purpose of the Enlightenment but also the tools.  Reason, they say, is not actually an effective or powerful tool for understanding the universe and thus you need to resort to irrational or anti-rational methods such as faith, emotion, or intuition.  Also, there are no such things as natural laws – the universe is not orderly or predictable, but is instead random, chaotic, and mysterious.  This will get you to Romantics, Transcendentalists, religious fundamentalists, and so on.

Given Malthus’ position at the forefront of this movement, it is interesting to see what he argues and how he does so.

Malthus’ book is not easy reading – he is a highly educated eighteenth-century gentleman writing for an audience of other highly educated eighteenth-century gentlemen, and they did not cut each other any slack.  Nor is much of it original to him – you have to go a long way into Malthus to get to the original part, which is part of its effectiveness.  By the time he gets to the end and twists the knife with the original bits, you are so far down the path of his argument that it is hard to figure out how to get back out of it.

Malthus starts with three basic propositions, none of which are original to him and all of which you already know.

1. People have sex.

Why yes, yes they do.  People have sex.  I have heard this.  There is evidence of this all around us.  People do, in fact, have sex.

2. People eat.

I’m not going too fast for anyone here, am I?

3. These two things are connected.

Now you know this.  You know very well that food and sex are connected in a great many ways, most of which I am not going to get into in this space, and you’re welcome.  There isn’t enough whiskey in the barrel to get rid of some of those images, after all.  But what is a dinner date, after all, but a device designed to get you from the one to the other as quickly as possible?  Now, for some people that means starting with dinner and waiting until after marriage, while for others it means starting with dinner and waiting until after dessert – whatever floats your boat, I suppose.  I’m not here to tell you how to live your personal lives.

Do wait until after dessert, though, as the waitstaff tends to get a bit annoyed otherwise.  Just saying.

But the point is that those two things are connected in ways that are more serious than simply dinner dates because both of those actions – feeding and fornicating – have consequences, consequences that do not play well with each other.

When you have sex, if you have sex often enough – which is a variable quantity – you will ultimately wind up with more people.  That’s what sex is for, after all.  Whatever social, ethical, moral, or entertainment value sex has, from a purely biological perspective the primary purpose of sex is to create more of whatever’s having it.  And it is surprisingly effective at that.  Indeed, statistically speaking, the more people there are having sex the more people they will ultimately create.

Kim is a scientist and she says that historians do not use enough charts and graphs.  So I will begin using a few schematic graphs here.  Remember that they are schematics, though, meant to illustrate a point.  I’m going to go back later and put some reality into them, but for right now just bear with me.

So using my schematic graph, the general population line looks like this:


More sex, more people.

Now, all of those people, when they are not having sex (and occasionally even when they are, which, vide supra, will get no further mention here) need to eat.  And the more people you have, the more eating needs go happen.  So: more sex, more people; more people, more eat.

But this is a problem, because food doesn’t work the way sex does.  When you eat, you end up with less food than when you started.  You cannot have your cake and eat it too.  You start with this much food, you eat dinner, and you’re left with that much food.  So your food supply does this:


The general relationship between terms is now as follows: More sex, more people; more people more eat; more eat, less food.

And this is a problem.

Note what is happening on that graph.  Where those two lines cross, very bad things happen.  Where those two lines cross, what that means is that you no longer have enough food to feed your population, and nothing good can come of that.

Most obviously, when there isn’t enough food to go around you are going to get Famine.  People will starve.  Starvation is a terrible way to die.  The human body evolved under conditions of scarcity, and it is designed to withstand long periods of short rations in order to give you every chance to find more food over the next hill.  But when there is no food over the next hill – or the ones after that – all that means is that it is going to take you a very, very long time to die.  Furthermore, the body doesn’t just shut down all at once – it goes in pieces, and one of the last things to go when you starve to death is your mind, again because your body wants you to recognize and take advantage of whatever is coming over the next hill.  But in this case, all it means is that you know exactly what is happening to you as you starve to death, and worse you know exactly what is happening to your children, your spouse, your neighbors, and your friends.

Fortunately it does take a long time to starve to death, so something else will likely kill you first.

For one thing, if the mind is one of the last things to go as you starve to death, the immune system is one of the first.  Diseases, in other words, will take a fearsome toll on hunger-weakened bodies.  Things that are not usually a problem will become problems.  Things that are usually problems will become epidemics.  And new diseases – things that would take a while to build up immunity to even for well-fed bodies – become Plagues.

Further, hungry people are not patient people.  If you have food and my children are starving and you are not willing to share your food with them, I will rip off your limbs and beat you to death with them before taking your food and giving it to my children.  Those of you who do not have children are right now sitting there pondering the morality of this, debating the pros and cons of my position, while those of you who are parents are nodding your heads and saying to yourself, “Yes, yes, that makes sense.”  Multiply that out across a starving population and you get a general breakdown in social order as the have-nots seek to take from those who have in order to survive.  If the haves and have-nots are part of the same society you will see food riots, civil conflicts, and mob violence.  If they are part of different societies, you will get international conflicts.  But all of these are, in one form or another, War.

And when you add all that together, what you get is a whole lot of Death.

Famine.  Plague.  War.  Death.  There is a reason why those are listed as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Christian Bible.  They go together.  And when they go together very bad things – apocalyptically bad things – happen.

The thing is that all this has actually happened.  This is, for example, the story of the Crisis of the Fourteenth Century, perhaps the most dismal time ever to be alive in European history.  Oh, the Black Death gets all the press, of course, and what attention is left over from that inevitably focuses on the warfare of the age – the Hundred Years’ War, the Jacquerie, Wat Tyler’s Revolt, and so on.  But people forget that it all started with famine.  It all started because in the early 1300s those two lines on the graph crossed, and very bad things happened.

Now the question, of course is can this be prevented?  Is there a way to keep those lines from crossing?

Well, there are two lines on the graph.  Therefore there should be two avenues of approach we can take.  We can attack the population problem, or we can attack the food supply problem.

The problem with attacking the population problem is that, while there are any number of ways to do it, all of them essentially boil down to the same thing: get people to stop having sex.  And good luck with that, intrepid social engineers!  Really!  Good luck!  I’ll be over here with my popcorn, watching you as you try to make that happen.  Because it’s a stupid plan, that’s why.  People are going to have sex – that’s what people do.  Malthus, an intelligent and deeply learned man, was well aware that abstinence-only education was a foolhardy idea that only the most ideologically blinkered would even consider, let alone seriously try to adopt.  People have sex.  We’re wired that way.  Telling them to stop is not going to change that.

So that leaves the food supply line.

And when you put it that way, the question rephrases itself.  Is there a way to keep the food supply line above the population line? 

Because after all, the food supply line does not actually go down the way I drew it on that schematic graph – you knew that, right?  No, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but you can make more cake.  Food is a renewable resource, and we have this thing called “agriculture” whose only purpose is to turn that idea into a reality.  Can we improve agriculture to keep that food supply line above the population line?

Now if you are an Enlightenment thinker, the answer is, “Of course we can.  Using our reason, we can work out the natural laws that govern the food supply and make progress, progress being defined as ‘people not starving in the streets,’ which is as good a definition as any.”

You could work out new and better ways to get more food out of the earth – better seeds, better livestock, better techniques, and so on.  You could work out new and better ways to use the food you do get more effectively – new harvesting techniques to cut waste, new preservation techniques to avoid spoilage, new transportation methods to get the food where it needs to go before it rots, and so on.  You could even work on the medical end and see if you can get the human body to make more efficient use of the food it gets so as not to need so much.  There are all sorts of options for a good Enlightenment figure to answer “yes” to that question.

Malthus, however, says no.  Malthus argues that no matter what you do you can never keep that food supply line above the population line.  And to see why will require some math.

Neither of those lines from the schematic graphs is accurate, actually.  What do they actually look like?

Malthus argued that human population, left unchecked, would increase geometrically – or, as we would say today, exponentially.  That is, if you start with 2 people, the increase would then go to 4, then 8, then 16, then 32, 64, 128, 512, 1024, 2048, and so on.  Your population line would be an exponential curve, something like this:


This still isn’t the original part of Malthus, by the way.  Anyone with access even to the crude demographic statistics of the eighteenth century could have figured this out.  Benjamin Franklin worked it out in the 1750s, more or less.

But – and here is the original part – Malthus took a long hard look at the history of European agriculture, at the improvements that had been made over the previous centuries and the effects those improvements had had on the food supply, and based on that information he argued that the best you could hope for when it came to increasing the food supply was that it would increase arithmetically.  That is, if you start with 2 food units, the increase would go to 4, then to 6, then to 8, then to 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, and so on.  Your food supply line would be a straight line, like this:


Those of you who have taken algebra are already wincing at this point, because you know very well that it is mathematically impossible for a straight line to remain above an exponential curve no matter how far apart they start.  Eventually – it may take a while, but eventually – those two lines will cross and very bad things will happen.

And if you follow the logic through, what you get is called a Malthusian Cycle:


You start out at the top, with Prosperity.  Your food supplies are more than adequate to feed the population, and everyone is quite literally fat and happy.  Gradually, though, the two lines get closer and closer and things begin to fall apart, and you enter a period of Crisis.  Eventually you get famine, war, plague, and death, and everything will Collapse.  But the silver lining of famine, war, plague, and death is that the population line plunges below the food supply line again, and so you can begin a Rebuilding period.  You then rebuild until you reach Prosperity.

AND THEN THE CYCLE BEGINS AGAIN.

Around and around the cycle you go, in a never-ending pattern of prosperity, crisis, collapse, rebuilding, and prosperity again, each one following the other with unbreakable certainty.  This is not Progress!  There is no progress on a circle!  When drawing a circle, one may begin at any point because eventually you will end up back where you started.  That is the point of a circle, after all.  Your population will outstrip your food supply, bad things will happen, you will recover, and then it will happen all over again.  And there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.

This is a profoundly pessimistic viewpoint, deeply out of step with the more positive outlook of the Enlightenment.  This is a viewpoint that does not admit the possibility – let alone the inevitability – of progress. 

Yet notice how Malthus arrived at this point.  His argument is highly reasoned – every step along the way follows logically or empirically from the one before in a rational chain that is hard to break.  He has developed a natural law.  Remember what natural laws are – they are predictors.  If you have these conditions and you take that action, you will get this result and you will get it every time.  The Malthusian Cycle fits that description quite nicely, no matter where you start.  Malthus has, in other words, used the tools of the Enlightenment but he has not arrived at the purpose of the Enlightenment.  Reason and natural laws do not in this instance lead to progress.  In that case, what good are they?

And if the tools of the Enlightenment do not lead to the purpose of the Enlightenment, what does that say about the Enlightenment overall?

This is more than just a philosophical debate.  The Enlightenment had some very practical implications that are called into question here.  If the Enlightenment is in doubt, then everything that comes out of the Enlightenment is in doubt.  Perhaps science isn’t the best tool for examining the mysteries of the universe.  Perhaps the optimistic view of human nature that the Enlightenment assumed – that humans are basically good and can take care of themselves and others without authoritarian oversight – is fatally flawed.  Maybe humans are depraved and vicious little creatures after all.  Maybe reason itself is the problem, and it should be abandoned in favor of irrational or antirational things like faith, emotion, or intuition.

And maybe the Lockean Liberalism that is the political expression of the Enlightenment – the ideology of individual rights and equality of opportunity, the ideology that when spun toward leveling the economic playing field yields laissez-faire capitalism and small government but when spun toward leveling the political playing field yields liberal democracy and active government and thus defines both ends of the American political spectrum even today – maybe that isn’t the way to go either.  Maybe humanity needs a government that will monitor its every move, one that will care more about groups than individuals.  Eventually this will get you to genuine Conservatism – the kind that really does not exist in the US no matter what right-wingers say – and from there to any number of ideologies devoted to the welfare of the group: Socialism, Nationalism, and so on.

It’s a simple thing to observe that sex and eating have consequences.  But getting from there to the Counter-Enlightenment is a feat.

Monday, March 2, 2015

News and Updates

1. Not blogging didn’t help any, so perhaps going back to blogging will.  Or maybe the new normal is what it is no matter whether I blog or not, so I might as well just tell stories to pass the time.  I appreciate the encouragement that people have given me, though.  It’s good to hear.

2. If we decide to sell the eggs that Lauren’s chickens are providing us, we already have a slogan:  “Top-Quality Pizza-Fed Layers!  With just a hint of garlic!”  Seriously, they’re just garbage disposals with feathers.

3. We spent this past weekend at the annual weekend-long junior bonspiel here in Wisconsin,  not far from Mid-Range Campus.  There’s probably a few of those, actually, but this is the one we go to.  It’s a lock-in event, where you take the kids up on Saturday morning and they don’t leave until Sunday afternoon – the organizers (wonderful people, the lot of them) serve hot meals, keep the curling going, and provide supervision at night when the junior curlers are supposedly asleep in their sleeping bags.  Except that they're mostly teenagers, so nobody really sleeps.  There were some tired folks Sunday night.  The curling club here in Our Little Town sent two and a half teams – we joined up with the club in the next town over for a joint team, which says a lot about the general level of sportsmanship in curling.  Tabitha and Lauren were on the same team, and they ended up with a 2-3 record overall, which was good enough for a) second place in their Developmental bracket (and good for a very handsome pin with the host club’s logo on it), b) sixth place among the Developmental teams in general, and c) tenth place overall, out of twenty.  This represents a significant improvement over last year, and that’s always nice to see.  We parents are allowed to sit in the clubhouse and watch the games.  It’s surprisingly engrossing.




4. The thing I really like about curling is that sportsmanship is pretty much hard-wired into it.  You say “good curling!” to your opponents before and after the match.  You call your own fouls and woe betide anyone who tries to skimp on that.  And afterward you sit with the team you just competed against and eat, drink, and – if this bonspiel is anything to go by – play cards.  You don’t get that in many other sports, really.

5. You know you’re in Wisconsin when the hotel gives you the “curler’s discount.”  No, they don’t ask for proof (vide supra, point 4).  Curlers wouldn’t lie about such things, and nobody else would think to ask.

6. Once again, I made the tactical error of having all four of my classes take exams in the same week.  You’d think I’d learn, but that’s just the way the units break down so that’s how it goes.

7. So Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) thinks he can “handle” ISIS – some of the most bloodthirsty barbarians currently defiling the earth – because he “handled” the 100,000+ Wisconsin citizens who protested his right-wing extremism in 2011, does he?  First of all, he did not actually “handle” those protesters – he snuck in and out of the Capitol through a tunnel like the gutless coward that he is.  Second, those protesters were Wisconsin citizens - the people he was supposedly elected to represent, although he’s got the Koch Brothers’ collective fist rammed so far up into his lower intestine working him like a puppet that it’s a wonder he can walk erect - and if he can't tell the difference between peaceful protest and terrorism he has no business being in politics.  Third, he seems to have gotten the impression that those protesters were some kind of violent mob howling for blood, which comes as rather a surprise to me since I was there.  Honestly, I’ve been in rowdier grocery lines.  There were volunteers running through the crowd with garbage bags collecting trash so as to leave the place clean.  There were grandmothers.  There were children – two of whom were mine.  The loudest chants on offer were “This is what democracy looks like” and “Thank you!”, the latter addressed to the Democratic legislators who sought to preserve the dignity of a once-proud state.  Our Sock Puppet Governor really needs to grow up and stop playing with his imaginary friends.

8. Apparently there were Oscars given out.  This implies that people still make movies.  I would not know this from personal experience, much to Kim’s dismay.  What can I say?  I’m boring.

9.  Lauren wishes to let you know that she can successfully cross one eye but not the other.  She feels this deserves an exclamation point, so here it is: !

10.  It’s blue and bronze.  I can understand those who say black, and I can understand those who say gold, but anyone who says “white” really ought to be sharing whatever they’re on with the rest of us.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Down Time

I find I have nothing to say these days.

It’s winter in Wisconsin, which means that it is cold, grey, icy, and inhospitable outside.  I’m actually okay with this, as it means that I can stay in with my books and my tea and nobody feels any need to give me moral criticism for not being Out And About the way that apparently all the good people of the world are by reflex action.  On the other hand, though, it’s not much to write home about.  It’s a quiet sort of life.

There’s a lot going in politically, as the right-wing extremists currently masquerading as the once-proud Republican Party careen ever closer to their goal of subverting the Constitution and American civil society entirely and replacing them with a one-party Gilded-Age theocracy of the damned.  The problem, as is probably evident by now, is that even considering the matter is infuriating to someone who actually has a clue what this nation was founded upon, as I do, and that makes bad copy.  That plus the fact that I was born in Philadelphia and therefore pessimism is my birthright makes me rather corrosive on the subject these days.  I can ruin people’s days merely by expressing my views, and who needs that?  Better to stay quiet, perhaps.

I’m reading some good books, but those go onto the end of the year posts.  As far as sports go, I’m enjoying soccer and hockey when I get a chance.  American football is over and baseball hasn’t started.  There’s a lot of curling going on around these parts as well.  Other than that there are no sports of any note.  I lost interest in movies years ago.  Not much to report upon, really.

My semester is phenomenally busy – for all that Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) insists that university faculty are lazy, I’d put good money on the fact that I’m working harder than he is, and I’m not even tenure track.  Most university professors I know would be thrilled to be forced to work a 40-hour week.  They wouldn’t know what to do with all their new-found free time. 

So it’s been kind of quiet around these parts.  Perhaps it will pick up soon, though.  You never know.