Happiness is an Easy Catch

I was out this evening until after dark; the motorcycle light was barely enough to get the gate to the road unlocked, but I opened it and came in -- closing it behind me, of course, as you always do with gates.  On the way up the driveway, I noticed that one of the pasture gates was wide open, which it should not be.  However, we had separated the horses a few days ago to make them easier to work with, and I figured the wife had forgotten to close the gate when she put them back together.

So after I came in to the house, I said, "I see you put the horses back together today."

She said, "No, I didn't."

I informed her that Avalon's gate was wide open, and then I got my rope and went outside into the front yard.  No sooner had I closed the door and stepped off the porch, Avalon appeared from not very far away and walked up to me. You can imagine a thousand-pound black horse detaching herself from the shadows beneath the trees. She paused just out of arm's length, as if she expected to be in trouble.

"You're not in trouble," I said.  "We probably don't even need the rope.  Come on with me."  Then I turned and walked to the upper gate to the pasture with the other horse, opened it and walked in.  She followed calmly behind me, sniffed the hay, and went over to say hello to the other horse.  I walked back out and closed the gate, and returned to the house.

Just as I was getting to the porch the wife came out with a lantern in one hand, a food bucket in the other, and a rope draped over her shoulders.  "Did you see her?" she said.

"It's done," I said, and walked back into the house.

That was eminently satisfying.


About twenty years ago, a now-defunct software company called MicroProse wrote a computer game that intended to be an accurate simulation of the Holy Roman Empire in the 15th Century:  with the one twist that all the stories people were beginning to tell about witches would be true.  The result was Darklands, a sort of rarity in being a masterpiece of scholarship as well as an interesting game.  It contains accurate period music, brief but accurate histories of dozens of saints, accurate geography, and a landscape that features institutions of the period such as the Hanseatic League and the Medici banking house.

I mention it because this weekend it is for sale for $2.99 from GOG.com.  Some of you probably remember it from of old; others of you may find it to be a fascinating experience.

The Demographic Dilemma

My weaving-and-spinning friend's horrified reaction to her conservative Christian friend's unchecked fertility got me thinking about demographics. It struck me that her environmentally-inspired insistence on the one-family-one-child approach was self-limiting; as James Taranto says, if you don't have children, odds are your kids won't either.

Mark Steyn made a splash several years ago with his book "America Alone," arguing that the Western Civilization we take for granted will collapse demographically and be replaced by cultures with higher reproduction rates, notably Islam. It seems that Islam, as well, however, is under demographic pressure. This PJ Media article argues that catastrophic drops in birth rates in all cultures are most strongly linked to increased literacy rates. Backward cultures thus face a cruel choice in the race to compete globally: get educated to compete, and you'll simply die out. As the author notes:
In short, the Muslim world half a century from now can expect the short end of the stick from the modern world. It has generated only two great surpluses, namely people and oil. By the middle of the century both of these will have begun to dwindle.
Why should increased literacy undermine the birth rate? Are we really just looking at Gloria Steinem's famous quip, when asked why she didn't marry: "I don't mate in captivity"? Do a dangerously large fraction of educated women inevitably adopt the view that the child-bearing and -rearing deck is stacked against them?

One of my favorite science-fiction novels is "The Mote in God's Eye," in which the central problem of an alien culture is their biological inability to control their fertility. If they don't reproduce regularly, they die. As a result, because they are bottled up in an isolated solar system from which they can't escape, they regularly suffer Malthusian disasters and bomb themselves back to the Stone Age. The novel's assumption was that human beings were lucky in their ability to control their fertility, at least until they could expand off-planet. For most of our evolutionary history, however, we had only a modest ability to pull this trick off. Our experiment with reliable birth control is only a few generations old. What if the technological development that permits birth control turns out to be cultural suicide within a very few generations for everyone that acquires the ability?

If the bulk of educated women will predictably reject child-rearing, but uneducated cultures cannot compete effectively on a global scale, will we have to re-invent the child-rearing process in order to persuade women to keep doing it? Or will cultures have to find a way to let the men get educated enough to compete, while preventing the women from doing so?

Stand Your Ground

There's been a lot of talk about the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida.  I haven't joined in on that issue, and don't mean to do so yet because so far there hasn't even been a decision made about prosecution.  It sounds as if there ought to be adequate reason to go before a grand jury, but so far no decision on that has been made.

What I do find objectionable is the use of this tragedy to raise a general claim against the principle of the "Stand Your Ground" law that Florida has.  An extension of the Castle doctrine to all places where one may lawfully be, it simply holds that you cannot be legally forced to flee from criminal violence:  you have a right to defend yourself from it.

Our friends on the left have raised this case as an example of the law allowing for the killing of innocents by bullies.  Since no decisions have come down on prosecution, that's at best premature:  but it is when they try to show this is part of a trend that they go most astray.
The Florida courts have upheld the law and issued some truly shocking findings.
This has led to some stunning verdicts in the state. In Tallahassee in 2008, two rival gangs engaged in a neighborhood shootout, and a 15-year-old African American male was killed in the crossfire. 
That's almost a complete misreading of the actual events.  What actually happened in Tallahassee is documented here.  You'll notice a few small differences in the judge's account vice Mother Jones' account.

1)  The "15-year-old African American male" was a rival gang member.

2)  He was not "killed in the crossfire," but was in fact the target of the bullets that killed him.

3)  He was armed, having come to that place with the express intention of engaging in a gunfight, and,

4)  He shot first.

That's a little bit different picture, isn't it?

How about a different picture of the statistics in Florida, thanks to the CATO institute?
Between 2004 (the year before the law’s enactment) and 2010 violent crime in Florida dropped sharply, and homicides per capita also dropped, though not sharply.
We ought all to hope for justice for Mr. Martin; and it is very early in the process for anyone to despair about such justice being achieved.  As for the wider argument that some wish to make out of this case, it does not hold water.

Teaching to the Test

The indispensable Iowahawk made a 2003 entry in a "Why am I a Democrat" contest, including this succinct explanation of the welfare state: "I am a Democrat because I believe in helping those in need. All of us, you and I, have an obligation to those less fortunate. You go first, okay? I'm a little short this week."

But he really caught my attention with this quip about a subject that's been worrying me lately: "I am a Democrat because I recognize that education is important. Very, very, extremely very important. We must increase spending on education and enact important education reforms, such as eliminating standardized tests. Because we can never hope to measure this beautiful, elusive, important thing we call education."

He refers, of course, to the problem of "teaching to the test." It's been years since I engaged in a discussion about the public schools here in Texas without hearing at least one person lament the problem of "teaching to the test." I used to ask what it meant, then gave up. It came up again last week, when I was hanging out with the Fiber Women, several of whom home-school. (One does it because her strong religious principles. Our hostess has this in common with her, but has often remarked to me how incomprehensible she finds her friend's religious convictions on the subject of birth control. It seems so obvious to her that a truly moral person would not burden the planet with four children. She literally cannot fathom how her friend views procreation; her friend, of course, is only too familiar with the opposite point of view, but chooses to go her own way and not argue about it. They have other attitudes in common to sustain their friendship.)

But back to schools. Here's what mystifies me: what's wrong with teaching to a test? Why is it so difficult to devise a means to determine whether the kids are learning what we want the schools to impart to them, and to determine whether one school does a better job than another at this task? Do I imagine that a child's entire worth can be summed up in a standardized test? No, of course not. Am I blind to the fact that kids from disadvantaged homes will find many aspects of eduction unusually challenging? Obviously not. But have we really come to the point of arguing that most under-performing students are lost causes as a result of their families or neighborhoods? I don't blame a doctor who can't cure a dead body, but I also don't offer to pay him an annual salary for trying. Similarly, if a condition is impossible to diagnose, then I neither blame the doctor for missing it nor pay him for the effort. The "I'm not to blame for failure" argument is great for answering undeserved withering scorn, but it's not a good reason to keep signing paychecks -- it's a good reason to encourage educators to find a more productive line or work. The task of education isn't hopeless, or we wouldn't keep at it. If it's not hopeless, and we have any idea at all what we're aiming to accomplish, then why is it a bad idea to find a means for judging the results of our efforts?

Once you can accept the idea that it's theoretically possible to devise a test for determining whether each student has benefited from the year he just spent in class, then the question becomes whether the school was doing something to impart that benefit, or if the kid merely soaked it up by osmosis as a result of the inexorable march of the calendar. Presumably if anything about the comfort of the lives of the people employed by the school are going to depend on the results of the test, they will be motivated to see the kids do well on it. This leads to the dread "teaching to the test." But what is the problem with that? To put it another way, if teachers are drilling the kids in something stupid and irrelevant in order to increase their chances of testing well, then isn't the test stupid? And if so, why can't we craft a better one?

This week I decided to read articles objecting to "teaching to the test" until I encountered a sensible idea somewhere, but I gave up. Teaching to the test is bad because it focuses on narrow facts instead of the thrill of learning or "critical thinking skills." The kids are only learningtesting strategies. Education is too complex to be judged by a checklist. The kids spend all their time on reading, writing, and ciphering instead of social studies and "enrichments." The test only measures the socio-economic status of the kids' families. High-stakes tests encouragecheating and undermine self-esteem. Schools should teach cooperative learning skills instead of knowledge. Fine, but can they read, write, and cipher? If not, what are we paying the school for? If the school doesn't know how to judge whether the kids are learning this stuff, how about letting the parents decide, and vote with their feet? Yes, I know that professional educators worry that parents aren't up to the job, but after all, the educators just confessed that they're incapable of making the judgment, too, and someone has to. Otherwise, the teachers devolve into monopolistic baby-sitters with public pensions.

What I'm starting to see now are articles about the shiny new field of "curriculum alignment," which apparently means devising a test that has something to do with what we were hoping the kids would learn. This concept differs from existing tests in a way that continues to mystify me. Whose bright idea was it in the first place to give the kids tests that weren't aligned with the curriculum we wanted them to master?

It's not that I don't value an education system that leaves all its participants with a lifelong thirst for self-instruction, not to mention good citizenship and other sterling qualities, but these are kids, not graduate students. They have to start with the basic knowledge, or all the thirst in the world isn't going to help society much. All those nifty cooperative learning and critical thinking skills are great if they actually produced some learning. There has to be some good reason for these ad valorem taxes, beyond providing a place to park the kids while we're at work, and a secure retirement for the products of teaching colleges.

These are no ordinary chihuahuas

I see this story entirely from the perspective of the poor dogs, ditched by their shiftless owner and spurned by their clueless neighbors. What kind of useless neighborhood says this about a "pack" of five or ten little tail-wagging chihuahuas: "My daughter -- she'll be outside, but then I have to have her come back inside because they all -- I'm afraid they're going to -- you know what I mean." Um, no, I'm not really following your point.

Fast and Furious

The LA Times reports on its unraveling of the knot:
When the ATF made alleged gun trafficker Manuel Fabian Celis-Acosta its primary target in the ill-fated Fast and Furious investigation, it hoped he would lead the agency to two associates who were Mexican drug cartel members. The ATF even questioned and released him knowing that he was wanted by the Drug Enforcement Administration. 
But those two drug lords were secretly serving as informants for the FBI along the Southwest border, newly obtained internal emails show. 
So the ATF arrested someone wanted by DEA, whom they let go because they wanted to use him to get two other guys, who were already working for the FBI?  And along the way they got a Border Patrol Agent killed?

Let's have some appropriate music for our Federal Law Enforcement team!

The career not taken

Douglas said something very kind below about my bee-adorned mailbox, which happened to touch on the central crisis of my life.

Though a successful architectural student, I wasn't cut out to be an architect. I have no gift for arranging spaces to be beautiful or surprising. My gift instead lay in working out floor plans in two dimensions, and solving problems, and taking standardized tests. (It's a little-known fact that standardized tests are designed to measure how close the test-takers are to someone exactly like me.) I love the good architecture created by other people. But figuring out that architecture was a blind alley for myself was the most wrenching decision I ever made: dropping out of the graduate school that had awarded a full scholarship. I drifted for a long time afterwards before stumbling onto law school. Then in every single interview for three years, I had to answer the question, "Why did you drop out of architecture to pursue law?" Though I eventually worked out a brief answer that seemed to satisfy people, the choice occasionally bubbles to the surface to this day. There is a haunting line in a Leonard Cohen song: "The skyline is like skin on a drum I'll never mend." For whatever reason, the compulsion was unanswerable.

We were told in architecture school that we'd be shot if they caught us reading "The Fountainhead," but the horse was long out of the barn on that insidious romantic message.

I was meant to be a decorative artist, probably: in an earlier age I'd have made sure that all the handmade items like swords and doorknobs and keyhole plates were properly embellished, like those gorgeous Scythian tools carved with reindeer. My bee, for instance, lit me up on all registers, as something worth doing in its own right. He makes me happy every time I drive up to my gate. In contrast, no building design of my own creation ever once inspired me with a burning desire to see it built. I figured, an architect has to be practically willing to die to see his stuff go up, or it will never happen, it's such a difficult process. In my heart of hearts, I didn't like my designs. How would I persuade a wavering client to buy and build them?

Here's a mosaic that lights me up, in the Houston Intercontinental Airport, designed and executed by Dixie Friend Gay. It took a year's work from four artisans and 1-1/2 million pieces of glass tile. This definitely would be a job worth having. Check out the other views in the link; this work is on a long, undulating wall. I want one.

Never cared that much for law in its own right, but I could make a bazillion bucks and retire early, and a passion for identifying logical flaws makes me a good brief-writer and law review editor if not an all-around good lawyer.

The First Day of Spring, Actual:

The Hound of the Hall

Happy Vernal Equinox!  Subjective Spring started weeks ago here, but today we reach the real event.  As you can see, at least one of us is celebrating.


I believe that T99 is associated with her local VFD, and my father was a long-time Captain of ours.  I expect you'll find this interesting:

The Fire Critic is asking opinions on this one, which it considers quite aggressive (although they note they don't know from the cam if there is a backup line behind the guy).  (H/t:  FARK.)

The End of the First Amendment

News from Chicago:
The officer who handcuffed them is recorded on camera warning members of the media that their First Amendment rights could be terminated.  "Your First Amendment rights can be terminated if you're creating a scene or whatever," the officer said.  When asked how they were creating a scene, the officer said, "Your presence is creating a scene."
From the District of Columbia:
HR 347 was recently signed into law by President Obama. This statute had wide support amongst both parties of Congress. In essence, it criminalizes disruptive behavior upon government grounds, at specially designated national events (Super Bowl, nominating conventions, etc.) and anywhere that Secret Service is protecting “any” person.
Since all of the presidential candidates are now receiving Secret Service protection, that means no "disruptive behavior" anywhere near anywhere that anyone running for president might be speaking.

Thus the freedoms of speech, assembly and the press.  As Elise notes, we're also seeing an end to the freedom of religious expression insofar as it pertains to how one lives one's life, as apart from merely how one prays in private.
The issue is so clearly one of violating the First Amendment that I am unable to find any common ground with anyone who doesn’t see that. We have nothing to say to each other on this topic. And their belief either that this does not violate the First Amendment or that violating the First Amendment is acceptable is so inexplicable that we don’t really have anything to say to each other about anything else related to the Constitution or governance in general. 
Furthermore, it doesn’t matter how this situation comes out. Even if the Administration backs off completely on the contraception mandate for all employers, it’s too late. Even if the Supreme Court rules that the mandate is unconstitutional, it’s too late. That a President of the United States believes it is acceptable to simply ignore the First Amendment is a sea change in our form of government. Perhaps if the Administration had established this mandate and every single person and institution other than President Obama and Secretary Sebelius had screamed bloody murder, I could believe that we had, in a moment of national inattention, elected as President one of the only two people in the United States who consider the Bill of Rights irrelevant. But that wasn’t the case; Obama and Sebelius’ attitude toward the Constitution is clearly so widespread that there is no going back.

We'll have to decide if Elise is right that the First cannot be saved.  If so, we'll have to move on to the Second.  That is not a light matter, not at all:  but consider her argument.  There is very widespread support for simply compelling people to violate their beliefs:  and not merely to fail to do something their faith says is right (which might apply to human sacrifice, in some religions), but positively to do something their faith tells them is wrong.

The only obvious parallel lies in the draft, which compels military service from all citizens.  America's history of support for conscientious objectors is mixed, but has generally found a way to recognize and offer alternatives to most who felt such objections.  It's unclear why war should be an easier place for such objectors than the provision of contraception or abortifacients, the need for which is debatable rather than existential.

Bristol Palin's Got A Spine of Steel

It's no surprise to discover it, but it's impressive all the same.


Here is something unexpected:  a video of the great-grandfather of my own little girl.

A Fairy Tale Wedding

At least, it reminds me of a fairy tale we were recently discussing.

Apparently there is some division in the commentariat as to whether or not this shouldn't be an acceptable form of marriage.
I believe everyone has the right to marry, regardless of sexual preference. For some people being alone is what feels most natural. Shouldn't they too be entitled to tax breaks? 
Sure, why not?  And this way no one will ever interfere with their right to visit their spouse in the hospital.

(I also like the suggestion that this approach to marriage really streamlines the adultery process.)

I guess we've reached the point that the two-parent family has been so completely undercut that no one remembers why married couples were given tax breaks at all.  If mostly we're raising kids with single or divorced parents, what's the point?  In fact, it's downright unfair:  the married couple already has natural advantages.  They shouldn't get a tax break, too:  the tax breaks should go to the ones who are doing it the hard way.  (As, indeed, they already mostly do, since EITC is tied to relative poverty, and poverty correlates strongly with these "hard way" types of families.)

Song of the Working Man

Rick Santorum, though he himself is a wealthy man and a former Senator, shows working-class audiences that he understands them by talking about his grandfather.  His grandfather was a miner, and Santorum's Iowa speech talked about the old man's funeral.  Looking at the corpse, at the funeral, he focused on the hands:  "Those hands," he said, "dug freedom for me."

I feel inclined to tell a few stories this morning, about some men I know.

The first one of these is the father of two kids, both special-needs.  Between their needs and surgeries, he's a million dollars in debt.  To carry that debt he works two jobs.  He's an officer in the US Navy reserves, which means he has to travel out of state for duty on a regular basis.  His full-time job requires him to rise and leave by four AM some mornings every week, and keeps him at work until six or seven at night most nights.  His boss is a miserable human being who can't be bothered to speak civilly to him, even though it's my friend's willingness to come in early that sets the boss up for whatever success he enjoys in the day.  I hear he just took a pay cut.

I once told him I thought what he was doing for his kids was noble.  He laughed, rather darkly, and went on to talk about something else.  Last Christmas he sent me a card with his family's picture on it.


Another man I know grew up much as I did, racing fast cars through Appalachia.  As a young man he joined the Army.  He became a sergeant, and then got out; he and his wife had some kids and he went to work for a company.  He tried to move up the ranks, but never got very far, ending up in middle-management.  His wife decided she didn't like being home with the kids, so she went back to work as soon as she could; then she decided she didn't like the job, so she wanted to go back to school.  He supported her through all that, and her failed business venture.  One day she got angry with him over something, some fight, and left for a while.  He later told me that he'd been dressing for work that morning, and happened to see his pistol laying on a shelf.  He told me he thought, "If I shoot myself, I won't have to go to work today."

Fortunately he had an upbringing that steeled him against moments of despair.  Things worked out with her and him.  Still, I don't know if she ever knew, or understood that it was really only ever all for her.  When it didn't look to him like it mattered to her, he'd rather have died than face his job even one more day.


One of the men I like best in the world not only was but is an Army sergeant, at this point a senior NCO.  He was a man who came from a working-man's background, never did well in school.  He had never managed to read a whole book in his life when I met him.  I don't know why the education system didn't figure out how to help him, but it never did, and when he got married and had a few kids there was a long time when he couldn't find work.  This would have been about the time of the economic downturn from the first Bush administration:  the one that caused him not to get re-elected.  My friend was a casualty of that recession.

One day he was at home, waiting for his wife to get off work, having almost given up hope of ever being worth anything to his family.  An Army recruiting commercial came on television, and promised him all the good things those commercials do.  He went right then to a recruiter, who assured him -- being as how he was a husband and father -- that the Army would take care to station him close to home so he could support his family and still be with them.  He signed that very day.  His first duty station was Korea.

He went on to serve in Somalia, Bosnia/Herzegovina, and Iraq.  He had sixty-six kills in OIF 1.  Along the way he was blown up by a mortar round, and had to be retrained for a support position.  The Army picked one for him that required a lot of skill at reading and writing.  When I met him -- in Iraq again, in his new role -- he was gritting his teeth and fighting to make it work.  He finally did, due to nothing but hard work and dedication.  I thought he would like Louis L'amour's Sackett novels, so I gave him one, and it was the first book he ever read all the way through.  He went on to read all of them.  He understood them and they spoke to him, he told me, because "These books are all about guys who are fighting for their family."

It happens he and I share a birthday.  We could almost be brothers, except he has blue eyes.


I could tell you about my own family:  about my great-grandfather, who was a farmer in rural Tennessee around the turn of the last century, but who somehow managed to put his eight kids -- all sons -- through trade school.  Or I could tell you about my grandfather, who was a welder, who managed to put his sons through college.

Each of these men is a kind of tragic hero.  They've suffered, greatly, in the service of those they love.  I don't know how many people have taken the time to understand just how much their sacrifices have cost them.

I think I chose the right word when I told my one friend that he was noble.  This kind of sacrifice in the service of the beloved is the mark of a man of the highest honor.  It is the mark of true nobility.

Decorative Arts

I don't have any tattoos. Not that I object to them in principle, but two things stop me: hep C, and my mania for decorative arts, especially those that conform to an irregular three-dimensional surface, like pottery, or the body. Decoration like that has to be just so, or it drives me bats. I need to be able to repaint over it if it doesn't suit me.

Spring-break brings high spirits and the occasional burst of vandalism. Our small neighborhood's mailboxes suffered from a minor outbreak a few nights ago, which inspired me to repaint our mailbox before we re-installed it. Lately I've had an overpowering urge to paint bees; there's one on our front gate, too. This is not a good example of painting on an irregular solid, since the mailbox's shape is so simple, but it is an example of fitting graphics to their context. If I were to be tattooed, I'd agonize for a long time over the design, and finding an artist who could execute it properly.

Here are some I admire.

PS - A neighbor's mailbox disappeared altogether in the outbreak. The next day, the mailman found it in another community a couple of miles away, recognized it just by its number, "23," with no name or street, and brought it back. Small communities are nice.

The Lost Leonardo

National Geographic has a wonderful article on what is believed to be a long-lost Leonardo da Vinci painting.  It is a beautiful piece, with a sorrowful story.

The Re-programmable Tattoo:

I don't come from a tattooing family.  I'm pretty sure that none of my family has or has ever had a tattoo; not even the WWII veterans, as far as I can recall.  It's just not something we do.

Nevertheless I have to say that this is a pretty cool idea.  Apparently it uses e-ink similar to what you find in a Kindle. One of the reasons to avoid tattoos is that you're stuck with it forever; if it seems like a bad idea in ten years, nevertheless, there it is (barring expensive and painful surgery).  This tattoo, though, you can turn off whenever you want; or you can swap it out for something else.