Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas 2007!

A lot of people I know must secretly find Christmas very annoying. Just think of all its bad points:

1. All the giving that we are doing is directed toward people to whom we are sentimentally attached, so it is really selfish. True altruism would be giving to complete strangers, people we have no selfish reason to give to.

2. At Christmas, we give things to individuals, and turn our attention away from the good of society as a whole.

3. Christmas giving is wasteful and actually diverts resources away from the total social good. The things we give are mostly useless things -- candy, wine, a necktie, toys.

4. Further, all this money brings about less real value than the same money would produce if it were spent by the recipient of the gift. (Your uncle would have picked out a different necktie if he had chosen it himself, one that would be better for him.)

5. Christmas giving is regressively redistributive. We don't give to people because they are weak, sick, incompetent -- because they need our help, in other words. No, we give to them because of their virtues and their strengths, because we find them worthy of love. Instead of giving to them that have not, we give to those who are already well-endowed by nature, circumstance, or their own efforts. Giving is only good when we give to the right recipients, and Christmas selects the wrong ones.

As you can probably guess, these are the reasons I love Christmas. Merry Christmas from all of us here on Jefferson Street to all of you! And happy all those other holidays, too!
The picture above shows the Madison Community Orchestra giving one of its annual Holiday Concerts in the Capitol rotunda (the largest stone dome in the world!). That's me in the brown suit on the far left, playing the second violin part of Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride." Photo by Deborah Katz Hunt.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Has Global Warming Stopped?

British astronomer and distinguished science journalist David Whitehouse raises the above question in a recent article in The New Statesman. "'The fact is," he says, "that the global temperature of 2007 is statistically the same as 2006 and every year since 2001."

Demonstrable, global climate change has been flat for seven years now. The closest thing I have found that turns this into a vivid image is a graph on this environmental alarmist website. Scroll slightly down from the top. Note that this graph has no bars for 2006 or 2007. So just imagine continuing the flat area at the right end of the graph for two more bars and you get the picture. Flat.

But that's not the bad news for those who are married to human-produced carbon dioxide as the cause of climate change, forsaking all others. As Whitehouse points out, carbon dioxide levels have risen relentlessly throughout the flat period. As I am sure you know, causes and effects aren't supposed to vary independently of each other. Why climate change has flattened we really don't know. But it doesn't seem like the carbon theory, plausible as it is on its own, can do the explaining by itself.

Whitehouse looks like an interesting person. You can find his charmingly low-tech web site here. He once wrote an article on UFOs called These Close Encounters of the Absurd Kind, in which he said: "I will feel more confident that aliens have landed when I see David Frost interview one." Penn and Teller should use him as a source!
Added later: Whitehouse is of course a journalist. Here is an older article with a similar point of view by Bob Carter, a scientist, a geologist who works in paleoclimatology. Note that his statement, "the last eight years [have] proved to be a period of stasis," can now be amended: the last nine years. Here is a video of a recent talk by Carter -- a very effective one!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Is Prejudice Ever Good?

A reader wrote to me yesterday with an interesting question. In my earlier post Random Quotations I listed this quote, attributed to Mark Twain: "I know that I am prejudiced on this matter, but I would be ashamed of myself if I were not."

The reader said that she was thinking of putting this quote on the wall at her work place, but wanted to know the context of the quote before venturing to do so.

Hm, I thought, I believe I know what you are thinking. It would be embarrassing to put the quote up and then a co-worker says something like "Say, don't you know it was racial prejudice he was defending?"

I looked at the source from which I got it, a review of the book In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, by conservative essayist Theodore Dalrymple on the web site of the conservative New English Review, but it was no help. It contained no indication of the source or context of the quote.

The idea that prejudice can be good is an occasional theme of American conservative essayists going at least as far back as the title essay of Richard Weaver's Life Without Prejudice and Other Essays (1965).

[Disclaimer: I didn't post those quotations because I agree with them. I was commenting on their literary qualities, not their truth or falsity.]

After more searching, I eventually did find the source. The quote is from The Innocents Abroad, chapter: "The Ascent of Vesuvius, Continued." It was slightly misquoted, which was what made it hard to find initially. Here is the passage from which it was taken:
And here, also, they used to have a grand procession, of priests, citizens, soldiers, sailors, and the high dignitaries of the City Government, once a year, to shave the head of a made-up Madonna--a stuffed and painted image, like a milliner's dummy -- whose hair miraculously grew and restored itself every twelve months. They still kept up this shaving procession as late as four or five years ago. It was a source of great profit to the church that possessed the remarkable effigy, and the ceremony of the public barbering of her was always carried out with the greatest possible eclat and display--the more the better, because the more excitement there was about it the larger the crowds it drew and the heavier the revenues it produced--but at last a day came when the Pope and his servants were unpopular in Naples, and the City Government stopped the Madonna's annual show.

There we have two specimens of these Neapolitans--two of the silliest possible frauds, which half the population religiously and faithfully believed, and the other half either believed also or else said nothing about, and thus lent themselves to the support of the imposture. I am very well satisfied to think the whole population believed in those poor, cheap miracles--a people who want two cents every time they bow to you,and who abuse a woman, are capable of it, I think.

These Neapolitans always ask four times as much money as they intend to
take, but if you give them what they first demand, they feel ashamed of themselves for aiming so low, and immediately ask more. When money is to be paid and received, there is always some vehement jawing and gesticulating about it. One can not buy and pay for two cents' worth of clams without trouble and a quarrel. One "course," in a two-horse carriage, costs a franc--that is law--but the hackman always demands more, on some pretence or other, and if he gets it he makes a new demand. It is said that a stranger took a one-horse carriage for a course --tariff, half a franc. He gave the man five francs, by way of experiment. He demanded more, and received another franc. Again he demanded more, and got a franc--demanded more, and it was refused. He grew vehement --was again refused, and became noisy. The stranger said, "Well, give me the seven francs again, and I will see what I can do"--and when he got them, he handed the hackman half a franc, and he immediately asked for two cents to buy a drink with. It may be thought that I am prejudiced.

Perhaps I am. I would be ashamed of myself if I were not.
So the prejudice involved was indeed racial prejudice.

Is there a moral here about the nature of prejudice?

A prejudice is, roughly speaking, an unjustified belief. To hold and act on such a belief is to act in blindness and thus increase the likelihood that (by your own standards) you will go wrong. If you do go wrong, you will be walking into a booby trap that you set for yourself. Kind of like the reviewer who did not check the source of this quote.

Monday, December 10, 2007

David L. Hunt 1923-2007

My father died very suddenly one day last week. He died as he had often lived in his later years, as he had come to prefer: alone and unnoticed. In life, he could be a fairly annoying person. I think my mother really hated him, and it would be hard to say that she was simply wrong to do so. She had reasons, maybe even one or two good ones.

He was a member of the so-called "greatest generation," a veteran of World War II, Pacific Theater of Operations, and one of his many racial prejudices was the Japanese -- a pigheaded idée fixe that mere facts and logic could never budge. His heroes were John Wayne, Johnny Cash, Mark Twain, and H. L. Mencken. There were no women in his pantheon, and all his gods were very white.

So why do I miss him as much as I do? What are these tears about? I guess I'm writing this to figure that out. Friends and lovers are chosen, and show what you want to be. Relatives are assignments given by Nature. They remind you of what you are. This of course can be unpleasant. Conversations with my Dad could be tests of my liberal virtues, such as they are. His phone calls were sometimes pop quizzes in tolerance. My grades improved as I got older. I eventually realized that being insensitive and something of a bigot are shortcomings that can be balanced and outweighed. Also, I stopped arguing with him when I developed my now-overwhelming aversion to wasting my time.

I suppose his virtues were just the obverse side of his shortcomings. He and his twin sister Doris were the last of the nine children in his family, and born prematurely. As he told the story many times, he almost died in infancy. This made him especially precious to his mother, who always treated him like a little prince (how Doris fit into this I never thought to ask). He got used to doing things his own way, with relatively little need to take the preferences of others into consideration.

He always did just what he wanted to do, not what he was supposed to do or what people told him he had to do. His character was sharply focused. What he really wanted to do at any one moment was, well, something constructive, it didn't seem to matter what. He was no "workaholic," but he was always up to something. If nothing else was happening, he would go out into the backyard and pave part of it with concrete, or rip out one variety of plant and install another. His backyard was written up in the local newspaper, with a big color picture of his magnificent shrub roses and delicate, translucent begonias. This is a trait I failed to inherit, as you know if you have seen my yard. (Or maybe it just took other forms, like this stupid blog.)

He always said that he chose his trade, repairing mechanical watches and clocks, because it's a thing you can do when you are old and feeble, so he would not have to retire. And he didn't. He kept it up, pottering away and listening to angry right-wing talk radio (he eventually came to regard Rush Limbaugh as some kind of semi-liberal sissy) to the very end. He almost literally died at his bench. An eighty four year old man, decades older than most people when they retire, dies at work. As near as we can determine, he was coming in the side door of his shop, going from the work bench in the garage to the one inside, when he dropped his Nat Sherman cigarette and keeled over backward, stretched out on the floor, and never got up. Being a Sherman, the cigarette simply went out, instead of burning the place down.

His shop always smelled powerfully of gear lubricant and good tobacco, and always had at least fifty mechanical clocks in it, the rustle of their ticking as calming as forest murmurs. Their hourly discordant clanging and dinging was an experience I will surely miss.

I think I loathe death for two reasons. For one thing, it comes too early. Humans should live twice as long as they do. Seventy or eighty years is enough to do about half of what one brain can accomplish. Dad left a shop full of unfinished projects, as no doubt will I. The other thing is the waste of knowledge. When that brain hit the floor of his shop and faded out, a lifetime of unrecoverable knowledge faded out. His trade was a handicraft, Medieval sort of thing, and could only be passed on by way of apprenticeship. He had once hoped one of his grandchildren would become his apprentice, but it never happened. If only there were some way to just download all that experience and pass it on to others through a cable! So much of it just goes to waste. (This, by the way, is a problem that traditional immortality does not solve. This knowledge would be equally wasted if locked away in a sexless, bloodless, dirt-free heaven where there are no watches and clocks because there is nothing to do and nowhere to go.)

I was surprised to learn that his will requested "no service." An agnostic in his earlier years, who seldom entered a church unless some woman brought him, I think he ended up a believer of some sort or other. I suppose he just found funerals creepy and depressing, and didn't want to inflict one on anyone else. My brother and sister and I decided that what we will do is have a wake instead. Eat his favorite foods, drink his vodka (he left three gallons in the pantry), tell stories, cry, laugh. Maybe read some letters and poems (his favorite was Robert Service). I think I'll barbecue some ribs with a cherry-based sauce I'm working on, and cook up some fish steaks with orange zest and white grapes. That's the way to remember someone whose motto seemed to be: Life comes around once. Deny yourself nothing.

Added later: The picture at the head of this post is taken, without permission, from the site of a local newspaper (scroll down their page to see a charming write-up about Dad) [photo credited to Rory Mcnamara.] I hope they accept this link as just compensation for swiping their excellent photo. I don't seem to have any decent digital pictures of him of my own. I like the expression in this one. He seems to be saying, "Yes, I got your joke. I just didn't think it was funny." This shows him in the last year of life, aged 83 or so. To the left is a much earlier one, which I scanned. On the back he has written: "11-2-46 / To Mother / With Love / from David on his 23rd Birthday." That would be about two weeks after I was born. It was probably in the mountains east of Los Angeles. That's a guess, based on the fact that at that time L. A. was our home.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Happy Birthday Józef!

Darn! Yesterday, December 3, was the 150th birthday of Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, aka Joseph Conrad, and I missed it. Well, here is his Wikipedia picture and a belated birthday greeting, shouted across the abyss.

In a commemorative piece, Giles Foden (The Last King of Scotland) repeatedly characterizes Conrad as a Modernist. He seems to mean this as a compliment. I think he is twice wrong.

Perhaps the greatest single era in the arts in the West began in the late eighteenth century and culminated in the early twentieth century. Then some vicious idiot shot the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and it all came crashing to a gruesome, brain-splattering end. After the war, Modernism spread like the Great Influenza Pandemic. Eventually, it turned art, once the breath of life, into a pointless game for over-educated snobs. (With all due respect, I think this is what James Joyce, the greatest Modernist of them all, accomplished.)

There are of course connections, both artistic and personal, between Conrad and Modernism, but he really belonged to the last generation of the great epoch that Modernism destroyed. Modern without being Modernist, ironic without being cold or nihilistic, romantic without being sentimental or confused, complex, subtle, and profound, his greatness is a chilling measure of that vast waste of time in the arts, the twentieth century. How he dwarfs them all! Now that we are waking up from the long, international nightmare of Modernism, it is time to start creating real art again!

(Hat-tip for these links to Arts and Letters Daily.)