17 April 2015

Things both arbitrary and necessary

The other day I ran into this quotation from Chesterton:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

It called to mind some discussions I had with some colleagues back in the day when I knew people to whom I could refer as 'colleagues".  At the time we were usually discussing feminist issues when I raised my point, but really we could be speaking of anything.  Someone would point out that different cultures came up with different answers and institutions regarding the two sexes.  Because of this fact, they concluded that the institutions surrounding the two sexes were arbitrary.  I would reply: yes, it may be true that they are seemingly arbitrary.  However, while each culture created institutions different from other cultures in response to the difference of the sexes, there is no such thing as a culture which did not respond to it at all. In my opinion, the institutions were therefore arbitrary, yet necessary.

I got called a lot of names back then for expressing this opinion.  I, not seeing any point in banging my head against walls, or perhaps I was too much of a coward, eventually gave up expressing my opinions.  It was something of a revelation.  meeting with colleagues was supposed to be an opportunity to hear differing opinions, perhaps reform our own opinion in the light of something we had not thought of before- iron sharpening iron.  But that was not the case. That was a twilight era.  We were post modernist, therefore post logical, post common sense, post thought.  I was arguing that there was such a thing as an underlying reality.  They argued that there was no underlying reality at all.  And thus, when time came to start reforms, they went their merry way, reforming everything without understanding that there was a 'why' or a reality behind every single thing they sought to reform. As a result, their reforms could lead to nothing but chaos.

What Chesterton and I are both getting at, is that there is reason and there are reasons, and that we need to recognize reality before we set about changing it.  Reality will always reassert itself in the end, and ignoring that will always lead to chaos.

16 April 2015

Plus c'est la meme chose, plus ca change.

The more things stay the same, the more they change.

I've spent a fair amount of time reading one jeremiad after another about how we've changed for the worse and will continue to change for the worse. The authors all share one error in their thinking: they seem to believe we will continue down the same curve from this point on.  But anyone with an eye to history would know that we never stay on the same curve forever.  Our society at any given moment is not the end product (unless the conditioners have their way- but I don't believe they will) but just a blip.  We changed from the way things went before.  Things will change after us.

Take the issue of promiscuity.  Many writers are obsessed with how bad it is right now, and I admit it is bad.  I also admit it may get  worse, but I don't think it will get infinitely worse.  Other societies before us have had loose morals as far as sex is concerned.  Some eras would make even the most libertine among us blush.  They all changed eventually, as will we.  And if you look closely, you may see that the current promiscuity itself bears its own seeds for its eventual decline.

For example, there was a video from last year which applies an economics model to relationships.

Not entirely Catholic, but, as I said, it applies a economics model to sex. To continue their model, women once demanded a very high price from men for sex: men had to swear, before God and their fellow man, that they would love only that one woman, would support and love that woman for all his life before the woman would agree to sex.  In part, men had to grow up.  Despite what feminists have said, in the past it wasn't men who controlled women's sexuality. Read the books by women in the past- Jane Austen et al, and you will realize that it was the women who kept their eyes on the other women.

Think of them as a union.  A union seeks to control access to a goods or service in order to demand the highest price possible.  As far as services go, they control a doozy, and women could demand as high a price as possible.  Women who didn't charge the high price for their-- ahem- services- were a kind of scab labour, driving the price down for everyone, and therefore measures such as shaming were taken against them to try and keep them in line.   Am I saying this was a perfect situation and that it always worked for the benefit of both parties?  Heck no.  It had its failures, including a great many spectacular ones.  But both the men and the women knew what was expected of them.  Now, unfortunately, nothing is expected of the men, and both are suffering for it, though men are slow to realize that.  With sex being easily accessible, men no longer have to prove or promise anything.  Among other outcomes, that means men are no longer growing up.   Women are starting to notice, and they aren't entirely happy with this situation.

Or take another form of the promiscuity of the day: the naked selfies.  (There's a video on it here, but there is language and it is a little risqué. Clink on the link if you wish, but be warned.)  Using economics again, it used to be that a women would send them to her... guy... thing.. whatever- and she would be get a little risqué thrill, and so would he.  There was a risk, but also a reward.  However, what with hacks, and guys being scum and not growing up to be men, these photos got passed around.  A lot.  In economic terms, the risk has grown, but the reward has remained the same.  This is an entirely untenable situation.  Sooner or later, women will realize the risk isn't worth the reward, and when they do, the supply will diminish.  And it isn't an outside force that leads the change, but rather the forces inherent in the practice itself.

Am I saying that sex will return to solely inside the marriage?  No.  Even in the most puritan of times and places, there were always exceptions.  Nor will the porn industry ever completely go away.   But their influence and patterns wax and wane.  In restrictive times, people eventually want to break out of the restrictions.  In licentious times, people eventually tire of the emptiness of license, and realize it is not worth the effort. 

I can't promise you that we will soon move out of this situation.  I can't promise you that the new situation, in whatever form it will take, will be perfect -actually, scratch that- I can promise you that the new change will not be perfect.  It will have it's own problems.  But I can also promise you that the way things are today will change in the future, that we will shift gears and change our direction.  If nothing else, mankind has far too short an attention span to travel forever in the same direction.

15 April 2015

Is Lifehacking really a thing?

Every now and then I hear about some new fad, and I wonder to myself: "Can people really be that stupid?"  Almost always. the depressing answer is "yes.  Yes, they can."

I thought about this when I read an article over at the Art of Manliness encouraging us to stop hacking our lives.  Hacks, it seems, are the self help and self improvement books for the ADHD generation, and these 'hacks' suffer from the same troubles as the books: they almost always fail outside the laboratory.  And yet, people seem genuinely surprised by this.  Are they really that dumb?  Yes.  Yes, they are.

Why is that?  Assuming that the authorial endorsement of "I invented this system, and, boy, did it ever help me!"  is not a complete lie, why don't they widely work?

There are a few reasons for this.  First, though, I would advise my readers to get down on their knees and thank God they don't work.  A self improvement book that could really deliver happiness and contentment would be a catastrophe for Western Society.  We are built on misery and discontent.  Just look at any ad and you'll see why.  Look around and wonder how many businesses would go belly up if we were truly happy and content.

One reason for Catholics and other Christians is obvious: man is fallen.  There is no way for a secular world to repair the damage and return us to Eden, or some facsimile thereof.  Self help is relatively benign in that respect: hundreds of millions were murdered over the last century trying and failing to establish an earthly paradise.

For the Catholic or the Christian reader, no further explanation is necessary.  But some of my readers are not Catholic or Christian, so that reason will not swim for them.  They need another reason, so here it is: these books do not universally work is because they mistake the difference between mechanical and a tactical problems and solutions.

A mechanical solution to a mechanical problem will always work.  For instance, the Wright Brothers worked out the issues and principles of flight in 1903.  Had they, or someone else, worked out those problems in 1902, it would still have worked.  Or 1802.   They were dealing with problems of aerodynamics that do not change.  Those principles are still in effect, and their solution will still work.  Their solution to the problem of flight is a mechanical solution to a mechanical problem. 

A tactical solution is a different beast entirely: it will sometimes work, and sometimes not.  Tactical solutions are provisional and context based.  A mechanical solution will work always, everywhere.  Tactics must be executed at the right time, in the right place, in order to be successful.   Take the classic military mind game.  You are to attack a town.  There are two roads into that town: one is the main road, the other a seldom used goat path.  For various reasons, you need to keep your force together, so no splitting them up and taking both roads.   Furthermore, you know the defenders have only enough men to guard one of the roads.  So: which road do you take?  The obvious choice for attack would be the main road, but it would also be the obvious choice to defend.  So then the obvious choice would be to take the goat path, but if the defenders know that you know the obvious choice would be to defend the main road, and that you would therefore take the goat path, then they will be defending the goat path.  Which means that the obvious choice would be the main road.  But if they knew that you knew that they knew, etc. Go far enough into it, and you end up sounding like Vizzini from The Princess Bride.

Or, take the game of chess.  Each game is unique, as each player adjusts their strategy to try and overcome the strategy of their opponent.  They are adjusting their tactics to the unique challenges of each specific game.

For me, the main problem with hacks and self help is that they attempt to give mechanical solutions to tactical problems.  It is as though someone attempted to introduce a mechanical solution to a tactical situation.  Imagine someone using the exact same set of moves to every single game of chess.  It would not take long for their opponents to realize this fact and defeat him.  

  I imagine the people who post their lifehacks are sincere:  they tried something and it works, but it does not necessarily follow that their successful solutions will translate easily to others. They offer solutions to problems isolated outside of their context. "What worked for me will work for you!' is a true statement inasmuch as we resemble each other and share a context, or if the solution is for a purely mechanical problem.  If the difference between us is too great, and the situation a tactical one mistaken for a mechanical, the solution will inevitably fail.  As human beings, we are simply too various for 'one-size-fits-all' solutions.  And it is absolutely stunning to me that people still have not learned that.

14 April 2015

A little good news. I'll take it.

We had another assessment for Frodo on Sunday.  The first two assessments- or one assessment over two days-  was to see where he is on the ASD.  That assessment was almost all bad news, exacerbated, I think, by Frodo's uncooperativeness.  He had a stubborn pair of days which influenced the assessment.   What's done is done.

However, Sunday's assessment was of his language skills.  He repeats things endlessly, but we weren't sure how much of what he was repeating he understood.  As it turns out, quite a bit.  His vocabulary is fairly good for a kid his age, with one curious problem- he seems to have no verbs.  For instance, during a test where he was required to fill in blanks or complete a sentence, he was shown a picture of a boy and a girl.  Pointing, the tester said:  "The girl is standing, but the boy is...?"

Frodo: Chair.

Tester:  Yes, chair.  The girl is standing, but the boy is...

Frodo: In a chair.

Some things he seemed to near identify with a lateral association.  For instance, he called a telescope a magnifying glass, despite the fact that I have taken him to the local observatory and shown him telescopes, while we don't have a typical magnifying glass at home.  He also correctly identified binoculars, but I have no idea where he has ever seen a pair or been told it's name.  In short, he has a larger vocabulary than even I knew.  Just not one with verbs.

I find this to be a weird and curious kind of problem- I am sure there is some word out there for this sort of aphasia, but the assessor seems to think this is a fixable problem.  For the moment, I am relieved.  This proves what we had suspected: he is absorbing information, even though he does not seem to be paying attention, and he can display his knowledge and answer question, albeit only when he is in the mood.  

After all the bad news of previous weeks, I'll take it.

8 April 2015

The embedded hypocrisy of movements, revisited.

My first post on this topic could be basically summed up as follows: Movements begin by claiming that we cannot tell them (whomever 'they' may be) what they can or cannot do. I pointed out that this sentiment is an act of hypocrisy, because even as they declare that we (whomever 'we' may be) cannot tell them what they can or cannot do, they can tell us what we can or cannot do, for in telling us we can't do that, they are naming something we cannot do. Over time and as movements become more successful, they become more at ease with telling people what they can or cannot do, even while claiming to only be defending their right to not be told what to do, or not.

When I wrote that post, I began by quoing a New York Times columnist by the name of Frank Bruni, who felt comfortable enough to tell us that he "support(s) the right of people to believe what they do and say what they wish — in their pews, homes and hearts. But outside of those places? You must put up with me, just as I put up with you." Note how in the final sentence he uses the auxiliary verb "must" as he tells believers what they can and cannot do, but places no such imperative upon himself.

However, Frank Bruni has since changed his mind: he now believes he can tell believers what they are to believe in their pews, homes and hearts, and he is quite comfortable in doing so. So he no longer supports the rights of those with whom he disagrees- not even in the grudging, lukewarm, pathetic way he did before.

This was, of course, entirely predictable, and it is also entirely predictable thta it will get worse. For a movement, the only acceptable position of those outside the movement is unconditional surrender.

6 April 2015

Easter singing, and a thought that occurred to me

I sang at Mass yesterday, as I have said I would.  Puff was sitting down in the pews whilst I howled up above.   At one point she heard the couple behind her talking, and, begging your forgiveness for my lack of seemly modesty, I shall repeat their brief conversation, as reported by my wife:

A:  Hey, this guy's good.

B: Yeah, not like the one at our church.

This is what it comes to: as long as there are people out there worse than myself, I am golden.  This point was driven home when I visited my mother in the afternoon and had dinner with my extended family.  One of my elder sisters was there.  Puff told this story, and sis looked over at me and drawled:  "By any chance, did you sing Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' for the gospel acclamation?"

Me: I would never do that.  Why?  Is that what they did at your church?

Her: Yup.

I had heard rumours that there were places that did such things, but never so close to home.  Has anyone else out there run into that before.

Lastly, I watched Frodo playing over at my mother's for a long time yesterday, and I thought of the assessments and his schooling and the future.  Whilst I brooded, he played happy and carefree, and I thought: Why would I want to change that? With that thought, I found myself to be a little more at peace with the events of the last couple of weeks and the future. I wish to help my son, to do everything I can for him, but I don't want to do it at the expense of the smile on his face.