While we partied at the barely extended family small house in the medium-sized city, my daughter discovered an envelope from the university in the day’s mail. The university had notified her of her acceptance by email; she expected a form to fill out and mail back. Instead of a single sheet, however; she found a fairly thick packet.

While Random Granddaughter took her nap, we sat around the dining table to gloat.

My daughter began examining the packet. It was a fairly long letter from a professor whose name sounded Hungarian to me (though I don’t know what I am talking about, so any Hungarian readers of this post, please do not be offended). My daughter and my wife are better behaved than I at least 95% of the time, but a little sarcasm crept into her voice as she said, “This is very well written; I wonder if he had his secretary write it for him.”

I inquired about her comment. “When I was considering this program, I talked to this professor. He had a very thick accent, and his answers were not very helpful to me. This is surprisingly well written.” Her comment made me uneasy, but my daughter seemed cheerful about the entire matter, so I decided not to worry about the program she is entering if she is not worried about it.

As she read through the packet, she observed that the university was now worried that she would choose not to attend. This was a pleasing contrast to their earlier indifference and discouraging reaction. Much of the packet explained the medical statistics program, lauded the excellence of the department., and crowed about the mild climate of Puget Sound and the wholesome joys of living in Seattle (to a person already living in Seattle). Apparently the department worried that either my daughter would fly off to another medical statistics program, or that she was mulling over various types of statistics, perhaps the study of baseball batting averages, or that she might find the climate of Rochester, New York more salubrious than Seattle.

My daughter understood their concern. When she had applied to Cornell to study horticulture, she had also applied to several other universities and had used acceptance at competing universities as a lever to wedge a fellowship out of Cornell. However, as she ended up disliking the program and disliking the field of study, she had sort of outwitted herself (something most of us do at one time or another).

My daughter read the description of the medical statistics program with some appreciation. “It’s hard to explain what I will be doing in this field; this provides something I can tell people who ask me about it.”

She then started looking at examples of research projects. One referred to research on bone marrow transplants and cancer fighting; this struck my daughter as the type of scheme that might satisfy her idealistic urge to do a project that benefits humanity.

Not long after that RG awoke from her nap and we turned to more immediate concerns: a little girl setting her hair on fire, sulking over scalloped potatoes, and enjoying cake and ice cream.

Planet of the Valentimes

February 15, 2008

Planet of the Valentines

 The most romantic article you will read this year.

Birthday Fire Alarm Candles

February 14, 2008

On August 19 of 2007, Vicky wrote,

Another thing that might make your 3 yr old laugh is to find some of those candles that relight themselves and next time there is a family birthday celebration, sneak one of the candles in with the others – I’m figuring your 3 yr old helps blow out the candles, right?

We recently celebrated my husband’s 58th birthday – the grandkids, 5 and 3 1/2 decorated the cake with the candles and our son helped with the “funny” one. After singing to Grandpa, they helped him blow them out and then many giggles ensued as this one lone candle kept flaming – they’d blow it out and it would relight etc.

I’ve been meaning to tell this story about “candles that can’t be blown out” for a while. Feb 12 was Random Granddaughter’s birthday. She is a child with a birthday too close to Valentine’s Day (a problem similar to the ones children with birthdays too close to New Year or too close to Christmas have). She had an early birthday party shared with Grandpa’s birthday party ) already described and I presume she had a “real birthday party” with her best friends this week and then Grandma’s birthday is at the end of this month so she will probably have a “late” birthday party too. I don’t think three birthday parties is too many for someone turning four years old, do you?

Anyway, on my last job in an computer school in an elegant refurbished four-story office building in downtown Portland, Oregon, we had a birthday party for our boss, “T”. One of the employees (the lab manager, Donny) was a real smart ass. (Much worse than I am, hard as that is to believe.)

He snuck some “relighting” candles on to the boss’ birthday cake. When the boss (who also had a excellent sense of humor) tried to blow them out, the candles relit themselves..

The refurbished office building was well equipped with fire detectors. About the third time the candles relit, all the alarms on the first floor of the office building started ringing. The alarms were wired into the downtown Portland Fire Department. Within a few minutes, fire engines, sirens howling, pulled up in front of the office building, and firemen in full gear came rushing in with hoses and axes ready to put us all out.

They weren’t as amused as they probably should have been.

This story is still probably a little too early to tell to Random Granddaughter (who, as regular readers of my blog know, considers herself a fire chief.) However, when she is five, she may be amused. Or like a real fire chief, not amused, as the case may be.

Family Values

February 11, 2008

To continue on the theme of how “family values,” can ameliorate the pains and harms of life, I will talk about an undermining problem: how well humans compartmentalize, disassociate, and rationalize.

I suspect there probably were SS soldiers and concentration camp guards in Nazi Germany who came home and acted as affectionate parents to their own “Aryan” children. I suspect that there were slave owners and slave overseers in the antebellum American South who were perceived by their own children as caring and loving parents. In the same way, there were probably New England colonist parents who demonstrated love to their children after a hard day massacring Indians who fussed over the land the English Puritans had helped themselves to. I’ve heard of serial killers who led a double life as loving fathers and husbands in between murdering victims.

To a large extent we focus on the victims. We switch between admiring the Jews who died fighting back against the German troopers in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and lamenting the Jews who died after passively riding cattle cars to German death camps .

In the unlikely event anyone reading this is majoring and history (with perhaps a minor in psychology or sociology), and looking for a project, try studying the “Good German” parents who were also good German soldiers in say the Ukraine, or the good “Japanese parents” who were good Japanese soldiers in Nanking, or the good English parents who were good soldiers in the invasion of Ireland in the 1500s or the good colonial settlers in Australia who were good parents as they were moving the aborigines out of their way and so on. The list could get very long.

The family lives of the top leaders of the greatest genocidal atrocities of the 20th Century: Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, tend not to be great example of “family values.” However, I suspect that many of their faithful functionaries were able to combine adherence to the values of their leaders with domestic tranquility in their personal family lives.

Here’s an article illustrating how people strive to reconcile these apparently conflicting values right here in our good old USA.



Bag It

February 10, 2008

“Your bags are always so clean,” the pleasant, friendly supermarket checker said to my wife in admiration. An immaculate person in her housekeeping, my wife is not the type of person to bring a soiled canvas bag to the supermarket.

“Do people bring dirty bags back to the market?” I asked the checker. She rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t believe some of the filthy bags people bring back to the market,” she said. “I can hardly stand to touch them,” she said sourly. “Or smell them.”

With this introduction to the dark (not to mention stinky) underbelly of environmentalism, a casual relationship began to grow between the cheerful checker usually positioned at the last cash register and my wife and I.

Today, as I waited in line, my eyes scanned the covers of the gossip tabloids. The gossip newspapers and magazines focused on life and death: Angelina Jolie the beautiful is reported to be pregnant with twins. Other headlines promised fascinating facts on the death of Australian actor Heath Ledger. Slightly to my surprise, there was nary a headline about the sad Britney. Perhaps her story has reached the point that only her death will satisfy the gossip cravings of the vultures.

The dangerous urge to do checkout line comedy seized control of my psyche.

I said to the checker, “I thought of a marketing idea for your market.”

“Yes?” she responded with what appeared to be interest.

“Instead of tabloids about movie stars and other celebrities, you could prepare publications about the people who work at the supermarket.”

The checker laughed with delight and enthusiasm. “Let me tell you, there’s plenty of material to keep several magazines filled at this store!” Although she didn’t reveal any juicy details, she warmed to her theme, conveying the impression that what had seemed like an innocent store was a teeming pool of intrigue and scandal.

Delighted to get such an enthusiastic response to my silly conversation starter, and seldom a person to leave well enough alone, I ventured further. “If you did exhaust the tales of gossip generating possibilities of the staff, you could perhaps start to share information about the customers.”

I had hit gold again. “Boy, could we tell you things about our customers. We know a lot about our customers, don’t we?” she added as an aside to the bagger who had just joined us and started putting our groceries in one of our spotless bags.

The bagger enthusiastically agreed.

“Oh, dear, I guess we are not of much use to you,” I said as my wife joined us. “We’ve been married for 42 years.”

“Come on,” coaxed the checker. “No skeletons in your closet?”

“Well,” I said, “Our daughter lives with another woman.”

The checker’s face fell. “Nothing new about that,” she said. “Nobody pays any attention to that sort of relationship any more. We see lots of children in the checkout line with a mommy and a mommy.”

As we picked up our bags to leave, the checker and the bagger bent close together for a whispered conversation. I didn’t try to listen, and I don’t think the conversation was about us, but I had a definite impression that the gossip mills of the supermarket were grinding away.

Really, why should any of us envy the beautiful people on the covers of the tabloids? What do they have that we don’t besides paparazzi following them around?


Genes in Tight Jeans

February 7, 2008

Part of the reason I have been posting morbid posts is that I have been reading a morbid book. I will write about it one of these days so I can morb you as well.

In regard to sociobiology, if we are attractive, our genes wear us like tight jeans so they can attract other genes and reproduce themselves. If we are not very attractive, then at least we should be well-heeled. This may account for the large number of heels in your neighborhood.

In terms of turning out Nazis or Communists or other sociopaths, most people steered in such a direction will turn out as programmed and perform in a satisfactory manner as concentration camp guards or similar functionaries, but the occasional Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn or Dietrich Bonhoeffer deviates from the program.

How to account for these variations? Perhaps one group represents “pod people” and the other groups represent “real people”?

Christians may argue that both Solzhenitsyn and Bonhoeffer were Christians and cast doubts on there being any atheist heroes.

What about George Orwell and Albert Camus? Can they reasonably be described as atheist heroes?

How absurd can you get?




Amuirin wrote (I am not sure from what philosophical/religious perspective and I edited the quote very slightly for coherence and consistency):

I think the nature of the experiment [the thought experiment described in my original “acorn” post] kind of betrays why, after so many generations, we don’t have a population of mostly ‘evil’ people.

The wild card is love. Most children are raised by parents who love them deeply. As opposed to your control groups that follow certain ‘rules’, many children are exposed early on to parenting that may be flawed, haphazard, even neglectful but full of that crazy warmth and affection: that willingness to sacrifice the better cookie, the last dollar, the remote control for no logical ’survival driven’ reason. (yes, I know we’re hard-wired to love our children so we don’t throw them over a cliff the first time they have a crying jag, but human love for offspring far exceeds simple species survival needs in most examples)

Do you ever watch reality t.v.? Hopefully not, but I do tune into some programs, and I find myself really rooting for the person who seems genuine, caring or empathetic when they’re talking privately to the camera. I don’t think I’m the only one who doesn’t want the back-stabbing, catty or selfish people to win. It doesn’t take much to turn the tide of selfishness and brutality. Sometimes just one true loving example.

There is much that I agree with in this comment. I do think that “family values” do inspire much of the best in human behavior, though family values can go much astray, as they will in a future post.

I am not a religious believer. Despite all the theories about why humans behave the way they do, and dictates about how they should behave proposed by the Bible, I suspect that the real well-springs of human behavior arise from what is called sociobiology, one of the most controversial ideas in science. To summarize this idea in a surpassingly simple-minded and superficial way, even for me, I will say it represents the idea that organisms are essentially transporters of genes. Our genes say, Reproduce us, baby and we are overcome with lust (and occasionally, love) and rush to do the deed with two backs, seldom inhibited by how ridiculous the activity is, whether or not we are precisely thinking about having a baby while engaging in that activity. Richard Dawkins referred to these hidden, invisible motivators when he titled one of his books, The Selfish Gene.

Not only that, despite all Christian rhetoric about Jesus and being Saved, and of carrying out God’s purposes, and, and so on, I think most humans find “meaning in life” through having and supporting children. Although neither my wife nor I intended to have children, having a child probably held our shaky marriage together and guided much of our behavior during our lives. Even people who can’t have children (like my Aunt Rose), or who choose not to have children, like the woman architect who designed our little house, are often much taken with children and may function as non-genetic uncles and aunts. It is striking to me how much many of the evangelical Christians of worldmagblog carry on about children, how they glorify having children, how they criticize societies (such as Western Europe and Japan) where birth rates have dropped, and how passionate they become about opposing abortion.

One of the (many) reasons sociobiology is so controversial is that it purports to describe actions where no actual genetic link is involved. My daughter is physically unable to bear children, but to my eye she is just as much a loving mom to our granddaughter as her partner, the actual “birth mom.”

As people get older, they pester their children to have children so they can become grandparents. Although I never pestered my daughter in that way, and I am not a genetic grandpa, I behave more or less the way most grandpas behave.

I think for many of us humans, as we grow older, and contemplate (or at least sense) the onset of death, our instinctual drives for reproduction provide us with consolation as we contemplate the thought of little reproductions of ourselves carrying on after we are gone.

Human behavior is a very complex mixture of genetic influences, psychological influences, and cultural influences. Because of this powerful “witches brew” of influences, we engage in activities and experience feelings that mimic those that could be could be accounted for by sociobiology only if we take it in a superficial and simplistically literal way . Although I am not a “genetic” grandpa, I feel like a genetic grandpa and I act like a genetic grandpa, just as billions of adoptive parents (such as my daughter) act and feel like genetic parents. (Just as Random Granddaughter figured out who her [dad] is, one day she will probably snarl, “You’re not my real grandpa—a real grandpa wouldn’t touch slugs in front of me!”)

I’ve heard (can’t document this with a reference at the moment) that “stepparents” are statistically more likely to kill or abuse children than genetic parents. If true, this would be a clue that sociobiology has some merit as a theory.

If I were very clever, talented, witty, curious, well-educated, cynical, and conservative in a post-modern sort of way (kind of like a William Makepeace Thackeray—author of Vanity Fair—of current times), my name might be “Tom Wolfe,” and I might have written the article, “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died.”

As a non-religious believer, I am always intrigued by the reasons people are religious believers. I think the reasons vary, but one reason is, I suspect, that some are overcome by some version of Joseph Conrad’s famous quote in Heart of Darkness, “The horror. The horror.” (As I once overcome with shock and awe when my granddaughter had an impressive accident in her pants on the way home from the park, detailed in a previous version of my blog.)

I think Wolfe’s article is worth reading in its entirety, but I will post a “spoiler” here to make my point—the last paragraph of his essay:

I suddenly had a picture of the entire astonishing edifice collapsing and modern man plunging headlong back into the primordial ooze. He’s floundering, sloshing about, gulping for air, frantically treading ooze, when he feels something huge and smooth swim beneath him and boost him up, like some almighty dolphin. He can’t see it, but he’s much impressed. He names it God.

On the other hand, if I were a talented mathematician, writer and eccentrically conservative British-born writer for the National Review, my name might be “John Derbyshire,” and I might have written an interesting commentary on Tom Wolfe’s article.

Apparently, Derbyshire has moved from being a Christian to being a New Mysterian. As far as I can tell, New Mysterians are radical agnostics with pretensions.


A while back I wrote a post titled From Little Acorns Twisted Trees Grow. My argument was intended to express my doubt of the idea that as adults we can be held responsible for the choices we make. I am not advocating this position. In fact it horrifies me. I am a very self-righteous person and I am quick to condemn people I am think are behaving badly. Nevertheless, I think the possibility should be faced and examined.

In a way, Christians acknowledge this by saying that we are all fallen and none of us can save ourselves; only Jesus can save us.

Renaissance Guy, for example, states, reasonably enough:

Well, the other side of the coin for evangelicals is that we human beings bear the image of God and we have a conscience and a moral sense. On top of all that is a will–we are not bound by any outside influences if we choose not to be.

As a secular person, however, I find difficulties with this argument. I won’t take them all out to play in this post, but I will let the argument I stated in that original post play in the yard a little more.

If I took a small child and raised him as a sociopath and “protected him” from positive influences and said to him when he was 14, Here is your coming of age rite of passage: kill that worthless peasant over there; that’s what we do in our brave and noble society, and then the next day an expeditionary military force from a less sociopathic country invades and says, That was wrong, you shouldn’t kill helpless people because of their social class; we hold you responsible for your terrible action, how can we expect the young boy/man to not do what he did, or even realize it was “wrong?” How can we expect him to realize it’s wrong when he’s a captain in his 20s or 30s?

My imaginary summary sounds a lot like what the ancient Spartans were accused of doing.

The ancient Spartans didn’t write down much about themselves, perhaps because they were worried they might be held accountable at a “war crimes” tribunal. However, they didn’t take into account that the National Security Agency would be monitoring Spartan radio broadcasts and Internet messages and passing what they found along to Herodotus. The information we get from him has to be at least as reliable as the information George Bush got from the CIA.

From what we know about them, the Spartans may have been one of the first cultures to deliberately create sociopaths as a civic ideal.

In modern times, guerilla armies often kidnap boys and force them to become soldiers, in part because they are so malleable.

As I wander and wonder from elimination room to elimination room, I have noticed the increasing automation of bathroom technology. Some faucets turn themselves off because I might be too lazy or clueless to turn water off by myself. Some paper towel dispensers eject a paper towel automatically when I stand in front of the machine, saving me the trouble and unsanitary risk of pulling a lever, and making it slightly more difficult for me to gorge on dozens of paper towels. Some toilets now flush themselves in case I am too inconsiderate to flush my waste away.

At my central work location, after I use the urinal, an optical sensor observes when I walk away, makes eccentric electronic wheezing noises (apparently in celebration of my not missing the target), and then sprays away the waste.

The flaw in all this automation is that it doesn’t force me to wash my hands. So I imagine some automated technology that seizes me before I exit the bathroom and forcibly sprays soap and water on my hands. I don’t know whether the robotic equipment would then forcibly dry my hands with a paper towel and transport the towel to a receptacle, or forcibly blow dry my hands. A few elimination rooms, fanatical about “choice,” offer both blowers and paper towel dispensers.

I can imagine many things going wrong with the whole procedure. As my father well trained me on washing my own hands, I envision the robotic equipment refusing to believe I had attended to my own needs in this respect. I visualize myself running down the street pursued by robotic towel dispensers and android blowers. My only hope for freedom would be that the automated equipment would become embroiled in a brawl over the right to force me to attend to my needs and I would be able to make my escape around a corner as the Nanny brand blower tried to propel paper towels all over the street while the Nappy brand dispenser tried to stuff hundreds of towels where the sun never shines.

I might get away, but the end result would be neither neat nor sanitary.

When I was a high school teacher in the 1970s, I helped teach a half-day alternative school program based on environmentalism and futurology called “Alternative Futures.” Even then, some bathrooms used paper towels and some used blowers. I remember one of my fellow teachers and I having a whimsical discussion about which option was more energy efficient and environmentally compatible.

I still wonder about these two options.

It takes a lot of energy and a lot of trees to make paper towels. Also, many people toss them on the floor, so paper towels tend to lead to more of a mess.

On the other hand, with a blower, it takes the a lot of energy for the little dwarf inside the dryer to huff in such a heated manner, and it’s harder (or at least it takes longer) to get my hands dry, and I can’t use a paper towel to open and close a door and turn off a faucet, so it’s harder to avoid other people’s germs.

Naturally, Google reveals that this issue has been well discussed on the World Wide Web.