"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for March, 2012

The Quaker’s new ‘doo.

Today’s blog post concerns the topic of the Quaker Oats icon.  I’m sure you recognize him.

He looks good enough to me, happy and iconic anda decent sort to bear the banner of the only brand of cereal named after a religious denomination.  (At least I’ve never heard of “Coptic Cheerios” or “Presbyterian Fruit Loops”.)  But apparently his owner, Pepsico, is not happy with him, because they’re giving him a face lift.  The new Quaker Oats guy will have a thinner face and shorter hair.

Whatever happens, I hope it’s not as drastic as what happened to the Sun-Maid Raisin woman:



Apparently she got implants.

And Can It Be That I Should Gain?

It’s been awhile since I posted a hymn on my blog.  Here’s another one written by Charles Wesley, which for some reason I only encountered for this first time a few weeks ago.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

The Commerce Clause on my Mind

When I was in eight grade, and again in tenth grade, I learned about the Constitution.  I didn’t learn very much about it, but I did learn about it.  I learned that due to the evident failure of the Articles on Confederation, the founding fathers decided that a new governing document was needed.  That they held a Constitutional Convention with George Washington presiding, James Madison taking notes, and Benjamin Franklin offering free advice.  That they eventually settled on three branches (legislative, executive, and judicial) with checks and balances and so forth.  The the First Amendment protects freedom of religion and speech, the Second contains the right to bear arms, and there are a few amendments that do a few other things, though my memory is rather hazy on that point.  That’s all that I recall learning about the Constitution, the most important document in American history.

This week the Constitution will be center stage as the Supreme Court hears arguments for and against the main part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.  The central question is whether it’s legal for Congress to pass legislation requiring all individuals and employers to purchase health insurance.  Obama and his fans say it is.  Most Republicans say it is not.  The pundits are furiously trying to predict the outcome, with no clear consensus.  What is clear is that Obama’s argument rests on a part of the Constitution that my 8th- and 10th-grade teachers never mentioned: the commerce clause.

They never mentioned that in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, there is a list of eighteen things that Congress can do, and it’s intended to be an exhaustive list.  They never mentioned that to remove all doubt, the framers wrote the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, clearly stating that Congress may not do anything which isn’t listed.  They never mentioned that today the federal government has countless offices, agencies, and entire departments with no firm basis in the Constitution.  And they never mentioned that the official excuse for almost all of them rests on a single clause in Article 1, section 8, which empowers Congress “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;”.  Yes, there’s a lot that my education skipped over.

Nowadays whenever Congress wants to do something that isn’t listed in that section of the Constitution, and whenever they face a court challenge over it, they claim that the commerce clause lets them do it.  The commerce clause allows agricultural subsidies.  The commerce clause allows anti-pollution measures.  The commerce clause allows labor law.  And the Supreme Court invariably accepts these arguments.  In the 2005 case Gonzales vs. Raich, the Supreme Court even ruled that Congress can criminalize growing marijuana on your own property for your own consumption, because that falls under “commerce among the several states”.  According to the Supreme Court’s logic, there doesn’t seem to be any activity that isn’t commerce among the several states.

Some legislation that’s snuck in under the mutant interpretation of the commerce clause is good, such as the Clean Air and Water Act.  Some is bad, such as the marijuana prohibitions.  But very little of it can rationally be classified as interstate commerce.  And that leads us to a strange fact.  Almost everything that the federal government does these days is illegal.  Almost all parts of the federal government are unconstitutional.  And while we constantly here certain parties shrieking about the needed to uphold small parts of the Constitution (The Second Amendment lets us own howitzers!  The First Amendment demands the destruction of war memorials!) we see few people who honestly believe that we should govern the USA according to the entire thing.

So what’s the solution?  I don’t know, but more widespread knowledge about the Constitution would be a good place to start.  I imagine I’m not the only one who was never required to read it during my public school education.  If you’re in that category as well, strike back at ignorance by reading the actual document.  Here’s a link:


Chesterton on What to Drink


Feast on wine or fast on water
And your honour shall stand sure,
God Almighty’s son and daughter
He the valiant, she the pure;
If an angel out of heaven
Brings you other things to drink,
Thank him for his kind attentions,
Go and pour them down the sink.

Tea is like the East he grows in,
A great yellow Mandarin
With urbanity of manner
And unconsciousness of sin;
All the women, like a harem,
At his pig-tail troop along;
And, like all the East he grows in,
He is Poison when he’s strong.

Tea, although an Oriental,
Is a gentleman at least;
Cocoa is a cad and coward,
Cocoa is a vulgar beast,
Cocoa is a dull, disloyal,
Lying, crawling cad and clown,
And may very well be grateful
To the fool that takes him down.

As for all the windy waters,
They were rained like tempests down
When good drink had been dishonoured
By the tipplers of the town;
When red wine had brought red ruin
And the death-dance of our times,
Heaven sent us Soda Water
As a torment for our crimes.

– G.K. Chesterton

What I’m reading: The Scar

Yes, it’s time for my monthly confession that I’ve posted nothing about what I’m reading.  I always intend to remember to post about books, and I never do.  Now on with the show.

China Mieville is one of the big names in fantasy to emerge in the last decade.  Needless to say, he remains a complete unknown outside of the fantasy ghetto.  Nobody who reads, writes, or reviews serious literature would have anything to do with him.  But among the hardcore fanboys, few authors command more respect.  He burst on the scene with Perdido Street Station, set in the fictional universe of Bas-Lag, and followed it up with The Scar, set in the sample world but in a very different part of that world.  While Perdido Street Station is set in the vast and teeming but stationary metropolis called New Crobuzon, The Scar is set in the floating city of Armada.

Mieville is the leader of the subgenre known as “urban fantasy”.  Like most genre terms it’s not clearly defined, but it clearly fits what Mieville writes.  In Mieville book’s the main characters are the cities, rather than the people.  In Perdido, New Crobuzon oozes menace and atmosphere.  In The Scar, Armada is carefully established as a physical reality.  One believes in these cities because Mieville plumbs their depths and exposes all the details, because he describes countless neighborhoods in each one and digs into the social, economic, and political fabric.  As far as urban landscapes go, they have no equal in fantasy.

Mieville also stands out for his stunning imagintion as applied to new creatures and races.  While many fantasy authors struggle to come up with a single imaginative concept, Mieville spins out new ones as if he could simply pop them out of a machine.  Perdido gave us walking cactuses, human bodies with big beetle heads, “remade” persons with extra limbs attached as criminal penalties, frog-like Vodyanoi, and more.  The Scar adds in human-sized mosquitoes with insatiable appetites and plenty of other such monstrosities.  Many of these charming add-ons would be worthy of a book of their own, and we can only hope that Mieville will return to them at some future point.

The last good point is that Mieville can actually create a good plot, something which sets him aside from many other urban fantasy practitioners.  In The Scar there are big mysteries to drive the plot forward and adequate explanations for those mysteries.  The pacing is good and there are a decent number of surprises.

Own the downside, The Scar is laced with constant profanity, which is not only unpleasant but often is used as a substitute for characterization.  I wish authors (and screeenwriters) could understand that loading a character’s vocabulary with endless s###’s and f###’s does not make that person gritty, believable, or tough.  Violence is frequent but gore is usually not excessive, though one scene with the aforementioned mosquito people may go a little too far for some people.  Overall, though, Mieville’s imagination and vision win out over those flaws and make The Scar a highly recommended winner.

Four reasons to dislike the Susan G. Komen Foundation

So I’ve decided to write a post trashing the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the gigantic charitable endeavor that fights breast cancer.  “What?!” I hear someone scream.  “Are you pro-breast cancer?”  No, I am not.  I very much hate breast cancer.  I would not want anyone to get it, and would not want to prevent anyone who has it from being cured.  In that regard I would hope that everyone who reads this agrees.

I am going after the Susan G. Komen Foundation because of the way it operates.  There’s been a change in how charity gets done in America over the past generation or so.  The overall amount of charity, relative to the economy, has been fairly constant, but the sociology of how it operates is changing, and Komen is out in front of the negative changes in a big way.  So on to the reasons.

Komen beats up on smaller charities.  The foundation claims that it can use the words “for the cure”, and no one else can.   It would be a violation of trademark, don’t you see?  Yes, the tiny charitable venture known as “Kites for the Cure” that raises money for cancer by letting children fly kites is a mortal danger to the Komen behemoth.  Honestly.  That’s why Komen needs to send big-league lawyers to harass anyone who uses the words “for the cure” in their name.  But what exact threat does any other charity pose by using those words.  Businesses obviously want to beat other businesses, but should a charity seek to beat other charities?

Komen doesn’t spend much on research.  If you only have a casual knowledge of Komen’s activities, you’d think that their primary purpose is to raise money for actual research towards a cure.  Actually it isn’t.  Fundraising and administrative costs take up roughly twenty percent of their budget, including more than half a million in salary for the foundation’s President and ritzy travel expenses for other bigwigs.  That’s not actually very bad; most charities are in the same ballpark.

No, the problem is that the Komen Foundation’s doesn’t actually spend the bulk of its money on research, but rather on education.  There’s nothing wrong with education, of course, as long as it’s actually educational.  Much of Komen’s output is not, as the link above demonstrates.  Which leads us to the third reason.

Conflicts of interest.  The best ways to prevent breast cancer from even forming are the same as the best ways to prevent cancer overall.  Eat a good diet, avoid carcinogenic chemicals, and exercise.  Yet the Komen Foundation doesn’t focus on these things in its advertising, instead emphasizing the need for screening and preventive medical care.  There’s nothing wrong with screening, of course, but a healthy lifestyle should be the primary focus if we really want to cut the disease down to size.  Moreover, Komen either gets money from or invests in companies that make unhealthy products such as packaged meats.

Tackiness and ugliness.  Komen has been remarkably successful at getting its signature pink ribbon and other symbols plastered onto anything and everything, from tents and huge inflatable markers to yogurt and paper products.  Yesterday I bought a can of ordinary table salt and found the ribbon on it, which is what inspired this post.

That, of course, is only the beginning.  The foundation seems to have an obsession with sticking its logo everywhere, much as Nike did with the ‘swoosh’ when I was a kid.  I find this ugly and distasteful.  I find most advertising ugly and distasteful, but few campaigns have been taken to such extremes as the Komen campaign.  Pursuing a cause, even a good cause, does not require that we cover every available square inch with garrish decorations.  Most people, I’m sure, don’t want to say this, lest it look like they value aesthetics above saving lives.  I do not.  Saving lives should come first, of course, but this carpet-bombing with tacky advertising and fundraising does not save anyone’s life.  Komen could be just as effective–perhaps more effective–if they showed some restraint.

Chesterton on the Social Sciences

Now we do talk first about the disease in cases of bodily breakdown; and that for an excellent reason. Because, though there may be doubt about the way in which the body broke down, there is no doubt at all about the shape in which it should be built up again. No doctor proposes to produce a new kind of man, with a new arrangement of eyes or limbs. The hospital, by necessity, may send a man home with one leg less: but it will not (in a creative rapture) send him home with one leg extra. Medical science is content with the normal human body, and only seeks to restore it.

But social science is by no means always content with the normal human soul; it has all sorts of fancy souls for sale. Man as a social idealist will say “I am tired of being a Puritan; I want to be a Pagan,” or “Beyond this dark probation of Individualism I see the shining paradise of Collectivism.” Now in bodily ills there is none of this difference about the ultimate ideal. The patient may or may not want quinine; but he certainly wants health No one says “I am tired of this headache; I want some toothache,” or “The only thing for this Russian influenza is a few German measles,” or “Through this dark probation of catarrh I see the shining paradise of rheumatism.” But exactly the whole difficulty in our public problems is that some men are aiming at cures which other men would regard as worse maladies; are offering ultimate conditions as states of health which others would uncompromisingly call states of disease. Mr. Belloc once said that he would no more part with the idea of property than with his teeth; yet to Mr. Bernard Shaw property is not a tooth, but a toothache. Lord Milner has sincerely attempted to introduce German efficiency; and many of us would as soon welcome German measles. Dr. Saleeby would honestly like to have Eugenics; but I would rather have rheumatics.

– G. K. Chesterton, What is Wrong with the World

And a very happy Pi Day to you

Today is Pi Day.  In case you’re not familiar with this newly minted holiday, it’s based on today’s date in numerical form: 3/14.  Now the number Pi, which is the good old ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, begins with the digits 3.14 and then continues.  Here’s a link to a billion digits of pi if you want them.


I could proudly say that I got into Pi Day on the ground floor, so to speak.  Way back in March of the year 2000, I was a senior in high school, and a very geeky senior in a very geeky high school at that.  My friends and I were just beginning to explore the recesses of the internet, using Netscape and AltaVista and other things that today’s youngsters have probably never heard of.  One of us stumbled across a website devoted to the number Pi, featuring sonnets and other poems to Pi, the Hunt for Intelligent Life in Pi, and advocacy for the holiday of Pi Day.

Ah, we were young and innocent in those days.  We thought that the idea of spending a day celebrating a transcendental number was simply the greatest thing, a perfect way to show off our geekiness and eccentricity and the dedication to math and inside jokes that defined our identity as separate from the hoi polloi.  Little did we guess that in a few years, Pi Day would go mainstream.  That every school in the country would soon be hosting a celebrating of this day, complete with demonstrations involving hula hoops and consumption of many flavors of pie.

Yes indeed, our private little geeky activity has no been swallowed up by America’s mainstream culture.  It no longer outlines the brainy set as distinct from everyone else.  If today’s high school math nerds want a holiday to show off their differences, they’re going to have to pick a different non-repeating decimal.  I would suggest February 24.  (It’s square root of 5 day, needless to say.)


Here is on of my few posts on sports.  Right now is “March Madness”, and millions of people all over the country are scrambling to fill in their brackets and predict the winners of the 63 games that make up the NCAA Tournament.  (Actually it’s 67 games, but never mind that.)  Various strategies are on the table.  There’s the strategy of picking winners by their mascots: large animals beat small animals, humans beat animals, armed humans beat unarmed, and so forth.  Then there’s the strategy of choosing teams based on their time zone: teams from the Eastern Time Zone will have more time to rest up when they travel west, while those traveling west to east will be short on sleep.  I, on the other hand, have a strategy that actually works.

The strategy is this: pick the higher-seeded team in every game.  In other words, don’t predict any upsets.  Thus the only real choices you have to make are in the Final Four, since you’ll predict all the #1 seeds to reach it.

“Wait!”  I hear someone crying.  “That doesn’t make sense!  There are always upsets, so if you want to win the pool, you have to predict upsets.”  Not so.  That reasoning is based on a misunderstanding of probability.

Consider a piece of advice I read on a website last year.  On average, one 11th seed defeats a 6th seed in the opening round each year.  (There are four games pitting 11th seeds against 6th seeds.)  Thus, this hapless website advises readers to pick one upset in which and 11th seed defeats a 6th seed.

That advice is flawed, though, because you don’t know ahead of time which 11th seed will pull off the upset.  The odds are against a victory by any one particular 11th seed,  even if they’re in favor of one of the four pulling off the upset.  It’s an exercise in basic probability theory to show that your expected returns are better if you wager on all the 6th seeds emerging victorious.

The same logic applies to the tournament at large.  While there will certainly be some upsets, you can’t know ahead of time which possible upsets will occur, so you don’t benefit from predicting upsets.  Predicting the higher seed every time and the odds will be in your favor.  That’s my advice, in any case.  If you choose to pick by mascot, don’t blame me for the results.

Grieving people get psyched out

A couple articles have recently drawn my attention to the field of psychology, and particularly to the upcoming edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and Mental Disorders (DSM).  This book provides the definition of what is and isn’t a mental disorder in the United States.  As such, it has great power, because it makes essentially arbitrary decisions about what sort of behavior is and isn’t normal.

Arbitrary?  Yes.  This is what many people don’t understand about psychology.  It’s most obvious when we compare the concept of mental illness to physical illness.  (There’s a great Chesterton quote on this topic which I’ll post later this week.)  The human body has parts with functions: eyes to see, lungs to bring in oxygen, a heart to pump blood, and so forth.  When one of these parts stops working, or doesn’t work as well as it should, we call that a physical illness.  Since everyone agrees on what the purpose of these parts of the human body are, we also agree on what is an illness and what isn’t.  While there may be a few gray areas, there’s nothing arbitrary about the definition of physical illness.

To define mental illness, we first need a definition a what the function of the human mind is.  And here’s the thing.  In our modern society, we do not have such a definition.  Indeed the debate predates American society by quite a bit.  In ancient Greece, the philosophers raged about the question of what states and tasks are indicative of a properly functioning mind.  Nowadays, most folks don’t devote much thought to the topic.  But, even though we have no clue what a mind should do, we’ve no shortage of things that we know it shouldn’t do.

The first article, from Salon, documents how the number of mental illnesses in the fifth edition of the DSM (DSM V for short) is exploding, and also how the boundaries of disorders such as depression are expanding.  In other words, once the DSM V becomes the source of authority, a lot more people will be diagnosed with psychiatric disorders than are currently, even if there’s no change in anyone’s mental state.  The second article, in Slate, tells us that the DSM V may include a disorder known as “Complicated Grief”.  Of course “grief” is not a disorder, but rather a normal human reaction to the death of a loved one or some other sad event.  The exact reason why we need to classify “complicated grief” as a mental illness is unclear.

This facts should give us pause for many reasons, not the least of which is what they tell us about power in modern American society.  If such an important book is changing in such big ways, we should ask why it’s changing and who’s benefiting from it.  One group that obviously stands to benefit is the pharmaceutical companies.  If more people get diagnosed as mentally ill and are prescribed pills for their “illnesses”, sales of pills will go up.  You might suspect that drug companies have been behind the pushes to change definitions of mental illness.  You would be correct, as this article demonstrates.

But there are other forces at play here beyond merely the profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies.  The precise definition of mental illness has always told us something about a society, who holds the power in that society, and what the powerful want to do with the powerless.  Sixty years ago, sexual tastes including homosexuality and sadomasochism were mental illnesses both in the USA and other countries.  Today they are not; that was changed around 1970.  On the flip side, many things that weren’t mental illnesses now are.  Ordinary shyness has become “social phobia”, and now grieving is no the list as well.  What does this tell us about power in modern American society?

Well, it tells us that the powerful are much more insistent about emotional conformity than they once were.  Grief, as I said, is a normal process.  The Bible mentions mourners on many occasions.  In ancient China, grieving for one’s father lasted three years.  Even in early America, grief was a ritual.  Close relatives of the deceased would wear black and otherwise indicate that they were withdrawing from mainstream society for a time to focus on their loss.  This website has some fascinating information on mourning clothes and rituals during the Victorian period.  Here’s an example of a mourning dress:

Nowadays we just don’t tolerate that sort of thing.  Anyone who wore black for years–much less the rest of their life–would be viewed as quite odd, and now mentally ill to boot.  The definition of mental illness is thus all about punishing people who want their own private space and respect from others for a certain type of emotion.  The DSM V says clearly: “You can’t have it.”

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