Author Archives: jparquette

About jparquette

Fortunate and blessed in companionship with my wife of fifty years, in health and in modest, but more than adequate circumstances. Life is good.

Crypto

“There is a simple rule here, a rule of legislation, a rule of business, a rule of life: beyond a certain point, complexity is fraud.”  P.J. O’Rourke

Charles PonziI’ve missed many bandwagons in my life. I missed buying in early with Enron. I missed investments with Bernie Madoff that could have made me rich. I completely missed the wave to be rich because I wasn’t born yet when Charles Ponzi schemed, won, then lost. (shown in his mug shot picture here).

I could have jumped on FTT[i] or Bitcoin and made a fortune. Didn’t though. FTT is the designation of the utility token of FTX[ii], a 2019 trading market innovation in the cryptocurrency arena.

Could have won the last big Powerball at $1.9 billion if only I had bought a ticket.

I think my timidity limits my potential to be a billionaire. Maybe it has to do with my atavistic fears of the concept of anything that starts with “crypto” like cryptocurrency. Crypto derives from the Latin and before that the Greek “krypto” meaning hidden or secret like crypto-fascist or crypto-communist or crypto-trumpster. “Krypto” is also the root of “crypt” where we all wind up unless we get creative with ashes and wind.

Depending upon your hardware, expertise, and software, it takes between ten minutes and thirty days to “mine” (or concoct ex nihilo) one Bitcoin, the most recognized cryptocurrency. Mining for Bitcoins by constructing blockchains is energy intensive; each Bitcoin fabrication eats enough kilowatt hours to power the average American household for 11 to 12 years. Ninety million of them so far[iii]. Not a ‘green’ process. I have tried to understand the safeguards, the protection from fraud and counterfeiting that is provided by transparency and complexity for cryptocurrency. Of how exactly the blockchains create and hold value, I am ignorant, and I will probably remain in the dark until I rest in my crypt.

Of course, for most of us it’s a lot easier to just buy some gold or fractions of Bitcoins rather than getting out the gold sifting pan or firing up our antiquated desktop to whirl away fabricating blockchains. If I had looked for an inflation hedge and in November of last year had sunk the farm into gold, the farm would have lost less than 2 % of its value. If I had gone with Bitcoin, I’d be about 75% down[iv]. If I had climbed aboard FTTs (and I have no idea how I could have done that), the farm would have disappeared into the river like a block of ice thrown in by mischievous boys. I don’t have the mind or stomach for that kind of volatility.

Gold has an unfair advantage as an inflation hedge and refuge from the storm since it has been used as such for five or sixbitcoins-price-history millennia, and you can hold it in your hands. Heavy stuff. Gold also has intrinsic value as it is used in many industries for many purposes and can be formed into lustrous beautiful designs[v]. Cryptocurrencies on the other hand were invented thirteen years ago or so and were promoted as the clever modern way to escape from the tyranny of the global monetary system or petrodollars or whatever. When folks realized after their original enthusiasm that crypto is a commodity without a reality portfolio except what the sentiment of the market says it’s worth and has no supporting cash flow from profits of any kind, the story changed, and it is marketed as a value option and hedge against inflation – a value option without a scintilla of intrinsic worth or usefulness, but a value option, nonetheless.

“Cause if you lie like a rug

And you don’t give a damn

You’re never gonna be

As happy as a clam..”[vi]  John Prine, “It’s a Big Old Goofy World”

JFK. MLK. LBJ. GWB. BHO. FDR. OBL. Many others exist in the lexicon, each conjuring up many images, both loved and hated. In the last couple of years, we’ve added a new set of well recognized three letter name initials: SBF. Sam Bankman-Fried.[vii]  This brings back the topic of FTX, a good explanation of which is in the article “What You Need to Know about the Colossal Mess of FTX.” The fabrication of an MIT physics grad genius, Bankman-Fried parlayed his innovative Alameda Research crypto trading company. Alameda used code to take advantage of changing prices and big differences for crypto currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum in different countries. SBF would buy one place and sell another in seconds, gleaning billions a few bucks at a time. He next started his own crypto currency trade exchange to allow others to do their own trading. In August Fortune Magazine called him the next Warren Buffet. He was favorably compared to other tech mega billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. FTX was valued at over $32 billion, starting from vapor three years earlier.[viii] Gates, Buffet, and Zuck will probably not wind up in prison, although hope never fades.

Sam_Bankman-FriedThe problem when an unregulated immature genius owns both a trading company and the exchange on which it trades is the mixing of money and the lack of controls. Be like an out-of-control Bill Gates owning Microsoft and NASDAQ, but with less oversight. In August, SBF was the wunderkind who last year cashed out $300 million burying it into his own maze of tax haven Bahamian bank accounts. He allegedly took and mixed investor’s money who traded on FTX with his corporation’s and used it to prop up Alameda, which had started to hemorrhage.

Now FTX has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and its value dropped to somewhere near vapor (or worse) overnight. The CEO brought in by the court to untangle the mess is the same person brought in to untangle the Enron wreck: John Jay Ray III. When he took over Enron, he found accounting irregularities and fraud. Last week when he took over FTX, he found chaos, no human resources department or even a good list of employees, no real accounting department, a balance sheet on an Excel spreadsheet and no controls worth mentioning. After Toto pulled the curtain back and the little guy pulling the levers and cranking up the smoke was revealed, FTX has been said to resemble Animal House more than a business enterprise.

Sam lived with ten or 12 sort of employees in a luxury condo commune in the Bahamas, one of whom was his ex-part time-girlfriend, Caroline Ellison, another late twenties nerd/entrepreneur, a math major grad from Stanford and CEO of Alameda Research. Part of the SBF legend is how little sleep he needed. Apparently, Caroline had the same gift. She Tweeted in 2021, ““Nothing like regular amphetamine use to make you appreciate how dumb a lot of normal, non-medicated human experience is.” Sam was a little more subdued. He suggested, “In general, probably half of all people or more should be taking meds of some kind, because they just make your life a lot better.”

Before the fall this month, FTX bought the naming rights for the Miami Heat’s arena, and SBF was second only to George Soros in donating to Democrats in the 2022 election cycle – around $37 million, $10 million went in one form or another to Joe Biden’s campaign through various channels. There will be a hole in Democrat financing next time around. Cynics might suggest that massive political donors like Mr. Banker-Fried get a wide berth with Federal regulators, but a liquidity crisis at Alameda brought it all down like a Jenga tower waiting for someone to pull out the wrong block. A sloppily stacked Jenga tower. But far be it from me to suggest chicanery among politicians and the very rich.

In Mr. Ray’s first statement after he looked at the books, he said, ““I have over 40 years of legal and restructuring experience. I have been the Chief Restructuring Officer or Chief Executive Officer in several of the largest corporate failures in history. I have supervised situations involving allegations of criminal activity and malfeasance (Enron). Nearly every situation in which I have been involved has been characterized by defects of some sort in internal controls, regulatory compliance, human resources, and systems integrity. Never in my career have I seen such a complete failure of corporate controls and such a complete absence of trustworthy financial information as occurred here.”

From multibillionaire playing in his self-created paradise in the Bahamas to pauper probably headed to prison in less than a month. SBF has some new images associated with his initials.

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”  Lewis Smedes

The guilty temptation is to gloat, to indulge in a bit of titillating schadenfreude, to tsk, tsk in smug delight at the folly of young egoists who have fallen far. But I discover that my primary emotion is sadness over SBF’s plight. He was a kid playing at a high level with toys perhaps he didn’t fully understand could hurt real people.  His conscience, such as it was functioning, was informed by the utilitarianism of our age, especially out there at Almeda and in Silicon Valley. If it works, especially if it works and sucks up huge profits in a hurry, and I have the genius to come up with the idea first and write the code all through the night to make it happen, well, that’s got to be a good thing, right? Another mark of our times is the ‘freedom’ to be all that we can be. SBF is a prime exemplar of where a malformed conscience can lead us, any of us.

Sam made choices, some of which made him very wealthy very quickly, and some of which now have him looking for a new country to live in that doesn’t have an extradition treaty to his homeland. Somalia, Russia, Iran, and Russia come to mind. Somalia has beaches I understand. Or he might have benefitted from the advice given last century by the Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen: “Freedom does not mean to do whatever we please but rather to do as we ought.”

I will pray for Sam Bankman-Fried and that he learns, repents, grows, and is changed by this, transformed, healed, made whole. And I will pray for the culture of “I’m OK, You’re OK” and self-actualization that created, formed, and nurtured SBF. That seems like the right thing to do.

“One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” [ix]But the other responded, and rebuking him, said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our crimes; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!”  And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”  Luke 23: 39-43

[i] Contrary to what you may think, FTT in this context does not refer to “Failure To Thrive,” although that interpretation might be appropriate. FTT is the ‘utility token’ of the FTX trading system and holding them gives one access to the “FTX ecosystem.”  Got it?

[ii] https://linen.app/articles/what-is-ftx-token-ftt-explained-in-plain-english/

[iii] Quick calculation is that there about 123 million households in the United States, so the energy consumed to produce 90 million Bitcoins would power every one of them for about 8 years. Seems reasonable to me as we wring our hands about reducing fossil fuel power generation.

[iv] Bitcoin dropped from about $68,000 each last November to about $16,000 at last look. That’s considerably better than the fraction of a cent they could bring in 2010.

[v] The Most Useful Metal (from geology.com)

[vi][vi] I have never been able to determine how happy a clam is. I have often watched clams exposed at low tide carried to great heights by herring gulls and dropped onto jetty rocks to prepare a meal. I suspect those clams are not happy.

[vii] It would be unkind to draw attention to a switch in the position of Mr. Bankman-Fried’s name to ‘fried bankman,” which apparently, he is.

[viii] SBF image from open source with Creative Commons license: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsmhjNtlT_Y Interview with him at Bitcoin 2021 conference.

[ix] “FTX lawyer says ‘substantial amount’ of assets are either stolen or missing.”

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Phone It In

“My cellphone is my best friend.”  Carrie Underwood

When exactly the phone evolved from our tool to our master is murky.

kids on phones from httpswww.smartcitiesworld.netnewsnewssmartphones-smarter-than-humans-1468Years ago, I was on the road often in Maine and carried a pager. That was my introduction to being always on call. Prior to that, I would call my office for messages a couple times a day. I knew where the best payphones were in many towns and cities. My favorites were hanging on a wall by a table on which I could spread out necessary supporting documents and notes in a warm café with good coffee, free refills, and a tolerant owner. I kept the numbers of several of them in my planner and could schedule incoming calls.

The next connectivity upgrade was a bag phone with a separate dialer and a handset like an old home phone; the handset had an attached springy coiled cord. The whole contraption weighed about as much as a gallon of milk, took up most of the passenger seat, and plugged into my cigarette lighter in the car. Back when we called them cigarette lighters, they were in the pull-down ash tray back when cars came equipped with pull-down ash trays and cigarette lighters in the consoles. [i]

All that bulky equipment soon became obsolete with the advent of flip phones, so that we were even more immediately on call if we had service, which in rural Maine was somewhere between intermittent and completely dead. One bar was considered a strong signal. To dump an inconvenient call delivering a problem to which I yet had no answer was simple. Hang up, call back later, and blame it on a tower switch out. Excuses and dropped calls today are much harder to justify with plenty of signal strength bars almost everywhere. Crinkling aluminum foil in the microphone in a pretty good imitation of static and lamenting in a fading voice that “I’m losing you!” lacks all credibility.

Now, of course, smart phones with five bar signals provide instant access to every possible means of messaging and data inundation; they are in everybody’s pockets or mounted on our dashboards and beyond anyone’s ability to sip from the waterfall of information without nearly drowning. What once were just phones to call home now boast exponentially more computing power than Apollo 11. As I often complained when I was working for a living, “The good news is that I am always connected, and the bad news is that I am always connected.” Privacy is an anachronism. As is peace and time to contemplate beyond the next beep or ringtone.

“It is okay to own a technology, what is not okay is to be owned by technology.” Abhijit Naskar, Mucize Insan*: When The World is Family  * Human Miracle

To watch kids waiting for the school bus is to watch kids who have overdeveloped thumbs watching tiny screens.[ii] Or for that matter to watch many families in restaurants. They don’t talk, they text. And not to one another, but to some other disembodied person not present at the table about some trivial occurrence entirely irrelevant to real life in most cases – a joke, a clever quip, a meme, a whine, a perceived slight, a social media post, a satirical remark, some gossip about another disembodied mutual acquaintance who is the victim flavor of the day, or passing along a link to a video that is supposed to amuse or outrage or indoctrinate us further into a culture that has left us abandoned to alienated hollow existences in isolated bubble survival pods. Always connected. Always alone.

Recently I was discussing this curious and deadening experience, and I remembered visiting a school where the phones were collected at the door until the end of the day. They were monitored for emergency calls from parents. No phones in classes. Ever. I’ve attended business training where phones were required to be shut off and woe to the poor clown who had an amusing loud ringtone sound in his pocket during the class.

But far more common is the school today with phones in every pocket, and in classes that are not in good order with a weak teacher, students openly watch them, text their friends two rows over, or even listen to their derivative, repetitive music through earbuds that never leave their rapidly emptying heads.

Failure to learn is reflected in plummeting test scores and in graduating students with a working knowledge of imaginary gender fluidity, bogus ideologies, and deviant sexual practices, but most could not identify a poem by Keats, whether music was composed by Mozart or Aaron Copeland, if a painting was created by Caravaggio or Turner or even who Thomas Paine or John Milton or Aristotle or Emily Dickenson or Aristophanes were and why they were important. Or used to be.

Analogous to the “always connected” mode of existence being good news and bad news, the instant availability of data and information is similarly good news and bad news. No guarantees that either the data or the information is true is only part of the problem. Our attention spans are provably attenuating, and the younger we are the more they have diminished.  We want to be informed and informed now. A dismayingly high percentage of Gen Z folks get their information, including their current events and news from TikTok[iii]. The shorter and more entertaining the video, the better.

Fewer and fewer have time for deep (or any) analysis as we jump our monkey minds from one subject to another, following links as the algorithms lead us around to best monetize our incessant clicks. Our comprehension is becoming as compromised as our attention span. More information? Certainly. More understanding or dare we say wisdom? Of course not. TikTok and the like are the most addictive form of bait and designed to be such. Format and algorithms lure us to sweep from one video to the next, all increasingly customized as the servers ‘learn’ our habits to push us to the next one. And a few tenths of a cent at a time glean millions of dollars a day. The data of our preferences are collected on TikTok and accessed in China every day. For what purposes we do not know.[iv]

Another potentially ruinous effect in a democracy is the rising noise of woefully ignorant social media commentary afflicted with the Dunning-Kruger syndrome. Dunning-Kruger studied and verified the human tendency deluged with superficial entertaining “news” sources; we possess a deep self-assurance that not only are we right, but that we think we know a lot more than we actually do about extremely complex issues. Confirmation bias has been taken to a new plateau of false confidence. We are unaware and untutored in subtlety and nuance, especially if presented as counterpoint to our impregnable ignorance and expertise. Our self-confidence is without foundation and based on very little.

The various social media platforms have algorithms written by genius exploiters that store what we like and lead us click by monetized click to more of what we like, thus confirming us in ever more superficial knowledge what we believe we know. Exacerbated by an ideologically tilted SEME (Search Engine Manipulation Effect)[v], we are lured step by enticing step down the path we think we want to go.

Click. Click. Click.                                                   Click.

“The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” Sir James Jeans[vi]

As a personal sidebar, I was particularly vexed by a TikTok video shared on Facebook put out by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Heavily redacted information masquerading as enlightenment confirms us in our incandescent ignorance. His long evident animus towards religion of any kind notwithstanding, he could have least offered a fair-minded assessment of the origins of science that he believes debunks what he sees as illiteracy and superstition. In a somewhat long piece (at least long for TikTok attenuated attention spans) on a bowdlerized history of math and science, his only mention of medieval Christianity is to bemoan what he describes as the main activity of the benighted times: disemboweling heretics. He may be a lively media figure and even a credible astrophysicist, but his knowledge of history is deliberately vacuous. His knowledge of the philosophical roots and history of science nonexistent or at least unapparent, and his theology sophomoric.

No mention of the development of science in Western universities, encouraged, and supported by the Church.[vii] No mention of the scientists and mathematicians who laid the groundwork for modern science and were either ordained clergy, monks, or devout believers. Roger Bacon is credited for inventing the scientific method, which is a metaphysical and empirical construct that cannot be proven or disproven by its own tools. Isaac Newton developed the calculus that enabled current physics and cosmology. Gregor Mendel discovered genetics. Nicolaus Copernicus uncovered our heliocentric solar system. And in the last century Father Georges Lemaitre developed the math for the “Big Bang Theory.” deGrasse Tyson fails to mention the underlying metaphysical concept of the intelligibility of the universe, the assumption that undergirds all of science.[viii]

Voices like his try to persuade us that truth resides solely in the material, and what can be proven or disproven by science. Such voices might explain the tones of stringed instruments in mathematical terms of vibrations per second, the degree of tension in the strings, and the plucking or bow that sounds them. Charts and diagrams to follow. But such reductionism loses the truth and beauty of music found in Bach or Mozart or in Luciano Pavarotti’s voice or for that matter in the compelling artistry of Doc Watson or Emmy Lou Harris. Perhaps they would “explain” Michelangelo in the chemistry of pigments used to color the buon fresco technique on Sistine Chapel ceiling. Such a forlorn and pinched attenuation of our human power to soar and our capacity for joy.

“Religion — or rather theology — is, I think, the great integrating discipline. It takes the insights of science — doesn’t tell science what to think — but it takes science’s insights and understandings, it takes the insights of morality, takes the insights of aesthetics, the study of beauty. The wonderful order or pattern of the world that science discovers and rejoices in is a reflection, indeed, of the mind of the creator, whose will and purpose lie behind the world. Our moral intuitions, our intimations of God’s good and perfect will, our experiences of beauty, I believe, are sharing in the joy of the creator, the creation. You can soon see the gross inadequacy of thinking that science can tell you everything that you could possibly know.” Sir John Polkinghorne, Interview on PBS.[ix]

I enjoy and employ access to the world’s knowledge as much as most of us and would not like to forego the privilege unknown to all generations before mine. However, subtle, deliberate, and credible lies and confusion abound on the screen that sits in our pockets, luring us like Sirens to the shore. A recent article in Wired magazine suggested Silicone Valley has gained a seat at the table with Jerusalem and Athens in shaping Western culture. See the link in the footnotes below with the Wired article by Luke Burgis on “The Three City Problem of Modern Life.”[x]

How we manage that will form or deform our culture in the decades ahead. As my father who died in 1982 would not recognize the world we inhabit now. Neither, I expect, would I recognize what will befall us forty years from now.

Click. Click. Clickclickclickclickclick. Clicks at the lunch table surrounded by others doing the same. Clicks in the classroom. Clicks on the bus.  Clicks while sitting silently with those with whom in better times we would converse. Clicks. Desultory or urgent. Clicks in their never to be satisfied quest for distraction, entertainment, and their pitiful consolations.

Clicks trying to fill the void in our hearts that can only be filled as Augustine wrote 1,600 years ago: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.[xi]

Wishing a most blessed and peaceful time of Giving Thanks to all.

“I’ve been wanderin’ through this land

Doin’ the best I can

Trying’ to find what I was meant to do

And the people that I see

Look as worried as can be

And it looks like they are wonderin’, too 

And I can’t help but wonder where I’m bound, where I’m bound

Can’t help but wonder where I’m bound.”  Tom Paxton [xii]    

[i] Picture from https//www.smartcitiesworld.netnewsnewssmartphones-smarter-than-humans-1468

[ii] Future Humans May Have Abnormalities From Using Technology Too Much, “Interesting Engineering”

[iii] Over a quarter of Americans under 30 get their news from TikTok, Pew Research

[iv] https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emilybakerwhite/tiktok-tapes-us-user-data-china-bytedance-access

[v] Does the Search Engine Manipulation Effect Have an Impact on Elections (PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

[vi] Sir James Jeans knighted for contributions to mathematics and astrophysics, development of quantum theory and stellar structure. Author of “Philosophy and Physics.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Jeans

[vii] https://catholicscientists.org/scientists-of-the-past/

[viii] Why The Supposed Conflict between Science and Religion is Tragic Nonsense (Robert Barron)

[ix] Sir John Polkinghorne resigned his prestigious chair at Cambridge as a mathematician and physicist to pursue additional education and credentials as an Anglican priest and theologian. Prior to that he studied and contributed to the development of the theory of quarks and elemental particles. In addition to his position as a senior fellow at Cambridge, he spent time at Stanford, Princeton, Berkley, and CERN in Geneva.

[x] Link to Luke Burgis Wired article  The problem is that unlike Athens and Jerusalem which focus on rationality and religion (analyzing the relationship between science, philosophy, and a moral code), Silicone Valley’s ethic is utilitarianism. Does it work? Does it make money?   Quotes from the article:   “The question of whether Athens is incompatible with Jerusalem—the relationship between these two cities, which symbolize two different ways of approaching reality—is a question that humanity has wrestled with for millennia. The Catholic Church arrived at a synthesis between the two, with the late Pope John Paul II writing that faith and reason are like “two wings on which the human soul rises to the contemplation of the truth… But today there is a third city affecting the other two. Silicon Valley, this third city, is not governed primarily by reason (it is practically the mark of a great entrepreneur to not be “reasonable”), nor by the things of the soul (the dominant belief seems to be a form of materialism). It is a place, rather, governed by the creation of value. And a large component of value is utility—whether something is useful, or is at least perceived as good or beneficial.”

[xi] From Augustine’s “Confessions.”

[xii] I like the Nanci Griffith interpretation of Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound

As with the last post, below are multiple links to varied articles detailing some of the issues called into question.

**************************************************************************

Some related links of interest (at least to me).

The Chicago School of Media article on Smartphones

Balsamo argues for a connection between the user and the smartphone that is even more fundamental than McLuhan’s extension of the senses. In contrast to McLuhan’s definition of media, she states that she pulls the smartphone into her very essence, stating “I incorporate it as a prosthetic extension of my corporeal being. Not merely an extension of my ear, as McLuhan would have argued, it is me. My body/myself—my iPhone/myself. I become the cyborg I always wanted to be.”

TikTok’s Greatest Asset is not its Algorithm, It’s Your Phone (Wired)

Rather than see specificity and device limitations as an inconvenient hurdle to omnipresence, TikTok embeds itself within them—taking advantage of the fact that mobile technology limits how people engage with content and leaning into these constraints (e.g. the user only sees one video at a time and can only proceed linearly to the next video by swiping). This narrow focus enables a “flow state” to open up between the platform and spectator, as attention is entirely channeled to the content at hand. The immediacy created by this user-platform flow allows TikTok to forgo the reflective processing associated with active viewership. The distance necessary for critical intervention and interpretation is trampled under the continual stream of curated short-form video and the addictively mindless infinite scroll. When presented in this nonstop succession, the video (a high-bandwidth medium that combines text, visuals, music, and movement) is amplified, saturating the viewer with a deluge of information. There is no time to think about what you just saw because as soon as the clip ends, you’re on to the next one. The spectator is rendered a consummate consumer, rather than a viewer tasked with engaging and unpacking the content they’re seeing—on TikTok, Chayka writes, “you don’t have to think, only react,” as the platform has already done the hard work of analysis and selection. As critics writing on algorithmic identity first noted, when everything is running smoothly, the user feels completely synchronous with the platform..

Terms of misuse: What data does TikTok collect on its U.S users? Dot.LA

 Like other social media giants, TikTok gobbles up a lot of user information. To start, TikTok receives names, ages, phone numbers and emails when people sign up for the service. The app also knows users’ approximate locations and mobile device identifiers, such as IP addresses.

Germain told dot.LA the most valuable info may come from the way users interact with the video sharing app. TikTok is quite good at figuring out peoples’ interests based on the videos or accounts they’ve previously liked or followed. Those insights are useful for advertisers and—potentially—for spreading political messages, Germain noted.

“This vast trove of data that every social media company has—on what people are interested in, what makes them upset, what makes them happy—is incredibly valuable,” he said.

How TikTok reads your mind NY Times  (may be a paywall)

There are four main goals for TikTok’s algorithm: 户价值, 户价值 (长期), 作者价值, and 平台价值, which the company translates as “user value,” “long-term user value,” “creator value,” and “platform value.”

That set of goals is drawn from a frank and revealing document for company employees that offers new details of how the most successful video app in the world has built such an entertaining — some would say addictive — product.

The document, headed “TikTok Algo 101,” was produced by TikTok’s engineering team in Beijing. A company spokeswoman, Hilary McQuaide, confirmed its authenticity, and said it was written to explain to nontechnical employees how the algorithm works. The document offers a new level of detail about the dominant video app, providing a revealing glimpse both of the app’s mathematical core and insight into the company’s understanding of human nature — our tendencies toward boredom, our sensitivity to cultural cues — that help explain why it’s so hard to put down. The document also lifts the curtain on the company’s seamless connection to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, at a time when the U.S. Department of Commerce is preparing a report on whether TikTok poses a security risk to the United States.

FCC Commissioner says US should ban TikTok  Axios

What he’s saying: “I don’t believe there is a path forward for anything other than a ban,” Carr said, citing recent revelations about how TikTok and ByteDance handle U.S. user data.

Carr highlighted concerns about U.S. data flowing back to China and the risk of a state actor using TikTok to covertly influence political processes in the United States.

There simply isn’t “a world in which you could come up with sufficient protection on the data that you could have sufficient confidence that it’s not finding its way back into the hands of the [Chinese Communist Party],” Carr said.

Carr sent letters to Apple and Google in June asking the companies to remove the apps from their stores due to concerns about data flowing back to China.

Why Are Our Attention Spans Shortening? https://www.wsj.com/articles/attention-spans-shortening-tiktok-social-media-gen-z-millenials-reading-education-focus-11667336185

TikTok is the most detrimental thing to happen to our attention spans. It’s an endless cycle of bright colors and catchy sounds meant to be consumed faster than our brains can process the content. Why are we always on our phones? Because tech moguls and social-media developers designed a piece of technology so addicting and damaging that we can’t handle concentrating on real life.

We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for being easily distracted; developers created this technology to be addictive. But we can resist by making real efforts to slow down our consumption. Reading a book is an easy and simple solution because it forces us to concentrate on the words on the page. There’s nowhere to scroll.

—Maddie Heinz, Macalester College, English and political science

Modern liberalism’s advancement of efficiency and corporate interests, under the intellectual guise of human flourishing, have contributed to this problem. Replacing God, community and family with individualism has left people looking within themselves to find meaning that is not there.

How will we pursue what is honorable, chivalrous and beautiful if we cannot maintain an attention span longer than eight seconds? Romantic virtues aside, millennials and Gen Z are experiencing astronomical levels of anxiety and depression. Could a lack of self-agency and control contribute to these heightened feelings of anxiety and vanity? An inability to put aside pleasure is apparent in our declining marriage rate: If individuals struggle to devote seconds of attention to a task, how will they devote the rest of their lives to a partner?

We are responsible for addressing this attention span crisis, lest the corporations drugging our society continue confining us to Brave New World-style slavery.

—Chanidu Gamage, The University of British Columbia, political science

Teen girls developing movement tics. Doctors say TikTok may be a factor  WSJ (may be a paywall)

Teenage girls across the globe have been showing up at doctors’ offices with tics—physical jerking movements and verbal outbursts—since the start of the pandemic.

Movement-disorder doctors were stumped at first. Girls with tics are rare, and these teens had an unusually high number of them, which had developed suddenly. After months of studying the patients and consulting with one another, experts at top pediatric hospitals in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. discovered that most of the girls had something in common: TikTok.

Technology and the Soul: The Spiritual Lessons of Digital Distraction  Public Discourse, Joshua Hochschild

The age of digital media has unleashed a profoundly threatening human experiment. By drawing us to waste not only our time, but our attention, social media seduces us to waste our souls. Our brightest engineers have trained our most powerful technology to act with the psychological craftiness of demons. Neuroscience helps us understand how digital media is changing us, but we need a more classical language about the soul to understand, and protect ourselves from, the most ominous of these changes.

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Filed under Culture views, Faith and Reason

Perfect Storm

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.” Abraham Lincoln, 1862 Address to Congress

Shipwreck_in_Stormy_Seas_by_Joseph_Vernet,_National_Gallery,_London Public DomainIn 1997 Sebastian Junger published his first major book.[i] In “The Perfect Storm” Junger described the final voyage of the Andrea Gail, a six-man crewed commercial fishing vessel out of Gloucester, MA[ii] in 1991. The ‘perfect storm’ was hatched by the combining forces of a classic North Atlantic Nor’easter and Hurricane Grace, a late season brute coming up out of the Caribbean.  “A mature hurricane is by far the most powerful event on Earth,” wrote Junger, “The combined nuclear arsenals of the United States and the former Soviet Union don’t contain enough energy to keep a hurricane going for one day.” There were 60 mile per hour winds, but they generated 75-foot waves that overwhelmed the ship.

Today we face a similar perfect storm, but our victory over it will not be as simple as finding a safe harbor or running from it to an open sea. Our enemy is not wind and waves, but a revolution that has been building for three hundred years and broke full force upon us in the sixties. The classic Nor’easter in this analogy is good old-fashioned concupiscence, hedonism, and the hopeless quest for happiness through means insufficient to sustain it. The hurricane that accelerated the perfect storm into frenzy is the post-modern madness of self-fulfillment and the illusion that we can be anyone or anything we please.

One devastating manifestation of the perfect storm has been called by many, the “Sexual Revolution,” and it was to have freed us from the traditional chains of marriage and responsibility. More accurately I believe, it has been named the “Lonely Revolution’ because of the desolation visited on our culture, our morality, and most damaging on our marriages and families.

“Even in a world that’s being shipwrecked, remain brave and strong.” St. Hildegard of Bingen

The human costs of the Lonely Revolution are well documented (See links in the box below). What we also must attend to is the underlying creed that fuels it. The late Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote that naming our times “post-modern” was neither illustrative nor particularly useful. He coined a better term in his book, “Liquid Modernity.”[iii] Too many find themselves adrift in isolated individual survival pods, essentially disconnected, fatherless both in family and metaphorically.  We struggle with “the growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty.” He wrote further, “Forms of modern life may differ in quite a few respects – but what unites them all is precisely their fragility, temporariness, vulnerability, and inclination to constant change. To ‘be modern’ means to modernize – compulsively, obsessively; not so much just ‘to be’, let alone to keep its identity intact, but forever ‘becoming’, avoiding completion, staying underdefined. Each new structure which replaces the previous one as soon as it is declared old-fashioned and past its use-by date is only another momentary settlement – acknowledged as temporary and ‘until further notice’”[iv].

Thus, we drift untethered, unmoored, alone. No disconnection is more unsettling than the hook up culture of the Lonely Revolution, which separates men and women in an essential way. No longer is the profound union of sex defined by marriage, commitment, love, mutual total gift of self, and respect. It is one-night stands of sweaty sheets and furtive morning after departures. Of obsessive seeking of meaning in pleasure and bogus intimacy, but with no real path to contentment or fulfillment.

Neither war nor pestilence has undermined our civilization more effectively than the dishonest dogma that sex and marriage and children are not connected, and that we must make sure that disconnection is implemented such that the intrinsic male and female human bond stays broken.[v]

“Character is formed in the stormy billows of the world.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe[vi]

This a passage with a quote posted by a friend last week on just one aspect of this dreadful storm.

“So, prolife feminism, in a nutshell, states that for most of history women were treated as property. Obviously, this is patriarchy. And patriarchy, among other things, is the epitome of “might makes right” thinking.

“It says, “Because I am bigger, stronger, and have more power and wealth than you, I can treat you however I choose. I can control you, abuse you, and even use violence against you if I want!”

“Through our liberation as women, we are no longer thought of as property (in most of America at least) but many feminists have adopted that very same patriarchal way thinking, which I guess makes sense as we’ve been seeped in for ages. Anyway, now they are applying this “might makes right” mentality to their very own children in the womb without even realizing it.

“WE are the bigger, stronger, more powerful ones, and rather than using our strength and privilege to protect the vulnerable, we’re merely passing that same patriarchal flavor of dehumanizing oppression down to the unborn by denying their agency, and humanity.

“And here’s the kicker – that old shitty patriarchy still wins anyway! Because by promoting abortion as the ultimate “choice” (even though for so many women it’s anything but a choice, but I digress) our capitalist hellscape of unrelenting production doesn’t have to slow down one bit. It can keep chugging along with all of us happy little cogs in the machine going without things like paid family leave, universal healthcare, accommodations on college campuses for pregnant and parenting students, or ya know, other things like Amazon workers who need to be relocated to a desk job for 9 months… yeah, no, none of that, gross. Progress that says female fertility isn’t a liability? Boooo.

“Abortion on demand keeps the status quo neatly in place and reminds us little ladies that in order to operate outside of the home, we must physically take on the male normative form which is never with child.

“Abortion is simply the flesh tax we must pay – sacrificing the lives of our own children – for entry into YOUR world.

“And then we are told to call that bullshit “equality.””

-Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa

Abortion as liberation or what is peddled as bodily autonomy as a defense of it are perfect propagandizing to enable male carelessness. The woman is not liberated; it is the man who is licensed to engage in the baby making act without obligation or respect or dignity or self-emptying gift to one another or commitment to the profound responsibility of child raising or love.

And then we are told to call that bullshit “equality.”

Headline grabbing corporations which purport to “value” the bodily autonomy and freedom of their female employees now offer pay for abortions and transportation to states that allow abortions. Vanity Fair, MSNBC, and all the usual suspects heap praise on their generosity. Such phony philanthropy panders to the lies into which women have been sentenced by the sexual revolution culture. Pervasive indoctrination reinforces the deadly message that killing their children is freedom for women.

The primary motivation for corporations is blatantly obvious:  to enhance the bottom line. Please, we are not fools. A full-term birth, even without complications risk, parental leave, and an additional insured in the family plan health insurance is ten or twenty-fold times more expensive than an abortion even including transportation, room, and board. Especially so in large corporations that self-insure, but even in smaller companies, health insurance premiums are renegotiated every year based on experience and costs.  And that doesn’t begin to consider lost productivity, retraining replacements, and later time off for childcare. High fives all around in the Human Resource Department: big woke culture points and a big win in the board room.

Let’s not be naive: there is no altruism in paying for a plane ticket to obliterate a life.[vii]

And then we are told to call that bullshit “equality.”

Another recent post from another friend:  The terms “fetus” and “zygote” are no different than “toddler” or “teenager;” they refer to stages of human development. Toddlers possess the same dignity as teenagers just as fetuses and zygotes possess the same dignity as any other human.[viii] Hence, every human life begins in the same way, and absent violence or disease proceeds apace through all his or her stages from conception to natural death.  The science of embryology is clear and consistent.

JPII Quote copyright CatholicVoteProponents dearly love to frame the conversation in superficially clever emotional terms (“Keep your rosaries off our ovaries.” Or “Our bodies, Ourselves.”) or some version of freedom necessary for women to succeed or marginalizing the pro-life position as religious ‘extremism.’ They decline the opportunity to conduct a reasoned moral argument. The syllogism looks like this: A.) It is always morally repugnant, and no justification exists to deliberately attack and destroy innocent human life. B.) A fetus is just another word for small developing human being. Therefore, C.) Deliberate killing of a human fetus is morally repugnant. No religion is required for the propositions or the conclusion. Some prominent atheists are pro-life advocates with arguments based on logic, science, and the existence of objective truth that is knowable.[ix]

I look forward to the defenses which will surely come. Challenge the propositions or the logic as you may. Will they be coming as science deniers – not really a human being? Or will they be submitting a moral proposal that the large and powerful have a ‘right’ to take the life of the small and defenseless when their developing lives are judged sufficiently inconvenient? I will fight that battle until I can no longer stand.

The fairy tale with a happy ending is that an ‘unplanned’ and problematic child is a malignancy, a robbery, a weakening of equality, and that this burgeoning, undefined life ought to be expendable. But grotesquely underlying this narrative like an ogre under the bridge is a terrible truth.

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Illustration 1: “Shipwreck in Stormy Seas,” by Joseph Vernet, National Gallery, London, Public Domain

Illustration 2: From CatholicVote

[i] http://www.sebastianjunger.com/the-perfect-storm He has sincIe published many great books I have read, which you can find at the link as well. His mother hired Albert DeSalvo to do some handyman work in her house in Belmont when Junger was a child, a narrative of which Mr. Junger included in his book “A Death in Belmont” about DeSalvo, the ‘Boston Strangler.’ More recently he produced a marvelous documentary based on his book, “War,” and his time as an embedded journalist with a platoon during their 15-month deployment in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan.  Much good reading here if you haven’t enjoyed the skill and imagery of Mr. Junger’s work.

[ii] An acclaimed movie followed, which helped bring Mark Wahlberg to star status as the captain of the Andrea Gail.

[iii] Many thanks to Genevieve Kineke who introduced me to Bauman and “Liquid Modernity” in her superb talk on the irreplaceable role of motherhood in all its wonderful manifestations in the family and spiritually. If you can find her speaking and especially if she is giving her presentation on “How Elastic is Motherhood,” get to it.

[iv] From “Liquid Modernity,” Zygmunt Bauman, 2000, Polity Press, in association with Blackwell Publishers, LTD, Cambridge, UK

[v] See links below in a separate box in essays and charts that speak eloquently about these effects and illusions.

[vi] In Goethe’s 1790 play Torquato Tasso the character Leonora speaks (act 1, scene 2) the lines “Es bildet ein Talent sich in der Stille / Sich ein Charakter in dem Strom der Welt”  From Stack Exchange: https://literature.stackexchange.com/

[vii] Why Big Business Loves Abortion

[viii] Every embryological text states something similar to this from Princeton.edu: Life Begins at Fertilization with the Embryo’s Conception. “Development of the embryo begins at Stage 1 when a sperm fertilizes an oocyte and together they form a zygote.” “Human development begins after the union of male and female gametes or germ cells during a process known as fertilization (conception).”

[ix] Secular humanist/atheist video for life.

Links to accompany ‘Perfect Storm’ post

The Zealous Faith of Secularism (How the Sexual Revolution became a dogma), First Things, Dr. Mary Eberstadt

Five Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution Part I   The Catholic Thing, Dr. Mary Eberstadt

Five Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution Part II   The Catholic Thing, Dr. Mary Eberstadt

The Growing Feminist Rejection of the Sexual Revolution, Crisis Magazine, Austin Ruse

Dr. Anthony Esolen Podcast about his book “Sex and the Unreal City” and why the Sexual Revolution has produced so many lonely people.  Presented at Magdalen College  The Loneliness Revolution

Millennials and the Loneliness Epidemic  Forbes

Inside the Adolescent Mental Health Crisis NY Times

The American Family Today Pew Research

The Loneliness Pandemic Harvard Magazine

Bitter Pill – Economics, First Things, Timothy Reichert

The Long-Term Struggle for Hearts and Minds, The Catholic Thing, David Carlin

Great collection of Public Discourse essays about a post Dobbs decision America and common myths about abortion.

Some samples:

Marco Rubio is Right: The Life of a New Human Being Begins at Conception, BY PATRICK LEE, CHRISTOPHER O. TOLLEFSEN AND ROBERT P. GEORGE

Forty Years Later: It’s Time for a New Feminism, BY ELISE ITALIANO

The Lazy Slander of the Pro-Life Cause (Answers the slander that pro-life advocates only care for the baby before it is born), BY HELEN ALVARÉ, GREG PFUNDSTEIN, MATTHEW SCHMITZ, AND RYAN T. ANDERSON

Why the Arguments about “Bodily Autonomy” and “Forced Birth” Fail to Justify Abortion, BY RYAN T. ANDERSON AND ALEXANDRA DESANCTIS

Many more thoughtful and well written essays on various related topics regarding common myths and what a post Roe country will look like.

Index of all essays on the topic from Public Discourse

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Swordfight On the Lake Redux

For a second week I’ll repost a very slightly edited ten-year-old edition of this blog. After many thousands of visits, many of the readers today were not around when it started. This is one of the early Maine Tales, a time which redefined our lives if you care to look back at that topic.

Once again, this week, the prompting for this choice was that my friend Rick, who has since passed away and was an early reader, commented on the post. If you want to get to know him, last week’s post introduces him and included a link to his work.  Here is a link to the original post, so you can read his comment if you’d like to. I always get hit emotionally when I read them: https://quovadisblog.net/2012/05/06/maine-tales-iii-swordfight-on-the-lake/

Pam Jones, who played an irreplaceable role in our lives, makes a brief appearance in this post. She has since joined Rick, and we will miss her as well. Our last few visits with her were in a nursing home north of Portland where we reminisced and laughed a lot.

I had a good friend from those days tell me once that we were not respecting the good men of the Mount Vernon Fire Department in this post. If that is how it comes across, I apologize, but I’ll let it stand as it was. They gave of themselves, their time, and put their lives at risk for no pay to be there for the rest of us. That they were underfunded, lacked all the equipment of a city, and could only train on their own time off, usually on weekends, was a function of living in a town of 600 souls, men, women, and children. They made the most of what they had and always showed up to help others deal with their tragedy. The good folks of Mount Vernon, Maine were among the finest I ever encountered. Or ever expect to.

They changed us in ways we could never have anticipated.

***********************************************************

Swordfight on the Lake Redux  

HouseFire_2The red pumper bounced onto the driveway of the large ante bellum colonial with siren blaring.  The house had once served as an inn, and currently was occupied by a half dozen mostly benign refugees from other late sixties communes.  The flames fully engaged the structure and were seen through the windows.  Everyone got out.

The source of the fire was a fifty-gallon drum woodstove laid on its side with a fire door kit cut in one end and a stove pipe emerging from the top, not an unusual heating system for rural Maine that can be assembled from a kit for under $100.  If it was a typical set up, sand would cover the bottom to keep the coals from burning through.  Overheated, it could glow cherry red.  Something had gone amiss.Oil Drum Woodstove from kit

A small fleet of private pickup trucks driven by the rest of the fire department followed the pumper.  The chief’s truck had a prominent flashing light bar on the roof.  A 3” hose with a nozzle was quickly deployed, but the tank rapidly depleted and the stream of water dwindled to a dribble.  An intake hose was unfurled, and several fire fighters started rolling it out towards a source of supplementary water, coupling on more hoses as they went.  Back at the truck end, the chief, Dana, bent to hook up to the intake valve and discovered the others were approaching the lake 500 yards away with the wrong end of the hose.  By the time things were reversed, the fire broke through the roof, which fell into the basement a half hour later.  These men were dedicated and courageous; they had saved lives, but all were volunteers, and practiced as they could.  Practice was customarily followed by much truck polishing, hose rolling and beer drinking at the station. Occasionally, they got to burn down a condemned barn to work on their skills. Common wisdom was to get out of the house, and then call your insurance agent and the fire department from a neighbor’s house – in that order. Town residents were fond of saying that the Mount Vernon Fire Department had never lost a foundation.

Official authority and municipal services in a small rural town are a unique experience.  In Mount Vernon circa 1976, there was no police department.  A local constable appointed by the court would serve subpoenas and divorce papers.  The nearest law enforcement was a Maine State Police trooper, who lived 15 miles away in the next town, Readfield.  Once when Rita was involved in a car accident, he came to our house the next evening dressed in jeans to help us fill out the paperwork.  Things were casual.  Only the game warden had true authority.  He was known to shoot a dog if they packed up with others and ran deer.  No appeal, no live trap, no deliberation whether it was a mutt or a Golden Retriever with papers: justice was swift, administered uniformly and accurate.

The only time I remember talk about engaging the police was on the Fourth of July during the bicentennial celebration in 1976.  Other than a few bottle rockets and cherry bombs from New Hampshire, there were no fireworks.  Jeff, a young twenty something native Mount Vernonite, took to drinking beer with a truck full of buddies and dragging an old car hood behind his pickup up and down the roads.  The hood presented an impressive display of sparks and plenty of noise, augmented by custom horns that sounded like a submarine klaxon dive alarm, mounted on the cab roof.  After three hours or so into the wee hours, some of the more sedate residents had had enough.  No one called the cops though; one of the dairy farmers who had to get up in the morning told Jeff he would shoot the engine block of the pickup.  We weren’t sure if he had the firepower or the marksmanship, but neither was Jeff, so he pulled the truck into the fire station and drank some more beer.

Bowie Knife A “domestic disturbance” was treated like this: no police involvement because they were too far away to help.  Bia, a recent resident, had moved into an apartment next to a small store front downtown, where she opened up a sheet metal artisan shop, welding and cutting small decorative pieces sold at craft fairs.  Her boyfriend was an odd, slender, bearded, pony tailed archetype prone to buckskin jackets, cowboy hats, silver buckles and a 14” Bowie knife carried in a sheath on his belt.  Bia’s daughter was my daughter’s age, and they became friends during the few months since Bia arrived in town.  In January, our phone rang about eleven one weeknight, long after our bedtime.  She called because we were one of the few she had gotten to know.  The boyfriend, whose name fades, let’s call him Jim, was drinking, smoking dope and hitting her.  Could I come down to help?  Sure, I agreed, groggily.

 As a twenty-nine-year-old, fit, tree climber, I had an exaggerated confidence in my own invulnerability; I grabbed a three-foot hickory handle half whittled down to fix my splitting axe and jumped on my trustyHickory axe handle steed, well actually, an F150.  What could be better for a chainsaw guy than getting to play knight errant?  On the way to her place, I practiced some tough threat lines involving emergency rooms, reconstructive dentistry and eating through a straw, all of which turned out quickly to be completely inadequate to the situation.  The denouement was less than noteworthy.  Jim had fled out the back door on the snow over the ice of Lake Minnehonk.  I followed his tracks into the dark, axe handle in hand, and found him seventy yards out on the ice in a tee shirt disconsolately sitting and shivering in the snow, his knife still in its sheath.  I asked him if he had a place to go.  He said he did, in Waterville.  I told him that’s where he would be staying.  He started to cry.  Bia packed a duffle bag into his dented Saab with Boulder County Colorado plates, and that was the last anyone ever saw of him.  I went home to bed; Rita was glad to see me.

Thirty years later, we were visiting an old friend, Pam Jones, who still lived near Lou’s store, which was now not Lou’s store.  Bia had long since moved out, but we learned for the first time that a local legend had grown around the “Swordfight On The Lake” with much dramatic license taken. Pam laughed huskily in her smoker’s voice telling us about it.  Entertainment and storytelling are at a premium in a small town.

I hate small towns because once you’ve seen the cannon in the park there’s nothing else to do.
Lenny Bruce. (Mr. Bruce obviously never actually lived in a small town. There’s a lot to do.)

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Lumpenproletariat Revisited

“There is nothing on this earth that is more to be prized than true friendship.” St. Thomas Aquinas

For over ten years, what started as a set of personal reflections shared with family and friends has been viewed tens of thousands of times, an outcome for which I am surprised and grateful to all of you who have engaged in the conversation. I’ve enjoyed many discussions via email or comments, way more than I ever expected from this.

Quite a few current readers have subscribed in the last couple of years. I thought it might be interesting to repost a couple of early ones for folks who are new to the blog. This is the first of them.

When I was reviewing some old posts, I came across a comment that caught me emotionally from a good friend, Rick Champagne, who passed away a few years ago. Rick was a talented illustrator and artist. He owned a small business that specialized in customizing vehicles with terrific artwork. While serving in the Marines in Vietnam, he was exposed as many others were to the defoliant called “Agent Orange,” which eventually caused the cancer that he fought valiantly for years. He was part of our informal Saturday morning breakfast clan that met at a favorite haunt for at least ten years and shared our lives together.

What he started as a pinstriping specialty in his autobody shop grew into a sought-after customizing business, especially for motorcycles. Here is an old link that still works. Some of his creations, all hand painted are included on his Facebook page as well as some original fine art landscapes and portraits. It remains up after almost three years, so I hope it works for you to get to know Rick a bit. https://www.facebook.com/EagleEyePaint/

An innovator and terrific storyteller who loved tinkering, inventing gadgets, and gardening, Rick is missed by many, including me. RIP, our dear friend.

I am unable to repost without converting the old ones to drafts and then publishing again. That wipes out the comments, so I’m going to add a link to the original in case you were interested in his short comment. Link to original “Lumpenproletariat.” Rick enjoyed the blog, and we talked about some of the stories together.

“The most I can do for my friend is simply be his friend.” Henry David Thoreau

I posted the original under the category of “Tree Stories” about my younger days as a climber. I’ve made some minor edits for clarity and corrected a couple of typos. Hope you are inspired to comment or send me an email with your own early work memories. This is almost entirely cut and pasted from the old one ten years ago.  If you find any errors in my memories, please let me know. My memory is a noted faulty instrument.

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tree climber

Making a Move

The scream of Wes’s customized Sachs 250 dirt bike came out of the foothills, and then kicked up a great cloud of dust on the long dirt driveway, signaling the beginning of our workday.  He was rarely late, but never early; his avocation was motocross racing, which he did professionally, but not lucratively.  His daily bread was earned, like the rest of us, cutting trees for EZ Tree Service in 1969 Colorado.  Our fenced in staging area on the plateau north of Boulder and just east of the beginning of the Rockies was where Ed Zemeckis stored and split his for-sale firewood. The lot provided parking for the various bucket trucks, chip trucks, log trucks, trailered large woodchippers, pickup trucks and stump grinders with which we plied our trade.

Ed was a self-taught genius mechanic who could fix, weld, or fabricate almost anything.  He weighed in at over two twenty and couldn’t get up a tree if a grizzly was chasing him, but he could run an organized and effective business.  My interview for a job was typical of skills-based hiring methods at the tail end of the post war boom.  I drove into the yard between his house and barn for our appointment, and as I walked toward the front door past an eight-yard dump truck, I heard a grunt, then a “put the pin in for me, will ya?”  Looking around, I saw a hefty set of legs protruding from under the truck.  Ed was bench pressing a drive shaft back up to the transmission and needed someone to jam in the bolt to secure it.  What he would have done had I been late was never made clear.  Perhaps he was waiting to show me how strong he was.

He slid out from under the truck and asked me if I had my rope and saddle with me.  Of course I did, and Ed gestured towards a large cottonwood in his side yard.  I threw the rope into it with one cast; foot locked up to a low branch and scrambled to the top, tying in when I got there.  “Can you start Monday?”  “Sure.”  His Prairie Home Companion pleasant, pretty, fiftyish wife brought out some lemonade, and I had a job.  Both of us knew that should Monday prove that I was adequate at a climbing interview, but fell short in cutting or pruning skills, there wouldn’t be a Tuesday.

“Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.”  Henry David Thoreau

Two of the crew worked in the lot full time cutting and splitting the hardwood we brought back with Ed’s homemade, vertical log splitter, which was powered by a barely mufflered Ford industrial strength engine and his own concoction of foot pedal and hydraulics.  The terrifying monster functioned as a guillotine for logs, could easily blow apart 18” oak and would have horrified any hapless OSHA inspector who stopped by – not that one ever did.  Load the log between the channel iron guides, step back, step on the foot pedal, and the blade would slash downward with the inexorable slam of a pile driver.  No safety lock-out (not even shutting off the motor, because the hydraulics held enormous pent- up force), no cage, no emergency shut off – just drop in the wood and get the hell out of the way.  The rest of us mounted up in whatever configuration of equipment the assigned work required, and off we went.  The good old days.

The climbers were Wes, who had a degree in History, Ted, the lead foreman with the handlebar mustache and quintessential Westerner, Hatch, originally from Boston, who we later discovered stole high performance cars as a side business, Bob, a multi degreed (Math and Physics) Rocky Mountain Rescue Group mountaineer, and I, newly hired. Ron, who supplemented his income as a part time marijuana dealer, and Stan from Chicago, a former Oakland Branch Hell’s Angel, were the bucket truck operators.  The rest of the crew worked on the ground, running lowering lines, chain sawing up fallen trees, chipping, dragging, loading, and raking up chips in the yards of our customers.

Young and fit men all, but the alchemy of the late sixties, especially in a place like Boulder, melded a disparate cast of characters into a crew, a team, who worked, played, and took considered risks together.  Men of quite different backgrounds and education, but mutually respectful and sharing a common, fundamentally American, understanding of how the world worked.  Some of us challenged that understanding, but we all had no doubt that it was how things were.

tree-cutting-blocking-down-climber-in-tree

Take Down

We were brought up to share the principles and promise of capitalism:  success and opportunity if we “worked hard and played by the rules.”  The differences among us regarding the “playing by the rules” part were legion, but everyone fully integrated, indeed never thought to question, that every day we got up and worked hard at rough physical labor.  We all simply expected it of ourselves as a given.

Karl Marx postulated in The Communist Manifesto that there were only two classes, the ownership and the workers – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the oppressed and oppressors, and the violent resolution of that “exploitation” would create a utopia.  As it turns out, Marx soon compromised his premise by parsing his dichotomy into many subsets.  The lowest of the low was the lumpenproletariat, that “dangerous class”, and there were elements of that outlaw self-perception among the well-educated, countercultural, and possibly underemployed tree guys.  Set apart – sweaty, dirty, brawny, laughing, profane and derisive of those outsiders who were condescending towards those of us who did for a living what most of them would never attempt.

“It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.Ralph Waldo Emerson

With the foolish vanity of youth, I saw our motley band as made up of the kind of guys recruited by Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles: “rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperadoes, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, half-wits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass kickers, shit kickers and Methodists.”  And proud of it.

After an additional forty more years, I now recognize the naïveté, narcissism, and vainglory of such posturing, but at the time, invulnerable young men held it dear.

I have stories to relate – both about the work and the men who did it.  We can go down that road together, if you like, in future posts.

“If boyhood and youth are but vanity, must it not be our ambition to become men?”  Vincent Van Gogh

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Summer’s End

“April, dressed in all his trim, hath put a spirit of youth in everything.” Sonnet 98, William Shakespeare

Weaver Cove Sunset 3Back in April, the sun rose earlier each day on the eastern horizon and set later and farther to the north on the western horizon until the summer solstice sprinted by on June 21st. The daylight prior to the solstice persists a few minutes longer each day in felicitous, tiny, precious increments. Early mornings are more welcoming, and evening sunsets linger. Here on our little island, the sun rises over the Sakonnet River or the Atlantic out on Sachuest Beach and sets over Narragansett Bay.

We sometimes take sandwiches to watch it sink red and pink and orange behind Conanicut Island to the south in the winter or Prudence Island in the summer at the Weaver Cove boat landing off Burma Road that runs along the west side of our island. Herring gulls, ospreys, and various diving and dabbling waterfowl often join us: cormorants, Northern diving ducks, harlequins, scoters, and loons.

The delicate greens of spring give way to lush summer foliage, then gaudy autumn golds and reds, and end once again in the sparse, naked beauty of winter branches black against cold skies and snowy fields. The seasons flow effortlessly one to the other. The spring miracle is as inevitable as winter, hardwired into genes of living things and into the orbit and tilt of our beautiful blue ball.

The startling pink of abundantly flowering cherries follow the magnolias and dogwoods. Bradford pears planted in half the commercial landscapes on the island burst forth in white once again. In May the petals begin to fade and fall, then cascade, covering ground and windshield. Pink petal decorated cars are often seen on East Main Road and Wapping Road and Indian Road. By August we are greeted each day with the last of the hydrangeas, Black Eye Susans, the pinks of Rose of Sharon, some unlikely, startling, hardy hibiscus, and the splendor of Trees of Heaven.

“He says the early petal-fall in past

 When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.”  The Oven Bird, Robert Frost

Now, when I open the shades to the morning, I begin to track early rising Orion with Betelgeuse and Rigel in the pre-dawn Southern sky; his signature belt and sword are tilted from the angles that will soon help dominate winter skies. The seasons are moving on for 2022, and it’s time to get the winter’s firewood into the shed.

We are a couple of months past the summer solstice for 2022 and each day gets just an inconspicuous bit shorter. Not much, at first, but later towards December, the foreshortening accelerates once again to begin the long climb back towards another flowering. The passing seasons prompt thoughts of the gift of light. I am reminded that the darkness is not a thing unto itself, but a privation. St. Francis taught that no depth of darkness can defeat the light of one candle.

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars, The deeper the grief, the closer is God!” Fyodor Dostoevsky

Evil has no substance of its own but is a privation, a negation, a denial of Good. What is a candle that cannot be extinguished by the depth of evil? I am reminded of one: the non-violent, gentle light of forgiveness. Selfishness, violence, hatred, divisiveness, rancor, vitriol, fierce anger, the depths of human cruelty, even murder ultimately surrender to forgiveness. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Every time we pray that so often recited prayer by habit, we commit ourselves to a promise and an agreement that is not always easy to keep. A promise we should not ignore or neglect.

“Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing,” spoken from the bloody pulpit of the Cross. Roman subjects quaked at the threat of it. The Cross symbolized the worst that human beings can do to one another. And yet the response of a mighty God to those who killed Him so terribly was not triumphant vengeance by fierce angelic riders seeking retribution, but the final soft word that defeats the darkness. He descended to the bottom of human suffering and returned the pain, not with justice, but with Love.

“Jesus spoke to them again, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’” John 8:12

Little is more powerful than genuine forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a sentiment, but a decision, a grace filled act of the will. Nothing answers hatred as effectively or more powerfully. The Cross is the symbol and the actuality of cruelty, fear, vindictiveness, and violence unlike almost any other. And it was overcome only and for all of us by Resurrection, forgiveness, and the Light.

 “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Anyone who claims to be in the light

but hates his brother

is still in the dark.

But anyone who loves his brother is living in the light

and need not be afraid of stumbling;

unlike the man who hates his brother and is in the darkness,

not knowing where he is going,

because it is too dark to see.” 1 John 2:9-11

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A Tree Falls

“Here is a quick and generally reliable rule to follow. If people have always said it, it is probably true; it is the distilled wisdom of the ages. If people have not always said it, but everybody is saying it now, it is probably a lie; it is the concentrated madness of the moment.” Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture

18989409_web1_downed-treeWEBWe often sit and pray after morning Mass in the Fatima grove across the driveway from our parish chapel.  A week or so ago, we heard a loud rending of wood and a crash down the street. There had been no sound of saw or axe, just the destruction. Later we looked for the cause of the disturbance. A large weeping willow had split apart and two thirds of it blocked a nearby road. I thought of the old philosophical question from Dr. George Berkeley, an Anglican Bishop and philosopher in the 1600s, about a tree falling in the woods and whether it made a noise if there was no one there to hear it. It does.

I wondered how could the old tree that had survived many thunderstorms, hurricanes, Nor’easters, blizzards, and rogue winds over fifty years, judging by its size, just collapse without notice? That morning in the quiet of early summer blooming, a final tiny weight of water borne up from its roots or perhaps the addition of a single cell in one leaf or a crow building a nest or a squirrel fleeing a shadow delivered the last groaning increment, an unsupportable weight. Or was it long festering inner rot and flaw in its structure that gave way, and the grace and beauty of the tree was destroyed, good only now for cutting up and clearing off the road? I’ll never know what finished it off, but there it was.

Not just trees collapse after decades of weakening.

One of the better articles of dozens I read on the January 6 hearings observed that we are looking futilely for legal or even political solutions to a more fundamental problem, solutions those things cannot possibly provide. We don’t need better laws or policies or politicians; we need better Americans, better citizens. Whether Proud Boys or Antifa thugs or obscene gay pride marchers or arrogant narcissist politicians: progressive ideologues or overtly corrupt self-serving ones, they are merely different aspects of the same disease.

The great majority of Americans get up each morning, attempt to work hard quietly to support themselves and their families, and come home to do the best they can to form the next generation in the best way they know how. But they get little help from educational institutions, politicians, and most media, social or otherwise.

The same article by Kevin Williamson[i] contains a link to a profound T.S. Eliot poem:

“If we give in to the fantasy that we can legislate our way out of this mess or prosecute our way back to republican virtue, we are only ‘dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.’ That is a project that inevitably will end in failure and disappointment. Being good citizens is not easy but maintaining a free society without good citizens is impossible.”

We have replaced objective reality with subjective desires.  Rather than the hard work of discerning reality and conforming ourselves to it, we wish to conform reality to ourselves. Rather than seeking to discern the Good, the True and the Beautiful, we rely for guidance from the false, gossamer gods of Tolerance, the Socially Acceptable, and the Culturally Relevant. We look for validation in counting responding emoticons to copy and pasted or ragged and derivative social media posts.

The long slog of learning and reading and thinking and self-reflection is subverted by slogans and clever derision of those with whom we disagree. We don’t listen and debate ideas respectfully, we shout down with bull horns and air horns and screaming obscenities those people who have ideas that question current orthodoxy.

Our hearts and wills are not inclined to virtue, but to our self-driven will. Our minds and discernment are not inclined to knowledge and wisdom, but to factoids and catchphrases to support our causes. Our imagination is not captivated by and seeking out objective beauty in nature or art, but we look for entertainments and distractions.

We hear incessant calls for self-fulfillment, not self-sacrifice for the greater good. We try to fill the hole in our heart with that which cannot possibly heal.

The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,

All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to God .

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries

Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust. T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from the Rock”

Part II

This week the January 6 hearings were deposed by the demise of Roe v Wade, systematically demolished in its pretense by Justice Alito’s Dobbs v Jackson Health brilliantly written decision. After initial euphoria that day with all the excitement of a small avalanche of emails, articles, and posts, the next morning I woke up deflated like post big game blues. The disappointment gave way to a sad resolve, which soon transitioned to a familiar fierce determination.

When the Dobbs v Jackson Health decision was announced, I was elated because I had thought I would not live to see the lies of Roe refuted and overturned so convincingly by the court. Joy was tempered by the realization that much of the good work of our Rhode Island Right To Life founders was excised from the body of our laws by pink shirt abortion zealots and thugs storming the statehouse and its offices with airhorns and screaming slogans intimidating our legislature in 2019. The trigger laws that would have been immediately in effect to protect life in RI were wiped away.

Nearly four generations of Americans, most of our population, grew up and were formed under the auspices of Roe. While certainly not the sole source of their confusion and alienation, Roe contributed significantly to a culture that has absorbed two very dangerous false premises.

The first is that sex is primarily for pleasure and recreation and secondarily is for strengthening commit-ments, and finally way down on the list is for its teleological purpose in nature of perpetuating our species.

The second premise that we passed along to our heirs for fifty years is that once we have determined that conceiving a child is a problem to be solved rather than a commitment, responsibility, and gift to be cherished, the solution is either a contraceptive one or a violent one. We re-created our version of truth and taught our children that the violence of abortion is a “right” to be maintained at all costs, and when faced with an unwelcome pregnancy the cold clinical violence is not just a necessary evil, but a positive good.

We have much work ahead to support and to protect vulnerable mothers and unborn children here once again. We have “miles to go before we sleep.” May God bless the many good hearts and minds who will never give up.

There is an image.

The temple was finally relinquished by the vandals and the despoilers after almost fifty years of hostile occupation. They left the roof burned and collapsed, the walls cracked into ruins, the floor littered with the remnants of charred roof beams, broken pieces of sacred and beautiful art.  Dead things and the waste of animals soiled the floor tiles. Something foul was in the corner; there were small bones embedded in the mound. Paper refuse and the remains of barbarian camps.

With resignation and meager hope, I began to sweep the floor with an old broom.

Others drift in then stream in to help clean up the mess. Some erect staging and demo the west wall until only solid blocks remain, then they start in with fresh mortar and new bricks.  A straight spruce log is dragged on to the swept floor. Some of us begin to shape it into a new roof beam with a two-handed draw knife and a forged adze.

As night falls, family members come and bring us food: hardy, simple and delicious. Someone starts to play a fiddle, another a guitar. One clear trained woman’s voice begins to sing. Ragged at first, we join in:

As I went down in the river to pray

Studying about that good ol’ way

And who shall wear the starry crown?

Good Lord show me the way!

 

O sisters let’s go down

Let’s go down, come on down

O sisters let’s go down

Down in the river to pray.

 By the third verse we were sounding better, with some complex harmony, by the fifth verse we soared with hundreds of voices. I thought I could hear my father singing. By the end of it there were angels in the chorus.[ii]

The woman who started the singing and her husband, one of the carpenters, said they had to gather their kids who had been engaged in a raucous pick-up baseball game near us, take them home, read a few stories aloud, say prayers together, and put them to bed. Others began to head home to attend to other chores and get some rest. They looked back and waved. ‘We’ll see you in the morning.”  I knew they would return.

“Until the sexual revolution, most people understood that customs and laws regarding sex were customs and laws to strengthen or at least to protect the family, and that the family was not something created by the State, but was its own small kingdom, a natural society, founded in the bodily nature of man.”  Anthony Esolen, Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity

[i] January 6 Hearings are a story without a hero

[ii] Alison Krauss – Down In the River to Pray

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The Essence of the Thing

“Set aside all the muddle of your fears and desires, your resentment, your self-opinion, your politics, whatever. Look at that child. That was you, that was me.” Dr. Anthony Esolen, “Let the Beautiful Creature Live.”

1965LC 0430.jpg

18 -week-old fetus shown inside amniotic sac. from cover of LIFE Magazine, 4-30-1965.

I’ve been busy writing letters to the editors of various local newspapers about the outcry over the first draft of the Dobbs decision written by Justice Samuel Alito after the leak caused such a trembling in the fabric of social media. I was struck once again by how rarely we discuss the central question of the abortion debate. Yes, Roe was bad law, badly written, and yes, of course, the “exercise in raw judicial power[i]” was “egregiously wrong from the start — Its reasoning was exceptionally weak,”[ii] The wrongness of Roe has long been acknowledged by jurists on all sides. The dubious decision was a flimsy structure on which to support the far-reaching judicial mandates that usurped every state’s authority to limit abortion. “Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped…..may prove unstable.”[iii]  However, irrespective of legal debates over constitutional issues, we still don’t talk much about the pivot point of all this.

To wit: what grows inside a woman’s womb when she is pregnant? Simple question. Is it a tumor? A parasite?  Is it something alien and malevolent to be eradicated at will by the host? I ask that question in all sincerity of anyone who advocates for abortion as a “right.” What is it we will permit to be torn asunder and ripped out?

Science tells us it is one thing and no other: a tiny, living, dependent human being. All the debate about heartbeat, viability, and when the fetus experiences pain are only points on a preordained continuum. An embryo is not part of someone’s body, but a separate body from her mother, genetically distinct, and not an unwelcome appendage. She will grow by absorbing food through her umbilical, learning early to like some kinds of food her mother ingests better than others. Without further outside prompting, she will begin to develop her senses, to see light even inside the womb, to hear voices and respond and bond to them as well as to other sounds. She will be startled and frightened by sudden sounds and soothed by music, especially Bach or Mozart.[iv]

A continuum from conception to death, which if uninterrupted by disease or violence, will develop her inherent capabilities uniquely implanted in her genes that were formed in an instant at conception. Her hair and eye color, her organs, fingers and toes, her brain and heart, her capacity for learning already hard wired. She will develop those capabilities to whatever degree her education, nurture, and those who care for her support. She will mature and experience a complex human life with a brief arduous journey down the birth canal from the uterus to the open air just one more milestone along the way.

No one yet to my satisfaction has explained the justification and moral argument that grants the larger, stronger human being the ‘right’ to take the life of the smaller, weaker human being because the big person is mobile and has power, and the little one is trapped and has no power. Exactly why should killing a human being become lawful because the victim is in an unprotected category of tiny persons and declared expendable? Because it’s inconvenient or embarrassing or too expensive or too difficult to keep them around?  Because they were condemned with often wrong prenatal test diagnoses? [v]

In California[vi], there is now a bill to ‘decriminalize’ ending a baby’s life either through neglect or violence or “unknown causes” during the first thirty days after birth. As horrifying as that sounds, it is no different ethically than abortion. A baby in the first month is breathing on her own but still utterly dependent day to day for her life on her parents or guardians. No protector, no nurture – no survival.

Peter Singer, the Princeton bioethicist known for his pro-abortion and animal rights work (one of the founders of PETA), for years has asserted that infanticide should be allowed until full self-awareness, which he defined as up to three years post birth. He has stated that the life of an adult pig should enjoy greater protections than an immature human being before they are fully self-aware. Whatever you think about his moral stance, you can’t fault his consistency. He is perfectly logical in his arguments. Preborn or post born, all the same kid. #MeStillMe.

me-still-meNo sophistry, no rhetoric, no emotional, political, jaded language about rosaries and ovaries, theocracy or state power or keep your hands off my uterus or any of the shopworn slogans, just this: Why does the big person get to kill the little person solely because the big person wants or even needs to do so?  As a right?

Dr. Anthony Esolen this week published an essay entitled, “Let the Beautiful Creature Live.”[vii] A long quote of a couple of paragraphs is germane. He writes a lot more elegantly than I ever could hope to do, so I will end here and not sully the loveliness of his prose, prose which reads like poetry without an unnecessary word and missing not one that is needed[viii].

“Still, there are pictures of unborn children in the womb. As early as eight weeks in, you are looking at a being that is obviously human, with arms and legs, toes and fingers, a head, a face, and eyes. A little later on, he will be sucking the thumb, practicing in the womb what will soon be his sole means of nourishment. The child is strange and familiar at once. Set aside all the muddle of your fears and desires, your resentment, your self-opinion, your politics, whatever. Look at that child. That was you, that was me.

Nothing else that we know of is like him. He possesses, in latency, the developing powers of a mind capax universi: capable of apprehending a universe of existent things. He possesses, in latency, the soul capable of grasping itself; of conceiving objects not bounded by matter; of reflecting his Creator by the works of his hands, his heart, and his imagination; of promising itself in duty; and handing itself over in love. Surely, we have here infinite riches in a little room. And he is our brother.”[ix]

[i] Justice Byron White in dissent from Roe v Wade, 1973

[ii] Justice Samuel Alito in first draft majority opinion in Dobbs v Jackson Health, 2022

[iii] Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a speech at New York University referencing the weakness of Roe v Wade, 1992

[iv] Baby soothed and brain development in the womb enhanced by classical music, especially Mozart.

[v] Some prenatal tests for genetic diseases have up to 90% false positive results. Many are over 80% false positive. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/01/upshot/pregnancy-birth-genetic-testing.html

[vi] In 2019 Rhode Island joined California, New York, and a few other states in allowing abortion up to birth for undefined reasons other than the mother’s health. Health being defined as encompassing emotional, financial, or physical without reference to the severity of the risk. No other European country has such lax laws. Rhode Island, California, and New York join Russia, China, and North Korea as one of the riskiest places on earth for preborn babies. Not august company.

[vii] Let the Beautiful Creature Live, Crisis Magazine Dr. Anthony Esolen formerly taught at Providence College, and is now a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College in New Hampshire. One of the most respected social commentators around. Has spoken at over fifty colleges.

[viii] Note please Dr. Esolen references latency, not potential life. Inherent and to be developed in the nature of the baby. Latent is from the Latin meaning “hidden.” Unlike “potential” which might imply contingency or just possibility, “latent” is fully present, just not yet visible.

[ix] Me-Still Me picture credit from LiveAction website.

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Uncontrolled

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.” Nuke LaLooch (played by Tim Robbins) in Ron Shelton’s screenplay for “Bull Durham”

Snowy Owl at Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge Lee Kensinger

Snowy owl at Hamden Slough   National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota by Lee Kensinger.

 Kim Crocker, a volunteer at the Sachuest National Wildlife Refuge   near us, reported a tale that reminded me of the rule of fang and   claw, talon, and blood. After an absence last year of any   overwintering snowy owl at the refuge, this year we have two   visitors, neither of them yet fully mature, but hardy enough to make   the trek from the tundra. Snowy owls can live nine years in the wild and up to twenty-eight in captivity. Fully grown, they have a wingspan of close to five feet: beautiful, formidable hunters, and relentless predators.[i]

Mr. Crocker told me the ranger observed a Cooper’s hawk make a quick kill, probably a vole or field mouse. Raptors drive their long rear talons into their prey with great force from a dive, wrap their front talons securely around their food and begin to eat, often before their victim is dead. This hawk should have been more situationally aware when he grabbed his lunch. Almost as soon as he attacked, he was in turn struck by a snowy, and the predator became the prey with the added benefit of a vole for dessert. Full grown snowy owls have been observed at the refuge taking a full-grown Bufflehead, Eider or Surf Scoter[ii] right out of the surf and carrying them back to a shoreline rock for a leisurely meal.

Sometimes unforeseen trouble can drop on us with the swiftness of a raptor from the sky.  One of the most disconcerting aspects of the last two years of COVID world was the vivid notice that we are not in control. And never have been. This is a valuable lesson.

Oh, we pretend like three-year-olds that if the Bogeyman comes out of the closet or from under the bed we can pull the covers over our head, cuddle our teddy bear, and be protected – that we can be in control, but at three o’clock in the morning on a sleepless night, we know that “the best laid plans o mice and men gang aft agley.”  [iii] Now as adults our Bogeyman occasionally comes out from under the bed, and there is not a damn thing we can do about it when he shows up. We must learn to cope with him and muddle along.

Thus, we are not to be grieved that we don’t control even the most important potentialities of our lives: our health, our safety, or how long we will live on this planet.

“Give up the thought that you have control. You don’t. The best you can do is adapt, anticipate, be flexible, sense the environment and respond.”  Frances Arnold, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Cal Tech

Our futile attempts at overcontrolling our lives, especially through government and politics, bring us division, frustration, distrust, anger, aggression, and ultimately despair. Our technological successes have deluded us into believing that all things eventually will be brought under our control.  “The sociocultural formation of modernity turns out to be, in a way, doubly calibrated for the strategy of making the world controllable. We are structurally compelled (from without) and culturally driven (from within) to turn the world into a point of aggression. It appears to us as something to be known, exploited, attained, appropriated, mastered, and controlled. And often this is not just about bringing things – segments of the world – within reach, but about making them faster, easier, cheaper, more efficient, less resistant, more reliably controllable.”[iv]

Illusory control, then, in the end, is an obsession with self-gratification, for individuals and identity groups. For politicians and social media mavens. For the legions of media chattering heads who so want to reshape the culture in their image. All of this is in a context of a couple of generations of the un-enculturated who have been formed not by tradition or objective standards, but by a faith in self-fulfillment that is largely self-defined by individuals and identity groups. The self-definition is rooted not in classic precepts of freedom, but in the post-modern concept of license. We build precariously on a sandy and shifting foundation of false and malicious hope: we can be anything we want to be and behave any way we choose, most especially regarding sexuality, if we don’t infringe too badly on the other person’s fancy.

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell, ‘1984’

How do we find ourselves so confounded and unmoored? We want to control, but we cannot possibly.

Sachuest Snowy Owl checking out the menu

Sachuest Snowy checking out the menu

We want to redefine our nature, but we cannot possibly. Far too large a topic for this modest post, but we can look at a corner of it. Cultures to persist and offer stable platforms for human flourishing must formally welcome adolescents into adulthood, must train, must recognize what is essential to its existence and never lose sight of forming the next generation in the principles upon which the culture rests.  This instilling of the culture must include objective truths within which the next generation can conform with certainty and find their own context. This has been the case for humans so long as there have been humans.

Our culture neglected this basic principle, and to paraphrase Chesterton, when we cease to believe in something true, it is not that we believe in nothing, but that we will believe in anything. Such is our current state. One of the worst consequences of this is the neglected initiation of young men, prolonged adolescence into their thirties and beyond, and the enduring irresponsibility of too many young men, men without fathers, and men without passages of initiation.[v] These transitions are necessary not just to our culture, but to any culture, and we lost the thread in the latter part of the last century.

“Anchises’ son had halted, pondering on so much, and stood in pity for the souls’ hard lot.” Virgil, Book Six, the Aeneid

Richard Rohr researched this unhappy phenomenon in depth, investigated its roots and consequences in his book “Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation.”   [vi] He discovered that male initiation is significant even in other species like elephants. [vii] The lack of fathers and the lack of proper initiation into manhood has devastated our society in easily foreseen ways. Rohr theorizes that rites of initiation existed in all societies and are necessary still, albeit in different forms. To help boys transition into men and inculcate in them the responsibilities of maturity in the tribe, the rites typically had five common factors, sometimes involving scarification or survival alone in the wilderness. It was always necessary that they learn these lessons, and although it is still necessary to learn for us, modernity teaches in many ways just the opposite from these:[viii]

  • Life is hard.
  • You are not important.
  • Your life is not about you.
  • You are not in control.
  • You are going to die.

We grow wise when we understand that our lives are not ours alone, nor are we in control. We grow wise as Augustine did when we realize that to love and be loved is the fundamental longing of the human heart. We grow wise when we comprehend that the evil that seems all around us is not an adolescent comic book “Dark Side” force or a creature or a thing at all, but a lack, a privation, a missed chance.  Just as dark is not a form of its own, but a lack of the good of light, and coldness is not a thing unto itself, but a privation of warmth, so too hatred, bitterness, loneliness, violence, fear, and existential disappointment are all an absence of Love. And it is for many a self-inflicted deprivation.

“The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.” Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

So, we must go out with joy to look for light where it can be found and delight in it. I was greatly heartened a couple of weeks ago when we walked another of our favorite local trails in Norman Bird Sanctuary. Along the way, we met a young earnest couple who were volunteering the afternoon of their day off cleaning out one small plot of Japanese knotweed, an aggressive invasive species that will crowd out native plants that provide food and shelter for the many birds and other wildlife that live there. They spent hours cutting and bagging the stems and dry foliage of the noxious pest. They took their time with laughter and good fellowship as they went, cutting and handling carefully so as not to disturb and scatter the seeds that will spread the weed. They cheerfully told us they will return another day to dig out the roots. No broad- spectrum damaging herbicides, just laborious, painstaking work.

The plot was about fifteen feet square. Out of 253 acres of the sanctuary. Why spend so much time, attention, and energy on such a tiny fraction of the land? A modest, difficult bit of work against such a bitter foe of the indigenous flora and fauna that we all enjoy and cherish is worth doing. Even if it does not solve the whole problem or change the micro ecosystem permanently, it changes us. If one understands that we’re not able to control every difficult challenge that comes along, that our life is about something greater than ourselves, and that we must do what we can, where and when we can, to improve, however humbly, our situation, this is a truth worth knowing.

 The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.    “Dust of Snow” Robert Frost  

[i] Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife site. Snowy owl at Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota by Lee Kensinger.

[ii] https://www.newportthisweek.com/articles/sea-ducks-return-to-sachuest-point/

[iii] Gratuitous sidebar: Perhaps the most pernicious and dangerous assumption of the whole progressive project is the illusion that we are in control, and that human progress is linear and headed to an inevitable Omega point of perfection. If only we allow the elite technocrats that we anoint to take control, all will be well irrespective of all evidence so far to the contrary.

[iv] The Uncontrollability of the World, Harmut Rosa, Medford, MA: Polity, 2020

[v] “What is the single condition of a boy’s life that correlates most strongly with whether he will turn criminal? Not income, not by a long shot. It is whether he grew up in the same home with his father. Our prisons are full to bursting with fatherless boys who never became the men and fathers that God meant them to be. The collapse of the black family has been most catastrophic, and what is the result? What anyone not befuddled with feminist ideology would have predicted, from simple observation of nature and from the universal testimony of human cultures. One out of every three black men between the ages of twenty and thirty will spend time in prison. If we blame that on racism, then we had better explain why, in the days when blacks could not ride on certain seats in the bus and could not even play major league baseball, nowhere near as many of their men were in prison. Family, first and last—the family is where you learn of God and man, good and evil, courtesy, diligence, honor, chastity, self-restraint, and true courage. Give me poverty and the family as strong as iron and in one generation in America my family will be poor no longer. That is not speculation or boasting. It is the experience of millions of immigrants who came to the United States with nothing in their pockets, but with a great fund of moral capital; with faith in God, and firm loyalty to the family.”Anthony Esolen, “Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture”

[vi] Adam’s Return, Richard Rohr, Crossroads, 2004

[vii] Elephants need fathers too. Rohr told of a true story about rogue young male elephants in Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa. They were about fifty orphans immigrated into the park to reestablish the herd and without fathers to train them. An 8’ tall creature with tusks can inflict serious damage. Which they did. Killed over fifty rhinos. The debate among the rangers was whether to euthanize the young thugs, castrate them, which would calm them down, or bring in some help. The adolescent elephants (between twelve and twenty) were in a perpetual state of “musth,” a constant flooding of reproductive hormones. This is normally tamped down by mature bull elephants in the herd that whack them around a bit and tell them to calm down. Knowing they cannot yet compete with a full-grown papa elephant, they do calm down and stop dribbling, spraying everything in sight, and acting out aggressively, which is rough on the rhinos. The rangers shipped in six mature bull elephants and within a day, the adolescents dropped out of musth, and not a single additional rhino was killed.

https://www.bbcearth.com/news/teenage-elephants-need-a-father-figure   https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg15120390-300-orphan-elephants-go-on-the-rampage/

[viii] Summary outline of Rohr’s book.

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Snow Ball Fights: Passion and Peril

“The aging process has you firmly in its grasp if you never get the urge to throw a snowball.” Doug Larson

800px-Rhode-island-mapIn the beginning, there were snowball fights after every storm, even though they presently are illegal in eight towns in Rhode Island, including nearby Newport and Jamestown. Not illegal here in Portsmouth, however, our town has a long history of dissent and rebellion against unjust laws and was founded in 1638 by Anne Hutchinson and others who wanted freedom from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Portsmouth was the site of the largest Revolutionary War[i] battle in Rhode Island. After the French Navy assisting in the effort to free Newport from the occupying British Army were scattered by a huge two-day storm and limped back to Boston to regroup and repair, the colonials were forced to withdraw.

The British occupying Newport attempted to overwhelm the Colonial Army retreating from Aquidneck Island. A series of bloody, but ultimately indecisive skirmishes with the British and their Hessian mercenaries were fought on August 29, 1778, on nearby Turkey Hill and behind stone walls that still exist on Quaker Hill where our home is now. Some mornings I’m struck with the realization that desperate men fought and died right here to help defend our freedom.  After successfully holding off the attacks, General Greene’s troops were then able to evacuate in an orderly manner and without further loss back to the mainland in North Tiverton.  But I digress.

Snowball fights in Portsmouth have so far escaped the oversight of the town ordinances, however, I think there is a state law on the books that prohibits throwing snowballs at a moving car, an offense which is punishable by up to a year in prison. I have not heard of it ever being enforced. Late last week two approximately five-year-old boys recklessly broke the law, but we declined to charge them. We were driving on Wapping Road to get to our walk along Second Beach and view the aftermath of the morning snowstorm when the two miscreants jumped up on the old stone wall behind which they had been hiding and accompanied by loud, wild war cries, let fly. Fortunately, we survived intact as the missiles fell about fifty feet short of their intended target.

Rita warned me about the attack after we had passed by them. I might have pursued the villains, but she talked me out of it. I wanted to tell them that leading the moving car properly was the key to success. Throw ahead of it and let the car run into the trajectory of a well-timed strike. As I remember when we often threw at cars and trucks as kids, at least half the thrill was being chased by our victims after we pummeled their vehicles.  The second key to success throwing snowballs at cars is not to do it from your parent’s yard and flee as soon as the brake lights go bright. I should have stopped and conducted some much-needed advance training.

We spent many determined hours building snow forts preparing for battle in the plowed embankments of our street while growing up in Massachusetts when snows were more frequent and deeper. Elaborate ramparts, observation, and attack towers and after a big storm, we could burrow some escape tunnels. If one of our architectural wonders caught my father’s eye, occasionally he would help after he got home from work and finish hardening the citadel with buckets of water to ice it up solidly. Construction was followed by many hours of snowball fights until the early winter sunsets overtook us and mothers called us home. Most frequently our retreats under cover of darkness were as indecisive as the Battle of Rhode Island and we withdrew in an orderly manner, tired, wet, and cold, but without further damage.

A second big thrill of our winter was sliding down Killer Hill on sleds both manufactured and improvised. The hill never killed any of us to my knowledge, but one naïve young friend broke his leg after we dared him to try it in a barely controllable flying saucer. Teddy struck the big oak tree at the bottom of the hill smack on at about two hundred miles an hour. Or so it seemed. As we ran down to help him, we were terrified that by challenging hapless Teddy, we had justified the name of the hill.

We never outgrow our primal impulse for snowball fights. One favorite was a memorable encounter at the UMass Amherst. The grand evening began as we slid down one of the steep slopes on campus on sturdy plastic trays purloined from the cafeteria.  Well before social media crowd sourcing, a big storm drew two large rival men’s dormitories out into the cold with very little provocation. We clashed in a major battle after the six-inch heavy, wet, snowstorm provided like a godsend the makings for perfect snowballs – must have been at least a hundred guys on a side.

One splinter company broke off and tried an ill-advised assault on a sizeable women’s dorm. The besieged occupants wisely stayed behind their stout red brick walls. Laughing and pointing at the pitiful attackers, they could be seen in sweatshirts and bathrobes through the windows strategizing their defense. The attacking force was easily repelled with wastepaper buckets of ice-cold water, poured like boiling, flaming oil from the parapets upon the hordes.

Eventually, campus police sent a couple of troopers in a patrol car to break up the conflict. The cops remained safely in their mobile unit when two hundred snowballs released on a count of three buried their car. Since there was little risk of a riot breaking out, they drove back to their warm office shaking their fists and laughing. Cold hands, undone papers due in the morning, and the late hour quelled the ardor of the combatants, and we retired back to our rooms to nurse our wounds and fire up the illegal hotplates to make hot chocolate and coffee.  I learned it is very difficult to evade a hundred snowballs thrown in unison.

“Every man should lose a battle when he is young, so he doesn’t lose a war when he is old.” George R Martin

[i] Battle of Rhode Island

Illustration by: Michel Capitaine du Chesnoy, A.d.C. du Général LaFayette, Public Domain, Wikipedia

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