The Singular of Data

My friend Jeff told me a story in response to a comment I made. I had just mentioned the travails of kid sports, especially since I enrolled my kids in a hockey program which includes one third more ice time than last year’s program. I sighed, “All consuming, you know.”

Jeff leaned back and intoned a story about his brother-in-law, whose boys were raised on the road to become hockey stars, but they were only so close to making it into the professional ranks, and now the anxiety is upon them, as young men in the late teens and early twenties, to acquire a meaningful vocation.

I said, “Can you imagine investing that much money and that much effort (giving away so much of the family life, in effect) toward a goal which has such a small chance of realization?”

Jeff shifted in his chair and recounted the tale of a dear friend of his who was a bona-fide rock star, in his own mind. He did nothing but play his guitar and practice with his band of fellow-travelers, living up the hedonistic ideal, touring Europe and Japan every year. “If you buy him a sandwich, he’ll take it home to his mom’s basement, where he lives, and save half of it for dinner the next day.”

Jeff rarely answers any question  with a propositional statement; he’s all stories, all the time. His experience is wide and varied, so I guess he can. What makes him especially delightful is that he doesn’t tell stories to fill empty space in a conversation, he’s answering a question. One story gives the answer, and then he’s done, no stringing endless tangential episodes ad infinitum.

I saw somewhere recently (and, forgive me, I can’t remember the context) someone mention that the Affordable Care Act might be screwing over huge numbers of people, but a) those numbers are still marginal, and b) the fundamentals of ACA are forged in good policy. I take that to mean, in other words, that as long as the proper number of people are served by this public policy, those who are hurt (ground to dust, more like it) by the same public policy are data. I’m under the impression that that number doesn’t even need to rise to a majority; it just needs to meet some data-triggered threshold which satisfies its designers. All others should be able to conform, no? If not, then selection has taken its course, alas.

It’s not that I’m against science, God forbid; it’s that I’m against its magisterial application in all aspects of the human experience. Public policy, public morality, public religiosity (for lack of a better word), public everything falls under the hegemony of science, as though science were some sort of impersonal absolute extracted by innumerable university studies from an easily-accessible material world. Science, in this manifestation, never serves; it is always master.

Okay, I yield the point: “ground to dust” is too much; there are worse things on this earth than ACA. Nevertheless, I will not yield the larger outcry, namely that this sentiment is a resistance to the notion that in our story-less data-gathering, individuals are being sorted in a grand perversity of science-wielding masters so that they lose their individuality, and thus their ability to serve on another. We don’t learn to serve each other by means of data; we learn by means of experience, which is brought forward through civilization through stories, wherein are the ties of myriad strands of data.

Queen Elizabeth was finally convinced that the monopolies, though they appeared to buy consolidation of her throne, were costing her far more than an open market would. The data had always been there, but the stories hadn’t trickled up to the throne.

Advertisements

Sorry About Your Friend

Charlie* came by the house today, looking like the bottom of a city garbage tote in the middle of July, if it were hot, which it’s not. I noticed right away that he couldn’t hear what I was saying; I kept having to repeat myself.

Eventually the conversation turned black, concerning a piece of property over which is some familial contention and striving. He said, “I have insurance. I’ll burn the [expletive] thing down before I let them put a For Sale sign in front of it. Ricky would have helped me.”

Ordinarily, Charlie is a nice enough guy. He takes care of his mother, who is 93, and he greets me and my children kindly, even going so far as to fetch the boys frozen popsicles when it’s hot out, which is rarely but is known to happen. The boys are forbidden to go into his house, first, out of prudence, second, because Charlie is known to invite young men into his house, whereupon he offers them drugs, then performs unspeakable acts of a sexual nature upon them while they are passed out. He represents a problem, the outbreak of leprosy in our otherwise holy camp.

“Ricky,” he continued. “Ricky Matt. He was my best friend. He’s laid out at the funeral home today.” Ah.

Ordinarily, Charlie is not fractured drunk and high by noon. His best friend was shot in the head three times by State Police after he pointed a shotgun at them. Ricky and David Sweat had had an argument in a cabin because Ricky had drunk himself into a stupor. The plan had been to make for Canada, and they were nearing the goal. This happens: self-destructive persons cannot fathom success, and they sabotage themselves. So they split up, and they were both captured.

The more pitiful of the two was killed, stone drunk. They could smell the alcohol pouring out with his blood and brains from feet away. They even offered to show Charlie the pictures of his friend. He said to me, “I didn’t want to look at them. They told me there were three holes and lots of brains.”

My neighbor was standing in front of me, suppressing the mourning reflexes with a heavy consumption of alcohol and drugs.

For fifteen years, Ricky and Charlie had written each other, dating back to when Ricky was in Mexico. After Ricky escaped from prison, State Troopers ransacked Charlie’s house (1, 2, 3…8 houses from mine), looking for all those letters and any indication of Ricky’s whereabouts or intentions. Charlie said, “I told them to get lost; they were wasting their time.” He stood there, staring at me, stupefied.

“Sorry about your friend,” I said. I wondered what it must be like to have a best friend’s violent death celebrated on television.

“He would have helped me burn it down. He always looked out for me. I know he went and did some bad things…”


*Charlie is a pseudonym

The Branch Davidians, Revisited

Waco, Texas, 1993.

David Koresh, a self-proclaimed fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the Jewish Messiah, and who also had great hair, gathered up some people and some guns and beckoned the Apocalypse. The Federal Government, led by a lady named Janet Reno, mounted her steed, sending forth her armies as a plague against the compound.

Ah! Here’s a helpful note: the feds also instructed the press media, constitutionally protected in the Bill of Rights, not to conduct any more interviews with David Koresh, a U.S. Citizen. The well-meaning Attorney General heard that there were children possibly maybe could be sexually abused, so she burned the joint down. Plus, the FBI was tired. The Branch Davidians, of course, set the fires and accelerated them with Coleman kerosene fuel. The guns were turned inward. It was a bloodbath. Seventy-six people died. Broadcast live on TV.

The Federal Government was frustrated, and understandably so, that its will was not being done, that there were threats against innocents, and that people were beginning to see the government as a failing institution. Potency is a premium attribute, nay, a premium morality. Potency means you can get things done; moreover, potency means that people can see that you can get things done. If people see that you can get things done, they will trust you. No, not trust, the other word. If people see your potency, they will…

Blast this mental block!

The president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod issued a statement on June 19, 2015, which includes the following paragraph:

As the world devolves around us from insanity to insanity, I’m reminded of the statement of John Adams that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Nowhere is that more true than in the case of the Second Amendment. As both religion and morality are on steep decline among us, we can only expect more of this insanity by individuals unhinged from the safety of families and a society normed by natural law and influenced by the genuine teaching of the Bible. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).

This marks the first attack on the second amendment I have ever considered with any seriousness, a view that I might want to adopt. Then again, morality tends to descend softly from the top down.

Elian GonzalezMonkey see, monkey do.

Think Tank Theology

luther think tank

The modern Policy Analyst (homō-vāticinius) is a weird, hybrid creature. He or she must be an effective writer, researcher, organizer, and charismatic speaker all at once. Living within the scholarly lacuna between a university professor and a religious evangelist, he or she is perpetually torn by the tensions of academic integrity and ideological purity.

The natural habitat of the policy analyst is known as the Think Tank. While they exists to produce novel research, their deeper raison d’être is advocacy. Unlike the lobbyist, however, they do not speak for any particular firm or special interest. Rather, they keep their grip on non-profit status by appealing to causes or principles of broader appeal. Like a lion stalking its prey, the outcome of a research project is more often than not a foregone conclusion of economic correctness. Yet by pooling relevant facts and talking points under one heading, research generates the much vaunted “citation need” for any on-going debate.

Think Tanks tend to be lean operations, appearing more grandiose to outsiders thanks to the equally enigmatic species known and anointed as the “Senior Fellow”. Following Coase’s theory of the firm, Think Tanks do not spend their precious donations on elaborate office buildings full of retired professors typing out op-eds. Instead, more typically the full time staff is exactly contained by the needs of daily operations, with a network of Senior Fellows who carry on their own day jobs, essentially outsourced. Some of these Fellows produce nothing — they merely lend their name — while others are prolific, fed either by a salary or commission.

Such organizations provide a useful illustration of the limits of Coasean / transaction cost theories. While clearly shaped by a cost function, Think Tanks are also machines of persuasion to a theological degree. In a world of pervasive moral skepticism, Think Tanks stand as entities of secular normative force, continuously prescribing social and economic reforms couched in prophetic rhetoric.

While each organization has its own positive mission, they are nonetheless drawn in particular to the dissident act of debunking. The centrality of apostolic reform to a Think Tank’s mission thus makes them deeply Lutheran institutions. Like Martin Luther, himself an Augustinian friar, the archetypal policy analyst contemplates — but then must share the fruits of his contemplation, to nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the legislature’s door, now in optional infographical form.

Finally, the youngest friars of all — the next generation of public entrepreneurs — undergo a period of cloistered asceticism, more commonly known as the unpaid internship. Though he is free and belongs to no one, he has made himself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. And once endowed with the coveted Letter Of Reference, the young policy analyst proceeds alongs, fully prepared to preach the gospel.

Related: The Problem of Evil and its Coasian Solution

On the Purposes of Schooling

I accidentally insulted a teacher friend of mine (she teaches Grade 9 somewhere in the Niagara Peninsula), so she accidentally insulted me back. I mentioned to her, in connection with the transmission of the fine arts to the next generation, that it’s a little easier for us, since we school our children at home. Immediately, she responded, “I have a friend who’s Catholic who has a large family, and when their kids went to high school, they were unable to function socially.”

It’s the kind of response that makes my left eye twitch. I disciplined myself, reaching for a glass of scotch instead of my revolver, and I said, “We make extra sure our kids are integrated socially amongst their peers.” She would have none of it. She was on offense: “When they got to high school age, the administration had to split them into different schools because the only social interaction they had was family.” It was too late to change the premise because I had gone on defense. It seems that everyone who has an opinion against home schooling knows personally a family whose children do not integrate well socially. I think there is one such family in every region that everyone knows.

She didn’t mention their math scores, nor their language arts scores, neither how they performed in the sciences, or even what the socializing issues were in specific, just that the school administration deemed they were poor performers in social interaction.

The truth is my wife and I don’t work hard in the very least to socially integrate our kids. We throw them out of the house for hours at a time.

The contention is that it is not the purpose of school to learn social skills. In my biased mind, the problem which that school’s administration had was that this Catholic family was filled with children who were introverted learners, and they were overwhelmed by the meat grinder of life as bells, desks, timed tests, and things due. Whereas their previous learning environment was one of nurture and care under mother and father, an environment designed to foster growth and encourage the person, the public school system is an environment of ganglia, clocks, and improving standardized test scores. Besides which, I can’t conceive of a high school social network that is actually healthy.

high school

Isn’t there a body of literature, both scholarly and juvenile fiction, which treats the social difficulties many children encounter when they switch public schools?

There is no doubt that the parents of this Catholic family acceded to the wishes of the administration because they decided, in their parental wisdom, that the advantages of institutionalized schooling outweighed the disadvantages, probably on the understanding that college preparatory work is difficult to administer at home. There are advantages to pooling resources for certain kinds of education.

Nevertheless, in my mind, the problem is the other way around: why couldn’t the high school kids integrate these outsiders?

The Problem of School Mascots

Local Sports Talk Radio, as I have argued elsewhere, is the application of a handful of social sciences and economics, and a good sports talk radio show host, like Mike Schopp of WGR in Buffalo, (@shopptalk, who, by the way, is a scotch whisky connoisseur like yours truly), must fearlessly engage at all levels with some deftness, else his ratings plummet.

School mascots, particularly those of American Indian progeniture, are a source of anxiety, both for those who are offended by them and for those who have some emotional investment in preserving them. Today, June 3, 2015, Schopp made one of the most cogent arguments I have ever heard against maintaining these racist or near-racist mascots which hearken to a time of a peculiar American injustice.

For the record, I grew up a Washington Redskins football fan; in addition, my personal ancestry includes a fair measure of American Indian. It’s very difficult, on the one hand, to argue that the word “Redskins” is not at least vaguely racist and does not include some pretty hefty racist baggage in its etymology. On the other hand, the Washington Redskins is an NFL football franchise, not a 19th Century Army Cavalry unit scouring the western deserts for Apaches to kill. And it’s a bit of my childhood, right? We used to tease my dad that, when he spent time in the sun, his skin turned the color of the Washington Redskins mascot, and the franchise was championship-caliber at the time.

Washington-Redskins-Logo

The problem is fundamentalism. On the one side, it is essential to scour from view anything that bears a connection to a vile past. For example, if any person derives pleasure in such an image or name, then that person is participating as a belligerent in those past vile acts. On the other side, it is essential to maintain at all costs those mascots because they are ritualistic and deeply personal, occupying the same emotional space an animistic religion might. Taking those images and names away is literally removing a sacred totem.

These things really are contextual. As Mike Schopp remarked, “I am not emotionally attached to the mascot. I’m not making an argument that you should be like me; I’m just telling you how I am about it. I couldn’t care less if they changed my high school’s mascot to The Nachos or whatever. In fact, wouldn’t that be a great gimmick? ‘We’re The Nachos, and we give away free nachos at our football games.'”

Local sports talk radio was considering the topic because a local high school, Lancaster High, has recently changed its mascot, by vote of the student body, from the Redskins to the Legends. The vote to do so was an overwhelming majority.

I think this is brilliant. This non-argument argument gets right to the core: why are you emotionally involved in a mascot? Is it because you can’t be made by those liberal anti-culturalists to give away your childhood? Or your childishness? Yes? No? Maybe? Is it because you can’t stand those dunderheads who won’t see how offensive they are to people who aren’t a member of the oppressive American middle class?

All right, then. Why don’t we vote on it? In fact, at the high school level, or even the college level, why don’t we vote on the school mascot every eight years? That way, two full classes can come and go, enjoying the important cultural unifying effect of being a Warrior or a Bullet or a Bear or what-have-you, and then, the new kids can reconsider. While they’re reconsidering, we can talk to each other sweetly about what we want our mascot to be and why we want it to be that one and not another one.

Let’s take, for example, the Washington Wizards. In the unlikely event that the KKK becomes ascendant in the Midwest, perhaps Wizards becomes a terribly evocative mascot. Is it time to change? Well, here your arguments for and against would be helpful, and the local sports talk radio ratings would be sky high.

Let’s take an example concerning aesthetics: most collective singular mascots, like the Heat, are horrible. But some, like the Crimson Tide, are heavenly. Fierce, silly, whimsical, retrospective, reactive: the tug-of-war among the various factions of fans would create quite the marketing bonanza!

More importantly, I think a regular reconsideration of school mascots would loosen the bonds of fundamentalism. Let’s say that I honestly believe that Redskins doesn’t really harm anyone, but you do. Your job becomes one of persuading me. We take a vote. I win. Your job still remains that of persuasion, because you know another vote is coming.

On the other hand, after some time, perhaps you come to think that maybe, just maybe, you’re expending gigawatts of energy on something that might be a burnt-out 60-watt lightbulb, and you just let it go. Who knows?

Hot Cop on Cop Action

Ferguson and Baltimore are raw blisters on America’s hindquarters, the boiling symptoms of a festering disease that has infected America’s thin blue line. I was thinking, however, it may be related to a basic birth defect.

Americans have heard since the very beginning that they are a barbarous and uncivilized society. It was a criticism during the Cold War from European Soviet Russia that stuck in European ears: we are gangsters, lawless cowboys. Ronald Reagan purposefully embodied the criticism, going so far as to dress the detachment of American athletes to the Sarajevo, Yugoslavia-hosted 1984 Winter Olympics as cowboys. We were still under the threat of Soviet nukes, so the sentiment of lawlessness under that kind of lawfulness was beautiful.

It calls to mind however, the inculcation of lawlessness in American society, that we are a barbarous society from birth, shooting people only when we can see the whites of their eyes, which requires hot and cold blood at the same time, driving the seven-hundred year old throne out of his own colonies. What was on TV in the afternoons, and with cable awaiting in the near-future so that we all watched it together? What sold soap and candy bars?

It was Little House on the Prairie, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Bonanza, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and a handful of other TV shows that were set in the Wild Wild West, not to mention all the weird outer space shows (before we realized how boring space actually is), which were just projections of the wild, lawless American character onto a starry black canvas. Lawlessness abounded, and civilized individuals moved and breathed within it, dealing with it one-on-one, head-to-head, with the occasional hired law man with deputized posse rounded up. Good people even sometimes died in the swirling maelstrom of lawlessness, wherein towering individuals advanced with strength against the cosmic fury to carry out the revenge demanded by flesh and blood.

By chance, I have two cop neighbors. Not by coincidence, ours is a very quiet street, and considering that a retired cop lives further down the street and the judge lives on the corner, it is also always plowed first during the winter. This is convenient. One officer is my friend, and I am in awe of him, toeing the blue line in my behalf. He’s a big guy, too, of Greek or Turkish decent, tall and solidly built, casting a more solid shadow than I do, darkened, I think, with that olive Mediterranean complexion. He’s pretty imposing when he approaches you at hockey speed on ice skates, but when he puts on his cop outfit, completing it with the reinforced Mylar bullet proof vest, he’s downright fearsome.

I’ve talked to him a bit about policing, and I have the impression that he does not think philosophically about his job. Further, he earnestly believes that it is his calling to stand between civilization and barbarity.

I have seen the time-series charts which show that policemen in the United States have killed more people in the line of duty, on average, per year than in all of Germany, England, France, and Italy combined since World War II. Well, yeah, but they’re civilized.

1984Olympics