Participating In The Death Cult

Statistics predict that a city of 1 million should expect to lose about 105 people this year to automobile accidents. Those are the statistics, an average for the last ten years or so. Recently I was driving from Buffalo, NY to Barrie, ON, which means that I drove through a population of about 6.5 million people within two and half hours. Therefore, in my immediate circles, between now and May 1, 2016, over six hundred people will have been killed on the highways. Six hundred people!

On the way back from Barrie, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, when we were all tired, I passed two injury accidents in the Greater Toronto Area. I don’t think there were any fatalities, but there was considerable property damage, and, in one case, a rescue responder was furiously trying to pry open the car door to get to the driver. Add that as an appendix to the death toll. As soon as we had all acknowledged the wreckage, we accelerated up to speed, hurtling our automobiles toward the exchange from the 403 to the Queen Elizabeth Way, which invariably yields a thrilling experience on the western shores of Lake Ontario. Toronto, by the way, is a magnificent city.

Business, not pleasure, took me to Barrie and back, business which I needed in order to pay for my stuff and my activities, as well as all my family’s stuff, activities, and needs, all of which I am loathe to acknowledge as unnecessary; I will not say no to a single thing as long as I can drive my automobile to fulfill a contract which enables me to earn money to acquire it.

This February, on the way to a hockey tournament in the Southern Tier of New York State, we encountered a massive blizzard and plummeting temperatures. The northbound I-90 suddenly emptied of traffic. There were no automobiles, no, not one. “Uh oh,” I said to the boys. “That means there was a fatality.” A few miles down the road, there it was: an automobile exactly like mine, same make, same model, same year. What saved me, evidently, was the color: his was red, mine is green. We saw it on the news: the man’s 11-year old daughter was killed when a tractor trailer plowed into the passenger side in a “freak” accident. “Freak” accident in the middle of a gigantic snowstorm.

A roll of the dice in the heavens, I suppose, sent a gust of wind to catch his automobile at just the right moment, turning it into the path of a tractor trailer.

I looked at my 11-year old son and said, “There but for the grace of God go we.” He sits where she sat when she died.

My wife will no longer buy chocolate unless she can be confident, through certification and other means, that slaves did not produce it. But I don’t know: what certification process actually gives confidence that phones, shoes, chocolates, etc. aren’t produced by slaves?

Hence rituals, where “we now call to order this august branch of the International Men’s And/Or Women’s Horned Beast Lodge” to spend some money on communal food, pick a charity to benefit, socialize, gossip, and then disperse.

Maybe it’s as simple as “Wilma! I’m home! No, Dino! No, no!” There exists for just about everyone something done which is ritualistic, formal, expected, a something which is an effort to wash away the stench of participation in The Death Cult. Stepping in cat dirt everywhere comes to mind, which functions for poor Ren as an everyday ritual to recommence home life with his dear Stimpy.


Rituals push aside The Death Cult momentarily, creating spaces wherein we exhort one another, wherein we enjoy a respite from what evil lies beyond, wherein we love one another. Rituals can even occur within the confines of the automobile, those moments for us when the now 12-year old connects his iPod to the stereo system, adjusting its parameters until he has filled the interior space with his music. Outside is death, celebrated, encouraged, sacrificed to, and we participate in it at the expense of only one hundred people per million per year.

Well, that’s just the death toll. You know what I mean.

Battling Anxiety Through Free Range Parenting

A further response to Samantha, who does not like the term free-range parenting, as she says, “Free range just means kids are allowed to be kids.”

This resonates. I have several distinct memories as a kindergartener. Two of them are: 1) I wept uncontrollably when Mommy left me with the stranger in the building with the cold floors and the big windows to let you see outside. 2) Later in the year, I struggled with the math, undecided whether I should count kindergarten as one year toward the completion of 12th Grade. I could not cope with the idea that THIRTEEN YEARS OF THIS PRISON HELL?!?

Institutionalized school is a place, first and foremost, to develop the several kinds of social anxiety. My favorite was performance anxiety, namely that I had to make good grades or I could not possibly succeed in life. On the face of it, this is an entirely contentious statement, but I don’t care: I hated school from day one; during the school year I hated every day of my life, knowing that if I misbehaved, Teacher was going to pin a note to my shirt, sending me home to tell Mommy that she needed yet another conference in order to strategize behavior modification. I wasn’t doing a damn thing wrong: I just wouldn’t sit still. Nevertheless, the first thing I learned in school, about school, at age five, which has never been unlearned, is that the institution is always watching me. From those moments forward, life has been about coping with this intrusion into my personal emotional space.

Roger Waters captured this intrusion perfectly in his little ditty, having the children sing so sweetly, “We don’t need no education.” That record has been played about a billion times over the past thirty years, and not just because it has a good rhythm and a beat you can dance to. The song embodies musically a visceral response to all kinds of anxiety, even the same anxiety you feel when the IRS or CRA demands to know your every wage, tip, and other compensation.


This anxiety is the primary reason my wife and I practice a free-range parenting, as it were. It’s not that there is no anxiety out there, no magical escape from anxiety, no anxiety-free monastery (as one of my friends has remarked about certain quarters of the home schooling world: “the denim jumper brigade”), but that learning the ciphers necessary for groping through this mortal coil can be done in a lower-anxiety environment.

The home, in other words, can be relatively free from institutional intrusion into the emotional world of a child.

Readers who have successfully emerged from the gauntlet of institutional education can attest that success in “real life” (whatever that is) didn’t require so much behavior modification, such competition to achieve, such confrontation with the institution. Again, I’m advocating a via media here: behavior modification is necessary, competing to achieve must be instilled, the confrontation with the institution is inevitable. Too much of these things threatens to create a person who struggles to experience pleasure in the challenges of everyday, ordinary experiences, whether they are climbing their way to the top, or are satisfied in a low-ceiling career, or find their way to the end somewhere in the middle.

Therefore, I submit to Samantha another term: low-anxiety parenting. Failure is always an option, and failure is probably good for you. Every once in a while.

This post is the second post following up “Let’s Go Do Something Dangerous,” a companion to “The Structure of Free-Range Parenting.”

The Structure of Free Range Parenting

A commenter on my defense of free-range parenting mentioned that she doesn’t like the term “free-range.” I take it as an implication that the burden is on those who dislike unstructured, unsupervised free-time for children. Unfortunately, the social context has changed so that the burden is on those of us who are risking our children being kidnapped by the zealots of the state, complete with badges and everything.

It should come as no surprise to you, dear reader, that we also practice something called “home schooling,” where my wife and I inculcate ciphering skills unto our children at home, without any help or compulsion from the state whatsoever, meaning, that in a state of total anarchy, without government schools, private schools, parochial schools, or even community one-room schoolhouses, our kids would still be able to cipher.

New York state, being interested as it is in the ability of her citizens to cipher, tests us, and our children have not been found lacking. The implications of this are rather clear, with respect to so-called free-range parenting: there is a some sort of structure in our household.

In fact, on reflecting upon our home life, I am convinced that we are very structured; it’s just that I wouldn’t know how to describe it: our daily life must resemble, to an outsider, one of those outlandish perpetual motion machines of the Medieval Era. And then the door opens, two boys stumble out, the door slams behind them, and they do not return inside for a very long time.

Nathanael D. Snow makes the point elsewhere that children have been referred to in ancient times as arrows in a quiver. He further remarks that arrows, however, are not made for the quiver; they are made for the bow, to be nocked and fired into the world. Children, in other words, have potency. They are, now, in the neighborhood, within a literal arrow’s shot, carrying our life into other people’s lives, and there our philosophies and beliefs are being tested. Later, they will be fired into the world at large, to lodge into it, hopefully wounding it with justice, morality, virtue, and every other sort of good (to stretch the metaphor). I mean, we hope we’re moral and virtuous in our household, and we measure it against what we consider moral institutions, and we further hope that what we are trying to teach sticks to our arrows, like a healing elixir to act as an antidote against all the poison out there.

Who knows? We’re only one family. And who knows if we are actually moral and virtuous? Not knowing, nevertheless, we’re willing to be tested.

This post is the first of two as follow-ups to “Let’s Go Do Something Dangerous,” a companion to “Battling Anxiety Through Free-Range Parenting.

Happy Birthday, Thomas, From Nicaragua

It’s my son’s 12th birthday today. I was in Nicaragua for his 9th birthday, doing some leadership training. “Do you have any children?” they asked. “Yes,” I said. “Two boys. Thomas is turning 9 tomorrow.” And then I heard a lot of chattering about “sus hijos,” and I was pleased that they thought so much about it, but I had work to do, so I returned to the task at hand.

The next day: Que sorpresa! They sang a happy birthday song to him, knowing that I could get it uploaded to him by that evening. At first I thought they were going to sing “Feliz Cumpleaños,” which is what all good Grade 9 Spanish language students learn, but they didn’t. Well, they did, but it’s nothing like you can imagine until you’ve heard it. There was a moment when I wasn’t sure what paradise I had come into. It was a kind of ecstasy of love that electrified and healed. For those of you who have an ear for a proper Spanish accent, I do not, and for my own pronunciation I offer you mis más sinceras disculpas. Take a listen:

Some notes:

  • I was there at their request.
  • It was not a mission trip.
  • They paid me to be there. I watched them do it, each individual, with cash, every day, for two sessions per day for ten days.
  • Suyapa Beach is a magnificent place to rest and relax during that all-important free weekend.
  • They apply what I teach them, for better and for worse, all around. That is, I learn, and they learn. My learning is far easier than theirs. Describing it requires a lengthy post, mostly involving family relationships.
  • I got sick. Look: I get sick when I visit Michigan, so it was a given that I was going to get sick visiting the tropics. At one point I convinced myself that I was going to perish of a tropical fever, but they took care of me, and I had the distinct impression they liked that they could take care of me.
  • A little bragging: after my first time down there they have requested me by name, that I come to them to teach them, cycling through new students once every three or four years. We have a mutual respect–love–for each other.

The Factory Closed

A Generation X Tale

We were kids when the factories closed. This is significant.

Can you imagine being told that if you work hard in school, keep your nose clean, and watch your social Ps & Qs you’d get a job right out of high school, and if you went to college, you’d get a career? Guaranteed?

Yes, we were guaranteed. The misery of school was therefore bearable, knowing that enduring thirteen years of it would yield a steady flow of cash and the strong possibility of upward mobility. We were treated to thousands upon thousands of stories about young and upwardly-mobile professionals, the Yuppies. There was even a very popular and critically acclaimed TV show about Yuppies, Thirtysomething. They made so much money they had problems! Real problems!

At the same time, they were inventing terms for us, the children of the Baby Boom. First, we were Generation X, the unknown quotient, which I found, immediately, insulting. Then we were the Latchkey Kids, the first generation of children ever in the history of the universe to come home from school alone, with no parental supervision. My mom and dad were wise enough to hire a high-school girl to supervise us while she watched TV and talked on the phone. Misfits records, and the like, became my surrogate parents. Other kids picked other things.

I have distinct memories of riding around on bikes and skateboards talking to my coevals about these new terms for us. We were talking about them because there was no framework for us to interpret what was happening. It was true: the stability of the middle of the 20th century was coming to an end, and it was emerging that the stability of the middle of the 20th Century was something of a pristine ideal, somewhat removed from common, everyday experience.

Here are some examples: even though culture was unified by the three television networks and endless reruns of cultural artifacts via syndication, cable television was nascent, driving a wedge into that unity. Independent radio stations sprang up, splintering pop music into a thousand shards. Proto-emo, anyone? It was on a radio station in Mobile, Alabama, circa 1988.

That’s just pop culture, right? Perhaps. Perhaps symptomatic. We talked an awful lot about divorce. There was no such thing as counseling for children whose families were splitting up. What dad did to mom, and what mom did to dad, in full view of the children, was unprecedented, at least by sheer number of cases. We ceased being individual tragic stories and became statistics, truly the heirs to our name: psychology was racing to solve for x.

Dad never wore a shirt when he drove the kids to Church and Sunday School. Two hours later, he was at Grandma’s house for Sunday Dinner.

The E.T. movie resonated so strongly because it reflected this disintegration. If you recall the setting, E.T. happened upon little Elliot and Gertie’s house ensconced in prototypical American Suburbia, a home overseen by a single mom, who was struggling to provide financial and emotional support for everyone, even for her teenage son Michael. Why was she single? Unspoken, the truth was that her husband ran off to Mexico with another woman. E.T. rescues them all with a strong resurrection motif. Effective, eh?

See? The bottom was falling out. The abyss has always been there for every generation, but Generation X is unique in that its progenitors conceived of a lie that there was a scaffolding over which to traverse the abyss in ignorant bliss. Who believed it more: the Baby Boomers or their children?

The fascistic scaffolding of school gave birth to a stillborn generation, having trained us for the factory floor or for factory management. Our parents, split up, a hopeless Penelope, stood upon the shores of Lake Erie, gazing westward, waiting for the lofty sails of Bethlehem Steel to set upon the horizon, marking its triumphant return from the Far East. We popped out of the womb into a decrepit and empty cinder-block shell. Thankfully, the nearby bars were still open, and nostalgia flowed there freely, and some of us made do until the beer ran dry.

Not all of us, at least not entirely. Angry is no condition in which to navigate the abyss. The mainsail can be repaired. We are the mothers of invention, after all; every generation is.

Invisible Cliffs and Chesteron’s Fence

Forgive me for trying your patience from the start, but I would like to begin with a lengthy quote from Diffusion of Innovations:

Rice is central to Balinese life. The steep slopes of volcanic soil, stretching down from mis-covered mountain peaks to the sea, have been ingeniously terraced by Balinese farmers over the past eight centuries so that irrigation water descends from a high crater lake, tumbling from one sall rice plot to another, inching its way downward for miles to the sea. For centuries these rice paddies have produced up to a ton of food per acre per year, with little or no added fertilizer. Because of the ample rice yields, the small, densely populated island of Bali supports several million people. The high rice yields are made possible by a complex irrigation system that is coordinated by a hierarchical system of HIndu priests and water temples that regulate water flows. At the top of this indigenous system is the high priest, the Jero Gde (pronounced “Jeero G’day”), at the main water temple at Ulun Danu Batur, the crater lake near the peak of Batur volcano. Here offerings are made to Dewi Dano the water goddess, whom Balinese believe dwells in the crater lake.

The Jero Gde serves as the overall manager of the sacred irrigation system. Below him are a series of major dams, each with a Hindu priest and a water temple responsible for regulating water flows. Lower levels of the irrigation system consist of smaller weirs, each with a minor water temple to regulate water flows. At the local level are 1,300 subaks, each a water users’ cooperative association of about a hundred farmers. Each subak has a water shrine and a priest. Such an elaborate, hierarchically tiered social organization is needed to operate the Balinese irrigation system. Water is a scarce resource, and an efficient system is necessary to distribute the water in an equitable manner.

However, the water temple system of Bali does far more than just deliver water to the rice crops. Each rice terrace is a complex ecosystem, whose variable factors are carefully balanced by the Jero Gde and his cadre of Hindu water priests. For instance, a single farmer cannot control the pests in his small rice plot unless he coordinates with his neighbors. Otherwise, the rats, brown leafhoppers, and other pests simply migrate from field to field. The solution is for hundreds of farmers in several neighboring subaks to plant, irrigate, and harvest simultaneously, and then to leave their rice fields to fallow for several weeks. Evidence of such concerted action is easily visible: thousands of rice fields on a mountain slope will either be growing green, harvest yellow, or fallow brown. But until anthopologist Lansing began to investigate, no one understood how the decisions of these hundreds of rice farmers were orchestrated. Rice experts, if they knew of the indigenous irrigation system, dismissed it as unimportant. Lansing (1991) said, “Modern irrigation experts thought the ancient temple system was mere religious nonsense.” Throughout the world, technologists often disparage indigenous learning systems.

The Balinese ecological system is so complex because the Jero Gde must seek an optimum balance of various competing forces. If all subaks were planted at the same time, pests would be reduced; however, water supplies would be inadequate due to peaks in demand. On the other hand, if all subaks staggered their rice-planing schedule in a completely random manner, the water demand would be spread out. The water supply would be utilized efficiently, but the pests would flourish and wipe out the rice crop. So the Jero Gde must seek an optimal balance between pest control and water conservation, depending on the amount of rainfall flowing into the crater lake, the levels of the different pest populations in various subaks, and so forth.

Here is the punchline:

Indonesian government officials eagerly introduced the Green Revolution rice varieties in Bali in the 1970s. These innovations had tripled rice yields in other areas, and the agricultural change agents hoped to increase Bali’s food production. Balinese farmers were told to grow three, rather than two, crops per year, and to adopt pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The centuries-old indigenous water-and-fallow system, managed by the Hindu priests, was abandoned by many farmers. “As a consequence, the incidence of bacterial and viral [rice] diseases, together with insect and rat populations, began to increase rapidly. Imported organochloride pesticides made some dents in the rising pest population, but also killed off eels, fish, and in some cases, farmers in the rice fields” (Lansing, 1987). Instead of increasing, rice yields in Bali dropped precipitously. Balinese rice farmers promptly returned to the water temple system and discontinued the miracle rice varieties (Bardini, 1994). So much for the Green Revolution in Bali.

I have spoken of the tense balance between experimentation and taboo. I framed it in terms of invisible cliffs—some taboos discourage us from treading through areas where we might fall into such a thing.

The Balinese example shows that this is no abstraction. The highly complex water temple system managed problems that were a matter of life and death for the people that lived there. From the outside, however, it just looked like a lot of ornate religious procedures. No one considered that it might be a “knowledge system,” so no one attempted to figure out what knowledge it might contain. The Green Revolution people just reflexively brought their own general expertise, the way they would for any locality. They ended up walking them right off the cliff, a process which Lansing documented at length in his book.

Patrick has boldly stood athwart Sweet Talk’s general Burkean bent and shouted “I am a hearty skeptic of tradition. I think it has no independent value and no explanatory power.” In conversation, he reiterates his skepticism towards’ Chesterton’s famous formulation:

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

What I like about Chesterton’s fence is that, unlike a lot of formulations of traditionalism, it isn’t a categorical ban on crossing a given line. It’s simply stacking the burden of evidence on those arguing against tradition in a given case.

The Bali example is much beloved by Burkeans. But the fact of the matter is that it is largely a curiosity in the much more consequential story of the spread of the Green Revolution, something that beat back Malthusian dynamics for an enormous number of the world’s poorest people. The innovations it spread have made it possible to feed the largest global population in history with much less land than we used to need to feed a far smaller population.

Sometimes an old religious system really just is ornate, and greater material betterment could be found through reform or abandonment. Sometimes being time-tested just means, as Patrick says, that something has been exceptionally lucky. Certainly traditionalists are constantly struggling against a persistent (that is, time-tested!) anti-traditional strain in traditional Western philosophical thought dating back at least to Plato. Slavery is another institution with a very long history, which has repeatedly emerged in many different societies around the world. Moreover, the conditions under which the Great Enrichment took place were very historically contingent and emerged after centuries of (again, time-tested) feudalism.

The Bali example, therefore, should not be taken as a discouragement against change or innovation, but instead a reminder of Chesterton’s fence. It should also remind us that what works in general may not always work in particular applications. Ronald Coase, no enemy of strong property rights, argued with his co-author that the national mandate to switch to private farming in China actually created a reduction in production efficiency in several specific locales. The reason is that local entrepreneurship between public and semi-private actors had actually resulted in some idiosyncratic arrangements that more effectively dealt with the particular conditions of those locales. The mandated system was good in general but not as good in particular cases. Coase and Wang believe that China’s success stems largely from the fact that this mandate was an exception—in general the system that developed was one in which provinces experimented with their own solutions and were encouraged to share what they discovered, with imitation of the most successful being left a choice rather than a mandate.

Some might think that, with Lansing’s research, we now have enough of an understanding of the Balinese water temple system and the problems it seeks to address in order to improve it rationally. And that’s certainly a possibility. More likely is that small-scale experimentation could help refine it without replacing it; such holistic systems are difficult to test true substitutes for without throwing the whole thing out.

Additionally, there are a lot of things that an economist, looking at the system, might be skeptical of—the fact that the smallest unit is a farming cooperative, for instance, rather than a privately owned farm. But it’s clear that the sacred plays a huge role in making the system work—beyond practical considerations, the religious justifications for the system have a solid, conjective reality. As with conjective matters generally, this is always up for renegotiation—when the Green Revolution experts came, many defected to their side. But an important part of what made the system work for as long as it has worked is the faith of the farmers, to say nothing of the priests. So technically superior alternatives may have a hard time achieving the same level of group coordination that the water temple system has, for purely S-Variable reasons.

Tradition is a storehouse of s-variable values; this is another reason to take it seriously.

I’m Not Saying My Opponent is Pro-Infanticide, But…

Consider Daniel Russell on vague concepts:

A classic description of vague concepts holds that a vague concept F is such that there will be ‘borderline cases’ of F, that is, cases in which no method of making F more precise could settle in a privileged way whether the thing is F or not. Vagueness thus arises because of the concept itself, not because we happen to lack a method that would settle these cases.

Russell discusses what he calls vague satis concepts; these are cases where there’s some threshold point between being X and not being X, but there is no sharp boundary. The divide is vague. Trivial examples include what counts as bald or tall. More serious examples include personhood and virtue. Russell argues that representative examples will do not due for understanding vague satis concepts, and instead you need a model.

When we try to say what personhood really is, we construct a theoretical model of what we take to be the essential features of personhood, in some kind of reflective equilibrium, and realized to the fullest degree, since the model must illuminate the central cases, not just join their ranks. This model, we should note, is an ideal, and therefore not merely a central case: you or I could stand as a central case of personhood, but not as a model of personhood, since particular persons always have shortcomings in some dimension or other of personhood, a shortcoming that the model is to reveal as a shortcoming.

Models are a tool for understanding vague satis concepts, but as Russell points out in his description of vague concepts generally, there will always be unresolveable borderline cases, no matter how accurate or precise the model.

I believe that tacit knowledge and norms fill the space that no model possibly can. And that we should take taboos in this area very seriously, lest we walk off a cliff, or persuade people to make an abominable act like infanticide morally permissible. Arguments about the personhood of infants, devoid of a belief in the soul, seem from a rational perspective like little more than drawing arbitrary lines. But precisely because borderline cases in vague satis concepts cannot be resolved with rational models, we should not cavalierly trample over the lines established by tradition.

I, for one, am glad to live in a civilization where infanticide is considered one of the most vile, most unforgivable of immoral acts.

Previous Posts in Thread

Let’s Go Do Something Dangerous

It’s motorcycle season up here in Western New York, the season of paradise finally having returned to us: six months of weather-driven ecstasy that would make a poppy field jealous. Men and women (mostly men) who are rediscovering freedom mount up on hogs to ride away from fetters upon the low rumble of open internal combustion. Commemorating the rising spring sun of motorbiking, women set out the yellow “Look” signs in their front yards, weeping and ululating as women of yore did when the warriors set off in the spring, looking for war.

LOOK_Sign_ONE_programI think they should take them down. You cannot serve two masters: you must either love danger and hate safety or hate danger. To lay a wreath of guilt upon ordinary automobile motorists is unconscionable.

  1. Motorcyclists are, by nature, risk-takers. They would not be riding motorcycles otherwise. Actuarial tables do not lie.
  2. A motorcycle is much smaller than a typical automobile, and, thereby, much more difficult to see.
  3. Motorcyclists tend to prefer the “flat-black” aesthetic in the motorcycle, the clothing, and the helmet. Black, as nature would have it, absorbs light, etc.
  4. A typical “fender-bender” involving two automobiles in a “look” situation will probably yield an angry exchange, perhaps a witty joke when heads are cooled, an assessment of damage and fault, and a repair bill that will probably not exceed the deductible of a common collision-insurance rider. The same incident involving a motorcycle and an automobile will probably yield life-threatening injuries to the motorcyclist. A safety-rated crash helmet will protect the head but will not protect the body like one belted into the cockpit of an automobile. The laws of physics prevail. The lower-end caskets start at about $1,000.
  5. We need men and women who appreciate danger, and embrace it, not fear it. A society that fears danger is already dead (let the reader feel free to supply their own qualifiers).

I once took my boys, when they were still little, around 7 and 4, to the Erie Canal to go fishing. I set the older boy up with basic tackle and left him alone to try to fish. The younger boy I took aside to the nearest bench, which was about 25 yards away, to get him set up. There was a recalcitrant knot in his line, so I was intent on that, not watching the older boy. A white-haired man approached me, laying his shadow across my work.

“Is that your child over there?” he asked, pointing to the older one.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m teaching him to fish.”

“He doesn’t have a personal flotation device.”

“Come again?” I asked.

“He isn’t wearing a personal flotation device,” he repeated. I blinked. I had no idea what game this was. He continued, “If he goes into the water, you go to jail.” In a civilized world: a) this man never speaks to me; b) his protasis has the apodosis “he may drown.”

Being a good citizen, I cowed and summoned the older boy over to me, but I was incensed. What I should have said was (l’esprit de l’escalier being what it is), “I’m willing to take that risk in order to teach the boy not to tip into the water, like a idiot.” And that really is the goal. For safety we have become barbarians to each other.

The Mrs. and I are conscientious free-range parents. They are thrown out of the house, given bicycles and other wheels for locomotion, and told the range of their freedom, which has a minimum length of time. It has ever been thus, according to our parental wisdom that they have become mature enough to experience freedom from us, and we from them. There is a risk, of course. One or both of them might get hurt, or even killed, and we do not want that. We would be devastated, and we would probably seek recriminations if possible, being emotionally-driven creatures as we are. The risk increase of their getting hurt or killed without us, as opposed to the risk of the same hurt or death coming to them with our being there with them, which is infinitesimal to begin with, is multiplying very small numbers, still giving you a very small number.

The idea, of course, is to instill in them a certain measure of wisdom to trust their instinct when it says to avoid certain situations, to reason through certain difficulties they may encounter, and to avoid high-risk/low-reward behavior. Where is the balance between risk and reward? I don’t know. Each of them will work it out for himself, hopefully with minimal pain, but not too minimal. Pain teaches. If anything, pain establishes thresholds for endurance, which builds character.

What kind of pain will you endure to acquire this object of your desire? Will it give you happiness? Is the exchange beneficial?

There is a bully across the street, an unlikely candidate (sweet boy), but his family circumstances are not good, and he is acting out (as the saying goes) by picking on my smaller boy–actually physically hurts him. Because my boy is free to come and go (unlike at school), we do not insinuate ourselves into this situation. He is free to return, like a dog to vomit, to that environment, and he is free to avoid it. Better yet, he is free to try to work out some sort of boundary with the kid. Believe it or not, he asks us our counsel without asking for our effective presence, and we give the former freely.

Naturally, his older brother is supposed to keep an eye on the situation, as a witness and as a bigger presence than the bully. He’s not very good at it yet, but that’s the point. They’re working out brotherhood and neighborhood under the wide open blue sky and the all-seeing sun.

If it is true the worst thing that can happen to you is that you might die, you are already dead.

Update: two follow-up posts.

  1. The Structure of Free-Range Parenting
  2. Battling Anxiety Through Free-Range Parenting

The Virtue of Conformity

I am told, though I do not personally give any credence to these vicious slanders, that some of you are unaware that a new edition of CSA C22.1 was issued this year.  The CEC, as it is known in the industry, is a collection of rules, schedules, suggestions and references that forms the basis of electrical work in Canada.  The CEC, and similar standards, shape the world in profound ways, below our notice and often beyond our understanding.  While any intelligent person, with time and attention, can understand some of them, no one can understand all of them, or even more than a tiny fraction.  They interact and conflict in myriad ways, and powerful groups spend enormous resources trying to understand, shape, apply and enforce them.  Solving the same problems will lead to wildly different solutions, as trade-offs between agents, resources, politics and culture are made differently in different areas and territories.  Understanding where and how they apply, which rules can be bent, which can be ignored and when is a lifetime pursuit, and those that have it mastered will be well compensated.  However standards are just professional norms, and can be used to understand many kinds of norms, with the additional benefit that technical standards consciously attempt to minimize tacit aspects, and are thus easier for beginners and outsiders to understand and abstract from.

The typical economic account of standards involves a coordination problem.  When several parties realize that they can all gain, but only if they are all doing things the same way, they will get together and coordinate a method.  For instance, a nut needs to be able to connect to a bolt, which means they need approximately the same threading, and so machinists got together and settled on a few different standard threadings.  A similar method was followed by electricians and plumbers to settle on threads for pipes and conduits.  A similar story exists for container shipping.  Standardizing the size of a container for shipping allowed all of the various players in international shipping, the ship-makers, ports, railways, truckers to develop ways to efficiently move a C-Can, importantly without the need for repacking when changing transport modes, it turned containers into a commodity, allowing them to be efficiently produced, and it allowed designers to design their products to fit efficiently into the standardized size, which has contributed to the post war explosion in international trade.  While that story is fine as far as it goes, there are three more major drivers of standardization, not all of which are well understood.  The first, and most obvious, is the encouragement of regulatory regimes.  The second is to enable the development of engineering, as distinct from scientific, knowledge.  The third is the development of standards to limit legal liability.

The first option does not require much explanation.  Building codes, electrical codes and so one were developed to establish a minimum baseline for acceptable construction.  While the stated basis is consumer protection and public safety – building fires are one of the oldest recognized externalities amenable to public solutions, and most people are poor judges of craftsmanship  in trades they do not understand, especially where the construction is hidden by other features – basically all codes contain some capture, where a component is overbuilt to the benefit of the service providers, or a provision is stated in way that only a single product, sold by a well connected supplier, can fulfill it.  In addition the trade-offs between cost and risk can be made in a socially sub-optimal manner.

The second, and less well understood involves the creation of engineering knowledge.  The naive layperson often considers engineering to be a branch of applied science.  In many ways it is that, and certainly many advances in engineering practice have been preceded by advances in the physical sciences, however it is also the case that knowledge can flow both ways.  The second law of thermodynamics was recognized by engineers to be a property of steam engines long before physicists determined it had wider validity.  However standardization has allowed us to understand certain classes of products far better than that allowed by an examination of first principles.  For example, a common type of electrical cable, called Teck90, is specified by CSA C22.2 No 131-14.  While the relevant parameters for for a cable can be determined scientifically, plugging the appropriate constants into the appropriate formulas, and thus generalizing, in practice this is never done.  Instead the relevant parameters are determined statistically, by building a large amount of cable and subjecting it to rigorous testing.  There is no attempt to use any sort of inductive principle, to generalize from that cable to any cable in any configuration, or from that size to a different one.  Instead we can determine, with the error bands, exactly what the electrical and mechanical characteristics of that particular cable are.  This is supplemented by practical experience.  The cable is sold and installed, and the company will aggregate the data generated in this manner, allowing them to adjust their tolerances and numbers based on the typical as installated data, instead of just the lab data.  While the principles of electrical induction machines are fairly well understood scientifically, we understand far more about a IEC 60034-1 575V 40hp Wound Rotor Squirrel Cage Three Phase Induction Motor, even without knowing who built it, than we ever could given a single motor with perfect knowledge of it’s components and construction.

The final reason for the development of standards is for the protection of the person applying them.  Tort law in most of the world requires the proof of negligence when awarding damages from products.  In proving negligence following the correct standard is an acceptable defence, even when the standard is inadequate and you could have known that had you done testing to prove it.  In general it is the case that you will only be held to account for decisions that deviate from the prevailing standards.  This allows professionals to devote their cognitive resources to decisions without standard answers, and allows every practitioner access to the accumulated wisdom of the profession, however it results, in practice in the foreclosing of better, but non-standard solutions.  If the standard is wrong, and something catastrophic happens, everyone has a valuable learning moment.  If you are wrong, and something catastrophic happens, your career is over, and you might be going to jail.  This provides a large incentive for designers to push for standards, even in application to which standardization is poorly suited, and hope to shape the standards in ways that facilitate their work.

Locke and Key

Before our faith collapsed and with it tender civilization, it was not uncommon that I found myself whizzing along America’s highways and byways. I grew up itinerant, a son of the military. That changed little following my own enlistment into the Navy and into its deadliest of all submarine fleets. As a younger man, all I demanded of myself was a full tank of gas, a few bucks in my wallet, and a transmission in decent shape. These days, five years on from the Great Slough (I’m still not sure what to call it), the petroleum has rotted in the tanks, no longer even remotely fit to power an internal combustion engine. The only power left accessible to me is found either in muscle or wind. Sailboats work poorly on land, so I hoof it on those few occasions I’m obliged to stray from the fickle sea.

On foot, it pays to travel in packs. A pack can deter banditry, can stand its ground against raids, and if need be, can scatter to the wind in a way that a lone backpacker cannot. And when the threat consists of armed thugs, I find that being overly selective about the company I keep is a luxury I cannot easily afford. So it was that I teamed up with an old Dixie dirt farmer by the name of Alan, a former yoga instructor named Brenda, and Chad, a guy who was half a semester from finishing up his BA in Urban Studies when the lights went out in America.

Naturally, our road banter turned to the topic of immigration. Continue reading “Locke and Key”

Where Two Or Three Are Gathered

Where two or three are gathered together, there is public morality. It was an interesting assertion, which I will hereby declare to be a tacit fact, when, over at Euvoluntary Exchange, Samuel Wilson wrote concerning the amateur practice of BDSM (with relation to 50 Shades of Grey, of course), “…expert spanking advice for consenting adults” [emphasis added].

Our laws have not caught up to our public morality, such as it is. There are still swaths of our society fighting to maintain certain moral institutions, especially those governing human sexuality, but the writing is on the wall. We get it: morality is a social construct, and you can’t impose your morality on me. Never truer words, etc.

Let’s draw some lines, shall we, just to stretch a little bit. Let’s say the age of consent is 25 years old; artificially high, I know, but even so, with respect to sex, are we willing to give over public morality entirely to them who are merely old enough to consent with each other that the exchange which is about to occur between the two or three of them is approaching euvoluntary? In practice, yes, we most certainly are; is it wise to do so? Those who are a little older, and a little worse for the wear, might chafe a little, rubbing some callused sores which might be useful toward the instruction of the young. That is, one might be exchanging enduring personal happiness in the long run for a brief, hot blast of happiness in the moment. Risks, rewards.

On the one hand, on the free market of exchange, we learn very quickly what is prudent and what is not prudent. On the other hand, the expense for learning prudence can be very high for the individuals who become teaching moments for the rest of us, that is, contracting diseases, dying accidentally, unwanted pregnancy, etc., to speak nothing of the vast emotional world opened up in sexual activity.

I’ll make an assertion, then quickly back away from it: public morality, though discriminatory, is intended to be for the public good. I suppose that the overseers of public morality have a habit of not only discriminating against classes of human beings, but also robbing them of dignity in the process of doing so.

Perhaps public morality is best left to private institutions, as long as they are allowed to participate in the agora, calling out wisdom in the marketplace with sweet talk, beckoning market-goers in an invitation to find rest and comfort in age-old wisdom behind their doors, coddled by discipline, instructed by canon toward the goal of long-lasting happiness and bliss.

Otherwise, let freedom spank.