Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ok, Maybe Not That Icky

Update: Broken link fixed.


Well, after that post I did about the need to read the Icky Bible stories (not just the pleasant Bible stories), we've decided that we've reached the limit of our Ick tolerance.

The story?

Sodom and Gomorrah, 'natch.

Not the whole story, of course; the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is certainly one that every Bible student needs to learn, even the young ones. However, we've pretty well decided to leave out the parts that describe the wickedness of the two cities--specifically, the events that happened when the two messengers from God arrived at Lot's house.

Now, it's not so much the Ick factor here. Rather, it's that we'd have to explain a whole lot of interesting facts-of-life stuff to our five-year-old before she could even understand what's going on in this story--what it was that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were actually telling Lot to do, for instance. (Not to mention the really icky response that supposedly-righteous Lot gave them.)

Fact is, even though my oldest daughter is only five, my wife and I have been tossing around ideas about how and when to do the "facts-of-life" discussions with her--when she reaches an appropriate age and developmental level.

Presenting these ideas first in the context of a discussion of Sodom and Gomorrah? Let's just say that this is not the "how", and now is not the "when."

Incidentally, we've decided to hold off on the bit about Lot's daughters for much the same reasons.


...


As a side note, I've noticed something ironic about the translation that we're using. The New International Reader's Version, in trying to put things in such a way that a third-grade-level reader can understand them, is actually a bit more explicit in its language than those hoary old translations with the high-sounding language. Where the King James Version (some of the other old translations) use terms like "Lay with" or "knew" (as in, "He knew his wife, and she begat a son..."), the NIrV just comes out and says things like "have sex with" or "make love to."

This seems a little ironic to my mind, actually; the language of the KJV and other old translations obscures the meaning to the point that the Icky stuff doesn't sound quite so Icky. You can't actually understand what it's saying, but it sure sounds good....

Whereas the NIrV, aiming at beginning readers, puts the stuff in terms that anyone can understand (so long as they've already had the whole facts-of-life thing explained), and that Ick just sits out there--blatant, unavoidable, and festering. These stories just sound more disgusting in a translation intended for young readers, than they do in the translation that exists as a cornerstone in the Canon of English literature. Go figure.


...


Of course, it's not just the Bible. The Pillowfight Fairy has been learning about Ancient Egypt as part of her history and literature studies as well, and part of this involves regular reading of some of the Egyptian myths. Tonya decided to ixnay the next story on the list.

Basically, the story involved all the Egyptian gods getting angry with each other and nearly getting in a fight--which almost provoked the sun-god and chief of all gods, Ra, to blow his stack and wipe out the lot of them. But his daughter Hathor, who normally was known as The Destroyer (and who was so dangerous that even the other gods all feared her tremendously), decided to do something to get them to calm down. So she went out in their midst and did the ancient Egyptian version of the Dance of the Seven Veils. This made all the other gods quite happy. Even Ra (Hathor's father) poked his head out to see what all the cheering was about, and saw his daughter, Hathor The Destroyer, dancing naked; which gave even him a bit of a chuckle.

Yeah, now that story is a good idea. Let's read to our little girl about how dancing naked makes everyone--including your Daddy--really, really happy!

Ummm...

(Incidentally, Arby's got a very good story along these lines here).


...


Ok, so I realize that these decisions totally contradict much of what we decided in that earlier post. Oh, well.

But you know, I suspect this is just part of what it means to be a parent. There are times when X makes sense; there are times when X would be utterly foolhardy; and there is no hard and fast rule that can tell you which is the right thing to do right now. Kids can't be raised as though they were robots; and robots aren't capable of raising kids either. There are very few set rules in parenting, except among those parents who haven't been parents very long.

So, we'll keep flipping forward through these books. We'll save the gratuitous nudity until they're a little older, and in the meantime we'll flip forward to those stories that have somewhat more child-friendly topics.

Like Beheadings.


...


By the way: coming up soon in my daughter's readings of Genesis?

The Covenant of Circumcisison.

Hoo boy.

The Trouble With New Computer Games

I've noticed a bit of a pattern here.

Ok, Shortly after my wife and I first got married, one of our first purchases was a new computer. We made this purchase back in 2000 or 2001--can't remember which--and, in order to save some cash (just starting out, you know), we didn't get the top-of-the line machine.

Which was just fine. For the kinds of things we did with it, we didn't need all that much power. Still don't, for the most part. It's not like we're trying to simulate nuclear implosions or anything. Simple spreadsheets, Internet access, the occasional game--and most of these games are the strategy games, not the really graphics-intensive 3-D shoot-'em-ups.

So we were content.

That is, we were content for about five years or so. And then our computer started hiccuping. First, our DVD drive began to give up the ghost. This was an absolute tragedy. You see, we don't keep a TV around here, and we don't subscribe to cable; so if we want to watch something, we have to have it on disk. And the drive must work. So when that drive died, our kids thought the world had ended.

It hadn't, of course. We would have been fine. But! We parents sometimes succumb to the temptation to use the 'tube as a babysitter, and while we try to keep this to the minimum around here, it sure is handy to be able to pop in a disk and get just a little time to ourselves to get something done. So we tried buying and installing a new DVD drive, and that worked--sort of. It frequently hung in the middle of our disks, which caused much wailing among our kids....

Off topic. So about this time we saw the game Pirates! in the store. Now, I very fondly remembered the earlier version of this game from the late '80's. It was addicting. One could play that game all night--and I'm afraid I came close to doing so on occasion. And it did wonders for one's knowledge of Caribbean geography. So of course, we made an impulse buy.

And we couldn't get it to run on our system at home. The our then-six-year-old video board wasn't beefy enough to handle it.

Well, we figured that our computer was old enough anyway. With all the glitches it was having, and the fact that it wasn't quite powerful enough for all the new software that was coming out, we figured it was time. So early 2006 we plunked down the moolah and bought our current system.

Finally, we could watch videos again! And we could play Pirates! And it was every bit as addicting as I remember.

Fast forward to early summer 2008. We download the Spore Creature Creator, which I blogged about here. The girls love playing this, and frequently take turns. (Or rather, the Pillowfight Fairy "lets" the Adrenaline Junkie "make" a monster--by dictating the parts that she wants, while the Fairy--with her superior motor skills--actually mans the mouse.) But, we've noticed something weird; occasionally we get buggy graphics--odd shapes that shouldn't be there, garbled bitmaps for some of the icons, that sort of thing. Now, I realize that this software could in fact be buggy. It could be that all us users are actually being used by Maxis as unwitting Beta-testers.

But the fear remains...

Fast forward to this weekend. We pick up a copy of Caesar IV, by Sierra. We've got all the minimum system requirements, so we install it, and it works! It runs! I play a scenario...

Then my wife monopolizes the machine, and plays about a scenario and a half, whereupon the system crashes. So she restarts it from the last Autosave, plays to almost the exact same spot in the scenario, and it crashes again. So I come back, start playing my own game, get to the same spot my wife was in, and... it crashes.

Hangs the system--cold-boot required.

So I look through what troubleshooting stuff I can find, and get the boilerplate stuff:
  • Turn off all "unnecessary software", like virus checkers. Right. Uh-huh.
  • Upgrade your video device driver. I looked into this. First step: uninstall your current device driver. I decided to pass, in case there were some other easier things to do first.
  • Go into the game settings, and dial down the detail levels...
I decided to start with this last one. My wife and I noticed that the crashes all occurred just after we had placed fountains in our cities. So I clicked off on the "animate water" option, and tried it again. It crashed.

So I got online to look at the tech support forums. (Forums? Fora? Forae? I think the proper plural should be Fora. This is Rome we're talking about, after all.)

And as I was reading through all the entries from dissatisfied users, the thought hit me: I'm here reading through a technical forum for a game! Does anything strike you as odd about this picture? I mean, most of the time, when I'm reading through technical fora, it's because I'm trying to figure out how some feature of Oracle works; or how Kodo and other Java-Relational mapping systems are supposed to work; I'm generally trying to track down and fix some kind of hairy bug in my software. Here I'm reading through a forum, trying to find the magic bullet that will get my silly game up and running! What's the world coming to?

Oh, there were lots of suggestions, all right. But there were dark forebodings. Seems our graphics card (ATI Radeon X600) doesn't like Caesar IV. But some users with this video board had no problems at all; others could get it to work, but only if they set their game (or Operating System) settings just right; others couldn't get the game to work at all with that video board, no matter what they tried.

Well, I started trying solutions. The first one involved changing the way the OS allocated resources to the system cache. This "solution" caused hard crashes on bootup; we had to start in "safe mode" and revert to the previous state before we could do a normal boot-up.

Ultimately we figured out something that works, which was quite a relief for us. Basically, we turned off water and weather effects, and set the "Master Particle Density" setting (used for rendering fire and water) to its lowest setting. So far, we haven't had any further problems.

But this sort of thing bodes ill for the future. That is, so long as we continue to play new games on our system. (And I am so looking forward to Spore this September...). When you get a new computer, you can generally expect to be able to play any game already on the market. But game designers are motivated to design their games to the newest and best video and audio equipment out there. They want their graphics to look good. They want shadows! They want reflections! They want fire and water! They want fog and dust clouds! They want ray tracing! And so they program their games to make the maximum use of any hardware available. And since the state of the art is always advancing, it doesn't take long before that computer you just bought can't play that new game, and now that one, and now that one...

So for a serious gamer (and I'm not one), it's never enough to buy the new game. You have to be prepared to upgrade your video driver on a regular basis (and often, new versions of the drivers are written specifically because some popular new game comes out that uncovers previously-undetected bugs in the old drivers). More than that, you have to be willing to throw out and replace your entire video board semi-regularly. And by semi-regularly, that may be measured in two-year increments or less. And at the rate new processors become available, and how fast they are improving, it becomes inevitable that last year's CPU is not quite fast enough for this year's game, and the previous year's CPU is hopelessly outdated--so the serious gamer has to replace the entire computer after not much more than two years or so.

Good thing I'm not a serious gamer. I've barely gotten used to our new computer. Have we really already had it for two years?

But when I think about it, it's clock speed alone is nearly a thousand times faster than that of the system I got just out of college, back in 1995--not to mention that puny little pipsqueak of a processor that they used to guide the Apollo astronauts to the moon!


...


I remember back in the '80's when the conventional wisdom was that the dedicated game consoles were likely to go the way of the Dodo. After all, a computer could do everything a console could, and then some.

The conventional wisdom was wrong. The game consoles had an advantage that no computer could match:

They were standardized.

You don't have to worry about whether your Game Cube has a beefy enough video board. You don't have to ask whether your PlayStation has a fast enough CPU. You don't have to worry about whether your WII has gone obsolete. These consoles have standardized hardware and operating systems; if a game runs perfectly on one, it'll run on any of that type. Software testing of these games is much more straightforward, because the testers don't have to test a thousand different configurations of CPU, Motherboard, Video Board, Audio board, and all those driver versions.

You have the console, you buy the game, and it'll work. Period. It only goes obsolete when people stop making games for it.

You don't have to go through the exercise, as I did with Caesar IV, of trying to debug someone else's software.


...


So my system, even at the tender young age of two, is fast facing obsolescence--so far as gaming is concerned. Ah, well, 'twas inevitable, I suppose.

I just hope it holds on until Spore is safely up and running. ;-)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Finally Updated My Blogroll

Yes, when one has nothing worthwhile to write about, it's time to go back to that old stand-by: Metablogging. For the uninitiated, this can be defined as "Blogging about blogging", or alternately "Blogging about your blog."

I have a nice blog.

But! That's not actually the point of this post. I have decided to do something momentous! Almost unprecedented in the (rather short) history of my online presence!

I've decided to add a few people to my blogroll.

Now, I realize that I'm opening myself up here to trouble. When you add a few people to your blogroll, you inevitably overlook someone who deserves to be on there. And you wind up intentionally overlooking several people who don't deserve to be there, but think they do. So people check in to your blog, see that they're not on your blogroll--but that all the cool people are, and they think you're playing those annoying High School social popularity games that all us Homeschoolers are hoping our kids get to avoid.

Well. If this describes you, tough. ;-)

I've decided to add four new blogs to my blogroll. All of these are people who've dropped by here and left some well-written, literate, friendly comments that boosted my ego. I figure if I link to them, I'll see those links every time I check my blog for new comments; and then I'll visit their sites more often; then I'll leave more comments on their blogs; then they'll remember to drop by here and leave more comments on my blog; then the whole thing will snowball and we'll all get really big egos from each other.
You da Men.

No, You da Men.

No, Y'All da Men.
(This last one either from my Georgia doppelganger, or from me, since I think the English language desperately needs a dedicated second-person plural pronoun.)


First up, we have Arby's Archives. As I understand it, Arby is a stay-at-home homeschooling father of three very rambuctious kids, one of whom has special needs. His wife, the "Boss", just deployed to Iraq, so he's doing his best to keep everything together as a temporarily-single daddy.
It dawned on me in the kitchen today, not to be confused with it Dawned on me in the kitchen today, which would involved a splurge of dish soap somewhere on my body as well as a very bad afternoon for one of my mischievous children. I had an idea. It’s a simple idea, really. It’s this....
Next, we have Big Doofus. His latest post is about Zucchinis:
By the looks of 99% of the zucchini recipes I've seen, you could substitute just about any soft, flavorless vegetable, fruit or sponge for the zucchini and get the same result. Take the zucchini out of zucchini bread and do you know what you have? Great tasting bread. Take the zucchini out of zucchini cookies and what do you have left? Tasty cookies! What's a zucchini meatball without zucchini? The perfect spaghetti topper! Do I need to go on? It's the ZUCCHINI CONSPIRACY, folks. There's a group of zucchini seed sales big-wigs that are pawning off this vegetable to us by convincing Americans to cook with it in the most useless ways.
You know, I have similar ideas regarding Eggplant. It seems like it should be such a good idea, but it never seems to work out right....

Third, we have Key Words, the blog of Daniel Macintire and "Illuminarch", whoever that may be. I like this post, in which he muses on a possible name for his Homeschool. Often we Homeschoolers must legally establish private unaccredited schools in order to comply with the local education laws. And as part of this process, we get to name our schools. We've been considering a really good name, which I'll not use here until we've safely filed our affidavit--but the hint is, it's from Lewis Carroll. But I like Daniel Macintire's entry:
How's this?

Polymath Liberal Arts Technical Institute and Preparatory University School.

Polymath Prep for short.

PLATIPUS for REALLY short :)

I know it's misspelled, but I couldn't think of a good way to change that "I" into a "Y" - I tried variants of "Youth," but none really flowed. Any suggestions?
And then there's Zulu Blog, by Roger Z. He's something of a libertarian who does long, philosophical posts interspersed with links to the Muppet show, which I found immediately endearing. He recently posted this takedown of the Ayn Rand's novel (and Objectivist Bible) Atlas Shrugged, and started a series of posts regarding proofs (or the lack thereof) of the existence of God. I just left a really long comment at one of them, but it hasn't been through comment moderation yet, so we'll see if he goes for it or not. ;-)

Anyway, take a look at these blogs. Enjoy them. Leave some meaty comments. Start stroking those egos, because all our egos need a little stroking now and again.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Two Links

Ok, so I haven't blogged in most of a week. Part of the trouble is that I have a couple posts floating around my head that will wind up being really big, and I just haven't wanted to write them, because they would take all evening. Part of it is just wanting to have more of a life, though....

But don't worry, I'll eventually get over it.

In the mean time, I have two links for you. The first is from my lovely wife, who tonight did a long, detailed post about the teaching of the Bible to our children. This post was motivated by a comment recently posted to this blog, by Daniel Macintyre, regarding all those icky Bible stories:
ever consider starting off with the new testament?
In her post, Tonya answers this question in far more detail than I would ever think to. My answer would be short and glib, perhaps a little superficial; Tonya gives an answer with a backstory reaching back to when the earth cooled.

I love you, Tonya. :-)

...

But I saw something online today that just made me laugh so hard that I couldn't see. Remember my recent Deformed Man Lavatory post, about the way that non-native speakers of English are, by their very "mistakes", changing the English language? Well, along those lines, we have--Courtesy of John Derbyshire over in The Corner--some excellent specimens of "Engrish" that were observed in the wild. And by the way, I love Mr. Derbyshire's one-line commentary on each picture.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Cast Iron: Or, Building Forearms Like Popeye's While You Cook

Well. Back in April I got a tomatillo salsa recipe from a friend of mine, which I posted here. The recipe contained this line:
Roast above ingredients in a cast iron pan, oil-free, turning occasionally.
Earlier this week I made up a double batch of that recipe, making appropriate substitutions in the chile peppers to use up what we had on hand. The recipe turned out really, really yummy, so feel free to steal the recipe and try it out. Be warned, however; that recipe doesn't make much. My double-batch made no more than a pint of salsa. You may want to double, quadruple, or octople it to get a decent amount.

(Side note: my spell checkers don't like the word "octople". They give as alternates: ectopic, ectoplasm, octopus, octopuses, octopus's, outplay, and topless. Somehow most of these aren't particularly appealing when writing in the context of salsa recipes; and I find it hard to imagine how someone trying to write the word "topless" in their browser window would have it come out "octople". Apropos of nothing, actually....)

Ahem.

Well, we didn't have that cast iron skillet, so we just used what we had on hand--an old Calphalon anodized aluminum griddle. Now, we like Calphalon--it's good, solid cookware, with some real thickness there that helps the heat spread evenly. And the anodized aluminum non-stick surface is much more durable than those teflon or silverstone coatings. We found that with these other coatings, we had to replace our cookware every two years or so. With our Calphalon, we've had it pretty much since we got married eight years ago.

But even anodized aluminum wears out over time. Our big frying pan, and our griddle, both had gotten to the point that pretty much everything sticks to them now. I've gotten pretty good at using deglazing as a cleaning method, but even so, it was getting to be too much work. When you have to scrub your non-stick surface for five minutes to get off the stuff that the dishwasher couldn't, then your non-stick surface, um... isn't.

So we went shopping today for some new cookware. We took the whole family.

You know, that's probably not so good an idea. The problem is that, whenever we go shopping as a family--even if we're trying to be responsible in following our strict shopping list--one of us will see something really cool and say, "Ooh! Oooh! Look at that! That's really cool. Isn't it cool? I think it is. Do you think we could use this? I think we could. Do you think we need it? I think we could need it. Or we could wind up needing it at some point. Or it would just be cool. You know?"

And the really depressing thing, is that some of the time the "one of us" who says things like this happens to be, um... to be, erm:

Me.

So I helped to pick out the cookware today.

Now, one of the really important factors that we consider when we select new pans is something I call the whaaaang factor. We originally liked Calphalon precisely because it scores high on the whaaaang factor scale. (Well, I originally liked Calphalon for its whaaaang factor; I suspect Tonya liked it for other, more practical/feminine reasons.)

Simply defined, the whaaaang factor is the sound the implement makes after it collides with the head of a burglar. A good, solid, well-made pan will give off a deep, resonant, satisfying whaaaang; less substantial cookware will give off a tinny ping sound. A pan with good whaaaang factor has some heft to it; it feels firm, solid, strong. It takes a good, solid grip to handle such a pan.

It feels good in the hand. On the head, not so much.

Well. As we walked the aisles in Target today looking for a skillet and a frying pan to replace the worn-out implements we had, we came across a couple of cast iron implements. I picked them up.

I fell in love. They were strong. They were masculine. They just exuded that aura that says: I make manly food. They were the ultimate in whaaaang factor. After holding those, I simply couldn't get excited about all that wimpy aluminum stuff.

So I began constructing a line of logical reasoning to convince my wife: "That's really cool. Isn't it cool? I think it is. Do you think we could use this? I think we could...."

Long story short (although it's really too late for that now, isn't it?): We now get to figure out the mysteries of the Care and Feeding of Cast Iron.

These are my babies. Aren't they beautiful?

Well, as I understand it (not having owned cast iron before): These pans are to be considered provisionally non-stick. That is, they are non-stick if you use them right; otherwise, be prepared for disaster. The idea, in a well-seasoned pan, is that a layer of oil is worked into the surface of the pan from all the previous times that you've been cooking. You typically heat up the pan before you put food in it each time; this renders that oil out, coating and lubricating the surface.

This also means that you're never supposed to wash the pans with dish detergent, if you can avoid it--and when you can't (like when you've just gotten them home from the store and you need to wash them because you don't know where they've been), you use a mild, diluted detergent. If you use the detergent, you'll remove that "seasoned" oil, and the pan will lose its non-stickiness. Rather than washing the pan, you rinse it, scrape it, and/or scrub it. But when it looks clean you dry it immediately (to keep it from rusting) and put it away. You never put it in a dishwasher.

So, it looks like we're going to have to do a whole lot more clean-up work with these pans than with our previous, which we could just rinse out and stick in the dishwasher.

Ah, but sometimes coolness has its price....

We haven't had the chance to try them out yet, but I'll let you know when I do. Cast Iron has a reputation as something that allows you to cook food hotter and more evenly than aluminum, since it's thicker and has a much higher specific heat capacity. I'll let you know how that works out.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Five-Year-Olds and Icky Bible Stories

...They love them.

Ok, here's the story. Tonya has been including a daily Bible reading every morning as part of the regular schoolwork of the Pillowfight Fairy. They're still toward the beginning of the book of Genesis, since they've only been doing this now for the last two weeks, and they've been going sequentially. And after the Fairy reads the passage from the Bible, she is assigned to write a little about the story--at this point one sentence is sufficient, since she's only five--and then is permitted to illustrate a scene drawn from the passage.

Now, this brings up an interesting dilemma for Mommy.

After all, the Bible has a lot of "hard" stories in it. Yes, there are all the fun, uplifting stories, but there is a lot of smiting in the Bible, too. And even the Heroes of the Bible have their dark moments from time to time--there are very few people that show up in Scripture who are wholly unblemished. David had his Uriah & Bathsheba episode; Abraham lied on occasion to save his sorry hide; Sarah was very, very mean to her slave girl Hagar and her son; even St. Peter had to be pulled aside for a stern talking to by St. Paul at one point. The Bible doesn't whitewash the failings of its heroes. On the contrary, it seems to put them on display, perhaps as a lesson to us that even the most righteous are still sinners, or that God accepts us even in spite of our flaws.

So what does a Mommy do, who's trying to teach something of her faith to her little ones, when presented with these icky stories? Well, if you're as tough-minded and no-nonsense as my wife is, you include those stories right along with all the other ones, on the theory that God put them in the Bible for a reason. One does not airbrush Scripture just because a five year old might get a little weirded out.

Well, Mommy came to this decision while trying to figure out what to do with the little story in Genesis 9, verse 18 through the end of the chapter.

(Incidentally, we are using this translation for the Fairy's first-grade studies. It's based on the New International Readers' Version, which is a simplification (but not an abridgment!) of the New International Version. Charlotte Mason would be appalled, but our five-year-old likes it.)

The story is the only one in the Bible talking about what happened to Noah in the years after the whole Ark incident. In the NIrV, it goes like this:
The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. The people who were scattered over the earth came from Noah's three sons.

Noah was a man who worked the ground. He decided to plant a vineyard. He drank some of its wine. It made him drunk. Then he lay down inside his tent without any clothes on. Ham saw his father's naked body. Ham was the father of Canaan. Ham went outside and told his two brothers.

But Shem and Japheth took a piece of clothing. They laid it across their shoulders. Then they walked backward into the tent. They covered their father's body. They turned their faces away. They didn't want to see their father's naked body.

Then Noah woke up from his sleep that was caused by the wine. he found out what his youngest son had done to him. He said,

"May a curse be put on Canaan.
He will be the lowest of slaves to his brothers."

Noah also said,

"May the LORD, the God of Shem be blessed.
May Canaan be the slave of Shem.
May God add land to Japheth's territory.
May Japheth live in the tents of Shem.
And may Canaan be their slave."

After the flood Noah lived 350 years. Noah lived a total of 950 years. Then he died.
To my mind, this definitely qualifies as one of the Icky stories of the Bible. And it's hard to come up with an actual theological lesson or life application of this little story, other than don't get so plastered that you fall asleep with all your clothes off in a tent somewhere while your kids are running around.

The Pillowfight Fairy loved it, loved it, loved it! She was particularly moved by the fact that Ham saw his daddy naked! And he went to go tell everybody about it! From the way she was enthusiastically explaining this point to everyone who would listen, it's pretty apparent that she would have done exactly the same thing.

(Memo to myself: Don't get so plastered that I.... you know.)

Ok, so it came time for her to compose and write out a sentence relating to this story. Her offering:

...And really, what more is there to say?

But for the really fun part, she got to illustrate this story. I, for one, am happy that she's not so far into Drawing With Children yet that she felt the need to put a little too much realistic detail on Noah. Sometimes, stick figures are good.
I really like the tent, actually. And I like the flip-flops. I had no idea that people in Noah's day wore flip-flops! Or that they looked so much like fluffy bunny slippers.

Without getting too pedantic, I think this story illustrates the idea that we parents are in many ways more squeamish than our kids, when it comes to the Bible's hard stories (or the hard stories in any high-quality childrens' literature, for that matter). The kids take them in stride. We grown-ups are the ones who get weirded out by them; but I'm not sure we do any favors when we say to ourselves, "This scripture is too mature for them; they're not ready to handle it yet." Actually, these stories are precisely the ones that the kids really get into--the ones with all the head-chopping, the ones with all the unsavory details, the ones where the Great Heroes pick their toes.

We can hardly wait until we get to the story about Lot's daughters!

(Note: that was sarcasm. But if you couldn't tell, you need to read your Bible a little more.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

On All Those Crypto-Communist Messages Hidden In Wall-E

No, I'm not serious. But some people are....

Ok. I'll start off by saying that I took my two little girls to see Wall-E in the theaters this last weekend. For the Adrenaline Junkie (Age 3), it was her first time ever in a movie theater. For the Pillowfight Fairy (age 5), it was her second--after Prince Caspian, which we saw about two months ago. A good time was had by all, even given the fact that it went on past their normal bedtimes, and the Fairy in particular started to get a little sleepy toward the end.

Pixar, again, has shown themselves the master of the art. The movie was beautiful--even the parts that were supposed to be ugly, were deliciously so. They have a knack for bringing "inanimate" objects to life--displayed in just about every movie they've ever done--that is simply unmatched. I mean, it's possible to convey a sense of personality in an object with the tiniest, most subtle hints; to steal one example I read about recently, think of R2-D2 from the Star Wars movies. All he (it?) has to go with are flashing lights, head swivels, and the occasional beep and whirr; yet he (it?) has more personality than many of the human actors. ;-) But Pixar has mastered this, starting with that bouncing desk lamp they use in their logo; it's almost as though the robots in Wall-E have souls.



Warning: there are random spoilers scattered throughout what follows. If you haven't seen the movie yet, proceed at your own peril.



By the way, as with all Pixar movies, there was an animated short at the beginning of this one that was laugh-out-loud funny. I'll not spoil it, but it involves a magician who's having a bit of a spat with the rabbit who's supposed to get pulled from the hat. This little film is, for all intents and purposes, a Bugs Bunny cartoon--or it would have been, had it been made by Warner Brothers. And, like The Rabbit of Seville and What's Opera Doc?, it would have been one of the best Bugs Bunny cartoons around. Mel Blanc and Chuck Jones would have been proud to call it one of their own.

So my girls and I enjoyed the movie a lot.

But...


...


I was a little worried going in. You see, I'm a bit of a review junkie myself, and I read whatever spoilers I can find. And being in my character something of a reactionary curmudgeon, I tend to read a lot of opinions by other reactionary curmudgeons. And while the movie has reviewed quite well with mainstream reviewers, my curmudgeonly reactionaries were mostly choking on what they perceived as the politics of the film.

This happens a lot, I'm afraid. A movie will come out and will be praised to the high heavens for the "message" the movie contains, which so often is some sort of overly-earnest, heavy-handed neo-Marxist claptrap that wrecks the story. Even if the "message" is actually worth hearing, it's so often delivered in such a heavy-handed way that it interferes with the storytelling part of the cinematic art. For example, I have nothing at all against reasonable measures to conserve our natural environment. I personally much prefer the natural environment to the man-made urban environment, and if I had the chance I'd spend much more of my time there. But I don't need to be told how evil I am for my supposed over-consumption, thankyouverymuch.

No thanks. I already have a church; I don't need to go to the movie theater to be preached to.

Alas, this means that on those rare occasions where I do find myself in a movie theater, I often find myself unable simply to lose myself in the movie. I start to get into the story, but then: BAM! There's The Message, right in my face, telling me how evil I am--how much I'm like the villains in the story--because I happen to have a different set of values than the director.

It seems several reviewers with similar values to my own had this reaction when they saw Wall-E. Just to throw a couple up here, there's this one from Libertas, entitled "Did We Just Lose Pixar?
Conservatives are understandably up in arms about what is apparently depicted in this film (Earth as Matrix-style, hyper-corporate, eco-apocalpytic wasteland), although we’ve been getting this sort of thing from Hollywood for quite some time. I think that a lot of conservative ire, however, is emerging from the mistaken impression that Pixar was somehow friendly to the conservative and/or libertarian side to begin with. Ever since Pixar’s The Incredibles came out several years ago, I’ve seen it hyped in conservative-libertarian circles to no end, to the point that people began to believe that there was actually some kind of pseudo-libertarian cabal of people who ran Pixar.
Et cetera. This commentary goes on to warn conservatives not to be suckered in by what appear to be signs of "progress" that Hollywood might be moving in a more conservative direction.

And then there's this curious little bit from the Ludwig von Mises Institute entitled Wall-E: Economic Ignorance and the War on Modernity:
The Disney-Pixar film WALL-E has been adoringly received by the majority of the theatergoing public. This adoration is unjustified. The film blatantly conveys environmentalist, anticapitalist, and antitechnological propaganda — and aims it at an audience of children, who still lack the critical faculties and intellectual sophistication to evaluate all relevant aspects of the issues presented.

But I will not focus here on how egregiously unrealistic the film's scenario of humans completely trashing Earth is....

I will, rather, concentrate on a much more egregious error made by the creators of WALL-E — an error made in ignorance of basic economics and of commonsense insights regarding the nature of human behaviors and the incentives facing individual economic actors....

Well, isn't that special. I sometimes wonder whether we conservative/libertarian/reactionary types have been fighting society so long that we've misplaced our senses of humor. I suppose that's part of what it means to be a curmudgeon, after all....

But after having seen the movie for myself, I'm not on board with the above opinions. Not only did I enjoy the movie thoroughly, I think it displays some important insights about human nature, and about Natural Law. I think this guy is actually a bit closer to the mark.

Some conservatives have dismissed "WALL-E" as a crude critique of business and capitalism. This is only true if capitalism is identical to boundless consumerism -- a conviction that Adam Smith did not seem to share. Smith argued that human flourishing requires "good temper and moderation." Self-command and the prudent use of freedom are central to his moral theory. And these are precisely the virtues celebrated in "WALL-E." The end credits -- worth staying to see -- are a beautiful tribute to art and work, craft and cultivation.

"WALL-E" is partly an environmental parable, but its primary point is moral. The movie argues that human beings, aided by technology, can become imprisoned by their consumption. The pursuit of the latest style leads to conformity. The pursuit of pleasure displaces the deeper enjoyments of affection and friendship. The pursuit of our rhinestone desires manages to obscure our view of the stars.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big, big fan of the idea of personal liberty. And I'm a big fan of the idea of limited government. And I believe that those of us who cherish personal liberty need to be extra vigilant against usurpations of this liberty by those in power. After all, as I blogged about here, the existence of liberty in a society makes it very hard for people in power to get things done, to order things according to their desires. Our liberties are inconvenient to people in government; and as such, they will have a tendency to go away if we aren't vigilant.

But--just because liberty is to be valued, it doesn't follow that we--as individuals--shouldn't spend some time soul-searching about how we should be using those liberties. Misused liberties can wreck our lives; enough misused liberties can wreck society.

After all, consider a hypothetical example of two city-states, both of which permit their citizens to own firearms. In the first of these city-states, let's say that the people are trained from a very young age in the proper way to handle these weapons; the guns are well-maintained and carefully stored. There are frequent firearm competitions with widespread participation--biathlon, marksmanship, so forth. Accidents, murders, and suicides are rare.

The second of these city-states more closely resembles the proverbial Wild West. The population is unruly and violent. Accidents, murders, and suicides are common. People think nothing of threatening each other. Young children get their hands on poorly-stored guns all the time, and tragedies are frequent. It is not considered safe to walk the streets after nightfall.

Now, both of these city-states have the liberty of gun ownership, but that's where the similarity ends. In the first example, the people use their liberty responsibly. In the second, they don't. As a result, the first of these city-states must be considered a much better place to live. The second illustrates the important point that liberty without responsibility results in disaster.

When a society claims a liberty without choosing to wield it wisely, ultimately one of two things happens: either the society devolves into anarchy, or it eventually decides to abolish the liberty in the name of "the common good". It's not hard to imagine that the government of the second city-state might start flirting with the concept of gun control; it's much harder to imagine that the first city-state would, given that the people are doing fine without it.

This principle--that our liberties become insecure when we abuse them--applies to far more than just gun control. In fact it applies to pretty much every liberty we have.

And I'm not the first one to notice this fact. I was musing the other day about the similarities between the human society in Wall-E, and the society presented in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, when I came across this little snippet at Wikipedia (comparing Brave New World with Orwell's 1984):
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
It occurred to me that the human society displayed in Wall-E expresses Huxley's fears--as described in this paragraph--pretty much perfectly. They existed in a technological world that could supply their every need, could indulge every whim--and they chose to use it irresponsibly, until they were barely human. By the time of the events of the movie, they couldn't even read, they had utterly forgotten their history, and they were completely oblivious of some of the really cool things that were right next to them.

Now, this could be considered a critique of Capitalism, except for two things. For one, the critique--if anything--is that Capitalism has worked entirely too well. After all, every one of their physical needs was being met, and likewise every one of their desires for material stuff. Any economic system that can do that has to be considered at least a little bit successful, no?

For another thing, Socialism also operates toward the goal of meeting people's material needs and alleviating their pain. I'm not convinced that the European Socialist model, if taken to its would-be extreme, looks all that different from the society on board the Axiom. Governments would prefer if everyone played by the rules and colored within the lines; they would prefer that people come to them for their needs instead of developing self-sufficiently and taking care of business themselves; governments aren't known for tolerating individuality well. And this is exactly where the political appeal of Socialists comes from: the desire on the part of suffering segments of society to have a strong government swoop in and make it all better; alleviate the suffering, and provide wealth for all. If Socialism could actually deliver on its economic promises, I suspect it too would start evolving toward the society of the Axiom.

But the underlying problem with the Axiom society isn't Capitalism, and it isn't Socialism; it isn't the economic system, nor is it the governmental system. The Axiom society existed as it did because at some level, The People (or their ancestors) chose this way of life. And that isn't such a far-fetched idea, either. There's a well-observed life-cycle to civilizations that goes a little like this:
  1. Some down-and-out society develops customs, mores, or traditions that "toughens" them; it makes them strong and/or aggressive, and inspires people to make sacrifices to strengthen the society.
  2. This society starts growing, expanding, conquering, colonizing, and prospering.
  3. The society reaches a "Golden Age", where culture flourishes in a mostly-peaceful empire. Quality of life improves for all.
  4. New generations are raised that neither know nor understand the sacrifices made by their ancestors; they lose the cultural "toughness" that allowed their ancestors to thrive and take their prosperity for granted. The society starts coasting on accumulated cultural capital, as the population becomes "degenerate"--sacrificing only for their own pleasure, and not working for the future of the society.
  5. Other growing societies ("Barbarians") which are now culturally "tougher" than the empire, start to defeat it, take parts of it, and plunder it.
  6. The empire collapses, and the cycle repeats with the "Barbarians" now assuming the role of the central civilization.
This sequence has been observed many places before: everywhere from the biblical Book of Judges, to Ibn Khaldun, to Edward Gibbon. So it's not totally off-the-wall to think that the human race, given the chance at some point in the future, would choose to live a life of sterile, decadent luxury. The societies in Brave New World and Wall-E exist roughly at Stage 4 in the above sequence--except that in neither case is there an outside "Barbarian" society to interrupt their decadence.

What makes Wall-E so much more optimistic, of course, is that the people wake up. They start noticing the world around them that they've never seen before; the Captain starts learning about all that society lost when it started its perpetual cruise; he shuts off the autopilot and starts making his own decisions again. Depending on the way the image sequence over the ending credits is interpreted, it appears that the humans started relearning why slothfulness and gluttony are vices-- and labor and patience are virtues.

That, right there, is known as Natural Law, and it's an idea that's been around since at least St. Augustine. I refuse to accept that this idea isn't thoroughly conservative. ;-)


...


The big question--and it's not an easy one, and one for which I don't have a straight answer yet--is: how do we form a society of people who choose to use their liberties wisely?

Emphasis is on the word "choose". If we do something because the Government makes us, that's not "choosing", and it's no longer a liberty.

As I said, I don't have a straight, closed-form answer to this question yet. But I suspect it depends upon building a strong Civil Society. And I define Civil Society as the way We the People organize ourselves and behave when Government isn't looking over our shoulders.

Unfortunately, that's a topic for another really, really long column, and another evening....

Monday, July 14, 2008

Interesting Development In That Homeschooling Case

It appears that the underlying family court case that led to In Re: Rachel L--the case that purportedly outlawed certain forms of homeschooling in California, until the decision was set aside for a re-hearing--has been dismissed.

According to the L.A. Times article:
The issue remains in legal limbo. On Thursday, the family court judge terminated its jurisdiction over two of the eight children of Phillip and Mary Long, who were accused of mistreating some of their children. All of the children are currently or had been enrolled at Sunland Christian School, where they would occasionally take tests, but they were educated in their Lynwood home by their mother.
Emphasis added.

What does this mean? I don't know yet. The appellate case, In Re: Rachel L, has already been re-heard, with the decision expected by September sometime. That case might be rendered moot by this new action; there are plenty of courts in the land that prefer to rule on narrow technical grounds rather than issue broad, sweeping, society-changing edicts. The appellate court may just decide that it's not necessary to issue a "clarification" of the homeschooling laws, given that the "hard case" (you know, the type that make bad law) that started this whole thing seems to have resolved itself. But then, you never know with courts these days.

Rapidly developing story. Will post more as more becomes known.

Hat tip to the HSLDA home page.

You Can Tell What's Been On My Mind Lately...

Last night, I dreamed I was using the Spore Creature Creator to design Supreme Court justices.

Ah. If only it were that easy....

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Introducing Our Next Colossal Timewaster

So a few posts back, I made a throwaway comment about playing the computer game Civilization. And wouldn't you know it, that throwaway line got a comment, while the rest of the post did not.

'S Ok. I've found that to be true about blogging: you can never tell in advance what random people out on the internet will find interesting in what you write. And I guess that Civilization has become enough of a cultural institution that people know exactly what you're talking about (and why you're saying it) when you mention it.

Q: So why haven't you blogged in the last week?

A: My wife and I were playing Civilization.

Q: Oh. Right. Got it. Now I understand.

So it is.

Well, a few months back I was reading on the Wired website about a new game from the designer of SimCity (Repeat after me: "Oh. Right. Got it. Now I understand..."), who is about to release a game that was originally named SimEverything, before they changed it to the name it will ship under in two months: Spore. The premise of this game is interesting to me: start with a microbe, help it survive in the primordial oceans until it can crawl out on land and start evolving; then help it evolve until it becomes sentient; then help it build tribes, then civilizations, then travel out into space and take over the galaxy.

That's a pretty big game.

Anyway, based on what little I've read of it, the game looks to be a cross between Sim City, the old Sim Earth game, Civilization, Age of Empires, the Sierra city-building games (Caesar, Pharaoh, Zeus, etc.) and a bunch of others. And what do these games all have in common?

That's right: by the time you look at the clock and realize how much time you've spent, it's time to get up, get breakfast, and go to work. Spore is going to be evil.


...


So, how does a drug pusher build a customer base?

Right again: they give out free samples. Eventually the people who receive those free samples get hooked. About the time the recipients start asking for the stuff, the pusher knows he has them, and he starts charging money.

Well, it appears that the creators of Spore are using this very strategy. One of the fun little things you get to do in this game is design the creatures that your microbes will eventually evolve into. So they released the Creature Designer early, and made an "evaluation version" available for free download. So I downloaded it today, and Poof! There went the afternoon.

These are just the ones that I made.
Yup. I gave this one three heads. Now, by this point my daughters had become totally fascinated with the designing of monsters, and had done a few themselves. We had been trying to make some pretty scary ones, but nothing had been scaring the girls--until I started putting multiple heads on the thing, just to see if I could do it. Yup. About this point they started screaming. Now, I don't think that was because the monster itself is particularly evil-looking; rather, it's because I wasn't doing it right, darn it! They're at the age where they're very sensitive to this sort of thing.

Prior to this, I'd been trying to make scary-looking ones, like this:
Don't know what it is, but I've always found scorpions to be really, really creepy.

Well, we also made our share of goofy-looking, frivolous monsters--just for the fun of it. I decided to see if I could get a reasonable approximation of Mike Wozowski, from the movie Monsters Inc. Behold my attempt:
The guys at Maxis, who did all the "Sim" games, hit upon a very noteworthy observation: many, many people out there prefer to create rather than compete. And this goes back to all those online fantasy games that have been out since the late eighties--while there have always been plenty of people who wanted to be wizards and warriors, there have also been plenty of people who just wanted to be the cobbler back in the village. Or the bartender. They wanted to inhabit the world, to interact; but they didn't want always to have to rescue maidens or slay dragons; they just wanted to enjoy being there. So they came out with their game The Sims--which was a people simulator, where you made normal people go through their everyday routine. You got to send them to work, have them make dinner, have them fall in love; you got to have them brush their teeth, go to the bathroom, and so forth.

And the game was a smashing success.

But then the guys at Maxis noticed something else: that even though the game itself was fun, there were a huge number of people out there that just wanted to design the houses that these people lived in. Let's face it, it can get old telling people to go to the bathroom every ten minutes.

But the houses! That architectural editor in The Sims was fun. The only thing that was annoying about it was that, since it was tied to the game, your funds were limited. But you could get the cheat codes from somewhere or other, and boost your budget, and design Mansions. You could design and model houses that would be perfectly sound--and quite comfortable--if someone decided to build one in real life. An entire generation of gamers got to learn a little something of Architecture. Often, people would play the game just so they could see what their houses looked like with people moving around in them.

Well, Maxis learned the lesson. This Creature Creator is really, really fun. All by itself! You get to make monsters, and the monsters have personality. Even when it's nothing more than a blob, because you haven't added arms and legs and heads to it yet, it moves. And then when it gets a mouth, it starts smiling or frowning, and grunting in response to the limbs you stick onto it. And it gets happy when you give it eyes--and becomes rather distraught when you delete them. Every time you add something, it tries to look at what you've done to its body, and it will let you know through its body language and grunts whether it approves or not.

When you've got your monster pretty much the way you like it, you can take it for a "test drive", where you can see it move about, dance, jump, get angry, laugh, and flirt. Yes, in the Spore game you apparently have to attract mates, and the dance moves they use to do so are pretty funny. (Think seriously un-selfconscious White Boy). You can also see what the baby versions of your monsters look like. You can see several of the babies in the above pictures.


...


Well.


Anna, if you're reading this, this is why I asked if you'd heard of Spore yet, and why I said, "everything I've heard leads me to think it would be just as dangerous to our family's 'together-time' as Civilization is." Although today, that wasn't quite accurate: the Creature Creator became our family's together time; everyone was sitting around the computer, back-seat driving. "Make it green! Give it more hands! I think it needs a pom-pom on its tail." It was loads of fun.

This game is going to be evil. Pure evil. We'll probably get it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Time to Walk the Walk

Life has just presented us with an opportunity to walk the talk when it comes to Age Segregation!

For people who are new to this blog, my wife and I have given a fair amount of thought to the fact that our society tends to want to pigeonhole us by age, especially in public settings. We put our kids in schools that separate them by age: there are elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools; and in each school, kids are further segregated, so that first graders spend very little time around third graders--let alone seventh graders. We even do this in the churches, with kids put in their classes (which are often broken out into grades like the schools), and the adults put in theirs--and the age segregation is strong here as well, with "Young Professionals" groups and "Young Marrieds" groups and "Families" groups and "Seniors" groups.

We're on record as saying that this tendency to break us out into narrow age cohorts in so many aspects of life is not good for us. It's especially not good for the development of the young, but it has negative consequences for all of us.

And because of this, we've decided to try to push back a little, in our own way, against the trend. Our homeschooling gives us an opportunity to do this some.

Now, our church has started to do more mixed-age activities and unstructured activities (replacing "worship service" time outside of Sunday Morning with "hang out and enjoy each others' company" time, for example). I think this is a welcome development, in theory.

Of course, although this is a welcome development in theory, it means something like work for us armchair philosophers. The trouble is that these age-segregated activities are convenient, and when they go away, the parents' responsibilities go back up. After all, if you can just drop your three-year-old off in the three-year-olds' class, you can go do what you want for an hour, and know she'll be fine; but if there is no three-year-olds' class, you have to keep her with you, and that means there are a whole lot of activities you can't do.

Tonya and I ran up face-to-face with this issue yesterday. You see, our church is doing these "hang-out-and-fellowship" things this summer on Wednesday nights, after the regular classes have let out. This usually involves a publicly displayed movie (and before you ask, we do have a CCVI license, so it's all legal) among other things. The trouble is, the movie takes place too late for our kids to see it; and there are no kids' classes before it. There are some adult classes, and a singing practice; but nothing that one can imagine working with a young family with three kids, the youngest of which is a very energetic seventeen-month old boy who likes to run, hide, climb, and squeal very very loudly.

What to do? Well, let's look at the options.

One option (which I include here for the sake of completeness) is, find something else to do with the time on Wednesday night. One could say that, because the church activities aren't convenient for our family, we could find something else to do--either at home, or at another church, for example. But I really didn't like this option, because it sends entirely the wrong message to our kids about what the Church is, and what role it's supposed to play in our lives. We belong to a Church in no small part because God founded the Church; we believe that we were never intended to live out our faith in isolation from other believers. We need to have them in our lives, and we need to be in their lives; this is one of the ways that our faith is preserved. I've seen too many people raised in the church, who decided that they were strong enough that they didn't need to attend all the time; who then went off to college or moved away, and let themselves get isolated; after a while, their faith has dwindled or been snuffed out.

Furthermore, church attendance isn't just (or even primarily) for our benefit; we're there to benefit others as well. If all the "strong" Christians stay away because "we don't need it", that means that the only ones attending are the "weak" Christians. (And at this point I would start questioning the definitions of "strong" and "weak" in the previous sentence.) The more people attend, generally the more that others can get out of it. This is part of the lesson that I want my kids to learn; we're not just there for our benefit; we're there for others as well.

Ok, so we're going to go, even though there are no activities for the kids. Now what?

Well, for the Happy Boy, he isn't going to be content to sit for an hour. That will not fly. We might be able to pull it off on a Sunday Morning, when we're all half-comatose anyway. ;-) We're not even going to try on a Wednesday night. So for now (until we can think of a better idea), I decided to take him to the (unstaffed) nursery and look after him by myself, playing and talking to him, while Mommy dealt with the girls.

The class that Mommy and the girls went to was an adult class, but there were a few kids in that class, of widely differing ages. Mommy and I had had the foresight to pack a set of art supplies to bring with us, so the girls could draw and color while the class was in session. It turns out that this worked out reasonably well. The kids got pretty antsy at the end, but they made it, and that's what counts.

So about ten minutes before the class time was to end, the Omnivore was getting tired of being in the nursery, so I cleaned up all the toys, and took him into the auditorium, where the singing practice was being held. They were just finishing up, so he got to run around for a bit while I conversed with some of the other adults and teens there. I had to rescue the occasional hymnal from the little guy, who's been learning from his sisters how to wield pencils; but no major harm was done. He's quite the charmer, and got lots of attention from the Altos and Sopranos....

All in all, our little experiment worked. It's not much in the way of age-integration yet, as the activities aren't really inclusive enough to accept entire families; but it's a start. I was very pleased that the girls were able to contain themselves through an adult-level beginners' class on the Bible; and I enjoyed the time I got to spend with my little boy. It's not often that we get to spend an hour, just the two of us, in an environment where I'm not continually trying to keep him from killing himself.

Well, we consider yesterday a small success. One little piece at a time....

Don't Trust Air You Can't See

Ok, so here's the ironic thing. Nearly five years ago, my wife and I moved to the Sacramento area from Silicon Valley because of a whole host of quality-of-life issues.

Now, to many denizens of Silicon Valley, the preceding sentence will generate snorts, guffaws, and the occasional coffee-spewed keyboard. The Silicon Valley is a nice place to live, no doubt about it. The weather is about as comfortable as you can get in the Continental US. There are plenty of high-paying jobs there. There are numerous cultural venues nearby, from symphonies to Opera companies to professional and college sports franchises to museums. The country around it is lovely, especially when you start getting up into the hills on the peninsula. And for that matter, Tonya had plenty of family living nearby, and it's nearly always useful to have that--you have your choice of trusted babysitters, for example. There are always an extra pair of hands or two a few minutes' drive away, if you need them.

But... anywhere you live, there are drawbacks as well. And even if 95% of the population loves the quality of life in an area, if those drawbacks get under your skin, then it may actually make sense to move. Silicon Valley also has extremely high property values, where half-a-million will get you an extreme fixer-upper on the wrong side of town, if you're lucky.

And it has horrible, horrible, approaching-LA-levels traffic. And there's something about traffic that just drives me bonkers.

And its air quality is usually pretty nasty, too--partly as a result of all that traffic. The Bay Area has over the last two decades or so developed this ugly pall of brown smog that just sits there. The trouble is, the place is ringed by mountains on nearly all sides; the smog has nowhere to go, unless there's a good stiff breeze. (And when that's the case, the smog blows into California's Central Valley, where it gets trapped by the mountains and all winds up on top of Bakersfield. That poor town has some of the worst air quality in the country, and it's not their fault.)

So my wife and I moved to the Sacramento area, and we have very few regrets about our decision. Mainly, Tonya misses having her family nearby, which I can understand. But aside from that, and a few weeks each summer when it gets to 110°, we have no complaints.

Ahem.

Well, if you've been following the news from Northern California lately, you've probably seen that our air quality has taken a wee turn for the worse lately. We had a thunderstorm a couple of weeks ago that dropped little or no rain, but had lots of lightning--and which started over a thousand wildfires through our part of the state. It got pretty bad two weeks ago, but then the winds shifted, the temperature came down, and last week was pretty comfortable.

Then the winds shifted back the other way, and the smoke came back. I understand that the town of Folsom--less than ten miles from here--was reporting visibility at less than a quarter mile yesterday. The air outside positively reeks, and we've been seeing a lot of people who have to be outside (like mailmen) wearing filter masks.

I went outside today and took some pictures of the sky, just to show you (my dear internets) what we're dealing with here.

Now, what does this picture look like to you? To me, it looks a little like a peaceful scene in a quiet neighborhood, on an overcast day.

Well, part of the reason it looks that way is that the camera, for whatever reason, didn't capture the color of Mr. Sun very well. The sun was right in the middle of this picture. In real life, it was positively pink. I'm not sure why the camera didn't get it. But it left enough of a mark in the picture that I was able to edit the picture's colors to get it to come out. Note, the colors below aren't supposed to look natural; I only changed them to show the sun.

Aside from all the smoke, the sky in that picture is clear. Today was a clear day--not a cloud in the sky. The sky would have been blue, had it not been for all that soot.

Oh--and when I took these pictures, it was about seven in the evening, and the temperature outside was still pretty close to 100°. And this was about ten degrees cooler than it was yesterday, for which we're quite thankful.


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Ok, so it's pretty bad out there. But we can take a few bad weeks a year, can't we? After all, since we moved to the Sacramento area, we've only had this rotten air quality for a few weeks
cumulative.

So yesterday, I found this story from the Sacramento Bee, with a hat tip to Anthony Watts. The upshot is that these days, we tend to average around a quarter-million acres of wildfire in California each year. But prior to the arrival of the White Man and his land-management techniques, California burned about 4.4 million acres per year--or close to eighteen times the current average, and much more than has burned this year even.

And as much as we like our clear skies, the fact that we've eliminated so many of the fires has some serious ramifications to the ecology of the state. The trouble is:
  • Those fires cleared out a lot of the dead underbrush, which allow saplings of many species to get started. In fact, several species of native conifers require fire to germinate. No fires, no saplings.
  • Without the fires, the underbrush (and the dead clutter) just builds up on the ground from one year to the next. California is a semi-arid zone, and all those dead leaves, dead pine needles, pine cones, and fallen trees just don't decay like they would in a temperate rainforest. But if you let too much of this stuff build up, eventually a wildfire will come along, find all this fuel, and get really big--becoming so excessively hot that it even kills the fire-resistant species (like the redwoods) and sterilizes the soil.
So what does this mean? Well, it means that these clean skies that I've been enjoying since we moved away from the Bay Area are themselves unnatural; that all that smokiness is the norm, and that our attempts to fix it may have been making it worse in the long run.

Frankly, I don't think I care about this at the moment. The air feels sticky on our skin and grimy in our lungs. I seriously look forward to the next clean air day. We'll worry about our long-term doom when it gets here. ;-)


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Anyway, Anthony Watts has another post up about the air quality--with some photos that show the real color of the sun as I saw it this evening. He must have a better camera than me.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Daddy Is But a Mere Mortal

Here's a little exchange that happened with my five-year-old a little earlier today. Totally out of the blue, I might add--I had no inkling this was coming.

Pillowfight Fairy: Daddy?

Daddy: Yes, dear?

PF: Can I ask you a question?

D: Of course.

PF: Would you sing the song O Christmas Tree in Spanish?

D: ???!!!


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Anyway. Now that both my lovely bride and I have finished our respective games of Civilization, I'll be back to blogging my regular amount, hopefully starting tomorrow.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

My Beloved Wife Has Thoughts On Gardening

My wife just posted about the fact that we have a garden this year, and that we're harvesting so much fruit we don't know what to do with it. This has prompted some interesting thoughts on her part--regarding the blessings of God, our perceptions of the passage of time, on work, and on the teaching and raising of children.

You know, when I first started dating this woman, one thing that struck me about her was the fact that she could start with a seemingly mundane topic, and derive from that some incredibly profound insights about the nature of the world and our place within it.

So I decided to marry her. :-)

Anyway, now that she's taken, the rest of you just have to go read her stuff instead.

He's Got Me Trained

The Omnivore, who's just over seventeen months old, is not talking yet. He's not even saying Mama or Dada--although he has in the past; I guess it's just that he never saw the point to it, so he stopped doing it. After all, all he has to do is make a sound of the appropriate frequency and amplitude, and he gets the attention of whichever parent is around.

Now, this is a new situation for us. Both of the girls were talking, verbally communicating in sentences of a few words, by this point; and we're wondering a little about why it is that the Omnivore isn't. But we're not actually worried about this. For one thing, we know that there's a tremendous natural variation in kids regarding how early they speak, and there's nothing at all unusual about the fact that the Omnivore isn't saying much yet. If anything, the girls were extremely early in their speech (with the Pillowfight Fairy using words like "metronome" before she was two). We know some boys from church who are about the Fairy's age, who didn't speak for two years, and today are absolutely fine (although their parents were a little concerned there for a while). And we know that even late speakers can be very, very intelligent.

Furthermore, we know that the Omnivore fully understands most of what we say. We can tell him to do things, and he will either obey (if he's in the mood to do so), or he'll get this mischievous grin--and then turn around and do exactly the opposite, sometimes running away from the thing you wanted him to do. In these latter cases, it's apparent from his face and from his body language that he knows exactly what he's supposed to do, and he's just not going to do it unless you make him.

Well, I got a little sense today of my little boy's strategic thinking. He maneuvered me into doing exactly what he wanted me to do, without speaking a word.


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Here's the setup. We'd been playing outside for a while. The Omnivore had gotten hot and sweaty, but was still going strong; he wasn't acting the least bit tired, but was climbing all over everything he could find out there, and running in the garden (where he's not supposed to go), and climbing our terrace (where he's not supposed to go), and eating sand (which he's not supposed to do), and doing anything that he could think of. I was trying to keep an eye on him, while--as we late-thirties daddies are wont to do--expending as little energy as possible. I had, after all, just mowed the lawn and turned the compost pile, so I was a little tired--much more so than the boy.

Well, at one point, the boy stopped whatever it was he was doing, went over to the big toy chest, pointed at it, looked at me, and made a grunty-noise (of the sort he does when he's using his pacifier). Obviously, he wanted something that was in the toy chest. Now, this chest is a big, heavy one, that can be used as a seat by two fully-grown adults; its lid is quite heavy. And while the kids are able to get it open, the lid can fall closed very quickly and hurt a hand stuck in there. So yes, it's generally Mommy's or Daddy's job to open and close it. So I went to the chest and opened it.

He pointed deep down inside the chest and made another grunty-noise. I looked in the general direction of where he was pointing, and after some trial and error, I found the object he was looking for: it was a little, squarish bucket with a handle. The whole thing is capable of holding maybe a pint of liquid.

This in hand, he went over onto the walkway, next to where the hose was located, and made another grunty-noise. He got a little agitated, until I finally figured it out: he wants me to put some water in his bucket! This is not an unusual request from my kids. Usually they use it to make mud, or to put grass and other weeds in it to make "stew." I figured that, hey--it's a bath night anyway, so I don't mind if my kid gets wet. So I turned on the water, and sprayed about a cup or so into the bucket.

He seemed satisfied.

I turned off the water to the hose, turned around, and:

The Omnivore was taking a big, big drink from this little bucket. It was splashing all down his front, but (of course) he didn't seem to mind.

Then, finally, I figured out what was going on: the Omnivore had been playing hard for an hour or so outside, had gotten all hot and sweaty climbing all over everything, and had gotten thirsty. Not being a talker yet, he didn't know how to ask for water. But he knew where the water was! And he knew he'd need a vessel of some kind to hold it! And he knew just where to get an appropriate vessel! All he needed was for Daddy to do a few things that he couldn't, and he'd have exactly what he wanted.

And he knew exactly how to get Daddy to do those things!

Now, I realize that we parents are supposed to be in awe of how smart our kids are. And I suspect that lots of kids do these sorts of things. Still, I have to marvel at my kid here. After all, he had to think several steps ahead. Here's his little engineering mind at work:

Problem 1: I need water. Where do I get it?
Answer 1: There's water in that hose--I've seen Daddy fill buckets before.
Problem 2: To drink, I need a cup of some kind.
Answer 2: I'll use that little purple bucket.
Problem 3: Where's the little purple bucket?
Answer 3: It's probably in that toy chest.
Problem 4: How do I get it out of the toy chest?
Answer 4: Get Daddy to do it.
Problem 5: Now that I have the bucket, I need to get the water.
Answer 5: When my sisters put their buckets over here, Daddy fills them. I'll put the bucket over here, and see what happens.

Now, the really interesting thing to my mind, is that I never would have had the chance to see this progression at work, if the Omnivore actually knew how to talk. If he'd just said, "I'm thirsty!" I would have gone and gotten his cup, and that would have been that. But because he didn't know how to say it, he had to work his way through the progression above.

This tells me a few things about my kid:
  1. I suspect he's going to be more of an Analytical than a Verbal type, like his Daddy (and to an even greater degree, like his Mommy). Now, this is just a guess on my part; he could grow to be quite a talker. And I myself can be quite a talker when I'm discussing a topic I'm familiar with. But deep down, we prefer to think quietly to ourselves. I know I write a whole lot better than I talk.
  2. It didn't occur to him to ask Daddy for a drink. My girls would have made like they wanted to go inside, and then would have pointed at their sippy cups or at the refrigerator. And the Omnivore occasionally will do this, when he's inside. But while it didn't occur to him today to ask Daddy for a drink, it did occur to him to ask Daddy to help while he was trying to get himself a drink. Does this indicate an engineer's mindset--one that is constantly looking for solutions, and (often) not noticing that other people already have an available solution? It would have been easier for him to do like his sisters would have, after all; but perhaps his mind just doesn't work that way....
  3. He's got an independent streak a mile wide. We've seen it before; now that he's found where the strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries are planted in our yard we cannot keep him away from them. Given the chance, he'd feed himself. Today I saw evidence that, given the chance, he would get whatever water he needs without expecting Mommy or Daddy to do it for him. "Hey, I know what I want; why don't I just go do it without bugging them?" This is in general a very positive trait in a person; but it also poses some challenges for parents....
  4. This kid is going to be murder at a chessboard.
Okay, he's not talking yet. It appears that, so far at least, he doesn't need to.