The sheer quantity of art in Rome is unfathomable. Quite aside from all the museums and the grand churches, every time you turn a corner there's another little church, and inside that little church is more incredible art. Art that an American museum would protect with guards and high-tech security systems and state-of-the-art climate control—all at the mercy of curious tourists and the Roman climate.

The Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, however, has taken a step to protect its priceless artworks from one assault: smoke from the many candles burning nearby.

I'm sure it's better for the paintings. But it seems so wrong. 

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 28, 2020 at 8:02 pm | Edit
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This essay was a homework assignment for our weekly Rector's Class (formerly our Church History class; we're now studying Fulton J. Sheen's Life of Christ). I like to make my writing to double duty when I can.

The question was, "How do you meet temptation? How do you respond?"

My gut reaction? "How do I meet temptation? I try not to!"

There's more to that than a glib response. Someone once explained to me that the Bible enjoins us to resist the Devil, but to flee temptation, and I've taken that to heart. I read that Gandhi strengthened his will by sleeping between two beautiful, naked young girls; if true, that seems to me utterly foolish.

Let me give assurances that I believe there is nothing inherently sinful in eating ice cream, drinking alcohol, walking into a bar, or even (for some people) sleeping next to a naked woman (maybe not two). "The gifts of God were made for man." But nearly everything can be sinful when taken in the wrong way, or for certain people at certain times. In my examples below, take what works for you and ignore the rest.

  • At what point is it easiest to resist the temptation to eat ice cream? Walking past the display at the grocery store? When the carton is buried deep in your freezer? When it's visible every time you open the freezer door for ice cubes? When your husband gets out two bowls, scoops up some Publix Chocolate Trinity for himself, and asks, "Would you like some?"
  • If temptation of any sort meets you in bars, stay out of bars. Meet your friends somewhere else. 
  • Do you often regret your behavior when you get together with certain people? Seriously consider spending your time with those who encourage you to be your best, not your worst. 
  • Don't go grocery shopping when you're hungry, tired, or depressed.
  • If you find that your prayer meetings end up being more about gossip than prayer, maybe your should find a different prayer group.
  • We seriously underestimate the effect of the books we read, the movies we watch, the ads we see, and the approval or derision of our friends, on our ability to handle temptations to do or to say that which is wrong. Maybe we should be more careful about correlating our input with our desired output. Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. 

 

On the other hand, my more honest response to the question of how I handle temptation is, "I rationalize it."

  • I'm paying for this restaurant meal whether I eat nothing or everything. It's wrong to waste food.
  • It's the Sabbath! It's right to feast, and a bowl of Chocolate Trinity would be a great way to celebrate.
  • This isn't gossip, it's a prayer request.
  • We have guests for dinner—I have to provide dessert.
  • I'll do my work better if I take a break now.
  • I'm weary/worn/mistreated/sad—I need this drink/break/bag of potato chips.
  • I've worked hard and accomplished something important—I deserve this drink/break/bag of potato chips.
  • I know there are dishes in the sink and I have 200 e-mails to deal with, but this is a good book, important for me to read!
  • Many of my friends, what I hear in the media, and sometimes even my church thinks I'm foolish (or evil!) to believe that X is a sin. Why fight it any longer? Maybe I'm wrong.
  • Etc.

 

When avoiding temptation fails, I have a few other strategies that sometimes help.

  • Delay. Yes, I can have that snack, read my book, work on a puzzle, make that negative Facebook post—in 30 minutes. It's amazing how much even a short delay can weaken a seemingly irresistible temptation.
  • Distraction. It's Ash Wednesday and painfully obvious that many hours remain before I can eat even the healthiest of foods. What kind of distraction works for you? Today I spent several hours writing this post. Later I might read, or tackle a Sudoku puzzle. Does that mean I'm fighting one temptation by giving in to another? Maybe. Sometimes you have to choose your battles.
  • Make the correct path easier. I have a rule about my work: End with the beginning in mind. I try not to leave a task without making it easy to take it up again, which means I get started—even if it's the tiniest bit—on whatever the next step is. Anything to make later procrastination more difficult.
  • Talk with someone who understands both the temptation and the importance of not giving in. To be honest, I'm not good at this. I'm more of a solo fighter. But I know it's the backbone of Alcoholics Anonymous, and it's sure better than putting yourself in the company of people who will only encourage you to take the wrong path.
  • Find some supportive structure. It's easier to keep on task in an office, when those around you are (in theory) working hard, than when working from home, with all its distractions. Ash Wednesday is traditional for making the discovery that one can, indeed, live a whole day without eating, especially in a community of similarly-minded folks. The structure of Lent can be encouraging for trying out better habits of any kind—particularly since Easter always comes. :)
  • If necessary, shut the door. It's often easier to abide by a firm "no" than to handle "responsible use." It's better to be able to control one's intake of alcohol, but the only safe level of alcohol for some people is none.  All of our grandchildren are growing up without television sets in their homes, eliminating one potential battleground for their parents as well as opening their lives to many wonders they would otherwise miss. Sometimes I think it's a shame that the total abstinence option is not available for those whose besetting sins involve eating. A day of fasting can be more bearable than a week of eating less.

All of this may or may not be of more use than Oscar Wilde's "I can resist everything except temptation." But it did keep me all Ash Wednesday morning from dwelling on the lack of breakfast.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, February 27, 2020 at 6:46 am | Edit
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I loathe rummage sales. Garage sales, tag sales, used-book sales, eBay listings, charitable donations, call them what you want—if they involve putting anything of mine out for others to paw through and judge, I come out of the process feeling defeated, dirty, and discouraged.

Granted, such entities serve a useful purpose. So do sewage treatment plants. Our lives and our homes must be regularly tidied up, and it's good there are alternatives to storing our stuff till it moulders, or heaving it directly into a landfill. And in theory it's a great idea: you sell/donate to a a good cause something you no longer need, and instead of being discarded it blesses someone else. Sounds good. But....

I think it began with Wormy. Back when our daughter was very young (I'm guessing kindergarten, or earlier), our then-church was collecting toys for children. Their appeal made a big impression on her, and she picked out one of her stuffed animals to give to "a poor child who has no toys." Later, she was very sad because she missed Wormy a lot. We dealt with it, and she survived, but to this day I blame the church leaders for actively encouraging little children to make such sacrifices—and myself for allowing it. Particularly since I later learned that organizations that give toys to children are not really interested in used toys no matter how much love and sacrifice they represent. They only want new-in-box, tags-on toys, or cold-hearted cash with which to buy them. In some ways I can see the point, that children who already feel second-hand should not have to make do with second-hand toys—but I also can't help feeling that it takes love out of the equation.

Back in World War II, households were asked to provide metal "for the war effort," giving up precious pots and pans so that their sons serving overseas could have the aircraft and ammunition they needed. The recording industry even gave up irreplaceable, original recordings to the scrap drives. And for what? A small amount of the material collected helped a bit, but most, it appears, was of no use—meaning your great-grandmother's sacrifice was just wasted. The point, we're now told, was to make the population feel more involved in the war effort, to buy into it, and to believe that they were actively helping to keep their boys alive. I call that criminal deception.

It's okay to ask people to make sacrifices. But to no point? That's just wrong.

Many, many years ago I looked at the books overflowing our shelves and decided it was selfish to keep so many books in our own home when we could donate them to the library and make them available to everyone. After all, even though I love to re-read books, I rarely need them handy at all times; as long as I could check them out of the library at will, that would be fine.

You are all laughing at me for being so naïve. But it came as a true shock to discover that my beloved books were not on the shelves to be checked out, but had been sold (for pennies!) at a library fundraiser. I haven't quite gotten over that. I still donate books to the library, but with a heavy heart and a feeling more of amputation than of the relief that's supposed to accompany "decluttering" a household. Also, our shelves still bulge, because I'm now exceedingly reluctant to get rid of an old book I might want to read again. Modern libraries don't want to carry on the function of providing books that are otherwise difficult to obtain, preferring to stock books that are recently-published and in high demand.

When we moved from a four-bedroom house to a small apartment, we tried to give away our excess furniture. No one wanted it. They would only take furniture in pristine condition, for resale. Our daughter, who lived in Pittsburgh, said it was it was a pity we didn't live near a university. In her neighborhood, furniture left at the curb, no matter how worn, was quickly snapped up by students. But in Central Florida, apparently, no one is poor enough to want someone else's couch.

Have you ever tried to "clothe the naked"? Given the shirt off your back to someone in need? Do you know what often happens to donated clothing? It's not given to someone who needs a shirt—it's sold, in bulk. Maybe someone, somewhere, eventually wears it, or maybe it ends up shredded for other purposes. In any case, it's not what you gave it up for.

But enough of the memories dredged up as I pondered the most recent incident, and back to rummage sales.

I am not generally a hoarder (books may be an exception), and not particularly selfish when it comes to things. (Don't ask about how selfish I am with respect to time. That's a terrible struggle for me.) I can give up a treasure to a good home—to someone who will love and appreciate it. But that's not, I've found, what generally happens at rummage sales. It's a lesson I have to learn over and over again.

The particular event that inspired these morose thoughts was a benefit for our church's Kairos Torch Ministry, which makes a difference in the lives of incarcerated young people. I did not have the stomach to work the sale itself, but we were there to help with the setup, at 6:30 Saturday morning, and the cleanup when it was over.

As usually happens at such sales, everything was priced far under value. I've become somewhat reconciled to that: 45 years of being married to an economist have made me understand the stark monetary equation that an item's value is precisely what someone is willing to pay for it. When a brand-new man's shirt with the tags still attached is priced at $1, and the buyer insists on paying half that, the hard truth is that it's only worth 50 cents.

What I find harder to believe is the people who will drive such a bargain at a charity fundraiser. Not to mention the light-fingered customers who come through and slip pieces of jewelry into their pockets, even when the price marked is only a quarter! Except for the tireless work and quiet cheerfulness of the volunteers, I have not found rummage sales to be encouraging about the nature of humanity.

Worse is when items don't sell, even at such deep discounts. After the sale was over, we "gathered the fragments," took the unsold books to the Friends of the Library, and turned the rest over to the local Goodwill site. So there's a possibility the items will eventually find a good home; I cling to that.

Nonetheless, my overall impression is that there is a large disconnect between our family and modern society. Is no one poor enough to appreciate the books, furniture, and household items we have loved but can do without? If I believed that, it would be good news, but instead I just feel awful. Almost exactly the same way I feel when I look at all the plastic and Styrofoam waste that enwraps nearly everything I buy, including our food.

Fortunately, I find writing therapeutic. Thanks to this post and a great church service yesterday—plus, I confess, a bag of potato chips—I have largely recovered from Saturday's depression. I comfort myself with the thought that Kairos Torch did gain from the sale (whether it was worth the effort is another question, and one I can't answer), and in the knowledge that many of the items we had contributed did sell, presumably to people who will appreciate them.

If nothing else, our house at least has a little more elbow room now. The night before, I actually felt pretty good. I'll probably participate in the same rummage sale again next year, perhaps—this time—with more realistic expectations.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, February 24, 2020 at 7:22 am | Edit
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altAn Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis (Cambridge University Press, 1961)

This book was not written for me; the author himself said so: I am writing about literary practice and experience from within, for I claim to be a literary person myself and I address other literary people. (p. 130)

I am a literate person. I read, and what's more I write, but any of my English teachers could assure you that I've never been a literary person. I've always loved reading books, but loathed analyzing them—at least in the way English teachers require. And most of the examples Lewis discusses here go 'way over my head.

Nonetheless, I found this to be a valuable book, largely because I don't think Lewis could discuss buttered toast without touching on interesting subjects.

The first time I read An Experiment in Criticism (unfathomable years ago), I marked interesting passages with blue highlighting. (That's how I know it was a very long time ago; it has been decades since I gave up desecrating the pages of a book with anything but light pencil.) This time I used my now-traditional sticky notes. They are far fewer, not because the highlighted passages are no longer interesting to me, but because I didn't want to type them up for the review. But I present a few:

The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.) (p. 19)

Without some degree of realism in content—a degree proportional to the reader's intelligence—no deception will occur at all. No one can deceive you unless he makes you think he is telling the truth. The unblushingly romantic has far less power to deceive than the apparently realistic. Admitted fantasy is precisely the kind of literature which never deceives at all. Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women's magazines. None of us are deceived by the Odyssey, the KalevalaBeowulf, or Malory. The real danger lurks in sober-faced novels where all appears to be very probable but all is in fact contrived to put across some social or ethical or religious or anti-religious "comment on life." For some at least of such comments must be false. To be sure, no novel will deceive the best type of reader. He never mistakes art either for life or for philosophy. He can enter, while he reads, into each author's point of view without either accepting or rejecting it, suspending when necessary his disbelief and (which is harder) his belief. (pp. 67-68)

The danger of realistic fiction deserves a post of its own; I believe it has profound implications for our mass-media-drenched society. Let's just say I'm feeling better about female cops who manage to run down bad guys while wearing heels, and computer specialists who can hack into the Pentagon faster than my computer can boot.

We must not be deceived by the contemporary practice of sorting books out according to the "age-groups" for which they are supposed to be appropriate. That work is done by people who are not very curious about the real nature of literature nor very well acquainted with its history. It is a rough rule of thumb for the convenience of schoolteachers, librarians, and the publicity departments in publishers' offices. Even as such it is very fallible. Instances that contradict it (in both directions) occur daily. (p. 71)

When my pupils have talked to me about Tragedy (they have talked much less often uncompelled, about tragedies), I have sometimes discovered a belief that it is valuable, is worth witnessing or reading, chiefly because it communicates something called the tragic "view" or "sense" or "philosophy" of "life." This content is variously described, but in the most widely diffused version it seems to consist of two propositions: (1) That great miseries result from a flaw in the principle sufferer. (2) That these miseries, pushed to the extreme, reveal to us a certain splendour in man, or even in the universe. Though the anguish is great, it is at least not sordid, meaningless, or merely depressing.

No one denies that miseries with such a cause and such a close can occur in real life. But if tragedy is taken as a comment on life in the sense that we are meant to conclude from it "This is the typical or usual, or ultimate, form of human misery," then tragedy becomes wishful moonshine. Flaws in character do cause suffering; but bombs and bayonets, cancer and polio, dictators and roadhogs, fluctuations in the value of money or in employment, and mere meaningless coincidence, cause a great deal more. Tribulation falls on the integrated and well adjusted and prudent as readily as on anyone else. Nor do real miseries often end with a curtain and a roll of drums "in calm of mind, all passion spent." The dying seldom make magnificent last speeches. And we who watch them die do not, I think, behave very like the minor characters in a tragic death-scene. For unfortunately the play is not over. We have no exeunt omnes. The real story does not end: it proceeds to ringing up undertakers, paying bills, getting death certificates, finding and proving a will, answering letters of condolence. There is no grandeur and no finality. Real sorrow ends neither with a bang nor a whimper. Sometimes, after a spiritual journey like Dante’s, down to the centre and then, terrace by terrace, up the mountain of accepted pain, it may rise into peace—but a peace hardly less severe than itself. Sometimes it remains for life, a puddle in the mind which grows always wider, shallower, and more unwholesome. Sometimes it just peters out, as other moods do. One of these alternatives has grandeur, but not tragic grandeur. The other two—ugly, slow, bathetic, unimpressive—would be of no use at all to a dramatist. The tragedian dare not present the totality of suffering as it usually is in its uncouth mixture of agony with littleness, all the indignities and (save for pity) the uninterestingness, of grief. It would ruin his play. It would be merely dull and depressing. He selects from the reality just what his art needs; and what it needs is the exceptional. Conversely, to approach anyone in real sorrow with these ideas about tragic grandeur ... would be worse than imbecile: it would be odious. (pp 77-79)

As I have said, more than once:  Romantic tragedy makes great opera, but a lousy life. And the point about the artist extracting only the exceptional from reality because that's what his art needs? C. S. Lewis, prophet of the evening news!

In good reading there ought to be no "problem of belief." I read Lucretius and Dante at a time when (by and large) I agreed with Lucretius. I have read them since I came (by and large) to agree with Dante. I cannot find that this has much altered my experience, or at all altered my evaluation, of either. A true lover of literature should be in one way like an honest examiner, who is prepared to give the highest marks to the telling, felicitous and well-documented exposition of views he dissents from or even abominates. (p. 86)

No poem will give up its secret to a reader who enters it regarding the poet as a potential deceiver, and determined not to be taken in. We must risk being taken in, if we are to get anything. The best safeguard against bad literature is a full experience of good; just as a real and affectionate acquaintance with honest people gives a better protection against rogues than a habitual distrust of everyone. (p. 94, emphasis mine)

At some schools children are taught to write out poetry they have learned for repetition not according to the lines but in "speech-groups." The purpose is to cure them of what is called "sing-song." This seems a very short-sighted policy. If these children are going to be lovers of poetry when they grow up, sing-song will cure itself in due time, and if they are not it doesn't matter. In childhood sing-song is not a defect. It is simply the first form of rhythmical sensibility; crude itself, but a good symptom not a bad one. This metronomic regularity, this sway of the whole body to the metre simply as metre, is the basis which makes possible all later variations and subtleties. For there are no variations except for those who know a norm, and no subtleties for those who have not grasped the obvious. Again, it is possible that those who are now young have met vers libre too early in life. When this is real poetry, its aural effects are of extreme delicacy and demand for their appreciation an ear long trained on metrical poetry. Those who think they can receive vers libre without a metrical training are, I submit, deceiving themselves; trying to run before they can walk. (p. 103)

If we have to choose, it is always better to read Chaucer again than to read a new criticism of him. (p. 124)

To take a man up very sharp, to demand sternly that he shall explain himself, to dodge to and fro with your questions, to pounce on every apparent inconsistency, may be a good way of exposing a false witness or a malingerer. Unfortunately, it is also the way of making sure that if a shy or tongue-tied man has a true and difficult tale to tell you will never learn it. (p. 128, emphasis mine)

None of these quotations gives you a proper feel for the book, which is about good and bad ways of reading, and judging a book by the kind of reading it invites. Lewis's ideas are interesting and often compelling, but what I really wish is that somebody better than I would take these ideas and apply them to recent generations, who have by and large given up reading of any sort in favor of other media.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 21, 2020 at 8:44 am | Edit
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The world is going to hell, right? Everybody tells me so, although there are nearly as many different assertions as to why this is the case as there are people with opinions. I hear it from the right and the left, from the rich and the poor, from the smart and highly-educated to ... well, let's just say to the rest of us.

This is Worst-First Thinking on steroids. That's a term I first heard a decade ago from Lenore Skenazy, who now writes at Let Grow, and it means acting as if the worst-case scenario is actually the norm. Why is that a problem? After all, terrible things are happening in the world and we need to deal with them, don't we?

Yes, we do. But whether we're talking about not letting a child walk to the store by herself (which once was considered a good thing, even on Sesame Street), or not working to reduce world poverty because it's a losing battle, or instituting oppressive regulations in an effort to prevent tragic events that are already extremely unlikely, our pessimistic attitudes often hinder the exact behaviors needed to counteract the evil. Children who are over-protected don't learn the skills that would help them protect themselves, and seeing a "gun-free zone" sign makes me feel less secure, not more. Misinformation leads to negative attitudes, which lead to depression, which induces loss of hope and results in paralysis when it comes to positive actions that can really make a difference.

This is a subject to which I will return later, but for now, How Not to Be Ignorant about the World is an enlightening and entertaining TED talk by Hans and Ola Rosling with some encouraging news, and tips on how to assess the world with more success than a roomful of chimpanzees. It's 19 minutes long, but I think well worth it. If you start at the 14-minute point, you'll get their quick rules of thumb for making better statistical judgements, but you really don't want to miss what leads into that.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, February 18, 2020 at 5:10 pm | Edit
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I have plenty of opinions on just about any subject, and if you're reading my blog, you know I don't hesitate to make them known. However, I rarely like to discuss politics directly. I also believe strongly in the institution of the secret ballot. Sometimes I don't even tell myself whom I'm voting for until I actually put pen to ballot.

So you won't know for certain whether or not I've voted for Bernie Sanders in the upcoming presidential primary, but I think he just said he doesn't want my vote, and who am I to deny him that privilege?

My Sanders-supporting friends can jump in here and tell me I've misunderstood him, or have heard only out-of-context quotes that aren't as bad as they seem.

But what I hear is Bernie Sanders, loud and clear, insisting that there is no such thing as a pro-life Democrat.

I've been a Democrat all my voting life, and campaigned for Hubert Humphrey even before I could vote. I vote my conscience—Democrat, Republican, sometimes parties you've never heard of—and let the chips fall where they may, but I've never seen any point in changing my party affiliation.

But I'm most definitely against abortion.

Actually, I'm pro-choice in most of life. Even in medical decisions, especially in those soul-wrenching decisions about when to withdraw life support. Our family has been there more than once, and I'm certain that loved ones are better equipped to make these choices than any doctor, judge, or regulation.

But the deliberate taking of the life of a healthy, innocent human being? That can't be anything other than murder. And, freedom-loving creature that I am, I acknowledge that laws against murder are a good thing.

Which, according to Mr. Sanders, is grounds for excommunicating me from the Democratic Party.

Fortunately, the Party is not a church, and he's not a priest. I'm still planning to vote in the primary.

I just don't know for whom.

I only know my choice is looking less and less like it will be Bernie Sanders, much as I think that if I actually knew him, I'd find enough reasons to like him as a person. Isn't politics depressing?

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 14, 2020 at 11:25 am | Edit
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Socialism.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

I'm not here to define socialism. I'm here to point out that no discussion makes sense when we haven't defined our terms. Or worse, when we all think we have defined them, and don't realize how different our definitions are. 

   vs.  

When you consider the merits and evils of socialism, it makes a great difference whether your image of a socialist country is Sweden or Venezuela. For example, I have recently seen these comments, and others like them, on Facebook:

I am too old to live under socialism. I am addicted to luxuries like toilet paper, electricity, food, clean water and shoes.

I don't understand why Bernie Sanders supporters are so upset about the Iowa caucus. You wanted more socialism. Last night, you got more socialism: Third world tech, missing vote counts, chaotic rules, rigged elections. The only thing missing: food shortages.

Clearly the people who have posted these are operating under the Venezuelan picture of socialism. Knowing someone who is from Venezuela and still has family there, I'm with them.

However, this is a completely ineffective way to reach anyone who is operating under the Swedish picture. Whatever the reality of life in the socialistic Scandinavian countries is, the image of that life in many American eyes is idyllic. 

Not, I hasten to add, for me. The high-taxes, high-services model can, perhaps, work pretty well when you have little government corruption, and—most important—a strong monoculture. When one is even a little different from the majority, it can be disastrous. Sweden is now having to acknowledge that their system cannot seamlessly absorb large quantities of people who are culturally far from Swedish, but even before the current influx of refugees, socialism was crushing Swedes whose beliefs did not fall in with the majority.

For example, many people praise Sweden's approach to day care, education, and parental leave—but it greatly favors conformity to the two-income family model, passing the costs on to those who are already sacrificing to live on one income so that their children can be reared directly by their families instead of through state services. The system will even take children away from parents who dare to challenge the government's educational services model. This is an unacceptable, basic human rights violation, but largely invisible to those who benefit from conforming to the system's expectations.

I personally fear Swedish socialism more than I fear the Venezuelan model, largely because I think it more likely to be implemented here. Certainly we are already well on that road. Even the socialist systems that work well enough—as long as one conforms to a certain culture—rely on a set of circumstances not easily duplicated. The Scandinavian socialist countries are wealthy, their governments are stable and relatively honest, and their culture has a strong history of Protestant-work-ethic values. There are many more countries and societies in which socialism has failed spectacularly than in which it has succeeded. For Sweden, or the United States, to descend into a Venezuela-like disaster is not impossible.

Be that as it may, when we try to argue with those who are pushing for more socialism in the United States, it's counter-productive to bring up Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, or the former Soviet Union. They will only see that as a straw man fallacy. That's not what they mean by socialism, only perhaps failed socialism. What they want is what they see as successful socialism, and the only meaningful arguments can be to show where socialism is failing in the countries Americans admire. Most Swedes have toilet paper, electricity, food, clean water and shoes. What they lack is freedom.

Similarly, if you wish to argue that socialistic policies are a great idea, you must take into account all the places where it has failed and explain how that can be avoided. Otherwise you will be written off as simply ignorant.

No matter how good an argument may be, if it doesn't address what the other side sees as the real issues, it won't be effective.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, February 11, 2020 at 8:46 am | Edit
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altOrdinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (Atria, 2013)

My son-in-law has had remarkable success in recommending fiction books for me. This was one of his few failures. Despite its New York Times bestseller status, its awards, and the glowing reviews, it's not my kind of book. Yes, it's a mystery, and that is its best quality. I don't hold anything against it just because I figured out whodunit before it was revealed. I rather enjoy feeling clever.

However, it is a coming-of-age story, and that genre sits on the bottom of my rankings, along with Horror and Romance. It's much to the credit of The Silent Swan that I esteem that book so highly, given that it could also be called a coming-of-age story. A line from my review of that book is just as applicable here: If this story provides an accurate description of what goes on in a teenage boy's mind whenever he sees a woman ... let's just say I'm feeling a lot better about burqas. And a lot worse about teenage boys.

But my dislike of the genre is not particularly about sex; it's more the self-centered focus of what's going on in the protagonist's mind and heart. It's not just teenage boys whose thoughts are such cesspools of selfishness, envy, anger, pettiness, greed, and lust. God knows (and I use that phrase in all reverence) I don't need to look any further than my own heart to find all that. But I don't enjoy seeing it all spread out before me as on an autopsy table—and more often than not presented as something normal and therefore nothing to be ashamed of. More to the point, I don't think it's good for me to see it like that.

Plus, having grown up in a family where we never, ever used bad language, and in a time where women did not swear and men did not swear in front of women—and those conventions kept a tight rein on the media—I just can't get used to it. It is physically painful to me to hear such language, and reading it isn't much better. (There are some exceptions.) I do not usually seek out books that hurt.

Ordinary Grace is far from the worst of offenders in either subject or language. In fact, it's quite mild, and somewhat redeemed by the mystery. The only reason I'm bothering with this negative review is to figure out (and help gift-givers to figure out) what works for me in a book, and what does not. Even at my age I'm still a mystery to myself!

In fact, I rather suspect that my book-loving sister-in-law would enjoy Ordinary Grace very much. I think I can find it a good home. (Update: I was right, and I was wrong. I must find another good home, because she has already read Ordinary Grace, and yes, she did enjoy it.)

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, February 8, 2020 at 6:52 am | Edit
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This is on the surface what they call a First World problem, but it may be symptomatic of larger concerns, so I'll report it.

Recently I decided to place an order at Target.com. Easy-peasy, right? It would have been, had I not noticed, at nearly the last step, that something was wrong with the arithmetic in my shopping cart.

Some of the items were on sale. The subtotal was correct for the regular prices, but I should have received a 69 cent discount on each of two items, and a 79 cent discount on another two, for a total of $2.96. Instead, the discount was a mere 10 cents.

What's more, I found that I could vary the amount of the discount (though never to the correct number) by adding and removing other, non-related, non-discounted items from my cart. I will spare you the details of my calculations, which were complicated by the fact that the Target cart did not show the discounts individually, and kept wanting to assume I was using my Target credit card, which gives a 5% discount itself, while I wanted to use a gift card instead. So the correct discount was not as easy to figure out as I made it appear above.

Finally, however, I was certain enough of my data to initiate a customer service chat. In record time I was transferred to someone higher up the food chain. I was pleased that he understood my problem easily enough. However, when he on his end looked at my cart, the numbers were correct! He wasn't seeing what I was seeing.

I did the usual things: refreshed my cart, got out and back in again.... Nothing worked. I still had the wrong numbers. Finally, he said to go ahead and place the order and see what happened. So I did—and my card was charged the wrong amount. The agent issued me a credit by e-mail to cover the mistake. (It actually was a little more complicated than that, but I'm sparing you the details.)

After about an hour's worth of work, I saved just under three dollars. Was it worth it? In money, no. But supposedly the issue is being reported to the relevant people, and I believe this is more than a three-dollar problem.

Target was friendly and quick both to believe me and to give me the correct discount. (Well, almost correct, but again that's an unnecessary detail.) But I refuse to believe that I am the only one this has happened to. How many others decided it wasn't worth the effort to complain? How many didn't even notice the discrepancy at all?

It's not good when an online retailer can't get the arithmetic right. And is this kind of thing happening in far more critical areas? How many things in this world are just plain wrong that we can't see, don't notice, or don't have the ability, will, or time to check out? 

There's been a change over the years in how software is being implemented. We've gone from "work carefully, and test, test, test so you know it's good before the customer ever sees it," to "hurry, hurry, hurry, get the product out there; we'll make fixes if the customers complain."

Here's my speculation: Target made a change in their system, and it was put in place without proper testing. Instead, they decided to do consumer testing: Have a special promotion—in this case, spending $50 gets you a $10 gift card—to encourage extra traffic, and see how it works. Just a wild guess, but that's what it feels like.

I'll confess: as a programmer, I actually prefer the iterative method of write it-test it-refine it, instead of spending a lot of time perfecting the code before the first test run. But that's on the coding side of the process, well before it goes into production. I'm certainly not a fan of the "we have to pass the law before we understand what it actually says" school. Don't build a bridge and let traffic determine whether or not it's going to collapse.

Let's get it right. Let's not be in such a hurry that we risk major problems, such as a very expensive satellite ending up in a useless orbit because the clock was set wrong. Or far worse.

A few cents at Target? No big deal. But our credit union recently updated their system, and the immediately obvious flaws make it clear that it had not been sufficiently tested. If that's happening at a level customers can notice, what's going wrong behind the scenes?

I know that approaching 100% correctness, or 100% safety, is almost always too costly, even if possible. We all make cost/benefit decisions that require us to take risks. We have elective surgery, despite the dire warnings in the pre-op paperwork; we vaccinate our children, knowing that a few children will have life-altering, maybe fatal, reactions; we even drive our automobiles after watching the daily litany of car crashes reported on the news. I know that life, and business, can't go on without taking some risks.

Whether it's business, government, military, medical, educational, or personal, we must live with the fact that we and others are knowingly making choices that will put us in harm's way. We must act, for our own sanity and that of our children, as if these decisions are informed, wise, and correct.

My Target experience shook that faith, just a little.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, February 5, 2020 at 8:11 am | Edit
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This is an actual sign that we encountered in an actual rest stop parking lot in Connecticut. I immediately began wondering:

Is effectively reducing the number of parking spaces available really Connecticut's best solution to inadequate facilities?

How do they know the vehicle is travelling with multiple occupants?

If they patrol the lot, giving tickets to offenders, should we leave two people in the car and use the restroom in shifts? On this trip, we could have done that.

However, we are often travelling with just the two of us. A car with two people in it is certainly a "multiple occupant vehicle," but leaving just one in the car while the other uses the facilities might lead to an unpleasant encounter with the guard, since he would see only one person in the car.

Is there a surveilance camera in the lot? There probably is. When you drive in, does it detect how many people are in the car, then automatically mail you a ticket if it records you parking in the wrong spot?

In the end, we just parked in an "everyone is welcome" space and entered the building together.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, February 2, 2020 at 6:04 am | Edit
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