Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Joseph Epstein's book Friendship: An Expose is an entertaining and thought-provoking book. I wouldn't say that it has an overarching argument about friendship, but it is full of interesting observations. E.g.:
[Here he's discussing the nature of "community":]

The central fire, then, is something beyond and deeper than mere agreement. It is a place where one can receive kindness, understanding, solace, patient attention, and respect for one's point of view, and all this because of an underlying but never spoken sense that everyone around that central fire, or in the community, knows that he and she are all in the same struggle together.

* * *

Most of us, I suspect, have at one time or another been members of true communities. The most typical may be membership on athletic teams, especially when the team is doing well. In my own case, the sense of community, when I have experienced it, has been fairly short-lived. I felt I belonged to the community formed by the twenty-five or so men in my platoon during the difficult weeks of basic training in the army. I felt it earlier among my fellow fraternity pledges during a semester at the University of Illinois, though I couldn't feel anything like it for the full fraternity. . . .

I've never felt anything similar for a political community -- quite the reverse: when I find myself in a room with people whom I can count on to share (roughly) my own political views, my first thought is that perhaps these views are flawed and I ought to rethink them. Academics used to speak of a "community of scholars," but in a thirty-year teaching careeer, I have never felt anything like the warmth of Bertrand Russell's central fire at a university. . . .

But on those occasions, however brief, when I have felt myself part of a community, the feeling was enormously satisfying. The feeling is one of belonging. You look at the other seated around the central fire and feel with equal confidence that you would do almost anything for these people, as they would do almost anything for you. As a member of a community, you feel you have lost yourself, however temporarily, in something larger, of which you are nonetheless an important part. To be part of a true community is to experience collective friendship, with the associated feelings of mutuality and reciprocity that are normally available only between two people. It's a grand, grand feeling, and all the grander for its rarity.
This was amusing, and typically so:
No friend has broken with me in recent years, though I have known a few people who, I have to assume, did not long for my company when I have offered it. . . . Most strangely of all, I have a friend, also from college days, whom I hadn't seen for thirty years, then began seeing again with some frequency for four years or so, and now no longer see again. Apparently our friendship is on a four-years-on, thirty-years-off cycle, and clearly we do not have sufficient time left for another cycle. Did I offend him somehow? Or perhaps I unconsciously irked his wife. Might it be that I am not the charming fellow I believe I am? Good God, surely not.
And this observation seems correct as to one reason for the decline of modern friendship:
Most homes with young kids today are child-centered to an extent that would astonish parents of my mother and father's generation, who brought up their children in the 1940s and '50s. Neither of my parents felt that their first duty was to their children. They went off on vacations to Montreal or New York and left my younger brother and me in the care of professional babysitters or a childless aunt and uncle. My mother didn't begin driving until her late forties and my father was always off at work during the day, including Saturday, so I was never picked up or taken anywhere by my parents; I bicycled or took public transportation wherever I went. True, the world seemed a safer place then -- less crime, no drugs -- and kids could be left on their own more readily. But I never felt in the least neglected or maltrated by being so much on my own; on the contrary, I relished the freedom. Few parents today would themselves feel free enough to extend such freedom to their own children. Such is their worry about bringing up their children properly that they are willing (feel compelled is more like it) to expend a vast outlay of time on a full-court press of attention for their kids -- time taken from, among other things, the cultivating of friendships.

Given the changed status of women, the demands of career and especially those of family in the contemporary scheme of living, friendship has been demoted to a leisure time activity and consequently has come to seem an altered, even a radically changed, institution.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Hirsch book

I recently read E. D. Hirsch’s book The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. Its main theme is one that I heartily agree with: the whole concept of “reading comprehension” inherently involves a lot of purely factual knowledge from a wide range of sources. For example, if you (i.e., the average student) see a “reading comprehension” passage on a test, and the passage happens to involve the Civil War, you’re going to comprehend the passage much more quickly if you know what the Civil War was, who was fighting who, what slavery was, who Lincoln was, and so forth. If you’ve never heard of the Civil War before, it will take you longer to figure out what the passage even means. Thus, in order for us to improve students’ ability to engage in “reading comprehension,” we have to get them to learn lots of background knowledge.

Some observations that I liked:

1. Hirsch points out that on international comparisons of reading achievement, U.S. third and fourth graders do as well as other developed nations, but then they fall substantially behind by grade 10. Hirsch’s claim is that this is because we don’t teach the kids enough facts in the meantime:
It’s possible, of course, that the reason for our relative decline with each successive grade lies in factors other than our unproductive use of school time – for instance, our distracting culture, our diversity, our racism, our unequal income distribution. But other developed nations have distracting cultures, ethnic diversity, racism, and unequal income distributions and nonetheless have higher-performing students. Sociological explanations are not very plausible when our school curricula and teaching methods are inherently unproductive. It is unnecessary to seek remote causes for our low educational productivity when more immediate ones are available.
2. Hirsch argues that the U.S. should have a nationwide curriculum for the early grades, at least as to the basics. He makes the excellent point that without some standardization, the inevitable effect is a lot of wasted time, particularly for those students who move from one school to another.
In the face of extensive student mobility, we need to reach agreement not only about what subject matter should be taught in school but also about the grade level at which that agreed-upon should be taught. Just as we have created a convention about the standard spelling of Mississippi, we need to create a convention about the grade level at which school topics shall be introduced. If we agree that primary-grade children should be taught about the Mayflower, then we have an obligation to decide when the Mayflower will be introduced. The ravages of mobility on disadvantaged students ought to exert a powerful moral claim in favor of such a policy, which deserves to trump local sentiments about whether kindergarten is or is not the right place for the Mayflower. No one can really answer that question in absolute terms. In most cases, questions about proper grade level have no absolute right answer, because, as Jerome Bruner famously observed, almost any topic, if taught appropriately, can be taught at any school age.

But Bruner’s insight emphatically does not argue for laissez-faire regarding the sequencing of topics. On the contrary, using an automotive analogy, either side of the road, appropriately demarcated, is suitable for driving in either direction – which is precisely why it is necessary to create a convention for determining whether the right side or the left side will be used. Whatever side of the road a state decides on, that same convention needs to hold for all roads in all the states, because cars cross state lines every day – just as disadvantaged students move every day across schools. The consequence of not creating a convention about the sequencing of agreed-upon topics is that some disadvantaged students will never hear about the Mayflower while others will hear about the Mayflower ad nauseam, in kindergarten, grade one, grade two, and beyond.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Social Networking Site

My brother-in-law has set up a new social networking site:


Worth checking out.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Do it Yourself

The most recent post calls to mind an observation: Of all the things that I've tried doing for myself, making bread, making yogurt, and growing tomatoes are unquestionably the three top things that fall into the category "doing it yourself is orders of magnitude better than buying it from someone else." Making your own bread, as per the last post, is really quite easy, and it is incomparably better than anything in a grocery store. Making your own yogurt is also quite easy. Homemade yogurt takes a little getting used to -- it's not as thick as store-bought yogurt, and it's got more of a tangy "bite" to it -- but once you get used to the real stuff, store-bought yogurt just seems like sickeningly sweet pudding.

As for tomatoes -- I've had a garden for two years now, and I've tried growing tomatoes, strawberries, yellow squash, zucchini, okra, corn, green beans, carrots, and cilantro. At least in my yard, using the seeds/plants that I used, the corn and strawberries were worse than store-bought. Everything else tasted about the same, except that it was probably more work to get it. But with tomatoes -- ah, what a difference. If you get some really good tomato plants, you're in for a treat. Store-bought tomatoes are almost always picked green, shipped in from somewhere (probably hundreds or thousands of miles away), and ripened by application of ethylene gas (which naturally occurs in tomatoes anyway, by the way). A fresh tomato picked straight from the vine is, in my experience, far juicier and more flavorful than the typical store-bought tomato. Slice up a few fresh tomatoes, sprinkle on a bit of unprocessed sea salt and balsamic vinegar, and there's nothing like it.

Bread Recipe

I've been baking bread a good bit lately, and I was pleased to find that this very simple and easy recipe (via Will Baude) works wonderfully. The distinctive features: Mix up the flour, a tiny bit of yeast, water, and salt the day before you want to have fresh bread. Then let it rise for 18 hours or so. No kneading. After a second rise, cook it in a covered pot of some sort.

I doubled the recipe so as to make two loaves. I only had one covered cast iron pot, which is maybe half the size that the recipe calls for:

Cooking the loaf in that enclosed environment is what allows the water in the loaf to create steam, which is essential for a nice crust.

I cooked the other loaf on a baking stone:

I read somewhere about the suggestion to put a brick at the top of the oven to reflect heat downwards, but I can't tell that it made any difference.

Here are the two loaves:

The loaf cooked in the cast-iron pot is at the bottom of the first picture, and the left of the second picture. That loaf turned out to have a much more interesting look, a better crust, and a lighter crumb. Absolutely delicious.

UPDATE: A lot of food bloggers have also been having very good results: see here, here, and here for just a few examples.

I should add that I used a half-and-half mixture of King Arthur unbleached bread flour and Bob's Red Mill stone-ground whole wheat flour, with three tablespoons of wheat germ mixed in.

Finally, I had just bought several books about artisanal breadmaking. I had tried various techniques, such as one recipe that required you to add in the flour a handful at a time while beating the dough with a wooden spoon for 50 strokes after each handful (results: good, but a lot of work). And now it turns out that the New York Times was about to print an even better and easier technique for free?

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Country Has Spoken?

I just heard Harry Reid on NPR saying (I repeat from memory): "The country has spoken loud and clear."

Well, no. A few thousand voters in Virginia and Montana decided to vote for the particular Democratic candidate in their state. Otherwise, Harry Reid would still be the minority leader. Reid is mistaken, just as much as if Bush in 2000 or 2004 said that the "country" had spoken, as opposed to a few hundred or thousand voters in Florida or Ohio. (Maybe he did say that, for all I know.)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Tony Woodlief post

Tony Woodlief has a typically thoughtful post:
We get in a froth over which ill-educated talker is going to rule over us for a time, or worse, over why our favorite team can't seem to post enough wins. We moan because we aren't appreciated enough or wealthy enough or treated to more interesting sex. We come to think that all the world's aches are poured onto our shoulders, until we catch a glimpse of horror, and realize that this present pain is nothing. It is a blessing, compared to someone else's moment of hell.
Read the whole thing. (It's all the more meaningful if you also read about the death of Woodlief's daughter.)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


I don't have much of anything to say about the election; as long-time readers may have noticed, I'm less interested in the horse-race aspect of politics (i.e., popularity contests conducted by professional fundraisers) than I used to be.

Two things that I would point out:

1. Two classmates of mine were elected as state representatives: Raj Goyle in Kansas, and Jake Zimmerman in Missouri. Jake is hilarious -- one of the funniest things I've ever seen is Jake's dramatic recitation of the lyrics to REM's "Losing My Religion."

2. Having lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts for three years, I wasn't surprised at the results for the House race for that district: The Democrat got 91% of the vote. The other 9% went to a Communist candidate from the "Socialist Worker's Party."

Monday, November 06, 2006


Will Baude passes along the message that his old website -- at crescatsententia.org -- has been effectively stolen out from under him, and that his blog is now at crescatsententia.NET. Here's his email:
We have moved Crescat to www.crescatsententia.net. Would you mind
updating the link in your blogroll at your earliest possible
convenience? If you'd be willing to post an announcement on your blog
itself, we'd greatly appreciate it as well, but I understand if you
aren't willing to.

Last month, without my knowledge or consent, crescatsententia.org was
purchased by a Search Engine Optimization firm, which makes money by
buying up popular sites (especially those with high Google pageranks)
and then selling links to websites looking to boost their search terms.
The new purchaser offered to sell back the blog for several thousand
dollars-- more than I can afford-- so we have moved shop. This means
that I can't post an announcement on the old blog about the move, so we
are reliant upon word of mouth to tell our readers what has become of
us. (Changing over the links on your blogroll as soon as possible also
decreases the amount that the abandoned site can be used to mislead
Google and other search engines.)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Scenic Drive

My family and I went on a little scenic drive this afternoon, down the Pig Trail. Some pictures below, all of them taken directly from the road:

On the way back, we took scenic highway 71. It was getting dark, and the other photos didn't turn out too well, but this one was nice:

Conversation with a Five Year Old

My daughter, who is just shy of her five-year-old birthday, met a woman at church who said her name was "Summer." My daughter said, in all seriousness, "When you were a baby, did your mother call you 'Spring'?"

Friday, November 03, 2006


Some liberals have taken to calling themselves "progressives." In doing so, they are deliberately hearkening back to the "progressive" label from the early 20th century.

I find this very puzzling. If you look at what the original "progressives" stood for, there were some good things (opposition to child labor, for example) mixed in with a lot of positions that are not good. Woodrow Wilson was famously racist, while other Progressives eagerly promoted eugenics and sterilization so as to get rid of the "unfit" (indeed, the Nazis based their own sterilization law on a model law written by an American eugenicist). Some Progressives also took a very non-liberal view of allowing women to work:
American economics came of age during the Progressive Era, a time when biological approaches to economic reform were at heir high-water mark. Reform-minded economists argue that the labor force should be rid of unfit workers—whom they labeled “unemployables,” “parasites,” and the “industrial residuum” — so as to uplift superior, deserving workers. Women were also frequently classified as unemployable. Leading progressives, including women at the forefront of labor reform, justified exclusionary labor legislation for women on grounds that it would (1) protect the biologically weaker sex from the hazards of market work; (2) protect working women from the temptation of prostitution; (3) protect male heads of household from the economic competition of women; and (4) ensure that women could better carry out their eugenic duties as “mothers of the race.”
It's also eye-opening to read why some original Progressives supported minimum wage legislation:
What is more surprising is that these leading progressives campaigned for labor reform while also maintaining that restrictive labor laws, such as legal minimum wages, would disemploy poor workers. Moreover, these progressives argued that minimum-wage-induced disemployment was a social benefit. Legal minimum wages and other statutory means of inducing undesirable groups to leave the labor force were, in the progressive view, a eugenic benefit. A legal minimum helped the deserving poor by removing from employment the undeserving poor, who, by virtue of their hereditary infirmities, were wrongly dragging down the wages of the better class of worker (Leonard 2003a). Sidney and Beatrice Webb put it plainly: “With regard to certain sections of the population [the ‘unemployables’], this unemployment is not a mark of social disease, but actually of social health” (Webb and Webb [1897] 1920: 785).
A side note here: When modern liberals criticize Bush's judicial nominees for supposedly endangering the New Deal precedents that allowed minimum wage legislation, keep in mind that the minimum wage laws at issue in those cases applied only to women.

* * *

So my question is, why are some modern liberals reclaiming the "progressive" label? If some conservatives today started talking not about "federalism" or "subsidiarity," but about "state's rights," someone might ask why they had switched to a name that, however good in theory, inevitably had associations with a racist political movement from decades past.