Thursday, July 28, 2005

It's a beautiful day

The Irish Republican Army has ordered its members to stand down, disarm, and use exclusively peaceful and legal means.

(I feel a little weird linking to the Beeb for that story, but I got most of my news about it courtesy of the BBC World Service, carried on my local NPR station. The Irish Times still considers it "breaking news", and I'm not convinced a link to their story will be stable.)

I can't blame the Unionists for their "we'll believe it when we see it" attitude. Tony Blair seemed to have about the proper attitude: recognizing the "unparalleled magnitude" of the statement while insisting on verifiable progress. We have been down this road before, and the IRA has insisted on unreasonable conditions before. And as we saw in Omagh, there's not much we can do about the hardliners except repudiate them.

I'm so filled with hope.

It's a different way to mean "they got my Irish up."

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Lofty mountain grandeur

There's been a lot of talk lately about whether public broadcasting shows too much lefty bias. Generally, I don't put much stock in this talk, but I had to listen to this Morning Edition piece on the John Templeton Foundation twice to decide what I thought about it.

(Sidebar: More than once, my very wise brother has called me on not really listening, but thinking about my response to the part I did hear. And he's right; it's a debater's trick which I really have to look out for. I caught myself doing it while this piece aired, so I went back to force myself to really just listen. I'm interested in your feelings about the segment, but only if you're prepared to do the same. Just listen, then decide.)

In a nutshell, the John Templeton Foundation has started giving away significant sums of money to physics researchers, apparently primarily in the cosmology and astrophysics areas. Templeton is an expressly pro-religion foundation, interested in the intersections of theology and sciences. (Based on a very limited amount of research, it does seem that they probably have a rightward bent on social issues.) Some physicists aren't comfortable taking their money.

This brings up two areas of interest for me. I plan to work the rest of my life in non-profit higher education. I know that all money has strings, and you have to be on the lookout for the conditions you can't live with. But as far as I'm concerned, if you can establish that the strings aren't that bad, take the money and run. Do what you gotta do so you can do what you wanna do.

One string is that the donor always wants to be acknowledged. (Library Lesson 1: make sure you pull your This Book Is A Generous Donation From bookplates before you take a book out of the collection. Boy, do they not like finding their donations in the second-hand booksale.) Some organizations, you don't dignify with your name. It's not like I'd take money from the Klan or NAMBLA. On the other hand, I once told a colleague that, not only would I take money from Philip Morris, but if they wanted to buy me a private jet, they could paint ashes on the nose and a filter tip on the tail. (I can't speak for my bosses, but for personal use, the offer still stands.)

Another string is what kind of control the group wants over the work and its outcomes. As near as I can tell, it's not like Templeton wants weapons-applicable technology here. On the other hand, they do want people to participate in conferences and awards which don't fit The Official Ivory Tower Mold. They want to motivate scientists with money, and that bothers some people.

Well, guess what, folks: scholarly communication is broken. And you scholars broke it. It costs way too much to buy the scholarly information you need to do your job. In large part, it's because you took your eyes off the bottom lines of whether you got paid, and how much your institution has to pay. You let yourself get boxed out of the market; you lost control of the products of your labor. So you know what? Maybe it wouldn't kill us any deader to remember that your work has financial value to some people.

Gentle readers, highly educated folk with a fair amount of non-profit experience that you are, I put it to you: am I a mercenary or a realist?

The second point, perhaps, explains the first. I don't have a problem with the foundation's money because I agree with them, at least in part and on this issue. I believe that the universe was designed, intelligently, by a God well described in the Judeo-Christian tradition. I further believe that He gave us intellects to puzzle out and marvel at this amazingly complex creation. (In fact, Catholics, by rule, believe that faith and science cannot be in contradiction.)

I believe these things.

What I can prove is that He did it with physics, and chemistry, and biology.

(I can also remember the difference between religion class and science class, and the good reasons we don't want governments deciding which religions to teach... until the winds change.)

So it rather follows that I wouldn't see the harm in taking money from people who think the same thing. (And why I would go back, to see if an organization I trust were really bashing an idea I agree with.) I do, though, think that Templeton might very well be barking up the wrong tree.

I think that Templeton isn't just interested in illuminating the process of creation, but on the hunt for the so-called proofs of the existence of God. Catholics are very fond of these little logical games. I've had people try to teach them to me no fewer than 4 times over the years, and I'd bet I'm forgetting a few. But what I remember, with one exception, is that they're all bunk.

All the so-called proofs seem to me to much better fit the formula "there is a God, and you can tell because" than "because of this phenomenon, there must be a God." I see no reason to believe that a watch implies a Watchmaker, any more than a hole implies a hole-digger. Everything seems to have a source in something else, but I believe it's a logical leap to assume that the First Mover was a conscious plan and not a random chance.

Oh, and Pascal's Wager? That's not a proof, it's a supernatural sports book. Don't you think God Almighty will know you're only betting on him because the atheists lay an afterlife worth of points?

Nah, the only guy who had a clue was Wittgenstein. Rationality belongs in science. I accept evolution because all the evidence points to it, but I don't believe in evolution any more than I believe in the speed of gravity or of light. These things are provable. I don't have to believe in them.

Faith is for those things which don't make sense but we assert them anyway. Like love and joy and hate and pain, it doesn't add up. It just makes us alive.

Then again, if me and Wittgenstein are so smart, where's our prize money?

Monday, July 25, 2005

Go on, now, go. Walk out the door.

From the "What the hell is wrong with you people" department:

Herself and Meself went to Pittsburgh yesterday for Anniversary Weekend (Observed). The highlight and reason for the trip was a concert at the Chevrolet Ampitheatre, Elvis Costello and the Impostors, with special guest Emmylou Harris. Between their two very different but very heavy accents, I figure I understood about 14 words of English all night.

It was fabulous. We got particularly lucky to stumble upon the sound check, and heard Emmylou and Elvis perform a duet of "I Still Miss Someone" which didn't even make it into the night's setlist. (Then we were booted from the closed set.) I was thrilled to see "no opening act" on the ticket, just these stars performing for a solid 3 hours. We got exactly what we were expecting: a little bit of everything. Elvis' "Radio Radio" and "Pump It Up", of course, but also some interesting newer stuff, and country elements like Graham Parson's "Wheels", a beautiful gospel trio with bassist Davey Faragher on "Gathering Flowers For The Master's Garden", and a heartrending duet on "Wild Horses."

It seemed like there was a three-way split in the crowd. A small majority of us were there to hear what we got. Then there was a large camp that seemed to want just rock and roll, and a smaller group that just wanted country. And that's all right. There's no disputing taste. Personally, I'm kind of glad that Elvis didn't go into his collaborations with Burt Bacharach.

What did surprise me was the rather large number of people who decided, around halfway into the concert, that they'd had enough. And they left. What the hell? I'll grant you that any given person might have a good reason: don't feel well, early meeting at work, gotta relieve the babysitter. But how do you not want to know what the encores are? Aren't you curious to see if maybe this artist you like is going to bust out something that's going to open up your mind? If you only want to hear things you already know, if the prospect of getting out of the parking is too much to bear (and I've been in much worse lots)... maybe what you want to do is stay home and have a record party.

I had a similar event a few weeks ago in DC. My dad and I went to see a Nationals game; I had (foolishly) not gotten tickets in advance, so we ended up paying a scalper too much for outfield seats. It's pretty demoralizing to sit in the bleachers and look at all the open good seats owned by lobbyists and corporations who aren't using them... but that's not what I'm griping about right now. Nor am I griping about the youth groups, who were basically well behaved and started leaving around the 6th inning. If I had to ride herd on 50 12-year-olds, I'd get them back on the bus before the traffic started too. And it was a hot day with constant threatening clouds; I can forgive some folks for bailing early.

But it was a 2-2 tie going into the 9th, and people were leaving. And it was a 2-2 tie coming out of the 9th, and people were still leaving! How in the name of Walter Johnson is it remotely possible that you can stay through 9 innings of a baseball game and leave at the top of the 10th? Memo to Washington Fans: this is why there are teams in Minnesota and Texas...

Friday, July 22, 2005

Every blow that laid him down or cut him till he cried out

I don't have anything to say myself about the passing of Gen. William Westmoreland. Truth be told, my grasp of the history of the last half of the 20th century is pretty weak, especially when it comes to the complexities of the Vietnam War. (But my rant about how history is taught in American high schools is for another time, and besides, I've been out of high school for 17 years now; there's been time to look it up my own self.)

I saw a news piece which basically said that you can question his choices and judgement, but that you have to respect his loyalty to the U.S. and his patriotism. I took it with a grain of salt (don't speak ill of the dead and all), but tend to feel that those of us who haven't served should extend that assumption to those who have, unless they prove otherwise.

Then John B. wrote about Westmoreland's opinion on freedom of the press, and I found myself very well impressed with Westmoreland. (And also wishing that I'd written what John did.) If General Westmoreland is prepared to say that the free press which savaged him is necessary to the functioning of a democracy, well, who the heck has standing for the other side?

I wonder if the honorable men running our current wars (for "so are they all, honorable men") will have the honor of this true soldier when it comes time to write their memoirs.