Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Voice From the Past

Just a few days before he left office, President Dwight Eisenhower delivered a speech (text found here: that included warnings of several dangers he saw for the United States. One of those warnings got most of the attention in the following years: his concern about the “military-industrial complex.” That term continued to reverberate for most of the years when I was growing up (I was almost eleven years old when he made that speech, no, I do not remember hearing it; but I heard a lot about that one expression for years after).

For some reason I looked up that speech lately, and read the whole thing more than once. Looking back at the last half-century, I would say that “Ike” was rather prescient, but our society missed some important things he was saying back then. In spite of Vietnam, the two Iraq wars, and Afghanistan, the “military-industrial complex” does not have anywhere near the power it once had in American affairs. But I found he spent more time in that speech talking about a different danger: the domination of research and technology by Federal money. He spoke of “the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop” being replaced by “task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields.” He went on: “Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity....The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present....Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite.”

This warning went right over people's heads, it would seem, judging by the results in recent years. A prime example has been the Global Warming debate of recent years: scientists in universities and government agencies in the US and Europe were pushing a set of policies, using government-funded research to back it up. I never was impressed by their arguments; as a lifelong student of history, I had known about the Medieval Warm Period, when wine grapes grew as far north as England, and the Little Ice Age, which ruined the Viking settlements in Greenland and nearly wiped out the Pilgrims at Plymouth, long before before the Warming controversy began. I am also old enough to remember all the articles and hoopla about the coming Ice Age we were supposed to be facing thirty years ago, in the same newspapers and magazines that later jumped on the Global Warming bandwagon! Not only was the Warming research funded by government grants, the East Anglia emails and other events have shown how these “scientists” were prepared to use rather unscientific and even unethical methods to doctor the evidence and silence dissent so they could keep the grants rolling in.

And now we face other problems, especially the financial collapse of recent years and the seemingly endless “Great Recession” and the budget deficits here and abroad. “Ike” said it well: “As we peer into society's future, we—you and I, and our government—must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.”

Friday, July 16, 2010

What is Truth?

It seems that one of the things that has taken a beating in recent years is the concept of "truth"--what is true and what isn't. One of the warnings about "post-modernism" that some were making a few years ago concerned the view of "truth" supposedly at the root of PM thinking. Personally, I'm not sure that what Postmodernism really is has been that much settled and cast in concrete yet; "modernism" which PM is replacing (supposedly) took a century or more to really come together, and PM is going to need at least as much time to settle down.

I think what we really have is two things related to "truth": a lot of fuzzy thinking by some people about the nature of "truth" on one hand, and a lot of other people playing fast and loose with the truth when they find some truth inconvenient (this is part of the moral breakdown in our society that I've blogged about elsewhere). The fuzzy thinkers want to have "my truth" as something separate from "your truth"; the trouble is, sooner or later you have to accept the fact that the only place we can live in is the real world. Sooner or later you have to face the fact that this "my truth/your truth" fuzziness does not work reliably in that real world; and the longer you put off facing it the worse mess you'll be in. The second group has always been around, often in professions like politics and used-car sales. There's a good old-fashioned, Anglo-Saxon word for them: liars. And the trouble with being a liar is you need a very good memory; the more you lie, the more you have to keep track of what you said, who you said it to, and when. And the odds are really against the liar; sooner or later he slips up and gets caught.

I know there are plenty of books out on this subject (I saw one of them a few weeks ago at my in-laws' house). But I keep going back to a simple working definition of "truth" that I learned in a class on "Philosophy of Education" many years ago. The professor passed away long since, but some of the things I learned from him have lasted all this time, and here's the relevant one for this post:

"Truth" is the correspondence between what is and what is said about what is.

In other words, you look at what is being said and compare it to the real world, or a particular item in the real world.

He also told us, "Absolute truth" is an absolute correspondence between what is and what is said about what is.

Let's unpack some of this. You've got two things: "what is" and "what is said about what is". And it involves a comparison, a checking up to see if "what is said" is valid or not. And I like it because it is rooted in the real world, the place we actually live in day after day. If "what is said" conforms substantially to what is in the real world, and works in that real world, we can regard it as substantially true. And if it does not, we do not regard it as true. If we can't tell, then the best thing may be to put it on hold and leave it undecided for a while. We can look at the source for this "what is said" --have its statements been reliably true before? Do its other statements work in the real world or not?

And what about "absolute" truth? I know it has been fashionable in some circles to say "There are no absolutes." I see two problems with this: in terms of logic, the statement itself is made as an absolute, therefore according to its own content it is false (any argument that undercuts its own validity loses). And it does not work in that pesky "Real World"--have you ever tried to convince a math teacher that under some circumstances two plus two might equal five? Mathematics is certainly one area where the Real World does have some absolutes, and a case can be made that it is not the only area.

The "fuzzy thinkers" can stay in their academic ivory towers and cook up their fancies all they want. As long as they stay there out of the way, not much harm is likely to be done. Make-believe worlds can be fun, as long as you remember they are only make-believe (science-fiction and fantasy writers do this all the time). The problems start when these fuzzy thinkers and their students come out and expect the rest of us to take them seriously and act according to their ideas in the Real World--and their ideas don't work in the Real World. All too often, they themselves do not live consistently with their own ideas when they have to deal with the Real World. A classic example was the composer John Cage, who tried to make everything in his music random and non-patterned rather than following the traditional ideas of harmony and tone in music (at one of his performances the orchestra themselves hissed at him at the conclusion). But when he developed a taste for wild mushrooms and started collecting them personally, he learned all he could about identifying them properly; he knew if he picked up mushrooms randomly as he wrote his music, he would end up dead! The Real World won.

I think that could lead us to another Absolute: Sooner or later, the Real World is always going to win. I suspect one advantage of the current economic distress is that it reminds us of the Real World and its importance, and that indulging the fuzzy thinkers and the liars is at best a luxury, a luxury that maybe we really cannot afford.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Behind the McChrystal Mess

The news lately has been full of the McChrystal affair, dissecting why they even allowed that writer to hang around for so long. I try not to comment on political matters, but there is one idea that has been on my mind about the thing, and I have not seen anyone else bring this up, so I will.

A common thread in the discussions over this thing is that the Military Code sets standards of behavior for officers, and that the staffers' comments were in violation in their criticisms of the civilian leadership, and that the general himself was in violation for allowing it to go on at all, even if he did not contribute that much criticism personally. But why is this so surprising, when you consider what else has been going on in our society?

For nearly a century, the "Intelligentsia", the intellectual classes, the "elites" or whatever you might call them have been trying to undermine traditional Judeo-Christian morality. The process was slow at first, but it picked up steam in the 1960s and after. Remember the "Sexual Revolution"? Yes, the immediate sticking point was that many people did not want to be bound by Christian sexual standards; they wanted to be free to have all the sexual activity they wished with whomever they wished, whenever they wished. But the Sexual Revolution opened the door to many other things.

The basic fact is, morality is unitary. It is all one thing. Its essential nature is self-control. And if you undermine it in one area, you undermine it everywhere else in the process. So now we not only have the fruit of the Sexual Revolution in broken homes, unwed mothers, abortion, STDs, pornography and on and on, we have a bunch of things the Sexual Revolutionaries did not count on.

Business ethics declined as well, resulting in the Enron affair, Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, and all sorts of criminal and shady doings, with a backdrop of low-quality products and self-serving, all driven by greed. After all, morality is the basic restrainer of greed; when it goes, greed has free rein.

Political ethics went early, perhaps because they were never too high in some quarters anyway. "Watergate" started in the 1972 election, and we have seen all sorts of "-Gates" since. And while politicians of both major parties keep falling into sexual misdeeds, there has been more and more (or more open) bribery, mutual backscratching, unsavory dealings, and disregard for both the laws and the Constitution among the political class.

You can look at any area of life, and the ethics involved are in decline. Medical ethics? Scientific ethics? (The Climategate emails uncovered the extent that modern scientists will go to in making the data fit their theories to keep the grant money flowing.) Cheating is rampant in the schools, and there have been reports in the last few weeks of teachers and administrators doctoring standardized test answer sheets to make their schools look better. And I am starting to see a few brave souls pointing out that "Rolling Stone" and its writer were not following high ethical standards either, and there have been a lot of journalistic frauds uncovered in the last few years: fictional "human interest" stories, plagiarism, forgeries plugged as genuine, biased and slanted news accounts....No, journalists are no better than anyone else ethically.

So why are the talking heads so surprised that ethics in the Army's officer corps are not what they used to be? These officers grew up in this country in the last half-century. General McChrystal is 55, and his staffers presumably are mostly younger. They have seen every other moral standard go down, so why should they be held to any traditional standard?

I have come to the conclusion that the nearest thing to a universal moral principle in 21st-century American society is hypocrisy: The individual expects to do whatever he wants, but he still demands that the people around him and in authority over him or under him continue following traditional morality and its strictures. Thus, a politician can complain about the lack of civility in modern political discourse, and the next day call his opponent a Nazi. A pastor can rail against the Gay agenda, and hire a male prostitute in secret. A businessman can cut corners in his own operations, and complain about the quality of his new luxury car.

Francis Schaeffer expressed a chilling idea about the Judgment of God: imagine a tape recorder hung around the neck of every man, which kicks in every time he opens his mouth to make a moral judgment about someone else. And at the end he stands before God, and the tape is played; and his own actions are compared to the rules he would enforce on everyone else. Not a pleasant picture for any of us, is it? And Schaeffer did not come up with this on his own; the idea behind it is expressed by both the sayings of Jesus and the writings of Paul.

Where is it all going? In the book of Judges, one statement is repeated again and again about the land of Israel in that time: "Every man did what was right in his own eyes." The result was essentially anarchy. Even police states cannot arrest this drift; not only do you need more police than you have taxpayers, but the police themselves will be corrupted in a very short time, and the anarchy gets even worse.

There is only one real answer: a return to faith, and with it morals, from the grassroots up, and the removal and/or marginalizing of those who still reject that one answer. Nothing else works or has any real possibility of working. We have gotten by as long as we have on the memory of a moral consensus, but the memory fades more with each generation, unless somehow it can be renewed.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

We All Scream for Ice Cream

Since I wrote my last post on competence, something has happened to remind me that competence is the precursor of high quality, and incompetence leads to low quality.

My wife and daughter and son-in-law went together to buy me a gift for Father's Day: a White Mountain hand-crank ice cream maker. We like home-made ice cream, and we make a fair amount of it. Historically, the White Mountain ice cream makers have been regarded as the best. Expensive, but reputed the best.

So, yesterday evening we went over to my daughter's, and the box was put in front of me. I opened it, we put it together, ingredients were mixed and I started cranking. That's when the trouble started.

It's a simple machine; you turn the crank, the gear on the end of the shaft turns two other gears which rotate the canister in one direction and the dasher in the opposite direction, while the ice and salt in the outer wooden bucket lowers the temperature of the mix.

But on this one, as I cranked, the gears kept jamming. Crank a couple of turns, jam. Back it up, crank half a turn, jam again. Eventually I figured out that if I pushed in on the crank, hard, while turning the handle it would go a little longer before jamming again. Forget any ideas about the kids helping crank the thing.

Then, after about fifteen minutes of disjointed cranking, the ice cream began to thicken a little bit (not done, just beginning to stiffen) and the gears started to slip, between jams.

We finally got out my daughter's old machine, transferred the ice cream mix and ice to it(minus some metal particles that had gotten into the ice cream) and finished it while my son-in-law and I tried to figure out what was wrong with the White Mountain.

The first thing we noticed was that the gears were rough castings, coated with a finish, but no lubrication (and no, the instruction book did not say to grease the gears during our assembly). They were also fitted together very loosely, and did not mesh tightly together. There was a lot of slop in the gear box. There was also a lot of slop where the dasher shaft came through the canister top, about a 3/4" hole in the top for a shaft about 9/16" in diameter, which is how the metal particles from the gears got into the ice cream. Even the wooden bucket was not that well made; my grandfather was a cooper (barrel maker) for Seagram's, and over the years I have learned at least enough about his trade to spot whether such work is done well or not.

We finished the ice cream in the old machine, ate it all, and came home. I got online and started looking up "White Mountain Hand Crank Ice Cream Machine Problems", and found our experience was not unique. There were a number of glowing recommendations, but there were also a number of complaints. One of the glowing reviews that seemed to come up on every site was from a person who had had a White Mountain for twenty-three years. But most of the negative reviews seemed to be from people who had bought one in the last four or five years. The problems seemed to be of three major types: leaky wooden buckets, metal shavings in the ice cream, and the gears jamming and slipping.

White Mountain is an old company, dating back to the 1850s in New England. But like many other companies I have seen, the ownership has changed repeatedly in the last fifty years or so. The booklet in the box was marked "Holmes Group, Inc." Holmes is a maker of portable electric heaters, fans, and air cleaners. But the invoice from the online retailer called it a "Rival White Mountain" model. It turns out that both of these companies are owned by an organization called Jarden, which owns both Rival and Sunbeam, Holmes, Coleman and a batch of other producers of sporting goods, small appliances, smoke alarms, playing cards, and all sorts of unrelated things.

The old White Mountain ice cream makers were made in New England. Mine had no markings anywhere on it to say where any part was made, but there was a small item on the carton, "Assembled in the U.S.A. from Foreign and Domestic Components."

So we have yet another instance of a product from this country with a good reputation for quality that has gone down the drain. Forget about craftsmanship; just order parts from various countries (whoever is cheapest), slap them together and ship them out. And don't bother with testing the product; as long as it goes together, ship it out to the retailers.

This is not just individual incompetence; it is corporate incompetence, at all levels. The product reviewers who had tried to get the company to honor the "Five year warranty" had problems getting the parts to fix their machines, too. This is not a complicated machine, and they are charging a premium price for it. They are living on their past reputation, and it is beginning to fade.

I am not going to frustrate myself dealing with the warranty. We have a return authorization from the retailer, and I am going to send it back. It will cost us for shipping, and a restocking fee, but will probably avoid a lot of frustration. And in the future I will do what I can to avoid buying any products from Jarden and its subsidiaries.

Monday, May 31, 2010


I have been thinking about a post on this subject off and on for months, but an article I read online last week triggered some more thinking, and over the weekend I had time to sort a bit of this out. Here is a quote: "I was led to believe that a powerful and active Federal government would be good for society at large, but unfortunately the Federal government's ability to be large and active is not as pronounced as its ability to be large, meddlesome when its help is not wanted, and slothful when its help is actually needed." (from "The White House and the Oil Spill" by Pejman Yousefzadeh, in "The New Ledger")

I have said for years that the problem with Big Government, and Big Business as well, is finding people who are competent to run it. And this lack of competent people is becoming more and more a problem.

America was once a "can do" nation. The slogan "The difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer" from the Army Corps of Engineers expresses this well. And for generations Americans as a people lived it out. Marvels of engineering and construction, settling a vast continent, the overthrow of enemies on both sides of the world by 1945, and subsequently helping rebuild the economies of our former enemies have all cemented this tradition.

But it would seem that in my lifetime this has changed for the worse. Our educational system has promoted ever-higher levels of education, but it seems to have resulted in a trading of educational credentials for actual competence; and there is a difference! In fact, there are a number of differences!

The higher education system focuses on reading, talking, and thinking. Competence is about DOING. Academics debate and tweak theories, and too often stay in the theoretical realm. Competence is based in Reality. Credentials at best imply that an individual ought to be able to do a particular task or work. But competence is experience and proven ability. Credentials may boost self-esteem, but competence builds self-respect.

Personally, in my college years I trained for two different professions. I am trained as a pastor, and as an accountant (in the late '70s I went to the University of Cincinnati for business classes, and ended up only a few credits short of the requirements at that time to sit for the CPA exam). One thing I heard during that time from a practicing accountant was that the most important things he learned about accounting were the things he picked up the year after he finished school. Over the years I have questioned people in other professions and they confirmed that their experience was similar. So, there is all too often a disconnect between the academic world and the real world. They spend time on things people in the real world don't need, and miss things the real world does need.

When I was in Bible college, some of the faculty members were pastoring churches themselves, almost always small churches in small-town or rural settings. The men who pastored the large churches were busy running those churches, and were not on the faculty. Years later, when I saw George Barna's note that the average church size in the US is 90-100 people, I realized that that is all the church size the seminary professors can handle themselves; and you can't really teach someone else what you don't know yourself. There is an old adage (it gets me in trouble with my schoolteacher friends every time I bring it up, but there is all too much truth behind it): "Them that can do; them that can't, teach it!"

Competence is about knowing what to do, and with it, what not to do. It is knowing how to do it, and when to stop doing it. And it comes by the experience of actually doing it, not just talking about it.