Metrics, algorithms and more

Not politics

If you can’t measure it, it’s not "God’s Blessing"

I have been listening to Christianity Today’s podcast series The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, which of necessity focuses on the doings of pastor Mark Driscoll. Episode 11, a really long one, is playing as I type.

I can’t decide if this is a complicated story or a really simple one:

  1. Much of Evangelicalism is congenitally more interested in numerical growth than in discipleship and true Christian growth.
  2. That propensity, combined with a narcissistic pastor who produced numerical growth for a number of years, completely broke down any pastoral accountability or Christlikeness.

Late in Episode 11, there was this quote:

If the goal is Church growth and not Church health, one way to do it is get a really charismatic, dynamic personality that attracts a large number of people and let him do whatever he wants. And then he’ll never leave. And the people will say "I go to so-and-so’s church. So-and-so is my pastor."
"Have you ever met him?"
"No, I never met him. He’s my pastor."

The speaker was Mark Driscoll, the disgraced Mars Hill pastor, himself.

A simple story, I think. And it’s being replayed, a bit more softly and in a lower register, throughout Evangelicalism today.

Because in much (most?) of Evangelicalism, numerical growth is per se "God’s blessing on pastor so-and-so’s ministry."

Just sayin’.

Thinking Locally

  • II. … Unless one is willing to be destructive on a very large scale, one cannot do something except locally, in a small place. Global thinking can only do to the globe what a space satellite does to it: reduce it, make a bauble of it. Look at one of those photographs of half the earth taken from outer space, and see if you recognize your neighborhood. …
  • VIII. The balance between city and countryside is destroyed by industrial machinery, "cheap" productivity in field and forest, and "cheap" transportation. Rome destroyed the balance with slave labor; we have destroyed it with "cheap" fossil fuel.
  • XII. Industrial procedures have been imposed on the countryside pretty much to the extent that country people have been seduced or forced into dependence on the money economy. By encouraging this dependence, corporations have increased their ability to rob the people of their property and their labor. The result is that a very small number of people now own all the usable property in the country, and workers are increasingly the hostages of their employers.
  • XVII. Abstraction is the enemy wherever it is found. The abstractions of sustainability can ruin the world just as surely as the abstractions of industrial economics. Local life may be as much endangered by "saving the planet" as by "conquering the world." Such a project calls for abstract purposes and central powers that cannot know, and so will destroy, the integrity of local nature and local community.

Wendell Berry. This was written 1991, before the internet revolution, but I’m not sure he’d change a word of it today.

Guilt by free association

The only motivation for the invocation of Schlafly seems to be that, as [Linda] Greenhouse notes, she was the subject of a television mini-series in 2020, and that both were lawyers with large families. "Forty years later, more than a few people looked at Amy Coney Barrett and saw Phyllis Schlafly," Greenhouse writes, with no indication of who those people were. "And how could they not, given the similarity in the two women’s biographies?" This isn’t even guilt by association. It’s guilt by free association.

Noah Feldman, reviewing Linda Greenhouse’s new book, Justice on the Brink, via Josh Blackman.

Things one couldn’t say 30 years ago

I was and remain deeply indebted to Marx’s critique of the economic, social, and cultural order of capitalism and to the development of that critique by later Marxists.

Alasdair Macintyre, After Virtue.

Caveat on the headline: the first edition of After Virtue was published in 1981. I don’t know if it included this acknowledgement. In my neck of the woods, acknowledging learning from Marx in 1981 would at least get you the side-eye. I personally didn’t learn from him until later, after Communism fell, and sensible people stopped obsessing about it.

It’s the algorithms, stupid!

I think it would be preposterous to deny that there are good things [about social media]. My favorite thing is people with rare diseases finding each other and being able to compare notes. That wasn’t possible before. But it has to be said that all of those good things could happen without this algorithmic overlord. You could have all of the good of the internet and all of the good we associate with social media, which is real, without this crazy-making business model. And that’s why I find a fallacy in a lot of thinking that’s like, well, we just have to deal with Facebook making the world darker and crazier because we need this or that. That’s not true at all.

Jaron Lanier on the Sway podcast.

It’s still the algorithm, stupid!

Readwise suggests something it thinks I might like to read at the end of each day’s review of things I have read. Friday’s suggestion was this:

Goddess worship, feminine values, and women’s power depend on the ubiquity of the image. God worship, masculine values, and men’s domination of women are bound to the written word. Word and image, like masculine and feminine, are complementary opposites. Whenever a culture elevates the written word at the expense of the image, patriarchy dominates. When the importance of the image supersedes the written word, feminine values and egalitarianism flourish.

(Leonard Shlain, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess)

Ummm, I don’t think so.

It probably is selling briskly in a niche market of which I’m not a part. But it reminds me of some crazy PhD. thesis in a world where a high proportion of sane ideas have been explored by prior doctoral candidates. After defense of the thesis, the newly-minted PhD will have become heavily, heavily invested in the thesis, howsoever absurd, and will carry it into the academy with him/her.

The most baneful effects of this pattern are in theology, where an original contribution to the literature will be very likely heretical.

Rant over.

Anything that fits the narrative will be accepted tout suite

The MSM took the ludicrous story of Jussie Smollett seriously because it fit their nutty “white supremacy” narrative. They told us that a woman was brutally gang-raped at UVA (invented), that the Pulse mass shooting was driven by homophobia (untrue) and that the Atlanta spa shooter was motivated by anti-Asian bias (no known evidence for that at all). For good measure, they followed up with story after story about white supremacists targeting Asian-Americans, in a new wave of “hate,” even as the assaults were disproportionately by African Americans and the mentally ill.

We all get things wrong. What makes this more worrying is simply that all these false narratives just happen to favor the interests of the left and the Democratic party. And corrections, when they occur, take up a fraction of the space of the original falsehoods. These are not randos tweeting false rumors. They are the established press.

Andrew Sullivan, decrying the deceitfulness of mainstream media — to which media, nevertheless, sensible people have no good alternative.

(I increasingly think we do have a good alternative: tune out the news almost entirely. What good does it do me in Indiana, for instance, to have any opinion whatever about the interaction of Kentucky Catholic School boys and an older native American in DC?)

Politics of a sort

Summit for Democracy

Tensions are indeed rising between the U.S. and China, but that’s not primarily because the former is a democracy and the latter is authoritarian. It’s because America is a global hegemon that projects power into China’s near abroad, and China is a rapidly rising power seeking to expand its influence across East Asia. That places the two countries on a collision course, and whether they’ll prove able to avoid armed conflict will have very little to do either country’s form of government.

Damon Linker, The anachronistic vision behind Biden’s Summit for Democracy.

Biden’s vision may be anachronistic, but he’s not alone in that.

"Polite" has never been so flexible a term

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted out the 13 representatives’ office phone numbers and urged Americans to “politely say how they feel about these traitor Republicans voting to pass Joe Biden’s Communist agenda.”

Morning Dispatch, ‌Did ‘Republican Traitors’ Save the Filibuster?.

MTG’s "Politely address traitors who voted for Communism" does not pass the plausible deniability test when things like this were the response:

They did. “You’re a f—ing piece of s— traitor,” one voter said in a voicemail left for GOP Rep. Fred Upton, vice chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus. “I hope you f—ing die. I hope your f—ing family dies. I hope everybody in your f—ing staff dies, you f—ing piece of f—ing s—. Traitor!”

Even National Review, in a descent almost as steep as that of the Claremont Institute, was outraged at Republicans voting for the the infrastructure bill.

I. Don’t. Get. It.


You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

Gleanings, 11/9/21

Todays posting has zero politics (I resolutely deny that the judiciary is political). That’s not to say no draft item was political, but that I felt sullied by their presence and deleted them.

Forgetting what it means to be fully human

Of course, there are hands somewhere in the chain of events that produce the stuff of our lives. In a globalized economy, the hands may be a world away. Many items, such as clothing and electronics are rarely made in America anymore. My home county in South Carolina once boasted the highest concentration of textile mills in the world. Today, there are none.

We are a people who eat without farming and are clothed without weaving. Our lives are abstracted from the activities that sustain them. We are alienated from human existence, though we rarely notice.

I have an instinct that this alienation creates a “thinness” to our existence. We lose connection and communion and wander amid ideas and not realities. Economists describe all of this as a “service economy,” meaning that what we do is abstracted from growing and making.

I am not a Luddite who believes that a world with mechanical devices is inherently bad. I do believe, however, that it is possible to forget much of what it is to be human. There are always hands somewhere in the chain of events that give us what we need and use. However, when it is never our own hands, something is lost.

Fr. Stephen Freeman, ‌The Distraction Delusion


Biggest Supreme Court debut

In law school, I got the best score in a class of 100 or so on Introductory Constitutional Law. Maybe that’s because I was very interested in what government could not lawfully do, whereas my progressive classmates didn’t much care about annoying words like "cannot lawfully" when it came to pursuing their goals. I literally cannot remember any other student voicing moral objection, for instance, to academics lying, in their Amicus brief opposing capital punishment, about what the social science data showed.

So although I’ve soured (again) on general news and on politics, I follow several smart legal blogs and podcasts. I’m not even opposed to gossipy items like this:

In the years that I’ve been following SCOTUS, who has had the biggest high-court debut? I’d probably say then-SG Elena Kagan, whose first oral argument before the Court was in a little case called Citizens United in 2009.

But Texas’s solicitor general, Judd E. Stone II, is not far behind. On Monday, he presented his first arguments to the Supreme Court in two matters you might have heard of: Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson and United States v. Texas, aka the challenges to S.B. 8, Texas’s controversial new abortion law.

I’ll discuss those cases more below. For now, I’ll just observe that Stone seemed to get the most buzz of the four advocates, who included two former Lawyers of the Week—U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar and former Texas SG Jonathan Mitchell, the mastermind behind S.B. 8’s clever design—and Marc Hearron, senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights.

How did Stone do? Not surprisingly, assessments on Twitter reflected observers’ views on the merits of the controversial cases, with a self-described liberal calling Stone an “idiot” and a self-described conservative calling him “incredible.”

Speaking for myself, I thought that Stone acquitted himself very well, especially for a first-time advocate handling two extremely difficult, high-stakes cases. He fielded a flurry of challenging questions, not just from the three liberals—especially Justice Kagan, who along with Justice Alito might be the Court’s best questioner—but even from the conservatives.

And whether or not you liked the substance of Stone’s responses, there’s no disputing that he kept his cool throughout the proceedings (when many of us might have wet ourselves or fainted). I agree with Steven Mazie of the Economist, who tweeted that “given the totally bonkers law he’s been assigned to defend, Judd Stone is pretty unflappable.”

David Lat’s Original Jurisdiction blog

Seriously: Defending a deliberate, brazen and byzantine hack of the legal system one’s very first time at SCOTUS would be about as (ahem!) interesting as a day could ever be.

Struggling for the right rationale

My favorite legal blog is Volokh Conspiracy, a very active multi-author collaboration. Much fat being chewed there on Texas S.B. 8:

The principle at stake is that state governments cannot gut judicial protection for a constitutional right.

if Texas prevails in this case, it and other states could use similar tools to undermine a wide range of other constitutional rights, including gun rights, property rights, free speech rights, and others.

If a state enacts a statute that blocks meaningful federal judicial review of laws that might violate constitutional rights, courts should not permit such a subterfuge to succeed. If doing so requires overruling or limiting previous precedents on issues like sovereign immunity and limitations on the plaintiffs’ ability to sue to enjoin judges (as opposed to other types of state officials), then that is what should be done. These latter principles are far less important than ensuring judicial protection for constitutional rights, and therefore should give way in cases where there is an unavoidable conflict between the two.

The Supreme Court need only rule that sovereign immunity must give way in a case where the only alternative is to shield from challenge a state law that could create a serious "chilling effect" on a constitutional right. Such "chilling effects" already justify preenforcement lawsuits in a number of other contexts, such as freedom of speech. The case for such prioritization is especially strong when we are dealing with rights protected against states by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Ilya Somin, joining the chorus that "you can’t let Texas get away with this."

Stephen E. Sachs, whose ideas Somin is critiquing, files a rejoinder, of course, and for those who like getting into the legal weeds, it helps show just how rich a discussion topic Texas’s [expletive deleted] law is.

NFL

The coin just dropped Sunday on how different NFL helmets look now that they’re trying, through both officiating changes and technology, to reduce brain injuries. They’ve all got some kind of inset plates on the "forehead" of the helmet likeliest to be involved in dangerous hits. Oddly, I noticed the tighter officiating before I noticed the helmet changes (that’s odd because I have only recently begun watching football again, and I don’t read about it).

Now that I’ve given my amateur impression, I offer you a link to NFL talk about the subject. There are other links if you search "nfl helmet technology improvement."

UATX

One of the very best things about freedom and entrepreneurship is that when things get bad, innovators can create better alternatives.

[M]any universities no longer have an incentive to create an environment where intellectual dissent is protected and fashionable opinions are scrutinized. At our most prestigious schools, the primary incentive is to function as finishing school for the national and global elite. Amidst the brick and ivy, these students entertain ever-more-inaccessible theories while often just blocks away their neighbors figure out how to scratch out a living.

Pano Kanelos, ‌We Can’t Wait for Universities to Fix Themselves. So We’re Starting a New One..

Kanelos’s new university is getting a lot of buzz on the Right, though not all the dissidents affiliating with it are by any means conservative.

Columbia Core Curriculum

Neither coldly academic nor hotly confessional, “Rescuing Socrates” is a warm, appealing narrative of how it feels to be “thrust into a conversation” with fellow students about life’s most “serious and unsettling questions.” Because it is a narrative, the book does not impose what Mr. Montás calls “an artificial compression” on the subtle and cumulative workings of this type of education. Instead he gradually reveals how the process worked. “Many of the conversations . . . went over my head,” the author writes, “but like a recurring tide that leaves behind a thin layer of sediment each time it comes, eventually forming recognizable structures, the intensive reading and twice-weekly discussions were coalescing into an altogether new sense of who I was.”

Martha Bayles, ‌‘Rescuing Socrates’ Review: Great Books, Greatly Missed

Our position is ineffable, hence undebatable

You know personally I’ve been achingly specific about my critiques of social justice politics, but fine – no woke, it’s a “dogwhistle” for racism. (The term “dogwhistle” is a way for people to simply impute attitudes you don’t hold onto you, to make it easier to dismiss criticism, for the record.) But the same people say there’s no such thing as political correctness, and they also say identity politics is a bigoted term. So I’m kind of at a loss. Also, they propose sweeping changes to K-12 curricula, but you can’t call it CRT, even though the curricular documents specifically reference CRT, and if you do you’re an idiot and also you’re a racist cryptofascist. Also nobody (nobody!) ever advocated for defunding the police, and if they did it didn’t actually mean defunding the police. Seems to be a real resistance to simple, comprehensible terms around here … right now it sure looks like you don’t want to be named because you don’t want to be criticized.

Freddie deBoer, ‌Please Just Fucking Tell Me What Term I Am Allowed to Use for the Sweeping Social and Political Changes You Demand

On a related note:

Funny thing about culture wars: No one ever seems to think the left launches them. Take the “1619 Project,” an effort by the New York Times to recast America’s true founding from 1776 to 1619, when a privateer ship brought 20 kidnapped African slaves to Virginia. The project has also been adapted for American classrooms.

“Yet when parents object to it, as they did in Virginia, the Times accuses the GOP of stoking a culture war,” columnist Michael Goodwin noted in Sunday’s New York Post. Never mind that the “1619 Project” is itself a culture war salvo.

Implicit in accusations of Republican culture wars is that some uncouth person, probably motivated by hate, is raising an issue that American liberals have deemed beyond discussion in polite society, whether it’s abortion, public-school curriculums, guns, crime or something else. So instead of honest political debate, we get what we saw in Virginia—Mr. McAuliffe’s claim about Mr. Youngkin’s “racist dog whistles,” the Lincoln Project’s sending phony white supremacists to smear Mr. Youngkin, or an MSNBC commentator explaining that the election of Winsome Sears, an African-American woman, as lieutenant governor is somehow a victory for white supremacy.

William McGurn, Wall Street Journal

Read what labels?

While health pundits tell us to “read the labels,” I tell my cardiology patients to eat food that requires no label. An apple looks like an apple and Oreos don’t grow on trees.

John Miller, M.D., letter to the Wall Street Journal

For what it’s worth — and I think it may be worth a lot

Rolls-Royce will begin to develop small modular nuclear reactors after securing £455m ($617m) from Britain’s government and a small group of private investors. Such reactors are considered a cheaper and quicker way to harness nuclear energy. Kwasi Kwarteng, the business and energy secretary, said they presented, “a once in a lifetime opportunity to deploy more low carbon energy than ever before”.

The Economist Daily Briefing for November 9.

Brazening it out

Meinecke interprets the ideological conflict between Germany and her opponents in these terms. He thinks that Germany was accused of immorality only because she frankly declared that Might was Right, while the Anglo-Saxon powers, who acted no less unscrupulously, continued to pay lip-service to morality.

Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge

Newsworthiness

The Justice Department announced Monday it has indicted a 22-year-old Ukrainian national and a 28-year-old Russian national for their involvement in a series of ransomware attacks on businesses and government entities—including this summer’s Kaseya attack—and is seeking to extradite the 22-year-old from Poland where he was arrested. The Justice Department also said it seized more than $6 million in ransom payments, and the Treasury Department on Monday sanctioned Russian cryptocurrency exchange Chatex for allegedly facilitating those payments.

The Morning Dispatch for November 9. I didn’t see this item in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. But then I didn’t see this there, either.

"Newsworthiness" is an interesting concept, and varying interpretations of it is where a lot of "media bias" lies — not how they cover stuff, but what stuff they cover in the first place.

A folder for the unclassifiable

I’m going to need a new Obsidian folder captioned something like "Just Because It’s So Good." I’m not sure what all will go in beyond Garrison Keillor’s semi-weekly reveries.

21st-Century Primatology

[O]ne feels as though they have a professional obligation [to be on social media]. When Jane Goodall became a primatologist, studying chimpanzees, she didn’t stay in posh Hampstead, the place of her birth. No, she went to Tanzania where the chimps lived and bred and flung monkey-dung at each other when agitated. Similarly, if you’re in the a-hole observation business, you have to go where they live and breed and fling dung at each other. Meaning, you have to at least occasionally read Twitter.

Matt Labash

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.