An Idea that Might yet Save America, a Modest Proposal

“Experts” can agree on one thing. 2016 is a populous moment in America. But really, this just means that our proclivity to complain about problems has momentarily surpassed our delusion that American leaders are interested in solving them.

But this perennial problem has been compounded. After decades of mindless culture and plummeting collective intelligence, the nation has finally descended into a state somewhere in between degenerative brain disease and Stockholm syndrome. And, like an intoxicated Titania stumbling towards an unsuspecting Bottom, our country has now fastened its gaze on a motley crew of senile-lunatics and conmen that we call Presidential contenders. It’s all the farce of an Elizabethan drama, with none of the comedy.

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Our collective delusions live on…

It would be one thing if this panoply of pusillanimous politicos had a single idea as insane as their hairstyles, but uniformly their proposals are the same microwaved earwax run through the anal-retentive strainers of every focus group this side of Jupiter. Want yet another round of tax cuts paired with entitlement expansions? How about more drone strikes? Oh – and get ready for a new round of health-care reforms, whether it’s Crazy Cruz-flavor, Hairbrained Hillary-style, or the patented “Yuge Trump” edition.

Frankly, it has been obvious to everyone with a neckline unbruised by their own sphincter that these endlessly propounded policies don’t work worth a hill of beans. Everyone has a different take on why, but for my two-cents, it is nothing less than political cowardice. Our leaders don’t really have the gumption to take on new ideas, so instead we get ever more grandiose versions of the same tired tripe. Surgical strikes not working? Let’s have carpet bombing! Don’t like Medicaid? Well, let’s expand it to everybody! Social security not solvent? Oh well, I guess that will have to be the next generation’s problem.

But there are indeed simpler solutions available to leaders with more robust constitutions. We don’t need confiscatory tax rates, we don’t need to slash regulations and entitlements, and we don’t need draconian new immigration policies.

We just need to ban birth control.

Or, at least ban birth control for people who make over $200,000 a year. For the rich,  illegalize it all! Abortion, the pill, condoms, the sponge, it all must be sent into the cleansing fire of reform. Let the contraceptive-flames blaze ever higher!

Trust me. If you want a path to the golden unicorn-filled fields of true equality, if you want America to once again climb the silver-lined mountains of national greatness, this is the only way. It’s time to loose the latex from the laps of luxury and pry the pill from the palates previously occupied by silver spoons. Yes, that means you Koch BrothersGeorge Soros and Bill Clinton, don’t think I’m letting you off the hook!

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Perhaps only for those of modest means…

But seriously, let’s take our nation’s problems head on. Do you want growth? Do you want generous and solvent entitlement programs? Do you want an unending era of American innovation and military dominance? Well then we need more young people and that means more children. And who better to have said children than those with the ample resources to raise a new generation? Heck, we already know from Tiger Woods and Amy Schumer that the copulation habits of the wealthy can hardly be contained. Take a bite out of their contraception cache and watch the progeny of the prosperous pour forth faster than cocaine from Lil Wayne’s duffle-bag unzipped at customs. I bet the economic boom on baby products alone will be a driving force in our economy within the month.

And that doesn’t begin to cover the cultural benefits. How many times have you heard about the impossibility of balancing work and family life?  Well, this is because contemporary corporate culture is designed by billionaires who are uninterested in raising more than a single designer baby. But, those mindsets will be forever banished by my new policy. No more Sheryl Sandberg books labeling a 70-hour workweek “leaning in”, more new Sheryl Sandberg books about balancing the demands of corporate leadership with a family life that includes 5 kids. And need I mention the likely surge in demand for hyper-educated Mary-Poppins style super nannys? Employment crisis be gone!

But before I get carried away, I will admit that there are some drawbacks. I am certainly not looking forward to Kim Kardashian becoming the next Octomom (though I suspect she will name her new children East West, South West, Due West, Key West, Best West, and Kanye West West). The government would also need to implement extensive enforcement to keep the contraceptives out of the hands of mistresses and other unorthodox outlets. But I believe that this too might be overcome with zealous policing, improved paternity tests, and child support laws ramped up on steroids. In the end, philanderers like Bill Clinton may well have a bumper crop of bastards in tow; but they could always be put to work on Hillary’s campaign.She would appreciate the help at this point.

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Sorry Richie, no rubbers for you.

But I can already hear the whining from the naysayers- “It’s not faaiirr….muh social justice!”

I will be blunt here. This policy IS justice, or at least as close to justice as a political proposal will get. In fact, banning contraception for the rich, is the only solution that stabs at the great hearts of modern hypocrisy. Hypocrisies that persist, no matter how our media tries to ignore them.

The first great hypocrisy is that our perennial efforts at redistribution – be they taxes, regulation, inflation, or confiscation – never really upset the position of the powerful. This is because our current elites do not depend on liquid assets. They store their privilege in social networks, education, and other intangibles not easily seized by authorities. Taking wealth – true wealth- away from the powerful is near impossible in our era of global capital, and privilege can only be undermined with the cooperation of the privileged themselves.

But what better way to voluntarily lighten the entitlement of our elites than afflicting them with their own fecundity? No birth control means bigger families and bigger families mean diminishing-returns on privilege. An Ivy League might accept one family member as  legacy, but ten? Get ready to buy Yale a new football stadium, Daddy. And as 2-centuries of British comedy as well as the career of MC Hammer attest, nothing drains a bank account like a pack of perfidious poor relations. An endless supply of grasping grandchildren is enough to send even the most flush silicon valley billionaire running to his private chambers to count the family doubloons. If that isn’t poetic justice, then I don’t know what is.

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Poor relations, the bane of privilege

And that brings me to the second great hypocrisy of our age. It is a fact that the poor never shared in the sexually-liberated utopia promised by the birth control pill. This has been obvious to anyone who’s perused the demographics of fatherlessness and suicide among America’s lower classes in the last 40 years. In fact, it has taken all the intellectual power of our academy to ignore that plain truth.

Effective birth control depends on lifestyle choices and upward mobility. In short,  you need stability to effectively contracept and this is something that the poor have never had access to. Observe that not many rich people need Planned Parenthood and don’t expect Mark  Zuckerberg’s daughter to ever be in danger of single-motherhood. The sexual revolution was a project of the privileged and -short of sterilization (reversible or otherwise)- there is really no way for poor people to participate.

But before my brief allusion to sterilizing the poor causes the followers of Peter Singer to spontaneously salivate, could I point out the last and possibly most delectable irony of my simple solution? It would -for once in human history- invert the pattern of wealthy people dictating to the poor, the structure of family life.

We’ve seen this a thousand times in the 20th century. Between the forced sterilizations of India, the one-child policy of China, and the recent campaign to shove birth control pills down the throats of Africans, elites have have never once tired of forcing their reproductive preferences on the impoverished. But perhaps it’s time to turn the tables. The wealthy can check their privilege, punt their progesterone pills, and ante up to a lifestyle where they’re no longer in complete control of their reproduction. It might be vindictive, but it certainly smells like fairness to me.

And don’t feel too bad for those rich people. Given the populist rage brewing across the globe, we might be doing them a favor. Who knows, this radical measure might be the only stopgap to a complete revolution, and, in condemning the wealthy to a life of caring for toddlers today, we might be sparing their necks from the guillotine tomorrow (though from my understanding this might only be a marginal improvement). Still, as their descendants multiply, those same scions might be at a loss for what to do with such a great number of children. A difficult question indeed. But if things ever get too confusing, I suppose they could always eat them.

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Text and Community

I run a small book discussion group through my local parish. This year, in coordination with the Pope’s own advice, we are tackling Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Fall we finished Inferno. This Lent we read Purigorio, then Paradiso after Easter.

For a while I have considered blogging about this project.Read2 Certainly re-reading the Comedia has changed my perspective on theology and the history of Catholic thought.

However, probably the single greatest insight I have gotten from re-reading Dante is just how much community means when experiencing a work of fiction. I first read and discussed the Inferno as part of a general-ed literature class in college. The impression it made on me would be hard to understate. With both Professor and students eager to dismiss the work as a grand Florentine revenge fantasy, the poem was quickly used to bolster my already unflattering view of the Medieval mind.

Needless to say, revisiting Dante’s hell with a group of orthodox Catholics is very different. The theology built into every layer of the burning perdition is too sophisticated for any modern Catholic to dismiss. The sins that bring the souls to their eternal torment are a little too close for any modern Christian’s comfort. The experience is rich, chilling, but not easily explained in words

There are certain works of art that might only be authentically experienced from inside a certain community. I remember thinking this again when seeing the new Star Wars movie on opening night. Not being a fan myself, I could understand something key about the film just by being in the audience. It wasn’t just a matter of absorbing the excitement, I could -in fact- understand a very different message being communicated. To the audience there, The Force Awakens was a fresh story of redemption even if the individual plot points were, well totally predictable. It was a story about their community, and ,more importantly about what it meant to truly like Star Wars. You had to be among them to really understand that.

Generalizing, it might be worth trying to read a book popular with an antagonistic community this way. I can’t be the first Christian who has wondered what it must be like to read The God Delusion with a group of atheists. I read the book a while back and found it to be preachy, tiresome and self-righteous, but I know people who have read it lovingly over twenty times. Perhaps the true appeal of Dawkin’s labored tirade could be better understood through seeing it read and discussed inside an atheist book group. Might it be less an explanation of scientific fact than a story of community’s exodus, liberation, and rebirth? This would indeed be a greater story.

The Distributist’s Guide to Community Service

With the holiday volunteering season well underway, several friends have forwarded me an opinion/comedy clip, from the increasingly popular youtube series: Adam Ruins Everything. The video explains the problem of organizing the typical “canned” food drive. It’s short and certainly worth a view.

There is a lot to say about this. First it’s important to point out that the video does make a lot of valid points.  It is categorically better to give money to food banks rather than cans and there is a problem with people donating unusable goods, spoiled and non-nutritious food to aid organizations.  Also, as a frequent volunteer, I can attest to the fact that people oftentimes underestimate the labor needed to transport and sort donations as well as the sheer volume of food that a bank discards due to spoilage.

But good grief, this video is insufferably smug. I mean, take a look at the still frame that closes out Adam’s argument:

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Does this look like two people exploring a better way to serve their community? Of course not. This is a picture of two people who are trying to upstage each other on the scale of social-justice piety. Adam just won and Emily is chewing on the cold gristle of being wrong, a bitter pill indeed.

But this snarky attitude is hardly unique to this video. Increasingly, in the post-John-Stewart era of social commentary, conversations concerning justice are brought forward by people who seem more invested in the rightness of their argument than in encouraging concern for their cause.

But why does a conversation about charity have to be like this? Isn’t everyone trying to help? It’s puzzling, and indeed the problem itself might indicate something deeper about how society conceptualizes virtue and service.

Our modern era is in a transitional period between two overarching ethical systems. On the one hand modern society embraces a broad utilitarianism that reduces good to the delivery of the maximum resources to the maximum number of people. On the other hand, we have a fleeting  commitment to Christian virtue ethics which emphasizes sacrifice and commitment above purely strategic benefits to the individual or society. Although, much of modern culture emphasizes the cohesion between these two belief systems there remains an un-resolvable conflict between the perspectives.

Certainly, it’s not hard to see why the utilitarian perspective is dominant in the modern world. Utilitarianism is comfortable, easy to visualize, and safe. It reduces a complicated questions about obligation to simpler questions about management and strategy. Utilitarianism can easily be integrated into any large corporate or government structure. It fits on a balance sheet and is easy to conceptualize in an economy mostly run from excel sheets.

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John Stuart Mill, circa 1870

But at a basic level, I think people still yearn for the older notion of virtue.  We all feel that service to the community is good in a way that transcends its basic economic benefit. We admire people who dedicate  their lives to the poor even if those same individuals might have generated more utility by getting a job at Goldman-Sachs and cutting a million dollar check to charity at the end of a lucrative career. Virtue is not a question of economic effectiveness, rather it is rooted in a central obligation to a cause greater than oneself. But classical virtue is not a concept that can be easily translated into the utilitarian language of John Stuart Mill. Strictly speaking there is no room for concepts like altruism and nobility in a system designed to describe the provision of benefits.

Given this absence, there is a temptation to recast virtue into a new utilitarian framework. Instead of a virtue defined by service and sacrifice, perhaps actions might be deemed virtuous in so far as they result in quantifiable progress towards solving society’s problems. This is how most modern progressives think of virtue and it certainly sounds logical enough. After all, this is an objective measure of the good we are doing for others, so what could possibly go wrong?

Well everything in fact. Not only is the utilitarian concept of virtue deeply at odds with human psychology, from a practical point of view the perspective is a sure fire recipe for despair and exhaustion when it comes to charitable endeavors.

Sure, we volunteered at a food bank this week, but the same people will come in the next week looking no better, so what good has been accomplished? Sure, we donated 200 dollars to poverty relief this month, but is the problem any closer to getting solved? Our own contribution is in the rounding error of the Gates Foundation’s yearly dispensation, so will our own effort even be noticed?

At a time when our perspective on world problems is so acute and our ability to contribute so limited, a virtue derived from the utility is extremely difficult to appreciate.

However, just as the utilitarian perspective diminishes the perceived value of service and charity, it amplifies the perceived significance of activism.  Since noticeable results develop from large macro-cosmic changes, identifying as an “activist” emphasizes the role an individual plays in globally addressing the problem, an outcome with easy to visualize utility. The impact of raising awareness seems large because it emphasizes the completed goal rather than the work done to get there, by contrast personal service and charity are by their very nature local actions. Therefore, an enormous amount of perceived virtue can be gained simply by being right about an important humanitarian issue.

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Perception of virtue in a utilitarian system

Of course this is all perception. It’s not clear that a part-time activist has more impact than a regular volunteer. But the attraction of being the person who “sets everyone straight” on the issue rather than the person who does the material labor is obvious. Not only is writing e-mails and tweets easier than waking up early and going to a homeless shelter, being a “Hunger Activist” sounds so much cooler than being a “Regular Food Bank Volunteer”. Therefore we will always have more people demanding “an end to homelessness” than show up on a cold Sunday morning to sort donations.

I think this goes to the heart of the endemic smugness in Adam’s video. It may even be at the heart of the unending pretentiousness regarding organic food, carbon-emissions and other pieties discussed endlessly in progressive media. The person who informs other people about the “right” way to do things is virtuous because he is fighting for the ultimate solution and is therefore better than the people working on the problem in the “wrong” way. When you’re on the right side of history, you really don’t need to bother getting your hands dirty over the details.

Now all of this is not to say that we shouldn’t point out new and better ways to serve our community. Insight and activism are valuable. But dare I say that the lack of a robust service ethic might be hurting our motivation to get out and actually help society? We need to join a community before we begin to steer it, and the most important step towards forming an effective solution is caring enough to show up and work on the problem in the first place.

As statistics can attest, volunteering is down. This is a real problem for contemporary society. Even from a utilitarian point of view, a strong community is necessary to develop citizens willing to pay forward service, charity, and activism. Therefore the old-fashioned focus on dedication and service may ultimately be more effective at generating utility, albeit indirectly.

Perhaps we can take a different perspective to service going forward. Why not focus on participating in at least one local volunteer organization to the extent that one recognizes the names and faces of the people who work there. Be a person who can understand, from experience, the specific problems and challenges of a local organization. This starts with participation in service groups even if we are aware that they have flaws. This is the first step to building the kind of community that will make exponentially more progress towards solving problems. In the meantime let’s get to work. Even if there are problems the participation itself make a difference.

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Community means involvement

Does your community meal program not serve fresh organic food? Don’t worry about it. Concerned that the people who visit the foodbank are using it for non-essential supplemental income? That’s not your immediate concern. Are you thinking that you might be better off donating the money rather than judging a high school science fair? Trust me, you probably won’t.

Just show up and volunteer. You are helping more than you might think.

Blogging Orthodoxy 8: Levity and the Great Adventure

I while back I started a series called “Blogging Orthodoxy” which documented my Newman Center’s reading group as we worked our way through Chesterton’s grand treatise, “Orthodoxy”. This series dropped off during my blog’s long hiatus but now that I have finally gotten around to blowing the dust off all my old posts, it feels only right to finish the series.

In fact, all that remains is to put a capstone on the project and I can easily do that in the hour I have before I head out to my parish’s annual retreat. Here it goes….

Chapter 9: Authority and the Adventurer

It is hard to overstate the effect that a book like Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” has had upon my life. Of all the books that gradually took me back through the doors of the Church, this was the lynch pin. The point at which I knew that something had to be done. Faith had to be lived. Passivity was no longer an option.

Even revisiting the book seven years later, Chesterton’s conclusion was powerful. Reading the last lines, I could feel my group intently anticipating the inevitable finale. But this time, as the conclusion came, those same words felt very different.

“His Mirth”

The words that shocked me as a non-believer fell lightly this time around. Chesterton’s conclusion was still profound but it was no longer abrasive. When once the image of the mirthful Christ had come into my imagination like an thundering army,  it was now like a returning hero being welcomed home. I could feel the same emotions all around.

In fact, there was very little discussion of this final section within the group. It felt as though nothing more needed to be said. The book had ended and we were left with a sense of anticipation. Something was about to happen. And, in fact, it did.

A year passed. Spirituality grew. Friendships formed. Our patron, an inimical Dominican Friar, was able to raise up a thriving young adult community that would be the envy of a much larger parish. Even our weekly reading session grew to become a bit of an institution among the Catholic young adults in North Seattle. Much has been learned and looking back, I find myself reflecting on where it began, our reading of “Orthodoxy”.

Much has been said about the line that ends “Orthodoxy”, and certainly the image of God’s levity is what I remember when thinking back on the book. However, among all the very spiritual images conjured by the author, perhaps the plain message of the chapter is lost; the message that, in order for our struggles to transcend our own personalities, we must first acknowledge an authority over ourselves who competent to judge us. Our lives might be adventures but only if we acknowledge One greater still who can act as an author.

At one point in my life I would have balked at this sentient. I am a natural contrarian and the concept of authority does not come easy to me. But I think that it was this lesson that I did indeed learn over my last year working with the Newman center. There is a time for trust. There is a right place for faith. Once one accepts the authority of the spiritual, the worldly struggles that were at one point meaningless and setbacks that at one point seemed insurmountable become simple features in a larger story. When one wanders aimlessly even the slightest breeze feels like a cruel and irrational blow. Once a person has the right direction even the strongest headwinds can be braved with ease.

I return to the question of authority today, as my Parish bids farewell to the Dominican Friar who had been our group’s leader and the founder of our book group. Certainly it has been the pattern of modern Christian communities to crumble once their founder is reassigned and I can sense that there is a similar fear that our community will slowly break once separated from its founder.

Far from me to be an optimist but I am more encouraged than most. The spirit that brought our community together and animated it is more than the force of one saintly soul. The authority that directs us forward is much older. The adventure that has bound us together is much deeper. We hear the great laughter Chesterton described and its prospect is as terrifying as it is terrific. We are traveling for that end alone and the force of that prospect binds us together as a community even if we do indeed physically drift apart.

And so, the task is set. The path is before us. The adventure is upon us and I believe still that we have the courage to see it through to the end.

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Off to retreat….

 

 

 

 

The Legacy of Bioshock – Why Video Games Can’t Be Art

Once again, back from blogging after a long hiatus due to school. This may have to be a periodic phenomenon but don’t worry, this blog isn’t going anywhere.

Back in February I commented on the oft-asked question “Can Video Games Be Art?”. I was reminded of this question again earlier this month upon hearing that Irrational Games – the studio behind the infamous Bioshock series – was closing down shop. Apparently, the move was motivated by lead producer Ken Levine’s desire to retire from mainstream game development in order to focus on smaller art-house video games. It seems that Levine counts himself among the many contemporary designers who see small-scale independent games as the means by which video games can establish themselves as capable of being truly artistic. Given my skepticism that video games can ever really communicate artistic ideas, some commentary seems necessary. I loved Levine’s Bioshock but it was his franchise, more than any other, that convinced me that video games could never really be art.bioshock

But first, some history. Bioshock was a 2007 first person shooter (fps) game set in a gothic underwater city. However, there was a twist. The dystopian metropolis in which the player found himself was none other than the ashes of Ayn Rand’s imagined utopia of ultra-entrepreneurial supermen. What followed was a bizarre mixture of survival-horror, psychological thrills, and political commentary ending with a dark turn that has had critics and fans singing its praise ever since.

But this wasn’t the end of the franchises’ success. The original Bioshock was followed in 2013 by an even more critically acclaimed sequel – Bioshock Infinite which incredibly justified its hyperbolic title by adding an existentialist tilt to its social commentary. By linking its broader plot of existential doom to a pair of well developed characters, Bioshock Infinite seemed to exceed its predecessor in scope and storytelling. The game pushed the envelope in all dimensions showing that original and creative worlds could be used to present a tragic and challenging story to audiences.

But at the height of the Bioshock’s critical and popular success, the foundations of Levine’s creation were creaking. In fact, the very success of Bioshock Infinite exposed many of the limitations inherent to the medium. Most obviously the game’s the First Person Shooter format (FPS) ( a format, which worked well in the original Bioshock) seemed horribly out of place in a more sophisticated story. It was one thing to use violence liberally in the Gothic horror environment of Bioshock’s underwater dystopia. It was quite another for such violence to be the driving force behind a character-driven story about personal redemption. .

The critics were quick to catch the jarring discontinuity between the game’s aspirational plot and its casually gruesome gameplay. Some fans seemed almost viscerally offended and as Bioshock Infinite grew in popularity its problems crystallized into an all-out backlash. Hindsight is 20-20 and the internet was fast to come up with a laundry-list of ways by which the gameplay might have been designed in a more tasteful, thematic, and intelligent way. However, despite the much-discussed shortcomings, it was obvious from the onset that there was really no way to make a game like Bioshock Infinite without many of its flaws.

Games are expensive, more expensive than movies ( just imagine having to spend hundreds of hours with an AI to stop your lead actress from staring off in random directions like a robot). In order to get the multi-million dollar budget with which to hire artists, designers, animators, and talented voice actors necessary for such such ambitious project, the game needed a large ready-made audience. For a market still dominated by 438934young men this meant big guns, big action, and big violence.

From this perspective Ken Levine’s eventual decision to shutter his production company in order to shift focus onto to small scale independently funded games makes a great deal of sense. The problems, inherent in games like Bioschock Infinite might at once be solved with a smaller audience only interested in narrative appeal. Levine was sensitive to critics complaints, and certainly the easiest way to rectify the problem was to find an audience more interested in art than violence.

But I remain skeptical. The studio’s desire to produce something marketable as a game was not entirely irrational (no pun intended) and the conflict between gameplay and narrative structure that plagued Bioshock Infinite was really less the classic “auteur” versus “deep-pockets” conflict and more an indicator of the inherent difficulties of turning any game into what might be classically called “art”. Although there are trade-offs in any media, video games are uniquely constrained in ways that movies and books are not. This primarily has to do with the fact that video game audiences are, well, not audiences.

Video games are games and games don’t have audiences. Games have players. This is a much deeper problem than having to appeal to a lowbrow and a highbrow audience simultaneously. The critic who analyzes The Empire Strikes Back in light of Joseph Campbell and the hoi-polloi who watch it for the cool explosions are still participating in the medium in the same way. The same cannot be said for a video gamer trying to crank-out shooting achievements in Bioshock and an audience member trying to absorb its story and theme. Even in classic games like Chess, as a player grows in appreciation of the game the allegorical representation of the pieces as soldiers recedes into the background. The experience of an audience and a player are not only different, they are fundamentally opposed.

One can see this problem even in independently-funded games where issues over creative control are less prominent. Here, once again, critically acclaimed narrative schemes (such as last year’s Gone Home or Kentucky Route Zero) often leave players feeling cheated by a non-existent gaming experience. Even most of the popular indi-games like Braid or Limbo seem like copies of their corporate counterparts with some post-modern veneers tacked on to make the experience more deep. Some argue that independent games have led to a number of different approach to gameplay and story-telling, but in my experience these are marginal victories at best.

Of course, I am not the first person to bring this up. Roger Ebert mentioned similar problems in his famous take down of the “games are art” concept several years ago. However, while Ebert’s analysis was intended as a dismissal of the medium, the problem is becoming more tragic as one sees video games telling more compelling stories than most mainstream movies. We all want artists like Ken Levine to succeed in finding a ways to express themselves, but the limitations inherent in the medium may make this effort ultimately futile.

In fact, Bioshock’s greatest moments were when it broke the fourth wall and critiqued the limitations of the player’s role in the story. But this in itself was a weakness. It’s one thing to use a game’s narrative limitations to critique free will, but eventually audiences are going to demand an experience that is not so self-referential. There is a trade-off. A game creator must make a choice in favor of his players or his audience and there is really no way to get around the consequences. Every attempt to shift the gamer out his role as a player and into a role as a critic will diminish the gaming experience. Every attempt to buff the complexity of the game mechanic hurts the narrative structure of the story.

Here I am reminded strangely enough of a conversation from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in which Caroline and Mr. Elizabeth-635x357Bingley are discussing dancing.

Caroline: “I should like balls infinitely better, if they were carried on in a different manner…..It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing were made the order of they day.”

Mr. Bingley : “Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.”

Austen provides the critical insight. It would be much more artistic if narrative and storytelling were made the order of the day in computer entertainment, but then this would not be near so much like a video game.

Mining Healthcare Data : A Modern Rumpelstilskin Story

Via Megan McArdle: the New York times and the Washington Post are reporting on recent problems stemming from the Obama Administration’s Healthcare-data project. Apparently data analysts studying health impacts of new programs are not controlling their experimental samples. Whereas ideally the government’s analysis would be the basis for crafting intelligent policy, the New York Time’s description calls into question the robustness of the research being conducted.healthData

“The studies that are regarded as the most reliable randomly assign people or institutions to participate in a program or to go on as usual, and then compare outcomes for the two groups to see if the intervention had an effect.

Instead, the Innovation Center has so far mostly undertaken demonstration projects; about 40 of them are now underway. Those projects test an idea, like a new payment system that might encourage better medical care — with all of a study’s participants, and then rely on mathematical modeling to judge the results.”

The superficial approach described above is odd because it seemingly flies in the face of conventional approaches statistical modeling. For those not familiar, establishing a randomized control is essential to getting results that don’t just confirm the hypothesis is being tested. You can see this problem in the infamous Israeli Air Force Study(a really informative overview of this concept can be found on YouTube), and it’s been a long standing statistical understanding that, when possible, randomized control samples are always preferable.

So why do government analysts feel so confident that they can dispense with what has, until recently, been an essential feature in any statistical experiment? Well because they’ve got great data-mining technology!  Here, the word “mathematical modeling” does a lot of work in obscuring the real methods that the government is using. Mathematical modeling can really mean anything, and ironically the NYT’s link on this description is broken.

Megan McArdle, has a good take on the possible sources of the mistake: sloppy thinking on the part of federal bureaucrats. Says McArdle:

Gold’s article implies that the administration is looking at gross savings — which is to say, it’s just reporting the amount of money saved by the accountable-care organizations that ended up on the positive side of the ledger, even though this is less than half the total. Statisticians have a term for this: the Texas sharpshooter fallacy…..

Perhaps, I may be even more cynical than McArdle, but my take is somewhat different.rumpel

Given that the administration has been unable to produce evidence of healthcare savings from increased coverage, it is fair to say that the president is feeling pressure to come up with some statistical result that will make costs appear more reasonable  (at least ahead of the next CBO estimate). Moreover, without speculating too much as to the overall structure of bureaucratic management, I don’t think it is unlikely that individual analysts are also feeling the pressure to deliver “good” results, especially with all of these cool new “big data” tools so prominently featured in the news.

The result is predictable: a sort of magical thinking arises where data-mining and complex models become panacea for turning poorly conducted statistical tests into predictive models showing large savings from new “innovative” approaches to delivering healthcare. Of course the results are all confirmation bias, but who’s going to look a gift horse in the mouth? Certainly not an administration desperate for good news on the healthcare front.

Now admittedly, I have no inside information, but if this kind of sloppy analysis is indeed going on then it is certainly a cause for concern. The one-sided use of over-optimistic healthcare predictions could lead the CBO to perennial underestimate the cost of supporting programs like Medicare in their current state. This in turn could ultimately doom these program’s long-term solvency (not to mention the long term solvency of the country) since politicians are all too willing to forgo necessary reform in the light of CBO reports that tell them healthcare costs will come down on their own accord.

But ultimately this problem is not political. It stems from a cultural approach to data analysis that is far too prevalent in industry and in government. I like to think of it as a modern day Rupelstilskin story. What do we have? Reams of uncontrolled data. What Do We Want? Optimistic predictive results. With this point of view, it’s tempting to simply lock analysts in a room and ask them to build mathematical models until they finally manage to spin the straw data into golden predictive models like the miller’s daughter from the aforementioned fairy tale.

But just as in the fairytale, when we force someone to spin straw into gold, it shouldn’t be surprising when magical methods play a large role in their process. Moreover, in the case of the government’s own analysis the Rupelstilskin metaphor can be taken yet further. For in trusting their magic numbers, our current leaders may have put the next generation on the line for the results.

Blogging Orthodoxy 7: An Eternal Golden Thread

Blogging Orthodoxy continues with :

Chapter 8: The Romance of Orthodoxy

I consider The Romance of Orthodoxy to be the weakest chapter of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. At first glance there doesn’t appear to be anything that we haven’t heard in the previous chapters. To this point Chesterton has already talked at length about how a mystical love of the universe is needed to value life and how mystical skepticism is needed to reform it. He has reviewed in detail the dangers of trying to conceive of the world as purely rational and visited the mistakes humanism has made when attempting to achieve reform without understanding the concept of the ideal. With all of this already said, one might wonder why Chesterton spends his eighth chapter rehashing many of these same points. But although The Romance of Orthodoxy may seem entirely redundant, I think Gilbert does have a point. However laboriously, by the end of the eighth Chapter, Chesterton has built towards a singular question, perhaps the question for anyone reading a book about Catholicism and not Catholic themselves: Despite the fact that there may be some, possibly incidental, truths in the Faith, why actually be Catholic?

Though Chesterton answers this question mainly in his last chapter, it was this question that dominated our reading group’s discussion on The Romance of Orthodoxy. And for good reason. Our patron was certainly speaking for everyone when he pointed out that this question was the question that our modern age has saimtsfor the Catholic Church. Not Why do You believe in God? not Did Jesus really rise from the dead?  not even Why are you Christian? but Why be Catholic?  It’s a question that Catholics hear all the time. And no one ever has a really good answer.

I admit, it is a hard question because the question is inseparable from historical record. God and Jesus may be eternal and unsullied, but the Church is very much a being of history and as most people are aware, it has had quite a long one. Moreover, unlike Muslims, Atheists, and Buddhists, Catholics for, the most part, are singularly conscious of their Church’s historical misdeeds. I’ve noticed that, despite believing in the Church’s mission, Catholics tend to avoid asserting that their Church has historically bore witness to the gospel of Jesus. And, given this record, it’s probably no surprise that secular people can’t take the concept seriously either.

Even after coming to believe in God, I found the concept of the Catholic Church being a force for any kind of good in history to be utterly ridiculous. Of course I knew enough history to discount many of the common atheists myths surrounding Catholicism spun by those like Christopher Hitchens and it was not necessary to dispel common exaggerations about the relative violence of the Church to other factions in history. But nonetheless, beyond statistical nitpicking, there was human reality of the Church’s terrible role in history that had to be confronted. It may be true that the Spanish Inquisition killed only around 3000 people, but, for an institution that claims every human is the image of God, the inquisition was an atrocity more revolting than the 20 million souls trod under by Genghis Khan. And so the central question remained.

A common, and not entirely inadequate, response is that the Church itself is fallen and flawed like all other human institutions. I have to say, this perspective, while truthful, didn’t satisfy me initially. If the Church was truly the cornerstone of Christ’s teaching on earth then it must be much more than one fallen entity among many. If the history of human existence is one long line of tarnished treasures, why should one particular piece be worthy of adoration?

I began to see a better explanation when reading The Screwtape Letters where the demonic Screwtape counsels his understudy on how the Church on earth can stand in contrast to the divine Church as seen from time immemorial.

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church screwtapeas we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew.

Though C.S. Lewis’ target with this passage was pettiness among parishioners and not grand historical crimes, his thoughts formed in me the first inkling of a concept I later came to accept. There might be something in the Church beyond what is superficially seen in the institution. The true Church might be less like a tarnished golden chalice and more like a small golden thread, that while almost invisible against the backdrop of the soil that covers it, still leads onward towards its luminous source. And as I looked at the Church in history, there did seem to be just such a thread running through it. The Catholics referred to it as The Lives of the Saints.

Often times the word Hagiography is used loosely to condemn whitewashed and arduously positive biographies. But I found nothing arduous or whitewashed about the lives of the Saints. The Saints were flawed individuals but in their moments of grace they became something far greater than themselves and the times in which they lived. The saints were real. More real than other historical figures and more real even than the figures that occupy our contemporary StatueTriumphjpgworld. Most people, from politicians and celebrities to ordinary grocers and policeman, are carried along with the flow of history, working from within their time and place to do the best they can. But the Saint stands still, the ebb and flow of their time and culture folding around their lives like the waters of a stream against a stationary rock. In communion, the Saints stand apart from history like a series golden links. The institutional Church, as we see it today, acts simply as a container for this more glorious witness. It keeps the doctrines, the sacraments, and the records of the Saint’s coming. But in the end, it is simply an observer, in waiting, and in anticipation of something greater than itself.

At this point I have probably lost my secular audience and I’m sure someone is going to accuse me of looking at Catholic history with rose-tinted glasses. Couldn’t one take the most shinning examples of any institution and hold them aloft? How would this then justify the Catholic Church above other institutions? Again, without answering these objections directly, I would like offer a caveat. From my own experience, it is actually rare for institutions to justify themselves by pointing to a past communion of truly good people. Much more common is to look back at the powerful and argue that their evil actions weren’t really evil, or that their evil actions were necessary do to the particular situations of the age. But the Saints have no reason to be recognized but for their goodness. Some are meek and others powerful, but their common communion is only virtue. Here, there is something truly unique: a link to the past that is more divine and accessible than any other past heroism can provide. Few have the intelligence to be an Einstein, the power to be Caesar, or the wealth to be a Rockafeller, but the goodness of a Catherine of Sienna or a Saint Francis of Assisi is available to every person at every moment of their lives. We have but to reach forward and accept it.

It seems the modern world is sorely in need of just this conception of Saintly continuity. We all have an innate desire to look back and see an unbroken chain of idealism leading from the past on into the future, and of course we fasten upon the great leaders and thinkers of our history to serve this purpose. Right-wingers have their obsession with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, while the left has their devotion to Margaret Sanger and Harvey Milk. But modern history is none too slow at finding the flaws in any of the great idols of our past. Behind every Jefferson there is slavery, Northern rose window of the cathedral Notre-Dame in Chartres, Francebehind every Sanger there is Eugenics. The great leaders and thinkers of the past are all compromised just as every empire that is old is also brutal. So modern man is left, looking back at a history of moral ambiguity, disconnected from any concept that his ancestors had anything to teach him.

I believe it is this very disconnect that enables the progressive view of history to become so popular. With a past of unmitigated misery and evil, we may want to believe in a present and future that will inevitably be better, not just in material comforts, but in human goodness. But this progressive vision does nothing but impede our ability to live as good people in our daily lives. With the idea of goodness inevitably expanding, we forget the very important reality that, in any age, being virtuous is difficult. To be good, truly good, is a task so herculean as to be almost impossible, and we discount this fact at our own moral peril.

I must now return to the question posed at the onset of the discussion: Why Be Catholic? For myself, it is because I see the Church as a historic moral teacher, not through the institution, but through the narrow paths walked by the saints in obscurity. The Catholic Church has committed many crimes, but this does not set it aside from any other historical institution. Every cause and great leader is flawed from Pericles and the Athenian Democracy to George Washington and our current Republic. I get the sense that when most people look back on their ancestor’s history they are in fact looking for some progressive thread through which to learn moral lessons. And here the institutional Catholic Church has played a prophetic role. It has discovered just such a thread in the live of the Saints. And although it is flawed as an institution, the Church may act as a sign post for the greatest moral teachers the world has ever known.

At the close of this article, I am reminded of an oft-repeated Catholic adage-“there is only one true tragedy in life and that is to not be Saint”. There is certainly truth in that statement, but if it is entirely accurate then the world is quite a tragic place. Of course, we have all known great individuals living selfless lives of grace, but they are quite rare. For the most part we plod along, not willing to fight against the current of our modern age and personal desires. The path of true righteousness is narrow. It is not a golden carpet that will roll out easily in front of us. We are not good by nature and, as such, teachers are needed. So Christians must tirelessly search for the good people in the narrow and dirty places of the world looking for the living Saints that can continue to guide us. As in all ages past, we will stumble and struggle to find this thread of true human compassion, but as difficult as the task may be it is absolutely necessary. For if we desire to be bring any true goodness, the loss of that golden thread of Sainthood may be the world’s only true tragedy.