Monday, January 23, 2006

The end of abortion

It's not what you think

The anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision always occasions a lot of excitement and political demonstrations. Emotions are heightened this year by the imminent replacement of retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with someone who is less likely to support abortion rights. Giddy pro-lifers see their best opportunity to overturn Roe looming on the horizon.

Even a 5–4 decision to vacate Roe would not, however, immediately result in the end of abortion. It would instead return us to the situation that preceded Roe, when the fifty states regulated abortion in dramatically different ways, some outlawing it outright while others making it readily available. (Ironically enough, California's very liberal abortion laws were enacted with the signature of pro-life icon Ronald Reagan.) In such a situation, we could expect to see a patchwork of laws roughly approximating the national divide between so-called red states and blue states.

Although I am talking about the end of abortion, I do not foresee this as the consequence of future court action or legislative enactment. Those factors, I believe, will be frustratingly peripheral to those engaged in the political struggle over a woman's freedom to choose. Rather, abortion will diminish almost to a vanishing point in a way that will certainly be regarded as a staggering defeat by those who style themselves as pro-life. In fact, many of the losers will angrily declare that abortion has not so much gone away as merely changed its mode of operation. I may even agree with them, but that will give them little comfort.

The harbinger of my prognostication is Plan B, currently tied up in the FDA by the Bush administration's efforts to pander to its pro-life political base. Plan B (levonorgestral), as you may already know, is currently a prescription-only drug that has been proposed for over-the-counter sales. It's a progestin-only medication that is designed to prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of intercourse. Plan B interferes with ovulation, fertilization, and implantation. The third item is the tricky one, because many pro-life groups adhere to the Roman Catholic dogma that a fertilized ovum is a human being and that pregnancy begins at the instant of fertilization.

The modern definition of pregnancy says that a woman is pregnant when the fertilized egg implants in the endometrium, the inner membrane of the womb. If, however, you believe a woman is pregnant the moment a sperm cell penetrates the egg cell, then to you the prevention of implantation is an abortion. From this point of view, you did not head off the pregnancy, you killed a human being.

Chopping down an acorn

The idea that a fertilized ovum is that same as a human being strikes me as being no more sensible than equating an acorn with an oak tree. The acorn has all the resources and genetic data necessary to generate a stately oak, but it is not an oak tree. A fertilized egg contains all the data necessary to generate a human being, but it is not yet a person. We know now that many fertilized eggs never implant, making God himself the busiest abortionist in creation. Implantation failure may occur spontaneously as a consequence of immune system interactions (perhaps rejecting the foreign matter that is the male's contribution to the fertilized egg) or for other reasons that we just don't understand yet.

Human intervention with Plan B or its eventual successors will—depending on one's perspective—either dramatically reduce the likelihood of abortions of unwanted pregnancies or dramatically increase the number of chemically-induced abortions. The conflict in interpretation will stem from opposing definitions of fundamental concepts. Whichever way the partisans view it, the inexorable progress toward greater control over the human reproductive cycle will increasingly make it easier to avoid the near occasion of later-term abortions. Those will be left (in states that don't ban it) for woman who don't make their minds up early enough to avail themselves of remedies like Plan B.

State of the art

I expect surgical abortions to become exceedingly rare in the future whether Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land or not. While anti-abortion administrations like that of the incumbent can fight a rear-guard action, the success of such anti-choice efforts depends on a static state of the art. That is exactly what we do not have. Just as we can expect contraceptives such as Plan B to have ever-more-effective successors, we can anticipate that outright abortifacients will continue to advance. Such drugs as RU-486, which induces early-term miscarriages, will be supplanted by milder and even more reliable forms.

If I were a pro-lifer, I would be only mildly heartened by recent developments on the national scene. The trend toward greater control over reproduction is inevitable. Short of ending biological and chemical research, we cannot keep the birth control genie in the beaker. What I cannot predict, however, is what portion of the pro-life crowd will eventually face reality and discover that Bill Clinton was their true leader and prophet: Abortions should be "safe, legal, and rare." That's the best anyone can hope for.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Lebewohl, Brünnhilde

She sang, but the opera ain't over

The people who study these things tell us that opera is an Italian art form. That seems likely enough. Lots of the terms wear their Italian origin on their sleeve: aria, diva, mezzo, und so weiter. However, no one on the face of the earth can deny which opera is the opera—the archetype that occasions instant recognition. It's German. You may not know it by name, but even the most operatically disinclined knows it at a glance. It's Die Walküre, the one with the zaftig spear-wielding warrior maiden in the horned helmet. That's opera, doc!

The healthy Viking maiden is Brünnhilde, leader of the valkyries. She figures prominently in three out of the four operas of Richard Wagner's sprawling Der Ring des Nibelungen. She is the eponym of Die Walküre, in which she rebels against her father Wotan, chief of the Norse gods, and ends up imprisoned in sleep on a fire-girdled crag. In Siegfried, the hero of the title finally learns fear when he awakens her in Act III. Finally there is Götterdämmerung, the opera which ain't over till she sings, at which point the gods and the entire world are consumed in the flames of Siegfried's funeral pyre.

The part of Brünnhilde is one of the most challenging soprano roles in the operatic repertory. At any given time, we are lucky to have one woman who can fully embody the valkyrie on stage. During much of the twentieth century, the ruling Brünnhilde was Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, who passed away on Christmas Day 2005 at the age of 87. During her reign, she had no challengers to the Wagnerian crown. There was only Nilsson.

I first encountered Nilsson's voice in the sixties. Time-Life Records had decided to bring a little more culture to the masses. I had begun collecting Time-Life's volumes in its Nature Library and Science Library, so my mailbox overflowed with solicitations for other Time-Life items. I began to receive brochures containing a tear-out vinyl disk of highlights from Wagner's Ring. Time-Life had repackaged the London/Decca recording by conductor Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic. Buy Das Rheingold now and receive the remaining three operas at intervals. Even the flimsy vinyl teaser produced amazing sounds on my parents' stereo system: Kirsten Flagstad (Nilsson's great predecessor) as Rheingold's Fricka and Siegfried's funeral music from Götterdämmerung. Somehow I talked Mom & Dad into letting me order the albums. Soon I was the first (the only?) high school kid on my block with Wagner's Ring.

It came with books, including John Culshaw's Ring Resounding (memoirs of the producer of the Solti recording) and nice big librettos with the words and translations. (Today's compact disks are great, but their form factor has robbed the world of readable librettos.) The voices of Nilsson and other performers were described in words I did not understand. Nilsson's voice is white? Joan Sutherland's is colorful?

Gradually I began to get a clue. Even today I remain an untutored music aficionado, but I can share a sense of what I learned over the years of listening to recordings and live performances. Nilsson's voice was white the way a beam of light is focused. A prism will break up a beam of white light into a spectrum of different hues and some sopranos produce sounds that evoke the aural equivalent of a spectrum of different shades. Nilsson, however, was as focused as a laser. She emitted a beam of coherent sound that was diamond pure. It was powerful and clear, without any trace of trembling vibrato. What's more, Nilsson maintained her vocal strength and control over a career that lasted for decades.

It was my privilege to attend three of Nilsson's performances at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. In 1974, she portrayed Isolde opposite Jess Thomas's Tristan in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. A dispute with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service kept her out of the country for several years, but she returned to San Francisco in 1980 to portray the Dyer's Wife in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. It was a new role for her, but she had never hesitated to broaden her repertoire; Strauss's Salome and Puccini's Turandot were two of her signature non-Wagnerian roles. Then, finally, in 1981 I was at one of her final San Francisco appearances: her last run as the title character in Die Walküre. There she was, the dramatic soprano of her era in the opera. Her softest tones carried clearly to the back of the house and her strongest threatened to burst the whole structure. We applauded and cheered her curtain calls until our hands were red and sore and our throats raw. Her throat, I'm sure, was fine. As she once smilingly told a reporter, "I have strong things in my throat."

Since Nilsson's retirement, I have seen other Brünnhildes on the stage of the San Francisco Opera. Dame Gwyneth Jones, Eva Marton, and Jane Eaglen (today's reigning warrior maiden) all had remarkable vocal attributes, but I once got to hear Birgit Nilsson herself. Nilsson. Herself.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Holy homicide

More of that true believer stuff

I probably should stop watching John Hagee during breakfast on Sundays. It's bad for the digestion.

Hagee's inspirational topic today was the willingness of a believing father to murder his son at the instigation of his god. No doubt you recall how Yahweh tested Abraham's faith by ordering him to offer a human sacrifice:
Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. (Gen. 22:2)
Those steeped in Bible lore inform us that Isaac, the only son of Abraham, is a type of Jesus Christ, the only son of God the Father. The Old Testament tale of potential sacrifice prefigures the New Testament narrative of the atoning sacrifice of Christ.

You do understand, don't you, that we are supposed to honor Abraham's faith? We are supposed to admire his submission to his deity.

I don't. The man is a monster. Or spineless. The only correct response to a command to do evil is "No". Was Abraham planning to tell Isaac's mother, "I was only following orders"? Perhaps in these days of complacent submission to government atrocities overseas we have lost our ability to express outrage, but what other reaction is commensurate with the provocation? Yahweh says, "Kill your son." Abraham says, "Okily dokily." We say, "Stupid religious fanatic."

We're supposed to be appeased because Yahweh doesn't let Abraham follow through, sending an angel to save Isaac's life at the last second and providing a ram to serve as a substitute sacrifice. Happy ending! For me, a real happy ending would have been for Abraham to get in his god's radiant face and say, "Strike me down if you must, but I will not touch one hair on my son's head!" That is a father speaking rather than some god-ridden worm. Then Yahweh would have repented of his command (recall that God is pretty fallible and mercurial in his Old Testament version) and honored Abraham for his familial devotion. Happy ending!

Apologists for Abraham have been working for thousands of years to paper over the ugliness in the Genesis 22 story. While latecomer John Hagee merely belligerently demands we honor Abraham's faith, as do most fundamentalist and evangelical preachers, more thoughtful people have offered creative excuses for Abraham's decision: (1) He knew it was a test and that Yahweh would stop short of Isaac's death. (2) Yahweh is freaking all-powerful and he'll resurrect Isaac from the ashes of the burnt sacrifice and give Abraham a pat on the head for being a good sport. (3) Isaac was a strong young man who submitted meekly when he could have easily overpowered his elderly father and run away; it was really a test of Isaac's faith.

The exegetes who offer the first two excuses base them on interpolations in the text of Genesis 22, not the text itself. Not one line suggests that Abraham anticipated the outcome. Those who direct our attention to Isaac himself at least have the slender evidence of Genesis 22:5, where Abraham commands his retainers to remain behind while he and his son proceed alone. Isaac was not surrounded by his father's loyal men when it came time for him to be bound and laid upon the altar. Furthermore, we are not told that Abraham knocked Isaac on the head with a rock, so presumably there was at least some element of cooperation on the son's part.

All of this scrambling about underscores the difficulty of coming thoughtfully to terms with the stark nature of Genesis 22. I am far from the first person to say quite simply that Abraham failed his test and should have been ashamed of his compliance. I hope I will not be the last. When people say, "But it was a command from God! He had to obey!", I reply that I hope they never think they're hearing from God, because they have no fundamental internal decency. Religionists like to repeat the claim that only God gives us a moral code, but the trickster God of Genesis 22 is a poor source for such a code. The lesson in Genesis 22 is that we should all be good Nazis and follow orders to commit heinous crimes—as long as the orders come from duly constituted authority. So much for conscience.

"All things are possible to them that believe," exhorts Hagee, paraphrasing Mark 9:23. For once he is telling the truth.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The girl in the mirror

Identities confused & abused

Someone borrowed my niece's identity last year. "Becky" gave up her mail box at the local post office and filed a change-of-address form. Nevertheless, the next person who rented the mail box found herself receiving a check made out to my niece. It was a commission check from the multi-level marketing company Becky had signed up with as a cosmetics salesperson.

It turned out that the young woman who now had Becky's old mailing address was not an honest person. First, she forged an extra zero onto the check to push the amount into the thousands. Second, she traveled to a nearby city and used the check to purchase a used car. The car cost less than the face value of the forged check, so the identity thief asked for her change in cash. That's when things began to unravel.

The sales representative told the young woman to come back later in the day for her change. It would have to be in the form of a check signed by the manager of the car dealership. Thinking she had just about pulled it off, the identity thief drove off to kill a few hours. However, it was a police officer rather than the manager who was waiting for her when she returned. No doubt concerned that her rap sheet would otherwise be too short, the miscreant jumped back into her car and led the police a merry chase at high speed, which ended in a wreck and an arrest.

It took weeks for Becky to straighten out the mess that the identity thief created with her fraudulent use of Becky's name and forged commission check.


Becky's story has a happy ending because the damage to her identity was both local and limited. It was a nuisance rather than a disaster. However, it certainly spooked other members of the family. We have a natural streak of paranoia, which appeared to find its most dramatic expression in my mother (Becky's grandmother). Mom's wish for Christmas was a powerful paper shredder, which she promptly began to use to chew up her discarded mail and financial statements. I noticed she was even shredding the stacks of mail-order catalogs she had received in order to ensure that no one could read the name and address on them.

I explained to Mom that fewer things were easier to find out about a person than her address. It was the height of futility, as well as a complete waste of time, to patiently reduce each catalog to confetti. That seemed to ease her mind a bit.

Then it was my turn.

A local felon has my name.

In fact, he has exactly my name except for middle initial. And my name is (I thought) moderately unusual. Furthermore, the felon's name is a matter of public record and is available on an on-line database maintained by the state's Department of Justice.

Isn't that a kick in the teeth?

I have as much of the family's innate paranoia as anyone—even Mom. In my case, though, I suppose I want people to know my address so that they can distinguish me from the felon, who lives in a nearby city rather than in my own town (thank goodness). Even so, I can readily imagine all manner of scenarios in which identity confusion blights my life. If I were applying for a job or looking for a new place to stay, I can see in my mind's eye how easily a potential employer or landlord might type my name into the DoJ database and promptly get a hit. Unless he or she clicked on the right button for some additional details, the potential employer or landlord could just end up scratching my name off the list without ever discovering that the felon and I are two entirely different people despite sharing the same name (I'm a little older, he's a little heavier, I'm a good citizen, he's a convicted felon, ...).

While the lesson is clear, I hope you won't mind if I belabor the point just a little. Of course, you should be vigilant in the protection of your identity, although try not to go overboard the way Mom did. However, please do be careful of the identities of others, too. I, for one, would thank you.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

False proportionalities

The elasticity of work

Every so often, some brilliant legislator introduces a bill to limit the number of bills he can introduce. Such measures are presented as "good government" bills by legislators who believe that legislating is bad. ("Please stop me before I do my job!") Here are the usual arguments advanced in favor of introduction-limit bills (and my brief refutations):

  • There are already too many laws. (So introduce bills to repeal them; it takes a law to undo a law.)
  • Fewer bill introductions will reduce legislative costs. (Permit me to doubt this; more below.)
  • Limits on bill introductions will force legislators to draft more significant legislation. (Manifestly untrue. Even legislators who promote bill limits as part of their political agendas continue to introduce nonsubstantive measures, like the Sacramento state senator who followed his introduction-limit bill with a resolution in honor of the Fourth of July—which, by the way, failed.)

The bill introduction limit delusion is just one example of a broader problem. While my math students do not seem particularly fond of exercises involving direct variation, it seems that the concept of proportionality is deeply embedded in our perceptions and unthinkingly applied. As a rule, each introduction-limit bill is accompanied by a press release or analysis that presents a simplistic computation:

Each year the legislature spends X dollars while deliberating over N bills. This measure would limit the legislature to n bills annually, where n < N. Legislative spending would therefore be reduced to n/N×X dollars.
This embrace of perfect proportionality misses the point. What is the marginal cost of introducing the (N+1)st bill? Bill No. 1 is always the most expensive, because it requires the entire support structure of aides and analysts and printers to see it through the legislative process. However, for most bills, the marginal cost is very close to zero. Until the workload increases to the point that another legislative aide is hired or another attorney must be added to the legislative counsel bureau (the people who really write the bills—in California, at least), the cost of the bill is absorbed into the existing structure. Today even inelastic incidental items like paper and printer's ink are reduced as bills are increasingly disseminated electronically.

Direct variation does not apply to legislative costs in anything but the most crude and granular way. I might concede that a draconian measure cutting legislative introductions by half might similarly affect the legislative budget, but I harbor doubts even in that case. Instead I can see legislators who normally introduce lots of bills cutting deals and doing favors for colleagues who introduce few, thus making the process even more convoluted and inefficient (and thus more costly) than before.

Parkinson's converse

Sometimes we hear arguments over the cost of national holidays. When the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., was made into a national holiday, some states cloaked their racist refusal to observe it by complaining about the financial burden it would impose on their businesses and taxpayers. Businesses would be hurt by the loss of a work day and taxpayers would be cheated of a day's work by public employees. Once again, direct proportion was invoked and exact numbers were computed.

Let me ask you a question. Suppose you leave work two hours early one afternoon for something like a dentist's appointment. Suppose further that you normally work a forty-hour week. While your two hours are presumably covered by sick leave, let's consider your work load. Will you leave 5% of your job undone that week because you took off two of the forty hours? I suspect not. I suspect instead you picked up the pace a bit or tightened your efficiency a little.

Most tasks and occupations contain a certain amount of slack that we recognize when we think about it, but ignore when we turn to mathematics to compute cost impacts. This is natural enough, because direct variation provides straightforward computations and "slack" is the epitome of fuzziness. Almost everything has at least a few percentage points of flexibility to provide the elasticity necessary to absorb modest variations.

C. Northcote Parkinson is famous for making the observation that "Work expands to fill the time available." I have argued that, with certain reasonable limitations, Parkinson's converse is also true: "Work shrinks to fill the time available."

Thursday, January 05, 2006

What if everyone...?

Lame arguments II

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll has his own approach to holiday charity. He eliminates the middle man. Rather than contributing to some recognized organization (such as the United Way, for example), Carroll prefers his own "Untied Way." He described it in his Q&A column of December 19, 2005:

Q: How do I become an Untied Way volunteer?

A: Go to the ATM at your bank, convenience store or casino. Withdraw a sum of money. The amount of cash is up to you; I would suggest something just a little bit more than you're comfortable with. It doesn't have to hurt, but it should sting a little. Put the money in your pocket and go to an area where you often find people asking for money. My experience this year is that the number of those areas has increased quite dramatically. If you do not know of any locations with such people, ask a friend—and get out more.
That, in essence, is Carroll's Untied Way—random acts of monetary kindness.

The naysayers were quick to pounce. On December 30, the following letter appeared from a rapidly unraveling Chronicle reader:

Carroll column could lead to economic ruin

Editor—Jon Carroll once again has put on his Santa Claus hat (Dec. 19) and invited his readers to hand out $20 bills, willy nilly, to all the homeless people clogging our downtown streets. And if his idea catches on, San Francisco's social and commercial life will be destroyed forevermore.

The ranks of the homeless will multiply as panhandlers, hearing the good news, descend upon the city from all points of the compass; alcohol and drug sales will skyrocket in the Tenderloin; tourists who now provide the lifeblood for our Disneyland North will depart, screaming, for more hospitable climes; low-income workers (waiters, bus boys, maids, sales people) whose livelihoods depend on the tourist trade will face mass joblessness.

Thank you, dear letter writer, for a perfect example of the "What if everyone...?" fallacy. A popular form of over-generalization, the "What if everyone...?" fallacy should be familiar to most people. (Perhaps you have used it yourself!) Here are some classic uses:

  • If everyone "turns" gay, humanity will become extinct.
  • If everyone goes on welfare, who will pay for it?
  • If everyone contributed just $10 to public television...
  • If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you?
  • If everyone ate more vegetables...

Some of these are harmless rhetorical devices, beloved of parents fighting such things as peer pressure (although in my youth I always wondered where it was that other children were leaping off cliffs to spite their parents). Others are pipe dreams whose realizations are at least as far off as the smokeless society and the paperless office. The pernicious cases those advanced as serious arguments.

For example, will straight people stop getting married if gay people are permitted to wed? ("Oh, I don't want to do that if they can do it, too!") Will our letter writer's fears be realized and the San Francisco economy collapse ("forevermore"!) if everyone emulates Jon Carroll's example and begins to hand out money indiscriminately? Note that the writer specifically alerts us to the danger that beggars will "descend upon the city from all points of the compass." Yes, as we all know, panhandlers are one of the most mobile segments of our society's underclass and will cross the nation in search of an easy handout. Shades of Upton Sinclair!

Upton Sinclair? Yes, the letter writer's scare tactics about indigents pouring into San Francisco have a venerable history. I'm sure it goes back at least as far as racism and bigotry, but the particular instance I have in mind was home grown here in California when Upton Sinclair ran for governor. It was 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, and Sinclair's platform was End Poverty in California (EPIC).
Perhaps the most effective anti-Sinclair campaign was that of movie mogul Louis B. Mayer who, wrote [historian John D.] Weaver, "turned his Culver City studio into the unofficial headquarters of the film industry’s organized campaign of vilification and misrepresentation." The effort included "fake newsreel interviews with bewhiskered actors voicing their enthusiasm for EPIC in Russian accents. The most effective footage focussed on Central Casting hobos huddled on the borders of California, waiting to live off the bounty of its taxpayers once Sinclair got elected."
Yes, it's all been done before, but that doesn't make it any less invalid or less reprehensible. While Mayer was working as a conscious propagandist, our San Francisco Chronicle letter writer is presumably sincere and merely thoughtless in his scrambling for rhetorical devices with which to drive his points home. The thoughtful will not be deceived.

San Francisco is not going to suddenly turn into a panhandler paradise because Jon Carroll thinks it would be nice to show a little kindness during the holiday season. Those who participated in the Untied Way undoubtedly spread some joy among the less fortunate residents of the city by the bay, but Carroll himself pointed out that it wasn't going to solve the world's problems. I guess he's not accustomed to thinking as big as his letter-writing critic. Good for him!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

People who know

A rant about certainty

We naturally tentative people are at a disadvantage. Instead of embracing absolute truths, we prefer provisional propositions. If the propositions withstand our testing and our doubts, then our acceptance grows. If we are scientists, we might distinguish our most successful propositions with the honorific title of theory. If we are not scientists, or science-minded people, we might prefer our knowledge to be of the revealed kind, with a wonderfully comforting lack of doubt.

The disadvantage I alluded to lies in the arena of argument. The people who know things beyond a shadow of a doubt are often eager combatants. It can be difficult to debate with someone armed with the Truth while your position is based on "what seems true as best we can tell right now" (or that which is viable, as constructivists are wont to say). The people who know have no time for doubts. They say things like, "I know as sure as I am standing here right now" or "As certain as 1 + 1 = 2." (Of course, I agree with 1 + 1 = 2. That is, unless we are in a field of characteristic 2, in which case 1 + 1 = 0. This merely illustrates the necessity of agreeing on terms and context before engaging in calculation or debate. I mention it to irritate the math-challenged people who use arithmetic as a talking point in their invalid arguments.)

The true believers are out in force these days to protest the Kitzmiller decision. Kitzmiller struck down the attempt of the former school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, to push intelligent design creationism into public school science classrooms. The people who know about God and creation and stuff like that were mortally offended and quick to cry out:
[T]he theory of evolution stretches beyond reason to the point of fantasy and cover-up. Some will do anything to deny the existence of a creator God, the true inventor of science and of any accountability to the same.

This statement was published in a letter to the editor of a local paper. The ignorant correspondent went on to declare that Darwin was a believing Christian (not for long!) and that ID is the product of scientists (well, maybe; but rather marginal scientists motivated by their religious faith rather than by any scientific insights). There are many other examples of people who do not hesitate to declare that they know evolution is a hoax. See the instances cited at Recursivity and Corante. You are sure to find more examples in your own local newspaper.

Matters of faith

I admitted earlier that I believe that 1 + 1 = 2. Is that a matter of faith? It flows inevitably from the nature of arithmetic, although that in turn is based on some constructed mathematical foundation derived from some axiomatic base (such as Peano's postulates). It all has to start somewhere. I start with some basic acceptance of logical rules of inference and an inclination to believe that things should fit into a rational framework. Even if I can't see the whole framework. And even if the Intelligent Designer (a.k.a. "God") seems an unnecessary hypothesis.

The famous geometer Edwin Moise was an open nonbeliever who was challenged to defend his atheism. Was he not merely an agnostic? How could he say there was no God? How did he know? As the story goes, Moise was amused by the question and replied, "You have to believe in something."

The Moise anecdote shows that faith can be used in different ways. I used to believe that I had a good way to undermine the faith of a true believer. My idea was to fight faith with faith. Oscar Wilde once pointed out that, "The value of an idea has nothing to do with the sincerity of the person expressing it." When an acquaintance urged upon me his personal exegesis of the nature of Christianity, I replied that most Christians (and all non-Christians) would reject his interpretation and most of them would hold to their own ideas just as firmly as he clung to his. My gambit was predictably a failure. In the grand tradition of true believers everywhere, my acquaintance pointed out that he did not have to take into account the beliefs of people who were wrong.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A walk in dairyland

A ditch runs through it

As usual, the Christmas holiday found me back where I was born and raised—the dairy country in the middle of California's San Joaquin Valley. My brother runs the family dairy now, milking about 800 head of Holstein. That does not, by the way, make his dairy particularly large relative to the other dairies in the region.

On Christmas morning, I woke up in the home my parents have lived in for all of their married lives (over fifty years). After a sketchy breakfast (reserving my appetite for the mid-day Christmas dinner), I went for a stroll across my brother's dairy farm. My path paralleled the irrigation canal that provides the farm's southern boundary. The central valley would be a desert if not for the web of waterways that permits farmers to irrigate their crops. The canals vary in size, of course, but the one next to my brother's dairy is typical. Its cross-section is trapezoidal, perhaps 20 feet wide across the top and about 10 feet deep. That's the distance from the bottom of the canal to the top of the bank; the actual water depth is about six feet. There was no water flowing in the canal on Christmas Day, but the water had etched the dirt banks to mark its passage. Recent flows had apparently varied between four and six feet.

Roughly judging the dimensions of the water's cross-sectional trapezoid when the depth was six feet, I estimated that the cross-sectional area was 48 ft2. Ignoring little details like the gradually diminishing height of the water as one goes down the canal, I figured that one mile of canal would hold about 250,000 ft3. What is that in gallons? I don't know, but I could probably figure it out. However, farmers don't use gallons—unless the government makes them.

Farmers use acre-feet. An acre-foot is the volume of water required to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot. (Of course, it helps if you know what an acre is.) I remember my father and brother snorting in contempt one time when scanning a government form they were required to fill out. Some poor state bureaucrat wanted irrigation data reported in gallons. (There are lots of former farm kids out there. You'd think a state agency dealing with agriculture would hire enough of them to be competent in farm parlance. But I guess not.)

By the way, do you know what an acre is? I have always found it simplest to remember that there are 640 acres to the square mile. To me, this is a better memory device than the rule that an acre is a rectangle one furlong in length and four rods wide. However, you may have noticed that 640 is not a perfect square, so it would be impossible to partition a square mile into 640 perfectly square acres. If we instead use 40 acres as our preferred measure, then we see that a square mile can very nicely be chopped up into sixteen 40-acre parcels. Indeed, this is commonly done, which is why ranches and farms are often conglomerations of 40-acre tracts. Then you'll hear people refer to the "north forty" or something like that by way of identifying a field.

If you're not accustomed to thinking in terms of square miles and acres, perhaps a different comparison would be helpful. The website offers many ways to look at an acre. Most people will probably find the comparison to a football field the easiest to grasp. The alternative is to crunch some numbers: A square mile is (5,280 ft)2. If we divide this by 640, we find that an acre is 43,560 ft2. If we divide the volume of water in one mile of the irrigation canal by the square-footage of an acre, we end up with about 5.8 acre-feet. That's a lot of gallons.

Go-it-alone dependency

I have been reading Arax & Wartzman's biography of J. G. Boswell, The King of California. The Boswell family was and is a key player in the development of central California agriculture. One of the great paradoxes at the center of the enterprise is the pairing of rugged individualism with huge government subsidies.

Some of the huge components of California's water control system, like the Pine Flat Dam, involved the expenditures of enormous amounts of personal capital as farming enterprises invested in the future of irrigation, but most of the state's water transportion system is a gigantic public works project. The bottom line is that the government is the indispensable facilitator of the farmer's occupation, even as the farmer typically resents what he often sees as the government's unwarranted intervention in his personal affairs. In theory, at least, federally subsidized irrigation water was supposed to go to modest family farms with at most 160 acres. In practice, the 160-acre limit was routinely flouted or circumvented by pretending to partition large tracts into parcels under the limit. The battle over the limit went on for decades before the large farming operations finally won de jure the struggle they had long been winning de facto.

It is easy to be misunderstood when one points out that government intervention helps to keep California farming a viable proposition, at least on the scale at which it is currently practiced. The inattentive will assume that farming is therefore a cushy occupation, a kind of socialist worker's paradise. That would ignore the intensely hard work of farming and the game of chance and skill that farmers play with Mother Nature each year. The hours are long and the work is hard. As a farm boy, I had it relatively easy because of a brother and cousins who were eager to plunge into the agricultural life. But I know from personal witness (and occasional reluctant involvement) that it is a strenuous existence.

What we have here are self-made men who work within a government-built world. Neither could have done it without the other. The weird amalgam of public works and private effort has been astonishingly productive. Can it be sustained? I rather doubt it. The small family farm is already extinct in the San Joaquin. My brother is operating a dairy farm approximately four times as large as the one our grandfather reigned over. Yet in my grandfather's day the dairy farm provided more than adequate support for three families and paid out wages to employees from four other families (to the best of my recollection). Today the much larger operation supports a significantly smaller number of people.

Farm survival is based on growth. Growth of both crops and size, the crops for cash and the size for economies of scale. Will the trend keep going until the central valley contains only one huge farm? As unthinkable as that is, no one can currently see the next plateau where family farms can be both stable and successful. The fifth generation of our farm family arrived early last year. Will he and his siblings be our last farm generation?