The devil of false precision

Eating lunch today I noticed on my bottle of soy sauce the words expiration date on label and, an inch away, a dot matrix stamp: 2019.03.28 14:48.

I expect that the stuff was bottled on March 28, 2016 at 2:48 pm and that it’s supposed to be good for three years from the date of bottling. But that’s not the same thing as saying it’s good until March 28, 2019 at 2:48 pm. Certainly a machine can record the exact time of bottling, but the idea that the soy sauce is good for exactly three years, for three years down to the minute, is absurd — as if, at twelve minutes to three on a particular March afternoon two years from now, the contents of the bottle will instantly develop a fuzzy blue mold and smell distinctly of gasoline. Obviously that’s absurd.

For one thing, it was bottled in Taiwan, so it would actually expire at 1:48 am EST and not in the middle of the afternoon.

“Three years from date of bottling” means three years, give or take. Give or take what? That’s the question. Six months, maybe? I would assume that they kept a bottle around for three years and it seemed to be okay. I doubt it’s very scientific at all. But it’s so easy just to take the present time, add three years, and stamp it on the bottle.

The expiration date on my soy sauce is not in itself a big deal. (I’ll use it within a few months anyway.) But this kind of arbitrary precision is everywhere — the practice of assigning a number to something, giving it as many decimal places as we can, and then slapping it on a label, noting it in a chart, entering it into a database — where it takes on a kind of magical invincibility, a rightness that can no longer be questioned or challenged. There are cases where this might have disastrous consequences, but more important is the impression of invincibility. Knowledge is power; false precision is an implication of knowledge; therefore false precision is an assumption of power. False precision is one way that science and industry and government claim power over us. But wallpapering the world with false precision builds false confidence in our own abilities, individually and collectively.

Every measurement is an estimate. If I were king of the world, I’d decree that every published measurement must be accompanied by a margin of error, e.g. “Expires on 2019.03.28 14:48 ± 6 mos.” It would be honest, it would be accurate, and it would remind everyone many times a day of the limits of human knowledge.

(And no, since you ask, I cannot think of anything better for a king to do than to demand accountability and humility from the powers of the world. Can you?)

Further perils of authenticity

Completely by accident awhile back I ran across this ad from Life magazine:

Heinz ad, 1958

Heinz ran that ad in August 1958, at the height of the popular interest in Pennsylvania Dutch food, when that cuisine was being made over in the popular imagination into a mishmash of generically comforting old-timey domesticity. And, of course, co-opted by the Culinary-Industrial Complex, because what hasn’t been? Today you may just (and justly) reel in horror from the thought of vinegared baked beans or of canned tomato soup with canned corn and a pretzel floated on top. Purists of 1958 might weep over the cheapening of a long tradition of sweet and sour accompaniments to a Sunday dinner or holiday feast, an array of homemade pickles, salads, and preserves. Store-bought wouldn’t do. By the time I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, though, aside from an occasional batch of home-pickled beets, the nearest I got to that tradition was commercial pickles on a salad bar. So to me, authentic Pennsylvania Dutch pickles meant a jar of locally processed chow chow.

a jar of chow chow

Today, even that much tradition is fast fading away, and some benighted soul clinging to the last tattered shreds of uncertain heritage might search in vain for chow chow on a salad bar, even if he hadn’t up and moved to the South.

One man’s authenticity, in other words, is another’s bastardization. And that paradox isn’t the product of industrial food. Continue reading “Further perils of authenticity”

One man’s hope is another man’s nightmare

Nine days from Thanksgiving and the leaves still cling to the trees, many of them, even the half-shorn maples still gold and rusty, the oaks just dipping the edges of their leaves into copper. I confess to being buoyed by the sight. Once the leaves are on the ground, once I rake them into piles and see them vacuumed up by sweet sweepers, gone to someone else’s compost, fall is over, whatever the calendar says, and winter, minus the frequent snows of my northern youth and the really biting cold that forces you to remember you’re alive, dammit, is a dreary brown season of freezing rain and mud, its challenges dull, its joys slippery and its comforts of the could be worse variety: “To rest contentedly beside the hearth / while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.” If the great maple outside my study window wants to cling a little while longer to its glorious past, I won’t complain.

Then again, the times being what they are and the internet bringing the world’s facts and fancies instantly to my fingertips, I’m painfully aware why this autumn has such a long tail: The world is growing warmer. Anthropogenic climate change. Impending disaster. My fleeting pleasure at avoiding the annual fate of every human being who ever lived in a temperate climate, the cyclical suffering endured by billions of people over tens of thousands of years, is granted by the same forces threatening to end civilization as we know it and plunge the world into chaos and hot darkness. So I’m told.

It’s hard, on a gorgeous fall day, crisp and clear and sixty degrees, to worry much about what the weather will be in a thousand years. It’s also hard to enjoy the day to the fullest nagged by thoughts of dying honeybees and failing crops and flooded cities and millions upon millions more refugees than we already have in the world. The existence of one truth doesn’t make the other false. To call the one a silver lining cheapens both, and to speak too freely of God’s grace seems flip. At the same time, to don sackcloth and ashes, or to pull my shade and worry up a tweet-storm, does nothing to feed and house the people of 2116 — or of 2016, for that matter.

Better, then, to take a walk and enjoy the day. If that walk can carry me to the grocery store or to church or to eat or have a beer, and thus save a trip in the car, then I’ve avoided a trifling contribution to the thing I’m worried about. If not, I might have the chance for a conversation with a neighbor. At the least I won’t have done any harm, and surely taking the trouble to appreciate the good in what’s here ought to be the starting point for asking what needs changing.

I think, though I am not quite sure, that this is the sort of observation that might begin to help us out of the mess we’re in politically. It is not an end point, but it is a starting point. I don’t expect to find universal salvation in taking walks. But if we don’t know our neighbors and our neighborhoods, all the policies in the world won’t save us. And if we can’t enjoy the days we have, we won’t enjoy the better ones we think we deserve.

The mad farmer, after the election

Every Wednesday, as part of our homeschool curriculum, I read a poem with my daughter. We talk about what it means and whether we like it (and why). Sometimes we analyze it. Then she responds by drawing or painting.

Last week I had intended to read G. K. Chesterton’s “For a War Memorial” in observance of Veteran’s Day and the Feast of St. Martin. But it was the day after the election, and she was upset and worried. So we read, instead, a couple of Wendell Berry’s “mad farmer” poems: “The Mad Farmer Revolution” and “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”

the mad farmer plows up the parking lot in front of the polling place
In a parking lot / he planted a forest of little pines.

I think we both felt better afterwards.

Practice resurrection, friends.

Short people got reason to live after all

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., October 30, 2016.

Gospel: Luke 19:1–10

It’s funny what we remember and don’t remember from childhood. The church my family attended until I was seven years old is a complete blank to me. I can’t recall the name of my Sunday School teacher or a single thing I did there. I do, however, remember three very important lessons from those days. One, Jesus loves me. Two, the animals went in two by two. And three, Zacchaeus was a wee little man.

In case you’ve forgotten, or never had the joy of singing the “bible song” about the little dude, or, like me, couldn’t quite believe your memory when it was jogged, here are the lyrics, sung to something not unlike the tune of “Old King Cole”:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
A wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see;

And as the Savior passed that way,
He looked up in the tree,
Zacchaeus you come down
For I’m going to your house today.

The author’s no Bob Dylan, and I feel like there’s something missing in this version of Luke’s gospel, but, you know, there’s no better way to remember something than to set it to music. And so even today, even this very morning, children all over America are learning that Zaccheus was a wee little man.

Poor Zacchaeus.

So the guy was short. Do we have to go to “wee little man”? I keep wanting to say it in a bad imitation of a brogue, as if he were a leprechaun. Imagine what it would be like to spend your life being referred to as a “wee little man.” (Imagine being referred to as a “wee little man” two thousand years after you’re dead!)

Zacchaeus probably didn’t have to imagine it. Even in Luke, “short” seems to have been his identifying characteristic, and given that human nature sadly hasn’t changed much in two thousand years, I suspect that he may have been mercilessly made fun of for his lack of stature in life as well as in death. It happens. Children will mercilessly make fun of one another for pretty much anything, given the chance. So will adults, for that matter.

If you’re Zacchaeus, if people greet you with “hey shorty” or look over your head, pretending not to see you, if they always pick you last for dodgeball games and pass you over for promotions… if, in short, nobody ever seems to take you seriously… Well, what do you do? You could learn to laugh them off. You might choose to believe your mother when she told you the other kids were just envious. You might meekly curb your ambition, accepting that you would never command the respect of your tall friends.

Zacchaeus didn’t do that.

Zacchaeus became a tax collector.

We know what tax collectors were in first century Israel. Agents of the occupation. Traitors to their people. Flanked by Roman soldiers, they collected taxes from hard-working Jews and, to provide for themselves, tacked on whatever bonus they liked. Since Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector but a chief tax collector, we can assume he provided for himself quite well indeed…. at the expense of those rotten little so-and-sos who never took him seriously.

Oh, they’ll take me seriously now, all right.

Zacchaeus was not only a wee little man. He was a mean little man. If being short held him back, he could always get meaner.

Zacchaeus got revenge. Continue reading “Short people got reason to live after all”

A timeline of political parties in the United States

low-res: political parties timeline

One of the more difficult things about teaching nineteenth-century U.S. history is explaining the rapid and complex shifts in political parties. The Democrats of 1850 aren’t like the Democrats of today, and the Democrats of 1800 aren’t even the same party; though they faced off against Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans, those parties didn’t always draw on the same issues or demographics — and don’t even get me started with the Know-Nothings. A visualization would help, but there wasn’t one, so I created this one during my work with LEARN NC at UNC-Chapel Hill. You can view it here as a poster-sized PDF, and it’s licensed Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND), so share and use it freely!

Ethical sales, selling ethics

NPR’s Natalie Jacewicz asks whether Millennials are hypocrites when it comes to chocolate:

In a survey of participants ages 18 to 35, millennials reported caring about ethical issues like environmental sustainability and social responsibility in chocolate production. But when choosing chocolate privately, these self-proclaimed ethical shoppers were all chocolate bark and no bite. (Sorry.) Most showed little preference for labels advertising ethical sourcing and instead preferred labels with ingredients they recognized — items like “chocolate” and “butter,” rather than “tertiary butylhydroquinone.”

When talking in general terms, participants in the study (which, it bears mentioning, was funded by Hershey) said they favored ethically sourced chocolate, but when presented with unbranded chocolate bars and asked to choose, ethics took a back seat.

Most participants consistently paid attention to whether or not they could pronounce the ingredients in a bar, but only a small, socially conscious group — representing 14 percent of participants — showed strong preference for ethical labels.

A “corporate sustainability specialist” quoted in the story says this goes to show that young people “tend to be quite aware of social issues and environmental issues. But if you push a bit harder, it’s a lot of talk, but not always action.” In other words, corporations can just ignore that ethics stuff, because people don’t really care about it anyway. Hershey doesn’t have to worry about enslaved eleven year-olds in its supply chain. Nothing to see here.

But Jacewicz notes that young people are more likely to buy organic milk, eggs, and meat — so what’s going on? The psychologist who led the study suggests that because chocolate is an indulgence rather than a staple, people aren’t thinking about ethical issues when they buy it — they are, by implication, thinking about themselves. I’ll buy that, but I don’t think it’s limited to chocolate. Note that participants in the study wanted only ingredients they could pronounce; they were quite concerned about the quality of what they put in their bodies, not only about “indulgent” qualities like flavor. But I’d suggest that’s also true of people buying organic staples. The USDA’s organic standards say little about animal welfare and next to nothing about workers, and though organic agriculture is supposed to be about process, most of the marketing of organic produce has always been about the product — the suggestion that organic food is better for you, that it’s more nutritious or contains fewer carcinogens, or just that it tastes better. Marketing has encouraged people to buy organic food out of concern for themselves and their families, not out of concern for workers, animals, or the planet.

So there’s nothing necessarily inconsistent about buying organically certified milk but looking for “natural” ingredients rather than ethical sourcing certifications on a chocolate bar. The food movement hasn’t succeeded in establishing an ethic; for the most part, it’s only given people new ways to think more deeply about their own welfare. Organic food might be branded as ethical, so people can feel good about themselves when buying it, but that isn’t the same as genuine concern; it’s just another form of “me first.” That’s what sells, and until we stop judging success by what sells, it will keep right on selling.

Corrupting the youth

I have four bird feeders in my small urban yard (tube, thistle, platform, hummingbird) but can’t see any of them from my second-story study window, which is veiled by a maple tree far taller than the house. So I fixed a suction-cup window feeder to the upper pane. Earlier in the spring I didn’t get many takers, and those who came grabbed a quick morsel and retreated to the safety of the tree. But the past couple of weeks have seen a constant stream of fledglings: young male cardinals, scruffy and mottled, whom I’ve watched gradually redden and swell; a slender mockingbird who tried out his new repertoire in a nearby branch; a song sparrow who takes his peanut to the stone ledge of the window to peck it to bits; a juvenile house finch who, rather than perching on the feeder’s edge, stands in the pile of seed, hunts for the one he wants, then thoughtfully (as it appears to me) hulls and consumes it while watching me with (what, again, appears to me) casual curiosity three feet away behind glass. The finch is content to occupy the feeder for several minutes at a time while other birds wait in the tree like adolescents in line for the bathroom. Hurry up in there! Continue reading “Corrupting the youth”

The eve of destruction

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., February 28, 2016.

Gospel: Luke 13:1–9

It’s 30 AD, give or take. Galilee is abuzz with the news of yet another atrocity of the despised Roman governor Pontius Pilate—one not related by other historians but perfectly in keeping with what we know about Pilate’s character. The best guess is that a band of Galilean zealots who acknowledged no lord but God and refused to pay tribute to Rome had run afoul of Pilate and been ruthlessly repressed. Pilate has, as we hear, “mingled their blood with their sacrifices” in the Temple. Jesus hears the chatter about this incident—maybe someone tried to trap him into taking a position, as people often did to get him into trouble, into either sympathizing with or condemning the zealots—and instead of commenting on the case at hand, let alone the politics of it, he says, “Do you think they were worse sinners than you? Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

If that doesn’t cheer everybody straight up, Jesus tells a parable. A man plants a fig tree, and for three years running it bears no fruit. He wants to cut it down because it’s a waste of good soil. The gardener says no, no—let’s fertilize it again and wait another year. Maybe it will bear fruit next year.

And if it doesn’t, then we’ll cut it down.

Doesn’t sound like good news.

I mean, you were probably hoping to hear something about God’s infinite goodness and mercy, and here he goes setting deadlines.

It is valuable, I think, to remember that while God’s grace and mercy may be without limit in scope and magnitude, they do seem to have an expiration date: we’re all going to die. Maybe there’s hope after that, but the Bible doesn’t say so. Best not to risk it. You have another year. Make the most of it.

There’s also value in remembering that whatever the quality of God’s grace and mercy, our fellow humans with whom we have relationships may not be so patient. You have today. Make the most of it.

If that’s all we took away from this story, that would be something. It would be a pretty good lesson for Lent. Don’t wait. Repent now. Start atoning today. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

But I think we need a little more than that from this story. I need more from this story, anyway. Jesus was, after all, responding to a discussion about politics—about the terrors of oppressive regime and the foolishness of the zealots who were trying to overthrow it. People were upset, legitimately upset and fearful, and Jesus seems to be frankly dismissive of their fears. I don’t think he was: I think he was answering them—albeit a little sideways. Continue reading “The eve of destruction”

Building an ethic behind the food movement

Sales of breakfast cereal are down, and I have trouble being sad. I eat boxed breakfast cereal for the same reason everybody else does — it’s convenient – but generally only as a midnight snack. For quick breakfast I’m more likely to eat homemade granola or oatmeal or a PBJ. I would not be terribly sad if boxed breakfast cereal went away entirely. Not only is it bizarrely processed, but it’s probably the worst remaining artifact of late nineteenth-century thinking about food: deliberately stripped of flavor and over-sweetened to make it palatable. And I don’t care a whit about the profits of giant corporations that manufacture it.

And yet this tidbit from the original New York Times story is more than a little disconcerting:

Almost 40 percent of the millennials surveyed by Mintel for its 2015 report said cereal was an inconvenient breakfast choice because they had to clean up after eating it.

In the Washington Post, Roberto A. Ferdman comments:

Few things are as painless to prepare as cereal. Making it requires little more than pouring something (a cereal of your choice) into a bowl and then pouring something else (a milk of your choice) into the same bowl. Eating it requires little more than a spoon and your mouth. The food, which Americans still buy $10 billion of annually, has thrived over the decades, at least in part, because of this very quality: its convenience.

And yet, for today’s youth, cereal isn’t easy enough….

The industry, the [Times] piece explained, is struggling — sales have tumbled by almost 30 percent over the past 15 years, and the future remains uncertain. And the reasons are largely those one would expect: Many people are eating breakfast away from the home, choosing breakfast sandwiches and yogurt instead of more traditional morning staples. Many others, meanwhile, too busy to pay attention to their stomachs, are eating breakfast not at all.

But there is another thing happening, which should scare cereal makers — and, really, anyone who has a stake in this country’s future — more: A large contingent of millennials are uninterested in breakfast cereal because eating it means using a bowl, and bowls don’t clean themselves (or get tossed in the garbage). Bowls, kids these days groan, have to be cleaned.

Let’s be clear what we’re talking about, then: The problem isn’t that people are overworked, busy raising families in two-income households. Nobody doesn’t have time to wash out a cereal bowl. I ran a test this morning, scientific in precision of measurement if not in design: To get up from the table, carry a bowl to the sink, squirt detergent, wipe it out, rinse, then use the soapy rag to wash the spoon, set them both on the counter to air-dry, and return to the table to check the stopwatch took me exactly 36.97 seconds. That’s with no particular hurry. If you eat over the sink, you can eliminate the transit time and cut a good ten seconds off that time.

So we’re not talking about social and economic structures that make it hard for people to cook for themselves. We’re talking about laziness. Continue reading “Building an ethic behind the food movement”