Riot as voice

Sorry to give away the ending with the title; I guess you know what I’m going to say already.

I’ve written about this before, I think it might have been on Twitter, and I can’t be bothered to find that now (something that reveals a real hole in Twitter’s architecture, though I digress). I’ve also written about how we can think something is wrong but still understand why it happens. Root causes are important. You can’t just tell everyone “don’t riot” and expect that to solve anything. (If this sounds strange, don’t feel bad, it took me a while to get this too.)

This point goes for just about everything, by the way. If you work on identifying and fixing root causes, you stop thing from repeating. If you see someone have the same thing happen over and over again, you can put money on it: They’re not fixing the root problem. I’ve written about that too. We normally think of root causes in a management context, but it makes sense in cultural and societal contexts as well. Mind you, the root causes of race riots are being hashed out as a political problem in a realm that’s really only good for flinging crap.

I’m almost always on the side of the rioters. If there are riots, you can be sure there is oppression and voicelessness. (Unless you’re rioting about hockey in which case you need a new hobby.)

In the US the Supreme Court has called money speech. And a large portion of the country (notably people who have lots of money) agree with this, but can’t see that violence is also a kind of speech. It is a desperate call of an oppressed class.

There’s a lot more going on than just that of course. One of the problems that poor and marginalized groups have is that their few available methods of speech are either considered offputting or just plain criminalized. Not to mention that poverty and crime are associated, so it’s really easy to demonize the marginalized, who also happen to be poor, who are also more likely to be criminals. And there are always opportunists who will use riots as an excuse to get some free stuff.

There was a lot more going on with the Boston Tea Party too. Maybe it will take a few hundred years for us to really understand what these riots mean. Why do they keep happening? Baltimore in 2015, or Chicago in 1909, or Tulsa in 1921, or Newark in 1967, or Miami in 1980, or Los Angeles in 1992, or Cincinnati in 2001, or Ferguson in 2014… it’s a long list.

Why does this stuff keep happening? Are black people just naturally violent? (If you think yes, congratulations, you’re part of a long tradition of racists, including slave owners who justified their slavery by appealing to “savage” nature of the black man.) Or is there something else wrong here? Something perhaps systemic? Some kind of unhealed wounds perhaps?

But it’s all okay. Slavery and racism are over in the USA, don’t you know? So a bunch of race riots keep happening. What can the US possibly be expected to do? Oh well.

It’s frustrating to see people (unfettered from the associations that would normally keep them from saying this stuff [don’t open that link if you mind language]) at once angry about the destruction of property and kind of grotesquely jubilant that their casual racism has been confirmed by a few photos they saw.

Which makes me think… Why is the merchandise in a 7-11 more important than a man’s life? Why focus on the looting? You know why. You want to call them thugs so you don’t have to deal with their (very real) problems. You tacitly admit that you think poor black people are bad people. And because they’re bad people we don’t have to care if these modern-day lynching continue. And before you get on my case, I don’t see how you can see the unprecedented brutality and murder of black people in the US by the largely-white police as anything else.

The Christian response in the US is frankly disgusting. There should be a Christian response to this, right? We’re ready and willing to help the Nepalese (as we should) because they are a people sorely in need. But here’s a people in our backyard. And a lot of the response I see is people mentally passing by on the other side to get out of our obligation — yes, obligation — to help the poor and the needy, to give voice to the voiceless, to do all those things Jesus talked about again and again.

Or as the Proverb says:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

not “unless they look like an obese black woman or a gang member, then just ignore them.”

The mechanisms of magic

I keep looking at John 10 and finding new stuff. So you’re in for a treat: I want to talk about the mechanisms of magic.

One of the things that frustrated me for a long time about the Tolkien fantasy universe is stuff like Tom Bombadil and magic. Specifically the mechanisms of magic. How does it work? What causes it? Where does it come from? Why does it happen at all?

Tolkien is either very cagey or very purposely old-fashioned about this. When I was first thinking about this I have to confess to a bit of blithe chronological snobbery (and Tolkien underestimation; never a good thing). My first instinct is to assume Tolkien himself has the old-fashioned worldview, that it never occurred to him to think about the why, the how, the mechanism of magic.

But of course he did. This is the guy who invented a bunch of languages. He was a professor, and one who was by all accounts used to putting himself in the shoes of the ancients. Of course he knew that they didn’t think about mechanisms like we do. To them, magic would be the default position. You’d have to be a bit daft to ask how it worked. Angels-as-men get sent to Middle Earth and futz around with their magic sticks and whatnot. That’s just what happens.

And I think we can assume Tolkien wrote his world that way on purpose, to capture the mind of a different era.

I’m not even going to talk about Tom Bombadil.

Contrast that with The Malazan Book of the Fallen, a more recent high fantasy decalogy. It’s very concerned with the means and methods and flavours of magic. It goes into a fair amount of detail. Elemental magic is shaped into holds, then holds are deprecated in favour of warrens, which are all essentially flowing from inside a giant magic dragon, which can be accessed almost as other worlds. There are gods and goddesses who have houses, each house having members who perform certain magical functions. And in the end they’re all shuffled into the Deck Of Dragons, a way of both organizing the pantheon and divining the future.

I consider this a bit more modern approach to magic: Not only does it happen, but here’s how. Notably the Prince of Nothing series cares a great deal about how sorcery works. Even the more down-market Shannara books posit a mechanism for magic.

All this to say, It Just Is isn’t a satisfying or really acceptable answer to a question.

But what if it’s the only answer we can give?

Back to John 10:

Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.

This is kind of a tautology. The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice because they are the sheep. Everyone else doesn’t because they aren’t the sheep. This logic kind of bends back on itself. I don’t find it really satisfying because I know at the root of it all there’s a mystery. It’s not like gathering statistics and analyising the data and conducting a randomised trial and confirming a hypothesis and doing science. It’s not like that at all, in fact I think there’s an element of faith you need to approach this statement on its own ground.

Not very satisfying. I feel the schematic impulse. I want this thing mapped out.

So… we have some doctrines to swoop in and save the day. Let’s be very clear here. I’m not saying that doctrines are bad or even unhelpful. I’m not saying we should get rid of them (nor that we could). I just think there’s a level of specificity you can try to get to where you’ve diced and sliced everything up into little doctrinal chunks where you lose a sort of overall resolution. Sort of like standing too close to a TV screen.

A friend of mine once said (publicly no less; he has basketballs for cojones) that scripture affirms both predestination and free will. Which I wrote a blog post about, because I didn’t think that made sense. I called it the Third Rail of Christian thought. You don’t get to affirm opposites and handwave all the problems away.

(As an aside, it only doesn’t make sense if you agree that scripture even talks in these categories, and if it does, that scripture is this kind of monolithic repository of God-words that coheres perfectly and can be cross-referenced like a theological dictionary. I may have called predestination/free will the third rail, but if I may borrow from CS Lewis here, the Bible and what it is is the deeper third rail. It is, one might say, third-raily-er.)

I’m sort of on the outskirts of the “free will” camp these days. Maybe not as far inside as some might wish, but that’s a complicated discussion (sorry!) for another time (you’re welcome!). There’s a lot less free will in the world than we think. Initial conditions and all that.

Either way you’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t go into a theological discussion about the methods and mechanisms of how predestination interacts with free will. He speaks broadly of God’s power and humans’ reaction to it. Perhaps we should follow Jesus’ example here: God calls, people respond. Believers believe. Non believers don’t believe.

The mechanics of calling and what that means are hidden here. They’re not important. God is powerful to call, people are empowered to respond. How that works… well, that gets into a kind of unhelpful doctrinal resolution, unable to see the screen for the pixels. We don’t need to posit a mechanism for it to make sense, you know?

The authentic Christ as rebuke

Sometimes when you ask Jesus a question you get more than you bargained for. Or you get something you weren’t expecting. This is one of the things I love about Jesus: He’s clever. I don’t mean that in a sort of internet-snark way (Jesus isn’t just drive-by smugposting on someone’s Facebook status). He divines the intent of the questioner and answers with something confrontational.

I mean, look at John 10:

So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

Before I continue, I’m going to acknowledge that there’s a lot of stuff going on here and I’m not going to dive into much of it at all. I’m not professionally religious. I’m just a guy reading a thing, and I might be full of crap. It’s happened before; I’m sure it will happen again.

Now the usual take-away from these verses is blah blah blah predestination blah blah blah perseverance of the saints of something like that. Or they’re used as a battering ram against religions who acknowledge Jesus as a prophet (or something else) but not as God. True as those things may be, I don’t know if they’re really all that helpful (or in the spirit of the passage). I mean, we tend to give ourselves a little in-group massage with this passage and go back to our usual selves.

It’s helpful to remember who Jesus is talking to here. The Jews as John calls them, or in other words, the pre-Christian analogue of the Church. This is us. And more to the point, it’s our leaders. (The Jews seems like John’s way of talking about the religions leaders. Earlier in the book The Jews decide anybody who identifies with Jesus gets kicked out the synagogue: This is clearly not something just anyone can decide. When John wants to take a dump on a particular faction of leaders such as the Pharisees, he’ll identify them by name.)

There’s a lot that can be dug into about the leaders of the Jews and their negation of Jesus and how that parallels our church leaders attempted negation of Jesus (from liberal Christian leaders who want to deny Jesus divinity to conservative Christian leaders who want to deny his social conscience). But I feel like scripture is a sword that I should use on myself first. It’s too easy to pick on the other guy, you know? I’ve got enough problems inside myself to fix before I go after other people, including that perverse desire to pick out splinters but ignore lumber.


Jesus gives The Jews more than they bargained for. They want to know if he’s going to identify as the Messiah. But he gives them more, much more than that. Not only is he the Messiah, but he’s the son of God, and not in a “we’re all sons of God” way but in a “I and the Father are one”.

This is sort of the inverse of Deuteronomy where the writer says

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

in opposition to the nations around them and the nations whose land they are about to possess. The startling thing is that there is but one God. For John the startling thing is this unveiling of trinitarian thought, where the Son and Father are one. As usual Jesus’ surprise isn’t the exact inverse (we’re not going back to polytheism here) but something completely and utterly new, something only ever obliquely referred to in the Jewish scriptures.

It seems to me like this is when The Jews make up their mind: Jesus has to go. They’ve got to kill this guy before he brings down the iron hammer of the Romans against them. They have to disown him to avoid political disaster. (Interestingly Jesus’ ministry also often touches on showing a “third way” of kingdom that doesn’t involve revolt and reprisal or subservience.)

They pick up stones to kill him.

Now to be fair, this is the right response to blasphemy, minus the trial and all that. This is what Jesus keeps hammering away at in John 10. His sheep hear his voice. They recognize him for what he is. Everyone else defaults to the usual response.

And then the interesting part comes. A straightforward reading of this (2000 years later without the benefit of the historical context or Jesus and The Jews scriptural memory and outside the narrative context) seems to have Jesus discussing the finer points of the grammar of the word “god” with a crowd of people trying to kill him.

If that seems a bit… odd… well, you’re right. It is a bit odd:

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?

If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.

It’s easy to read this as Jesus trying to convince The Jews that he is God. And that’s not a terrible reading, but I don’t think Jesus choice of Psalm 82 is entirely coincidental. I mean, there are lots of things Jesus could have referred to other than this kind of obscure and opaque bit of the Psalms.

I think the thematic content of Psalm 82 and John 9-10 are related. In Psalm 82 you have God asking his judges (or little-gods) how long they will withhold justice from the weak and fatherless, from the afflicted and the destitute. (And just in case you think that Jesus cares about the little guy because he’s some kind of hippy bleeding heart making a bunch of stuff up, Psalm 82 precedes Jesus by 1000 or so years.) He rebukes them for their lack of care for his people. Earlier in John Jesus talks about shepherding, and in John 9 he heals a man on the Sabbath, provoking anger from The Jews.

Now he equates himself with God in the context of corrupt and unfaithful judges. He lifts himself up above the religious leaders, proclaims himself their judge, and proceeds to imply that they are unfaithful, that they are covenant breakers. Like the judges in Psalm 82.

This is what his Lordship really means. And they get this, I think. They want to stone him, they want to arrest him, not only because they think he’s a blasphemer (despite all evidence to the contrary) but because he threatens their way of life. He holds before them a sort of institutional looking-at-death, in that he calls them to repentance and a turning away from the false gods of religious piety and man-made “holiness”. He requires reinvention, rebirth, the sort of thing that will almost certainly endanger their professions and their livelihoods, maybe even bring an end to the category of “Pharisee”. He calls them to a sort of death (which will be called the “old man passing away” by Paul as he expands on Jesus’ teaching during the beginning of the Christian church).

And of course they react in much the same way we tend to today. They sought to negate Jesus as a person by killing. We seek to negate Jesus as both a person and an idea by softening him or filing off his edges. They seek to remove the thing that is causing this internal discord.

Jesus (at least to me it seems this way) intentionally antagonizes the Jewish religious leaders until they feel forced to either accept him or reject him. I think every person coming into contact with Jesus does this. Meeting Jesus is one of those things that marks a turning point whether you realise it or not. Either you accept him and seek to emulate him. Or you reject him and seek to negate him.

Echoes of the Christ

I was listening to the sermon on Sunday and my mind began to wander. We were looking at John 21, fairly standard stuff, not exactly an obscure passage. Usually we focus Jesus telling Peter to feed his lambs and sometimes (if we’re lucky) we get to think about what that means.

And that’s all well and good. I’ve heard that sermon about… what, twenty times or so? I’m at the point where if I haven’t gotten it yet I’m probably not going to at all, you know? (If this all seems a bit too much “for me to know and you to agree that I probably haven’t gotten it and never will”, don’t worry, the navel-gazing ends here.)

This passage is all about echoes to me. The structure of it is very telling. The structure itself tells the story of what the passage is about. Everything in it refers back to something else that’s already happened.

The miracle itself is a retread. It clearly refers back to the previous miracle of the fishes. It’s an echo of something that’s already happened. The question is — why? Why does Jesus do this? Let’s assume for a moment that Jesus is in control of what’s happening and he isn’t just caught up the current of events (a… safe assumption, right?). He isn’t reliving his greatest hits or accidentally reading the same page in his playbook. So he’s doing all this stuff with a purpose. What might that purpose be?

Well if we back up a tiny bit and look at John’s explicit purpose in writing his book, this all becomes clear:

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Isn’t this the purpose of Jesus speaking to Thomas as well? Of showing him his wounds?

John writes, more than any other gospel writer, to us. We need evidence. We need proof. We need the authentic Christ.

Whether or not you find this convincing… well, that’s up to you. It’s two thousand years later and the debate has evolved since then. Either way, you have to strip yourself of the chronological snobbery that insists these men who believed must have been hicks who had a fast one pulled on them. Jesus (and John) is interested in establishing himself as The Christ. He links his present glorified self with his previous mundane self by way of a continuity of miraculous activity. Here he has the same power to control nature, to step sideways from heaven into the fabric of spacetime and mess things up a bit.

This is a confrontational position. Common sense and received wisdom tell us the universe is a hermetically sealed box where every aberration can at claim at least some explanation. But this miracle isn’t the work of a cosmic clockmaker content to let the whole thing wind down in the other room: It speaks to a resurrected, present, and active Christ as the authentic Christ.

Of course, we’re not done with the echoes here. Jesus speaks to Peter in a way that echoes Peter’s own disavowal of Jesus. He asks him three times, an affirmation for each denial.

The content of what he tells Peter to do isn’t really the point, at least not for me right now. The structure is the point, the rhetorical point being made. Again, Jesus is concerned with authenticity. Jesus is pointing Peter in the opposite direction of his shame and cowardice, giving him a mission that he has to affirm three times.

It’s an amazing symmetry. It’s a sort of… turning around. The denial has been redeemed. The authentic Peter is not a Peter of denial. It is a Peter of affirmation. This affirmation then becomes a mission. And the mission itself echoes Jesus’ ministry: “Feed my lambs” gives Peter the mission of being a deputy-shepherd or shepherd-in-absentia.

The metaphor of echoes seems significant. I mean, I made it up, but it’s still kind of cool, because the echo of this affirmation keep going on down through the ages. It reached even me. I live inside that echo, as it were.

If John can do it, so can I: Here’s a coda. There’s a lot more to take out of this passage, a lot more that could be said. Echoes of the Eucharist, of the feeding of the 5000, talking about what it means to shepherd, of what it means to lay down your life for the sheep. Lots more. But we’ll have to wait for my mind to wander some more.

Antivaxxers & evidence

So anti-vaccination types are pretty terrible, right? They’re backwards people, endangering the lives of not only their own children but other people’s children too. Etc.

I live in a sort of echo chamber where this is all I hear. I don’t get the other side of the argument because I don’t subscribe to those sort of news sources. That’s not terribly surprising.

I’m a pretty big fan of herd immunity. I really don’t like the idea of my daughter getting polio or whatever. So I think we should try to convince people to vaccinate. Again, this is sort of standard Western fare, nothing terribly interesting here. Heard this all before.

But no matter how many times we try and tell antivaxxers the truth (and I think the truth is pretty one-sided here), they don’t listen. It’s the strangest thing. No amount of facts and figures, no amount of cajoling and shaming works.

So why do we keep doing it? This is my question. Why do we keep trying to convince people who refuse to be convinced using methods that we know don’t work? Why don’t we try something else? How about a legislative (aka systemic) approach that makes opting out more difficult than actually getting the shots?

I dunno. I find this more interesting that vax-shaming. Maybe we’re not actually telling people to vaccinate because we care about vaccination or children. Sure, maybe we think that’s why we do it, but maybe it’s actually some kind of in-group signalling. Here’s my anti-vax screed! I’m hip! I get it! (I realise that saying I’m hip and I get it means I’m neither hip nor do I get it.)

Now that I’ve said that, I find the idea kind of annoying. Like, having written that, I was annoyed that I had written it. I don’t like to have my motivations questioned. Even by myself on my own blog. My mind is telling me “well of COURSE my motives are pure, I’m engaging in a kind of benevolence here!” Which I take as a signal that (as usual) I don’t know what I’m doing much less why.

I’m sure you’re different of course.

So maybe my point is this: Before we can figure out why people aren’t responding to the gospel of vaccination the way we’d hoped, maybe we need to figure out why we haven’t tried a different approach.

Asymmetrical relationships & the church

You have a boss. This boss is not your friend. But this boss thinks he is your friend. A pretty common scenario, right? I’m sure many of you have seen this sort of thing happen more than once, if not in your life, then in the lives of people you know.

The reason this just feels wrong is that you (the employee) can sense that your relationship isn’t on the same level. You might play on the same field but one of you is the coach… and it’s not you.

I call this an asymmetrical relationship, in that he signs off on your hours but you don’t sign off on his. Now there’s a certain strain of thought that says we should all be judged by our actions or potential, that bosses and parents and managers aren’t necessary, but let’s just leave that aside. The human condition being what it is means that asymmetrical relationships either will or must exist.

We’re all familiar with asymmetry in relationships — at least, we’re all familiar with a certain kind of asymmetry that we call “power”. And a lot of relational problems (but not all, not nearly all) are caused by too much or not enough asymmetry. Parents trying to be buddies, bosses trying to be friends, or the opposite where parents become cruel, or bosses become slavemasters. The worst case (at least for me) is a relationship that’s asymmetrical when it shouldn’t be, like a husband ruling and asserting dominance over a wife (or vice versa, though I’d say that’s much less common). None of this is to say you can’t be nice or good to your children or employees, or that husbands and wives can’t have different functions in their relationship, but that you should be aware of and respect the asymmetry or symmetry that’s always going to exist in your relationship. Essentially you need to authentic to the type of relationship you’re in.

But again, we all know that. So that’s not really interesting.

Instead I’d like to think about voluntary asymmetrical relationships (these tend to be troublesome), and asymmetry of motivation or intentionality.

Asymmetry of intentionality is why a lot of commercial transactions seem inauthentic when wrapped in something else. You get your name written on a cup at Starbucks, or employees of a chain of upscale grocery stores are mandated to refer to customer by name, or the employees at the restaurant sing a song, or the waitress flirts with you… the list goes on. I might just be particularly sensitive to this, but it seems to me there’s a real asymmetry of intention there. I want a good or a service. But they want… well they want to sell me that, plus something else, plus more in the future, plus a better tip… essentially they want to play-act into getting me to empty my pockets. Like a guy who hangs around a girl ostensibly to be friends when what he really wants is a relationship. It feels a bit creepy and weird. Especially when it’s a corporation.

And then there’s voluntary asymmetry. For instance (and I hate to break this to the church I grew up in) going to church and submitting to the authority of a group of elders or whatever power structure is in place is completely and utterly voluntary in this society. You can remove yourself from that authority without any consequences, no matter how much your church might wish that not to be so. This is true of any organization you attach yourself to. These organizations need to understand that: There’s no “power” structure here. The relational asymmetry is not that the church holds power over the individual, no, the asymmetry is the other way around. And unless you have a reason for people to stay (and despite what you might think, I don’t think “because we’re all Dutch immigrants” is a particularly bad reason), they just won’t. Sorry.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about how the church should be exempt from the marketplace, how we who show up should not be consumers who view the church as providing a spiritual product. I’ve heard people who I really, really respect and enjoy listening to say these things and I can’t help but think this is just a bit disingenuous. Every church has some kind of value. Again that might just be “because we’re Catholic and there’s nowhere else to go”. That’s the value your parish provides. It’s might not be a great or really very significant value, but it’s value nonetheless.

But again this comes back to being authentic to the asymmetry of your relationship. Your parishioners do most of the work and provide all of the money. Without them the church goes away. To be honest with them and with yourself is to say, “Why should you come here?” and then try to be that organization. You need to answer that question very carefully of course. If the answer sounds anything like “because we’ve been around for a while and would like to continue being around” maybe it’s time to close down shop. On the other hand if your answer is “We’re on a mission and we’d like you to be a part of it” and you mean it then you’ve got a good place to start.

You might think this is all a load of mercantile hogwash. And that’s okay. But if you’re part of a church that puts on a really good service every Sunday (and I’ll be very clear here, I think you should do that) you have to ask, Why the good music? Why the good preaching? Why the good venue? Why pursue excellence?

There are two languages you speak with these things, the language of words and the language of actions. You may say that you don’t do it to draw people in, but your actions say a different thing. And that’s okay. Different churches doing different thinks is what makes the Protestantosphere so vibrant, crazy, and interesting. (Yes I just made up a word; deal with it.)

I think I may have gone down a rabbit trail a bit here.

In any case. The key to this (as usual) is authenticity. You need to live inside the relationship you’re in, not pretend you’re in a relationship you’re not. This goes for churches, but for people too.

Now back to the dishes my wife, who is definitely my boss, told me to finish before I come to bed…

On being just a tiny bit skeptical

I’ve been thinking about “doubting” Thomas a bit lately. Mostly because that’s what we do after Easter, beat up on Thomas a little, but also because it gives me an excuse to listen to Nickel Creek.

But I’ve also been thinking a bit about the ancient Greek philosophers and how close they came to make a scientific method. So close! They just didn’t go far enough and were a bit too fond of inductive reasoning.

All this to say, I don’t like detoxing. I mean, I don’t not like doing a detox. I don’t like the concept.

I know how they got there. It’s a long chain of guessing that starts with “I feel better if I don’t eat a lot of sugar!” (or something) and ends with “I’m going to drink a bunch of cayenne pepper!”

It’s a strange sort of thing.

Or maybe it isn’t: What’s a cleanse other than a secular fast? The fast brings you closer to the spiritual (God) by breaking your dependence on the physical (food). The cleanse brings you closer to the ideal (good health) by breaking your dependence on the physical (“toxins”). Isn’t it funny how our secular society still hews so closely to its received forms? We recreate the creation myth in environmentalism, we recreate fasting in cleansing… You could probably get rich creating next year’s religious/secular crossover hit. I mean, you might worry there’s a man behind the curtain of Christianity, but you know, you KNOW there’s a man behind the counter selling you cleanses.

What I find surprising is the number of devout Christians who will do a cleanse but never consider doing a fast. (30 Hour Famine, the latest addition to the Christian Year is coming up soon, give it a try!)

This is all kind of beside the point. I’m a fat dude and you shouldn’t come to me for your health advice. My point is kind of higher-level than just debunking cleanses. Anyone can do that. It’s actually kind of lazy in that 14-year-old (actually or mentally) Atheist kind of way, where you can start thinking you’re some kind of countercultural hero. (cf astrology, horoscopes, etc.)

My point is more… Let’s be a little bit skeptical of things. Just a bit. If something seems to make sense, sure, that’s all well and good but it’s not evidence. It’s just a theory and maybe not even a theory so much as a wild guess. Worse it might be a wild guess someone is using to sell you useless crap. It’s worth asking “is this true”, even if all it does is save you $5 and a bunch of time gargling spicy saltwater.

Let’s build a house

Let’s build a house.

We don’t know anything about how to build a house. But other people have built houses! How hard can it be?

So to build a house let’s think about houses. We don’t need to actually look at any existing houses because we live in houses. How could you have a more expert opinion than than?

We’ve thought about houses for a while and now we have a fairly comprehensive idea (we think) of what a house should have, all the components and whatnot, written down on a napkin. Done with planning! Next, we build the house.

Now we could hire people who build houses for a living to build this house. We could. But they’re expensive. We could even hire their individual contractors to do the work. But they’re expensive too! Let’s do the whole thing ourselves.

So we start building the house. And progress is slow. But everything seems okay until we hit a snag. The foundations we poured are the wrong kind of concrete and are literally flaking away and falling apart. The concrete mix (which we guessed at, because who has time to read the concrete guide?) needs to be redone. But through process of elimination eventually we arrive at a decent mix that doesn’t fall apart right way, even if it’s not up to any kind of building code. It took quite a long time and was a pain in the ass, but if we ignore opportunity cost we probably (maybe) broke even vs a contractor.

We keep doing this. Each component of the house is slowly, painfully erected. Lots of mistakes. We tear down maybe more than we build. The results are never really satisfactory. Every once in a while a random person walks past and says “hey, why don’t you have an atrium!” or something like that. And we nod sagely. What a good idea! Let’s do it! And we pull out another napkin and go to work.

Eventually, some years, maybe decades later, we arrive at the finished product. It’s definitely a house of sorts. It sprawls more than we’d like, bits are always falling off, it’s unsafe, and not really a pleasure to live in. But it’s our house and we built it.

One day a house builder visits. He takes one look around and says, “This is one of the worst built houses I’ve ever seen!” He gives us some building tips, trying to save us from the inevitable implosion, but we don’t listen. He’s so negative! Why hasn’t he praised our accomplishments instead of harping on our flaws?

Magic Beans (a followup post)

Read this post. Then go have a look at Wikipedia’s Coffee Preparation page.

Notice anything about it?

I mean there’s a big notice at the top so you probably should have. No sources.

This is a huge problem in the “good coffee” industry. Lots of received wisdom, lots of talking heads, lots of blog posts, lots of “how to” advice, lots of expensive equipment “required” to make a better cup of coffee than the one you’re already making, you filthy casual.

(I also have a blog post… brewing… about what drives us to keep seeking out consumer perfection, but that’s a whole other thing for another day maybe. No promises.)

Here are a few choice examples of magical, unsourced coffee making voodoo:

Burr mills use two revolving abrasive elements, such as wheels or conical grinding elements, between which the coffee beans are crushed or “torn” with little frictional heating. The process of squeezing and crushing of the beans releases the coffee’s oils, which are then more easily extracted during the infusion process with hot water, making the coffee taste richer and smoother.

Well, the first bit of that is true. There are revolving abrasive elements. After that we’re back to proclaiming truth from the mount. Little frictional heating? Releases oils? More easily extracted? Richer and smoother? Really? Got any sources for that? Didn’t think so.

Many burr grinders, including almost all domestic versions, are unable to achieve the extremely fine grind required for the preparation of Turkish coffee; traditional Turkish hand grinders are an exception.

Those inferior domestic burr grinders. There’s no way a domestic grinder could make Turkish coffee! Again, note the lack of sources. Just some guy (almost certainly a guy, who owns a fancy, expensive foreign grinder) who says something.

Blade grinders create “coffee dust” that can clog up sieves in espresso machines and French presses, and are best suited for drip coffee makers. They are not recommended for grinding coffee for use with pump espresso machines.

Do a search for “burr grinder dust” on Google as a counterpoint. Find some forum post where someone (new to burr grinders) is wondering what they’re doing wrong. The responses will be “buy a better grinder” until someone honest comes along and says “well, all grinders produce some dust”. At which point the whole thing about consistent grind size is sort of debunked. How can your consistently grinding conical burr grinder be producing dust unless it’s… not really all that consistent after all?

Some coffee aficionados hold the coffee produced [by percolation] in low esteem because of this multiple-pass process. Others prefer gravity percolation and claim it delivers a richer cup of coffee in comparison to drip brewing.

Who are these coffee aficionados? Why is their opinion (which, even the coffee aficionado who wrote this has to admit, goes both ways) relevant to the article? Even if we agree that is is, which coffee aficionados? Where can I read these mysterious differing opinions? Why can’t they agree?

The coffee prepared by this [cold press] method is very low in acidity with a smooth taste, and is often preferred by those with sensitive stomachs. Others, however, feel this method strips coffee of its bold flavor and character. Thus, this method is not common, and there are few appliances designed for it.

Is it? According to whom? Where can I read a ph evidence? Where’s the study of people with weak stomachs? Who are the “others” who think this method removes “character” and “boldness”? Of course there aren’t any because this is just some coffee priest’s incantations, not actual reality.

The amount of coffee used affects both the strength and the flavor of the brew in a typical drip-brewing filtration-based coffee maker. The softer flavors come out of the coffee first and the more bitter flavors only after some time, so a large brew will tend to be both stronger and more bitter. This can be modified by stopping the filtration after a planned time and then adding hot water to the brew instead of waiting for all the water to pass through the grounds.

This doesn’t even really make a whole lot of sense. And much like the rest of the article it’s complete unsourced.

The AeroPress is another recent invention, which is a mechanical, non-electronic device where pressure is simply exerted by the user manually pressing a piston down with their hand, forcing medium-temperature water through coffee grounds in about 30 seconds (into a single cup.) This method produces a smoother beverage than espresso, falling somewhere between the flavor of a moka pot and a French Press.

I’d like to see a source for this. I’d also love for someone to tell me, without being condescending or talking to me like I’m a retard, what exactly they mean when they say “smoothness”. Is this a quantifiable thing? Can we measure some kind of chemical property of the coffee that we can call “smoothness”? Or is this yet another in a long list of religious terms the high priestly caste uses as a code to express their hidden knowledge?

Burr grinders, good coffee, and magical thinking

I’m not a huge fan of magical thinking, received wisdom, dogma, etc, etc. Sure, there’s going to be some value in received wisdom and we should have a bit of a think before tossing it out the window. But in general, unquestioning adoption of anything is a bad idea.

One place this kind of quasi-religious thinking shows up a lot is in cooking. Mostly, I think, because for a long time we knew that something did something but we didn’t know why. So people built up narratives about why because apparently we can’t say that seared steak tastes better without saying searing “seals in the juices” or whatever.

The worst of the worst, though, are a subset of cooking people, the coffee snobs. These people have turned a drug into a fetishistic individual or communal act. They know that your “average” coffee drinking prefers weak, milky coffee (maybe even with, gasp, sugar). These are the benighted, the heathens, who must (but frustratingly often can’t) be evangelized into the sacred cult of the good cup of coffee, whose sacraments are the fresh-ground bean and the burr grinder, the French press and the espresso machine.

Understandably, there isn’t much scientific data on whether or not any of this stuff really matters. Take burr grinders. There are two types of coffee grinders (leaving aside pre-ground coffee, that-which-must-not-be-named, the anathema, the Great Satan): Blade and burr. Blade grinders are essentially blenders. They’re what you use for spices. They whirl about and take a bunch of whacks at the beans until they’ve beaten them into submission. Burr grinders on the other hand gently caress the beans until they fall apart on their own. Or something.

Now as with most magical cook-think, the reasons not to use a blade grinder are many and change depending on who you ask. But there’s a general consensus that blade grinders produce a more uneven grind, tend to heat up the beans, and can’t make decent espresso grind. All these things are easily testable. But somehow no one has. Not really. And no one has tested whether or not an uneven grind makes a worse cup of coffee. Its seems like it should… but there are lots of things that seem like they should but aren’t. No one has tested whether a slight temperature increase makes a worse cup of coffee.

By the way, I’ve personally tested this, and I can’t tell the difference between burr and blade. I’ve been given lots of reasons for this (my eyes aren’t good, my equipment isn’t good, I’m too skilled a blade grinding, etc), but I see what I see. Lots of variability in grain size

And you can’t test this! You see the coffee nerds have constructed a completely test-proof ivory (but coffee-stained) tower where once we start a scientific approach they can say “oh but taste tests aren’t any good!” Why? Because the average people who do taste tests just don’t get it. The priests of the coffee cult get it, but some guy off the street isn’t good data. We’re not making coffee for them after all. The real reason is, of course, that no priest of the coffee cult wants to have their actual taste buds actually tested. They know what’s happened to the wine community with that.

I think at the end of the day, once there’s some science done here, we’ll find the same thing that we found out about wine. Everyone can tell the difference between terrible wine and decent wine. Very few people can tell the difference between decent wine and good wine. And almost no one can tell the difference between good wine and really, really good wine. I could be wrong. Maybe a lot of coffee snobs really can distinguish good coffee from really, really good coffee. Maybe they’re not using any kind of product or process signalling to make that decision. I could be wrong. But I don’t think I am.

This kind of investigation may strip the emperor of his clothes. But it doesn’t invalidate your personal quest to make the best cup of coffee ever. That’s your own hobby. Still, I think we can stop pretending that if only we could tell the unwashed heathens of the good news of Jesus Christ Aeropress or whatever that they’ll suddenly join the crusade.