Done with Ashes of Waco

A few days ago I finished reading Ashes of Waco by Dick Reavis. If you are interested in what happened to the Branch Davidians, the book is probably all you need to read on the topic. But I would also recommend watching the documentary Waco: Rules of Engagement, which does things the book can’t do in helping you understand exactly how events unfolded.

Although I recommend both the book and the documentary, I don’t think it is important that anyone study this particular event, as long as they already think that the government is quite capable of abusing its power when dealing with fringe elements. Anyone who doesn’t know this should be advised to educate themselves about it, and the case of the Branch Davidians is a good place to start.

One thing I appreciated about Reavis’s book is that Reavis took the time to study the history and the doctrine of the Branch Davidians (no mean feat for an unbeliever), and as a result he is able to portray their beliefs and practices accurately. Given what they believed, they behaved in a calm and rational manner. And though most of us may not share those beliefs, they were entitled to hold them.

One thing I learned from Reavis’s book is that we are naive to think that such devotion to a cause or a man must be the result of illegitimate psychological conditioning, love-bombing or protein deprivation or mind control. David Koresh was not an especially charismatic man, not physically attractive, not highly intelligent, not manipulative, not coercive. In fact, he introduced a number of practices (such as meat eating among these strictly vegetarian Adventists) that offended his flock, and drove some of them off.

The only power that David Koresh exercised was the power of a trusted teacher. People came to him from around the world because he explained parts of the Bible to them which they had never previously understood. People were free to come or go; the only thing that held them their was their belief that Koresh had special knowledge that he was willing to share with them. The Branch Davidians were not so much devoted to Koresh personally as they were to the interpretation of the Bible that he preached. And they were willing to die for that interpretation.

That’s a sobering thought in a day when people are forming communities with the idea of joining forces to advance a particular understanding of the Bible. I don’t think these communities embrace doctrines nearly as aberrant as that of the Branch Davidians, but I do see a similar devotion to the teachers who are promoting these new and bracing doctrines, and a similar sense of specialness among the adherents. And I wonder what controls are in place to keep these teachers from leading their disciples down paths that deviate ever further from the normal Christian life.

More technical notes

At least some of you have noticed that this weblog has been struggling with spam comments lately. The default spam-handling plugins were losing the battle against the newest variety, and all the capable plugins seemed to be WordPress-only. Well, I finally found one called Akismet that came highly recommended, and in a Movable Type version. Since installing it I haven’t had a spam comment make it through.

Although I’m sympathetic to the reasons for using non-Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers, I’ve stuck with IE through the years for two reasons: (1) laziness, and (2) more than ninety percent of our bookstore customers access the website using IE. I had two other browsers installed on my computer (Firefox and Opera), and would use them occasionally, but the differences never induced me to switch.

In fact, some of the differences encouraged me to stick with IE; different browsers occasionally render the same HTML pages differently, and I wanted to know what 90% of our customers were seeing. For example, there has been a problem with the navigation sidebar on our website where IE and Opera would display it just fine, but Firefox would show it with wide spaces between the lines. It irritated me, but I could never justify taking the time to track it down to its source.

What did it take to overcome my inertia? A month or so ago some bug crept into the system that would cause IE to crash frequently. That was irritating enough that when Microsoft announced IE version 7, I quickly downloaded and installed it. Well, IE 7 looks nice, but every time I try to select a link from the history list (something I do frequently) the browser crashes. So I had to use Firefox and Opera simply to get some work done—and since they were just as comfy as IE once you got used to them, I just stuck with them rather than try to fix the IE problem.

I have no preference between Firefox and Opera, and right now it seems I’m usually using Firefox. Which encouraged me to fix the display problem with the navigation sidebar. Now the sidebar displays properly in Firefox and Opera—and does something wrong in IE. But not so wrong that I can justify taking the time to track down the source of the problem.

Technical notes

A couple of months back I switched from checking weblogs directly to using an RSS reader to do my checking for me. Unlike a lot of time-savers, this one has actually saved me some time. I only go to one place to see if any of the twenty-seven weblogs I track have been updated, and since I read the new posts in the RSS reader I’m not tempted to do things like browse through blogrolls.

I use Google Reader to do this, mostly because it is simple and web-based and I tend to like the way Google designs its software, but there are lots of good (and free) RSS readers out there.

 For awhile now I’ve been using Windows Live Writer to post to this weblog. It has one ugly bug, at least when posting to my Yahoo-hosted Movable Type weblog—it somehow breaks the comment feature for the new post, and the only way I know to fix it is to go to the weblog control panel and rebuild the site. This isn’t a big deal, requiring just a few mouse clicks, but it is annoying.

And so I guess it’s a testimony to the usefulness of Windows Live Writer that I cheerfully rebuild my site after every post. There are three reasons, I think. First, the editing capabilities are much, much better than anything that can be provided through a webpage. Second, they have somehow figured out how to take formatting information from the weblog and use it so the editor screen looks just like a post on my weblog; I like that a lot. But most important is that the application runs on my machine, not over the internet through a browser, and so I basically don’t worry anymore about losing a post to a flaky net connectioin or my pushing the wrong button at the wrong time.

Jerome Lange had VHS videotapes from two different people of last year’s Christmas Play at Christ Community Church, and he asked me if I could put them together into a useful record for him. I looked into getting the necessary equipment to record from a VCR to my computer, but in the end decided it would be much cheaper and cleaner to have someone convert the tapes to DVDs. I used a service called Video Silo, which charged about $30 and did the job in less than two weeks.

I already owned some video editing software (Adobe Premiere 1.5), and found various utilities on the internet that would convert the DVDs into editable files. But I also discovered that Adobe was just about to release a new version of Premiere Elements, the consumer version of the program, which had all the editing features I needed plus the ability to convert DVDs to editable files. So I bought that, paying about $55 after a rebate.

Premiere Elements works great. It was still tedious working with video, taking maybe six hours to piece together the 55-minute program, but the process was straightforward and mostly intuitive. Incidentally, I didn’t buy Premiere Elements just for this job; someday soon we may try making some instructional videos, and this program is plenty capable of producing a professional-looking product for us.

We don’t watch much video anymore, but we do watch some. Most of the DVDs we own are music instruction videos, but there are also some documentaries as well as films of the Jane Austen novels. We bought our DVD player at the turn of the century, and so it nowhere near as capable as today’s models. The most important thing is that it won’t play CD-Rs or DVD-Rs, the ones you burn on your own computer. We run across these more and more, and we would like to make our own as well, so it was time to buy a new player.

When I started shopping for one, I was surprised at how low prices have dropped. I almost bought one for $30, but eventually chose a $60 model that had received excellent reviews on Amazon. I was even more suprised when it arrived from Amazon in a huge box that weighed almost nothing. The huge box contained a much smaller box, but one that was still way bigger than the impossibly thin and light player that it contained. It plays homemade CDs and DVDs like a charm, and easily handled some manufactured DVDs that had given the old player fits.

I’m sure some readers are puzzled over how I can be both strongly persuaded that the best life is a low-tech life, and still use high technology so casually. It’s a puzzle to me as well, and I spend a lot of time thinking about whether the technology we continue to use is good, bad, or indifferent for us.

Although we use a fair amount of technology, I think we are less attached to it that we used to be, and that the technology we use is at least used for a reason. Some of it actually leads to an overall simplification. The WhisperMill and Bosch mixer aren’t necessary for making homemade bread, but we’d be much less likely to make homemade bread without them. A team of horses would be preferable to our walk-behind tractor, but the tractor is easily integrated into our lives while horses are still pretty foreign to us. Some of the technology plays a useful but small and nonessential role in our lives, like the DVD player. Some of it we’d probably be better off without, but the transition would be difficult and unpleasant enough that we defer dealing with it out of weakness. And some of it may actually be good, a blessing that we should accept with gratitude rather than reject out of an unthinking piety.

One of the things that keeps us plugged in is the bookstore. There’s no way to run it without a high-speed internet connection, a web hosting service, web publishing software, email, daily UPS pickup, a business telephone line, and so on. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t frequently count and recount those costs, and think about whether we would be better off without it. For now it seems better to stick with it, but unplugging has worked so well for us in the past that I wonder how much more our life would improve if we went further.

On the other hand, the sort of life we would like to live requires things that we have only partially or not at all—knowledge of how to provide for our own needs plus a surplus to trade, a supportive community, a local economy, contentment. To get there will take not only time but a number of compromises. To the extent that I am unable to provide for my family in the way I think best, I have to be able to provide for them in less than ideal ways, and this may mean hiring out the high-tech skills I happen to have in lieu of selling the tangible, useful thingsI hope to be producing someday.


My studies have taken a brief detour from the agrarian path. Catching up on some weblogs, I saw that my friend John VanDyk had recently seen a documentary called Waco: Rules of Engagement, and recommended it. I remembered hearing good things about the film when it came out in 1997. I think the filmmakers had some connection with Austin, where we lived at the time. But even though it was shown regularly at a local theater, I never got around to seeing it. So I ordered a copy of the DVD, along with a copy of Dick Reavis’s book The Ashes of Waco. (Reavis was a regular writer for the excellent magazine Texas Monthly, and I admire his work a lot.)

I am only partway through The Ashes of Waco, but it shouldn’t take me long to finish it because it makes for quick and engrossing reading. I did finish watching the DVD, but it took two nights; one of the hard parts was picking a place to stop around halfway through, since the film had just begun to chronicle the siege.

The film is very well done, with two caveats. First, the filmmakers do not try to make their presentation of the case even-handed; they have a particular point of view, and without any shrillness or obvious unfairness to the other side they concentrate on making their own case. Second, I knew too much already about Waco to be able to judge whether it would be easy for someone without that knowledge to follow the film; I do remember that at a number of points I didn’t think they had explained things clearly enough.

I think it’s good to study an incident like the siege at Waco, where the government used its power against a small religious group with oddball beliefs and practices. In this case it was the Branch Davidians, a fifty-year-old splinter group of Seventh-Day Adventists who lived communally and thought their leader David Koresh was one of the last-days prophets spoken of in the Book of Revelation. The average American—probably even the average evangelical—would not see much difference in strangeness between the Davidians and the reconstructionists, back-to-patriarchy types, Gothardites, Ezzo-ites, Pearl-ites, or even Christian agrarians—really, anyone who seems to take their Bible too seriously.

Which is why those of us who take our Bible pretty seriously should be sobered by what happened at Waco. The official reasons for why the Davidians were targeted—weapons stockpiling, child abuse—were trumped up. The Davidians were amateur gun dealers, as are thousands of other Texans; as one person put it, what the feds call a stockpile, most of these folks would call inventory. And while David Koresh was a polygamist, Texas Child Protective Services had been investigating allegations against Koresh for years without finding enough evidence to make a case against him.

The lesson I take from this is that if the authorities take a dislike to you, there isn’t much protection to be found in the legality of your lifestyle. Some folks who skirt the edges of normal social conduct are strangely confident that once they get to court justice will prevail—the judge to hear them out, suddenly recognize the truthfulness of their defense, slap his forehead, and order their handcuffs to be removed. Many folks choose Virginia as a home because the law exempts those who homeschool for religious reasons from any and all state supervision. I’ve read the statute, and it says that quite clearly. But I also know a homeschooling family that was harassed by their local school board even after claiming that exemption. Just because they were clearly legal didn’t make the harassment any less real.

Given that, the question posed by the Waco siege is this: how far should you go in resisting unjust authority? I’ve hung around with otherwise sensible guys who would wallow in macho posturing, speaking of the day when government thugs lay prostate halfway up the driveway, shot dead by a heroic father who will do what it takes to protect their family from the clutches of Child Protective Services. I never knew what to make of such talk. On the one hand, I know a father is responsible for his family’s welfare, and that there are certainly thugs out there that pose a very real criminal threat, one you should be prepared to confront. But is this a godly response to the authorities, no matter how unjust their behavior towards us? Exactly how far can a Christian go in resisting the authorities?

More important, maybe: how wise is it to resist? There’s a good case to be made that the Davidians were within their rights to resist the initial arrest, especially if their claim is true that the authorities fired first; Texas law explicitly states that it is legal to resist arrest for the sake of self-protection, if excessive force is being employed. But … so what? They resisted, and even prevailed; the BATF called off the assault. The Davidians had won—but the cost was four government agents dead, many more wounded, and a government agency determined to take revenge for its public humiliation.  The ensuing 51-day siege, ending in the conflagration that killed all but a few of the eighty people at Mt. Carmel, should have come as no surprise to anyone except those who think of justice as an abstract and perfect thing, not susceptible to human passion and wickedness.

I think that the rules exist for the sake of the troublemakers—that is, not only to protect those who push the envelope, but also to protect us from the temptation to treat them unjustly in cases where we can get away with it. When the troublemaker is unpopular and unlikeable and ungodly and we are angry enough to want to exact a bit of God’s vengeance for Him, it is good to have rules that limit what we can do.

But I also think that we are to do whatever we can to live at peace with all men, to avoid becoming troublemakers ourselves. Did the attacking BATF agents present a real threat to the safety of the Davidians, a threat that could legally resisted according to Texas law? Probably. Were they right to resist? Probably not, at least as Christians. The suffering they would have gone through in the hands of the authorities woudn’t have exceeded what Jesus promised his followers.

I don’t mean to excuse the authorities for any of their actions at Waco, which were shameful from beginning to end. And I think those of us on society’s fringes would be well advised to study those actions carefully, since they tell us important things about what the government is willing to do when dealing with the fringe element—and what the American public will accept, endorse, even encourage.

Chilly Saturday morning notes

Yesterday was cloudy and very cool, and last night was cold, enough to merit building the first fire of the season. It gave me a chance to try out the wood blocks we purchased for this year’s firewood. Bottom line: these things are wonderful. They are much denser than your usual lumber, I think; in any case, they burn much longer and easier than last year’s traditional firewood logs.

Just before going to bed I filled the firebox with wood blocks (about two-thirds full, though, since I haven’t found the gloves I need for arranging wood tightly in the firebox) and left it. When I came down about eight hours later, there was still a nice bed of coals; I piled some wood on top and had a hot fire going in minutes. I’m thinking that except on the coldest nights it’ll probably be sufficient to get up an hour or so early, stoke the fire, then doze for an hour in front of it before waking the rest of the family to a warm downstairs.

Crunch time is over for now. We got the last of the garlic planted Thursday morning, just before a new wave of rain moved it. That felt especially good, because the ground was already pretty wet from rain earlier in the week; boots and kneepads got pretty muddy as we moved down the rows.

Jerome also planted garlic, though not nearly as much as us. A few times a year a friend who teaches at a private school in Cincinnati brings down a group of kids to help with work around Jerome’s farm. He had some of them plant garlic, not popping cloves but simply planting the heads whole; later he will go back to thin them to three or four plants per spot. This was two weeks ago, and his plants have already made an appearance, four or five inches high.

This inspired me to go back and replant a few spots in our beds, maybe twelve or sixteen, using whole heads (soon, haven’t done it yet). I’ve read that a neglect but quite good version of garlic is what is called “green garlic,” taking an immature plant and using it sort of like a scallion. I’m thinking that you could plant a whole Spanish Roja head, get eight or ten plants going in one spot, then harvest them before the heads of the plants start crowding.

We put the garlic in raised beds that were five feet off center, maybe 2.5 to 3 feet plantable surface. The garlic was planted four across, spaced about 8″ apart, then 8″ apart down the bed; eight beds 100 feet long each. We laid two strips of drip irrigation tape down each bed, between pairs of plants. Then we covered the beds with 5 foot wide black plastic, weighted down with dirt along the edges.

Initially we set up the drip irrigation tape as a single system, but when we tested it the water didn’t make it quite to the ends of the farthest rows. So we will go back in the spring and break it into two systems, watering four beds at a time. With drip tape this is simply a matter of splicing and connecting using scissors and fifty-cent connectors.

Mulch is a valuable commodity around here. Last year we used sorghum pumice to grow our potatoes in, and also to mulch the paths between the sweet potato beds (the only place we used black plastic last year). It worked great, and will make for some rich ground next time around. We also use a good amount of wood-shaving bedding in the chicken coop, and will need more when we get a cow.

Although the sorghum pumice works great, it isn’t practical for us. It’s one thing to fetch it from a mile away, as Jerome does (and he has fetched a lot this year—mountains of it stretch along the road by his fields, topped with a forest of mushrooms). But for us it’s seventeen miles away, and we can only haul a pickup truck’s worth at a time.

So we decided to invest in a chipper/shredder attachment for our BCS walk behind tractor. I called Joel at EarthTools to see if he had any in stock, and it turned out that he had just received a used one that he would sell for 60% the price of a new one. Chris and I drove up to Joel’s place yesterday, admired the new 50×100 pole barn warehouse he is building, got a demonstration of the chipper/shredder, and brought it home. Chris has already been out shredding brush and fallen branches, of which there is no shortage around here.

One difference between sorghum pumice and wood mulch is that the former is high in nitrogen, while the latter is very high in carbon. A high-carbon, low-nitrogen material will lock up whatever nitrogen is around it. That makes it good for things like animal bedding, where it absorbs the nitrogen from the manure. And good for mulching areas to keep down weeds, since the wood steals nitrogen from the weeds and keeps them from growing.

But it is not so good for mixing directly into garden soil, for exactly the same reason. So the plan right now is to mulch the paths with wood mulch, but rake up the mulch and composting it rather than tilling it directly into the ground. Another possibility, I suppose, would be to find a cheap source of nitrogen (grass clippings, blood meal) and mix it with the mulch before tilling it under. Further research and experimentation required.

Last night Chris and I attended the biweekly Bible study that the Old Regular Baptist church puts on. This is an unusual thing for an ORB church, which traditionally is very much against anything that smacks of Sunday school. In fact, the other churches in the association began asking pointed questions when they heard about it. But the elders here were able to justify it to the satisfaction of the others.

Their main reason for holding the study, I think, is that it allows for informal interaction with the elders in the context of a teaching. Women are not required to remain silent, for one thing. And the teaching doesn’t come in the form of a sermon.

It was also an opportunity for me and Chris to spend time with the church, members and non-members, in a more social context. I’m surprised that I still don’t know a lot of the names or relationships, but since there is usually very little time for socializing (except for the monthly potluck, which poses its own technical obstacles to socializing) I only pick up such information in bits and pieces. Last night I heard people talk I hadn’t heard talk before, and heard stories that helped me piece together the relationships.

The church is primarily composed of three extended families, Slones, Murrells, and Ellises. They have known each other for many years, longer than they have been attending church together. The kids in the church are primarily their kids, and some of the older ones have married (one Ellis-Slone pairing, one Ellis-Murrell pairing). The three fathers (Mike Slone, Roger Murrell, Jimmy Ellis) are the three church elders. Mike is the long-time ORB, and his father and mother also attend.

I don’t know if we will attend the study on a regular basis (even every other Friday is starting to taste like a little too much involvement outside the home, with the weekly Sunday evening meetings, the Saturday evening/Sunday morning/Sunday evening meetings once a month, and the occasional trip out of town to visit other churches. But we wanted to go to this one because it was at Jimmy and Marty Ellis’s house, and Jimmy and Marty know cows, and we’re actively seeking a milk cow right now.

The study began at 7pm and lasted less than an hour. After a bit of socializing the Slones left, since it was past their younger children’s bedtime. Chris and I stuck around, and the conversation quickly turned to cows. For close to two hours we talked cows; well, they talked cows while Chris and I listened. None of it was boring to us, but only because it is a live issue with us. Ellises, Murrells, and Slones all have a long history of involvement with cows (like lots of folks around here), which yielded a lot of funny and informative stories.

Most important, Jimmy Ellis has offered to do what he can to find us a Jersey locally. He knew of one that had been offered to him in January, and he thought it
still might be available; only three of the four quarters are working, but that would be enough for us and we would definitely appreciate the reduced price that comes with it (in January the asking price was $650).

Although we don’t have a cow yet, we did take a first step in that direction, ordering a portable milker. Earlier this year I looked around and was dismayed at what I thought were pretty high prices for new ones. Then I stumbled across a recommendation (don’t remember where) for a guy in Louisiana who sold reconditioned portable milkers at a fair price. It cost us just under $600 with shipping. It isn’t shiny, but looks to be all there and works fine (as far as we can tell without attaching it to a cow).

If we find a cow soon, then we’ll have to scramble to arrange for the rest of what it takes to keep a cow—portable fencing, milking shed, hay, etc. But sometimes it is better to scramble for what you need than to buy in advance what you might need.

Done reading Economics for Helen

Economics for Helen is an introductory economics book that Hilaire Belloc wrote for his niece, Helen. In many ways it is very good. The first section, which covers basic economic theory, runs about seventy pages and doesn’t leave out any useful thing out that I can think of. The second section, even shorter, discusses the social implications of various approaches to economic activity.

Economics is a dangerous discipline to study, I think, because it is easy to get caught up in technical details that have very little bearing on everyday life. It is good, for example, to know that inflation is the result of a debased currency, and that in effect someone (either the governments or the banks) is stealing from you when money is inflated. But studying the technical details of the mechanics of inflation and how it might be controlled makes the pragmatic mistake of conceding that inflation is a legitimate phenomenon—akin to discussing policy changes that might reduce the number of abortions peformed. Better to know what is right, and how a particular government policy fails to exhibit righteousness, and leave it at that.

For the most part Economics for Helen treats economics at that level. It explains the fundamental concepts—wealth, economic value, exchange, money, property—and shows how they interact, always using simple and concrete examples. One big plus for the book is that Belloc is both anti-capitalist and anti-socialist, and so he gives clear explanations why things we take for granted are in fact fairly novel and very wrong.

One minus, sort of, is that a number of his predictions were not borne out. Belloc saw capitalism as being on its last legs, given how badly things were going in the capitalist West in 1923. But Belloc was not wrong about the weaknesses he saw in capitalism, so it is worth pondering what it was about subsequent history that allowed capitalism to continue thriving. The seed of a study project for an older homeschooler, maybe.

Belloc discusses distributism, of course, in contrast to what he calls the capitalist and servile (slave) states. But I didn’t learn much new about distributism, and I’m thinking now that distributism is so straightforward that there isn’t much else to learn about it besides that it calls for control of property, e.g. the means of production, to be widely distributed among the populace. Agrarians will agree that this is true, although they will probably differ on legitimate ways to get there from today’s ultra-capitalist state. (Interesting to note that Richard Weaver also thought that widespread private property ownership was the key to reclaiming the good life.)

One thing I learned from this book was a good argument for protectionism. Belloc points out that although free trade tends to maximize the total wealth in the region where it is practiced, that wealth will not be distributed equally within the region. Which means that if we have global free trade, the amount of global wealth will increase, but in the process the wealth in any particular area (e.g. country) may quite possibly decrease. And what country should feel compelled to run that risk simply for the sake of increasing the world’s wealth?

If Cumberland Books were going to offer an introductory economics book, this might be the one. On the other hand, the longer I look for an introductory economics book, the more I wonder about the worth of spending time studying the topic, at least as its own topic. Better maybe to learn these concepts in a more practical context.