Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Expecting this will be of absolutely no importance to anyone but me: "A man can rise from faeries to Paradise Lost ( I ought to know), but never get from Restoration Comedy to anything of the sublime." CS Lewis, after a tutorial session with John Betjeman and two other students at Magdalen.  (Lewis did not think much of Betjeman as a student.)

Restoration Comedy loomed too large too long in me.

Admit It...

...you've been missing this.

Meerkat Quartet


National Tragedies

Now that we are between national tragedies, it might be safe to complain about the tendency to instantly sermonise so many of our fellow citizens apparently have.  When bad things happen, it is because we have guns or because we don’t; that there are too many Lilliputians or too many people who don’t like them; too much Jesus or not enough; or a default howl that there are too many of the evil other guys, with their evil attitudes and evil schools and evil culture, and not enough of wonderful us.

We have each our own hobbyhorses to ride.  I think of Perchik in “Fiddler On The Roof” telling the story of Laban and drawing from it the lesson “never trust an employer;” or the fire chief in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, warning the children that this shed might have been destroyed by playing with matches, though everyone knew it was the Herdmans.

One could consider it an innocent annoyance, I suppose, a natural human tendency to find explanations, or incantations to keep the dark at bay. In the panic of tragedy, people emote rather than develop close arguments, and we shouldn’t be too hard on gentle, decent folk who are simply trying to express sympathy.  So the defense goes.

I take a grimmer view. These spontaneous sermons are based on previous rehearsal, and are intended to bend the world to one’s own viewpoint.  They are manipulations. They are the quieter everyday opinions, now nailed down hard as declarations and cultural markers, at a time when one cannot easily be called out for it.  Here we are in the midst of all this grief, and you are injecting politics into the situation by calling out someone else who tried to inject politics under the radar. You rude bastard.

I notice it because I slip naturally into the role of referee*.  I don’t bring up gun legislation or environmental regulations or Bush/Obama/Harding’s foreign policy – I just notice it when you do, and want people to fight fair. Most readers barely notice the insertions as they go by, and resent the entrance of an umpire.  But I believe this is how cultural change happens.  Putting down markers in a crisis is a way of gradually claiming territory. That’s why everyone wrestles hard to capture the event for their own narrative – because they know it works.

Hey, my friends do it too. I suspect it is a conscious manipulation only to the Rahm Emanuels of the world, and most other people think they are acting in all innocence.  Perhaps, perhaps they are using such a situation as a teachable moment, at a time when they can get people’s attention, because…well, because there are dead bodies on the ground and they want to exploit that because their POV is so important.  I’m sorry, did I say that out loud?

Certainly, the snipers also feel proper sorrow and compassion for the victims and their families.  The manipulation is likely well less than half their motivation for speaking. That’s why they get so insulted when they are called out – they only pooped in the corner a little bit before moving on.  Most of the time they were listening compassionately and saying encouraging things. Why should anyone complain?  

Am I being too harsh on small sins here?

*Nobody asked me.  True.

How To Get Out Of A Psych Hospital

I am referring, of course, to involuntary hospitalization.  It’s quite easy to get out of a voluntary hospital.  Just sign out. Or run out of insurance.

But say you have the misfortune to get put in confinement with no one around to vouch for you – traveling, perhaps, and your perfectly explainable behavior looks dangerous and suspicious to the local constabulary. They decide that Bedlam is the place for you, to be given a once-over before resuming life among the many.  What then?

Don’t say “I don’t belong here.”  It will certainly do no good, and may be counted a small mark against you.  Giving detailed proofs why you “don’t belong here” will not improve matters in the slightest. Threatening to call attorneys or various officials is likewise a yawner for us.  Stand in line, Jack.  Actually getting in touch with a lawyer isn’t a bad strategy, but then you have to convince her that you are the victim of some horrible misunderstanding or mistake, which she should help you with.  Good luck with that.

An opposite tack will work far better.  Praise the food.  Compare the place favorably to a hospital in another state, or better yet, let it slip from your lips that they don’t treat patients well there.  Snort at the idea of living in a shelter or cheap hotel.  Declare that perhaps a decent rest and some relief from caring for yourself might in fact be a welcome change.  Nod thoughtfully that you have many vague “issues” to work on, and may need to stay months before you are ready to go. You are not actually safe to leave at present.  Safe enough to go down to the cafeteria by yourself and wander about unsupervised, certainly.  But safe enough to leave and be on you own, no.  “I’m not any better than when I got here.” True, true.

If this counterintuitive strategy seems too risky, thus that you fear they will take you at your word and keep you, well, there’s always tomorrow.  You can say the opposite tomorrow without awakening suspicion.  It’s a psych hospital, remember?

You might also try looking as much like a visitor or employee as possible and just slipping out on some pretext. Shoes are one of the most important parts of your disguise.  Just about any shoes will do, but the absence of shoes will be a killer. A clipboard or notepad are nice, a magazine, not so much - and multiple magazines are a dead giveaway. Make reference to getting something you left in your car.  There is always some staff member about who has never met you before and might be caught unaware.  Immediately after transfer from one location to another is the best time for this. We had it happen last week.  The error the patient made?  She got impatient and started running halfway through the parking lot.  Never run, or even hurry.  Running at any hospital is always suspicious.

Monday, July 21, 2014

HBD Weakness

There is a frequent, though not universal undercurrent which sometimes becomes explicit, that the real value of understanding human genetics is something in the nature of group advantage, not individual ones.  This is rather paradoxical, as the commenting persons are often deeply individualistic, and seem only secondarily concerned with the perpetuation of their own progeny (or a double dosing of nieces and nephews).  The focus is very much on "how did we get here?" before "where are we going?"

Yet the other leaks out, often in the context of illustrations from science fiction and the societies we might hope for going forward.  A few sound eerily like Weston's speech translated by Ransom at the end of Out Of The Silent Planet. It has the advantage of transcending the merely national, I suppose, giving an observation point of centuries or millennia rather than our rather ephemeral countries.

It would be better if we at least did not punish improvements of ourselves going forward, nor normalise that which will weaken, impoverish, or diminish us. Fine.  But it is ultimately individuals who will live forever, and our causes and materials which will disappear.  Even if one does not believe that - and there are plenty in that group who do not - one might be cautious about anything which sacrifices the individual to the "greater good" going forward.  We might in a very few generations become folks we would disapprove of or even despise now. 

Those future beings will, of course, hold us in contempt because of their chronocentrism, and the belief that they are superior because they come later in time and can tell stories about how our primitive ideas turned into their better ones.  As that is precisely what we do now, we can expect that our descendants will not be worse at such such rationalisations. But for the time being, it might be better to say good is good; evil, evil, and feel confident that we are largely right.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Parody/Parody Non

I was undecided at first whether this was parody or serious.  Halfway through I decided it was a parody, and a rather tasteless over-the-top one, unfairly deriding Netroots attenders in a cartoonish fashion.

By the end, I concluded it was serious.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Climate Science

Climate Science is new.
It has an enormous number of variables.
It attracts the second tier of scientific minds*, not the first.
Why then do we give its claims more credence than we do other sciences?
First answer: photographs.

*All sciences except math tend to have physics envy.


I have an old atlas - Hammond, 1939 - which we are passing on.  Looking at the map of Africa is particularly instructive. The history of colonialism, plus the history of the 20th, is pretty much on display there.

The countries are color-coded so that we can tell which are British colonies, which are French, and which are Belgian, Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese.  There is also an inset which shows which areas used to be German: Togo, Kamerun, and an eastern and southwestern German territory.  That color-coding covers most of the continent.  Liberia and Egypt are about the only exceptions.  As Liberia was a sort of American offshoot, and Egypt has been more Middle-eastern than African for 3000 years, that's not a lot.

We might hope that by 2060 or so we will look back at the post WWII, pstcolonial era as one of necessary development, however painful, and a Good Thing. Right now that seems to be a mixed grill.  The behavior of the French and Belgians seems to have been so bad that it hardly seems necessary to even compare that era to this.  The Spanish, Italians, and Portuguese attempted to bury the history of their colonies, so those stories are only beginning to be told now.

I am intrigued by the British territories in Africa, and indeed, across the globe.  It has been a key divide since the years I was in school, one group maintaining that the English, however bad, created better conditions than have prevailed since - another group claiming that the behavior of the UK in the thrid world was so abysmal as to be unworthy of comparison with any other governance.  People just sort of have a side of this debate that they are on from the start.

Here is a missing piece:  the English had better writers, on both side of that issue.  There were brilliant defenders of Empire.  There were also writers of enormous skill who recognised how deeply unfair conditions were in the Commonwealth compared to the Chilterns - Orwell comes to mind - who tried to hold fair Albion accountable.  We simply know more about how things proceeded in English colonies, from 1500 onward.  Common language is only a small part of this.

Bias. Again

One does not need to be an expert in a field in order to be the best available explainer of it.  There are science writers who are not specialists in any science, but are nonetheless exceptionally good at making concepts clear to a reasonably intelligent reader; religious writers who have no special credential in church history but can communicate a fair bit of it to lay audiences; even general writers who can successfully expound on a variety of topics.  Some can even speak knowledgeably and fruitfully to audiences of actual experts, summarising, analogising, tying together related bits.

There are limitations, certainly.  I don’t know what the threshhold level of intelligence and training is for explaining radar, or iconoclasm, or PTSD, but it’s probably pretty high.  John Tierney is no slouch, Isaac Asimov was pretty smart.  A host of folks even farther down the Gaussian Distribution have performed admirably at the task of explaining stuff, but I’m betting there aren’t many from the bottom half.  The flip side of that is folks who are smart generalists sometimes go up and over in how qualified they are to discuss complicated topics.  I have known some of these (cough, cough).

Those two sides, then – one has to be intelligent enough to understand an actual authority, but have enough humility to recognise when things have gone beyond one’s level.  You might be able to explain the current state of the research better than a whole roomful of actual researchers, but you are not, in fact, a researcher yourself.  In every field there are hoops to jump through – best-practice methodology and peer review being only biggies among the many – that are not simply arbitrary.  If you don’t have those on your tool belt, you just don’t.  A clumsy person might fairly evaluate the work of finish carpenters, but that does not mean they should be giving instruction.

When we watch a sporting event, it is always our fair lads being assaulted by the thugs from the next town over (and the refs refuse to acknowledge this).  When the Rosetta Stone was first exhibited at the British Museum, the French complained that the photo of Jean-Francoise Champollion was smaller than the photo of Thomas Young on the opposite pillar. The English complained that Young's was smaller.  The reality was (as you have guessed) that the pictures were the same size.

Deeply true, and yet often the easy way out.  Sometimes there is bias, and slant, and a refusal by the presenters to portray the data evenhandedly.  Then also, declaring equivalency, even when it is true, is a way to easily rationalise one's way back to the original bias in about 0.4 seconds.

What to do when the bias is real, but pointing it out is regarded as whining?

Yes, I am going somewhere with this within the next few days.

Friday, July 11, 2014


It has been over a year since my son Ben posted on his ten-four films blog, but he has started putting up posts on his trip to Rwanda.

Sculpture Miniatures

Fascinating miniatures of city street scenes, this one my favorite.  They capture quite well that moment when everything is past its prime - some gone seedy, some clinging to respectability - and is nostalgic without glossing over reality.  I didn't dare look how much they would cost.

Alan Wolfson is the artist.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Two PC Spirits

I recall reading years ago, possibly in some fringe evangelical thing in the late 70's, that Native Americans didn't even have a word for homosexuality, because it was so unknown among them.  That struck me as pretty implausible.  Homosexuality is widespread in the Old World.  Also, there are hundreds of Native tribes, so any generalisation about all of them collectively is almost definitely going to turn out to be a crock.

Not too many years after, I heard from a seminarian at one of our fine New England schools that Native peoples actually honored homosexuals, believing them to have special abilities to contact the spirit world and to be revered as shamans. This struck me as equally unlikely, and for the same reasons: that's not often, or maybe not ever, the case in other parts of the world, and there are still those hundreds of tribes, each with its own culture, to explain around.

Having been a theater major with an anthropology minor, I sized up pretty quickly that there was potential for some serious PC jockeying here. (We didn't call it political correctness then.  I don't know that we called the various advocacies anything as a group.) It wasn't going to be simple and linear, either.  Of course both groups could find a point of initial agreement that white Europeans, especially Christians, had persecuted a world of innocent victims,* but after that it would get more complicated.  I was betting that a lot of tribes might dislike the idea of being thought homosexual-admiring, however much they were going to be praised for it by college professors. I also suspected that there was going to be some overlap between the alt-religion and alt-sexuality crowds that wasn't going to sit well with the gays and Indians who didn't aspire to be especial alt-anything,  'cause they were aiming for mainstream instead. In particular, Cherokees who were also Methodists, or gays who were nonreligious, were going to hold this at arms' length.  My MicMac friend at work assures me she never heard even scandalous rumors about homosexuality among natives until she got out into the national scene.

She can get pretty angry about it, BTW. I'm just sayin'

Well, I remember wondering even then who was going to win this.  There was clearly ground to be captured in any victim conversation here, and who would claim it?  I figured, absolutely wrongly, that the righteous indignation of the anthropology professors would triumph over artists and dancers because of their prestige.  That was ridiculous. The LGTB crowd has much better writers than the Indians.  Even though "Little Big Man" was perhaps my favorite movie, and I thought it rather obvious at the time that the male native taking on the female role was likely some gay-sympathetic writer trying to carve out space for himself or a pal (My gay friends in theater were quite open about using scripts and choice of material for political purposes.  Why would movies be different?), the penny never dropped that this battle was already over.

And it is.  You can read about Two-Spirit folk on Wikipedia, which is as representative a source as to who is winning cultural battles as we've got, and see it all. It takes very little skepticism to note that the academic sources seem to rely largely on each other, and that references to actual historical - pre 1970 - such information about native languages, native culture, native religion, and native sexuality is scarce on the ground.  Fragments are being used to fit into a particular narrative about the flexibility of gender, and as usual, the Indians can't fight back.  You can go over to the Wiki Talk page about this article and it's all there.  Actual natives who say this is unhistorical, linguists who illustrate that the translations of key words are bogus - no matter.  They didn't make the final cut.

The pseudonyms the various contributors use are also a source of amusement.

Notice, as you are reading, that this is supposed to be an academic discussion - but how quickly the agendas, insult, and claims of not being attended to rise to the surface.  Whatever legitimate complaints any group has are not supposed to be the issue.  However, they seem to become the entire issue, and those attempting to keep the discussion fact-based have an uphill climb.

* And ruined everything.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Fred Gwynne

Friends of ours loved this years ago and tried to interest us.  I had loved puns, but this did not grab me.  I reread it a few months ago and suspect why.  The puns were already outdated in the 1970's and are hopelessly beyond the reach of children now.  Our four bears are from Scotland - who uses the word "forebears" anymore?  When you are bad you should do pennants - another seldom-used word.

It had the air even then of a book where adults got the joke, but children did not.  I have always disliked such things as unfair to children.