Monday, December 29, 2008

San Antonio

We are leaving for San Antonio tomorrow, then Houston. I will get online and post somewhere in there. I expect there will be something about Pagan Christianity and Jesus For President, possibly connected to some thoughts about King Philip's War and the teaching of history in Christian schools. Joel Stein's recent op-ed claiming that conservatives love America a whole lot, but completely the wrong way, while liberals, of course love America in the right way, deserves some comment. And I think I will compare old media hitting bottom to old churches.

We will not be going to the Fiesta Bowl, though Ben has reminded us not to wear red if we value our skins.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Three Years After The Miracle

Reposted from 2005: The Assistant Village Idiot Appears On A Sweet Potato.

That's me on the left, there. Sadly, it really does look like me. (Compare below)

Since then, I have learned that seeing patterns in random data is called apophenia.

Political Scandals of 2008

Political only, so Bernie Madoff and Rick Wagoner don't figure in this list. I'm sure they'll make some other list, and deservedly so. I am also not including things that are scandalous, like the bailouts, but aren't scandals per se. This is the money, sex, and power list. Who have I missed?

In no particular order
John Edwards
Elliot Spitzer
William Jefferson
Rod Blogojevich
Chris Dodd
Barney Frank
Charles Rangel
Kwame Kilpatrick
Ted Stevens (carryover from 2007)
Tim Mahoney
Jesse Jackson Jr.

Pipe Smoking

I got a shaving-soap refill to go with my mug and brush, and did a little research to make sure this item is not going to disappear on me (I imagine Vermont Country Store will carry such things forever, though).

I happened upon Peter Carlson's Washington Post article on pipe-smoking, which references a shaving brush in passing. Carlson gets it right. The pipe had a certain mystique that is now lost. There were a variety of personae associated with pipes - professors, sailors, farmers, detectives - all quite masculine, yet differing greatly. But pipes are labor-intensive, and require a lot of fiddling and carrying of stuff. They're inefficient in that way. You can't text-message and smoke a pipe in the same person.

I took up pipe-smoking my freshman year in college, or tried to. It was a common affectation then, yet none of us looked quite natural with it. It's a skill that takes more than a few months to do naturally, and most of us had a limit as to how long we were willing to look like goofs while getting the motions smooth. As the smoke is not inhaled, there is also no instant nicotine hit to your frontal lobes. The pleasure is more subtle. Subtle and college freshman do not blend well.

The main problem with pipes is that their tobaccos smelled better than they tasted. The smell of a good pipe always made you think "That stuff must taste great." But it doesn't. I thought at first that it might just be the cheap tobacco that impoverished students bought, but even my few experiments with expensive blends were no better.

Pipes are fun to play with, though. Nice to look at, and a whole set of sensory experiences around pulling out the pouch, packing the fragrant stuff in the bowl, and getting down the trick of lighting it. You will look at yourself in the mirror at first, but that's allowed for the first month.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Wyman Family Christmas Letter

Semper Fideles

Chris is sworn in to the USMC, awaiting Jan 5 to leave for Parris Island. He has considered the military from time to time, but only when his friends started pushing him to enlist with them did he really get on track. It was gratifying to see him studying all the math and vocabulary he had slighted in high school, now trying to do well on his ASVAB entrance exam - and more than a little surprising to see him heading out to run five miles to get in shape. This is not a son I am familiar with. The final irony is that his knuckleheaded friends, who can’t stay out of bar fights, did not get accepted. The current year’s schedule looks like South Carolina, California, Okinawa. This all adds up for Chris – his brothers all have a role as the Responsible One, the Brilliant One, the Handsome One – he didn’t have a definition in his own mind. Now he’s The Warrior. He’s going to be a HumVee driver, adding to our worries.

Can you look online and find me an open grocery store?

Ben got his first hurricane in Houston, Ike. The excitement of danger rapidly turned to the boredom of inconvenience, as he discovered his food stocks of bacon and microwave pizza were useless with the power out. He didn’t have batteries. He did have one candle. It turns out he was one of the lucky ones, only in the dark for two days, with no damage to car or apartment.

This marks his first Christmas away, but he came up over Thanksgiving, and we are meeting him in San Antonio for New Year’s.

In heaven, where all the restaurants serve Clams Casino and French Onion Soup, and smoking is permitted at the table…

After struggling with ill health for several years, Tracy’s mom died in February. The quote is from the eulogy by Mickey, Tracy’s younger brother. Though Ann was ready to die, both Tracy and especially her Dad miss her very much. Stuart is going through the house bit by bit. Every time Tracy visits he has a pile of “interesting” items for her to take home.

The next person who says “You’re only as young as you feel” gets it right in the mouth.

In the enclosed photo, taken at one of the few times this year that everyone was available, the man seated on the left looks suspiciously like my Grampa Wyman. Something just jumped out at me. I searched the features in an effort to identify the resemblance. Is it the tilt of the shoulders? The cheekbones? If I imagined his glasses on me and shaved off the beard… Well, he was bald. And he was old. There’s a heckuva start right there. Fortunately I liked him; I never noticed what a fine-looking man he was before.

That’s what I’m reduced to at this point, squinting at pictures of myself wondering who that guy is. But life is good. Good friends. Good books. Warm house. Internet access. Still posting as Assistant Village Idiot. I like my own company. The boys all have lives and are just about launched; Tracy looks younger than me, which works out pretty well, because I can still see just fine. I do worry that this is about the age that Bilbo got sent on an adventure. Would I answer that knock on the door? I think so. I think so.

I’m your favorite uncle, aren’t I Princess?

All three uncles vie for Emily’s attention, but John-Adrian is the most shameless. “Say ‘Uncle JA.’ You like me best, right?” He also tries to get Jonathan & Heidi’s irritable cat to like him, and the less friendly of our dachshunds (which Chris renamed “Paranoid Babushka.”) People like John-Adrian. Animals, not so much. He’ll have better luck with Emily.

He goes to school online, and will graduate with an accounting degree this summer. He works full-time for his girlfriend’s father, and they greatly enjoy each other’s company. His girlfriend Samantha gets most of the rest of his time. We keep looking at his mail from jewelers and raising an eyebrow at him questioningly, but he’s very private, that one.

Why Let All That Experience Go To Waste?

Caroline Kennedy, Al Franken. No wonder they thought Obama has enough experience.

New England Fan's Conflict

So now I have to root for Brett Favre for a week. The NYJets have to beat Miami for the Patriots to get to the playoffs (The other route involves Baltimore losing to Jacksonville, which is unlikely). But I hate Favre. I would love for Chad Pennington to show him up.

I haven’t always hated Favre, just sort of shrugged at him, but he has been a jerk this whole year. I suppose my best hope is for the Jets to win on kick returns, fumble recoveries, and bad calls, with Brett going 12-32 0 TD, 2 INT, while Pennington goes 25-32 with 4 TD, 0 INT. Final score 31-28 NY. That would feel okay.

And all of this is predicated on the Patriots actually beating Buffalo. The Pats have 2-3 bad losses this year, some close ones. 11-5 is not bad for a team that has an old defense and lost some of that to injury.

Britain BC, by Francis Pryor

Pryor is a working archaeologist who writes well, making a lot of technical detail relatively painless. He is almost chatty at times, and gives a clear picture of how archaeologists develop theories and change their minds in the face of new evidence. This particular volume is also quite up-to-date. Good maps and diagrams, great photos.

That’s all fine, then. On to the ideas. The first 80 pages cover the early Paleolithic, in which I have little interest. The homonids he discusses who lived from 40K – 500K years ago are not our ancestors, or the ancestors of any living humans. It is a pet peeve of mine that physical anthropologists emphasize – repeatedly – how similar to modern humans they are. Well, compared to mice, or even macaque monkeys, sure. But their tools consisted of flint hand axes and they didn’t have language proper. Granting that they had better communication than apes or dolphins, and that the technique of shaping flint is hard to learn, they still aren’t much like us.

They died out 40,000 years ago. Those were the Neanderthals, and though they lived in Europe and left some evidence of themselves, there is no real connection to us. So who cares? I don’t really get interested until the late Paleolithic, when new hominids came in who eventually turned into us. Those are the ones who did the cave paintings, who had actual language comparable to ours, had religious ceremonies, and likely put a few quid down on their rugby matches as well. They’re us. Still, Pryor writes well enough to have kept me going through the Paleolithic, so I can hardly complain.

Humanity doesn’t really pick up speed until about 8000 BC, and if you said 5000BC instead I couldn’t argue with you. This is when farming comes in, and increased trading. Landscape features start taking on more mystic significance, and people start using the same areas generation after generation for ceremonies, gradually turning them into the Stonehenges, Skara Braes, and Newgranges we try to decipher. Pryor is good at dispelling myths about these places.

We think of these religious sites as rather solemn places. I remember speaking softly inside West Kennett Long Barrow and gazing contemplatively at Avebury’s stones. I suppose I think of them as British, and so rather Church Of England. In use, they would have been filled with wailing incantation and hours of drumming, painted garish colors every year with rising smokes to make you dizzy. Families would return to the places that the bones of their ancestors remained throughout the year, and when they came to bring Gramps’s bones this year, they wouldn’t have done it off-handedly. They would have to move across the landscape from the lands of the living to the lands of the ancestors. People wouldn’t go there to have a few days off from the family and just think about spiritual matters.

Wood was used for the living, stone for the dead. There is evidence that this occurred even at subtle levels. The tempering agents used in pottery for domestic use tended to be plant-based; minerals for funerary pottery. It is interesting that there is still an echo of this in our funeral customs of transitioning folks from living to dead: flowers followed by wood coffins followed by stone markers. Many henge sites show post-hole evidence of being originally wood henges. Once the stones were erected, there were still posts arranged on the long ceremonial paths leading to them. Presumably the posts had something on them, and when they are in close rows, may have been used as screens to heighten effects of the journey.

The current thinking is that there were not a series of invasions or large migrations in the Mesolithic and Neolithic times, but that ideas of animal husbandry and plant cultivation came with only a few small tribes - the technology spreading rather than battle and conquest. Battle and conflict there certainly was, but similar to the frequent skirmishing of current hunting tribes, rather than armies and military campaigns. Over the course of a decade, the deaths in battle add up in such circumstances.

In the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, each tribe would have handled it differently. Some would have rapidly settled down and made beer, while at the other extreme some hunting tribes might only have modified how they followed the reindeer across the landscape, bringing in dogs to manage the herd a bit. Most would have been mixed for generations, even centuries, with some herding, some minimal planting or sowing each year in their patterned migration, and trade contacts with tribes that had made different choices.

I didn’t get to finsih it because it’s a Christmas present, but I may get a whack at it again down the road. The first 270 pages are recommended, anyway.


Storytelling is an art that people keep thinking should be the most powerful medium. It has a long history, after all, and in earlier days whole tribes would be held spellbound by a good storyteller. Therefore, the thinking is, we are wired for this somehow, and lack only the opportunity and a little encouragement to The Tradition for this art to really take off.

It's sort of like how professional soccer is always just about to catch on in America, or how Brazil keeps having a bright economic future.

I've done a little storytelling - I'm neither particularly bad nor particularly good at it. It's fun. If the storyteller is exceptionally good, sometimes it works. But most it sucks. It sucks partly because of the people who go into it. Storytelling worked when the people telling the stories desperately wanted to pass along their culture, often for religious or social reasons, and the people hearing the story agreed that this was all central to their existence somehow. Today's storytellers are multiculturally obsessed, and want to pass on something of interest from every culture except their own. This story comes originally from The Gambia, says the fishbelly-pale liberal with the irritating voice. So that we know that it's all terribly important somehow.

Example: While looking for something else, I came across a storytellers newsletter (which seems rather contradictory, really). The star being interviewed that month had this to say:
When the most powerful country in the world has a choice between being a shining light of democracy or the bully of the world; when millions around the world go hungry while advanced technology could feed them; as AIDS spreads, families struggle to make ends meet, terrorism threatens the fabric of global existence, and a young athlete is given ninety million dollars to advertise sneakers made by companies that globally exploit child laborers, we need stories. We need stories to keep our hearts, souls and ethics intact. We need stories that fill us with the desire to do good for others: to make a humane mark, large or small, a mark that makes a positive difference. We also need songs and ballads, yes, musical stories that ring out with loud and clear messages.
It's amazing how the world always seems to need exactly what the person you are talking to provides. You can catch her whole essay here - it's a hoot. Are we surprised that Joe Hill and Mother Jones figure prominently?

The more recent issue provides a photo of the new board on page 2. Which would tell you everything if page 1 hadn't already done so.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


A few social workers who work with children were discussing funding for special education. It is a chronic problem for them, as their charges often need very specialised, expensive services that school districts are reluctant to provide. Parents who are attempting to obtain services for their children are familiar with how quickly it can become adversarial with the people in the district controlling the money. It all makes sense, of course. Budget-watchers are supposed to be cautious with the money. Parents are supposed to help their children get educated.

The curious part of the conversation was how quickly everyone at the table agreed that it was better in Europe. I asked for examples, data. All were puzzled that I didn't just know this. Everyone knows that Europe has more widely available health care, that fewer people in Europe are poor, etc. It only stands to reason that they would provide better SPED services as well.

I said I doubted it. Then I went to research what happens in Europe for special ed and specialised mental health services and found I was just about right. There is a lot of variation in services among European countries. Comparisons are exceedingly difficult for the usual apples-and-oranges reasons. Different countries define special needs, emotional disturbance, and psychiatric illness differently, and have different approaches how they want to attack the problems.

Where comparisons can be made however, The US doesn't look so bad on special ed. Nor on mental health services (sidebar links). Nor on overall neurological , mental health, and substance abuse services. In general, you can find 1-3 countries in each small category that does better than the US - the other forty or so are behind us, and the overall average for Europe is behind the US. And it's not the same 1-3 countries each time, either, though Finland is up there most of the time.

We have people out there we can learn from. We can do better. But there is not some mythical area or country where everything is much better. We do well.

It is worth noting that most countries have the same problems of funding. Lots of expensive solutions don't provide much in the way of outcomes. Even excellent, state-of-the-art treatments can often only ameliorate, not solve, brain problems. And the most money goes into those children and youth with multiple problems, where the rate of return is even lower.

It's a good thing to do. Relieving suffering is good. Helping people improve is good. I don't resent the cost. But I also don't feel crushed with guilt about this. I see enormous resources poured into bad-risk patients every day. I don't see our society as hateful simply because people wish they could do more.

Awesome-O's Second Law

Comments over at Volokh Conspiracy just tickled me for some reason. The original post was about an essay by a sportswriter deploring the lack of reading in today's yout' and how that bodes ill for the republic. It's a topic I have touched on many times in my 1600+ posts. I take a contrary view. I think modern education is slightly better than education in my generation, even with all the PC idiocy that gets injected. Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good For You, how well American students compare to European ones in real life, and the misjudgments we conservatives make about education are all in here if you like. I do believe that education needs to undergo radical change. I just don't believe it was all that great 50 or 100 years ago either.

It's worth noting that I say that as one who comes from the fanatic fringe of reading.

Awesome-O's comment is worth sharing:
These dumb kids and their lithographs! Why, in my day, all we had were woodcuts. We didn't have any of this fancy metal lithography crap, and we were smarter for it.

Earlier in the comment section he had offered:
Okay, it's time for Awesome-O's Second Law: Society appears to be getting dumber because the observer's intelligence and/or knowledge continuously increases relative to that of society's average member.

This isn't really an example of Awesome-O's Second Law, but I always like to use Doonesbury as an illustration of the naivety of youth.

When Gary Trudeau started the strip, the older character were dumb and unenlightened, and the college-aged characters were brilliant and insightful. Now that the strip is what, about 40?, the older characters are wise, and the college-aged characters are mouth-breathing dolts. It turns out that whichever age cohort Trudeau is in is the smart one.
This accords happily with my Influence of Doonesbury post in 2006.

It took me awhile to find Awesome-O's First Law, BTW. It's nowhere near as gripping: "Any mention of Catullus will prompt an immediate use of a form of the verb irrumatio."

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Reading historians, and especially anthropologists, it is easy to see why they tend to be very liberal in their politics. Their identification with Western civilization in general, and America in specific, is counteracted by their identification with other cultures. I don't mean that they necessarily favor other cultures over ours, but national and cultural loyalties are weaker for them. Our country perceives itself to be in danger and wishes to go to war; they can instantly name a dozen other cultures that felt as strongly about defending their way of life. Because all times and places have their loyalties, they see loyalty as a constant, and all loyalties as somewhat equal. Because New Guinea tribesmen or minor Celtic kings got all worked up about their own power and influence, they see American aspirations as little better.

They consider it their job, in fact, to point out to the rest of us how unspecial we are. With that as a mindset, it is easy to see why they would reflexively oppose wars - don't all nations feel justified? Doesn't every culture try to use its religion to support its secular aims? Didn't the Mongols equally believe they were worthy of conquering others? Also, they often adopt a cultural neutrality in their professional work in order to better understand a culture. They train themselves not to conclude too quickly that something is good or bad. Therapists, another batch of liberals, do much the same professionally.

Because it is their cast of mind professionally, they easily gravitate toward believing that this is a good way to think generally. That's rubbish, of course, but it is the rubbish of certain educated people decade after decade, so it's worth taking into account. They are not going to stop thinking like that. People in the social sciences are going to believe in social equivalence, no matter how ludicrous it seems.

We, however, can step back from them a bit and observe them from the outside, much as they observe the rest of us. They delight in going against the common wisdom, seeing good and usefulness in things we call evil, and pointing out that what we call good is evil from another perspective. Unless you have done this type of thinking yourself, you can't know how delicious it is. To see what others miss! To understand what others dismiss! It is so ubiquitous in these fields that the participants no longer see it as a type of thinking. Does a fish know it is wet? They believe it is Real Thinking, which they can do and others only attempt.

Because they know all the black hats and white hats are actually gray, they become unable to distinguish between shades of gray. If one carries that thinking to its extreme, there is never any cultural or moral progress, only change. They don't actually believe that in their heart of hearts, of course. They have strong opinions about what constitutes a good society. Cultures that treat social scientists as special people and fund them generously are good societies, for example. Cultures that believe in moral equivalence in matters of sex and religion are good societies.

Just for fun, let's take an opposite view as better for mankind in the long run. We should always root for the side that is 51% righteous against the side that is 49%. No dithering, or apologies, or faintheartedness: if country A is slightly more humane, generous, intelligent, whatever, we should assist it against country B. Even if A wants to wipe B off the map, we should be on their side. Eventually, we would all be better off, right? Four, five centuries of this and we'd be a better people.

It sounds like a shoddy morality to us because the percentages are so close. But this is in fact how Western Civilization has moved forward, and brought us to a place where lives are long and few citizens are absolutely wretched. We can usually do better than 51% morality if we look for it - the northern states versus the southern in the the 1860's, for example. If we required then that we wait until one side is the 80% moral one and the other 20%, we would never have freed the slaves. Real people and real cultures never get to that superdominance in morality. But rather than being a reason not to go to war, as social scientists think, perhaps it is actually a justification for some wars. The enormous human cost makes marginal moral gains not worth it. 51-49 is out, then. How about 60-40? 70-30?

It is legitimate for those who greatly oppose wars to try and push the requirements as high as possible. But those who live under injustice think that it might be justified at 51%. Certainly, there is a point at which it is a sin not to eliminate the evil.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


The Celtics won their 16th straight, getting up into the territory where sportswriters just have to comment about where it falls in relation to the record and to other streaks. As they aren't even halfway to the record, and it really doesn't matter, it gets rather tedious.

It was good to catch up on Atlanta again. They are a very good team, just a little thin on the bench. Two more rotation players, or one starter that pushes a current guy back in the rotation, and this is a championship team. Al Horford turned out to be a much better choice than Joakim Noah.

Disappointing Book & Solution

One son picked a book about CS Lewis from my wish list to receive as a stocking present. He found this annoying, that I would ask him would pick from my list. The alternatives are worse, of course. For a main present we of course check his list, but for stocking presents he would be entirely dependent on "what Pops thinks he will like," or worse, "what Pops thinks he should have." He cut his losses and chose.

The purpose, of course, is that I can read the book before I give it to him. My brother and I have for years regarded this as a perk of giving books to each other, and I just transferred it over to my sons.

This particular book is disappointing, however, which adds to the difficulty. It is Peter Schackel's Is Your Lord Large Enough? It's accurate enough and in no way objectionable. Schackel does indeed capture some main points of Lewis's thought and set out the questions. He chooses his quotes well, which gives a good exposure to a variety of works by Lewis. It is the quotes from Lewis, Chesterton, and MacDonald, however, which highlight the flatness of his own writing. Worse, it has discussion questions at the end of each chapter (shudder). For the first forty pages I mentally composed a short note I would include with the book to render it more readable. At the top of the list was a directive to ignore the discussion questions or at most, read only the first one each chapter.

They were good enough questions in their own way. They were exactly the sorts of life-changing thought questions that all of us would profit from. They reflected exactly what one should ponder from Lewis. There just didn't seem to be any need to answer them. Or to do more than skim the Schakel writing between the Lewis quotes. It all seemed a lot of effort for a small return.

If the point is to read Lewis quotes, why not get something actually written by Lewis? So I did, and one that I think fits Ben particularly well. Lewis can raise large issues quite on his own without any help from modern commenters. That's where I should have started to begin with. He'll get two books, and may even get more juice out of the first one than I did, now that he knows its pitfalls.

Primary sources. How could I forget such a basic rule?


What some call health, if purchased by perpetual anxiety about diet, isn't much better than tedious disease. George Dennison Prentice, 19th C American newspaper editor.

There are people who strictly deprive themselves of each and every eatable, drinkable, and smokable which has in any way acquired a shady reputation. They pay this price for health. And health is all they get for it. How strange it is. It is like paying out your whole fortune for a cow that has gone dry. Mark Twain

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Unfounded Optimism

With the wild swings in gasoline prices, perhaps the general public will grudgingly accept that price is sensitive and complicated, and not merely the result of evil oil companies trying to screw us.

And perhaps the collapse of the Big 3 automakers will suggest to people that they don't force their choices on us with their nefarious advertising, but are trying to guess what we want - not always wisely.



During the power outage, the battery radio picked up very few stations. I decided that I liked the idea of Delilah - always encouraging, always sympathetic, understanding the sentiment of even the most banal stories - better than the actuality of Delilah. I'm glad she's out there, I really am. She's good for the world. We can all learn important lessons in humanity from her.

I'm taking my lessons in small doses, however.

Victor Borge - Inflationary Language

And as a bonus, an older film, that he comments on. I think he is actually playing those pianos.

Political Ignorance

The survey from the Wilson Research Strategies folks was certainly gratifying to conservatives, showing that McCain voters had a wider, and more accurate fund of knowledge about the election than the Obama voters.

But let’s take it apart a little. McCain voters knew which party controls Congress 63-27, Obama voters 41-43. That seems a rather basic point, and that 27% of the McCain voters didn’t know it is hardly cause for celebration. While it is certainly even more distressing that 43% of Obama voters didn’t know it, 41% of them did. That’s what such statistics mean. They are an estimation of the knowledge of a collection of individuals, not an aspersion that the 41% are dumber people than the 63%. If it were closer, we might attribute the difference to race: blacks as a group often overestimate the control that Republicans have over congress. Perhaps that comes from a strong emotive impression that Republicans are the white-people’s party, and white people clearly control congress more than black people, leading to the false conclusion that Republicans control congress. New voters and low-information voters are particularly susceptible to such misinterpretations. That black voters would include a higher percentage of new and low-information voters is hardly surprising, given the cynical view many African-Americans have about national politics. People put their mental energy where they think there is some payoff, whatever their race. Involved African-Americans gravitate more to local politics.

But 63 and 41 aren’t that close, so race cannot be the main explanation for the difference. A whole lot of white people got that wrong to put up those numbers. Not so many new voters in that group, so low-information must be taking up the slack. Yet they got the salacious rumors knowledge down pretty accurately, so they had some sort of information. Unfortunately, they seemed to have the sexy, tabloid-through-People Magazine information. Obama cleaned house with that group. The survey doesn’t show that readers of Mother Jones and The Nation are less well-informed than readers of National Review or Weekly Standard (they may be, but this survey doesn’t tell us). It does show that people who read the popular culture voted overwhelmingly for Obama.

Those people are still gong to be around next election, and the election after that. Even when they vote for candidates I like, they are going to be voting for them for dumb reasons. Conservatives can dent that with a long education campaign, and we should. But even a brilliantly-organised and focused performance, we will only pick off a few of those votes. We will also solidify the reasoning of a few or our own meatheads, which is a good thing, but not nation-changing.

Ilya Somin has it right. The national political process is always going to include these pop-culture voters, and therefore will include elected officials who won their votes. The trick is to give government less power, so that fewer decisions are made by this crew.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Power Outage II

The power was out for 60 hours. We used the last of the wood we’d put up for the Y2K crisis. Yes, those last pieces were punky, but when the house is at fifty degrees you shove in anything that will burn. The ice storm of 2008 was more eerie, coming during a full moon; no artificial light, but stark moonlight bearing down on the icy branches. Familiar scenes took on unreality, a martian child’s recreation of your neighborhood. The decorations down the street, where the entire lawn is given over to Christmas displays, had a skeletal appearance, frozen reindeer and angel-shapes motionless beside the black stream. With the power restored it’s back to its cheery, random self now, penguins and shepherds cavorting incongruously. I’ve looked down my nose at it all these years, but no more. I love it.

The changes in amount of ice according to altitude were dramatic. There was a clear line at about 500 feet elevation: below, there was light ice and a few branches down; above, thicker ice and branches everywhere. Driving up Mills Hill in Dunbarton was to cross through three clear zones, with changes at 500 and 750 feet. That hill is one of the best places in the state to observe such things - a 6% grade for 1.7 miles through overhanging forest.

Class envy reared its ugly head the night the power went out. The people next door and behind us were unaffected at first, and I watched resentfully from the porch as they watched their TV's. They were in the same boat soon enough, but then they got their power back before we did as well. Happy, fortunate people are so irritating when luck goes against you. I read recently that this is hardwired into us, left over from the centuries that we lived in small bands where strict egalitarianism was necessary for group comity and survival. I am always ashamed to find such pettiness in me, but it reminds me again why such resentments are potent politically. For others to have something they "don't deserve," while we go without grinds against us. Our own good fortune - many people are still without power here - is no longer a matter of gratitude, unless we make a specific effort.

Forty-eight hours is about the crossover point between temporary inconvenience – something of an adventure, really – and the hunkering down for the possibility of major problems. The inefficiency of it all is draining. Everything requires flashlights. Precooking on the woodstove, switching to the barbecue, then not daring to go back down to the stove again. There’s always the chance that this trip will be more involved than just throwing on a few logs, and the chicken will blacken. In the end, it’s two hour’s work with only a simple meal, a refilled hurricane lamp, and a fresh wheelbarrow load of wood to show for it.

Modern people entertain the fantasy of going back in time and impressing the benighted with the brilliant technologies we could create on the spot. Not unless you had someone to meet all your basic needs while you were doing it, you wouldn’t. There wouldn’t be time for you to fabricate even the simplest inventions. I mentioned a year ago how few spare calories people had for extra labor before 1800, and there weren’t many spare hours either. You might get to explain to someone about prestressed concrete or carriage-springs, but you’d likely not get the chance to demonstrate them. Little energy, little time, little light after sundown.


Alleys get a bad rap in our culture: darkened alley, back-alley, alley cat, blind alley. Criminals are always lurking in them, or trying to inveigle respectable folk into them. It never seemed so to me, growing up in a mill city. Alleys were the semi-public area of the neighborhood. If it was your neighborhood, it was a friendly place – a shortcut where everyone was familiar. In other people’s neighborhood things were a little dicier, not because it was a haunt of thieves, but because you were a bit of intruder. You were allowed to use any alley; it wasn’t like cutting across someone’s yard. Your presence was suspect, however.

For reasons obscure to me, there are many more alleys in my childhood city, Manchester, than in its sister cities to the north and south along the river (Lowell, MA may be an exception). Most only extend a block or two, but several run for five blocks or more in the central city. Any alley that didn’t connect all the way through to the next street wasn’t an alley. I don’t know what we called it, but it wasn’t an alley. They are from a common era, when people had stables/garages in back, and few people had yards. Turn-of-the century through the 20’s, I think. Just a little later and folks had driveways to the street instead. Cars instead of horse, I imagine. The exterior back staircases of triple-deckers or apartment blocks emptied onto an alley more often than to a side walkway.

Several Manchester alleys have graduated up, becoming named streets: Berkley St, Nutfield Lane. I suspect that happens for addressing purposes, when a back-door or delivery door downtown becomes a front entrance and needs an address. It doesn’t happen out in the residential sections.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Power Outage

The power just came back on after being out since 12/11. I'll get something up soon.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

All-Blacks Haka

I didn't know what a haka was until my brother sent me the clip. I knew the New Zealand All-Blacks were traditionally intimidating, but this scares the pants off me right through the computer screen. It's fine as long as you're just watching it as a show, but when you look at these guys and think of grappling in a scrum or encountering two of them in the open field...

It's when you see the other guys looking at them warily, and realise that hell, they are Six Nations Rugby professionals, and they look a little uncertain.

Letter On The Dollar

The capital letter beginning the serial number, which is also shown in a little seal, used to fascinate me as a child. You could tell which Federal Reserve Bank had printed the note - where it had come from. A was Boston, by far the most numerous; B New York, C Philadelphia, etc. We seldom saw anything else up here in NH. To see a J, Kansas City, or an L, San Francisco, was a rarity. Money didn't move about the country as much as it does now. I didn't have an internet to look up the information on then, so I wondered where I or K came from. Someone at a bank or a coin shop could probably have told me, but I wanted to discover them on my own. I didn't know E was Richmond until I went to college in Williamsburg. I didn't know K was Dallas until just now.

How had the bill migrated this far, I wondered. What wild chain of events could have moved money from Minneapolis to here? Such things are unremarkable now. I have no interest in "Where's George," following the current travels of a bill, because the many possibilities are too easy to see now. In 1964, a bill coming from Atlanta, Georgia might as well have come from Tbilisi, Georgia.

Did the five-dollar bill have the same letter codes? Probably, but fives were as rare as bills with a G then. I first carried a twenty of my own in 1970 (two, actually), to pick up my tux for the Junior Prom.


I should be switching over to Twitter at this point - blogging is passe - but I'm not an instant-network sort of guy. I don't do much where it matters to even my most intimate friends that they know right away.

I can see where we might have used it traveling when the boys were older, instant messaging "Metro 1 Stop 3 Lunch 1:30?" and receiving 3 OK's and an "I M @ Stop 3, where r u?" but those would all have been in Europe. It would be great in an emergency of some sort, which usually means "blizzard" up here, but I would have to be charged up and facile enough on normal days to be useful in an emergency.

I wouldn't be as bothered by the textspeak anymore - I regard it as a code I don't know, not bad English. When the next tech level comes and it's all by voice it might get weird. Those of us who mutter to ourselves may find our disjointed thoughts going out on network.

Let The Punishment

With our prisons overfull there has been considerable effort to keep nonviolent criminals out functioning in society. Yet in the case of the politicians, financial traders, and mortgage salesmen who have just screwed us over, public sentiment runs high that we should find something more entert - appropriate than mere community service. Individual service – the opportunity for taxpayers to lease these scofflaws from the government – seems deeply satisfying on an emotional level, and provides further income for the national treasury as well.

Q: Isn’t this slavery?
A: No, no, not at all. It’s more like indentured servitude except…okay, yes, it’s darn close.

Q: Is that legal?
A: We’ve struck plea bargains with the lawyers involved who are going to work that out for us. Apparently, it matters more what you call something than what it actually is.

Q: Great! Is it going to be expensive?
A: We expect so. It will be a supply-and-demand thing, so certain categories will cost more than others.

Q: Could you give an example?
A: Younger women are scarce in this bunch, so we’re figuring they’ll go seven figures for a year’s contract.

Q: You mean, there could be, like, sex involved?
A: We didn’t figure folks have a lot of cotton that needs to be picked.

Q: Are these people attractive, then?
A: Well-dressed and well-groomed would be closer to the mark. Some of the finance people are good-looking. The politicians have silver hair.

Q: Wait a minute. Aren’t these people going to object and get lawyers of their own to contest this?
A: Most of them haven’t noticed any difference from their previous jobs. The terms of service are a little different, but they’re all in familiar territory.

Q: I don’t think I have much need for an actual slave. What can they do?
A: They’re mostly for show. It’s not like they’re any good at yard work or changing the oil. Some people use them as chauffeurs. They know how to drive expensive cars, they know where the best restaurants are, and they look good in those suits.

Q: I can dress ‘em up, then?
A: Some people lease two or three so they can put them in livery. African-Americans like to give them lanterns to hold.

Q: Really? You’d think that previously oppressed – what’s so funny?
A: Wealthy young AA’s are our target demographic.

Q: All those rich young athletes and entertainers, you mean?
A: Surprisingly few. Black professionals get more of a kick out of this. They like lending them to their parents or grandparents for a week or two.

Q: Aren’t some of these, uh, servants black themselves? Don’t they object?
A: We offered to exempt them, but these dumabasses sued to get treated like the others.

Q: Is it possible to set up a shorter-term contract, like just for a weekend?
A: No, a year’s lease is the minimum. It takes that long to break their spirits. And frankly, people want to return them after a few days, which doesn’t go anywhere toward rehabilitating them.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The March of History?

Many folks think history is going somewhere. It was required for marxists at one time, for it provided the only possible justification for doing evil things now. Many brands of Christian not only believe that Jesus will return, but that history is moving inexorably toward that in some fashion we can discern. Teleology, the idea that things are going somewhere according to some design, is not only a Christian idea. In fact, however much Darwin maintained that survival was all that was measured by evolution, his belief that we are improving, and expect greater improvement to come, suffuses his writing.

In law and society, we see a pattern of rights being progressively extended to more and more beings. In Western Europe, rights of the nobility gradually became rights of adult male landowners (if they weren't felons or from the wrong church). Rights of women and other races came in unevenly, with property rights, rights before the law, rights to education, and voting all being granted in no particular order. Taking this as a pattern, some now wish to extend rights to animals.

But what if it's not a pattern? The thinkers of the Enlightenment described a course of improvement leading from the Dark through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and then their exalted selves. That Classical Greek and Roman thought occurred before this should perhaps have been a clue that there was no general trend here, but they found ways to work that in as well.

At summer studies in 1970, one of the courses was Western Intellectual History, because it was still fashionable to believe that the Enlightenment had basically gotten it right, and we had gotten even better since then! The idea that Western thought did not merely describe a set of ideas, but represented some slow but inevitable development was quite common. It was as if we could not help but have come to where we are - progress could be slowed or diverted, or even set back for a time, but would resume its march (notice the image from that word).

Well, no. We didn't have to end up here. We didn't even have to basically end up here, or mostly end up here except for the details. Retrospectively, so many things look inevitable, as we can see them "grow" out of past events. But association is not always cause, and certainly not determinative cause.

Pluck, Or Luck?

Malcolm Gladwell has a new book, Outliers. A review of it is here. What Gladwell himself says about it is here. One of the primary contentions of the book is that luck plays a greater role in our success than we think. Successful people tend to see their skills and efforts putting them where they are, and even take a sort of offense at suggestions that luck played a major role.

Gladwell does not make it an either-or by any stretch, but the controversy comes with how much luck is involved. As an example, he gives the example of Bill Gates as the only 13 year-old offered unlimited access to a mainframe computer in 1968. He logged 10,000 programming hours before graduating high school. What would happen if a million other children were offered the same thing?

As regards the outliers, the wild successes, I think Gladwell is correct. However much effort and pluck one shows, all of the biographies contain an unusual circumstance, a chance most others do not have.

The converse is also true, however. Many people have extremely fortuitous chance favor them but do not make anything in particular of it. Other people at Gate's school presumably also could have weaseled access to the U Washington computer. My high school had access to the Dartmouth mainframe on a similar time-sharing plan. I wouldn't have had unlimited access, but I could have done much more than I did. I basically spent a month in the summer of '70 heavily involved in programming in BASIC. I knew a few people who did a lot more.

Most people did not have that opportunity that Bill Gates had. On the other hand, the few others who did didn't use it the same way. Pluck can bring you moderate success fairly reliably. It has poor predictive value for outrageous success. I will note, however that an unusual number of the game-changing people in the world were self-educated, Gates being a prime example. But Benoit Mandelbrot, Rush Limbaugh, JK Rowling, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison - all of these had some education, but learned what made them outliers on their own. Perhaps the self-educated open themselves up to positive Black Swans more often.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

YA Novel & Twilight Popularity

Knowing how irritated I am by girl-coming-of-age novels, vampires, and popular culture in general, it is surprising that I like Caitlin Flanagan's essay in Atlantic. I am even going to forgive her for saying something nice about Judy Blume.

Perhaps it is because she notes in the first paragraph that children's books about problems, such as Mama and Daddy Bear's Divorce, that "the enterprise seems doomed from the title." Such creations, which are stuffed in the category of Children's Literature even though they aren't literature, and are written to comfort parents rather than children, are one of my favorite things to deplore.

The oblique reference to Bruno Bettelheim in the second paragraph also charmed me.
Divorce in a young-adult novel means what being orphaned meant in a fairy tale: vulnerability, danger, unwanted independence.
Using a problem to set character or to move the plot along is quite different from explaining to children how they are supposed to feel.

I do contest Flanagan's belief that children's literature has focused on intact happy families until recently. The opposite is true. All the way back to Little Women, The Five Little Peppers,Anne of Green Gables, and The Secret Garden, the families in children's books often have missing parents or other tragedies. Young girls were always being sent off to live with some relative because their mother was sick or their father was at sea. As Ms. Flanagan doesn't dwell on the point, this chroncentrism, the belief that only we moderns really get it, doesn't muck up the rest of the essay.

The problem with adolescent desire, both male and female, is that it is felt so strongly that it demands to be regarded as important, even when it is banal. The young person cannot put into words quite what the feeling is about; by the time s/he can analyze and explain, s/he is beyond it. We reach the stage where we no longer feel the importance so strongly. The feeling can be illustrated in literature and video, but it cannot be explained - thus the intense identification females who read fiction can have with the protagonists.

Caitlin Flanagan comes closer to "getting it" than most adults, and can draw the curtain back a bit.

Post 1600 - European Socialists

The New European over at Transatlantic Politics wonders how long the EU will be smitten with Obama. The quotes he pulls from a Belgian talk show, featuring US Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker are a reminder. We have such people. We seldom elect them.
In Belgium "the army must first and foremost seek peace", as one Socialist lady senator put it. Quite some ally there for the US…
"Diplomacy first", meaning "talking to the Talibans" was the idea advocated by former Belgian foreign minister Louis Michel, currently an EU commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid.

Note: interesting info about Europe and Russia at the link.
Conservatives have worried that Obama will turn out to be a European socialist, and was only moderating his already-liberal positions in order to get elected. We feared he would lurch in the above direction once the election had passed.
But even at his pre-campaign worst Obama never sounded quite like this. Right from the start he seems to have grasped that the army is for fighting, and other parts of the government do the peace-seeking part. We worry about American liberals because they are too convinced that some really bad ideas will work if we just try harder, and their unwillingness to consider an entire of buffet of ideas that have some track record. We forget that their European versions have lost contact with reality. A whole different ballgame there. There isn’t a real comparison.
I admit I didn’t even consider the possibility that Obama would tack even further to the center once elected. I expected the snap-back to Daily Kos territory. That he might be moderating his statements in order to keep the far left (who supplied lots of money and volunteering if not votes) from bolting did not occur to me. It may not play out that way, and the current “pragmatic” Obama may be just one more feint to keep foes off-balance. But there is some chance that the man may actually want to govern, and is taking it seriously. Clinton had moments of that, and I imagine Carter did as well, though I can’t think of any offhand. But the Democrats have not had a president (or nominee) who takes governing more seriously than his own image since Johnson. (Which is why it is impossible for them to imagine that a Republican would do so).

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Real Terrorist Motives

Wired's Bruce Schneier has an excellent summary and cogent commentary on an academic paper by Max Abrahms on The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Terrorists. Abrahms idea, seconded by Schneier, is that terrorist groups are far less political than they advertise. The religious and political claims are smoke-and-mirrors, just distracting rationalizations for disaffected (and somewhat unstable) young men.

Abrahms marshalls quite a bit of evidence for his points. Fascinating read, from International Security.
Abrahms has an alternative model to explain all this: People turn to terrorism for social solidarity. He theorizes that people join terrorist organizations worldwide in order to be part of a community, much like the reason inner-city youths join gangs in the United States.

The evidence supports this. Individual terrorists often have no prior involvement with a group's political agenda, and often join multiple terrorist groups with incompatible platforms. Individuals who join terrorist groups are frequently not oppressed in any way, and often can't describe the political goals of their organizations. People who join terrorist groups most often have friends or relatives who are members of the group, and the great majority of terrorist are socially isolated: unmarried young men or widowed women who weren't working prior to joining. These things are true for members of terrorist groups as diverse as the IRA and al-Qaida.

For example, several of the 9/11 hijackers planned to fight in Chechnya, but they didn't have the right paperwork so they attacked America instead
HT: Carl at No Oil For Pacifists.

Triple Double

I was hoping and expecting that Rajon Rondo would get a triple double sometime; but I figured he would just nose over the top of it with 11-10-10 or something. Tonight he had 16 points, 13 rebounds, and 17 assists. Heckuva game.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The New Dreamcatcher

The children's unit at the hospital displays artwork in the lobby year-round. Yesterday a new batch went up, netted circles with feathers and bark decorations. These dreamcatchers have a new twist, however: words woven among the threads. A little sign informs us that these are Hope-And-Change Catchers.

It's pretty obvious where the Rehab staff's political sympathies lie. But I'm not going to complain. She has no idea how perfect an illustration that is.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Understanding Jewish Thought

The title is of course ridiculous. We might as well pretend to sum up French thought in a single essay, or feminist thought. I only hope to give a beginning.

Christians encountering the Talmud have an immediate suspicion about all this conversation or argument about truth. In the Bible, truth is truth, and statements which contradict each other cannot both be true. This idea of reading the inconsistent commentaries for wisdom seems uncomfortably flexible, as if any fool thing might be allowed. The Christian wonders: Do you believe your book or don't you?

A slight change of perspective might be illuminating. Jonathan Sacks wrote a brief explanation twenty-five years ago that has stuck with me, and this commentary is an expansion.

What is wealth? In BT Shabbat 25b, four rabbis answer:
Rabbi Meir said: He who takes pleasure from his wealth.
Rabbi Tarfon said: He who has one hundred vineyards and one hundred fields, and one hundred servants working on them.
Rabbi Akiva said: Anyone who has a wife who is pleasant in her ways.
Rabbi Yossi said: He has a toilet near his table.
The order is important, as we shall soon see. Rabbi Meir gives the normal thoughtful person's answer. Were we to sit around a table and discuss this (as we are to imagine the rabbis doing), we would come up with something like this very quickly. We could go on in this vein for some time, discussing our expectations, our confidence in tomorrow. our ability to see things in perspective. This is the sort of one-off quote that makes it to daily calendars or church signs. It contains a large measure of truth, but it is not surprising in any way. All of us, when in our best mind, could come up with something like it.

Rabbi Tarfon will have none of it. Wealth is wealth, he says. Don't pussyfoot around with your philosophising. We all know what a person means when he says another is wealthy. Pretending otherwise is being too clever by half. Had Rabbi Tarfon's comment opened the discussion, it would merely be the foil for the others to challenge - the worldly, rather unimaginative view. But coming after Rabbi Meir's comment, it has a different meaning. It is a caution not to be so heavenly minded that we lose touch with the real world. It is a jolt back to reality.

Rabbi Akiva attempts to go deep into the matter, stepping aside from the idea of goods and treasures and into the heart of reality. A rich man with an unpleasant wife would trade all his goods for a wife who treated him with respect and honor. But a poor man with a pleasant wife would not trade her for great wealth. Applying this standard to all the good things a person might have - learning, luxury, honor - she would be the most valuable at every comparison. Therefore, a wife who is pleasant in her ways is the greatest wealth. All the other non-monetary wealths are implied in this comment. Once we have broken free of the idea of luxury, any number of other valuable pieces of a life could occur to us, all the more abstract and emotional ideas. Rabbi Akiva does not mention a wife as a starting point for such ponderings, but the endpoint. He has taken all these into consideration. He sums up.

Rabbi Yossi gives what seems at first to be a stupid, even base answer. But if you imagine him speaking at table with these other learned men, the wisdom becomes clearer. "Well, right now I'd settle for not having to walk so far to get to the loo." He breaks the tension with a joke, but one with meaning. Let's not get carried away with ourselves here. The simple things matter as much as the great thoughts. As Akiva's comment is an extension of Meir's, so Yossi's is an extension of Tarfon's. What troubles us at the moment can rob us of our wealth. Today it is having to leave a table of friends and a good conversation to relieve myself. Tomorrow it will be something else.

Taken together, the four lines of thought lead us into the main ways of thinking about great issues. Any of us might spend a year considering wealth from this starting point and learn a great deal, even with no other input. There is challenge, humility, out-of-the-box thinking, and perspective here.

The Talmudic lesson is not presented as an essay, but as a conversation, or even an argument. It is interactive. Others are necessary to find wisdom. Even after you have spent your year contemplating wealth in terms of Shabbat 25b, you can only realize this wisdom in conversation with others. The question is never quite fully answered - one must remain connected to the community to achieve wisdom. Observant Jews have individual prayers, but they must also have a minyan (usually ten) for prayers and matters of sanctity. There is great suspicion of a wise man trying to fly solo in Judaism.

Christianity has more of a tradition of individual contemplation and wisdom - the Desert Fathers and other mystics would be the extreme of that - but a tradition of fellowship and community arising out of Judaism is even stronger, though we often don't notice it. Throughout the OT God speaks of being present "in the midst of the congregation." The NT reduces the number absolutely necessary to two or three gathered in Christ's name, but records many groupings of believers taking counsel together. Paul, and John of Patmos are forced by circumstances into isolation, but this is treated as an exception. Some contemplatives have been hermits, but more of them have been in community.

In your next reading of the Gospels, keep this picture of discussion and argument in mind. Jesus speaks as a rabbi from something similar to this tradition, and how He treats the conversation about important questions, and where he places Himself in the argument is fascinating. New things will jump out at you from the Scriptures, especially in the parables.