Tuesday, July 25, 2017


Lelia posted an interesting article , translating a common interaction for the benefit of those on the autism spectrum. Briefly, when neurotypicals (NT’s, Muggles) ask what you are doing – what are you reading, what game are you playing – what they mean is somewhat at odds with the literal meaning of the question.  As those on the spectrum tend to be more literal and are likely to answer the question literally, they may seem unwelcoming.

Communication has large amounts of context, tone, and habit in it.  An NT asking “what game are you playing?” has already communicated a great deal before the words are fully out. I am approaching you at a certain distance, with a certain tone, that expresses that I am interested in you. I may or may not actually be interested in the game you are playing.  It’s just a conversation starter. Are you interested in a conversation? You can start with telling me something about the game, as it clearly has some importance to you. But I could move to another topic if you prefer.  If the NT had called out the question from another room the meaning would likely be different, closer to the literal content. What’s the name of that game you’re on?  Yet you can see why a person on the spectrum would find this a bit unfair.  You asked me a question.  I answered the question that you actually did ask.  I have a good deal of sympathy with that attitude.  I also put great stress on literal content, and the more frustrated or irritated I get, the more pronounced this is.  Autistic traits are often just exaggerated versions of more common traits. Or, to describe that another way, they are common traits, but some filtering or balancing mechanism is missing. There are enough of us in the family that show mild versions of some spectrum traits that I am surprised that we have not had an autistic person show up among us.  Not even an Aspie, really, though we always got on with them more readily than most.

Monday, July 24, 2017


I followed track and field for many years, and still pay a little attention to it.  Marty Liquori and Jim Ryun were childhood heroes of mine.

There are finishing kicks (and I love these)

And then there are comebacks.

Hunter has gone under 3:57 for the mile indoors and under 8 minutes for the 3000. He might figure prominently for the 2020, 2024, and 2028 Olympics. (Even though YouTube is allowing an embed, the video has disappeared.  If it happens again, the link is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIg9kXIvNt0)

Interesting family.

The Real Engels

Andrew Stuttaford reporting over at NRO on the moving of a statue of Engels from Ukraine to Manchester, England, had a reminder of what the real Friedrich Engels wrote.  Tristram Hunt's cliche that millions have been killed in the name of Christ probably deserves some correction, but it has been done so many times, with so little effect on the popular mind, that I don't think I have the energy at present. It is at least worth mentioning that millions died under communism not because of "interpretations" of what Engels and others wrote, but what they actually did write.

A hospital chaplain - Princeton PhD, ordained UCC - once told me that more people had been killed in the name of Christ than any other name.  I'm thinking that Mao and Stalin put up some big numbers in a few short decades (as opposed to 20 centuries) and note that the deadliest wars have been Asian and wars of aggression been Moslem. Christians persecute those in their midst rather than invading abroad. Christians have done much invading over the years, certainly, but largely for economic reasons and to secure trade. Not the same thing. Invoking Christ has been a frequent tool of justification, but seldom even the declared, face-saving reason for war.

The Follow-Up Gazette

James has a great idea. A news source that tells you what happened after.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Gun Control

Grim linked to a story about grandparents arriving to take custody of their grandson, but being prevented from doing so until they had given up some gun rights - and the judge was quite explicit about this.

I work among these human service people who disparage gun ownership and gun owners.  They put forth bad reasoning about European gun ownership and homicide, or curious statistics about gun death that are circular, but my conclusion after years of knowing them is that this is not what really worries them.  If they come from big cities, they are sometimes really worried about black people with guns but won't say that (though they come remarkably close unintentionally when speaking privately). But in NH, they are usually worried about white people from another culture.

It's pretty basic.  People who own guns are not from our culture.  They come from over the mountain.  The people over the mountain are dangerous.  They want to enslave us and take our food. They are stupid and cannot be reasoned with. Beware. 

They have absolutely no insight into how often their public comments reveal what they are thinking. I used to think like that myself, and I hear them saying now what I said then. They believe that only dangerous people want to own guns (though they admit that most gun owners aren't very dangerous), and they believe that having a gun nearby activates violence and makes everyone more dangerous, and the two effects are additive.

Chomsky In Ruins

I just finished Tom Wolfe's The Kingdom of Speech and found it pretty convincing.

I have said for years that as much as I objected to Chomsky's politics, I thought his reputation as a linguist was deserved.  I counted myself a believer in his Universal Grammar and even his later Minimalist Program, though I later learned that everything I thought I knew about the latter was inaccurate.

Misunderstanding Chomsky is not new for me.  I encountered Transformational Grammar and Universal Grammar as an undergraduate and thought they had something to do with a new hippie way of understanding things and how we are all so much alike, despite our different cultures.  Likely, I was getting muddled by associating them with his leftist politics somehow. Also, reading the textbooks would have helped. Still, somewhere in the 1970's I understood the basic concept that the human brain is hardwired for language, and that there are pieces already in place, a basic toolbox, used to acquire language. I have maintained it solidly for years.  So has nearly every other linguist until recently.

I caught wind of some of his opposition from Collier and Horowitz's The Anti-Chomsky Reader, which came out in 2004, but I didn't pay much attention to it.  I was more interested in the political arguments. Plus, the concept of a hardwired Language Acquisition Device is such a cool idea.  It would be so great if it were true. So I was not much motivated to hear anything against it at the time, despite the association with Chomsky.  There was also Steven Pinker, a Chomskyite disciple, who I also liked.  Only recently has he been able to say even mildly negative things about his work. Over the last decade this opposition has intensified, yet I still wasn't much interested. I picked up Wolfe's book knowing that he had supposedly undermined Chomsky, but I doubted he could do it.  A talented amateur may have something useful to contribute to any field, but he is likely to slip up in areas beyond his expertise. Still, I like Wolfe and I like linguistics.

Wolfe does not himself undermine Chomsky.  He reports on the other linguists who have left the theory of Universal Grammar in ruins. In particular, he tells us about Daniel Everett, who lived among the Piraha in the Amazon, learned their language, and found it emphatically did not fit what a dedicated Chomskyite (which he was) would expect.  It was a solid enough counterexample to the idea of Universal Grammar as to be a disproof. Larry Trask of the University of Sussex was happy to tell The Guardian 
I have no time for Chomskyan theorising and its associated dogmas of 'universal grammar'. This stuff is so much half-baked twaddle, more akin to a religious movement than to a scholarly enterprise. I am confident that our successors will look back on UG as a huge waste of time. I deeply regret the fact that this sludge attracts so much attention outside linguistics, so much so that many non-linguists believe that Chomskyan theory simply is linguistics, that this is what linguistics has to offer, and that UG is now an established piece of truth, beyond criticism or discussion. The truth is entirely otherwise.
You can get more of Trask's argument against the whole enterprise here, in his review of  Chomskyite disciple Mark Baker's book. He notes that one of the weaknesses of Chomsky's theorizing is that it was largely based on English and some related languages. (There has been some work to broaden this, but not so much as you'd think.  Apparently.) Even committed leftists are going to have trouble with that these days.  Trask, an expert on Basque, was always well-placed to see the holes.

Part of Wolfe's (also vicious) fun is in recording how vicious and unprofessional Chomsky has been in response. I admit I did not know what many linguists have long known, that Noam Chomsky flat-out lies, evades direct questions with person insults, and will work behind the scenes in linguistic journals and departments to destroy reputations. "...a deep contempt for the truth, descents into incoherence, and verbal abuse of those who disagree with him." Tom opens and closes the book with the dreadful irony of Chomsky and others having to admit in a 2014 paper "The most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever."

For the record, I had read some negative reviews of Wolfe's book but am not persuaded. Those I read reasonably point out that Wolfe makes very great claims, not well supported, for his own ideas of what speech is and how it comes to be. But that does not alter the fact Wolfe is drawing on the work of other linguists, and his attacks on  Chomsky's character, however intensified by dramatic language, is based on Chomsky's words and actions, not mind-reading, as Tom Siegfried does of Wolfe.

Wolfe's book is recommended on other grounds.  He details how Charles Darwin jobbed Alfred Russel Wallace out of credit for the theory of natural selection, and gives enough gripping detail from Daniel Everett's adventures in the Amazon Don't Sleep, There are Snakes to sell a few more copies for Dr. Everett.

A note on Dan Everett, unrelated. He was a teenage convert to Christianity and married the daughter of the Methodist missionaries who pulled him from his LSD-soaked wandering in 1968.  He soon went to Moody Bible Institute and their language program, was revealed to be exceptionally good at learning languages, and was sent to work with the Piraha - the language of which had eluded even talented others - in order to bring the gospel, not study them. His faith began falling apart "influenced by the Piraha's concept of truth."  I have to say, that sounds like any exit would have looked good enough.  I don't accuse of him of dishonesty, but perhaps not so much insight into his own motivations. Still, he has done much that I have not, and I don't want to criticise too glibly.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Cultural and Political Influence

I recall Evan Thomas, editor of Newsweek, claiming in the late 1990's or early 2000's that the effect of the media was worth 10-15% in the polls. (Did you know that he was the grandson of Norman Thomas, BTW?  It figures. See also, this afternoon's post about the parents and grandparents of public figures, The Right Sort.) It was an overestimate even then - it would have been correct for 1990 -  but was interesting in that it was one of the few admissions from the lodge that is the legacy media that they do influence the vote. I had maintained for years that without that advantage the Democratic Party would have ceased to be viable and would have had to change to survive. (Helloooo, James Webb for VP.)

There had been a lot of conservative insisting in the previous decade that the dominant media displayed significant bias, despite their claims of fairness. There was a lot of handwringing in the opposite direction, deploring how much influence Drudge Report and talk radio were having, because those weren't objective news sources and people were being INFLUENCED by them.  When Fox* News came on board in 1997 the long knives were immediately out.

Jonah Goldberg at National Review had a response to the complaints about the growth of conservative media that I think still holds. I am paraphrasing from memory:  Well, then, let's trade. Conservatives get the NY Times, the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and most of the other newspapers, plus the AP and UPI.  We'll take over ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and PBS.  You turn over Hollywood and academia to us, and the major publishing houses, including the textbooks.  Wait, I'm not finished. You give us Time, Newsweek, all the women's magazines, plus most of the political magazines.  In return you can have talk radio, the Wall Street Journal (usually), Drudge Report, Fox News, Weekly Standard, and National Review. Deal?

The territory is different now, and the internet has definitely allowed the many types of conservatives and libertarians to get their word out more. Newsweek and Time are gone. Yet I still think that the idea behind that trade should occur to us when there is wailing about the influence of conservative media, as if this is some sort of fifty-fifty deal where both sides have to try and improve and be a little fairer.  Liberals control great swaths of the media still.  How much influence do they have?  I think it is still great.  I no longer have a good intuitive sense, as I follow it all less and less. But I still think the Democratic Party would not survive without their assistance.

*I have never seen Fox News, BTW, except some linked clips, some of them trying to show it in a positive light, some in a negative.  Oh, and the unedited feed you can get on a cruise ship.  I watched a few minutes of MSNBC, also. I've heard a lot about them, but that's not the same.  My videographer son tells me their production values are less good than other networks.

No, That Won't Work

I have had recent occasion to observe young people raising their children and disciplining them (or not). One sometimes sees articles from a positive perspective about how children should be raised. "Make sure they know that you love them."  "Take time to listen." "Instill in them a sense of wonder." My goodness, what rubbish that all is.

Being a negative and critical person, my responses are quite different. I watch young parents all the time, listening to what they say and thinking No, that won't work.  I am guessing that this group will have had some similar experiences. I am curious what things you notice and what advice you would like to pass on in the form of No, that won't work. Don't be afraid to point out the obvious. Apparently even bright, educated, responsible, kindly parents miss the obvious. I often did. In fact, try not to stray too far from the obvious.

I will start. Do not offer a reward to a child beyond their time-understanding, which is usually minutes rather than hours.  A promise of ice cream this afternoon if you will obey Mummy right now is meaningless to a young child. All they hear are the words ICE CREAM, which they then want, right this second, and screw you and your sitting still/finishing your carrots/lying down for a nap.  It may even be a stretch for a six-year old*, unless you are intentionally trying to - gradually - teach concepts of time or delayed gratification. Ditto for removing a reward.  Saying "You won't have any ice cream if you don't eat your veggieburger" is largely meaningless unless that ice cream  is pretty much coming out of the freezer and into view right now. At which point you either get some veggieburger action or a complete meltdown.

*Hell, it's a stretch for adults, lots of the time. I'm thinking I might go and get some ice cream, which I shouldn't have.

Country Music

I have been away for a week, and am just putting these up now.  I have more to write about, but there is a lot to do around here.  Maybe tomorrow.

Unable to get my usual stations on a recent drive I listened to Darius Rucker’s country CD and a country station. Modern country music continues to have a deep separation from the older style. Even “classic” country music is pretty recent these days. More Leonard Skynard than George Jones. The modern examples are mere recitations of Southern icons.  Sweet tea! Sunsets! Live Oaks! Daddies! Bars and Saturday nights! And boots, boots, boots everywhere.  Ain’t we southern? Let’s work “Carolina” into as many songs as possible. Just make sure you’ve got that pickin’ style, bent notes, and the accent in there. There’s not much content, just a checkbox listing of Southern items.

I wonder what the equivalent would be for New England?  Many decades ago New England, especially Maine, also had country music, before Roy Acuff decided that Nashville was going to become not just a center but the center. Had all that played out differently, what would be New England icons songwriters would put in to show that they were real New England? To even make the list is to sound silly, because maple syrup, beans, or lobster don’t naturally lend themselves to any verse but comic. Cape Cod and Boston, maybe, but not much else conjures the way a hundred place-names in the south do. Part of that may just be volume. People from Vermont are gratified when entertainers mention them, but they applaud a bit and nod approvingly rather than whoop and holler. (Okay, some of the boys did whistle loudly and cheer but we pretended not to notice.) People drink in New England, and drink hard, but they don’t seem to write songs about it.  Check that.  Sometimes the Irish do, but we associate that with Irishness, not New England.

I’m not sure how you’d even write the song about how thoroughly New England your girl is, and every guy in the bar knows it.  Bean boots? Tough to dance in, but maybe if she’s just standing in line.  Ski boots, even worse, but skis might a marker.  My gal and her Rossignols.  Mother walks into the diner and orders fish chowder.  Walkin’ through the Berkshires, my Daddy told me… Hey, now, James Taylor did get “the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston” in there. That’s a start. We have trains and people even ride them, but there aren’t any songs about “Waiting on the Old Acela Line,” nor does anyone think you are authentic just because you said “Acela.” Offer some guesses as to what this contrast means.

Country music used to be about stories, “three chords and the truth.” It was a first cousin to western music, and second cousin to folk music. It was an art of those writers and performers to get you to care, and deeply, before the first verse was over.  Its vanishing may be one more signal that the underlying Southern country culture is disappearing, leaving only a few decorative items behind. Many ethnic groups had celebrations when I was younger, but they eventually became hollow, dragging a few kids out and stuffing them in costumes and making them do a dance or two. A few foods kept alive. Pierogies.  Baklava. Corned Beef.

I wouldn’t think those country music images are going anywhere soon, and the underlying culture – whatever that actually is - will persist a while.  It’s a big area, with a lot of people in it, and there’s a pile of money to be made still. Yet it will be increasingly Disneyfied, celebrated in circular fashion for being itself.

The Right Sort

David Brooks came up in conversation at beer night last night.  One of the participants knew him slightly from his political work in DC. Brooks has a recent essay that has set the chattering classes abuzz, but I would like to focus on a subsequent essay, about Trump’s grandfather, father, and son Moral Vacuum in the House of Trump. It is not half-hearted in its declarations of the moral weakness of the family as a whole. It does not mention possible bordellos in passing, but as central to the narrative.

Just for review, because regular readers will likely have already noticed the obvious, but it is still supposed to be my job to point it out.  The facts laid out by Brooks, including the speculation, are probably true, or close enough. What he concludes from those biographies is one-sided, but perhaps not unreasonable. However, I don’t recall similar examinations and indictments that Bill Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s forebears resulted in stunted character development. Both had bigamist fathers and mothers who left them with grandparents at tender ages. Just for openers. Does that matter?  One can say yes or no, but I think one has to give the same answer for all presidents - or even all candidates for office. If it matters enough about Trump that David Brooks should make a big deal about it in the NT Times, then we should be able to find similar warnings about moral weakness from Brooks in the Times on, er, others.
I return to a longstanding claim of mine, that liberals are very concerned with being the right sort.  This is a tendency, not an absolute.  There are certainly conservatives who take this attitude, and liberals who do not. Yet the trend is unmistakable. Liberals consistently argue that conservatives are bad people to the core, or ridiculous people who just don’t Get It. To read Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd is to return to highschool, where eye-rolling is argument, and lack of style is a sin.  Late night comedy is much the same (except it has progressed as far as college fashionableness.  Still eye-rolling, though. ) The cool kids, defined narrowly.

Barack Obama “overcame” his background and learned how to signal being the right sort of person, right down to the crease of his pants. He not only went to Columbia and Harvard Law, he be became them.  Arkansas Bill Clinton figured out how to no longer be the stepson of a used-car salesman, by going to Oxford and Yale Law (or more probably, he had figured a lot of that out beforehand but improved his game at those places). They embraced those fashions.  You will notice that in neither of those cases does character enter into it.  That only becomes important if you are unfashionable, like Trump. Or like George Bush cutting brush on his ranch, betraying his breeding.

The scene in Hillbilly Elegy in which Vance is quite overtly being interviewed to see if he can become one of the elite impressed me deeply.  He makes fun of himself enjoyably, informing us that he ordered chardonnay because it was easier pronounce than the other wine they offered. Yet nothing about this dinner with the powerful measures his abilities or his character in any way.  It is all about whether he has the makings of being the right sort. 

I have known conservatives I predicted would eventually become liberals because of this personality type, this being influenced by admiring the fashionable.  Not the popularly fashionable, the hoi polloi, but the deeply fashionable, the Inner Ring, as CS Lewis called them.  I also predicted the same thing in reverse, of people who seemed to be natural conservatives in temperament despite their liberalism, but this has not turned out the same.  I don’t know why.