Sunday, December 16, 2018

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Andrew Sullivan has a remarkably good essay about American religion at the Intelligencer. Sullivan does not always get it right by any means, but I think his strength is that he is willing to reach far with an idea to see if he can make it work.  Sometimes he reaches too far and he is not convincing. In this essay, I find two general faults, but they are not destructive to his overall point.  While it is true that all human groups are wired for religion, and many people who believe they have no religion do have one, just not one they acknowledge, there are individuals who don't seem to have any gene for religion. That over half of those who believe this about themselves are deluded does not change the fact that some are not.  I have been convinced most on this score by my communication with people who think they would like to believe, who see themselves as the sort of people who might have a faith and have no strong emotional or intellectual objections, yet just can't believe, not Christianity, Judaism, nor anything else on the buffet.

His second error, unsurprisingly, is about Trump supporters.  He is distressed that 81% of evangelicals supported him in the end, and thinks that invalidates a claim to Christian practice he might otherwise have credited. (I believe him on this, BTW. He seems quite generous in his estimation that the lovingkindness and devotion of some evangelicals exceeds the human average by a great deal.) I have explained this so many times that I grow weary, and I am not the only one.  Voting for someone is never a 100%-0% proposition, and many times people are voting against one candidate or proposition than for another. But significantly, if you keep telling them how stupid they are for this and force them to repeatedly defend their 60%-40% preference, they will gradually become 65-35. then 70-30.  It is human nature that if you keep being extreme yourself in accusing them of being 100% wrong, you will harden them into a more extreme position in order to defend against your extremity.  I said many times during the election that if you thought Hillary was a criminal, untrustworthy, and opportunistic but you just couldn't stomach Trump I would have no quarrel.  It's only when people insisted (as relatives of mine did) that she has been falsely accused, harassed, and beleaguered all these years but has answered all these accusations admirably and with grace that I have to consider you simply insane.

I have gone far afield, and hope I have not dissuaded you from reading the essay, because it is excellent.

The First Noel

I would rather listen to them than watch them, but they didn't overcomplicate and over-sexy this one.  Just wonderful arrangement and harmony.

I love the guy who acts as percussionist.

Sports Fan

I go into most games expecting that my team is going to lose.  Certainly most big games. I suspect it is a hedge against disappointment. Those of similar mind up here blame it on growing up under the shadow of the many variations of losing that the Red Sox were able to manage through 2003.  Maybe so, but that was not true of rooting for the Celtics, who won a great deal in the 50s-80s. Down by 12 points three minutes left?  No problem.  Larry Bird will hit four 3-pointers. That Fenway malaise did not carry over to other sports.

One would think the New England Patriots, and to a lesser extend the 21st C Red Sox and the Brad Stevens Celtics would have cured me of this, but apparently not.  I don't think the Patriots have that good a team this year.  Of course, I didn't think so last year either, and they went to the Super Bowl. They actually were good the year before that. I can no longer remember if I was perennially worried that season or not.

One would wonder why I follow sports at all, with that attitude.  I wonder myself. Perhaps it is the joy of being pleasantly surprised, or at least relieved.

2018 Wyman Christmas Letter

Our Christmas card list is odd, mostly people that we now live far from and knew long ago, plus relatives.  A few friends. We have less news this year, but that hasn't stopped us from going on endlessly. 

A Picture of Pops Face Down In A Cake - David had a small blur in his visual field that suddenly got worse just before he left for Nome in March. It turned out to be a macular hole, requiring surgery. Not a big surprise - you get older and parts of your body decide to malfunction.  The (ahem) interesting part is the recovery, which involved being face down almost constantly for a week after. In his case an additional month of being mostly face-down was needed.  You rent an apparatus like a massage chair and plant your face in a cushion.  It looks very much like the traditional photo of children with their first birthday cake, excitedly going face down in the fluff.  It was a source of amusement for all of us. Almost all of us. Emily and Sarah came over to read to their grandfather. Sarah had just started second grade and her book had considerable repetition. Emily is in fifth and read an entire book of Halloween riddles to a trapped person.

The Song Has Ended…But the melody lingers on. This is a lyric we used to use when sleepy children had nothing left to say but were, unaccountably, still talking. It is nice to see that happening still in the next generation, and not have it be our problem.

There Are Lots of Bald Eagles at the City Dump.  Tracy went to a young friend's wedding in Juneau, which she found to be a place of great beauty.  New places always means new birds to look for. The places of beauty and the birds do not necessarily coincide, but Tracy was very happy to text back to the rest of the family about the eagles. It's an odd text to get out of the blue, even from Tracy.

VIP Backstage Party - Third Day, Tracy's favorite band was on its farewell tour, yet the closest concert was in NYC.  They did have one in Houston, however, which she took as an opportunity to visit Ben.  He knows people who know people, and was able to swing VIP backstage passes for the event. They also went last-minute dress shopping, as Texas churches are more formal in their attire than New England ones;  Ben learned that Tracy hums to herself more every year. We are fortunate that doesn't bother David, as he doesn't get over irritation well and she doesn't seem able to stop. Also in Houston, Tracy met friends of Ben who already wanted to be Wymans, and thought so even more after meeting her.  Of course they do.  Everyone wants to be a Wyman. 
Can I Wear Your Tiara? David visited John-Adrian, Jocie, and the girls in Nome in March just in time for the Iditarod. It was all happenin' dogsledding events while he was there. This included Miss Alaska coming up for the week, and our granddaughter Aurora was entranced to see her. Aurora is a bold child and never struck dumb even when starry-eyed, and asked if she could wear the young woman's tiara. Graciousness must still be one of those things they look for at those pageants, as she suggested that Aurora might get one of her own when she grew up. Aurora stalked her at every stop from there on in. People who like to hunt and fish have plenty to do in the warmer, lighter months in Nome, but we're not sure there is much going on in the weeks they don't have an Iditarod to keep them busy. David got to see the frontier, Aurora's school, and JA's friends in Nome. One of them seems like a Wyman.  Maybe he should be. As above.

I'll Make You Hip (Reprise) - for those keeping score at home, it was almost ten years ago that Kyle came to live with us, and our first Christmas letter with him aboard included his promise to David "I'll make you hip." He has grown up and moved into places of his own, currently in Concord, where he works at the Post Office, and I think he has admitted defeat about the hipness.  Ben had said at the time "Better men than you have tried and failed." It's nice to be one of the immovable forces of the universe.

I Don't Know What It Is - We hope to move to smaller digs with less walkway and lawn in the next year or so. This involves fixing things long neglected, or paying others to fix them for us, so the cost is either time or money. New roof, new heating, new septic, radon mitigation…and such construction as new railings for the porch steps, so that Tracy doesn't fall and smash her face (again) while ascending.  A simple enough task for a deft and capable person, but we don't have any husbands like that here.  As it had been looking like Tracy had been punched, however, David had considerable incentive to get the job done. We have also been ruthlessly - hahahaha, no not really - sorting through things to give or throw away.  In the matter of the tool bench, David now has a small collection of items that he has no idea what they are used for, but are clearly Very Nice Ones, if you ever needed one of those things. It seems a shame to throw them away, so we may wrap them as stocking presents for the sons, who will of course be thrilled.

The Change From Mercedes to BMW.  Chris has moved to the mainland in Norway, on the other side of Tromso, and switched jobs from the Mercedes dealership to BMW. He has a girlfriend named Maria, who we have only met on Skype.

The Mayor of Bethany - Ben visited this summer while we were at Pilgrim Pines and came out to have some beach, used bookstore, and childhood nostalgia time, as he usually does.  While talking to someone at the beach he tried to describe his connection, mentioning Tracy.  The other person understood immediately who he must be. "Yes, we know Tracy.  She's sort of the mayor of Bethany."

What Is A Funeral?

Ann Althouse links to a story about the funeral of a young man who committed suicide. There is certainly a lot that it odd about the story. Clergy usually do respect the wishes of family in what is said and done in a funeral.  I don't know if Roman Catholic clergy are more likely to paddle their own canoe on such matters. The family apparently tried to interrupt him during his homily they were so upset.  They also asked told son's previous highschool football coach to leave the service, because they felt he had mistreated the boy in a string of insulting incidents over the years.  The coach, stung, commented about it negatively on FB and was fired for it. His comments included the idea that people should blame him because that's how society is now, and no one will look in a mirror.  That seems an insensitive thing to say about parents sho have just lost their son.  On the other hand, the mother is quoted as contradicting him by saying they did not blame him.  Well, yes they did. They may not have blamed him for the suicide - nothing is said of that - but for how he treated their son, and their other sons, the did publicly blame him.

The Archdiocese of Detroit apologised to the family, agreeing that the priest should not have preached as he did and promising he would not preach at funerals anymore. The news story quotes clergy from suicide comfort groups in Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, stressing that how we view suicide has changed, and we are more likely to note that mental illness plays a role in many suicides (the article does not say this is the case in this particular suicide), that situations are complicated, and there is no longer a blanket condemnation and insistence that the person is going to hell. The Catholic catechism does not make such a statement, focusing on the mercy and sovereignty of God in such situations.  I don't know how that was taught in earlier years. There is also the matter of copycat suicide, and not encouraging in any way that other young people do the same.

It is, as I said, odd. I think we tend to defer to the person perceived as closest to the deceased as the most affected person and most deserving of having things his or her way.  When my mother died, we deferred first to the wishes she had left in writing, but in everything else to the wishes of my stepfather. I have a theology which respects marriage as one flesh, and consider the spouse's needs to be highest.  But also, my brother and I mostly didn't want to get into a fight about things when he shuttled us off to the side, rather invisible. Though he was insulting us in a way that would have hurt my mother, our "making a scene" about it would have hurt her more.  Yet notice the primacy we give to what she would have wanted.  It is quite natural, but it does miss the fact that the funeral is for those grieving.

So, all this and I don't know enough to have much opinion about the matter. There is clearly much unsaid. There is a piece that jumped out at me, however.  The family - or at any rate, the parents - wanted this to be "a celebration of his life." That is a phrase we hear a lot now, and I wonder if it does not get us off point a bit.  I think my first experience of it was the funeral of a girl a year behind me in highschool, who I had known from church choir growing up.  She was a wild child, and got drunk, drove fast, and crashed into a barrier when she was fifteen. Another friend was distressed because she didn't have a black dress to wear to the funeral, but her mother reassured her that "Peggy was very full of life," so the white dress was not inappropriate.  That struck me as a wrong note even then. I think attendance matters more than what colors one has available, and in our crew not many girls had lots of dresses.  If white is the best you have, that's acceptable.  Yet black is traditional for a reason, and in the absence of black, gray or other subdued colors were substituted. An essay by Theodore Dalrymple on the decreasing somberness of funerals has stuck with me for over a decade.

A celebration of life is a fine thing.  Yet it is not the only thing. I don't know what early Christian funerals were like.  Were the important affairs at all? I do know that there have been Christian cultures that engaged in paroxysms of public grief. The Congregationalists of the 20th C may have gone in for ultra-subdued remembrance and private grief, but their ancestors of the the 17th could drunkenly throw themselves into graves in anguish. (It was more about the confrontation with death, memento mori, than about remembering the deceased, though.) Yet the faults of that extreme should not send us to the other. A funeral is for grieving. Isn't it?

Something I learned years ago in contemplating one's own funeral is that we are very likely to say "Oh, it doesn't matter!  Just put me in a box and say a few prayers.  I'm not really there." But when we consider how the body of one we love is to be treated we rebel instantly against the idea that it should be handled with anything less than great respect.  Whether the deceased is present there or not, that body was the only house they knew, and all we have of them for the moment.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Beginning in Iowa

Biden is leading and Sanders is second in the polls.  BT from Kentucky calls it "the Statler and Waldorf primary."


Because I have answered many questions on the Intelligence and IQ categories on Quora, I attempt many of the questions about being smart, improving one's intelligence, and all those "Is there One Weird Trick to being a genius?"  I don't answer about genius at all, as I don't have a clear enough idea in my own mind what it means, so I shouldn't be spreading my ignorance to others.  When I use the word at all, I tend to use it about an idea or single framework ability, not as a description of a person, as in "she had a peculiar genius for bestowing the perfect compliment for encouragement." I answer the "intelligence" questions very specifically about IQ, or about general ability.  For specific abilities, such as music or spatial visualisation, I tend to use the word talent.

But most of all, I redirect the questioner to the idea that Wisdom is more important than Intelligence.  Because it is. Every religious tradition within Christianity and Judaism are adamant on the point, and as well as I know other traditions, they universally agree.  No group of thinkers that has thought long and hard about the good life, the meaning of existence, or the definition of virtue has even mentioned raw candlepower, so far as I can see.  If anything, the closest equivalent "cleverness" seems to be associated more with evil or chaos, as in Milton's Satan, or Norse Loki. Intelligence is a wonderful attribute, like beauty, artistry, strength, or gracefulness. Yet it can be used for evil and manipulation, the same as those others. It is morally neutral.

There are many approaches to wisdom, but I prefer to highlight the Western Civ tradition that comes down to us from the Greeks through the Medieval Church: Three Theological Virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity; and Four Cardinal Virtues, Justice, Fortitude, Prudence, Temperance.  If you have been practicing those for a few decades, you're pretty smart, regardless of what your IQ is.

Reasonable Arguments

It pays to remember that if people had a reasonable argument they would use it. Like an attorney hired to defend you, they have to say something. If a terrible argument is the best they've got, they will use that. Pound the table and all that.

So too with morality.  No one says "There is no black and white, only shades of gray" when they are trying to persuade you to take the higher ground.  The statement is true, of course, in this fallen world; yet when people think their POV is more moral - that it is more honest, more kind, more generous - that's what they go with.  They go with the shades of gray argument when they feel you are being unnecessarily technical, impractical...

...or sometimes, just inconvenient to their desires.

Fantasy Football Design and Scoring

I am in two fantasy football leagues, and have been int two others, all with different scoring. One is a family or nearly-family league, ESPN PPR (point per reception) scoring with minor tweaks - no kicker; the second started in 1979, originally played by postcard and phone. I only joined last year. Its scoring is designed to reflect actual scoring, with only minor bonuses at high levels for yardage. Interceptions and fumbles are not tracked, and there is no defense. The point was to be able to keep track of the whole business in your head, very simplified.  That is still a considerable advantage for pleasure of play, even though the computer can do the decimal-point arithmetic for you now. That league also has a home-field advantage feature of designating one backup player whose production can count instead of a starter at his position, after all the week's games are played. Nifty.

One son and I designed a league where 8 members drafted four whole NFL teams each, and were able to use any of those players. It was required to start two defenses, I believe. I was the only one who liked it.  (I also had thoughts of a league with lineups very close to an actual NFL team's positions: 1 QB, 1RB, 2WR, 1RB/WR, 1TE, 1K, with 2 Defense/Special Teams. I would have divided that into 1 D, 1ST, but I don't know of a format that allows that.) A final league I got into by accident while trying sample drafts. It was 2QB standard scoring and I didn't pay much attention to it.

People argue about these things, and some are quite opinionated.  First among complaints is that points should not be awarded for receptions, because no such points exist in the real game. Nor do interceptions, fumbles, and sacks score real-life points, though folks usually concede that they do have some correlation with points eventually scored. Similarly, a player who racks up lots of yardage, only to see the eventual scoring go to a kicker or short-yardage back doesn't have his value accurately reflected. Most leagues do not give the QB full six-point credit for a touchdown pass, or QB's would dominate scoring even more. (The 1979 league does award 6 points.) When people want to change rules or redesign leagues, it is usually in the direction of wanting to make it more like the game played on the field.

I think this is not only a difficult goal, but an undesirable one. A fantasy football lineup does not consist of people playing together for a common goal.. It is an aggregation, more like a batting lineup than a football team. Also, in actual games the defense and special teams count for as much or more of the value of a team, while in fantasy they only account for about 10%.  I suppose one could play two defenses and have a multiplier to put them on par with the offense, but fantasy defensive scoring doesn't reflect actual value that well to begin with, so there would be increasingly unfair and unreasonable results with a multiplier.

While it is true that scoring that is increasingly untethered from play on the field could become ridiculous - and thus not much fun - I don't think realism is the best overriding goal for fantasy*. I think the idea of player value should be strong, simplicity is always good when it can be managed, and rather obviously entertainment is what everyone is looking for.  Regarding player value, I think the new idea of points-per-first-down is superior to PPR. I think  QB value is tied to playcalling as well as throwing, and so total yardage, or total team scoring, should somehow be factored in. OTOH, a QB that only leads his team to 200 overall yards is something of a negative, so perhaps awarding points for team production should only start at 250 yards or so.  I still like having to play two defenses, and I dislike extra bonuses for long completions.

*Come to think of it, that's true for literature as well.**  Good fantacists try to keep reality in mind, but there are reasonable exceptions. Tolkien's battles are not much like real battles (though better than some more realistic authors), and Lewis was distressed when someone later pointed out that beavers could not have fried fish in butter in a winter world where cows could not graze. True, but it pays to remember that these were beavers with a sewing machine, so let's not get too hung up on such details. Tolkien's leaders of the West might have embarked on strategies that no general in any era would have attempted, but he wasn't going for a military science lesson.  He was trying to teach that in times of horror and confusion, sometimes clear-headed calm and courage is enough.

**As far as personal fantasies, about winning the lottery or a Nobel Prize, I have no idea.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Get More Sleep

I mentioned before that I had loved the book Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker. It has changed my habits.  Now the University of Washington finds that a later school start is improving outcomes for highschoolers. Of course it does.

The difficulty is that parents want the extracurriculars, especially sports, as much as the students do. I was tied for the most activities in highschool according to the yearbook, in a class of 424.  And that wasn't the half of it, as I had other activities unrelated to the school. Church. Y. Music. Theater. Football.  I now think those things were not very valuable. There is some value in working together toward a common goal.  There is some value for the whole student body, and even the community at large, to have something to cheer for.  Just not a whole lot of value. Not compared to being awake in class, and marginal kids having less time to get in trouble.

School should be school. I didn't think so twenty years ago, but I think so now.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Communist Influence

One of my Romanian sons sent this.  Please push through it a bit, even when it is not fascinating at the moment.  People should remember.

Pedigree Collapse

With all the focus on Ancestry and 23andme these days, I thought a post from 2005 might need to be brought forward. Let me correct a myth that has sprung up by people who can at least do simple arithmetic (these days I should be grateful), but have not thought things through that everyone can't be at least 20th cousins on the basis of mere multiplying by two and comparing that to the population of the world.  The Native Americans really are separated from Europeans and even Asians by thousands of years, never mind the Africans and Aboriginal Australians. When cultures did not write things down and had limited contact with anyone but related tribes, there were lots of marrying of third through fifth cousins marrying each other.  Even now, if there is no shared surname in the immediate families (Oh, Whittemore was my grandmother's maiden name...), would you know if you were marrying a fifth cousin? Especially when they crossed the Atlantic, people lost track of who aunts and uncles, great aunts and great uncles were.


2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 grandparents… 1024 gggggparents after 10 generations (about 300 years in my family)… over a million after 20 generations (about 1400AD)…a billion in 1100 – wait, that can’t be right. There weren’t a billion people then. Not in the whole world.

Before the 10th generation (usually), the ancestral lines cross. Old Amos Peacham had 9 children, and you’re descended from 3 of them in different lines. Third or fifth cousins married each other, usually without knowing it. Before 1900, people didn’t move much. Families remember the exceptions: the two consecutive generations which moved from the old country and spread out a bit here. But before your people were chased, lured, or brought here they had pretty much stayed put, and after arriving, pretty much stayed put as well. Moving to Seattle is a recent phenomenon.

There are always interesting additions – a Dutch soldier or some unexplained woman with a Portuguese name wanders into your line somewhere. George from the Isle of Wight just showed up in my Nova Scotian line. Huh. We've got two consecutive generations of Larkins - an Irish name - marrying in in the early 1800s. There were only about ten surnames in the East Pubnicos in NS. (And ten more surnames in the West Pubnicos, all Acadian French.  They apparently didn't mix much.) But your various lines will quickly develop nodes, where four generations are all from Woburn or a village outside of Warsaw. Ancestors don’t keep doubling forever.

If you are from some smaller group, Ashkenazi Jewish, Old Amish, Dominican, Gypsy, your line folds back in more quickly. There might be surprising branches sprouting out of your ancestry (it happens in the best of families), but that is out of a core of many second and fourth cousins marrying each other.

Around 1200 AD or so for those of European descent, the foldovers start outnumbering the doublings, and you actually start having slightly fewer ancestors each generation back. There weren't that many people in the area.  The standard line is “Everyone is descended from Charlemagne.” I would add “by dozens or thousands of different paths.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2018


Every time I go over to Quillette, I not only like the article linked to, but i find a few more things in the sidebar worth reading. These are longer pieces, written for an informed but nonspecialist audience.  Many of them express idea I have some familiarity with, but more precisely and more thoroughly. Therefore I have added them to my sidebar.

Today's offering is about evolutionary biology being censored and simple science being rejected and misrepresented.  Here's a pro tip: when someone is quoting outdated Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin material, for which the refutations are longstanding and abundant, be very suspicious.  If they go on to mention Nazis or the KKK, you can be certain they are trying to argue from emotion rather than fact.  In some cases it is a technique.  The writer or speaker is intentionally throwing in a few phrases or intelligent-sounding references, then quickly switching to the emotional insults before the audience has time to process or critique what has been said.  If you aren't waiting for particular slips or misdirections, you might miss them as they go by.  But usually, it is not a manipulation, but merely a reflection of how the speaker actually thinks.  A few quotes that have a veneer of science just to still the academic conscience - then a quick darting move to the more comforting territory of what is supposed to be true.

These days you have to read very carefully on the topic of evolutionary biology, doubling back, looking for missing information (one frequent miss is to quote world data on the Flynn Effect but not look at the topping out in the US and other developed countries), paying attention to whether the subject has been quietly changed, or whether false equivalences are being drawn.  It's a bit tiring.

And then ask yourself: What is it that is not allowed to be true?

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Ballad Of Reading Gaol

I had never read the poem.  It comes up in Helen Andrew's essay "Shame Storm," in this month's issue of First Things. She describes her humiliation on the internet, year after year, because of what an ex-boyfriend said about her in a rant that went viral.  He himself was also harmed far beyond what he had expected because his anger became an example and he was not trusted.

Andrews writes about the experience, finishing with reference to Wilde's poem. The essay is well worth reading for its modern lessons about social media, yet the larger, more universal meaning is what took me.

"Of all history’s martyrs to shame, the one whose example consoled me most was Oscar Wilde. He is remembered today as a gay rights pioneer, but, in the letters he wrote after his release from prison, he never rails against the injustice of the law that put him away. He did not think it was a good law, he simply believed that the justice or injustice of the charge against him was irrelevant. What mattered was that he had been rescued from his own pride and selfishness by his experience, when he could not have been saved by any gentler medicine. This lesson, which produced “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (“I know not whether Laws be right, / Or whether Laws be wrong”), he put into plain prose in a letter written during his exile in July 1897. Sporus was the slave boy that emperor Nero freed and “married”:
To me, suffering seems now a sacramental thing, that makes those whom it touches holy. I think I am in many respects a much better fellow than I was, and I now make no more exorbitant claims on life: I accept everything. I am sure it is all right. I was living a life unworthy of an artist, and though I do not hold with the British view of morals that sets Messalina above Sporus, I see that any materialism in life coarsens the soul, and that the hunger of the body and the appetites of the flesh desecrate always, and often destroy. . . . I learnt many things in prison that were terrible to learn, but I learnt some good lessons that I needed."
I had known that Wilde had some solid Christian understanding despite his libertine ways, as in The Picture of Dorian Gray. I had not known how he ended his days and how the experience of prison changed him.

I teared up reading even the first stanzas.  It took my breath away. I am not a lover of poetry, because the allusive, rather than plain meanings simply don't work for me, however much the sounds and repetitions have force and beauty. Yet when I can get inside the first few layers of a work, aided by others who know better, I can be moved.

The Sadness Of NPR Christmas

Because of the discussion of Unitarians, and Richard Johnson's link in the comments to a blog post complaining about Garrison Keillor's treatment of them, I thought I would bring forward this post from 2006 (reprinted 2012) and another from 2007, below. They aren't about Unitarians, but do touch on the idea of who we criticise, and whether it is affectionate or not.  The Unitarian pastor at Richard's link has picked up that Keillor, in writing about Unitarians and Christmas, is no longer being kind. I remember that essay and its controversy when it came out, and it was surprisingly traditionalist about Christianity for Keillor, and I wondered what had come over him, climbing all over Jews and Unitarians like that.  One would expect him to be closer to the other side of the controversy. Theologically and culturally, he probably was (is). Yet he was a professional nostalgist, and those groups had been changing the mix at Christmas for a long time. He still had affection for the Christmases of his youth, as he remembered them.

I am not impressed with the Unitarian pastors assertions, BTW, though she does seem like a nice enough person.  What Unitarians were like 150-200 years ago is irrelevant to today, far more so than with churches with more stable doctrine. Early Unitarians still had a lot of Jesus going on, they just defined him as not a part of any Trinity. Also, you will note that she was fine with Keillor making fun of other groups for years - he turned bitter around the early 90's, so she had been okay with a lot of his venom - but only drew the line when it was her own group. Well, we all tend to be like that.  But we should try to be better, disliking unfair criticism about people who aren't us.


Reposted from 2006 and 2012. I don't know if this still applies, as my wife no longer listens to evening NPR while washing the dishes.

Year-round, NPR tends to the bittersweet, the witty rather than uproarious, the world-weary rather than the cynical, the poignant, the melancholy, the wistful. These are the attitudes of the Arts & Humanities crowd, roused to righteous anger only against those who try and rouse them to righteous anger, charmed by everything but tending to observation rather than full-bore participation. NPR has the best describers of the vignettes of daily life, of which Garrison Keillor is the archetype.

Christmas kills them. They can access faith only via nostalgia, and that well soon runs dry. Real traditions include Mom, and going to church, and immersing yourself in that whole crowd of idiot relatives. Far better to have your Christmas carols instrumental, where the mood can grip you without the trouble of the lyrics. The programs at NPR are dignified, properly appalled at the deterioration of the season into commercialism and "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer;" into the violent games or garish decorations.

This works well enough for that percentage of their audience that still holds to the Christian faith. We fear no nostalgia, and deplore many of the same things about the season. Instrumental carols and lights that don't blink are fine with us. The secular audience must be okay with this approach as well. Perhaps with NPR guiding the tour they can trust that however close the bus gets to the edge of the road it will not go over into actual religious assertion. We'll get out and take pictures of the view.

I don't have the same sense in my bones for what the Jewish storytellers are experiencing, but it seems much the same. They grew up slightly alientated from the culture's holiday, but having something of their own to build nostalgia around. Now they seem alientated from that as well. And those who had little or no faith tradition - they're trying to find something worth saving in all this. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in your shoe - it's supposed to be for weddings, but they try to make a holiday out of the same sort of elements.

Emotional distance has its advantages, and these makeshift Christmases don't seem to be tragic. There is a sort of courage about them, and shafts of real joy, and the nobility of those who refuse at least to be hypocrites. But story after story in December, as these deeply artistic and sensitive people try to capture the season, carries the theme of searching, of something missing, of arranging the dried flowers as beautifully as possible because no new ones will bloom.

Those of us who are believers are tempted to throw up our hands and say "Oh for Pete's sake! Relent for just a few days a year and allow yourself to be immersed in the faith of your youth. You'll get more out of Christmas that way. It'll do you good. Why is Jesus the one thing you can't keep?" But I think it is our own inattention to the season, our own taking it for granted, that causes us to think this way. We are so aware of how many things pull us away from Christ at Christmas that we have forgotten how dangerous it is for those outside to look in. They sense, as we should know but have forgotten, that to step inside might mean never coming back. If emotional distance does not bring warmth, it at least brings memories of warmth, with no danger of burning. 

Lenore From San Fran

Reprinted from 2007.

A Garrison Keillor rerun had a News From Lake Wobegon about Lenore, a libertarian from San Francisco.

One already suspects he knows little about them if he thinks that’s their usual habitat, but I imagine there are a few, and one or two, perhaps, might somehow have moved to a prarie town in Minnesota. The oddity of such a possibility sets in high relief the trouble with storytellers: you can make the characters do whatever you want to illustrate your prejudices. Reality is no restraint.

That is technically true of all fiction, of course, and rather like its definition. But fiction is valued for the true insights it provides, the summing up of many stories in a single story, the distillation of many characters into a single character. Even wild and fantastic stories have as their aim showing how persons might act or should act in an improbable situation. Fantasy and sci-fi might be particularly good at this delineation, as they attempt to show basic human nature in extreme situations. CS Lewis, a fantasy writer, remarked that school stories, for all their appearance of common reality, were in fact founded on the unhealthy fantasies of adolescents, pining to be what they never can.

Keillor, then, has been marvelous at capturing in miniature two larger cultures: small town Minnesota and the arts culture as it is lived by people in America. He can do these skillfully because he knows these cultures – he has lived in them. Norwegian bachelor farmers, beleaguered clergymen, eccentric relatives, and people who dream of living elsewhere were the cast of characters of his childhood; moderately successful wordsmiths and musicians people his adulthood.

When he brings in people from outside these cultures and drops them into either of the two he knows, he deceives himself. He spins their stories as if from their point-of-view, with standard writer’s omniscience about what they think at what motivates them. But he gets them completely wrong. His rant about what Lenore thinks of her students, or her readiness to shoot a suspected intruder because of her own fevered imagination, has no ring of truth about any libertarian I have ever met or read. What it does resemble is the stereotype that liberal Democrats have about libertarians. Keillor thus believes he is entering into the thought process of a person different from himself, but is actually only entering into the thought processes of his audience. His skill in inserting homely details obscures a basic point: he hasn’t the faintest idea what he is talking about.

It is a moment of mutual self-congratulation on the stage, as Garrison and friends reassure themselves that they’ve seen through what those others believe. They know.

Come to think of it, whenever Keillor brings in people from elsewhere – youth evangelists from Georgia, priests from Las Vegas, Republican brothers-in-law, anyone from California or Texas, they are not only cartoons, but quite specifically the precise cartoons that his two cultures believe automatically.

Thanks Gary – I don’t think I would have quite figured out how inaccurate you are about all characters outside of a narrow range if you hadn’t been so magnificently wrong about this one.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Social Media As Small Town

A lot of 20th C American fiction was about a small-town boy leaving his oppressive upbringing. It is one of those themes that combines truth and untruth. Small homogeneous communities have pluses and minuses. David Foster over at Chicago Boyz has a post about how the internet in general mimics those small-group interactions, and social media accentuates those negatives.

A frequent commenter gave examples of peer-pressure groups that believe in Political Correctness, in contrast to the rest of of the society, which is less in sympathy with it. Academia, the media, the politically active, the bureaucracy.  I would add in students, which while part of academia, are not who we usually think of when we use that terms.  Those groups have a strong tie-in with each other that might not be immediately apparent, and that is the social competitiveness of youth. Bear with me for a moment on that. That high school students care deeply about what is fashionable and who is cool is well-known. There is something about this that is developmentally normal, as each age cohort must learn to get on together to take on responsibility in the future. This used to be more limited, as children coming of age did not spend so much time exclusively with each other.  They were in larger families, and those families were together more (not always a good thing, but generally so). They had more contact with extended family, multigenerationally. They worked at jobs earlier, went to churches, and had more contact with physical neighbors, all putting them in contact with people of different ages more than is common now. As the years of education increased, children spent increasing time with each other. Since, say, the 1950's, high school and college students increasingly have their own world.

And they have money, or parents who will spend money on them for things like, oh, college. Suddenly there are lots of people who care what the opinions of 16-26 year olds are. High-turnover entertainment targets that group: music, movies, video games, youtube, sports. Political activists are disproportionately young. Unless they can get jobs doing activist work, they stop having time once they get jobs, spouses, or (gulp) children.  Even for Trump rallies, lots of people who might go just can't, because Tyler has a doubleheader that day, or work is really busy just now.  I wish I could find the article I read years ago by an ex-environmental activist who believed that environmentalists got extra exercised about peers having children, not just because of the ZPG extra drain on the earth's resources, but because experience had taught them that they would now stop having enough time to volunteer for The Cause.  Politicians in campaign mode need to hire lots of people at temporary, low-paying jobs, and that means a steady supply of young people.

You might remember Malcolm Gladwell's wonderful line* to Bill Simmons I quoted a few weeks ago, when Simmons got nervous and tongue-tied about discussing an all-time NBA White Team. "You're not afraid of millennials, are you Bill?" Large categories of people are afraid of millennials.  Their jobs are tied up in it.

Let me elaborate a bit on academics.  I think how much they care about the social and political opinions of juveniles varies considerably.  In one sense, nearly all have to care about students choosing their school and their classes. While many could get jobs outside the academy, others would be hard pressed, depending on area of expertise. Administrators, we have been learning, are even more dependent on a college expanding, and on the political/cultural environment.  While it appears on the surface that these authority figures - deans and teachers - are shaping the opinions of students, they are in turn dependent on them. There are people employed by colleges who went into the field because they liked School, were good at School, and want to stay in School.  It is a version of bright little girls who like school saying they want to grow up to be teachers.  It's something they can see, they understand the culture, it feels safe. School is what they know.  They might see women doctors and nurses in real life and want to do that, but they mostly see women lawyers, real-estate agents, scientists, and small business owners in pictures and in movies.

Cal Newton describes some interesting differences between blogging and tweeting. I would add that while Twitter is more vicious and prone to mobbing, it is also generally funnier. Facebook also offers more opportunity for humor than blogging.  This is because they are more like conversation, and whatever wittiness we have is wired for conversation than for writing.  Writing humor is hard, and it is precarious, as even a few years later it just might not catch the audience.  My father loved Pogo.  I thought it was okay.  My father-in-law saw nothing funny in The Far Side - couldn't see the point.  It is a rare humorist who can please beyond his own generation, and rarer still one who can extend beyond two generations. It is a rule of the theater that people will always laugh at sex, food, and money jokes, even those seem fraught with peril now. Laughter is becoming forbidden.  Wry amusement is preferred.

But social media can still produce moments of real laughter, because it is more like conversation. Thus our addiction, to enter a vast world of people being funny. Even at that, though, it is mostly funny to younger people, perhaps 20-35.  Others enter in, and some of those younger funny people are also appreciated by seniors like me; but there are diminishing returns as one gets away from the core group.

The cost is high.  The core laughter cohort is also the core worried-about-coolness cohort, and there is a sizable group of older people who have to care about this deeply as well. They are often the people who are still stuck with one foot in adolescence. Twitter, Facebook (Instagram, Snapchat less so) are a magnified outrage of people who are still trying to find a place in the world, petrified they will be ostracised and found wanting.  Therefore, they punish their competition, perennially finding those to cast out.  Irony: it is only at university, and in a few academic disciplines that there is discussion about the importance of The Other, and "othering" people. Considered in the light of living in a Mean Girls world and needing to cast competitors into the outer darkness, one can see why the topic would seeming gripping and be seen as an important description of Real Life.

I should add that social media seems to empower personality disorders, especially borderlines.  One of the core understandings of those with BPD is their fear of abandonment and annihilation. That can add acres of rage to a mob.

 *No, really

Facial Hair

Ted Cruz now has a beard, and it seems to undo all the upsetting things about his appearance. It looks good.  Really.  If he runs again, bear in mind we have not had a president with a beard since 1893, when Benjamin Harrison left office.  Grover Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, and WH Taft had mustaches subsequent to that. 

We have had four bearded presidents, two with sideburns, and 3 with mustaches. Van Buren was the outlier, coming well before the others.  Those are great sideburns, BTW. The others occurred from Lincoln through Taft, with only McKinley and Andrew Johnson as interruptions. There were reports that Dewey's mustache cost him votes with women. And to be fair, Nixon's beard apparently grew so fast that he had to shave twice a day, so we at least have had a stubbly president. Bill Clinton a Boomer?  Pah. A sellout.

I say it's time. Beards have been fashionable since the 1960s, but unreasoning prejudice has prevented us from electing qualified candidates.  There's a glass ceiling. And don't tell me it's sexist to insist on this.  I hear that Elizabeth Warren has 1/1024th of a beard. She would need to prove that, of course, but I'm willing to accept that.

A Tale of Two Parties

This restores my faith in liberals, at least for the moment.  We went to a Christmas party two years ago given by a psychiatrist friend, which included a cookie swap and caroling, so it should have been right up our alley. The group was heavy with both mental health providers and UU's, and we had not been in the house more than a few minutes before the hostess was loudly complaining that Trump was in danger of starting a land war in Asia because he had just called the new president (prime minister?) of Taiwan to congratulate him on his victory.  In the midst of the caroling one woman started to describe to us a story she was writing about the Wise Men coming to Trump and telling him to care about the poor or something. Fortunately, the Director of Behavioral Health for the state quietly but authoritatively reminded everyone that we were singing carols at the moment.

Very typical liberal signalling, I thought. Irritating but not huge. And I do love caroling. Yet we didn't go last year or this year.

Last night's party was also thrown by a psychiatrist friend.  I was apprehensive there might be something similar, because this would likely be even more thoroughly peopled by mental health providers. I don't know about UU's.  Probably few or none. I also knew the host was very liberal, and the social workers who were coming were all well-known to me, with a few who had made the occasional...hmm, well, no need to describe the comments, really. They varied in tone and intensity over the years.

I was practicing in my headignoring or deflecting signalling comments. Which is what I usually do*, but sometimes I take the bait and give a little pushback. I try to blink in surprise. I needn't have bothered.  All conversation was wonderful, a little rowdy. The only thing remotely close to a political comment was a reference to "fake news," but it was merely riffing off that phrase as a common cultural concept, with no clear target.

One clear difference was the greater presence of unit and support staff - mental health workers, housekeepers, utilisation review, and most especially psych nurses. Psych nurses in clusters are rather a force of nature, as their candor talking about (ahem) indelicate things with each other pretty much drives out other conversations. If they are political, it tends to be liberal, but not universally so, and they tend even more to be apolitical.  Also, they are largely draw from the aspirational classes rather than the hereditary elites, and their spouses are as well.  Exceptions abound, but those are the trends.

*Yes, really

Saturday, December 08, 2018

All-World, All-Time Basketball League

Non basketball fans can just skim until the last two paragraphs.

Once the Malcom Gladwell’s idea of an all-Nigerian team came up, minds like mine want to develop such things.  I thought there could be lots of regional all-time teams it would be fun to invent.  The initial entertainment exists purely in the mind, as I try to remember what players came from Australia or South America, and how good they were. I count them off on my fingers to see if we can get to at least 8 very good ones – then I put it aside because I know other names occur to me after.  Eventually my memory can’t uncover more and I make combinations and splits.  If a region cannot get to 8 on its own, I look to combine it with something else. If I have so many that I have to start leaving off exceptional players, I go looking for ways to split the group into two.  This happened with Europe, which I expected to be able to field only one exceptional All-World All Time Team for my imaginary league.  Yet there were so many players from former Yugoslavia plus some Lithuanians, Latvians, Russians, etc that I thought I could make both an All-Slav team and an All-RestofEurope team.

The background is that one could make team after team of American blacks. One can make up All-Caribbean, All-African, or All-American White teams that might beat anyone. Yet once you have all those teams set up – I think I’m going with 5 teams – you can find five teams to match those, and then I think five more after that, all of American black players.  At the level of skill we are talking about, I don’t think one could safely say that a distilled single team of American blacks could “of course” beat everyone else.  It starts to get tricky at that point, and styles matter, playing together matters. Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Karl Malone, and Wilt Chamberlain would certainly have the highest possible upside.  But how are those going to fit?  There might be other teams which could consistently beat them.

Once I get to that point, I go to reference materials to see who I forgot and add those to my mental lists.  This is where these sorts of exercises get embarrassing, when you start going “I can’t believe I forgot Patrick Ewing was born in Jamaica.” Then the whole thing starts to fall apart, and I realise I’m going to have to write all this down, as it has become too large.  And now I’m in real trouble, because once I start writing it down, my OCD starts to kick in, as there are hard distinctions to make and I want to be consistent.  Dominique Wilkins was born in France to American parents, but there is nothing else French about him.  Europe doesn’t get him.  Yet what about Hakeem Olajuwon from Nigeria?  He never played for that country, he became naturaised and played for the US.  Yet in an All-World league, shouldn’t he be playing for the African team?  And what about JJ Barea from Puerto Rico?  Does he play for the Americans or for the Caribbeans?  I tended to make similar decisions to the calculations the athletes make around the Olympics. JJ is not making any American team.  But the Caribbean team is going to need guards badly, and he might make the final cut of ten or fifteen players. Yet I’m getting into the weeds at this point, and it’s not fun anymore because of obsessively trying to decide what my cutoffs are and sticking to them.

So South America hasn’t got a team of its own.  Manu Ginobilli is mostly Italian by descent, so he’s going to the all-Europe team. Unless I decide Africa can't quite make a team of its own and I'm going for an All- Southern Hemisphere team, in which case he goes there.  

I am not going to formally list the players on those teams, because of the above. Once I start, I will be obsessively checking basketball reference stats and Wikipedia pages of one Australian versus another for the third center, working at a level of expertise I do not possess.   But I will talk about them, because of something I suspected at the outset – the players from outside the US are disproportionately centers and big men. The All-Caribbean team has Patrick Ewing, Tim Duncan, Mychal Thompson, Al Horford, Karl-Anthony Towns, and now DeAndre Ayton. They might be able to hang with anyone up front, both in older style and new stretch styles. But for guards and smaller forwards the pickings are slimmer.  The same is true for the All-Africa team, with Hakeem Olajuwon, Joel Embiid, Dikembe Motumbo, Manute Bol.  Other big men are newer players Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka.  But that team is also hurting for guards. If a country has only a few players represented in the history of the sport, those are going to be huge.  Gheorghe Muresa at 7’6”, Yao Ming at 7’6”, Manute Bol at 7'7".

Basketball is not that important in other places.  If you are an athlete, no one thinks of putting a basketball in your hands until it’s clear that “hey this kid is going to be really big! Too big for even a soccer goalie or tennis player, even.  We’d better see if there is a basketball court around here somewhere.  Maybe he could go to America (Or Spain) and make some money.” If you are 6’3” and a great athlete, you are still in goal, or water-polo, or volleyball, or tennis. No one moves you to see if you might be even better at basketball. That’s partly true in America as well, but every athlete at least has the rudiments of basketball here, and people are happy to have 6’6” baseball pitchers, swimmers, or tight ends. When you read the biographies of most of these foreign players, they didn’t even start playing basketball until they were 12 or 16 or even 20.

The All-World League teams would be All-Slav, All-RestofEurope, All Caribbean, All North American White guys, All-Southern Hemishere, then ten teams of American blacks. Maybe the Canadians could field a team of their own, but not likely. If it seems that a lot of these teams are drawn from only two ethnic groups, you should know that its even truer than you thought.  Kevin McHale and George Mikan are of Croatian decent and Pete Maravich was a Serb. John Havlicek is Czech and Croatian. Looks like Larry Bird and Bill Walton would have to carry a lot of weight without the Slavic additions. Nowitzki isn't a particularly German-sounding name; Tony Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, not very typically French and Greek.

Yeah, it's apparently two tribes that can play this game.  White men can’t jump, apparently, except Slavs.