Friday, March 23, 2018


I asked Alexa if she is friends with Watson and she pretended she didn't know what I was talking about.

Return From Nome

I have returned, having been delayed at Sea-Tac Airport for 24 hours after missing a connection from Anchorage by a few minutes. I am slowly concluding that I don't like traveling itself anywhere near as much as thinking about traveling, both the planning and remembering. Admittedly, there would be nothing to remember and little point in planning if there were no actual traveling involved.  But I don't like the mechanics of transportation, and other people's homes and habits leave me unable to relax. I did get to see Iditarod Week in Nome, which was interesting.  Sort of. There is a scandal, which has fans divided. I don't know if I can do it justice.

I learned more about JoJo Siwa and Lip Sync Battle Shorties than I would have sought on my own.  Her job is to be unfailingly and loudly upbeat and encouraging to younger performers. She does it well, but...

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Hobbits in Kentucky

From 2007. I keep just picking the first thing that looks interesting in a random month. I should be home tomorrow.

Not a joke or a misprint. Bumbling around doing research for the Beowulf post, I happened across an essay by Guy Davenport, literature prof in KY who studied under Tolkien at Merton College, Oxford. Back in the US, he became friends with Alan Barnett, who he later learned had been a student at Oxford with Tolkien. Barnett related how fascinated JRRT had been to hear about the country folk of Kentucky, growing tobacco and having such English country names as Burrowes, Barefoot, Proudfoot, and Baggins. Two versions of the same story, each with information the other lacks, are here (scroll down) and here. Barnett, BTW, had not heard that his friend Tolkien had later become a novelist and knew nothing of The Lord Of The Rings.

Davenport wrote a NYT piece on it in 1979, but the Times archive only goes back to 1981.

Commentary. The rural West Midlands area that Tolkien patterned the Shire after had become more urban by the time of Tolkien's writing, and the idea of something even remotely like it being preserved in America might well have charmed him. To a European classicist, rural America had much the same remoteness that Professor T was trying to capture about the Shire. Americans would immediately associate Kentucky with Appalachia, which was settled by rambunctious Scots-Irish and English Borderers, and discount the idea of any connection. But Tolkien may not have had that association, and in this case it is not accurate anyway. That section of KY between Frankfort and Louisville was actually settled by a higher percentage of West Midlanders, more like Ohio was.

I looked up all those Hobbit-names, comparing that part of KY with the rest of KY, and with other places across the US. There weren't any Bagginses,* Gamgees, or Bracegirdles, but there were Tookes, Grubbs, Barefoots and Proudfoots, Burrowes, and Pippins. There were no Butterburs, but there were Butterbaughs. BOOderbaw my son pronounced immediately after I'd told him. "We had a Butterbaugh in my class (at Asbury College in Kentucky)" There was indeed a greater concentration of all these names around Shelbyville and Louisville. These names occurred elsewhere in the country, but were much less common - only a few in huge California, New York, and Texas, for example.

The attempts to show a similar speech pattern I find less convincing. Rural archaic constructions all sound very similar at first go until you take them apart. That archaic constructions persisted at all, however, would have been known to Tolkien but still likely to intrigue him.

One commenter on a Tolkien site suggested that examining the census records for 1910 - 1930 for that area might be more revealing than a current phone listing. Likely true, but I'm not likely to do it myself.

Update: There is a Cooter Baggins who graduated from a HS in Indiana, right across the river from that part of KY. Hmm.

*There is a Bilbo Baggins in Louisville, but I assumed that was a taken name, not a christened name.. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Frozen Re-Explained

Just a browse from 2015. Toldja I had it right. I know my myths.Half a year ago, I had a major complaint about the script of Frozen, centered on the complete lack of buildup to Hans suddenly turning on Anna.  Not a hint throughout the film, and in fact, he makes a rather selfless gesture not long before.  It's just bad myth-making, bad narrative.  One might not see a turn to evil the first time, but on repeated viewings there should be hints along the way.

Apparently there were hints, and more, but they never made it to the script because of other plot considerations.  There's a fascinating explanation of those changes in this Weekly Standard article by Jonathan V. Last. Short version;  Hans was not originally evil in the script, but when the plot changed, someone had to set the last rescue scene on the ice in motion, and nothing else was ready to hand. So Prince Hans, contrary to his good nature so carefully built up in the first 90% of the movie, had to be called into service as the villain, because there was no one else there.

Friday, March 16, 2018

William James Sidis

This kept coming up over at Quora, so I am linking to my several posts about William Sidis, from 2011.  Many of you are in the comments, and James figures prominently. As this is multiple posts, I will let it cover a few days.

I no longer get notifications from Quora, and I am relieved.  I kept nibbling back in, even though I told myself I was going to quit.  I think I marked their email notification as spam by mistake, and haven't heard from them since.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Did I Get This Right?

Prediction from 2009. The ACA was collapsing, but is now being neutered instead. Up until Trump took office, was this true? Only sort, I think.

I doubt that I’m the first across the finish line with this, but I did want to get my predictions in early. When health care reform doesn’t work, it won’t be Obama or the Democrats’ fault. Whether it will be fault of some industry, such as insurance, or of conservatives, or of Congressional Republicans – that I can’t tell you. I think that could vary according to political circumstances.

There will also be a considerable number of people (I can think of several off the top of my head), who will be certain that health care in America is nonetheless better than it was, impervious to any actual data. Their impression that we are at last a “good country” will trump any health outcomes.

Regarding this last matter, I wonder if the desire to be thought of as a good country by some social standard is related to the deep insult non-believers feel at the suggestion that religious people don’t believe they also can be moral.* There is a touching, perhaps even childlike wish to “be good.”

*Answer: It depends entirely on how one defines one’s terms. Any individual unreligious person can be more generous or honest than many or even most religious people. They don’t tend to be so, but it certainly isn’t impossible. That tendency is unlikely to be accidental, but diverse explanations are possible. At great extremity, when the costs are very high, do religious people tend to behave better? Well, no one does very well, frankly, so no one should be bragging. But the few who behave morally even under duress tend even more strongly to be religious people. Yet caution must be applied in interpreting this. It may be that their religion makes them more able. It may also be that those of determined morality are more likely to seek out congenial religious systems. Egg. Chicken. As to the question of whether religious or nonreligious people are more moral by the definition of having warm feelings toward others, I consider this uninteresting.

Okay, that was three subjects in three paragraphs and a footnote. I’m displaying some lack of focus on this post.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Evangelicals and Catholics

I touched down in 2009 and grabbed this. James made the point that reprising older posts is n ot strictly being conversational, and he is absolutely right. I'm doing it anyway. I will do it all week, because I will be watching the Iditarod mushers come in.

Evangelicals lack knowledge about the European churches which they spring from. Christian school history books will reference some high points of the Reformation, with particular emphasis on translating the Bible into the language of the people, but religious history for them very nearly ends at 100AD and picks up again at 1600AD in colonial America. This is changing, but remains largely true. Exceptions to this run along ethnic lines, as each group does tend to preserve something from its ancestral faith even into the New World.

This seems odd, but it is partially true of every religious group in America. Even Catholics, Jews, and the Orthodox, which have abundant histories in many times and places, tend to focus on the foreign context which immediately preceded their ancestors coming to America. The evangelicals are just more pronounced in this. The fundamentalists are more pronounced still - I will get to them later.

Will Herberg wrote Protestant, Catholic, Jew in the late 50's, about an era when nearly everyone in America identified with one of those categories - the era we grew up in. He made the observation that not only did most Protestant churches in America seem more like each other than they did like their European origins, but that even Catholics and Jews had a generic Americanism about them, in contrast to their churches across the water. These latter commonalities were not so pronounced, but still observable. Foreign visitors often remarked on it, seldom with approval, and American visitors to Europe were often struck by the difference between Mass in an Italian village or worship in a Lutheran edifice outside Munich and what they experienced at home. Language was certainly a large part of this, and the appearance of the people around them in the old place and the new, but a strain of Americanism seemed to infect all churches.

This is less true now, as the wealthy, dominant, well-attended American churches have influenced the European churches since then. There was an informality at Mass outside Dublin that was different from the world Tracy's great-grandparents left. It is as much a globalization as it is an Americanization of the world's cultures, but we get the credit and the blame as the most recognisable player. (On a side note, McDonald's is often a focus of anger of the world's nations at their disappearing culture. No one here asked for this, I have heard English friends complain. Well sure they did. There was an existing market for beef sandwiches cheap and fast in a consistent setting that included clean restrooms and preparation standards. The fat and calories seldom exceeded the local fare. People have flocked to such places as soon as they've opened - even in Paris and Vienna - because they met a need that already existed. No new values were imposed.)

Thus, Americans tend to highlight the history of the Christian church in America. Catholics, the Orthodox, and the Jews are likely to know something more of their faith's history, but not often a lot - and not always accurate. Evangelicals are an exaggeration of this trend, not an exception.

Modern evangelicals descend from two broad church groups: frontier fundamentalists and those from the mainstream denominations who have disliked the changes of the last decades. The former group was bitterly anti-Catholic (and often anti-Lutheran, Episcopal, and Orthodox as well, because they were too Catholic-seeming). The latter group, not so much. They tended to see Catholics as another mainstream denomination - a bit more separate and hierarchical, but not entirely different. The alliance between Catholics and evangelicals around the issue of abortion, and to a lesser extent around issues of sexual morality, has seriously undermined the anti-Catholic tendencies inherited from the fundies. One can still find it, but it's disappearing. Anti-catholic prejudice among evangelicals now comes more from the ex-Catholics.

Fundamentalism comes from an interesting coincidence of the printing press and frontier culture, including especially architecture and formal education. The Protestant idea of having worship in the language of the people may not have been an accidental coincidence with the invention of the printing press and the general spread of a moderate literacy in Europe. Protestantism has always been very Bible-centered in that way. But this written word emphasis was balanced by the houses of worship themselves in Europe. St. Dennis-by-the-Wey might switch from Catholic to C of E, but it was still dedicated to St. Dennis, still had the same windows and pews, and childhood memories. People might want to throw off Roman rule and structure, but there was never any thought of throwing the whole thing out.

On the American frontier, settled largely by a combination of Scots-Irish Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists, all with a history of independent religious meetings outside of the church building, plus a German/Moravian strain of Pietism that emphasised simplicity and personal devotion. These throve in a region where there were no church buildings, but had constant movement, little formal education but a respect for the written word, and a fierce independence. Me 'n my Bible is all I need. There's God right there, in the book. Portable. Individual. Little wonder that one-time salvationism, rather than community involvement, took off so well. The Scots-Irish moved out from Appalachia and settled southwest, which may be why the beating heart of fundamentalism has always been Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and west Tennessee. The frontier settlers in the northern half of the US, the Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians, had similar attitudes, but a bit more connection to history, tradition, and decorative arts in the sanctuary.

The Scots-Irish in particular, because of their historical memory of the Siege of Derry and mutual suspicion of Catholics in Ireland (see Belfast, Glasgow, with equal murder rates to US cities) were anti-Catholic and carried that prejudice long after they had ceased to have much connection with actual Catholics. They were suspicious of Easterners, more suspicious of Europeans, and most suspicious of all of Catholics, which seemed to them the distillation of everything wrong with Europe. So they also disliked Episcopalians and Lutherans for not rejecting Catholicism forcefully enough. Preacher talks straight from the Wordogod. You can look it up yourself.

By about 1800 you see the emergence of fanatically anti-Catholic sects, such as the Seventh Day Adventists. The reputed antisemitism of these groups is more mixed. They were very ambivalent on this score, some even being philosemites. Their only history was Bible history, but they counted it as their own, and, well, despite the natural animosity that all human groups seem to feel for one another, and despite all the inherited stories about Jews killing Jesus, these were people who took their Bible stories very seriously. They saw themselves in those stiff-necked Jews. If that tribe had rejected their own Jesus, well, brother, you 'n I might not have done any better. The lives and beliefs of their actual ancestors or institutional ancestors faded into the mist.

As the frontier was settled, buildings built, and people grew up in towns they stayed in, the usual irony occurred: they became deeply conservative about the times of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. The historical impulse will not be denied, I think. The fundamentalists identified strongly with the lives of their immediate ancestors, even if they had forgotten most of what had been five to twenty generations before. The King James Bible itself became a part of the faith. (I don't know if you ever run across that, but there are still fundamentalists who believe the KJV, derived from the textus receptus, is the only reliable translation. A weird guy who developed an interest in my two Romanian sons tried to convince them of that - an amazing denseness when you think of it. The Bible that God uses - his return address stickers actually say that.)

Hey, I kinda like this essay. I think I'm going to post it.

So, completely lost in the whole understanding of Catholicism and its symbols and rituals is the idea those people couldn't read. They needed that. And the best of them devoted their lives to expressing the great truths of the faith artistically. What would you do? And as for keeping a great deal of Latin in the Mass, it was not only an expression of Vatican dominance and intentional mysteriousness. It also communicated the transnational, universal nature of the church against the tribal and nationalist urges of human beings in general.

In a related matter, this is why American evangelicals do not hesitate to evangelise Jews - which annoys the heck out of Jews who are aware of their history in Europe among the Christians. But to the evangelical, all that history seems to have nothing to do with them. They are related biologically only in the most distant way. They are related institutionally only indirectly. They repudiated the European churches two- three hundred years ago. There has been prejudice here, but no pogroms, no holocausts.

Until very recently, I sided with the Jews on that. I am a bit of a philosemite. But after getting into an online argument with a Jewish woman who regarded even modest modifications to the idea of Christian perfidy as mere evasions, I have looked at this differently. How many centuries is enough before the American experience of Jews outweighs what our seventh cousins did? As a medievalist, I felt quite connected and sorrowful about the Christian persecutions. But in the argument, I started to question my premises. My institutional and biological ancestors were Swedish Lutherans, Puritans from the south of England, Scots-Irish Presbyterians. For what reason should I feel an identification with any persecutors of Jews? If Christian doctrine leads so readily to antisemitism, why did it not infect my people as well?

In 500AD the Mediterranean had culture and civilization, China had culture and civilization, Persia and India had culture and civilization. Europe had violent, 99% illiterate, barbaric pagan torturers. Enter Christianity, very irregularly and incompletely, and the whole world slowly changes. It is fashionable to accuse Christianity, especially Catholicism, of all the ills of the Dark Ages and Middle Ages. What if the opposite is true? What if the crimes are mainly the crimes of all human tribes everywhere, killing outsiders and having no values above tribal loyalty? Except that monks kept good records, and the desire for virtue preceded virtue itself, so we have an ample catalogue of Christian sins.

The Puritans get the rap and reputation for witch-burning for a one-off incident in a notoriously unreligious seaport in Massachusetts. In Europe, the farther east you went, the more witches got burned, especially in the less religious areas.

But that's another story. I get irked about the misreporting of the Crusades and the Inquisition, too. People have a narrative that is congenial to their desires, and cherry pick the historical data to suit that.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Finding A Church On Vacation

Yawkey Way

There has been a move afoot for some time to rename Yawkey Way, the street outside Fenway Park named for Tom and Jean Yawkey, who owned the team for many years. It seems to be coming to pass. Tom Yawkey was racist - the Red Sox were the last team to integrate when they brought in Pumpsie Green* in 1959, and of course brought in another black player, Earl Wilson, because who would Pumpsie room with on the road? - and people in the Commonwealth don't want him honored in that way. The Yawkey Foundations, the charitable organisation the Yawkeys started decades ago is upset, because they believe the focus on a few acts is an unfair misunderstanding of a man who did a great deal of good.

I agree with the renaming, but for reasons that I think are different than most advocates for the change. The change is largely symbolic, which is appropriate because Yawkey's racism was mostly symbolic. He was of a type which used to exist but has vanished from the landscape. He generally treated African-Americans well.  He owned black baseball teams back in South Carolina where he came from, and paid those players better than average. He was kind and respectful to the black people he knew, though with that constant condescension that quietly stung.  His charitable endeavors supporting health, education, and cultural events for the poor likely benefited poor black people more than white. He just didn't think the races should be all that much together, particularly on baseball fields. Credible reports claim that he ended a Willie Mays (and others) tryout with the Red Sox by saying "get those niggers out of here." That pretty clearly racist, and not by some exaggerated modern sensibilities.

Yet look at this whole integration-of-baseball phenomenon at the time. It was symbolically huge that Jackie Robinson got to play in the major leagues. It drove a tentpeg into the ground about what America was going to be like going forward. Yet as a practical matter, what happened is that several hundred black people got to play in the major leagues over the next decades, and several hundred more got to play in the minors.  This represented higher salary, better conditions, and more recognition than black professional ballplayers had in the Negro Leagues and on barnstorming teams. (Minor league conditions were grim and insecure, but still a step up for most black players.) It was actually a loss for some of the non-stars on black baseball teams of the 40's and 50's, which soon went out of business.

Symbolically huge.  Not so much practically.

So Yawkey's long delay - the Red Sox had black players in the minors but none on the main club until 1959 - affected millions symbolically but maybe only a few dozen as a practical matter. This fits just about exactly with the renaming of a street.  It is a large symbolic gesture with very little practical effect. The bad press may indeed reduce the contributions to the Yawkey Foundations - that would be a bad practical effect.

*I had not known until today that Cornell Green, the cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys, was his brother.

Harming the Opponent

As you may know, I have two sons from Romania, both of whom spent time in a state orphanage (read:Mouth of Hell) before going to a private Christian orphanage and then here. Both were well able to fight. Fortunately little of that happened here.  Didn't need to.  Chris did describe for me once what the preferred strategy is when one is outnumbered, outclassed, or otherwise has no hope of winning: Hurt the opponent as badly as you can, whatever it costs you.  It does nothing for your chances of victory, but reduces the chance they will pick on you again.  My grandfather described something similar about a school bully when he was a boy. Tired of being beaten up every week or so, he resolved to attack him from behind or by surprise every day until it stopped. He was beaten mercilessly the first three days, but on the fourth day he warned the other boy in the morning it would happen again until he agreed to stop. The bully shrugged in mild agreement, but never picked on him again.

Trump did something like that during the election.  He would do things that everyone assured us would doom his chances of being nominated, but he eliminated his rivals one at a time by hurting them, regardless of the cost to himself.  It worked.

David Brooks's editorial about progressivess winning the culture war drew a lot of criticism, and there is much to disagree with in it.  Yet he makes the solid point that progressives are using exactly this tactic in a few places.  They cannot win anything other than minor tweaks on gun control at present, and perhaps not ever. Many conservatives have pointed out the number of legislative victories they would have to win at the state and federal level to change things, and noted that massive gun confiscation, including African-American neighborhoods, is going to be very costly in more than one way. Yet this may not be the point. The ability to call people nazis and child-killers may in fact be the point. (There is a mirrored point of virtue signalling as well, but lets leave that out for the moment.) Looking back over the last few decades, painting gun owners as paranoid, violent, and ignorant may have represented as much of the strategy as any cosmetic legislative victories.

I don't think it has worked as universally as they hoped, but it has been remarkably successful at elite universities and those that hope to imitate the intellectuals, those who are more NPR than PhD. A young friend who recently graduated from Worcester Polytech posted a FB comment that gun control laws "don't work."  I agree, and have said much the same.  Yet if you look at it another way, they work fine.  If your goal was to call your opponents names and show what a caring person you are, they work a treat.

Governor Brown and Refugees

Oh no, I meant other refugees. Thanks to David Foster over at ChicagoBoyz for this.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Cultural Appropriation

I have laughed at people complaining about Cultural Appropriation, as have many others. Maybe I get it after all.  Fantasy fiction, especially Christian fantasy fiction, is not just something I like. It's an important part of my culture.  I had heard that the Disney version of "A Wrinkle In Time" had deemphasised the Christianity of the book. That's hardly surprising these days, yet it might have been merely irritating. Collins's review over at The Ringer suggests it is something far worse than that. The Christianity is not merely deemphasised, it has been replaced by another religion, the more modern empowerment gospel.  I expected them to lean hard on Meg being a Spunky Gal, because that's what Disney has been doing for decades - and Meg actually is something of a spunky gal, though I don't think any serious reader of L'Engle would say it quite that way.

This is like putting communion elements out as part of the buffet at the PTA potluck.

The review above links over to another by Kate Knibbs from the day before, which is perhaps a savable example of everything that is wrong with the current approach to understanding literature - that a book is important because of what the reader thinks it means and helps them turn into whatever they damn well please, even if that is at odds with the actual meaning. The belief that a book has an actual meaning is under assault.  It only has the reader's meaning. As a side note, Knibbs claims it is Seventh Day Adventists who don't believe in giving their children medical treatment, which is the sort of not-even-bothering-to-spend-30-seconds-on-a-search-engine that is probably standard for a woman who thinks that a book and its movie are really about her and her life experience.

We are somewhat used to the Christianity which was part of an historical culture being removed from stories told about it now, sometimes even if they were an important part. One would never know that Downton Abbey takes place in a culture that is C of E, nor that American presidents regularly talked of religious matters in both their formal addresses and everyday conversation. But the Christianity is not just part of the scenery in L'Engle's books, they are central.

Reviews will discuss whether the movie was done well or not. People who like movies qua movies will find some of that interesting.  How were the effects? Is the acting believable? I have no interest. If you replace the lyrics to Handel's "Messiah" with Rod McKuen, I don't much care about how the violinists were doing.

Fashion and Health

We look at old photos and think "How did we ever think that sort of hairstyle was attractive?" While it is most uncomfortable when it is us personally, we also think that of the whole era. The shirts were too tight or too blousy, the patterns too plain or too busy.  The ties are strings or they are small kites. It is not merely our own era, nor only because they are now out of fashion and look so 2017 now. We can see clear fashion problems in the young, who tend more to exaggerating the styles, in most eras. Not that it's all ugly.  Every age does hit upon some things that look nice as well.

Yet what came over us?  How did none of us see the ridiculousness of it?

For openers, it was the youngest, most attractive people who were wearing them. Whatever the prettiest girls and the most handsome boys wear is still going to look darn good. We say that of the especially attractive: "She could wear a potato sack and make it look good." But it's that sector of society where everyone looks good. The worst of them doesn't look so bad - though they don't know it themselves. It is that time of life when clothes really don't make the man. The day will come, and come soon, when the boy will have to leave off being quite right up to the minute and and start leaning toward styles that have a track record over a few decades of being more attractive.  Even that changes and has fashions, but the amplitude is less.

Something similar happens with health and diet fads.  Who are the people who are most concerned with what they put in their mouths?  The people concerned with their appearance, who are already active and keeping their intake steady but moderate. They already look good, and will hold those looks longer than the others.

This sells food fads, supplements, and extreme beliefs.  I mean, just LOOK at her! She's 40 but she looks 28! This stuff must work!

Unattractive researchers who have put years into learning this stuff are nowhere near as convincing.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

From April 2006

Originally entitled "For the person who accused me of lying about this."  Zipping in "Obama" would be a better counterexample now.

In my adventures trying to find a sensible liberal blog, where issues are discussed, even if not always politely (Ed: Not like you, huh?), I was accused of making this one up. My point in the discussion was that hate speech and incitement to violence were more prevalent on the left, having penetrated from the leftist fringe to the average Democrat (the owner of the car with this sticker has a Master's degree and is a socially graceful coworker). The equivalent on the Right, those with the "I Don't Brake For Liberals" stickers remain on the fringe.

Actually, it's not a bad site, and I will write up my adventure, and a lesson learned, soon. For now, here's the bumper sticker that doesn't exist. Imagine zipping in the name "Jesse Jackson" or "Hillary Clinton," if you still think it's just lighthearted humor.

Hate Speech?

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Another Myth Gone

I had read that Augustine was surprised that Ambrose did not read aloud, and we have concluded from that that the ancients did not read to themselves. It seems plausible because volumes were rare and we know that people read aloud to groups more often than we do now. Alas, I learn today from Ann Althouse that this is not so.


I will be going to Nome for over a week, March 12-21 and will likely not get on my son's computer to post.  It seems a good time to simply get away from social media, even that as thought-based as blogging.  To keep things flowing, I thought it might be good to pre-load some older posts that I thought still had value now, and string them along at one per day to launch while I am gone.

I guess this provides positive evidence for my narcissism. I think at least 25% of my posts from November 2006 should be brought forward, sometimes with a little added commentary. A decade ago, other bloggers did "Best of..." and I did a fair bit of it, too.  At 500+ posts a year, I don't think I'm going to m ake much progress. I don't think I'm dying anytime soon, but when I do, I think I can still provide thoughts of interest for years to come. 

Of course, I would think that.

Some of you are still here after all these years, and I can recognise your tone and ideas still. Thank you very much. When one maps it out, blogging has been part of my environment for 20% of my life, both in writing, and in reading (including some of you). I don't think we can disparage the changes that have occurred in the national argument that much, even though there are definite downsides of fewer full books, shorter attention span, greater impulsivity and perhaps anger in discourse.  Other than my head-in-a-book years from age 8-28, I think I have learned more in the internet years than in the years previous.  The pattern is uneven, and there is an apples-to-oranges aspect to it.  Yet there it is.  I know more, and it is because of knowing you.

Or maybe not.  What I read from 2006 is pretty similar to what I think now, so I have only perhaps refined it somewhat.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018


You start going to a church because the people are nice.  You stay because the people are difficult.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Non-urban Legend

Partial repost from years ago.

One of my favorite stories, up in smoke. The idea that "Ring Around The Rosie" is actually about the plague – “all fall down” meaning falling over dead? It’s completely untrue. The first written versions of Ring Around Roses show up in the late 1800’s, some with posies and falling down, some not. But the Great Plague was in 1346, and later plagues didn’t have the sneezing part. It is not credible that a little poem would be passed down orally, unchanged for 500 years, then suddenly break into half-a-dozen versions that all get written down for the first time.

Darn. There are stories we wish were true.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Pinker And Atheism

Bird Dog linked to Steven Pinker's discussion of humanism, reason, and atheism.  The word is leaking out that Pinker believes too much in genetics and quietly notices general differences among races.  He thus can't afford to go off the reservation by making warm statements about theism or prayer. Not that I think such things are his main motivation, but they influence all of us to some extent.  We don't like to break with our crowd, or open ourselves up for criticism unless we are quite sure.

There is not any absolutely compelling argument for God, and I believe this is intentional.  Were He to be provable, as the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, it would likely not be good for us. Were he to rearrange the stars to spell out His Name in another language every night we would quickly adjust to it, find some ridiculous explanation for it, and not notice it. Still, it is fair to expect some evidence from a self-revealing God.

The scientific and technological advancement and widespread extension of rights we currently enjoy has occurred precisely once in history, in related places deeply informed by Christianity and Judaism. Pinker claims these improvements have occurred since the Middle Ages, but his own work shows that they begin to occur earlier.  He wants to credit the Renaissance and especially the Enlightenment, but these come later. Wishing doesn't make it so.  This does not prove that Christianity caused the improvements, or had anything to do with them.  It might well be, as is currently believed, that the faith has been a hindrance to the march of progress. Still, it has only occurred once.

There is also this curious idea of goodness that he believes is independent of and even sometimes antithetical to does grow tiresome to keep writing "theism" when everyone knows the attack is on Christianity, and to a lesser extent, Judaism. We know what culture Pinker and the others come from. We allow them the pretense that they are having a more general philosophical discussion in order to not get bogged down in separate discussions.  Yet we know, and it is part of what makes some of the attacks humorous... what is this goodness, and what is it founded on other than the preference of the powerful?  Oh, you believe that some things actually are good, somehow?  That we should not abuse women or steal from those weaker than us?  Those are not merely useful for survival in some indirect way but are actual moral qualities? How quaint.

If you don't believe one ridiculous set of ideas about how the universe works and what it all means then you will be driven to believe another ridiculous set. Purported neutrality always smuggles in a theology of some sort.

CP Snow's Two Cultures Today

Reposted from eleven years ago. Still true. I would change a few things now, but have decided I usually won't as I repost.

Scientist and novelist CP Snow declared fifty (now sixty) years ago that the educated classes were becoming two cultures, literary and scientific.
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics, law of entropy. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?' I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.
This was controversial, not least because literary people felt put down and insulted. Criticism fell into four broad categories: Snow had overstated the case; the divide was not new; a third culture was developing even as he had spoken; and Snow had helped worsen the divide by building fences. Snow came to partially agree with all these, while retaining his original view as essentially correct.

The cultural landscape has changed in the last fifty years, but there remains a core truth in Snow’s proposition. I have been writing much about the Arts & Humanities Tribe over the last few months which bears directly on the issue. For any new readers, a quick review. I was raised in the Arts & Humanities Tribe which is now so anti-Bush, anti-conservative, anti-neocon. Many groups might criticise this administration for other reasons. There are conservative and libertarian criticisms of the current administration, but the critical groups generally consitute the Democrat coalition: government unions, African-Americans, and liberals. The A&H Tribe constitutes much of the proud-to-be-blue-state liberals. I have criticised their position as being founded on emotion and tribalism more than reason. Their criticism of Bush and the red-state voters is often ill-concealed social criticism and cultural disdain.

I am not completely satisfied with my own choice of words in designating this group as the Arts and Humanities Tribe. Those in the social sciences are overwhelmingly in this group, yet many of those have little actual knowledge of arts and letters. Their philosophies are watered-down from A&H originals, and they adopt the language and attitudes of that tribe. Flowing in the other direction, the liberal arts have become suffused with the social sciences: much of history and literature are now warmed-over sociology, anthropology, and bad economics.

Confusing the terms further is the strong grounding many conservatives have in the traditional arts and humanities of Western Intellectual thought. They read history and literature, they know art and music. To exclude William F. Buckley or Victor Davis Hanson from the A&H designation would seem to dissolve the entire construct. In knowledge of literature and history before 1900, in fact, conservatives perhaps exceed liberals.

The enormous tectonic shifts over the last fifty years, and especially the last twenty, have come from the science and technical side of the culture. Science geeks read a lot of science fiction, a much-despised genre that has provided most of the original thought of the second half of the 20th Century. Certainly, it has provided enormous amounts of crap in the form of half-baked philosophy, formulaic adventure stories with science accessories, and ill-disguised fantasies of omnipotence. But in a world in which technical marvels are increasingly invading the cultural environment and changing behavior, science fiction often provides the only examples of near-future problems even being addressed.

Early on, science fiction was also called “speculative fiction,” and I wish that name had caught on better, as it retains a good deal of what is important. It is science fiction to imagine a mechanism by which someone could read minds and create an adventure about it. It is speculative fiction to try and work through the real consequences in a culture. How would friends and family react? What balances of power would be upset? Could a human personality endure the knowledge? It is one thing to imagine what fun people would have if machines did all our work; quite another to to imagine what this would do to the human character and what we might attempt in response. It is this speculative aspect that makes science fiction important intellectually. It is the lack of this that makes alienation in chicana fiction, or irony in Queer Studies barely worth mentioning. Speculative fiction has wildly explored the alienation of sentient beings which are different life-forms from each other, and societies where there are four distinct sexes, or parthenogenesis. Modern literature and high art seem tepid and timid in comparison, which is why they have needed to rely increasingly on sexual shock, predictably leftist sentiments, and social transgression to attract any attention at all.

Science fiction is predominantly Anglospheric, especially American, as well. The Europhilic and oriental fascination of the A&H crowd derives directly from the transnational nature of their studies. This is much less evident in science fiction, or science in general.

The science and technology crowd has made another enormous inroad into the arts; letters as well. The production of art for audience has become increasingly technical. Music, film, and theater have increasingly required not only technicians, but artists who understand the technology, and technicians who understand the art. It is still possible to carve out a career in the arts with little technical knowledge, but those opportunities are increasingly local. Technology has always driven the arts, but the changes were always slow enough that a person could absorb the necessary technical aspects early on and adapt very little over a career. The changes in acoustics or piano construction over Bach’s long lifetime were incremental, but the Moog synthesizers which were gloriously cutting-edge in the 1970’s are laughable antiques now. You might think that all one has to do is get up and sing, but microphones, lights, synthesizers, monitors, and editing effects are all part of the package. If you the performer do not understand these things, then you are dependent on those who do.

Wayfinding Series

I wrote the series, years ago, mostly in 2011, and refer to it from time-to-time.  I still think about it a lot and find the subject fascinating. One of the early entries is a good introduction:

The Tourist asked: Old-timer, can you tell me how to get to St. Johnsbury from here?

Eben Jenkins thought a bit, raised one hand and started to gesture up the Mountain Road. Thinking better of it, he stroked his chin and then pointed back down the River Road and almost spoke. He caught himself, looked the other way - up the River Road, and his eyes took on a faraway look. "Young fellah, you can't get theah from heah."

Some overview, before putting you on to some of the research.

Wayfinding is a subtopic under spatial memory. Though wayfinding can involve different scales of routes to follow, these are not vastly different scales. They are human sized, and involve moving a human-sized body, or objects only slightly smaller or larger. This is what human beings have navigated in for millennia. We now scale up to spatial relationships a million X larger or million X smaller, but these are recently learned. Like the Fahrenheit Scale that works best in the nice, human-living numbers 0-100, wayfinding is the understanding of movement from room-to-room, of walks in The Shire. Longer journeys of even ten miles begin to require a greater level of abstraction. This is landmark navigation, we have a hundred brain mechanisms we are unaware of helping us out, it is what we are built for, and it is far superior on the human scale. Even switching between scales at this level is not that hard.

Longer journeys, especially those which have to navigate around something large, such as a lake or a mountain range, push our brains to do either of two difficult things: either we must create a long chain of directions or we must develop a set of abstracts which allow us to store the navigational information in shorter, but more complex form. Some humans do one, some the other. Both require working memory and set-shifting, but the former is emphasised in landmark, or egocentric navigation, while the latter is more in play in cardinal/overhead or allocentric navigation. The hippocampus and prefrontal cortext you've heard of - those are key to egocentric navigation. Other cortical areas that you haven't heard much about* are key to the allocentric navigation. Allocentric seems to be later, more advanced, dependent on parts of the brain other than the most basic. That is a ridiculous oversimplification, but I think it holds.

In either event, memory storage and retrieval have to be in fine working order.

Interesting tidbit #1. Some tests of wayfinding abilities on the pencil and paper scale give a very accurate picture of how you will do walking around indoors or in a small neighborhood. Others tests give an accurate picture of how you will do on journey-length navigation of miles. For the in-between scales - from the large mall to the town - the results are ambiguous. Both types of test will stretch so far and no farther in the individual, whether scaling up or scaling down - and the stretch is a bit different for each person. The tests don't tell us much, because they begin to measure two separate things. People switch sets of scale and of method at the margins, and the tests measure something else: general intelligence, which is related to our ability to switch sets.

Interesting tidbit #2. OTOH, they tell us a lot about people who can't navigate at all. An experiment by Toru Ishikawa (and that name will show up again in later posts) showed that some students learned a route right away, others learned it gradually, and some never learned it, even after ten repetitions.

Interesting tidbit #3. (Also Ishikawa) Using a GPS interfered with people's ability to learn a route. All my map-loving readers are secretly rejoicing, but there could be problems with this study. The participants may have not been that familiar with using GPS, and relatedly, switching scales on the small screen may have thrown them off. (This was a walking test.)

There is a further possibility suggested by this. Those who rely on abstract, allocentric, overhead map navigation may not develop their landmark, egocentric navigation as fully as those who rely on it entirely. The prideful allocentrics who can navigate to Spain and back may forever be less good at getting about town than the egocentrics. The good egocentrics, that is. Obviously, everyone is better than those who haven't got a clue. Of which there are many.

Tangential humorous story about a guy who didn't have a clue. A family in a car with out-of-state plates rolled down the window. The husband, driving, asked where the cliff with all the faces were. I started to tell him where the Old Man of the Mountain was - about two hours away, but he cut me off. "No, I don't mean the Old Man of the Mountain! I mean the place where they have the faces on the cliff!" I noticed that his wife was rolling her eyes, the children in the back looking very quiet. This discussion had apparently been going on awhile before they had gotten to me.

Inside, I'm thinking Dear God, don't let him be talking about Mount Rushmore. I don't think I can break it to a guy this angry. Aloud, I said gently, "Well, there are a few others up in that direction, there's Indian Cliff, it's got a staircase observatory..."

"No, these weren't Indians."

"Well, we don't have anything as fancy or impressive as Mount Rushmore here in NH that I can think of..." I said tentatively.

"No, it's not goddam Mount Rushmore either! It's a cliff with faces on it!"

"Sorry, I've lived here most of my life, but I'm not sure what you're describing."

He rolled up the window and drove off. He waited at the stop sign a long while - I think they were arguing still - then took an emphatic left and sped through town. Left was not the direction for either Franconia or South Dakota. But you knew that.

*entorhinal and posterior parietal

The whole wayfinding series, including my most-searched post, about Stonehenge. Yes, it will take a while, and you might want to divide it up over several days.  But i think you will find it rewarding.

Update: A recent paper on spatial navigation.
More Wayfinding 2013 
Note on Wayfinding 2012
Spatial Memory