Friday, August 31, 2007

What Tolkien Disliked About Narnia

Update 2021, for any readers who happen upon this old post. In light of new scholarship, I think this post is not quite accurate.

JRR Tolkien believed that myth and symbolism kept much of meaning provided by the reader, while allegory was a demand by the author to read symbols in a particular way. For this reason he "cordially dislike[d] allegory in all its forms," and thought Lewis had strayed well into allegory in the Chronicles of Narnia. Tolkien also disliked any mixing of mythologies, believing that a work should retain a consistent background flavor. Thus, Lewis's dryads, centaurs, and Silenus struck him as at odds with the more Northern flavor provided by the dwarves and ettins. On these points I agree, for I found several elements of the Narnia books jarring when I read them. Aslan remains Christic for much of the series, but in several places he is clearly Christ, and this pulls me out of Narnia, back into our world pretty rapidly. At the close of The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, the adventurers are greeted on a shore by a lamb who is preparing them a fish. That's just too much. It's a nice idea, in a way - coming to the edge of one world we begin to see the obscurer symbols from another world, suggesting that in the borderlands Christ might take many shapes. Yet I find it heavy-handed. On the other hand... I was stunned to learn that very few nonChristians pick up this symbol at all when they read it. Roman Catholics and fundies are heavily into this Lamb business, and the liturgical churches and the evangelicals likewise quickly pick up on Who is cooking on the shore. To us, talking lamb - way too obvious. Part of Lewis's aim in writing the series was to illustrate Christian theology in an attractive form to those who weren't familiar with it. It may not be fair of me to complain of a symbol being too obvious when it barely registers to its intended audience. Similarly, Aslan as expression of the second person of the Trinity in a different world works pretty well for most of the series. In the first book, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, however, he gets killed, breaking the tablets of the law, and comes alive again immediately after. That's just Jesus in a fur coat, not a myth or a symbol. And yet, a part of that symbolism that seemed overobvious to me - the breaking of the Stone Table which has the laws of the Emperor on them - has been missed by most others, even Christians. I have never seen or heard it commented on. Lewis wanted to keep his theology tidy, I think, to prevent people from drawing wrong conclusions. Once the author has decided that death and resurrection are the key to redeeming any world - that the principle undergirding that act is universal - I admit it gets rather difficult for whoever the sacrificed god is to not look an awful lot like Jesus of Nazareth. Still, it has been done in part many times, not least by Tolkien, whose Gandalf descends into a hellish place to battle demonic monsters, perhaps dies, is reborn or recreated purified, and returns to save the land. This is not a definite Jesus - Tolkien has said that Gandalf, being one of the Valar, is an angel - but it is clearly derived from the Christ-story. It is less heavy-handed, among other reasons, because Gandalf does not return immediately. Lewis defended himself by saying that the Narnian stories were not allegory, but supposals, an imagining of what Christ would look like and what he would do if he came into another world, with different intelligent fauna and a different history. We might wonder, perhaps, what Christ would do if he came and dwelt among Tolkien's elves. It is an imagining, a supposal, more common in science fiction than in fantasy. Lewis seems to have thought if Tolkien were more familiar with that genre that he would have been more understanding. This is possible, but I, for example, am more familiar with science fiction and I also found it a step too far, long before I had heard rumor of Tolkien's disapproval. Tolkien also thought the entrance of Father Christmas was inappropriate, and I concur. When the Greek, Northern, and Christian mythologies are already fighting each other for space, the homely and specifically English Father Christmas is a step too far. Any of his incarnations, Santa, Sinter, Saint, would be too specific, an invasion of a single European nation's mythology into Narnia. The matter could have been handled much more indirectly, with winter gifts given by some less obvious figure. These were errors, Tolkien believed, of a slapdash approach to writing fantasy. Lewis turned out the Narnia Chronicles one per year, usually in a single handwritten draft with emendations. Lewis wrote at most a second draft. Tolkien, who spent 17 years writing The Lord of the Rings, found this not merely puzzling, but abhorrent. From the retrospective view, most fantasy readers agree with Tollers rather than Jack Lewis: better to have a single jewel finely crafted, a mythology rich and deep and internally consistent. Not so fast. Without Lewis's encouragement, LOTR would never have been completed, as Tolkien himself insisted many times. Left to his own devices, Tolkien would adjust mythologies and languages endlessly, unable to push things into final form. Even under pressure from his friend, the story very nearly never got written. The History of Middle-Earth eventually ran to 12 volumes, compiled by Tolkien's son decades after his death. Would anyone have bothered with the Silmarillion and Book of Lost Tales if the trilogy hadn't been completed? Tolkien's purist approach of infinite texturing would look less noble then. As I have been noting lately, life is much more uncertain and unstable than we think. We cannot imagine a literary landscape without LOTR, but it nearly fell beneath the waves many times. The bulk of the manuscript was not read to the Inklings, as is popularly imagined. Hugo Dyson (or was it Havard? I forget) detested the book, and after a few sessions of muttering "oh no, not another f-ing elf," began to veto Tolkien's New Hobbit from being read Tuesday mornings at the Eagle and Child pub. Books two through six were largely read to Lewis alone, Monday evenings for over a decade. Without that, there would only be The Hobbit, perhaps Farmer Giles of Ham, and reams of disconnected stories, the eccentric hobby of an Oxford philologist, signifying nothing. The "slapdash" nature of Narnia would hardly come up then. Only by being spoiled by the depth of Tolkien's work do we notice the sketchiness of Lewis's. There is also the small matter that they were trying to accomplish different literary goals, though they themselves barely apprehended this. I will bring that out when I discuss Lewis's influence on Tolkien (which some claim to be zero) in the near future.

How To Lie With Statistics

I am all for AGW skepticism, but what is wrong about this headline? Anyone?

Statistics actually don't lie if you rough them up a bit and ask them who their friends and relatives are. Then they'll confess pretty quickly.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Randomness And Narrative

Let's see how much sense I can make before the Vicodin ES kicks in (wisdom teeth).

A major point of Taleb's The Black Swan is that we attribute causation much too willingly, seeking explanations for our comfort but not illumination. Though I haven't read it, his Fooled By Randomness is likely about the same topic. He makes a very convincing case, both theoretically and from empirical data. You know it's convincing, because I really don't want this to be all that true, but he has turned my thinking around on this. Observing events and attributing cause is one of the things I do really well. It's part of my stock-in-trade at work, e.g. The MHC is ticked at us for sending Jeremy out when they thought he should stay, so they've been quick on the draw for revoking all young males for the last two weeks. It's not so much revenge or punishment as it is an illustration to us how hard their job is out there and how they really do try with these guys. It will pass. Or also, She's protesting that she wants to leave the hospital but all her actions say just the opposite. She's saying "Please don' throw me into that briar patch, Br'er Fox" but not on purpose. She is unable to admit to herself that she wants to stay, so she makes it our decision.

I do this with everything. If there is a conventional wisdom about a period in history I'm always on the lookout for possible alternative explanations. Usually there is an Old Conventional Wisdom about anything in history, then a New Conventional Wisdom spouted by people who believe they are independent thinkers because the "don't accept the conventional wisdom." It's pretty irritating, yeah.

Religious questions: Why does Paul write this advice to this particular group? Parenting questions: This is a great illustration of how John-Adrian's strengths and weaknesses are intertwined. He avoids conflict, which is usually a good thing.

Now Taleb wants to take my bread-and-butter away from me, just after search engines started to make me obsolete. I'm not good-looking enough to weather too many more of these abilities of mine being devalued.

We make up narratives without even trying. It in fact takes energy not to make a narrative. One interesting experiment Taleb reports: subjects were presented with the numbers 2, 4, 6 and asked to figure out by trial-and-error what the pattern was, by giving other examples, to which the administrator would say yes or no. When they thought they had it, they were to state an hypothesis. Almost everyone got it wrong. They jumped to the conclusion that the pattern was "the even numbers" or some variation of that and would provide other examples in the pattern for the yes/no response. 10, 12, 14. Yes. 98, 100, 102. Yes. I'm going to guess that you add two to the last number to make the patter. No. Next. The pattern was simply "numbers in ascending order, so 9, 17, 101 would also work.

Taleb believes that 9-11 was a Black Swan, an unpredictable event that we retrospectively try to say was predictable. We have blamed agencies, politicians, and airline safety experts for what we think in retrospect they should have anticipated. But there is powerful evidence to the contrary. After the first tower was hit, people didn't evacuate the second tower, and most people thought this wasn't strange at the time. Very few people left the second tower. The people on Flight 93 needed three other planes to go down, and their own plane to be captured, before the full weight of what was happening sunk in. Even with a powerful concrete example right in front of them, people did not immediately recognise what was happening. They weren't stupid. Only in retrospect did everyone start moaning about what we should have seen coming.

One of the hindrances to seeing the truth is that we already have a narrative in place, and try to fit the events we see into it, against all sense. The people on Flight 93 knew what highjackers did: they made plans land somewhere else and took people hostage. Except these didn't.

Similarly, a lot of commenters have taken potshots at the CIA for the last 20 years for not seeing the fall of the Soviet Union coming. I think I've done that myself. After the fact it looks so obvious, so inevitable - how could the experts be so dim as to miss it? What if it wasn't inevitable at about that time? It was an unstable situation, and may have approached collapse a dozen or a thousand times over the last fifty years. And if it had not happened then it might still not have happened now. Instability might rise and recede, but we could still be talking about a seemingly-impregnable Soviet Union. Life is much more uncertain and unstable than we like to think. To say that Gorbachev was the cause (as liberals do) or that Reagan, Thatcher, and Pope John Paul were the cause (as conservatives do) or that German economic pressure did (as Germans do, and I'm sorry, that's ridiculous) is to tell ourselves tales of predictability that aren't fully so. Reagan might well have increased the instability, making a fall more likely. That's all. Things change too quickly.

It's worth remembering when considering something as inherently unstable as war and foreign policy. If we would only do X, then Y would happen. Maybe not. Two months ago the narrative was that we weren't making progress in Iraq, it was a failure, people are still dying, let's leave. A month ago the new narrative was the Surge is working, but the Iraqis are never going to get their act together. I think the new, new, narrative is that hey, the Iraqis are doing some good things, but maybe the Surge is only working about 75% as well as we thought - which is still good/not enough, depending on your original narrative. These are not only the firmly held beliefs of people like us who hardly know anything, these are the firmly (for now) held beliefs of those who we have elected or hired to know what's really going on. Even they are narrative-bound. The danger isn't that those foolish hawks/Democrats/neocons/antiwar activists/Republicans won't change their minds, but that they won't recognize that narrative is misleading in unstable situations. And warfare is always an unstable situation. Not that there is no cause and effect or no tendency, but that random events can change everything so quickly and adjustments must be made.

Next up on this topic: silent evidence.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Baseball Question

Of the average 15-25 y/o baseball fans, which pre-1980 players would they remember as great? Which pre-1950? Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson seem obvious. I think Mantle, Mays, and Aaron would be automatic, but...

There are the few stat and history freaks in every generation who can wax eloquently on Arky Vaughn or Ralph Kiner. I'm not talking about them, but the guys you might just run into and talk baseball. Do they think Tim McCarver was one of the greats (he wasn't - he was medium-great) because he's an announcer now? Do they keep some regional memory of the local greats because of their fathers and grandfathers? Can they pull Ty Cobb's name out unaided, or just recognise it? Are there movies in the generational consciousness that preserve (or inflate) some older star's reputation?

Michael and Ben may be my best authorities, but perhaps not. They might tend to know the 15-25 y/o's who know much more than the average, skewing the results.

If someone knows of a good baseball bulletin board where I can post this question, I'd be grateful.

Thought Question

Would you rather be governed by bad people with good ideas, or good people with bad ideas?

Don't jump for the easy answers about how it's never a pure situation, or bad people meaning "people that others disapprove of but I think are just fine," or good people meaning "well-behaved." The people that you think have some genuine badness about them, or genuine goodness; ideas that are genuinely superior, ideas that are plainly awful.

When I started making up examples in my head, I found I didn't have consistent answers, but did have a leaning.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

More Dragons

Over at Dubbadee's site Neco Draconis he expands on my post about dragons, below. He does a little fire-breathing himself on this one.

Monday, August 27, 2007

I Have Been Dissed

I think I'll write him.

Not With A Bang, But A Whimper

Here’s a topic I use more frequently abroad than at my online home (see my immediately previous post): Progressives making wild legal accusations that turn out to be nothing. This happens frequently enough that I now just write them off as crying wolf – a bad habit for me to get into, but one that has proved remarkably efficient. Today’s news brings and interesting example. I will quote much the same snippets that Instapundit does from Attorney Beldar’s Blog.

Sen. Kerry permits last statute of limitations for defamation to lapse, forever barring any defamation claim against SwiftVet authors O'Neill and Corsi: But there's more: "You have a standing offer from me: Just sue me here in Houston for defamation. . . . I'll waive any statute of limitations defense. I'll waive service of process. Hell, I'll meet you at the federal courthouse doors for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division (you have diversity jurisdiction), and I'll even pay your filing fee!"

There is no proof that Kerry misrepresented his war record, but there is solid evidence for it. That key elements were removed from his campaign website, that he promised to release his full records to the public but hasn’t, and that he threatened a defamation lawsuit but did not follow through are all indicators. (Note: I am aware of counterarguments, but find the weight of evidence for the above statements).

It is my contention that progressives make a lot of accusations of gross illegality, but when the dust finally settles, it’s nothing like they said.

This is not to say that I think the Bush Administration has been right in its position on all controversial issues. But when there are good arguments on both sides of an issue, I fail to see where the “fascism,” “lawlessness,” and all the other overblown rhetoric comes in. Particularly when split decisions come back on appeal, or the administration is proved out on some parts, turned down on others, I have to wonder what all the air was beforehand. I thought at first it was the non-lawyers who were getting up steam, and that those trained in the law would be more circumspect in their comments. Then I remembered the lawyers I work with. Overblown rhetoric is stock-in-trade for some of them.

I can see good arguments why people might worry that data mining might overstep the bounds of legal wiretapping. I can also see good reasons why it doesn’t. I understand the argument that an opposition party worries that DOJ firings might be political. I also know that this doesn’t look very different than all other recent administrations. That’s why we have courts. The political posturing has irritated me to the point where I no longer accept any accusation by a Democrat at face value – a bad place for any citizen to be. They have simply cried wolf too often. There is something deeply irresponsible about the comments of Senators Reid, Schumer, and Kennedy regarding the Gonzales resignation today – and I say this as someone who isn’t a particular fan of Alberto’s.

Some attorneys like the aggressiveness of trying to expand rights (or oppositely, authorities) where the law is uncertain or conflicted. Other attorneys are protective, wanting to take no risks of anyone bringing them to court. Both have their place, and I imagine most attorneys are not uniform in their leanings on this, being aggressive in some areas, protective in others. Is it part of the contract that attorneys aren’t allowed to say that their client disagrees, but have to soapbox up and blather about gross violations of human rights?

I guess it works, or they wouldn’t do it.

Parts Of Personality

I comment at other people’s blogs fairly frequently, and have trouble separating whether I have written about those subjects here or not. Woody and Roper, Ken McCracken, Tigerhawk, Maggie’s Farm and a dozen others – each have their own favored topics that they gravitate to, and I jump over there. Usually I figure that this is sufficient. Every topic doesn’t have to appear on every blog, nor is it necessary for all my friends to know all my views.

I have also my ten-year feud with my uncle, which has repeated themes as well. The audience for the latter includes only my two older sons about half the time (yes, dear lads, I spare you half of it), minus whatever they elect not to read. There are thus topics upon which I have repeated myself tediously, yet reviewing my posts here, I find them unmentioned. It seems odd at first that a line of argument I am “known for” at one place is something that doesn’t even register on my own site.

That’s the way we all are, though. What everyone who knows my wife at her job thinks is most obvious about her might be a surprise to me, a minor part of her character that hardly figures in my understanding of her. We are none of us as unitary as we think. Because we carry our own heads with us at all times, we see the parts as a connected, coherent, whole. Yet we all adapt to different environments, and seeing old friends in unfamiliar settings can be jarring. Their personalities did not stand still as they moved.

I will have to find bits from other parts of my life – or at least from AVI’s life – and bring them around.

Inside Journalism

I just figured out why mainstream journalists have such an attitude and are so full of themselves. Once you understand why they were attracted to the profession, and how they really see themselves, it all makes sense. Yes, there is a female equivalent. Blame it all on Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.

Am I kidding? You decide.

Perhaps I’m just jealous, because no one has a childhood fantasy of growing up to be a psychiatric social worker. Except, of course, we have already covered how that is just my secret identity.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Wrong About Dragons

Reading a synopsis of the story of Turin Turambar killing the dragon Glaurung - a key moment in The Silmarillion - something about the description of the dragon's initial response to the blade going into his belly captured a quickness and a franticness which had not been part of my picture of dragons before.

I can't recall when I first saw a picture of a dragon, but it must have been pretty early on. Dragons these days tend to be humorous affairs, rather plump with cute smoke blowing out their nostrils. This characterization of them is quite recent, and Disney no doubt bears much of the blame, except for the very cool Maleficent.

Tolkien, who we might have depended upon to uphold the honor of ancient monsters, is likewise a culprit with his pathetic Chrysophylax in Farmer Giles of Ham (Those may be the first ill words I have ever written about St. Ronald).

The miserable descent from The Reluctant Dragon (1941)

To Pete's Dragon and Figment,

must lead eventually to Barney.

Peter, Paul, and Mary deserve a smack as we go by as well for their weeping twit of a dragon who wanted to play on Cherry Lane.

Kenneth Grahame, who wrote the book The Reluctant Dragon in the late 19th Century may have started this pernicious trend. I do wonder if this cutesifying of dragons and other grim creatures is a partial cause of our society's refusal to believe much in evil now. After all, dragons are just cheery fellows who are misunderstood, and have their own perspectives on things which are not really wrong, but just different. Sure they eat people, impoverish countrysides of hard-working people, and burn their victims in horrible agony, but the only evil creatures are those benighted humans who won't give them a fair hearing. In a multicultural world, it's only those dracophobic people who are dangerous. Revolting.

The other dragons in my developing picture, from Beowulf, John Gardner's Grendel, and Smaug from The Hobbit, were at least grim and crafty. But they have another failing, of excess weight. Necks and tails might be thin, but our image of dragons now includes a fair heft in the middle. The authors and artists are legitimately trying to capture the great indolence and corruption of dragons, in much the same way that Spielberg expands Jabba the Hutt and gives him those slow, cruel dragonish eyes. In capturing this one aspect of dragons they ruin another, and make them seem less dangerous. If these dragons can't persuade you to do something unwise, their only other trick is to breathe fire at you. Sure, some of them can even fly, giving them greater range, but this fire-thing has become their weapon of choice to the exclusion of others.

Dragons are called "worms" in the old tales, and compared most often to huge salamanders. My picture of worm and salamander are lithe, thin creatures. Those fat dragons make you immediately think slow, out of shape, company softball guys. No matter how many times the author assures us that they're fast - lightning fast, hoo boy, you wouldn't believe how fast - I can't believe it. Even Maleficent's dragon up top has so much bulk you just think stay away from that breath and we'll be o-kay.

The Chinese should be given credit for keeping the idea of the long, slender, shifty, quick dragon alive. You look at those dragons, you believe they can motor.

Maybe it's all those ponderous dinosaurs, even the pteradactyls in the movies that throw us off from getting it right about dragons. RRRAAARggh, with their heads bobbing slowly up and down. No wonder the little mammals stole their eggs.

This is important because of the thrashing about, especially in death throes, of dragons. It should be a lot like alligators or crocodiles on "Wild Kingdom," where it suddenly hits you that these suckers can move, and they've got teeth. Think of a fish flopping around in your hand, or when you step on the dog by mistake, how quickly they move. That should be slow compared to a dragon. If you were to try and stick a salamander with a pin, they wouldn't just wriggle around a little, shrugging "stop bothering me," they are in full out panic and so fast that you usually lose them.

Now expand that out until the salamander is 300 or 500 times longer than that. Stick that with an equivalent pin, such as a sword or a spear, and imagine it twisting back on you so fast you barely saw it. That's what a dragon should be. A 100-foot alligator, but quicker. Here's a pretty good one. You are about the size of his forearm. Stab that one with your +5 Dragomatic that the guy at Halberd City assured you was foolproof, and this is still gong to knock you unconscious by mistake with just an elbow when he turns around. Then he tears you apart while he's dying and starts collapsing the cave walls with his struggles. Now those are death throes.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Horsefeathers Out-Tribes Me

A psychoanalyst who was once a Navy psychiatrist delivers a scathing appraisal of what I have called the Arts & Humanities Tribe. He takes no prisoners and is far bolder. This is not just to say that he is sterner in his language, but that he goes full-out to conclusions which I share, but refrained from stating so uncompromisingly.

One commenter even notes the Science & Technology opposition.

Why Even Go There?

Hillary Clinton, campaigning here in NH - I think out on the Seacoast somewhere. Let's take the quote apart little by little.
"There are circumstances beyond our control,
and I think I am better able to handle things I have no control over,"she said.
Huh? What does "handle" mean, then? There may be a decent way out of that statement, but the subsequent comments...hmm
"It's a horrible prospect to ask yourself 'What if? What if?' But if certain things happen between now and the election,
the election? Wouldn't it be horrible, election or no? How does the election enter into it? What kind of person thinks like that?
particularly with respect to terrorism, that will automatically give the Republicans an advantage again,
ahh, now I see...
no matter how badly they have mishandled it, no matter how much more dangerous they have made the world," she said.
Okay, I do disagree with that, but that's just common political arguing. No problem.
"So I think I'm the best of the Democrats to deal with that as well."
What does the "that" in the last sentence refer to? It seems fuzzy, a sort of "I am the best at dealing with things that need dealing with."

Friday, August 24, 2007

Boring Title, Interesting Commentary

Megan McCardle, previously of the economics blog Asymmetrical Information and now of The Atlantic, wrote about some of the ethical issues of health care reform and predictably, gets called a heartless bigot who is stupid, and probably a poopy-head with cooties to boot.

She defends herself in The Morality of Health Care Financing, which is much more interesting than it sounds.


A left-leaning blogger makes fun of the masculinity of conservatives and a conservative blogger returns the favor. The comments at both posts are part of the fun. Many people let their true, unattractive thoughts leak out. Har.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Black Swan

I have read less than half of this, and am now giving it to my eldest for his birthday. I hope to get it back. This quote jumped out at me.
One spring day a few years ago, I was surprised to receive an invitation from a think tank sponsored by the United States Defense Department to a brainstorming session on risk…The symposium was a closed-doors, synod-style assembly who would never have mixed otherwise. My first surprise was to discover that the military people there thought, behaved, and acted like philosopher – far more so than the philosophers we will see splitting hairs in their weekly colloquium in Part Three. They thought out of the box, like traders, except much better and without fear of introspection. An assistant secretary of defense was with us, but had I not known his profession I would have thought he was a practitioner of skeptical empiricism…I came out of the meeting realizing that only military people deal with randomness with genuine, introspective intellectual honesty – unlike academics and corporate executives using other people’s money. This does not show in war movies… When I expressed my amazement to Laurence, another finance person who was sitting next to me, he told me that the military collected more genuine intellects and risk thinkers than most if not all other professions. Defense people wanted to understand the epistemology of risk. Nassim Nicholas Taleb The Black Swan.

For more on the remarkable Taleb, who wrote Fooled By Randomness, his wikipedia entry is here.

Leave One Blank

I mentioned not long ago a political fantasy system whereby each party could get rid of someone at the national level by getting an extra vote to cast against a member of your party only, to be replaced by some middle-of-the-road party member. I had suggested that the Republicans might use this to rid themselves of albatrosses like Trent Lott or Ted Stevens.

I also like the idea of sortition, echoing William F. Buckley's sentiment that he would rather be governed by the first two thousand entries in the Cambridge phone book than the faculty of Harvard. But these are mere fantasies. They are never going to happen, even if they are great ideas.

I have a more accessible idea, which can be put in place without cost, with equal benefit and punishment for the two major political parties: Leave One Blank. In 2006 I refused to vote for Craig Benson, Republican governor of NH. I thought he was a crook, and only moderately competent to boot. I could stomach even less the idea of voting for just about any Democrat, though John Lynch is only moderately offensive in the role. I just left it blank.

We should look earnestly for one from our own party to not vote for at each election. The descent of the Democrats into insanity has not produced an improved quality of Republican (For those who are more liberal of mind, ask yourself if the descent of the Republicans into insanity has produced a corresponding improvement in Democratic candidates).

Political consultants and pundits can give a wide variety of interpretations of any vote. As these are often contradictory, it is hard for me to take them at face value. But when a race has fewer votes cast than the others, I think that it will be generally clearer what has happened.

I know none of you wants to give the opposition party any increasing power or encouragement. But we have to start pushing one penguin off the ice or we're all going down. Refuse to vote in one of the races. It will still be tough choice, as your party's miserable example might be opposed by a nutcase from the other party, but if we try hard, we should be able to kick one misery loose every two years.

Leave One Blank.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Bears Mentioning

I don't know of comments sections on conservative sites that are this stupid and hateful. Individual comments, sure. Whole sites, not that I've seen. (HT: Maggie's Farm)

And in similar fashion, Hillary has been fighting the Republican Attack Machine for 35 years, she says. I have noted too many times that Democrats promise to fight for some group of people, and Republicans promise to work for the people. Both are untrue, but it does reveal what their picture of the world is. But I'm just askin, here: does anyone remember Bush mentioning that he has to fight the Democrat Attack Machine? Heck, even Rush Limbaugh doesn't talk like that.

The Clintons have a solid dose of paranoia which long predates anyone outside of Arkansas even hearing about them. It's how they get elected, by appealing to the paranoia of the anti-conservatives.

A Lesson For Husbands

On the way back from church, Tracy stated she was going to nap, otherwise she might cry.

"Why?" I asked.

"When are you going to get past this why thing?"

She has a point. Thirty-one years of marriage, and I still ask a typically male question of my wife.

The Wheat & The Tares

I preached on the parable of the wheat and the weeds last Sunday, noting that the central lessons are that 1) we should not judge prematurely, as we will be too inaccurate, destroying good wheat along with the weeds, and 2) God himself indicates he will supervise the judging at the end. My particular focus I mention in passing, that the agricultural story provides a mirror for the human desire to judge. Wheat-growing in the Levant was not monoculture, and a particular weed named darnel looks a lot like wheat. Therefore, weeding could be destructive if didn’t know what you were doing. Similarly, human beings have narratives about each other and the various groups we belong to, and the power of a narrative is such that we will see people inaccurately, and judge them wrongly. This is especially true if we judge too quickly.

A friend asked after service – an actual meatware friend, not the virtual variety – how do we reconcile this with John the Baptist condemning Herod, or St. Paul’s declaration that the church should separate from the man who married his mother-in-law? We are to judge, but not judge? What is the distinction we are supposed to see here? What if Gene Robinson asks to preach here? What do we do with that?

First answer: I don’t know. Great question.
Second answer: Further evidence that our preference for easy rules rather than reliance on the Holy Spirit is simplistic.
Third answer: I think there is some importance in not seeking to judge or kick folks out, but perhaps the situation changes when it is thrust upon you and judgment cannot be put off further.

Additional answers entertained gladly.

My Friend Roper

How do we refer to our online “pleasant acquaintances?” GMRoper left a mental health anecdote that will quite obviously find a place to be told at the hospital I work in. How do I introduce that? “A friend of mine tells a story about…” is a lot closer to the emotional content than “I read online…” But in honesty, I wouldn’t know Roper if we shared a ditch in a tornado, even though I have seen a picture of him and have some idea how his personality works. It seems like a dangerous step downward to be refering to “friends” that you’ve actually never conversed with. It’s reminiscent of having imaginary pals that you talk to, and the neighbors pity you for being such a lonely guy.

I could reframe it as an evolutionary step up for humankind, to achieve friendship via the essentials of personality rather than the accident of proximity. Hmm.

I am being light-hearted here, but I think there is a serious issue underneath it. Communication and interaction have changed rapidly, and the trend is likely to continue. Will we need the people in our immediate vicinity less and less over the century, as people increasingly go to work and school online and do their socialization alone in their dens? That’s much more social than living in a dispersed farm community before the advent of telephone and radio, so it’s got to be a plus there. But it is a very different type of socializing from sitting on porches and front stoops in towns, speaking to those with whom you share proximity.

It’s clear I am voting via my actions for more electronic, less protein-based communication. While multiple persons can interact online at the same time in 3-way or 7-way conversations, the technology is still not quite comfortable for that, so the human gathering has not been replaced. But I imagine that’s coming. Who will we be then?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Those Swedes Again

American progressives have such a fascination with Sweden. It seems to them that they've just got it all put together just right. The most intensive level of socialism in the free world; beautiful women who are reportedly willing to have sex indiscriminately by American standards; free abortions; a decent standard of living - what's to criticise here?

It used to pain me to do this, because I am of Swedish descent and have spent my adult life in Christian denominations in which Swedishness was next to godliness (Lutheran and Covenant). But the facts must be faced, and the Swedes have gotten where they are by A) ruthless capitalism when it comes to Swedes competing on the international market - all that sharing is for Swedes only, and B) capitulation to the point of prostitution with the tyrannical movements of Europe, both fascist and communist.

Now that Sweden is not a monoculture of Visigoths, having encouraged immigration by Middle-easterners who are not interested in adopting Swedishness, the generosity is in peril, but the dominant media elites there, as here, prefer not to see the unpleasant.

Examples here and here.

Riffing On Gloaming

Gloaming is a nice Scottish word revived by Robbie Burns, so it of course shows up in "Brigadoon." Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote some terrible lyrics among the good ones for that show
Lads say a prayer I'm afraid Harry Beaton is dead.
Looks like he fell on a rock and it crushed in his head.
at least had the good sense to stick with the simple "roaming" to rhyme with gloaming. There's not much else - "combing," perhaps. (Yeah smart guy, try and work that in intelligently) - but that hasn't prevented lyricists since Cole Porter from trying to invent surprising, some would say annoying, rhymes for such things. Porter could get away with it, because he used it sparingly and did it cleverly, but Sondheim and the others who came after would have co-mingling occur to them to rhyme with "gloaming" and would be unable to let it go, forcing it in no matter how bad it sounded because it was just too cute to leave out. For vacuity, it's hard to beat Sondheim's
Days are made of moments,
All are worth exploring.
Many kinds of moments-
None is worth ignoring.
All we have are moments,
Memories for storing.
One would be so boring
But with everyone oohing and ahhing over Cole Porter for
Flying so high with some guy in the sky is my i-dea of nothing to do
what's a man looking for a Tony Award to do?

Well, he could have some self-respect, maybe.

How did I get here? A woman at work asked me about gloaming, the term for the half-light of evening: was there a complementary word for the half-light of morning? I felt there should be, but couldn't think of one. In the way that word-fascinated people do, I started striking out randomly from the word, hoping that one thing would set off another, and some morning-gloaming word would occur to me. Gloaming, see glooming, not just the half-light but the state of darkening...all those gl- words about light are related: glimmer, glowing, glamour, glisten, glint, glimpse, gleam, glitter, glow... huh...there must be an Indo-European root underneath all that...I wonder if gold, gilt, gild are related...

Nope. Nothing. I'll have to look it up after all.

There is no equivalent word for morning half-light. The Proto-Germanic or Gothic root you would have to use is unwieldy, so if you want to make one up I recommend using the Greek root and coining eoning.

And... very cool, gold, etc are related; sort of second cousins. The Indo-European root is *ghel, from which we not only get yellow, but gall, because bile is a yellowish color, but also chole- and chloro-, yellowish-green.

The best quote from the google-search of gloaming came from a London theater critic reviewing Jerry Hall's nude scene in the stage production of "The Graduate." Yes, that Jerry Hall, the Mick Jagger girlfriend, about my age... where was I? "Two fried eggs in the gloaming was all I saw." I wish I'd said that.

"You will, Oscar, you will." (What's that from?)

Great Quote

bs king put in a comment under my Lyme Disease post that deserves note even by you slackers who don't read the comments. Just because we deal with it ever day, doesn't make it normal. Humorous, of course, and possible to overextend or trivialize, but I thought I would highlight it because it applies to so many things.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Lyme Disease versus Creeping Socialism

A somewhat grim but entertainingly written article over at Sippican Cottage. The author had trouble getting treatment for Lyme Disease because he wanted to pay out-of-pocket for his medical care down in Wareham, MA.

I thought his relating the whole mess to the proto-socialism of Massachusetts a bit of a stretch at first. Incompetence and jerkness seemed to be a better explanation. Those played their part, but upon reflection, I think the attribution is correct. He was trying to pay out-of-pocket for his medical care, which made him seem such an untrustworthy person within the system that he found he had lost most leverage against incompetence. Later it occurred to him that almost no one has leverage against incompetence now.

That may be the most troubling argument against the increasing legislative control of health care: individuals lose leverage against incompetence. Most proposed systems (whether increasing free-market or increasing regulation) of delivering health care have the same arguments against them: money will be wasted, unnecessary care will be given, incompetent care will occur, necessary care will be shirked. The discussion about those various solutions revolves around which minimizes those problems, as none will eliminate them. But the inability to fight back against incompetence, except for the right to sue after the damage has been done, seems to me a very great problem.

As another friend, who comments here as "michael" also had problems with a too-slow diagnosis of Lyme Disease within the last month, this gets my attention.

(HT: Maggie's Farm)


Chris started driving to Houston on the 15th. That was also the day I took my DDC-4 class. Not the day, really, to watch crash-test dummies slam into windshields or cartoons of internal organs crushing into ribcages. Carried in heart: youngest son, not noted for exceptional judgment in many things. Visible on screen: yawning young man weaving off the road at night.

But he made it just fine. 39 hours minus 1 hour of sleep, Goffstown to Houston. He tried to pull over to sleep, especially during the second half of the trip, but from Knoxville on the temperature was over 100, and the ancient Saab doesn't have AC that works.

His pal Steve was a great help. Steve was going to share driving, so we paid for a return flight for him. However, Steve lost his driver's license the day before leaving, and they also had to delay the start so that Steve could get a non-driver's ID to get on the plane coming back. Then Steve slept most of the trip. When Chris wanted to nap in Knoxville, Steve asked that they find a skate park so he could 'board while Chris slept.

I hope it's a good lesson for Chris, that your jolliest friend isn't necessarily your best friend. He's safe, anyway, sleeping in his brother's air-conditioned apartment. For those who were worried, Digger is also fine, though they had to carry him up to the apartment because of the unfamiliarity.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Paranoia FYI

A recent news story about a former British MI5 agent who is now clearly delusional bears mentioning. David Shayler got in trouble in the 90's and served time in prison for violating the official secrets act when he accused MI5 of having plans to assassinate Muammar Khaddafi. It was a big scandal with much newspaper outrage, as the accusation was widely believed despite official denials. Such accusations hardly sound implausible. We fully expect that the secret intelligence services of even calm and civilized countries have a few hotheads who think that frequent assassinations are an efficient way to go in the world - wouldn't the profession attract them? Then again, agents who like to go public with accusations arouse suspicion as well - or they should, at least.

Thus, some thought he was a courageous whistleblower, some thought he was a traitor, some thought he was a strange and unreliable guy. The plot thickened when he became a 9-11 conspiracy theorist, claiming that there were no planes, but only holograms of planes at the WTC. For some, this was powerful evidence for the Conspiracy, as Shayler is a guy who clearly knew Big Secrets who was now on their side. For others, his new views cast doubt on the veracity of his old accusations.

It rather matters what assumptions you start with, doesn't it?

Shayler's new view is that he is channeling Mary Magdalene, that the universe is changing shape, and he is sent to teach mankind. I particularly liked his comment "Do I look mentally ill? Do I sound mentally ill? I am absolutely convinced, as convinced as I can be..." Well yeah, Dave, you do sound mentally ill. Being absolutely convinced without being able to produce any evidence other than your subjective impression is pathognomic for schizophrenia, now that you bring it up.

Ah, all becomes clear here, as he moves unequivocally into delusional territory. But does this invalidate all his previous claims? The comments at the second link include opinions that he was absolutely right about his original accusations against British Intelligence, but their hounding and persecuting him has made him go off the deep end.

It doesn't work that way. I won't say it's impossible, but I have never seen it myself, while I have often seen paranoia - particularly late-onset paranoid schizophrenia - follow this gradualism from A) being merely suspicious and somewhat rigid through B) being inflexible and accusing to C) being flat out paranoid and grandiose.

We spoke with the parents of a young man with schizophrenia today. They are noting in retrospect that his symptoms which were originally attributed to obsessiveness now seem to be lite versions of his current delusions. Before, he had eccentric ideas about food and developed idiosyncratic but plausible theories about avoiding certain foods. Now he has voices telling him not to eat most things. He had started a course of electroconvulsive therapy a few years ago and was improving, but refused to continue because he felt the treatments were eroding his ability to understand other dimensions of the events around him. Well, they were. What he called other dimensions of real understanding was most probably the schizophrenic's heightened attribution of meaning to innocent events.

As an analogy, I have likened that heightened sense to movie background music, cuing you when something tense or dark is about to happen. To the paranoid, the emotional equivalents of those musical cues go off at random times, creating an impression that a neighbor's offhand remark or the bar code on your soda have hidden importance.

Years ago, Dick the bus driver started becoming especially strict about churches, and very concerned about certain doctrines. Gradually, most churches made him uncomfortable because they did not accept that his particular doctrinal foci were key, and Dick increasingly stayed home, scouring the Bible for justification for hours on end, eventually insisting on only reading the red-letter words of Jesus and pulling the house shades to prevent people looking in. He came finally to the point where he believed that he was a specially-chosen prophet whose ideas were being rejected by a faithless generation. Fairly typical.

Yet things do not always progress this way. Some remain forever in the somewhat rigid, doctrinally eccentric range, only slightly or not at all outside the range of normal human variation. Are such people schizophrenics who never blossom, or is something different happening to them?

I will speculate on such matters in the near future, when I have the material better organised. But I thought your own speculations might be fun before then.

Monday, August 13, 2007


I clicked through to the wonderfully named Home For Wayward Statisticians today. In related news, Tom Maguire explains to the NY Times the difference between a median and a mean. Prom dates and sex are mentioned.

Defending New Hampshire and Iowa. Again.

Professor Bainbridge gives the inaugural Why Do We Allow Ridiculous States Like NH and IA to Have Such Power? essay for the quadrennial party nominations for president. This grows tiring.

Lileks does the obligatory reply more humorously than I do. And Glenn Reynolds explanation, that the whole country allows it just to piss off California and New York isn’t true, but it should be.

Yes, of course it’s a ridiculous amount of fuss to be made over a small percentage of unrepresentative voters, and the overanalysis is irritating to us, too. But we make the same arguments in reply every four years, and I haven’t seen them answered.
1. The theory is that not only super-rich candidates have a chance. Give evidence that this doesn’t work and propose a better method that states will actually adopt.
2. Each of the 50 states in unrepresentative in some way. Choose your poison. There is no “No Poison” choice. Rotating and/or regional primaries is a fine idea. California is going to love it the year that Alaska and Mississippi win that lottery, aren’t they?
3. California and 4 other states already dominate the November election, the one that actually, uh, counts, y’know? So that’s not enough?
4. And the people you guys regularly elect for your own states are just great, too.
5. NH is about 50% populated by people from other states, particularly Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. This has resulted in a deterioration of both our Republican and Democratic candidates. Now you bastards want more influence? Go pound sand.
6. It has proven much harder for people to vote illegally here. Unlike your state.
7. The identified problem of Not Enough Dark People applies almost entirely to the Democrats. Dark Republicans have not been complaining. So go ahead, let’s have the District of Columbia primary be the first in the nation, for both parties. Hey, where did everyone go?
8. The arguments for knocking NH & IA off the perch always quickly deteriorate into the same stereotypes, similar to Bainbridge’s “these unrepresentative, yahoo infested, pissant states.” Consequently, we suspect that the stereotypes are your real reason for resenting us. Seeing that NH consistently has among the best SAT’s and lowest dropout rates in the country (and last I checked, Iowans do pretty well there also), we’re guessing that as you can’t figure out two small states that sit still and can be looked up in the encyclopedia and everything, you shouldn’t be given any more power in elections. Iowa and New Hampshire have a pretty good idea about California and New York. You haven’t got a clue about us.

Let us all remember Mike Barnicle, who gave the 1996 Let’s Kick New Hampshire address. How’d that work out?

And that’s when he was sober.

Pay Up

Under the old system, people used to pay out of pocket for health care. Essentially, if you or those that loved you did not work, you didn’t get health care. The reasoning behind this was: Hey, it’s not my fault if you don’t work, so it’s not my problem if you don’t have health care, Jack. And anyway, work is good for you, so you’ll be better off in the long run. Happier. You’ll thank me, really.

We decided this was ungenerous, and even cruel, because some people couldn’t work, some had worked for years but were now old, and the economic system was unjust anyway. We gave lots of people health care.

Now we have a system in which people who work for certain employers, plus old people, plus really poor people, get health care, and everybody else pays out of pocket. We have decided that this is also ungenerous, or even cruel. So we want to give everyone health care.


The new proposal is that we provide health care for everyone, except those people who have poor health habits, who have to pay out of pocket. The reasoning is: Hey, it’s not my fault if you’re obese, so it’s not my problem if you don’t have health insurance, Jack. And anyway, healthy eating is good for you, so you’ll be better off in the long run. Happier. You’ll thank me, really.

This is considered a great moral improvement.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Romanian Wedding

Crina and her attendants (Crina means "lily.")

My two sons and their Romanian family. Cata, the groom, is their older brother, who they had lost contact with for many years. The girl in red is their 15 year-old sister, Ina, who lives with a whining aunt and uncle. In my recent reflections on the fluidity of real life and the unusualness of events, Ina figures prominently. She might have become our daughter if things had gone just a little differently. But because the aunt and uncle "rescued" her from the orphanage, abandoning Chris and J-A, she was not part of the picture when we were adopting. It is eerie, and more than a bit sad for me to look at her. If I ever play Will Dearth in "Dear Brutus" again, I will bring the proper poignancy.

Waiting for picture-taking

Circle dancing at the reception. Chris is in the center, in blue. Ina is on the left side.

Beatles Blues

My fourth son gave me a John Mayall with Eric Clapton CD which has been quite enjoyable. On the track "What'd I Say?" ("Gonna send ya back to Arkansas," that one.) there is unmistakably the bass line from the Beatles "Day Tripper." I don't know who stole it from whom, or whether it was a standard riff at the time that both happened to use. But there it was.

I don't think of the Beatles as a blues outfit. It's members started in skiffle bands, and once I considered it, I recognised that a lot of their earliest stuff was bluesy. Not that many songs were standard 12-bar blues, but it's clearly there once you look for it. From memory

Day Tripper
Get Back
Don't Let Me Down
Roll Over Beethoven
Paperback Writer
I Saw Her Standing There
Back In The USSR
Can't Buy Me Love
Tax Man
Come Together

Can anyone think of (or research) others?

The High School Persuasive Essay

I recall how exciting it was to get internet access that would allow me to discuss sports online. Why, there were whole sites devoted to different chat rooms, and one could choose a topic, sign in, and go over issues in detail with like-minded others. I chose a basketball chat room and signed on.

"Knicks Rule!"
"Knicks Drool!"
"KNICKS RULE!!!!!!!"

So, how do you guys think this Alan Houston trade is going to turn out?
Why did I bother? One hour, three sites, and ten rooms later, I swore it off for good.

I forget, when browsing around the political sites and adding comments, that my opponents (and alas, sometimes even my allies) don't rise much above the rule/drool level. I attempt to engage folks I partly or completely disagree with, sometimes chummily, sometimes with asperity. It does not often end well. Adults seldom descend to such obvious mindlessness, but they are frequently just as binary and unable to well, think. Or listen. Or something. Educated adults can disguise this absolutist thinking better, but it's still there.

Somewhere in my bones are the general rules of argument necessary for the high school persuasive essay. When I write, an imaginary intelligent person with a red pen sits over my shoulder and makes notes: Is this what you mean to say? or This doesn't follow. or Weak connection.

The person with the red pen also writes sp and unclear from time to time, but that's a separate problem.

Even people who make their livings with words and ideas, and presumably did well on those persuasive essays at some point in their distant past, make statements that are simply baffling in their poor connection. The writers at the Huffington Post often get picked on for this, and deservedly so. Hoping for another excellent example of prize stupidity from Glenn Greenwald, who produces many, I went over to HuffPo to yank up what he had last written, sure it would suffice. Before I got to Greenwald, however, the first article in the upper left recommended itself to me as a better example. (Greenwald is, BTW, a First Amendment attorney, who one would expect to have some command of what is a reasonable argument. I suspect from his writing that he is instead an expert in what convinces people of his POV, not in what is logical).

Can I just say that again, for those of you like Bethany who skim these things? The. First. Article. How do they do it? Chris Kelly, who I know nothing about, writes
According to a new report in the Journal of Pediatrics, for every hour a day that toddlers watch Baby Einstein, they learn six to eight fewer words than toddlers that don't...I think we're going to spend a lot of time, cleaning up after the Bush Years, correcting things that were glaringly wrong from the start. "Make your baby smart with TV." "Let the extraction industries write their own laws." "Merge the government and the church." "Get the Arabs into democracy by murdering them."
Note: Alert readers will rightly point out that I could have hidden a world of mischief in that ellipsis. If you read the essay, however, you will find I have been just. Bush nowhere praises Baby Einstein as a worthy educational product. Kelly writes as if he does.

I also suspect Baby Einstein might not be educationally valuable, but will point out that Kelly's summary of its weakness contains an ambiguity wide enough to drive a truck through. And I don't think that's accidental.

More to the point, however, is his connecting the bad educational idea to George Bush's policies for reasons that your high-school history teacher would have rejected. Mentally take out your red pen, would you please?

Make your baby smart with TV. Red: Is that what the speaker claimed?
Let the extraction industries write their own laws. Red: What are "extraction industries?" How did they write their own laws. Explain.
Merge the government and the church. Red: ??? Give examples. Look up "merge."
Get the Arabs into democracy by murdering them. Red: Do you mean Persians? Define "murder." Illustrate with actual quotes that this was the plan.

Chris Kelly's killer argument:
You know how we should have known it was a shit idea? Because it's really obviously a shit idea.

I don't think Alma Langlois, my English and Journalism teacher, would have given me many points for that reasoning. Her minimum should be ours.

Them Pigs

I will include in the next day or so some more charming and poignant pictures that the boys took in Romania, but today, it's just pigs. Two pigs were slaughtered the day before in preparation for Cata and Crina's wedding, and everybody helps out.

The bristle is burned off with a propane torch.

John-Adrian posted this one to his MySpace page right away. His girlfriend, still back here in New Hampshire was babysitting at someone else's house and looked for a DVD to play after the baby went to sleep. Samantha is a sentimental girl who likes cutesy things, so she though the title Silence Of The Lambs sounded like a sweet children's movie. So. You watch that movie and your boyfriend posts a picture of himself with a hatchet standing over a mound of (he says) pork. Sweet dreams darling.

Chris also looks like he's in his element.

There's video of the pig debristling, too, which I hope one of them posts on YouTube. I'll bet it would get a lot of hits once word got out.

Friday, August 10, 2007

New Hampshire's Badly Failing Grade

The Club For Growth has identified the legislation in the House of Representatives which would reduce pork spending, and who voted for and against them. The two new Congresspersons from NH, both elected for the first time last November, had flat-out miserable scores: Shea-Porter scored 2%, Hodes 0%. The linked article includes a description of the various pieces of legislation, including some of the worst offenses. Federal money for a Lobster Museum in Maine is a real head-banger, for example.

Guess which political party they represent. Also included in the link are the overall scores for Republicans and Democrats nationally.

48 x 4K ft.

My nephew Doug climbed Mt. Moosilauke today, which is the last of his 48 4000 footers. A lot of his climbs were in winter - always an extra burden. For those from the Rockies who sneer at such small mountains, I understand that the rockiness and slippery footing make the New England mountains harder than one would think. If you want to tell me I'm wrong, come try 'em.

So, congratulations. He's made a big dent in the Hundred Highest already, which is his next project.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


I noted long ago here and here the odd connection between the phrases black-and-white morality and black-and-white photography. It came up again today: “a black-and-white morality in which Father Knows Best,” said by a member of my generation (of course).

The 60’s boomer mythology was that the generations before us, especially our irritating parents, believed in a rigid, unthinking morality, which we labeled black-and-white thinking. They just didn’t get the sophisticated thinking we had, in which it was sometimes okay (now, for instance) for some people (me, for example) to have sex outside of marriage, sponge off others without a job, take drugs, or inflict your music and ideas on others.

We illustrated this by reference to TV shows for children, such as Leave It To Beaver or The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, with their perfect, wise, two-parent families who always had to explain character issues to their children. (Personally, I liked The Donna Reed Show family better). By the 1970’s, our voices dripped with contempt for those oversimplified moral fables – real life wasn’t like that.* We suburban pre-hippies, who actually had to hear about Vietnam and were thus exposed to the sharp difficulties of life, knew better.

It was unutterably stupid, yes. But my point here is to note how this time overlapped exactly with the change from black-and-white photography to living color, for both TV and still photography. This mere technological improvement at a minimum reinforced, and was possibly even a major cause of our attitude toward previous eras. We were vibrant, fascinating, and alive. They were gray, stilted and boring.

Picture those sepia-toned photographs of families from the 1880’s and imagine what those people were like. You see? The technology which photographed them has given you a false picture of what they were like.

* The list of shows from that era where the children had, in fact, lost a parent is pretty extensive: My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show, The Rifleman, Bachelor Father, My Little Margie

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Al Gore and Iraq

My liberal uncle from San Luis Obispo - oh wait, that's redundant - asked if I thought we would be in Iraq now if Al Gore had been elected in 2000.

Yes, there is something sly about the question, but it fits nicely with my current topic of complex systems, so I decided to answer it, reprinted here:

Fun question. The human being’s love of narrative causes us to assume as a default position that things were going to happen pretty much as they did happen, except for our imagined change. It’s not quite so lockstep in our imaginations as if it were a scripted movie, wondering whether it would have been different if Laurence Olivier were cast in the lead instead of Alec Guinness. But it’s darn close. Such is the power of narrative that we just naturally think that everything would have stably happened much the same way.

It’s a great literary device, assuming some counterfactual such as What if the weather in Germany had been just a little different, and the plane carrying Hitler didn’t have to fly higher, which froze the bomb so it didn’t go off? The writer gets to speculate what changes in the war result from that, and how American elections were different because of it, resulting in a recognizable but different world now.

I think actual events are far more fluid than that, and changing one such major event like that makes the world unrecognizable. Everyone born after 1945 – all bets are off that we individually existed. Someone would exist, but not always us. We don’t like those thoughts, especially about ourselves and our families, because we see our own existence as fairly inevitable. But all of our lives are products of such enormous coincidences that it would be pretty easy to upset the applecart. Any individual one-in-a-million chance can’t be counted on to happen. But most of what does actually happen to us in the course of a lifetime is an unending series of one-in-a-million chances.

So the temptation is to imagine a Gore election would result in things much as they are now, except maybe we wouldn’t be in Iraq. Most people these days would consider that a big improvement (I think it would be a catastrophe), but whether better or worse, the scenario just like today except no Iraq is what we powerfully assume. We actually have to put in considerable mental energy to imagine anything else. Which is intriguing.

I believe Al Gore does not come to the same forks in the road as George Bush does, but the ones he does come to are just as nasty. I think a President Gore does things at least slightly differently all the way back to Afghanistan. Perhaps even very differently, so all bets are off. The scenario of January 2003, with Al gore wondering Iraq/Not Iraq doesn’t ever occur except with a very different background.

All of the following is not a prediction of what would probably have happened, but just a look at what things would have increased likelihood to happen. When we try to imagine do-overs, it pays to look at the areas of greatest volatility and greatest stability first. That gives us some framework for what the crystal ball might show. Among the most unstable elements would be the behavior or Moslem extremists worldwide. Among the most stable elements would be that the US would have 95% the same State Dept, CIA, Congress, etc. The response of the American people after 9-11 would be about the same at first: strong support for any positive action, military or diplomatic, President Gore wanted to take.

That “support” is double-edged, however. The overwhelming support of the citizens of a democracy is also in some sense a demand. Do something. Show us you mean business. Do what you have to to keep our children safe. President Gore would have a wide latitude for action, but would have to do something that looked forceful and dramatic. Invading Afghanistan would be the most likely action, and he would also have considerable party support for such an action. John Kerry, Bob Kerrey, both Clintons – just about everyone, in fact, would cheerlead for Afghanistan.

Because of the fluidity of events, as I expressed at length above, I believe that if we had gone into Afghanistan (or any war in history) with exactly the same plan one month earlier or later that some major portion of the outcome is different. Earlier would in this case be physically impossible. One month later would be winter, and all the airbags puffing about the “cruel Afghan winter” might succeed in putting the whole enterprise off until spring. Gore would have to saber-rattle and special-ops his way through four or five months. The pressure to “do something, dammit” would drop from 90% of the populace to 75% over that time, but that’s still a lot, and they would be growing angrier.

As Tom Friedman has said “we had to hit somebody.” Unless we had pulled off some special-ops wonder or invaded somewhere, the invitation to Muslim terrorists would be unmistakable: hit us again. And they would. There would still be a huge infidel military presence in Saudi Arabia, American women would still be showing their midriffs, the cursed Jews would still be in Israel, and those infuriating westerners would still be refusing to bow down and acknowledge their rightful masters. Not to mention the fact that those heretic Sunnis/Shia/Sufi/Bahai/moderate Bosnian dogs were still at large. Though the behavior of jihadists might be volatile, their anger has been remarkably stable in its narcissism.

I don’t think the conservative rhetoric “on American soil” necessarily holds up. Further terrorists attacks might happen here, might be elsewhere. But this is something we actually do have data for. Since the invasion of Afghanistan, and even more, since the invasion of Iraq, terrorist attacks worldwide have gone way down. You might think it’s more than a fair trade to have no war but have more terrorist attacks, but there is no reason to think there is a drop in attacks. If some credible source thinks that the decrease is due to something other than terrorists migrating to where we are fighting, I haven’t seen him make the case. So increased bombings is a likely cost.

To invade Afghanistan and go after bin Laden, Gore would have to get the UN and the “international community” on board. He would probably do better on that than Bush, and he would have the help of a lot of folks the Europeans like, such as Bill Clinton. But Gore has also got to secure some cooperation from Pakistan and India. (and all the ‘Stans). Democrats, especially Clintonites, have nowhere near the rapport and credibility with those countries that the Republicans, especially Bush and Cheney, have. Not only is there a danger that Pakistan secretly gives enormous aid to the Taliban while telling us how much they are on our side, there is a dramatically increased danger of open conflict in Kashmir between India and Pakistan. That increase might only be from a 15% chance to a 30% chance, but it’s not nothing. China, Russia, England, Japan – those are pretty much a wash diplomatically Bush v. Gore. Also, the chances of success in Afghanistan have gone down because Pakistani intelligence is working against us.

This is exactly where the true believers start protesting, refusing to believe that any bad thing that hasn’t happened would happen under the Gore scenario. In the imagination, it is easy to dismiss such possibilities as ridiculously small. But there is always a chance of armed conflict between India and Pakistan, even today. I don’t see any likely scenario in which that risk goes down under Gore. Every volatile Islamic spot worldwide is now likely to change – perhaps for better, perhaps for worse, but change is in the air. Lebanon, Indonesia, Egypt - there's a new roll of the dice for all those places.
So. Four possibilities. 1). Invade Afghanistan in just about the same way that Bush did in the fall of 2001. 2.) Special ops magic. Nice if you can get it. 3.) The extended diplomatic pressures so loved by the chattering classes and the EU. 4.) Kick someone else.

I wrote you in 2000 that whoever inherited the economy was inheriting a recession, which he would be blamed for, even though it would be Clinton’s doing. In Gore’s case, that would be at least partly fair. His likely responses would seriously delay any recovery. But he would get cut considerable slack by 9-11, which people would regard as more important, so he might not take any political damage yet.

And this is just Afghanistan. We’re not anywhere near the Iraq question yet.

But just to play it out for fun, let’s try the run-up to Iraq on some plausible parallel track. Al Gore, January 2003:

The economy is slowly recovering, but no one is giving you credit for that yet.
There are more terrorist attacks worldwide than we’re seeing now, but not so much more as to be unrecognizable to current eyes. Pray that one of them isn’t a major disaster.
The UN, which doesn’t want to do anything itself but wants you to do something, is passing threatening resolutions against Saddam. Not as intensely as under the GWB pressure, but something.
Except they are still in the middle of making $64,000,000,000 off the oil-for-food program, so they want the status quo but won’t say it.
Bin Laden or no, Afghanistan is still unstable. That may not be as big a PR problem for Gore as it is for Bush, but it’s there.
George Tenet insists Saddam has WMD and the CIA leaks that to the media often.
Politically, you have Bill Clinton covering his own ass and pushing his wife’s political future, so his needs and yours will not always coincide. He will be some PR help, but he will also knife you when he needs to.
Jimmy Carter wants to “help” like he did in Korea, so he will be stumping for dialogues with Muslims about screwing Israel as a way to solve this whole thing. The narcissistic bastard may even decide to go and negotiate without permission, like he did in Korea.
Here’s the sucker punch. Your vice-president is Joe Lieberman. Lieberman was willing to abandon school vouchers to be a good soldier on the ticket, but on Israel and the war on terror, he’s going to be hard to rein in unless you are doing something that looks like a pretty strong response. Blathering about reducing our dependence on foreign oil and economic sanctions and roadmaps for peace just aren’t going to cut it. If you go in the Carter direction, Lieberman might even resign. So either Carter or Lieberman is killing you, and the Clinton’s are unreliable.

Right about then, it really sucks to be Al Gore.

Does he invade Iraq? Maybe not. But he’s got to do something. If he doesn’t have bacon on the table on the war on terror, the 2004 election is in serious jeopardy. No bacon? The most likely followup is President McCain in 2004.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Because I am watching friends go through a major annoyance which will cost them time and money, and I myself have just gone through a major annoyance that cost me time and money, I have been putting forth much energy to step back from events and look at them in a larger context.

Emergencies are when someone might be wounded or killed, or a family is going to lose the house; a child is missing, a job on the line, a decision with lifelong consequences about to be made.

Maybe what you are treating as an emergency is actually a major annoyance. Those are handled differently.

Gee thanks, AVI. Now I feel panicked and guilty about it. You're a pal.

Life Doesn't Obey Our Narrative

Recently there was a Christians United For Israel conference – I may have the name slightly wrong. I had never heard of the organization until a friend at work mentioned that she and her husband would be attending it. Nice name, I thought. But I don’t go to conferences. The next I heard of it was a link to a Huffington Post writer excoriating the group. The essay was put up at Pajamas Media if you want to find it. I’m not going to bother.

The writer indicates that he has covered a lot of events and interviewed a lot of people on the religious right, but this group was the most creepy and extremist he had encountered. His argument was an old one: Christians who believe that the last days are imminent and many Jews will be converted in the final hour don’t “really” support Israel. Their desire and expectation that Jews will be converted invalidates their support of Israel somehow. Not supporting Israel or Jews for what they are but for what they hope them to be is seen as particularly deceitful and double-minded, a using of others as mere characters in one’s own drama.

It is a commonplace to criticize a certain brand of Christian for having a forced narrative of the end times, sniffing with condescension at their oversimplified, escapist view of life. It is worth noting that the people who do the most sniffing seem to have two things in common: they find that particular narrative appalling, and they have one of their own but don’t acknowledge it. They have a counter-narrative which outsiders can see quite clearly, but is opaque to them. The De-eschatologists subscribe to oversimplifications of their own, and even a quick analysis of the quite religious ideas underneath them is also pretty creepy. To conclude that people have no further motive beyond inserting Jews into their skits at Christians United For Israel is not just an oversimplification of its own. It also reveals a contempt for the humanness of those that one disagrees with. Real people don’t have just one motive. Believing that the Jews are destined to be converted does not in any way preclude believing them to be beleaguered victims of injustice now. It does not undermine the actual affection an individual might have for a Jewish friend, or a general gratitude for Jewish foundations to Christianity.

Jews might find it irritating to be supported for a reason not of their choosing, and even antithetical to their own goals, but that is something else again.

Those quickest to condemn an overarching narrative have one of their own. (Because I am now writing in condemnation of their narratives, perhaps there is some derivative of Russell’s Paradox that demands I should include myself in this criticism). Human beings tend strongly to make narratives to explain the world around them. This drive does not make the narrative true or untrue – it simply is. We file our life lessons into anecdotes, where they are easier to remember. As an efficient way of remembering general truths, anecdote is an effective device. The parables of Jesus are teachings delivered in this way. Every novelist or playwright hopes to capture truths about life in his invented story. We like them. We want them. We ignore any amount of contrary data to preserve them.

Yet because they are powerful, narratives can also powerfully deceive. The common complaint that it is possible to lie with statistics overlooks that it is far easier to lie with anecdote. I mistrust anecdote in news reporting because of its unnoticed power – which is why I dislike NPR so much. Even Marketplace, which uses statistics with reasonable honesty, relies on anecdotes to get its point across.

The apt example is powerful, and is an entirely legitimate teaching tool. But as a persuasive tool it is suspect. The Good Samaritan teaches us how to be good. Secondarily, it teaches us that goodness does not always come from the people we define as good. But there is not a persuasive lesson that Samaritans are really much nicer than priests intended. That would be a false use of anecdote.

Yes, this thought is incomplete and there is much more that could be said. This whole question of narrative, oversimplification, complexity, and the unexpected has been on my mind, and I expect I’ll keep at this. So much of our national discussion on terrorism, the economy, the environment, and likely everything else has been little more than the shouting of competing narratives.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Complicated Things

Human beings often prefer simple narratives to complicated facts. This drive is actually part of our intelligence, our search to explain things and see unifying ideas. But it becomes irritating when people attempt to impose their narrative, at the expense of inconvenient facts.

Whenever I read a newspaper article about events of which I have more detailed knowledge, I am always distressed at the oversimplification. In attempting to get across a single idea, often with a covert advocacy behind it, qualifiers, uncertainties, and contradictions are left out. I find myself thinking uh, that's sort of true, but we wouldn't put it that way. Yet I read the next article with my guard mostly down, assuming that I am learning something pretty nearly true. I neglect what I know about newspaper (magazine, internet) stories - that they are oversimplified - because I desire that oversimplification, so that I might pack the new information into my existing cupboards efficiently.

It's not hard to see that this can be dangerous when applied to complicated events, such as, oh, real life. The climate, the war, our health care, the economy, foreign policy - all of these are not only complicated, but necessarily complicated to the point of uncertainty and ambiguity. The Surge Is Working/Not Working. Compared to what? As measured by what? Are we gaining nothing? Losing nothing? What is our assessment based on?

It is a favorite caution of mine that every action in complicated situations is subject to risk/benefit, or cost/benefit analyses. A simple answer is bound to be essentially wrong.

I have been trying to organise this into a coherent series of essays, and am more muddled than when I started. Michael Crichton, however, says it much more lucidly in this speech. You can start there, and we'll go on to discuss the whole thing later.

(HT: Dave at Neco Draconis)

Friday, August 03, 2007

Sarkozy in Wolfeboro

Tigerhawk asked in the last post about Sarkozy vacationing here. I hadn't really thought of myself as having inside knowledge, but I suppose I do. About Wolfeboro, that is - not Sarkozy. I hadn't thought of that knowledge as particularly specialized, either. Anyone who lives any length of time in NH, and about a quarter of the people in MA and CT, has some connection to Lake Winnipesaukee. As a solid percentage of my visitors here are from NH and have connections of their own, it hadn't occurred to me that my information would be of interest.

Wolfeboro has long had some extremely wealthy people with lake houses. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek spent many of her later years there, and the Bald Peak Colony Club was long a haven for Very Old Money. As a child, it was very exciting to see the Rolls Royces at the supermarket. Bob Dole stayed a few times at a nice place up the airport road. Winnipesaukee is favored because it is large, so the boating enthusiasts have a lot of room to explore and maneuver. I hadn't known that any of the new money from Microsoft had taken up there, but it's hardly surprising.

Wolfeboro itself is not a particularly wealthy town. There aren't so many jobs in the off-season, so the houses that aren't on or near the water are modest, salt-of-the-earth type places. I think one of the charms for the ultrawealthy over the generations is that the town remains a town in its own right, with regular churches, a few of the tiny museums and historical societies common to NH towns, corner stores, family restaurants. My folks lived there for years, and the family had houses on the water for years before that. My stepbrothers still have vacation homes there, one lake over. I have never been by land down to Springfield Point, where Nicholas will be staying, but I know the road and have been down there by water. I worked in Wolfeboro as a teenager, and have had any number of minor connections to the place over the years. As a map fanatic, I know the geography well.

NH is a good choice in general, because we're very familiar with Secret Service agents crawling around the place and sudden halts for arrogant motorcades every four years. I'm not sure how much we've had to do that on the water, however. The symbolism of Sarkozy visiting America is pretty clear, and provides an interesting contrast to PM Gordon Brown not going to Cape Cod this year, as he usually does.

I rather doubt that the French President will dock at Bailey's and have an ice cream, but he might.