Monday, February 28, 2011


Christians often hold the misconception that “Jews know the Old Testament really well.” Not so. First, many modern Jews know more about cultural Judaism, some of which includes reference to biblical events, but much of which is largely 20th C information. As Frank Schwartz used to say “I just know about Delancey Street. I rely on you to explain why we do the things we do.” He exaggerated and was being too modest, but you get the point.

Second, even among those who are knowledgeable about the texts underpinning their faith, most Jews learn Torah and Talmud, not the histories and prophets. Not that they have anything against the histories and prophets, but Talmud takes a more elevated spot, and you can’t emphasise everything. There have been Jewish sects which would neglect the later OT books altogether, holding only to Torah, and in response, more dominant strains of Judaism made efforts to insist that some be retained in synagogue worship. But there is nowhere near the emphasis on the remainder of the Old Testament that one finds in Christian churches.

The use of wisdom literature is more mixed. The Psalms are still used in worship and personal devotions. Proverbs has been much-replaced by Talmud. Individual sections of wisdom literature are used for various holidays. But as with the rest of the Haftarah, there is an underemphasis to Christian eyes. Yeshivas teach Torah-Talmud.

Apart from any specific verses or sections of the histories and prophets which Christians have thought important to retain with emphasis, the development of Talmud – fascinating story in itself, BTW, though I won’t go into it here – contrasted with retaining the centrality of the prophets, creates a very different picture of God’s revelation. To overstate for emphasis, 1st Century Christians dropped Torah commentary, the Jews dropped the Prophets. The Christians quickly emphasised the entire illustrative and prophetic arc of Israel’s history, on into the New Covenant. (This was not a later addition. Jesus himself speaks this way, and his followers relate this narrative arc of creation, selection, and repeated rejection of prophecy from the very first.) The Jews moved to a different abstraction: now that the Temple has been destroyed, what is the remaining core and how do we express it?

I think this is an enormous chasm. To Christians, this looks like frank evasion by the Jews to not bother much about those places in their history where God told them they were sinning badly. That they cannot endure Isaiah and Habakkuk virtually guarantees that they will not hear Jesus. To Jews, this is a convenient reinterpretation of scripture by Christians because it could be made to point to their purported Messiah. In their eyes, Jews did the hard work of distilling their faith to abstract essentials while retaining concrete expressions - while the Christians went off on one of those wild-goose chases about a Messiah, which happens in Judaism from time to time. When we looked it all over, we decided that Torah had to be absolutely central, and understanding it in the new context our most important task.

This leads to cross-purposes in discussion, with Christians quoting Micah and Jews either focusing on Torah and its place in Judaism, or more often, wanting to discuss the history of the Jews in the Common Era. Neither rejects the other's focus as irrelevant, but considers it of secondary importance.

We identify break points in retrospect, because they provide neater, easier explanations. The destruction of the Second Temple was certainly a dividing line. Yet I think there are evidences of the break before that. The schools of Oral Law, or Mishnah, were certainly underway before 70 CE – the destruction in fact prompted Jews to write much of this down and organise it. Perhaps Mishnah can in turn be seen as a response to the defiling of the Temple in the days of the Maccabees – a prefiguring of its later destruction – a beginning of the process of distilling Judaism to Torah and commentary. All three major Jewish groups of Jesus’s time, Essenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees, show this movement away from later OT writings, the prophets in particular. (The Essenes, whoever they were*, seem to have kept some focus on the histories, and more messianic themes as well.) This is in great contrast to John the Baptist and to Jesus, who frequently refer to the prophets and histories.

If this split were already underway, it provides an interesting undercurrent to a few sections of scripture. When the Pharisees challenge Jesus about Sabbathkeeping, he answers from the histories, of David’s freedom to eat the consecrated bread in circumstances that would look unpermitted according to current rules. He quotes Hosea, refers to Jonah and Solomon; He refers to "this generation," as prophets repeatedly did, but is uncommon in Torah and Talmud, which stress the permanence of laws and rulings for Jews of all times; Matthew identifies this as a fulfillment of Isaiah.

When John asks Jesus if he really is the awaited one, Jesus answers from the prophets. Even when referring to the Pentateuch, Jesus refers to Moses and to Abraham – to the covenant figures – and expresses quite clearly that he a) will supersede the law or sometimes, b) already supersedes it. Commentary on the law he regards as less than unimportant, but actually pernicious. Even when referencing the Ten Commandments, he uses the odd phrasing “You have heard it said…” - not the usual emphatic endorsement that this is eternal command, but something milder. But as he takes the principle of the commandment against murder and extends it tenfold in the next breath, one can hardly accuse him of speaking against it. More probably, his point is that even the Commandments were training wheels, soon to be discarded. That the training wheels should themselves require smaller training wheels was to go in precisely the wrong direction.

*Current best guess: more a generic movement than a defined group, with widely scattered communities in varying degrees of agreement and communication.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Social And Mating Behavior

A friend at church - quite obviously a parent who has watched her own children go through adolescence, as you shall see - refers to the large collection of teenagers congregating between the doors and the parking lot as The Mating Circle. I had had a similar idea before I had even heard she had said that, comparing them to flocks of birds in season: preening, flying off in small groups only to return, strutting, decked out in bright plumage. It is both appalling and charming, really. They can't seem to help it. They just do this. Like cranes or marmots or Red Handed Howler Monkeys, as soon as they become sexual able, regardless of whether they are conscious of any sexual interest, human children start displaying their genetic fitness and access to resources by leaping around, exposing fleshing, banging into each other, and trying to exclude others.

To those who immediately protest that there are other, less primitive qualities being displayed, I roll my eyes. Yes, of course this is an oversimplification, a cynical prism with which to view Princess and Junior. But as we spend our entire conversation about youth discussing them through the prism of encouraging responsibility, and planning for the future, and instilling values - as if they were reasonable creatures instead of those who we would make reasonable - can we just take a moment to drop the polite pretense that we use to try and instruct them and face what we are really up against? They just fall into this frightening behavior and they are completely unaware of it.

There was a South Park episode (Season 6: Episode 10) in which Bebe is the first girl to develop breasts, and suddenly all the boys in the neighborhood are playing outside her house, bashing each other, competing, acting like orangutans - and they have no idea why. They just do. The South Park creators are still politically correct enough to portray Bebe as having considerable insight into what is going on, but this is ludicrous. Anonymous, commenting on my Where Have All The Good Women Gone? post, described a young girl with half a skirt as if she knew what was up. Doubtful.

Think of her as a type of wren. She does this, and she doesn't know why. This is why girls argue with their mothers - well, some mothers, anyway (I hold the mom in that comment more responsible). The mother looks and says "You are communicating to every male of our species "I want to mate." The daughter responds in outrage that this is not so, she is just trying to be fashionable, so as not to be unpopular. To her, the general social minimum, set by the other young wrens in the flock, means that she absolutely cannot dress like her mother. She does not see her own mating display, she sees that it is far less than those Other Girls, who she disapproves of as much as you, Mother.

Also boys, crashing into trees for no apparent reason, BTW. Same thing. And it strikes long before actual puberty, when they still find girls icky. Nature prompts them to display pre-heroic behavior as a warmup for horrible societies in which 14 year old boys actually do have to be heroic.

I'm about to bring the water level up to the throat, boys and girls, so those of you young 'uns who feel you have seen through this and are above it, beware.

The Mating Circle is also a Social Circle, of course, which is what makes it complicated. The social circle aspect pushes you to fit in with your age cohort, which in historical terms is as important as fitting in with your family and the larger society - maybe more. When your life expectancy is 40 and no one has enough to leave an inheritance, the people who you will go into battle with, or work with, or bear your children in the company of, or will still be alive when you take sick at age 25 and your kids are still under 10, are a more precious resource than the parents who are telling you that your skirt is too short or the swimming hole is dangerous. Fit in, but stand out. It's hard to be young, and parents who see that your biological imperatives have to be modified for a society that requires you to pass algebra don't simplify it. We battle against mighty forces.

The circle is complicated in much more subtle ways. The girl who stands aloof because she is an academic, who won't lower herself to be like the (shameless) other girls - just another type of plumage, to attract males of the subspecies she prefers. The girl helping her mother with the lemon squares instead? Same thing. Just a different plumage. The boys hanging around the electronic equipment discussing new technology? It's a subset of the social circle, with an unconscious eye to the mating circle.

So all you Arts & Humanities girls, so taken with the boys who really "get it" about what the New Woman is all about - they are just doing whatever it takes to get laid find a suitable mate, just like all those tiresome rednecks shooting at bottles. (The latter are just looking for a different type of wren.) It's just the plumage for your subspecies. As good A&H males, they have learned, with no consciousness of the act whatsoever, what attitudes help them fit in with the A&H tribe, and what A&H girls like.

I don't fault them for that, not only because I was that guy, but because they aren't calculating sociopaths. All the young of our species look out over the territory and sense at some deep level where their best chances are. The problem is that they calculate this through a primitive prism of Life Expectancy = 40. Adults have to inject, from earliest years, that they will actually live to be 100 and live in a culture that requires them to find a job and keep it, so passing in your Civics homework is valuable. The kids that appear from our perspective to understand that are actually only the subspecies which has discovered that A's are a plumage I can acquire better than most, and attracts a subspecies that has no interest in guys who can ride a mechanical bull. Those guys discover other types of masculinity displays, such as cross-country skiing or being a back-to-the-lander who knows how to make and market organic maple syrup. It's the same thing. And the femininity displays of the girls in that tribe are emphatically not eyelashes or fawning and giggling - those disgusting displays are for another, inferior subspecies - but are present nonetheless.

And lest you think I am criticising you for this, remember that I raised my sons to be attracted to this alternative femininity precisely because it is not prom queen style. (Be wary, though. In distancing yourself from that, you can cut yourself off from the obvious in favor of the rarefied. The village idiot knows that what generically attracts women to men and men to women never really goes away, and must be relied upon. Assistant Village Idiots still need to be reminded that the exalted qualities "above" the primitive are not separate from, but founded on, the primitive. Moderns think otherwise because they hope something other than reality is true.)

All this grim cynicism will be tied into the Book of Proverbs in the near future, BTW. God is very realistic as well as very righteous. We give lip service to thinking Him far more righteous than we, but secretly hold the view that we are more realistic. Not so. This was all foreseen long ago.

For those who think I am wildly overstating this case, consider: the girls I dated in high school and college, including my bride of 34 years, would be at the far extreme of distancing themselves from the stereotypical goddesses of popular culture of the day, and I at the far extreme of demonstrating that I was not of the hypermale stereotype of same. Yet they all, even though they had no interest in sex (at least with me, which I will compliment myself by thinking was faintly generalisable), wore thigh-high dresses or smallish to very-small two-piece bathing suits, addicted themselves to historical romances, or otherwise let feminine display leak out - and I, sensitive, androgynous, and artistic male, nonetheless took insane physical risks, pretended to a high pain threshold, and wore my jeans spray-paint tight. As did all their friends and my friends in the AP and eastern college culture we inhabited.

Just for fun, look at your local middle-school through college acquaintances through those eyes this week. Even the denial of masculine and feminine roles is but the embracing of them in another form, unconsciously displaying the number of blinks that their subspecies of firefly mates with.*

*The reference is to Madeline L'Engle's Arm of the Starfish, in which Kali Cutter, a wicked temptress by Christian YA fiction standards, attempts to deceive Adam by convincing him she is not really in league with her evil father, but is good and wants to be on his side. A female character, who sees through Kali, warns Adam that firefly subtypes blink their proper number of times to attract a suitable mate - there are two-blink and four-blink fireflies - but that when none are available, they blink a different number of times to attract the wrong type, which they eat. Our two older sons grew up on the analogy of firefly blinks - that subspecies identify themselves by blinking a certain number of times, and one should stick to girls who gave off the right number of blinks. We didn't stress that part about being eaten by false-blinkers.

Beatitudes II

When last we left the Beatitudes a week ago, I had highlighted that they may not be directions for living, as is often taught, but an expression of how great the blessing of being in the Kingdom of God is, overwhelming any misery. I had noted that the theory breaks down around the verses in Matthew 5 about being merciful, or being a peacemaker, as those are clearly qualities that scripture in other places teaches are valuable.

I was being a touch tricky, in order to introduce the idea slowly. I actually think that those beatitudes fit the teaching as well.

What Jesus is announcing is that the Kingdom of God is so valuable that whatever it costs you is worth it. He is not saying "Be merciful, and I will be merciful to you." He is saying "You can afford to be merciful no matter how much it costs you in this life. You can afford to act as mercifully as God. Has someone cheated you? Doesn't matter." He is not saying that it is a good thing that someone cheated you, or that you should seek being cheated, or that being cheated and enduring it is character building. Peacemakers are brought in not in our modern sense of arbitrators or wise rulers who can avert war and conflict - that is in fact a thorough misreading of the text, based on modern political ideas rather than Christian ones. Peacemakers in this sense are those who give up what is their just due, who swallow their pride and go along with bullies and evil men, not because that is a good thing to do, but because they can afford it. Now that the Kingdom of God has arrived even acceding to injustice, which seems so expensive and impossible to you now, should be counted as nothing.

This fits precisely with Peter's cry in Matthew 19 (Please cease racing through for the concepts - as I always do - and read these slowly)
27 Then Peter said to him, “We’ve given up everything to follow you. What will we get?”

28 Jesus replied, “I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne, you who have been my followers will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life.
or with Paul's comment in Philippians 3
7 I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. 8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ...
Or with the parables of the kingdom of Matthew 13
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
(And the rest of Matthew 13 as well, really.)

Or the rich young ruler. The message is not "If you give up stuff, you will become a better person and start to learn about the Kingdom." The message is "You just don't get it. You are already poor in comparison to those who have embraced the Kingdom."

This is not a new teaching. But it has become obscured over the last few centuries, especially the 20th, and I believe especially in America. Certainly, this thought is integral to Boethius's Consolation. It was central to Catholic mystic and devotional thought - which even Catholics don't pay much attention to these days, never mind Protestants.* The modern idea - Hey! You Guys! You're supposed to be meek, and humble, and peacemakers, not rich bastards exploiting the poor - comes as a reaction to some people becoming wealthy. It's not really a spiritual idea, but a very earthly one, emerging, unsurprisingly, just as our general earthly lot improves.

I'm not saying a word against humility, or swallowing one's pride "just to keep peace," or enduring persecution. There are other places in scripture where these are offered as good ideas, and an object of obedience. I am saying they have little to do with the Beatitudes. And, less to do with the Gospel than we commonly think. What Jesus says the Gospel is contains a whole lot of "Nothing matters except believing in Me," and only secondarily "Believing in Me means doing x, y, and z."

Hey, I didn't say it. Jesus said it. Read for yourself.

*The dropoff is so severe that I suspect the percentage of Protestants who take sustenance from earlier Catholic devotion is not much lower than the percentage of Catholics. (See: Everyone Who Reads Richard Foster, for example).

Friday, February 25, 2011


Son #3 is at 165 degrees west longitude, nearly on the Arctic Circle. Son #4 is at 18 degrees east longitude, nearly on the Arctic Circle. If you look at the habitable places up there, there aren't many. And two places directly across the North Pole from each other are fewer still.

This is the first time in the history of the world that Romanian brothers are on direct opposite sides of the Arctic Circle.* I feel pretty confident of that. Some Romanian newspaper or magazine would likely be interested in the story.

*If you want to count Catalin, who is their brother though not our son, I waive the point. Yes. True.


I love Kendrick Perkins. But I love him within the context of Kevin Garnett plus another reasonably talented big man. Even before the trade, all the talk about building a new Celtics team around Rondo and Perk struck me as chancey. Big men who have been hurt nearly always continue to be hurt - Celtics fans may remember Al Jefferson, who I still love and root for to do well wherever he goes (Utah at present). And Perkins is not a top player like a Howard or Boozer, but a player used to neutralise their strengths so that teammates can exploit other advantages.

If O'Neal is not healthy throughout the playoffs, then this is a bad trade. The championship window for the Celtics is narrowing quickly - perhaps this is the last year. If they do not win, the idea that Perkins could have put us over the top will become commonplace. So this is a risky trade in that sense.

But in a rather Heisenberg application, the trade itself reveals why it was a reasonable trade. I thought that Perkins as a major piece going forward was suspect. With this trade, Danny Ainge reveals that he thought it was worse than suspect - that it is not worth doing. Once you have absorbed that the Celtics were not going to move up much from the $5.5 million/year that Perkins rejected - were never going to move into the range of the $9M/year he wants, and may get from someone else, then Kendrick Perkins is just as much a rental property as Jeff Green is.

Here's the other part. Paul Pierce really needs - really, really needs, someone else who can play defense against LeBron James. I don't know if Carmelo is in the Celtics playoff mix, but him too. Jeff Green is that guy. I was as worried about Pierce and Allen having any gas deep in the playoffs as I am Shaq.

The other pieces are intriguing, especially the later draft pick. Kristic's best games this year have been against Chicago and Orlando, though those are one game samples. He reportedly plays Tim Duncan well. Those may make for some nice moments, but you can't hang much on them.

Sports is also about mythology, as I often note, and Perkins leaving is a downer in how the team feels. But for winning, both short term and long, this is a slight upgrade.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


When you drop off a son at the international departures terminal, and he's been talking about being based in Norway and Romania for 3-4 years - even though you know this is the son whose plans tend to change more rapidly - you can't help but watch as he goes through the last screening in view and think "Is this the last time I shall ever look at him?"

Perhaps it gets more difficult as it repeats, or maybe I'm just more easily moved to tears as I grow older, but this was harder than sending him off to the Marines, even though statistically, that was far more dangerous.

Story to follow, most of it good, despite my initial catastrophising.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Middle East

We got the usual back issues of Time and Newsweek from Tracy's dad. I actually glanced at them this time, because I wanted to see what the conventional wisdom of the left is. The idea seemed to be We got rid of corrupt dictators! Yay us! Plus the obligatory intonations that this proves the neocons were wrong, and conservatives had always been too cozy with those dictators - yeah, Bush and Khaddafy were great pals - so this was a great in-your-face moment for American liberals too.

There were some cautionary statements that perhaps some of the people who are most likely to come to power have some non-Western ideas. Non-Western. As if that's the problem. Terrorism and oppression aren't really wrong, you see. We westerners think they are wrong and hope that these other cultures come to see that too, but swe have to see these things in context and not impose our values. And we're getting rid of dictators! Yay us!

This looks nowhere near as encouraging as the fall of the Soviet Union, frankly. In those revolutions, there were great upswells of support for free speech, and elections, and less corruption, free markets, and a positive enthusiasm for coming in contact with the west. And even with that, many of those countries fell back into old habits and only some of them look promising even now, twenty years on.

In contrast, the campaign slogans in the Middle East are going to be Muslim Brotherhood: Many of us are only somewhat insane.

Well, it could hardly be as bad as Yugoslavia, I suppose. Tunisia looks encouraging, some other nations look like they at least have a shot at some partial improvement, some half-way point to sanity. It may play out well in the long run. But I can hardly call it overall encouraging. The supporters and cooperators with the old regimes will lose some power - though they are the people who actually know how to run things and where the account books and suppliers of electrical tape are. If Eastern Europe is any guide, a lot of them will still have jobs ten years from now. Of the available power left hanging, supporters of freedom and Muslim extremists are both going to have more. At least at first. I don't consider that a stable situation. Statistics are sent flying out about how many people in Egypt support free speech. But do they merely mean that they have felt silenced and now get to talk, and it won't apply to Those Others, who are destroying our precious unity and moving forward. They support religious freedom. Meaning what, exactly, as they also think that stoning converts from Islam is okay? And how are they feeling about Jews in that picture? Baby steps look fine from an historical perspective of a century, but for people getting killed right now, not so much.

Throwing out a dictator in Iraq was certainly an encouragement to this. This was always one of the numbers that could come up when we rolled the dice on remaking the Middle East from the inside. We can hope that it's a net positive. Nor do we know what would be transpiring now had we not thrown out a dictator. We might be looking at something worse with Saddam playing around in this mix.

Atmosphere of Compliance

Part of the complaint against the UConn coach being suspended for a few games next season was that there was not an "atmosphere of compliance" in his program. Sportswriter Jay Bilas wonders if this could be made into a cologne and marketed. Athletic Directors all over America would doubtless pay top dollar for it.

This is a thoroughly bogus complaint, on the order of "Wipe that smirk off your face. Look at me when I'm talking to you." Everyone knows what it means, and that it is probably true. But if you are talking about real infractions and real punishment, this sort of incoherence has got to go. Nation of laws and all that.

Fortunately, we're not talking about a real punishment here. It's rather like the punishments congressmen get for groping campaign volunteers or redirecting money to ponies for their kids. Let us have a ceremony in which we tell you that you have made serious errors of judgment. Please don't grope any other volunteers until you have left the Senate floor.

Bilas also mentioned how important coaches are in teaching young people life lessons which are more valuable than their instruction in X's and O's. He spoke in general about good coaches he had had and generalised it to good teachers. It sounded wonderful.

This was completely untrue in my case. In the case of teachers, this was largely my own fault, but for coaches, the idea is ludicrous. Some of them were decent enough, but mostly, I learned about favoritism, subtle cheating, and valuing athletic skill over any other value.

Where Have The Good Women Gone?

Among the links at Instapundit discussing Kay S Hymowitz's book Manning Up; How The Women's Movement Has Turned Men Into Boys and her WSJ article this weekend "Where Have All The Good Men Gone?" was one to The Art of Manliness site, a personal favorite of mine. An excellent short take on the topic.

The topic of boys becoming men, and whether particular individuals are on schedule, has occupied much of my thought these past 30+ years, especially the last 10 (and the next 5, I'll bet), and I have shared the worrying concern that the grim statistics reveal. Yet might I mention that because of the boys and their friends, I have also had a fair bit of exposure to young women, and their behavior is uh, not uniformly encouraging either. Apparently it is impolite to mention this.

Also, any reading of history suggests that young men and young women have always presented much the same difficulty. There is a narrative, much beloved of sentimentalists and conservatives - I'm not implying any particular correlation there; it might be negative - that in the Good Old Days young people knew that life was hard and grew up quickly, taking responsibility for repairing the pigs or darning the buckboard or whatever, so that papa and mama would be able to work 30 hours a day at the vegetable mines and make some money.

This is certainly true in comparison to the present day, for if there is anything we know about history, it is that people mostly starved, were exploited, and died young. Working hard was not a matter of good character, but mere survival. But most of the stories today of folks remembering their own childhood and the stories of their parent's are subject to selective bias. People who became successful enough to write for a national audience, remembering themselves and their circle, portray a society of industrious, responsible young people - not like you slacking whippersnappers today, dammit.

But the historical record is also full of bastardy and abandonment, murder, robbery - all those things mentioned in the folk songs, actually.

Well, I do social histories on people as part of my job and have been doing so for thirty years. A psychiatric facility is very much a restricted sample of another sort, but not so much as you'd think. There have been 18,000 separate individuals admitted to our facility over that time, and we get a fair bit of information about their families as well. So perhaps 5% of the population have something of themselves in our records - which is part of why confidentiality is such a big deal to us. That 5% is certainly slanted toward those homes your mother wouldn't let you visit, which had forgotten until I just reminded you, but we also know a fair bit about the dark underside of some of the prominent attorneys, physicians, college professors, business owners, and other respectable people. And I don't just mean that they happened to have a child or a spouse who hit a bad patch in the genetic lottery and have some sad condition. The full display of incest, violence, addiction, and criminality of even the elite runs through our histories.

From those data bases, let me assure you that youthful irresponsibility, in more than a Disney sense of stealing muskmelons or putting glue on Miss McDonald's chair, is not confined to the present age. Nor is it confined to young men. Women may have some different pathologies - perhaps, sadly, complementary pathologies - but they can be just as damaging.

I sometimes point out that the most economical explanation of societal change since the 1950's is that teenagers had discretionary income for the first time in history. Most pathologies could be at least theoretically explained by that - even the sexual ones. And we note that the few individuals in history who also had discretionary income as teenagers acted just about as irresponsibly as anyone we've got now. When I consider the lives of my grandfathers, I doubt I could endure it. Yet clearly, I could have. There is nothing they had genetically that I don't have. The need brings such responsibilities forth.

Which suggests the lack of need suppresses them as less necessary, but they are there if the need arises.

Video Winner

The video I told you about a few weeks ago and asked you to check out and maybe vote for Stephen Byrd's, the one with me in it? He won. I think I could now embed the video, but I want to keep traffic going to those nice people who ran the contest.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Thought Links

David over at Photon Courier links to a fascinating site, Bruce Charlton's Miscellany, athe following post Does hereditary psychology explain broad cultural types and trends? The whole site is quite remarkable.

For those who missed the connection, Photon Courier is David's cross-posts from Chicago Boyz, an excellent group blog with strong University of Chicago connections.

Also today, Future Pundit speculates on all those "survival in apocalyptic disaster" preparations and points out some flaws in the reasoning. He is distressed that the disaster prep discussion seems to be in the hands of those expecting a complete societal meltdown, when more moderate disasters deserve decent discussion as well. I would add that at the other end of the spectrum, disaster prep literature is mostly concerned with very brief emergencies, such as power outages for a few days or shallow flooding which brings everything to a halt then seeps away.

I had some bags of non-perishable food stashed in the basement, plus some plastic jugs of water, all of them put down years ago and forgotten. It occurred to me a few months ago that this wasn't really thought out, just something that I had vaguely thought I should do. But our most likely minor disaster is a power outage in winter, with travel possibly closed down. Food and water aren't really the issue there. Even on the last day before shopping, we have enough food for a few days, so long as we aren't picky about it. And we're on city water. It's always possible that something could happen to make the water unsafe, or our ability to get to food be impaired for a few days longer, but these bags weren't likely to ever get used. Why pack the Red Cross recommended tools when it's all stored right next to the tool bench? Better to focus on batteries and spare toilet paper.

So I thought about second and third-most-likely disasters, deciding that evacuation was the thing we really aren't prepared for that could reasonably happen. Storm, chemical spill or heavy smoke, plus highly individualised disasters could send us scurrying. Maybe projected flooding, though our terrain suggests it would have to be pretty severe for us to be better off on the move than here.

But preparing for a week's evacuation overlaps heavily with what we would need in the second week of a disaster which isolated us at home, so I figured that would do double duty. I noticed that long-cooking rice might be an unwise choice compared with minute rice - things like that. Over February vacation I researched and rethought Bug-Out Bags, as they are called, and redid the emergency supplies with that in mind. No one seems to mention packing a pump or a can of fix-a-flat, BTW, which struck me as useful thing to have.

If we get one of those societal meltdowns we're pretty well screwed up here, so I'm not putting much energy into that. I don't know how to skin a squirrel or fire a warning shot into someone's leg or anything.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Meerkat Overdose

This is a bit much of meerkat life, I admit. Apparently it's a TV show with episodes. Very cute, very informative. But I am bothered by the outrageous anthropomorphizing of this: "Flower knows that family can be relied on...," "gentle persuasion" of a younger sibling, "takes his responsibilities seriously." I credit this attitude, this pretending that animals have something other than instincts, as one of the driving forces behind the insaner parts of environmentalism. A sentimentalism unsupported by realism.

Hell, even human beings are often instinctive rather than reasonable. Maybe most of the time. It's bad enough that we pretend our own actions are fully reason-based when they are only partly so. It's ludicrous to extend that to species where it is 0% so.

Still, they're meerkats, and fun to look at. And perhaps traffic-attracting.

Retro Banking

On NPR, they were highlighting this cool new program in Los Angeles to teach schoolkids to save: a local bank gives them an account with $5 in it and a passbook. They also get a tour of the vault. Very good idea in this era of needing to teach children to save. I admire their originality.

Except that's what Manchester Bank did with us in the 1960's here in NH. Well - perhaps it's an even better idea now.

Maggie's: Education Repost

Liberal Arts education, and Stanley Fish's essay excoriating UPhoenix, are under discussion over at Maggie's. I have only a half-formed thought, standing back from a more sociological (or even anthropological) view, which I am hoping folks can help me flesh out.

Any industry which regulates itself moves to a protectionism of the persons and values of its own elite.

Any industry regulated by the government moves to protect the persons and values of a different elite, sometimes overlapping, sometimes competitive.

Any industry regulated entirely by commercial concerns coarsens and adulterates its product, but is also the source for all innovation.

Regulation by church seems more varied and mixed, but includes a propensity to devoting enormous resources to wild geese that do not create the improvements hoped for.

There is considerable interpenetration of these in any complex society, and corruption or exploitation can come from many directions.

I frankly don't know what the proper balance of these is.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Time Travel and Sports

Steve's sermon today referenced "Back To The Future" and betting on sporting events. Coming on top of my "Nod To Cleveland" post and Ben's tentative list of Worst Moments, it just naturally connected into a "If you could change Boston sports" reverie. Which led in at least two directions at once. (I'm a trained professional daydreamer. Don't try this at home.)

I am ashamed to note that I had forgotten about Reggie Lewis, and that jumped well up the list. Which put me in mind of Darryl Stingley, paralysed in his prime, who I had also overlooked. I had the trifecta of less devastating injuries at inopportune moments already on my list: Ted Williams getting injured just before the 1946 World Series, Tony Conigliaro getting injured just before the 1967 World Series, and Jim Rice getting injured just before the 1975 World Series. (Conigliaro is a crossover here. The injury wasn't career ending, but he was never the same, and he died young, likely from sequelae of the head injury.) In terms of changing events, just getting them those days off would be big.

Granting that the life tragedies and sports tragedies are not on the same level but overlap, the time travel aspect suggests that sitting down and having a conversation with Carlton Fisk in the spring of 1974 could solve a lot of problems. His injury, Wise's avoidable injury, Rice's injury, Armbrister, Eephus pitch, change in the wind just before Bucky Dent's* at bat, Lou Piniella's deke. Just as a bonus, getting Evans to listen to Lau/Hriniak sooner, and pulling in whoever else would listen would be great, too.

The 1986 World Series. A target-rich environment. The searing pain comes from so many simple things that not only could have been done, but absolutely should have been done. Pinch-hit Baylor instead of Greenwell. Give Bob Stanley the honor of the last out (he could have gotten one of those guys), Spike Owen's pickoff, Dave Stapleton... I just can't stand it, even 25 years later.

The 1986 Super Bowl, different story. Even though the officials took away a touchdown (Stephan Starring didn't step out of bounds) and gave the Bears a field goal (missed call end of first half), and Lin Dawson got a freak injury, all of those together wouldn't have given the Patriots that win. Super Bowl XLII (Helmet Catch), same thing. Sure, there was a lot of luck on that play, but you don't want to take away the greatest catch in history, even if it is against your team.

The 2003 playoffs were not the worst moment, but they were so representative, such a culmination of all of Red Sox history that they deserve mention.

On a slightly different tack you could mention the Red Sox not signing Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson in 1945 (they uh, failed the tryout. Sure.) because Tom Yawkey was a racist bastard.

* A measure of how crazy and obnoxious George Steinbrenner was can be observed by noting that Boston fans felt sorry for Bucky Dent, always known before as Bucky F-ing Dent before that, in his dealings with Steinbrenner.

Completely different direction.

I imagined a sports interview, and quite automatically put it in Monty Python style, of an announcer asking some knowledgeable fan of a long-suffering team - probably West Ham or Leeds, then - what moments he would change in his team's history. As soon as he listed one "Love to have that disallowed goal back in '74. Have Allan Clarke hold up just a bit..." the announcer would get distracted into the mechanics. "But what if Clarke wouldn't listen to you about that? What then, eh?"

"Well, if I'm getting to change what I want that isn't the issue, is it? It's rather assumed or there's no point to the question."

"Ah, but what if Clark tells you to f-off and not tell him how to play? What would you do then?"

"Oh, stop time and pull on his jersey just for a moment, then. However you like."

"Wouldn't work. The pull would only have effect while time was moving, and then you'd be seen on the pitch and the game would be up, wouldn't it? So that's out."

"Move his foot back six inches."

"He'd tip over."

"Look, you asked me here to talk about what moments I'd change, not to give a dissertation on the possible contradictions of time travel."

"So you're admitting you couldn't do it then, aren't you? The whole thing's a fantasy."

"Well of course it's a fantasy. That's what you asked, innit?"

"Forget Clarke then. He's going offsides, nothing you can do, forget about it. Give it up man, it happened decades ago. How about the '78 Club semifinals? What would you do there?"

"First I'd cool down Trevor Cherry against Argentina in '77 so he doesn't lose those teeth and get sent off. He wasn't quite the same after."

"Nah, you couldn't calm Trevor down, you'd just make him madder. You'll have to find another way."

"Hampton, then - look, this is ridiculous. Your entire premise is that it's a fantasy where I can change history, then you're complaining because I'm fantasizing and can't change history..."

Well, it seemed funny to me, anyway. Looking at it in print an all, it doesn't seem so impressive. Perhaps if you get the accents right.

Bleg Update

Dr. Z found a link that identified what initial letters went with which counties on the NH plates from 1949-1975. A further interesting bit is that one can see how it progressed.

B: Belknap
C: Carroll
D: Strafford
E: Cheshire
F: Strafford
G: Grafton
H: Hillsborough
I: Hillsborough
J: Hillsborough
K: Rockingham
L: Hillsborough
M: Merrimack
N: Merrimack
O: Coos
P: Rockingham
R: Rockingham
S: Sullivan
Z: Cheshire

Plates originating in each county took the first initial of the county, at least to start. Where two or more counties start with the same letter, one got precedent for whatever reason, and the others took a letter further on in the name: E for Cheshire (H was already taken by Hillsborough), O for Coos*. As each county issued more plates, it moved to the next letter in the alphabet. Hillsborough was and is far and away the most populous, and likely moved to the "I" pretty quickly. This rather put Cheshire up against a wall, as all its letters were already taken by another county, so when it overflowed, it got the Z. Coos, with only three distinct letters and two of those taken, would have had to get something similar - something found in no other county's name - had it ever filled up. But despite being the largest geographically, it's pretty empty. Still, pretty poor planning to give the C to Carroll, which still had the A, O, and L available.

Rockingham exhausted the R before Hillsborough had used up J, and so got the K. Hillsborough needed another one eventually and took the L. I don't know where they would have gone after that. Rockingham eventually needed another - little surprise, as that went from a smallish population to one of the larger - so they went backward and grabbed the P.

You can see that the system was about to fill up. A, Q, U, V, W, and X were all that were left. A would be ambiguous, being in so many counties, and U would likely go to Hillsborough or Sullivan. Not much left for everyone else.

*Pronounced Co-ahss

At Home

If you hadn't guessed, Bryson's At Home is recommended. Plenty to set you thinking. Popular history always has the difficulty of focusing on the unusual and the extremes of trends, giving a somewhat false picture. But as these extremes are often in the service of correcting a conventional wisdom false impression, the overall effect is about right. Bryson does have that failing, but hews close enough to real trends that permeated society over history (strong emphasis on British and American societies) that his fascination with the outliers can - usually - be put down to a drive for vividness and memorability. He does overstep and gets things wrong at points (I count three so far), however, leaving one to wonder about his entire reliability on other matters. I'm pretty sure he gets most of it, though, despite tackling a variety of subjects in rapid succession. And he writes very engagingly. 4.5 stars.

Magic Numbers

We are used to "magic numbers" - a combination of wins by your team and losses by whoever is behind them - in baseball. The number of teams going to the playoffs is smaller, and the nature of baseball means that each individual game is more subject to luck (which is why they play 162 games), so the mathematical elimination of a team is more significant in that sport. Plus, baseball fans just like math more.

But in other sports this is not so. With more teams in the playoffs, one can make an initial estimate before the season starts how many wins it will take to go to the playoffs, and modify that only slightly as it progresses. In football, if you win 11 games you are going to the playoffs, if you only win 8 you're not. There are occasional outliers - the Patriots a few years ago, Seattle this year - but is so unusual as to be in itself a subject of comment. People don't talk about magic numbers, because by the time they come into play in the last two games, the situations can be described in terms of actual matchups, not just generic games won or lost.

Basketball (hockey too, but I care less about that) is somewhere between. Technically, there are three teams - San Antonio, Miami, and Boston which have Magic Numbers of 10 or so. That is, any combination of 10 of their wins added to losses of the 9th-place team and they make the playoffs. But the reality is simpler. Those teams could lose all the rest of their games, literally all, and still make the playoffs. Even Chicago is right on the border for that. The 9th-11th place teams would have to win at such a surprising rate as to make that unlikely. Even though their magic numbers are over 10, they have already qualified for the playoffs by number of victories.

Chicago, BTW. They got defensive genius Tom Thibodeau as coach this year. They have scored only one more point per game, but they have held opponents to almost seven less than last year. They have gradually passed Atlanta and Orlando in the East, and could reasonably catch either the Celtics or the Heat before season's end. And in the playoffs, I rate them the equal of the two teams ahead of them - much as it pains me to say that. No one seems to be mentioning this angle up here in New England - maybe because they got Thibodeau from the Celtics. Shouldn't it be the main story about Chicago, which may be the best defensive team in the league now?


I have heard or read many teachings on the Beatitudes, and all of them have included the idea that these were not only words of comfort, but directions for living. That we should seek to be poor in spirit, usually relating that to humility; that we should strive to be meek - same reason. The idea is that meekness is a quality that brings forth inheriting the earth, or that being reproached and persecuted is really a desirable situation which illustrates we are on the right track.

The current series for adult Sunday School had a rather different take. I haven't switched over to it, as it doesn't fit the whole picture of Matthew 5. But it's interesting, and I pass it along. It may at least fit some of the verses, specifically those which it has always seemed a stretch to include, involving some contortions of the ordinary meaning of words.

Jesus speaks of the least of the Kingdom of God as being greater than even the great of the world, including John The Baptist, greatest of all born to that time. He accentuates how blessed they are - even those who are downtrodden; even those who mourn, they're blessed; those persecuted people over there, you think of them as miserable, but if they are in the Kingdom of God they are blessed, more blessed than even the great of the earth.

This theory breaks down around the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure in heart - but for about half the beatitudes, it makes more sense than trying to work out why mourning is a good thing.


It just doesn't pay to go digging around in the origins of beautiful old tunes from the British Isles. I recognised the tune this morning but couldn't place it. Jonathan leaned over to remind me that it was "My Love" by Steeleye Span. Interesting that the less musical of my two original sons has often been remarkably good at this. I think my wife scored very high on a Johnson-O'Connor scale for tune recognition, and he gets it from her.

Geoff Twigg, the worship minister, identified the tune for me as "Kelvingrove." He and his wife, when they were in their original British context, had known both John Bell of the Iona Community (who wrote the lyrics in the first video) and Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span (in the second video). It's a beautiful tune, used for quite different lyrics here.

Now let me ruin it for you completely. Just so I can share my discomfort.

The tune has been set to many lyrics, and the earliest known version seems to have been a rather plaintive song about a girl who was raped, impregnated, and abandoned. Later versions soften that to seduced and abandoned, then seduced and had to get married, then a suggestion that it is she who inveigled he, then a more innocent romantic song of come and go with me to this beautiful grove, my love. Even those are never quite innocent, as even without the dark background of earlier versions, the mind leapt naturally to sexual suggestion at any mention of encouraging lasses to go to groves in the 19th C, just as it might now. The Steeleye version seems to date from midway through those changes.

This sort of dragging the words wherever you want them to go probably starts up as soon as one gets out of the reach of the original artist, whether by distance or expiration of copyright. And it continues on indefinitely. One youtube version of The Summons was being used at a wedding, clearly referring to the bride following the groom, not a Christian following Christ. These things bug me. I know they have a long tradition in the church, and God Himself seems to be entirely comfortable with the idea - see Ruth's speech, Song of Solomon, and Bride of Christ, just for openers. But I always thought of those as earthly analogies meant to lead us upward. Taking the Christian sense and making it earthly again seems different.

Another youtube version described one of those midway versions of "The Shearin's Nae For You" in more modern terms, that the husband was saying to his wife that she was too old to go out and have fun, and to mind her babies instead. Those lyrics were probably another woman telling the girl that she should grow up. But the thirtysomething female performer was unlikely to gravitate to that meaning. Other versions have the youngish husband and wife in mutual recrimination. How one sees the girl's desire to put buckles on her shoes and ribbons at her knees likely hinges on where on this continuum of blame for her own lot one places her.

I admire in theory those who can rescue a tune that way, but it seldom works for me. The lyrics of the first version I hear infuse the tune with that meaning forever.

Friday, February 18, 2011


I didn't watch the computer on Jeopardy, but I have reflected on the level of difficulty of programming a computer to play the game. Human beings are supposed to own the area of judgment, perspective, common sense, but this is clearly an example of a machine moving into that territory. I had said at first that this was a halfway point between Deep Blue and the singularity, accomplished in only 14 years. After considering the advantage the computer had on hitting the buzzer, however, I have backed off slightly from that. Still, it's impressive, and more than a little unnerving.

"Halfway" should be conceived on something more like a logarithmic scale. If a machine gets to 50% of common sense, judgment, and perspective it won't need any further programming. It will easily go the last half itself, and quickly. Common sense is not an off-on phenomenon, where the machine doesn't have it at one level of programming but crosses the threshold at the next upgrade. By its very nature, it relies on a machine's ability to teach itself. There is a tipping point at which it will develop something equivalent to common sense on its own, with no further intervention from humans.

And that is a problem, as its end product will have to be similar to human sense, but will almost certainly not be identical to it. It will tread a different path to get there. We can't count on it to see things as we do.

And then keep going, without noticing that any line has been crossed.

This is why I consider global warming to be an unimportant issue. We will shortly have computers that can make the judgment of what we should do far better than we can. And if we decide we don't want to, it will simply take our resistance into account and outwit us into doing it anyway.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Coincidences So Strange...

Years ago as I was leaving work on a Friday, a schizophrenic young man who I knew only slightly waved and smiled. Strange man. Had the belief that each inch his hair grew made him immune to another disease, and so viewed anyone who suggested a haircut as a malevolent individual who wanted him to die. He yelled across the parking lot at I got near my car "Say hello to Gottfried Johnson!"

Can we agree that "Gottfried Johnson" is an unusual name to pull out of nowhere?

There is absolutely no way this patient could have known that I had an uncle Gottfried Johnson. I didn't even know it myself, though when we went down to my Uncle Freddy's - that very weekend, hours away, one of five times in my entire life - that very weekend, I checked the mail table and saw that his name was indeed Gottfried. He was a brother-in-law to my stepfather - who, note, has a different last name from me (and from Freddy) - lived nowhere near the place and had never lived either in that town nor in any town the patient had lived in (I checked later). I had mentioned to no one at work that I was going to Connecticut, that I had relatives there, or any other remote hint that has ever occurred to me. Freddy had seldom come to NH. There is simply no explanation except that an unusual person might light upon the eccentric name Gottfried when seeing at a nordic-looking person such as myself, get lucky with the common surname Johnson, and happen to shout a cheery but fairly random encouragement that coincided with a rare but not unique excursion of mine. Time travel seems more likely, frankly.

One more thing. A retirement/assisted/nursing home firm bought the building from the hospital a few years later. Twenty years later, my stepfather moved into that building shortly after my mother died, even though he didn't come from that city. The place was reconfigured, but as near as I can estimate, he was about three doors down from where the patient was when I knew him.


Every time someone asks Bob Dylan who influenced him, he gives a different answer. He did say Ray Charles once.

Slaves And Servants

Reading Bryson’s At Home, I endured an uncomfortable section describing how hard was the life of a many London servants in the 19th C – how lengthy the hours, how unreasonable the demands, how precarious the employment. I wondered how civilised people in fairly modern times could treat other human beings that way.

They were treated even worse than that, of course, as slavery existed in the first half of the century in many parts of even the Anglosphere. (Still does, even here sometimes, as the good people at Not For Sale remind us.) If slavery can be tolerated, then one would hardly balk at mistreating servants. Or to take that in the other direction, once one has swallowed serfdom, or enclosure laws, or whipping servants for minor infractions, it’s not such a jump to tolerate slavery – especially when one can point to house slaves or individual manors or better regions where the difference may not be so great. Each set of brutalities grants permission for the others. (Hmm, there’s a sermon about the progression of sin.)

We think ourselves mentally far apart from some evils because we don't encounter people who think them unremarkable - they are not public or general, so we think them nonexistent and wonder how societies shrugged them off so easily. Some sense in that. Evil that is rationalised at a societal level rather than as an individual exception has something worse about it.

Yet gradualism can stretch in both directions. The life of a servant in a country house was at times even worse than that of their London counterparts. But as their season of intense labor could last only the three months of the year when the family was in residence, slowing to a more relaxed, even boring pace the rest of the year, it’s not very different from moderns who work 100, 120-hour weeks during peak seasons – in tourist or agricultural industries, for example – with insanely demanding bosses or customers.

I’m not reaching for any grand philosophical point here, comparing galley slavery to small tourist hotels, or defining bright moral lines in the treatment of others. I’m just noting that most people in history have had hard lives and not much respect.

Sports Radio

"Denial isn't just a river in South America."

I'm hoping he was kidding.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


We went up to Appleseeds in Bradford for Valentine's Day. My wife had won gift certificates from the radio station - which she often does - and we eased up 114, past places heavy with childhood nostalgia for me. How was the food? The restaurant itself was of a type common in NH, refashioned from an old house, with a woodstove in the dining room. A good fit with the used book stores on the way up and the old hardware store that still has wooden floors in the town before. Even more, with the still-in-use covered bridge a half-mile down the road. The decor is objet d'histoire indigene, usually including farm tools from grandfather's day or older, photographs of local sites taken in 1930, and perhaps a map of a nearby lake.

It's the sort of place you file away to bring prospective daughters-in-law from Alaska, or Texas, or even Norway.* A distilled version of local charm, possibly convincing them that moving here wouldn't be such a bad idea. Though perhaps only convincing them that their own region's nostalgia is far to their preference. Very nice. How was the food?

Chain restaurants sometimes attempt this nostalgia, but even when they've got really good items, it doesn't quite work. And even at Appleseeds, a few items were a stretch. An "Amoskeag Seamless" bag is appropriate to NH in general, but Bradford is an hour away - likely two hours or more in those days. The adjustable grocery store coffee grinder, circa 1960, might have come from just down the road, but could also have come from anywhere in America. Vague oldness isn't quite the thing. But the posters on the wall were first rate: advertisements for Saturday night Barn Dances in Bradford. admission $1.00, $.50 for children; the annual Armistice Dance at the Armory in Laconia with Gene Krupa, "The Ace Drummer," with door and raffle prizes of a Four Door Sedan of unspecified make or a Hot Point stove; the MV Kearsarge docked on Lake Sunapee. And license plates dating back to 1914. Vanity plates were common in NH long before most other places, and there were plenty up there from the 60's and 70's. The SD 311 put me in mind of remembering what county prefixes went where and posting about it.

The menu has sandwiches named after original owners or regular patrons. Now you're talking. What was on that menu? There are regional beers (Sam Adams, Long Trail) plus the standard modern imports (Guinness, Newcastle), and one surprise, Pabst Blue Ribbon, designated PBR on the dry-erase board, which tells me that Pabst is making a comeback with the hipper crowd. Never liked it myself, but I'm glad they've found a way to carve out a new niche.

Nice little place, run by the same people that do the dinner cruises on Lake Sunapee. The food, dammit! I don't care about all that other stuff on a restaurant review. I want to know if the food's good.

No you don't, actually. Food is well less than half of the reason we choose a restaurant. We care about the type of food, hankering for one ethnic type or late-night breakfast. We care about distance, price, noise level, sports on TV, and atmosphere - at least, that's what our actions say, regardless of what words we spout.

The food was fine. I almost had the Canadian pork pie but had a spicy cheese soup, then some chicken/teriyaki/garlic thing, and Tracy had a chicken/maple/apple thing with sweet potato. They have fish and chips, scallops baked or fried, some sandwiches on different breads with various sauces on beef or ham or turkey. That sort of thing. The usual, and done pretty well. You'll like it fine.

*From Romania, perhaps not so much. Wooden pitchforks and deteriorating maps hold less charm when they are still in use at your house. Not too far along, though, nostalgia will kick in there also, and old men will point to pictures on the wall and tell the young cashier "We used to go fishing there." So snap up the best of the memorabilia from old barns when you visit; it will have value sooner than you think. I'm already regretting not buying a battered violin hanging in a shelter next to a pig sty in Remetea in 1998. It would have been called a gypsy fiddle by the time it made it back here, of course.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Information Bleg

I was recalling the county prefixes of NH license plates from my childhood. From about 1956-76 you could tell where in NH someone was from by the first two letters on their plates.

Manchester, or more likely all of Hillsborough County, had the H's and I's, at least. I think Merrimack County had the M's, Rockingham the R's, and I think Sullivan County the S's. How they beat out the more populous Strafford County for that I don't know. I had a friend from Coos County whose plates began "OA," but I'm not recalling much more and can't find much on the net. I wish I'd paid more attention then.

With the telephone codes, you at least still have the numbers to give you a clue. Manchester's 62 numbers were NAtional, Goffstown was HYacinth, and Westford MA was MYrtle. But I'd like to know those plate ID's again. I could probably build up my repertoire by looking at old photos that have cars in them.

But if any of you know some, I'd be obliged.


Note: Commenting fixed

Thumbing a ride was already considered low class by my teen years. Not too long before, servicemen regularly hitched rides and no one thought the less of them for it, but by the late 60's, middle class parents had the double horror of both danger and "looking like some bum" regarding hitchhiking. College students, especially those of a hippie bent, still engaged in it, and it was almost required of actual hippies. Unless you had a VW of course, in which case it was your duty to pick up hitchhikers. Additionally (though overlappingly), lowlifes of various sorts also hitched.

In the context of another story I recalled my hitching back and forth from Virginia to Massachusetts during college, remembering something of the practical knowledge one simply acquired by experience and word of mouth. Distance hitchhiking was different from thumbing to work or within your own region. Different strategies, different rules. Locally, you could display some easily-recognised identifier that you were a counselor at a local camp, attended a local college, or worked at one of the ski areas or local tourist venues. Hikers in the White Mountains still hitchhike back to their cars and locals pick them up. Such identifications improved your chances of getting a ride, as they were a reassurance.

For traveling any distance, there were decisions to be made about appearance and especially signs. Pieces of cardboard had two sides, and you wanted the best two destinations out as choices. If you were trying to get out to the interstate, your sign that said "Boston" might actually be a put-off in rural Virginia. You needed over 600 miles in all, but the first fifty and the last fifty were often the hardest. Like the train, actually. Locals wouldn't figure that their ten-mile lift was going to help you much, so they wouldn't bother. And you were a damn Yankee college student, probably a faggot from William and Mary anyway. "I-95" would work better. But that wouldn't do you much good once you got to Richmond and I-95, would it?

Once on I-95 you had two pools of potential lifts, and a different sign would work for each, so you just took your chances. "Boston" was a place people recognised as a long way off and up north, even if they had only the vaguest idea where it actually was, so you could get rides that told you "I can get you to the other side of DC," which was great. Progress over a hundred miles was always good news.

But even "Boston" could put you out of the running for a really solve-all-your-problems ride to eastern Massachusetts, because there were folks who would stop for someone closer to their actual town, like Sudbury or Newton, but not for a generic "Boston," because then you could be from just anywhere. Lawrence or Revere or something else unseemly. But if your sign said "Sudbury," nobody in Maryland knew where the heck that was and would drive on.

There were people who would pick up anyone, even if they were only taking you a few miles on, just for pity or for company - or some annoying pathology of their own. And it was standard knowledge that girls got rides more easily - because of pity, company, or pathology - so having a girl along was an advantage. Or so I'd heard. None of my female friends were hitchhikers, except for the one shyest, most overprotected girl, who hitchhiked all summer the mile back and forth to the beach where her family vacationed. I still can't picture that, really. Whole 'nother story. Regarding female hitchhikers in general, I only rode with them when some magical person would stop and pick up a whole slew of people standing at an exit.

It offended my sense of honesty, but I found that a sign reading "New Hampshire" worked better, even when I was actually going to Massachusetts. I was actually from NH and identified more with it - my family had moved to MA right after my highschool graduation and I had few ties to Sudbury. Twice in the four years I got a long ride from someone who ordinarily didn't pick up hitchers, but saw that NH sign and figured I must be all right. Wanted to know right away exactly where I was from and both times, we identified people we knew in common quickly. (Even then I knew people from all over the state and remembered their geography.) One ride from outside Wilmington, and one in north Jersey. Our tribal instincts kicking in again. I went more than an hour with both before I confessed I really wasn't going all the way to NH. And heck, if they had somehow signaled that it was important, a ride from Wilmington to Manchester would have been great and I would just have kept my mouth shut.

Still lots of stories to go about thumbing, but I don't think I'll tell them. The psychology of signs was really all I wanted to cover.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Nod To Cleveland

On sports radio last week, a Cleveland fan was asked if the record-breaking losing streak, on top of Lebron going to Miami, were the worst moments in that city's sports history. "Not even close," came the reply, but I was getting out of the car after only hearing one other event on his list. I'll come back to Cleveland later.

I, of course, started compiling my worst moments in Boston sports history, which I automatically assumed would far outdistance anything any other city had to offer.

I went to Bing this week for other people's lists of Boston's worst to see if I had forgotten something important, and interestingly, a listing for Cleveland's worst came up in the first 10 hits, indicating that this was a site that had a lot of hits, and Boston was mentioned in it somewhere. I kept seeing Cleveland's worst moments in hits 11-20, 21-30 and on, so I figured I would go back and check after I had done my Boston research.

In a fit of objectivity, I supposed that every city must have its Worst Moments and zipped various cities in to the search engine, expecting to semi-acknowledge, however reluctantly, that every city's fans think they have gotten the shortest end of the stick.

This is not so.

Philadelphia's worst moments include many entries of terrible things its fans have done, not its teams. True, but not the same thing.

New York doesn't have general lists, but lists for its various teams: worst Mets moments, worst Jets moments, etc. Because New York has teams in the the same league within its rooting region, it does not think of worst moments shared by the whole area. The Jets and Mets do indeed have terrible moments, but it isn't a shared NY experience, where everyone you meet the next day is shaking their head and looking bewildered. Not the same thing.

Chicago and Los Angeles have similar situations of divided local loyalty, but even granting that, their lists don't have that zing. Michael Jordan retires. Well, players do, and sometimes prematurely if they have gambling problems. The Bulls breaking up after six championships. Yeah, that'll stir a lot of hearts in the rest of America. Walter Payton tragically ill after he retires. I loved Walter Payton, but that's a bad life moment, not a bad sports moment. And Los Angeles barely has any listings under any category - they follow the stereotype. They don't care out there, they leave in the seventh inning.

San Francisco, same thing. They just don't identify out there.

Detroit has a list of years that their team was really better, but lost in the playoffs. That's a pathetic definition of worst moments. That's just real life for a sports fan. Happens all the time.

Washington has had many bad teams. No defining heartbreaking worst moments. Dallas, Pittsburgh, St Louis? Please.

But Cleveland now, Cleveland is in our league in this category. They have been on the short end of too many The's.

The Drive, by John Elway - against Cleveland
The Shot, by Michael Jordan - against Cleveland
The Catch, by Willie Mays - against Cleveland

That's all three major sports, BTW.

Add in Art Modell moving the Browns, the worst-ever Cleveland Spiders of 1899, ten-cent beer night, your all-time best team playing half its seasons trying to break in to the top league (the Jim Brown/Otto Graham Cleveland Browns), the usual city list of championships thrown away (by Brian Sipe, by Jose Mesa, by Ernest Byner), one of the worst owners in sports history (Ted Stepien) - and Lebron puts Cleveland over the top into Boston's category. I think Boston still gets the nod for worst moments, but we have also had good teams and some very fine moments interspersed. Cleveland, not so much. You are the only poor bastards I will acknowledge into this conversation. Tip of the hat.

For the record, my Boston list starts with Len Bias.


Do we still keep our elbows off the table, or has that bit of etiquette gone away? There was a rhyme that we were subjected to as children
John, John, strong and able
Keep your elbows off the table
This is not a horses' stable
But a proper dining table.
Looking it up, the last line has minor variations, and you were supposed to zip in the name of the offender instead of "Mabel" in the first line. It seems to have been used at summer camps a lot, but we had it at home. I never got the part about people putting their elbows on tables in barns - children are very literal that way. I got the point that it was supposed to be ill-bred and not refined, but I still thought stables must actually have something to do with it somehow. Couldn't figure out why, as stables didn't necessarily have tables at all. But if they did, you stood at them instead of sitting, and were doing some unclean work, and your elbows might touch that table...

In browsing, I found a wonderful Etiquette Is The Height Of Rudeness post.

At Home

I am reading Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which is sparking much thought, sending me off in new directions. His framework is the Norfolk rectory he has moved into - he has apparently moved back to the UK, taking each room in turn to trace history. The kitchen, for example, leads to long discussions of food, agriculture, servants, hygiene, and safety; the fuse box to discussions of fuel and labor-saving; the dining room to class discussions and the spice trade. Quite fascinating, especially just after reading McWilliams's A Revolution In Eating, which covers overlapping material far less interestingly.

I am at the discussion of spices, nutrition, and vitamins, impressed by how late any accurate information has come to mankind on the topic of what foods are good for us. Even with a few centuries of practical evidence that something in citrus fruits prevented scurvy, that evidence mostly remained restricted to navies, and others who were away from fresh plant foods of any kind for long periods. Many leading nutritionists remained unconvinced that it was a deficiency disease, well into the 20th C. They had other theories, such as constipation, bad air, weak constitution, and the like. Food was just something you ate, living if you got some of any kind, dying if you didn't.

I contrast this knowledge, that different foods have different necessary things in them, now known at least vaguely to even young children, to far more complicated ideas that were discovered earlier. Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity predates knowledge of a balanced diet.

I have two related speculations why this would be. Evidence about nutrition and survival is necessarily ambiguous until one does rigorous experiment. Even now, people get sick and we wonder why or what it is; we speculate whether it is viral, bacterial, attributable to emotional cause, something we ate, or a host of other possibilities. This tribe eats food x and they mostly live but some of them die, while that tribe eats very different food y and most of them live while some of them die.

We form theories before the data is in, which is probably a useful trait, which kept us alive these many centuries. Maybe it's the water at that stream we stopped at. It must be poison/evil spirits/wrong time of year. Don't drink it. The theory, even if inaccurate, embeds the lesson.

Yet once one has a theory, as we know, it is tough to dislodge. I know a science teacher who is only partially moved by the knowledge that the entire autism/vaccination connection is founded on fraud. He still thinks that because the link has not been definitively disproven to his satisfaction that it still bears watching. He wants to hold his antivaccination theory. The data doesn't convince him.

Next up: slaves and servants.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Best of August 2007

An insight into the meaning of the word "peace" before the 20th C, and how it doesn't affect our usage now as much as it should.

We want things simple, but reality doesn't oblige. The Crichton link no longer works, though.

Similarly, life doesn't obey our narrative. “Those quickest to condemn an overarching narrative have one of their own.”

I speculate on the counterfactual of Al Gore winning in 2000 in Al Gore and Iraq.

The association of black-and-white morality (in those cursed Others) with black-and-white photography, now so outdated.

Chris is out of the Marines and headed for Norway in two weeks, to stay with a Romanian brother and sister-in-law. Pictures and commentary from their wedding here. No this isn’t the post with J-A taking a hatchet to a pig. That one’s here.

The first-in-the-nation Primary is starting up again. My defense of why it’s a good thing, however irritated we get and left out you feel.

Onset of paranoia

Reading Taleb’s The Black Swan for the first time.

Why guys were attracted to journalism (the link to the female counterpart is now invalid)

What Tolkien disliked about Narnia.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011


I am theoretically on vacation this week, though it hardly seems so. When you buy a house, the house owns you, not you the house. There comes a stage where a house begins to haunt you, demanding some of your attention in each waking moment. This week has been one son sick (though back to school today); catching up with another, just out of the Marines and with plans that sounded worrisome, but just might work out - I have gone from thinking them 10% possible to better than 50% possible (heck, the first parts look way better than that); covering errors in a cathedral ceiling whose grooved planks are separating; organising the work bench and tools for the first time in decades - lots of unidentifiable bits of plastic or metal that are clearly meant to do something very efficiently, but Lord knows what; weeding through the camping equipment, much of it incomplete and all of it twenty years old or more; taking an inventory of emergency preparedness and finding that throwing dry or canned foods into a bag and putting away some containers of water isn't really the thing.

My vague idea of a day trip alone, going here or there, is long since abandoned. Younger men may fantasize any number of superpowers it would be fun to have. Invisibility has always sounded like the best one to me, and this week even more.

Not much reading or computer. I have little idea what is happening in the world and find I don't much mind. Even my usual fond hope of drinking a little too much hasn't panned out, as I learned last fall it's not as much fun as I remembered - and I still have to be a good example anyway.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Reagan Note

I haven't said anything about the Reagan 100th. Single quote, from the 1988 Republican Convention
But I want you to know that if the fires ever dim, I'll leave my phone number and address behind just in case you need a foot soldier. Just let me know, and I'll be there.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Second Look

The video in the last post was loading slowly. It froze at several places along the way.

I saw my Dad.

Clarification: Not my Dad when he was young. Ahem. Actually, it's odd anyway. My features were always more like Mom's, my mannerisms like my Dad's. So to see him jump out at me like that gave me a start.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Video Voting

So I'm one of the actors in a video. Lots of facial expression here.

Funny thing how this came about. Instapundit mentioned a video contest for young filmmakers illustrating the national debt. So I forwarded it to my son and his younger friend Stephen Byrd, also a filmmaker. I send anything like this on without filter - they're adults and can decide whether they want to do it or it holds no interest. The younger friend, also a friend of mine, actually, decided to enter. Forty-eight hours before the deadline, he gave it up, bereft of ideas. Yet one came to him on the last day, and he resolved to put it together.

He called at 4:40PM to talk about it, and by 4:41 mentioned that he needed actors, and could Kyle and I help him out? Sure, sounded like fun - we could maybe do Monday or Tuesday. No, he meant like tonight. Like could we leave now?

Well, we did. Arrived at 5:15, set up by 5:30, no script, props just grabbed from behind the counter at the lube shop where it was filmed. Four or five scenelets, two takes each, out by 6 and Kyle was only a little late for youth group. This movie making stuff is easy. Piece o'cake, as Ben says.

The video made the finals. It's leading in the voting. So go on over and vote for Stephen's video and help that newlywed win money. Unless you like one of the other four videos better, which you won't. If this voting period is closed, another one comes up tomorrow. Seven days in all.

I think you'll figure out which character is me without much trouble. Kyle plays the son in middle years. As for the facial animation, that's pretty much how I am in real life. Most of the Wymans are pretty heavy on tones of voice and expressive eyebrows, actually. Whenever I see myself on film I am reminded of nothing so much as my brother.

I can't find anywhere that there's a category for Best Actor, though.

The Pitch Meeting

I forgot to link. Ben's review of Robin Hood - which he apparently finds to be an excrescence - is done in the form of a pitch meeting to make the film, a bit of which I include here:
“What about the Merry Men?”

“Oh, my gosh, I forgot.”

“Oh, they’re always having adventures. It’s awful. Can we get rid of them?”

“Well, do we need to have Merry Men? We could just have a few dour fellows who sleep in a shed outside the hold?”

“What would they do?”

“Who cares? We’d only check in on them occasionally.”

“Well, we’d need something else to fill up the movie, then.”

“Couldn’t they rob from the rich and give to the poor?”

“I’d rather we didn’t. Do we have to?”

“I think we do. But maybe they could do it real quick, just once, so that no one could accuse us of taking it out entirely. And that would still leave a lot of time to focus on something… duller.”

“Like what?”

“How about inner government workings only tangentially related to the plot?”

“I’m in shock. That’s perfect. I can’t believe we didn’t think of it earlier.”
More at the link.

A Revolution In Eating

How The Quest For Food Shaped America

We had heard the author, James E. McWilliams, interviewed on NPR about the various first Thanksgivings in America. He made a few interesting points, such as the Englishmen's perception that male Indians did not do much work, because the English regarded hunting and fishing as sports, with extra food as a benefit, not farming in any real sense. Relatedly, their focus on farming as the tending of smaller discrete plots of bounded land, they could not see that the Indian method of farming involved managing the entire landscape. The native methods of planting and harvesting were simply different.

I don't want to get into an entire commentary on the Red Man Living In Harmony With Nature myth here. It was another method, having both advantages and disadvantages for survival and prosperity.

The Europeans generally regarded hunting and fishing as temporary or supplementary methods for obtaining food until the time of the next frontier, nearer the period of the Revolution. Domesticated animals and crops in rows were the thing. Hunting for food didn't become more respectable until later.

Well, it sounded interesting, and he had a book, so I was given it for Christmas.

Let's give McWilliams credit for being thorough. The book is 300 pages long, but could have been done in fifty. It would, in fact, be an excellent fifty-page book, full of interesting ideas.
Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut actively swapped cattle and fish oil among themselves [in the mid 18th C].
Fine. Good to know.
New York and Pennsylvania sent each other 15,204 pounds of ginger, 21,944 barrels of pork and beef, 22,987 bushels of peas, 403 tons of butter, 9,835 bushels of malt, 1,432,477 pounds of brown sugar, and 183,189 bushels of salt.
Less gripping, somehow. I suppose if I needed a reference book on this material...

Fans of David Hackett Fischer (I am one) will see Albion's Seed lurking in the background throughout the book. Get that instead. The most indispensable book on colonial American history.

McWilliams describes the foodways of the American regions: West Indies, New England, Virginia, South Carolina, and Middle Colonies, shaowing how the dominant economy of each (in order, sugar; mixed farming for self-sufficiency; tobacco; rice; wheat and mixed farming) shaped what they ate. He finishes with the history of alcohol in the colonies, the fascination with British goods just before the revolution, and interregional trade. There. That's about 25% of the book for you.

I also caught in the introduction an example of my observation that experts are not wrong randomly, but are likely to be 180 degrees wrong. He sees the move toward organic food, slow food, local food, and the suspicion of genetically modified food as growing, emerging trends among Americans that signal some lasting change. I doubt that strongly. If you are a professor in Austin it may look that way, but that's a rather circumscribed view of the republic.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Rooting For Laundry

The title is from a Jerry Seinfeld routine in which he notes that with frequent player moves and franchise moves, sports fans are essentially cheering on the set of clothes a player is wearing at this particular moment. I am painfully aware, with several Patriots acting like jerks at the end of the Jets game, plus the increasing evidence that Kevin Garnett has moved from "presence" to "enforcer" to "dirty player," that factors other than clear moral choices drive our fandom. Loyalty, even toward an unworthy object, has something admirable about it, yet remains a limited virtue.

There has been a hue and cry of Shall We Disdain Ben Roethlisberger? during the past two weeks. There is something false about this. There was plenty of disdain for him when the sexual assault incident first came to light, and then in the week he returned to playing quarterback. Entirely justified, to my mind. But then it died down and nobody mentioned it. So why now? Because it's the Super Bowl, of course, and our sense of justice is re-offended that someone who has been a criminal should ascend to the highest honor in his sport. But that's entirely symbolic, an embedding in the mythos of sport rather than the reality of lives lived. He didn't become more guilty in the last week. Or less guilty, for that matter. One more bit of evidence that we don't actually care about the real woman and her trauma, but only about the undermining of our own myths.

Colin Cowherd reminds us that we wouldn't like a whole lot of the people we root for. Roethlisberger isn't unique, or even unusual.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Running Up The Score - Limping Home

I have had this series running through my head for a week, and while there is certainly a lot more to cover and its various facets interest me, it's not that fascinating. It bids fair to dominate another week, and it's just too much. So I will simply list additional points without expanding them into a full argument and have done with it.

In the comments at First Things, I see in retrospect that once the stage was set, a lot of people - perhaps all of us - engaged in fantasies about how kids were affected, devoid of any data. People asserted that kids could and would learn important lessons from the experience of losing 108-3, so it was okay. Others stated that kids would be humiliated and devastated, so it should never happen. Numbers, please? Data? How many are inspired to try harder, how many are damaged? Do we know, are are we just projecting adult ideas onto their heads.

Retrospective anecdotes are not evidence. One (young?) man recalled playing at 16 for a team that got beaten badly and told us how it had changed his approach and all worked out. I mistrust this. Anyone who has ever recalled events with others knows that forgotten information has to be worked in. No, Jeremy, you actually started that extra practicing at 14 after losing a much closer game, though it was intermittent. That game you lost, one star player got into early foul trouble and the other was injured. You did work harder for a few months, but the big difference was that the next year you had a better coach. Or oppositely, No, you were moody and tough to coach the rest of the season. The next year you seemed to get your feet under you, but still lost your temper a lot. The year after that you were the hardest-working, never-say-die kid I coached in years. If it was that game that taught you that lesson, it took a long time. Not to say that the other person's memory is correct, either. But memory puts things into neater packages than were apparent at the time.

Also, anecdotes are about you. Even if you did learn to be a great competitor, what about the four younger kids who quit the game after that season? If we want sports to teach social darwinism, that those kids got weeded out because they weren't mentally tough enough, how are we fitting that into a specifically Christian context?

The conflict in the Church since the age of Constantine arises in miniature form when Christians open (or even teach at) schools, or coach teams - or on into adulthood, become bosses and supervisors, or get elected selectman, or assume any earthly power whatsoever. When you take on the job of training children to take a place in society, you have a responsibility to the society as well as the child. We entrusted you with these children so that they could function in this society. If they are not able to compete, you have failed us all. But some training must be harsh, and some will be damaged. It is no good to say "well, they shouldn't feel that way." Some will. To just write them off as wusses that couldn't cut it, while pointing to the successful individuals, stern of will, doesn't answer. And some will be unable. The coach or the school or the parent may not be at primary fault, but I think that the Christian perspective is to aim for no fault at all. Even quitters and whiners are children of God. And frankly, many who appear to be quitters or whiners really aren't, but only thrust into situations beyond their years. If we are going to be the occasion for some to fail, we should at minimum have a clear idea what is a generally bearable amount of pressure.

And yet, to be rescuing of the least of these, or forgiving of society's enemies when one is in power is to make one's whole people vulnerable. Tribes get wiped out that way. If it's your job to see that the tribe doesn't get wiped out, then you shouldn't take the position if you can't fulfill it. Similarly, on a lesser scale, with school principals, chorus directors, and (gulp) drama coaches.

OTOH, one's team losing by an horrendous margin may not be the humiliation for a child that adults think it is. Kids are usually much more embarrassed by their personal failures in front of the crowd, not the team's. And they pick up on what adults think they should be embarrassed by. Commenting on what a jerk that Adrian Beltre is for making an error and costing his team the game is likely to come to mind when your own little third baseman makes an error that costs his team the game, even if you say only encouraging you'll-get-'em-next-time-big-guy comments. And the groans of the crowd as a game slips away says it all: this really was important to the adults. That the adult puts it in perspective a minute later may be lost on the child.

I guess this is the spot to put in whatever else occurs to you on the topic.