Sunday, July 31, 2011

Stolen Bases

I am not, as I have mentioned before, a big fan of the stolen base as an offensive weapon, as I have mentioned from time-to-time. It feels valuable to the observer, but you have to succeed 70% of the time just to break even.

Still, it's rather fun to watch Jacoby Ellsbury climb the all-time list for the Red Sox. He is about to pass Carl Yastrzemski for 3rd place on the Sox all-time list. Ahead are Tris Speaker and Harry Hooper, both from the dead ball era when one needed something closer to a 60% rate to break even.

Saturday, July 30, 2011


For those not connected to Tracy on FB, you may not know Ben heads for India tomorrow. The Woodlands United Methodist Church has a mission team going to India, and they have asked Ben to do the film for them. That's about all we know - the trip isn't even on the church's website.

We'll hear when he comes back, as he is coming to NH after.

More Sixties Strange

So the idea was Cris, we've got this great idea for doing a little film to go with your song. We'll have a lot of kids following you around. The Pied Piper, get it? Kids are cute, people will love it. Yeah, and then they'll follow you around again. You should carry something, so you have something to do with your hands. What have you got in your car that's portable? We can do it in one take.

Sixties Strange

Sponge-headed Scienceman has been doing some research into obscure songs from the 60's that have haunted him these many years, and his relief at discovering them. He's been writing about Barry and the Remains, Distant Cousins, and The Playmates. Can you beat it?

Well, I can get weirder. My HS band played "Hang On Sloopy," which we very creatively changed to "Hang on Central" - I'm sure no other school in the country thought of that trick. It's not that great a song, half-bubblegum, half garage band, but somehow it just caught the wave of the times and was covered by everyone - The Supremes, The Yardbirds, Jan & Dean - I mean, are we serious? The Ohio State University Marching Band played the song (it's pretty simple for the cheerleaders) and it has become the official rock song of the the state of Ohio. That, plus the terrible job Cleveland is doing with the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame would seem to disqualify the entire state from having anything to do with R&R.

OTOH, The Ventures, The Kingsmen, Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, and the Ramsey Lewis Trio may know more than I do.

Sloopy went overseas and became big with foreign rock bands.

Like Lolita No. 18

Friday, July 29, 2011


Ben predicted from the trailer that the movie would be stunningly awful.

Apparently it is.

And yet I can make it worse.

In the 1980's a young woman who worked at my hospital was very open talking about her sex life. Among the patients on the unit at the time were two suicidal gay men. She brought in pictures of herself in a smurf costume having sex with her boyfriend to show to them. She thought it would help them, somehow.

I didn't know they made full-size Smurf costumes in the 80's. Never thought to ask.

She very rapidly no longer worked for the State of NH, BTW. It sounded even weirder 30 years ago.

While I have no direct knowledge, I am guessing that even those who believe in treating and changing sexual orientation don't use this as a first-line intervention. Yet who knows? It is such a wild card that it might have any effect whatsoever.

And see, I just made the Smurf movie worse for you.

Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters

Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, by Miller and Kanazawa

I really wanted to love this book. I was hoping for the latest in evolutionary biology research – it’s got that; I wanted it in summary form, without all the arguments about methodology and who’s the current fair-haired child in the field – it is that; I was hoping for clear and even clever prose – it’s got that, too.

It’s got all the main things I wanted. Why then, would I give it only three-and-a-half stars?

Evolutionary biology has an overriding weakness, as a field. All its evidence is necessarily indirect, and involves a fair bit of guesswork. I write this as one who believes their way of looking at human behavior has a great deal to offer – certainly more than the “everything is cultural” liturgies we were made to recite when I was in college. (The authors suggest that this is still the dominant philosophy in the social sciences.) Much of what we do now derives from adaptive patterns that worked well in a hunter-gatherer context, but are more ambiguously useful now. Mate-selection and sexual behavior have attracted most of the attention in the field, but family structure, trading and trust behavior, and even political and religious attitudes have been examined in terms of evolutionary biology.

But this book is a bit too far over-the-top in its insistence on biology. It declares that evolution essentially stopped 10,000 years ago – I think there is ample evidence that’s not true; It makes a big deal out of slight differences, as in the book’s title research, which reveals one of those 51-49 important-over-time divergences that don’t illuminate much of our daily life;* it accepts highly-suspicious numbers at face value to bolster its claims. For example, it accepts for 90% of the book the dubious claim that 10-30% of American children have different fathers than are claimed on their birth certificate, before acknowledging just at the end that the 4% number suggested by better research is the more probable.

Flowing from the indirect evidence is an even greater weakness, a willingness to accept just-so stories as the most likely explanation for a behavior unless someone can disprove it. Thus, Beautiful People has a lovely, entirely plausible evolutionary explanation of how religion came to be. But Nicholas Wade’s Before The Dawn reports an entirely different, equally plausible explanation. They are not quite mutually exclusive, but they have nothing to do with each other. Evolutionary biology abounds with these stories, that just make sense explaining everything. Sometimes they do. Sometimes further research on related topics confirms the original explanation repeatedly.

Sometimes not, and the just-so story fades into oblivion, with all the claim-makers whistling innocently that they were nowhere near the place. Weakness of the field. (See Dubbahdee’s comment under Wayfinding for another example of a possible, plausible, but perhaps completely bogus explanation.

My other complaint is that the book takes too long to get airborne. If you need an introduction to the basic concepts of evolutionary biology, plus some strong arguments why the cultural explanations don’t hold, then the first 70 pages won’t annoy you. I was expecting more, and they annoyed me. Though it was fun to see the myths of Margaret Mead, the Gentle Tasaday, and Chief Seattle exploded back-to-back-to-back.

*The Wymans had four generations of sons only – we’re not pretty, but we’ve worked hard at upgrading the stock for beauty the last three generations – and now we’ve got daughters dominant (exclusive, in my line). So I was particularly interested in what the title was all about. Pretty minor correlation.

Links Golf

A Course Called Ireland by Tom Coyne

Bought for my father-in-law.

Tom Coyne couldn’t just write a book about playing a lot of golf in Ireland, with observations on Irish roots, pubs, and golf culture. Have to have a gimmick or no one will buy the book, so Coyne walked fully around Ireland playing 50, 60, 70 links courses (coastal, dunes-based). The two advantages of this structure are that it allows you to have your wacky friends and family over for a week or so at a time so you can write about them; and, you get to add writing about tiredness, discouragement, and Irish roadsides and hotels to the mix.

Except Tom’s friends and family aren’t all that wacky. If you like reading about a different sort of golf than you get here, or are enchanted by anything Irish, this will do well enough. The storytelling is good enough, but the writing is rather pedestrian.

I crack me up.

Two-and-a-half stars.

What You Get Back

Anyone who does not know why they hold a particular viewpoint cannot judge fairly whether it should be kept or abandoned.

I try to be aware what I secretly get back from a belief or an action. I apply this to both political and religious beliefs. This is much of what Jesus refers to when he notes that those who give very obviously or pray at length in public receive their reward in this life. By “secretly get back” I mean three things. 1) the reward of the belief itself – Christians try to sell this idea when they advocate salvation packages with explicit reference to the assurance you will feel. Other variations include the groundedness one feels knowing that a belief has a long church tradition behind it, versus the excitement of feeling one is on the cutting edge of the work of the Holy Spirit; Or, how great it feels physically to have ecstatic worship styles, contrasted with how great it feels culturally not to have them; 2) your immense cleverness in seeing what others do not; 3) the reward of who you get to hang out with, if only in your imagination. I read a lot of Lewis and Tolkien and get to feel some identification with their situation and narrative: emphatically in the literary, Anglophilic, historical Christian tradition. Even though I could never meet them and be best buds, I can pat myself on the back for being such a person. There are Christians who add ethnic, regional, denominational, or class pride to their faith. They get to see themselves as more moral, or authentically black/Irish/hispanic/southern because of their worship style or doctrines.

It’s easy to say that it’s wrong. It’s important to remember that we all do it. There is not a belief that you hold which doesn’t have some of this tucked into it, some self-congratulation that is separate from the belief itself. Christian, atheist, socialist, Tea Partier – all those big-ticket items of course. But the subtler items – the buyer of organics, the one who remains calm, the spanker and anti-spanker – and perhaps most dangerous of all, those who believe they consider both sides. I have met those, and they are invariably of the sort who chooses one side 95% of the time but has some quirk which allows them to hide from the truth. You should which side you are already rooting for when you pick up the newspaper.

Notice that in none of these instances does it make the belief in question true or untrue. We should presume, in fact, that whatever the true belief is, it will carry both benefits and costs socially and psychologically, and that these might change over time. We might live in a place where a particular truth is well-accepted, and we receive strokes for believing it. Our own children, forty years later, might find it has become unpopular and have to pay a cost for holding it. Though these things are logically irrelevant, they are enormously relevant to our lives as we live them. I have in fact stressed the duality of costs and benefits: when we moan about how much it cost us in family unpopularity to leave Belief Set A, we are secretly bragging about how cool it is to now be associated with Belief Set B. (Or in reverse, how much we gave up professionally when we would not embrace Belief Set C carries a pleasantness of being identified as a staunch and fearless proponent of Belief Set D).

Anyone who does not know why they hold a particular viewpoint cannot judge fairly whether it should be kept or abandoned.

I say I try to be aware of this. I probably try a lot harder to be aware of this in other people. I try not to kick individual Christians (remembering John 15 and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats), but I am harsh on the idea in the abstract. Those who know me may have noticed that I just stop having contact with Christians who display this. I don’t go to churches where it is encouraged, and I sidle away from individuals who too obviously love to draw distinctions between what good influences we are and how shameful are all the things they do out in The World. (Or again, in the opposite, how much more intelligent we are than those Other Christians.)

Okay, that’s not strictly true. I sidle away if I feel they are either too obtuse or fragile to bother with. If they seem at all capable of understanding, I usually have a go at pointing out there’s another side. Depending on how forceful they are, I might be forceful as well. If I’ve argued with you, it’s because I consider you smart enough and honest enough to argue with.

For me, the content of the belief may matter less than the attitude people take about it. It is not even the unawareness of social and psychological gain – heck, most people I know think about this a lot less than I do; it can’t be that central to the faith. It is only the full-blown denial of this, the pretense that there is no possible way you have trimmed your social beliefs to fit the crowd you aspire to.

Anyone who does not know why they hold a particular viewpoint cannot judge fairly whether it should be kept or abandoned. There’s no point in arguing with them.

It’s why political liberals have limited credibility with me. I might be interested in reading what they have to say – some of their ideas may, in fact, be good ones - but there is simply no point in engaging a discussion on the merits. They aren’t the only ones. I know conservatives and libertarians like that, and Christians of various stripe. I can generally get away from them, so they bother me less.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Coming Up

Wayfinding and Stonehenge.
Four book reviews.

Ridiculous Quote

The nursing administrators in my building must have been to some conference or class which instructed them to put some inspiring quote on their regular email, because they all popped up at once about six months ago. I don't know if it is supposed to be a general strategy, or specific to nurses, to illustrate what a literary and philosophical bunch they are. Most quotes are banal, harmless. Today the following was appended to the bottom of the education and training coordinator's email:
You don't stop laughing because you grow old, you grow old because you stop laughing.
Michael Pritchard
Michael Pritchard, then, is an ass. This is precisely the sort of blithe optimism which masquerades as encouragement but is in fact a sharp departure from reality, which causes much mischief. People who laugh easily like to say things like this, implying that they have made themselves into superior beings with the steady application of folk wisdom.

Ah, yes, it's all just a matter of hazzin' the right attitude.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I ran across a theory on the possible origin of gender differences in wayfinding. Hunter males, following game across landscape, needed a method that could adapt to changing circumstances, as their route home might be different each time. Landmarks would be an important supplement, so a percentage of them needed that skill in full blossom as well, but cardinal directions, orientation, ability to envision distal routes would be of primary importance.

Gatherer females would need to reliably know where fruit, medicines, supplies, could reliably be found, and so would need advanced landmark skills. The terrain or approach might be somewhat different each year, so both gestalt environments and chains of landmarks would be useful.

Like all evolutionary biology theories, plausibility is going to be easier to come by than proof. Though strong genetic evidence for these sorts of theories may not be that far away. We can sometimes determine when a trait came into being, and if it accords with the archaeological evidence of what was in fact in use behaviorally at the time, it's a good indicator.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Post 3100 - Salt

Via Instapundit, salt is apparently not the killer we thought it was, according to Scientific American. I had, within the last year, modified my view of salt=bad to the belief that sodium had a powerful effect on the BP of some people. Perhaps even that is too strong.

There is an assumption, whether derived from a world-made-perfect Christianity or from a more modern Natural Living ethos, that there is some nearly perfect, or at least approximately excellent, diet for the human body. There is an idea that if you eat a,b,c, but not p,q,r, you are well on the road to living to be 80, 90, 100. I have written about this odd idea, and its lack of contact with historical reality before. This fantasy is in sharp contradistinction to both evolutionary and Christian thought, yet advocates of either embrace it happily.

Here's the reality: the human body doesn't have any overall plan to get us through to age 80. It wants to get us through to tomorrow, or at most, through the winter. The machine is approximate, not some finely-tuned secret whose mysteries we must divine. The human body is thrilled to have the main killers removed by our improvements in technology in the last hundred years (refrigeration, antibiotics), and we just keep on living, because of the several redundancies built into our flesh. OTOH, the human machine has no idea how to handle an overabundance of food. There are no checks and balances built into us, because no one had to face this wonderful problem until recently.

Paleo diets, Atkins diets, government-approved diets - these are all approximate, a noticing of what things tend to work to keep us from croaking off too quickly. All the new, great insights into great, over arching theories as to how the body works and how we should eat? They're crap. It's a piecemeal process, and the perfect diet will turn out to be a set of individual discoveries, not an application of a Bible diet, or a macrobiotic diet, or a natural foods insistence.

The Myth of the Robber Barons

Burton Folsom's book is a polemic, and judging from the title, that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Anything entitled "The Myth of..." is going to be looking at a popular, commonly accepted idea, and showing why it is wrong. Duh.

This book should not be the only information you have about American business from oh, 1820-1940. But it should absolutely be included as a corrective to everything else you are going to read. If the term "robber barons," accepted as applying to all captains of industry in that period, doesn't cue you in what the accepted view is, then I am afraid I will have to write you off as a person who is unable to even suspect prejudice in what is taught to him.

Folsom, for the record, believes that some people of the era were indeed robber barons. He reserves that term for those who built their industries via government subsidies - shipping, railroads, steel, petroleum. His view is not only that subsidy leads to inefficiency, but that it leads to corruption. He instead lauds those who built their fortunes via market efficiency - Carnegie, Rockefeller, the Scrantons, Mellon. Most especially, he praises James Hill in contrast to the other railroad builders. He briefly acknowledges that these men were sometimes difficult, irritating, or even largely immoral people. He states it is not his point to defend their character, but the idea of market entrepreneurship versus political entrepreneurship.

That's not quite true. He does focus on that, but the tone in which he describes what a fine Christian man Rockefeller was, or how Mellon played with his children, reveals that Folsom is not playing quite fair in the PR department. He strays rather far from the strict proof/disproof idea of market capitalism being different from political capitalism.

Folsom identifies two ways we can go wrong in evaluating the "robber barons," one more common to liberals, the other to conservatives. The conventional liberal opinion that all people who get rich in business have been politically connected, and secondarily lucky, does tend to irritate man-on-the-street conservatives and libertarians who resent that efficiency, creativity, and devotion to lowering prices are regarded as tertiary. That's not going to change. Even SCOTUS John Marshall Harlan - common man - couldn't get the idea straight that just because a business was big didn't mean it was bad for the common man. (Oliver Wendell Holmes, fully elite, got that idea more clearly.)

But an idea has been growing in conservative/libertarian circles that Folsom kicks to the curb as well, as he should - that we have to wink at corruption and let these big-idea capitalist bastards do as they wish because that's the only way that railroads, steel industries, or satellite networks come into existence. Folsom purses his lips in old-school fashion and shakes his head. This also, is the way of madness.

Yeah, Burt Junior does spend too much time bitching about how the standard college textbooks are sneering and inaccurate. It's hard not to, frankly, when one sees what gets launched to impressionable 18 y/o minds. But the book is an excellent corrective to the CW. Critics (Amazon and internet) complain that he cherry-picks his data. True, but only half as much as his opposite numbers in the academy, who are jaw-dropping in their selectivity and choice of prejudicial terms.

Four stars.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


Watching your team's prospects as they come up, wondering whether they are going to make it in the pros - or whether the players who made the team are ever going to be stars, there are two main factors to consider. Age and injury.

Injury is obvious. Injured players don't perform. I mention it because so many people leave it out of their calculations when projecting.

We used to say that baseball players improve until they are 26-28 years old. Some sabermetricians would shade that to 27-29 on the basis of newer statistics which they prefer. I disagree, but fine. At about age 26 or 27, BA starts edging down and power edges up. Players often maintain something near their peak value until age thirty. Most are gone by 33, certainly by 35.

Look up your favorite players from the past if you doubt this. The best players can often sustain a high level for many years, but even allowing for this, check out which year Nolan Ryan got his 383 K's, for example. Leave modern players out for the moment. Just browse around in the old days long enough to establish that even in the pitcher's era 1963-68, a hitter might have is best year in that age range.

I learned this from Bill James, who I admire as an explainer of statistics, an evaluator of talent, and a writer. But he knew the statistics well enough to know that steroids were changing the game, and he mentioned barely a hint of it. That is moral cowardice.

There are exceptions to the 27 +/- tendency, of course, but these are minor. And they are usually gradual, revealing a pitcher who is learning his craft, for example, or a hitter learning to be more selective and draw walks under a particular batting coach.

In the modern era, there are many exceptions, and we can guess why. It is tough to know for certain with many players, because the change is gradual, or because it involves an excellent player hanging on at a higher level than one might expect.

Armed with this knowledge, consider the statistical jump, at this age, for this player. A 200-point rise in OPS at age 29, and another 200-point increase at 30.

It just doesn't happen.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

More Wayfinding

The Tourist, looking up at the sign, asked: Old-timer, both forks say "St. Johnsbury." Does it matter which of these roads I take?

Eben Jenkins shook his head. "Not to me it don't."

Carol Lawton of Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne has research showing there are significant gender differences in wayfinding, as I had suspected. Females use landmarks more often, males use cardinal points of the compass. I still cannot find any definitions which says whether the cardinal and overhead map methods are entirely the same thing.

Maybe this college that doesn't know where it is was a spur to her researching the subject. She has related research at the link.

Researchers at Taiwan Science University and University of Alabama have also found gender differences in navigation.

Here's research on differences of scale affecting testing. More interestingly, skill in small-scale navigation is distinct from skill in large-scale. They don't seem to have considered the egocentric/allocentric difference for this.

And for further exploration on your own, this paper on defining Wayfinding more precisely includes one of those nice lists of other articles that cite it, leading you on to branching research.

A Real Find

I found this important site in my research. Don't neglect to take the poll.

It Looked Different Then - Part III

The first edition of Mother Earth News declared it was willing to stand up to anyone, specifically mentioning the Catholic Church (birth control, maybe? hierarchy?), in order to usher in the new world that needed to happen. It featured not just one, but two communes. There wasn’t much about do-it-yourself at that point, just a lot of grousing about how there were chemicals in the food, and people didn’t respect the environment, and various Big Industries – oil was there, of course, but so were power companies and electronic entertainment – were destroying us, and the world needed to change. The MEN focus, in fact, for the first few years was on the need for change, with back-to-the-land living seen as the way to accomplish this.

The Simple Life seemed to be the key, and this seemed to be the main brand on the market.

A funny thing happened on the way to cultural evolution. Once people started actually trying to live out there, singly, in families, in groups, they found it was difficult. It was fine to sing John Denver songs that romanticised working hard, but it was another thing altogether to actually do it. You needed food, like, every day.

Yet these were earnest, young, healthy, idealistic people (not a lot of walkers and wheelchairs out in commune living – flaw in universality of vision, there), so many of them adapted. They did work hard. They built, they gardened, they got dirty. In doing so, they found that the people who had the knowledge they needed often weren’t hippies like themselves. Even among the other escapees, there were people who seemed rather…opposite. Survivalists who wanted to be off the power grid not for the good of the planet, but so no one could find them. Jesus people – usually pretty far offshoots from Second Presbyterian, but still - who wanted their children out of the public schools not because they were training grounds for the military-industrial complex, but because they were secular. Folks who weren’t so much living light on the land as far away from other people because something about their lifestyle was illegal or unpopular. Meet the neighbors.

Mother Earth News readers had a hard time coming to terms with this. Whenever an article mentioned in passing that the homesteader they were interviewing hunted, or used non-organic methods however sparingly, or had tractors or other vehicles with large internal-combustion engines somewhere in the photos, the letters to the editor would come in, True Believers denouncing the heretics and trying to shame the magazine back to its roots.

But magazines have to make money, and thus have to provide a service for enough readers to keep the presses running. Alongside all the DIY wind-turbines and geodome houses came articles about slaughtering animals and legitimate compromises with available technology. The variety of home businesses folks might try, to generate a little cash money, expanded beyond farm stands and mail-order bracelets. Solar generation articles edged away from the ingenious low-tech to tracking advances in the high-tech stuff and speculating when it would become available.

The conflict was too much for the original editors, who throughout the 70’s would still post essays that our human-centered outlook left out all those plants and animals. Whining for Eden occurred repeatedly, the idea being that it was just so possible, so right in front of us, if only human beings would just stop being so selfish and let it happen. And what a darn shame that everything was still so centered on money when it didn’t have to be. They tried valiantly to keep the original Moonflower focus. The Wiki entry had a better quote than any I remembered, from 1975:
For at least 20 years now, I've been getting an increasingly uncomfortable suspicion that all the major nations of the world — capitalist and communist — suffer from the narrow delusion that only people, and people alone, have any rights on this planet. Further, that human wants, needs, and desires — seemingly the more capricious the better — should be instantly gratified. And further still, that this can always be done in a strictly economic frame of reference.
"In short, I think that we live in an unbelievably marvelous Garden of Eden. Surrounded by miraculous life forms almost without number. Kept alive by a mysteriously interwoven, self-replenishing support system that, with all our scientific 'breakthroughs,' we still do not understand.
"And yet, as favored as we are by all this real wealth, we somehow perversely prefer to spend almost all waking hours interpreting the sum total of this reality in terms of the narrow and distorted, strictly human-centered concept of money
I’m thinking the portion of his readership battling plant diseases, as sympathetic to the general ideas as they might be, were starting to skip the Plowboy interviews for articles that they could use. The suburbans who dreamed of going back to the land may have read those rants more.

Euell Gibbons and Christopher Nyerges. Am I just being cruel, here?

I would like to tell you these excesses caused my eyes to finally open, and see that the Christian versions of this owed more to 60’s culture than to the New Testament, but that is only partly true. I knew that remaking culture, and especially human nature, was going to be a lot harder than enthusiasts thought, and to stay away from dippy people who thought you could make any impossible idea true just by putting “Jesus” into the sentence somewhere. But I still thought, deep down, that this was where we were supposed to be headed. Maybe the Apocalypse would force us into it. Maybe it was a hundred years off. Maybe only 5% of Christians were ever going to get it. But I still believed it.
I retain some of that belief even now, but that’s not what this series is about. It’s about how it looked then. Societal change was not going to come from politics, but from people returning to the Simple Life. How that life was defined might not include growing carrots or living in an underground home, but somehow that was the best way to obey Jesus. People in cities could be Christians of course, but it showed that they just didn’t get it. They hadn’t read the times and seasons correctly.
Noel Paul Stookey had a song John Henry Bosworth (wish I had a video) that captures it well. It meant a lot to me in 1976, but by 1979 something seemed not right about it. Of course, that may have been Stookey himself.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

It Looked Different Then - Part II

The Simple Life.

There is a competition between those who believe that everything must be made new and those who believe we can remain in - or return to – the old order. Few people are purists in these. Nearly everyone would see some virtue on both sides and put themselves in the middle. Yet the competition is very strong, and plays out quite visibly in national culture. Obama is an extreme example of the “everything must be made new” attitude. Tea Partiers are the current dramatic example of America having to “get back to” something. In their case it is smaller government, but other movements in our history have focused on getting back to better moral or social times.

It may be a cast of mind, or even a genetic tendency whether to be a Returner or a Remaker. Various groups of Christians try to return to the 1st C church, which is not only impossible, but not recommended even if we could. OTOH, it is currently fashionable to emphasise how Jesus “overturned the political/social/religious/indiemusic order of his day.” I am undecided which of these is more false, more vacuous, and more irritating. Both of them have some truth behind them, of course. It’s actually difficult to find popular ideas that have absolutely nothing in them. But it’s well less than half in both instances.

This is not a new competition. One can find it just about anywhere one touches down in American history. Marxism and the various utopias wanted to remake the social and economic order – but then, so did the American Revolution. It was in the air then to remake everything. But those Remakers were also Returners – to imagined smaller and more egalitarian societies, to natural rights that had been obscured by growing governments and economic pressures – to Noble Savages or edenic gardens.

In the 1970’s people were worried that society was going to collapse, for many of the same reasons that people fear it will collapse now. I won’t list those. Choose your own favorites. I thought it largely had collapsed already – the old order was broken, society was going to have to change radically, which might or might not be a horrifying process.* I saw a post-christian, post-western world. There would never be any going back to the 50’s or any imagined Golden Age. All that remained was to identify the pieces worth saving from the ruins and reassemble them somehow, so that those who lived after might not have to suffer so badly.

Some – the Remakers - believed that almost nothing was worth saving from the past, and all had to be rethought and made anew. Others – the Returners – dug in their heels as if trying to prevent a horse from dragging them on. I was neither. But the theme of preserving through destruction was a strong literary theme of speculative literature of the 20th C, showing up in both Sci-Fi and fantasy literature. One would think that you could find it over a few thousand years of literature, but I don’t. I may be blinding myself to it, but I think that each work of literature has gone in either a Remaker or Returner direction (or many unrelated places) until the 20th C. Then we start to get A Canticle For Liebowitz, the modern versions of the Arthurian Legend that stress that bridge between Roman civilization, through the Dark Ages, into Early Medieval times, Lewis’s Prince Caspian (and much of his nonfiction). Many of Asimov’s stories carry the idea of ancient knowledge preserved, brought forth for a new use. Something like it floats through Tolkien, and Star Wars.

I wrote an interminable novel three decades ago The Book Of Years: By Daniel, whose dominant theme was the preservation of older knowledge through an apocalypse. It is clearly a popular and romantic idea in our age. It may be what most of us prefer as a vision for the future, but somehow, the culture war asks us to choose one of the other two false visions. Greens and Libertarians, the two main subgroups in our political divide, both have an uneasy relationship with the major parties because of this clash of visions. The Greens are Returners in technology, Remakers in social and economic thought. Libertarians, something opposite.

The artsy, folksinger/poet/actor types thought one of the signs of this impending collapse was the soullessness and materialism of modern society, especially Americans, especially businessmen. We thought these were in continual competition with higher values for space in our hearts. By higher values, some of us meant God, or at least Gospel of Niceness; feeling Things deeply; arts of many sorts…

It’s actually too irritating for me to go much further with that. We knew they were higher values, and other people’s were lower values, so our contempt wasn’t really an evil thing, because we really wanted them to become elevated. Lots of sermons began to be preached about this as well. Boatloads of seminarians bought this idea that this turning of the world was like a lot of things that Jesus taught, and nestled comfortably into those values, quite convinced they were largely Christian. And we’ve been hearing it ever since.

It’s not completely untrue, of course. Jesus did indeed say that owning things was dangerous, because we could become attached to them, and embracing poverty has been a re-emerging theme throughout church history. The other monastic vows, chastity and obedience, didn’t sit so well in the 70’s. Or now, either. And artistic expression, sensitivity, niceness, being against the war – Jesus didn’t actually mention those things a lot.

I digress. I wander. Sorry. I will tighten up for the next part.

The Simple Life. A lot of people, Christian and secular, thought that was going to be the key, then. Funny things started to happen when these Simple Life people, who had started from different visions, moved in next to each other in a hundred places around the country. Yet in the end, most of them moved either left or right, not to any independent hybrid. Odd. I think I can trace some of it by describing The Mother Earth News, which Tracy and I read cover to cover, in those years

*It was interesting - rather shocking actually - to find this idea in different form in CS Lewis's De Description Temporum.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No, these weren't Indians."

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

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

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

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

*entorhinal and posterior parietal

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


I heard the song on the radio. Wondered what was up. Looked it up.

You can't embed the original video, but it's here. A different impression.

It Looked Different Then

Radicalism, counterculturalism - what we would now lump under liberalism in retrospect, looked different in the 1970's. This was one version, and the one I had greatest attraction to. As well as we could sense then where the world was going, the current political divide was not it. I thought "liberals" were just milk-and-water versions of "conservatives" then. Conservatives were not considered so much contemptible as people who just didn't get it.

There were other visions from the left which also influenced me. This was one of the stronger versions. I had one foot in the world of Jesus Freaks, and the communal version of Christianity hovered at the edges of our Bible Study for many years. Because it never came to pass, I don't think the children quite picked up what a near thing it was - how this could have been the life they grew up in. Of the 10 (+2, +1) children, the oldest two caught some of it, my own oldest a bit as well.

My intuitive predictions of where the country and the world were going were better than most, in retrospect. But I still missed a lot.

More to follow, but as with the "following directions" post, I am sure there are lots of reactions, and I don't want to steer the conversation too much at present.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Georgia On My Mind

A Liberal Reads Right

National Review Online has an interview with a liberal, a New England professor even, who wrote a biography of William F Buckley Jr, and in the course of that, read conservative writers extensively. His comments seem just, and it is nice in any event to have a different set of eyes on the same material.
Q. After having completed an extensive program of reading great conservative works, how can you still be a liberal?

A. As Isaiah Berlin pointed out, what separates us at the most fundamental level may be our different conceptions of liberty. Conservatives value above all else what Berlin called the negative vision of liberty, namely, freedom from coercion. Liberals are more willing to balance that against the positive vision of liberty — that is, having a reasonable opportunity to realize one’s potential. The negative vision focuses conservatives on restricting the government’s ability to interfere in people’s lives. The positive vision leads liberals to believe that government has a role in guaranteeing baseline minimums in education, medical care, and healthy communities. Most of us probably accept both visions to some extent, but how we balance the two may be built into our DNA...
The negative liberty/positive liberty contrast is as neat a brief definition as one can find. He is also correct that few of us are purists in that, but sit along a continuum.

Culture Versus Law

Underneath Herman Cain's troubling comments - Volokh refers to Nine-and-a-Half Amendments in Some Copies of the Bill of Rights - there is a tension in American culture since the beginning that keeps showing up. Everyone is horrified by one side it when it goes against their cultural ideas, but supports it when it flows in their favor.

Every culture outside the Anglosphere defines what it will be with reference to the group more than the individual. New Guinea tribes define what marriage is, Uighurs define what membership is. Druze, and Roma, and Yupik define what inheritance, education, and drug-use shall be. It is the most natural thing in the world for a culture to define stuff whatever way it likes, and to resent it when some more powerful external force tries to make them speak another language or punish theft or celebrate holidays in a different way.

But the Anglosphere, especially the colonies, has bound itself into another method, where the group does not get to make all the cultural decisions. In America, someone can say "I think your definition of marriage restricts my rights, and I insist on that freedom." I chose my example to highlight a controversy where it is the traditionalists who are being group-right rather than individual-right oriented. But there are plenty of spots where it is group rights as defined by liberals - foods, fuel, taxes - carry the day over the protesting individual. And even the deep sentiment is heard as each election or controversial social legislation comes up. "I don't want to live in a society that..." well, there are many choices there.

Mucking it up even further is that the individual's ability to insist creates a culture that some others don't like - and they don't have the freedom to move to a culture where they can have it their way. In America, people keep trying to move off together with the like-minded, so they don't have to have any dark people, or non-Green people, or gay people, or poor people, or Wal-Marts, or people with children, around. Everyone wants to define their culture, because that's what people do. So we resent it when we can't do that, and some person who is different in the wrong way gets to be in our lives and we can't kick them out.

The distinction between the annoyance of a neighbor playing music too loud and playing music we can hear and don't like is not solid philosophically. It annoys Jim that his neighbors are gay. It annoys the neighbors that Jim says that out loud. We try to capture some distinctions in law, with but moderate success.

Herman Cain is worried that the extension of freedom of religion to a group that unifies church and state (in his eyes) will be incompatible with American values, and ultimately American stability. The same argument was advanced about Catholics and Mormons and they seemed to work out okay, so everyone is jumping on Cain as some regressive force. America has had a history of being forced into accepting what no culture wishes to accept - a large majority being overruled and made to do what someone else thinks is better. The current culture refuses to see any problem with further changes, being quite sure that all of them are progress, tolerance, and good.

I tend to agree. But I am not absolutely sure of it. Just because we have absorbed changes A-N doesn't guarantee that change O will go down similarly well. it's always new territory, and one of them may indeed reveal itself to be the suicide pact, the change which undoes all others. It is not knowledge, but faith, that says otherwise. Secondly, there is no neutral culture. Each change is in the direction of someone's preference, making them the powerful ones who do get to have the culture they like, whether others like it or not. The reason for the preference is not always solid, either. We have been legislating in the direction of sexual permission trumping group safety (think disease, think increased crime from illegitimacy, think higher educational cost), while group safety trumps individual freedom in environmental affairs.

We have already seen in the last fifty years how that can go to some folk's heads...

How We Give Directions

We have long noted that men tend to give directions, and perceived routes in terms of an overhead map, while women tend to prefer navigation by landmarks. It's not a pure situation - I'd say it's about 80-20. My oldest son prefers landmarks, I know women who prefer overhead. But the difference is pronounced enough that when giving directions, my wife will give directions to a female, I will give them to a male.

I have not found in the scientific literature this exact characterisation, but the strongly related distinction of using cardinal directions versus landmarks is common. It may even be a more accurate distinction than the one I stumbled upon on my own.

Family history.
Jonathan and Ben are remarkably similar in abilities. Yet there was a sharp difference in the math scores of their standardised tests, which Jonathan attributes to doing poorly on spatial reasoning. As he is noticeably less comfortable with maps, this seems plausible. But we had a recent conversation that demonstrated that he has spatial memory of the landmark sort far in excess of what I can do. His memory for the layout of the church we attended 1987-91 or thereabouts was far superior to mine. In fact, I could recall only one feature of the lower floor, while he "walked about" in it effortlessly. The literature suggests were I to see it again I would find my way easily. But I am unable to recreate it. I find, in fact, that my remote memory for interior spaces is quite poor. I can only envision them by indirection: reasoning from outside appearance what must be inside, coupled with hazy recollections of single objects, building back and forth from such clues. Cheats, really. Tricks. Houses I lived in. Schools I went to. There is no interior space from my childhood that I can recreate by entering a door and walking accurately through the place.

So it's interesting that one method is considered the better by the people who make up tests, though each has places of superiority. It's not entirely arbitrary. As travel and need for distance navigation increased - and it was primarily males who made the trips - the need for this overhead mapping would be increasingly favored. It is more abstract. In terms of moving civilisation forward, it's smarter. But there is a cost, because using that ability tends to make local navigation weaker.

Landmark navigation is done much better when it is conscious, ticking off sights in the mind as they pass, but apparently a good deal goes on without effort as well. Over time, the schema builds itself. Landmark is far superior on a small scale.

One of the difficulties of navigation turns out to be switching sets, whether that is switching from landmark to cardinals or switching scale in either. For example, when going on a long highway trip I am using map/cardinal directions almost exclusively. But if I get off at an exit in search of gas or food I am thrown into a different scale. If the distance to the Cracker Barrel is less than a mile and involves few turns, I just automatically stay with landmarks, going in and out by signage, without converting it to overhead in a different scale. But as I go further down the secondary route and no Cracker Barrel has shown up, I waver, I hover between choices. I have not been creating an intentional landmark map - has my automatic landmarking been sufficient to get me back? Or should I switch to a new, small-scale cardinal? Further complicating the event might be the parking lot and entrance into the little four-business cluster which includes the Cracker Barrel, which is on an even smaller scale. Yes, I can see back where I come from, but I will get turned around twice, and as I come back to the highway, I might no longer have an intuitive sense which direction I am supposed to take it. Landmarks and cardinals have interfered with each other.

We learned the neighborhoods we grew up in entirely by landmark. My last one, in high school, I had actually already had in my overhead map before arriving, but the landmarking, far more useful on a smaller scale, overwrote the old data. The earlier neighborhoods are intimate landmark-memory sections inserted into a larger overhead now. At the fringes, my navigation-storage hovers back and forth.

If I were to color on an overhead map what childhood areas I have stored in landmark form, it would not be a circle or region, but individual streets only: between the route to my grandmother's and the route to the library there are many streets that I walked occasionally, or looked up those avenues while walking a usual route, but they are mostly stored in overhead grid in my memory. Landmarks stop abruptly at the Y, at church, at Bunny's Superette. After that it is terra incognita. At those spots I switch to overhead.

The term used in research is Wayfinding, and there are discussions of You Are Here maps, gender differences, relying on GPS, routefinding improvement, and a dozen other byways. The types of navigation are also called egocentric and allocentric, sans the connotations they have in discussions of social phenomena. I'll have some fun with these in the next post. Uh, a future post. For now, I've given all of you plenty to think about and comment on. I'll bet your guesses anticipate some of what I'll be mentioning from the research.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Politics In Conversation

I don't get it, frankly. I read Tracy's FB news. I haven't done a census, but she likely has slightly more conservative than liberal friends, among those that are political at all. But I don't see political comments inserted by conservatives in the general flow of things, apropos of nothing. I don't see many from liberals either, but the few that I do see are always from liberals, and always of the entirely social variety, rather sneering at how hateful/stupid/angry a particular conservative, or perhaps Republicans in general, are.

Are people just unaware that friends who disagree with their politics are "present," and may find such things insulting? I am not sure if it is merely an insensitivity, or a communication of enforcement "My friends have these politics. I will cut you publicly if you say otherwise?" Who wants a friend like that?

I have seen the same in conversation, of course. I imagine everyone has. It is most common in a situation where the speaker believes that everyone present must of course share their views on the subject. I have certainly heard conservatives do it, not so much at the churches I have attended as at the schools my children attended. One could hear such assumptions, a "my how terrible those people out there are" attitude on a variety of subjects, political, social, religious - not only in conversation while slicing tomatoes or waiting for soccer teams to return, but from the speakers at events. I found it offensive then, also. I wondered with that group as well if there were something worse than insensitivity present, a declaration of "if you want to be one of us you have to believe this."

I hear it all the time at work, enough so that it seems like background now. The same half-dozen liberals make hateful comments all the time, and an overlapping half-dozen will make anti-Christian statements. Sometimes a new voice will be heard from, or the context will be different, and it will catch my resentment unaware.

I can hardly be accused of not wanting to discuss politics and religion. But there is a social grace to it, a testing of whether a person wants the topic to come in. It's just rude to stand in the lobby and complain that Obama is being dishonest or foolish. It's rude even in the context of someone making a general comment about a political issue, such as the budget deal. You don't just launch with a pre-emptive strike that you think the people you disagree with are stupid or evil, for the simple reason that the person you are speaking to might be one of them, or one might be overhearing.

Maybe this is a New England thing, where liberals believe they own the culture and have the right to defend it. Maybe the opposite happens in, oh, Oklahoma or something. But from this vantage point, it is a rudeness far more common among liberals.

Explaining The Generational Divide At Work

From Inside Straight, a regular column by Mark Herrmann at Above The Law, comes two explanations for younger lawyers why their supervisors are unreasonable and inefficient. It may apply generally.
Years ago (long before MapQuest was even a gleam in its inventor’s eye), an older lawyer sent me directions for driving to his home. It was pretty easy to get from my apartment to his house; I had to make only three or four turns. But the directions were several typed pages long. Why?

Because this guy had been driven insane by mistakes in the past. He had told someone to turn east on a road, and the person had turned west. So now the directions eliminated that possible mistake: “Turn east (that is, turn right as you are proceeding northbound on route 1) at the light.” Someone else had missed the turn. So now the directions eliminated that possible mistake: “If you see a shopping mall followed by a McDonald’s on the right side of the road, then you have gone too far. Turn around, go back to the light, and turn east (that is, left as you are now proceeding southbound on route 1) at the light.” Having experienced all of these mistakes, the older lawyer felt compelled to help me avoid them, which made his driving directions nearly incomprehensible.

What does this have to do with being a lawyer?

As you age, you are driven insane by mistakes that you’ve made (or seen others make) in the past.

Good essays. But mostly, I wanted to have an introduction to the idea of giving directions, and spatial memory.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Follow The Leader

An absolutely amazing quote from Esquire, over at No Oil For Pacifists.

Three About Lewis

The Cambridge Companion To CS Lewis ny Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward
The Hidden Story Of Narnia and
The Professor Of Narnia, both by Will Vaus

I might have like the latter two better had I not read them A) expecting an adult book, and/or B) immediately after the first.

The Cambridge Companion is an academic book, with essays about Lewis' influence on Medieval scholarship, his acceptance or rebellions against the debates in philosophy of his day, attempts to rate him as a literary historian - that sort of thing. Big concepts, sometimes referring to obscure or forgotten authors, harsh criticism even from his supporters and surprising acknowledgments even from his critics - and, most important - a not-very-compelling writing style, for the most part.

Vaus's volumes here are for young adults. (I really need to research these volumes better before putting them on my wish list.) Vaus is one of the more persuasive writers against Michael Ward's Planet Narnia hypothesis (which I wrote about in several post in October 2010). He is convincing enough on that score that I have softened, though not changed, my stance on the idea.

"Cambridge" has a bibliography with 200 titles. "Hidden Story" has questions at the end of each chapter. Very different aims. If you are looking for youth's biography of Lewis, or wish to steer a bright Narnia-entranced youngster into an understanding of such things as how Aslan's breath is meant to suggest the Holy Spirit, or Lewis thoughts on kingship relate to the contemporary Christian idea of servant leadership, the Vaus paperbacks may suit nicely. But I hesitate to recommend them, because I didn't like them. They seemed over-obvious.

If you want to fight through some academic writing for concepts that will reward and one can hold onto, the Cambridge was mostly worth it to me. I found I am not nearly as interested in the academic side as I thought - or perhaps I am just stupider or lazier than I once was. It is the sort of book I kept putting down thinking I'm not enjoying this, then finding that something I had just read was the basis of my musings for the next twenty-four hours, and so clearly worth the effort. It's not a fun read, but it's a fun think.

As examples, Mark Edward's essay on Lewis as a classicist had me in well over my head. As I was little interested in Greek and Roman writings, I cared only moderately what Lewis had to say about them. Thus I was unable to have any sense whatsoever of the importance and timing of his his contributions in early 20th C philosophical debates about the use and meaning of the classics - debates which still greatly influence the textbooks and college teaching of ancient history now.

In contrast, Kevin J. Vanhoozer's discussion of Lewis's view of scripture was based on information at least 75% known to me, and the essay filled out rather than challenged my understanding. Paul S. Fiddes' monograph on Lewis's theology starts with the perceptive but uncontroversial point that "the making of persons" is central to the theology - then takes that to some controversial places.

I made it about halfway through the volume before conceding it had won by TKO. I failed to answer the bell for Round Nine. I'm not passing it on, however, as I intend to have another go at it. Or perhaps not. Being smart about things matters to me less than it used to.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


I am not as distressed about steroid use in baseball as I once was, partially because the various sports are all over the map in acceptance of use. I love track and field. The Jamaicans are not rigorous about their testing. Now no one else matters, though Tyson Gay should.

I very much thought that the US Congress should not be creating their own People Magazine moment by having hearings about steroid usein baseball. Never should have happened. Clowns.

But when you lie to Congress, it should be a big deal, and being rich enough to hire top lawyers should not change that.

Therefore, I think the prosecution of Roger Clemens should go forward, even though a series of stupid events got us here and it's expensive.

For the record, though Roger Clemens was an exceptionally good pitcher in his 20's, from age 30-33 he was only an average pitcher. His steroid use pretty clearly starts during the 1996 or 1997 season. Following a normal career trajectory, he would have likely ended up with 220 wins, 2400 strikeouts - something like that. A good career, but nothing near a HOF one. When I am asking myself whether someone should go to the HOF, I don't so much ask myself whether he used steroids, as whether he would have made it without them. Therefore Bonds and A-Rod yes, all other steroid users no.

Clemens, no chance. Viewed that way, risking steroid use was a good bet for him. Made a lot of money, might go to Cooperstown.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dunning-Kruger Again

The Dunning-Kruger Effect makes its appearance again, over at Futurepundit, which asks whether geniuses are equally susceptible to this illogic.

Anosognosia Series

Errol Morris, filmmaker and writer, seems to be one of those brilliant people who are often wrong, but inspired enough to break new ground. He had a five-parts series in the NYTimes about anosognosia which folks might find interesting.
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

As It Often Happens

When one gets a youTube link, one starts following it to others...

Strunk & White & Ted & Alice

Geoffrey Pullum states beautifully what I have long thought about The Elements of Style in his Chronicle of Higher Education article, Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice. I was assigned the book at William and Mary in 1974, and believed it for fifteen-twenty years after. Perhaps I should blame everything on that.

A sample of Pullum's takedown.
The book's toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can't help it, because they don't know how to identify what they condemn.

"Put statements in positive form," they stipulate, in a section that seeks to prevent "not" from being used as "a means of evasion."

"Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs," they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)

And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."

That's actually not just three strikes, it's four, because in addition to contravening "positive form" and "active voice" and "nouns and verbs," it has a relative clause ("that can pull") removed from what it belongs with (the adjective), which violates another edict: "Keep related words together."
I was always more partial to Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian. All his books are available online for free now. I read the first two, and especially loved Less Than Words Can Say (better advice, but the anecdotes in the The Graves of Academe are better.) I don't recall reading the other two. I should.

Commenter Erin (who is an English teacher) put me on to this and also sent this video. There is an American version as well, but I like this better.

Monday, July 11, 2011

What We Hear

Many verses of scripture or teachings from the pulpit are general in their direction. When God tells us "To obey is better than sacrifice" is certainly true. But you might hear "obey" as primarily meaning be kind, while I hear give up material goods, and Harry over there hears head for Thailand to preach. So also with "take up your cross," or "love one another." Because they can mean many related things, we can gradually settle on the one picnic table in the park we like best.

This is a glory of the faith, and I believe it is entirely intentional. But all good things carry their own dangers. We each hear, a thousand times in our Christian lives, a reinforcement of our particular prejudice of what the most important part of the gospel is. Whatever you are hearing as the main theme of the faith, especially if you think other Christians are neglecting it - just don't see what is so obvious to you - step back. Your danger may be great.

The Most Important Thing

What's the most important thing in the Christian faith?

I've heard people make a variety of claims, in books, in preached sermons, or in unsolicited irritable declarations.

Evangelism - I mean that whole "Go ye into all the world" was the last teaching Jesus gave, right?

Scripture - because without that, we can't know anything, right? It'd be all up for grabs.

Worship. Isn't that what we were made for?

Grace. That's what sets Christianity apart from other faiths.

Prayer. Self-denial. Sacrament. Forgiveness. Community. Faith. Discipleship. There are a lot of nominations here, and I'll bet I've missed some good ones. Some of them have a pretty good claim on being the center. Of course, that is because a lot of these lead pretty quickly to several others, and can be seen as various doors, perhaps, into the presence of God, which is where we are ultimately bound. There is no need to see these as competitors when they are partners.

Yet the competition among them does seem to be much of what divides us. These splits are the modern version of "I am of Apollos; I am of Paul." We note that those other groups get part of it right, but just don't put enough emphasis on X. When we get huffy and extreme about it, we say that they "deny the importance of X." Pretty strong language that. And sometimes justified. Yet I think the abuse is far greater.

Because of my cast of mind, I am better equipped to declare what things are not the center than what things are.

Scripture. The earliest Church didn't have written scriptures and seemed to do just fine. If you want to enlarge the definition to include The Teaching Of The Apostles Which Eventually Got Written Down As Our Bible, then fine. But I haven't been getting the impression that's what most Bible-centered Christians mean when they say "scripture." They mean Book. Written down. Further, there were many ages in the church, and still places in the world, where written scripture was not available, or not widely understood. Yet many of those Christians were obedient souls who I am sure we will see in heaven.

We got print-focused when the printing press came in. Just prior to that and relatedly, what we now call witchcraft grew up as a branch of science, rather a descendant of alchemy, with it's exact-wording spellcasting and incantations. The age-of-exploration dependence on the Bible as a magic book that carried the gospel and protected believers from harm and sin - that's not the opposite of witchcraft, that's a cousin.
Caring For The Poor. As with Scripture, this is a good thing twisted into something less-than-Christian. Jesus's words throughout the NT are not about the poor, but about the brethren. The Jews were in one tribe. Jesus told them he was declaring a new tribe, first identifying them as Jews that chose the kingdom, then hinting and finally declaring that non-Jews were going to be welcome into this new tribe of believers in the kingdom. This tribe was going to be characterised by their devotion to each other, their forgiveness of each other, their sharing with each other. Looking over Jerusalem, He speaks of how their love for one another will be the mark that distinguishes them. At no time does he expand this to include the poor in general, or the nations of the world generally. Paul's teaching is the same, focused on the new community, and throughout the first century, observers of the Christians note how they are devoted to each other, not to the poor in general, or their neighbors in general, or any other category other than the church. Paul collects for other churches in distress, never for the poor of the next town. And it should be embarrassingly obvious and not necessary to point out, but it is: there isn't the remotest hint of Christians being encouraged to lobby the powerful, whether secular or religious authorities, on behalf of the downtrodden. We might wish Jesus had said that. We might say that he sorta kinda did, but put it in terms people could understand then (and we of course can fill in those blanks for Him now). We might believe He would have said that if He'd thought about it. But it's just not there.

As Christians became more influential, and eventually came to rule societies, the question of whether generosity should be extended generally became important. Certainly, in most of the western nations which give us our tradition of how we are to treat the general poor, all communities were in some sense Christian nations (however pagan they might remain and how poorly they understood Jesus), and thus all the poor were part of the Church, and the structures we built in weren't clearly divided between Christian poor and non-Christian poor, because the latter category didn't occur to people much. Not until about 1800, when prosperity of Christian lands started to become more general, and people were floating theories of what was the most ethical way for nations to behave - theories as diverse as Adam Smith and Mother Ann Lee and Joseph Smith and Karl Marx - did Christians really get rolling with any idea that Jesus came to teach us to share with the poor of the whole world. Before that, the Christian focus was more on denying oneself - not seeking after riches, taking up one's cross - than on general almsgiving.

It would be an exaggeration to say that many cultures have in practice, whatever they might say in theory, regarded virginity, especially for women, to be the most important marker of the faith. An exaggeration, but not a falsehood.

Tolerance is a big favorite of people outside the church, especially if they were church-raised. The reasoning, if any, seems to be that Jesus loved different people, so therefore they're all fine. He thought Samaritans were okay, which was shocking, so we just extend that to understand that Jesus thought that all kinds of people are cool, and it's only ignorant Christians making up their own rules who say any differently. This is ludicrous, because Jesus never said that Samaritans were fine and certainly not that Samaritan culture was just as valid as Jewish culture, but only that Samaritan individuals were as eligible to embrace the kingdom of God as Jews were. Paul, Peter, and the early church expanded that to include any sort of people who could become members of God's kingdom. They never said that those people were already there, or that their cultures were as valid as Jewish culture. It's a secular value, not an entirely bad one, that is a big favorite these days, as Unselfishness was the apogee of secular values a generation ago. So people who don't like to think very hard decide that if it's such a great value, someone as great as Jesus must've been foursquare behind that.

There's more false centers, if y'all want to have fun with this.

Of this list, which would I say is the worst, the furthest from the center? Eh, probably whichever one I heard most recently that torqued me off.


Retriever likes snapping turtles, and has photos.

David at Photon Courier likes Canadian oil sands, but has no photos. (Hard to take 'em underground, I suppose.)

James likes arguing with his daughter about what constitutes a real opera. And missed a perfect opportunity for a photo, frankly.

And Steve Hsu has a post about the changes in college admissions deans. Sound boring? Not on your life. Following the links in a Hsu post can lead you through minefields.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Old Route 28 - Part 8

Long and wandering, I fear. I'll break it into parts.

I started at the house that was my grandparents from 1934-70, where my mother grew up. It is only 50' or so from Route 28, which runs through Manchester as Maple St.

That's my mom in the first picture, and her sister in the second, my Aunt Cynthia. My estimate is that these were spring of 1946, when they would have been 16 and 17, respectively - both taken at 218 Blodget. They had a brother as well, but somehow his picture got taken far less frequently, at least in my collection. He's a nice-enough looking man, but this level of competition is too much for anyone. As I have previously noted, I didn't get these genes. Or rather, my brother and I got some of them, but somehow didn't do as well with them as our cousins.

Maple Street is more shady now, more elegant. It was a borderland then between a better part of town and the best part of town. My grandfather was a CPA - we think the first in the state - and his wife the socially aspiring sort. She would have preferred to be at least four blocks north, and an equal number west to qualify as true north end.

Route 28 merges with Rte 3, the Daniel Webster Highway coming out of Manchester to the north. From 1930 to 1950 it built up slowly, but after the war, car dealerships, restaurants, supermarkets, and all the trimmings sprang up. People think of NH's population exploding in the 1970's, but it was steady increase from 1950-2000, with just a steeper slope in the middle.

Oh yeah, this is one of several places that my mother almost died - my brother merely wounded and hospitalised for a week in the crash. So for the second time, someone just came and picked me up and told me I was living at my grandparents for awhile. I don't know if I was given much detail - I don't remember worrying, though my mother was away for weeks. Well, hospitalizations were longer then.

Just over the line in Hooksett there used to be a meat market, with a large cow on top of it. They had a delivery van with a life-sized cow wired to the top as well, and a sign that said "Home of Sir Loin." People must have thought those were quite the advertisements in those days, because the numbered routes were strewn with them, at least out here in the east. Forty-foot concrete cacti, Leaning Towers of Pizza, whales, pirates, chickens. Forget Motel of The Mysteries. What would archaeologists have made of this?

We still have leftovers of this in McDonald's golden arches and White Castle burgers. Yes, children, really. It's not just a logo. We didn't have logos then, because we were too poor.

I can't find a picture of Hooksett's Sir Loin, unfortunately. Though Ben and I saw something like it on a van in Michigan a decade ago. And a giant red slipper outside the Wizard of Oz Museum in Indiana. So midwesterners still go in for this sort of thing, maybe.

In the 30's it would have been rural. By 1960 the road would have had the usual collection of Howard Johnsons, Pic-N-Save markets, and used car dealerships that must have been seeded when they widened the number roads. Nothing much to comment on until we get just south of Suncook, where the old narrow road heads on into town, past the large stone lion, and the new 1958 route branches right, wide and straight through the forest. Not much got built along there until later. But there was a boat sales place, (Something) Marina. And amazingly cool to my brother and I in the 60's, there was a fuselage of a crashed jet in a field beside the place. We of course figured the jet had crashed there and been left. (Just missed the fence and those ski-boats - whew!) Or that someone they knew had died in it so they were given the hunk of twisted metal as a memento. A few years later we heard the real story from my mother's boyfriend, and though the story was boring, we were excited. Bob knew the guy who had the jet fuselage. Wow! Amazingly cool! Children are impressed by such things.

It would have been hard for Bob not to know the guy. He also lived in Hooksett, which wasn't so populous. Bob's family owned Indian Head Athletics and he was always skiing or boating or otherwise using first-class equipment. He had very cool dogs - Siberian Huskies; he had a modernistic house; he knew Congressman Wyman well, even though it was we who shared the name; and best of all, he owned an Austin Healey. A lot like this one, I think.

Then he fell out of the picture in early 1966 and my mother married some other guy six months later, who was 12 years older than her and didn't seem anywhere near as cool. I looked Bob up a few years ago, and it seems my mother made the right choice. A fun and entertaining guy, but pretty clearly self-centered with too much teenager in him, even at 70.

Come to think of it, other than knowing the guy with the jet, Bob had no real connection to Route 28 whatsoever. He was strictly a Route 3, 93, and 95 guy. So in retrospect, we can see that it never would have worked. Ken, the guy she did marry, had no previous Route 28 credentials but adjusted beautifully. Excelled at it, really. His finest hour.

Backwards in time.

There are two incidents which must hold some mildly embarrassing story which I don't know. Long after they had divorced, when I was an adult and my parents had not spoken in years, each of them started into a story about Aunt Marian's camp that looked to be amusing, then just fizzled. Both of them were extremely adept at seamless switches in conversation - my mother, her mother and her aunts were simply stunning at it - but then, I was brought up by them, so I had some skill at noting the merest flicker of change in tone myself. I don't think I would have recalled the incident where my mother quickly diverted had my father not done so on the same story at a similar point a decade later. It jogged the memory: Here now. We've heard that before. What was it? Both thought it was going to be a fun story to tell. Each launched into the opening: my father was a new Sigma Chi at UNH, where they met. As part of his hazing, he was taken on a ride - hooded and intentionally confused by the brothers - and dumped off in a dark place at night.

But he had craftily been ready and hidden a $5 bill in his shoe. (I suspect the servicemen on the GI Bill were a good deal more resourceful than the pledges the fraternities were previously used to.) And as they drove off with him left by the side of the road he realised where he was. Near Route 28 and Aunt Marian's camp in Center Barnstead. And so he...

Went to the camp and er, washed up, and hitched quickly back to Durham and went home to Westford for the weekend, making the fraternity brothers nervous that he was really gone and in danger... according to my Dad.

Didn't go to the camp because it was closed up but uh, it was still easier to get back to UNH than it would have been and he bragged about it to her friends all weekend...according to my Mom.

We know memory, of course, that both things could be approximately true and no one fibbing, just remembering differently. I put an er and an uh in there to mark a seam, but they weren't really there. (Both of them were far smoother than that.) I don't know how I can signal to you that there was a bump in the road both times.

Clearly it is something large enough to not want to tell me, even as an adult. But small enough that the entire area of conversation was not strewn with mines three kilometers out in every direction - which, given my father's actions, there were plenty of in my growing up. Whatever this is, it's likely not just one additional piece, because they would have seen that coming easily. Rather, it is some incident which would lead to some other question or speculation, so they veered away.

Sex, alcohol, or accidental destruction of property. Those are my guesses. Exactly what you might remember as entertaining, but suddenly decide not to tell your children.

And now forward in time.

I should have mentioned that from Suncook on, there was an additional growing worry. I had driven this road many times in the last two years of my mother's life, only occasionally since then, and not beyond Wolfeboro Center. The last time there had been my mother's funeral. The time before that, the night she died. The fifty times before that, all visits to watch her die. I am chilly and heartless about most things, but I wondered if this would be different, especially when hungry, grouchy, tired, with the sun creeping down.

Nah. I am still chilly and heartless in regards to the past. I now weep easily considering the smallest troubles of my children and granddaughters. But looking back? Meh. Visiting the past is a fun place to visit and think about. Doubtless I am suppressing some deep feelings and in denial of something-or-other. Which is fine, actually. The idea that it is all going to come and explode on me some day troubles me not. Life isn't really like that, just movies. Oh, and plays by Scandinavians.

I was irritated that I had forgotten that Cricket Hill Rd doesn't go through. I passed another place that my mother went over an embankment and almost died. I went to the house on Maplewood, looked at it and turned around. Not a trace of moisture.

Fight The Fare Increase

I grew up on the song "Charlie on the MTA," of course, because it was local, and my mother was a big Kingston Trio fan. It's one of those things you just roll with in life, paying more attention to where old Scollay Square was than any of the politics involved. Whoever the candidates were, it was old - maybe even ten years old! - and it wasn't likely to have any impact on those of us in the modern 1960's.

So it rather took me aback when I actually listened to the words
Now ye citizens of Boston if you think it's a scandal
How the people have to pay and pay!
Fight the fare increase, vote for George O'Brien
Get poor Charlie off the MTA.
A fare increase means that those who are using the service have to pay a greater share of the cost. As opposed to "someone else" paying. Someone Else, as any Tea Partier can tell you, is only The Government as a sort of middleman. Someone Else means the citizens in general. It means people who aren't using the service will pay for it. So the line "the people" have to pay and pay is the old socialist sleight of hand.

If you follow the link, the candidate the song was written for was a Progressive Party candidate Walter O'Brien, who was indeed rather socialist. It pays to remember that these were still the days when most American socialists were were well-meaning idealists who had some fine ideas, but just couldn't see that the Soviet Union, and communism in general, were not moderately flawed experiments that were on the verge of working with a few more tries, but nightmarish oppressive tyrannies, not by accident, but of necessity. Just a sidebar there, as O'Brien actually did have some decent ideas, one of which was simplifying the fare structure on the MTA. And making sure that the private investors didn't make any more money, too.

This may be part of why city politics have been Democratic politics have been class-warfare politics for a long time. The variance in incomes is greater in cities, and there were lots of wealthy Bostonians who never rode the subways who might be soaked for some coin. Small towns have more equality of income, and fortunes rise and fall together rather more. In a small town, it's a lot easier to see that a public library, or snow removal, or a new park comes out of your pocket and mine. In a city, all that cost is distributed over more people, many of whom are rich, if the newspaper stories are true. The City just has a lot of money to throw around. It comes from somewhere.

Nowadays the various states and especially the federal government have bamboozled us into the same idea. People assume the federal government just has money somehow, so if our town gets some grant to do something we wouldn't have shelled out for ourselves, it's free money somehow.

And here you thought I was going to give you some nice folksinger.