Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Maya Angelou agrees with me about the MLK Statue.

Maybe she is smarter than I thought. I resolve to read some of her poetry this very night. She at least speaks her mind, rather than what she thinks people should say.

Monday, August 29, 2011


The Pew Research typology, arrived at by factor analysis rather than theoretical constructs of what a liberal or conservative are, identifies three types of Democrat.

I make statements about liberals frequently, without making that distinction, which possibly indicates that I am not making it mentally as much as I should, either. In addition to Solid Liberals, there are New Coalition Democrats or Hard-Pressed Democrats. When I am writing, I usually mean only the first of the three. That is the media and academy group that is most prominent, and it is the group I come out of.

I apologise to anyone unfairly caught in the generalisation.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Suitable For Linking

Here we go again.

Those of you complaining about Rick Perry's pronunciation of nuclear hope, by drawing attention to it, to illustrate how dumb he is. Actually, you are only drawing attention to how dumb you are. If you had studied linguistics you would know that. Physicists with PhD's - even working at Oak Ridge, NASA, prestigious universities - might use the southern regional pronunciation if they are from the south. It makes you cringe because you are a regional snob, not because they are stupid, and thou, smart.

I know you were taught in fifth grade to go over to the dictionary to look up the correct pronunciation, and that was that. The first pronunciation was considered the best, because it was most common. But the preeminence of one accent in a language is now recognised for the accident that it is. If a native speaker uses it, it's acceptable. Merriam-Webster, for example:
Though disapproved of by many, pronunciations ending in \-kyə-lər\ have been found in widespread use among educated speakers including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, United States cabinet members, and at least two United States presidents and one vice president. While most common in the United States, these pronunciations have also been heard from British and Canadian speakers.
But, but, you protest, look at the way it's spelled. The pronunciation should be...

Let me introduce you to the pronunciations envelope/onvelope, or often/offen. Let me introduce you, in fact, to the entire flippin' English language. Pronunciations and usages have cultural indicators attached to them, and I, as a snob, make sure that mine reflect my educated New England background, and taught them to my first two children. I understand where the feeling comes from. My teachers and family sniffed and looked down their noses too. But they were dead wrong, and when we learn better we should act on it.

Unless, of course, being a bigot was your original goal. Absent that, you mark yourself as someone who cares more about reading status than reading books.


There is usually a sort of dweeby charm to boosterism, when it is minor. Most people getting into their cars don't realise how much of what surrounds them has its origins in the inventions or improvements by the sons of Poland. Poles figured prominently in... Or similarly, geographic areas are fond of listing the famous citizens from within their boundaries, whether they were born, worked, or retired there. The theatrical designer Robert Edmund Jones, for example, came from Milton, NH - an amazing thing if you know Milton, NH. Even Wikipedia runs lists of such notable sons and daughters of the area discussed.

We do it with personal characteristics, nearly always overstating the case. Missouri is the Show Me state, and it's inhabitants are a skeptical, practical people... In America, we do this regularly with our lands of origin, particularly at ethnic festivals or in the introductions to personal histories of families, churches, towns. The hardy Scots who originally settled the area... "National Lampoon" did a sendup of this in the 70's with its White Studies issue. (Did you know that Benjamin Franklin was a white man?) Martin Mull did it a decade later as well.

Our women were always prettier, our tinkerers more clever, our craftsmen more sought-after among our people.

There is, as I noted, a certain innocence to this. We smile benignly even when it is about other states, other groups. But when it gets too bold we begin to grow annoyed, particularly if the speaker does not seem to have an awareness of the potential for insult to others, or worse, no insight into the social dangers that can result. Texans are notorious for plugging their state and lauding their own virtues, and while it is mostly good-natured humor the rest of us grow just a wee bit nervous where all this is going. Californians were the same a generation ago - many still are - a bit too certain they were better than the rest of us. Various cities verge beyond mere self-celebration to a sort of chauvinism that is off-putting: Boston, New York, San Francisco, Portland, and Washington DC most of all.

Insisting on the superiority of a composite region is a little suspect. Those who declare the superiority in wisdom or virtue of Midwesterners are unusual, but it does happen, particularly on the political stump when candidates are trying to position themselves as exemplars of the noble hard-working farmers of yore. New Englanders are a bit worse, and Southerners offend in this way quite often. The Charlie Daniels Band gets cheers when it proclaims the "The South's Gonna Do It Again." Do what? Secede? Grow Cotton? This is troubling.

We cut you more slack if you actually are on the downtrodden or disregarded side of things. I don't know that's wise of us, but as a culture, we do that, and it seems to work tolerably well, within limits. But it can get away from people.

We also get nervous when one's religious group is brought in. Methodists have always been deeply concerned with... or "Catholics approach the education of their young with more realism..." We don't want to contradict you on this, lady, but it's a little overstated, and even when it's mostly true we don't like to encourage any of us to think that way in America. The lines can be tricky.

It can go bad so quickly, and usually does.

I don't know how representative these links are. My uncle sends me these things, and I tend to use him as a proxy for intelligent but completely noninsightful liberals, rather completely indoctrinated by the news sources and facile stereotypes he became comfortable with years ago. He is likely to write things like
It does seem that the purpose of education, formal or informal should be to question and examine belief systems. And that is the foundation of liberalism. The cornerstone of the Age of Enlightenment.
He is quite convinced that it is the liberals that are the open-minded questioners, because that's what the word means to him. I don't know how typical he is. I read similar sentiments in comments sections, and nonliberals will sometimes link to such things when they are examples of particular unreason. Perhaps they aren't really so common. OTOH, respectable publications, seemingly educated and reasonable people have an audience when they publish this stuff. So it's not entirely a fringe phenomenon. Anyway, from Psychology Today. The other is on multiple sites, I picked one.

You can find this kind of boosterism among nonliberals as well, but it seems to come off the fringes and comments sections more. To repeat: I see plenty from the right that expresses this type of sentiment - more hardworking, more independent, what-have-you. But posters and essay-writers usually stop quite short of that. There are qualifiers, acknowledgements that not all the virtue is on one side. It may be insincere and a mere politeness, but what then do we say about those who will not even be polite? Who do not have the simple thoughts of "Gee, what's this sound like if I reverse it? If I put it in the mouth of a Jew or a Virginian? Is this fair? Is this insulting?"

So do these people want like, T-shirts and hats to show their Liberal Pride, or something? Or is that just not cool, so they just do bumperstickers instead?

Here's the kicker: this is the same group that is so appalled about any expression of American Exceptionalism, which they see as a mindless jingoism, dangerous to the world. Recall, for example, Obama's backpedaling that his belief in American Exceptionalism was equivalent to Greek or Polish exceptionalism. I don't think you could find many liberals who would say that about liberal exceptionalism, being essentially the same thing as conservative.

It's almost as if their real loyalty...

Nah. Couldn't be.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Irene Goodnight

It looks like Irene will be a tropical storms by the time it hist New England. The weather report says there is already rain and later tonight New England will even have enhanced moisture.

So flooding and power outages will be the big problem here, though it remains true that the trees in this particular extended forest that is New England have never been tested under the stress of winds this high, and lots of them will lose limbs or go down. Gusts to 85mph, but sustained winds 45-65, only a little more than has hit these trees. Some chance of it creeping back up to 55-75, gusts to 90, but not likely.

Enhanced moisture. That's what happens to language when you start trying to get too cute. There is nothing enhanced about this moisture. No one gave it extra molecules or painted it pretty colors. There's just more of it than usual.

Friday, August 26, 2011

It's Their Territory

Ben, this would have been a much better science project than squirrels.

We’re thinking the bird feeders got ripped down by a bear. We haven’t had a bear recently. It could be a raccoon, I suppose, which would be a relief.

It reminded me of my annoyance with the declaration by some, whenever there is danger to humans because of wild animals, that of course there is danger from coyotes/elk/bears/mountain lions. We are in their territory, and they are only doing what comes naturally. I can see some sense in the idea, but I think it bears thinking about.

Our town is celebrating our 250th anniversary this summer, and even our particular area has had human habitation (also sheep, cow, pig, chicken, and horse habitation) for more than 150. My house has been here 50 years. So if it’s their territory, these are bears with considerably enhanced abilities to do title searches – or keep genealogies, as they seldom live 20 years.

Come to think of it, I don’t know what inheritance rights among bears even are. How do we know that this isn’t some other bear’s territory that our bear is horning in on? Or do people mean that lands that bears used to live on before humans came – that would be 11,749 years this November – are theirs? That they belong to the bear community somehow?

I’m not just being cute here. If you try to pin down what people mean by a bear’s right to be in particular territory, you run into these questions. Are we saying that any environment which might conceivably support a bear, that she might wander into from an adjoining area, that has at some time in the past had a naturally-occurring bear in it, is therefore Bear Land, to be entered by humans at their peril?

As I said, there is some sense to this. If the naturally-occurring bear was kicked out a few weeks ago in order to put up the house you just built, then yes, I do grant that you are entering at your peril. But not, as we might think, because I believe the bear has the superior right to it, but because in my experience, it is hard to explain boundaries to bears, or indeed any mammals, including many humans. It would be rather a work in progress, I think.

That the animal is only doing what is natural to it is not a persuasive argument to me. Bears are naturally attracted to dumpsters, and alligators to small creatures near rivers, including toddlers. Doesn’t make it right. When you really press this idea, it turns out to be another one of those preferences that the whole region be made into a theme park dedicated to the speaker’s imagination of what things looked like in the year 1000 AD. Which ignores not only those successful exploiters of their environments, the Indians, but that change in nature is ongoing.

Popular Crime

Ben gave me Bill James Popular Crime, knowing I have been a fan of his baseball writing. Even though I have never had much interest in True Crime stories, I liked the book tolerably well. Perhaps most oddly, he provided the one nonstandard JFK shooting theory that has ever seemed plausible to me – perhaps plausible because it isn’t a conspiracy theory, but an accident theory (that one of the bullets was an accidental firing by a Secret Service agent in the car). Conspiracies don’t remain secret for long, but screwups happen all the time. I don’t say I have switched over to that theory, BTW, just that I find it plausible. And if true, that is perhaps sufficient explanation for why conspiracy theorists have anomalies to fasten upon.

Not that conspiracy theorists on any topic actually need real data to support their continuance in their belief, but it would make their job easier.

James writes in a nice folksy manner, notices things that others don’t, and has more logical ability than the average bear. In this instance, he also has a longstanding fascination with the topic that has allowed him to puzzle over the issues a long time. That latter may sound like an endorsement, but I am less sure of that these days. I have read too much recently of how people can persist in an initial belief no matter what contrary data comes along. We might hope that James’s theories are the result of considerable reflection; the possibility that they are merely elaborate rationalizations for the ideas he had as a kid.

There is some of both, here, actually. James is at his best writing about the actual crime/detective/prosecution/popular press stuff. He tells the story. How the cops screwed it up, how the criminal kept on the run, why the newspapers and public jumped to conclusions, why we still believe the wrong version today – James is great at this. He will convince you that most serial killings were not solved in earlier decades because cops refused to believe in them; it will stick in your mind that we usually only catch serial killers because a potential victim gets away; you will get a thorough overview of the crime stories of the past century. Some of them, such as the OJ trial, he admits he sidesteps because he has little to add, but even in those cases, he usually has nugget or two. Lizzie Borden, the Lindbergh baby, Ted Bundy – all present for the discussion.

Bill James is considerably less good when he attempts to draw larger life lessons from these stories – what caused the crime increase of the 60’s, what we should do about prisons, why certain murders fascinate. (As an informal statistics fan, he even develops a method of categorising crime popularity IDQX 9 = an Innocent victim crime with a Dreyfus angle, legit Mystery, sex-related, very big nationally – referring to the Mary Phagan case.) He notices from his reading that the mothers of serial killers tend strongly to have been arrested for prostitution. He speculates, but admits he speculates about this. He notices that national-obsession murder stories aren’t covered in the media for 30 years after the Lindbergh case, but in this case he is pretty insistent that this is because the newspapers realised they had gone over-the-top, were ashamed, and backed off. Well, Maybe. Yet he makes significantly important points in this offhand manner as well. He takes the NPR crowd to task for considering these stories unimportant. When else do we actually debate matters of just punishment, corrupt courts, rights of criminals and victims, and degree of public danger, except in the sensational stories? We talk in cliches - the actual stories are not always so neat. Those who disdain to discuss the sensational because it is too much a matter for the masses and the mob*, he claims, more easily remain stuck in the world of abstracts and generalities. Too delicate to contemplate popular crime, they remain unaffected by real questions.

Did I mention that he likes lists? I mean, really likes lists. His arguments for his conclusions often take that form. Not a problem for me, as I like ‘em too.

Of interest to me is the puzzle of why the initial police theories and the made-for-TV versions of homicides usually make the perpetrators richer, handsomer, and smarter than they actually are, and relatedly, why the public more quickly assumes that the rich, handsome, and smart are guilty – many concluded that JonBenet Ramsey’s parents were guilty even though there was virtually no evidence for that and considerable evidence for other possibilities. That she was in child beauty pageants seemed creepy to people, and so they concluded the parents must be creepy and therefore guilty. I have been wondering in other contexts how much envy and resentment of others drives our political and social behavior, and I file away this seeming insistence by the public that the myth is made clearer when the serial killer is Hannibal Lecter, rather than some in-and-out-of-prison drifter.

James would draw conclusions and try to prove them to you from that. Such as, we assume they are brilliant masterminds because we can’t catch them, but it’s really just because it’s hard to identify motiveless killers. He might succeed in proving them to you, and he might even be right. But he reaches a fair bit.

*That accusation would, uh, include me, BTW. Busted.

Identical Twins

There is currently a run on articles trying to generally invalidate the idea of identical twins. Steve Sailer, predictably, is all over the issue, and notices some of the undercurrent motives.
Over the last few decades, Galton's older half-cousin Charles Darwin has been promoted from secular sainthood to his current role as the Jesus of Atheists. But, the rise of Darwininsm in prestige has not been an unmitigated blessing to the world, so Galton has come to play the role of scapegoat, or devil. Since Darwin, the secular redeemer, is, by definition, above sin, all sins associated with Darwinism must be the fault of the designated devil, Galton.
Sailer, among others, are noting that these genetic differences between identical twins are not especially important in terms of the research we use twin-ness for. Related links at his site.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Combination Of Images

The spelling of the band's name apparently attracted spam comments, so I am avoiding it.

Last one, really. You can go watch more at Youtube if you like. But this is a simply amazing collision of images. Indoor stage - Horse - Trojan Horse - Bagpiper - Rock Planet - and the odd choreography and light accents. Stunning.

A Year And A Day

In English Common Law, you couldn't be tried for a homicide if the person died more than a year and a day after you injured him. A reasonable general rule at the time. The idea has continued on to the present, but in the last few decades, states have repealed or overturned that, because we can keep people alive in vegetative state much longer.

In Welsh mythology, Pwyll trades places with Arawn, Lord of the Underworld, for a year and a day. That may go back well before 1000 AD. (Yes, you Lloyd Alexander fans will be recognising many of the names in that.)

In Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale" the knight is given a year and a day to complete a quest. 14th C.

The Dunmow Flitch was a side of bacon that any couple could claim if they could swear they had not argued for a year and a day. Over 7 centuries, about a half-dozen accomplished this. 1100 AD.

There may be older uses. You will notice that the formula prevents people from being too approximate, thinking they have got "about a year" to serve, or be punished, or married. It makes the longish period of time nonetheless definite.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


I know this looks like I must have run across it while scrounging though old ABBA videos - or perhaps after entering "Dutch 70's Soft Porn" on my search engine, but I actually found it while researching whether "a year and a day" had medieval meanings other than homicide common law. (My guess is that it does, but I can't prove it yet. I can only verify them back to the 18th C.) That led to twelvemonth, which led to "All Around My Hat," which led to Steeleye Span's version of that song, which this band covered. Really, I'm innocent.

There are a dozen videos of the group on Youtube, and I'm not convinced that one on the right ever learned to quite keep the beat.

This will substitute for an ABBA update. There is no reference to this Dutch girl group imitating them, but it sure looks it to me. Or maybe Northern European girls dressed like this in the 70's and 80's more than I knew. I wasn't there, after all.

'E Couldn' 'Elp It. 'E 'Ad To

I couldn't resist. Sorry.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Do The Work

I was expecting something different from Steven Pressfield's Do The Work. I had thought it was going to make more reference to recent research on resistance in getting things done, more discussion about how friends and family can be primary sources of resistance to your completing project and changing your life.

It ain't. It is much more of a cheerleading book, getting you through the natural resistance which attends all projects.

I usually avoid such things as merely irritating, but this one is actually pretty good. And for those of you with Kindle, it's free. I think that works for him because it might help sell his earlier book, The War of Art. Clever title, that. The eye-catching style was more of a distraction than a help to me. And yes, there are some irritating cliches - all those encouraging books have them. But this may be the you-can-do-it book for people who hate that sort of thing, which would be a boon to society.

Clearly, he is writing from experience of what things get in the way of one finishing projects, especially creative work. That would have value even if he were thoroughly irritating in tone, at least providing a map through the Slough of Despond.

It's cheap, even when you don't download it free.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Defies All Comment

Sponge-Headed Scienceman has two singing videos from 1978 about energy consumption. I defy anyone to listen to both all the way through.

I double dare ya.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


This is a horrible sculpture. People who hated him might have been kinder, out of mere politeness.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Final Commandment

Exodus 20:17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Chances are you haven't heard many sermons preached on this*, nor had it show up in structured Bible studies, or Christian video series. It may show up in devotionals, but I seldom read those, so I can't say. Actually, perhaps there has been a run on it on radio, CCM, retreats, and I just haven't heard. My knowledge of evangelical culture spiked briefly at Veggietales, and then fizzled out. But I'm betting it's still an underused commandment these days. We are more likely, in fact, to self-righteously engage in it, Christians openly resenting the wealth of others. We don't even disguise this especially well. It leaks out all over social and political discussions denouncing materialism or making environmentalism a central portion of our practical faith.

I originally thought to say how much human beings everywhere resent seeing others get wealth, but I think that is going too fast. When someone who we perceive as being part of our peer group gets more of anything of value - money, attention, prestige, mates - our feelings about ourselves take a dip. The happiness research is pretty solid on this, that much of our experience of wealth or poverty is relative. We feel bad if we think we aren't measuring up. By stereotype, this is more true of men than of women, but I don't know if that is true. We have a wealth of patched-up defenses against these bad feelings. We increase our estimate of luck or unfairness to the success of others or (perhaps imaginary) failures of ourselves; we resolve to be less attached to worldly status and material things; we strive harder; we undermine the successful. As with our attempts to banish pride, lust, or sloth, these attempts to eliminate envy have only mixed success.

Also by stereotype, conservatives imagine they can get ahead under the current system and want everyone to do well, excepting that they do better - almost, but not really, a generous sentiment; liberals want to bring down the wealth of others while keeping their own the same, with the same result. (I have actually heard people say this quite explicitly, wanting Groups X and Y to not make so much, so that in the more equitable wealth distribution "society" will be more appreciative of higher values - not coincidentally, the things that they just happen to be good at. It would be a Better World, doncha know. Usually, it's not so explicit, but just leaks out all over the place. I'm thinking of Bill McKibben here, because he's in the news again.)

Coveting is about thoughts, and is something of a transition, a come-deeper version of the other commandments. When Jesus makes his supposedly alarming statements about thoughts of murder or adultery being the spiritual equivalent of the act, He wasn't bringing out anything new. Jews had long earlier figured out that the Commandments forbade more than what is seen at first glance - that kissing your neighbor's wife was not quite in the spirit of things, and heavy petting was right out, even if there was no adultery. They knew that defrauding and cheating were a kind of stealing, and had picked up that worshiping other gods didn't necessarily involve altars and dead animals. Jesus pushes this to the extreme, partly because it's ultimately true, but partly to create a contrast with Pharisaical well, technically, we're still keeping the law because of how we define "work"...

But it wasn't all that new. People were horrified at taking things that far, but they got the idea right away. They weren't stupid. I think the expansive, even vague 10th C was part of what led them on to the deeper understanding.

Coveting seems universal, and worms its way into our thoughts without our even noticing. It destabilises cultures and makes us less happy, and subjectively less prosperous. Buddhism, and to a lesser extent Hinduism, attempt to address this via the strategy of wanting less, and ultimately wanting nothing. Some Christians use this approach as well, and there is certainly a good deal of scripture to support the idea. Yet somehow that wanting-for-nothing, that satisfied-with-little solution rings hollow if it is combined with a resentment for others who don't do that - and I think that is often what leaks out, though the speaker denies it. I think it is always the danger, that the person who makes 5 Giddles a week believes he is righteously limiting himself by not seeking one of those fields where people make 50 Giddles a week. That was I, years ago, and I am not entirely clear of it. Given Luther's description of humanity as a drunkard on a horse, falling off one side and then the other, or CS Lewis's description of leaning so far away from one side of the boat that we fall out the other, coveting may be an uncommon sermon precisely because it is the one we don't want to hear.

*You probably haven't heard much on 9C either: v.16 You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. Sometimes you can get a thoughtful discussion going reminding us that this includes a lot of things that we aren't fully sure are true, such as gossip, people's motives, using adversarial law arguments (entirely appropriate in their real context) in persuasive or political discussion, and most fun conversation at all, really. Another day

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Farewell To Alms

Gregory Clark thinks the help we give other nations does worse than no good at all. He thinks it actively harms them. This is troubling as an American, certainly. It is much more troubling as a Christian.

Christians are used to their generosities doing no good at all. We rather expect that will be the case many times. It is ours to give, and then the matter is out of our control. We even accept, more reluctantly, that our gift may go to wrong purposes, that in the free will of the recipient are many of the evils common to mankind, and our nickel may go to the devil.

When we know that the gift will harm, however, does the picture change?

Let me make a distinction that will become important in the discussion. There may be a conflict here between what we are to do as Christians, and what we are to do as Americans. Both the right and the left, though in different ways, have their Americanism interpenetrate their Christianity, and their faith invade their picture of what it means to be American. Actually, the left and right do this the same way, just on different topics.

As I was reading Clark's A Farewell To Alms, I kept thinking, and sometimes saying to my wife, this is very troubling. I noted previously my willingness to believe writers too easily; a third of the way through I noticed him getting something wrong about Christian history, then drawing an unwarranted conclusion from linguistic information. I became more suspicious, and decided he had Jared Diamond envy, drawing widely but not always accurately from other fields to support his point.

Still, this only weakened his argument and made me cautious. It did not eliminate it, and by the time I had finished the book I thought he had made a strong case that the poorer nations of the world have had their poverty increased, not so much by our trade with them, but by our efforts to lift them and help them. It is not colonialism per se that has reduced their standard of living, but their cultural decisions - possibly quite justified in their previous contexts - in response to income from trade. Put briefly, more money turned into more people, rather than a higher income for a stable population. That is what humankind (not to mention plants and animals) has always done: used increased resources to increase the population and fill the environment. Traditionally, that is the best way to keep out competitors.

So now their babies don't die so much - a good thing; and they live longer because of medical things we can help them with - another good thing; and they can grow more food per acre, and transport their goods, and trade more freely - all good things. Which ends up with too many people and gradual downturn in income per person - very bad things.

Conservatives will dislike Clark because he doesn't think that free markets and good government will solve things for poor nations; liberals will dislike him because he thinks that the west is prosperous because of our culture and even our genes. He makes a pretty good case for both, though. His first chapter is a summary of the book, and I recommend it. In fact, I give the summary four stars, but the book only three.

What all this means for Christians, going on medical and agricultural missions to far places, I hope to discuss at length. I don't have an answer I am fully comfortable with. I think I am going to have to relook at Christian charity in general in order to get any farther.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Everyone Does Dylan

Wayfinding - Inner Navigation II

I have discovered to my dismay that I am not as good at this as I thought. In fact, I may be quite poor at navigating, and my supposed strengths are just compensatory efforts.

Left over from childhood is my default opinion that if I am good at some brain skill, I am likely to be extremely good, even uncannily good at it. Over the years I have certainly found many examples of skills I possess in moderation, and these of course well outnumber the things I am exceptionally good at. But my working assumption is that I have the rare skill. When I first heard of perfect pitch, I immediately concluded I must have it. Upon finding I did not, I sought ways to imitate the skill, mentally keeping track of the limits of my singing range and counting up or down from that murmur to Middle C. I figured that must be what the others did naturally, but I was missing one link in the chain which I would have to build myself.

Jonsson kept mentioning that those who grew up in urban environments did not have the same intuitive navigational skills as those who grew up in other environments. Well, country people say things like this all the time, but I always assume they are just woofing, trying to elevate themselves without warrant. I took it as a personal affront. Cheeky bastard, I'll show you navigation.

Yet the examples he kept providing of the errors an expert makes seldom sounded all that familiar to me. Nor did his descriptions of wayfinding in ambiguous situations ring many bells. There were a few things which did indeed match up. The inability to overwrite an incorrect map, for example, was familiar to me. Upon my arrival at Williamsburg for college, I became introduced to the place with conflicting data, and never got a clear idea of my location in space the whole time there. I did have a powerful and accurate cognitive map of the college plus Colonial Williamsburg, so I just stayed there, mostly. Every place else I have lived, I immediately went exploring. I never did in Williamsburg.

After reading Jonsson, I wondered if it were indeed my initial map which threw me off. Checking the area with mapquest, I saw that while the entire peninsula from Richmond to Portsmouth runts NW to SE, but Colonial Williamsburg is oriented East-West. It's a navigational island in Tidewater Virginia. I assume this is because it was a planned community from the start, and the precise, educated people wanted a city that behaved in proper fashion, not one that had just grown up on its own. If one goes 10 miles in any direction from Duke of Gloucester (DOG) Street, one ends up in deep water, such as the James River. Additionally, the original, colonial W&M campus is overall an equilateral triangle, with one point at the foot of DOG St. Equilaterals are built around 60 degree angles, remember, not 90's and 45's. Yet the easternmost campus, the old campus, retains its E-W, right-angled orientation for about 100 yards into the triangle. After the Sunken Gardens, everything just goes to hell, though.

Update: For my late 2019 discussion, I decided a map might help.  One can see  the E-W of Williamsburg versus the SE-NW of the peninsula (Rtes 60 and I-64), and how the college contains elements of both.

Then, just to top it off, the two legs of that equilateral triangle, Richmond Road and Jamestown Road, angle outward a further 30 degrees at the very point they leave campus. The entire arrangement is an island of roadways that is unrelated to anything around it, but is connected in a dozen ad hoc ways to Tidewater VA. Richmond Road heads straight for Richmond for about 300 yards, then unaccountably heads to Fredericksburg for the next 20 miles. Jamestown Road is similarly approximate once it leaves campus.Tracing all this I understood clearly how my map had gone instantly wrong, and now I knew why I never could fix it.

I am very curious how all my sons, who grew up in different environments, are in intuitive navigation. For myself, I now see that my map-obsession is an attempt to compensate by brute intellectual force a rather middling inner navigational ability.

Offhand comments: I had trouble navigating London, because deep in my navigational toolkit I think of a city's river running N-S, as the Merrimack does in Manchester, my boyhood home. I learned this is a not-uncommon error.

We seldom learn the routes to places beyond walking distance until we learn to drive, at which point we are more likely to rely on maps at first.

We unconsciously smooth routes into something more regular. Winding roads straighten in our memory. Imperfect right angles become an exact 90 degrees in our cognitive map. These smoothings, necessary for memory, are the foundation of some of our navigational errors. (Tiredness, passively riding, and cloudy skies are some of the other causes.)

So have fun, rehearsing in your mind when you first came to the important places in your life, and whether you made errors in your immediate cognitive map.

Wayfinding - Inner Navigation

Tracy found Erik Jonsson's Inner Navigation for me, which adds further to our knowledge. Jonsson describes incidents of people with excellent senses of direction going wrong, making types of errors not recorded among average folks, and uses these as a window into what is happening in our brains.

I have only the vaguest idea who Jonsson was. His obituary in the San Diego Union-Tribune notes only
Sept. 14, 1922-Jan. 24, 2008. He was born in Folk, Sweden, and was an engineer. He served in the Swedish army during World War II. He was a member of the Royal Institute of Navigation and the California Native Plant Society.
That is enough to know a little something, however, and he seems entirely familiar with the research over the last 150 years. He makes dozens of fascinating observations - the book is an easy read, BTW - but for our purposes three main ones stand out.

1. We make a cognitive map of a place upon entering it, largely unconscious. (Cognitive map is a term in psychology that does not usually mean "map" in the overhead sense. In this case, it in fact means what we have called landmarks.) If there was an error in this original, it is nearly impossible to erase - and the better a sense of direction one has, the more persistent the wrong map is. The naturally expert wayfinder makes an initial structure for navigation so powerful that it is indestructible. Most frequently, these maps are misoriented by 90 or 180 degrees from the start. Forever after, the navigator cannot convince himself of the true orientation no matter how hard he tries. (The factors which cause this take up much of the book.)

2. Sense of Direction seems to operate most powerfully to the question "Where did this journey start?" People with a good sense of direction can often point back to Start with fair accuracy, even if they have not been paying much attention.

3. People who grow up in urban environments have this intuitive sense of navigation stunted or weakened. So much of the orienting work is done for them that the old, primitive sense of navigation does not develop properly. Additionally, most travel is now done at speeds which exceed our instinctive cognitive map-making abilities. We can still landmark, but it is more attenuated.

Grandfather's Clock

I learned the song at YMCA day camp. I confess I didn't get why it ever became popular. I thought I'd post it here, just as a lark - a pointless song I happened to remember. It comes to mind because my office-mate retired, and the wall clock stopped the next day. There are dozens of versions of this, and people seem deeply moved by it. Sometimes creepily so. But then, I liked my grandfathers, but neither figured all that prominently in my childhood, so perhaps I just don't get it.

This next version is quite nice, actually.

After reading Hengeworld recently, the idea of honoring ancestors being a cultural universal has been rolling around in my head. CS Lewis included "duty to ancestors" in his Tao. Yet I wonder if it is fading. We went to a large cemetery on a day that wasn't Memorial Day twice this summer, and there was simply no one there. We are outliers in keeping this custom, usually the youngest ones there. My oldest son and his wife are going to be even odder if they persist in this. Perhaps it is different in other parts of the country - though one would think New England to be a holdout.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Too Easily Persuaded

Why you fool, it's the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they're all propaganda and skips the leading articles....He's our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the high-brow weeklies, don't need reconditioning. They're all right already. They'll believe anything. That Hideous Strength, C S Lewis
That quote - a favorite of mine, and on my bulletin board at work - is not just about others. It's about me. I have a problem - too easily believing what I read.

It's a pattern. Any book I pick up these days has some sort of recommendation behind it, however indirect. It is referenced in an article I read, or less often, recommended by someone whose judgment I trust. Jacket blurbs are usually a neutral, but a particular signature might bias me for or against a volume. If I am biased for, I can get swept away by the author's premise over the first quarter or third of a book. I am far less critical than I should be. If an author can get me over the first hurdle of why his unorthodox or counterintuitive idea is correct, with some plausible explanation why the conventional wisdom in the field overlooks important counterevidence, I can run with that author quite a ways.

Because the conventional wisdom in all fields turns out to miss something.
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
— Max Planck
And Planck has pretty good cred in the matter, right? If you follow a topic long enough, you will witness the received wisdom being overturned. It is not a complete chaos, that nothing is learned over time. The overturnings are usually partial. Yet they are there.

Thus, when I read a purported new solution that cherished established belief in a field, I very readily admit the possibility. This can shut down instantly if the author missteps right out of the box, or rests most of his case on the mere fact that other experts have been wrong in the past. You have to show me something. But once past that obstacle, I am too easily swayed.

The breaking of the spell eventually comes, however, because if people go on long enough they come to a subject where I actually know something. They reach too far, demonstrating that they have not done their homework in at least one area, and I begin to regard all their claims with more suspicion. It might be a secular person making some claim about what Christians, or Catholics, or Fundamentalists are like, or what the Early Church* taught; it might be something in historical linguistics, or colonial history, or psychology, or a half-dozen other fields where I actually happen to know something - not that I have been bamboozled by the conventional wisdom, but that I know enough to make an initiate's mistakes more often than an amateur's.

I had that experience reading Gregory Clark's A Farewell To Alms, which I will review soon. I kept saying to my wife this is very troubling. I should have been suspicious when he spoke so positively of Jared Diamond's fascinating but flawed Guns, Germs, and Steel. Yeah, I always look back and say "In retrospect, I shoulda..." Too late now.

Clark's book is excellent, and I'm giving it four stars if you skim it, though only 2.5 or 3 if you read closely. But troubling part is only half so troubling now. He ventured into territory about the doctrines of the Medieval Church, and then Australian Aboriginal culture which weren't wrong, exactly, but revealed that he had just picked up an idea he had read somewhere and brought it into service to give evidence for his point without looking too closely. I then wondered if much of his other evidence outside his field of specialisation was of similar quality. After that, the second half of his book was good, but not profound and earth-shattering anymore.

As my commenters here seem to have both similarities and differences from me in how they read and understand things, I am curious what your experiences are in reading books which seek to prove a point.

*And BTW, when I read an evangelical or fundamentalist who thinks that what was taught 200 years ago is "traditional" Christianity rather than some new, potentially heretical idea, I write them off immediately. Your grandfather's Christianity is not the standard for time-honored tradition.

C Is For Czar

A is for aisle, B is for bdellium, C is for czar
And if you see him would you mind telling him?

D is for djinn, E for Euphrates...

Monday, August 08, 2011

This Year's Travel

I am not going to do another "Only On The Map" series as I did last August, but it is that time, and I did look at another section of NH I was unfamiliar with. I believe I have lost the camera, which is a shame, as it is really Tracy's. I took pictures of Chesterfield town center, where the official buildings use stone I don't think is usual for NH. As the NH side of the Connecticut River often looks more like VT to me, I wonder if the is a geological break point once you get over past Mt. Pisgah. Sponge-headed Scienceman will know.

Somewhere around Westmoreland, I lost the camera. I can't figure out how, but it's just not there anymore.

But my journey and mapwork on Old Route 28 put me in good stead. On all the numbered highways today, I would suddenly recognise where the newer road had been cut through in the 1950's, just but the appearance of the forest and the straightness of the road. Checking the telephone lines and the side roads often immediately confirmed that I was on New Rte 10 or 12, with the older version off to the side. I checked the USGS topo maps when I got home just to make sure. It is interesting to be able to see something I did not used to notice.

I went up as far as Charlestown, then cut over to Unity and Goshen, coming back through Washington. With the exception of Westmoreland and parts of Walpole, these are pretty depressed towns. Climbing the ravine out of Hinsdale on Rte 63 I saw those dizzying driveways that suddenly shoot up at a slight angle and even steeper pitch. There are seldom expensive houses up those roads. It's not considered prime building land, and puts one in mind of Appalachia. As these communities were also often settled by Scots-Irish, that may not be suprising.

In poor areas, businesses show up in odd locations, because people are struggling to make a living. A barber pole will be out by the mailbox on a numbered root, the house well back on a long driveway; on a nearly uninhabited back way from one oddly-named village to another - Snumshire to Quaker City in this case - there will be a slightly skewed "Auto Repair" sign, and then another, with cars for sale; produce, or crafts, or cordwood we expect - violin lessons, not so much. Houses are oddly designed as well, as if the owner suddenly thought "I've got some extra wood - why not put another story on top of this?" Or a post-war A-frame that just kept acquiring additions on each side.

The strangest sight was a reflecting garden ball - odd enough in itself these days - what had angel wings attached to its base, looking like some alien robot from a 60's sci-fi film. Perhaps it was ironic.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Oral Sadism

Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality edited by Glenn Ellenbogen.

The humorous social science magazines from Wry-Bred Press in the 1980's were "The Journal of Irreproducible Results" and "The Journal of Polymorphous Perversity." Both were moderately well-known among people in human services at the time - in any crowd of a dozen or so people you could find three or four who had run across them. The articles were clever, not uproarious, sendups of psychological literature. The best of the essays were collected into two or three books, of which the above was the first.

Smoller's The Etiology and Treatment of Childhood remains the best known and is the lead essay. You can still find it easily on the net, and I linked to it in 2009 myself. At this point it is the only really good piece remaining. The others have passed their sell-by date. Parody is a time-sensitive form of humor - I note that the same is true of cartoons, which are often strongly generational in their appeal. The trends the writers were spoofing have long-since vanished, and the cultural references expired. A follow-up book is entitled The Primal Whimper, if that gives you a clue. You can still find a chuckle or two, but it's hardly worth the whole book to get them.

For my tribes commentary more currently, it was interesting to note that when they used Republicans as examples of something to sneer at, it was not so much because they were evil and stupid, but because they were out-of-fashion and somewhat ridiculous. Which reads very strangely now that they themselves are out-of-fashion and somewhat ridiculous.

Two stars. Follow the link above and you will have gotten most of what is valuable from the book. For those who want just a bit more, I'd check out the Amazon page reviews, but not bother with the book.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Powerful Evidence

I followed a link suggesting that Democrats were being obstructionist about some legislation. At the top of the comments section - San Francisco Gate - there was someone whose online name is This Land-Your Land, or something like that. He maintained that it was the Republicans who were stalling, because that's what they always do. His evidence:
There are even novels written about this.
That may be the most illustrative bit of reasoning I have ever seen on the internet. A thing of beauty.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Canon in D

Trace is playing in Burlington 8/19. I may go.

Sungha alone fun to watch, but the two of them enjoying the playing makes it.


My team presented at Schwartz Center Rounds today. We discussed compassionate care of the homeless. The format is that an individual case is presented, and the general issues of compassionate care that the patient presents are discussed. We presented a young man who came to the hospital suicidal, identifying the fact that his girlfriend kicked him out and he was homeless as one of the things that "made" him suicidal. There were plenty of reasons to dislike the fellow. He doesn't seem particularly depressed, and in fact was cheery and social with the other patients, especially the younger, vulnerable females who he attempted to cuddle up with. He was rude, threatening, and insulting to staff, while reminding them that they had to be polite to him because he's a patient. He is trained as a welder but has not worked since 2003, collecting disability for depression, though not being treated for depression all that much. He drinks too much, but resists efforts to get him into any sort of treatment or lifestyle that would address this. I could go on, but you get the idea.

The unit staff had a great deal of trouble remaining objective, of course, as they w4ere the ones in the thick of it. But even those of us with more distance seethed, not so much for the sneering and insulting attitude, but the interfering with others' treatment.

Yet we are also trained to recognise that things are not always as they appear on the surface, and to be alert for what our own feelings tell us about the patient and the world he likely inhabits. The idea of countertransference is never supposed to be far from our thoughts. As one of the psychiatrists mentioned in the discussion "When I start blaming everything on the patient, it's time to take a vacation. Or get out of this field." Very true.

He did very little to find himself any housing, despite my supplying him with lists and offering to pay the first month's rent. The nurses became increasingly rude in demanding that I find him a place and get him out. They kept making suggestions of what I should be doing, rather obvious suggestions which I had long since tried. They wanted him gone because they didn't like him, and the fact that he was homeless because everyone else didn't like him - well, they didn't want to hear that.

They were quite happy to send him out without shelter, but I am not allowed to do that. Or rather, it happens all the time because the patient is discharged, but I am regarded as having failed because they don't have housing. It's unpleasant, and it still bothers me after all these years to work with people who regard me as a failure. But that's what the job is.

I batted cleanup in the Schwartz presentation, and highlighted the enormous conflict we feel in not wanting to blame the patient for things that they have little control over, but also want them to have natural consequences for their actions, as that is often the last teacher when all others have failed. I talked about volition, and recent research, and some of the issues we have discussed in my May We Believe Our Thoughts series.

I was nearly brilliant. I suspected it, but it was confirmed by those who came up to discuss for the rest of the day. Many comments were simply the polite affirmations of nice people, very nice to hear but not to be taken too seriously, but others were complimentary in a deeper way, referencing exact quotes, which they had even copied down. That sort of thing.

Here's the problem, which I am reminded is the great discouragement of all preachers and teachers who look for insight: everyone seemed to hear the part they already agreed with, while being completely unaffected by consideration of the competing value. Those who felt that irritating patients were being pampered altogether too much by the hospital, and we had to recognise the limits of compassion and take a firm hand yada yada yada... thought I expressed very clearly the need to move these people on and take the consequences of their behavior, and glad that administration had heard me say it so bluntly. Others felt enormously vindicated that I had spoken out about how much countertransference was allowed in current hospital culture and how wrong that was, and our need for...well, whatever. Something that will fix bad staff attitudes.

And a third group felt gratified that I had highlighted the recent research on volition and how indeterminate agency and self-control can be. They wanted references.

All that in eight minutes of presentation, plus about three thirty-second answers to questions. I was brilliant, I tell you. So why do I weep?

I posted the song because of the "Still a man hears..." line, but it's appropriate for the later verse as well:
After changes, we are more or less the same.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Highway Safety

Reducing the number of impaired drivers and reducing speed, especially at night, are the quickest way to improved traffic safety. I get that. I can tell people have put some thought into changing guard rails, and I don't doubt there is good research behind a lot of this.

But when the road is painted with PASS NOT DO or AHEAD STOP, you have to wonder if the people in charge of our safety actually know what they are doing.



Hengeworld, by Michael Pitts.

Another book with good information that is slow to get airborne. Purporting to be a book about the Neolithic world in Britain, and the people who built the great henges – not only Stonehenge and Avebury but Durrington Walls, Stanton Drew, the Ring of Brodgar and dozens of others – Hengeworld is actually more about the history of the archaeological digs at these places, and the reasoning that goes into rejecting one theory and accepting another. Good for someone to know, and I’m sure academic archaeologists appreciate the idea that someone is going to care enough about their skill and personal idiosyncrasies to write them down for a popular audience someday. Yet I am…less than fascinated by that aspect. If it were just the reasoning bits, perhaps I’d do better. Or an abbreviated history of the archaeological organisations in England and their connection to the henge digs might have been fine enough.

But it does eventually get airborne. What are the probable dates? Were they built in stages or all at once? Do they have any connection to each other? What is the evidence for and against various uses of the enormous structures? And can you help us get rid of all these druids loitering about? (Just to state: 1.) All the hengeworks precede the druids by many centuries. 2) Modern neopagans are connected to ancient druids or to Stonehenge only in their imaginations. 3.) And that goes for their hooded robes, too.) Pitts gives a nice summary of some of the worse theories of what the megaliths were all about.

If you are a henge-fan, you hardly need me to summarise for you. For those who want a summary between Wikipedia size and book size, the National Geographic discussion of Stonehenge includes a good deal about the nearby sites. If there is some interest in discussion, have at it, and I will share what I know about why certain theories are considered likely and others are rejected. The worshipers-on-mushrooms (or henbane) idea is actually quite possible, BTW.

Just no druids. Not even later on. There is no evidence for the neopagan idea that Ancient Peoples, who understood these Mystical Things, recognised these as Holy Places, and held ceremonies there. That's an entirely modern idea, from people with vague spiritual ideas who want to assemble a religion which isn't too demanding from whatever elements come to hand. Added points for anything that predates Christianity - because that means that it's more...well, it means something important - or anything that can be tortured into being different from Christianity, because that also proves...something. I still grimly recall seeing an offering of flowers left inside at West Kennett Long Barrow, likely as inappropriate an offering as could be imagined. Except, I suppose, it does reflect a desire to honor and remain connected with The Ancestors, which is a fine neolithic tradition. Honoring and remaining connected to Mum and Dad is less spiritual, though.

Most people in history didn't have vague beliefs, but highly specific ones, with very clear ideas about what was, and what wasn't worship.

Monday, August 01, 2011


The Anchoress has a selection of Chesterton quotes. I was surprised to see the link at Instapundit, actually.

A Sample:
2) When a man says that democracy is false because most people are stupid, hit him smartly and with precision on the exact tip of the nose.
- Illustrated London News, 1905

24) I have a notion that the real advice I could give to a young journalist is simply this: to write an article for the Sporting Times and one for the Church Times and put them in the wrong envelopes…what is really the matter with almost every paper is that it is much too full of things suitable to the paper.
– Autobiography.