Friday, December 30, 2011


You should pay attention to the sidebar of commenters' blogs on your own, of course, but sometimes I like to highlight one.  I don't know, but... tells the story of leaving one church and seeking another.  Key quote:
Questions have a way of ballooning into unexpected regions.
Exactly. A good motto for any blog, actually.

The Budget: Clarity

Aegon01, formerly Tigerhawk Teenager, has a great simplified explanation of the budget.  It will take you 15 seconds and clarifies things nicely.

Wikipedia Bias

Yeah, that could be a whole category on a blog, couldn't it? There was a Ferdinand Marcos link on the Wikipedia main page today. I come from a Marcos-hating era, of course, as his declaration of martial law occurred while I was liberal, and his fall from power occurred when I was apolitical. In the end, I recalled, even the American conservatives dropped him as just too corrupt and too vicious, however reliably anticommunist he was. So I still had extreme negative associations with Marcos.

Yet I recalled a doctor from the Philippines, Melicio Flores, who I had worked with during the 80's and 90's at the hospital. I recall him being very anti-Marcos, pro-Aquino, but also annoyed at some of the posturing his countrymen were doing back home. Something along the lines of They forget how they cheered him then, early on. He did some good things early on, that they benefited from but don't talk about now. Many of the families that are against him now made a lot of their money by being his friends. And they forget how dangerous his enemies were. Still, Dr. Flores was glad to see him go. Fifteen years early would have been fine with him.

Thus, I thought it a good time to read up on Ferdinand and Imelda, to see what good things had been accomplished, however roughly, that might moderate my negative opinion of him.

Apparently there were none. According to Wikipedia there was nothing redeeming about him ever, other than being clever. And American involvement in the Philippines was likewise entirely without virtue until the day that Reagan belatedly cast Marcos aside. I'm going to bet that's not true. Not that I doubt any of the accusations they make against him. I expect that they are sourced and accurate.

I also expect that the account is slanted enough to be deceitful. Perhaps not. Perhaps he really was a Ceausescu, a Saddam, a Stalin, whose virtues were so insignificant as to no longer bear mentioning. Yet is should be noted even with those comparisons that Saddam and Ceausescu started off pretty reasonably those first few years.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

What We Love

The cliche is that if you do what you love, you will never "work" a day in your life.  This seems unlikely to me, as jobs have this tendency to include irritating tasks as well as rewarding ones.

Still, there is certainly something to it.  I had a math/science friend from high school who majored in geology because he loved it. I believe it was paleogeology he mentioned as his specialty at Rennsalaer.  He was also fascinated by computers, and as our school was on the DTSS* system got a lot more time working with them then most highschoolers did.  He continued this is college, getting a minor in computer science - I am not sure many schools had it as a major, then; it was part of the math department - and expressed to me over Christmas break 1972, our sophomore year, that he worried whether he would be able to find work in his specialties at graduation, because a lot of the good jobs seemed to be tied up for decades.  He was considering pushing on to graduate school, even though his family couldn't afford it, really, so that an academic or research might open up.

Paleogeology is one of the foundation specialties of looking for petroleum, and that computer thing, as you know, really did take off.  In the recession of 1975, when I was glad to find a job as a part-time hotel clerk, oil companies were throwing money at him to do something quite close to what he loved. He never went on to get his PhD, and according to my online research, he is quite happy with that decision.

I have written about both natural intelligence and personal energy this fall, raising questions of what factors go into worldly success. Both have something to do with the drive to learn.  But I think there is something different about the desire to learn about "things," which I have in abundance, and a desire to learn about some particular subject.  I now think the latter is a greater contributor to doing something important in the world.  It can come from either personal energy or natural intelligence, but it is what makes the world go forward.  One can call folks like me polymaths, or Renaissance men, but the term dilettante might apply just as well. We  are deeply related to the more focused students, and we have our place in the overall system as well.  But ultimately, we are gap-fillers and they are builders.

I think I will expand on this soon.  Here is a fascinating story about Dennis Ritchie (Lucent) and Robert Morris (Dartmouth, NSA, cryptology) that illustrates the drive of love of subject.  At the time, they would have seemed like corporate tools, not cool at all, to me.  Computer geeks were button-down types who I backpedaled away from.  Yet in a few short years, they looked like this. The computer folks learned that the folks who really knew what they were doing weren't the 3-piece suit guys, but strange-looking people who had chosen this field because of fascination.

*DTSS: Dartmouth time-sharing system for computing.  NH, MA, and VT highschools (especially prep schools) were permitted on in the late 60's, but it was mostly for Dartmouth and the US Naval Academy.  Mathematician and later Dartmouth president John Kemeny had developed the computer language BASIC, which I was pretty good in in 1970.  But when I went to William & Mary, no one there had heard of it.  They taught Fortran.  It is so odd to read about these things now, to see that I was near a major development node in highschool, but moved to a backwater for computers in college. And yet.  Had I the drive or the love of subject, that would not have stopped me.  The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.  I thought being a folksinger, medievalist, and actor was cooler.  And that was likely the right decision for me.

Of Pancakes and Candidates - and Feathers

Ben is up from Houston, and is re-experiencing what it was like to grow up here in NH presidential primary season.  We get frequent phone calls, ignoring many because of caller ID.  We didn't have that in earlier years.

We were trying to recall who the candidate was who fell off the back of the stage while flipping pancakes.  Tracy and Ben had been present for the event.  A school snow day, perhaps.  Was that '96 or 2000? Or perhaps even '92?  No, it was all Bush 41 and Buchanan for that one - we would have remembered that.  Was it Gary Bauer?  It wasn't Dole... It wasn't Alexander...Forbes?...Dornan?

It was Bauer, 1996, for those tormenting themselves over it.

We discussed how such foolishness is in many ways a good thing.  Even our stuffiest, most self-important candidates have to venture such things.  They have to risk looking foolish, having to quickly cover, looking a little sheepish.  You can't imagine Vlad Putin putting himself in that position, nor Bashar Assad.  Dictators try to look like a Man of the People by wearing military garb, as Saddam Hussein or a thousand Latin American leaders did.  In the West, and I think particularly in the Anglosphere, we require more.  We make you throw baseballs, and eat kielbasa.

I think Obama is pretty imperious, yet I can easily imagine him covering a pancake-flipping fall with charm and grace. Mao, not at all, and Hu Jintao, just barely starting to make his way into that territory. That tells us something about a country, doesn't it?

It has it's bad side, of course, and isn't exactly a qualification for the presidency.  Plenty of corrupt, glad-handing, back-slapping politicians also have that common touch we like.  But it provides a check on one type of bad presidency, and for that we should be grateful.

It's been that way a long while, too.

McLaren, Bell, MacArthur

Somewhat accidentally, I have recently encountered an essay by Brian McLaren, portions of Rob Bell’s farewell address, and half a chapter of John MacArthur discussing changes in the church. All three referred in rather general terms to other Christians who had disagreed with them or criticised them. In each case, I thought “Y’know, those people don’t put it like that. They have a better argument for what they do and why they do it.”

In each case there were additional comments available – the Amazon book reviews for MacArthur, the comments sections for McLaren and Bell. As these things go, those in agreement were more prominent in all cases, and they in turn were even more pronounced in misreprenting what “those other” Christians believe. But those in disagreement were no better. In all cases, the references were not to individuals, where one could perhaps discern whether the quoted person was indeed central to a Christian group or movement, or even – mad thought - track down an actual quote. It was vaguer than that: the evil old way or new way or other way of seeing things. And we’ve got their number. We can display why they are wrong in just a sentence or two.

Do we all do this? Render ourselves unable to give an accurate summary of other *POV’s, and embed ever more comfortably in our own nests?

*shouldn’t that be P’s OV? That is accurate but strange-looking. What is that acronym's protocol?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

New Conventional Wisdom

Where does this idea come from that the protests all over the globe are somehow related, springing from the same frustrations and impulses?  Egypt, Pakistan, Greece, Tunisia, OWS, London.

That's just insane.  A perfect example of people making up a pattern to give themselves the illusion of understanding - and thus not have to think too hard about events too close to their own lives.

Are there any prominent non-liberals falling into this nonsense?  I'm betting yes, even though I have run across any yet.

Monday, December 26, 2011

No Politics

Very little political this month, and most of that is noting what others think rather than what I think. Looking over the last few months, that has been increasingly true. Replaced by music.

Maybe I'm not thinking as much, and so not writing about my thought.  Much easier to watch other people think.

My current thought is to read absurdists and existentialists and connect it to church and culture.  My fear is that I will have many brief, unrelated thoughts that don't tie in to any helpful ideas.

(Head slap) Lists!  Lists are supposed to drive up traffic, and are traditional at the end of the year.  I imagine they drive up traffic with real readers, too, not the in-and-out kind that come over to download ABBA or meerkat pictures.

AVI's Top Ten...Top Ten...can't think of anything.  Absurdist dramas isn't likely to grip the imagination, nor is ABBA costumes, nor obscure NH villages, and English language trivia you can get on other sites pretty easily.

I've Got Sixpence

Don't you just know you would like these guys?

HT: cobb

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Note To Self

Events are not interesting to others, even if they care about you, just because they happened to you.  They must be narrated well and/or have some other point of interest.

I deeply fear that all stories are going to end at Westford Center someday. DNR.

If that sounds grim, I'm a pretty strong DNR guy anyway.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Two From Ben

He'll be home from Houston Christmas Night, and finally able to sleep after filmmaking, but Ben has been able to post a few interesting things during the making of the film for Christmas Eve.

"I was trying to create the sound effect of a mug smashing for "Unexpected", but it turned out to be harder than I thought. The end result seemed funny. But then, I'm pretty tired."

I have been having trouble keeping the embed. Perhaps twitvid takes it down. If so, you can go to their site for the video here.
In (assumedly) unrelated news, A species of miniature dragon has been discovered. Well, little "dracos" have been known about for awhile, but this one does seem different and definitely cool.

Ron Paul

He continues to poll about 20% here, so I thought I let you know my unscientific reading of that, based on what I hear people say at work (not everyone who works in a psych hospital is a social worker, after all) and a t church.  Half of that number are people who are pretty lined up with Ron on a lot of issues, who would vote for him any year.  Another half might dislike, even greatly dislike, one or another of his general positions, particularly on foreign policy.  But they are so determined that the government should shrink that they'll risk that, and they're voting for him in the primary.

That's not going to be me, but I entirely understand that reasoning.

Friday, December 23, 2011

50 Best Quotes

Right Wing News has it's 50 Best Political Quotes of the Year.  I don't agree with them all, and surprisingly, Michael Moore had one of the ones I liked best (#26. for its irony.) Ann Althouse at #47 has one dear to my heart, as it echoes my A&H Tribe thinking.
Why does the left hate free speech? Because they don’t know how to talk about the substantive merits when they are challenged. Having submerged themselves in disciplining each other by denouncing any heretics in their midst, they find themselves overwhelmed and outnumbered in America, where there is vibrant debate about all sorts of things they don’t know how to begin to talk about. They resort to stomping their feet and shouting “shut up”… when they aren’t prissily imploring everyone to be “civil.”
Jonah Goldberg at #40.
If you’ve ever known anyone with a serious addiction, the easiest thing for friends and family to do is pretend it’s not a big deal. Who wants to have a confrontation? Far easier to let things slide and have a good time. “Let’s have a nice Thanksgiving without any arguments, OK?” The tea party is like the cousin who’s been through AA and refuses to pretend anymore. As a result, he spoils everyone’s good time. For the enablers, and others in denial, he’s the guy ruining everything, not the drunk. Uncle Sam is the drunk and the tea partiers are the annoyingly sober — and a bit self-righteous — cousin. Measured by spending, and adjusted for inflation, the federal government has increased by more than 50 percent in 10 years. Some have enabled the drunken spending, others continue to deny it’s even a problem. The tea party is sounding the wake-up call. If America didn’t have a problem, then there really would be good cause to be furious with the forces of sobriety. Nobody likes a party-pooper, especially the people hooked on partying.
Carl at No Oil For Pacifists has his own favorites, and you can get the full link there.


I have mentioned before that I am a fan of Eugene Ionesco, who is (wrongly) grouped in Theatre of the Absurd. Unlike Beckett or Pinter, the playwrights Ionesco, Jarry, and especially Stoppard do not teach that absurdism must necessarily lead to despair, but sense hope out beyond the final wall of death.

I learned today that Ionesco's epitaph is "Pray to I-don't-know-who. Jesus Christ, I hope."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Often At Christmas

People will will suddenly notice who I look like. Same as 5 years ago.

Christmas Party

Frosty. Jingle Bells. Yes, Virginia, with its “The eternal light with which childhood fills the world…” stealing from religious imagery for its power, as always. 

But it is our holiday, right? Or was, originally.

War Is Over. Deck The Halls. White Christmas.

Richie comes up and amidst some more secular pieces slips in “Hark the Herald,” then a Christian contemporary of his own composition. Good work.

The Little Drummer Boy.  Marginal – at least it’s got Jesus in it.

From my job I can see the day when an Actual Christian will be brought out as some museum piece to weakly sing a carol no one knows anymore, with all the sentimentalists beaming at the old bird, thinking that they’ve gotten the authentic flavor of the traditional holiday – similar to those old-fashioned peppermints you have to special order now, which they get for their grandchildren every year.

It hasn’t reached you yet.  This is New Hampshire, which, along with Maine and Vermont have the lowest percentage of Christians, and gee-whiz-who’da-thunk it, the least charitable giving as well. European levels. I am sad to see the gospel leave the place where I live – because Christmas and Easter are the last cultural holdouts, and if we can’t sustain those, we won’t sustain anything else – but I am glad that it has at least found other places to land, in Africa and Asia. 

I am glad of this for other reasons as well.  I used to think that an apophatic faith – one defined by contemplation of what God is not, was rather a dodge, a contrariness with more than a hint of arrogance, looking down on those who used mere worldly attributes to understand what God is.  But I learned in dry years that this is not so.  We lean on the physical and sensory to carry us: if those around us don’t Do Christmas (or Do Worship, or Do Charity) in quite the way we think it should be, it gets ruined for us.*

And yet, Christ comes, just as much in ruined Christmas as in an orderly one.  We walk in a world among people who breathlessly say “…very special moments that remind us of what this holiday season is really about!” – meaning smiling and punch and watching the Grinch with friends – but the ordered steps of the earth and sun are unaffected, the season comes, and the appointed time for preparation is now joined to it as long as the earth spins. Christ was, and is, and is to come.  The apophatic faith which says “Not thus…nor thus…” is more popular in the East, where there are always bad governments, shorter lifespans, more death.   A good approach for tragic times, or even merely irritated ones.  No one sang “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” this year.  No matter.  Christ comes.  Rejoice.

For contrast to this post, I wrote The Sadness of NPR Christmas a few years ago.

*Can this be AVI, who usually calls us to immerse in the worldly and the physical trappings of the faith – the taste of the wine, the harmony of the music, the dark ceiling recesses of the cathedral?  Yes, the same.  Those are there for our instruction, to teach us great things.  They are the mold of our faith, giving it shape.  Yet the day may come when the mold is stripped away – and the faith has to stand alone.  Rejoice in that day also.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

But If It's True..

But what if the story of William James Sidis, minus the obvious exaggerations, is essentially true? Where then does he rank?

Norbert Wiener, in his book Ex-Prodigy, quite clearly testifies to Sidis' brilliance in mathematics at a young age. That is the single most powerful bit of evidence in favor of the premise that Sidis was the real deal. Wiener was not close to him, but knew him at Harvard, had a class with him, and had some conversations with him. He also knew him later in life, when William was haunting the halls of MIT for employment doing computational work, of which there was plenty in the 1940's - but no more, because he did not want to get too deeply into mathematics any longer. Sparse contact, but real, not hearsay.

The short answer is that Wiener hints that Sidis' non-mathematical accomplishments, his languages and varied subjects of curiosity, are padded and his physics was suspect, but his mathematical potential was top-shelf. He also confirms some rumors of Billy's eccentricities and contradicts others. As Wiener was himself top-shelf, I take that seriously enough to accept the evaluation with no further evidence. Had NW said that about a laboratory custodian at MIT with no other credentials I would accept the judgement. That excellence in math, in turn, gives at least some support that the other precocities might be somewhat true. We don't have to believe that he taught himself Latin and Greek at 4, as his mother claimed, to believe that he was very good.

Yet these find no echo in his later life.  The mathematics, though he came to avoid it, at least shows up off and on.  The languages, not at all.  Not even a passing mention by friends, family, interviewers, reporters later - only the languages that he supposedly knew when young.  We might conclude that he had ability but no further interest, and let it slide, or that he kept the abilities only for personal use or amusement.He does not seem to have read widely in other languages, at any rate.

Language prodigies tend not to pan out.  Languages as read and as spoken are different, and the subtleties of expression somehow do not register with them as well.  In Sidis's case, social subtleties eluded him even in English, so it would hardly be surprising that nuance eluded him in other tongues.  Math and music prodigies are most common, languages after that, and males far more common than females. They translate the literal sense of things, they know rules and constructions.  They do not get called on to translate literature or diplomatic speech - those arts seem to develop slowly.

Still, Sidis might have known enough of many languages to understand much of what is written in them.  What number we claim he "knew" - five or forty or a hundred - is likely to depend strongly on what we call "knowing."  There was no fluency in Pennacook, as there were no native speakers but there might have been enough to cobble together a meaning from any document that came to light. A useful skill, and one that demonstrates high intelligence. But "genius" would seem to require more than mere accumulation.

The categorising of streetcar transfers makes immediate sense to anyone who understands the OCD or autism spectra.  It gives pleasure, and there is no reason not to.  But spinning lengthy theories about Atlantis, Red Men, and the Constitution with no real grounding, how do we rank that?  Do we simply award no points in our estimate of his intelligence, or do we take them away?  Similarly with philosophy stretched over physics - originality is a good thing, but what are we to make of a person who cannot look at his work and say "Wait, this just doesn't add up?"
In a rough chronological order, William James held a theory about reserve energy. Boris Sidis learned of reserve energy from William James. Boris claimed that William’s intelligence was in part due to the use of reserve energy. William Sidis pondered how William James’ theory of reserve energy might be removed from the metaphysical realm and brought into a scientific study. The Animate and the Inanimate is William Sidis’ pondering about how the second law of thermodynamics might apply to William James’ reserve energy theory…
Does that even mean anything?

We can't know what William might have been if he was brought up by a less driven father - or if someone had whacked his father a few times and made him see the obvious. Boris pushed and William broke. Would he have broken anyway? Would he have been brilliant anyway? Not only unknown, but currently unknowable.

Let us assign some modest percentage to the possibility that Norbert Wiener was fooled somehow - that reputation plus William's computational feats plus overidentification because Wiener was himself a prodigy with a driven father caused him to believe that young William was smarter than he was. The greater likelihood remains that Wiener sized him up correctly, and Sidis had it in him to contribute to 20th C mathematics at highest levels. Even at that, even granting everything, I don't see him at the very top. Smarter than anyone you are likely to run into this week, perhaps. But we are entering territory where the competition is stiff as well. There isn't evidence that William James Sidis did anything more than moderately special, he just did it younger. That's not enough. Precocity is not in itself proof.

We imagine that there is an arc to intelligence over the lifespan, and that a steeper trajectory in youth must mean a higher peak. There is some evidence for this. But in music, and athletics, in drawing, and performing, and chess, we know of examples of early promise that simply peaked before their age mates but ultimately rose no higher than the others in the top 1% in the field. Just earlier, not better. If we are going to speculate about some mind that William Sidis would have had if, we have to also take it as it is - ultimately not focused, not able to sort good ideas from bad, original but not precise.

So what is your estimate of his intelligence? One in a hundred? One in a thousand? A million? A billion?

Smart, Wealthy, Athletic – A Digression on IQ

We can’t measure these with any precision, because their meanings are elusive. We have approximate, somewhat similar ideas what we mean, but can’t nail them down.  We think if Rasheed Wallace had been just a little smarter, then he could have (fill in the blank – mine is “kept himself in just a little bit better shape in 2010 and won us a championship). But his POV is “I made millions of dollars, won championship rings, had a great time, didn’t force a disabling injuring – explain to me how I’m the one who got this wrong.” Uh, good point, that.  Literature is full of smart people figuring out how to win at life in quiet ways that don’t look as successful – Mycroft Holmes being a good example.

We can measure riches by reading the Fortune 500 list –and we can play with the list to take liquidity, control, or security into consideration.  But philosphy, religion, and literature are likewise chockablock full of discussions of True Wealth, True Riches.  The most entertaining is the Talmudic give-and-take recorded by Jonathan Sacks
"Who is wealthy? He who has pleasure in his wealth": this is the view of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Tarfon said: "He who possesses a hundred vineyards, a hundred fields, and a hundred servants working in them". Rabbi Akiva said: "He who has a wife who is comely in good deeds". Rabbi Jose said: "He who has a toilet near his table"
This was the kind of table-talk in which the rabbis delighted, coming at a subject from all angles, and perhaps not too seriously. Rabbi Meir gives a philosophical answer: wealth is a state of mind, rejoicing in what you have, whether it is much or little. Rabbi Tarfon won't have any of it: wealth is wealth, and let's not evade the issue. Rabbi Akiva tells us frankly that someone who has a good wife is wealthy whatever else he lacks. And Rabbi Jose replies in the spirit of "If I were a wealthy man". Oy, If only I didn't have to go so far to the toilet, that would be riches indeed.Wealth and Poverty, a Jewish Analysis” Social Affairs Unit 1985
Every four years we call the winner of the Olympic Decathlon “The World’s Greatest Athlete,” then forget who he is and pay 100,000 other people more money to be athletes.  So we don’t really mean that.  If we are pressed, we will define athletic along some measures of strength, endurance, speed, coordination, and flexibility.  We know what we mean approximately, and we know it when we see it. 

When I use the word intelligence in discussing Sidis or other prodigies, I am choosing a meaning closer to IQ than to smart, not because I think IQ is more important, but because we already have a word for smart, and I am making a distiction.  Intelligence is g-factor, candlepower.  It has components of analogising, processing speed, and memory (at least) and is not quite definable. (In New England, we often make the distiction with our favorite intensifier.  Smaht could mean cleverness or wisdom – and can be used ironically, but wicked smaht is something closer to the IQ meaning of intelligence.)

Tweet Theology

The recent “tweet of the year” in conservative circles was quite clever, and I don’t want to take too much away from it by being too literal.  In referring to the death of Kim Jong Il, Josh Trevino tweeted “I’d like to think God let Havel and Hitchens pick the third.”  Obviously, if you press this very far you come up against “Wait, what little-known heavenly loopholes allow Hitchens in this conversation?” Or, “Who says God is a grinning, clubbable old guy who likes revenge?” Ruins the fun – and it is fun, to think of Hitchens and Havel looking over the population and discussing who is going to be swept from the board.

I prefer to ruin this in a different way.  Who says that Havel and Hitchens were especially important souls to be given this honor, simply because they were famous here?  Far more likely that the greatest souls who died in the last few weeks, as measured by their honor when we see them in glorified form, are people whose names we have never heard, and never will in our lifetimes.  God is not a respecter of persons in that way.  The last shall be first.  I don’t say that to remind the great persons of the world of their true place – I doubt many of them drop by here - but for us, the medium and medium small people of the world, to remember that those smaller than us may be greater as well.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

About That Harvard Exam (Sidis Part 3A)

An anonymous commenter linked to the 1869 Harvard entrance exam that was dug up by a NYTimes writer and made the rounds last year.  It looks pretty intimidating at first glance, and the commenter used it as evidence that Billy Sidis's entrance into Harvard in 1909 was a pretty solid accomplishment in itself.  Interestingly, the boy's getting in was probably even better than the exam would indicate.  Harvard was no great shakes in 1869, but had improved considerably by 1909, and was one of the world's best by then.  I will note that it was still not what we think of today.  Competitive university admission is mostly a post WWII, or even post 1960 phenomenon.  Many of the brightest did indeed go to the Ivies, the Little Ivies, or the Seven Sisters,* but you simply couldn't count on it.  The rich and the alums got their kids in, and nationally, people stayed closer to home and many of the brightest went to other schools, far more than, say, in 1990.

The gap exactly covers the period of Charles William Eliot's presidency of Harvard, if you want more background than I will give here.

But the test.  That Latin and Greek looks awfully impressive right out of the gate. If you are older, and/or a reader of history, and/or a traditionalist, you may still have Latin Envy, believing that a "proper" education must include it, and Greek!  Why, that just seals it.  A different alphabet and everything.  Weren't they smart, then?

No, not especially. They had had six years of Latin and four of Greek by then, whether by tutor or at academy.  If you took any languages at all in late 20th C, and make the mental comparison of what, exactly, they were being asked to do, it looks much less impressive.  Note also, there was a standard set of works studied in those languages, which these questions are drawn from, plus frequent drill in grammar. Even if you had Latin yourself, you should note that the primary authors studied now are not quite the same as studied then, nor in quite the same way. These exam questions are essentially "Did you have proper teachers, are you reasonably bright, and did you make a moderate effort these last few years?"

Before I get into the math, let me note the major difference, then and now.  Look at what is missing in this exam.  There is no biology, no chemistry, no physics, and certainly no other sciences such as geology or economics.  There are no questions on English Literature - no Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton - and certainly no American literature (horrors!  To even imagine such a thing!).  No modern languages, no history other than ancient, no world events, no weather, no basic medicine.  Even deeper, no methods of research, and no use of reference materials.  Because these were not taught to young men.  They were taught English Composition and Grammar, Latin and Greek, Ancient History, and the mathematics you see here.  That's it.

Thus, their facility with L&G is dropping even farther down the list of impressiveness.  Most of what 7th-12th graders have to learn today they did not have to even pretend to know.  They were being trained to be gentlemen.  The push for more useful arts was just beginning in this country.

The mathematics would look worrisome at first, but on closer examination, not so.  The arithmetic is mostly just big numbers, and irritating, tedious working by hand.  We forget mathematics that we don't use very quickly, but these students were still immersed.

Two stories:  I was a math wizard, but I had to relearn a lot of it each time a son got beyond the first few weeks of algebra in HS.  The terms and symbols were familiar, but I couldn't remember where they went.  I could get it back, but I had to sit and stare, consult the index, and trial-and-error a bit.  All year, for both algebra and geometry. (And as the first two seldom needed help, I was even less prepared for the others.) Story 2: There was a math magazine when I was in school, which posed problems each month.  It printed the names of those who solved them the next month. I did a few months of that in 12th grade.  Because of going to St Paul's for summer studies, I recognised the names of many of the other NH students who got problems right.  One month, there was a problem where I was the only kid in the country to submit a right answer - something about rotating one parabola along another and describing where the focus went.  Very cool.  I pretended, in my conceit , that I was the only one able to get it, which was insane.  How many students, even the nerdy math ones, read magazines and submitted problems?  Fast forward one year.  I was in a different type of math at college, but for some reason wanted to review my accomplishment from the year before.  Narcissism, likely.  I could not follow the solution I had myself written, only one year later.

We lose new abstract thoughts quickly, unless they are used.  Look at the logarithms, trig, and plane geometry in the exam.  Even if you can't even remember how to begin to solve it now, do you recognise the words and ideas? Do you have some recollection of solving problems sort of like that?  Then in all likelihood, you could have done those problems when you were in 11th-12th grade.  And especially, if you didn't have to study any Biochem, Shakespeare, or Intro to Psychology as well.  If you had the same five subjects pretty much year after year, you'd know 'em quite well.

Also - there was some different emphasis in what maths were taught then.  Trig was the top shelf, and you got two years of drill in it.  No sets, calculus, or statistics for you.

Also - read the directions. See how few questions were required.

Also - it doesn't say what a passing score was, does it?

185 out of 215 applicants got into Harvard that year.

*Fun trivia test for you:  name 'em.  I got five on my first try, then a sixth popped into my head a year or so later (this was before internet).  I never did get the seventh until I looked it up.

Prodigy (Sidis Part Three)

Back in 1988, Adragon DeMello was big news in the IQ societies. A math wizard graduating from a university in the California system at age 11, his father was looking for a graduate school which would accept him. It didn't go well from there. He had just scraped by to get the degree, it later was revealed, no graduate school would touch him, his parents fought over custody, and eventually a SWAT team had to pull him from his father's house. He then went to junior high school under another name and "got his childhood back." Watching that story unfold is perhaps why I am so suspicious of Boris Sidis.

Opinions were all over the map in the newsletters. Some were angry that graduate schools could be so blinkered as to not accept a genius just because it didn't fit their norm. Others were worried about the emotional impact on the boy, wondering if this father were pushing him too much (he was). A third group wondered if it were all quite true. In that pool of people, many of whom had been prodigies themselves, the claims seemed just a bit too far. I was well out of my league in that. I had thought I might lay some claim to significant precocity before joining a few of those groups, but quickly had that theory slapped down. There, more than anywhere, I learned that there is always a faster gun. In many cases, much faster.

Only one person I recall asked why there seemed to be an assumption that the highest IQ's must also be early bloomers, precocities of the highest order. He had not seemed more than above-average as a child, even to himself, and challenged the assumption that genius had to show at young, even ridiculously young, ages. I don't know why that didn't impress me more then. I barely considered it. It didn't fit my narrative, I suppose. But I have come to regard it as an excellent point. IQ is fairly stable over time, but the sample set is too small to see if that correlation is as strong at the extremes as it is in the middle ranges. We simply don't know.

We tend to expect that musical and mathematical, and related types like chess geniuses must have been prodigies. Often they were. But I don't know if we should consider that the only possible narrative. We don't have the same expectation for writers, artists, or philosophers.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Manipulation At Trinity Church

As manipulative a use of Christian language - some of it by Christians - as I have seen. This not merely overlapping one's politics and religion. This is declaring that one's political beliefs are the same as what Christ taught.

Bună sara lui Crăciun

I think it means "Wonderful Night of Christmas"

Saturday, December 17, 2011

And Another One Bites The Dust - Part One

I think the story of Billy Sidis, the purported prodigy with the highest IQ (250-300) ever known, is mostly fraudulent.

I first read about William James Sidis in the pages of Gift of Fire in the late 80’s. GoF was the journal of the Prometheus Society, a discussion group for those with measured IQ over 164. Amy Wallace’s book on Sidis, The Prodigy, had just come out, and Grady Towers took the opportunity to bring us up to speed on the early 20th C brilliant but eccentric child. That essay, "The Outsiders," is perhaps the best known of the articles to come out of the High-IQ societies. Its primary topic is the increasing difficulty of adjustment individuals experience the further from norm they are. Terman's studies in the 40's of gifted individuals showed that those above 140 IQ were better adapted than average. Grady looked harder at the data and decided that those from 140-150 were better adjusted than average, but beyond that things steadily worsened. The greater frequency of those from 140-150 masked the data of the few from say, 170-180.

It was perhaps inevitable that Grady would gravitate to the subject of Sidis. Grady qualified for the next society up, the Mega Society, for those with one-in-a-million IQ, cutoff 176. He had been a prodigy himself, almost completing a PhD in Anthropology at age 20, but by the time I knew him (via journal and correspondence), he was usually homeless, working odd jobs across the Southwest, writing on borrowed typewriters and sending mathematical proofs - usually number theory - to whoever would have them. He was murdered horribly in 2000 while working as a security guard. I liked corresponding with him.

I ran across a stray mention of William James Sidis while reading about the Pennacook Indians. (He had believed their tribal decision-making methods had deeply influenced the New England Founding Fathers, and hence the Constitution. Pure bunkum, to be discussed below.) I remembered the story, but not the name, and I thought I recalled that it was Gift of Fire, and Grady, where I had learned of Sidis. As I tried to get to the bottom of the story of the prodigy, I wondered if G Towers had uncovered some little-known source and had inside information on the boy who went to Harvard at 11, but spent much of his adult life collecting and classifying streetcar transfers and being rescued by his parents.

Alas, not so. Grady's info was pretty clearly drawn from Wallace's biography of Sidis. I have read only scraps of that, but she clearly has taken what Sidis and his family have claimed about him at face value. She wants to believe the tragic narrative of prodigy who just couldn't adjust, nor the world adjust to him. There was a time when I preferred that narrative, too. I fancied myself a prodigy, and could cherry-pick data to prove to you that it was true. But it wasn't. I was a very smart, creative child who was also arrogant and self-centered. No more than that. But the desire to be one of those - one of those special children who would show up occasionally in magazines, or on "I've Got A Secret," or in Ripley's "Believe It Or Not" - is very sweet. It provides a ready excuse for anyone not liking you, or you not fitting in. If you are that smart, then of course it is the school that has failed, not you, when you screw up.

Sidis's parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, she a physician, he one of the first psychiatrists, though a bit out of the mainstream. Certainly the type of people who you'd expect might have a prodigy. They seemed to have expected it as well. Boris Sidis had educational theories about how to raise children to be geniuses. How convenient to have one, eh?

The articles about Billy, including in Wikipedia, generally acknowledge that some claims about him were misunderstood, or even bogus. Yet they generally credit his prodigy status as essentially true. I did run across another doubter at a site called The Logics. I don't know anything about the writer (though I am certainly well-disposed to him right off the bat), so there's no implied endorsement of the site, which seems pretty extensive. I will give my reasons for doubting the claims about Sidis sometime this week, but the sneak preview should be obvious. There are numerous stories, many of which are quite plausible, about William James Sidis. The hard evidence behind them seems elusive. He was clearly quite intelligent. But the evidence that he was a genius...?

Baseball history fans may have had the story of Moe Berg occur to him while reading all this.  A lot more examination has been done on him, but I may have some fun with that later as well.

Friday, December 16, 2011

O Holy Night


Artists have always been very much taken with other artists, and are self-referential. It is a way of expressing community, I suppose, or paying compliments, as writers and musicians also do. This is a Winslow Homer painting of other artists painting. I wonder if any of them are painting other artists in turn?

Probably not. This is White Mountain School (a subtype of Hudson River School), Conway side, and they usually painted landscapes.

Ron Paul Family Cookbook

One interesting effect of living in NH is getting an up-close look at political advertising every four years. I don’t think there has been anywhere near the fuss this time – perhaps because Iowa and SC have increased importance, perhaps because 24-7 media and instant polling gives the nation much of the information it used to depend on NH for.

But still, the rest of the country may not have received the Ron Paul Cookbook in the mail. Quite the item, and exactly as it says, it has recipes; it’s not using “cookbook” as a metaphor for legislation and attitudes. There are lots of pictures of Ron’s family, and some short essays, including his wife’s about America, but there’s banana bread and brisket as well. Simple, everyday American recipes, including such ingredients as a bottle of catalina dressing for the brisket (only two more ingredients there).

I am trying to imagine when this could have occurred before in American campaigns. I think one would have to go farther back than my parents’ generation (which is Ron’s generation). It looks like something I would have found in my grandmother’s bookcase, kept either because it had a particular recipe worth keeping or because she liked the pol. I can’t imagine who that would be, even then. It wouldn’t be something from the Bass family, or the Greggs, or the Bridges. One of the Straws might have tried something like that as PR for the mills, but not for office-seeking. It’s just not us. Seems like it would go down better with the voters in the Midwest or the South.

OTOH, the styling has a 90’s Rodale Press look about it, which in turn drew some from Grit or Burpee’s seeds from a generation before, so the appeal might intentionally be to a younger audience, hankering for an America that never quite existed in any region but was pretty solidly in the imaginations (and aspirations) of most Americans years ago. Ron Paul apparently does have quite a following among the young, and perhaps that’s why.

I think I’ll keep it. Heck, no other candidate ever sent me a cookbook before. My grandchildren might have a hard time integrating it into history at first glance, though.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Gee, good thing they have strict gun laws in Belgium.

Guns aren't a top issue of mine, but I figure the 2A sites are going to be pointing that out.  The laws don't move the dial much on the crime rate, whether they are strict or loose.  John Lott claims that concealed carry reduces the crime rate, opponents claim his research is flawed.  I'm nothing of an expert on that kind of research, so I couldn't say.  But the contrary research is also undramatic.  Enough so so that any study that does yield dramatic results either way should be viewed with immediate suspicion.

Violent crime is cultural, and perhaps even has some genetic underpinnings.  I suspect, from listening to them, that the gun control folks - we have a lot in mental health - believe that just generally discouraging anyone they talk to from liking guns will turn the tide.  

Similarly, sex education.  Whether a district has nothing, abstinence only, or daily condom-on-bananas openness doesn't seem to change teenage behavior more than a bit, and that's temporary. Ditto drug education.  It's been that way for years.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Why Should They Care? Addition

When I posted Why Should They Care? last week, I was trying to capture how recent and rare the whole "brotherhood of man" approach is, and how humans outside a narrow grouping actually seemed to our ancestors. It occurs to me that we can only approach their thought if we imagine sentient non-human species. Even those may seem too close, such as has been the influence of Star Wars and other interplanetary fiction, suggesting that we might indeed be pals with non-humans.

But for a moment, imagine there are only a few hundred of us humans left, and all of them of your tribe, known to you, and of similar values. Their life is ever-precarious and the other sentient or semi-sentient species you encounter are not nice, or noble, but mere competitors for resources. Trading partners at most, wary allies only when under pressure from some worse oppressor.

You would, quite frankly, not care much what happened to the dog-men or those thieving fishy creatures who often prevented your tribe's access to water. If they experienced pain or want, that would be their problem and no concern of yours. If you needed to use them or take advantage of them you would do so, much as we saddle a horse or cage a chicken now.

An this would be an entirely rational approach on your part. The gradual expansion of who is considered important enough to have rights is the aberration. When we wonder how people could mistreat servants, or even own slaves, or torture other humans for amusement, we assert what an amazing and blessed time we live in, that such ideas barely have a foothold in our thinking. Not only time, but place, as most countries of the world are more like our ancestors than like us in this. They represent far more the lot of mankind than our present arrangement.

Actors like to trouble directors by complaining about a bit of stage business "What's my motive for this?" I ask that for our entire fondness for other humans: "What's our motive for this?"

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Atheists? Maybe Not

Sponge-headed Scienceman reports on a Rice University study revealing that 17% of atheists attend church at least occasionally, most of them "for the kids."  He comments on why this might be.  I concur with his reasoning, but would add that this group may indeed be one which is open to different ideas, as they claim about themselves.  Rather than being "believers" in some unexamined sense, who declare they believe in God but somehow never get around to doing anything about that, this group might have decided that on balance they cannot believe, but allow the possibility there might be something to it, and are the sort who are quite intentional in tying their behavior to their beliefs.  Perhaps I am painting them too rosily, imagining their thought to suit my own beliefs.

I am reminded of Michael Novak's essay of four years ago about different types of atheists - he identifies six.  These are not entirely distinct, but overlap, and in some cases overlap with believers.  I have known people in each of the first five categories - no one comes to mind for the sixth.  I suspect one would have to be a very thoughtful person, aware not only of the beliefs around one but one's own character as well, to make it through to this conclusion.


More of them to come

Thursday, December 08, 2011

That's It

It came to me in a flash.  Climate catastrophisers and those worried that aliens will destroy earth because of climate change are just like Jack Chick Tracts for liberal fundamentalists.


I would like to publicly thank Mitt Romney for being an uninteresting candidate for president. I have long said I didn't want any more charisma or saviours, but someone who would just show up in the morning and go to work.

Mitt wasn't like that last time he ran, and was even more of an "idea guy" when he was governor of Massachusetts. Those were not his best years, frankly. He does still trot out ideas of bringing America back to greatness and trying to display that he's the guy to lead us into the future (because where would we be going otherwise? Remember the bridge to the 21st C? The idea that they could provide this nice solid structure that would set us down in a predictable place in a few years...). But Mitt seems to be underplaying this. Newt is always full of ideas. Ideas of how government can really do wonderful things if only the right people are pulling the strings - small wonder he admires Teddy Roosevelt, an inspiring guy but a dangerous president.

PJ O'Rourke: "I usually vote with the Republicans because they have fewer ideas. But not few enough." This time around, Romney has fewer ideas, and I'm all for that. The things I feel Bush got wrong were mostly great ideas he had that would fix things. So even if I think Romney's instincts aren't quite what I'd want, he seems to have gotten away from impressing us with new ideas. Good.
As president, Calvin Coolidge didn't do much of anything, but at the time, that's what we needed to have done. Will Rogers.
Amen. Mister we could use a man like Calvin Coolidge again.
I favor the policy of economy, not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people. The men and women of this country who toil are the ones who bear the cost of the Government. Every dollar that we carelessly waste means that their life will be so much the more meager. Every dollar that we prudently save means that their life will be so much the more abundant. Economy is idealism in its most practical form.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Romanian Carol

The title means "The most beautiful piece of the concert of Christmas carols."

No, I don't know what the carol is or what it means. Sorry. No Romanians here to tell me.

I'll ask one to tell me.

Why Should They Care?

Americans, and Westerners in general, are so used to the idea that all people have worth that we fail to understand that most of the world doesn't think so.  I include in that list not only most people across great stretches of time, but fairly near ancestors of ours as well.  It is not at all natural to human beings to think that way - not at all accidental that most tribes named themselves "The People" or "The Real People."  We find that almost quaint with native tribes, but that is also the meaning of "Das Volk," and names of some European political parties.

We think that to be willing to kill many people in another tribe must require not only rage, but some unaccountable ability to sustain anger over months or years.  Not at all.  The default position is the contempt of not regarding them as human, punctuated with periods of anger when we need a burst of energy.  In our history, we can see it best with slavery - do we really think that generations of white people woke up every morning with a seething anger at blacks? Of course not.  The attitude was generally to disregard them entirely except as pieces of the environment.  They might even have some affection for many of the individuals.  But regarding them as less than human was the key.

So also with the amazing physical cruelties of invading Mongols, North Sudanese, Indonesians in East Timor, Mayan overlords, Romanian voivodes.  Those others were not real people.  What does it matter if they felt pain?  All that matters is protecting my people.

Well, why should they care?  Run the exercise in your mind - not of the people we encounter in our day, but of any random tribe you might think of on the face of the earth a hundred, a thousand, or ten thousand years ago.  What would be their basis for having the least concern for other tribes, except perhaps as trading partners or useful allies.  Why not burn their crops and steal their women?

How did we ever learn differently?

Post 3300 - Advice

Retriever has good advice what to do if you're cranky.

F-ing know-it-all.


Psychiatrists used to test several things in your brain by asking you to explain what various proverbs mean. Because more than one things is being measured, the trend is away from this now, but you can cover a lot of ground quickly - getting a sense of not only ability to abstract, but whether high emotion words distract one. For example, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water," might provoke an isolated-feeling person to get hung up on the part that a baby is being thrown out. A person of limited intellect might make no sense of it at all.

"The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" was a popular first proverb. Its abstraction was minimal, and there were no emotion-laden words in it. No obvious ones, anyway. Psychotic people can become stimulated by pretty unlikely things. But most people would get this one right. They had heard some variant of it and understood the comment.

Intentionally more problematic, because it is both more abstract and more ambiguous, is "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." Even if you know it well and get the point upon hearing it, it's a little difficult to put into words the first time. I never quite worked out for myself, however: is the important part of "glass" in the proverb that it is brittle or that it is transparent? Both preserve the sense of the proverb, though with a different feeling. Perhaps they are also meant to reinforce each other, giving one a double reason not to throw stones.

Which aspect dominates for you in contemplating the proverb?