Sunday, January 31, 2021

Cancel Culture

This may be a reflection of my preferred sources, but I don't think anyone on the right, individually or collectively, even if they are considered an influential person, has the power to cancel anyone on the left. Whether they can cancel anyone on the right is a an interesting question. Similarly, people who one would think fairly invisible and low on the power scale - college students, state legislators from thousands of miles away, minor journalism figures - have the ability to cause trouble for conservatives and centrists, and even liberals at times. This unbalances discussions that should be carried on even-handedly, and causes conservatives to look more defensive and strident than they otherwise might.

That is a subtle but real debate advantage that otherwise decent people on the center-left might not realise they have, which can be parlayed into emotional and social advantage because of the increased freedom to use quiet virtue-signalling and condescension without getting called on it. I am thinking of a church debate in which one person started out by saying that he thought the opposite position was "unloving." The specific examples I can think of in that argument are heavily weighted against him, yet he can say that and his opponents cannot without having to engage in a tedious and rather irritating rebuttal that would work against them in persuading a crowd.

Leaders in organisations can give an appearance of being generous by allowing conservative views to be expressed at all. Yet they are nearly invulnerable in expressing their own view.  They are being generous with little cost. There are certainly places one can go where a general conservative view is expected, and liberals might feel they were being invalidated and looked down on. That is not a good thing. But they are in no danger of losing their job over that. Someone might laugh at you or treat you with scorn. Well, welcome to my career for forty years working with liberals.

Maybe it's different in Utah or Alabama. I live in a bubble as well and may read the signs wrongly. But I don't think social workers get censured for having views more liberal than average, nor denominational pastors, nor academics, nor government employees, nor any profession that depends on a public image.  Rarely, they might get into trouble for actions which are more leftist than their organisation has chosen to go. But I don't think you get cancelled for those opinions. In some places, you see yourself as just waiting a few more years until your crowd takes over.

As I said, I may be missing an entire category of situations where this imbalance is not true, or even reversed.  I am glad to have a go at considering what those mean.  However, they are not easily coming to mind.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Economic Outlook for NH and the Nation

I am emphatically not trying to kick anyone with this.  It is just a reminder of the uncertainty of life. You will probably live forever, of course.  After all, you have lived another day as long as you can remember, and experience is the best teacher, right? Yet just in case, you might remember CS Lewis "The World's Last Night," the final essay in The World's Last Night and Other Essays, (1960)

Cochran on Diamond and Guns, Germs, and Steel

Because it come up in the comments I went back and reread Greg Cochran's posts on Jared Diamond  mostly from 2017 - they are mostly negative - and the discussions in his comments sections which are populated by people with both scientific and general knowledge.  Also, occasionally, wit.

It's a fair number of posts, and the topic is controversial.  Still, it may reward your time.  I would pay attention to the dates each one was written, because sometimes the order matters and it is not naturally in the best order.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace


I had never heard this before. It came in by surprise.

For someone from near my generation, I recommend "Alexa, play Petula Clark," which was something I had never said before.  I thought of her as a few songs, just before my time, but pleasant. But it was a happy half-hour! There are not acres of songs as there are with others from that era, but there are plenty. And this was based on AA Milne, on whom I had grown up. I tried to maintain the level of Milne with my two oldest children that had been part of my own culture growing up  - there wasn't much point in reading it aloud to the 14 y/o's that entered the family, one after another decades later - and more recently with the granddaughters.  Yet it occurs to me just this moment that his four main children's books were not so much of my childhood as I imagined.  A few were read to me, but they were mostly applied retroactively when I was in college, fetishising the innocence and wisdom of children and planning ahead for children to come. (Loggins and Messina were likely part of that.) Christopher Robin was less part of their mental furniture than he was of mine, even though I likely read to them ten times as much as was read to me, because Pooh was buried in the deluge of Tolkien, Lewis, Alexander, Cooper, L'Engle, and Genesis (including even Lot and Dinah, though reworded on the fly).

One of my son's friends in high school (Peter Stone, for those who remember) asked me "Mr Wyman, are these really the best years of our lives?"  Some teacher or invited speaker had said so, and he was doubtful.  He came to the right place. "No, the school years, especially high school, are often very hard.  But you will have your best memories from these years, so pay attention." He got it immediately, and I was proud of him. I still think that's true.  I have my fiftieth high school reunion coming up, and as things have developed I will spend much of my time with boys who threatened me and insulted me, girls who turned me down or I treated badly, people I knew almost entirely from 4th grade or from 12th, and a few jovial drunks who I'm not sure quite what experiences I shared with them.  And a few actual friends.

Encouraging Vaccine Information

 Israel's results shortly after the second shot are even better than expected.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Excess Deaths

Even though C19 isn't that frequently mentioned here compared to other sites, you may be tired of me focusing on the one particular statistic of Excess Deaths. It is born of some frustration, as I keep reading comments on other sites that 'what they are saying Covid deaths aren't "really" Covid deaths.' I don't know what the percentages are - perhaps I am solving a problem that doesn't much exist. Still, I worry. As explanation, some will point out that hospitals get a lot of money for Covid patients. One of my sons, who works at a hospital, even said that offhand. If we could establish that there weren't that many more deaths, then we might go looking at why the reported numbers were so high. CS Lewis made an analogy of bringing your child to the doctor, only to be told many reasons why your child is sick, without having established that he is sick.

He is like a doctor who makes no diagnosis and prescribes no cure but tells you how the patient got the disease (still unspecified) and tells you wrong because he is describing scenes or events on which he has no evidence. The fond parents ask, 'What is it? Is it scarlatina or measles or chicken-pox?' The doctor replies, 'Depend upon it, he picked it up in one of those crowded trains.' (The patient actually has not traveled by train lately.) They then ask, ‘But what are we to do? How are we to treat him?' The doctor replies, 'You may be quite sure it was an infection.' "On Criticism" Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories by CS Lewis.

So also with the false distinction of dying from Covid and with Covid.  If there were not about a half-million more deaths than we get in other years, which will be 400-600,000 by the time we hit our one-year anniversary, then we would be justified in asking where all this exaggeration comes from, and guessing whether it is ordinary flu, other respiratory illnesses, or heart disease that is getting renamed Covid for political reasons. It is at least not illogical to say that these extra deaths are coming from more suicides, more homicides, or postponed medical care because of our focus on the coronavirus. If you want to take that tack, then show your numbers, not just scattered reports of those, but real numbers of "We have half a million excess deaths this year because we had 100,000 more suicides, and 100,000 more homicides, and 300,000 extra deaths because of medical care that was not given because hospitals and clinics were too busy treating nonexistent (or at least exaggerated) Covid."  Show your work.

But you must certainly suspect that no such numbers are forthcoming, and if you go that route you will bring poor results to the discussion.  They ain't there. I will say again, C19 deaths are underreported, not overreported. Hospitals and doctors may have incentives, but governors have incentives too.

Right from the beginning I have stressed that I think it important that we balance what we lose versus what we gain from any interventions, mandated or voluntary.  Businesses went under or downsized, laying off workers.  We think that more children's educations are being harmed than are being helped by the remote education, particularly those with special needs. We wonder whether their social development is being harmed. Is not loneliness itself a bad consequence, even if we cannot precisely measure the ill effect?  On the flip side, there are things to put in the other balance pan.  Those who died left behind friends and relatives whose lives are harmed. There is increasing evidence that even people who recovered from C19 have long-term effects. If hearts and lungs are damaged then lives will be shortened down the road. Loss of taste and smell fairly screams "neurological symptoms." Your taste buds didn't go away, after all. That is a terrible wildcard.

Yet I think it is a fair discussion to have, and have said so all year.

But I will not have that discussion with someone who refuses to accept that the deaths are real, or denying they are coronavirus without providing at least a plausible explanation what it is instead. It would be like discussing foreign policy with someone who thinks Iran is part of Europe, or botany with someone who is sure oaks are conifers.

This problem may be about to fix itself because reports are coming out that Cuomo underreported Covid in nursing homes, and some other states may be similarly making their numbers look better than they are.  The previous skeptics have a sudden incentive to switch sides on this. I suppose I should be grateful.

Two more sections.

You can get to the CDC web page about Excess Deaths, which has interesting information in itself, such as a graph I have linked before, now updated. Sorry for the lack of clarity.  I apparently haven't the skill. The spikes in excess deaths on the far right begin last February, continuing to the present and the y-axis numbers are in increments of 20,000 deaths (per week), for all causes of death.  The other section above the line over toward the left is right around Jan 1, 2018.

But to get to the state-by-state data: Scroll down to "Options," then select the fourth entry in the first column, "Number of Excess Deaths." If the state you are looking for isn't listed, there is a drop-down on the far right that will allow you to add it.  I am interested in neighboring Vermont and Maine as well as NH, for example.

An explanation of what the two different bars mean, from the explanations on the page, to save you the time looking for it.

A range of values for the number of excess deaths was calculated as the difference between the observed count and one of two thresholds (either the average expected count or the upper bound of the 95% prediction interval), by week and jurisdiction.

Third section

When one goes browsing among the states and looking at the graphs and charts, some interesting things show up. For example, Massachusetts, Arizona, and Tennessee all have about 7M people.  If you just go to Worldometers and click the "Deaths per Million" column - which is admittedly what I nearly always do - you would think that Massachusetts is one of the worst, worst states for deaths, Arizona sorta bad with 2,000 fewer deaths, and Tennessee (about average for the country) with 5,000 fewer than MA.  But Arizona has a total of 5,000 more excess deaths and Tennessee 2,000. If not C19, what are they? Georgia has almost 4M more people than MA and claims to have about 1,000 fewer Covid deaths. But they have over 4,000 more excess deaths.  Michigan is worse - it has 9,000 more.  FL and CA both seem to be severely underreporting.  Does that trace to their governors?  Could be.  

NH seems good but not stunning here.


Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Beating Back Cancel Culture

I had been growing discouraged at what seemed to me to be increasing prominence and success of cancellings. That some of these bullies have real power is alarming, and that they can leverage even small amounts of power against vulnerable people is worse.  So the Quillette article Beating Back Cancel Culture was refreshing. The game is not over.

The first bit of advice was "Find Your Friends," and this includes finding them before there is a crisis.  I thought this was interesting, as it is exactly the advice that person who had been in a societal meltdown in South America wrote in an article directed at preppers. He had found that nothing was more valuable than a network of people who might offer you some rescue or support. 

So be of good cheer. Before my children were even born I had come to the conclusion that we live in a post-Christian nation and that all of us should be prepared spiritually and emotionally to be pushed aside, quietly or dramatically and carry on anyway, as Christians have usually had to do. I thought that day would long since have arrived, but it has not, though I do think the situation worse now. The woke, the cancellers, the bullies, and the aggrieved may still win out. Or they may destroy each other first and some new evil come upon us.  But it has not yet happened. Young people still fall in love, wine still gladdens the heart, and big-time wrestling is still on the level.

More Steve Goodman


Costly American Rail

Years ago I found The Road More Traveled  quite convincing on the inefficiency of light rail.  I recall there was a formula involving how many people had to live within some short distance - a quarter mile perhaps - of a station before it was cost effective.  There were adjustments for the expense of building parking near a stop and whether that improved matters or was mostly a wash, or even a further loss.  Everyone loves the idea of trains. They are part of the settling of the West, mobility for those who could not afford cars (or expensive urban parking), and the romance of looking out the window and watching America unfold.* 

Europe is different, which is why it works somewhat better there.  The population is denser overall, the distances shorter.  Also, Europeans are willing to put up with more crap than Americans are. That may not speak well to our spoiled character, but it's real and needs to be factored in.  If American riders don't like something, they sue someone or start an organisation to make the authorities change it.Furthermore, European trains are not what we imagine them to be from the old days either.  Lines have been discontinued as unprofitable, same as here, and have to be heavily subsidised to continue.

I've enjoyed trains over the last few decades a few times myself. The 4 hours to NYC was lovely; the 13 hours to Williamsburg a bit much, but had its charms; the 26 hours from Houston to Tucson on a sleeper had some great moments but was too much. Yet I am always aware that Amtrak is subsidised and it could all go away. The light rail once you get away from the densest populations in most metro areas is a money-loser start to finish.  But if it went away, the resultant problems might be worse. But I have just incorporated into my overall thinking that all the activism to extend Boston commuter rail up to downtown Nashua is based on nostalgia and wishful thinking, not solid numbers. But it will stimulate business for restaurants and services near the terminal. No, it will take up valuable downtown space and stimulate businesses only in a very narrow radius. Fortunately, current governor Chris Sununu has science degrees and can do arithmetic.  After him, the deluge.

Yet I am not beyond persuasion.  If the cost of expensive and less-necessary add-ons to terminals, plus special interest groups making sure that new bicycle trails and landscaping is part of the final package drives up the cost to the ridiculous extent of some of the examples listed over at City Journal in Why is American Rail So Costly?, maybe it could be done better and the trains come back. So, maybe. I remain suspicious.

Here is my worry.  Even if the basic versions of stations and rails could be made cost-effective,  once the seal is broken and we start entertaining the idea again, the bells and whistles will inevitably be added back in. The ratchet only moves in one direction.

*I like to listen to a few versions of songs I post when I can. The version by The Highwaymen is also good, but even with its harmonies I prefer this. I saved the Johnny Cash version for last, resigned to the fact that his cover would be the best, and he would have succeeded in owning a song again.  But this was not so.  His was in 1974, and there was still some of that odd mixture of hokeyness in him.  He was legit rockabilly and folk in his early career, but trying from the beginning to cross over to mainstream country and even pop, where the money was. A man's gotta make a living after all. Eventually he became one of those rare birds who became more authentic as he aged, able to take a variety of musics and bend them to his will. In his version of this you can see him about halfway there, talking about trains and America and changes.


I'm beginning to realise that every point in one's life at which one loses everything is far more a beginning than an end.  For one has lost merely the past, and one has yet to gain the future and eternity itself. Douglas Gresham Lenten Lands.
Gresham is the stepson of CS Lewis, and has a fascinating story of his own. I caught an interview with him, and he has lost everything more than once in his life. His older brother David tried to kill him multiple times growing up and was eventually diagnosed as a paranoid psychopath, having to live out his days on locked unit.  Douglas nearly lost his mother Joy Davidman in 1956 but believed that a numinous experience in the graveyard at Holy Trinity in Headington Quarry, near Oxford (where Lewis was eventually buried) allowed him to intercede for her life, and she went into remission from her cancer two days later.  Four years later she was dying again, and he felt the same choice was offered him, in the same place. At fourteen he felt he could make it after all if this Presence would only be with him and said instead "Thy will be done." He lost his mother, his father, and his stepfather over the next two years.

He has had varied ministries since then, and lived in England, Ireland, Australia, Canada, and the US at times.

Alan G. Peterson, 1940-2021

My friend Alan died a few days ago.  We saw it coming, as he had had a recent respiratory illness and then contracted Covid. The obituary is here.

A remarkable and entertaining fellow.  He was one of the first to welcome me to my church in the 1980s, and I was in Men's Bible Study on Saturday mornings with him - the study for those who were still working.  The older guys had their own study on Tuesday mornings, but they are gone now.  That is how the world is. I went on  retreat with him twice out at Pilgrim Pines in those days, and both times I came back with an Alan quote I have kept to this day. We were discussing the role of husbands and wives and Ephesians 5:22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord, and he said "I've been shopping around to see if I can find that as wallpaper to put up in our house. I've never put up wallpaper, but I figure this would be a good place to start.  Has anyone seen this around?"

He was Special Forces, embedded alone in a Vietnamese village in 1961, which was likely a bit hairy, but he would laugh about it. "Only the Army would try to disguise a 6'2" Swede in a sarong as Vietnamese," or "They told us we were there to protect the rubber plantations, but I never saw one while I was there."

When he went on mission trips to Croatia after the fall of the Iron Curtain he made special effort to talk to the soldiers damaged by the years of war, and listening to them pour out their hatred because of the language of even the printed Serbo-Croatian version of the Bibles that they had. He admitted he didn't have much to tell them, only that hatred would hurt them in the end. "I don't really have any idea what they've been through." He was politically deeply opinionated, pigheaded and unmovable even by my standards - that is not a good standard - but was also jovial about it and without hatred. 

In later years he was supportive and even rescuing of many in the Sudanese refugee community here in the Manchester area. Again, his heart went out to those who had seen great violence and suffering, shaking his head that he "could not imagine" what it was like.

Untruth on Down The Line

Via Althouse, this tweet from Joe Biden: The fact is systemic racism touches every facet of American life, and everyone — no matter your race or ethnicity — benefits when we build a more equitable America

It's not a fact, it's an opinion.  The use of "The fact is" in English as an intensifier, an emphasiser, is common, and people of all political and non-political persuasions use it all the time. The fact that it is not literally true is not the worst of offenses. However, to describe an opinion as fact often has the intent of bullying, of strangling dissent in its cradle.

"Systemic racism" we have covered before.  Insofar as it has a meaning at all beyond its shock value, it means "widespread, and it will require government intervention to make people fix it."

"every facet" and "everyone" is hyperbole. 

"no matter your race or ethnicity" is an extension of the previous and subject to its weaknesses.  It is mostly gas, expressing the opinion that his vision is not targeted toward helping one or a few groups but is good for everyone. Experience says this is false, as racial interventions invariably try to help one or a few groups - that's the point - but can be given some credit of intent  that 1) this is more fair and 2) it is probably better in the long run that we live in a fairer society. Those are both opinions, not facts, but they have something going for them.

"benefits" As above.  Opinion. Possible.

"we build" If he means "the American people as a whole, including government," I don't object.  Experiences teaches that he means "the government is going to make you do things, and we are going to call that building." Some of those may even be good things.  But a lot gets slipped in that has consequences later.

"a more equitable America." Equitable seems to have come to mean "equal in outcome," having migrated from the earlier meaning of "even-handed, just." Insofar as his new meaning is intended, it is a true statement. However, because the emotional value of equitable is meant to suggest that earlier meaning and the other equivalents of "equality, equal treatment" I have to declare it deceptive. He is tapping into the great store of emotional approval built up over centuries for words that begin with "equ-" that cause a quickening of spirit and bring tears to the eyes, but there is a bait-and-switch going on.

For some reason this reminded me of the prediction that conservatives keep making that Martin Luther King, Jr will prove unsustainable as a figure of veneration because his most-remembered racial views are closer to what conservatives now think than what even liberals now believe, let along radicals.  There are also dire warnings that his sexism, approval of rape, and even more affairs than thought would bring him off the pedestal (still might in 2027, I suppose) with women's groups and the black church, at least.  But that isn't going to happen.  He exists as a symbol, and the actual events and beliefs of his life are no irrelevant. 

Words and symbols are being used instrumentally, and may I say very effectively, rather than denotatively. I don't see that changing. The trend has been continuous at least since the invention of radio and movies, only accelerating with television and the internet to hack into the responses humans developed over thousands of years for belief and trust. Social media is only the next step, and as we have proved generally helpless against the previous hacks, I don't see how we will do better at the improved ones. Conservatives rail against how the mainstream media unfairly steers the great mass of humanity without even considering how the secondary media does the same thing with them.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont

 Speaking in 1999, about the impeachment of Bill Clinton: 

Partisan impeachment drives are doomed to fail. The Senate must restore sanity to this impeachment process. We must exercise judgment and do justice. We have to act in the interest of the Nation. History will judge us based on whether this case was resolved in a way that serves the good of the country, not the political ends of any party or the fortunes of any person.

The full speech is here.  Consider yourself warned that he is a bloviator of the first order. Not much of Cal Coolidge in that fellah.

Taibbi. Greenwald

They haven't been censored, though I note that they are resorting to more open platforms, like Substack. 

Taibbi and Greenwald are both quite concerned what is happening in law and media.  They are still liberals in policy and outlook, but increasingly sympathetic to the conservative assessment of the national discussion. Please note how quickly liberal outlets have moved to discredit them with personal attacks - rather than factual refutations - shortly after they defected. Leaving the plantation is unforgivable. If you have always been a conservative you are merely deplorable, worthy of contempt but not much more energy than it takes to ignore you.  The long knives really come out for liberals trying to make an Unapproved Point.  Tom Friedman, who I think is a smart and observant person, has had to backtrack many times over the years to keep his standing in The Tribe after making an intelligent observation.  He lacks courage.

This is my beef with conservatives, BTW, who keep picking the wrong hills to die on, railing about the lights going off and pipes bursting in Georgia or single-incident and unconfirmed reports of ballot shenanigans. I get it that they are devoted to principle - and I do not say that with the least sneer, they are - but after a couple of throws, those were never going anywhere, however much people believe they should have gone somewhere. While you were sleeping this other censorship and silencing is going online but you have spent your energy on the other stuff and are now just disgusted and discouraged.

What is the cause of that, I wonder, that throughout my lifetime the conservatives have been often right in the main but uncannily pick the wrong hills to die on?  It is likely I am cherry picking my data on that, working only from a frustrated impression.  Still, it is worth considering.  At minimum, conservatives have not been surgical in their ability to target cancers.

Lewis-Tolkien Again

Diana Glyer is a treasure. I just listened to another interview with her. I read and loved Bandersnatch, and just put The Company They Keep, which is the expanded version, on my wishlist. The prevailing opinion among both Lewis and Tolkien scholars for decades was that though they met together once and sometimes twice weekly for thirty years to discuss their own writing, along with other topics, they did not influence each other much.  Viewed in that light, it seems unlikely. This is because they both said as much, and because literary criticism tends to define "influence" from afar, so that only clear imitation is visible.  Glyer goes much deeper, showing that many, many things, from encouragement/discouragement, overall world view, and acceptable choice of topics are all influences, yet she also recounts influences of clear influence once one compares the diaries of all to the drafts of works in progress.  For example, after Tolkien read one section of his New Hobbit, several Inklings thought he should use less dialogue and more narration.  Tolkien scoffed, claiming they just didn't know what they were talking about.  But his next draft had 35% less dialogue and 25% more narration than the previous version. That is the kind of "influence" that is not visible when asking if Dickens influenced Melville.
All just so much fun, interesting, but not so moving.  Here's one that caused me to stop my walk, play this piece of the podcast over again twice, and then turn it off to think about it for the next couple of miles. Tolkien was writing his New Hobbit at the request of his publisher, and had gotten through the first few chapters, up to the point where the hobbits had left Hobbiton, had stopped in a quiet place to rest against the roots of a tree, and heard hoof-beats.  It was Gandalf arriving on a white horse.  Tolkien complained to Lewis that he felt he couldn't go forward anymore, as it all bored even him.  He couldn't imagine a reader being interested. Lewis thought he saw the problem. "Hobbits are only interesting in un-hobbit-like situations." Tolkien apparently did not reject this idea out of hand, as he usually responded to advice. He went back that very night and thought that a black rider on a black horse would be more interesting, and more in keeping with the whole of Middle-Earth. He started his rewrite from the very beginning, and by the time he got up to that part of the story again he knew that the black rider was not merely shadowy but a Nazgul, an empty, unearthly Black Rider, and also had some idea why Gandalf might be delayed.  After that, he told Lewis within a few weeks, the story was writing itself and he could not keep up. (Tolkien was a binge writer who would do nothing for weeks, then deprive himself of sleep to push through a particular section in a few days.)
So..."influence."  What does it mean?  Lewis didn't suggest anything about a Black Rider, or deepening the story, nor continuing it further.  That was all Ronald, who could legitimately claim (if he chose, though that was not his style) that he had done it all and Lewis done very little. But that was the whole of LOTR right there. The change to a black rider was everything.
BTW, other Inklings have also credited Christopher Tolkien's making maps of Middle-Earth not long after this as also having a major influence.  JRRT in some ways wrote for an audience of one, Christopher, and seeing him expand the universe, unintentionally tying it in to the huge events of the legendarium of Middle-Earth, likely allowed Tolkien to see/invent the reality that these events were not a small hobbit adventure, but the crux of the main conflict of the many ages of Middle-Earth.
But at this early point, with the hobbits still in the Shire, it was still a "There and Back Again" story, which he expected to end at Frodo's arrival in Rivendell, with perhaps a short section about his return. Fans will notice that Book One ends at the arrival in Rivendell.  The next place that Tolkien got stuck was in Bree, where the hobbits arrived, though in precarious danger, and encountered a suspicious-looking "Ranger."
A Ranger named Trotter, who was a hobbit. The year was 1941, and even had the manuscript been complete it could not have been printed because of the paper shortage.  So the story sat for a while.


Old Joke

 In Heaven...

    All the comedians are English

    All the cooks are French

    All the lovers are Italian

    All the service is Swiss

    and all the mechanics are German

In Hell...

    All the comedians are German

    All the cooks are English

    All the lovers are Swiss 

    All the service is French

    and all the mechanics are Italian

Dreadfully unfair, of course.  I like English cooking, or some of it.  Roast beef, Shepherd's Pie, Cornish Pasties.  Hearty stuff.  As for Italian mechanics, someone there must work on the Lamborghinis and Ferraris. I wouldn't know about the rest. We were only in Switzerland for a long layover and went into Zurich, but the service we had at the restaurant was rude, so I'm not buying that their service is universally excellent.  And I don't know the basis for picking on its lovers. I think five entries each is the proper balance for the joke, so the Swiss got thrown in because they couldn't think of anything for Scandinavians or Dutch or whatever. Graham Chapman of Monty Python might agree about the German comedians, though.

I asked a Romanian friend if there was a way to construct something similar involving Romanians and Hungarians and he said it must be easy - then laughed because after five minutes of trying he couldn't think of anything that worked.


Sunday, January 24, 2021

How to Become Rich

The quickest way to get rich is to give things away, both goods and money. When one gives impulsively, it is usually in response to guilt or an emotional appeal. The recipient is still helped, but you are unchanged. However, if you start giving intentionally, you want to do that with some intelligence, thinking. "I don't need this stimulus check.  What's the place that it will do the most good?" As you contemplate what groups or individuals in your life need you are constantly reminded that you have these things. Food For Children is a charity our church supports. It is no longer food only for children, but it is for people who have little to spare, and getting some of their food needs met allows them to buy other things, such as fuel, car repairs, boots. And you notice you have those things.  As you try to give wisely, you notice how you have what you need in life, and begin to see what you thought of as necessities as nice extras you are fortunate to have.

Spiritual wealth comes from praying for others. "Jason's company is laying people off. He needs a job."  You think I have a job.  I'm very lucky here. And you hear stories that remind you of your amazing good fortune. "Their daughter disappeared eight years ago.  They don't know what happened to her."

Sometimes these realisations of how prosperous you really are come to you in dramatic moments and clear thoughts, but those usually don't last very long.  We are quick to take things for granted.  You can't rely on those "aha!" moments. But as you just go along giving things away it works on you slowly, and you see yourself as more prosperous. It catches you by surprise when you run into someone and think Huh.  I used to envy him. How long ago was that? 

We gave out of duty for many years, and I think one can't start out any other way.  I doubt that we could have taken any other road, anyway.  Maybe some can.

Reimagining Prehistoric Europe


I am reading Barry Cunliffe's Europe Between the Oceans 9000BC-1000AD.  I am annoyed because he hasn't gotten to the Indo-Europeans yet except in passing reference, and also because he has the usual archaeologist's fascination with pottery, but I am finding it informative.  I get it about the pots, BTW. Most other things decompose, and cultures are often distinctive with their styles, so it is possible to see who influenced whom. He has to include such things for the students, as I suspect this is a graduate textbook.  But I would just as soon keep that to a minimum myself. I doubt anyone will be asking me for my opinion on the matter.  Cunliffe has some interesting YouTube videos on European archaeology and prehistory, if you want to follow up. He has so much there about Celts and Indo-Europeans that I thought he would be getting to that part quicker.  He is more thorough than that.

He is not the first to notice that Europe is a narrowish peninsula - even a peninsula of peninsulas - projecting west from Asia, but I don't think I have read anyone hitting the observation quite so hard or drawing so much from it. Usually, when that framing is used Scandinavia is included and sometimes even Turkey. I'd like to look at this a little differently at the moment. There are two very complicated coastlines to Europe in this picture: one in the south from the Black Sea, through the Bosporus, through many islands on the way to Gibraltar and the Atlantic; the other from Portugal through two narrow channels up to the Gulf of Finland.  Ignore the lands across from these coasts at the moment, no matter how close (though you can keep all the islands in those seas as part of the picture). We will bring them back in a bit.

The peninsula can be transversed almost entirely by navigable rivers in many places. The Danube and the Rhine you likely knew about. The Loire and the Rhone you may have been aware of if you studied French history. But there are many other places, as short as 300 miles just above the Pyrenees, and as far up the peninsula as the Dniepr and the Don, where the crossing is still only a bit over 800 miles.  The rivers emptying into the Baltic, the Dvina, the Vistula, and the Nemunas, are not as wide and navigable, but still sizable. Treat it as optional whether you include the Volga, which flows into the Caspian and was later used by the Swedish vikings, but was less of an influence on the rest of the peninsula. (Note that current political boundaries are on this map, though faint. I am considering my beginning-of-Europe boundary as running along the eastern boundaries of the Baltic States, along Belarus, and bisecting Ukraine.)

For a long while after the Little Dryas cooling period (about 10,000 BC), all of this complicated area was still mostly subsistence living, foragers and hunter-gatherers. It is important to note that these are diverse environments, with various groups settling islands, coves, littorals and fens, on up rivers to hills and mountainsides. As technology improved, there began to be trade, along coasts and up rivers. Domesticated animals and crop farming start to come in. The time periods seem long to us now, but the exchange of technology and goods accelerated precisely because there were so many varied adaptations to the incredible diversity of ecological niches.  Complexity of environment leads to shared technological improvement, which leads to increased population and prosperity, which leads to...well, it leads to war, hierarchy and government, which would seem to be a high cost, but one folks everywhere have seemed willing to pay.  The verticality of Peru created enormous variations in environments in just a few miles, leading to the Incas.  From where the Yellow River of China empties into the Yellow Sea is complicated coastline for hundreds of miles in both directions, and this area was also a source of innovation. The fertile crescent was not only good for growing things, it had contact with disparate cultures in many directions. The Tigris and Euphrates reach almost to the Mediterranean and even the Black Sea, but flow into the Arabian Sea, opening out to a different world of cultures.

But because of a late start owing to the glacier and then the Little Dryas. it took a while for Europe to catch up. But catch up it did and the spread of technology fed on itself to create more and more extensive trade networks. Now let us add the other sides of those seas back into the picture, the coast of North Africa, Great Britain, and Scandinavia. The European peninsula did not know the interiors of those facing lands, they knew them mostly as ports. But they didn't need much else. The complicated cultures that were growing up on the peninsula(s), the LBK and Corded Ware did not much penetrate those lands across the seas, just a bit of southern Sweden and Norway. Even the later Indo-European culture, which came to dominate all of Europe, did not penetrate across water very well until much later.

The great cities and civilisations do not spring up in places of similar surrounding environments but at the intersection of them, where people can bring goods like tin, amber, wine, or metalwork that is not available everywhere. There may have thus been an inevitability to the rise of Europe once it got untracked. If we replayed the prehistory a dozen times each might look different, but I think in all cases we would have seen this rise in complexity, prosperity, and population.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Another One

Deleted. Texan99 was correct that I should not guess at what I am only guessing at...

Mystical Experience

I don't have much appetite for mystical experience myself, which is likely at least part of the reason why I am so suspicious of it. I acknowledge that mysticism has an honored tradition in much of the Christian Church. While this is most prominent in the Roman Catholic and even more, the Eastern Orthodox churches, it is not confined to those.  Western Europe and its descendants have less of this than other places in the world, but Puritan diaries record raptures and visions, and even Scandinavia his its Pietists and Swedenborgians. Also many modern evangelical writers and many of my friends will describe times at prayer in which they felt the presence of God strongly, and even felt that God was revealing his will to them by affirming one set of thoughts over another as they were in prayer.  I have had this happen myself, but it is rare. 

It is likely rare because I do not seek it, yet I know enough to give a small piece of advice. Jesus told us to count the cost, and to my mind one of the meanings of this is to imagine and weigh the possible consequences of taking a job or not, of marrying or not, of giving money to Peter or to Paul. Sometimes, when we have done so and then approach God in prayer, the answer comes quickly.  But I am no expert.

Why do I not seek it?  Because I have seen mystical answers fail about as often as I have seen them work. Evangelical writers talking about discerning the will of God tend strongly to narrow to examples of "there were naysayers who said we shouldn't build that building but we did and it worked and that proves we have faith and followed God, " or similarly "I wondered if God was calling me to this location to start/revive/rescue this church and we went from 50 worshipers to 825 which proves that God was leading me in this." Maybe so, but the people that this worked for write the books. That's a highly biased sample. Those closed churches that get turned into restaurants or martial arts studios thought the same thing at one point in their history, but somehow it didn't work out.

I have seen people strike out on their own to become self-employed because they felt God didn't want them "working for the world" anymore, and people who moved to other states and had their savings, their dreams, their marriages crushed. They weren't any less spiritual than the ones who preen - and yes, you are preening if you write about your success no matter how many times you say "I give all the glory to my Lord Jesus."  If you were giving all the glory, few would know you were much involved.

Yet there is another, deeper reason why I don't trust this.  The most notable practitioners openly say how much similarity they find in the experiences and even the teachings of non-Christian mystics. A Christian friend is reading a popular modern mystic, and looking him up, he is standard New Age, not very interesting to my mind.  His teachings are not Christian, even though he sometimes quotes the Bible.  He eventually gets to feelings of Oneness, that everything is interconnected, that we are at peace when we recognise this inner harmony - because that's what they always say.  It has nothing to do with Christianity. But there are Christians who are fond of mysticism themselves who applaud this, because they think it is a healthy thing for Christians to learn this sort of mysticism. I have names in mind, past and present, but am trying not to distract by getting into individual personalities.  I think my observation applies generally, I am simply noting that I do have actual examples.

I simply cannot follow them there. Tash has nothing to do with Aslan. I am not denying that the mystical experience in different religions is similar.  Humans have a limited set of bodily responses and the fMRI of a person receiving a word from God or a word from the Devil might look the same. This is precisely why I do not trust such things. 

I find I said something similar in 2015.  GK Chesterton and Bernie Sanders are included.

Thursday, January 21, 2021


These were my people. I wore that record out. I must have heard them well before I bought the record in 1969, though.  I wrote a song called "Pipedream" in 1968 with a chorus almost identical to this.  A friend asked me why I had changed the song. I didn't know what he was talking about, but he said "That's a Blues Magoos song."  I bought the album and found out he was right.  I tried to convince myself we had independently come up with the same chorus at about the same time, but after a year or so I gave it up.  I must have heard it and stolen it.


I listened to a podcast today about praying for our enemies.  There was a good deal of Screwtape-similar material about focusing on praying for what they might need, as you would for yourself, not what changes you would like God to make in them. Yet what caught my ear was that the original questioner had seemed to talk about "enemies" as a group, and relating it to current national anger. I wondered how much the language difference influences our thinking, and our praying. Not to get to heavily into set theory and symbolic logic, but "enemies" plural as a set might mean only "the people in my head I consider enemies," who are not in any other sets together. Yet the plural might also be interpreted as "communists," or "Nazis," or "Muslim terrorists," or "Republican establishment."  More subtly, we may have many groups that we do treat as enemies and default to thinking of them as enemies but don't notice it because we have a few exceptions. We certainly see a lot of it in the news "I don't hate all Elbonians, it's just that as a culture they fail to realise..."  Yeah, they're your enemies, and Jesus's directions to you were not to go out and change them but to pray for them.

The podcasters nicely moved the discussion to praying for our enemies in the very individual sense of those who have hurt us, or hurt those we care about. Only at the end did they swing back around and expand it to those who we see as political enemies, and by that time they had laid down enough principles that it was straightforward to note that our response should be the same.

Because it is the same. We can get worked up at the injustice they have wrought in both instances, but we tend to approach them differently. Both can provoke both righteous and self-righteous anger, but these tend to express differently. 

I think I can risk telling a story closer to home, as it would be unlikely for it to get back to people who would feel insulted. The original father of one of my adopted sons was infuriating me over a decade ago, telling us how to parent and gumming up the works in a few ways.  I mentioned this to a young friend at work, a kind young woman who comes out of a 12-step mentality and believes...well, everything, including contradictory things.  She is an observant Catholic who goes to sweat lodge ceremonies and participates in tree-worship, loves the Dalai Lama and a dozen New-Agey prophets. I had often felt more than a little frustrated, and a little superior to this.  But she absolutely leveled me, sweetly: "You should contract for fourteen days to pray for him what you would want for yourself." Well, that would be the love and admiration of my children, pretty much the one thing I didn't want for him.

BUt that's pretty much what praying for your enemies is, because anyone you have a conflict with is your enemy in  that narrow way and in that moment even if it the person you love most in the world. (Related to my post of about a year ago You Cannot Forgive Your Parents, because you have to take them one at a time.)

Mask Advantage

In the context of the sudden popularity of memes inserting Bernie Sanders in his mask sitting in grouchy isolation into a hundred other situations, someone pointed out that an advantage of wearing a mask is that you don't have to make pleasant faces. Bernie's eyebrows and body language leak out his true feelings here, but the point is a good one. Some people may continue with masks for longer than they need to for non-health-related reasons.

My own reading of Bernie in that moment is "I'm done even shaking my fist at the sky." I've never felt closer to the man.

Update: You can also murmur curses without detection.  The downside is you might get used to it and keep doing that once the mask is gone.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Undeserving Poor

Because it came up over at Maggie's, I thought I would share it here.

GK Chesterton's quote in Heretics on charity is worth considering. A lot is packed into a few sentences. 

It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity, which means charity to the deserving poor; but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice. It is the undeserving who require it, and the ideal either does not exist at all, or exists wholly for them. 

Charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice. We think so often that justice must be administered by government these days that we forget that justice also lies within our reach. If a person has been dealt an unfair hand in life, we are righting a wrong by offsetting that. 

Many of us think that affirmative action is acceptable in a limited way, and was even more so a few decades ago - but in being institutionalised, it has moved ever-further into the realm of injustice, as formal and permanent structures for any type of disbursement will automatically generate rent-seeking behavior. I have had patients who have deeply abused the disability or government entitlement systems, but they do not provoke anger in me so much for the unfairness of this as that they drain resources from those who need them more. A monthly SSDI check isn't all that much, and even maximising the other benefits like Section 8 housing and fuel subsidies doesn't make one rich. Medicaid is a very valuable resource in some ways, especially if one has ongoing medical expenses. But you can't spend it, can't buy a cup of coffee with it. 

Yet injustice still exists in the world, and if we do not wish governments to step in to clumsily, and eventually corruptly and inefficiently address that, then we might take it upon ourselves to address it. It might be kind and generous of us to ameliorate injustice, but I see Chesterton's point that this may not be charity in the full sense. Mercy, grace, charity are what is given to the undeserving, as we are ourselves in the spiritual accounting. If we require that they first be grateful, or humble, or even polite then it is a step down from full charity, however good for their character it might be to learn this. 

This causes me a sharp intake of breath every time I encounter it again, and I seem to forget it swiftly.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Reality Vs Pseudo-Realities

Rod Dreher has an essay up at the the American Conservative that I think powerful and important. I have mostly-positive views about Dreher's writing.  I give him great credit for - no, never mind.  My opinion of Dreher is immaterial here. Let's stick to this essay. As with "fair use" copyright laws, I don't want to quote so much that you don't read the article itself.  As I fear Dreher himself does this with the James Lindsay article that he quotes, I am extra careful.

So be advised going in: Dreher is used to writing for a popular audience and you can sail along nicely, pausing only here and there about particularly good phrasings or surprising angles. But when he gets to quoting from Lindsay's essay the pace will automatically slow. It is not only vocabulary, that Lindsay uses words like "paramorality," "paralogic," or phrases like "alchemy of the pseudo-realist program," but that sentences after sentence seems worth stopping and looking at itself.  He is talking about the opposite pseudo-realities of QAnon and Wokeness and other settings such as the Soviet Union, yet clearly keeps his eye on the general application. To take a paragraph from the middle of the essay, we first see

Pseudo-realities are always social fictions, which, in light of the above, means political fictions. That is, they are maintained not because they are true, in the sense that they correspond to reality, either material or human, but because a sufficient quantity of people in the society they attack either believe them or refuse to challenge them.

Well, that's a quote you might highlight in some way all by itself, isn't it? It sets you back.  You might not quite take a long walk over it (though really, you might), but you could at least see yourself stopping, getting up for a cup of coffee or to do some little absent-minded chore, and making sure you have laid that down in terms of something you have seen in your life.  Unfortunately, the next sentences are

This implies that pseudo-realities are linguistic phenomena above all else, and where power-granting linguistic distortions are present, it is likely that they are there to create and prop up some pseudo-reality. This also means that they require power, coercion, manipulation, and eventually force to keep them in place. Thus, they are the natural playground of psychopaths, and they are enabled by cowards and rationalizers.

Whoa.  That one may take at least a short walk, or an email to a wise friend to go over this with you.  But you are not yet at rest.  The paragraph concludes 

Most importantly, pseudo-realities do not attempt to describe reality as it is but rather as it “should be,” as determined by the relatively small fraction of the population who cannot bear living in reality unless it is bent to enable their own psychopathologies, which will be projected upon their enemies, which means all normal people.

It was at this point I decided I could not content myself with reading Dreher's excerpting and commentary on the essay, but needed to go read it myself.  I was tempted to link to it here and sign off, but I do think Dreher's followup is also worth a great deal, and so suggest to you that you find your own spot in the American Conservative link to interrupt and read the deeper, denser essay in full. I have bookmarked it myself. It is difficult and tiring, though to read something an essay in which a high percentage of the sentences could be specially highlighted, or taken out to quote to others as a foundation for an essay of one's own.

Because "universal compliance" is mentioned, I will insert a long-held thought of mine I think important in this context.  We contrast the free market and communism as if they are on all fours, making excuses for the latter because conditions have never been right and the attempts have always been undermined by other forces.  But this is precisely the point.  Communism works only when it is applied perfectly, without corruption, with wise rulers upon a deeply moral population.  When do we expect those conditions to occur?  OTOH, The free market works even though it is always applied with imperfect means, some corruption, unexpected events, and incompetent implementation, however slowly and partially that "works" is. So too with Wokeness and the pseudo-realities of the Right, like QAnon. They cannot work until everyone is made to comply, so the energy is directed into making people comply rather than providing evidence that the machine actually makes widgets.  How can we expect it to make widgets when everyone has not yet gotten into line?

When I returned to the essay, I found that Lindsay went on to make much the same point.  So i didn't need to.  I kept it in anyway, if only because mine is a bit more thorough.

He doesn't mention anti-vaxxers, BTW, and perhaps this is fair because thy confine themselves to a single issue rather than society at large.  But you will recognise some of the tactics claiming that other have not doen the research or are still being fooled by Big Whatever. Also, they bring normals into this pathology by these techniques by getting them to "meet them halfway," and then assert that there must be something to the claims.

I will highlight a couple of his closing quotes

It is understandable why most will not choose this path, but be warned: the longer one waits, the worse this gets 


The earlier one enters this fight, the more courage it takes and yet the more valuable it is. 

Understand that the word "fight" largely means a resistance to being shamed and cowed, not any storming of the Bastille or dramatic civil disobedience about social distancing.  It is mostly about what is said or unsaid, and quiet related actions. Lindsay is very clear about this, but I didn't want you to be put off and not bother with the long essay yourself if you haven't yet gone over.

Rod Dreher's essay quotes Vaclav Havel in summation, as he often does. He's a good choice, a good hero from the 20th C. "...refusing to live by it, no matter what it costs, and thus showing the world that it is possible to live in truth"

Capitol Wall

 The Babylon Bee again defuses the moment with a very apt reminder of the reality.

Tolkien-Lewis Update

I wrote years ago What Tolkien Disliked About Narnia, and my mind had not changed about this until recently.  Holly Ordway, the author I mentioned yesterday in Notes From an Unliterary Reader relates that this is greatly overstated, tracing much though not all of it back to Humphrey Carpenter. Her method is very strict with regards to original sources, rather than two generations of critics quoting each other about who said what to whom. She finds few direct references of what Tolkien thought about Narnia, but looking at the few unarguable ones, she finds his disapproval mild and his approval considerable.  For example, he had a bookshelf for the grandchildren when they came over, and this was watchfully curated, with few volumes in total, as he was a bear about encouraging good taste in literature.  All seven Narnian Chronicles were on the shelves, elsewhere estimated at about thirty volumes in total.  Beatrix Potter and Lewis Carroll were also believed to be on the shelf, but I have not found any further books identified specifically. He remarked in correspondence that he was glad that his recipient had discovered Narnia, and that the books had become "deservedly popular." 

The negatives are that he commented "I hear you've been reading Jack's [Lewis's] children's story. It really won't do, you know! I mean to say: 'Nymphs and their Ways, The Love-Life of a Faun'. Doesn't he know what he's talking about?" (italics mine) and "It is sad that 'Narnia' and all that part of C.S.L.'s work should remain outside the range of my sympathy, as much of my work was outside his." But the former was after listening to the first few chapters read aloud, and given the italicised part is easily attributable to the standard mythology of fauns/satyrs as rapists, and Lewis changed what books appeared on Mr Tumnus's shelves thereafter. As to the latter, Tolkien did express distress at Jack's mixing of myths and "too obvious" allegory, as his works are less so. Still "Leaf by Niggle" is allegorical, and the opening section of Silmarillion is clearly allegorical to my eyes, so I am not sure he is being quite fair.  Though I take his point. Aslan executed on the Ten Commandments Stone Table and then resurrecting shortly thereafter is too blatant for my taste as well, however many modern readers are oblivious to it. "Outside the range on my sympathy" should be regarded as no more and no less than what it says.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Ol' 55

 It's a Tom Waits song, but I have never warmed to his voice.  

Lewis and Frost

 I just learned today that not only did CS Lewis nominate JRR Tolkien for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, he nominated Robert Frost in 1962. Frost was nominated many times, but the reason given for his being passed over in '61 was his advanced age (86). Tolkien nominated two other times.

Notes From an Unliterary Reader

The knowledge I gained from reading "An Experiment in Criticism" (Well, That Stung, 1/11/21) has provided me with further insights, which is what self-knowledge is supposed to do.  I will state again that I think Lewis is correct in what he calls an unliterary reader, and after an initial feeling of being miffed, have decided it is rather humorous and has significant explanatory power for my reading and appreciation of the arts in general. I am an unliterary reader, because I am almost entirely something else, a reader for information. More evidence that it's rather a disease, really.

I don't want to oversell this.  It isn't as if I have no understanding of poetry, description, atmosphere, or myth.  I likely have more than the average citizen.  It's just that I have a lot less than most people who have read a lot of literature and are trained in the arts. I like poetry well enough once I have read even a bit of analysis or explanation of it.  I certainly like a good deal of music beyond just the tune, and admire a good lyric - likely because those are more straightforward than poetry. Yet I have always skimmed the description even in novels I adore, such as Tolkien or Lewis. Get on with it, will you? When I would read these aloud to my sons I would see things I had not before, which was interesting.  To make it interesting to them I would concentrate on the expression of each sentence, applying emphasis and phrasing on the fly.  When I was first reading Watership Down to my oldest son I mentioned somewhat apologetically that Adams seems to describe every plant on the landscape. "But Dad," he said "That's how it would look to rabbits."  He was less bothered by this than I, even as a child.  Entering into the world of rabbits, rather than just getting a whopping good narrative about them, was fine with him. 

This lack also explains to me why I have never been impressed by the evaluation of a movie or a book that raves about how well it was done, even though the critic disapproves of the message. He's a wonderful prose stylist. Well, so what? My son who is a filmmaker, unsurprisingly, finds it easy to admire the craft of a director even while disliking the theme. I can only do this in a limited sense.  I can certainly admire technique and skill in a musician or a painter, and even more can be irritated by something that is not well done, even if its purpose and theme are to my liking.  Not for nothing have I always approved of Goethe's Three Questions and its order, but only today did I notice that I  "approved of the order" only in the sense that #3 is last. What is the artist trying to do? is a foundational question for the second, How well did he do it? But for me, the answer to the first question also tells me whether I want to even bother with the other two. Philip Pullman wrote His Dark Materials as an anti-Lewis, anti-Narnia fantasy.  I don't want to read it, then. I don't care how well he did it.  I don't find that "interesting" in any way. That's what it means to be an unliterary reader, and I'm fine with that. I want to soak up information that I can keep and use somewhere, or race along with a narrative. I can sometimes savor music, as in the Pachelbel Canon in Dmaj, listening to it as an expression of the Trinity (even though it is written for four instruments).  I can go back and reread favorite books, not so much to learn something new every time, as literary people always say, but to re-experience the narrative and hear the conversation.  I am very big on conversation in literature, as I love conversation in real life.* Hmm. I can hear and savor nuance better than see it.  I just concluded that as I wrote it.  I may revise later.

My younger brother has always made his living in technical theater, particularly lighting, but has mentioned that he believes he understands and interprets scripts well. Certainly, one must be able to appreciate mood, movement, and atmosphere to do this, so I have to conclude he has this literary ability in greater measure than I. We inherited differently from our parents, likely. I was the one more interested in the stage at first, and he tagged along as younger brothers do.  But he was enchanted on his own, and made theater connections on his own in a new town after I left for college. Then he stuck with it, even when it didn't pay well enough or people treated him badly. I think my wife and two natural sons have more literary sensibility as well.

I am listening to an interview with Holly Ordway who has a book coming out in a week Tolkien's Modern Reading: Middle-Earth Beyond the Middle Ages. She set out to knock down a myth about Tolkien, that he thought literature ended with Chaucer and had little approval or appetite for modern writers, because in her academic research she kept finding counterexamples. Tolkien loved Dylan Thomas, bought Finnegan's Wake as soon as it came out because he was so impressed with Joyce's earlier work, he nominated E.M.Forster for a Nobel Prize. He praised ERR Eddison's creativity and style, even as he found the underlying values evil. Clearly, he had this ability to draw from and savor works that he might disapprove of in some other way. Unsurprising in a literary man, I suppose. A further explanation why this was never the career for me.

As an aside, Ordway wondered where this myth had grown up, as it had so little support in the factual events of Tolkien's life and writing. She attributes it to his first biographer, Humphrey Carpenter. 

It is Carpenter who popularized the idea that Tolkien was a reactionary old medievalist, uninterested in contemporary literature: “The major names in twentieth-century writing meant little or nothing to [Tolkien]. He read very little modern fiction, and took no serious notice of it.” (Michael Ward The Catholic World Report, Jan 16, 2021 [good article, hot off the presses])

Carpenter, the son of the Anglican Bishop of Oxford,  who became an atheist at age 21 didn't like Tolkien, didn't like the Inklings, didn't like Oxford scholarship, and didn't like Christians. Christopher Tolkien was incensed at the first draft of the biography. Carpenter removed a few sections and no more was said about it. But there are apparently other myths about Tolkien, such as not approving of women scholars and avoiding them, or being a Luddite who disliked modern technology, that also stem from HC's biography. It is testament to a sort of founder's effect in information, that whoever gets in first can dominate the thinking for a long time to come. We like to believe that the truth will eventually out, but I doubt that.

*Well, sometimes.  Sometimes you bore me, nearly all of you, and I can't wait to get away and soak up some information somewhere, or daydream about some interactive lecture that I might give to a Sunday School class or a Grand Rounds. I like the radio station that plays in my head.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Retraction of Accusation Against Dominion

In response to Dominion's defamation attorneys contacting them and explaining what was likely to be up, American Thinker has issued a complete public retraction and apology to them, including the following: 

These statements are completely false and have no basis in fact. Industry experts and public officials alike have confirmed that Dominion conducted itself appropriately and that there is simply no evidence to support these claims.

I think they are still not fully in the spirit of apology, however, as their front page simply has the word "Statement" at the top of one of its list of articles. If you weren't looking for it, you might not click on it.  Reason's Jacob Sullum has commentary

Powerline reader Matt Mashburn, a member of the Georgia State Election Board has something related to say about the vote dump there.

Descent of the Adversary Culture

Scott Johnson over at Powerline has linked to two articles about the adversarial attitude that intellectuals have long had toward American culture, which does not seem founded on actual history or sociological knowledge, but on a desire to reject the masses, the popular culture. One is by Dartmouth professor Jeffrey Hart in 1970, on the 15th anniversary of National Review, and a February 2021 article in First Things by Kathy Kersten.  Neither is terribly long.

Hart advocates learning historical context, and I concur, and I would also point the reader to CS Lewis's introduction to a (then) new edition of Athanasius, "On The Reading of Old Books," also not long.

I understand their disdain all too well. I developed that attitude young, likely as a compensation for being a poor kid who was trying to be accepted among the top academic groups, who were usually more well-off. I still shudder at a lot of popular culture, and hope that this snobbery is at least for artistic or moral reasons - though I am not very confident of that. As much as I hated it, it was good for me to work at a low-status job for many years, not only to break me down a bit, but also to find how wonderful a lot of nonintellectual people really are.  Nicer than a lot of the supposedly more enlightened people I was aspiring to count myself among.

Taking Nominations

Which the best Monty Python routine? Please nominate, and I will find one of those programs for putting up a poll, for those who are shy but still want their voice to be heard here. I have not included any movie scenes, but I could get talked into it. Or perhaps we should do separate categories there.

The obvious choices are

The Dead Parrot 

The Argument

The Four Yorkshiremen, and

The Cheese Shop. To which I will add the lesser-known

Bruce's Philosophers Song.

Electoral College

The News Junkie over at Maggie's linked to an article over at Zerohedge about the Electoral College. I have mixed feelings about Durden, but that article is good if not very deep. He does hit on one point I had not fully thought of, that most democracies have a two-step process for national elections, though those differ.  That doesn't strike me as accidental.  But he touched on a point I think deserves a little more expansion.  Presidential candidates have to develop an appeal to more than one group, and this is a good thing. We get upset when none of those groups are our own, and make objections when our own groups are not only poorly represented but actively discriminated against. But most of us understand that this is how the system works in general. If someone assembles a coalition and does not abuse his power against the defeated, we hope to win next time. 

David Hackett Fischer in Albion's Seed, which I used to reference often and still recommend as essential for understanding colonial history and beyond, tracked the voting patterns of the presidential elections against the four British folkways in America (Puritan New England, hierarchical coastal South, especially Virginia, Middle Atlantic Quaker, and Appalachian Scots-Irish, and the further places they went on to settle) and notes that no one won without having a solid grip on the votes of two of those four, even into the 1980s - and I think that continues.  The people who came from other places tended to seek places where they were comfortable - German Pietists to Pennsylvania and further west, for example - so the founder effect did not dissipate. 

Texas was founded by Appalachia plus Germans and Czechs coming in on a foundation of a few Mexicans and some natives, but now Houston and Dallas and Austin have people from all over.  The Pacific Northwest was mostly settled by New England and the Upper Midwest.  Yet even though very different groups have moved in, there remains a founder effect, and those new groups do somewhat choose on the basis of the culture they want to enter. 

The Electoral College is only a restraining influence on the domination of a single American culture over the many others, but it's something, and I don't think we should be giving it away.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Planet Narnia Chart

In my reconsideration of the thesis behind Planet Narnia I went looking to see if there were a good chart to do a preliminary evaluation of whether it was a forced theory. I found a good one by Brenton Dickieson at his blog A Pilgrim in Narnia, which I have linked to a few times over the years. 

Some of them just jump out at you.  I had already noticed that wateriness is all over The Silver Chair, and both gold and something about things becoming clear were prominent in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, so when lunacy, doubt, and enchantment were added in to the former and both light and dragon-slaying are added in to the latter the pattern is certainly looking good. Yet I didn't know what to do with tin and copper, associated with Jupiter and Venus respectively, nor with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Magician's Nephew. Nor, in the chart, do I see the geometry of LWW or the grammar of SC. Are these all just blanks that have been filled in because something had to go there, like a clumsy rhyme? Yet by happy chance I remembered that Lewis had written about Venus - Venus as a destination, not a goddess or a planetary influence - and went to browse there to see if copper fit in somehow. Before he has even landed and is still in the casket by which he traveled, Ransom notices that the intense white light of being in space has suddenly changed after entering the atmosphere of Perelandra 

The prevailing colour, as far as he could see through the sides of the casket, was golden or coppery.
It's the first color he sees on Venus. So Lewis has done this sort of thing before. 

Don King tried years ago to fit the Seven Deadly Sins onto the Chronicles as well. I didn't even bother to read it after hearing about it, but now, having read Till We Have Faces and seeing that Lewis is not only interested in but capable of writing on many levels at once in his world building I took a look. I really don't want to have hidden structures being discovered every few years, but I had to admit that King makes a slightly different point, of a downstream consequence of the sin (and of the mode of rescue) and it does make sense.  That Edmund's gluttony - and its rescue - had more downstream consequence than any other act in LWW was pretty obvious; The greed of Eustace and its repair is the central fact of VDT; I am not sure I would have agreed about anger in The Magician's Nephew had I not just read moments before about the exemplifying scene of Jadis throwing the lamppost at Aslan in fury during the creation.  The lamppost that had consequences centuries later in LWW. For the others, see what you think yourself.

Could Lewis have been doing both? And are the Seven Virtues, three theological and four cardinal, also going to turn out to be an underlying pattern? I'm sure someone has given those a try. Three of the books have biblical parallels, four do not.  One might start there.  After TWHF I might believe anything about Lewis's intent.  In particular, having seen what he did there, I can no longer think that the Chronicles, nor any of his works were slapdash and hodgepodge, as has been accused. Once started down any such road, he would continue it with precision and thoroughness, even if he handled it lightly, regarding it as an influence rather than a structure, as he did with the myth of Cupid and Psyche in Faces.

Just for fun: The name Lucy, means "light," appropriate for the one who sees more clearly than the others; Susan comes from a Hebrew word for "beautiful," for which Queen Susan was indeed renowned, enough to make Lucy jealous.  Peter, of course, is "rock," also fitting and Edmund meaning "fortunate protector" is a remarkable double use of a name, for he was initially very, very fortunate, and later became the great swordsman, and wise in counsel, Edmund the Just. Those don't seem accidental, nor slapdash.

Friday, January 15, 2021


 I would say this qualifies as a pagan atmosphere...

Faun has a lot of things like this.


CS Lewis made a strong distinction between pagan and heathen in his writing. I would like to hold to his way of looking at things, because I think it would be a useful distinction.  The actual pagans, like Wiccans, have revived the term and do use it for themselves in much the same way that he did, meaning worshipers of nature gods rather than as a simple pejorative for unbelievers. Still, one will find the two terms regarded as synonyms in much writing, and I don't want to be misunderstood. Both words come from similar roots, meaning country or rural dweller (as in "heath," see it?) If that seems the reverse of American and European demographics today, with the city dwellers being much less likely to be churchgoers than the rural folk, I think that becomes clearer if we look at the people of the countryside often being those who hold to the old religion, which in current Western Civ is Christianity, and city-dwellers following the new religion, liberalism. But in previous eras Christianity was the new religion, not the old one. (I am in an email discussion about whether this holds true in the Third World today and think that this is so in many places, but Latin America has wildly different patterns, likely owing to its longstanding Catholicism which has seen recent competition from Pentecostalism.  I'm not seeing that pattern clearly there.)

So in that formulation, pagans worship other gods while heathens are more generic unbelievers in monotheism.

Lewis had a great deal of sympathy for paganism, and found some impulse within himself to worship these natural gods and goddesses. I do not in the least share this.  It is a temptation I do not share, and take no protections against it.  However I might remove myself from the Church and God's grace, that won't be it. Shortly after my conversion, the person who led me to Christ, a very artsy person, was playing Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" when I was visiting. I shuddered.  I had heard of, but never heard the piece, but immediately recognised "That's. Just. Pagan." and I did not mean it as a neutral evaluative description. I suppose that means that Stravinsky achieved his desired effect very well, if a first time listener could instantly discern that this was a rite of something natural, spring being a good guess.

That the pagan spirits can be enjoyed by Christians, once they have been fully submitted to Christ, died and buried in the ground to rise again like a grain of wheat (natural image), is all over Lewis's fiction. These have never been the parts that moved me most, but I have heard enough from fans who were moved to not dismiss it lightly. The Oyarsa of the Ransom Trilogy as well as Tinudril; Ungit and Cupid and Psyche in Till We Have Faces; the lead quote of "Forms of Things Unknown" (The Dark Tower and Other Stories) explains how a Medusa appears to - and petrifies - a terrestrial human. "...that what was myth in one world might always be fact in some other." 

The myths of our own world appear as real creatures throughout Narnia.  Lewis humorously gives example of this being an interpenetration on Mr Tumnus's bookshelf Is Man a Myth? and more seriously at the edge of the world in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where a Christ-figure more familiar in ours appears in Narnia. Father Christmas looks like an intrusion, a mistake in the plot of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, until we see that point, that Lewis is intentionally making a world in which all our mythological figures are realities in that other. The even deeper idea underlying this in The Last Battle, that even those figures in a hundred other worlds are expressions of their Platonic ideals in Aslan's own country. I will stuff in here that I have come back to accepting Michael Ward's theory in Planet Narnia, that the seven chronicles are each tied a planetary influence, Jupiter for LWW, Mars for Prince Caspian, etc.  I believed it, then discarded it as too forced, and have now come back to it.  Ward oversells the idea in places, but the idea that the atmosphere, the influence, the palette if you will of each planet is real throughout a book. 

I am not entirely insensitive to the different flavors of having Merlin versus dryads versus unicorns operating in the story, but I sense that others feel these things much more keenly than I. Ents are an atmosphere, Tom Bombadil was a mere neutral to me. The appearance of Pan in The Wind In The Willows was boring, not offensive.

Lewis explains this better than I, and if I do not convince you here of the legitimacy of use of paganism in his fiction you should read his own better explanations, or more easily, reflect on whether they make sense in the characters you already know of his fiction. The Bible is somewhat ambiguous in its description of other spiritual forces, in some places regarding them as having no power, in others as possessing real but lesser power than God. Returning to the idea of coinherence again, Lewis would likely say that they have some derivative power, whether from God or from satan, but unreliably in both goodness and might. While allowing that such might be so, I would propose an analogy that I hope works.  These gods and goddesses, these Aphrodites and Thors and Baals have distinct flavors but no nutrition. We might say the same of devotions to the saints, that they never claim to be nutrition in themselves, but would point you to the Eucharist instead. Yet all might have a flavor which can be used to appeal to various regions or problems. Thus in literature, it is entirely appropriate to have a jovial character like Father Christmas as flavor, expression, atmosphere. It doesn't work that well for me personally, but I can see how it might not be forbidden. Grim can keep his Hogmanay videos and the like after all.  No penalty.  It's just a flavor.

Is It Funny?

Ann Althouse has a post about her online interaction with her son about impeachment humor. He had put up the lines 

The most impeached president in American history! I wonder if Trump is tired of all this winning… 
Half of all impeachments of an American president have been of Trump!... 
We’re going to have impeachment, like you wouldn’t believe. A lot of people are saying he’s the best president ever at getting impeached. No one had ever heard of impeachment before Trump.

She asked "Is it funny?" which strikes me as the first question we should be asking about humor. Because if it's not funny, but people are calling it humor, then what is it? There are 233 responses there, so I'm not going to get buried in that, but it is at least interesting to look at the question.  Humor is often time-bound or generational.  My father-in-law, a humorous man, did not find The Far Side funny, though I found it hysterical.  He loved Laurel and Hardy, which I found mildly amusing. 

"Funny" is hard to define.  Stalin roared with laughter about what his enemies said as they were being tortured. I recall many jokes told by boys when I was young to be simply mean, and girls at that age could sometimes be reduced to tears laughing with their friends about things that had no intrinsic humor, such as a phrase that referred to an inside event that wasn't so much funny but shared by only a few.  "Cuckoo clock!" Hold-your-side humor. Very developmental.

Still, I think I have a vaguely objective measure for whether something is actually funny, or whether something else is happening. (And if the latter, what is the Something Else?) Can you imagine 1) a recognised comedian saying the line and 2) his or her audience laughing?  Let's apply that standard to the jokes above.

Can you imagine Bob Newhart saying any of the three lines and his audience laughing?

Can you imagine Richard Pryor doing so? Mark Twain?  Chris Rock? Mae West?  Really, take a moment and run each one through the mill.  It's only a few seconds each.

Put those words in Joan Rivers mouth, or Jonathan Winters and hear in your mind the response of their usual audience.  Robin Williams.  George Carlin.  John Cleese.  Eddie Izzard. Not working.  Not, not working as anything funny.

Let's hit the more modern, more political group and see what results.  If Sarah Silverman says this, what's her delivery?  What audience might she have that would find it funny? I can sorta maybe hear that,  Tina Fey?  Yes, maybe.  All the late-night and SNL people might be able to get laughs out of their audience from some of these lines, but I can't hear anything I would call funny.  I will assert that those laughs are not because of humor, but Something Else, but I have considerable prejudices in this area.  John Oliver: I wonder if Trump is tired of all this winning...