Saturday, October 30, 2021

Two Fingers


Gypsies, now called Roma, pick up the music of wherever they are and inject a flavor in it from further east. That is less obvious with Reinhardt, who fused so many styles that there is no real tracing back. Yet he does sound more Central European than Western European, even late in his career.

I taught a simple song to Roma children in Budureasa,* Transylvania in 1998, a translation of an American song. They were singing along with me by the end of the first line, causing me to conclude some other American must have taught it before. Not so. They just sensed where it was going right away. 

*You can read more of it than you think.

Prehistoric Burials.

 Next up: Prehistoric Burials.  I have to stop taking the bait and stick to my strong suits.


I was on the trash-pickup crew for the co-op Wednesday, a job I enjoy. There is a 15-minute break in the garage while the grounds manager drives the truck to the town dump.  When he returns, we cover the park again, picking up the recycling. Television service and classic cars are the two favored topics of conversation. Not mine, but I'll play along easily. Several of the older guys here own a restored Mustang or some such, and all of them have invested money in their TV screens and other equipment. They were grousing about whether it was better to get a dish, or to switch cable providers, and they talked openly about sharing Netflix passwords with their children, jailbreaking firesticks without regard to whether they were watching copyrighted material, and other workarounds to avoid paying for stuff.  I only know the rudiments of what is legal and what's not, as we have not had TV since 1979.

But what struck me was the repeated use of the word "they," especially by one guy. "They always screw us on the cost, I don't mind screwing them back." "They've been overcharging us for stuff for years.  I don't see how they get away with it." The they, when you break it down, seems to be "big companies that charge money to provide equipment or content that I watch on my screen." That these are different companies in different decades, even different industries, is not part of their schema.  It's "they." Note that this cannot fairly be called paranoia, but it has some aspects of paranoid thinking.  I do believe we have a certain baseline level of mood, which floats around a bit because of circumstances. It seems probable that lifetime events could move the propensity for depression or anxiety up or down. Yet I now believe that baseline is much more solid than I used to even ten years ago (certainly twenty). 

Even though if you challenged them that these were not any sort of united group - which they certainly know and could probably describe even better than I could - they would not modify their view much. They're all the same.  They've got you over a barrel and they can charge whatever they want.  It's a good thing to screw them right back.

I used to see this working at the hospital. People would get admitted and refuse to answer questions, saying "You know all this already.  Just look it up and don't bother me." It was hard to convince them that we did not have access to what the police reports were saying about them, or even if they had a criminal record. (We did get notified if someone was a registered sex offender or if they had an outstanding warrant, though we were not told the specifics in either case.) This was even more pronounced when children were admitted. Parents would assume we knew what was happening at the school, in the juvenile justice system, in the community agencies. And they were angry at it all. It was all of us, THEY, who were ruining their child, or at least not "giving him the help that he needs." That not only were all these agencies not in cahoots, but were sometimes quite opposed in their assessments of the situation was foreign to them. We might listen to a description by parents about a first-time admission and say after the conference call "I'd like to hear what the special ed coordinator/JPPO/therapist has to say. She is leaving things out." But we were also very prepared to say "This school district is not doing its job.  They just want to punish the kid." Or"That kid needs a different therapist. Where the f- did they find this clown?"

There is no grand collection of "agencies" that is acting on you or your child. We have to get permission to talk to them, and if you don't give it, we don't know it.*

Often this is merely pitiable, of people who have a terrible illness and just don't understand how systems work, or a kid with frightening behaviors and no one who seems to have any solution. Even if they are angry and unreasonable, you try to put yourself in their shoes and give the best service you can.  Life is hard, and ridiculously hard for some people.  You want to help them negotiate their way through. Yet others do have some understanding of systems.  Our nightmare patients and parents are physicians themselves, or psychologists, or attorneys, or elected officials who understand systems quite well and know what buttons to push. Yet amazingly, many of these also have a "they" mentality. To them it is all connected in spirit somehow.  The World is arrayed against them, has victimised them for decades, refuses to listen to them. Sympathy for such folks is different. One retains the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God pity, speculating on whether we would do any better in their shoes. Yet we also know that these people are dangerous. They ruin their own lives or the lives of their family members. They spread crazy medical and psychological information, dissuading people from getting the treatment they need because they have a Better Idea, usually based these days on "natural" solutions, though alternative medicine and cockamamie treatments can take many forms. The Scientologists are merely the worst of the lot, not the onlies. They poison the well against the only people who have a track record of helping at all, even if THEY (we, me) have the usual percentage of pricks, cranks, bitches, and arrogant bastards. 

Notice again, this is not quite paranoia, though it can be paranoid in its more extreme expressions. It is paranoi-ish, or paranoid-adjacent, as Zoomers might say. But it is mostly just a cynicism out of control. It's that baseline level of paranoia again, just applied to social services. It isn't psychotic. However, it is not just logically weak.  These are not always logic issues or education issues or where-you-get-your-news issues. Some of it is a bit crazy and comes from within.

Longtime readers will have suspected that this has been a setup to this point, and that is fair, because I do that.  It is not my intent to trick you, to suck you in, to build a case and then pull the rug. But it is very much my intent to provide a context of "Oh yeah, I can see how that could be the case in general" before getting to a specific case about something you aren't going to like nearly as well.

This year it happened to conservatives about covid. These are my people, or were. Now, perhaps, I have no home. I keep reading about what they told us about vaccines, or distancing, or projections, or mandates, or school closings, or children, or Europe, or Sweden, and the they might be the CDC, or school boards, or the pharmaceutical industry, or Joe Biden, or any of 50 governors, or Andrew Cuomo, or academic researchers, or the Washington Post, but no, no no, it's all the same thing. They told us. It is often based on some real information, though scant.  Fauci did say mask/don't mask.  And then for eighteen months every skeptical article about covid has led with that in the first paragraph. We were misled about the possibility of it being a lab leak rather than a bat flu - which is important when considering what is going on in government in general and who is protecting whom, but has absolutely noting to do with vaccines, school closings, masks, mandates of any sort, distancing, Karens, or your personal suspicion that THEY-are-always-trying-to-take-our-freedoms. Nothing.  It's not making the right distinctions, it is responding with emotion rather than logic. Various industries have set masking and vaccination requirements. States have had intermittent rules about same.  The federal government proposed sweeping requirements, as they always do, and then...well, not much happened. Even over the things that they do control, like federal employees, it was only some o' this, some o' that.

Hospitals and clinics required people to mask and to get vaccinated, on the basis of very good hard information about contagion. Oh gee, what a horrible infringement on our liberties that was. Maternal outcomes were better, the flu season was low, we even had fewer colds. So the medical people, in their own space, having no authority over anyone else, had it exactly right and proved their point. If it wasn't worth it for the society as a whole about business closings, many of which were voluntary, that is no skin off their nose. When you break the theys down into individual components it all looks different.  How did your specific governor do, and what did s/he do right or wrong?  What did your specific industry, your church, the stores in your town do? There is no they. Don't Karen me about this. She doesn't matter.

Even here, and at the relatively reasonable sites I frequent we get people telling me that it's not a real vaccine, because it's not 100% effective and people still can get the disease. Like that's not true of all vaccines.** Because somehow it is they who are not to be trusted, and they are telling us what to do.  Key point: the friends who are quite careful in their own writing about what is logically supportable and what needs qualifiers still keep linking to crazy people who don't come close. What am I to think? 

Oh look! We found a fact! Let's use that to support every skeptical argument we can unearth.  Like no one has ever done that before.

It's not psychotic.  It's not paranoid.  It's just that cynicism run amok I was talking about.  I have positive acquaintances, people I liked to work with who are emphatically not psychotic who would ask "But don't you think it's odd how few Jews were killed in the Twin Towers?" Or "Reiki helps so many people but you can't get anyone to acknowledge that.  Don't you think the Medical Establishment is trying to downplay how effective it is?" Or the old standards about the Catholic Church not letting you read the Bible or Roosevelt knowing about Pearl Harbor in advance. But let someone go on Tucker Carlson and try to claim that these deaths are not covid, but  really just 25-44 y/o's getting the vaccine,  and no one at any of the entirely reasonable conservative sites I go to seems to be saying "Fuck this! I'm never watching him again and I'm telling my friends not to either.  These people are loons." They think it's good that alternative points of view be available. Well fine.  Let them be available.  Go over to

A humorous comparison. Years ago, there was a charming and attractive woman who went to my church who was skilled at winning over both women and men. She just told men to pick stuff up and move it here or move it there and they would just do it, wondering why later.  Women would quote the funny things she said at women's events. A beloved and truly talented person. Somewhere along the way I picked up that the smiliness was only part of it.  She intuitively invaded your space just a bit, still smiling. Men interpreted it as vaguely flirtatious.  Women felt it as a sisterly intimacy. She was back for that Swede Nelson memorial service I mentioned and frankly, she's still got it.  But I keep my distance now, smiling myself. She had two daughters, very attractive, the same age as my oldest son.  When he was in junior high youth group I noticed at an event once that he looked just a touch wide-eyed, just a touch overwhelmed and frozen. One of those daughters was talking to him, just that little bit too close like her mother, and the poor boy was at sea.  I wanted to shout "Swim clear! You'll be fine if you just get a bit of distance!"

I say that to my conservative friends now: "Swim clear! You'll be fine if you just get a bit of distance.!"

There is no "they." If you find yourself thinking that in any way, swim clear.

*Unless you had me as your social worker, that is, in which case I can read between the lines of what is not being said and drawing conclusions from that. (And I also remember your sister from highschool or had your uncle as a patient 25 years ago and know things I can't say out loud but can use to understand things. New Hampshire is a small state.) More humbly, a lot of us are skilled at noticing what dogs are not barking.

**Rant available. Do I have to pull this car over?

Friday, October 29, 2021

500 Songs

I am listening to Andrew Hickey's "The History of Rock in 500 Songs."  It is the same series that Ann Althouse mentions occasionally, though she has caught up and is listening to episodes as they come out, while I am in the early episodes.

It contains much good information, but perhaps it would be better named "The History of American Racism in 500 Songs." Hickey is a Brit, which would ordinarily be a plus for an Anglophile like me, but in this case it is tiring, that he has the standard-issue, not thought out prejudices about Americans of his tribe in England.  In episode 18 he makes a good point about the Crewcuts making their fortune by taking R&B songs by Black artists and re-recording them without much change. He allows that new versions can sometimes be more valuable than the recordings they are imitating if they have value-added. In the case of the Crewcuts, it would be hard to make the case they added much.  He should have taken this excellent observation to heart and applied it to his own politics. He simply regurgitates what his tribe wants to hear, with no spin or insight of his own.  They are just canned sermons.

It's a pity. I keep trying to hang with him, because he is otherwise pretty good, and it's not as if racism can be legitimately avoided in the discussion of Rock's early roots. But a few episodes have not even been much about the music, just his feelings of outrage.  He doesn't even bother to hide it at times. He mentions that Sam Phillips suffered from depression and explains it by saying it was because he had somewhat different wiring than other people. It allowed him to empathise with the shy Elvis and the depression of some of the Black artists he worked with.  But their depression was caused by oppression. When a Black artist or producer cheated other Blacks, it was because he was just a sonnuvabitch. When a white person did it, it was because of racism.  It's a universal solvent for explanations.

Monday, October 25, 2021

NYC Schools and Discrimination

Glenn Loury had a woman on who is the head of the Chinese-American something-or-other challenging the blatant discrimination against Asians in placement in the seven NYC advanced high schools. At present, 97% of the admissions have been on the basis of a single test, administered yearly. The other 3% are students who were very near the cutoff, but can demonstrate some sort of disadvantage. Asians currently have about 50% of the places, but under pressure to become more demographically similar to New York as a whole, deBlasio wants to move to a different balance, which would have about 25% Asians, and more Blacks in particular.

She is absolutely right, but people just don't like reality. She made an excellent point when Loury, attempting to clarify and summarise, used the words "under-represented" and "over-represented." She countered that these children aren't "representing" anything or anyone but themselves. That is frankly, a very American or even simply Western idea we might be glad that people from the East have figured out and adopted just fine. Yet that is not the prevailing thinking in education, nor in liberal advocacy groups in general at present.

However, I wonder how much it matters.  I don't think schools matter that much in student outcomes. When we look at school district outcomes not in terms of final product, but in terms of difference between kindergarten and graduation testing, they aren't that different, and the differences can usually be tied pretty clearly to demographic changes during those 13 years. Hanover High School likes to think of itself as the best public school in the state on the basis of its highest test scores every year, but its two main industries are Dartmouth College and world-class Dartmouth Hitchcock Hospital distributed over a small population of a few towns.  Those kids come into kindergarten with the best scores in the state as well.

Schools that are not safe matter, though measuring even that has the confounding factors that the surrounding neighborhoods, and the genetics of the people in those neighborhoods is not the same either. Let us grant that there is likely some depression of the education of some kids who might otherwise have succeeded, even though I don't know of studies that demonstrate it. I also admit that most studies of schools are not measuring the effect on the brightest students, but on the population as a whole. There might be some real effect of putting the brightest kids together. I doubt it. The advantages are going to be the same ones that the kid entered with, plus whatever the prestige factor is.

However, the more that colleges don't screen for testing and move toward the much more discriminatory holistic admissions, the more that the selective places will secretly rely on the remaining places that do test, regarding mere admission there as their clue. Graduate programs forced to stop looking at GREs will just look at where you got into college instead. Fewer diamonds in the rough going forward.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Bowling Ball Technology

I don't bowl, and even in my youth never used the big balls that are standard across the country. We had candlepins in New England, and very occasionally at older lanes, duckpins. Scoring is much lower. For kids playing, getting over 100 was a big deal. Local leagues would have top players who averaged 130 or so, I seem to recall. Maybe higher. No one I knew ever broke 150, but I read about some of those in the paper or saw it on TV. It was on television every Saturday on WHDH Boston, with Don Gillis hosting. Mindless TV, even by my very low standards of watching virtually anything that was on the screen. Later the TV games also gave out cash awards. I think duckpin scoring was worse still. 

My friend John "Big Mal" Malyerck who was 6-7 and athletic was very good at this, and when he went to South Carolina to play basketball, bowled for his first time with the large balls. He held the record for many years for best score in an initial game - a 234 or some such. One can see why. After so many years of bowling in a different format it was only technically his first game.

This just showed up in my YouTube feed for some reason, and I have no interest, but somehow it was just fascinating enough to keep watching. I never knew any of this.

3-Yard Punt

 This was fun.

Fall Color

We wondered how things would go this year, with record-setting rains and coolness in July, and no dips into serious cold in August or even September, which is part of triggering the change. The result has been disappointing. The rains caused an increase in black spot on the maples, which are the foundation of foliage color, and the lack of a sharp cold has made the season more gradual.  I suppose that is just a different kind of good, a lengthy rather than dramatic foliage season.

Wren Building Update

In my post "Memory," I mentioned at the end that the Wren Building, shared by Colonial Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary, is not symmetrical.  Looking at the picture again I notice an additional confirmation that it is the portico and doors, not the cupola, that are off. The statue of Lord Botetourt is centered on the cupola.

David Hackett Fischer

James has an alert pickup that there is a new book by the author of Albion's Seed, a book on colonial history that came out in the late 80s has developed a cult following since. African Founders: How Enslaved Peopled Expanded American Freedom. I admit I have grown a bit weary of people trying to shoehorn race into all historical topics, but I very much trust Fischer and am looking forward to this. I don't know what his politics are, though I doubt he is conservative.  He is, however, a straight shooter with the data and is very solid at looking at what it might, and might not, mean. I am betting there is a significance to his use of the word "freedom," instead of "freedoms."

Even before he was a well-known historian he made himself useful by naming the historian's fallacy, which cautions us about retrospective analysis, unconsciously assuming that those in the past were aware of their place in it, and that they must have (somehow) anticipated what came immediately after, because it looks so obvious to us now.  Shakespeare didn't know he was Shakespeare, for example. This is useful especially in studying military history.

He must be over 80 now - I didn't know he is still writing. I just looked it up.  He turns 86 in a few weeks.  This book is likely his last, then. 

Straight to Christmas list. I doubt it's going to ever come out in large print, which I increasingly think I am going too need, so I will have to go to Kindle, which I am able to use but not fond of.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Valuing the Wrong Abilities

In the discussions of meritocracy, abilities, and IQ I have stressed a few themes.  First, that there is more than one way to skin the cat and become successful by some measure. This is reflected in the games that we like, Settlers of Catan being a good example, where multiple resources (out of wool, grain, lumber, brick, and ore) are needed to win. But there are still different ways to go about that, depending on what you've got ready to hand. Having a great deal of grain is a good foundation, but it must be used to acquire other things. We like games like this because they not only have good game play, but because we believe this reflects reality. In open-ended games like AD&D this is even more pronounced. You can design an episode to be played by a party solely of wizards or clerics, but they seem unreal even by fantasy standards.  You need a mix.

Secondly, the real-life abilities we have vary in usefulness depending on what society and situation we are in. In some places resistance to malaria and other diseases is the absolute best thing you can have. In others only courage, nerve, boldness will do, and in still others a capacity for enduring suffering will keep your descendants alive when other abilities fail. Yet there are societies where these good qualities might not be especially valuable. 

As societies get more complicated, IQ becomes more valuable. It feels disproportionately valuable in some eyes for a variety of reasons. It feels as if other abilities are not rewarded as they should be.  Notice the word "should." It figures prominently in what we think of as fair, but has less to do with what actually works.  It leads to some silliness trying to deny its reality, such as the assertion that it only measures one's ability to take a test or that there is no real definition of intelligence. Other than physical characteristics such as height or eye color, it is actually one of the easiest things to define* and measure, much easier than charm, or capacity for hard work, or wisdom. Even athletic ability and musical ability, which people readily see the genetic components of, are harder to define and measure. One might as well complain in Settlers that grain isn't a real thing because you can't wear it or build a house with it. 

Thirdly, and what will be important in the discussion is that it matters how one defines success. 

Fourthly, a whole lot of this is heritable. That is hated by most of the left and much of the right, but there really isn't getting around it. This has been sensed for years - "Of course Fiona sings well. Her father was a Campbell, even if he ran off when she was four, and they are all musical." But the accumulation of data over the last fifty years, especially the last decade, is stunning. 

Notice that points two and four involve a lot of luck. One and three involve some, but much less. Luck is essentially unfair.  Boethius makes much of the turns of the wheel of fortune and thinks that living in both want and plenty, or safety and danger is what the spiritual side of life is about; what turns out to be lucky in the end is also not immediately apparent at first. That is a lot of points one and especially three in that. Yet it is just being cute to not notice that those sorts of responses to life are very much our better selves, emerging only in crisis or in deep reflection. In almost all our everyday responses, the shallow definitions of fame, money, comfort, and praise do figure in what we call success.  We play at the edges by breaking off pieces and saying "I don't care about spectacular wealth...I just don't want to ever be poor again," or being content with the admiration of the few important ones rather than the masses.  We think of those as superior attitudes, but they are rather similar to the successes we disdain. 

Some heritable characteristics, IQ being one noticeable one, are a very big deal in terms of many kinds of American success. This is unfair.  Of course, what environment you get born into is just as unfair, but that doesn't stick in our craw quite so much.** My inclination has been to not deny this or merely deplore it, but to seek to elevate my own estimation and that of society's of deeper virtues, such as kindness, honesty, and piety.

Enter Fredrik deBoer (The Cult of Smart) and Paige Hardin (The Genetic Lottery) called the Hereditarian Left largely because people can't think of another category for them. It bothers them that much of success in life is genetic, and thus a matter of luck. I know less about Hardin so I will leave her aside.  She is a research psychologist at U Texas-Austin, tenured and thus with some protection against the accusations of eugenicist and fascist that are leveled against those academics who teach the realities of heritability. Freddie deBoer sometimes describes himself as socialist, sometimes as communist, and he is quite used to other people of the left excluding him. He has been a college professor and was very aware when teaching intro classes that many of those students drop out in the first year.  The work is too hard for them, they shouldn't be there, they grow discouraged and feel like failures when all that has happened is that they have been wrongly steered to college by adults meeting their own needs. 

He is very clear on the real data in education - that you can predict who will graduate from college by looking at the three-tiered reading group in third grade, or sort who will get a PhD, be granted a patent, or get a book published by giving 13-year-olds the SAT test. Educators do not want this information, and he charges that in Ed schools, it is not merely research into heritability that is rejected, but quantitative research in general. Real research invalidates what they are doing. Not all jobs, and certainly not all types of success are dependent on intelligence. But a lot of well-rewarded jobs are, and even more to the point, the types of success important to educators are dependent on it. But conservatives teach that if you just work hard and delay gratification you can bring these things to yourself, whatever your gifts, and liberals believe that if you follow your dreams you can do anything. Both, he says, are ultimately more cruel to children and young adults than the pain of accepting that they might just not have the talent to follow their dreams and have to find another way to succeed. People do that with athletics, going into coaching, or management, or statistics, or settling on a sport for fun - and similarly with music, if it is something they love but are never going to Julliard. (Well, even Julliard is different now, but you know what I mean.)

Of note, deBoer considers No Child Left Behind to have been extremely destructive, feeding into the idea that anyone can be anything if we just have high expectations and hold the schools accountable.  Testing children over and over is expensive and mostly useless.***  It creates pretend quantitative results that are used to club schools to fix things they can't fix. Educators came to hate the program, but it is based on their own ideas, before and since. "You ordered it, you eat it," a friend used to say years ago. It was gratifying to me to listen to deBoer confirm what I have asserted about the unpopularity of research into heritability and the insistence they have that "everyone acknowledges that genes have something to do with it."  No they don't, he insists.  Some give lip service to the idea but systematically reject anything pointing in that direction. He compares it to the denial that people have that people saying "Defund the Police" are actually talking about defunding, the police, they just want some of the resources to go elsewhere. Then the NY Times publishes editorials by people who say "No, we really do want to abolish the police." So too with Ed schools, says one who has degrees from them, including a PhD from Purdue. 

Freddie thinks it's the whole American Dream that is at fault, which is how he ends up Marxist.  If what we call meritocracy is really just rewarding useful characteristics that are mostly heritable, then that is so deeply unfair that we should be redistributing more. Your genes, the country you were born in, how supportive your parents are - you earned none of this.  Why should some be rewarded more than other?

I would go even further than them, as I believe the supposed non-luck categories such as resilience and hard work are also deeply heritable. From a Christian perspective, all that we have came to us from others without our aid, and we should be nothing but grateful. Pretending we have earned is indeed unhealthy.  Where I would veer away from Hardin, and especially deBoer, is what should be done to fix it. The education bureaucracy now want to get rid of testing because it is racist, but the holistic admissions will be far more unfair, less accurate, and more racist. And those are the people who are going to be in charge of this.  If we say "Nay, nay, this is a society-wide problem and we are going to have to make much deeper changes," then that is going to mean the federal government - and exactly the same sort of people who populate the educational bureaucracy, just more powerful.

I don't see solutions in bemoaning that some people can't get PhDs and patents so we should take everyone's money and give it to some other people, I would rather reorient what confers status in society. I absolutely don't trust governments to do that, even less than I trust them with most things.

*I can do a quick discussion of this if necessary.

** It gets complicated, and worthy of contemplation, why this might be.  We believe we can overcome mean circumstances and disadvantage (for which the simplest explanation is aiyeee! - genetics), so that unfairness hits us differently. Discuss among yourselves.

***It also pisses off parents who are sure their kid's a genius but scores in "only" the 70th percentile.  It must be the school's fault! It also drives those deeply unfair "holistic" admissions, as rich families can much more easily game those systems by putting their kids in expensive prestigious sports like fencing or lacrosse, or pay for music lessons and summers spent building houses for UNICEF in Ecuador.

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

I've mentioned him a few times recently.  It is time to out him to bed for a bit.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Gradually, Then Suddenly

This important principle occurred to me on three separate topics recently.  Though attributed to several writers, the best case can be made for Hemingway using in The Sun Also Rises, about going bankrupt. There was a reference to the idea a few weeks ago about the start of the Industrial Revolution. When we trace retrospectively, whatever element we isolate is likely to trace back much earlier than what we would call the beginning. If we choose the steam engine as the key item, Greeks in classical times sorta kinda had that.

I mentioned just a few days ago in discussing the History of Rock 'n Roll that early artists who came up with something that turned out to be the key ingredient (the backbeat - Western Swing, well, polka music, well...there were 19th C pianists who used it in popular music; electric guitar prominence - Charlie Christian in, gulp, 1939 - is that R&R?) can be said to have influenced other important figures just downstream, who in turn influenced...well everyone.  Yet there are lots of "not quite" attempts, that get most of the elements or mostly get them, that just don't quite get the sound. It all has to come together.  And in the case of Rock, I would push the timeline very late until I said "There.  That's it.  That is indisputable Rock." Irritatingly late, in fact.

Today I heard discussion of the origins of civilisation - which has undergone revision among historians as the 1960s high school model of Sumer...then Babylon and the Assyrians... then the Greeks - has proved unsupportable. Even agriculture, supposedly not occurring until about 12,000 y/a, is being pushed back nearly twice that far in some tellings.  There is evidence of hunter gatherers having gardens.  Maybe for medicinal plants, or for ceremonial plants.  Just not major crops supplying the bulk of calories. Though even those are getting pushed father back, mostly famously by Gobekli Tepe, which increasingly shows as being a continuity from earlier villages and gatherings rather than a new thing. 

When did the Renaissance begin?  Isolate any factor and you will be able to trace it back 300 or even a thousand years before 1500. There are even situations, briefly, in a few places, where all of them seem to be in place, but then it all just dissipates.  No Renaissance for you, Alfredo.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Thee and Thou

Popular opinion regards the use of Thee and Thou as a type of formal speech in English, likely because it is archaic and used to refer to God. As it came up recently around here, I just want to review the facts, and hit hard a bit that is sometimes not quite understood even by those who know that those forms are not formal.

Thou is the intimate form, related to and similar to French Vous Tu and German Du. It is used in reference to God to stress that intimacy.  That is considered more important than even the respect that would be communicated by "you." This is surprising enough that it is worthy of some reflection on its own. But the usage is even more surprising.  Thou was also used with social inferiors. Thus, it could be used to effect with one's spouses, children, and close friends, and Shakespeare does this in several places, where characters will toggle back and forth between the forms depending on the type of persuasion they are engaging in.  The best example is probably the first scene in King Lear (a play that is coming up a lot for some reason), especially the exchange with Cordelia. 

Yet even this, the possibility of disrespect in addressing God, was considered a worthy risk to preserve the I-Thou intimacy. We are a fortunate people.

Vaccine Rejectionism

I draw your attention to the Quillette article currently just up on the sidebar Vaccine Rejectionism and The Left.

Cometary Influence

In my post on Ancient Beer, one of my main sources came over to comment, Merryn and Graham Dinely. Presumably, something pops up when someone links to their site. I should probably have figured that out years ago. Graham suggested that I look into the work of Michael Baillie, a tree-ring expert (dendochronologist, so now you know) whose work indicates terrible conditions 2354-2354 BC, likely resulting in widespread famine. His book is reviewed here at New Scientist. He identifies other dire periods and believes that showers of comets are the most likely explanation. There is no record of volcanoes, and those would not have effects lasting nearly a decade in any event. That particular set of dates is important, as it coincides with Corded Ware and Bell Beaker cultures and the full replacement of Britain's Neolithic farming population with those peoples who are deeply connected with the Yamnaya, the Indo-European nomadic people. Baillie believes that the replacement was not so much the result of invading horsemen with bronze weapons and cattle but of the nine-year famine wiping out the sedentary population across Europe that was crop dependent, while the (relative) newcomers survived better, though likely not entirely well.

It's a highly plausible story, and similar to the new understandings we are developing of disease wiping out a population, or at least weakening it enough that it can be more easily overcome.  The most dramatic example is the discovery of the New World and the massive die-offs of the native populations here, but there's no reason why it could not have happened many other times. I would like to see more evidence before I accept the theory, but I am kindly disposed to it at present. Nine years of famine would certainly be a lot for any population to endure.  I do immediately wonder about those societies that survived by fishing, though.  They would also have a better chance of hanging on, wouldn't they?

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Willis Conover

When you attend to highly varied material, there are odd moments when there is crossover of someone you heard about for the first time just the week before. Willis Conover was a young science fiction fan who became friends with HP Lovecraft late in life and was even his literary executor at first.  I ;earned about him last Friday. Conover went on to become a sci-fi publisher.

He was also a recorder and interviewer of jazz greats, which he played on Voice of America, making him famous in Eastern Europe. But he followed the popularity and the money as well, and recorded and encouraged a lot of young rhythm and blues artists in the 1940s and 50s which I learned about today. Strange coincidence.

Moon Mullican

A big influence on hillbilly boogie, rockabilly, and ultimately, guitarists in general who came after, he even had a go at some rock 'n roll in the 50s.  But he was Fais Do-Do in origin and took in whatever he heard and made it sound Louisiana.  This one is just a mix of everything, including both Cajun and English Lyrics.  A bit odd.


I am reunioned out at this point.  College 46th - bought merch for the first time in over forty years.


Then a memorial service for Swede Nelson, a choir member of many decades, which brought back people I had known in the 80s and 90s. Then Manchester High School Central 50th, all in about 10 days time. People commented with some amazement how much I remembered, as they always do.  Last week, I'm not so good at.  But remote memory continues outstanding. I still recall the phone numbers of many, for example. I was touched that a few people remembered things about me as well. Occasionally things I had myself forgotten, but have the ring of truth.

When people have different memories I used to just assume they were wrong. Then I had a son who is as good as I am who sometimes disagreed, and I had to admit he was correct sometimes. So I tried to become more humble with others, knowing that because of the vagaries of memory, and forcing memories into packets according to narratives we want to be true, I should be cautious. Yet I find in practice I was mostly right the first time.  I have anchor points for many of these memories, such as play productions or the year people arrived at school, and fairly often another person present will nod and confirm what I am saying after thinking about it a bit. And when someone has a different memory that is credible, it is usually immediately apparent to me who is correct. It's  not always me, as when one friend said "Are you sure that was Don?  Because I didn't room with Don freshman year, he was across the hall.  I roomed with John for one year." I knew he was right. I had the wrong bit player in the drama.

Mostly I am amazed that people don't remember things. Nostalgia and reminiscence are such staples in my life. I have done enough revisiting of old places, however. There were some that I kept longing to see and eventually did, finishing up about ten years ago. I found I had little interest even at the college, where I had only been twice in the last 25 years. The people I knew are no longer in those buildings and I don't care.

I also got my vindication that the Wren building, despite being Georgian architecture, is not symmetrical.  Look at the photo above and you will see that either the cupola or the doors and portico must be wrong, as they are not in line.  In fact it is the doors that are wrong by about a foot, which I concluded by pacing it off, then confirmed by comparing the doors in the back, which line up with the cupola exactly. How they missed this in the 1920s reconstruction I don't know, but certainly no one is going to be fixing it now.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The Most Reluctant Convert

I will have to drive 30 miles, or 50, to see it but the trailer looks good. I usually don't like this sort of thing, and I doubt it will have anything unfamiliar to me.  But I am terrible at visualisation, so this may serve a strong if indirect purpose. November 3.

Some Things I Learned About Language

Nursery Rhymes

I listen to language podcasts and pick up things here and there. I think they are most enjoyable when they go into detail about things I knew only in part but had rattling around in my head for years. I had a copy of The Annotated Mother Goose by William and Ceil Baring-Gould when I was in college and remembered many stray bits, including humorous examples of people overinterpreting them to suit retrospective biases. The rhyme "Hickory Dickory Dock" stems from old Celtic sheep-counting methods, which reportedly lasted in rural corners into the 19th C. These varied from region to region, but tended to gravitate toward adjoining numbers rhyming.  The closest to the nursery rhyme is Hovera, Dovera, Dick - eight, nine, ten - the version found in Derbyshire, Cumberland, and in the Scots language. The connection with a clock was rather natural. 

Eeny, Meenie, Miney, Mo is also claimed to come from those counting sets, but I don't buy it.  The closest one can get is Ana, Pana - one, two - from the Lake District. Dutch linguists uncovered an Old Saxon incantation that strikes me as much closer, even though that would drive the rhyme back over a thousand years.

Anne manne miene mukke,
Ikke tikke takke tukke...

It also has "tikke" a more plausible background for "tiger" than something that a rural sheep-counter would come up with (and get his neighbors to imitate).  I did not hear N*** put in that rhyme until about fifth grade, at summer camp. I found it shocking, and a mark of low character to use it.  

Ring around Rosie is not about the plague, which was irritating to learn a couple of decades ago.  Pease Porridge is what we would call baked beans or one of its relatives. "Peas" was not a plural and stretches back to a time when not all English plurals were made by adding -s. Compare children, oxen, brethren. But as the -s form took over, it just seemed natural that these objects must be the plural form, and a single one of then a pea.

Bo Peep is actually Peep Bo, a version of Peekaboo, as in King Lear.  From almost two centuries earlier we have the lyric  Halfe England ys nowght now but shepe // In every corner they play boe-peep  How exactly the game got connected with sheep is unknown, but it goes way back. The first recorded Bo-Peep was not a girl, but a short woman, by the way, in the early 18th C.

New Words Happening Often Come Backshifts.

A backshift is the accent moving to the first word of a phrase, as in black BIRD or black BOARD becoming the single word blackbird or blackboard.  It happens with phrases, as earlier in the 20th C everyone would say Boy SCOUT, or Chinese FOOD, or Pizza PIE, but as the new concept became familiar the stress would go to the beginning. Boyscout is pronounced as one word now, no matter how it is written because of organisational inertia. Once that happens, other changes easily follow, such as the "pie" dropping out altogether. It is a natural rule of English that no one teaches us. ReCORD/REHcord; outLAW/OUTlaw. The verb suspect has the accent on the second syllable, and when it was first used as a noun it kept that.  But we like our nouns to accent on the first syllable, and is became SUSpect. Hear also the original forms SuperMARket

This seems like a small change, but these compound, and Barley-arn (house) becomes barn, Wer-ald, that is "man" + "age" or "era" becomes world. Most notably, "GOD be WITH you" shortened to GOD b' WI' ye, and the "with" usually holding the accent. 

"Road" usually takes the accent, as in Tobacco ROAD, Mountain ROAD, and "Lane" does the same. Penny LANE, Smyth LANE, and so does "Avenue."  But "street" sends its accent to the proper name: CHURCH Street, MAIN Street. "Drive" usually keeps the stress, as does "Boulevard," but that last one has some examples of the proper name keeping the sound, especially when named after a person. Both also can have equal stress between the name and type of road. I have no idea why this is.

Language Change Is Driven More By Women.  

Or so I am told. The new habit of uptalk, of ending phrases and sentences with a rising tone as if asking a question started with sorority girls and is still more common among women, especially younger ones. The most common version is AmIright? But it is common among young men as well, if you can hear the tone in So I'm going to Ohio State in the fall?  I'll be starting grad school in microbiology? I'll be living with my cousin? And on the concluding phrase the voice will drop down it the usual way. I was really surprised I got in. It is supposed to be a softener, a way of making a declaration less emphatic, but it is more a continuer, a way of letting a person know that you are still speaking, but this would be a place to break in if they wanted. It is an everyday version of the preacher saying "Can I get an amen?" Or a speaker saying "Are you with me?"

There is a new method of emphasis which drops down to the lower register and slows down with a rasp or gutteral, as in And I - looove draamaaa. It came in about a decade ago among females in their thirties but has spread out in age and to both sexes.

There is also the glottal stop pronunciation of mitten, kitten as mi''en and ki''en, about three times more common among females, nearly all under fifty. When men drive a language change, it is nearly always one of two forms: new insults and profanity, or a return to an accent or dialect form that is disappearing - which is interestingly, a change that is a preservation rather than a new thing.  The example I came across was from young male natives of Martha's Vineyard in the 60s wanting to show that they were not the new people who had moved in, but the old-timers, stressing the vowels similar to the Canadian aboot, (which is actually more like abaoot). That may be a maritme/coastal variant from New Brunswick that has spread in the last few decades to other places in Canada. My grandfather from around Yarmouth, Nova Scotia did not use it.

Lawdy Miss Clawdy

 It's interesting to see what people will include in histories of Rock 'n Roll as important early influences. It's never just one river, so trying to go back upstream can take you a lot of places.  To say that "this guy influenced everyone!  Fats Domino! Elvis! Little Richard! The Beatles! The Stones!..." All true, but each of those people listed had other influences, dozens of other influences, which they don't share with the others. It depends which way you hold the telescope. I was thinking of putting up Honey Dripper for the same reason.

Fats Domino is reportedly playing piano on this one, uncredited because he was under contract elsewhere and had to disguise it.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Not Understanding Shakespeare - Again

I have returned several times over the years about how hard it is to understand Shakespeare, particularly in performance.  John McWhorter, who I listen to, has come back to it a few times as well, as you will see at my link. I am pulling this out from one of his about five years ago plus some additions of my own. 

To begin with it is poetry, which we are not only unused to but is often committed to using indirect phrases or allusions to other knowledge we might not share with the original audience.  We have similar difficulties with Chaucer or Beowulf. There are prose works in those earlier versions of English we understand more readily. Next, it is in Early Modern English, only debateably our language. Even when we think we know words, simple words, we sometimes get them wrong.  In 1600, "let" could mean forbid, which is an opposite of how we understand the word now. It can throw you off for a whole section trying to work that out.  Directors and actors often downplay the parts they know the audience is going to get confused by, hammering home the parts they think will be easier. In this monologue of Edmund's in King Lear, the chimes are rung on "base," "bastard," "illegitimate," and by tone conveying that his self-descriptions using I, me, my are Edmund stating how he is just as worthy.  It helps. We miss that "generous" actually means noble, and have no clue what nations could possibly be curious about (try "silly customs" there), but we get the general sense.  And then when we get to something like the part I italicised, we have great joy that we understand it! The myth* that Appalachian English is closer to Elizabethan still persists, yet what do we think the average Appalachian lad would make of the phrase "twelve or fourteen moonshines?" If we doubled back to explain it he would readily get it, but he would have to fight against his initial impression. 

So modern audiences don't get it, even when they are educated and pretend to.  I have to guess that Shakespeare would disapprove of our clinging to his phrasing at the expense of people getting the story. ("Give me that quill, you ignorant fools!")

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me?
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? With baseness, bastardy? Base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to th’ creating a whole tribe of fops
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to th’ legitimate. Fine word-,’legitimate’!

Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow, I prosper:
Now gods, stand up for bastards!  

And there's this soliloquy of Macbeth pondering whether he should kill King Duncan, which begins with a famous phrase. I recall a Sports Illustrated article from the 80s lauding some college basketball coach who considered himself an educator as well as a coach using the first line and a half during a time-out near the end of the game and being proud that his team, mostly urban blacks understood what he was getting at when he said the words. "Yeah, we get it, coach.  Get the ball in to the big man." Well, fine, it's a good story and all that, but that's about the only easily understandable part.  And this is, remember, one of the most famous soliloquy's, the sort of thing that and audience would have to have some clue about to understand the play. In writing, you can get single words in the margin that trammel means "tied," and surcease means "death," but you don't get that in the seats.

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly
: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch,
With his surcease, success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor
: this even-handed justice
Commends th’ ingredience of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips. He’s here in double trust;
First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself.
Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’ other.

Sometimes giving just a word here or there can give you more of the sense. 
"That but this blow might be the be-all and end all here" is clearer just by subbing in "that if this blow..." You slide past whatever the jumping is about in the life to come with an idea that it's something about risking judgement in the afterlife, which is confirmed by the next lines.  But commend, commend, what's that about?  If we had the word "returns" in there we could hold it better. "Justice returns the ingredients of our poisoned chalice." And so on.  We get the idea that Duncan is virtuous, but knowing that "faculties" means authority would give us a head start.

I did find an explanation, if you want to work your way through it. 

People object to any change in Shakespeare's words (even though there are sometimes multiple manuscript variants and we went from 1650-1850 with practically every production altering what it liked, even putting in happy endings.  This went on until the 20th C) as if they were scripture.  Perhaps having no scriptures they believe in, they need to find some words to revere in similar fashion. When translating Shakespeare is mentioned, there is an immediate defensiveness of sneering at the worst examples they have ever heard of: "What up, Romeo?" or the like. But alterations here and there - a word or two every few lines - would give audiences a fighting chance of understanding what is really happening, not just getting the general thrust of the plot and character traits plus recognising some phrases. 

I have also read the suggestion that a dozen or so words should be part of core curriculum with the specific intent of being used to understand Shakespeare and other older material: nailing down what the formal and informal thou's and thee's and you's are, teaching that "science" and "wit" meant any knowledge, not chemistry or humor, and of course, getting it straight right off the bat that "wherefore" doesn't mean "where," but "why."

*Have I ever explained why that persists?  I should.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Decency Illustrated

 I see what he means.

I have always found A Christmas Carol pleasant but only marginally Christian. Yet it was GK Chesterton who labored for years to resurrect the work when it had disappeared from British culture, and this is not the first time I have found something in it to be an excellent illustration of something Christian.


I have railed against the Gospel of Nice many times.  Not accidentally is Minnesota Nice the place that produced the very-nice-turned-vindictive Garrison Keillor, but also the Holy Land for American Scandinavian niceness that is so often stripped back to reveal a judgementalism and intolerance, primly and politely expressed. Whole denominations have adopted Niceness.

I found an excellent clarification of what is wrong with this in an unusual place: a lengthy proof that the Muppet Christmas Carol is in fact the best adaptation of Dickens's work. *(Site registration can be avoid by clicking the upper right of the box.) One doesn't have to agree with the overall premise - I have never seen that version or most others, but am mildly sympathetic but ultimately undecided myself - to see that the contrast with decency reveals the inadequacy of niceness.

It may seem like splitting hairs to suggest that Kermit’s decency is an order of magnitude more appropriate for the Cratchit role than Mickey’s famous niceness, but while niceness and decency are both archetypal virtues, one leaves substantially more room for nuance. Mickey’s definitional quality leaves him bland; Kermit’s decency, on the other hand, allows for bouts of vanity and pettiness without invalidating his core respect for the value of all life. Niceness can be faked, but decency must be proven, and this quality serves as a magnetic pole for anyone—be they human or frog—to find their way back to where surface-level niceness fails.

Exactly right.  It is better to be decent than nice. 

*Skip Stave Five.  Skip Stave Five.

WTF Happened in 1971?

 Just some graphs, though there is more at the site. I learned of the site listening to Daniel David Kaiser trying to explode myths about Black economic gains, or lack thereof, since the early 70s in contrast to the sharp increases before that. His point is that the lack of gains since then might be more properly understood as generalised or class problems, not related to Blacks particularly.  The Marxists might have the better argument than the race advocates at this point.  The class argument is less popular because it can take the issue out of the realm of discussing the evil motives of others. Anger sells, as we heard in our sermon this morning. That people pursuing their own self-interest might not care much about you is not as sexy as the possibility that they actively hate you and are trying to keep you down.

Yet while redlining disproportionally affected Blacks somewhat, it remains so that most of the people in those districts - by a large measure - were white. The same is true of the carve-outs for the original Social security benefits (which were soon changed anyway) and the ability to access the GI Bill. It is difficult to credit the idea that politicians who wanted to be re-elected would be screwing over so many white people just to make sure they could keep the black man down. 

This is related to my posts about Distributed Power.

Law Profs

I wondered starting years ago how law professors like Glenn Reynolds and Ann Althouse found the time to produce so much content. Talking to my business-office friend at William and Mary this becomes clearer.  He recommends to young people seeking advancement that law prof is a good gig to strive for: salary over $200,000 and not much work. Because of ABA pressure always ratcheting in one direction for accreditation, professors at top law schools now teach three only classes per year.  That's not per semester, that's per year.

Death Rate

It looks like a 16% increase in deaths in 2020 over 2019. One possible counter to this is that many of these death are only slightly premature, as they were elderly or otherwised compromised folks who were going to kick off in a year or two anyway. Such things are hard to measure while they are happening, but if that's the case we should expect that 2021 is about the same as 2020, and when the pandemic is over - there are plenty of folks who will tell you the pandemic is over - we should see 2022 drop below 2019 in deaths. Because we cleared out a lot of the people who were just about to die anyway, right? Dropping only TO 2019 levels would not be evidence that there was no excess death and only the compromised succumbed. 2022 will have to drop significantly below 2019 to make that point. I strenuously doubt that will happen.


The American Library Association, long a liberal group, has for years published annual anti-censorship statements.  I have always found these slanted, because they focus on works that have been challenged, not those that have been actually censored.  Any knucklehead can challenge a book and it might be unrepresentative of what is happening in a community.  For librarians this can be a real problem, as unreasonable people may be descending on your school or public library complaining.  But it might not tell us much abut Muncie or Manchester, really.

I looked at this year's graphic, which identifies where the challenges come from and what institutions receive them.  The numbers are enormously weighted toward parents complaining about works their children are exposed to.

I regard this as quite different from true censorship.  Complaining parents are sometimes not asking that a work be available to no one, just not to their fourth-grader.  They are sometimes fine with controversial material being available at the highschool that they think inappropriate at the elementary level.  Each of those can be argued on an individual level, but it is generally clear that the ALA has cast its lot with making sure that no fourth-grader who might think she is gay be deprived of a library book that is reassuring, even if it means exposing all the other kids, some of whom were content to be oblivious to all matters sexual for another five years. Tough noogies for you.  Individual libraries and librarians are often more measured, making material available only on request, moving it one school farther up, etc.  Just know that if you don't like this, you will be regarded by the ALA as an enemy.

Therefore, when one looks at the lists of what type of book is being "censored," one would think that there is no problem other than parents upset at LGBTQ info and sex in general.  It's  their organisation, they can take what stance they want and aren't answerable to me. It's just worth pointing out that the PR campaigns are biased.

Ancient Beer

The short version is that beer was brewed earlier and more broadly in the British Isles than has previously been credited. The clues have been missed largely because archaeologists have trained learning about medieval brewing and equipment, or ancient Mediterranean brewing where the grains could be dried out in the sun, but these mislead them because brewing in Northern Europe was different. It is a natural mistake. One difficulty of researching brewing is that the beer is drunk, the spent grain residue is given to the animals, and the husks, though excellent for filtration of all kinds, decompose elsewhere and leave no trace. All that is left are the structures and equipment - and much of the equipment was made of wood. The few things that could have been stone or pottery are sometimes plausibly explained by other purposes. There isn't much to look at that is definitive. 

However, Merryn Dinely has uncovered some remarkable indirect evidence, and this evidence is usually a better fit for the data than what was previously supposed. Lime-plastered or beaten earth floors have been interpreted as dance floors, for example. But Ms Dinely thinks there are far too many unless dancing in smallish enclosed spaces was very common - and there is no other evidence for that. You can read more of her research and thinking at her site. I will give some summary here. Note that this is secondhand and intended to save you the trouble of going through 20 posts over at the Dinely site, and I may have not gotten it quite right in places.  If you want the deeper dive, go there instead. The little bits I will add here are far less than what you will gain there.

We start with how beer is made, and how it always have been made, however much the technology now obscures some elements of the craft. The grain is grown, barley being best. The unhusked grains are allowed to germinate just a bit, to release the enzymes that start making sugars. The grains are then arrested in their growth.  Often they are soaked.  They are then dried, turning them constantly. They want to grow, but the turning confuses them so that they do not grow in any direction, but all over. In hot climates this can be done in the sun, but in Northern Europe this must be done inside in warmth. The grains are then put in a kiln and heated to 65 C (about 150 F). In more distant times, the grains were put in a trough with water and heated stones added. The enzymes create more sugar out of the grains. This is called malt.  It is sweeter than regular flour, a pleasant taste that is still used for breakfast cereal now. Processing grain in the way goes back 20,000 or even 30,000 years.  Note that this malt is not yet beer, but a product that can be eaten itself, fed to animals, or made into a sweeter bread than simple flour.  It is this mix that is fermented (because sugar). Depending on the concentration of sugar, it can be made as mild as 2% alcohol or as strong as 12%. Remember that when a plant begins to germinate, the embryo is used and disappears.

Kiln fires occurred and destroyed whole batches, or even a whole year's crop.  These still occurred until the 19th C, because precise control of fire in such conditions is difficult.

University of Chicago archaeologist Robert Braidwood (the supposed model for Indiana Jones's mentor in the movies) convened a food conference in 1953, and one section was "Bread or Beer?" trying to determine which was the more important driver for intentional planting of grain.  Ms Dinelyn has a more encompassing answer.  Malt was the driver. It is desirable because of its sweetness and can be eaten with no further preparation. But in the Younger Dryas wild grains became harder to find, and planting began.

It is not possible to have a happy accident of bread falling into water and fermenting to invent beer, despite what rumors you may have heard.  But once you've got malt, accidents like that can happen.

Merryn Dinely, above, took a degree in archaeology at UManchester and became curious about the Neolithic crafts in general, such as weaving and baking, but especially brewing. So when she took a topic for her Master's in Philosophy dissertation she chose Ancient North European brewing.  This was likely influenced by the fact that her husband Graham is himself a craft brewer up on Orkney. When she was reading the writeups of many digs she would find puzzling things that did not seem write, so she passed many of them along to Graham for explanation.  He rapidly came to the conclusion "These people have never brewed beer.  They have no idea what they are talking about." For example, many descriptions of how ancient beer was made included words like roasted, toasted, and sprouted. He knew those were incorrect enough to confuse an observer what was happening.  We can now roast and toast the grain because we can more exactly control temperature, and even in medieval times they could verge into roasting and toasting if they dared.  But it is very easy to kill the grain with roasting or toasting, so the ancients did not go that far.  Heated would be about as far as you would want to go.  And once grain is sprouted, you've gone too far and you can't make beer out of it anymore. A little germination only is the key. It matters. To dry grain in quantity while confusing it about which direction to takes large smooth floors that are not going to be rained on. 

Ms Dinely kept discovering rectangular timber buildings that had burned down across the landscape and many had beaten floors or ones that had been coated and recoated with lime plaster. These floors go back much earlier than beer is believed to, but certainly malt was present in those times. They require a good deal of time and energy to make. They would be unnecessary for storing other agricultural goods in barns. More often not, the reports on contents included carbonised grain.  she has obtained and tested some of these rains, and they are missing their embryos.  Many archaeologists continue to prefer the explanation that these were chieftains houses that were burned upon their death.  The Dinelys believe this fair screens "kiln fire of malt."

Once it is dried, the sugars of the grain are reactivated by placing them in heated water to start the sugar formation again.  So what would twenty-gallon containers be placed near the hearth for, then? Not milk products, certainly.  It's not enough to boil, so not water alone. Durrington Walls, which is near Stonehenge is one of the main places these large pots are found.  Also, the pigs there had been fed on something sweet, likely to fatten them for sale or sacrifice.  There are no high-sugar fruits in Northern Europe, and honey, have we have mentioned, is a bit scarce and precious to be given to pigs.  But malt would do the trick, even residue after beer has been filtered out of it. Keep in mind that because of the dearth of high-sugar foods and the amount of labor that went into making even malt as a sweetener, even barley may have been a status crop rather than a staple crop at first. In terms of what will be visible in the archaeological record, festival sites will be more prominent than everyday.  There's a lot of stuff there.  They tend to persist for thousands of years rather than only hundreds, as the settlements do. And stone circles, stone rows, barrows, cursus sites, and other big-ticket structures are going to be found there more often.  So the presence of fattened pigs, beer, and trade goods will be more concentrated at those sites. While we are discovering that these were more widespread than previously credited, they were still specialty sites even if every group had one or more nearby. 

The Dinely's have also discovered that large rectangular timber buildings (that burned down) with lime-plastered floors are near those sites, as is large Bell Beaker pottery, and that there is not really other evidence that these were dance floors or burnt chieftains houses. 

Two further notes: meadowsweet is a good preservative of ale and mead - as good as hops, and note the word "mead" right in there - and is frequently discovered in the residues inside the pots, now that we know to look there.  As is true of so many things, once you think to look for it, it turns up everywhere. We now also think that even as late as the Anglo-Saxons, there was not a clear line between mead and ale, but a continuum. For those of us familiar with Beowulf and mead-halls, the scops may have given us a false idea.  Poets, after all, praising.  So the finer stuff, the mead, was stressed as being distributed by the minor kings in their halls, and our focus goes there. 

The "land of milk and honey" captures this in a slightly different way than we are used to. Milk is a synechdoche for pasturage, and honey can refer to anything sweet. While bees and their products are certainly emphasised - again, it's the best stuff - the phrase tells us that the land is fertile for both domesticated animals and crops which can be turned into malt - and thus eventually ale.

Use all this, plus the axeheads, to modify your whole picture of Stonehenge, the granddaddy of the festival sites, as well as the thousands of more minor ones. There may indeed have been dire rituals there which we would find alarming now, but to those tribes, even human sacrifice was not incompatible with festival, lots of ale and fattened animals, or trade in goods small and large. People came from far and wide to be a Stonehenge, including from Brittany and the Low Countries and even as far away as the Alps.

My own new opinion, which I have never read elsewhere but I think follows from all we are learning recently. The Yamnaya, the Bell Beaker people, completely replaced the Anatolian Farmer populations in the British Isles while Stonehenge was still in use. They themselves used it later, though they were not the builders.  We also know that those Indo-Europeans, that R1b population which now dominates u\Europe, both carried an early version of the plague and had some immunity to it. My thought is that those who came to the festivals infected the Brits on many occasions when they came to trade at festivals, and as the natives died out it became easier and easier for continental populations to move into their lands. This is not to deny their violence, as they do seem to have been more warlike than the folks in place.  But that was not an either-or situation and it can be exaggerated.


On Our divided Times

 James just quoted a paragraph from CS Lewis's Introduction to what was them a new edition of Athanasius, "On The Reading Of Old Books," and an excellent paragraph it is.

Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.

If you ask me what those assumptions are, I will say it is a hundred things we do not notice, and I am not likely better at seeing such things as the next man.  Yet I do think there is one difference among us that is growing, of those who live and breathe and have their being electronically and those who live lives more like our grandparents did.  Yet none of us has lives very much like their grandparents, and they were the pivot generation that saw the introduction of flight, automobiles, radio, the telephone and some other major technological changes. There is more similarity in lives from 1900 backward, and we have been hopping for it ever since.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Professor Longhair


Pretty Girls, Lighthearted Singers

What more could you want, Jack?

You will hear some similarity to "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?"

Reunion Advice

It was fine. However I have learned something for next time: the formal events were mostly a waste, as we had sparse contact with anyone we remembered or had desired to see again; but the informal events that we and other friends had arranged in advance, seeking out the people we were most interested in, worked out quite well. 

Also, next time we will stay within walking distance of the campus rather than circle endlessly looking for parking places.  Colleges have parking problems all the time anyway, worsened for all football games, not just Homecoming.  Add in that this was two sets of alumni classes, both the 0's & 5's and the 1's & 6's, and top it all off with the postponed commencement of the Class of 2020 and there was nothing I could find closer than half a mile for one event. There are a few B&B's nearby, and I didn't even check the AirBnB's.

We discovered the college had named a building after a friend of mine.  I asked his wife why this had happened. "Guilt."  It seems that his last job before retirement from the school was Director of Covid Operations, which involved not only difficult decision-making with very real downstream consequences either way, but talking with all the government official and agencies, politicians, factions within the college, special interest groups, and media.  The people you would pay any money to get away from, basically. It's not a large building, but still. It doesn't happen to many people unless they give millions of dollars to a place.

Stone Circles, Axeheads, and Beer

When I took a few anthropology courses in the 1970s, they were primarily Mesoamerican - that is, we studied the history of maize, followed by pottery because those give you the structure for everything else you are going to study. So I missed all the European arguments, as there was a sea-change under way,* with growing claims that the axeheads being discovered were mostly ceremonial rather than weapons. Some clearly were, as an important burial might include multiple axeheads from distant places, such as jadeite from the Italian Alps showing up in Britain, all of them unused - never even fastened to a handle. This accorded with the cultural belief that particular Westerners had brought all manner of violence to the rest of the world, which had previously only had low-level skirmishing. The bastards. Archaeology itself was seen to be entirely a colonialist exercise, following on the heels of Europeans teaching the world to go to war, and there has been breast beating even unto the present day about Awful Us. This of course never means Us, but is a disguised version of accusing our internal political and cultural rivals.  The real Them, actually. 

I won't get much into that argument, other than to refer again to Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilization, which explodes that notion. Quite simply, if you have low-level skirmishing in a small tribe every year or two, you end up with more deaths in combat than from pitched battles and full-scale wars. Secondly, war is observed and recorded (and now dug up and evaluated) before there was Western influence, pretty much everywhere. The myth arises because Westerners brought writing and curiosity about others, so that proof of much violence before they arrived is scant. The English and Germans especially were the horrible oppressive archaeologists in other lands primarily because they were the only people interested in everyone else.  that curiosity spread to other Europeans, and to the Anglosphere. Other countries did not extractively dig up cool stuff and take it home from South America or Indonesia because they didn't care enough about them to go there and find out about them. Thirdly, Seven of the ten deadliest wars in history have been fought in Asia, which should be the (ahem) death blow to the idea.  Except it isn't, of course, as in the previous post. There is a need to believe otherwise.

I hope I remember to write up newer examples about how "We," (meaning "You") are terribly racist in our interpretation of the events of prehistory.  But I am already too far afield.

But there was an impressive trade in axeheads, many of them ceremonial, this is true. It is difficult in prehistorical research to discover exactly where they were traded. We might suspect sites at or near ports. Another major possibility would be crossroads. Lastly, sites near where they were quarried would go high on the list. In the last few decades, however, there is increasing evidence of only roughed-out heads being traded near the quarries. 

And here we come to another spot where exchange of information from other places becomes important. There are still tribes where quarrying particular stone for weapons is still done, and archaeologists go on digs in many places. There is also late historical record in the New World of where the "best" flint for arrowheads came from, according to the indigenous peoples.  The best places were often the inaccessible ones, those well up the mountains or far from good water sources.  Only there, after the journey, is the Strong stone, the Spiritual stone, the Favored stone found.  So those archaeologists go later in their career to Wales or the Carpathians, and the evidence of quarrying up high, even though the stone below is as good or even better, makes sense.  But you wouldn't want to set up an entire axehead-shaping-and-finishing site there.  Too expensive. You trade for chunks of that in markets below, if those at the markets have not already put in the hours of finishing themselves.

There is, obvious when you think about it, difficulty in the record in that axeheads would not be the sort of thing that would be left behind in the places they were traded.  If you brought something from the Alps to Cornwall but didn't happen to trade it, you wouldn't just shrug and leave it there. You would put it back in your bag and press on to the next minor king to see if he might be interested. When expensive goods are found they are in burials, or in battlefields or destroyed buildings, though even those latter are often picked clean immediately after. Axeheads - whether for work or decoration - are highly portable and you take them with you.


A word about inaccessible places. We usually find stone circles, stone rows, and barrows in high, inaccessible places.  Very romantic, gazing out over the moors or the valleys or the ocean from within one of the thousands of stone circles in GB. (Many of the circles are of nine or nineteen stones, BTW, with some speculation that these were counters for the 18.6 year lunar cycle.  Could be.) Yet it pays to remember that these could well be an unrepresentative sample. If barrows or circles were built everywhere, those in the farming areas would have long since been ripped down and plowed under.  There are stone circles in the north of England where you can see the missing stones in the distance, lying flat as part of a wall or barn. When the original significance is lost, people either adapt the site to their own purposes or just take the lovely building material for their own. The ancient structures in areas that people needed for settlements are likewise no longer visible, nor ever likely to be.  Our romantic picture that they these were always in wild places is almost surely false.  It's just that no one disturbed them in the wild places.  There was no need.  It may be that every family had its own little barrow, no right in the settlement, but not so far away either, or that every settlement had its stone circle, most now pulled down.

Still, when I go to Orkney I am going to have the thousand-yard stare while standing among the stones, just like everyone else. 


A second word about trade. We romanticise this or picture it falsely as well. We have a strong tendency - even archaeologists and science writers have it - to think of an individual trader, setting out into the unknown with goods to trade, hoping to find buyers for metalwork, or wine, or amulets. We marvel at their ingenuity, or courage, or cleverness. No, it was a job, and the necessary information built up over generations.  If you take X number of axeheads to Brittany you are likely to be able to unload them at a particular festival, and if your luck is bad you can reroute on the way home trying to sell the last few at a worse price at a port market further up the coast. As crop yields or safety changed the traders would adjust. A lot of it is trial and error over generations. It is impressive in aggregate, but for each individual guy landing a boat in what is now the Netherlands - not so much. They knew their markets.


The arguments about putting a tunnel under Stonehenge to get the roads away from it (I am pro-Tunnel.  I will expand on this if that seems wrong to you) have caused folks all over the Isles to get exercised about roads an their own stone circles.  In more than a few places there are roads that go right through  a large circle, which makes people shudder at the desecration.  Don't people know these are sacred sites?

It turns out these roads aren't new.  In fact, when you dig up the site, you find that the road has always gone through the circle, so far as we can tell. In a few cases, even two roads - which gets people to thinking. And rethinking the digging, and the burnt pig bones and evidence of fences and weird post holes within and without the circles. In our era we divide up functions and separate them somewhat, so that places where we have worship and places we have trade, or places we negotiate truces and places we have parties are somewhat separate.  Not entirely, even now.  Yet our picture of stone circles as sacred sites, Stonehenge especially, has images of fire at night, and blood sacrifice, and people chanting dire things. Priests shrieking, eyes rolling back in the head, drums pounding, large groups of pilgrims from great distance walking in processions.

Well, that's not the only kind of sacred ceremony, is it? Another kind is that everyone drives their sheep for trade or barbecue**, brings all their best costumes and goods, including marriageable young people, attends processions happily in daylight, singing songs and fasting only in anticipation of feast very soon. Even human sacrifice - we must remember that they were not quite like us - was just part of the fun. We will renew our agreements about boundaries. We will watch blood sports together and cheer. We will tell dirty stories and re-enact the myths of gods or heroes. 

Remember those traders from hundreds of miles away?  They would know when the festivals were and what they might hope to trade for there. As markets changed they might gradually switch which festival they went to at summer solstice, gathering news from others. 

The sheep had to be contained somehow. Evidence of wood between stones at some circles could mean many things, but dark deeds at midnight is looking ever less likely. Meter-thick posts were set in meter-apart grids at a few sites, and Avebury is being re-looked at in that manner. What the heck?  what can you do with that?  And why are there bones of pigs shot with arrows in there? We automatically think of those massive trunks as going up into the sky.  What if they were only six feet high, enough to keep a man inside from looking over the area but low enough for those outside to observe?  The ditch and wall surrounding may not have been designed to keep out prying eyes from viewing holy places until they had been properly cleansed with long rituals, they might have been places to sit and watch guys shooting at pigs among the "trees." Small stadiums. 

Which brings me to beer, which I will post on next, because this has gone very long.

*I have been corrected that it was never under weigh despite my previous claims (and learned my lesson).

**Sheep from Orkney were driven all the way to Stonehenge. For what purpose?  Unknown, but the possibilities are few.

Cold War Revisionism

When people want an idea to be true, they will continue to believe it even after it has been exposed as untrue. 

The popular American view, and the one put forth officially, was that the US was intervening around the world only to contain the Soviet threat. But historians can never let a popular view stand.  Something else must always be true, because they need to demonstrate that they understand these things better than the masses. The revisionist historians of the 1950s and especially 1960s asserted that the US was intent on aggressive spread of capitalism, so that it could dominate extractive trade more easily. The Soviet Union was never going to invade America and wished only regional influence.  It was the aggression of the Americans, in fact, that caused the Soviets to become so deeply involved around the world, propping up freedom movements trying to resist the US hegemony.

Let me note that this revisionist view is not entirely untrue. We did want to promote trade (I call that a good thing), but we did some terrible things in support of that. Most commonly, we supported leaders and parties in foreign countries who were oppressive bastards because they looked more favorable to trading with us.  We also took unfair advantage in many places. Their opposite numbers, supported by the communists, were usually worse, and there were seldom any decent parties available with a ghost of a chance of wielding power. I think it is a fair discussion to examine harshly what America did and if there were better choices, as there usually were choices that were at least somewhat better. The difficulty is that this discussion itself rapidly became unfashionable among historians. The accusing narrative became the preferred, set against the exaggerations of goodness that most Americans told themselves. Certainly, there were exaggerations of goodness.  Still are. But the destruction of those popular myths, not the uncovering of truth, became the real aim.

You will note that this coincides with the rise of the belief that there is no truth, only competing power narratives.  That has always struck me as a convenient philosophy for them, as it steers away from gathering information and understanding it, preferring instead to engage in conflict based on accusation of bad motives.

Robert James Maddox was (is! I find he is still alive at 90 years old) an anti-revisionist historian who came out with a book about The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War in 1973, which challenged the revisionist view. Included in this challenge - indeed the heart of the challenge - was that when one checked the footnotes of the revisionist historians, they not only did not support the claimed thesis, but often directly contradicted it. They built it brick by brick and looked impressive, but a great many bricks were not themselves solid. Yet they all told each other how correct they were, and how clearly they were onto something. Maddox had just previously written in criticism of a NYTimes essay "Did Anyone Start the Cold War?" and was already under fire from other historians.  But the NYTimes reviewed his 1973 book quite positively. And while we could not expect that this should have put an end to the matter, it should have been the beginning of the end for the revisionists. Misrepresenting (though perhaps only misunderstanding) one's sources is damning in academic writing.

Yet everyone went blithely on.  Maddox, though eventually professor emeritus from Penn State, was simply outnumbered and had ideas that were unpopular.

Relatedly, here is Maddox on the myth that the Japanese wanted to surrender, but Truman was intent on sending the atomic bomb "message" to the Soviet Union, resulting in hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. Notice that when he is arguing with the revisionists, challenging them to find even wisps of facts to support the thesis, they accuse him of ignoring "a huge body of distinguished scholarship."  But that was the professor's point. That huge body was based on nothing but a desire for it to be true.

I recall in the 90s, as I was shedding the last of my liberalism, that our behavior after the collapse of the Soviet Union was good evidence in favor of the originally popular view. When the USSR could no longer afford to prop up leftist movements, we departed as well, leaving countries to rule themselves, even if they didn't do as we wished.  I thought we had made good on our claim. A reasonable discussion at least. 

But my main point is about the footnotes, and the refusal to abandon treasured idea just because it has been exposed.