Monday, January 31, 2022

Van Gogh Exhibit

We went to the Van Gogh Immersive Experience exhibit at the Strand Theater in Boston today. I recommend it highly, including for children.  It showed many works, and did some grouping of them, such as sunflowers, Japanese influenced, and last years, but only focused on a few in detail.  I think that is the right approach.

One thing I had not known was about his impaired color sensitivity, which suggests that he used such bright colors in order to perceive them at all when painting. I had known about his epilepsy and psychosis, and the possible effect that the foxglove/digitalis used to treat his overexcitement might have contributed to his subsequent depression. Of course, enormous amounts of absinthe didn't help either.

Particularly poignant was "On The Threshold of Eternity," one of his last works before he committed suicide.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Group Creativity

The Ruffian article linked over at Maggie's, The Banality of Genius reminds me much of Diana Pavlac Glyer's Bandersnatch, discussed here, about the mutual influence of the Inklings on each other. I like what I said about the book and about my own inability to persevere and write stemming largely from my personality WRT to criticism and groups.  I can't imagine how I would have found or assembled a group here, nor how I would have listened to any of them. And that was the end of my writing fiction. It's on me.

Interestingly, I still liked Sarah Hoyt then, in 2016.

Glyer makes much of the importance of writers working in groups, started with her understanding of the Inklings, but also from practical experience.  She teaches a college class on writing in which the whole point is to learn to work in groups. 

I was on a highly creative neuropsych team at work, for one brief shining Camelot hour, from 1998-2001, and it was magnificent. I have also been on competitive puzzle teams, also peak experiences. Whether  groups are such an enormous advantage when they work, that it is worth the risk of the enormous time-suck most groups when they don't I can't say. Yet I think more writers would do it if they thought there was no chance they were going anywhere without one, so they might as well.

Have You Seen Her Face?


Saturday, January 29, 2022


I had an Inklings conference scheduled for mid-March at the Presbyterian Heritage Center in Montreat, NC but it has been postponed to September. Grim tells me that the area has been doing very well in terms of covid, but I imagine folks are still nervous about bringing in people from all over the world and putting them in the same room.  I have been hoping - again - that things would be dropping off quickly and rather safe at that point, but it's not my call, is it?

From Versus With - A Thought Experiment

What if there was a new disease that never killed you by itself, but undermined enough systems in your body that it made existing weaknesses worse, including  those previously unknown to you? I am obviously taking some aspects of covid and expanding it to an extreme for my hypothetical, but it wouldn't have to be a virus.  It could be a poison or a toxin that spreads throughout an area differently, something that is a common ingredient in the food, perhaps, as people speculate there already are ubiquitous toxins that kill us now. It would have to be speedier by far than those ingredients are supposed to poison us, but imagine it a bit. Either way. It doesn't kill you, but it attacks so many systems that it makes your heart and circulatory system a little worse, your breathing a little worse, your lymphatic system a little worse.  Or it activates some of the bad cells already circulating in the body, setting off cancers or other hidden problems.

So heart attacks go up, and COPD and pneumonia go up, and cancers go up, some of them quickly, and they each kill some people.  When this illness or toxin gets untracked, the death rate actually starts going up a lot, and we begin to look around wondering why it is that so many of us are dying of a variety of causes all of a sudden. It would be, as with covid, those who already had some compromise who are most vulnerable. If you had already had one heart attack, or already had COPD, when ten body systems were all weakened, you wouldn't get a chance to see what else the disease was going to do to you, because you'd already be dead of that first one.  Or even if you recovered, you would now know you were really on the edge in that one spot, perhaps forever.

And as we learned more everyone would know that they had been weakened in some way, even if they had started out quite healthy and didn't feel so bad right then, and didn't feel so bad right now.  Their heart and lungs had been taken down a peg. If you start from a good level, no biggie.

I haven't been able to think of a clever name for this illness or I would have already been using it throughout. Underminitis or something.  If you can do better, please suggest. 

Not a single death certificate would have the name of this disease on it. It would say Congestive Heart Failure or Pneumonia or Pancreatic Cancer. Nor would we be able to tell whether this particular heart attack was caused by underminitis or would have happened anyway.  If there weren't cancer cells to activate, underminitis wouldn't create them  (though we all have many cancers already growing in our bodies - it's just that nearly all of them are so slow that they won't take us out for another fifty years, making them ignorable for people like me. Tangent.  Sorry.). We wouldn't even be able to say that these people died "with" underminitis, not "from" underminitis, because they would have already recovered a month or a year ago from it. No one dying from it, no one dying with it.  All we would know is that this disease was weakening a lot of our people and we were dying more quickly, sometimes a lot more quickly.

We would then conclude that the distinction between from and with in this scenario was irrelevant. Were some doctors trying to cover up underminitis, making no reference to it in their notes? That would neither save nor kill a single person.  Were some doctors trying to raise awareness about underminitis and working it into discussions anywhere they could shove it in? It would create no change in the death rate. Were hospitals getting paid more if someone had had underminitis along the line - was it this year's fashionable diagnosis that was getting stuck onto everything? It would not matter in the slightest. All that would matter was whether more people were dying, or not. What we called it would be irrelevant. 

I hope this exaggeration illustrates why it doesn't matter in the least with covid either. I have gone so far as to call the distinction artificial, but it now occurs to me that it is not even that. Are people overattributing or underattributing covid in death diagnoses? Only the final number matters. The number of people more than expected that we lost tells us the death count for covid, even if the documentation of exactly where that is is shoddy. There are a couple of escape holes, of "maybe it's more suicide, maybe it's people who didn't get medical care because of lockdowns, maybe it's anxiety from being forced to wear masks, maybe it's loneliness from being isolated, maybe it's homicides from being cooped up together..." Yes, maybe. And we can measure those things to a near approximation as well, even if all the medical personnel in America were screwing up the paperwork, just by looking at the final numbers. In 2020, we can say with some certainty that only one of those things happened, the increase in drug OD's, which were a small part of the total and already on the rise beforehand. So nice theory, could have been true.  The data did not support it. Some deaths might be debatable whether they were CHF or covid, but if we have thousands more of those overall, with no other possible explanation other than "covid either killed her directly or set of a chain of bad things happening to her heart, which killed her three days later" then you have to put the hospital count, the state count, the national count down to thousands more covid deaths.  

As we go forward, covid will look more like underminitis every year, with people dying of heart disease or breathing difficulties months or even years later, but still sooner, on average, if they had covid at any time in their lives.  Much worse if they were hospitalised with it or were in ICU, only a little if they had a mild case, but still measurable. The American life expectancy has gone down two years in 2020-2021. A million extra people died. They died of something. Discovering that covid tests sometimes can't tell the difference between colds, flu, and covid matters for treatment, but it doesn't matter for the death totals.  Even if you want to sell the idea that hundreds of thousands of people are suddenly dying of colds and the flu, you have to have an explanation why these last two flu seasons were each 20x worse than average, back-to-back. Besides covid, what else have you got?

Military Changes in Culture

If you were a soldier in 1700, you were most likely a mercenary.  So also in 1300, or 700, or 700 BC, and so on. When your own territory was under attack it might be all hands on deck, but even then, most of you were just cannon fodder or buffer. There were trained professionals who had the good weapons, the armor, the horses, and they were expected to carry the load. There is a long development of states in the Middle Ages refining their abilities to tax to raise money for wars, and ever-larger armies meant more and more citizens of each had some close connection to the military, current or previous, but even up until 1750, 1800, military service was not generalised in the population. The colonial experiences were an accelerant, in that many Americans participated in battle or support in some way leading up to and through the revolution, but that was still atypical.  Most Frenchmen or English back in Europe did not have this.  Only the peoples moving as groups, such as the Huguenots or the Scots-Irish, had generalised experience of military involvement, and this was often informal and intermittent. 

Around 1800 this changed, and the change lasted until 1950 or so with the demobilisation from WWII. Since that time most places have gone back to professional armies.  We didn't especially notice it in America because so many of one generation had been to a foreign war, part of a large invading force rather than the (at least potentially) defensive forces of Europe and the Far East, and we sent sizable armies to Korea and Vietnam after. It has been noted since then that the cultural expectations are different, with great swaths of the population giving little or no consideration to ever being in the military, while other sectors - southern, Hispanic, rural, western, dominating the subsequent military. (There are also difference among the various services, which I ignore for the general discussion.) There has been some wistfulness that perhaps it would be better if it were like the old days, when the army and navy included the sons - and now daughters - of everyone and we all felt more of a stake in that. The Israelis are pointed out as a good example of this, and the Scandinavians and Swiss, even though they don't go to war, have everyone take a turn in the military when young. I won't take a position on whether this would be good for us or not, I am simply noting that it was the years 1800-1950 that are historically unusual, not the norm.  We think back to "the old days" and that's what we think of, but that was a particular moment in time, when nationalism and large set-piece battles were the norm, rather than skirmishes and professional armies.

We don't usually notice, in such a discussion, how much private contractors do the work of professional military these days. It's not that different than hiring Hessians - or Amorites, or Goths, or Saxons. We have returned to the practices of the even earlier eras, back in line with what has been the common experience for most of the civilised world for millennia - civilised in the sense of living in towns and cities.

Suffixes For Females

They are unpopular, even hated now. Some have been hated for long enough that they are so out of fashion that people have forgotten they existed. If you called a female MD a "Doctress," when she figured it out at all without hints she would think you were being funny or clever.  Perhaps not successfully funny or clever, but it would be so outdated as to not even be on the radar. Yet when it came in in the 19th C, many women insisted on it. "I want people to know that it's possible for a woman to be a doctor!" Or, I conclude, a poetess, songstress, authoress. The thinking was, if you just said or wrote "doctor" everyone would assume it was a male, and men would get the credit for what women had done. She, a woman, had succeeded and she wanted it noted. 

The suffix -enne is similar, but little used.

Two words seem to be exempt from this current deploring of feminine forms of nouns, goddess and actress. "God" may get the edge as a more important form than the feminine because of a thousand years of Christianity in it, but in the pairing "gods and goddesses I don't think anyone is perceiving an inequality there. Also, some form of feminine expression, even if it is as a hunter as with Diana, is often considered central to the goddess's identity.  She makes things grow. She cures diseases.  No one is likely to look down on those things, and may even consider them more important than whatever the sky-god is doing at the moment. Why actress has held up without attracting ire I'm not sure. That it compresses attractively surely helps.  If actoress had been the form we developed that one would be on the chopping block now. It may be that because this was one of the first previously-male occupations that women established themselves in (for obvious reasons) it has just become a word. We think of it as the twin of actor, not some patronising affair. Also, as with goddess, the specifically feminine characteristics are not incidental to the task, as they are with doctors or authors. There are no generic gods, and there are not any generic actors, though the gender boundaries are increasingly porous there. And I have heard that women insist on being listed as an actor on the assumption that there must be something lesser about any feminine form.  I think that is artifical and not really in our associations. Yet if disapproval of the general category of feminine suffixes eventually wins out, that will go out with it anyway.

The suffix came into English attached to nobility, as in princess, duchess,or baroness. These were usually the wife of the title-holding baron or prince, but sometimes the woman came in with the title on her own, and her new husband picked up the title Duke from her.  It was not regarded as a patronising or especially lesser version of the masculine title.  In practice, it may have carried a bit less power, but that is not easily discernible from the written record. "-ess" does not have to mean a lesser form, it has usually just meant a female form, no prejudice.  If it carries an air of the patronising now, it has caught that from sexism, it was not the cause. It is the cart, not the horse.

"-ette" is different.  It is clearly not only female, but describes something as smaller. Smaller is not always lesser, but that would be the way to bet. Suffragette was originally given as an insulting, supposedly humorous term, but as often happens, as with Quakers or rednecks, the victims laughingly embraced it and made it their own.  We don't think of suffragette as "oh, the little woman has taken up a cause this year, how cute" anymore, it's just their name, fairly neutral. The same with majorette. We can think it back, especially if we were in band or went to a large university, that there is a drum major who is a big deal, while there are collections of lesser majorettes, but that isn't our usual first association. It's the word for a girl twirling a baton. We have to work to even think there is a male equivalent.

"-ine" is largely in proper names. In a great many languages of the world, not just Indo-European ones, the "-a" suffix denotes the female. There is usually a corresponding masculine suffix, so there is no sense that women are being singled out as having to be noted as some exception. Antonio, Antonia. It was Paulus, Paolo for males, so the ending of Paula is not some tacked-on bit. In English it does get that flavor, because we ripped out the endings in a lot of places making the masculine form look like the "real" one, so Robert, Roberta; Gabriel, Garbriela. But English is very unusual in that. "ina" is a combination, usually coming in with foreign words like "ballerina" or "concertina."

The last is "-trix," which was never common.  My mother was executrix over the estates of her mother and some aunts in the 70s and 80s and I just got used to the term as a simple feminine, certainly with no diminution of role implied.  I think I have occasionally used the term. I am told it is now incorrect and out-of-fashion. Well, fine.  I can't see that it matters one way or the other.  I'll adjust. Aviatrix is now passe, but then aviator is not far behind it anyway. The only remaining common usage is dominatrix, which is so sexually charged as to overwhelm other associations. If you put that suffix on a noun to refer to a woman now it would not be perceived as a slighting, diminishing expression, it would be instantly processed as a sexual, likely humorous one.  No, I am not going to make up an example here.  I don't want to start any unfortunate trends.

Thus here we are with a new language cause to enforce.  I don't much like enforcement in such things. Once people get the idea they usually shade to the newer, preferred cultural meaning on their own, without self-appointed language police requiring it.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Barbara Allen

I think Garfunkel follows the Joan Baez version here. I don't think of that as authentic, largely because I learned another version before hearing this one, and we usually think those the "real" one. I also don't like that he has neither the verse about the father nor the mother, which I consider important. Length, likely, as this is already over five minutes. It was very much the fashion to strive for simple, unadorned interpretations of folk songs, but Garfunkel goes full on in the other direction here - orchestral, modulating up, descant at the end, which I would have predicted I would disdain at the time.  Yet I loved it.

I love it more now, and when I sing the song myself it is more influenced by this version than any other.

Bachelor Nation

There is a woman who has the only official Bachelor podcast, called Bachelor Happy Hour. She says on her ad (that shows up at the end of my Wondery podcast) that it's important that the podcaster be a member of Bachelor Nation, and she was a Bachelorette - and then participant in some other similar show before she finally found love. 

There was a science-fiction short story about a man dating a woman, who revealed as she was leaving that she rented out the experiences in her life on some sort of subscription service, and was obligated to live a life that other people would like to experience along with her, or she wouldn't have customers.  It seemed to be some sort of brain-space, so more like VR than something on film.  But reality TV is very similar to this, isn't it? You get to sit in on someone else's life at very close range. I suppose that happens in novels as well.

It never occurred to me that there might be such a thing as Bachelor Nation, yet I suppose it makes sense for the truly interested as opposed to the casual viewer. You have to share a common view about how love and attraction works, and well, how life works. It would have to be patiently explained to me, likely a few times, but these are people who already get it. Following sports usually has a regional appeal, a way of declaring that you used to be from Philly and still root for the Eagles in football, but you have switched your other allegiances to the teams in your new locale, Colorado. You are one of the bunch now. But is being a member of Bachelor Nation otherwise somewhat similar to rooting for sports?

I don't think rooting for contestants in reality TV shows is strongly regional.  I think it's just one possibility, one influence, on who the viewers like.  "Oh yeah, she's a real city girl! She's great!"  But what do I know?  I'm just making it up from overhearing people at lunch tables at work.  Not even my own lunch table. I don't think many of them ever come from New Hampshire, so I can't gauge what the local response would be.  I'm not curious about the show, except I would like to know if I would also deplore this for its values, in addition to just not being interested.  I suspect so, but maybe I am just not understanding it.

Helping the Working Stiff

Tip lavishly, for openers. It's a thing you can actually do, not just talk about, that will help a thousand people over the course of your life.

Paranoia Strikes Deep

The song was originally about the enforcement of curfew while the Buffalo Springfield was the house band of a popular club in Los Angeles, which attracted a protest of young people. The idea that "step out of line, The Man come and take you away" was the classic performative paranoia of the time. There were actually riots on the Sunset Strip, and I'm not sure what they expected the police to do in response to that other than move people away - some arrested, some merely warned. If they really thought that they were going to be taken away (with the implication of being disappeared indefinitely rather than processed through usual actions and likely home that night or possibly the next), they would have been heading for another jurisdiction, up to and including going to Canada. Note that while the Flying Burrito Brothers talked about moving to Canada, singing Steve Earle's "My Uncle" - long after the draft was over - none of them actually did. So paranoia strikes shallow. And there are a few rhymes for that, so that excuse won't fly.

The celebrities who swear they are going to move to Canada "if (insert this year's Republican) is elected" - they never do. 

Which brings me to today.  I had a followup commenter to one of my comments over at another site.  He assured me that requiring masks was indeed a very big deal, because it was an introduction to making us do anything, to making women wear the hijab, and to send us to camps if we refused.  If he really believed this he would be gone, probably to another country, but at minimum to some remote location to go off grid. (Yeah, I know, any day now, just one more thing, that will push him over the line.) He certainly wouldn't be publishing comments where "they" could track him on a public site. It is a performative paranoia.

I don't think it is quite the same as getting away to another state or county where you don't think you will be interfered with so much, or taking care to protect your online privacy.  Maybe it is just a more intense version of those and I am just making excuses for those others because I understand that better. Yet I did work with paranoia for decades and have written about it and thought about it a fair bit in my life, about the now-discarded psychoanalytic theories and the difference between those whose perceptions or physical interpretations are unwired for medical reasons. The demented can become paranoid, as events happen around them that they do not understand and cannot explain, like people taking food out of their refrigerator or moving important items from where they carefully put them.  That is more gradual than the psychotic varieties, and maybe this rampant shallow paranoia that people cannot possibly believe but keep saying anyway is something like that.  They do not understand what is happening around them and begin to make up stories about what is happening, because the brain needs explanations or it cannot rest.

But I don't think that's it either.  It is ultimately cynicism swollen out of proportion, and of course an immense arrogance that they are among the few who somehow see the handwriting on the wall that the rest of us sheeple are oblivious to. They know (tapping temple).  You can't fool them.  They've seen through their little games. Then they bind themselves into this escalating pattern of increasing the level of warning if people don't believe them.  "They" are not just going to tell you you're wrong, they're going to take down your name...they are going to keep you from getting a promotion...don't believe me?  Well, my brother was in line for a promotion but...still don't believe me?  They are going to take your wife. They are going to make you disappear.  The intensity of the thing that will supposedly happen to you increases, but what they really mean is that they are increasing their volume.  They are already at three flags warning with no way of going to four, so they find a different set of intensifiers.  They want to show that they are really worried and angry.  No really, really worried and angry.  Pay attention here I am really, really, really - what do I have to do to get your attention?

As James quoted from CS Lewis about two weeks ago "The problem with trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you so very often succeed." (The Magician's Nephew)

More Discouragement

I was encouraged over the weekend again about the relatively few Covid deaths, though mindful that those totals are always lower because of delayed reporting. Still, I thought it was a good sign given the continuing upsurge in number of cases. We have about 27M active cases at the moment, which seems incredible. 

But as happened before, as the reporting comes in on the weekdays we are up to 3,000 deaths a day again. Worse than the last time I complained. That is against a background of a half-million new cases a day, yes. But it's also dead people. Pray that this variant confers more than a little natural immunity. As covid increases heart problems long-term even after people recover from it, our new normal is going to start including more heart-related deaths every year, which individually we will not be able to assign to covid.

I am seeing the story circulate again that the natural progression of virus mutations is that they become less deadly. Though there is some truth in the idea, that is not a true statement. For a quick example, the plagues that devastated Europe in the 6th C and 14th C (with powerful echoes both times over a few more centuries) were not some brand new disease descending from nowhere. They were mutations of the same virus that the Indo-Europeans brought thousands of years earlier, that seemed to spawn worse versions a couple of times every millennium.  It has been around a long time. Sometimes the variants are much, much worse. 

I do a lot of wishful thinking, but I try to hold it in check with information that I actually know.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Jen's Other Choice - O Holy Night

She specified Christmas Eve, and there were a couple of versions that captured that beautifully and I almost went with them. Yet I have always preferred versions of carols by something closer to regular people.  That's not quite what's happening here.  These aren't people who happened by the pub on their way home and bellowed out what the pianist was offering. Many if not most of them are well-trained.  But you just look at them and know you would just like so many, and want to go out with them to the pub after. 

Merry Christmas, Jen.  It was a joy to have you here that still causes me to get misty.

Missed Opportunity

New Hampshire has started offering at-home covid tests at state liquor stores. For those of you out-of-state, our lower-priced wines and liquors are a major NH revenue source. When you read these odd statistics about how people in NH drink more than anyone else in the region, it is based on this. Our neighboring states drive across to load up their trunks with cheap(er) liquor, and even tourists from farther away, like Quebec, Nova Scotia, New York, or whatever fill up their suitcases as well.  As with driving too far out of your way to get cheap gas, many of these people are losing money because of the travel costs of $10 to save $6 or whatever, but it works out great for us. Come on by.

Yet as soon as I heard about the covid tests it occurred to me that our pro-vaccine governor, Chris Sununu (like all the Sununus, he has an actual advanced degree from MIT  in a hard science and can do arithmetic) missed a trick here.  Maybe not a year ago, when vaccines were first out and we had to work in volume, but shortly after that, we should have had a program of making vaccines available at some of the major state liquor stores. Opponents would have shuddered, clenched their teeth, cursed under their breath, but who would have openly opposed it? Maybe those who only cared about political power and not actually about vaccines, which are just a convenient cause?  I say we risk it.  Liberals who actually want to see lots of people vaccinated (and who go to the liquor store just as often as the conservative themselves, I'm sure.  May more, because way fewer Baptists and Mormons), would grudgingly nod.  And while people are there, especially at the highway toll plaza stores, which also have Common Man restaurants, rest rooms, gas/electrical charging, wearable merch and souvenirs, ATMS, tourist info, and spacious, well laid-out liquor stores - unlike the nostalgic but crowded and confusing Massachusetts "packies*" - they buy expensive scotches and French wines at considerable discount.  Win-win.

My wife is trying to text Sununu as we speak with the idea.

Call-ins and Write-ins

I was listening to an older episode of Lexicon Valley, pre-John McWhorter, in which a guest linguist was talking about research into current language changes.  He suggested that the mail that had been receiving over the previous few years was a treasure trove, with better data than researchers were going to be able to get with their tape recorders and listening to popular media. The audience would be a group of people interested in language usage with some amateur training in it, just from listening to the show. They are spread into thousands of places with listening ears, including some obscurer corners and unusual backgrounds by chance, such as people who had moved here from other countries (including English-speaking ones) which would be logistically difficult for a researcher to find in any quantity by intent.

They are not a perfect filter, certainly, as they will tend to be drawn from the ranks of the more educated and wealthier, and they might hear things wrong or listen for the wrong things.  But a linguist could easily work around that. It's crowdsourced information, and even if imperfect, very useful.

We Are The World


Let me count the ways. There is apparently a pop music critics debate about whether this song, which was a bigger deal at the time, or "Do They Know It's Christmas?" the earlier English attempt at charity schlock rock which has a stronger melody and has weathered well, was better. Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! I know the answer, teacher! Call on me! Call on me! My arm is soooo tired from holding it up waiting for you to call on me! The answer is "Don't call this a question of any importance whatsoever!"

I bring prejudices to this performance. We had long since gotten rid of the TV and I did not listen to popular music stations on the radio. I may have heard it before it showed up in Gethsemane Lutheran Church one Sunday in 1985, with charming 14 y/o girls signing it for the deaf along with a cassette tape as the special music that week. We had no deaf people, of course, nor were we embarking on a deaf ministry, much as that was needed at the time. At least it wasn't liturgical dance. 

Lots of the money raised went to teaching about birth control and food production, and much of that which went for food went to officials who promised to make sure the food got to the right people.  I think some did get through to actual hungry people. You could make good arguments that such education was more needed and would do more good in the long run but...that wasn't what they said they were doing. 10% was kept in America for domestic poor food programs. It had very little effect.

I also noted right up front a certain vacuity, which PJ O'Rourke summarised better than I could in his excellent book Give War A Chance.

We are the world [solipsism], we are the children [average age forty]. We are the ones to make a brighter day [unproven], so let’s start giving [logical inference supplied without argument]. There’s a choice we’re making, so let’s start giving [true as far as it goes]. We’re saving our own lives [absurd]. It’s true we’ll make a better day [see line 2 above], Just you and me [statistically unlikely]. That’s three palpable untruths, two dubious assertions, and nine uses of a first person pronoun, not a single reference to trouble and anybody in it and no facts. The verse contains, literally, neither rhyme nor reason. And these musical riots of philanthropy address themselves to the wrong problems. Death is the result of bad politics.

Thanks PJ.

Yet I know that what irritates me most powerfully is how it still strikes a chord in the rock-music liberals of my own generation.  I have one quite close to me who has made numerous references to it over the years, both what an important moment it was in the history of America waking up to its responsibilities in the world and noticing that we were not the only people on the planet, but also, what a pivotal, transitional time it was for rock music in general, of the older, established musicians handing the baton to a younger generation, who were going to carry the dream of the 60s forward and make it a better world.  They way those younger singers asserted themselves, even in the presence of these august elders...

No really.  He talks like this, as recently as last year. He's 65. And he is not the only one, if you check in on people who write about the history of rock music. They choke up about this. Bob Dylan wasn't going to even come, until he heard that Ray Charles was coming.  Ray Charles! He saw that the real Civil Rights crowd, not just the young ones, were getting involved! (seeing that this was the third multi-star charity concert Dylan had come to, I find this hard to credit.) It was the first time that so many big name celebrities had devoted themselves to a cause (Uhh, WWII?  USO?)

Okay, I thought America noticing what was wrong in the world and thinking we had important responsibilities about that was what had the CIA involved in overthrows and got us into Vietnam, which were considered bad things by this group. Every schoolchild in the 50s and 60s heard their parents say "Eat your dinner.  There are children starving in India/China/Africa." I think we did actually know.  Maybe it was mostly rich pop stars who had forgotten and needed documentaries on TV to remind them.

As for passing the baton, well there were some Jackson brothers younger than Michael...and Sheila E was 27...but I think people mostly mean the thoroughly-irritating Cindy Lauper, who was nearly 32 at the time, because she had that weird hair and seemed like a kid, and it was such a surprise when she asserted herself when it was her turn, as if she had talent. Like right in front of Paul Simon and Dionne Warwick and everything. Maybe Huey Lewis & the News, who were born around 1950 but had only recently become stars? That younger generation? Have we noticed that any particular baton was passed to them? Or Lauper? Or the Jacksons, excepting Michael? If so, they seem to have dropped it and left the track. 

But it was a twofer. You could pretend you were helping African hunger and show you were still keeping up with what's hip. It's both a candy and a breath mint, Darlene! 1985 is not looking so accidental...

It was not in any way the first virtue-signalling.  That has likely been around since about two days after the world's oldest profession got started. Nor was this novel with American liberals. Once they figured out that the 60s protests in Selma and the like were going to be filmed and on the news, and there was going to be police protection that didn't want a riot, you suddenly couldn't keep those earnest white people away. I suppose there was something to Live Aid being famous black people who got to virtue-signal right along with famous white ones - that hadn't happened much before, and it was a mark of cultural unity and progress. Conservatives had their own virtue-signalling of course, because it's very equal-opportunity, but this was going to be an MTV, modern-media event, which meant repeated airplay. Turkish Delight, really.

There was a Mother Earth News article in the 1970s that was a shortened version of Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television. One of its points was that politics was going to become increasingly performative, like the Munich Olympics, and less based on real events. Terrorists as well as politicians were going to play for the camera. Whoa, did that ever turn out to be true, and this video is front-and-center. The commodification of caring.

Let me suggest that the unrecognised but probably dominant reasons that made this necessary were that Vietnam was too long ago to get people excited, and Reagan was just starting his second term, despite everyone knowing that he was going to bring in fascism - any day now! But they didn't care. So the good people of the world had to show that they not only cared, but they Cared, and they CARED. We are the world, not you bastards. 

The Simpsons get the last, best word.

Get Off My Lawn

I was listening to an interview with Chris Arnade, author of Dignity from a few years ago, about front-row America and back-row America, which he considers the real divide, not race or even income, though the latter especially correlates. I have the book on wish list, but will be borrowing it from my son instead, hopefully soon.

I was quite impressed with Arnade. He started as a PhD in particle physics, then became one of the original quants on Wall Street, even though he was (is?) a socialist. He now walks across various American cities, including small cities like Altoona or Holyoke or (I think) Albany, GA, taking photographs, mostly of people, and stopping in to McDonalds, bars, or storefront churches and just talking to people.  He calls them the normies, as contrasted with himself and the people he has generally known in his life. He sees this as partly statistical: the vast bulk of humans across time were not trying to get ahead, they were just trying to make a living, nor did they much worry about that. For most of humanity, becoming slightly more prosperous was possible through luck or cleverness or effort or risk or connections, but little more than that. Nor was great tragedy surprising. Life is, and you try to get by.

He mentioned that many of them mostly just want to be left alone by the big people in life.  Their experience with them is not good: those look down on you, take advantage of you, call the police on you, have laws which make you do things you don't understand or don't let you do things that seem okay to you. The farthest down don't vote, because why bother?  It's all the same either way.  If you register to vote you might get called for jury duty. Just have nothing to do with those people.

It reminded me of a line by an Important Conservative Columnist who wrote "Saying 'get off my lawn' is not a political philosophy," to which one commenter replied "Actually, it is. It is both childish and profound. More the latter, thanks." That sounds like a guy who wants people to get off his lawn. I found that arresting.  Clearly, the commenter was going for drama in both directions and exaggerated, but the point is a good one. Let me take it apart, just a bit.

"Get." The small man has authority to tell even the greater what he can and cannot do. In this case it is related to laws of property, and we have long included rights to the molestation of one's own person as well. Though property itself is sometimes despised as a right these days, it was the leverage point for many other rights. "I know he's a damned Quaker, Ezekiel, but he owns the property." Similarly for property or goods or even businesses that women or blacks inherited. People may not have wanted them to, or even passed laws against it, but ownership was a claim strong enough to fight off competing intentions. The societies which preceded ours and birthed it did not want to give that one up - and so let the others go. The principle has expanded, so that now citizenship even without owning property, or even residency or simple existence have rights that must be respected. This seems obvious to us but is in no way even common, let alone universal elsewhere. Powerful people can do whatever they want in most places.

"Off" He has not gone looking to tell other people what to do, he is noticing a person who has infringed on him and inserted himself where not entitled without permission. "Get out" would carry a similar meaning while saying "get on" or "get in" is a bit different. They are more aggressive than protective.

"My" There are whole volumes written about the concept of property, and how much the society around us has provided us the opportunity. and therefore deserves some credit and has some implied ownership. Even kings and emperors were thought and are thought to have some limitation on their rights of ownership, however much they keep trying to exceed those. We are at minimum deeply indebted to the people who came before who created the circumstances under which we own things. But they're dead, and what do we owe to other people now, even in our own society? 

Slight digression: It may be argued with some force that none of us is very much independent and responsible for our own condition, and pretending that we can live off on our own without depending on or bothering others is an illusion. Even if you tramp off into the wilderness, the boots you wear and the axe you carry were made by others, and farther back the land was secured by the efforts of others, as far back as removing the major predators that would outcompete or even eat us centuries ago. "You didn't build that" has a great deal of truth in it. Yet those who came before, er, came before, and aren't giving us orders at present except in the indirect sense of bequeathed culture we wish to adhere to. Confusing that further is treating whatever rights your society or community has as equivalent to what the government's rights are. Even if the former does have claims, they may not always extend to the latter. As I said, volumes have been written about what "my" might mean.  But we can at least say in simple form that it has meant more in America than other places, and reducing it would be a change. As with "get," powerful people, either individually or in collective, can do what they want to you in other places, sometimes dramatically so.

"Lawn." A lawn is optional, not necessary for survival.  You put it there only because you wanted it. That turns out to be okay. A person on your lawn may not have done any damage to your ability to get food, stay warm, find a mate, or make a living.  It doesn't matter. You can still tell them to get off. This comes up in other large rights, sometimes unnoticed. Self-defense is invoked in the right to bear arms, and that is of course the strongest claim. But I think you should be able to go out and fire guns just because you like things that go boom, or want to see if you can hit a target just for fun. The obvious counterclaims that you can't do that just anywhere in a way that endangers others are valid, yes. But you get to do it just because you like it, like having an aquarium or playing an instrument or...caring for a lawn.

"Get off my lawn" turns out to contain a lot of rights in it. The motivations of why an individual says it are not the important part.  If they are childish, or irritable, or pigheaded, so be it.  There are others exercising the right who are none of those things.  And more importantly, it is the right to be able to say it that is important.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Venture Capital, Research, and Sturgeon's Law

I certainly remember Sturgeon's Law - that 90% of everything is crap - and its context.  Marc Andreessen, developer of Mosaic and founder of Netscape (remember? They were first) and now venture capitalist is applying it to various aspects of research and development and finds the rest of the world...a bit frustrating. This is a WSJ interview that I hope gets you behind the paywall.  Otherwise you will have to do that trick of putting the Duck(DuckGo) on the first sentence and finding it reprinted elsewhere.

Mr. Andreessen’s friend in the scientific research world told him about a historical study of heart and lung drugs that were approved but were not effective. Mr. Andreessen learned that “one of the things you do to counter a replication crisis is a ‘preregistration of hypothesis’—instead of pretending after the fact that you have a hypothesis, that you’re cherry-picking data to prove.” The result of this preregistration? There were fewer new drugs approved because researchers could no longer fudge the data. “Of course, what this implies is that most drugs that are already on the market today probably don’t work.” His friend agreed and said forget 50%, it’s 90% of research that is bad to begin with.

And also 

Universities created an implicit scoring system that was easy to game. University research is a “self-accredited cartel with no market pressure,” Mr. Andreessen notes. Hence the replication crisis.

Jen's Choice for Herself

I brought the new daughter-in-law in on this nostalgia tour.  I don't have any nostalgic music about her for myself, as we have only known her two years, but she couldn't choose between two for herself, so they will both make it in time. She gets two anyway.

As soon as Jen picked the Cranberries, I nodded.  I should have guessed she was a Cranberries gal when younger.

So now I've been humming Cranberries songs all day.

The longest-running DIL has passed entirely, and I don't have specific music that evokes her as a young person for me. Odd, as she was Jonathan's childhood sweetheart and we have known her since...1996?  You would think there was something. Numbering the sons is easy, because it is both their age and when they came to us that is reflected. With the daughters-in-law, I think there is no sensible way to numbering them, so I can't use that method. Oldest?  Same # as the son she is married to? When she joined the family? These don't match up. No numbers, then.

Ignoring Purple

We talk about red states and blue states, but all of them are purple. We think of Massachusetts and Vermont as very liberal Democratic states, but both elect some Republicans. A state that goes 60% for a Republican is considered not only red, but strongly red.  DC is an exception, I suppose. We ignore this in nearly all our discussions, not only about national issues, but even local. I consider Concord to be very liberal, and it is - but that means 65-35 for Biden in 2020, 60-35-4 for Hillary in 2016, with the 4% going to the libertarian candidate. 

This has a direct application to covid discussions.  I see strong assertions that "parents" want their kids back in full-time school now. And that "teachers" are opposing this, or sometimes "administrators" are doing that. Yet when parents are given choices about what they want to happen for their particular children, some choose keeping them home, some choose sending them back, and some choose hybrid. Even at that, the parents are sometimes going against what would be their preference in a perfect world because of transportation, day care, juggling work, etc. There are plenty of teachers who desire that we all just get back to normal with five-day school. I will note that in those discussions masks do not figure prominently. The number of parents who consider masks abusive to their children is small. Nor do the children much care.  They find it annoying, but find rules about having to keep quiet here or there, or rules about devices, or having to stay in their seats for long periods to be a bigger deal.

There are administrators who want things to return quickly to status quo ante as well, who have loud opinions from all sides directed at them, as do the admins who are more cautious and protective, also subjected to impassioned insistence - not all of it reasonable - from parents and community.

I think of these things when I read someone who is asserting what "parents" want, as if that is some unified whole. Their credibility goes down fast with me.  It means that they only know a few parents, or none, or hang out on FB only with the like-minded getting each other incensed. Or perhaps they know people but don't really listen to them. Polling reveals divides. (And be careful of who is doing the polling and how they worded hings as well.)

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Headline I Am Not Going To Click On

On ‘S.N.L.,’ Donald Trump Tries His Hand at Wordle 

Over at the NYTimes (I was reading John McWhorter language essays), the sidebar of articles they hope you might read is topped with the above at present. I don't know whether Saturday Night Live taking the opportunity to make fun of Donald Trump yet again - he is no longer president, remember - was a key part of the show and a continuing topic of theirs this season or a one-off nostalgic bit of humor. I am not particularly calling SNL out. Though I will remind folks that even I, who have not watched even clips of the show in years had heard that throughout Trump's presidency they could joke about little else. I suspect this is ongoing, though likely less than it was a year or three years ago. 

Yet either way, the Times thought it a hoot to write it up and feature it. They know their audience, I imagine.  When I was in theater and doing comedy, the formula was that audiences would reliably laugh at food, sex, and money jokes, even if the show and the performance were weak. This may be the equivalent: "Tell this audience that Trump is stupid and boorish.  They'll eat that up."

They miss him, it seems.

I have read the defense of the media still focusing on him that if he didn't keep putting himself forward, if he would just go away, they would stop. For serious reporting, that may be so.  But for making fun of mean like they stopped making fun of Nixon and Reagan? Hmm. I have lived long enough to know better.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Cost-Benefit Analysis

We all think it's the best way to do business. I am certain I have invoked the phrase here a couple of dozen times, and likely a hundred times in real life. Tim Harford has an interesting review of a Bent Flyvbjerg and Dirk Bester journal article that dampens my enthusiasm considerably.  Not because it is a bad idea in theory, but because as a practical reality it allows us to hide important assumptions (guilty) and to underestimate costs and overestimate benefits in ways that fall in with the general ideas around us (also guilty). Which are likely not accurate. I liked the line "The problem is not that every project engineer in the world is incapable of delivering to a reasonable budget; it is that the budgets are never reasonable." That does add up, doesn't it?  We are very used to assuming, whenever we hear an estimate on a bridge or a building or a new program that it is actually going to cost much more. Shouldn't that tell us something about initial estimates in general?

Having argued that cost-benefit analysis is “broken”, Flyvbjerg and Bester propose fixing rather than replacing it — for example by improving the accuracy of cost estimates through better data, independent audits and performance incentives. I agree. The method is open to misuse but is too valuable to abandon.

We don't have anything better. But this is so bad that perhaps we should do something.  CS Lewis once asserted ("Why I am not a Pacifist") that wars never do half the good that the belligerents promise, which I have taken as a wise caution.  Yet I think it is worse than that. From recent history of western nations, we can say that whenever war is proposed, it will cost ten times what we initially think. On the plus side for the US, the loss of our human life is likely to be one-tenth what we fear.  This inverse relationship may not be accidental.  But to go the next step, the benefit we derive will not be as advertised.  It may not be only one-tents as much, which would be lovely poetry and arithmetic, yet it is certainly much less.  If we knew wars were going to deliver only a quarter as much but cost twelve times as much, would we still go forward?  Sometimes yes.  Sometimes there is no real other choice.  But America has had the luxury of choice for most of its history.

There are analyses that show similar worse results for the War on Poverty or the War on Drugs, or any number of other endeavors, while others, such as the early space program, seem to have paid off better because of the primary research needed. So CBA, yes. Except we don't really do that now, we do an imitation to save face.

Covid From, Covid With

On a one-year followup, people who had covid have a higher risk of a wide variety of cardiac conditions. Yeah, great. The added risk to those who were not hospitalised seems to be low, but still statistically significant. (And I don't like looking at any of those green bars, thanks.)  And of course those who had been in ICUs were at much higher risk. 

So when those folks die from those conditions, this year or in five years (but five years early) it won't be "with" covid, because they have supposedly recovered from covid. And their death certificates will not read that they died from it.  But you could say they died from it at some level, couldn't you? If covid causes an increase in heart attacks, then some of those people - we can't tell which ones, but some group of people in that pile - had a heart attack they wouldn't have otherwise had

But maybe we shouldn't count those as "real" heart attacks or strokes, because those people had a preexisting condition: covid. It's the same reasoning...

This is what happens when people make up artificial distinctions to try and evade reality. They back themselves into logical corners with reasoning that seemed good at the time.

I also know that not only the general anti-vaxxers, but some of the people who think they are confining their skepticism to this illness, who have this happen to relatives or even themselves, will blame something else. "He wouldn't have died if he hadn't gone to that damn hospital!" I am not making this up. I know of this excuse-making happening in people who were in my circle until recently, and have caught more of it second-hand from reliable sources.  It will be Anything But Covid, which is why the vaccine dangers are also being exaggerated.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Kyle's Choice For Himself - Borrowed Nostalgia of Son #5


I was not familiar with the song, but it fits for a Beatles fan branching out, doesn't it?

Repeats of Older Ideas

Because both of these came up today, and though alone I was cursing audibly.

Whatever advantage Celsius/Centigrade has for scientific and international purposes, it is inferior to Fahrenheit for everyday use. Anything below 0° is Too Damn Cold.  Anything above 100° is Too Damn Hot. The rest is commentary.

The right wing radicals are primarily defensive, not only threatening to hole up with lots of weapons, daring the ATF and Biden to come after them but actually doing it. You can hear them say some truly frightening things about the race war that they have been sure is coming for thirty years or more and how ready they are for that. They shrug at the idea that they might have to shoot some people. But of the ones I have met here in NH, none have said "I'm gonna go down to Concuhd oah Manchestah and look foah some o' them radicals and blow theah fuckin'  heads off." It just doesn't happen, and nationwide this seems to hold as well. They are serious.  But they are staying home protecting their stuff. The left wing radicals are absolutely willing to go downtown everywhere and be aggressive, lighting things on fire or taking over buildings or neighborhoods or looting. But there is (was) a reluctance to even talk about shooting people. Each feeds the paranoia of the other by the limitation they don't care much about.  The right wing looks at itself and knows it would not go out on offense unless they really felt the Republic was in danger today; the left wing believes that actually going after human beings is a bridge they will not cross. (There have always been exceptions to both, but...)

My fear is that both limitations are breaking down, both fences have been breached. The generation one down from me seems mostly okay on both sides, with worrisome features.  The next generation after that does not adhere to those norms, left and right.