Saturday, May 28, 2022

Give That Wolf A Banana


Shrodinger's Serial Killers

Jonah Goldberg over at The Dispatch has a lot of my ideas, stated more clearly and elegantly, about school shootings.

Anyway, in that NPR segment Cory Turner says that experts say that we should make schools “softer”—i.e., more welcoming and nurturing—not “harder” as in more secure. I think there’s a bit of a category error here. Making schools more nurturing and supportive is not in conflict with making them physically safer. I don’t know this, but I am pretty confident that there are some schools that are incredibly well-designed and heavily guarded that are also quite nurturing.  If you see a family home with a state-of-the-art security system there’s no reason to assume it’s less loving and nurturing inside. My friend Charlie Cooke is armed to the teeth; he is also as far as I can tell a wonderful and nurturing dad. 

Regardless, I just don’t believe that schools have become less tolerant since Columbine. I don’t think bullying has increased. If anything, I think the opposite is true. “Antibullyism,” Izzy Kalman writes at Psychology Today, “unofficially launched in response to the Columbine massacre of 1999, has become the most popular social movement in history.” Even you think—as I do—that that’s probably an overstatement, the point remains. Over the last two decades schools have leapt into the anti-bullying cause. I am sure there is less bullying in my high school today than there was when I attended.

And I am older than Jonah and know there was far more bullying at my school when I was there.  Mill city 1960s. We didn't define such things as an assault then, so if you asked men my age thirty years ago if they were the victim of an assault when they were young, most would have scoffed and said no. For openers,if you fought back and won or at least came to stalemate, you didn't think you had been assaulted. Even then, you might still just think of "assault" as something that needed an adult, or at least later teen initiator to qualify. If you asked men now, now that we have been taught to notice the physical reality, there would be a lot of hesitation and uncertain looks before answering. By the simplest definition, nearly all boys were assaulted. It was just part of reality. Lot's of 'em thought the whole thing was fun to boot, like an informal sport of who could "take" who.

Very few of us became mass shooters, except of frogs. The kids who came closest to such actions - the kids who ended up at youth detention and eventually prison, were generally the bullies, not the bullied. Though that does remind me about the reality of their psychology.  Bullies do not have low self-esteem, they have unreasonably high self-esteem, overestimating their class rank and the number of friends they have. It is when the world refuses to reinforce their narcissism that they lash out. So in the discussion of mass shooters who were bullied, I wonder how many would have been described as the ooposite by their peers.

Probably not.  That's likely only for regular level violence that makes only local news. The mass shooters do seem to have universally noted to be weird, not just mean.

Cats Kill Birds

 ...and Iceland is wondering what to do about the extinctions,

Friday, May 27, 2022

Dry Bar



Reading a few distressing stories tonight and discussing them with others who tied them to local events we both knew about, I was thinking about people who were essentially unaccountable because the people whose job that was had their power tied up with them. In this instance, a wife who was co-pastor of an independent church with a husband who had had sex with a parishioner 27 years ago, starting when she was 16. (Their children were also in pastoral roles at the church, where they had all been continuously at least that length of time. We know a church like that now and knew one a few decades ago that we even had some involvement with. This dynamic occurs too often in independent ministries.) I thought of Bill Clinton, with a wife desirous of power that was tied up with his, and her lack of even ordinary wifely accountability on him. Then I expanded the idea beyond sex to scandals and infractions in general. 

Tie it in to Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy and the group which over time becomes devoted to the organisation rather than its stated goals. Also Samo Burja's research that bureaucratic decay is so predictable as to be "nearly quantifiable." So is this the large part of the deterioration of organisations, that the longer one goes on, the longer a bureaucracy exists, the more everyone involved is complicit in the sins of everyone else? Not necessarily with great scandal that will make the news, but with steady drops of poison entering the water all are drinking from. I was in a single bureaucracy for over forty years. Perhaps it is best that I not launch into explanations how this doesn't apply to me. Likely, it must apply to me, and I have disguises in place.

A Comfortable Place To Sit

The various states have different laws about firearms, some with more registration requirements, some with greater penalties for misuse, allowing or forbidding open carry or concealed carry - there is variety. Some municipalities have additional restrictions. These have changed over the years, so there are comparative numbers in the same places. You don't need any special training to research this or special permissions to get the important information. Other people have even assembled a lot of the comparisons for you if you like, or if you don't trust them you can do the digging yourself. A bit tedious, perhaps, but doable right in your own home. You can move the pieces about, looking at the differences in violent crime or homicide in states that allow X, and some trends of what might happen if you do Y or Z.

What you will find is that the laws make very little difference, if any. You will find things you may consider counterintuitive, such as easier access to guns or ammunition actually resulting in less crime occasionally.  Not a lot less, but you were surprised to see any at all. We could have long and controversial discussions about what does change crime rates in a place, which is how I keep getting off into long essays, unable to get the wagons in a circle.

Nor is there any evidence that making laws restricting guns will change our culture away from our violent history to a peaceful and gentle people. No, not even gradually. Europe's internal crime rate went down long before they changed the laws. And they didn't even get a final reduction when they did get around to making it very difficult for people to own guns or to account for all ammunition. The rates had gone down already, didn't move any further.

Once you grasp this you will see how deeply offensive it is to take the attitude after a tragic shooting that it's just obvious what we need to do, but all those terrible villains, those gun lobbies buying politicians, or our gun-obsessed culture, or the gun manufacturers making all that money, or the cowards who refuse to stand up to them, all refuse to do the obvious. This shows that those villains are stupid or evil or both, not caring about little children and deserving to be publicly confronted and shamed. As with so many things, we say, we could do it if we only tried.  If we only had the courage and the nerve to do X - in this case, one of a dozen things about guns - If only we really cared, it would get done easily.

Whenever you find yourself thinking such things, understand that it could be a projection, or at least an irony. It could be you who has found a comfortable place to sit, requiring no courage or caring, but getting the benefit of feeling like a crusader, an opponent of evil. Please notice that this supposed evil just happens to coincide with cultural groups you don't like, cultural groups that are in fact in competition with yours for political and status dominance in America. Huh, funny thing.  I wonder how that happened? 

I am hard on you because I once sat among you and know now my own darker motives. Perhaps not yours? I hope so for most of you, but the national behavior and the individual comments even from Nice People over the years has convinced me I was not unusual. Gun regulation outrage with disdainful cultural comments is a comfortable place to sit.

The belief in the obviousness makes it more insulting, and thus morally offensive. Complaining at politicians "You should have done something, this is your fault" is just vile. Fun, though, I imagine. Asking what the church's response to this should be - isn't that a question that has already assumed the only answer it wants to hear? "The church has failed if it doesn't show the courage to do something about this." Wait, what's your real religion again?

The protest will come "Well can't we even try?" We have tried, many things. One of the difficulties is that once you have a regulation in place and the means for effecting it, it tends to stay in place forever. Not always.  Massachusetts passed a very restrictive mandatory incarceration law in the 90s and crime went up. It was still hard to get rid of - ask yourself why people would still want to keep it and you come up against the fantasies of people who think that it should work, and would, if we just tried harder - but they managed it.

I very much liked Aggie's comment under "Expectations."  It was in the context of the continuous-improvement work they needed to do in drilling, and in that industry it had gone well, because people wanted safety, not to find others to blame.  Yes. When there is a society-wide problem, the first thing that is required to improve matters is honesty and good faith in communication, usually the last things to become apparent - and even then, in deficit. The biggest task in creating a proactive safety culture is gaining acceptance that this is the priority at the outset. Once people buy in, the culture of continuous improvement takes wing. Ironically, to work safely one has to first feel safe in being able to communicate their observations and ideas without fear of criticism. Shame is a very powerful emotion. 

So sure, we can try. But it has to be about real-world change, in the context of costs, whether there is infringement on freedoms of the innocent, and acknowledgement that it's not magic.  It can't just be another one of those things where we Do Something in order for people to feel they have made things safer when all they have done is won a cultural battle by manipulative means. I'm not even a gun owner and I find myself continually moved to defend them against unfairness.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Colin Kaepernick

Okay, now I have two long drafts of posts about gun issues, both of them not as focused as would be hoped for.  What is happening is that I am deeply irritated by some public comments which come my way even though I try to avoid them,and I am trying to fit that into more measured and helpful observations. Prediction: you probably won't get measured and helpful observations here.

In the meantime, Colin Kaepernick has gotten a workout with the Raiders, and everyone is all atwitter about that. I try to reduce messy-looking controversies to simpler formulations in hopes of ignoring the distractions and seeing clearly what is happening.

Kaepernick believes that he was, and still is, a very good quarterback that did not fit the traditional pro football mold but proved himself when given a chance to play. He has a very good point there. He was a running QB when that was still considered the wrong way to do things.  Teams wanted Drew Brees, Phillip Rivers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, to stay in the pocket and just pass accurately.  Running was only a surprise move, almost a trick play. Cam Newton came out of college the same year and despite being the first pick, had many doubters because of his running style. Both did well on the field, Newton much better. Newton came out of Auburn, Kaep Nevada, so that gave him less cachet, and benefit of the doubt as well. But Kaep was just a bit ahead of his time. He was Josh Allen before Josh Allen. So his road was harder, and that's an unfairness in his life. If 2011 Kaepernick were coming up now, he would be more desirable.  Not his fault.  But not anything racist or anyone else's fault either.  The game changes.  He was early. Life is unfair sometimes.

He was pretty good, but streaky.  He did win a playoff game against the Packers and Aaron Rodgers - that's worth something - but also went 1-10 his last year as a starter. He moved into that borderland between being a legit starter, maybe more in the right situation, versus being a top backup. Lots of top backups resent their lot, not unreasonably, knowing that they are better than at least a few of the starters for some team or another. But there are only a few ways of being a backup, and if you aren't one of those, your market is depressed. You can be the new young QB who is being prepared to be the starter.  That has evolved over the years, but it's a recognisable slot. Or you can be a guy who is very similar in style to the starter to cover if he gets injured. Or you can be someone of recognisable talent, perhaps a veteran at the end of his career, who can come in if everything is falling apart.  With all three of those possibilities, you can make yourself more valuable by being a good guy in the QB room or with the clipboard on the sideline, trying to help the team even if it temporarily makes your case worse. Mentoring the third-string QB. Making suggestions during film sessions. Encouraging the guys whose job you are competing for anyway. While those are not absolute requirements for the job of backup, they are important.

Colin Kaepernick does not bring that extra, never has. He's not the clipboard guy, not the QB room guy. This got even worse when he decided to become politically controversial. He thought his cause more important than helping the team - well, he is free to think that and we all have a cause we think the same about somewhere - but teams don't want extra controversy.  It's a distraction. Some teams will put up with it.  I thought he might be a good backup for Russell Wilson having similar style and a Seattle team not uncomfortable with his politics. But I can't think of too many other places that would want him. Controversy is expensive, and he brought no extras.

His girlfriend has convinced him that this is all because of racism. I won't say that is impossible, but think a distinction between "racism" and "approach to racial politics" is much clearer. He was already on the edge, he undermined his own value. I hear he is still pretty good, but no one is oohing and aahing. You listen to him and know he will go to his grave believing he was blackballed because of his political beliefs. It's an entertainment business, he likely has a point. But it's only 10% of the point he thinks it is. A few NFL players are politically controversial and it doesn't seem to cost them their jobs. No team wants a celebrity backup. Think Tim Tebow, Johnny Manziel, now Baker Mayfield, Cam Newton. 

There.  Solved it for ya.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022


I will be writing at more length about why, when there are mass shootings, we keep thinking that something about gun laws or mental health screening is going to make this better despite the complete lack of evidence for those ideas. It does fascinate me why generally rational people keep resorting to those irrational ideas, especially as I once held some of those ideas myself and now cannot quite recapture why. I am searching for an earlier AVI, perhaps. But the essay is more than a little scattered at this point.

Yet it deserves to be said that there are in one sense A Great Many people like this out there - you walk past a few every day, most likely - but also that there are Very Few, because no one has shot up your neighborhood this week, have they? Let me hit you with the uncomfortable truth that whatever criteria you develop for identifying 1) We should not be letting this person have access to a gun, or 2) We should be making sure that this person is under stricter mental health observation, or even the more general 3) This person spooks the shit out of me and what can we do about it, if you want to then apply it to everyone who crosses that threshold, you will be intervening in the lives of 100x more people at a serious level, and requiring little evidence to do that.  How big a police force do you want? How many hospitals? Prisons? I don't want to ruin the lives of too many people by singling them out, but frankly, if everyone who met the criteria for needing an ankle bracelet had one, other people would be shutting themselves indoors...

Yeah, hey, there's the fantasy to play out. If in February 2020 we made everyone who met criteria for dangerousness just wear an ankle bracelet, we wouldn't have needed to close any businesses or enforce any social distancing or mandate any covid precautions at all. The number of people who would stay home, not go to restaurants, church, shopping, concerts, indoor sporting events or whatever VOLUNTARILY would make that unnecessary.  A huge number of businesses would go belly-up already. You think there are many bars that would survive that? Yes, people would be quarantining themselves for nonviral reasons so it wouldn't be an exact match, but the numbers would have been so large that even highly authoritarian governors would say "I have nothing to add to this." You worry about guns? Look who has driver's licenses. They kill lots more people with their illnesses and substance abuse, just in smaller batches.

This was my career. Judges and defense attorneys and prison guards and ER personnel see the same thing. Even in very nice places, we live on a precipice. That's why we can't fix it.

Dark Tevye - and Dark Fiddler?

The New Neo had a post about four years ago about a production of "Fiddler on the Roof" that she had seen years before that was quite dark, and now found the brighter versions a bit disappointing. I objected and she was dismissive. I didn't push it. I won't review my reasons here but they boiled down to the idea that the script, especially the music and lyrics, are comic with poignancy, not grim with some comic relief. It is not the forced gaiety of "Cabaret," and certainly not something out of Beckett, using the conventions of humor and vaudeville for contrast and effect.  It's fully in American Musical Theater style (see also composer/lyricist Bock and Harnick's "The Rothschilds," Harnick wrote "The Merry Minuet" recorded by the Kingston Trio, if that gives you the flavor), with the irony light. There are some scenes in the play that could be done more somberly than usual, or at least backing off from the hijinks of the production I was in decades ago, but there's not getting away from what's on the page.

Let me admit, however, that I did not see the production on Long Island that she saw, and if I had I might eat my words. Maybe I just don't imagine very well. (Spoiler alert: a change of opinion is coming.)

Yet the idea of playing Tevye more darkly has not gone away from me over the years, and I think I will have to allow that Dark Tevye might be possible. Mostel did a bombastic, comic Tevye that owed something to Bert Lahr and Ed Wynn, without going quite that far.  Looking back, The Tevye in the production I was in went full Bert Lahr. For community theater that works, and you likely can't do much else at this point. If you tried to go dark with Tevye people would complain that you didn't bring enough "energy" to the role. They want Mostel, or more. Your director would likely be poking you with sticks throughout the rehearsal period. Dark Tevye would have to be a university production or some other place where the audience might expect you to do something different. 

I love Tevye and have joked that I have played him in every role I have had since, including Christmas skits since I did the show in 1972. I have to admit I sort of play him in real life as well, and it has even rubbed off on my two oldest sons a bit. I am too old to play him now, but if you know someone who is going to give it a try, or a director who is doing the show you might suggest it. We know the Tevye that is described as "lovable." But what if he isn't really lovable, but instead "beloved" as an eventual understanding? Sholem Aleichem's Tevye is more tragic, his cheerfulness a last-stand defense against despair. 

To get some picture of what I mean, think of Inigo Montoya in "The Princess Bride."  The whole movie is comic, over-the-top, tongue in cheek, but draws its power from Montoya's seriousness and playing it straight, right through the ridiculous antics of bringing Wesley back to life and having a Holocaust Cloak or the wedding ceremony, where he stays right in on his life's goal and says in fury "I want my father back, you son of a bitch!" Many of Tevye's lines can be un-buffooned and said seriously, even angrily. Upon meeting Perchik "This is not mine." In the argument about Scripture "Somewhere it says something about a chicken." All the leadup to "Fruma Sarah" is overdrawn on stage, but a real Tevye would have to tell his wife the story of her Grandma Tzeitl in dead seriousness to pull it off. Much is made of his interior debates, such as considering Tzeitl's marriage to Lazar Wolf, and the joyful musical number "L'Chaim" which follows. Yet look at the text.  He knows there is nothing romantic about this for his daughter.  "But she will never starve." That's a light remark to us, but a real issue in 1890 Russia. That willingness to celebrate, that embrace of the-best-we-could-do does have an air of Brecht or Ionesco, a forced gaiety. 

With that in mind, watch the scene again, including the Russian soldiers - there is not just tension relieved by celebration, which is the part we like. Their dancing is athletic, showing strength; their boots stomp heavily; their actions are commanding, with only hints of deference; and there is key change in the music that is not accidental. 

When we hold our focus on the girls and their romances and their embrace of modernity (look, they are becoming like us! It's a happy ending!) we can leave the theater humming "Matchmaker." But maybe the dark production idea is correct after all. Everything else is going steadily downhill. When Tevye sings "Little Chavaleh" he is drawing ever-nearer to losing everything.  It is only our blinkered values "But she is bookish, just like us in this theater, and marrying a bookish boy! Who cares if their lives are going to suck?" 

What if when Tevye says “A bird and a fish can fall in love, but where would they build their home?” it is not mere humorous frustration but has anger - and real pain for their lot - in it? 

Hmm.  When I thought the play was merely sad in parts for some characters - especially the old ones who don't really understand about LUV* like I did at 20 - but basically a lot of fun, I may have missed more than nuance, I may have missed the script. 

Well, perhaps I like Dark Tevye and Dark Fiddler more because I am older and darker myself now. I may be overselling this. Aleichem's Tevye ends up widowed, daughters to the four winds, but Stein's character is going to America with his wife! Where we know many good things will happen! And that is what is in his book, the play, and the movie. Yet I can now see that someone would want to reframe it, even if some of the script and the music would have to be overridden. It can start in that comic style but you could break it down, step by step.

*Even though there is a number in the show that specifically addresses this. I thought it was cute and quaint but these old people still didn't understand that they were settling for a consolation prize. I suppose that love is a Consolation prize in a truer sense. Hmm.  Even that song could also have a gruffer, irritable Tevye rather that Zero's cute one.  "But my father and my mother said we'd learn to love each other and now I'm asking Golde - do you love me?" could be sung almost despairing, almost angry, nearly defeated by everything in life.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Professional Women and Informality

I had started a post about academic women behaving in what I thought was an embarrassing fashion. I had been collecting examples in some irritation over the last couple of months.  Once you notice something enough to put a name to it, you start to see it more frequently. Yet I also was consciously looking for examples of men doing this as well. Are men doing the same thing, engaging in some sort of Bro talk with each other on these podcasts and I'm just not picking it up? Are these actually politically slanted rather than gendered, of liberals all a-twitter about meeting powerful liberal men? Is this something performative that their male-dominated academic circles force them into slowly, invisibly over the years of their school successes?  What exactly is happening here?  

I don't have anything like a full answer, just some information based on the (many) professional women I have worked with and how their responses were not always like the men's, plus listening to an abundance of podcasts on a fairly narrow range of topics at this point. (Literature; anthropology and archaeology; genetics; prehistory, ancient history, and medieval and renaissance history; economics and international economics; Inklings; probably a few other things.  I don't want to give the impression that I cover those topics in any sort of systematic completeness.  Pretty random.  But I did want to mention that I can't generalise beyond these things.)

The occasion was what I thought of as schoolgirl giggling, which I thought not quite right for a serious discussion.  Two women were talking about what sex was really like in the Middle Ages, and it was a tone I recognised from psych students at the hospital, almost showing off how adult they were by being able to talk about sex*, while not really doing that in an adult fashion. A couple of days later, there were three women about to discuss a Roman burial site in England, but in the introductory two got distracted by the news of a younger sister's wedding. A few days out, and other women were talking about one getting to meet a powerful political figure and the other remarking how exciting that was. Okay, maybe that's just less exciting if you are from NH, so that may be unfair of me.  But another show the next day - completely different professors/researchers - got started with the topic by going over what each had been doing since they last spoke, and one related that she had gotten to meet (star recognisable even by me, prominently liberal) and even gotten to shake his hand. It was the two back-to-back that alerted me, perhaps. But I've listened for about three weeks.  Few people, male or female, have shown this. People are talking about cultural covid responses between countries and status groups, and that's what they talk about. Anything that smacked of sex or romance or widely popular people was merely noted offhandedly.  But there were a few exceptions.

I thought at first the exceptions were all females, but looking over my shows I realised there is one quite major exception to that rule, a three-man podcast that I no longer listen to for exactly this reason.  The first part of every episode was taken up with talk about fiances and what they were doing, and many episodes had fanboy stuff about the important CS Lewis/GK Chesterton/JRR Tolkien people they had met at conferences or in the past. 

I was jumping to conclusions, but thought I must be missing something. Getting an advanced degree and getting yourself hired by prestigious institutions requires a fairly high minimum of social awareness about those cultures. They clearly aren't stupid, they don't seem irresponsible - what's up?  I compared their behavior to that of the many professional women I had worked with. One pattern I had seen repeated over many years occurred to me. When meeting a new psychiatrist or PhD psychologist, it is polite to address them as "Doctor" until you get some signal otherwise. Some prefer you address them as such for as long as you know them. Few males give you permission to address them by their first name, and nearly all of those are young. Some doctors big on camaraderie will take abbreviated monikers like "Dr. K." I think about half the females will quickly say "Call me Linda." I always pushed back on this and would give my explanation. Because it is nearly always some females being addressed by their first names and males being called Doctor, the hospital-wide culture was that male doctors were addressed more respectfully, and I didn't want to buy into that.** They would look a touch surprised , and sometimes grin and say "Well that's very nice. Thank you. But call me Linda." Light laughter.

I have preliminary observations but zero real data. What I see might be skewed from the start by my field, or false perspective, or my age or region or six other things.  Insights appreciated. Tentatively, this is what I have got.

1. It is much more common in younger women.

2. It occurs when only women are in the conversation - which has odd twists buried in it when one considers that a podcast has both male and female listeners. Men actually are present in some sense. I would suspect that topics that appealed more to women might show this even more strongly. Don't know. 

2A. It would occur occasionally at work in a situation where it was a female-dominated team culture, even if males were sometimes present.  Psychiatric teams are mixed, but percentage higher female over male in the main, because some common groups - nurses, social workers, occupational therapists - were predominantly female. The MD's,  the attorneys, the physical therapists, the psychologists - those are more 50-50.

3. On the one male-only podcast where this chit-chat smoothing occurred, only one of the men was employed as an academic. He engaged in it much less.  Another was a writer and the third a statistician. Maybe that matters.

4. It occurs mostly at the beginning of the podcast or the team meeting, during a light introductory phase that men are more likely to skip when it's their circus.

5. I may be imagining this or borrowing over from observing the female psychologists or attorneys I knew live, but I can sense that some of the older academic women are rather impatient with this and are quick to steer the conversation to the intended point.

6. I humorously note it even occurs at the frequent social gathering of four couples that is founded on a Bible study we shared for decades. We all used to sit at the same table or in a large circle of chairs and sofas.  Now the men and women immediately split and have very different conversations. ("What did you think of the article I sent you this week?") My wife has occasionally wished she were in the men's conversation when she overhears a line or two.

Well, it's interesting.  There seems to be something more common in female culture that it is important to set a tone of friendliness and caring about who you are and what is happening to you. That doesn't seem especially blamable, though it doesn't much appeal to me.  When men control the culture it may be that some women (not all, clearly) find it...what?  Distant? Chilly? Unsupportive? Yet men rather obviously can do this in situations they perceive

I have to figure that someone in linguistics or one of the social sciences has filmed a few thousand hours of this stuff and drawn conclusions. There is likely to be some awareness of code-switching of when this can take place and when it can't.

* I thought of Jane Studdock from That Hideous Strength. 

** I have also wondered whether this subtly changes the power dynamics in the building. An occasional woman would complain over the years about promotions going unequally to males. I never said it aloud as it would sound accusing and unsympathetic, but I did wonder if embracing this chumminess worked against them. 


It is a mark of unsophistication in music to pay no attention to the arrangement.  That would be me, generally.  I think of a song as the tune and the lyrics, the rest fairly optional. I do at least know this is quite wrong.  I suppose this approach to arranging is similar to the old military saying that amateurs discuss tactics, professionals discuss logistics. 

Yet sometimes even I notice things.  I put this song up on a family text thread when discussing camping vacations from 25-40 years ago. (We were trying to remember what our nickname was for a particular camping food.) I did notice, as I had before, that it used unusual instruments for a 60s pop song. My wife commented on the films in the background, finding them inappropriate for the song. "I always thought it was more Eastern European. Those old scenes look English." Well, Hopkin was British - Welsh, I believe - and probably no one worked too hard to be authentic.  But I agreed. "I always thought it was sort of klezmer. It sounds more Greek or Russian." I think someone told me it was a gypsy song years ago. Klezmer and Cigane were two styles that had enormous mutual influence.

So I listened more closely this time.  A clarinet, a cimbalom, a balalaika, something oompah sounding which contributes greatly to the air of forced gaiety - I kept expecting an accordion or derivative. 

I looked it up.  The song was originally Russian with somewhat similar lyrics, had been sung by a gypsy, was in a British movie in 1953 with new English lyrics, and had been arranged in 1968 by someone more familiar with jazz than pop. Hopkin was only 17 at the time.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

DNA Numbers

We have new DNA updates that break down which parent our ethnic mixes come from.  Fun.  With us, there are not only the two of us but our Romanian sons and our nephew/son whose mother was 50% Jewish (now pretty clearly Russian Jewish according to the 1950 Census.) So even though my wife and I are descended from the coasts of That Giant Lake That Is The North Sea (plus some Irishmen), we gradually added in variety.  And JA adding in a wife from the Philippines makes us now outrageously varied, The numbers are clearly wrong in some spots, but perhaps a bit closer than the last updating.  Whether they will be able to trace another step back and differentiate my grandparents is unknown to me at present. Yet how can the numbers be that wrong? I have a 100% Swedish grandmother.  That's 25% for me.  So how do I get a number of 36%? Sure the East Anglians or the Scots might have brought in a little bit, but that's a big spread.  If you are looking at your own numbers and scratching your head, I have a little knowledge.

1. This isn't your whole genome.  This is a sampling of targeted spots which have had good value in identifying regions of origin in the past. It's likely to get better, and as whole genomes drop even lower in price - I think they are on the way to a hundred buck apiece at this point - the focus of these companies will increasingly be on interpreting this more complete data, not on finding good SNPs that can suss out whether the rumor your great grandfather was from West Yorkshire might be true or not.

2. There often isn't a lot of difference between nearby places that we think of as very separate, or necessarily a lot of similarity among places we think of as related. If ancestors were from "France" we think of them as likely to be the same, Normandy to Nice, and different from "England." But looking over 1000-3000 years ago, that is going to be deeply untrue. Where the boundaries now are and what languages people speak have interesting connections to the realities of the year 1, but thinking in those terms misleads more than enlightens. As an example, my wife's mother had both parents born in the Netherlands and was conceived there herself. (Family Story) But my wife's deeper DNA has consistently shown nothing from that area as a central focus. This new computation that identifies her mother's DNA more distinctly also shows none of it.  However, it shows all the areas around it: England, Germanic Europe, some Scandinavians and some Balts. Does this mean that her ancestors were "really" from Germany or East Anglia, not Holland?  That would be odd, because we have tracings on both sides back 400 years, all Holland. Somebody in that crew has got to be the result of persistence in the area. More likely, the identifying genes for East Anglia are also fairly common in Holland and Denmark and Saxony. might call it an English identifier because it is more common there.  But there was plenty of it in Holland also. On the coasts, people moved about and bred with a wider choice of folks.  Up in the hills people stayed in their own valleys much more.

3. You don't actually inherit 50% from each parent.  That's only the average. Most people fall between 45-55%, but there are some down to 40% and even down to 35% vs 65% is not unheard of.  So you really might have gotten a different mix from your parents than your sister did. Maybe that helps you breath a sigh of relief. 

I am also on Living DNA and one can see on both sites the same combos.  Sweden is in the batch with the top half of Denmark, those are separate from Norway, which includes Iceland. Danelaw England shares a secondary circle with Normandy and Benelux. Western Lowland Scotland bleeds down into Northern Ireland (genetically true long before the Enclosure Act), Eastern Scotland into the continent and Scandinavia and the north of England, and The Highlands are a touch distinctive right the way back.

For those with any European Jewish ancestry, the belief has always been that there is a Generic Ashkenazi, with Galician and Litwak concentrations sprinkled in.  A Chinese researcher looking at one of the million-sample experiments detected that there are in fact only two - the Litvak (think Lithuania) is quite distinct, but the Galician (think Transylvania/Hungary/Slovakia) DNA  turns out to be indistinguishable from "all the rest."  It's now Litvak vs All Others.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Medieval Myths

Mythbusting is my favorite, yes.  It is my attenuated, very watered-down version of the conspiracists who think the truth is always some secret that The Others (the Sheeple) aren't aware of.  I do get the attraction, but I have also some sense that the urban legends arose for some milder reason, some prejudice common to the lot of mankind. 

The archaeologist James Wright's blog about Medieval Mythbusting is a lot of fun. A sampling:

Spiral staircase in castles going clockwise to favor right-handed defenders backing up the stairs. Nope. It is not even mentioned until 1902 and the idea doesn't become popular until the 30s. It's on the lips of castle tour guides and in the brochures everywhere now, but it's new. Even with the new fascination in the 1800s with military analysis of castle design, no one mentions it.  As with the myth of Ring-Around-Roses and the plague, ideas don't generally go unmentioned for centuries and then suddenly come to light.Theodore Andrea Cook, an art historian who is fascinated by spirals also keen on fencing and left-handers floats the theory at the turn of the century.  By the 30s the popular historian Sidney Toy was asserting it as gospel. But spiral staircases aren't in the parts of the castle that tend to need defending, but in the remote chambers. Castles are designed to be impressive-looking, and many of the aspects reputedly for defense don't do that well.

Legends of secret tunnels beneath...well, just about everything, it seems.  Tunnels from the manor to the local pub. Why? The manor had better access to liquor and women. Tunnels from monasteries to nunneries don't seem to actually materialise when one digs around.  Any door that goes off an underground room in any direction is immediately concluded to conceal a long secret tunnel.  But they don't.  Break through the door and it goes one room farther.  Monasteries and castles had many conduits ans sewers, always in the same order of the clean water from the river being directed into the kitchen and laundry first, under the privies last. Yet every town seems to have them, with tales delivered with chuckles that reveal the prejudices of the speakers more than the habits of the medievals. The hearsay with vague identifications may be part of the charm - "Oh yes, my grandfather said that he and another lad used to talk with the vicar about it years ago..." 

Witch-marks, arrow marks, pentagrams.  All have rather boring practical explanations. Though sometimes the real story is better than the legends.  The shoes and stockings found embedded in constructions around chimneys and windows turn out to be there as a hopeful distraction for the evil spirits coming in through the drafts, diverted to a human-associated object and thus leaving the actual humans alone. The myth would get christianised by being reversed, that if you caught the spirit it would have to give you treasure in the stockings you'd hung above the fireplace. Rather like the leprechaun having to show you where the pot of gold is. 

Ships timbers being repurposed as buildings.  Only rarely. Forests were actually conserved and well managed until well into the Industrial Revolution, when the demand for charcoal became great enough to overcome the old customs. A violent storm in 1703 destroyed many ships off Norfolk, but the repurposed wood mostly went into outbuildings and fences. Wharves and barriers went into a few buildings in London when they were torn down, but ships, not so much. An interesting aspect of the mythology around it was Tolkien's focus on the destruction of trees and forests to feed the mills or the hellishness or Orthanc. He was brought up in and near Birmingham at the end of all the overwhelmed forest destruction, when the reforestation was still only partial and incomplete. It apparently made an impression.

There is a pattern to urban legends, which overlap with those of horror movies (that girl who loses her virginity?  Yeah, she's going to die soon.) Those who don't "respect" the spirits have to pay the price. There are forever scandals to be covered up, always money, drink, and sex.

Wright supposedly has a book coming out about mythbusting eventually, but it isn't there yet.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Anthony Griffith


Using "LOL" is supposed to be an exaggeration, that people don't actually do that when they are alone, but only chuckle or even smile. Not true for me. I laugh out loud, even when alone.

Restraining Orders on Everyone

Okay, not everyone.  I threw in that hyperbole to make a point. In the discussion about the Buffalo shooter, there is some mention that he had gone for an evaluation for involuntary psychiatric commitment, but had been let go. Depending on your definition, I have been part of about a hundred or about a thousand of those over my lifetime.  I still don't call myself an expert - and I would say I know very few experts.

First, let me note that everyone seems to be talking about him a few days later, which tells me he trends more fringe conservative than fringe liberal in his beliefs.  James Hodgkinson is completely forgotten, for example. You remember him?  Rachel Maddow fanatic, worked for Bernie Sanders? Shot a Republican congressman and had a stated intent to shoot as many as possible?  Yeah, I didn't think you'd remember. But I know nothing else about the Buffalo shooter, nor do I much care unless there is something new here.  He is likely to be younger rather than older. His reasoning is likely to be based on what is in the air now rather than the centuries-old paranoid structures like Illuminati or Jewish bankers. His ideas are also more likely to be unnerving rather than wildly psychotic. 

The people who commit these crimes are pretty regularly organised enough to make a plan.  A lot of my patients couldn't organise a two-car funeral.

But the piece about the psych eval interests me. The courts try to turf these evals to psych experts, but the evaluators are also working within the confines of the law, and what can be proven. That was me, week after week, saying to the assembled experts "But what can we bring before a judge on this one? It won't fly to say 'Your Honor, we think he's crazy and dangerous.  Really crazy and really dangerous.' The judge might even believe us. Hell, everyone might believe us.  But we have to have a cuphook to hang that cup on."

City Journal has one of those predictable hand-wringing articles about how we have to get better at identifying dangerous people and putting some sort of controls on them. Yawn. Yeah, how many false positives, how many innocent people, how many Type I errors do you want to lock up indefinitely?  While you're at it, you can have a try at the false positives on any imaginable type of evaluation for suicide or child molesting while you are at it.  Lock up thousands, knock yourself out. Here's the scary part: you still won't get them all.  In fact, you might not reduce the incidence of mass shooting, suicide, or child molestation even a fraction. But can't we at least make it harder for these people to get guns? Really? How? With a time machine, maybe. Nothing else has any evidence of improving the situation. It's all fantasy.

Do I seem dismissive, jaded, unsympathetic, unconcerned?  I am not.  We have a very dangerous person threatening a granddaughter at the moment. Fortunately he is far away from her and does not at the moment seem to be doing anything. (Bio father, schizophrenic. You may have seen him on TV if you watched Bering Sea Gold.) Maybe there can be a restraining order.  Maybe that will do some good. But courts can only act on real information. He had an evaluation and a commitment a few years ago.  It expired.  

But sure, go ahead and blame the news people, or the psych people, or the police for whoever the Buffalo shooter is. It will make you feel like you have more control over your world, which will make you feel better.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Cwm Rhondda


I would like to be part of many Welshmen singing this sometime. It is one my favorites to sing in the back of the church.

Infuriating Mental Illness Article

The LA Times had an article by regular staff writer Thomas Curwen about the ideas of sociologist Andrew Scull, a professor at UCal San Diego. It seems that the history of mental health treatment contains some shocking episodes - from the days before most of us were born. No, really. The attempted treatments included lobotomies in the 1940s, electroshock therapy. This is all news to you, I'm sure. 

Here's a tip when reading articles about whatever public mental health issues are troubling us now. If they think it's really, really important to tell you about how terrible treatments were decades ago, it should be a clue that they haven't got much in that vein to tell you about now.  They are setting the stage about how horrible the practitioners of mental health must still be, because, because, well, look at what they used to be. We are still doing it all wrong, you see.  We must not be listening to sociologists enough.

If this seems reminiscent of things like the 1619 project or reminding us that Jackie Robinson broke the color line like about last Tuesday, well yes, that occurs to me as well. It puts me in mind of a young man speaking in Hyde Park who was very earnestly trying to show us the advantages of socialism by describing to us the mistreatment of miners trying to organise - in 1827. I asked (because yes, I am the sort of person who would challenge a Hyde Park speaker. It used to be expected but no one was doing it to any of them. It seemed a custom that needed to be preserved) "Have you got anything more current?  Because I'm not seeing the point, here." Doctors didn't wash their hands between patients in the 19th C, too. We didn't have seat belts and we let people drive drunk in the old days. Thousands of soldiers died in training exercises in WWII. And I know you will scarcely credit this, but there was a time when you could cut hair without a license. The past was barbarous.

We try to give more attention to what is happening now.

Then there is the expected reference to deinstitutionalisation and all those patients released to the streets, and we now know because of all the needles and feces on the streets of San Francisco, that that didn't work. Scull, and Curwen, seem quite convinced that this happened because we adopted the medical model, the chemical explanations of mental health. 

I should give some credit.  They are talking first about mental health policy, not treatment.  It's a better target. They have a point on that. But looking at the deep history and what that says about us as a society?  Please. Let me make it simpler.  Enforceable mandated outpatient medication and random drug testing for those who have received a commitment from a probate court.  That's plenty expensive in itself, likely more expensive than any state wants to afford. Labor intensive. Lots of outreach, lots of people with trained eyes checking in.  And it is intrusive enough that people avoid it and they can be effective at challenging any commitment or return to the hospital.  There are plenty of attorneys who love the idea of bringing down large institutions like hospitals or mental health centers.  Because we're fascists, you know?

Deinstitutionalism worked great. It really did. My hospital had about 3000 patients at its peak and now has about 150.  It is one of the most expensive items in the state budget.  So you think that still having 20x more hospitals is sustainable? Most of the people who left those hospitals - BTW you should do the arithmetic and figure out they are mostly gone now, so talking about JFK and 1963 isn't precisely enlightening - got to live some sort of real lives, and had more freedom, got married, held jobs, had children, joined churches.  Medicines did that. What goes wrong is when people don't take those medicines. Or abuse substances.  That's a bad combo with mental illness.

There's good reasons for that.  Many of them have uncomfortable or even humiliating side effects - weight gain is a biggie - and people who have brain illness sometimes forget, especially if they don't have insight into actually needing them. Most states have little or no ability to enforce outpatient medication adherence.  New Hampshire is one of the few states that does, and the ACLU hates us for that, always looking for ways to undermine or overthrow it.  I get it that there is abuse of the outpatient commitments - I was one of the great predators on MHCs overstepping what the law allows and I used to teach what is allowed and what isn't.  It was part of my education in the 1980s that kind-hearted liberals working in human services could be fascists in wanting patients to be kept locked up until they had learned their lesson. Not that conservatives were any better, you understand. They were also controlling and often threw in being insulting for good measure. It's just that I hadn't expected the Nice People to be essentially the same as the Mean People.  I digress, as usual.

I heard plenty of psychologists, psychiatrists, psych nurses, occupational therapists and social workers - very especially social workers - railing against the medical model and forever pointing out that the mentally ill tended to come from poor neighborhoods and had bad interactions with the police and other authorities, and that this was the source of their problems.  Yes, I knew people who insisted that poverty caused schizophrenia. In second place was Family Systems theories, that crazy families were presenting their children with insoluble dilemmas which led to their irrational-seeming decisions.  Third place was borrowed from the psychologists, with all the hundreds of derivatives of dynamic psychology.

Anything but genetics.  Literally any other cockamamie theory could get a hearing. If one of your parents had a mental illness, that only showed how having a mentally ill parent could make you crazy.  The social histories were replete with evidence of aunts and uncles, grandparents they never met, or cousins that had an illness, but somehow it would still be worked out that this family's general dynamics permeating multiple generations - or the stigma of living in a bad neighborhood, or being the wrong ethnic group, was what caused the illness.

Let me interject here that actual trauma is a different kettle of fish.  That can actually damage children (and adults), setting off an inherited illness or even damaging an otherwise healthy personality.  It is highly unpredictable, so those who seem less affected have some tendency to be dismissive of those who went through similar things and have symptoms. I worked with a young psych nurse who was very unsympathetic to women her age who had been sexually abused by their fathers and attributed symptoms to that, because she had been as well.  "Get over it.  It happened to lots of (redacted ethnic group) girls. Sometimes it does defy description.  My two Romanian sons lived lives of poverty and abuse nearly unknown in America. One shrugged it off as soon as he got here, the other a few years later.  It seems unbelievable to me.  I carry childhood resentments and have to catch myself when I remember this.  Son #5 was flat out rejected by both parents (it got better later, after he had been with us a while). Military PTSD shows similar variation.  In general, the more combat, the more death you saw the more likely you are to show symptoms.  But it's ridiculously variable. In all trauma, coming from a culture that expects terrible things seems to be protective, which is perhaps why boys, who are beaten up by older children 5x more often than girls just shrug it off, and girls in heavy sexual abuse cultures more often do the same. Not reliably, but measurably.  

But now Scull, and Curwen reporting, seem to think that going back to those days when we couldn't do anyone any good is the way to go.  We shouldn't look to chemical and medical solutions, because the problem still isn't solved. We have to go back and do what I have been telling you to for years, you fools, you fools.  It is not in the least shocking that now the LATimes gives him more of a hearing because everyone can see that something has gone wrong.

Homelessness is a mental health and drug abuse problem.  More housing won't touch it.  I did like getting ahold of programs that would spring for first-and-last month's rent, or magically, ongoing help with rent, sure. But that is because landlords will put up with a lot more grief if someone has cash, especially reliable cash, because in poor neighborhoods they have people not paying rent anyway. But my people were always scrambling because at the last place they had let other people move in. Drug dealers, sex offenders, midnight screamers. Neighbors don't like it, and neither do the police. 

I hope it's not all of California, I hope it's just people writing for the newspapers, but for some reason we keep hoping that all this will be a societal problem.  We would find that vindicating, somehow.  It's those bad selfish people. It's our attitudes. Well, not me, not most of my readers here, but you take my point. We still think it would be great if a sociology professor could just provide us with some insight into ourselves - meaning our political opponents, mostly, but you know, society.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Vindicating James and BSKing

A Quillette article by Michael Totten on my sidebar about right-wing paranoia - I like Totten and I like Quillette, but...- makes a claim about a PRRI study on paranoid ideas.  The study does not say what Totten claims it does. James's plan, also stated before by bsking of Graph Paper Diaries, of clicking back and seeing what the underlying studies actually say proved out on this point.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

We Don't Reason Very Well

There is considerable advantage in believing what those around you believe, which we can all sense psychologically, but it likely has survival benefit as well, or it would not be so common. The Confucians and a few classical Greek philosophers thought worshiping the gods of those around you was a route to citizenship, camaraderie, and happiness. 

It is hard to tell sometimes whether we believe something because we have thought it through, or because we have artfully adapted our beliefs to suit the crowd we aspire to belong to. Rationalisation is so automatic that we should all fear it. It is unattractive and dangerous to ascribe motives to those we disagree with.  But sometimes when we know them, we can sense instantly where they will come down on a new issue. Who do you want to be?  Do you want to be one of the smart ones, one of the tough ones, one of the righteous ones, one of the artistic ones, one of the kind ones?  We have a set of beliefs already prepared for you.  We even have subtlety upon subtlety, of beliefs that show you are one of the open-mind or tolerant ones.

While I certainly will advocate for ideas, I find I am much more drawn to being the referee, irritating many. It is worth noting how often people believe contradictory things. We believe the schools suck, but shout down all proposed changes. We would just feel better if schools, or churches, or libraries, or houses looked like they used to look. In a perverse bit of emotional reasoning, we think "because those hymns are proven to last, if we want our church to last we have to keep doing that thing we just know will last. All these new things? Why, they just go away.  People don't really like them. Those churches don't thrive." Confirmation bias solidifies this. Remember that new church that went in after the Presbyterians moved out?  That didn't last, did it?" Uh, neither did the Presbyterians, which is why the church was available.

I think it came up strongly during covid, where there seemed an underlying wistfulness for how things were in the good old days. We didn't used to have to do X or Y, and we were all perfectly fine.  I occasionally would get this from patients, or their friends and families.  He didn't have any of these problems until he started coming to this hospital.  He had a job and a girlfriend and didn't have any of these crazy thoughts.  You know what I think? I think these medicines made him crazy. Sure, like our overfull hospital's overworked staff went out on the street looking for perfectly normal people to ruin. 

There is an element where people just don't want to upset the applecart unless things are acutely bad right in their faces.  I recall that the Clinton White House made much of the fact that most people didn't want him impeached. But most of the people who thought that also didn't think it would affect them much if he was.  They had a mild preference for things remaining the same. Speaking of "impeached," there was also a continuing misunderstanding of what the word meant, then and now. People think it means "removed." So, do you want Clinton to have to be questioned? Well sure, but I don't think he should be impeached until I hear that. People where I work - let me point out for the umpteenth time that these are people with graduate degrees - came in at lunch saying "How is it that Trump is still president this morning?  We heard he was impeached and we opened the champagne last night.  Then I get up this morning and he's still there and like, no one seems to be doing anything about it." Maybe now they'll at least know what the word means. Though at least one still believed a week later it was because Trump had done some tricky illegal thing to stay in power anyway even though he was impeached.  And why isn't there a revolution about that? 

So now we have that on Roe v Wade.  There are numbers that say that some moderate majority of people want abortion to be legal until about this point, but not beyond. And other numbers that say a moderate majority doesn't want Roe overturned. If that seems contradictory to you, well, you're right.  A fair number of people have an extreme idea about Roe one way or the other.  They think if Roe is overturned it means that no abortions are going to be allowed anymore. Others believe that Roe allows all abortions, and that's why they want to be rid of it.  To say that this is mucking up the debate is putting it mildly. People don't like change. Sometimes they aren't dead set against change and will reluctantly go along, but they are suspicious. They aren't sure what the hell will happen if there is a change, so best that everyone just shut up and not talk about it.

Five Thirty Eight has numbers about who thinks what. Spoiler alert: most people want to allow some abortions but also want to set some limits. They try to slice it accurately, comparing polls and questions, but it's hard because frankly, a lot of us don't know what the hell we think.

The Destiny of Dinners

When I make a dinner, I still have not adjusted to there being only two of us, and eating less for dinner to boot.  My joy is to have a second dinner already made to be eaten two nights later.  My wife considers that those leftovers are actually lunches, perhaps even many lunches. She seeks wealth in ready lunches, I seek them in ready dinners, and we both try to claim food as wealth for ourselves.

Restaurant leftovers are different.  It is their destiny to become lunches, not a follow-on dinner.

Leftover pizza, of course, is breakfast, as is any kind of pie if you are in New England.  Well, probably not chocolate or chiffon pies.  There are limits. The "pie for breakfast" stereotype referred more to meat pies, but somewhere about fifty years ago some of us started embracing it and fruit pies came to be included as well. I read years ago about a diner that serves a lot of early morning hunters and fishermen (and probably route delivery people as well) that would include whatever was left over from yesterday's pies on its breakfast menu the next day, which sounded like a charming custom to me, but I have never seen it myself.  My guess would be interior Maine.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Direct Instruction

A Quillette article currently on the sidebar about Direct Instruction, a formal version of the general idea, which has more than one meaning. I have written in the past about the better results one gets from phonics and drill-based math than the inquiry-based methods. Yet the ed schools continue to insist otherwise, to the point of not even looking at the data. 

Some may draw a connection between the way teachers tend to plan classes and the popularity of inquiry learning—as a teacher, I know it is possible to keep students busy investigating, researching, and presenting their ideas, perhaps with a poster, without having to devote as much time and attention to the picky details of producing a more structured plan.

Well, I hope that's not the reason.  But I do remember that  making posters, displays, and drawings often took up quite a bit of time without imparting much information. A very small amount of info could make a lot of display.


Razib interviews Rand Simberg who has been an analyst and consultant in space technology for decades. He has been the blogger at Transterrestrial Musings for over 20 years. Those of you interested in why NASA is never going to Mars, why getting everything in space into low-earth orbit is going to make everything much safer, or why the Russians have gotten out of the game will find him interesting.  I remember him from years ago but haven't kept up with him.

Tyler Cowan at Conversations with Tyler interviewed Sam Bankman-Fried on arbitrage and effective altruism. He has made billions specifically to give it away. Bankman-Fried noted that "you can't major in trading at college" and I thought "Why not?  It sounds like a thing that could be studied and at least partially taught." He credits playing Magic: The Gathering from a young age as excellent instruction in the concepts of messy, rapidly-changing value, and recognising that real markets are necessarily not amenable to hard planning too many steps in advance while still requiring a constant eye on both short and long term. I guess when you make billions trading crypto you have the right to pronouncements on that.  Cowan challenges him on the moral consistency of his utilitarianism, which proved interesting to me.  We usually say that a controversial thinker is worth listening to because "they make you think," while really meaning that we agree with them but are not ready to commit or admit. But in this case making me think is exactly the value I got. I (still) think utilitarianism is ultimately incoherent and contradictory, but he did hit some new things I had not considered. 

Cowan is as pleasantly and respectfully challenging to his guests as anyone I am familiar with. He seems to know a great deal and I am constantly playing catch-up (as I often am with Khan as well). I don't know how well I'd do on a pop quiz after his podcasts.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Las Meninas Inspires Remarkable Writing

Update below.

Laura Cumming, author of On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons*, writes about this painting by Diego Velazquez which hangs in the Prado - "Las Meninas." (click to enlarge)

As I turned to look, all the people standing at the other end of the gallery suddenly moved aside as one, clearing an open view to the source of that light: Velázquez’s monumental Las Meninas. I had no thought of it, no idea it would be there or how vast it would be—an image the size of life, and fully as profound. The living people revealed the painted people behind them like actors in the same performance, and flashing up before me was the mirror-bright vision of a little princess, her young maidservants and the artist himself, all gathered in a pool of sunlight at the bottom of a great volume of shadow, an impending darkness that instantly sets the tenor of the scene. The moment you set eyes on them, you know that these beautiful children will die, that they are already dead and gone, and yet they live in the here and now of this moment, brief and bright as fireflies beneath the sepulchral gloom. And what keeps them here, what keeps them alive, or so the artist implies, is not just the painting but you.

You are here, you have appeared: that is the split-second revelation in their eyes, all these people looking back at you from their side of the room. The princess in her shimmering dress, the maids in their ribbons and bows, the tiny page and the tall, dark painter, the nun whose murmur is just fading away and the chamberlain silhouetted in the glowing doorway at the back: everyone registers your presence. They were here like guests at a surprise party waiting for your arrival and now you have entered the room—their room, not the real one around you—or so it mysteriously seems. The whole scene twinkles with expectation. That is the first sensation on the threshold of that gallery in the Prado where Las Meninas hangs: that you have walked into their world and become suddenly as present to them as they are to you.

The image holds you there, stopped in surprise, motionless as the moment it represents in which all these people pause too, except the little page nudging the stoic dog. Everything is still except for the circumambient air and the light fluttering across the white-blond hair of the princess, who stares at you with the candid curiosity of a child at the center of a painting that is itself so completely attentive. The dwarf gives you her frank consideration, hand on heart, the maids kneel or curtsy, the servants observe you, all the way to the man in black hovering on the threshold of this room, waiting to usher you into the next. And from behind the back of the great canvas on which he is working, the size of this one, steps the painter himself, taciturn, watchful, the magician momentarily revealed.

But take a few steps towards this painting in all its astounding veracity and the vision swithers. The princess’s lustrous hair begins to look like a mirage, or a heatwave scintillating above a summer road that vanishes at your approach. The face of the lady dwarf dissolves into illegible brushstrokes. The figures in the background become inchoate at point-blank range and you can no longer see where a hand stops and the tray it is holding begins. The nearer you get to the painting, the more these semblances of reality start to disappear, to the point where it is impossible to fathom how the image could have been made in the first place. Everything is on the verge of dissolution and yet so vividly present that the sunshine in the painting seems to float free and drift out into the gallery. It is the most spellbinding vision in art.

In commenting further to Laura about her discussion of the painting, Susannah Lipscomb, quotes GM Trevelyan. 

“The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow.”

 *The author's mother was kidnapped as a child and found five days later in another village.  She never remembered anything about the incident.  But her daughter, in researching it years later, begins to discover a host of family secrets and still-puzzling events. I haven't read it.  It just has an intriguing feel to it. Great title.

Update: When the figures in a painting are looking back out at us there can be an ambiguity whether they are meant to be looking at us or looking at the painter.  In this case there is no doubt, as the artist is in the painting, also looking at us.  If one looks in the mirror at the back one sees King Philip IV and Queen Mariana, who must be standing at the spot where we are. Velazquez liked making the important people less important and the unimportant people central, so it is more accurate to say that we are standing in the place of the king and queen. Also, the room we see in the painting is the room where it was hung, so when visitors came to view this life-sized painting they would have the somewhat odd experience of being in this very room - but all the figures are no longer there. In fact, most of them died within a decade, two at the most.

Youth Softball

My granddaughter (age 11) is pitching tonight for at least a little bit.  She has been catcher a fair bit this season as well.  If you have watched much girls' softball, you will know that those are the only two positions that do much of anything at that age.  Maybe 1B a little. Genetically, we are not athletes in this family.  The two Romanians we adopted were actually good at soccer and one even worked at it. Son #2 worked like a dog to be good at basketball even though he was short and slow, and was able to make the highschool team, played intramural,  and hung on playing adult leagues for a few years after.  He coaches young players now, and he can have it as far as I'm concerned.  I was a terrible coach myself. I thought, given my 70's college psych training, that the key was to treat the girls the same way you would treat the boys.  This is untrue. Several of the girls still talk about it 25 years later.

The 11 y/o's father drinks very little, but is thinking there might be money made in selling booze secretly at the games, because it's just painful to watch. Parents would line up, he thinks. There is usually one girl per team who is really good, and the rest are unbearable.  (With boys it is more like 3-4 per team with the rest unbearable.) However, they do seem to have this team bonding thing going on, which is all to the good to my mind.  It's what holds society together as they grow.  However, I also worry that it can go south in a flash beginning around age 13, and there are only a few coaches of either sex who handle it well.  Not me. I consider that the third circle of hell now.

Going To War

Chris Blattman, the research economist who left teaching at Yale and Columbia to go to UChicago because of the academic freedom has a book coming out Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace that is research-driven rather than opinion or theory. I heard him interviewed by Tyler Cowan, who often has guests operating at depths beyond mine. Blattman made the observation that there is a U-shaped curve of politicians avoiding war, with those who have never been in the military and those who have been in combat both being more war-avoidant compared to those who were in the military but never so combat.

I had seen this as an opinion offered about American politicians, but did not know that it applies to other nations as well. I haven't read the book, I don't know his data set, but given his other comments I will provisionally take him at his word on this. It does make a sort of sense, though what level of cynicism you apply to the interpretation is likely as revealing about you as about the politicians.  You could look through one end of the telescope and say that those who were in the military but did not see combat have a tendency to to be over-ready to be interventionist, as they "missed their chance."  Or you could look through the glass the other way and say that those who saw combat are much more willing to say "Last resort."

I suspect there are nuances as well.  John McCain was not eager to bring us to war, but once in, he became very hawkish in "We simply have to win. Losing would be a catastrophe." That's about where I lean, but it's not an area of any expertise for me. I am now convinced that because we can no longer win wars, we should probably be even more reluctant to enter them. It's our own damn fault.  I would say that it didn't have to be this way, but given bureaucratic sclerosis over time, perhaps it did. When we gave up isolationism we chose a different path. We made choices to be a large bureaucratic military organisation, preferring those problems to the problem of catching up on the fly in an emergency, as we did in the 1940s. Maybe being unprepared and having Pearl Harbors or the sinking of merchant ships in 1917 is in the long run the better price to pay, ugly as it is.

There is also the theory that no one attacks a country that is economically on the rise, whatever its military.  I doubt that is quite true, though I imagine there is something to it.

However, those "nuances" may apply only in the powerful nations, not in general.  Of related interest, Blattman relates the tolerance for internal violence, present in most places but with very different expressions, to war attitudes.

Thursday, May 12, 2022


 "Do the research." "I do my own research on these things." In the words of Inigo Montoya 

This was once mostly popular among the anti-vaxxers, but now has spread to some covid skeptics. 

Very few of us do actual research in the formal sense, particularly on medical topics. However, we do use the word in another sense, of reading up on something to learn about it, as one used to do for college papers. That does begin to show the weakness, because while research should mean "finding and reporting on the information, let the chips fall where they may," even in college it could mean "I have this belief and I am going to find the information that supports it." Yeah, Supposed to is not is

Is it worse now?  I wasn't correcting college papers fifty years ago, I was writing them.  I think I still believed one was supposed to find the correct information and demonstrate that to the professor.  Not that you couldn't do something more speculative and controversial, but if you attempted to show that Japan was not actually a free country, or that Beethoven actually sucked as a composer, you took on the task of an uphill battle.  The standards were going to be higher for surprising claims. 

Whether it's worse or not, it is definitely in an unacceptable place for some people now, who say they have done their own research when all they have done is read (or just listen to, or just hear about) a source you haven't, that they choose to believe for unclear reasons.  My greatest familiarity with this was with alternative medicine advocates in mental health, touting chelation therapy, various herbals, and a host of devices or mental exercises that purport to reprogram or align your brain waves or thought patterns. I recommend Quackwatch, BTW, even though they don't seem to be updating anymore.

When you've seen fifty of these and dutifully looked up the supporting evidence that your patient directs you to and found it to be crap - not only crap, but pretty the same crap as the others - you eventually just turn it all off. Oh, does that mean that I'm the one who's not openminded? No, the simpler explanation is that others are credulous, believing that absolutely anything other than what the experts recommend must be the real treatment, the one being hidden from us by said experts because somehow it would just blow up their little game if the truth got out. So with covid, it was the same song different verse. "But he's the father of mRNA technology! And he says..." No, Malone isn't. He developed a platform. Very nice.  Not the same thing.  He has a remarkable gift for self-promotion.

It's amazingly simple.  When you hear that sort of claim and go to a website - including mine: coming here isn't research either - that makes one of those "the experts are all wrong" arguments, you don't seek to verify that by going to the other sites which that one recommends or the counter-experts are all pointing to. You go immediately to a site that purports to debunk them. It is amazing how quickly you can get right to the heart of it. "None of the so-called experts is talking about this problem!" But you go to that other site and there they are, talking about that problem. I saw one this morning that resurrected that claim from last fall about England that this is a disease of the vaccinated, because vaccinated people were getting the disease at levels they thought weren't consistent with real protection.  That one has hung on remarkably well.  The article and the graph - it had a real graph and everything - left out some fairly obvious information. Ask yourself who tends to get vaccinated.  Oh yeah, old people and folks with worrisome risk factors. And now that you know that, how does it not immediately occur to you that the rest of the data is going to be skewed in some way, and we must find out how much before we can proceed further? Without that the graph (and paragraphs) are meaningless.  Also, what is the vaccination rate for the population?

It's not research. I suppose you could stretch a point and say, well, it's bad research, but i don't think that helps us.

Competitive Folksinging

I was too young by far to be one of the authentic folk revival characters, a decade younger than the Dylans and Baez's, 15 years younger than the Dave Van Ronks, or Rambling Jack Elliots, and PPM and the Kingston Trio were darn close to my mother in age. So I was never part of the experience of hearing a song circulate in some authentic culture that my grandparents or ethnics in my neighborhood belonged to and then bring it to Greenwich Village to enter the general stew being sung here and there until someone decided to pick it up and rework it to be performance ready. By the time a song reached me, it had been filtered through Peter, Paul, and Mary or the Kingston Trio.  At best, I might have gotten it from Pete Seeger or Oscar Brand. Sometimes you wondered if the modern group had written it, but it was mostly understood that they had gotten it from Somewhere Authentic. The more commercial they were, the more they came in for disdain from the "real" folksingers.  I understand that Dave Van Ronk was a particular bear for authenticity.

But the snobbery of it descended even unto me, and I willingly participated.  If you knew something about the song before one of the commercial folksingers got it onto an album, you made sure you mentioned it. You wanted to show off by pushing it back as far as possible, deep into the hill country, or even better, back across the ocean to the British Isles. Whoa, baby, you were sumpin' then if you knew that the song was in the Childe Ballads in six versions and the reference to "the sea" meant in this case the Irish Sea, not the North Sea as was popularly supposed by other (ahem, ignorant) people. Because there was a coolness hierarchy, people would just make stuff up about it.  If the song was sung by Hudie Ledbetter, then no one dared challenge you that it was based on southern black, and ultimately an African song. Because Leadbelly would know, right? 

Well, know, he wouldn't really. He picked up songs wherever he went and sang them if he thought whatever audience he was playing for might like them and pay money for it. How we continually forget that these were people who were just scraping by, trying to make a living ultimately devalues their real lives. They weren't suburban kids trying to preserve some imagined cultural legacy, they were trying to eat. We project ourselves onto them.

Nonetheless, I believed an incredible amount of this crap that I had heard at coffee houses from performers who were good at patter when introducing a song. When I actually started researching a bunch of American songs for a US History paper in 11th grade I found that the stories were quite different. In particular, the earlier versions, if they carried political messages at all, didn't necessarily fit the Approved Coffee House beliefs. Roll of the dice there. Worse, I found that the information wasn't hard to find at the local library. The librarian over the record collection knew a lot of the info off the top of her head, actually, and could put her hands on the proper volume or record jacket instantly. 

So you can do a really deep dive on both of these songs if you like, but I think a little will suffice, because as one should expect, there is no one single true version.Sometimes there's a trial, sometimes there isn't, sometimes the woman's testimony frees the man, sometimes condemns him.  The usual.

One more thing.  I will point back yet again to my post about the grim topics of folks songs.  My children went to Christian schools that discouraged or even forbade listening to certain rock bands because of the terrible things said. I chuckled about this to my sons as I drove them to school listening to Steeleye Span and other folk songs about human sacrifice, rape and abandonment, kidnapping, maiming and torture, fratricide, and twenty versions of revenge. 

Polly Von, Polly Vaughn, can be understood in terms of the Celtic for "Fair Mary" that sounds like Molly Bawn. (r's in the middle of first names often change to l's - see also Dorothy/Dolly, Sarah/Sally - and it was thought clever and humorous to nickname someone by changing the first letter, as in William/Billy, Robert/Bob/Hob/Nob) Not only the Irish had legends of women who could turn into swans and back again and were perilously fair to behold and supernaturally dangerous in some way. I had thought it sounded suspicious because swans don't taste good, so why shoot one, but I later learned that many people think they taste fine. 

Folk song development note: I thought "He took her for a..." seemed a little ambiguous, as in most current English dialects "took her for..." would end with "a ride," or some such.  So I switched it to "He mistook her for a swan" for clarity.  I understood that others might prefer the sound of the PPM lyric.  I also later learned that in British dialects "he took her..." still carried that meaning of "he saw her as..." But eventually I understood that this is exactly how folks songs change over time.

The Lily of the West is English, sometimes talking about an Irish woman. It's west of England, anyway. In the British Isles the woman's testimony was more likely to get him sprung. When it migrated to America the woman's testimony more often condemned him.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022


I am in one of my backlog situations where I have wisps of posts started but they are not ready for prime time yet.

Speaking of "Not Ready For Prime Time," my Youtube feed has an SNL bit on Amy Coney Barrett on overturning Roe. We already know what it says, don't we? Some things can be parodied and some things can't.

Japanese Commercials

These pop into my YouTube feed occasionally, likely because I sometimes click on them. It is interesting to try and figure out why they think that things somewhat like our commercials, but not entirely, work on the Japanese population.  They use American music a lot, including - I am not making this up - "Yankee Doodle." I get why they think young women are fetching, but it is odd that they find them even more charming when they are talking ridiculously quickly. I recommend picking up at 4:44


In the conservative press I keep reading that this inflation is from Biden.  Biden is trying to say that it is the result of Putin and the disruption of petroleum resources.  I can't imagine that Joe doesn't have somebody who can tell him the real story, but he wants to play this for popularity - apparently only short-term popularity - so he says this Putin thing to get the heat off.

I think it's worse than this, just because I believe in economies responding only very slowly.  The inflation we are seeing is the stimulus check money and the rescue of many businesses. That is on a lot of people, but Donald Trump has to figure prominently in that. Also, supply chain costs gradually coming due.

That means the inflation from the Russian invasion and the inflation from the nightmarish Build Back (Trillions) Better, which, ahem, doesn't actually build very much, hasn't even hit yet.  That is still to come.


Inspired by a comment I made over at Maggie's, I remembered this.

First the man tells a lie

Then the lie tells a lie

Then the lie tells the man.

I have also heard it applied to drinking, and I imagine it applies to just about any sin you can name.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022


Only those who share my congregation will get who I am talking about specifically that set off this rant, so I will risk it.  It is a cliche of men's ministry in evangelical circles, so I think it has general applicability. Pastors who address the people in Men's Ministry "Good morning, men." Please, just stop. You are making me crazy. Guys is used in similar but distinct contexts.  I think speakers before women's groups use ladies, you gals, women, and girls in subtly different contexts, and I will not comment about what is appropriate or offensive.  My guess is that the speakers who are successful have a fine intuitive sense, just like good female comedians, of when one term of address is better than another, and that they have an understanding that there are some women - those who are playing in hypercompetitive legal, academic, or political circles (T99 and bsking, please weigh in and work with me here.  I know most of those professional women also live in other contexts where they know exactly what I am talking about.) - who will be disdainful of any choice, because it does not apply where they have to be Alert to references on a different scale.  But they weren't her audience to begin with, so no loss. For the people paying to come hear them, those convention-speakers, I'll bet they know their audience and what they will respond to quite well. "Ladies, we have to understand that men..." Good on them.  They have to make a living and they help regular women carry on and get things done. I'm not sure people on TED- talks are as usefull, though they sound much cooler and smarter. (They aren't, actually.)

My experience suggests that the men who speak to men about men's issues are far less skilled at this. They may toggle between guys and men, or when they are dipping into scientific research (usually with little skill, quoting pop psych from the 1990s that has not replicated, but is retained because, like so many ideas, it would be so cool and illustrate my point so well if it were true), saying males, but it's just infuriating. Their generalisations about men and women apply to 40-80% of actual human beings, depending on the question at hand.  They aren't wrong, precisely, but their certainty that men/guys/males or women/gals/females are Always Like This is damaging, not because there is no value, but because they apply these categories reflexively on situations that are 60-40, 70-30, 80-20. (Oh did I use too much math there?  I think the gals who read this particular blog - like the one going for her MS in statistics or the one who keeps accounts for her largish charity, for example - will be able to keep up if they try really, really hard. Heh.)

It hit me today where this comes from.  It comes from working with young men - in Scouts, or in sports, or in basic training, or Christian high schools, or youth group, FCA, or Intervarsity, or whatever. It is based on what I now consider essentially a pose, that 14-20 y/o are adults.  I don't know what the female equivalent is, but I suspect it is alarmingly close. The image of Dave Mac getting the MEN up at soccer camp at 5AM to go run was this.  Keeping 12 y/o Boy Scouts on the trail hiking up Mt. Lafayette, you get a 10% boost on your Inspiration Quotient by calling them men. It's ludicrous.  It's not that women don't also use this - they make sure they get the Smart Girls on their pro-choice side by assuring the 9th-graders that no one should be interfering with their autonomy with the same dodge - but really, they do it much less. 

Thus, I have been irritated by the recent men's ministry postings that refer to us as MEN, like this is some important category that should boost our self-esteem. (Again, women, please weigh in on the equivalents.) I am 69 years old and have raised five boys to responsible adulthood: employed, very decent to the women they are are involved with, acknowledging error, and fixing stuff both physical and emotional around them.  It's rather insulting to keep harping on addressing me as a man, like I am some aspiring Eagle Scout who needs the reassurance, or an extremely talented but spoiled 20 y/o athlete/entertainer who a real adult is trying to focus on a goal.

Evangelicals do this a lot. What is the experience out there of other categories?

I Repent

I found myself using the word "feminist" in an overgeneral way at least twice in the last week.  It is one of the words that I usually qualify, saying "some extreme feminists," or "a type of modern feminist" or something like that. That is more what I have meant to date, because the garden-variety kind I often agree with.  No need to paint with a broad brush when some woman who has personal issues is trying to hide behind a more respectable label with a ridiculous comment.  Every group has those.

I do wonder if there is some increased rate of change in their rhetoric that has nudged me, because it isn't necessarily the youngest who are making the indefensible comments. In fact, I usually ignore young people making extreme statements from any direction, unless it seems to be a window on a new phenomenon. But even if I have picked up something different, that may just be chance or the reporting. If they as a group are not quite what the title used to mean, well, liberals don't believe much in liberal ideas, I'm not sure what conservatives are conserving anymore, progressives deny the progress they helped create, greens want some things that are bad for the environment.  Maybe libertarians are still at least close to what they say they are, but I haven't really kept up with that. Some of the noisier activist ones are more like anarchists - but that may have been always so.

So my apology to anyone offended, and apologies also for lack of clarity on my part.