Saturday, December 31, 2022


I recall being part of reproducing an experiment in a class in college.  It worked so consistently that the professor had his class repeat it every year. Everyone took that NASA test about being stranded on the moon, ranking the items in terms of what you would take with you. It was a reasoning test: We can't use a parachute, there's no atmosphere.  But wait! We could carry stuff in it. When the results were in, the class was ranked and separated into four groups. The top 25% were put in one group, the next 25% in a second, etc. People were told which quartile they fell in, but were instructed that they were not allowed to share that information with the group. The groups collaborated and took the test again. 

Group B got the best score of all groups, achieving a higher total than any individual, not only in their own group but in the whole class. Pretty cool really.

Groups A & C were about the same, with Group C pretty much holding to the average of its members' scores. They neither helped nor hurt each other much. That score was a significant dropoff for Group A, though. Their group score was worse than any individual score from the top two groups. They made each other worse.

Group D scored even lower together than they had individually, though not by much.

The standard explanation is that the high scorers arrogantly refused to listen to others and insisted on their own way, which depressed team functioning enough to make everything worse.  I would note that significantly, the fact that they did not fall much below the overall average could mean that such groups could go undetected in an organisation for years. And as these things go, observers would notice that Group D was clearly worse and start to develop new policies to correct their mistakes - and make everyone do those things as well, which would depress functioning over at least the top three groups.  Maybe even Group D, which is what they were specifically trying to fix.  But that's another story.

Group B did great when they had that mix of belief that "I am pretty good at this, but other people are better."

I wondered immediately about some other experiments off the same model. What if the top scorers knew they were with other top scorers? Presumably they would be more willing to listen, wouldn't they? What if the worst scorers knew they were in a group together?  Wouldn't that trigger at least one person saying "Okay, we need some very different strategy." Also, this was at an elite school where even the worst scorers were likely to be well above average in intelligence and conscientiousness. Maybe not so hot in other things. What happens when you don't segregate by quartile scores and just mix everyone together, which is more often the case in any job or organisation they are going to be in? The "experiment" looks like it provides valuable insights into human behavior, but it also tells us what we want to hear, so we should be doubly suspicious.


As my career developed, it became apparent to me that I had a special ability to rescue dysfunctional teams. I won't bore you with what attributes went into that, but there is an incident that was riveting for me, and allowed me to rethink what I was doing instantly and start applying it. We were multidisciplinary and by program design there had to be a member of each discipline present at the morning staff meeting where we reviewed each patient. Because of this,whenever a team member was out, for example psychology, that department had to send a representative to at least sit in for that day. A particular psychologist had sat in with us for two days and said almost nothing.  But he pulled me aside after and said "This team has plenty of people who can sit around contemplating their navels about each patient and getting into extended discussions about them. You are as good as any of them about that, probably better. (This was pleasant, as I was by far the least-credentialed at the table.) But you leave frustrated every day because the team doesn't come to decisions and you have to flounder for the rest of the day, half-doing three different plans in the hopes that something gets decided tomorrow. Your function, though none of them will admit it, is to be the team leader that forces the group to come to a decision every day.  Are we discharging this patient today? What will be the risks and who will complain? What can we do about that?  Are we discharging them next week?  What does that mean for our capacity?  Who is going to be pissed? Are we actually helping the patient or just avoiding conflicts with other agencies?" He gave some very clear examples from the last two days and the light dawned for me. 

It should be noted over the next thirty years, one marvelous team did not need this in the least and I got to just show up, fill out may forms and make my calls, and banter with that group of geniuses every day, even though these were the most difficult clients in the hospital. But another set of teams, all of which included one particular individual, never became more than functional. She brought out the worst features of everyone she worked with, so that to an outside observer it looked like the whole zoo was out of their cages. But after a year I knew otherwise, and was stuck with her for another seven, as everyone else in my department refused to work with her. 

Byron Auguste of Opportunity@Work, the group that got the State Of Maryland to identify a large percentage of its jobs that did not actually require the listed credentials and drop them - and do outreach to previous job applicants who had been screened out for those credentials, reasoning that that would be heavily weighted toward people who could probably do the job anyway dropped an interesting fact in his interview with Tyler Cowan.  Google has done the data gathering on a huge number of team members and decided that if you have another measure - pretty much any other measure - of the necessary skills for a job, such as conscientiousness, intelligence, ability to get along with others, having a Bachelor's degree provides no additional predictive value, and a Master's degree almost none. Observing what a person is doing in their current job tells you more than any other factor. Does the job require frequent online training? So give them the first three training modules as a test and weight that more than credits or diplomas.

Which makes complete sense and we all knew that. But at every bureaucratic level people apply their own defensiveness, their own prejudices.  HR departments used to be drawn from everywhere in the company, but are now people with degrees in vague subjects who are box-checkers, and they reason "well, it was important for me to have a degree to get this job, because it showed I'm the right sort of person for these important things. Therefore we should require people to have degrees for other important jobs because...well, they're important jobs."  Educators absolutely do the same thing.  I still remember my silent fury at being made to watch the deceptive video "Who Cares About Kelsey?" (It took place in a poor town in NH, so a NH human services agency was their market), when the Wonderful Teachers who had Believed In Kelsey were congratulating her about graduating from Somersworth HS and were hanging around, and one very slyly presented her with a sweatshirt from the local community college, because she was clearly going to need to go further in order to get a Good Job - oh, you know, a job like the one all of us do! Which requires a degree!

Or the woman at my church who was angrily advocating with the State of NH to pass legislation so that nursery school assistants had to complete at least three college courses to keep their jobs.  I asked if there was any evidence that these courses improved their abilities.  She was irritated, and explained to me Very Patiently that of course these course would improve their abilities. She found my unwillingness to be convinced by the "it just stands to reason" argument deeply insulting, as if her credentials were being brought into question as well.  Come to think of it, they were, though I didn't say that.  Nice lady, but a Master's in Education is more likely to be damaging than helpful.  I applaud pursuing the degree when it is someone who knows that this is how the system works and is gaming it for their benefit.  But I certainly don't respect it as an achievement. 

Degrees are like licensing, a less-obvious but even more deadening imposition on the system than the notorious stories about hair-braiding licenses.  There is a bait-and-switch (or motte-and-bailey) argument about MDs and civil engineers needing credentials that gets applied to a hundred other areas where there is no evidence at all.

One more thing. Managers and employers complain that employees resist learning new skills, while employees overwhelmingly say they would love to learn new skills but are uncertain which ones are the best to pursue. Let me take a guess at what is happening there, having spent forty years in a state bureaucracy.  Managers get so irritated at employees who "resist change" and need to be trained and retrained on new stuff. They interpret this as an unwillingness to learn new skills and accept change.  But what they are forcing down their throats is seldom new skills.  It is new procedures, new policies, cool stuff to change their attitudes about how ignorant and evil everyone has been for the last hundred years.  Maybe it is a change to a new app, which at least has a chance of being a new skill - though it usually isn't, just a new way to fill in the boxes and decide where the information will be sent.

Okay, rant over.  If I had more to say, I'll put it elsewhere.

Graphic Design

Okay, so everyone must have noticed, but did people comment on the obvious right out loud in those days?

Related: Mike Ditka's first Viagra commercial, throwing a football through a suspended tire swing.


The newborn with the heart condition from Juneau, medevaced to Anchorage and then waited for a clear airport, a bed, and then a surgery in Seattle came through the procedure just fine yesterday. A small percentage of these children need a second surgery when older. Everyone speaks glowingly of Seattle Children's Hospital, we learned. The baby is bsking's nephew, and she assures us that even the snobby doctors at her famous hospital approve highly of SCH. 

Cedar Murph will be returning to Juneau soon, but not imminently. Mother is a nurse practitioner from here in NH - we have known her since before she was born.  Father is from Ketchikan and looks the part of a large, black-bearded Alaskan as much as anyone you've met. Cedar bids fair to turn out...interesting.

Friday, December 30, 2022


Now that I pretty clearly need to be gluten-free, though I came to this conclusion kicking and screaming, I figure I will do something other than feel sorry for myself about it. (I have also to be dairy free for all "young" dairy like milk, mozzarella, and yoghurt, though I do fine with butter and aged cheeses.)

My wife has had to be GF for years, and most GF foods just suck. Either the flavor or the texture might be right, but not both.  If you can find a GF food that you'd rate a 4 on a scale of 1-10, buy it in quantity. At least it is a legit version of the food it is supposed to be, even if it's not a good version. So as I have found a few, I thought I would pass them along. 

BTW, I am no longer seeing people make the accusation that this is made up for most people, who are affecting a food sensitivity in order to feel special. That was a thing as recently as two years ago, and someone over at Maggie's was fond of putting up videos about it. I dunno - maybe they wanted to feel special.

GF beer is rare. Gluten-reduced is more common and no good for me, and some of the safe-looking things are malt beverages as the basic alcohol part. Like the hard lemonades, darn it. It's mostly only seltzers and ciders that qualify as GF.  Glutenberg is barely okay and at least tastes like beer, and the IPA is actually not bad. They are having distribution problems at present and it's hard to find. I have to go all the way to Merrimack for it. 

We had GF toast thrown in at a breakfast restaurant and thought it good enough to inquire back to the kitchen who made it. Little Northern Bakehouse makes a variety of breads, and nothing so far rises to the level of being a good piece of bread, but the white sandwich slice is legit. You could make a cheese toast or a turkey salad sandwich with it and not particularly even notice the lack. It's a slice of bread. My wife has been getting 3 Bakers which is edible, but if you try to do french toast it's got absorption issues, and any sandwich had better be strong flavored and not put too much strain on the strength of it. Still, it's usable, though we may just go strong in the LNB direction now. (It's through North America, from British Columbia.)

Gluten pretty much means "gluey" after all, so things like pizza crust (which ordinarily has extra gluten) or a nice chewy bakery loaf are nigh impossible. Gillian's makes a garlic bread that is actually pretty good. It is crisp instead of chewy, but otherwise fine. King Arthur makes a whole line of mixes and tests them extensively, so even their pie crust, a notoriously difficult feat for GF is actually okay. They don't mention what happens if you use lard for the fat, because I think that is just too far out of fashion these days, even in Vermont. I may try it when no one's looking someday. 

Glutino is meh, but the chocolate wafers are okay. Schar is uneven but the chocolate honeygrahams are not a bad cookie. I don't have cookies much, but my wife likes Goody Girl, which does knockoffs of girl scout cookies. Schar does a cracker that is not far off from saltines in taste, but so fragile as to be mostly unusable.

Philly Mort - and Sweaters!

I first learned about the color philly mort in David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed. The list of things I first learned about in that book, which came out in the 1980's, is quite long. It has a cult following at this point. I do think his argument gets weaker the further he gets into the (original) British invasion 1600-1800 of four distinct cultures from the Isles settling the colonies that would become America. Yet it comes up over and over again.

But the color.  It was a Sadd Color, meaning a serious and natural color favored by the puritans in both England and New England. Black and white were for those of elevated station and for more formal occasions, because the dye was expensive and both colors tended to fade and worsen with actual use. So get that myth out of your head right now (along with all the other myths you have about puritans). The puritan peoples were quite fond of "actual use," one of the few things they saw eye-to-eye with the Mid-Atlantic Quakers about.* The list of possible sadd colors at the link is trying to be exhaustive rather than representative, I think. Perhaps I have not been reading the right materials, but I don't think any periwinkle-like gridolin was commonly worn . Even violett looks like "Wait, is that black? Navy?" If one looks at the college colors for the New England colonial Ivies, Harvard's crimson is a dull red, Dartmouth's green a dull green, Yale blue was (until recently) dull, and Brown University was of course, brown. Not very snappy colors.

Browsing the yarns and replica clothing for Plimoth Plantation and reading the hedging and disclaimers I get the strong impression that the modern craftswomen are continually yearning to expand the repertoire of colors and styles and are conferring authenticity on something for suspect reasons.  Of course, the same was likely true of puritan women themselves, and the number of available colors in 1620 was likely considerably less than in 1776. The originals in the Great Migration were an earthy group, so colors like rat, liver, goose turd green, deer, and madder would not have seemed offensive in description. They were being prepared for use, not sale. 

"Philly Mort" was from the French feuille morte (see the word folio in there?) meaning "dead leaf."  Their opinion of what a dead leaf should look like might have changed once they settled in New England, but one still has to find dyes for these things, and the red of the sugar maple in October may not be an easy one to replicate.

A wargaming miniatures forum had a forum contributor who researched the question - now there's a thought, eh? - and discovered the following. The top two colors accord with what I was envisioning, the bottom two were more what my wife was thinking about. After reading the article I feel somewhat vindicated but certainly see her point.


This all came up because of the Christmas list, which is always a puzzle for me, as I am very much trying to get rid of things, not acquire them. Now that few places need donated clothes anymore, I wear mine even beyond the point where a homeless person would be insulted to receive them.  More on that in a moment. But I hit upon sweaters, as my aged red sweater is beyond repair and I have long wanted one in philly mort.  LL Bean used to carry them, and preppy sorts would wear them under blazers, but those days are gone. Sadd, as a puritan Donal Trump might say. They'll be back, I imagine. One of those in the top color would be a great treasure, enough that I might specify being buried in it, under the suit coat with the elbow patches.

So I got four sweaters from my children for Christmas, in various permutations of two-out-of-three features I specified: thickness, collar, and color. Having searched through the possibles myself last month, I know they were not going to do better than 2-of-3 for any money, so I am content, and in the manner of presents from children, I have already started to grow fond of them. One is pretty close to #4 above. There are also a magenta and a red-orange could conceivably echo a dead leaf somewhere.

My Favourite Sweater, a dull heather-brown wool I bought in Edinburgh in 1997, went the way of all yarn last year and was put in the trash after my wife (who hated it) bought me another brown heathery wool number. Numerous relatives applauded.

                                                                DECEMBER 2021

The elbows did not have enough good yarn to hold a patch and it is unclear what one would even attempt to do with the frayed collar. In my defense, I did not wear this out in public: just in the yard...or sometimes to the dump. Or, okay I admit it, the hardware store...and whatever errands were near the hardware store. Or to pump gas. Or walk the rail trail. Hardly anyone ever saw me in this. Its most common use was as itchy pajamas on cold nights. I don't understand why the whole family was so unified in their opposition to that sweater.

There was a puzzling present under the tree "To Dave from Santa," which is suspicious because I go by "David." The handwriting was not identifiable. Yet Santa had shown his great affection for me, because there it was, the Favourite Sweater, back from the dead a year later. I clutched it to my breast, exclaiming "It's a Christmas Miracle!" I have worn it to bed every night since opening.

*Another was marking sinners with letters, though the Quakers preferred to brand the letter onto the offenders hand or forehead rather than sew it into their clothes. Yes, really. Though they did drop that early on in America.  They hardly ever do that now, though it may come back in fashion for racism.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Meditations In A Tool Shed

The essay, which I first saw in God In The Dock, is an excellent example of Lewis's ability to take something that I had dimly perceived and even tried to work through a bit as a young man and make it suddenly clear.  It is a homely image, but it captures important philosophical points about perspective and perception. There are different ways of knowing and they reveal to us different things.


I am not much of a hockey fan - have only written on it a few times over the years - but I do glance at the standings once in a while and wish the Bruins well. I did have fun writing about team colors long, long ago. This might be the year to pay closer attention. The Bruins are a good deal better than the rest of the league at this point. Being best in Goals For and Goals Against is highly unusual in any sport.

The Media Very Rarely Lies

The Media Very Rarely Lies over at Astral Codex Ten. Scott Alexander shows how the NYT and Scientific American do exactly the same sort of thing as Infowars - not providing context rather than flat-out lying. He then turns and applies this to the censorship debate about misinformation and disinformation

But lots of people seem to think that Infowars deserves to be censored for asserting lots of things like their context-sparse vaccine data claim, but NYT doesn’t deserve to be censored for asserting lots of things like their context-sparse police shooting claim. I don’t see a huge difference in the level of deceptiveness here. Maybe you disagree and do think that one is worse than the other. But I would argue this is honest disagreement - exactly the sort of disagreement that needs to be resolved by the marketplace of ideas, rather than by there being some easy objective definition of “enough context” which a censor can interpret mechanically in some fair, value-neutral way.
How To Lie With Statistics shows up immediately in the comments, which also warmed my heart. I almost gave it to the oldest granddaughter this Christmas, but I think it contains enough abstraction that it would be little fun for at least another year. And it's the sort of thing that I want to be enjoyable at first exposure, precisely because it's so important.

There is an internal link to an SSC post from 2015 about a study he took apart about the perception of required ability versus the actual required ability, and that the study failed to account for the very basic fact that the perception that some activities require special ability might in fact be accurate, and not just a made up stereotype. 

Okay. Imagine a study with the following methodology. You survey a bunch of people to get their perceptions of who is a smoker (“97% of his close friends agree Bob smokes”). Then you correlate those numbers with who gets lung cancer. Your statistics program lights up like a Christmas tree with a bunch of super-strong correlations. You conclude “Perception of being a smoker causes lung cancer”, and make up a theory about how negative stereotypes of smokers cause stress which depresses the immune system. The media reports that as “Smoking Doesn’t Cause Cancer, Stereotypes Do”.

This is the basic principle behind Leslie et al (2015).

I said in another context earlier this evening, about men vs women analysing actions and motivations, that stereotypes tend to be half-true. Both romance and mystery novels include a lot of why people are doing what they are doing, however different they may be in style, and women dominate both genres in both authorship and purchasing. I will think about other types of media consumption to see if the other areas where there is a sharp difference between men and women there is also this element that "why people do what they do" is a prominent piece. Right off the top of my head, literature and psychology majors were predominantly female when I was in school - though that was decades ago.

ACX also has it's typical followup after the discussion of something controversial, Sorry, I Still Think I'm Right About the Media Very Rarely Lying. Which is why I love this guy.  Some of the outrage was predicatble.  It is one thing to say that the NYT and Scientific American don't do the job they should about context and slant, but to even breathe their names in the same paragraph as Infowars is Not Allowed. Well, it's why Alexander is every conservative's favorite liberal.


I just got some cheese for belated Christmas, including Norwegian sweet brown cheese.  I like it very much, but it is best served very thin and I don't get much help with it, so it tends to last quite a while here.  I've always meant to put some on the apple pie, and now I've got some. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2022


Ed West over at Wrong Side of History, his substack site gives us The last shall be first and the first last his review of Tom Holland's Dominion, which is itself a sweeping review of how Christianity shaped Western culture, with even secularism being a Christian idea. The young Tom Holland accepted Gibbon's idea that Christianity had ushered in an era of superstition and credulity which only abated during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The deeper he studied, however, the more he saw that this explanation did not accord with facts so much as preferences, even class preferences.

There were cultural movements that were not immediately visible yet ultimately transformative, such as...

Opposition to female infanticide and divorce made the new religion especially attractive to women, who outnumbered men in the early church. Even women of the lowest class could, absurdly, rise to heights in a way unthinkable in Roman society, even if the price was very high. Blandina, a slave girl in late second century Gaul, was tortured and executed for her faith, and yet with her courage and nobility she had triumphed in death, worshipped in churches where it was said her broken body appeared transfigured. ‘That a slave, “a slight, frail, despised woman”, might be set among the elite of heaven, seated directly within the splendour of God’s radiant palace, ahead of those who in the fallen world had been her immeasurable superiors, was a potent illustration of the mystery that lay at the heart of the Christian faith.’(West's words, with the internal quote being Holland's.)

West covers a lot of territory quickly and seems especially concerned to call into question the assumptions of the chattering classes over the last 200 years, so You know I'm interested straight through. Thanks to Rob Henderson in his year-end post for finding it.

Seeking a Lewis Quote

I recall Lewis discussing his reviewers (it may have been concerning Out of the Silent Planet) and rhetorically asking how many times a writer had to say something before people stopped accusing him of saying its opposite. If you know it, let me know.

Or you could comment on the topic in general, because it is of course interesting in itself.

Buffalo Update - and Other Difficulties

Looks like about three dozen deaths from that blizzard in Buffalo, which we talked about last week. In our fussing over our own inconveniences we forget that some people have life very hard, very suddenly.

I will note that there were no snarky comments to Joe Biden about saying his prayers were with the people in the blizzards. When it is any kind of a gun crime there are many complaints that thoughts and prayers aren't adequate, and even a few who feel obliged to mention that prayers do no good anyway. Strangely absent now. I guess they understand that Common Sense Gun Legislation® will do little to prevent blizzard deaths. About what it will do for the homicide rate. 

The newborn in Alaska did get a bed at Seattle Children's and is scheduled for open-heart surgery tomorrow. It put things in perspective to remember what has happened in most families at one time or another, that it is a great relief to get to have a dangerous procedure done.

Our difficulty is clearly minor, but we keep focus on it because it is ours. One son's return was supposed to be last night, but they were on Southwest and at the moment Saturday is still only a possibility, not a guarantee.

Two By Lewis

“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life — the life God is sending one day by day.”  Letter to Arthur Greeves, Collected Letters

We must get rid of our arrogant assumption that it is the masses who can be led by the nose.  As far as I can make out the shoe is on the other foot. The only people who are really dupes of their favourite newspapers are the intelligentsia.  It is they who read leading articles: the poor read the sporting news, which is mostly true.  "Private Bates"  Present Concerns (1944)

That Orwell Essay

Canadian author George Case over at Quillette revives George Orwell's essay on inflated, inaccurate writing Politics and the English Language for the thousandth time, but still necessarily so, as stating the obvious continues to be in short supply. He updates the concepts from the 1946 essay taking Orwell's 

Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. ... Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind 

and applying it to such modern phrases as rape culture, in which no identifiable rape, attempted rape, or excusing of rape is produced, but the speaker wants to arouse the same amount of outrage as if one had a basketful of rape kits left over from last weekend's parties. He shows that something similar happens when the word culture is applied to another modern phrase.

cultural genocide seems to be a linguistic device more than an objective phenomenon: by uttering a powerful word but hedging it with a thin qualification, protesters can subtly compare themselves to Jews under Hitler or Cambodians under Pol Pot, winning public support and governmental redress for undergoing mistreatment significantly milder than what the word stands for alone.*

It is unfortunately all to easy to correct such excesses, such as not calling something systemic racism when you mean it is widespread and sometimes subtle. "Systemic" has a meaning, as even I have been able to discern and discuss here, as well as a number of other posts. It is a shorthand for saying we are all to blame, and always - slyly - a call to get many of the current people out and their own people in as the solution. Take power away from these people and give it to these people, that's the ticket. And I myself want a pony when it's all done. Hate/-phobia/denial is another evasive construction that Case calls out. 

He does a good job.  He does well with words because he does well with thinking, which is a great deal of Orwell's point. In every generation lazy thinkers will try to use the juice out of dramatic words without having evidence to justify their inclusion, and our updating of the listings is necessary in every generation as well. I wonder how many of the battles are already lost, however.  I have been railing against the imprecise use of -phobia ans in homophobia, which used to have a specific meaning in clinical psychology, since the 1980s.  It doesn't mean that we have to just shrug and start using it ourselves, because a rearguard action even during a long defeat not only has nobility and honor, but real use in reminding people about precision. Yet perhaps our energy would be put to better use finding newer phrases that can be strangled in the cradle. There will always be new phrases that are cheats, attempting to use strong words in defense of weak ideas, but we can at least make them work for it.

Ann Althouse and Glenn Loury are people who notice new usages early in their life-cycle and raise the proper questions: Is this word justified? Is it true? Have we seen it used legitimately in other contexts? Is it ungainly and ugly?  

If you have favorites you can use the spot here.

*It is often noted that using some words as adjectives is always a red flag, such as "social," which used to be a good word but is now mostly emotion, while some nouns are suspect whenever they are modified, such as "justice." Suggesting that "social justice" is particularly deceitful - which it is.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022


I still have free one-month subscriptions to Razib Khan's substack if anyone is interested. I think he gave me more because I moved the first three along so quickly. I just need your email, either here or to wymanhome/comcast or asstvillageidiot/gmail

Good King Wenceslas

 The "feast of Stephen" is St Stephen's Day, in case the obvious eluded you, as it did me for years.

But was he real? we ask in our 21st C voices. Did he actually exist? There is record of his life from a few decades after his purported reign (as a Duke or Prince, probably not a king in Bohemia in the 10th C), and even more there is record of his death around 927. 

Well okay, but was he notably Christian?  More than those around him? We ask the wrong question.  The writers of songs, histories, poems, and epics were not focused on their subject but on their many audiences. To tell a story of a good king was to declare to both royalty and subjects what a Good King should be like.  You found a likely candidate, who had been declared a saint or had a cult springing up around him or inspired some large collection of people and you imbued him with all the good qualities. Wenceslas was reported to have diverted a battle to a single combat between himself and another local ruler. His motive might have been vainglory, or tactical because he thought himself the superior fighter or his army the inferior force, but what got passed on is that he wanted to spared his retinue, each of whom he loved dearly, from any bloodshed, taking it upon himself instead. Not because there was any evidence that this was true, but because that is what a really good king was supposed to do, and the composers of legends wanted to make that point so that other kings would take that point.

Christianity was a bit of a chancy thing in that part of Europe. It was his grandfather who supposedly converted and his parents founded churches in Prague, but still the rumors persisted that some of them remained pagan.  Getting baptised and going to Mass regularly and saying nice things about Jesus and the Church usually qualified you for being regarded as Christian, no matter what your other actions were. As it was in the days of Lot, who mostly only got one thing right, figuring out which god he was going to point to at key moments.

To those of us who have studied history this seems sloppy, however quaint and romantic it might be.  We would consider it beneath us to treat history this way. We want TRUTH, dammit.

Oh yeah? JFK anyone? Civil War Generals? Gandhi? Einstein? Have we ever wanted the truth? And each era does so well at casting out the myths of the previous ones - in order to make room on the shelf for its own.

Monday, December 26, 2022

On Small-d Democrats

"I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that every one deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. . . . I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. . . . The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters."  CS Lewis, Present Concerns 

Rene Girard

All of a sudden I am seeing this name I know nothing about show up everywhere, enough so that young people with pretensions will be tempted to look wise and say "Oh sure, Girard.  I had to read him in college and I just loved his insights but I haven't really kept up with him. Oh there's a new book out about mimetic desire?  I'll have to get that.  That was one of the things he was known for" when they have in fact never heard of the guy before and are just guessing.  I was pretty good at that kind of treading water back in the day, but have come to accept that I have not only not read 50% of what I should, I haven't read 10%, and I can let it go. 

But from context of the references I was seeing I could tell I 'd bet I would like this guy and thus made guesses and then looked him up to see how close I had gotten.  He is mostly only known to academics but has been penetrating, well somewhere.  People I read, anyway. 

So in the spirit of Pierre Bayard's How To talk About Books You Haven't Read (which I actually have read, ironically, and wrote about in 2015), I give you Rene Girard, French philosopher of anthropology.

His idea is that as social creatures, we do not want things because we see them as objects and think "Oh, I think I would like that," but because we see other people using them and want to imitate their joy/satisfaction/prestige/whatever. The mind rebels against such accusations.  We like to think we are more independent in our thoughts, but we certainly see that this observation seems to be true for lots of other people and so...uggh, maybe it applies to ourselves as well.

I have counterexamples which immediately spring to mind WRT my own desires, so I am quite confident that Girard's observation is not entirely true about all of us all the time. Still, I admit that there may be far fewer exceptions to this than any of us would like to believe. It is part of our base personalities since childhood, after all, which we see when we are no longer children ourselves but observe toddlers who suddenly want a toy they were not interested in once another child picks it up from their pile of discards, or watches a 19 y/o girl start affecting the anti-fashions of the girls in their 20s who "couldn't give a fig about fashion"®. 

Tangent: I saw a teenager with her mother at the store today wearing a black cape and thought "When I was that age, I would have fallen in love with that girl on sight. Five years later I would have inquired after her with moderate interest. Now...she drains energy out of me just to look at her." 

It is not just that we want things because others have them, however.  That is only the simplified foundation of our desires. We are finely attuned to not only the type of people having the pleasure - are they the sort of people who are enough like us that we might have this pleasure as ell - but what type of pleasure are they having, and do we want that ourselves. We see people enjoying large family gatherings but know ourselves to be people who are not as drawn to many connections that carry implied obligations even if the temporary enjoyment of them is considerable. To take a physical example, we do not like holding babies for more than a few moments, or to be polite and declaring our solidarity with the rest of the cousins. We recognise that others want to get a fourth or fifth turn at holding the baby, but that is not us.

The idea came to him as a young man, and thus unsurpirisingly when one is young, because he fell in love.

When he was in early twenties, René Girard got his first glimpse into the structure of desire. During his university studies in France, he fell in love. After a short and intense period of courtship, he settled down into a stable relationship with his girlfriend. Then things changed in an instant. His girlfriend asked him if he wanted to get married.Right away, he experienced a decrease in desire. He quickly backed off. It wasn’t long before he ended the relationship.She accepted it, went her own way, and began dating other men.Then, suddenly, he was drawn back to her again. He noticed something that he found curious—and troubling. The more she denied herself to him, the more he wanted her.

He observed that she was both the object and mediator of his desire, and began forming a philosophy around this, Mimetic Desire

How French, I hear you saying. Yes, exactly.

Girard expands this outward to larger anthropological issues. If we want what others like us want, those desires will converge, and we - Our Selves or Our Tribe -  will tend to want the same thing that other selves or tribes want, in a self-reinforcing dance. This can lead to all sorts of animosity, even violence. But at this point I would actually have to start knowing something, so i pass it over to you, to decide whether you want any more of him or not.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Six To Eight Black Men


Magi Retrospective

James has a brief story, and links to a poem by Eliot. What must the Magi have thought years later?

It reminds me also of Simeon, who was told he would not see death until he had seen the Messiah. Tradition pictures him as old and at the Temple every day, a mirror of Anna the prophetess. But that doesn't have to be so.  He could have been thirty and had a regular job, but that day was quietly impelled to go to the Temple.  Most importantly, he might not have been expecting a baby at all and smiled at the joke God had played on him that day. Some of the shepherds may have lived long and wondered if this Jesus was the same one they had visited thirty years before.

Over The Transom

 This Wall Street Journal polling came in over the transom this morning. Republicans and Democrats have different perspectives over who is being discriminated against,

I find this infuriating, because the design of the poll at least seems on first look to not differentiate between discrimination by the government itself (or by institutions such as employers and schools who are answerable to the government) and private prejudice and discrimination on the streets and individual affairs. I think those two types of discrimination both occur, and in different directions, and it matters.

It allows both groups to be aghast. "You can't really mean that there is no prejudice against black people or trans people at all!" leading to discussions that are already going nowhere beginning "I didn't say that." The polling almost begs people to enter pointless arguments.

I suppose it does illustrate that different people in our society hear different things when identical words are said. I suspected that, but putting numbers to it has some value.


Praying for a newborn in need of open-heart surgery - and it cannot be postponed much longer - currently in Anchorage and awaiting a bed to open up in Seattle.  I may or may not be giving you more details about this.

Hej, Tomtegubbar

Tomtegubbar are not any special type of tomte (tomter, tomtar), it's just a poetic phrase for tomte-men. The gubbar part may be related to the Old English work guma, meaning person or man. It may also be related to gudar, from which we get our word "god" and referring to someone/thing that is invoked which also came to refer to a spirit which inhabited a burial mound.

David Foster over at Chicago Boyz puts us on to Virginia Postrel's history of Christmas stockings, as related to their manufacture , and it's fine as far as it goes. But it misses the deeper, pagan history, so I start with what I posted in commentary there.

Boots, shoes and stockings are an ancient tradition in Northern Europe.  Their purpose, especially at Yule or the birth of a child, was to distract spirits from an actual human being to a fake one. As they could only come through a clear opening such as a door or a window, a chimney was usually all they could find.  Following the clothing as if it were a human being they might get caught inside it and you might succeed in catching one, in which case they had to give you a present.  When Christian times came, quite late and unevenly (maybe even still not yet, I say), the custom gradually moved to it being good spirits that came down the chimney, the dangerous ones (tomtar) up out of the earth, or present since the first construction of the building and near-impossible to get rid of.  They were not regarded as mischievous or humorous, but quite deadly, including to children, especially on the sly when farmers had a lot of work or an emergency and their attention was elsewhere. For these reason the tomte favored barns, where the humans did not liveor keep as vigilant a watch. A building on a hill, even a slight rise, was also prime real estate for tomte, almost certainly related to the connection with burial mounds as noted in the first paragraph. 

"Hej, Tomtegubbar" was a children's dance, now a drinking song in Sweden and Norway - maybe elsewhere for all I know.  When I first saw the title and the lyrics I hoped against hope that the tune would somehow be reminiscent of the last line "Hey, Macarena" of the song popular in the 90s, because it would be immensely cool to spring that one on anyone I could corner at a wedding where that dance is being played. But alas, it is not in any way close.

Nonetheless it did provide an opportunity to talk about tomte. Please understand that all information here is general by necessity, and related to the Scandinavian understandings of gnomes, nisse, or more distantly, the dwarves and elves of Germanic, Celtic, and British lore. The legends could vary from valley to valley and were not regarded as nursery tales but very serious stuff. We live so far from the world where the death of a single goat or cow could be catastrophic to a family and unexplained disease would cause whole tribes to change which god they would worship.

The Scandinavians clean it up and make it cute quite a bit these days, especially in souvenir shops. But they are an honest people, and even though they are susceptible to convenient beliefs, they feel obliged to point out what else they know. Scandinavian-Americans, not so much.  We are addicted to cuteness. Geographic gods attached to hills and buildings don't make ocean crossings, it seems, so the dangers are forgotten. When we would have Luciafest at our various vestigially-Swedish churches, the tomte would be played by 3-5 year-olds in bright costumes with the script describing them as "mischievous little creatures who could be bribed with food." Always drew a laugh. But the original custom was not so much bribing as propitiating, and the small creatures were not children but misshapen old ones. A human's relation to them was the typical human one: stark fear. They also became associated with Thor's goats, still used as Christmas ornaments or burned in village ceremonies. Let's get it straight about things that pagans are lighting on fire as well. Open fire was dangerous, and you used it ceremonially not just to have celebration as today, when we have portable hoses and even fire departments backing us up, but in great seriousness. You took that yearly risk because the spirit needed to be consumed, or properly memorialised, or put to rest - or bad things would happen. Sometimes you burned a person or two as well, just to be sure, or if it was a big special event like a battle. The Yule goats are there to watch you, to make sure you make you Christmas preparations properly. Which is not that different from spirits having to be propitiated in very specific and correct ceremonial ways or they punish you, is it?

Seriousness could also mean celebration, another aspect we have gradually removed from our understanding of worship these days, but we aren't lighting 20-ft tall straw effigies right after the last of the dead leaves have hit the ground unless we've got a reason. Eating and especially drinking is likely to be involved, but even that will be as ceremonial as it is recreational. 

You can see the echoes of this in all the stories about leprechauns and pots of gold - darn cute in America, still worrisome in some corners of Ireland. Or all the Rumplestiltskins, elves fixing the cobbler's shoes, or other manifestations that had the old spirits straddling pagan and Christian times. The oldest sources, the unexplained customs and processions and dressing up healthy young virgins (male or female) for ceremonies of weddings mixed with death, paint a darker picture. 

So make sure you not only leave out some cookies for Santa, but some carrots for those reindeer, or I won't be answerable for the consequences.

Well, hear I am lecturing you all to get that fun and charm knocked right out of your head, but we've got strings of cute tomte all over the house here right now.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

She Said Yes

Christian Andrew Wyman (Son #4) proposed to Maria Reithe in Tromso, Norway, and she eagerly said yes.  In fact, she notified my wife before my son had. He lived the first third of his life in Romania, the second third in America (NH, TX, and various USMC), and one third in Norway.  She is half Norski and half Svenska.

Four down, one to go.

Christmas Eve Services

 For those who don't drive at night, or don't fancy congregations, or are covid-protective at present - or are iced in this weekend, my church has three identical Christmas Eve services.  the first was last night; tonight it will be child-heavy and noisy (but charming!) at 4pm and a bit calmer at 6pm. You can catch a live feed. I don't usually sing with the choir, but I am for this, and in addition to all the carols we are doing a newer piece "The Yearning," which you may be unfamiliar with.

I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve (Jag Er Sa Glad)


Gets Your Attention

My weather site has an article that Buffalo's upcoming lake-effect storm may be its worst ever. I blinked a few times before clicking on it, imagining what hellscape of snow that would mean. Every few years they get amounts of snow that are frankly unimaginable to me, even with the videos that people upload to illustrate it. I have seen large amounts of snow in NH, beyond what anyone would consider manageable, but what happens to them dwarfs that. 4-6 feet of snow and near hurricane force winds.

Nasty here in a different way, as unseasonably warm driving rain yesterday turned rapidly to eight degree temperature this morning, and the roads look treacherous even from here. Lots of transformers out. For my son in Nome, the wind-chill won't get above zero, but I have less sympathy for him than when he first moved there (because he needed a job and they pay very well on the frontier).  Move your wife and three little girls out of there, dude. Tromso is below freezing with wind and snow, but if you don't like it, don't move above the Arctic Circle, y'know?  There's a solution to that problem. Houston I have more sympathy, because you really don't expect twenty degrees when you go there. It looks like they will be able to fly out and come here after Christmas, though.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Thinking of Others

I have an impression about myself that I have no way of measuring, nor have I ever had. I believe I am thinking of others less than I used to. I catch myself thinking "Well it just stands to reason..." because I no longer have children at home and I am no longer going to a place of employment, yet I also know that it is one of my own warnings that "it just stands to reason..." is an infuriating lazy logic. People use it in education, gun control, and cultural disparities, even when there is solid data to the contrary. 

Still, I do have that impression about myself, that having more time that is my own with no obligation to others has slowly caused me to be in my own head and not making an effort for others because such things do not even occur to me. I wonder if it will get worse.

I believe most of the variance on "thinking about others" is driven by personality.  We all know people will no children of their own, perhaps even living alone, who nonetheless seem to be outer directed in helping others from the moment they get up, while others with wide obligations (often elective) seem to resent even a minimal draw on their time. 

Come to think of it, I don't know why I consider personality to be the major factor just because it is a clearly observable one. It might be only 50%.  It might be 30%.  I have just engaged in the lazy thinking of "well I had an unmarried aunt who was the most giving person I know..." and left it at that. Maybe getting stretched by having a spouse and having children does improve the character, but it gradually ebbs when no longer called upon.

Or under greater pressure both rudeness/insensitivity and generosity/kindness both increase just by sheer volume of opportunity.

If obligation is a bigger driver of character than I credited, it is not a good sign that younger generations are marrying less often and having fewer children. 

Update: I mistrust my drawing conclusions from observations of those I see most often, as they are predominantly active churchgoers at this point, and that is going to skew the results.  When I have been encountering the old friends who are not churchgoers I have been surprised at how little outward focus there is. But that may be a cart and horse problem as well.  Those who are outward directed, thinking of others, may be more likely to be sympathetic to churches and their actions, and thus become more religious in invisible ways, rather than the other direction of causation.

Still, Still, Still (Austrian Carol)

Dalrymple on Boris

Theodore Dalrymple, writing about British bureaucracy in City Journal, mentioned Boris Johnson in an aside (italics mine).

I had reservations about Johnson as prime minister, but even when asked directly what I thought of him during an interview, I refrained from answering. A friend, who had taught Johnson history, warned me that underlying the veneer of frivolity was more frivolity—that is to say (if it is not a contradiction in terms), a profound frivolity. I nevertheless hoped that some core to his character might exist, like the graphite rod of a nuclear reactor, but it emerged that there was none, unless one counted the search for office.

This has a ring of truth to it. Boris is clearly brilliant, but to what service has that brilliance been put?

The rest of the article is excellent, as Dalrymple often is, and puts frivolity in perspective.

The opposite of frivolity is not seriousness but earnestness, which is, if anything, even worse than frivolity, for it persuades the earnest that they are working with the best of intentions and dissuades them from consideration of the actual effects of what they do. Earnestness is a kind of moral chain mail that protects against the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism. It also encourages an unholy alliance between sanctimony and self-interest. It dissolves the distinction between activity and work.

Which will of course remind many of my readers of the CS Lewis quote from God in the Dock about busybodies.

Thursday, December 22, 2022


The pickup died at 195K and I have to unload it and buy a different one. One of the tasks I like least. I'm not sure I need a pickup anymore, might be able to go with a minivan so long as I can pile a bunch of boxes in the back. It will likely mean I'm not teaching the granddaughters to drive a standard after all. Life changes.

Update: 7 comments and counting.  Odd how the throwaway posts sometimes draw the most attention, while ones I spend hours on pas without comment (though I hope not without notice.  I tell myself that I clearly must have said everything important, and that's why no one adds to it.)

And further update: And it doesn't much matter.  I put few miles on a vehicle now and only need the ability to carry a lot of stuff once a month and seldom have a second passenger. Handling in snow and ice is a concern, but not like it was when I was going over the mountain to work all those years. My only other need is not to buy something that turns out to be a nightmare. I know a few places where they won't rip me off too badly, and I might just go there and see what they've currently got.

Wee Sing For Christmas

The 1984 - only acceptable - version. The dialogue between songs is quotable entertainment in itself and became part of the family repertoire.

My wife points out that they do sing well, including harmony, and include a lot of carols you don't often hear otherwise.  Which to us is a plus, especially at this point in Advent, when even the actual worshipful ones are being ground down to a very few. (And no one sings more than a verse or two anymore.)


Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Ironies of Wealth

When I ask why friendship and marriage are declining in America 
People from poor countries: 
Americans are too rich. They don't have to form bonds with others to survive. 
People from rich countries: 
Americans are too poor. They need money to have a social life.

For myself, I don't know the answer.

Diversity and Its Limits

Charles Murray, writing on the American Enterprise Institute and Claremont Review of Books writes an unusual review of Yascha Mounk's The Great Experiment: How Diverse Democracies Fail and What they Can Do to Endure. He likes it an believes it contains important information - for Western Europeans, but not so much for Americans, because it does not much apply to us. Murray likes to make lists and be precise, and identifies five "disparities" between The US and Europe that make comparisons too far off to be much use. He then identifies three sins of omission that make the work irrelevant for us, however much it may still be relevant there. (FTR, Mounk is a German-born American citizen who teaches at Johns Hopkins). First, he disregards evolutionary biology, though he does hint that he knows about it.

The second sin of omission is closer to mortal: ignoring the empirical literature on ethnic diversity and social trust. “Social trust” refers to humans’ confidence in the good faith and good will of those around them. This is the kind of confidence that allows neighbors to leave the front door unlocked when leaving home for the afternoon, encourages people to do good deeds in the expectation that eventually they will be directly or indirectly reciprocated, and enables sellers to extend credit to buyers. Writ large, social trust is indispensable to an environment in which communities, capitalist economies, and democracy itself can flourish—a theme that has been developed by such eminent scholars as Edward Banfield in The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958), Francis Fukuyama in Trust (1995), and Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (2000).

Third, he overlooks the ethnic differences in social behavior, which Murray considers a "mortal" wound to illustrating Mounk's premises. He mentions marriage, and especially crime rates, and more especially urban crime rates as being so unmentioned as to make the work fairly dishonest overall. It is the same dance repeated endlessly; the hinting that the difference in black incarceration must have its origins in policing, though this has been repeatedly shown to not be so; the retreat into opportunity, or neighborhoods, or education, or have-you-looked-under-the-seat-cushions-dammit-it-must-be-something, with the eventual conclusion that it must still be racism somehow, even absent evidence. 

It is worth mentioning - or at least I have mentioned it often - that conservatives are often not much help in the matter, as they have their own pet theories, also unevidenced that must, simply must be the answer.

Do I sound discouraged? I am. I see no solution for our divide if we continue along current lines.  Worse, not even if we continue on anything like our current lines.


People Count Differently

So it's Matt Tait (pwnallthethings, USNA, ten years USN in IT and security, does private IT foreign security analysis and veterans charities now) criticising Glenn Greenwald, who is relying on a NYT article for his information, which is trying to massage the info for political reasons. So pick your side based on that! What could possibly go wrong?

It's about the money being sent to Ukraine - or sent to various US companies and agencies on behalf of Ukraine, or sent for military/nonmilitary, humanitarian/nonhumanitarian purposes to God-knows-who, slated for next year but we're calling it this year because we are talking about it now...

I put this forward to illustrate that people count different things and make comparisons that are shaky but perhaps capture overlooked truths, often misrepresent their opponents' positions and sometimes even their own. The claim is that this is military aid to Ukraine and compare it to the entire Russian military budget, except only a relatively small fraction of this is actually military. OTOH, it is money going out the door which otherwise would not have, and means the Ukrainians don't have to shell out for that. Plus accusing agencies of lying about the money - which is probably true, but lying in which direction and for what purpose seems to be conveniently applied by the arguers. Can we ask "Which lie is this group telling and why" rather than just assuming we know?

Ouch, you already started reading the replies to Greenwald.  My bad, I should have warned you. Except you should probably know by now on your own, without me telling you. You will be shocked to know that precisely none of the replies express any version of "Y'know, that's a good point that I should have remembered.  Let me think about whether I want to word my position as strongly as I did a minute ago, or even reconsider it altogether."  They mostly sound like they were written a year ago and put in a list of Six Things To Say About The War In Ukraine that gets recycled for every conversation.

Coventry Carol


Tuesday, December 20, 2022

REALLY Ancient Mariners

A pre homo sapiens version of humanity must have been able to sail the Mediterranean. Paleogeology has shown that the water levels never dipped low enough for the Aegean Islands to be reachable by land, so the 450,000 y/o artifacts must come from humans using boats.  But homo sapiens starts 300 kya, so this is way before that.

The Library of Babel

I was assigned Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges in college - one of the great things from the true purpose of education that William & Mary ever did for me - and loved it. A few of the stories stuck in my mind, including Tlon Uqbar Orbis Tertius, and random others. In true Borges fashion, one of the most memorable paragraphs was in fact a footnote about the Simurgh, the "Thirty Birds" of Persian mythology. In his universe a footnote may contain more than an encyclopedia. 

Borges was my preparation for W.P. Kinsella, author of Shoeless Joe ("Field of Dreams") and the even better The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, yet I find as time goes on that there are Very Few of his stories that keep getting referenced by others, usually The Library of Babel and The Garden of Forking Paths. There may be selection bias at play, as I started as a math major, loved Martin Gardner, Lewis Carroll, and the highly mathematical (but terrible at maths) CS Lewis, and still seem to gravitate to writers who have similar odd fascinations - mystic software engineers, near-fanatic liturgical applied mathematicians, tech writers embedded in magical realism, spiritualist chemists, Jewish cognitive scientists whose grandfathers were Hasids. I can't decide whether they are unusual and I just find lots of them or this is the typical state of the ultra-logical, that they cannot help but be mystics.

That was a lot of references but knowing this group, many of you just shrugged "Well, of course" during the description and the others said "What ho! That's one I hadn't heard of that I need to seek out." I should throw in Tom Stoppard for you in case you missed that Carroll/GKC/Godel/Borges/Gardner/Kinsella/Stoppard cluster. The reader may choose to add to that zoo in the comments. Plenty of sci-fi writers also, really.

I think all this just to notice the oddity that so many Borges pieces resolve to a very few in the imagination - which is surely an illuminating revelation about imagination itself. It is contradictory, in that such things should lead to expansion, but such is the need for tidiness and efficient storage in the mind that they narrow instead. Many works of Borges are beloved by his fans, but are other stories still creeping into the conversation, or is it just Babel and Forking Paths now?

Gospel Night at the Strip Club

 I guess it's a Christmas song...

Monday, December 19, 2022

Shop of Ghosts

 A recent commenter links to this by GK Chesterton, The Shop of Ghosts.  

...As I looked at that palace of pigmy wonders, at small green omnibuses, at small blue elephants, at small black dolls, and small red Noah’s arks, I must have fallen into some sort of unnatural trance. That lit shop-window became like the brilliantly lit stage when one is watching some highly coloured comedy. I forgot the grey houses and the grimy people behind me as one forgets the dark galleries and the dim crowds at a theatre. It seemed as if the little objects behind the glass were small, not because they were toys, but because they were objects far away. The green omnibus was really a green omnibus, a green Bayswater omnibus, passing across some huge desert on its ordinary way to Bayswater. The blue elephant was no longer blue with paint; he was blue with distance. The black doll was really a negro relieved against passionate tropic foliage in the land where every weed is flaming and only man is black. The red Noah’s ark was really the enormous ship of earthly salvation riding on the rain-swollen sea, red in the first morning of hope.

Merry Christmas, and be of good cheer.

Number of Posts

This year is already the second most ever. I usually poke along at somewhere between the low 500s and mid-600s every year, but there are outliers.  In 2020 I discovered podcasts and upped my walking mileage and went to almost 900. There are many days then with five or more posts on a variety of subjects, some of them long.

There were also the years 2013-2017 where I only posted between 200-400 times a year. I don't have a ready explanation. That is the period at work when I had no permanent desk but covered throughout the building and had to travel light with mostly only notepad and pen, carrying lots of information in my head.  Maybe that's it. Dunno.

Epigenetics and Overclaiming

In a strict sense, epigenetics is happening all the time, and has to, or we would not have both bones and teeth in our formation. What people are usually talking about these days when the subject comes up, however, is the idea that what happens to Anne in her life affects her genes in a way that affects her daughter Andrea and Andrea's genes, and that this in turn her daughter Amanda and her genes, and then on indefinitely. It's loads of fun to talk about when sounding science-y, but there are just a lot of problems with it. 

Razib, who is a geneticist, has a primer on the subject showing its limitations. It is technical, dealing with methylation, histones and nucleosomes, and the difference between transgenerational and intergenerational trauma. Well past my previous knowledge and I had to double back and read again many times. Yet I think it is worth it, because 

Contrary to what headline writers and pop psychotherapists might like you to believe, thus far, epigenetics is terribly implausible as a factor in theories of human intergenerational trauma.

First, the effects being studied are usually the results of trauma, not "types of music Gramps liked to listen to." It is fair to allow that what "trauma" means to a cell might not be a famine or prolonged exposure to stress, but something more subtle like exposure to a novel chemical. Still, we are talking about large events here. Then also, we are usually talking about small effects per individual (though if spread over a whole population they might be significant). As exposure to both mother and fetus, and if it is a female fetus the exposure to her eggs as well, is what is grabbing attention and showing the most robust effects, it is important to note that this starts become definitional whether you call this epigenetics or just "exposure in the womb."

But effects are there and we are seeing some of it, so it's worth following up. There just isn't a lot of replication in many cases, largely because the natural experiments of famine in childhood or days of aerial bombardment during pregnancy cannot be summoned at will. 

Feel free to have a go at correcting - or modifying the emphasis of - Razib and especially me on this, as this is not at all my field.

Snow on Snow


Controversy, Backlash, Accusations, and AVI

Ethan Strauss, of House of Strauss on my sidebar, discusses how to get past the critics who are dismissing you as a mere "contrarian," seeking attention by being merely oppositional. An Uncontroversial Guide to Being Controversial.

It’s hard to be publicly sensible in this way without eventually going insane. It happens because you get locked into never-ending arguments, or you lash out at the people who try to shun you, or you’re obsessed with proving critics wrong, or all of the above. Ultimately, it’s not the criticism that kills you; it’s the unforced errors you commit in response to it.

This one is in print form.  I understand the temptations he discusses all too well. I don't even have a Twitter account and so can only link the things that I come across elsewhere, so his discussion of stopping tweeting except for links and site PR was merely a curiosity to me, but I think it has a general application about many forms of communication.

His advice about being apolitical was generally good, in that once you get associated with a group, even in your own mind, you tend to align yourself with it. I was a radical leftist when young and kept that by default even when I became uninterested in politics in the 1980s. I worked in a very liberal field and got to see the dark underside of them - the meanness and condescension while themselves being unintellectual in particular.  At the same time I was hanging with a group of Christians that was increasing identified as conservative (moving from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, for example) and finding they were not the ogres I had been told and were quite decent folks, really.

While I remained more neutral and apolitical than most, I did find myself inexorably drawn into taking sides, and as unpopular as I can make myself with conservatives at times, still basically identify with them. But this has changed over the last decade as well, and I move not so much to some fictitious "center" as to "a plague on both your houses" mode. I cared very little what happened in the midterms this time around, less than at any time since 1986, I think. I'm sorta figuring I lose either way at this point, and don't derive the joy from watching fools being put in their place that I used to. One of the great joys of Rush early on, for example, is that he was essentially Doonesbury against the Doonesbury crowd (same post, separate set of comments, both good), and they just lost it, unable to deal with it in even small ways. 

But that is long past now. It became clear that to many Trump supporters they didn't care what he did, even giving away billions in free money for very Washington reasons, so long as he kept "pwning the libs." The politics and the country's best interest was gone, it was all blood sport to them. Well, that's why I left the liberals decades ago.

BTW, I think Strauss's advice may work just as well for personal affairs, perhaps because once you make your politics a personal rather than intellectual affair they are indistinguishable from arguments with your relatives over inheritance and who was Mom's favorite.

So yeah, I hate you all at this point.  But this audience likely perversely enjoys that, so carry on.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Wexford Carol



A repost from last December. I have even more evidence that people are really attached to this idea of Jesus being rejected by the world right out of the gate.  He wasn't.  He was (quietly) welcomed by a wide variety of people. The rejection was thorough, nearly universal eventually, but that came later.

As Christmas approaches, I come again up against the tradition in Western Christianity that Jesus was born to poor parents, and rejected by the world around him. After reading Kenneth Bailey's Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes four years ago I came to view the Christmas story quite differently. These things are not in the text, and their popularity can be traced quite solidly to other Christian texts of the early centuries that were eventually rejected as Scripture.  Yet they persist.

I have found since that time that people have a deep attachment to the idea that Jesus was poor and rejected.  It has always been the Western fashion, accelerating over the last few centuries (I think not coincidentally with the rise of some economic theories), and especially over the last few decades, in which it is increasingly asserted that Jesus was a refugee - a category that is modern and related to nation-states and the idea of "asylum," rather than merely "going into exile to get away from danger." Yet it is not only those who have a suspicious political agenda who show their attachment.  It just seems to be part of the furniture in our culture that there was no room in the inn (there was no inn) and Jesus was poor, rejected, and abandoned.  

I don't particularly object to it.  I did just post Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band singing something with that sentiment.  We have read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever aloud every December for four decades. I certainly don't find any evidence that Joseph was prosperous. He was a "workman" in a region where there were a lot of building projects, so he likely had regular employment. No more than that. People take umbrage because they believe the episode is a necessary piece of the Theology of the Cross, or an understanding of who Jesus was and who he came to save. If it's not in the text, it can't be necessary.  I think the Theology of the Cross can stand just fine on its own without any extra-textual support.

But more importantly, everything else about his arrival points to God giving reminders of his welcome into this world.  First Mary, then Joseph, then John the Baptist in the womb, then Angels, then Shepherds, then Simeon, then Anna, then the Magi. The world is secretly welcoming this supposedly unremarkable child at every turn. The rejection all comes later, not until well into his ministry. It is certainly prophesied before that.  But there isn't evidence of it yet.

Wyman Christmas Letter 2022

 Wyman Family Christmas Letter 2022

It was mentioned to me that keeping track of who is who every year is difficult because there are so many of us.  With that in mind, The Census, based on sons oldest to youngest: Jonathan, married to Heidi and has daughters Emily and Sarah, 15 and 11. They live in Goffstown; Ben, married to Jen last year, has lived outside of Houston for 16 years; John-Adrian, who everyone besides us calls JA or John, the older of the two Romanians who came in 2001 - married to Jocie, has lived in Nome for 12 years and they have three daughters: Aurora, 11, Quinn, 6, and Bella, almost 3; Chris, the younger Romanian, who moved to Tromsø, Norway in 2011 and lives with Maria; Kyle, our nephew who came to us in 2009 and now lives in Boston.

“Please Adopt Me”

This came in too late in 2021 to make it to last year’s Christmas letter, but Aurora seemed to have been quite impressed learning that she now has an aunt and uncle in Texas. Back in Nome with JA and Jocie and her two sisters, she somehow managed to sneak a message into her family Christmas card: “Dear Uncle Ben and Aunt Jen.  Please adopt me I don’t like blizzards and weather. Oh And have a merry Christmas and a happy new year.” Jocie is a TikTok celebrity in the Philippines with her site “Pinay Sa Alaska,” about the experience of being a Filipina in Alaska raising three daughters. She answers, “Does the ocean really freeze over?” by demonstrating, walking out onto the bay with the family and pulling up the crabs John-Adrian has caught. He also smokes a great deal of caught salmon and successfully finds gold with his detectors. She did have her account shut down briefly when the algorithm detected a violent episode with a large knife, which “violated community standards.”  It was JA cleaning a salmon.

“If My Kindergarten Teacher is Swearing at me…”

Tracy keeps track of many of her Sunday School students even decades later and is in touch with them to find out what needs prayer and what good counsel she can give. To one young man who puts off making appointments with the doctor, she was sterner than usual. “If my kindergarten teacher is swearing at me, I’d better get on this!” She does not usually use harsh language, but it seems to have worked.

 Nashville Bachelorettes

David’s decades-old fantasy football league had a live draft outside of Nashville, attended by about half the team managers. Of possible tourist attractions, we learned that the city is now one of the primary locations for weekend-long Bachelorette parties. We didn’t think the trip would be complete without seeing one of those groups.  We were not disappointed, as we saw one early when we changed in Baltimore, already in matching T-shirts and sneaking little nips. They held the two rows right in front of us on the plane. Noisy. Cheerful. We learned what their phrase “Rally Pants” means after texting it to our sons and having Kyle explain it to us. Such parties seem an extravagance, a waste of money.  Compared to flying to Nashville for a live fantasy football draft, you see.

Houston, We Have More Than One Problem

Ben’s job has been ripped apart by two controversies, and he has been one of the few left standing to keep things going and repair the damage. Jen has been close to both grandmothers, but one died this year and the other is in hospice. She has always had few relatives, and those few important. While it is true that in marrying Ben she acquired many brothers, nieces, and sisters-in-law, it’s not the same thing.  Aurora may not have found it a good year to be in Texas with them.

Last ones on the plane out of Copenhagen

We went to Copenhagen and Gothenburg and Chris came down to see us for the first time since 2019. We were hoping to meet Maria, but she had both schoolwork to complete her Masters and a job interview, so that will have to wait. We had adventures, including ancestral church graveyards in the snow and dark, narrow streets in old rather empty villages, a hotel that turned out to be a ship in harbor, and a full half-dozen Julmarkets. Tracy did not share in David and Chris’s glögg adventures. The guys chose not to go and see the Little Mermaid, which Tracy thought obligatory. Plus, of course, the usual “adventure” of navigating menus in foreign countries when you have ever-increasing dietary restrictions – and don’t like herring. Chris is very well, more cheerful and funny every year and still happy in Tromsø. We were warned that Swedes did not like spontaneous conversations with strangers, but David had many wide-ranging discussions. Immovable Object my foot.

Everyone Still Loves Kyle

Kyle has been meh about his job and even less enthused about his apartment in Boston, but he is focused on firefighter exams and working out. Things are looking up on all fronts. He remains humorous, especially playing off John-Adrian – though this is the first year that his section has not come with a punchline. We miss having him nearby, but he comes up to be favorite uncle often.

In Memory Yet Green

I (David) was spoiled by the reunions last year and have since tried to track down a few classmates to talk about a hundred subjects – I admit I do rather burst out of nowhere. It amazes me that people do not remember events and even more that they no longer consider them important. At the farthest extreme, I had a nice conversation with the boy I lived next door to until I was four, who still lives in the same house in Granby. I have found a few high school friends who I go once a month for lunch with, and I was explaining to one how a particular contact had gone badly. She smiled patiently. “David, you have to remember that these events happened a long time ago.” “No,” I shook my head. “They happened just yesterday.” I remember all your lovely voices and the clever things you said. After watching Emily in a  production of A Christmas Carol at the Palace I was prompted to wonder: Am I the Ghost of Christmas Past? That one is not always welcome. BTW, Emily has been in lots of plays this year, while Sarah has been busy with softball and rock-climbing. Not to mention youth group, band, piano, violin, school, etc. Busy girls. Their parents were raised this way and now pass it on.

It Must Have Been the Elbow Patches.

David attended an Inklings conference in North Carolina and asked many questions.  Apparently good questions, as when he corresponded with one of the presenters afterward, she asked if he would consider presenting at the New England conference in October. This is ludicrous, but it did feel nice to hear.  I’m going to wear the wool suitcoat with the elbow patches more often. 

Merry Christmas to All