Thursday, August 31, 2023

Granite Fizz

Of interest to NH locals.  Dennis Sasseville, who has commented here for years and literally wrote the book on Moxie has written his second book on bottled spring waters and flavored tonics in NH, Granite Fizz. (I think he also had a book years ago about ISO 14001, but I doubt that is of general interest now). He is a geologist with a dozen hobbies and eventually develops an expertise in each.  We can't talk him into retiring, but he is at least part time now. He is well-traveled - too well, as far as he is concerned as much of it was for business and not that enjoyable - but is concentrated on New England and the Maritimes, having lived in Massachusetts, Maine, Newfoundland, and mostly, New Hampshire.

You will notice he used the word "tonic" for a soft drink, which is still just barely used in north coastal New England, as we have discussed before. That's how you know you're getting the real authentic deal from an author, when they notice details like that. I think he started on this with his interest in bottles, though springs would catch the eye of a geologist as well.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Neandertal Flower Burial

 So maybe that flower pollen was random after all. We keep learning new things about ancient relatives, so it's good to be alert for reevaluating our opinions.

It is also good to be skeptical of cool stuff especially.

Romanticism vs Modernism vs Postmodernism

(So who were the relativists in religion, really, hmm? Answer below) 

This is not a good summary so much as just fun things to talk about and think about.

TS Eliot was considered one of the first and best exemplars of Modernism. "The Waste Land" is usually the first work cited as the anti-Romantic shot across the bow.  April is the cruelest month, breeding... (because it brings the lie of renewal, and beauty) indeed. Modernism celebrated the new works of mankind: science, cities, technology, and the philosophies of destruction of the traditional. Many of them singled out Chesterton in specific for condemnation. Eliot was a rather ironic choice for this, because while the initial line of the poem expresses the opposite idea of Whan that Aprille with its shoures soot (When April with its showers sweet), it is meant as a direct echo of Chaucer's initial line. Eliot was a classicist, not much in favor of the destruction of previous culture, rather forced into the pigeonhole of Modernism. His views also changed over the years, most notably after his conversion to Christianity (before CS Lewis) after viewing the Pieta in the Vatican, because he saw his own suffering mirrored in Christ and identified with Him with immediate tears. Conversion came in about a year.

Am I talking out of both sides of my mouth, pointing out the the Modernists were not really all that, um, modernist as individuals, and the words can mean many things?  Yes, yes, I am, and doing it on purpose. The same is true of the Romantics and the Postmodernists. We make categories in order to break them, as I have said before. You should learn in school that the Enlightenment saw itself as challenging the ideas of the monarchy and the church, especially the Catholic Church; that the Romantics saw themselves as challenging the ideas of the Enlightenment; their focus was the "horrors" of the Industrial Revolution, but that was only the practical arm of the philosophical Enlightenment: that the Modernists saw themselves as challenging the ideas of the Romantics; and the Postmodernists as challenging the ideas of the Modernists. You should nail that down, and get that all clear in your head so that you could get an A on a quiz about the subject. Then you should start chipping away at it to get your real education. Eliot is not the only example of all this, but he is an excellent one, for he himself said that when people quoted him, they should include the year in which he said it, because twenty years later he might not have agreed with it.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo. (from "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" TS Eliot c 1910)
The Romanticism Eliot and the other Modernists were rejecting celebrated medieval culture, and longstanding traditions of the people. It loved nature, the emotions and spontaneity, and felt the artist should be unrestrained to be original. It had a Christianity, but it was sentimental, stressing feelings and impressions.

CS Lewis hated Eliot's entire approach to poetry. Lewis (and Tolkien, and Chesterton, and Dorothy Sayers) was an unabashed Romantic and composed a poem in direct answer.

I am so coarse the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I've stared my level best
To see if evening, any evening, would suggest
A patient etherised upon a table.
In vain. I simply wasn't able.
To me each evening looks far more
Like the departure from a crowded, yet a silent shore.
Of a ship whose freight is everything. Leaving behind
gracefully, finally, without farewell, marooned mankind.
(CS Lewis "Spartanactus"* c. 1925)
Eliot is interesting in a dozen ways. Charles Williams brought him and Lewis together for lunch in the 1930s and they did not like each other at all. The met again in the 1950s, when both were part of rewriting the Psalter for the Anglican prayer book, and were immediate friends. They argued about the poetic choices, and were both on the opposite side that one might expect if one had not read about them. Lewis favored modernising choices for understanding rather than retaining the older forms. Eliot wanted to preserve as much of the previous wording as possible. But both could fight without hatred at that point. Listen to how he ends Prufrock

I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown. 

These are not the words of a man who is rejecting romanticism so much as one who is disillusioned because he cannot experience it.  He does not declare that mermaids do not exist, but feels regret that they will not sing to him. 

And check out his serious Christian work later, like The Journey of the Magi or The Four Quartets.

The Modernists rejected folk culture because they rejected folks. If a writer or an artist was popular they felt they could not be any good. The believed in capital-C Culture, which only the elites could understand. They loved 

The remaining Romantics of their time, at least the Christians, did not fear the popular and less-fashionable genres. They wrote fantasy and fairy-story, science fiction, detective fiction,       When you have a (Christian culture that goes back 500 years, 1000 years, 2000 or 4000 years, or even to the beginning of time you feel less need to show your literary bona fides by being up-to-the-minute on the latest obscurantist and impenetrable works in the fashionable journals. When you read criticism of these writers it comes from two directions: the fundamentalists of the church who want to hear their favorite doctrines presented in exactly their approved terms and framings, or the fundamentalists of Culture who disdain anything popular or accessible. 

Modernists say they are beholden to science and rationality, providing the only real education. The postmodernists insist they are not objective either, and their solid foundations are just shifting sands, dependent on elusive meanings. They regard all knowledge and value as socially conditioned, and are quite open about their moral relativism. They will tell you your moral absolutism only serves to perpetuate views you were trained to and maintain your power. For this reason, they draw the ire of conservatives, including Christians. Postmodernist is practically a standalone insult on the discussion sites some of us frequent.

Yet there are Christians who hail the arrival of postmodernism as the best thing to happen to Christianity in in decades or even centuries. This is because the Modernists and the continuing effect of the Enlightenment have held the day since before 1700, and those have systematically excluded Christian faith, relegating it to at best a private hobby. The Postmodernists are seen as an ally, arriving on the scene and saying "Look, there's no need to get all conceited about it, because you're no better." Christianity is back in the discussion, baby! We aren't laughed at at conferences anymore. We can smack around secular power structures with the best of them. We are all on the same footing now.

I think there are excellent points to be made about power structures, and attention to epistemology and elusive meanings are always welcome.  But the embrace of postmodernism as an ally strikes me as naive and narrow.  They were great allies for taking down the powerful who laughed at faith. But that is all. 

Among the secular schools of thought, all of them were relativist when it came to faith, and the supposed closest ally Romanticism might have been the most dangerous, as it weakened the faith from within with its sentimentality. Our idea of heaven as the place where we meet with relatives after death - Will The Circle Be Unbroken and all that - was not common anywhere in the church until after the Civil War in America. 

You can think of postmodernism as the problem if you like.  Just know that many of the few Christians left in the academy look at them as the last ally.  Not sure I agree, but by the process of elimination I noted above, they have a point.

*I cannot find this online, and so am taking this text on trust from a person reciting it on a podcast.

Update: A reader reports (see comments) that the poem is entitled "A Confession" but is sometimes called "Spartan Nactus." He includes the rest of the poem, including the last few lines, which are marvelous.

Monday, August 28, 2023

We Forget

Reading the post Rave-Off from thirteen years ago it all came back to me again, the things I knew in my job not from brilliance but from dull repetition. I recalled that students and new hires would be rather amazed at what I could predict in advance, what I could conclude from stray comments (from patients, from other agencies, from families) that turned out to be true 48 hours later. 

I would say that we all get like this at jobs we are familiar with, but then I think of others in my department who had also done the job for years. Most could not do this. It doesn't feel like I was all that smart, just paying attention. 

There is another side to this, the complete disbelief you get from people that you are able to do this...when it concerns them. I don't think I read motives and make predictions all that brilliantly.  No one does. Yet somehow I'm the smart kid in the dumb row here and find that the obvious seems to be eluding many others.

But Not Genetics

China has 100x the population, and each of those has 20x the income of South Sudan. China is becoming basketball-mad, which is why the NBA panders to them.  The Sudanese do like basketball, but mostly after they have immigrated here. Back home, subsistence farming and civil war take up a lot of time and energy, y'know?

But try bringing up in conversation that genetics might have something to do with it. Immediate pushback that "Oh well, sure it has some impact, but..." and then nothing real is ever admitted. 

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Tomorrow's The Day


My bride is coming back from the Alaska State Fair. The Alaska Wymans came down from Nome. Now it is not just the Mom who loves to shop where there are real stores, and not only the 12-year-old, but the six-year-old wants to shop nonstop as well. Nana is less enthused.

The three-year old can't be far behind. She cut her own hair when no one was looking and had to get an emergency rescue haircut as soon as they landed in Anchorage. She now has what we used to call a Dutch Girl haircut, rather like Dora the Explorer, or Edna Mode from "The Incredibles."

                                                                    Nana with Bella



Saturday, August 26, 2023

Long Covid: How Big a Problem?

Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, who goes by the handle HealthNerd on X (Twitter, remember?) jas an article in Slate What the Latest Evidence Actually* Says About Long Covid. The sub-headline is

A new study looks at data from patients two years after their initial infection. It contains some alarming figures—until you dig into them.

Yeah, pretty much. I love it when people look at questions like "Who is in the studied group, and who is in the controls? Are they representative?" or "What sort of result would be a bad one versus a meh?"

So, what does the study actually** show? It shows that there is a large risk of long-term issues for people who have been hospitalized with COVID-19. This is entirely expected. If you get sick enough with any disease to the point where you require hospitalization, you are almost guaranteed some measure of long-term issues. Getting really sick is bad for your health.

The study compares people seeking care at VA facilities - and older, male, generally less-healthy group, with controls. Trying to compare back to the general population we see a small increase in likelihood of a couple of conditions. Real, and good information to have, but not shocking.

*There's that Asperger's word actually from someone who proudly calls himself a nerd, again.

**And there it is again, again.

Friday, August 25, 2023

World 1500m Championship

I like Ingebrigtsen, but he had an improvement trajectory that seemed to stall in the last year or so. The 18 y/o from the Netherlands, Niels Laros, looked very good but was spent at the end. I think I was rooting for him, though I had never heard of him before.

That's fine.  Watch it on YouTube.  In other track news, Matthew Boling has been running the 400m more, moving up from the 100 and 200m events, and it seems to suit him.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Gluten Free Suet Crust

I decided not to go that route. Maybe next time. I was doing both a different version (in two ways) of the onion pie I got from Bird Dog years ago, and a British steak-and potatoes pie divided into two smaller pies. I wondered about lard and GF, and the Englishwoman with the recipe mentioned suet for the crust. I have seldom cooked with lard and never with suet.  The box of King Arthur pie crust mix doesn't mention either, and I can't find someone who has run the experiment.

Whenever things go awry cooking, it is usually because I am making too many changes at once, or trying too many new things.  New things often need to be stared at, which takes time and focus. So I have made the rule never more than one new thing.  I break that continually, of course, but in this case it was going to be five changes already, so I didn't add in a sixth. 

One has to show discipline cooking.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Tolkien Rewrites

Much of the following was inspired by a talk given by David Downing, one of the co-directors of the Wade Center at Wheaton College. It set me thinking.

Tolkien is known for the brilliance of his naming, but Gandalf was originally Bledorthin, Meriadoc was originally Marmaduke, Frodo was originally Bingo, and Aragorn was originally a sarcastic hobbit named Trotter. Tollers renamed his characters a fair bit throughout the writing, and we should be grateful that they got better each time. I'm still not all that impressed with the first names of hobbits in general. They stem from the original creation of the children's story, which I shrugged off on first reading because I was enchanted by something in the story anyway, I knew not what.  In retrospect, I wonder what I saw in it, with its dwarves with associated colors of hoods and musical instruments, being fed rustic 19th C English food, whose king says seriously to Gandalf that his small band should "give a thought to the Necromancer," which no dwarf in LOTR would dream of saying. The individual adventures are disconnected and merely episodic. Trolls with talking purses, a cave-creature who likes Anglo-Saxon riddles, goblins who ride wolves, a bear-man with trained animals. It is a parade of mythological Germanic creatures, and could come in any order. (Until Tolkien has put them in an order of course, for then the adventures connect at least in retrospect.) The riddle game had to be completely rewritten and an explanation wedged the larger story of the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien is marvelously inventive at reworking plot elements plausibly once he is stuck with them. In the 1960s he wished he could rewrite the entire first book. 

The problem is that the hobbits were not really part of Middle-earth at first. The author had already subcreated a great deal of what would become the Silmarillion, clearly had some comfort there, as evidenced by the historical and mythological references he drops in seemingly effortlessly. Well, it is effortless at first when there is no one to contradict you, but it gets more complicated when you start to see that you are about to contradict yourself and have to backfill. There is a history of the Shire and of hobbits in general right in the prologue, but it is spotty and has few significant events and no development in 1600 years. They came from somewhere east and get dumped in. Sorry. We learn later that even the Ents have never heard of them, the kingdoms of Gondor and Rohan only barely, and even some wizards, those powerful beings entrusted with the care of various aspects of Middle-Earth have only the dimmest idea who or where the halflings are.

Smith of Wootton Major (conceived of much earlier than it's 60s publication date), Farmer Giles of Ham, and Leaf By Niggle all take place in Faerie, not Middle-Earth, and the Hobbit rather straddles the two worlds at first, despite the homely details. When Tolkien's publishers begged him for a hobbit sequel he quickly despaired. Perhaps Bilbo had run out of treasure, or still had a lust for adventure, and resolved to go to Rivendell in another set of disconnected episodes. Tolkien had some in mind. By the time we read LOTR there is already knowledge of what the Ring really is, and who the Black Riders are, both by history and current importance.  But those were not present at first. It was just more episodes, already half designed.

Farmer Maggott, the Old Forest, Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil, barrow-wights. These are drawn from the mild adventures of his children's everyday lives, but made more dangerous. Old Man Willow was a nearby great tree they would hide in. Tom Bombadil was a Dutch doll, and the addition of Goldberry accidental.  The doll went face down in the water by accident, and Tolkien rescued the "frightening" situation that was destabilising Michael by spinning a tale that he was seeking a wife, and found one at the bottom of the river. There was a barrow thirty miles west they would visit on excursions, and the children would make up small tales of their own. The dismembered hand that still crawls toward Frodo was a nightmare of one of the children. 

This is not to belittle the events and adventures but to praise Tolkien's amazing ability to imbue everyday events with high adventure. CS Lewis speaks of the use of fairy stories in enchanting the everyday trees, and meals, and storms around us. We return to our everyday lives and a road that disappears around a bend is suddenly a path to anywhere.

The Black Riders hover at the edges, but their importance was understood by Tolkien only gradually. They break through at Bree, but somehow more as a fear than a real enemy.  Despite Aragorn's explanation that their main power is through fear, it doesn't ring true in terms of what happens later. Even at Weathertop he takes them very seriously - he doesn't suggest that if the hobbits were only less fearful they would find it easier. At the river it takes Glorfindel, not just Aragorn, to hold them off, and the very physical river plus some protective magic - presumably not a river that is affected by fear - does a great deal of the work. The Nazgul have more than just fear on their side.

This is also true of the Ring. The slow dawning on Gandalf of what it must be is a stand-in for Tolkien's own discovery.  When it was just a magic token that made you invisible, it didn't need a backstory. It was just one more marvel in Faerie, only nominally connected to Middle-Earth. And then...who is Gollum? How did the ring come to him? How could the previous owner have let it go? Yet Tollers told Lewis he didn't think there was much more to say about hobbits and didn't think he could get much story out of the journey to Rivendell. Only as the hobbit adventure gradually connected to Middle-Earth as a whole did the whole series of connections cascade upon him. Diana Glyer suggests that the turning point was a conversation with Lewis about how pedestrian it was that he had the four halflings launched to just outside the Shire and Gandlaf was about to ride up and join them. Even though there were "adventures" sketched out, these were not deadly, and the most exciting thing at the moment was that they were going to pop out of the bushes and scare Gandalf.  What fun, eh? Lewis said "Hobbits are only interesting when they are doing non-hobbitish things" and by nightfall Tolkien had decided it must be a Black Rider, not a white one. The reality of Sauron's ring and the Nazgul began to assert themselves into the story.

Except the story already had the episodic adventures noted above. These remained intact, but they started to weave themselves into the dire events in the world. The crawling dismembered hand remained there for effect, but Merry's dream now became about Carn Dum, a very serious battle from 1600 years ago. To Tolkien, Carn Dum was already there; Merry and the hobbits were now woven in to Middle-Earth with one more strand. 

Adventures in Faerie are more like the Wood Between the Worlds in Lewis's The Magician's Nephew. It isn't Narnia. But once you are in Middle-Earth then Sauron is always in the background. The history of Numenor still affects events around you.

Book One is transitional. It is not quite so far from the serious events to the South and East as The Hobbit, and it does not have children's book language. (Tolkien's children had gradually grown older and the tone of the book goes with them.) Readers notice immediately that they are in far deeper waters. There are no dwarves singing about breaking plates here. Frodo wants an adventure like Bilbo's but sees that none is available any longer. Bree is a breakpoint, and this is not surprising. Tolkien got the hobbits as far as Bree and had no idea how to go further.  The book lay fallow for months, with sarcastic Trotter left throwing apples at lesser enemies. He is not quite adult, however skillful he is. 

Trotter rubs off on Aragorn. The future king loses his regal temper once - at Barliman Butterbur, to whom he is insulting and sarcastic. He is a little pouty about being lonely and wanting to be accepted for himself. He looms over Sam and says he could kill him if he wished when young Gamgee doubts him.  All these are very human and we understand them.  Yet they are not kingly. The Aragorn who addresses the captains of the West in The Return of the King would not speak like this at all. It would be hard to attribute this to character development, as the son of Arathorn is a hundred years old and has been to Mordor, been in several battles, and has been awaiting his chance to be king for decades. To be that different a few months later does not add up.  No, the explanation is that Tolkien did not quite know who he was at first, and still saw him as mostly a ranger, even if the Chief or the Dunedain.

We see the kingly Aragorn almost immediately after Bree. It was originally he who threw the apple at Bill ferny, but Tolkien saw that it was more appropriate coming from Sam even before they had left. The transition is almost complete.

Sunday, August 20, 2023



Henderson on Hoffer

As I am a subscriber, I may be able to see this while others can't or only in part.  But Rob Henderson's newsletter has a good summary and general commentary on Eric Hoffer's The True Believer. Mass movements are founded more on hatred and envy than on shared belief, and the people who are the strongest adherents are those who already have a good deal and want more, not those who are more oppressed. 

A core aspect of Hoffer's argument is that the root of frustration lies not just in external circumstances or “the system,” but fundamentally in the burdens of being an individual. Outsourcing decisions about your life to the movement comes as a relief. While practical organizations (e.g., an employer) cater to self-interest and offer opportunities for self-advancement, a mass movement appeals to those who wish to escape or camouflage an unsatisfactory self. Mass movements hold the implicit promise of fulfilling the desire for self-renunciation.

When people feel their lives are meaningless, they seek meaning by telling others what to do with their lives, a key feature of many mass movements. One sentence in the book summarizes the idea: “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”

I should add that the most successful movements are the ones that can never actually deliver on their promises and keep people frustrated and angry.

Let me know if the link only goes to a summary and I will write a few more paragraphs about it.

Saturday, August 19, 2023


Dorothy Sayers, writing to CS Lewis in 1955

I am deriving quite a lot of entertainment from the Times Literary Supplement Review correspondence about Tolkien‘s book ( The Fellowship of the Ring only). It’s such a joke that whenever anybody does write a formal allegory it is dismissed as the lowest form of life. Artificial. Didactic, and all the rest of it. But if people are faced with an imaginative romance about a magic ring they can’t rest till they’ve reduced it to allegorical terms and labeled and pigeonholed everything what it stands for. The ring must not only confer power, it must be power, and a specific power at that. It has now been identified as atomic power, political power, and bureaucratic power. (I like the picture of Galadriel tempted by the prospect of becoming an unlimited bureaucrat, and one wonders what will be in our next thrilling installment.)

It is well-known that Tolkien "cordially disliked allegory" and felt Lewis had veered too close to that in his Narnia Chronicles and lessened their literary value. I would have agreed when I first read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that Lewis's Aslan, at least, was an over-obvious Jesus in that book. (By the second book I thought that had toned down, and by The Voyage of the Dawn Treader it was noticeable only when one looked for it). Lewis noted elsewhere, not in direct argument with Tollers but apropos the sentiment, that out of seventy reviewers of Out of the Silent Planet, only two of them noticed any Christian themes in the book. Those who grow up with Lewis as children, or those who come to him later without literary expectations do not see him as a purely Biblical, earth bound Christ, intrusive into the plot. Amazing as it seems to me, only those trained to look for Christ-figures seem to see it overdone in Aslan.

David Downing, one of the directors of the Wade Center at Wheaton, which is devoted to the works of Tolkien, Lewis, and five others* had a female student who asked why LWW was considered a Christian book. She didn't see it. "Well, Aslan dies for another person. Then he rises again and this saves both him and the other characters. Doesn't that remind you of anyone?" She looked concerned for a moment, and then her face broke into a great smile. "Oh!" she said "Gandalf!" Which is accurate, in a way.

So you can write a non-allegorical adventure and people will insist on making an allegory of it, one that fits their current day concerns. Or you can write an adventure that actually is somewhat allegorical, and people will miss it altogether. I recently read online a young man who resented all these Christians trying to force a claim that " The Lord of the Rings" was a Christian book when it clearly wasn't. Why couldn't people just accept that it was a secular adventure without intrusively shoving their personal religious views into it? Commenters were quick to supply quotes from Tolkien himself in correspondence and interviews that LOTR was a Christian, even Catholic book. For him who has eyes, let him see. People want to keep their adventures and their literature domesticated and connected to their own smaller world.

^GK Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams, George MacDonald, and Owen Barfield.

A Song About Baseball

 Bob Bennett is an artist who finds Christian lessons in unexpected places.

On Base Streak

I knew the answer, though  I didn't recall what year it was.  If you are a fan of OBP, you will be properly impressed, but mostly you are only going to be interested in this if you are a Ted Williams fan. My mother adored him. The estimate is he would have hit 650+ homeruns if he had not been off doing unimportant stuff like being a fighter pilot in WWII and Korea. (There are plenty of guys over at Unz who will tell you those wars were wrong and unimportant, BTW.)


Even more overlooked than Ted, I'm afraid, was Stan Musial, who had a remarkable season the year before this, just missing the Triple Crown. To be famous, you pretty much had to be in New York, and generations of baseball writers seem to have grown up there. Boston was a distant second for attention in print. No one was third, fourth, or fifth. Those were considered flyover country.


Have any of you had eels? Jellied eels are still a food associated with the East End in London, and smoked eel still shows up. Interestingly, the people who actually like eel as a food tend to dislike this, saying that the flavor is ruined by this preparation for long-term storage. I wouldn't know myself. They are also cold smoked to be kept around for stews and pies. I recall eel pie being mentioned in older literature, but eels are mostly mentioned as well, just eels. They were fried or roasted with some herbs and you ate them. This made them accessible to the poor, but they were not regarded as a poor person's food as they have been for the last century or two.  Everyone ate them. King Henry I, who had been warned repeatedly by his physician that because eels always gave him indigestion and were thus likely dangerous to him, decided he just plain liked them too mauch not to eat lots of them and famously died of eating "a surfeit of eels." They may have actually been lampreys, because the word translates either way, but we are going to be pro-eel for today and give them credit for the regicide.

There were other untimely eel-related deaths among the royalty and nobility, but none so direct as this.

There are eels in North America, in China and Japan, and they are - or were - eaten there in quantity.  But Europe was where eels were part of the culture, and nowhere more than in England. Over a thousand years the english ate more eels than any other fish, saltwater or freshwater. I got this from the Surprised Eel Historian who notes that it is the historian that is surprised, not the eels.  He wonders how he got into this line of work after starting out as a respectable historian.  For the quick eel news, his threadreader is here. Half a million eels a year paid in rent. (Or were they? There may be a translation and reference problem here.) They were used for debts, especially for rent money to landlords. The difficulty is that rents were often due on the same holidays throughout the year, so a large landholder might have thousands of eels arrive in the last few days. You can't keep them alive in water as they deplete the oxygen, but there is some method of putting them in wet moss for shipping.

You flayed them alive, though in London the eel-sellers would do this for you, thank God.

They were shipped everywhere. The English, the eel-eating champions by general acclaim throughout Europe, imported lots of them from the Dutch beginning around 1400, because even though they produced many more eels than anyone else, they just couldn't get enough.  Though this declined, this continued until the 1930s. Though they were declared unclean in Leviticus, they were preferred for Lent, as they seemed to reproduce asexually, and were therefore considered less spiritually dangerous. They actually reproduce by coming to sexual maturity just before migrating to the Sargasso Sea at the end of their lives. This is called their silver stage. Like us, I guess. The eels you see are technically juveniles, even though they can be years old and grow up to 20 feet long. An idea that makes me nervous, frankly.

Eels in Art and Literature, Briefly

Aristotle mentions them, but Aristotle mentions everything, so it nearly doesn't count. Freud had a sexual interpretation of them, and ditto.

The first English mention is by the Venerable Bede (c. 700), who tells us that England is well known for its eels and salmon. He claims that the town of Ely is so named because they have so many eels there. This is the sort of just-so etymology that usually turns out to be laughable, but in this case it is true.

There are eels in the Bayeux Tapestry; many along the borders as part of the decoration, but one symbolising England itself, which King William is grabbing by the tail. This is the wrong way to catch an eel, as one must grab it by the head, and this visually predicted that William would lose England. If it seems odd that an eel would be so readily associated with England, as a bear would represent Russia or an Eagle the USA, it is likely a product of the extreme fondness for them.

Shakespeare mentions eels more than any other fish.

In more modern times they are the stuff of nightmares, as in the shrieking eels in The Princess Bride and the moray eels of "The Little Mermaid." We shall not speak of them further. There is The Book of Eels, that is described by its publisher as about more than just eels, but a reflection on human life as a whole. Well, that's fascinating, but we do that ourselves without eels.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Agency in Other Times

I listened to Dan Jones, the legit medieval historian who has started writing historic fiction (Essex Dogs) being interviewed about the difference in that type of writing. The first thing he mentioned was that people of all other eras and places did not have the agency we take for granted in out culture.  Their lives were constrained in a hundred ways that they could hardly articulate because it was just the way life was, and we can scarcely understand because we do not live in such a world. He finds that hard enough to capture when writing actual history, but is even more intense when writing fiction.  You want a character to do something, then remember that "Oh no, he can't.  And it would hardly occur to him." But the choices that they do have are as real as ours, and often have consequences greater than our small decisions. The whole society lives on the margin and is vulnerable more than we are, and hired men-at-arms even more so. 

The novel is first person from the POV of two soldiers in the Essex Dogs, a band of ten landing in Normandy and heading toward the Battle of Crecy. He illustrates their limited scope and perspective by describing even the battle scenes entirely in terms of the experience of the single individuals, with no overview of strategy and troop movement and arrows drawn on maps that we are used to.  Only later do fragments of that come in. 

It doesn't sound like my sort of thing - it might be Grim's or David Foster's - but I thought that single reminder important in all consideration of history and even international relations now. I do forget their lack of agency, and often. We rail at the loss of our freedoms and are right to, because they are indeed rare, not automatic. We sometimes talk that we resent their being taken away because we think they should just be a given.  Perhaps they should, but that doesn't mean they are thereby common and assumed. 

Tangential note about Walking.  Both Jones and Patrick Wyman who interviewed him spoke about the importance of walking to gathe thoughts and put them in some order.  Ann Althouse linked to a monk who walks thousands of steps as meditation (counting the steps is important to him.  I sometimes do that.)

But now that there is apparently something else wrong with my foot and it is not healing (Charcot's Disease based around a microfracture has been suggested.  If so it is longstanding - like years.), what will I do for thinking?  I won't think too far ahead and solve problems not yet in evidence, yet I think I will have to at least retain some strolling over shorter distances - and figure out something else for exercise. But the idea of giving up walks...


Thursday, August 17, 2023

Environment and Development

I have often beat the drum that it is genetic, not environmental influences that matter. An interesting article came my way via Rob Henderson (who finds remarkable articles) that pushes back against this.  Why Your Mother Affects Your Intelligence hits an angle I should have seen but didn't, that the fact that environmental effects gradually wash away while the genetic effects show more and more prominence does not mean that those earlier years, when the environment did matter, are of no account.The years from 0-10 or 11-20 count just as much in a life lived as the years from 50-60 when careers are peaking and the earthly accounting of it all is beginning to come in. We measure income, years of education, and accomplishments and declare that Genetics Finally Prevailed.  

That is narrow-minded. Admittedly, when it is a measurement in the shorter term, such as the study that Lyman Stone tweeted out, that even recorded maltreatment of children did not result in increased traumatic response, except in certain conditions, we find it easier to discount or dismiss the childhood abuse.  After all, it doesn't seem to "matter" later. Yet it certainly mattered then. 

I read to my two oldest children when they were small because I thought it would be good for them academically. (Okay, I thought it would be good for them emotionally, culturally, and socially as well, but work with me here. Reading aloud is often pushed mostly on its effects on intelligence and schooling.) I now know that doesn't hold up. But y'know, I'd do it again anyway, just because it's enjoyable.  It's a good thing for families to do together in the moment, even if the effects wash away. Happiness when you are nine counts as much as happiness when you are forty-nine. Maybe more.

Also, Happy People Have Children. We may rise above a terrible environment and succeed in our forties and beyond but pro-natalists might be alert to the fact that girls who lost their mothers have fewer children or none. (Boys seem less affected.) The Swedish study of eventual outcomes that is often referenced may show that the longest term effects of losing a parent may wash out, but the initial effects are enormous, and only gradually recede. Mortality is greater, so you uh, don't get to show your equal outcome at age 60, and there is more depression, anxiety, etc. Years of misery count. I noted myself that we have this fascination with how a story ends, likely based on our living in a mind-world of stories.  If someone had eighty fruitful and happy years but the last two were lonely and they died alone, we think that a sad story.  Yet if they had eighty years of misery but found happiness in the end we call that a good life. That seems to overvalue the emotional kick we get from narrative completion.

How did our ancestors make it through? The lives even the wealthy lived until quite recently still make me shudder and very grateful I was born in the second half of the 1900s.

Chronological Narnia, and Again Susan

There is no good reason to read the Narnia Chronicles in chronological order as Harper Collins has ordered.  Lewis was right the first time, beginning with The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. He later told an 11-year old boy that it didn't matter much but he supposed that chronological might be best, as the boy had suggested. The boys sounds a bit OCD, and the editors at Harpers who thought he had a good idea strike me as similar. ("But the events in Magician's Nephew come first. So that book has to come first.") Years later, when Lewis was in his last year Douglas Gresham asked him and Lewis again said that chronological might be best. But Lewis had an odd quirk of memory, one that is surprisingly common in writers.  He did not remember his own work that well once he had finished it.  It seems strange for Jack, who remembered everything else he read.

That is insufficient. Readers of Lewis are nearly universal in agreeing on this. Narnia is not mentioned for 70 pages in The Magician's Nephew, largely because it does not exist at the beginning of the book. There are references throughout MN referring back to other stories. When Lewis began writing The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe he did not know there would be others in the series. By the time he finished the first book he had some ideas of subsequent books, but he does not reference The Magician's Nephew as one of them. 

The Problem of Susan -Again

I accepted the designation that the Narnian Chronicles were children's books when I first read them, and long after. After reading Lewis's essay "On Three Ways of Writing For Children" (it can be found in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories) it was solidified for me.  But in understanding his many references beyond the idea of writing adventurous stories in another world with Biblical themes, all the echoes of Spenser, and Shakespeare, and Greek mythology, and of course Michael Ward's theory that the whole batch of them draws from the Medieval belief in planetary influences, I have decided that they are better thought of as adult books, or adult ideas, in a form children can understand. 

As a fresh example, I encountered a new thought this morning on the Great Books discussion of The Last Battle, WRT the Problem of Susan. It comes from Monika Hilder of Trinity Western University in British Columbia.

We generally think of two types of heroism in our culture, the Greco-Roman and the Biblical.  Lewis - and Tolkien, and the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - highly value the former. Physical courage and use of weapons, and even skill when resorting to warfare are admired. But he considers the latter to be superior, and much of the literature he draws from is specifically written to highlight that discussion of which heroism is greater. Even Lewis's Christian and sympathetic readers get caught up in the idea of adventures and courage of that Greco-Roman kind.  We are rather conditioned to it, especially in latter days when Biblical heroism doesn't much make it into movies, or TV, or popular culture.

Susan fails pretty solidly at Biblical heroism, remaining steadfast to the end despite all danger and appearances, like Tirian, like Jewel, like Puddleglum, like Eustace and Jill. (Or Frodo and Sam.) One of the main values Lewis is trying to stress in the entire series requires examples to illustrate. He is careful not to declare her lost forever, only that she has failed thus far, and failed at the only test that is really important. In his later correspondence, he specifically allowed for her repentance and redemption. The specifics of what she was tempted by, which JK Rowling, shooting from the hip as she often does, found so significant and so irritating, are not actually that important. She had the temptations to renounce Narnia common to her age, culture, and predisposition of personality. Digory, Eustace, and Edmond had different temptations, all of whom failed but repented and were redeemed. 

Do we object more to it being Susan because she is female, and we feel Lewis or any modern author shouldn't pick on a girl? (Because after all, they were picked on more in earlier literature and culture and perhaps men show feel an obligation to put something in the other balance pan.)  Perhaps, but I think two other things drive our objection. First, the temptations she succumbs to are common to females and not to males, which seems unfair of Lewis.  I would argue that there are male equivalents of exactly these sins, just not involving "Nylons and lipstick and invitations." Lewis's essay "The Inner Ring" has entirely male examples, after all.

Here is an irony: if Susan were the bad example, the shallow girl in a coming-of-age novel for young adults, disdaining her would go down much better, wouldn't it? If she were the Mean Girl making fun of the others, all the female readers would know that the young heroine was absolutely correct in learning to separate from her.

But there is another reason that drives our objection. It feels final. However much Lewis backs away from it in clear terms, in the story, in the world we have suspended our disbelief to enter, her rejection is final. It may be a purely emotional response on our part, but I think it is at least emotionally correct.


The music is not authentic, it is guesswork. If you poke about on the internet you can find other guesswork that is quite different. The instruments are ones that would have been used.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Comedic Monologues

 I had never seen this category on YouTube, but I thought these were fun.

And if you ever need a piece for tryouts, it's nice to know that there is stuff like this in the bank. I wish I had had these to draw on. Of course, that assumes I would have paid attention and admitted that anyone else had something to teach me.

Update: The woman who appears when the video is at rest is reciting from Greater Tuna, a cult-following play I dearly love.

Partying With the Phonecians

Utica, Tunisia is believed to have been founded by Phoenicians, and there is both textual and archaeological evidence for this. A new twist comes in in a 2016 paper showing that right around the time of its founding in the 9th C BC a whole lot of plates and bowls, drinking vessels, storage containers that usually contained wine, and a ton of animal bones of various species were all piled up in what had previously been a well. That combination usually means a great celebration of some sort.  Okay, so the Phoenicians came in and either before or after putting up docks and buildings and walls they had a celebration about it. So what?

Well, it seems that lots of indigenous people were probably at this party as well. About half of the pottery, etc came from Libya and other local groups. So probably locals, and lots of them, were present at this feast. It's not a question of pushing the old group out. Start with the animal bones. There has to be a lot of local knowledge for that. You can't easily steal all of it. It is likely purchased, or brought by guests.  If you are raising or hunting these creatures yourself, you have to have been there awhile and your relationship with groups even a few miles away is going to be significant. So if the animals and the pottery have local connects in big numbers, these are likely people who are getting along at at least a trade and not-in-open-conflict level. 

20% of the local stuff imitated Phoenician forms. That means those indigenous groups had already traded with someone who had access to those designs, and had for some time, as they had developed their own version.  They might have been well traveled themselves. There may have been more than one tribe of locals involved in the founding of Utica as well.

25% of the pottery was actually Phoenician. 10% was a kind of Sardinian indigenous pottery that was often traded.  5% was Greek, 1% was Italian in the Villanovan style, the group that had preceded the Etruscans. 1/2% was from SW Spain..  The Villanovan was considered high-class stuff throughout the Mediterranean, brought out for banquets and used as luxury trading goods.

But don't let that trick you into thinking that 10% of the people present were Sardinians or 5% Greeks.  They could have been goods acquired by the Phoenicians when they traded...or when they had lived there, 3rd-generation away from Sidon in the Levant. But, talking out of the other side of my mouth, they could have been. The Greeks also traveled and traded widely - in fact, they have the greater popular reputation for it - and could have been present. Amount of pottery does not in any way equal amount of national group. The Greeks who were there might have been from a group long-established in Sardinia.

Nor should you think that when I say "Phoenicians" that was a group of people ultimately descended from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.  It included everyone they had picked up along the way in their trading travels, from Cyprus, from Malta, from Greece, from Sardinia. We have no idea at present what the percentage was.  Some groups maintained a strict separate identity, others intermarried, and the farther the kite string is let out, the more uncertainty we have. Nowadays when we can track the DNA of a site we can find villages (or battles, or religious sites) we find both: individuals who are descended from two or three groups, others that show a single genetic identity.

Let me make it all even worse. Greeks, Phoenicians, Cypriots, or Sardinians showing up at any of these ports and colonies were likely not at all representative of the homeland they left behind. They could have been largely drawn from a few trading families.  In fact, this is historically the most likely model, all the way to India and China, and all the way up to colonial times. Tyre and Sidon had whole separate networks for trading with the interior of their own country, at least early on. "The English" or "The Dutch" did not so much settle the New World as a few traders drawn from a narrow class, with the permission and cooperation of the government, did the work.

So who was at this party? I figure there had to be at least some real Phoenicians in the group bearing that name, likely a majority. Though some of those may not have ever seen Tyre in their lives. They were supplemented by individuals from all over the Mediterranean. The locals were drawn from at least two groups, according to the pottery.  No one made two types of pottery at the time. If you were to go around interviewing all these drunks about their ancestry, you could probably have to start taking notes quickly.

Changing Marriage and Dating Customs

This will not be a full overview of the topic. For those who are interested in a longer treatment, I had a whole series of connected posts last fall Dating Apps and the New Polygamies

Rob Henderson has a couple of wheelhouse topics, one of which is modern dating and marriage patterns, and how they don't seem to be working very well.  He has a good distillation of his thinking in the Free Press Stop Swiping: Start Settling. It is mostly a connected discussion of the polling he finds important, but the numbers-dense atmosphere is going to be a plus, not a minus for this group.

I do notice two things which I believe keep getting overlooked.  First, we don't know with certainty what these young people mean by the words liberal, conservative, feminist, etc. We can sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we understand more than we do when words change on us over time. And since we are getting close to the fifty-year mark on the distance from my dating career - and our memory of what we thought then is colored by what we think now more than we realise - I should be very wary of believing I've got this wrapped. They ain't me.

But secondly, there is this continuing idea that because things are different from what they were in "our grandparents' day" that there was some continuity before that, stretching back to the beginning of time. Or at least, to the American founding or something. Practically forever. 

Dating apps replaced "I hate the bar scene," which replaced meeting at school or early in a time of independence, when you had an apartment and a first real job. The economy and culture in America changed a lot after WWII. Movement of people had always been an American trait, but it really took off then. But because young people had always lived in families and that was considered normal, they themselves married pretty quickly and started families, even though they were less supervised in their courtship than previously. Automobile=unsupervised young people.

There were still people living in the same town as their grandparents, living under their parents' roof until marriage, but the percentage dwindled year by year. Individual realities did not fit what our picture of them is. When I look at all four of my grandparents and their siblings, they were all expected to be on their own after about age 20, including the women. They married or moved to an apartment and got work, sometimes in another state. This would have been a full century ago, not recent. I don't think I know much of anything about the courtships of any of them.

Before that was decades of people either moving here from other countries - and courtship rituals of new arrivals had to have been a serious dislocation - or moving westward, singly or in families. Either way, their children would be in new towns without established institutions and everyone juggled and likely fought over keeping up old norms.

If you want to find a time in American history when marriage and courtship customs were stable for a hundred years you won't find one. Individual groups that stayed in towns (not cities) in the East might show some stability, especially if they were wealthy or had some deep ethnic solidarity. But the country as a whole, never. Because we can still find customs that were handed down a few generations we get a false impression of continuity.

It is similar, now that I think of it, to people's impression of what church and worship used to be like. Most people don't really think it through and are mostly talking about what their grandparents experienced. Even at that, they don't know that as well as they think.  When you look into histories of actual congregations, you look at real documents: confirmation and Sunday School curricula, programs from celebrations listing the hymns sung and titles of speaker topics, midweek schedules of meetings and what they discussed. It is an odd thing to look at such things and notice you have only heard of three of the five hymns, and only know one of them well.  Because that one is still trotted out nostalgically, we think we have continuity.*

It remains true that something is very much different in the last twenty and even ten years, and it does not seem to be working out well for the young people going through it. I don't want to give the opposite impression, that this is just a bump in the road and we have always had these imagined crises, and everyone should just calm down because the young people always seem to work these things out.  That thinking from 1960-2000 may be part of what got us into this mess. The young people don't always work things out on their own - how could they? But we should at least have the knowledge that this is always changing, even if stumbling into solutions only works some of the time.

*In Swedish congregations it is "Children of the Heavenly Father." I thought my grandmother and mother had fallen down on the job because I did not grow up with it, when I started encountering it among the Lutherans, and then the Covenanters - not even in English, never mind learning a phonetic Tryggare kan ingen vara. Yet I have gradually learned that not all Swedes grew up with it either. My great aunt Selma Nordstrom knew it, but it had not been part of her childhood. The old Swedes at my current church (all gone now, I think. I guess I'm one of the old Swedes now, and I'm not even that Swedish) also noted that it had only started becoming important in the 60s. So much for nostalgia and continuity.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Inspirational Quotes

My hospital unit had inspirational quotes painted up on the walls everywhere. It's not just the forced cheeriness, it's that many of them are not quite accurate and I think spiritually unhealthy, giving advice about how you can do anything if you only persevere, etc.  But sometimes it's just intrusive, telling you how to handle situations that are your own damn business.

I'll mourn the absence of the flame if I want, and think it a more appropriate understanding of death.

Edge of the Known World

Patrick Wyman in his "Tides of History" podcast used a phrase about the Phoenicians that they had traveled to the end of the known world. In his context it was not a foolish cstatement, as they had traveled from the Levant to what is now Portugal, with no evidence of any intermediary steps after the first few like Cyprus, in contrast to the usual practice of gradually extending a trade network port by port and island by island.  For them, where that ship was headed when it set out was indeed the end of the known world. Many scholars believe they must have at least had some contacts in Sardinia, in order to get copper.

But of course once they got there the found a group of people who had a world with its own edges, north and south along the Atlantic coast as far north as Scandinavia and as far south as West Africa (where they likely got the apes and peacocks to trade with King Hiram to bring to King Solomon). Silver was what the Phoenicians were looking for, and found it at Huelva, near modern Cadiz. This is beyond the Strait of Gibraltar. Apes and peacocks were sent along because such presents were part of the culture of Eastern Mediterranean monarchs.

I have more on Phoenicians coming up, about a massive party they threw in what is now Tunisia. At least, "party" is the standard explanation these days when a large pile of drinking vessels, smashed pottery      and the presence of many tribes shows up on a dig with no layers below it, and lots of cool stuff after. They founded a colony, or two colonies closely related, one for themselves and one for the indigenous traders and tribes. We'll pick up on Utica (Tunisia) and that party fairly soon.

Chris Langan

I saw some information about Chris Langan (who I had remembered as Chris Mangan), who Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in The Outliers as a person of exceptionally high tested intelligence but few other qualities necessary for success in most fields. I had a run-in with him at Quora in an IQ discussion five years ago or so, and when I pointed out that while his claims were possible and in some cases even likely, there were places where they were not as supported as he was putting forward. His score on Ron Hoeflin's Mega Test is truly remarkable, though there are some possible ways it could have been at least a bit plumped up.  His wife also scored well, for example and he could have collaborated with her, and with any other person he thought might also be top-shelf in that sort of test. Or could even have cribbed from them. And the fact that he was granted a retake, which is usually not allowed, is disquieting. He claims to have gotten perfect SAT's despite taking a nap. Anyone can say it. 

Yet even at worst, he must be pretty darn good at this stuff.  

My interaction was that he made vague but bullying threats of going to law with me for pointing out that he had lost his court case in New Jersey to use the word Mega in his Mega Foundation, which he had gotten because he was in the Mega Society, which had the name already in a clearly related activity. I called some of the people I had known years ago, and they all thought he was legitimately intelligent but had been a headache every minute he was in any of the IQ societies. Now he is writing a good bit of philosophy based on proofs he has devised that he claims are"based on no assumptions." As that is impossible - we must at minimum assume something about language and the presence of other humans to have words mean anything - I didn't pursue his proof of the existence of God further.  He is reportedly veering into conspiracy stuff now, like Twin Towers stuff. He makes me think of Ron Unz in that.

So I ran across some newer stuff and I thought "I'm just too tired. Don't bother to post it." And after that lead in you would think that would mean I decided to say that quiet part out loud and write about my small fragment of special insider knowledge.  Nope. It doesn't teach anything and could possibly attract stupid arguments.  He is who he is, and what others have said is close enough for me.

Pops Staples

Love the nickname

Monday, August 14, 2023

ER Nurses and First Responders

I noticed when waiting long at the ER, after they had decided I needed to be admitted to get some IV antibiotics and lacked only an assigned room, that many of the ER nurses, LNAs, and other aides had t-shirts showing solidarity with police and firefighters, whether in general or more often a specific department or event. I had noted it last time but wondered if it were some specific week or celebration. The nurses upstairs did not have these.

It makes sense, I told one of my text-threads.  They would encounter each other often and have respect for what the other does. More than that, answered one of the others, they tend to be of opposite sexes. Those two groups date and marry each other a lot. She noted further that her sister, a nurse who has worked across the country, has observed that this is common in ERs.

Well, this makes sense at an even deeper level.  There are similar levels of excitement and need for bursts of intense focus in both jobs, so personalities and interests outside of work are likely. It also solves the problem of dating someone you work with and the possible trouble that everyone can get in, especially these days. They don't work for the same agencies. I remember that teachers were sometimes married to policemen when I was younger. In highschool, sometimes a college professor. Again, mostly-female paired with mostly-male. Social workers are mostly female, but when I was younger I never heard of one married to or even dating a first responder. It was an issue of perceived class, I think. They would have considered themselves above that. I knew a few younger social workers when I left who were married to policemen, though. I can think of reasons why the class barrier is down. Doctors were mostly male and often married nurses, especially instructors or administrators. Now that MDs are more evenly split, they seem to marry each other a lot. 

Other frequent pairings with a sex-division may occur to you. Please point them out and make observations.

Let It Go Hence

When Lewis's mother died when he was nine years old, his father saved the page from their Shakespeare calendar that said "Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither: ripeness is all" It is said by King Lear in Act V and refers to being prepared for death.

In Out of the Silent Planet, the first book of Lewis's sci-fi Ransom Trilogy, when one of the hrossa is killed by an evil human who has come to Malacandra (Mars) from earth, they have a funeral service and they sing "Let it go hence, let it go hence; Let it be no body."

Lewis's epitaph in the churchyard at Headington Quarry reads "Men must endure their going hence."

Siri and Alexa

What color hair does Alexa, or Siri, have? As ridiculous as it sounds, I would bet that there are people at Amazon and Apple who at least know what the impression the public has about this and ran some test market voices and even something like suggestions of what seem like personality before releasing the product. And since then, they have added voices, likely in response to tracking what people say about the original offerings.

Right out of the gate, I am going to bet they did not want Alexa to sound blonde, because of stereotypes of sexiness and lesser intelligence. Nor did they want her to be an identifiable accent of any type - not southern, not African-American, not any of the stronger urban accents. White, middle-of-the-country, 25-40, dark hair (but not black hair), moderately but not notably attractive. Same for Siri - though I hear that she sounds a little younger than the others.

I have a great voice for radio or recording, but not for work like that. There will not be any AVI Alexas. 

Wandering off...I used to do a Saturday morning radio show for the blind with a guy who was actually blind. One of the things that some guys wanted was the baseball statistics (this was pre-internet) because those needed to be current to be part of conversation, and they were unavailable in any other form.  Whatever I did, there were guys who wanted more, and as there was a time when I followed those myself, I understood. I even asked Joe if he wanted me to do a whole separate half-hour show, but the school broadcasting we we were borrowing didn't have free time slots for that.

Sunday, August 13, 2023


I was in hospital again, this time for cellulitis (foot). I don't think I had been overnight in a hospital since I had my tonsils out when I was six, but I have been in three times this summer.

I of course wrote myself notes about things to post, so there should be a flurry over the next few days.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Watching Baseball, Soccer, Golf

These are sports that have two modes: you can settle in and have the full experience, or you can watch highlights. I learned years ago that soccer is wonderful to watch at ground level, as when my sons were in highschool. But in those days, watching a match on TV was unendurable.  It is easier now, the few times I have watched longer stretches in the last ten years, so they must have made improvements in angles, announcing, and graphics. But I only watch highlights now.  What ESPN does for the World Cup, reducing each game to a 3-4 minute clip is just about perfect.  I don't need to see only the 30 seconds of goals and saves, but I don't need the two hours either.

I should go down to Fenway again, because it is an historical experience at this point, like visiting the Robert Frost Farm or where the Old Man of the Mountains used to be, useful for boring the children while insisting this is an important part of their education. I have not sat through a baseball game in 5? maybe 10 years, nor watched one start to finish on TV since...maybe never.  When I followed baseball, I liked to have it on the radio while I did something else.  Highlights used to be okay as recently as fifteen years ago.  But the change in swings - which is absolutely correct because it wins ballgames and that's the players' jobs - results in a Home Run, Base on Balls, Strikeout game. Even the stellar fielding plays are usually outfield only, at the warning track taking away a home run. But the fielding majesty is in the infield, just not appreciated. I can't really do highlights or full experience with baseball at this point.

Golf highlights are fun.  Impossibly long chips or putts, or rescues from a bad lie.  That is the fun stuff.  I would never volunteer to watch golf on TV at any length.  Yet when I happen upon a TV showing golf - such as at a restaurant or other public venue, I am mesmerised. Once I am in, I can watch for a couple of hours. there is something about the pace of the game on TV that just works for my eyes and attention span.  I have no explanation.

Boxing is similar.  I don't look for it, I mostly just want the highlights, but if I get started watching I can stay with it through the whole match.

Basketball highlights tend to be only dunks (only randomly important to the outcome of the game.  I think it's younger people who fancy this) or 3-pointers, which are only slightly better.  When they show great assists, transition basketball, or a sequence of great plays by a team or even a single player I can get interested.  But mostly, I just want to read about it tomorrow or listen to Zach Lowe explain it the day after. Football the same.  I want to know how my fantasy players did. The highlights are more varied than other sports, but not a lot. If I went to someone's house and they were watching (I think this only means the Super Bowl) I can watch the whole game.  I see no point in going to Foxboro unless I am going with one of my sons.

Lithium Theory of Obesity

 I haven't been keeping up with the oddly-named Slime Mold Time Mold site, but I remembered that he found the usual explanations for widespread obesity inadequate. He has a format of originally 8, now 10 "Mysteries" about obesity - things that we might have some reasonable expectation would explain it to us, but on closer inspection don't fit the data. Or also, weird things about its prevalence that don't have ready explanations, like the association between elevation and obesity (which is sorta true).I remembered that he found dieting was effective in only a modest number of people, and seed oils showed early promise but fails to match up with 3 of the to Mysteries. That doesn't write it off entirely, as he says.

We should be clear that this doesn’t leave the seed oil hypothesis totally dead in the water. A theory doesn’t have to fit all 10 mysteries to be correct. For example, the obesity epidemic could have multiple causes — maybe seed oils caused much of the baseline increase and something else is responsible for the variation internationally and between professions. It’s still possible that this is massively multicausal.

In the end, however

If we wrote A Chemical Hunger today, Part I would include 10 mysteries, not 8. And one problem with the seed oil hypothesis is that while it provides a pretty good fit to 7 of the 8 original mysteries, it doesn’t match the two new ones.

I had forgotten what he does like as an hypothesis. In his recent extended discussion Still Not Sold on Seed Oils he makes the case again for lithium exposure being a strong cause. It fits (or at least is not contradicted by) lots of the Mysteries, including new ones. The international differences match up remarkably well with extracting oil in arid climates. A lot of lithium is brought to the surface by the brackish water used in getting the stuff out of the ground, and nobody pays much attention to what happens to it afterwards, except that we know there is now lots of it in the soils and waters of these countries.It also fits the elevation hypothesis, as watersheds are likely to be more important than mere height. But intriguingly, lithium also fits the very odd mix of professions that have different obesity rates despite being otherwise similar in classification. Exposure to lithium grease looks like a match.

Anyone who has contact with psychiatric patients knows that lithium as a medicine causes weight gain, often quite a lot. There is now evidence that even trace amounts can get you the effect - reduced moodiness and thus violence - and the side effect of weight gain.  It matches the puzzling timeline of "but why should obesity, rising modestly since 1900 as people have more access to uh, food, suddenly rocket upward around 1980.  So keep your eye on that one.

Update: The seed oil advocates are all over the comments.

Matrix IQ Testing

This nearly always refers to Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrices, that arrangement of shapes you see online quite a bit, where you try to deduce what the next figure in a series should be. 

The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale is the generally agreed-upon standard. It is a comprehensive test, with many subtests, and thus more fine-tuned for use with individuals being evaluated. Among adults, it is given as a usual part of an full evaluation for psychiatric inpatients. More on this later.

The Raven's is popular because it is nonverbal and so can be administered by checking boxes online. Also, It just feels like it must be less culture-bound, because it supposedly does not rely on language and education. Actually, it seems to be no better on that score. It is weighted to visualspatial abilities - which is great for you if that's your strong suit.

In fact, it's not only not a superior test, it's not a particularly good IQ test at all. It has about a 0.69 correlation with the WAIS. The WAIS includes a matrix reasoning subtest (see below), and the initial advantage of the WAIS over the Stanford-Binet was that half the test was nonverbal, requiring for example that you complete a drawing with a pencil rather than answer who wrote Faust. So they have that covered already. For those of you who took a Raven's and did great, I am sorry to bring you this news. It's just an okay measure. For those of you who took the ASVAB/AFQT for the military, that correlation is about 0.8, and the SAT/ACT is about the same. Test/retest data suggests that the WAIS only correlates 0.9-0.95 with itself, because of the differences in you on different days. So no test is going to give you a 1.00 correlation.

The SAT&ACT are IQ tests, and you can make a fair guess at your Wechsler Full-Scale from it. But what usually gets left out of that comparison is that the college-bound tests are great for measuring the abilities of groups. Because they give you a real number, and they send it to you personally and send copies to your high school and whatever colleges you hope to go to, you get suckered into thinking that they care about measuring your intelligence, very special you. From the college's POV, they are looking at 1000 kids with an SAT between 1200-1250 and predicting that the usual amount will succeed and go on to graduate at their school. They care about that aggregate, they don't care about you. A person administering a WAIS is putting together a report about you in specific, integrating not only the final score but the subtests into the conclusions. If you are average on 10 subtests but do poorly on Block Design and Matrix Reasoning, that tells the psychologist something about how your brain is working.  They might even recommend a neurology consult if the differences are dramatic, as there could be some sort of damage to the brain. You were on track for a FSIQ of 100, but now it's 90, on a mix of VIQ 101 PIQ 79 = FSIQ 90. 

These days you might be able to sell a school district, and then a college on the idea that you've got a specific learning disability that can be worked around and they might bring you in anyway.  But in general, they are just running the numbers of the SATV and SATQ and putting you in a group which has a 70% chance of succeeding, and that's all they care about.

The ASVAB/AFQT is between the two. The military does want to slot you into a place where your skills fit, but they are also processing a lot of people and know that the test is only going to have an 80% prediction rate.

Interestingly, the Raven's has poor test/retest reliability, so that if you took the test twice, a year apart, your scores might not be all that similar.

The poor test-retest reliability of the matrix reasoning seems to be shared among the other nonverbal tests in the WAIS. This leads me to believe that daily/monthly fluctuations in cognitive abilities may be affecting tests which require intensive thinking more than those that rely on accumulated knowledge.

This makes sense to me. I can pull out that Goethe wrote Faust, supposedly one of the hardest general-knowledge questions even if I am sick, distracted, or drunk. The more difficult matrices require you to stop what you are doing and focus, mentally rechecking your work at each turn. I might do differently on different days. I believe the simple answer "Goethe" is considered just fine, BTW. Which would have been great for me as an undergrad, because I could never remember which one was Johan Wolfgang and which one was Karl Friedrich (Gauss). But it illustrates why the IQ societies say that such tests don't have sufficient ceiling for their purposes. The hardest individual questions don't differentiate between IQ 125 and 175 very well.

Wednesday, August 09, 2023

Another Human Variant

 A Human Lineage Discovered In China's Fossil Record? If you click through to the paper, you will see that not everyone agrees it's a new lineage.  Some say it could be an unusual homo erectus, others that it could be an eastern variant of Neandertal, and others that it could be an unusual Denisovan. So while it isn't time to get excited over a new variant yet, it is one of the possibilities.

And whatever this is, it's not like the others.

Tuesday, August 08, 2023

Political Atheism

Rob Henderson links to an article by Luke Burgis about Rene Girard, Culture War as Imitation Game. As the article suggests, I am hearing more and more about Girard and his idea of Mimetic Desire, the almost-automatic influence that others have on us to want the same things that we see them wanting. I know nothing about Burgis other than that he wrote a book about Girard and seems to have already lived an interesting life.  His site has numerous links to people I never heard of who seem to be thinking interesting things, and Burgis writes well.  His book, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life looks interesting, but I haven't read it.

Girard also identified mimetic rivalry, the desire to separate oneself from our competitors for status by standing in opposition to them. 

A recent Pew survey shows that majorities of both Republicans and Democrats consider negative sentiments about the other political party to be a “major reason” for their own affiliation.

I have commented on this before, and significantly, I believe that every reference I have made has been about how liberals were doing this*, disparaging conservative core groups not because of their ideas (though that is always the disguise), but simply because they are the main competitors for power and status in this culture. When polls are taken issue by issue, agreement and disagreement between liberals and conservatives are all over the map.  There are trends, they are not entirely random, but when the originator of the quote or the idea or the program is withheld from the man on the street, he can switch sides from his supposed affiliation immediately.  If you are told Obama said something, rather than Boris Johnson or Elon Musk or Ronald Reagan, you will respond to it positively or negatively on the basis of Barack's name more than on the content of the quote. This is demonstrated repeatedly, and both sides use it to club the other at times.

We love to hate, it seems. Which is why even though Girard had political and cultural opinions, he mistrusted the bringers of those messages, who could reinvent themselves at will. In 2015, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump had very similar platforms: reduce immigration and tax the ultra-rich hard. They both moved from those, and maybe moved far. I think mimetic rivalry, belonging to groups that want to be separate from other groups, explains this far better than any supposed intellectual conversion that either experienced. This is the "political atheism" that Girard is referring to, using atheism in its more figurative sense of "disbelief" than related in any way to theistic beliefs. 

I increasingly trend that way myself. The electioneering I see has almost nothing to do with what is actually happening in terms of dozens of issues that affect us. It is almost as if elections are a competition about random subjects, with the winners getting to reward their friends and punish their rivals, while the world goes on like a giant oceangoing ship, turning and moving according to other weathers and forces.

This does not mean (quoting Burgis here) that we should become more extreme Republicans or Democrats. Political atheism means that we should become more detached from the stalemate frameworks and salvific promises each party makes, and willing to combine the best ideas no matter who offers them. Perhaps the clearest sign that we’re making progress will be when more policy proposals sincerely surprise us. As it stands now, political positions are as predictable as the sunrise.

We may be a long way off from a serious, third political party rising to power, but that is not the goal — in fact, it may just lead to a mimetic political ménage à trois. The problem is not structural, but spiritual.

“More and more, it seems to me,” Girard wrote, “modern individualism assumes the form of a desperate denial of the fact that, through mimetic desire, each of us seeks to impose his will upon his fellow man, whom he professes to love but more often despises.”

*I may be being harsh on myself. I do try and force myself to be evenhanded and find counterexamples from my own sides of conflicts, even when I do so grumbling, with a bad grace. I have certainly at least complained about that subset of Trump supporters who seem to like him only because he angers liberals so much.

Monday, August 07, 2023

Doug Gresham

I have listened to him being interviewed a few times in the last year, and he has clearly told the story enough that there are no extraneous parts at this point. The story in the churchyard is powerful, even in this abbreviated version. In one interview he talked about his older brother David. I had heard of him, and read that he had become as emphatically Jewish as Doug was Christian and identified more with his mother's family. I thought that interesting, but only later learned that he was deeply psychotic and had to be confined in asylums because of his violence for months at a time. Doug related that David had tried to kill him several times - once as a child, holding him under the water in an attempt to drown him; dousing him with petrol by surprise and trying to bring a flame to him. Joy apologised at the end for not believing Douglas. With Doug in Tasmania and David in a Swiss psychiatric hospital, they did not see each other much in the last years. 

Doug surprised me when he said warmly. "He died a few years ago.  I miss him."


I read Lenten Lands, his biography from the 1980s and liked it quite a bit.  I wasn't much interested in the last few chapters, of agricultural college, meeting his wife, and going to Tasmania. The last years of Warnie are quite sad.  Jack's brother was an important Inkling himself, and an historian in his own right who had a multi volume series on France. There were years in the 40s when the usual attendance at an Inklings meeting was only Jack, Warnie, and Charles Williams.  Attendance ebbed and flowed, which makes me feel better about my own pub night which has been going on for years. Attendance is often sparse.

After Jack's death Warnie drank even more than he had before, disappearing for weeks at a time and not caring for himself at all. He outlived Jack by ten years and is buried under the same stone, with the quote from Act V of King Lear "Men must endure their going hence."

Culture Change: Childbirth

I was listening to three young sportscasters (under 30) discussing athletes not going to games or leaving midway - specifically including the Super Bowl - in order to be present with their wife for the birth of a child. To a man they were all outraged that anyone would even question that this was the right thing to do.

Our first son was born at Concord Hospital in 1979 even though it was only third-closest to us because they were the only one that allowed husbands in the delivery room. Not boyfriends, by the way. The others had policies which forbade it.  Things were in flux, and by the time Ben was born in 1983, you could bring whoever you wanted into the delivery room. I exaggerate, but close.

But before that the husband waited in a lobby downstairs, waiting until someone came and told him that they were now the father to a daughter or son.  Some obstetricians liked to be the star, and would not allow a nurse to break the news.  You waited until the great god doctor had finished cleaning up and changed some clothes, and came down to tell you. Nor could you join your wife even then, not until she made it from the delivery room to the recovery room to her hospital room. If things shook out correctly, the baby might be ready first, in one of those rooms with rows of unmarked cribs. You stood on the other side of the glass and waited until the nurse picked one up and indicated it was yours.  Then the other fathers standing there congratulated you and everyone exchanged cigars.

It's a nice emotional moment, and I was glad to share it with my wife.  I was also the labor coach, who had rehearsed with her for s few months beforehand, squeezing her arm and saying "contraction begins." Lamaze method the first time, Bradley the second.

But really, anyone could do it: a friend who had delivered a child of her own, a mother or sister. My contribution was minimal, because labor is, well, laborious, and the delivering mother is focused on some pretty intense stuff and tracking whether there is anything going even a little wrong.  Tender moments need not apply until after the work is over.

For this reason I think the need for the Very Important Dad to be present is largely symbolic, and confess I have wondered if perhaps he, um, needs to plant a flag about how supportive he is because of previous conduct. Suspicious of me, I know.

Women saying "It's okay honey, you go do your job and then get here when you can" is not going to be enough.  Not for a symbolic gesture that had no real practical purpose anyway.  The mother is going to have to say "Get that sonofabitch out of here! Get him AWAY!" to have the desired effect.

Fantasy Football

I have one son who plays multiple teams in football, baseball, and basketball, and also makes many small bets throughout the year. He has always been a source for obscure team knowledge, such as who the backup center was for the Seattle Supersonics in 1998, but this does take it to a new level. 

It is seductively labor-intensive.  Every year I declare I am going to do only desultory research for the drafts (I am now in three leagues, all with different formats) and merely check my lineups before each weekend, but it never works out that way. I am already compiling lists of wide receivers for both regular PPR and idiosyncratic Dynasty leagues and moving names up or down a bit on the basis of what drifts past me. It is worth checking whether someone was injured and out for the season as of last Tuesday, after all.

I occasionally win, but it is the banter and camaraderie that make it worthwhile.