Bones, Buildings and Books

Struck this morning by the discrepancy between what was, what has survived, and what is widely known. 

An obvious example is dinosaurs. We are most likely to find the remains of big, heavily boned creatures that lived somewhere where their bones could be preserved when they died. So swamp dwelling behemoths, and their predators and scavengers, whose bodies would be more likely to sink into anaerobic mud and be preserved rather than torn apart and scattered, are what we think of first when we think of the Age of the Dinosaurs. Which is why we call it that, after all. 

Meanwhile, looking at the current state of things, there would have had to have been as many or more ocean fish or inland grazers, and many, many more smaller and fragile creatures. The remains of those creatures were less likely to escape the scavengers and weather and bacteria and so on. Those  left comparatively fewer bones for us to find, or left tiny bones hard to see, and are thus little known or unknown.  

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It’s a miracle we find *any* 100 million year old remains, and a double miracle we find anything at all from plants and soft or tiny bodied creatures. 

It’s as likely as not that there were many times as many of those sorts of life than giant dinosaurs. But we don’t call it the Age of the Giant Cephalopods or the Age of Tiny Worms or the Age of Plants.  So what was is one thing, what has survived to be studied is another, and what we talk about when we consider it is yet a third thing. 

Multiple Winner, fix or tear down competition.

In a similar way, I suspect we’re not getting anything like a representative view of old architecture. Most any building more than a century old has had a lot of maintenance and repair done to it. Every once in a while, say maybe 40 or 50 years, those responsible for most non-monumental buildings face a decision: repair it or tear it down and start over. 

Given that people are often stupid, I imagine there have been innumerable times when very nice buildings that you or I would want saved got torn down and replaced with something not nearly as nice. Just look at the monstrosities built to replace the attractive old buildings in pretty much any American city. You want yet another grotesquely large glass box instead of something with a little character? Evidently, the answer is generally ‘yes’. (1)

But since people are not always stupid, and because ‘beautiful’ and ‘well-built’ tend to go together, I would expect that nicer old buildings are overrepresented in the sample that has survived to this day. 

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Quaint overdose! Yet, who wouldn’t want to live on a street like this? The charm is so smack you in the face that even city planners left it alone – for 4+ centuries and running. 

When ‘the past’ is represented by samples very possibly not representative, we need to be a little cautious of generalizing our ancestor’s sensibilities. I strongly suspect there were a lot more ugly or slapdash building in York that have not survived, compared with the Shambles pictured above that did survive. In other words, I suspect the human capacity for tastelessness and stupidity has not changed all that much over time. (2)

The counterargument for this might run: life was slower then, people were not always shooting for the next great thing, and so had more time to consider and less need to rush architectural decisions. These were people who built cathedrals that typically took more than a generation to complete. They have demonstrated that they could in fact take the log view. Based on the sample we do have, their everyday buildings incorporate the the local wisdom in a way no tract home ever will – built to be comfortable and enduring in the setting they occupy. So, on the contrary, ancient buildings that have survived are an accurate measure of the superior sensibilities of our ancestors. 

I’d like to believe that, sounds about right – but I’m not sure. I’m grateful that some of the good stuff made it through. Bones get filtered first by natural processes and then by the very human gee whiz factor that makes us thinks a 30 ton creature with 8″ teeth is way cooler than giant ferns or tiny insects and fish. Buildings start with man, and then get subjected to a combination of human and natural cullings as weather and time and the tender sensibilities of urban engineers take their tolls. In the end, in most cases, some human being decides to tear down or repair.

Then we come to Books – to History. Even books considered broadly undergo a somewhat similar process as buildings and bones: a combination of natural and human forces conspire to do some very serious culling. All paper – and vellum and papyrus and mud and even stone  – ‘books’ decay. The tear down or repair decision becomes a copy or not one. We do not have the Library of Alexandria (whatever that was in reality) or the Library of the Golden Age of Islam because Muslims in the first case and Mongols in the second burned them down. Cromwell burnt all sorts of fun stuff. French revolutionaries burnt the ancient library of Cluny, because Reason. Germans boobytrapped several French libraries and other buildings where books and record were stored as they retreated at the end of WWI.

And so on and so forth. Thus between nature’s decay, executive decisions to copy this and not that, and the wanton destruction of stuff we don’t like, we have only a couple of the many plays of Sophocles; we have Plato’s Dialogues but not his treatises and Aristotle’s treatises but not his dialogues. This does not include works we don’t even know we don’t have. Personally, I wonder if Archimedes made any shop notes – bet those would be interesting. Then there’s the Far East, with possibly much worse conditions, in general, for the survival of any cultural artifacts – conditions in  the dry and comparatively barren Middle East and Mediterranean would be easier, I suppose,  on just about any human made thing than the damp and luxuriant Orient. At the very least, if the East produced great works in wood and leather instead of the stone and clay of Egypt and Mesopotamia, those works would face a much tougher path to survival over millennia. 

So, it’s a miracle, in some sense, that we have much of any written documents from thousands of years ago. Different forces are at play now. Today, my shelves have a fairly large number of books marked for culling by librarians. A library at a small college in the southeast decided after a few decades in which no one checked it out that it could do without a biography of Henry Barnard. For example. Thus I, at least until I die, have made the ‘preserve’ decision for a few books on education history that were probably headed to the shredder or dumpster otherwise. The librarians, who use physical storage in an age of digital, are caught in a no-win situation: tying up shelf space for a dead tree edition of a book nobody had ever read, just in case, versus trusting someone somewhere has dedicated a square millimeter or two to digitally storing it. I’ve got even more education books in digital format than I do dead tree editions from some library. One supposes I’ll be one of very few people to read them in either format. 

Back to the point of all this blather: books, especially old books, are invaluable for giving us not just information, but in letting us into a different world of thought. 

But all this represents what might be called post publication censorship, using this admittedly loaded term to mean merely what is or is not available. What about pre-publication censorship? What about stuff doesn’t ever get published or even written up? At regular intervals in my Feasts & Faith group at our local parish, we talk about groups of martyrs, the Oxford University Martyrs or the Vietnamese Martyrs, for example. I remind the group that often the named people are explicitly intended as representatives of a larger group of people whose names we don’t know. The people doing the martyring – the Reformation English or Vietnamese government in these examples – have no interest in preserving the memories of the people they killed. Further, they created an environment in which it is very dangerous for other people to remember them. Thus, we happen to know about the Oxford University martyrs because each was at least a fairly prominent man or had people outside of England who knew of them – Jesuits, for example. But if you were a country priest or monastic monk, let alone just some layman or laywoman, and got murdered for your faith, who is going to write it all down, and risk being the next martyr? 

This is an extreme case. More difficult are things people don’t think are interesting at the time. The lives of kings and queens, their conquests and losses, their births and deaths – these seem important to their contemporaries. There are books, and legal and government documents,  and letters and so forth. The lives of less noble people must largely be reconstructed from peripheral documentation, or even from digging in the ground to see what they left. Dinosaur bones, mostly. 

In a sense, I’m running into this issue when I read up on education history. I’d like to know how classes where run, what the curriculum looked like, hours and days spent in class, discipline, enthusiasm or lack thereof on the part of parents, children, and teachers, when and how changes were made and how they went over with people. In the case of Catholic education in America, the few books written on the topic are all about kings and queens – the bishops, the pope, the  makers and shakers. Burns and Walsh mention the dearth of source materials, which becomes both a source and sign of the challenge: modern writers can’t give much detail, even when inclined to do so, when the people at the time didn’t record it. 

So one reads as many old books as one can, in order to fill in the blanks with a sentence here and a guess there. The goal is to get a general picture into a particular time and place in which individual pieces gleaned her and there might fit. Of course no old book – no new book, either – is truly representative of any sort of zeitgeist or culture-wide understanding of anything, insofar as any reality described by those concepts can be meaningfully said to exist. (3) But they do show us how the world at one point in time looked to a Jane Austin or an Orestes Brownson or a Fichte or a Mann, or just even how it looked to some obscure scholar or priest. The more widely we read such views, the better becomes our feel for how things were. We’ll never get it completely right, of course, but then again, we’ll never really know what it’s like to be our next door neighbor. We never really know what it’s like to be our own spouse or child or parent. 

  1. The skyline of San Francisco has only improved once in the 30+ years I’ve lived in or near it – when the Loma Prieta earthquake caused the downtown elevated freeway to be largely demolished. Addition by subtraction. The *additions*, however, starting with the Jukebox Marriott and culminating – for now – in the hulking, cancerous bulk the SalesForce building, have only overwhelmed much better buildings while adding a brutal air of domination to the city. I always enjoy walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, because of all the beautiful buildings combined with an air of openness. Chicago is much more charming than NYC in this respect. San Francisco, given the dramatic beauty of its setting, needed only not to screw it up. You can guess how that’s working out. 
  2. Read once that the iconic car of the 50s – the 57 Chevy Bel Aire Coup – got that way because of GM’s superior painting process. Seems Chevys (and Caddies, Olds and Buicks) rust out a lot more slowly than their competitors. Other makes and models were as or more popular at the time. Connoisseurs know this, but us commoners still think those huge chromed fins are the definitive statement of 1950s Detroit Iron. 
  3. I expect hardly at all. Even the idea of Culture is more than a little silly, as if there’s something independent of a bunch of ultimately individual decisions and unconscious reflexes by which certain things are valued and passed on and other things disparaged or ignored. Do ‘we’ have a culture? In what sense? Is it just a popularity contest? Our culture is some combination of what gets enjoyed or tolerated by enough people? Did American culture produce Star Wars, or did George Lucas? Did Italian culture produce La Traviata, or did Verde? The words culture and society seem useful, but when they get reified to the point where they are imagined to *do* anything, they’re more trouble than they’re worth. 

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Some Monday Links and Asides

In the too cool department: Some animated satellite orbits, with representations of speed, altitude, etc., all linked up so that if you click on anything, you get background information.  Looks like this: 

This is just a picture. The original is animated so that you can get a feel for the relative speeds involved, and has the links.  

I found it trying to research a sky-hook type element for a story, you know, to make it all sciency and stuff, and then of course burned an hour or two checking it out. (Not about to do pages of math to figure this out, but will google around a bit.) Did you know that there’s an  Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee ? I do now. If you go to the link and click on Graveyard Orbit, that’s the kind of stuff that will turn up. 

Not sure if I’m happy or sad there was no internet when I was a kid. 

David Warren is at it again, elegantly and wittily telling us we’re all so, so doomed. He pens such gems as: 

It is the policy of the High Doganate to discourage rioting, even in France.

and 

For many of the older citizens, this must bring 1968 to mind. I know that I felt a twinge (ah, to be fifteen again, and wiser than those passing through their “terrible twos”). Indeed, Paris — where I once learnt the cobbles are numbered on the bottom so they may be put back in place after they’ve been used for missiles — has been unusually peaceful this last half-century. There used to be a revolution every ten or twenty years, and lesser annual uprisings over this and that. I can understand nostalgia.

and

But, according at least to me, the French are not unrepresentative of humankind. 

I have not made it to France yet, although I have flown over it to get to Italy a couple times. Should try to make it before I die, or before Notre Dame is replaced with a victory mosque. Whichever comes first. 

The phrase “sans-culottes” is one of those many phrases or words I have to google every time I see it. Just won’t stick. So here’s an experiment: if I blog about forgetting it, will I remember it? 

If this works, you may be seeing a lot more words and phrases I can’t seem to remember. 

Life in the past is neither rosy nor relentlessly desperate, even if it did run more often than not a lot closer to the relentlessly desperate end of the scale. But just because we would panic and despair if we were forced to live as medieval peasants doesn’t mean they were panicking and despairing. Mostly, it seems their lives were pretty OK by them. They certainly had the time and energy to build a large number of very nice buildings, for example, something relentlessly starving, desperate people can’t really do. You don’t build things that take lifetimes to complete if you’ve despaired. 

Was thinking of the Battle of Towton, specifically the Towton grave. This was the bloodiest battle of the War of the Roses; the Towton grave contains a few dozen of the estimated 28,000 men who died that day. On the one hand, this battle reinforces the notion that the Middle Ages were barbarically violent. On the other hand, the 38 men who were buried in the Towton grave were, first of all, fit enough and far enough from starvation to fight. In an article I of course can’t find at the moment (my google-foo has failed me!) the writers described that the bones were of men age about 16 to 50, mostly sturdy individuals with, for example, their teeth largely intact – at least, intact right up until a broad axe to the face loosened them up a bit.

Even the healed wounds tell of a life somewhat short of total desperation. Most all the skeletons showed signs of healed over injury, many having taken – and recovered from! – blows to the head serious enough to leave evidence of trauma in the skull bones! Yikes! But this shows that wounds were not always fatal, that the Medievals knew enough to take care of them hygienically enough that the body could heal even serious wounds, at least some of the time. 

Life was hard, death was close, but not so hard or close that it was not well worth living to the people living it, it seems. These people were fighting to the death, but not killing themselves in any great numbers. Instead, they built churches. Hmmm.

Thanks to all for the suggestions for what my mother in law might want to watch next. Taking a break from watching shows where good-looking people with charming accents kill each other in beautiful locales, she has settled into watching Heartland, a multi-generational soap opera – with horses! Attractive people with, sadly, bland American accents galavant around beautiful countrysides riding, taking care of talking about horses. The horses are pretty.

The plot and subplots as far as I’ve made out walking through the living room while the show is on seem to involve a lot of dramatic confrontations and arguments. So far, nobody has killed anybody that I’ve noticed. This thing has been in production for 10 season, of which Helen has gotten through maybe 2 – so there’s plenty of time still. 

The few minutes of it I have watched in passing illustrate a plot device similar to the notorious Idiot Ball: drive the plot by having people wildly overreact to every challenge and situation. On my occasional forays through the living room, I’ve seen characters engaged in vein-throbbing confrontations over business ideas, whether somebody loves her horse enough, trespassing, and butting in. Like Idiot Ball, if the people would stay calm and ask and answer a few reasonable questions, life would go on – but the show would not. Every routine interaction must become an existential crisis or challenge to somebody’s manhood or something. 

I’ve not watched more than a few minutes of soap operas over a lifetime to this point. I imagine this craziness is of the nature of the beast? 

Sunday Chaos! Dumbledore Makes a Surprise Appearance

This morning, as I was sipping my coffee, my beloved walks in deep in a phone conversation with elder daughter. Daughter was looking for a recipe. This is a common occurance – all the kids cook up storms, and, no longer living at home, lack access to mom’s full-sized bookcase of well-thumbed cookbooks. Mom is the defacto culinary librarian. I sometimes get calls or texts instructing me to go to such and such a cookbook, look up this or that, take a picture of the recipe and text it to an offspring. (1)

As the conversation went on, my beloved spoke the following fateful sentence into her phone: “I’m not sure I can find that recipe again.”

Instantly, unbidden, the hamsters-on-speed wheels of my mind drive the following deathless lyrics past the barrier of my teeth:

I don’t think that I can take it

It took so long to bake it

And I’ll never have that recipe again!

Oh Noooooooo!

Oh Noooooooo!

and…. I then had to google MacArthur Park and force my 14 year old, who made the tactical mistake of wandering by just then, listen to it with me.  He is very tolerant of his old man’s goofiness. Think I’ll keep him.

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The MacArthur Park referenced in the song. Like most everything in L.A., it’s more than a little surreal.

Even he was eventually amused. That is one goofy song. Or maybe 3 to 4 goofy songs in a shotgun open marriage. Or something.

Seriously. Or should I say, Seriously? First verse, often overlooked in our eagerness to roll around in the sweet green icing flowing down:

Spring was never waiting for us, girl
It ran one step ahead
As we followed in the dance
Between the parted pages and were pressed
In love’s hot, fevered iron
Like a striped pair of pants

(striped sung ‘stripe-ed’ of course. Because, uh, Shakespeare or something.)

And it doesn’t get any better. 

My running commentary explained how the whole pop-tune-with-epic-orchestra thing got huge in the mid-60’s, when I was still single-digits years old, and that MacArthur Park was merely its most egregious metastasis. I then spun Classical Gas, as perhaps the peak of that fad. I mean, there were a few pretty good tunes marrying a pop sensibility with that sensibility’s take on classical music. The Moody Blues had a few good examples, found, lest we forget, on albums of mostly unlistenable crap. The ratio of good Moody Blues tunes to boring/painful Moody Blues tunes is maybe 1:10. Maybe.

Anyway, since I just listened to MacArthur Park, Youtube offers up a ‘mix’ or collection of tunes that, like the ‘Because you watched Midsomer Murders…’ Netflix feature, suggests more tunes/videos based on – ? Some mindless machine algorithm, evidently. I suppose, deep in the bowels of some Youtube server farm somewhere, programs written by nihilists and whippersnappers run, correlating tunes with my browsing and purchasing patterns, as well as things overheard over my iPhone and seen through the windows by the ubiquitous Google Map vans (you really think Street View is *all* they’re interested in? Hmmm?).

And perhaps other songs I’ve listened to? Little evidence of that. Here’s what the Mind of Google thinks I might want to listen to next: 

From the Beginning, Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Within a couple year of M.P. Otherwise – acoustic guitar, bongos and a classic synth solo versus wildly overwrought harpsichord & orchestra mish-mash? The ways of the Algorithm Almighty are indeed inscrutable, because, heck yea, I’ll listen to that. 

Cherish, the Association. OK, this is funny. Jimmy Webb wrote M.P. for the Association, who were pretty huge at that time (1967), who had asked for a big orchestral piece because, as mentioned above, that was all the rage at that juncture in history. They rejected it as too freakin’ weird. 

Well, Webb then played it for Albus Dumbledore, who was looking for songs for what amounts to a vanity record, and who was evidently enraptured by that whole cake out in the rain image. Seriously, Richard Harris, fresh off starring in the 1967 movie Camelot, met Webb, who was already a successful and well known song writer back then, at a party and mentioned he wanted songs for an album he was making. He flew Webb out to London where he was then working to go over material. Somehow, some way, when he heard MacArthur Park, he said – that’s it! 

I’m guessing Harris was famous enough at the time that people were willing to listen to the record he put out, and – the rest is history!

Meanwhile, the Association never had another hit, and were soon reduced to trivia answer status. Cherish is the most boring of their 4 hits songs. Windy and Along Comes Mary are better. But for old time’s sake, I gave it a listen. 

Another mysteriously correct suggestion by the deep revolving Algorithm. 

Other items in the list were either obvious – Moody Blues, ‘natch, and the 5th Dimension – or utterly baffling, such as Brubeck’s Take 5 and Petula Clark’s Downtown. But – was the Infernal Algorithm correct? Were these songs I wanted to listen to? 

Evidently. 

Should I be scared? Or at least draw the blinds? 

  1. My last communication with our late son Andrew, the day before he died, was texting him the recipe for calabasitas.

Halloween, Hieronymus Bosch & Ephesians

This morning, had a discussion about slavery in the Roman Empire triggered by the Epistle to the Ephesians read this morning at Mass:

Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling,
in sincerity of heart, as to Christ,
not only when being watched, as currying favor,
but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart,
willingly serving the Lord and not men,
knowing that each will be requited from the Lord
for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.
Masters, act in the same way towards them, and stop bullying,
knowing that both they and you have a Master in heaven
and that with him there is no partiality.

The usual commentary here goes something like: here is a revolutionary Christian proposal by Paul, that slaves, who have no rights under Roman law, must still be treated as brothers, and that masters will be judged by God on how well they treat them.

And, of course, this is true, and this new understanding in fact set the stage for the elimination of slavery wherever Christianity held sway. (Of course, given human nature, slavery pops right back up whenever we take our eye off the ball, but one or the other – slavery or Christianity – must prevail.)

I was making the point that understanding slavery under the Romans is a little tricky for Americans, as we have this history of racial slavery, where, because Americans were nominally Christians, they could not justify enslaving other men. Therefore, black Africans had to be thought of as less than men at least to some degree in order to keep the guilt and cognitive dissonance at bay.

The Romans, while as arrogant and bigoted as any conquerors, did not necessarily consider slaves as inferior men just from the fact of their slavery alone. A brave and noble man might just get unlucky, might be cursed by the gods, and simply be on the losing side of a war, and end up a slave through no real fault of his own. This is not to say that Romans didn’t look down on slaves, or treat them terribly – they did – but they did not imagine them a different, fundamentally inferior species. In general.

Also, a vast gulf exited between household slave and agricultural slaves. Sometimes, free men would sell themselves into slavery to a patrician, in order to have some hope of upward mobility – perhaps the nobleman had business interests that he might put the slave in charge of, if the slave proved himself dependable and talented. Then, if all went well, the slave could then buy or have given to him freedom for his children. At least, he probably wouldn’t starve in the meantime.

Agricultural slaves, on the other hand, seem to have been largely treated as animals. I have not run across any stories of agricultural slaves, who made up the vast bulk of slaves under the Empire, working their or their children’s way to freedom. But again, my reading in this area is slight.

Anyway, the only point, and it is a small one, is that it might have been lass shocking to the Romans and their Greek subjects to hear that a slave must be treated as a brother than it would have been for a Southern slave owner. In fact, the American slave owner just refused to hear it.

And this discussion lead, in that ineffable way my mind works, to consideration of Hieronymus Bosch, and why there are not more Halloween costumes and parties based on his works. The connection is that slavery isn’t the only thing that the Romans thought very differently than we do. Their sense of honor doesn’t map exactly to ours, for one thing, and the same noble Roman who would die unflinching for his Republic had most likely a deep and abiding affection for scatological humor. It’s a mistake to think of them in our terms. They inhabited a very different emotional and esthetic universe, it seems.

Hieronymus Bosch inhabited another very weird universe, one that – thankfully, I think – is very different from ours. It’s not just that his work is bizarre and often obscene – that might just be a personal quirk – it’s that his work was enormously popular. For a century after his death, people came to admire it. There are hundreds of copies drawn, painted or sculpted from that time. His work was hung in public places for people to see, and people traveled to see it. People really dug this stuff.

So I hit the web. And the answer is that first, there are plenty of Bosch themed costumes out there, if Google images is to be believed, and, second, that even a few parties along those lines have taken place. So, OK, even in these modern times Bosch has some appeal.

Then, for the first time in years, I looked, like really looked, at some Bosch.

Yikes.

 

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And this is kinda tame. There’s stuff I won’t even put up here. 

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The ice skate/funnel/red cape/yoyo combo really sets off the cross beak/letter look. 

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As a costume, you’d need the right attitude to make that fish head with butterfly wings cape, sword and shield look work. 

And these are some of the less disturbing ones.

As Halloween costume inspirations, it seems to me Bosch would not be very appropriate, at least, under what I hope are modern American sensibilities. For Catholics, we dress up as scary or even evil characters in order to mock them, to show them we no longer fear them. Oh Death, where is thy sting? after all. Bosch does seem to be mocking something. The mockery has a hard time cutting through the disturbing, at least for me.

Conclusion: the 15th and 16th century Netherlanders, and the Germans, Spaniards and Italians who admired and copied Bosch, did not look at the world the same way we do. At least most of us. And I’d frankly like to avoid the ones among us who do.

Science & Humility

Stray thought:

In his classic Caltech 1974 commencement address often referred to here, Richard Feynman states the following:

But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in Cargo Cult Science.  That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school—we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation.  It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly.  It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.  For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them.  You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it.  If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.  There is also a more subtle problem.  When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

This is beautiful. Such scientific honesty is also rare in the wild. I think it would be near extinct except for another feature of science, one Feynman does not here discuss but did in fact practice: everybody is entitled, and even honor-bound, to do their best to shoot down a theory. This probing and testing of theories to see if they can be overthrown is perhaps the only example of Nietzsche’s quip being true: that which fails to kill a theory makes it stronger.

This is not to say that proponents of theories like having others, often young punks, try to destroy their scientific babies. Far from it, which is how we get another famous quip, that science advances one funeral at a time. Often, only death is strong enough to loosen a partisan’s grip on a theory under attack. This observation may be generalized beyond science.

In one of the accounts he gives of the discoveries that lead to his Nobel Prize, Feynman mentions that he spotted an error in previous work, where a no doubt respected physicist had proved his point by extrapolating beyond what the data could actually support. Feynman had to disprove and discard the conclusion of this prior physicist in order to establish the model that got him the Nobel.

It would be nice to hear how this other physicist took the news. Was he a good sport about it? In physics, this is a t least possible, what with grad students and other young guns pouring over every theory and calculation that came before, just looking for that spot where they can make a name for themselves. I assume, perhaps naively, that this sort of thing happens with enough regularity that physicists might not get too bent out of shape over it.

The history of science if full of cases where the fathers of displaced theories didn’t take it very well. In general, scientists are people: Galileo was a out of control and petty egomaniac; Newton was an insufferable snob. Boys will be boys. It is part of the glory of science that it makes progress even with the participants acting like primadonnas and toddlers. It must be something special, if it can work under those constraints.

The point here is that at least in the hard sciences, the honesty of which Feynman speaks is enforced by the competitive nature of elite scientists. On the one hand, they want their theories tested and challenged, because that means they are important and validated. On the other, they know they’ll likely get caught if they fudge, since that same army of ambitious grad students and young guns can make their own name by finding flaws.

The point I think Feynman is making is that everything goes smoother if the scientists keep all this in mind as they do their research. Don’t publish your pet theory until you’ve thought through and responded to every challenge you can come up with, and included all the steps needed for anybody else to validate you methods. Cut to the chase. Keep it clean.

What Feynman does not mention here in this speech nor anywhere else I can recall is humility. I’ve never heard, and find it hard to imagine, Feynman being accused of being humble.

Humility is what it takes. The proud are also the blind. The beginnings of modern science can be found is the medieval Questions method, best known from St. Thomas’s writings. A proposition was tossed out for discussion, and refined to its purest possible expression. The seminar, as we might call it today, batted it around, argued for and against, probably spun off other questions to be addressed. When done, their work was summarized in the usual form: It would seem that X, for reasons A, B & C. Arguments A, B, & C must be stated in a form that their champions agree is accurate. Then: On the contrary, it would seem not-X, for reasons D, E, & F. And objections A, B, & C can be answered as follows. Therefore, not-X is conditionally true, subject to further information and argument.

You see the superstructure of science right there: you must clearly state your proposition, what it is you think supports your argument (which includes these days, observations made with the aid of gadgets and math). You must address all objections, which must be stated as strongly as possible and truly reflect the views of your opponents (or they will let you know about it). You must show your work. Everybody understands that tomorrow’s new observation might overturn the whole thing.

I propose that the problems in science, especially Science! as revealed in the so called ‘replication crisis’, is in fact a failure of humility. The pride present in all of us is exacerbated by the softness of the science. A science is soft to the extent that peer-skepticism and adversarial review are not accepted and encouraged. Such skepticism and review keep science honest. Lacking them frees pride from all restraint.

I don’t imagine the students and masters practicing the Questions Method in 1250 were any more intrinsically humble and honest than we are today. But at least they would have understood that humility is both a prerequisite and a subset of honesty: you must be humble enough to accept you could be wrong; if you’re being honest, you will be humble. In the same way replication and criticism keep modern science however honest it may be, recognizing their own pride and need for humility helped keep the scholastics honest.

This recognition of the need to be humble is unknown among the leading lights of the soft sciences. Freud can respond to challenges to his teachings by asserting his critics are repressed, both applying the theory in question as if it has been established as correct and avoiding any response to the substance of the criticisms. There will never be any recognition that these ad hominem attacks are petty diversions among practitioners of the soft sciences. Just review the name calling that often constituted the entire response of those challenged by the current ‘replication crisis’.

Hegel gave the illusion of a patina of intellectual validity to the notion that reason is nothing, only revelation (“enlightenment”; “wokeness”) matters, so that the only response to critics is to point out how unenlightened they are. This thinking became the thinking of academy. This is hardly surprising, as  the key point of Harvard, et al., the belief that drove their founding and continues intact to this day, is that the right people need to be in charge. Only the little people, as Hegel pointed out, get all tangled up in logic and reason. True philosophers can be identified, functionally, as those who agree with Hegel.

Real scientists are like those adopted kids who don’t know who their parents are, but know they are orphans of a sort. Insofar as you are a true scientists as described above by Feynman, you will not find colleges in general to be your family. But their true parents – the scholastics and Aristotle – have been painted with such a black brush they would be horrified to recognize them as mom and dad.

The State of the News

Not anything in particular except by way of illustration.

When did the news become The News? I don’t know and don’t have time at the moment to research it, but it’s good to remember that, somehow, for centuries, people made do with gossip and hearsay about almost everything we consider news today, delivered by word of mouth. So things haven’t really changed much, except at some point the gossip mongers and rumor mills got professionalized. The also added some research capabilities, and have greatly taken advantage of technological advances. However, based on personal experience, on what a look at the news has revealed over the past 5 decades during which I’ve looked at it, the content only marginally and occasionally reflects supposed improvements in research (“investigative reporting”) – it’s still mostly of the quality of what I’d imagine the women discussed around the fountain in the village square.

Image result for dirty laundryInstead, professional and technological improvements have mostly merely expanded the scope of what is to be gossiped about, without much improving the quality. Our poor benighted ancestors would only gossip about the foibles of the people they knew, maybe encompassing a few neighboring villages. Maybe the local aristocracy might come come in for a few whispers. Now, we can hear gossip about ‘celebrities’ and politicians  (insofar as those differ) round the clock and around the world. Based on what’s in the news and who and how many are paying attention to it, the research from the Moscow Bureau or whatever serves a tiny audience – at least, until the “investigative reporting” by “senior correspondants” is reduced to gossip, in cases where such a reduction is necessary. Thus, what exactly is going on in, say, Venezuela or Palestine is unlikely to see the light of day in the Press, and will be simplified beyond legitimate meaning before it sticks in anybody’s brain. The facts as revealed in conversations with just about anybody in almost any media sadly seem to bear this out.

We did go through a period in my lifetime where certain news anchors were canonized if not deified. Walter Cronkite springs to mind. They were trusted dispensers of the Truth. So was, I suppose, Walter Duranty a few generations earlier. But a harder look shows that such news anchors and senior correspondents had only augmented their rumor mongering with a bit of propaganda. The assumption that they were any smarter or better informed, let alone more moral and truthful, than your average garage mechanic or numbers racketeer is hard to maintain in the light of objective evidence.

But we trusted them. And, frankly, adored them. Modern reporters are now faced with an increasingly hostile environment in which only the Home Team even listens to them, and only if they say what the fans want to hear (not that there seems to be much of a risk of anything else happening). It has got to be hard when your idols are attacked, and even harder when what you, the cub reporter, had aspired to goes up in smoke: if you do a great job and get a few breaks, you still won’t be respected and loved like Uncle Walter. People will probably do worse than hate you – they will dismiss you without a thought.

Maybe. Some reporters still seem to think News Media are the secular clergy, and that those who oppose them are thus heretics in need of a good burning at the stake.

I wish I were kidding.

A couple years ago, I wrote a blog post which included a discussion of one Zach Carter, a “Senior political economy reporter” at the Huffington Post. Over the course of an interview with a wizened political economist, Mr. Carter, it seems, was revealed to be both utterly uniformed on the topic of his supposed expertise – political economy – and, more worrisome, utterly unconcerned with his ignorance. In his defence, I’ll point out that the problem is really the Huffington Post’s, who gave him the job and title, and the University of Virginia, which gave him a degree supposedly in evidence he knew some stuff. Also, he can’t be much older than 35, and his pictures on his bios would make Zuckerberg appear an ancient sage by comparison. He’s still getting carded, I’d bet.

I take this as evidence of a general trend, that of inflating titles far beyond the demonstrable qualifications of the position-holder, merely because a) the company needs that position filled, and b) the person filling it must appear to have a certain gravitas that it is hoped a ponderous title might give him. Moreover, as prestige and money in the news media continues to evaporate, papers are forced to recruit among people who will take reduced compensation in exchange for perceived prestige – that’s how you get Senior Vice Presidents and Senior Associate Directors.

Next, I’ve lost track of some item I thought I’d saved somewhere, wherein it was claimed that journalism is more and more becoming a profession for those who don’t need a job. Googled around, and what I could find: journalism in general pays a solid middle-class wage, in the neighborhood of $50k a year on average. Put another way, your average journalist makes around $25/hr, which is a bit more than an auto union member makes, and indeed, considerably less than what your plumber likely makes.

Yet another source (not going to provide links here – these items were on the 1st page of a Google search on journalist salaries, if you’re interested) mentions that journalist tend to be highly educated, and that the name publications, such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, have high representation of people with degrees from elite schools, like 40-50% among editors and reporters.

Now, putting two and two together: if I get a degree from Harvard or Yale, I’m not looking at taking a few years to work up to a $50k salary. We can safely assume the NYT and WSJ, prestigious and located in New York, pay way more. But even twice the average – $100K – is not providing the kind of life a Manhattan sophisticate is expected to live.  I’m not paying off any of the couple hundred grand of school debt I may have incurred by going Ivy League on $100k/yr if I’m also paying Manhattan level living expenses. Further, if this is true, that cub reporter in Des Moines is going to be lucky to make $25K, or about $12.50 an hour, if the averages are going to work out.

So, the allegation that people who don’t need the money are overrepresented among journalists is at least not contradicted by the tiny amount of data I was willing to dig up for a blog post. Speculating a little more broadly, it would not be surprising if the wanna be Zach Carters of the world, with sterling degrees, no significant school debt, and delusions or at least aspirations of relevancy, might end up in journalism, while people with school debt to repay and objectively valuable knowledge and skills would have less of that tendency. Who knows? But in the immortal words of Don Henley:

You don’t really need to find out what’s going on
You don’t really want to know just how far it’s gone
Just leave well enough alone
Eat your dirty laundry

Finally, year before last, when the Oroville Dam was having some serious issues due to a rainy season with near 200% of average precipitation, I wanted to keep up on the goings-on. Evacuations, the risks, if any, to the dam itself, mitigation and repair steps taken, that sort of thing. If you consume any mainstream news, you will not be surprised to learn that I found the information on offer from these sources sorely lacking.

So I surfed around. I discovered a YouTube channel run by Juan Brown, a gentleman who lives in the general area of the dam, flies his own airplane, and likes to make videos. Turns out that a number of people put together videos on the failure of the main and emergency spillways and on the California DWR’s efforts to manage the situation. (The CA-DWR is the manager of our reservoir system). The DWR P.R. department even hired some people with drones to put out dramatic videos every week or so of the damage and, later, the repair efforts. Very pretty stuff. But Mr. Brown was the only source that stayed on top of it and, most importantly, seemed to actually understand what was going on. When something crazy was said on the news – and, shocking, I know, but any scary-sounding thing got immediately picked up by all the news ‘sources’ – Juan would address it in his videos. No, he would patiently explain, cracks or leaks in the underlying roller compacted concrete are not an issue, as Phase II entails installation of drainage and placing of a hardened concrete cap on top, for example. Cost overruns were not due (this one time, at least) to bureaucratic incompetence, but to the inability to get a good estimate due to the need to do a lot of work to understand the underlying geology before being able to size the project. And so on.

He attended the DWR news briefings, and seemed to be the only guy there asking intelligent questions or, indeed, understanding the answers. As you can imagine, the PR people with the DWR and Kiewit, the project management firm, started to get to know and appreciate Brown. Last week, he published part II of a guided tour of the site, not something the general public is getting, lead by a DWR and a Kiewit P.R. person.

At one point, off-camera, the lady from the DWR asked him a question: why are you doing this? Why are you so interested in this project? He gave the obvious answers: it’s in his backyard, it’s the biggest engineering project going on at the moment in the entire US, and he finds it fascinating.

Now, I have no way to independently verify the accuracy of Brown’s understanding and analysis of the Oroville Dam spillway projects, but I have a lot more confidence in him than I do any of the young, pretty people I’ve seen report on this in the ‘real’ media. Why? He asks the questions I would ask, and explains the answers in a way that makes sense.

Juan Brown is in some sense exactly the reporter who doesn’t need the money. He just doesn’t work for the media.

The appearance that needs to be saved here is the readily-observable ignorance and clear lack of worry over such ignorance by just about any news reporter or writer. The theory on the table is that careers in journalism appeal to a certain type of person: one who doesn’t need to make a lot of money, and who is attracted to an inner circle of sorts. The sort who can be paid in prestige, and who is not worried by, or perhaps fails to notice, their own manifest incompetence in the face of confusing facts.

In other words, the reason journalists are in general not any more reliable or informative than the women gossiping while drawing water in the village square is that, for many people involved, it’s not a passion for accuracy or truth that drives them, but in fact something much more akin to that feeling a gossip gets when she has something particularly juicy to share.

Maybe? Hey, it’s a theory, I’m sure there are others.

Perhaps next I should think about what news even is, really, and how much, if at all, we need it. I suspect not very much.

Catholic Schools & the Prussian Model

As mentioned yesterday, currently reading Parish School by Timothy Walch and The Catholic School System in the United States,  by James A. Burns, C.S.C. , a two-volume set published in 1908. For the last few years, I’ve been trying to track down the when and why of the Catholic Church in America adopting the Prussian graded classroom model of school for all parochial schools and high schools. I think I’m on the right track. From the introduction of Burn’s epic:

In point of fact, however, there is a direct historic connection between the Catholic school system in this country and the Catholic school systems of various countries of Europe. The first Catholic schools here were offshoots of the existing school systems there. The founders and first teachers of our schools were products of the Catholic schools and colleges of Europe, and the institutions they established here were reproductions, to a great extent, of those in which they had been trained, or with which they were familiar in the Old World. All through the history of the Catholic school system in this country, this European influence is traceable through immigration, the religious Orders, and other agencies. It has been a potent factor in the making of our schools and colleges and in the molding of their character.

Oh. Duh. In my defense, it seemed amazing that the parish schools in America, founded in opposition to the express anti-Catholicism of the public schools, ended up adopting exactly the graded classroom model used by our Prussian model schools.

To recap: starting with the Potato Famine in the mid 1840s, millions of Catholic Irish immigrated, raising the Catholic population in the US from tiny to significant. According to a couple writers, the few Catholics in America before the Irish tended to be well-off English Recusants and their Catholic friends who knew enough to keep their heads down, mostly, and could afford to do it. They weren’t impoverished peasants showing up in the better neighborhoods looking for work.

The Irish were. They were desperately poor, and coming from a nation where they and their ancestors had suffered  from centuries of English oppression. It’s also not entirely accurate to say the Irish fled Ireland. Some not insignificant portion had their boat fare for the crossing paid for by their English landlords, who did the math and found it cheaper to do that than to feed them as the laws at the time required. (The English hadn’t suddenly gone soft – they just knew a bunch of starving people without hope would be a lot of trouble to control.) The Irish departure from Ireland was not purely voluntary.

The response of the solid Protestant majority was to impose compulsory graded classroom Prussian schooling. Horace Mann and a host of others traveled to Prussia to study their schools, which were, ultimately, the outgrowth of Luther’s demand that the state compel all parents to send their kids to school, so that state-certified teachers could make good little Lutherans out of them. (It never seems to have occurred to Luther that the state might want to do anything else. He’d have made a good Socialist.) Parents might have other plans than what Luther considered the proper moral upbringing of their own children, and that was intolerable. Such families needed to be, at the very least, overridden. This is a consistent theme in German and, ultimately, all state-run schooling

So, in the 1850s, it was legal in Massachusetts for kids to work in a factory or attend a state school – but illegal to keep them home. If you were a good Protestant or at least a better-off non-Catholic, I’d imagine those charged with enforcing truancy laws might not focus on your neighborhood. Instead, focus on the Irish slums. Because truancy – keeping your child out of school unless he’s off working in a factory (likely as not run by one of Mann’s peers), even if at home with you – could lead to your child being taken away from you. The goal was always the destruction of Catholic families and faith. This is of a piece with the Know Nothings and the anti-Catholicism that has always been a constant in America.

A key part of the Church’s response was to found parish schools. In many ways, the Parish Schools were a remarkable achievement, built, managed, and financed largely by independent groups of Catholics, staffed by religious orders, educating millions of American kids over many decades. My siblings and I all attended Catholic schools, as did many of my friends and neighbors. But from the bishops’ perspective, the results were  mixed: even at their peak (1960) fewer than half of Catholic kids attended Catholic schools.

Public schools were ‘free’ after all, and immigrants are poor. Bishops understood this, but still sought (and failed to obtain) papal permission in the late 19th century to excommunicate anyone who sent his kids to public school if a Catholic school was available and affordable. That’s how seriously the bishops took the threat of the public schools.

Yet, even with this well-founded fear of letting the adversarial state educate Catholic kids, all parish schools to this day, even those few that are vigorously orthodox, are little more than kinder, gentler versions of public schools.

Somehow, that seemed like a good idea? Look at graded classroom schools: what insanity inspired people to accept having their kids rigidly segregated by age? We take it for granted now, but there’s no rational basis for it at all! It’s not ‘efficient’ or ‘scientific’ – there’s no evidence of that, and never was! Seriously, no one ever ran a side-by-side comparison of different models of schooling to see which worked better for some clearly understood definition of ‘better’. The sort of slapdash studies or comparisons that did and do happen, such as comparing test result (whose tests? testing for what?) tend to show, before elaborate ‘adjustments’, that just about anything – tutoring, homeschooling, one room schools, any of the many ‘alternative’ schools – produce better results even on the self-serving tests developed for the public schools.  So much so that there’s a sort of industry around doctoring data explaining away this phenomenon.

The reality, clear in all the writings of all the advocates of the graded classroom schools, from Luther to Fichte to Mann to Barnard to Dewey to today, is that the point isn’t the 3 Rs. It is control, for the state is a jealous god. Graded classroom are favored precisely because they disrupt family relationships that could oppose the state.

Recall that over almost all of America in the 19th century, many if not most kids attended one-room schools, where family and neighbors learned side-by side regardless of age. Teachers assigned kids to teach each other with little regard for age. Natural relationships were reinforced. Results were *better* as measured by the state school’s own tests than those of graded school, despite what the propaganda from the time to this day asserts.

Thus ‘educators’ hated, fought & tried to kill off one-room schools. How are kids to be controlled if their loyalty is to home and village – and Church? Much better to school them in doing what they’re told regardless of natural relationships. Thus, graded classrooms.

Yet, ultimately, all parish school came to use the graded classroom model! How did this happen? Short answer: this battle was already a century or more old back in Europe. Messy compromises had been struck, where the Church could run schools if they followed state models.

Immigrants brought these compromises with them. German Catholics, the single largest group of Catholic immigrants and founders of the most parish schools, brought what they knew with them, evidently having long forgotten the origin: exact copies of state schools but run by Catholics. Prussian model graded classroom schools.

On to more research. I’ve got tabs open (hope this computer doesn’t die suddenly!) on many of the people who come up in the discussions, many I had not heard of before. And it seems I’ll need to get up to speed on a bunch more history, especially the Kulturkampf, which I believe largely overlaps the period of greatest German Catholic immigration to the US.

Image result for Kulturkampf
“Between Berlin and Rome”, with Bismarck on the left and the Pope on the right, from the German satirical magazine Kladderadatsch, 1875. Pope: “Admittedly, the last move was unpleasant for me; but the game still isn’t lost. I still have a very beautiful secret move.” Bismarck: “That will also be the last one, and then you’ll be mated in a few moves – at least in Germany.”