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    Eurasiatic and Nostratic: No Real Updates

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 11th September 2019 (All posts by )

    I like to check up on these topics in historical linguistics every few months, just to see if anything new and sexy has come in. Eurasiatic and Nostratic are linguistic macrofamilies, not accepted by most historical linguists, which purport to be ancestral to the recognised language families today, such as Uralic, Kartvelian, Altaic, and of course, because it’s me, Indo-European (or I wouldn’t much care). Some historical linguists believe they can detect echoes of those much earlier (15,000* – 10,000 BP) languages in the reconstructed languages (6500 – 3500 BP) that are more generally accepted, and that some of this is detectable even to average eyes and ears today.

    I am very much rooting for this to be true, and even hold out hope that the Proto-World hypothesis that connects all languages back to a single family even earlier than that. As this is being studied at the Santa Fe Institute (founded by Los Alamos guys who wanted to go very general about studying complex systems), I keep thinking that one of these times I’m going to see that they made some intriguing breakthroughs.  I’ll keep trying. Nothing the last few times.

    Genetic research has backed up the claims of the more adventurous theorists with surprising strength, but that may tell us something else.  Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Miscellaneous | 22 Comments »

    Ehud Barak

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 11th September 2019 (All posts by )

    Via Powerline, an interview with Ehud Barak. I forget that political controversies and lines drawn in other countries are not quite the same as here, and it is good to be reminded. Barak’s opinion of President Obama is only a minor topic in the discussion, but it touches on things I have said elsewhere.  The former prime minister of Israel clearly has some admiration for our ex-president. His goal is to describe how Obama is different rather than to praise or criticise, but one can tell.  He describes Obama as seeking greatness rather than simple competence, to be one of the top half-dozen of American presidents, and studying greatness to that end. Ehud also approves of his more international understandings, being raised in Indonesia, having a Kenyan father and anthropologist mother, going to school outside the original 48 even when in America.  He describes Obama’s core understanding as more “subtle” than other Americans.

    I think there is a good deal of truth in this, but I think there is one great limiting factor.  Barack Obama is only above-average in intelligence, not some genius; and if one prefers training in wisdom rather than mere academic achievement, it is hard to see where that would have come from.  Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Miscellaneous | 11 Comments »

    10,000 Hours Did Not Quite Replicate

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 10th September 2019 (All posts by )

    I listened to a podcast interviewing David Epstein, author of Range, that came out earlier this year. He mentioned that the original 1993 study of violinists and pianists excelling on the basis of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice before age 20 has recently failed to replicate. Both the NYTimes and The Guardian overstate his conclusion in their headlines, but listening to him myself, Epstein did state pretty strongly that the 10,000 hours research is not established and should not be considered to be demonstrated. He leans more to genetic causes, which is unsurprising from the author of the bestselling The Sports Gene, and to including “practice variability,” such as playing different sports (or with a different ball or on a different size court), or in other fields, reading outside your area of expertise, or interacting with people who aren’t like you. I saw a similarity to Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s concept of antifragility, especially hormesis.

     
    I decided decades ago that it was not necessary to be a massive generalist to have your brain work properly, but that it is an advantage to have at least one endeavor that is quite different from your career or main focus. A mathematician who also has a fascination with Civil War studies is not diluting his mathematical abilities, but enhancing them.  I didn’t have the reasoning behind that quite right, I now think, though the principle does hold.  I thought in terms of activating and developing various parts of one’s brain, which is why I was so intrigued with the Graduation 2010 project in Daviess County, KY.  That may still turn out to be so, but has not been demonstrated.  What does seem to be happening is that the individual has a greater library of analogies and strategies to draw from when a problem grows difficult. I suspect there is a limit to this.  In fact, as a massive generalist myself, I can assure that there is a limit. Yet a full library of analogies can be quite useful.

     

    And notice, the violinists who practiced less still practiced a whole lot.  That’s worth remembering.  One of the best had practiced “only” 4,000 hours before age 20, but that’s still equivalent to working full-time at it for two years. Malcolm Gladwell and others may be wrong that there is something magical about 10,000 hours, and certainly wrong that anyone who practices 10,000 hours would become an expert, but those who excel do seem to have a heckuva lot of deliberate practice.
     
    Unsurprisingly, the people who did the original study do not feel this undermines their work in the least. Intriguingly, one of them believes in a variant of the stress model, that the intensity of practice is a physiological stressor that calls forth the expression of dormant DNA, while the other thought that practice was the most important, but not only factor.  I don’t know how strongly they stated things in 1993, and if Gladwell overstated their conclusions then.

    Posted in Book Notes, Miscellaneous | 11 Comments »

    Talent Vs. Practice

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 4th September 2019 (All posts by )

    Contrary to the very American attitude that hard work is more important than talent, I come from the school that says hard work only begins to matter if you have talent to start with.  As some endeavors take only a minimum of talent to accomplish, hard work is more of a determinant than talent there. But for many desirable accomplishments, no amount of hard work means anything unless there is significant talent to begin with.

    But first, stories.  I read many years ago about a man checking into his hotel room, noticing a man with a cello checking into the room next to him. He recognized the man as a famous concert performer.  It wasn’t Yo-Yo Ma, but it was a figure like that.  (We should be immediately alert to the notion that the story is probably not true.  As with spotting hoaxes, things that look too good to be true usually are too good to be true.) The man was pleased, wondering if he would get to hear the great musician practice, and get a free concert.  Music did indeed begin to be heard on the other side of the wall in about a half-hour. The cellist was playing scales. He played nothing but scales for an hour, took a fifteen-minute break, and then played scales for another hour. He heard the door open and close, and heading downstairs himself, saw the man taking an early dinner in the hotel restaurant. The musician left without his cello after dinner, played a scheduled concert, and when he returned – played scales for another hour.

    Bill Whitman, a college bandmate who now plays blues piano on Beale St in Memphis for a living gets frustrated with people who come up and marvel at his natural talent. No matter how much he tells them that no, he practices very hard and has for years, they seem determined to believe that it must be talent and knack, not hard work, that has brought him to this level of skill. It irks him.

    Athletes run into the same attitude. LeBron James works very, very hard at his craft. Tiger Woods put in hours of directed practice even as a child, coached by his father. And Joe DiMaggio, who Zachriel linked to and used as an example, did indeed spend hours practicing his batting. My stepfamily had many athletes – DII All-Americans and such like – and they not only played sports year-round and constantly, but would hit years where they wanted to take their game to another level and would put in the hours lifting weights or attending expensive clinics. They worked hard, and sometimes I got to see it. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Miscellaneous | 9 Comments »

    Loneliness

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 4th September 2019 (All posts by )

    I always feel sorry whenever I hear about anyone who is lonely.  We have all experienced it, sometimes for extended periods. Reading that an entire generation or two might be more likely to feel lonely is discouraging.

    I am always suspicious of statistics about entire age-groups.  Not only are the boundary lines fuzzy, but they always involve trends and percentages, not either-ors. If Boomers check some box 40% of the time and it steadily lessens until Gen Z only checks it 25% of the time, that may be significant and worth looking at,  but it means you shouldn’t be drawing a conclusion about any individual you are meeting fresh, nor even about the generation as a whole.  Some key word in the question might have a different meaning. The difference may reflect their current age more than their generation.  That is, those same Gen Z’ers might also check that box 40% of the time forty years from now. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Miscellaneous | 12 Comments »

    Denouement

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 27th July 2019 (All posts by )

    (This was a follow-up to a brif post at AVI) Hmm.  Perhaps I overestimated how much deep thought was going to result from Arthur C Brooks’ essay. I am having many thoughts, but they don’t seem to be leading very far. Certainly not to any coherent whole.

    I see an advantage to the career I fell into that I had not noticed before. (Note: I am a semi-retired psychiatric social worker who has worked with the acutely and dangerously ill at the NH state hospital for over 40 years.) The amount of fluid intelligence needed for the job is above average, but not enormous.  I always made my way through by finding side specialties to learn about, or took on special projects, or mostly, just finished my work as soon as possible so that I could chat up the very intelligent people who I found around there. I recommend neurologists as a go-to resource for that, with psychiatrists second. Psychologists who do testing or research I would rank pretty high as well. Of course, those three categories also inclued some of the worst people to spend your time with, but some risk is always present in conversation.   But mostly, my fluid intelligence always went to things outside of work, and those are still largely available to me.

    Thus, coming in to cover for other people’s vacations requires an adaptability and willingness to endure unfamiliarity and chaos that most people don’t like, but I’ll have enough fluid intelligence for this gig even after anticipated decline. This part of the life adjustment is not bad at all, and I can see myself doing it indefinitely.

    His opening story about the elderly famous person who was feeling useless did sting a bit. I had thought that the problem in those years might be regrets at not having accomplished more, yet here was someone who accomplished a great deal. Current usefulness is the issue for some. I had a glimpse of this in 2000, shortly after my mother died.  I took my stepfather out to lunch and he mentioned that he was not useful anymore. I nodded that I had seen the first of that the year before for myself, as my second son came to the end of his highschool years. We had not fully decided to bring the two Romanians into the family at that point, and I still considered that raising the first two sons had been the Great Work of Tracy’s and my life. What would I do after? Work was a job, not a career. Perhaps getting the new church off the ground would be the key.

    My stepfather cut me off dismissively, that I didn’t understand at all – very typical of him, but I at least see his point.  He had been successful in his career, president of a mutual fund and made millions.  He had just gone through the arduous two years of losing a second wife to cancer. My comment must have seemed shallow to him. No one needed him anymore, not for anything.  I still had children at home and a wife.  I had a job to go to. That earlier success actually makes the transition harder had not quite occurred to me, thought it makes sense. We get used to a certain level of status and accomplishment as normal and perceive sharply any diminution.  My semi-retirement two-and-a-half years ago was an opposite for me.  I was greatly relieved at not having so many things depend on me every day. To walk away from permanent anxiety was blessed release. Maybe that will look different in four years.

    I was a little irritated at Brooks going the Hindu mystic route – I have never had much patience with Americans trying to get the hang of Eastern religions. The advice he received and passed on was more practical than mystical, however. I had read something like this before.  It does seem wise to change goals to what is more appropriate for those who have seen much.  To see things and understand them and pass them on may be among our more useful tasks, not a consolation prize. Dragging in David Brooks and his new book did make me wonder whether Arthur understood this as deeply as I thought.  To focus on eulogy virtues instead of resume virtues is a nice phrasing, but is this really so profound?  I’ve been thinking about death since I was a child, and have had a life of sermons, books, conversation, and Bible studies that taught the vanity of earthly accomplishment and the preeminence of building a self for the next world.  Isn’t it simply…well, I suppose it still needs to be taught, new every morning.

    Posted in Miscellaneous | 11 Comments »

    Ronald Reagan Was An Unreconstructed Liberal

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 20th July 2019 (All posts by )

    Reagan, speaking to the UN in 1987:

    “In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world. And yet, I ask you, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien to the universal aspirations of our peoples than war and the threat of war?”

    No, that wouldn’t happen. That is optimistic to a Pollyannish level. Perhaps if there were massed invading ships so that there was no question that it was a hostile invading force, this would be so. Yet we have seen this throughout history, and human beings actually don’t act that way.

    The Romans hired outside tribes along the frontier to fight other invaders, and sometimes brought them to the center of Empire to fight their own internal struggles for power.  Goths, Huns, Allemani, Franks, Vandals…and these are the very tribes that lead to their undoing.  The leftover Romano-Britons brought in Saxons, Angles, and other tribes to help them in their fights against each other. Now the whole place is named Angle-land, England. Various Muslim tribes were happy to ally with the Crusaders against Seljuks or Sassanids they thought were more worrisome, and the Crusaders with Muslims.  The Native tribes of New England tried to use their connections with the English settlers to push each other around, though some preferred to ally with the Dutch or French, and thus, eventually, the French & Indian War was inevitable. Later natives in the Central Plains and westward were happy to use the expanding Americans against the dreaded Comanches. Now all those tribes identify together and wish they had made a unified stand early on.  The Romans eventually came to that conclusion as well.

    Arriving aliens might arrive for trade, or exploration, or as some raiding party. Wherever they landed first would form a relationship with them and be perfectly happy to use them to their advantage against Terrestrial enemies. Bilbo thought an invasion of dragons might do the Shire good, and that could be accurate. But that’s a single people, not one among many.

    Posted in Miscellaneous | 16 Comments »

    Compound of Three Cubes

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 18th July 2019 (All posts by )

    There was a problem asked on the first version of the Mega Test, something like “What is the maximum number of discrete spaces one can create from three interpenetrating cubes.” I tried to visualise this one for a month, and even had a go at trying to make one out of toothpicks, but gave up and guessed.  I am 99% sure I got it wrong, but I don’t remember what I answered.

    UC08-3 cubes.png
    By The original uploader was Tomruen at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

    I learned  about a year ago that the figure has been used in some discussion by a mathematician named John Skilling.  I keep looking at it and thinking I get it, then it slips away.  Unsurprisingly, MC Escher used it in a drawing, because of course he did. It is the most notoriously difficult problem on the Mega Test, which used to be used by the ultra-high IQ societies to sort amongst the highest scorers.  I used to correspond with test designer Ron Hoeflin, who describes himself as a Schizoid Personality Disorder, and I believe it. Even among the highest scorers on the Mega, those who got over 45 out of 48 or better, less than a third got this one right. As I had already taken the test years ago and am not allowed a retake, I didn’t think it would be cheating to scour the web to see if I could suss out the answer. The most common answer is 72 discrete spaces, which seems logical: 24 corners each intercepted by two planes, 24 x 3 = 72.  Apparently that is wrong.  The answer is greater than 68, however, because some determined SOB built one of these suckers out of rods and colored cellophane and then counted and got to 68 definite and answered that. He wondered if he might have missed at least one.  Apparently even when you’ve got a hard model it’s had to keep track. He concluded he got it wrong from his returned grade and the subsequent discussion by email among people who had qualified  for the highest society. He now thinks the answer must be 69. Ron’s not telling.  One of the very few people who have gotten a 47 or the person who got a 48 must also know.

    The parallel question on the other side of the test is 5 interpenetrating spheres. On both problems I fooled around with the idea of solids of differing sizes, but concluded there was no advantage in creating discrete spaces that way.

    This was part of my eventually learning that I am not exceptional in my spatial intelligence, though it took me a long time to learn and admit that.  You can have a go at the answer, but I can’t confirm if you got it right or not. For myself, I would like an explanation why 72 is not right, because that makes the most sense to me.

    Posted in Miscellaneous | 8 Comments »

    Why I Didn’t Like The Beach Boys

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 17th July 2019 (All posts by )

    I’m cross-posting this here because it generated a lot of dislike at my site and another, and I wanted you to share in the fun here.

    I have listened to Part I and half of Part II of the Political Beats podcast about the Beach Boys, on the recommendation of my eldest son. They are episodes 60 and 61, hosted by various writers from Reason and National Review. No politics are discussed, and I don’t think I’d heard of these particular writers.  They are big, big fans of the Beach Boys, and phrases like “preternatural genius” fall from their lips every few minutes. Still, they make good points and they tell a good story.

    Brian Wilson, and “Pet Sounds” in particular, is supposed to be some pinnacle of rock creativity, consistently making Top 100 lists and having documentaries made. I have a few Beach Boys songs that I like very much.  But mostly I just kept a “best of ” album around for fun, when I wanted that sort of summer sound occasionally.  My son insists I played them a lot, which is why he likes them.  This is untrue. I likely did overpraise “Good Vibrations” every time it came on the radio and made everyone stop talking so I could listen. I will acknowledge that.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Miscellaneous | 4 Comments »

    The Idea of The University

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 16th May 2019 (All posts by )

    Quillette is its usual excellent self.

    Posted in Miscellaneous | 7 Comments »

    Sweden Is Capitalist

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 3rd May 2019 (All posts by )

    I try not to use the word “capitalist” anymore, as it seems to prevent thinking.  I prefer “free market.”  Despite the title, the writer of Sweden is Capitalist over at National Review agrees, and gives even better reasons.

    I have written before that Sweden is not so socialist as American imagination would expect.  It was mildly socialist 1930-1970;  hard socialist 1970-1990; and since then has backed off considerably.  They have large government spending per person, and the sort of social safety net that only works when everyone looks like second cousins.  You will notice that they are (ahem) having more difficulty with that lately, as are the other Scandinavians. Huh. Wonder what could have caused that. The author notes that the corruption is very low (as it is in all the Scandinavian nations), and they seem to actually get something for their money, so she doesn’t object as much as she might.  I remain unconvinced, but consider it a valid point.

    Ms. McCloskey gives the topic a better overview than I do. There is some of the same information I read in Debunking Utopia.

    Posted in Miscellaneous | 3 Comments »

    The Last Gift Of Mary Magdalene

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 20th April 2019 (All posts by )

    When Mary of Magdala went to the tomb on Easter morning, hoping with the other women to give the body of Jesus a proper burial (Friday afternoon’s preparations had been hurried and the bare minimum), her situation was different than all of Jesus’s other followers. The men could go back to their previous jobs and families. At least I can go back to accounting/fishing/building again. They would be humiliated, of course, but that would pass. They grieved for their friend, but lots of people grieve. Some of the men had wished to go back to their previous lives, and wanted assurance from Jesus that what they had given up to follow him was worth it.

    Jesus had at least attempted to provide for his mother at the end. “Mother, behold your son; son, behold your mother” he had said to John. As far as we can tell, the other women had come from some sort of families, and after suitable punishment by their patriarchs, would be accepted back. Mary the mother of Jesus would have the greatest grief, of course, but no worse than a thousand other mothers in Jerusalem who had lost sons.

    Mary had nothing to go back to. There were always job openings for Beggar, of course, but the other beggars would have been schooled for a lifetime in eliciting pity by appearance and tones of voice. She might not be able to make even a subsistence living. She might give herself as a slave, if anyone would have her – the woman of the house in any rich family might have something to say about the master taking on one of the girls from the Pampered Palestinian Escort Service, no matter how temporarily reformed. Ms. Magdalene had seemingly stayed somewhere the last two nights. Perhaps she had stayed with one of the other women, or one of the disciples – if she could find one out of hiding. But it could have been that she had nowhere, nothing, starting in about two hours.

    We might hope that the followers of Jesus would remember at least something of what he taught, and that someone would take a poor woman in and provide for her. But if not, her own family was unlikely to take her back. She had shamed them already and was dead to them. Whatever friends she had formerly had among her customers wouldn’t want to be that close to her new holiness, unless they were utterly depraved and would enjoy even more trying to take advantage of her need. You thought you were something for awhile there, didn’t you – better than the rest of us, huh? Now look at you.

    And yet out of love and duty, which are not as incompatible as we make them appear in our era, she wants to give what last little she has in the pointless gesture of doing things up properly for someone who wasn’t even a relative. Just because it was the right thing to do. Just to show gratitude one more time, even if only she noticed.

    It was a gift of generosity unmatched by any of Jesus’s other followers, a pouring out of her own self, probably pointlessly, in imitation of his own pointless sacrifice. Just because it had to be done. We lose too quickly in the immediate discussion of the resurrection how great must have been Mary Magdalene’s despair at finding the tomb empty. Even this last ability to give a little gift had been taken from her, and she must have thought as well “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

    No wonder that Jesus’s words to her are “Touch me not.” What other impulse could she have had but to wrap her arms around his ankles, touch his face, burrow into his chest, weeping? How did even the Son of God move quickly enough to prevent her?

    There are no tears that will not someday be dried, no lonely depths that will not somehow be filled. We hunger; food exists. We thirst; water exists. What else then could hope be for, but for completion?

    Posted in Miscellaneous | 3 Comments »

    Tolkien Exhibit

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 18th April 2019 (All posts by )

    I still haven’t figured out how to insert artwork, which in this instance is important to the topic. Therefore, I direct you to my impressions of the Tolkien exhibit at the JP Morgan Library in NYC, and now appreciating his artwork, which I did not before.

    Posted in Miscellaneous | 1 Comment »

    Gimme That Old-Time Education

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 9th April 2019 (All posts by )

    The strength of American education is that for 400 years we have allowed and encouraged people to self-educate. That doesn’t mean the schools are the cause. However, neither did they fully ruin that, and bad as they were and are, they seem to be better than everyone else’s right up to the present day. Most places in the world, even now, discourage or even forbid many children from rising above their station with either formal or informal education. Just having a good attitude about that has probably helped America a lot.

    Let me talk out of both sides of my mouth again.

    Black education today is terrible in some places. I’m not sure many African-Americans would maintain that it was better 50 or 100 years ago.

    Anyone with an educational difficulty of any kind might also have complaints about current school offerings, but compared to 1932 or 1952? Please. My younger brother had a special program in elementary school – they put his desk in the hall. In the tracked classes he was put in the bottom track of 17. He wasn’t badly ADD, but it was compounded by being only three weeks short of the age cutoff for his class, and his poor fine-motor skills. He went on to teach college, after a long and winding road. Schools missed a lot of kids then. They missed bad hearing and bad eyesight. They missed identifying any spatial skills until well into high school. The escape route was often that people, especially boys, figured out that there were other ways to get ahead, before “To get a good job, get a good education” became a perpetual, and misleading, public service announcement. Also people were more used to careers being built outside of school and so accepted it more. In contrast, a young friend who teaches English at a suburban high school brought in a speaker to encourage consideration of trades. She was told by her principal to never do that again.

    Still, I don’t know that’s the fault of the schools precisely, though they contributed to it.

    Then there’s the corporal punishment – some of it relatively mild and merely uncomfortable and perhaps not very damaging, some of it assault and abuse.

    Plus! Public shaming as a primary tool for encouraging children to work harder and do better. Because mild embarrassment motivates some of the better students, significant humiliation must work on the others. Now that makes sense. That was one of the brilliant pedagogical techniques of earlier eras. It is largely the people who were not abused and shamed who remember education so fondly now. Myself, I remember that they didn’t like boys very much.

    I mentioned in the previous posts the lack of educative bang for the buck we got from many of the extras in the old days, such as penmanship, and coloring as the default geography activity.

    That’s a lot for Old-Timey Education to overcome if it wants to be considered superior to the current model.

    ***
    As long as I can remember, we have been subjected to news stories every year of how American students only rank 20th in the world, or 13th out of 15 wealthy countries in math, reading, and science. We then have a collective moaning about how far we are falling behind the world, with every interest group insisting they know how to fix it: by hiring more of their interest group, be they aromatherapists or small-business owners to fix the classroom. Alternatively, people tout their various theories. The Finns and Estonians do so well because they are so laid-back and permissive. But The South Koreans and Chinese do so well because they drill their kids so hard. It seems we are hard to please. The breathless media accounts are usually based on the Programme for International Student Assessment, given to 15 y/o’s every year. It’s a good test, but if you don’t break it down by race it greatly deceives. If you scroll to the bottom of that Wikipedia article, you will see that American results are broken out by race. Do not be amazed that this is allowed. It’s a big deal in educational circles, trying to “close the testing gap.” They have to advertise this to get more money. Everyone else wants to cover it up to have less argument. I think the tension between highlighting and covering up is worsening, BTW.

    It’s just a little dated, but Steve Sailer put the list in more simplified form a few years ago, so you don’t have to keep scrolling back and forth between charts. It appears that Americans do very well indeed. Asian-Americans outscore Asians, except for magnet cities. European-Americans outscore Europeans, with few exceptions. The lower numbers for Hispanic-Americans would be discouraging, except that one sees they far outscore all Latin-American countries. We have almost no data for Africa and the Caribbean, but what we have shows all of them far, far behind African-Americans. The theory that environment in general, and schools in specific, matter more at the tail end of ability than at the top seems to bear out.

    It is unlikely to be primarily schools creating the advantage. The American belief in self-education, in-school or out, is likely the driver. Yet the schools are at least not destroying that advantage. I worry about attention spans – yet that is not the fault of the schools. I worry about much of the content being taught – until I remember that students seldom buy what the adults are selling anyway. I worry about the butchery of boys, especially now that the non-school escape routes have less status. That is on the schools more, but generally they are only echoing the values we insist on, overvaluing conscientiousness, over-reliance on credentialing, over-emphasis on sports and entertainment.

    Posted in Miscellaneous | 6 Comments »

    Education Part IV

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 6th April 2019 (All posts by )

    There have been some interesting places to bring the discussion that came up in the comments, and I am impatient to get to them. But I think I will stay with my original plan for now. After this there are a few additional quick-hitters to spur thought, but no more extended essay.

    Here are the weaknesses of those purported advantages:

    Better teachers: Just because women in general had unacknowledged talents and some of them went into teaching does not mean those particular women were good teachers. Let’s go back just a bit further in history, to the late 19th and early 20th C and pick up the flow of who was heading up classrooms. My great-grandmother taught at a one-room school in Londonderry. She started at 17. Alert readers will suddenly remember Anne of Green Gables, the “Little House” books, and others of the era, and how young teachers might be. Moving forward in time, schools began to require that teachers had a highschool diploma, later a certificate from a Normal School (two-year teaching academy, later increased to four-year), then a Teacher’s Collge, and only quite far along, a Bachelor’s Degrees. Those with the earlier credentials were grandfathered – er, grandmothered – in. I had at least two teachers with a Normal School certificate only, even in my day. So whatever natural abilities they may have had, the majority of teachers did not have so much training – and there was not a lot of continuing ed in those days or supervision after.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Education | 18 Comments »

    Education in the (Not Very) Good Old Days – Part III

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 5th April 2019 (All posts by )

    I closed with this in 2012. I open with it now.

    Back to basics: they didn’t have all useless modern feelings stuff, or politically correct nonsense then, nor all these administrative distractions about disaster drills and recycling, and sex education and drug education, so they could read classics instead of trash. No, we had hours of penmanship drills – not very useful even then. If you weren’t good at it you had to stay in at recess and do more.   We copied things a lot, and not always as punishment. We wrote out inspiring quotes, or the Gettysburg Address. It was supposed to imprint grand ideas into our heads. Or something. A “beautiful hand” was much admired, and usually harder to read than the ugly writing, as anyone who has tried to read archival records can attest.  And we learned recitations – often the same one for everyone, and had to get up in front of the class and say it, one after another.  That’s useful.  And maps to color after labeling, and children in ethnic costumes to color, and lots of natural science to color.  Shop Class and Home Ec.  We scrubbed our desks.  We lined up and waited a lot, and sometimes marched to music.  We diagrammed sentences – kinda fun, sometimes, but not as helpful in composition as one might think.  We learned grammar, much of which turned out to be wrong, and most of which was not focused on improving our writing, but in shaming us out of using slang.  Spelling drills. Somewhat useful – not huge. Spelling bees – I was always one of the last ones standing, one boy against six girls getting every other word, but what use was that for everyone else for the last half hour, watch me and Barbara and Debbie and Judy and Hannah? A lot of standing around for us, sitting around for others. And patriotic songs. Bad ones. Maybe we should blame the 60s counterculture on terrible patriotic songs learned in fifth grade.

    I was, in retrospect, in good schools, though I didn’t know it at the time. I am not citing the mistakes of poor ignorant districts. New Hampshire finishes at or near the top in testing every year. (I’m not discussing why – the whole discussion would move there if I did.) I was in the middle spot of the 60s and 70s as the major educational changes came on. I saw both. They both wasted lots of time but did okay, and really, it doesn’t matter. When we competed against other schools our city schools usually won. When I compared experiences with all those top-ranked Northern Virginia schools in college, they weren’t any better. I have since compared notes with students from bad schools, expensive schools, prestigious schools, religious schools. Mine were among the best.

    But filled with useless stuff.

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    Education in the (Not Very) Good Old Days

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 3rd April 2019 (All posts by )

    (Inspired by recent email conversations with Straw School, Manchester, NH classmates, including two who are now teachers.)

    Getting lost in Wikipedia, as I often do, I read up on the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930’s.  I was surprised at how narrowly tailored it was, and how few people it employed at any one time.  But more surprising was this paragraph about the pool it drew from (italics mine):

    Approximately 55% of enrollees were from rural communities, a majority of which were non-farm; 45% came from urban. Level of education for the enrollee averaged 3% illiterate, 38% less than eight years of school, 48% did not complete high school, 11% were high school graduates. At the time of entry, 70% of enrollees were malnourished and poorly clothed. Few had work experience beyond occasional odd jobs.

    The crash came in 1929, the CCC was four years later and more, its target group was quite young, so you can do the arithmetic to see how far these lads were from the Roaring Twenties with its high employment. Yet it was the schooling that caught my eye.  This was not the previous generation’s immigrants, who had few years of formal education, as with two of my grandparents.  These were native born Americans, and these were the white boys – blacks and Indians had separate groups, and I imagine their education levels were even less. 38% of these 17-23 y/o’s had less than eight years of school.

    Conservatives like to go on endlessly about the good old days of education, and how their grandfathers had gone to one-room schools but rose to become physicians or chemical engineers or whatever, because the education was superior then despite the lack of resources. I lean pretty conservative, but this is just nuts.  Education was terrible until quite recently.

    Bloggers and blog-commenters who think about the history of education, changes in pedagogy, and can relate this to their own experience and that of their forebears, who can construct a coherent paragraph about the topic are not a representative sample of the country.

    You are not a representative sample.

    Are not a representative sample.  You are the 1%, in that metric.  The 5%, actually.

    Your anecdotal experience is of nearly no value whatsoever in discussing the situation.

    Let me bring in related statistics about years of education in the population as a whole in the decades before and after this, in order to make a distinction. From the National Center For Education Statistics:

    Progressively fewer adults have limited their education to completion of the 8th grade which was typical in the early part of the century. In 1940, more than half of the U.S. population had completed no more than an eighth grade education. Only 6 percent of males and 4 percent of females had completed 4 years of college. The median years of school attained by the adult population, 25 years old and over, had registered only a scant rise from 8.1 to 8.6 years over a 30 year period from 1910 to 1940.

    During the 1940s and 1950s, the more highly educated younger cohorts began to make their mark on the average for the entire adult population. More than half of the young adults of the 1940s and 1950s completed high school and the median educational attainment of 25- to 29-years-olds rose to 12 years. By 1960, 42 percent of males, 25 years old and over, still had completed no more than the eighth grade, but 40 percent had completed high school and 10 percent had completed 4 years of college. The corresponding proportion for women completing high school was about the same, but the proportion completing college was somewhat lower.

    I was born in 1953.  When I reached my 17th birthday I had more education than half the males in the country. The ones I was ahead of was weighted to the older guys, but not entirely so.  We forget.  I was at a mill city high school, and it was not unusual for kids to drop out when they turned 16 (about 20%), or before graduating (another 20%). And NH as a whole has traditionally had one of lowest dropout rates in the country.

    But, you will correctly say, these numbers don’t measure the quality of education. These measure how many people went to school. Not the same thing.  Perhaps if you got to go to school the instruction was quite wonderful. Especially in higher grades, eliminating those who were less interested in education (plus however many others who might be talented but too poor) might have made for an excellent classroom experience, don’t you think, AVI?

    I think not.  But I will leave all this with you to ponder before I comment further.  For now, I wanted only to remind you that things were not as our current imagination tells us.  We will get topp that. Post WWII America is insanely different from the rest of human existence in terms of education – including the rest of American history..

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    Education In The Good Old (1869) Days

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 3rd April 2019 (All posts by )

    I did a series on this in 2010-2011. This post was also part of my series on whether William Sidis was actually one the smartest people who ever lived. (He wasn’t. Very smart, but not quite top shelf.) There was originally an argument in the comments about what, exactly, a test like this proved about a student’s intelligence, which I link to here. You can indulge that curiosity or not. The argument got testy. You will recognise some of the players. It isn’t central to what comes after.

    I don’t think we argue quite enough around here. Perhaps there have been good arguments in the posts I don’t read the comments of, but it seems too much of “Yeah, and let me tell you another thing about that!” lately. So I will go after a conservative favorite, of how much better education was in the Good Old Days, which I think is bosh. I don’t defend much of what I read about education today, but neither do I think it was any better then. Since 2011, I have increasngly concluded that schools don’t matter quite as much anyway. The worst 20%, where it is dangerous to even go and hard to concentrate – that’s bad. The rest, it doesn’t make much difference. Never did. It’s all right to disagree with me about that, it won’t hurt me. I have seen lots of schools, old days and new; I know lots of teachers, old and new. I have read some of the real research, not the media-driven crap where they still can’t tell causation from correlation, and I have discussed this widely for decades. I know what the disagreements are (though I do get an occasional surprise). Have fun with it.

    I am leading with this as a teaser, for its entertainment value, and because it introduces some concepts I’ll be bringing in later. I have edited it only a little from 2011. With the recent elite school admission scandals, parts of this are wryly humorous now.

    THAT 1869 HARVARD ENTRANCE EXAM
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    Triggered

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 25th February 2019 (All posts by )

    The overuse of the psychological term “triggered” is yet one more example of a legitimate term being ruined by people who are trying to overdramatize either their own discomfort, or the evil of persons they dislike.  The idea of a trigger for PTSD symptoms is quite real. People who have been near many explosions in a war zone may have exaggerated startle reflexes to explosions or even very loud sounds when they get to safe places, and this can persist for years. Others do not find their nervous systems responding that way at all, even after repeated exposures. Responses vary. People who were beaten or molested, especially as children, may overreact, either in fight or in flight, to people shoving them or threatening to them years later.  Yet while no one would find such memories pleasant, others are not so viscerally affected.  Smells can be triggering, and actually provoke flashbacks.  Come to think of it, “flashback” is another word that has been cheapened.  It originally referred to more than just being reminded of something and thinking about it. A flashback is an involuntary reliving of a situation in which it seems real. While this PTSD symptom can diminish in both frequency and intensity over time without treatment, it sometimes requires training and effort to minimize its effect.

    Music can quickly and effectively bring us back to a time or an event.  Usually the effect is mild and pleasurable – or pain-pleasurable about nostalgia* or a lost love – but sometimes it can be more intense and unpleasant.

    Triggered was a well-chosen term, conveying both the automaticity and the intensity of the effect. When I encounter the term in modern usage is seems to be no more than a synonym for “bothered,” or “reminds me of something I don’t like.” One cannot be “triggered” by a MAGA hat. A claim to being triggered by a KuKluxKlan hood would require exposure to an actual traumatic event, such as having a cross burned on your lawn when you were little. Not common. Mere exposure to something that one disagrees with is not a trauma, and it is a terrible disservice to those who have actual trauma still circulating in their brains.  Not only does it dilute compassion for those who deserve it more, it may actually make their lives worse by expanding the situations which provoke the response.  Imagine a young woman who has been seriously sexually assaulted in high school and has flashbacks of the event in limited situations, such as someone shoving her against a wall. To be surrounded in college by those who frequently refer to less intense, perhaps even very minor events as being rape-equivalent is to reduce her threshold for being reminded of her serious event. Young and vulnerable people will sometimes even seek out such pathological companions in the hope of finding those who will be sympathetic and understand.

    I actually do find an event that was ridiculed as a possible trigger to be at least possible.  Rapes are described in Greek mythology and literature, especially in Pindar. There was a college woman who claimed that reading about a rape in one of the “Odes (there are a few nominees) took her by surprise and triggered a flashback memory of her own assault.  I think when people are criticizing Pindar and heroic Greek culture in general on this score they are describing outrage, not triggering, and I resent that, for reasons described above.  It seems of a piece with the pattern of overdramatisation I deplore.  Yet I don’t rule out that a rape in literature, in poetry, in music, in art could be triggering in a clinical sense.  Art is powerful.  That’s one of its purposes. It is supposed to resonate with life events and not be separate from them.  Most people consider classical literature boring, yawn-worthy, not any possible grounds for serious identification.  I wouldn’t be so sure. In artistic expressions of “The Rape of the Sabine Women” those victims look horrified, and it is hard not to feel pity and horror oneself, even while remembering that this is only a painting or sculpture and is not an event that is currently happening to real people. The girls at my high school got pretty involved in the cinematic version of “Romeo and Juliet” when it came out.  There are parts of Genesis and Exodus that one winces to read. A person used to immersing herself in the story and poetry, taken unawares, might indeed be triggered by Pindar. I know little of the story and nothing of the young woman.  I onlynote that it’s possible.

    *The number of songs which bring tears to my eyes grows every year.

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    Spanking

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 25th February 2019 (All posts by )

    We spanked.  I think I would spank less if I had to do over. But I have never been persuaded by the assertions of sociologists (one prominent one at UNH) that it was highly damaging.  It is nice to see a researcher who does not start from his field’s usual bias coming up with a different conclusion.  It doesn’t make much difference either way. The usual difficulty with the data is that abusive parents are more often also spankers. That I can believe.  When you take them out of the mix, the behavioral outcomes between children who are spanked and those who are not disappears. I oversimplify, but that’s essentially it.

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    Minstrel Show

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 2nd February 2019 (All posts by )

    Reprinted from 2013, because it is topical.

    I have said I must be among the last people to have acted in blackface in a minstrel show.  I must have been about 6 or 7 years old, so make it 1959 or 1960. Looking into the matter, small communities in the northeast seem to have had minstrel shows for a few years after that; the latest I can find is 1965. I confess I have not looked into it deeply, so there may be many later ones I simply missed. But I think they lasted longest in places where there were vanishingly few black people, and that is not accidental.

    I don’t think these were the bigoted travesties of racial prejudice second only to lynch mobs that they are now perceived to be. The minstrel show was but one variant of a style of entertainment that made fun of types. Just like we do today.  We just design our feelings of superiority along political and personality lines now.  We are no kinder. That particular variant brought into focus why all the other ethnic humors were wrong.  So we dumped that and turned our meanness elsewhere almost immediately.  “All In The Family” for example.
    More meanness, but different targets.

    My father was a community theater actor, usually but not always in comic roles.  I remember the show being performed at Chelmsford High School, but this is almost surely wrong.  I must be confusing it with “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” which he played there another time. Yet I am certain it was a raised stage, with theatrical lighting enough to darken the audience to the players but not render them invisible.  It was something of a big deal.  I was in a silent skit, of a street bum or hobo trying to eat a sandwich on a park bench, but continually interrupted.  I, a sad boy looking hungrily at the sandwich, was one of the interruptions, the others being a thief, a policeman, and an attractive, parading woman. Decades later I learned that this latter was a stock minstrel character called the Yaller Gal. Very broad comedy, with double-takes and exaggerated expressions and gestures.  The Wyman wheelhouse, I now know.

    I remember only that bit, and that the entire program was something of a variety show. It was all very similar to the other community variety shows I saw as a boy:  “Hicks In The Sticks” in 1966, in which I was the MC with stage whiskers and overalls, “Kiwanis Kapers” in 1969, which included that routine with guys’ stomachs painted like a face whistling while “Colonel Bogey’s March” was played – a laff riot, as always; skit nights at camp 1960-69; “Irish Eyes,” on the Central High stage in 1963 or 64, replete with early teens pretending to be sloshing ale and staggering about. People used bad accents and rank stereotypes a lot – German, Irish, Hillbilly, Texan, English, Southern, Italian, Mexican, French (but not French-Canadian, those were told privately), New Yorker, Chinese. It was just a traditional community performance which played up its old-fashionedness quite intentionally. It takes a while before people finally go “Y’know, we really shouldn’t be making fun of Negroes this way.  Even if there aren’t any within twenty miles and none of them will ever see it, it’s just kinda low and mean.”  And the next year, it would just be a variety show, with some stray German doctors or bowing Chinese for awhile, and then those would fall out too.

    Not all of it was unkind, even when stereotyped.  More importantly, not all of it was stereotyped, even when unkind.  It was necessary only that somebody be the butt of a joke because they were stupid, for any reason.  That was what eventually pushed that penguin off the ice, I think. The scripts had gotten less racist over time, making fun of a generic stupid person on stage with the same lines that had been used since early burlesque (at least), but there was no getting around it.  Once you put on blackface (or a sombrero and serape) you were pretty much including the whole group in the accusation, even if there was nothing specifically Negro about the type of stupidity.

    You can see both at work here: the blackface and accents are pretty rank. But the jokes themselves could be just anyone.

    Notice that when people kept the format after 1967 or so, they could find only one group to be made fun of safely – Scandinavians.  Think Laugh-In’s Arte Johnson, the Muppet Show, Prairie Home Companion.  Other ethnic groups were mocked only in the gentlest manner, and most not at all.*  Relatedly, Foster Brooks – and Frank Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim – dropped like a stone. Though Craze was something of a subtler type, showing innocent wisdom in his damaged thinking. You couldn’t do those routines now.

    The petty meanness has not fled, only changed its costume.  We do think we are morally superior now, but it isn’t so. We just like congratulating ourselves on how we’re not racist – which we prove by finding racism in others. It’s a great disguise to keep us from looking at our own new and improved bigotries.

    *There was a major exception, in being able to make fun of Hillbillies, but they often participated in same (Hee Haw, Minnie Pearl at the Grand
    Old Opry).  That could turn mean, though, from other whites wanting to kick someone. Still does.

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    Temples

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 27th January 2019 (All posts by )

    The Epistle lesson this morning was 1Corinthians 6:19-20, about the body being a temple of the Holy Spirit.  The children’s sermon was about eating apples, taking care of your body by getting exercise, brushing your teeth, getting good sleep.  I got annoyed, thinking “That is not what the verse is about.  I am so tired of evangelicals (and others) extending the interpretation to that.”  Then I remembered that what the verse is really about is not sleeping with temple prostitutes.  A tough children’s sermon to preach.

    So I guess apples weren’t such a bad idea after all.

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    Feminist

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 20th January 2019 (All posts by )

    (Inspired by a comment of Texan99 over at Grim’s. My definitions of feminism are strongly influenced by the many things it meant when it first became a topic for me in the early 70s.  Internal clues tell me that she is my generation, probably two years younger, so her definitions may intersect with mine, and even more with my wife’s.)

    From CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity:

    People ask: “Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?”: or “May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?” Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every available quality except that of being useful. We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these objectors want us to use it. I will try to make this clear by the history of another, and very much less important, word.

    The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said – so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully – “Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?” They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A ‘nice’ meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

    Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say ‘deepening’, the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men’s hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge. It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to he a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served.

    The word feminist has always had a variety of meanings.  When writers, historians, and social scientists try to make distinctions such as First Wave, Second Wave, and so forth, they are trying to tease apart the many meanings and impose some structure on them so that we may meaningfully discuss concepts.  They (sometimes) know such distinctions are arbitrary and inexact, yet accept this in order that we may use the terms at all. Yet by describing the differences as a chronology – or even a development – I think they miss widely. It has been a loaded, and therefore imprecise word from the start. Many of the arguments about feminists and feminism have come down to these different understandings. “Oh, if that’s all you mean by feminism, then I don’t disagree. I was thinking of the type of woman…”
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    Wyrd and Providence

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 5th January 2019 (All posts by )

    Reposted from Assistant Village Idiot July 2010. I had a lot of fun with this eight years ago.
    Part I

    I am reconsidering an idea I rejected years ago.
    New England was a peculiarly fertile ground for a peculiar and intense version of Calvinism, because predetermination is a Christianised version of Norse fatalism. 
    I don’t subscribe to that fully, but I don’t reject it out of hand anymore.

    Part II

     Swedish Luciafest, and dressing children in the cute costumes of grim Norse pagan beliefs.  Disney was hardly the first, eh?

    Part III

    From Danes to East Anglia to Puritans.  How the grim creatures disappeared in the ocean, but some of the ideas were carried to New England.

    Part IV

    My theory unravels some.

    Part IV-A

    Part V

    Accusation by nature; trial by ordeal; some magics believed in, and some condemned, in Puritan New England.

    Whoop

    An actual historian lends support to my theory.

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    Four Great-Grandmothers

    Posted by Assistant Village Idiot on 3rd January 2019 (All posts by )

    I hope this is fun.

    I started one of the books I got for Christmas, about the Indo-Europeans, which challenged in the first chapter that we all have four great-grandmothers, but we seldom know their maiden names or even their first names at times, nor anything about them.  His point is how quickly we will all be forgotten, and suggested that nothing may be known of us sooner than we think. As things stand on the latter, my children will all have many stories of my wife and I, should their own grandchildren ever ask. Yet it is a rare grandchild who does that,  More often, there are forty-year-olds who say “I wish I had asked Nana more about her parents, and Aunt Bessie doesn’t focus that well anymore.” I knew one grandmother well, yet she never talked about her own parents or early life much. She talked about her children and other grandchildren, and to a lesser extent her siblings and their descendants. What little I know about her mother is from other sources, and it is sparse. She died when my mother was six, and I don’t recall she was ever mentioned.  We will get to her in her turn. I have four granddaughters. One is two and would never remember me on the basis of current contact. She would only hear rumors from her father, who came into our family when he was sixteen and doesn’t pay much attention to things that don’t concern him this week. He is not a nostalgic person (for good reason). Her older sister, now seven, might retain some memory of me when she is old, if she is that sort of person. At the moment, I think the full extent of my identity would be “We took walks when he came up to Nome. He taught me to play Sleeping Queens. He used to send me postcards.” The other two granddaughters know me better, and they might conceivably have many things to say to their own children.  If they ever have children. If the subject of great-grandparents ever comes up. If they don’t get worn out talking about the other three grandparents first. Other grandchildren may still appear.

    So, point taken.

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