Friday, January 31, 2020

Then and Now--V: Before TV

We didn't get a TV set until 1956 or 7, as I remember it.  I can remember the advent of the TV was a big thing.  We visited my aunt and uncle to see it--the program was Friday Night Fights.  Boxing was really big back then.  The series of fights between Carmen Basilio and Sugar Ray Robinson (the original "sugar ray") was legendary. The succession of the heavyweight title from Marciano through Archie Moore to Floyd Patterson and then Ingmar Johannson I'm sure made the front pages of the local newspaper, maybe not the Times.

Until we got the TV radio and games were our evening entertainment.  For a few years my sister, dad and I would play cut-throat pinochle.  Or we'd play crokinole.  I don't know whether the nation was paying more attention to radio programs or TV programs.  We'd listen to the Shadow, the Goldburgs, Sergeant King of the Mounties, Lone Ranger in the afternoon, mom would listen to Queen for a Day, later we'd listen to One Man's Family, a long running soap..  Gunsmoke was one favorite and Our Miss  Brooks  another.  Amos 'n Andy was on Saturdays, IIRC and I remember it, but it wasn't a family regular--I'm not sure why, perhaps my parents or sister found it objectionable.  I'm not sure; perhaps I remember some strain surrounding it but it might be my imagination.

The Texaco Saturday opera broadcast from the Met was a standard for my sister, not for the rest of us.

[changed title to reflect content]

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Innovation as an Invasive Species/Infectious Disease

There's a lot of concern over inequality, over polarization of American society, etc.

In part I think we're having trouble with the advent of the Internet and of social media. I'd observe that in the past human society has taken time to adjust to innovation.  When railroads came along people were thrown into close contact with strangers in a new situation for extended periods of time.  It took time to develop norms and habits to deal with this, not to mention the need to standardize time keeping.

I'd suggest a good metaphor for innovation is to consider it an invasive species or a new infectious disease.  Initially the species or disease makes rapid inroads because humans don't have any developed immunity or there are no natural enemies..  Over time these develop.

I think this is true for society, as well.  Humans learn, eventually.  And they adjust, eventually.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Thoughts on Movies and CGI

Wife and I watched the 1993 movie "Gettysburg".  It's not a movie which would be made today. It's not how we see the Civil War battles, indeed not how we see war today.

But regardless, I want to note a technical difference.  In Gettysburg the moviemakers were able to use the thousands of Civil War re-enactors to serve as extras in the movie, especially of course in the battle sequences.  The result, to someone who's used to the CGI-enhanced or based battles of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones., is very different.


  • in some ways it's more realistic.  It's more "fractal" I 'll call it because less regular. When crowd scenes are composed by creating one segment--say 50 riders on horses, and duplicate it multiple times to give the appearance of 500 riders, I think we subconsciously are aware of the duplication.
  • it shows the difference between bottom-up and top-down compositions. When you have 1,000 real people coming together to act as soldiers their behaviors and actions retain a lot of individuality.  You're only able to get a high degree of uniformity in places/situations like Korean military or dance displays where the people can be trained over months and years.  When someone at a computer generates 1,000 images of people, while her imagination may be great she cannot imagine 1,000 realities.
  • in some ways it's less realistic, or at least less supportive of the story.  In the scenes showing masses of soldiers there's always the odd person running around or someone doing something which wouldn't be included, not even thought of by a CGI designer.  It can be distracting because you can't determine whether the action is part of the story, or just random noise.  (It's probably more realistic in a real battle scene that's what happens, but it's not what we've been trained to expect in a movie.  Chekhov's thing was if you show a gun on a mantel in Act 1, it had to go off by Act 3.  That's not life, but it's modern storytelling.) 
I assume there will never be another Gettysburg, at least not shot on American soil.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Rising Insurance Rates: Car Not Health

Via Marginal Revolution a Wired post discusses the increasing costs of car insurance. It's up 30 percent in a decade.  It's interesting--who knew Houston lost 1 million cars?  But one thing it doesn't cover is whether there's any parallel between auto insurance and health insurance.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Then and Now--IV Housing

One of the big differences between the 1950's and now is housing:  Here's an Atlantic article
on the issue:
"The typical new single-family house in the U.S. is twice the size of the average urban or suburban dwelling in the European Union—more than 2,000 square feet versus approximately 1,000 square feet. ... In the past half century, the number of bathrooms per person in America has doubled. “We went from two people per bathroom to one person per bathroom in the last 50 years,” says Jeff Tucker, an economist at Zillow."
Everyone has their own room and their own bathroom.

Some Thoughts on the 1619 Project

One of the major items is the idea that the preservation of slavery played a big part in the American Revolution;  The best evidence appears to be

  •  the southern reaction to Gov. Dunmore's offer of freedom to slaves who would fight for/work for the British.  
  • fears that the Somerset decision, outlawing slavery in the UK, was a harbinger of changes in the colonies.
I'm a failed historian and I'm a WASP so my judgments are suspect, but here goes:
  • the Dunmore issue is valid, but the timing makes it less relevant. As I learned in school, the run-up to the revolution took years, going back to the Stamp Act protests.  It comes in November 1775, after  the April Concord/Lexington fighting and months after the siege of Boston began.  It might have swayed Southern planters who were on the fence to decide to support independence.
  • because slavery in the  British colonies in Canada and the Caribbean continued for years after the Revolution, people should not have had major concerns over the effect of Somerset.  But humans are able to worry about things without having a solid basis for it.  I'd like to see an analysis of discussion of Somerset in America between 1772 and 1776.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Polarization--A Speculation on Rural Rootedness

Ezra Klein has a new book out on our polarized nation.  Bob Somerby sees polarization as the biggest issue we have. There's different views on causes, but it seems true that some of the polarization is rural versus urban.

I've a speculation to offer: Is it true that rural residents are less mobile than suburban and urban ones?  My mental image is of counties which were settled in the 19th century, like Perry County, IL where my great grandparents settled.  Since the initial settling, sons and daughters have moved away, leaving a relatively static population of the oldest son (who got the farm) and his wife.  His children would repeat the cycle.  All that should mean that current rural dwellers have a long family history with the area which would contrast to the mobility seen in urban and suburban areas.

I don't know whether that image is true. It might not be. 

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Then and Now--III

Determinants of Identity

In the 1950's in rural upstate New York:

  • the most important identities were ethnic--Italian, Polish, etc. and religious: Catholic, Jew, Protestant.  There were the slang terms for each.  Catholicism was important, as my mother in particular had an inherited (Lutheran) suspicion of the church.  They gambled (bingo nights), they wanted their own schools, they were under control of the Pope, etc.  Mom may have been in the minority with these views, but they were strong, at least in the abstract if not when dealing face to face. One of my best friends was of East European extraction, his parents were immigrants, his father dying young, and Catholic.  Mom had no problems with that.
  • I knew two Jews growing up (perhaps three, a son of a local family surnamed "Benjamin" was a playmate for a few early summers).  One was our family doctor, who I believe had emigrated from Germany before WWII; the other was the dealer who bought our hens and pullets, presumably for chicken soup in New York City.
  • as for African-Americans, which we were careful to call "Negroes", not colored and not "n****r, because we were more enlightened than others, I'm sure I saw a handful on the streets of Binghamton (pop 80,000) but we had no interaction.  No blacks in the school, though I've a memory, possibly false or a dream, of someone enrolling for a few days when I was in high school. Don't know if that happened.  
  • homosexuality was a subject not discussed, even more of a taboo than cancer was. It's possible some of my class (of about 40) were gay, but I never knew it then and haven't confirmed it now.  
  • I think the bottomline is how high the wall of separation between me, a WASP, and these others was.  That lack of knowledge could create 
Now things are different--issues of religion and ethnicity seems antiquated. While I'm not good at making/keeping friendships, I've encountered enough people during my life to feel I know them, and could take my cue from Terence:  "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto", or "I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me."[

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Then and Now--II

Some additional thoughts on the differences in America between the 1950's and now as I experienced them:


  • in the 1950's we still had the remains of an older cultural world, a world of "high art" and distinct social divisions.  There were serious novels and books on the best seller list: works by Hemingway, Steinbeck, Nabokov, and Pasternak.  The Book of the Month Club was riding high.  Leonard Bernstein was on TV.  A boy in rural New York got a definite sense of a defined hierarchy, ruled over by the NYTimes, the New Yorker, and the Saturday Review of Literature as gatekeepers and New York City as the center of the universe.
  • in the 1950's "mass culture" was a rising concern--the TV "vast wasteland"  was a concern before Newton Minow so labeled it in 1961.  Comic books were becoming popular among the boomer youth, but were viewed as a threat to the culture and a cause of juvenile delinquency by Dr. Wertham, resulting in establishing the Comics Code Authority, to self-regulate the content. (This might have been modeled on the Motion Picture Production Code  and the effort by the Catholic Church to censor movies. People saw the popularity of books like Peyton Place was seen as a threat to standards.
  • in the 1950's you had classical music, jazz which was starting to get some serious attention, and popular music--Sinatra, Crosby,  Rock was just appearing, but it was a threat to the morals of the youth. Folk and country were niches.
Culture Today
  • today I don't see the structure we had in my youth, in books, in music or generally. The best seller list more rarely seems to contain "serious novels",  There are several more niches, niches which have more attention to them from serious critics. 
  • it seems to me that's a generalization: today there's lots more variety, more niches in all aspects of culture and much less of a pecking order in evidence.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Then and Now--I

As I age, my memories of my youth seem to get stronger.  Here's some of my memories of American society circa 1950's:

Big Companies

  • the big companies then  (components of Dow Jones) mostly made things: the big 3 automakers, GE, US Steel, Bethlehem Steel, National Steel, oil companies.  Woolworths and Sears Roebuck were big retailers, though there were supermarket chains around.  Franchises weren't big, no McDonalds or other fast food chains then. AT&T was big, a big monopoly known as "Ma Bell". Vice in the form of tobacco and distilling found a place.
  • now the big companies are Microsoft, /Apple,  Amazon, Google, and Facebook, They don't really make things comparable to steel or cars.  The oil and chemical companies are still around but Detroit has lost its status. Health care and drugs are big these days and no tobacco or alcohol in the Dow.. 
  • labor unions were big--the big companies were opposed by big unions--the UAW, the Steelworkers, the Communications Workers.  Other important unions were the Longshoremen and the United Mineworkers.  In this situation there were a lot of strikes and several notable leaders: Walter Reuther, Harry Bridges, and John L. Lewis, not to forget George Meany, head of the AFofL
  • now unions aren't big--the biggest represent teachers and public service workers.
  • in the 1950's banks were limited to one state, so you had lots of one city banks (First National of Greene) and some state chains (Marine Midland).  Finance wasn't big.
  • now Visa and American Express are in the Dow Jones, along with Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Memories of MLKing

This article documents an April 1961 speech by Martin Luther King at Cornell University's Bailey Hall. From there I found this:

  •  On April 14, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Cornell University's Bailey Hall, calling for continued action to obtain Black Americans' full participation in society, North and South, and asking for funds to aid the effort.  2,500+ people attended, and the Ithaca community raised $6,000 for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's efforts in the South. Here is a quote from his speech as reported by the Ithaca Journal:

    "Some people say 'Slow up, adopt a policy of moderation', but we cannot afford to slow up. There are too many people in this nation today without the rights this government has guaranteed them. ... It is not enough to decry a Negro being lynched in the South. You must rise up when a Negro is not permitted to live in a neighborhood, join a club, or a fraternity or sorority."
The articles note an overflow crowd in Bailey, and that money was raised for the SCLC.

I was one of those attending.  My most vivid memory of it was that King was preceded by another speaker.  I don't know who it was, perhaps Rev. Lowrey who's described as appealing for contributions after the speech.  The Sun, at least, got his name wrong, I think.--the Rev. Joseph Lowery was one of the founders of the SCLC.  For many years I suspected King of being rather ruthless.  Why?  Because the initial speaker was very disappointing, so there was a big contrast when King came on with his very polished speaking. King by himself would have been outstanding, following the initial speaker gave the audience an emotional "arc" (at least for me, but I suspect my emotions were respective of a good number of the audience).. 

That contrast has been my strongest memory, overshadowing King's message. (IIRC he was preaching to an audience who was anxious to be converted.) But today I finally researched it, with the results above, and I conclude I've been unfair to King.  If it was Lowery who spoke, then he and King were among the founders of the SCLC and if this was a fundraising trip then it made sense for Lowery to speak just as an organizational prerogative..  The contrast  between the two may well have been accidental, not intentional.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Why I'm Skeptical of Some Ag Activists-II

To carry on from my previous post:

In and after the 1920's people could choose between locally grown produce and that grown further away. Over time people chose the salad vegetables grown in California (mostly) over their local produce.  Why?  Presumably because the CA produce was available through more of the year and perhaps because it was cheaper and more consistent in quality. 

In the 1920's "organic" wasn't a category, wasn't a characteristic that would have played into anyone's buying decision. I don't know when people actually ended up with salad vegetables that weren't organic.  I suspect chemical fertilizers came more slowly to local farmers than to the larger concentrated farmers in California.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Down With Binary Choices: Confederate Flag and State Capacity

Ran across a couple things which trigger me:

  • a survey asking whether the Confederate flag was racist or heritage (symbol).  Why isn't it a racist heritage symbol?
  • this post states one side of a dispute with Tyler Cowen: whether building "state capacity" (meaning having bureaucracies that provide public goods) leads to greater development or vice versa.  Why isn't this modeled as an iterative feed back process, where for example educating the population a bit more increases productivity which provides the money to increase state capacity?  
I've noted before, I've a personal aversion to conflict and binary choices; these are just another instance.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Why I'm Skeptical of Some Ag Activists--I

One reason I'm skeptical of some positions taken by ag activists against "factory farming".

What we currently have in the country is the result of millions of decisions in the past.  Within the memory of people still living most farms were small family operations, "small" at least by current standards.  And they were organic, mostly. (I'm thinking of the 1920's.) So a very stark contrast to today's agriculture.

I think many activists would say 1920's agriculture was overall more desirable than 2020's agriculture. Accepting that position just for the sake of argument then raises the question: how do you put the toothpaste back in the tube? 

Monday, January 13, 2020

Once Again the Loudmouth Gets All the Attention

In an age-old pattern (think of the prodigal son in the Bible) the loudest mouth gets the attention.

In this case, he gets an article in the NYTimes announcing his retirement (plus I've seen tweets on the same subject).

Who is he?  Diego, a turtle.  Not just any turtle. but one of three males in an endangered species who were assigned the duty/given the opportunity to mate often with females in order to drive the numbers of the species above two digits. 

He did, he performed admirably, siring about 40 percent of the 2,000 turtles in the species.  He's described as having a big personality, charismatic.

It just so happens one of the two other males was firing blanks, leaving the third, the silent stalwart type, the one not seeking headlines, to sire the other 60 percent.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Problems with "Model" Farms

This is a good analysis of efforts to model different and better ways of doing farming.  I'm a lot older than the author, so we both may be stuck in the past.  Underlying a lot of the analysis is a more general law which applies in education and medicine: replication will kill you.  That is, a "model" farm that actually works for a number of years, and many such ventures don't, may fail when replicated to other environments.

Gene Drives Reversible?

NYTimes magazine has an article on gene drives, discussing the positives and negatives.  Lots of concerns about negatives, particularly outside the scientific community.

In reading it I wondered:  if I understand correctly, the gene drive consists of a genetic package which says: "if you find gene A, replace it with gene B and Crispr package X."  So a gene drive spreads a gene throughout the population while also spreading the Crispr package needed to replace A by B.

So what did I wonder?  Whether a gene drive isn't reversible, just do: "if you find gene B, replace it with gene A and Crispr package X"

Of course, it turns out any layman speculation I might have is out-of-date, witness this 2015 piece.

Friday, January 10, 2020

The Growth of "Vertical Farming"

I think the term "vertical farming" has come to mean indoor agriculture under LED lights with lots of technology and automation.  I'm still skeptical about current economics, but, if I'm to be consistent with supporting technology in the case of climate change and self-driving cars, I have to agree that vertical farming will become economical for at least some crops.


As is the case with most innovation and technology, there are trade-offs.  One trade-off which comes to mind is vulnerability.  Transitioning from field agriculture to vertical farming for greens, for example, would increase the demand for electricity. More significantly, if a solar flare of sufficient intensity fried many transformers which would take years to replace, reactivating field agriculture for greens would also take years.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Photo IDs for Voters

I've blogged on this issue before. Today the new KY secretary of state is reviving it.

He and I think that requiring photo ids would be good for public confidence, even though there's no evidence of impersonation voter fraud.  For me at least the key is to ease into the requirement--make photo ids easy-peasy.  I suspect these days most young people get photo ids for driving or traveling.  That leaves one problem area--those on the margins of society--the old, the native Americans, the less fully assimilated (think Amish, Hasidic Jews, or whoever).  I think providing photo ids in these cases is worthwhile simply better to integrate people into society.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Great Advances in Medicine

Saw the doctor today at Kaiser.  (It'd been a couple years so I was overdue.)  Many changes since my last visit

  • checking in by entering data at a kiosk, rather than a reception clerk at the waiting area.
  • changing the format of the printout summarizing the visit.
  • eliminating the weigh-in station--they upgraded the examining table/recliner with one which can register your weight.  It also raises and lowers, so your feet can be on the floor instead of dangling in the air.
I'm sort of mocking the healthcare industry here, but it's worth noting that there's a record decrease in the death rate from cancer.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

"Peak Document"

That's a term used in the title of the presidential address at the American Historical Association meeting. What McNeill is talking about is the surge of information coming not from documents but from science--especially genetics.

It's a valid subject, of course, but I admit when I first saw it my thoughts went in another direction; the change in sources in the current and coming eras because of digital media.  An example, when I was hired by ASCS people had improved the document management systems involved. The Commodity Credit Corporation board had a permanent secretary and an assistant, the board made decisions based on "dockets" which were systematically filed.  Most decisions within ASCS generated paper documents, memos and letters, all routed through clearance channels and eventually filed in the Secretary's Records or administrator's.   

As a failed historian I was intrigued by the processes.  The paper files didn't capture everything--there was a lot going on in the agency which wasn't fully  documented (particularly the political maneuvers) where the documents were like an iceberg, only a small part visible

By the time I left FSA, this picture was changing.  Partially it was the result of personnel changeover--the institutional memory of the reasons behind practices had been or was being lost.  Partly it was a change of norms--new people and new problems had new ways of doing things, often resulting in faster action but a diminished historical record.  Much of it had to do with automation, both the problems and processes of implementing policy with compers in the county offices and the new powers of communication conferred by new technology.

One example was the "wire notice".  Urgent messages to field offices would be sent by telegraph, which meant going through the telegraph office, therefore required official authorization, and permitted central filing of the message.  Once email arrived, it was possible for anyone to email anything to anyone with no central file. (Of course, this didn't happen immediately.) And for a number of years there was really no system for recording and filing such messages.  Supposedly after 30 years NARS has enforced systems in the agencies, but I'm dubious. 

The bottom line--in the 1970's a historan could look at the official files in the National Archives and do a reasonable history.  I doubt that's feasible for th 2000-2010 perioc

Monday, January 06, 2020

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Iraq and Suleimani

Some thoughts on Suleimani's death 

  • last week at this time an optimist like me could look at the Middle East and seen some good signs.
  • in Iran there had been recent demonstrations against the government
  • in Iraq there were protests against the influence of Iran on Iraqi affairs.
  • today there seems to be unity both in Iraq and Iran against the US.  We'll have to see how long it lasts, but it will be a while
  • I'd like to think the decision memo presented to our President would have predicted these consequences and he would have weighed them in making his decision, but I doubt it.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Lesson: In Washington Read the Footnotes

Notoriously, the request for the FISA court to approve surveillance of Page etc. included a footnote describing the Steele dossier.  The conservatives and liberals disputed whether a footnote was sufficient notice to the court of the possible bias of the dossier.

Now Just Security has a long description of the to and fro between DOD and OMB on President Trump's withholding aid to Ukraine, which was implemented by footnotes.  It seems that here DOD did read the footnotes, but it's not clear why footnotes were the appropriate vehicle for the notice from OMB to DOD--perhaps because other readers might be expected to ignore them?

I wonder: these days are budding scholars told how to use footnotes and trained to read them?

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Slavery in Canada and "Turn"

We've been watching "Turn" on Netflix, which is a 4 season series dealing mainly with Washington's spies, but which touches on, or forces connections to, episodes in the Revolution which are more commonly known. (I think it makes very generous use of "dramatic license".)

Anyhow, in the episode ending season 2, the African-American who was freed by Capt. Simcoe and enlisted in his Queen's Rangers takes the son of the enslaved maid to Major Andre from Setauket into York City to rejoin his mother. (The maid's been doing a little spying for the rebels on the side.) Needless to say, the British soldier loves the maid and urges her to flee with him to Canada so they can both be free.

I wondered about the accuracy of that so I did a little researching on the internet.

Sure enough, slavery in Canada lasted until 1834, when it was abolished throughout the empire.

But wait, it's not that simple.  "Lower Canada" was originally Quebec, founded by the French until the Brits won it by conquest in the French and Indian War. "Upper Canada" became today's Ontario and was mostly settled by the English.

Reading between the lines it seems likely the Brits just kept the old French laws, including those pertaining to slavery at the start.  And in "Lower Canada" they might have kept the laws until 1834. But by 1790's slavery in Upper Canada was being questioned, and a courageous troublemaker  named Chloe Cooley resisted being sold as a slave into New York.  That resulted in an act restricting the importation of slaves and promising freedom to children born after 1793. But the act only applied to Upper Canada.

Based on skimming the second article I linked to, slaves in the thirteen colonies should not have seen Canada as the promised land of freedom before 1793.