Wisdom, Folly, and Chance

Three Incarnations walk into a bar…

Scott Adams, in one of his Dilbert books, says that no matter how smart a man is, he spends much of his time being an idiot. All of us have seen how expertise in one area doesn’t translate into expertise in any other area. In The Outhouse Lawyers, Phil Dillon at Another Man’s Meat illustrates this principle with examples from communism, carburation, and the Carter administration.

We all know how stupid a mob can be. Examples of irrational behavior, in the stock market and elsewhere, are numerous. In counterpoint to these examples of collective folly is “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations,” by James Surowiecki, reviewed on Groklaw. Read Nick’s review of Surowiecki’s book.

A posting at Samizdata touches on this as well. In Drink coffee early! Drink coffee often! Brian Micklethwait writes, “7-Eleven coffee purchasers that day were asked to choose between Bush cups and Kerry cups, and it went Bush: just over 51; Kerry: just under 49, which was better than anyone else seems to have done on the day.”

Heidi Bond at Letters of Marque tells us of her involvement with The Cult of the All-Knowing Banana. It’s a win-win situation. She has a method of prediction as accurate as the magic 8-ball, and healthier to boot.


Red Rover

In Scotland, there’s a men’s red-rover league. Opposing teams of twelve men link arms. One side calls out, “Red rover, red rover, send Dugal right over!” Then Dugal charges across the heather shouting his war cry, and slams into the line. As he tries to batter his way through, broken bones are common and death not unheard of.

Of course, that’s all a lie. Grown men don’t play red rover. Although if they did play, Scotland’s where they’d do it; And they’d play with trees; And the trees would loose, often as not.

Red rover is a children’s game. I last played it in second grade, when I was seven or eight. We played on recess, as an organized activity. Our teacher told us how to play, then we put on our coats, trooped out to the grass playground, and lined up. As I remember, it was great fun.

One of the first games I remember playing is ‘jumping off of stuff.’ I expect no description is necessary. This probably developed as a variation on the earlier game that I’d call ‘climbing up on stuff,’ if it weren’t pre-verbal.

As I got older, my friends in the neighborhood played tag a lot, with the usual variations: freeze tag, the subtly different statue tag, multiplication tag, and all the rest. We also played ‘Army’ a lot, which was for us kind of a free-form fantasy role-playing game. No points, but we did have experience levels. Somebody’s older brother had been promoted to Sergeant, so we were really into that for a while. This would have been around 1968. We had tried to play cowboys-and-indians a couple of times, but nobody was very enthusiastic about it. Mostly we played Army, and we were always fighting the Germans.

At some point, we heard of a game called ‘kick the can,’ but we didn’t know how to play. We tried to integrate it into our other games with limited success. We would play hide-and-go-seek, but you had to go kick the can after you counted; Or we would play tag, and if you were It you had to kick the can. We were remarkably persistent, but it didn’t work out for us. We finally went back to regular tag. If we’d only known, we were probably on the verge of inventing Calvinball.

When I was thirteen or fourteen, we played tree-to-tree tackle. One guy would stand in the middle of a field, and everyone else would run back and forth across the field. The guy in the middle would tackle whoever he could, and they would then join him in the middle.

If we had a ball, this became maul-ball. There were no teams, and the rules were simple: Take the ball from whoever has it; keep the ball if you have it. This was only a game because we were mostly friends, the ball had no intrinsic value, and nobody used weapons. Once when we didn’t have a ball we used a stick, but this degenerated into a fist fight. Partly, it was too easy to dispute possession of the stick, so two guys ended up holding the stick and whaling on each other. It took both hands to hold the ball. Also, I think using a ball provided some psychological reinforcement that it was just a game.

Maul-ball is about the last kid’s game I played. Beyond fourteen or fifteen the games became organized, and I stopped playing. There was baseball, basketball, and football. Around 1975 soccer was becoming popular. There’s nothing wrong with any of these, but to me they’re too much like work. In fairness, I was never any good at any of the team sports, so maybe that’s colored my perceptions. I’ve known guys who said playing high school football was a lot of fun, and of course lots of adults play softball, volley-ball, and basketball.

UPDATE, 13 Dec 04

I meant to include a link to Tim Boucher’s journal entry about Red Rover.


When I was in Boy Scouts, we played a game we called ragball. We took a rag and knotted it up into a ball; This was such a remarkable transformation that it inspired some clever fellow to name the resulting game. See, it was a rag, but now it’s a ball; Ragball! Get it?

Two teams stood against the wall at opposite ends of a room. One team started, and threw the ragball at the boys across the room. If the ball was caught, the boy who threw it was out. Whoever caught it continued the game, throwing it back. If the thrown ball hit a boy, he was out. Boys who were out left the game. If the ball neither hit nor was caught, someone picked it up and threw it back in turn. Whoever was hit with the ball, and so had to go out, gave the ball to a team member to throw.

Someone who was already out acted as judge. As the crowd thinned out, the judge advanced the throwing line to some mark. As the throwing and receiving teams got closer together, the throws got harder. That is, harder to catch, harder to dodge, and more painful to get hit with. If you hit someone in the groin, you were out.

Amazon.com sells different ragballs that are “…soft and lightweight with polyester covers and are stuffed with textile fabrics.” I think this is used in a kind of softball game, as shown at the bottom of the web page of the Kehoe-France School, which I found searching google for ‘ragball.’

This other game may be similar to a game we played once called mush-ball. Mush-ball was like softball, except the ball was enormous; the size of a bowling ball. Some casual research reveals a Summer Coed Mushball League that plays with a 16 inch ball. That sounds about right to me. The ball was very soft, and almost too big to miss. The idea was to just hit it as hard as you could, and then run. I don’t remember much more about it than that. The mush-ball belonged to some guy none of my friends knew well.

There could be some ambiguous terminology here. Maybe people call the games by different names in different places. Another search result for ‘mush-ball’ brought me to a group playing with a ball that looks softball-sized. This may be like the ‘ragball’ Amazon sells: “What is Mushball? We play a game similar to softball but without ball gloves. The ball is bigger and softer and can be caught by hand. It can’t be hit as far as a softball.”

But the game we played was more like dodgeball. There were no points. The game ended when only one or two guys were left. Sometimes we played ‘last man standing’ and other times we stopped when there were two guys left, and they picked teams for the next game.

Remarkably enough, we managed this without five-day-a-week sports practice, without parents on the sidelines, and without a government employee in charge. We tried to play well, and play fairly, and to not let our team down, but I don’t want to make this more than it was. It wasn’t a sorting mechanism, or a scholarship program, or a ‘conspicuous example of excellence.’ It wasn’t training for the cut-throat adult world of commerce, or preparation for a life of service to humanity. It was just a game we played to have a little fun after spending a couple of hours practicing first-aid.

Confectionary Treats

Two weeks ago I made fruitcake; I started with this fruitcake recipe and adjusted it to what I had on hand. I used a loaf pan 9 x 5 x 2 1/2 inches. In retrospect, I wish I’d used a tube pan, because I can’t find a cake tin that will accommodate a loaf. The finished cake is wrapped in wax paper, plastic wrap, foil, and a ziplock bag. It’ll be ready to eat after Thanksgiving.
Here’s my recipe:

  • 2 cups candied fruit (orange and lemon peel, cherries, pineapple, citron)
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1 cup dried cherries (one 5 oz. packet)
  • 1 1/3 cup calimyrna figs (one 8 oz. packet)
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 Tbsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp ground allspice
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 1/8 cup molasses
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 3/4 cup pecan halves
  • 1/4 cup slivered almonds
  1. Snip the figs into pieces, discarding the stems. Combine all the fruit in a bowl. Pour the brandy over the fruit. Let it soak for five hours, stirring every half hour.
  2. Preheat the oven to 300F. Prepare the pan by greasing the bottom and sides and lining the bottom and sides with greased parchment paper.
  3. In a very large bowl, mix the flour, spices, baking powder, and salt. Stir until it’s evenly blended.
  4. In another bowl beat the eggs until they’re fluffy. Add the brown sugar, orange juice, molasses, and butter. Stir until all the sugar is dissolved.
  5. Add the fruit and nuts to the flour mixture. Stir until all the fruit pieces are coated. Then pour in the egg mixture and stir gently until the batter is evenly mixed.
  6. Pour the batter into the pan and bake it at 300F for one hour. Cover the pan with foil and bake it for one more hour (for a total of two hours) until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool the cake for 1/2 hour on a wire rack, then remove it from the pan. Peel off the paper carefully.
  7. Keep the cake in the refrigerator. Store it in a foil-lined cake tin, or wrapped and bagged securely. For 3 or 4 weeks, sprinkle 2 Tbsp brandy over the cake once a week.

Serve in thin slices, only to people who like fruitcake.

UPDATE: The Taste Test, 24 Nov 04

There wasn’t room in the icebox for both the turkey and the fruitcake. I opened, unpacked, and unwrapped the cake, and let it come to room temperature. It’s not bad, but not outstanding. The spice flavor is too strong, especially the cloves. Next time I’ll cut the total spice amount in half. The figs taste fine, but their tiny seeds make a less-than-attractive presentation. Dates might go better. And finally, there’s too much fruit in proportion to the cake. I believe I’ll replace the figs with half the volume of dates, and increase the cake part proportionally. I’ll update this recipe when I actually make it.

Meanwhile, the fruitcake is out on the table, because two pies and a cheese cake just aren’t enough.

The Price of Eggs in China

What’s fox hunting in England got to do with politics in America? What’s fox hunting got to do with anything at all? Well, it’s not about the fox.

During their time in power, the Tory Party set the very foundations upon which Blair and Blunkett are building the apparatus for totally replacing social processes with political processes, a world in which nothing cannot be compelled by law if that is what ‘The People’ want: populist authoritarianism has been here for a while…

In America, the conservatives are now using the state that the liberals built, and the liberals don’t like it.

Featured Articles

Dr. Marc Miyake has written a discussion of the ‘Bossy R’ (as in ‘cover’) and its use as a “syllabic nucleus.”

Syllabic consonants like R, L, M, N are versions of the consonants r, l, m, n which serve as syllabic nuclei (= cores of syllables) just like vowels.

In rapid pronunciations of English, one can also hear syllabic (= ‘bossy’) L, M, and N

I have no expertise in this area, but I find Dr. Miyake’s writing entirely accessible. It’s more in-depth than language trivia, but it isn’t that incomprehensible blather that seems to pass for writing in parts of the academic community.

A decrepit old fool thinks outside the box in Multiple choice certainty and the failure of imagination:

I often know that I’m right. That is, when it’s SO obvious that the only way to proceed is “X,” I just don’t understand why anyone would disagree. Then I get slapped in the face by a different concept that I just… didn’t imagine.

I often disagree with what he writes, but he’s no fool. His age and decrepitude I can’t address.

And finally, here’s a brief introduction to international economics, in layman’s terms.

Religion & Public Policy

Phil Dillon at Another Man’s Meat writes about The Dilemma for Christians in the Current Political Climate. (credit to Jollyblogger for the link.)

What follows is just an excerpt, and arguably not Mister Dillon’s primary point. His whole post is well worth reading.

There are several houses near ours that are nothing more than hovels. They’ve been neglected to the point they are no longer fit for human habitation. And yet, incredibly, they are being bought and sold to desperate people needing shelter. How? It’s simple really.

This ‘respected’ citizen then finds his way around the code enforcement statutes, buys the house for, let’s say $5,000. About a week after he buys the house he finds another desperate person or family, usually minority, and offers to sell the house for $25,000. Knowing that the house would never pass an inspection, he offers the house ‘on contract,’ telling the potential buyer (or ‘mark’) that he’ll be generous and only require $5,000 down and then get the rest through direct payments to our ‘respected’ citizen. The desperate buyer agrees and the wheels are set in motion. About a year after the deal is sealed the buyer defaults on mortgage payments after getting a month or two behind. The buyer is evicted and the process proceeds to the next desperate buyer. The offer is made again; the ‘respected’ citizen gets his $5,000 up front, and so forth. It’s a very profitable treadmill.

He’s not wrong; It’s stuff like this that keeps me voting Democrat as often as Republican, at the local level. (At the national level, well, I hope the Democrats will make that possible again someday.) Here are some thoughts of my own:

I’m surprised Habitat for Humanity isn’t all over this. Could they target some of these shacks for purchase, tear-down, and replacement? Still, they can’t do everything. Why is there a shortage of affordable housing? Here are some questions I’d ask:

What are the tax rates on owner occupied versus non-owner occupied property? If non-owner occupied property is taxed at a higher rate (Soak those rapacious slumlords!), guess who ends up paying higher property taxes? The landlord may write the check to the tax collector, but the tenant pays the tax.

A small number of tenants will trash the property and disappear. Insurance rates reflect this cost. And you know where the money to pay the insurance comes from.

The local building code might make it impossible to build decent rental property. How could that be the case? Set up a spreadsheet and see. I did this exercise fifteen years ago, and found that I couldn’t build a house and then rent it out for enough to make a profit. Even if I had had the cash to invest without getting a loan, I would have done better to buy savings bonds. The only profitable ways I could see were to build an eight-unit apartment building, or buy the cheapest existing house I could find. I did neither, deciding real-estate investing wasn’t for me. The contract-for-deed scheme didn’t occur to me. I know it exists though, because my father warned me about it years ago.

So it seems to me that the free market, as modified by local regulation, is failing to provide decent, affordable housing to a minority of people who want it. Mister Dillon points out that Christians have an obligation care for people in need. In practical terms, how? What should we do about it?

Well, Mister Dillon is off to a good start. He’s tried to get his friends at church interested, with disappointing results. He’s had more success getting the local newspaper going on the story. No matter the complexity of the issues, if people would be ashamed to have their behavior known, that’s a good sign that it’s unethical.

Beyond that (and shame will only do so much), what’s the policy answer? What should be the nature and extent of government involvement? A county housing authority? A higher minimum wage? Stricter employment laws? I’m not in principle opposed to these, but it depends on the details. It’s increasingly hard to do just one thing. The high level of home ownership that we have today is a result of policies put in place all the way back to the New Deal. One of the consequences of those policies is the shortage today of decent, affordable housing. The solution has become a problem in its turn.

Certainly Christians can differ in what they think the practical approach should be. We may disagree on the extent of government involvement. We may disagree on how much the Church should be involved in meeting people’s temporal needs. Not everybody has to be involved in everything. Some people feed the hungry, some people volunteer at school, some people try to craft wise government policies. You can’t, and shouldn’t try to, do everything. But I don’t think Christians have the option of doing nothing.

And that reminds me of a poem, The Sons of Martha, by Rudyard Kipling.

Me and Humpty Dumpty

First, let me explain how dictionaries work. The dictionary exists to record the language used by people like me. When I look up a word, as often as not it’s to see if the editors got it right. Occasionally, I’ll look up spelling or etymology.

That said, let me note that willy-nilly means willingly or unwillingly – with or without consent; will ye or nill ye, see? It also has a secondary meaning as an adjective describing vacillation or equivocation; Like shilly-shallying.

If you want to refer to something done in disorganized haste, try harum-scarum. For an existing mess, as a jumble of houshold goods, you could use tohubohu, (Sorry; I’ve been into the thesaurus again) or the more pedestrian topsey-turvey.

Lately I’ve been seeing willy-nilly used incorrectly to mean casually, or impulsively. In these contexts, if you must use a rhyming compound, you might try higgledy-piggledy. It’s not as glaringly incorrect, and it deserves to be used more than it is. For that matter, you can make up your own rhyming pairs. Just don’t just use willy-nilly higgledy-piggledy.

Next week, sleek.

Your Attention, Please!

Lately I’ve been using the Sage plug-in for Firefox. It’s neat, but I’m having trouble integrating it into my browsing habits. I’m not sure how to use it most effectively. Where do I put it in the scheme of things? There are so many different delivery mechanisms out there already. Look at what we have:

The postman delivers mail, but not newspapers; unless you have an out-of-town paper mailed to you. The paperboy brings the newspaper, unless you buy it at a newsstand. You read Newsweek at the library, now that your subscription’s expired; Unless you happen to buy a copy at the bookstore when you stop for coffee. You read the Atlantic in the waiting room, and the Tribune in the barber shop, unless the game’s on.

I can visit the BBC’s website, or subscribe to their email newsletter, or listen on short wave. There’s Usenet newsgroups, email newsletters, and web forums. There are still active BBS’s, something called gopher, any number of IRC/IM things that I don’t even understand, this Snowplains thing, whatever it is; MUD’s, MUSH’s, MOO’s, and Everquest. Ham radio, billboards, and T-shirts with writing on them. There’s even face-to-face verbal communication.

So I guess we can accommodate RSS feeds; But what I’ve found more convenient is to bookmark a dozen links in a folder; then Firefox lets me open them all in tabs. I can read the first tab as the others load, or I can read stuff in another window. I’m on dial-up, so I like to get my news, then disconnect and read it in a batch. As I find links I want to pursue, I bookmark them is a temporary folder, then load them all in tabs the next time I go online.

Maybe what distinguishes these different ‘media’ (IM, email, Usenet, etc.) is how much of the other guy’s attention you have, or can expect. Being free to choose among these allows us to negotiate for attention between speaker and listener. Using Sage, if I open another tab or window, the pending feed appears there. I can’t do anything else while I use it. Sage demands too much of my attention.