Teachers and Others

Fold a sheet of notepaper in half lengthwise, then again in half lengthwise. Now fold it up like an American flag, and tuck in the end. This paper triangle is the football. Two boys sit at opposite ends of a cafeteria table. One player kicks off by holding the football on end and flicking it with a finger. Wherever it lands, the other player then taps it some number of times, sliding the football toward his opponent. You get typically two or three downs to score, the exact number depending on the length of the table. You score a touchdown if you can push the football so that it stops with part hanging over the edge of the table. Then you get to kick for the extra point. The defender makes a set of goal posts: fists on table, extended index fingers touching, and thumbs vertical. Flick the football between these uprights for a field goal. Extra points (at least in a social sense) if you manage to hit the guy in the face.

In junior high, the bus brought us to school early. The school wasn’t really open yet, so as we arrived we were to wait in the cafeteria. This is where we played Polish Football.

This was pretty much exclusively a guy’s game. Not that girls wouldn’t have been welcome, in the complex sense in which girls are welcome among boys of a certain age. The girls sat at tables across the cafeteria doing who knows what. Not playing Polish football, anyway.

For some reason, this game caused the Principal no end of aggravation. Unwilling to just ban it, he was always issuing some bizarre edict about it. Though this was well before the heyday of political correctness, he couldn’t really call it by name in an official document. Every week or so, we’d get an announcement: “No Table Football on Tuesdays; The janitors have a meeting,” or “Due to the construction across the parking lot, students may not play table-top football before 10:00 AM on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays until further notice.”

Years later I wondered if our principal had in fact been a genius; Could he have used these pronouncements to subtly undermine our respect for authority? Maybe it was all a sophisticated strategy of double-reverse psychology; kind of an Ender’s Game thing. Or maybe contempt for authority was an unintended by-product. Maybe he was just a run-of-the-mill junior high school principal. Certainly we were unexceptional boys. When we couldn’t play Polish football, we thumb-wrestled.

When the janitor unlocked the connecting doors, we took our stuff to our lockers, then went to the library to play chess. Certainly not everyone played chess, but it was a diverse mix; Geeks, Jocks, Shop guys, Grubs. Rarely did any girls play. Occasionally they would watch. Mostly they sat at different tables, talking about us.

Typically there were half a dozen chess games in progress, with four or five people watching each one. I took this for granted; it was just what we did. I now think our librarian was a remarkable woman. One day she suggested I might enjoy a novel called “The Hobbit.” Another time, she gave me a collection of short stories by Robert Heinlein. The library was for many of us the social center of the school, and remained so into high school. Of course I had no idea then how rare that was. I hadn’t met Smaug the librarian, who sees her books as a hoard to be guarded, and the children as thieves. It never occurred to me that students would be glared at suspiciously as they entered, or told they could only check out books from an approved list, or couldn’t check out books above their level. But I digress.

Chess is a game for which I have zero aptitude. I was never any good, and didn’t really improve. I played because my friends did. When the bell rang, we went to class.

After lunch, we went outside or into the gym, and milled around for ten minutes until our class was called. While we waited, we played a series of improvised games that mostly involved slapping each other’s knuckles. The girls didn’t play these games either. Of course they were impressed by our bravery, or at least our pain tolerance. Not that impressing the girls was our goal. There was no goal. Hitting each other was an end in itself. I don’t believe we had conscious goals, except in the very short term.

After the last class, the girls went home or waited for their buses in the library. We played ping-pong in the shop room until our buses arrived. Often I stayed late to keep playing, and then walked home. We were really into ping-pong one year. This was probably part of the larger national obsession that followed Nixon’s trip to China, and the resulting fascination with everything Chinese. We could talk learnedly about different grips, top and back spins, slams; I had a particularly effective back-spin serve, that I’ve since learned is completely illegal. Guys bought balls of different weights, and special paddles. It was a big deal. Then it was over.

After supper, we got together at a friend’s house for Risk. I remember this as a horribly tedious game. Even after thirty years, I never again want to hear the phrase ‘Attacking Irkutsk.’

It started off well enough. My friend said, “Come over; we’re playing Risk.” “What’s Risk?” I asked. “Oh, humma humma, strategy, wargames, cards, dice; It’s not like chess.”

So, I learned the rules, and played several times a week one winter. Sometimes we had two games going at separate tables. There were certainly no girls here. Presumably they were at home doing their homework. We played in the basement, and lived like pigs. We kept soda in the window well, and threw the empties in the corner. Not just any corner; We weren’t slobs; the designated Trash Corner. It was great. By the end of the winter, we were at each other’s throats. We switched to Rook.

Rook is a card game involving bidding, tricks and trumps. I was, and am, far better at cards than board games of any kind. I can play a casual game of cards without embarrassment. Rook was the first card game I learned well and systematically. It’s a fine game that I could still enjoy playing, but after a few months we tired of Rook. Somehow, we started playing bridge, and moved out of the basement. I think this, all along, may have been the goal of my friend’s father.

Rook was a great introduction, but we found bridge a far different game. No soda drinking contests, either for speed or quantity; Snacks only between games; Trash in the trash can. We were willing to put up with this because the game was far more challenging and rewarding. Some of the girls we knew would occasionally join us for bridge. I think now that my friend’s parents were, like the librarian, exceptionally decent people. They were generous with their time, willing to talk with us, able to teach us a lot about bridge, and at least something about civilized behavior. I can’t say I was a great student of either discipline, but actually learning to play bridge with even minimal skill was as educational as anything I did in high school.


The Penalty Phase

Doc Rampage explains how we might feel sympathy for Scott Peterson.

The deaths of his wife and child could not bring down his spirits, but news of his own impending punishment brought him to uncontrollable tears.

How can a man live such a bleak existence?

If a man starts seeing people as tools to be used, or obstacles to be overcome, he’s in danger. It probably won’t lead to murder, or any crime at all, but it could easily lead to a life in solitary confinement.


I’ve heard people say “Whoever dies with the most toys wins,” but it’s not quite that simple.

In the afterlife, there’s a big awards banquet. They’ll give out trophies and plaques, not only for financial success, but for things like most cars passed on a two-lane road, and greatest average speed while driving. So take heart, our achievements will be recognized. The sales awards, of course, are given out elsewhere.

A promising young lawyer died suddenly, only thirty-eight years old. On meeting Saint Peter he said, “Saint Peter, I don’t want to seem ungrateful, because I’m very pleased to be here, but why did I have to die at thirty-eight?” Saint Peter consulted his book and said, “There must be some mistake. According to the hours you’ve billed, you should be seventy-three.”

People want to know what happens after they die. In fact, many people claim to know, sometimes in great detail. I’ve heard people say things like, “The ‘Great White Throne’ will be over there; The ‘Dead in Christ’ will go over that way, followed by those who died at sea. Then…” etc.

The minute details of eschatology are just of limited interest to me. I don’t know much at all. I believe, as an article of faith, that God will take care of us with justice and mercy. Beyond that, I’m content to wait and see.

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.