Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Nice people….

There are some nice people here and there on the surface of the planet who will do a kind deed for a stranger, just for the sake of being a nice person.

Recently I spent a little time in a couple very pleasant locales, the time being made more pleasant by the persistent habit of some motorists who stop just about anywhere to allow pedestrians to cross the street.

Now, you get a bit more of this attention if children and strollers are involved, or you're trying to cross a busy avenue during a rain shower....

But you don't have to present any obvious vulnerability to get this royal treatment.

What a treat to get a friendly wave across the street from a driver you don't know.

A friendly wave of gratitude in return doesn't seem like enough of a thank-you.

Blowing a kiss seems a bit....well….anyhow, maybe I'll try it next time.

Monday, September 22, 2014

We have to do more than kvetch….

Why isn’t this particular factoid at the top of the news roundup every single morning?

Last year, only 26% of American students could claim to be proficient in math, and only 38% were good enough in reading.

Let’s say it another way: three-quarters of American students are not proficient in math at their grade level, and almost two-thirds don’t measure up in reading.

We’re all guilty of allowing this to happen: school boards, teachers, parents, communities, state and federal governments.

This really bad news comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the largest continuing monitor of student achievement in the country. The first tests were administered in 1969. It’s a congressionally authorized project sponsored by the U. S. Department of Education.

What are our high school teachers and administrators thinking when they graduate young people who really can’t cut the mustard?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The wisdom of Gustave Flaubert

“Success is a consequence.”

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)
19th century French novelist

The full quote is “Success is a consequence and must not be a goal”—I’m not too sure that has a clear meaning for me….

It is clear to me that focusing on the process of being successful, paying attention to the means as much as to the end, is a fulfilling experience.

Boo Radley

Surely, doing the right thing is the most important element of one’s expectation of success.

Doing the right thing is good, regardless of how success may be perceived.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

These parents are hurting their children

For all of the obvious biological, historical, social, developmental and plainly human reasons, a child’s best bet for a good life is to have two parents around all the time.

But here’s the problem: today, more than 40 percent of American kids are born to unmarried mothers.

Now, I am not simply trying to make a doctrinaire case for marriage. Manifestly, a man and a woman don’t have to be married to have a baby.

The point is: too many unmarried new parents either pay no attention to the new baby (as in, the single mom phenomenon) or the new moms and dads don’t have staying power—roughly half of new moms and dads have gone their separate ways by the time the unfortunate kid reaches the age of 5.

And here’s another devastating fact: 60 percent of kids born out of wedlock are “surprises”—the parents didn’t intend to have these unfortunate babies. That’s about 1,000,000 children, every year, brought into this largely unforgiving world with a couple strikes against them before they take their first breath.

This is a problem for all of us. These kids don’t get started on the right foot, and too many of them end up taking too many wrong steps during their lives, and too many of them never get enough traction to live a happy life.

We need to have a stronger private and public will to avoid making babies until both parents are ready make an enduring commitment to change all the diapers and read the bedtime stories and run behind the bikes with training wheels and….

Friday, September 19, 2014

The wisdom of Will Rogers (part 4)

I don't make jokes. I just watch the government
                and report the facts.

You know, 90 years ago this might have been a little funny….

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The wisdom of Artemus Ward

“It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us in trouble. 
        It’s the things we know that ain’t so.”

Charles Farrar Browne aka Artemus Ward (1834-1867)

Good old Artemus really nailed this one.

Other folks have said much the same thing: it’s the things we know that aren’t true that are the most troublesome.

Take a minute: sure, you’re pretty smart, but can’t you admit that there’s at least something you think you know for sure, that might be a bit sketchy?

Think it over….check yourself out on that one.

p.s. in some ways, Browne/Ward was the Will Rogers of the 19th century, he had a real knack for drilling down to the basics, with some exotic misspelling, as in:

“The Puritans nobly fled from a land of despotism to a land of freedim, where they could not only enjoy their own religion, but could prevent everybody else from enjoyin’ his.”


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Readin’, writin’, ‘rithmetic….a little history

American schools have been around since the Boston Latin School was opened in 1635.

Yet, what we think of today as public education, K-12, hasn’t been around all that long.

In 1644 the Dedham (MA) town meeting established the first tax-supported public school. Of course, it was for boys only. For long decades, girls might learn to read (so they could read the Bible, for instance), but it wasn’t thought important for them to be able to write or do their ciphers.

One-room school, rural Oklahoma, early 1900s

In New England, in the 18th century, “common schools” were established, mostly in the form of one-room schoolhouses for students, who often paid a fee to the teacher.

For most kids, the development of reading, writing and math skills was mostly a family concern until about the middle of the 19th century. By that time, public education and public high schools were becoming common, and attendance was in the process of being made mandatory.

What was taught in this evolution of schools was largely a local concern, often tied to the training and interests of the teacher.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s that a nationwide standardized curriculum was established, mandating roughly the same array of classes that students are taking today: mathematics, English, science and history.

I guess you could say we’ve come a long way, baby….but I guess that Americans have never been less proud of our public education than we are today.

I wonder what an 18th century schoolmarm would have thought about the Common Core standards?

My guess is that she probably wasn’t giving passing grades to students who just weren’t getting it….that seems like the bottom line to me.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

What’s trump?

                                                  On the beautiful

                                                     beach, rich surf sound, zephyrs….all

                                                        trumped by her cell phone.

                                                  Narragansett, RI

Friday, September 12, 2014

Congress is letting Americans get poorer

Maybe things are looking good for you, economically, job-wise, income-wise….

For the more than 160 million Americans at the bottom half of the economic scale, it’s mostly bad news:

The Federal Reserve released data this week showing that, for the poorest half of Americans with the lowest wages/incomes, actual wages FELL by 5 per cent between 2010 and 2013. It’s detailed here on NewRepublic.com.

Yeah, there’s been a nationwide economic recovery going on since 2009—slowly and unevenly, although pretty steady—but not for everyone.

Trouble is, the recovery isn’t boosting the economic situation for all those millions at the bottom end of the scale.

One explanation: Congress hasn’t done much of anything in the last five years to boost growth in our national economy and help create jobs for millions of Americans who want to work.

Shame on the Republicans and Democrats for maintaining a political standoff in Washington, and not doing anything else that could be described as governing the country.

Why do we keep re-electing the people who won’t do The People’s work?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Book review: Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life

Book review: Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2014
371 pages, with index

If this is your first exposure to Harriet Beecher Stowe, you’re in for a robust telling of her story. From the first page to the last, you can’t doubt that Stowe cared deeply about most aspects of private life, her faith and the all-encompassing religious framework of the civitas. As a woman in the mid-19th century, she was a zealous missionary without portfolio.

Of course Koester gives comprehensive analysis of the writing and impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was a best-seller in the United States and in Great Britain. It moved multitudes to hate slavery or hate Harriet Beecher Stowe. It did not, despite President Lincoln’s mocking jest when he met Stowe at the White House, start “this great war.” It did help to clarify existing polemical doctrines of opposing camps.

Koester’s aim is to illuminate Stowe’s spiritual life and her very public commitment to advocating her faith and the importance of religious observance and conviction. If that’s not to your taste, reading this book will be drudgery. For me, it was illuminating.

For my taste, Koester mentions but does not usefully detail the context of other aspects of Stowe’s life and impact on American society. She was a woman who conspicuously did not abide by the social conventions that dictated a passive, private, familial role for women. She wrote and was published extensively (I was surprised to learn that she was a prolific writer, including novels, tracts and political broadsides). She had lots of contact with the great and near-great, including President Lincoln and Queen Victoria. Stowe more or less supported her extended family with her writing—it would be interesting to know how much money she made from her writing, because Stowe persisted in a socially risky career and lifestyle that might have been unattainable without a (relatively) high income. I suspect that Stowe was not one of the 99% in her time.

Koester nobly attempts to make her case that Harriet Beecher Stowe was a mover and shaker, non pareil, in the anti-slavery movement before, during and after the Civil War. I suggest that this is a circumstantial biography of a notable lady who was notably revered—and notably tolerated—by a great many of her contemporaries.

If the South had won the Civil War, I think it’s possible that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, would be more than a tad less familiar to us.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The art of Julia Fehrenbacher

“. . . the sparrows continue
to sing their song
even when you forget to sing
yours . . .”

Sure, sparrows are gonna do what they do….

It’s a poignant injunction for me: Don’t forget to sing your song.

I heard a child singing the other day.

I want to sing like that.

From “Hold Out Your Hand” by Julia Fehrenbacher
As posted September 5, 2014 on this site:  A Year of Being Here

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

To loll, v.i.

Think lolling is a

   wastrel’s dream?—oh no, the mind

      strives, achieves lolling.

Also, bears....

Monday, September 8, 2014

The art of Lynn Ungar

“. . . what of your rushed
and useful life? Imagine setting it all down—
papers, plans, appointments, everything—
leaving only a note: ‘Gone
to the fields to be lovely. . .’ “


Color me gone.

Give yourself permission to be lovely.


From "Camas Lilies" by Lynn Ungar from Blessing the Bread: Meditations. © Skinner House, 1995.

As posted August 31, 2014, on this website:  A Year of Being Here

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Lexington, we hardly knew ye….

Ever been to the Lexington Green in Lexington, MA? You know the one, “shot heard ‘round the world” and everything….

I went there yesterday.

The storied Lexington Green—where a reckless farmer hiding behind the meetinghouse may have fired that shot—is a rather smallish triangle of grass at the western end of prosperous Main Street, it has a statue, a flagpole, a couple memorial rocks with inscriptions, and a young fella dressed in a marginally pathetic Revolutionary-era costume who did his opportunistic tour guide thing by blabbing rapidly (by rote) for five minutes about the skirmishing that got started early in the morning on April 19, 1775.

That’s about it.

The Lexington “Visitor Center’ is a claustrophobic gift shop with a tabletop diorama of the encounter, the painted figures are adequate enough, but the printed blurb about the “first battle for American freedom” is schoolboy patriotic language, not too inspiring….

I really thought the green would be a lot bigger, I thought there would be more historic stuff visible, I thought it would be more visibly engaging and more substantially respectful…….I think a fair comment is that the green is there if you want to go and look at it, ain’t much to see…..

I hasten to say that it was moving for me, personally, to stand on the ground where Capt. Parker and his 76 men bravely decided they weren’t going to let the lobster backs march through Lexington without at least getting the finger from American militiamen who were ready to defend their town and their farms….and I’m delighted to report that, except for the 18 dead and wounded from the original militia crew on the green, Capt. Parker’s boys reassembled a few hours later along the road between Concord and Lexington, and gave the regulars a few going away presents as they marched back to Boston…..

I know I’m 239 years late, but I want to say to Parker and those embattled farmers: “Thank you for your service to our country.”

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Insults…the good old days

Sadly, we don’t do insults any more in the high style of our Revolutionary forebears.

Time was when an insult went deep because the language was compelling, thoughtfully articulate and precisely erudite.

No F-bombs, no mindless political ranting, no wearily crude sexual innuendos….

For instance, try this one for size:

“You vile, beslobbering rapscallion!”

Now that's an all-in, I-dare-you-to-draw-your-pistol kind of insult....like as not your ancestor who marched with Washington against the British could have smacked down any lobster-back grenadier on any battlefield with this kind of bold talk and a trusty musket to back up the palaver….

Try it in the privacy of your own home.

When you feel comfortable, go ahead and use it at the office or at a party, see how it works out for you.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Book review: The Comanche Empire

Book review: The Comanche Empire
Hamalainen, Pekka. The Comanche Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

This book will change your mind about how the West was won.

Hint: The Comanches got there first.

The Comanches arrived obscurely in the American Southwest in 1706. This book provocatively makes the case that the Comanches created an imposing Southwestern American empire that spanned 150 years. They blunted the 18th century colonial ambitions of the Spanish in Mexico and the French in Louisiana, and stalled the westward thrust of Americans and the U.S. government until the middle of the 19th century. A broad coalition of Comanche rancheria chiefs throughout the territory of Comancheria first dominated the Apaches, eventually turned against their Ute allies, and commercially or militarily subjugated numerous lesser tribes.

Comanches managed a succession of peace treaties and conflicts with the Spaniards and completely blocked their repeated efforts to extend colonial settlements northward from Mexico. The political, commercial and military supremacy of the Comanches was based principally on their success in adopting and adapting Spanish horses for efficient transportation, military power and a thriving and lucrative trade in horses throughout the Southwest.

Hamalainen's central argument invites—indeed it provokes—a reasonable dispute about the credibility of his claim for a Comanche empire. In classical political or geopolitical usage, the claim is untenable, at least in part; the Comanche empire had neither fixed borders, nor a single self-sustaining centralized supreme authority, nor a durable bureaucracy, nor a definitive political structure.

Nevertheless, the Comanches had a respected, recurring broadly representative council of chiefs that planned and organized extensive raids, trading and other commerce, and military operations. Their hunting, pasturing and trading territories had indistinct geographic borders that were never surveyed or adjudicated; Comanches never sought to occupy and permanently control any specifically delineated territory. Hamalainen says they were "conquerors who saw themselves more as guardians than governors of the land and its bounties." Nonetheless, the geographical extent of the their domains was well known, respected and enforced by the Comanches.

Each Comanche rancheria had its own geographic territory, rigorous socio-military culture and hierarchical organizational. The situational circumstances of Comanche military superiority, their control of trade  and their ability through the decades to repeatedly impose and maintain obviously favorable terms in their treaty and trade agreements are undeniable evidence of the Comanches' extended dominance of terrain, physical resources, culture and commerce, and, not least in importance, the Spanish and French colonial enterprises that sought to compete with them.

For decades the Comanches set the terms of their success; no competing power could defeat them, and no Indians or Europeans could evade the Comanches' dominance in their domain. Thus, the Comanches created a de facto empire. Ultimately, they were marginalized by a combination of drought that constrained their bison hunting and weakened their pastoral horse culture, disruption of trade which limited their access to essential carbohydrate foodstuffs, epidemic disease that repeatedly reduced the Comanche populations, predatory bison hunting by the Americans in the early 1870s that wiped out this essential food resource, and, finally, by the irresistible tide of U.S. government-sponsored westward migration that pushed American citizens into Comanche territory.

Too bad the Comanches left no accounts of their own. It would be fascinating to hear this story in their own words.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


The beach: lots of folks,

crowding, muted, bared, bored, prone,

passive, nearly done.

Narragansett, RI

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Politics, yes….equality, no

There’s a new book coming out about President Lincoln and the notorious Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

This isn’t a book review—I haven’t read the book. I think probably I won’t read it.

I believe that the Proclamation is fundamentally a political (not philosophical) document, and I think it’s largely misunderstood. Of course, lots of folks think that “Lincoln freed the slaves,” when in fact the Proclamation is a very circumscribed and limited version of freeing the slaves: basically, it “freed” slaves in the Confederate states, where federal (Union) proclamations had no immediate legal effect. And, let’s be clear, the Proclamation did not make slavery illegal in the United States.

I continue to be fascinated by the myths of American history, and by the persistence of a number of authors in declaring that the Proclamation (and even the Declaration of Independence) were all about “equality.”  I think, in fact, in 1776 and in 1863 there wasn’t a whole lot of public discourse, or interest in, or advocacy of the notions of democratic equality and human equality as we understand the words now……

There weren’t a whole lot of folks who really wanted to make black people “equal” to white people, especially not Old Abe.


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Political polls….can you trust ‘em?

The short answer is: No.

Here's the scoop: at the time the survey is done, there’s no way to calculate how accurate it is.

Doubtless you’ve heard about some polls that went awry in spectacular ways. For instance, in late 2012, the internal polls for the Romney campaign were predicting a clear Republican win. You know how that turned out.

Of course, some polls done by and for political candidates have been right on the money.

But here’s one sticky point: inevitably, with so many surveys being done, a few will be really cockeyed, and a few will be spot on, and most of them will be sort of close to the final outcome, more or less.

But predictive accuracy is what everyone wants.

And that’s what modern pollsters can’t provide. Basically, they’re providing pretty good guesses.

A recent piece on WashingtonPost.com tried to show that current polling generally produces “good quality survey estimates.” It says that the divergence of poll results and actual election outcomes can be measured in single digit percentages. It also explains that surveyors routinely “weight” their findings—a polite way of saying “cook the numbers”—because they can’t reach a satisfactory random sample of respondents.

That’s another sticky point: even a highly respected polling organization like the Pew Research Center reports that, in recent polls, it actually interviewed only 9% of its targeted sample of adults across America. That is, Pew failed to complete an interview with 91% of the people it tried to reach. You know, people just don’t answer their phones any more….

The WashingtonPost.com piece fails to acknowledge another sticky point. With abysmally low completion rates, today’s pollsters are refusing to face up to the statistical 800-lb gorilla in the room:

The mathematical underpinnings of statistical reliability in a survey are contingent on having a "true random sample" of the population being surveyed. That is, every member of the entire population must have an equal chance to be selected for the survey.

Manifestly, this does not occur in every political poll done today, viz.  response ("completion") rates as low as 9%. (Here’s a frame of reference: when I started doing public polling in the late 1970s, with door-to-door interviewers selecting households and respondents at random, we had completion rates in the 75%-80% range).

If only 9% (or 23%, or whatever low percentage) of the targeted respondents actually complete the interview, there is no way to meaningfully calculate "accuracy" (i.e. statistical reliability, error range) for a survey. No way.

Every survey published today is, de facto, not reliable, even if the published result happens to be close to the real outcome. Of course, experienced pollsters can weight the data to try to estimate the "real" result, but in terms of reliably predicting outcomes (e.g. election results) in advance, especially in close races, modern surveys are close to useless.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The wisdom of Paul the Apostle

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good.”

Romans 12:9
Paul’s Epistle to the Romans

These words from Paul fill my mind.

They are a powerful way to say “Do the right thing, in your private life, and in your public life.”

It’s too easy to forget what the right thing is….

The Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission . All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Government financing for business

It’s the same old story, always has been….

A recent post on The Junto, a group blog on early American history, tells the little known story of government financing and support for private business enterprise—in the 1820s, when America’s first integrated “factories” were built in Lowell, MA.

The Junto report, also picked up by DailyHistory.org, spells it out:

Several of the private investors who organized the Lowell enterprise received $1 million from the national government, which agreed to pay off private claims against the Spanish government as part of the 1819 treaty under which Spain transferred Florida to the U.S. and agreed to favorable western boundary adjustments. I guess the Spanish government wasn’t planning to honor those claims. The Lowell owners also benefited directly from American government trade negotiations with Peru, and, specifically, U.S. intervention in support of American textile exports.

It’s been going on ever since then.

Let’s acknowledge government financing of American canals in the 19th century, land giveaways and other government financing for railroads, and, of course, the interstate highway system in the 20th century—you go ahead and add your own examples.

Too many politicians and business leaders today rally to the cry of “get government off the backs of business,” but it seems they forget to complain about the vast web of tax breaks that benefit individual companies and industries, and it seems they forget to refuse the government spending that “serves the public interest” and also materially benefits the corporate world.

It’s the same old story.