Tuesday, July 30, 2019

New England has the dumbest voters

In my recent post "How often do voters choose the best candidate?" I looked at 15 different U.S. elections in which at least two of the candidates eventually served as president, and in which one of those candidates is generally agreed to have been a better president than the other(s). I found that the voters chose the best candidate two out of three times.

Following up on that, I thought it would be interesting to look at the results from individual states. The map below shows how often each state made the "right" choice in the 15 elections being considered. (The "right" choices were Jefferson in 1796 and 1800; Jackson in 1824 and 1828; Van Buren in 1836, 1840, and 1848; Fillmore in 1856; Cleveland in 1888 and 1892; the Roosevelts in 1912 and 1932; Kennedy in 1960; Reagan in 1980; and, although it pains me to say it, Clinton in 1992. Not all of these were good presidents, just better than the available alternatives. Millard Fillmore, for example, is universally considered to have been a terrible president; but James Buchanan, against whom he was running in 1856, is universally considered to have been even worse.)

See the data here

A few trends are immediately obvious. The Bible Belt comes out looking pretty good, for example. But for me the most striking result is the abysmal performance of New England. The five states with the worst track record are five of the six New England States! Vermont is dead last (choosing the best candidate only 13% of the time), followed by Maine (23%), and then Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island (all 27%). Connecticut did a bit better (40%), but is still red rather than green. A pattern like that can't be a coincidence. Also note that the Mormon Corridor, despite being conservative/religious like the Bible Belt, is red -- because the early Mormons who settled that region were mostly transplants from New England! Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were both born in Vermont.

I have no real idea what the problem with New Englanders is. I lived in New Hampshire for five years and am quite fond of the region, but apparently democracy just isn't their strong suit. The God who made New Hampshire taunted the lofty land with clueless voters.

UPDATE: I've corrected some minor errors in my data, but nothing of substance has changed. Nebraska is now tied with Rhode Island for the third-worst position, the only non-New England state to do so badly.

The Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world

Josefa de Óbidos, The Sacrifical Lamb (c. 1680)

When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he said, "Behold the Lambe of God, which taketh away the sinne of the world" (John 1:29).

The standard interpretation is that John is alluding to the sacrificial rites of the Old Testament -- particularly the "sin-offerings" detailed in Leviticus 4, in which animals were ritually slaughtered in order to obtain forgiveness for sins. Jesus, then, would be the ultimate sacrificial animal, and when the Romans executed him they were unwittingly playing the role of the Levitical priest who slits the victim's throat, sprinkles its blood about, and burns its fat and some of its internal organs on the altar, somehow effecting thereby the forgiveness of sins. On this view, the crucifixion of Christ was not merely an execution, nor even a martyrdom, but an act of ritual human sacrifice to appease the wrath of God. (Fortunately the Roman soldiers were not aware that they were participating in such a monstrous ritual. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.")

John, then, was saying, "Behold the sacrificial victim of God, whose death will bring about the forgiveness of all the sins committed in the world."

This interpretation of John is, I think, unacceptable. It makes no logical or moral sense to say that God's forgiveness can be obtained through blood sacrifice, whether animal or human -- or that a blood sacrifice "counts" when the victim only stays dead for a single weekend -- or that the greatest and most effective sacrificial ritual should be performed not by God's consecrated priests, but by the soldiers of a brutal pagan empire who didn't even realize that what they were doing had any religious significance. Suppose Genghis Khan sacked a village, killed all the livestock, and burned the place to the ground. Could we expect anyone's sins to be forgiven as a result of such an incident, on the grounds that it constituted an unwitting sin-offering? But we might as well believe that as that the blackguards and barbarians who put Christ to death were unknowingly officiating in the greatest priestly ritual of all time.

Any acceptable reading of John's words must do better than this.


Bruce Charlton, who has made the Fourth Gospel a special object of study, resulting in an interpretation that is unique, insightful, and thought-provoking, has this to say about the passage we are considering.
A man emerges, Jesus - who is instantly recognised, on sight, by John the Baptist as being the Messiah: the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world. When John baptises him, John perceives that the Spirit of God does not only touch and depart, as usual; but uniquely stays with this man: Jesus has become divine. 
What does it mean that Jesus would 'take away' sin? Sin seems to mean all the transitory nature of satisfaction in this world, the corruptions, the selfishness, that which contributes to the recurrent sense that life is travail and loss. Jesus will take away Mortality and all its badness, all that we know in our hearts to be intrinsically wrong about life.
I had never before considered that "the sin of the world" might mean anything other than "all the moral vices and crimes of which the people of the world are guilty," so Bruce's fresh perspective is very valuable. I think it's a very defensible reading, especially considering that John says "the sin [singular] of the world" rather than, say, "the sins of the people." A strictly literal translation of the Greek would be something like "the way in which the cosmos misses its mark" -- an apt enough description of "mortality and all its badness."

Taking away mortality and all its badness also sounds like something that Jesus could conceivably do -- a tremendous miracle, but a logically admissible one -- whereas taking away the moral shortcomings of all the people in the world does not. If I am sinful, how could anything anyone else can do, even in principle, change that fact? At best, the punishment of sins could be taken away, which is all that the sacrificial animals of the Old Testament religion were supposed to do.


Which brings us back to John's problematic declaration. Even if we reconceptualize "taking away the sin of the world," we are still stuck with his sacrificial-animal metaphor. In what logically and morally acceptable sense can Jesus be considered the equivalent of a sacrificial victim?

Something I discovered when preparing my notes on John 1 is that male lambs -- the animals indicated by John's Greek -- were never in fact used as sin offerings.
According to the regulations laid out in Leviticus 4 for sin offerings (presumably what is being alluded to), a bullock is offered if a priest or the whole congregation has sinned; a male kid if the ruler has sinned; and a female kid or lamb if a commoner has sinned. In no case is a male lamb offered as a sin offering, and even a female lamb seems to be a sort of second option if a kid is not available. Why then did John choose a lamb? Why did he not call Jesus the Bullock of God (the closest fit for taking away the sins of the world) or the Kid of God?
In that post I merely raised the question without attempting to answer it. I think now that the answer is that, despite the bit about "taking away the sin of the world," John was not alluding to sin offerings. Instead he was (obviously!) alluding to a different sacrificial ritual -- the one that all the Gospels associate most closely with Jesus' death -- namely, the Passover (Exodus 12). The Passover victim, unlike that for a sin-offering, was a male lamb. And the blood of the Paschal lamb was shed, not to obtain forgiveness for moral misdeeds or for infractions of the Mosaic law, but to cause the destroyer to pass over. The fate of the Egyptians -- "there was not a house where there was not one dead" -- is the fate of everyone in this broken world, but the Passover made it possible to escape that fate -- to be passed over by the destroying angel, and to be delivered from that death-cursed land into a better country. This is a much better metaphor for what Jesus did than are the sin-offerings of Leviticus.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

How often do voters choose the best candidate?

To answer that question, I looked at 16 different U.S. elections -- those in which two or more of the major candidates sooner or later served as president. With both candidates' performance as president a matter of public record, we can attempt to judge whether or not the voters made the "right" choice.

As a measure of the relative merit of the different presidents, I used the data collected in the Wikipedia article Historical rankings of presidents of the United States, which tabulates the results of 20 different surveys in which historians ranked the past presidents of the U.S. (There are fewer than 20 data points for some of the more recent presidents, since the earliest surveys were conducted in the mid-20th century; for each president, I also excluded as premature any results obtained before he had completed his full term in office.)

I was surprised at how little controversy there is about the relative ranking of most presidents. I looked at 12 sets of presidents (11 pairs and 1 threesome); for 7 out of the 12, the surveys were in 100% agreement as to which president in the set was the best, and for most of the others the rate of agreement was also very high. The only pair regarding whom there was no consensus was Carter and Ford, each of whom was ranked higher by exactly half of the surveys in the data set.

Here are the relevant data. The numbers in parentheses represent what percentage of the popular vote each candidate won. The name of the candidate judged by historians to have made a better president is in boldface. An asterisk after a candidate's name indicates that he had already served as president prior to the election in question and was thus a known quantity.
  • 1796: J. Adams (53.4%), Jefferson (46.6%)  -- 100% rank Jefferson higher
  • 1800: Jefferson (61.4%) , J. Adams* (38.6%) -- 100% rank Jefferson higher
  • 1824: Jackson (41.4%), J. Q. Adams (30.9%) -- 100% rank Jackson higher
  • 1828: Jackson (56.0%), J. Q. Adams* (43.6%)  -- 100% rank Jackson higher
  • 1836: Van Buren (50.8%), W. H. Harrison (36.6%) -- 100% rank Van Buren higher
  • 1840: W. H. Harrison (52.9%), Van Buren* (46.8%) -- 100% rank Van Buren higher
  • 1848: Taylor (47.3%), Van Buren* (10.13%) -- 85% rank Van Buren higher
  • 1856: Buchanan (45.3%), Fillmore* (21.5%) -- 100% rank Fillmore higher
  • 1888: Cleveland* (48.6%), B. Harrison (47.8%)-- 100% rank Cleveland higher
  • 1892: Cleveland* (46.0%), B. Harrison* (43.0%) -- 100% rank Cleveland higher
  • 1912: Wilson (41.8%), T. Roosevelt* (27.4%), Taft* (23.2%) -- 90% rank Roosevelt highest, 10% Wilson, 0% Taft
  • 1932: F. D. Roosevelt (57.4%), Hoover* (39.7%) -- 100% rank Roosevelt higher
  • 1960: Kennedy (49.72%), Nixon (49.55%) -- 100% rank Kennedy higher
  • 1976: Carter (50.1%), Ford* (48.0%) -- no consensus
  • 1980: Reagan (50.7%), Carter* (41.0%) -- 93% rank Reagan higher
  • 1992: Clinton (43.0%), G. H. W. Bush* (37.4%) -- 89% rank Clinton higher
Excluding the 1976 election from consideration, we can see that the populace chose the "right" candidate two-thirds of the time (i.e., in 10 out of the 15 elections being considered). This is considerably higher than a democracy skeptic like myself would have predicted.

Friday, July 19, 2019

The Lamanites were all eaten by Tyrannosauruses

You can find pictures of anything on the Internet.

I saw wars between the Nephites and Lamanites (two of the peoples whose history is related in the Book of Mormon), culminating in a pitched battle on an open plain. The battle ended when the Lamanites escaped into what looked like a vast tropical forest, at which point the Nephites gave up the pursuit.

The narrator or guide (a disembodied voice that often accompanies such dreams) said, "And so they believed that the Lamanites had escaped into the wilderness, but . . ." The camera zoomed out to an aerial view, revealing that the "vast forest" was in fact a tiny island of woodland, an acre or two at the largest, in the middle of an enormous grassland.

"So," I said, addressing the voice, "the Lamanites never made it to America at all."

"That's right. Only Nephites. The Lamanites were presumably all eaten by Tyrannosauruses. It is highly probable that not a single one survived."


Thus ended the dream, and thus began my hypnopompic, and later waking, attempts to make sense of it.

"The Lamanites never made it to America at all" seems an odd statement, since on the conventional reading of the Book of Mormon the Lamanites originated in America and never lived anywhere else. However, I had recently read Ralph Olsen's book The Malay Peninsula as the Setting for the Book of Mormon, which argues for pretty much what it says on the tin, and the dream was presumably influenced by that alternative understanding. Olsen hypothesizes that representatives of the various Book of Mormon peoples (not only Lamanites) eventually made it to the Americas by way of Polynesia, but that the Book of Mormon narrative itself takes place entirely in Asia. (I will perhaps post a review of Olsen later.)

Now, about those Tyrannosauruses.

First of all, being eaten by Tyrannosauruses is hardly consistent with never making it to America, since I believe that genus of dinosaur was confined to the continent of Laramidia, now part of North America, and never existed anywhere in what was to become the Old World. And of course, there's the little problem that there were no Lamanites to eat until about 65 million years after the extinction of the Tyrannosaurs. Anyway, let us grant the premise that there were "Tyrannosauruses" of some sort in the area and proceed.

It is implied that if the Lamanites had in fact escaped to a large forest, they would have been safe, and that their being eaten by Tyrannosauruses was a result of their unwittingly entering a tiny wood instead. I suppose it would be quite difficult for something as large and bulky as a Tyrannosaurus to navigate a dense forest and that they would have hunted only on the plains. In a wood too small to support them, though, the Lamanites would have had no choice but to venture out onto the plain, where they would have been picked off by Tyrannosauruses until there were none left.

But if the forest was the only safe place, and if to venture onto the Tyrannosaurus-infested plains was death, how to explain the fact that the Nephite-Lamanite battle had been fought on the plain -- and that the Nephites apparently felt safe on the plain and were afraid to pursue the Lamanites into the forest?

It is tempting to conclude that the Nephites were the Tyrannosauruses. Nephiim (Nephites) is awfully close to nephilim (giants), and we know that their progenitor Nephi was "large in stature" (1 Nephi 2:16, 4:31) and that a Nephite was normally much stronger than a Lamanite (Helaman 4:24). (See more here.) It is also said of certain Nephites that "like dragons did they fight" (Mosiah 20:11). Could "Tyrannosaurus" be a metaphorical way of saying "Nephite"? Still, while Nephites would certainly kill Lamanites, we can hardly believe that they ate them. And in the Book of Mormon it is of course the Lamanites that annihilate the Nephites, not the other way round.

If the Tyrannosauruses were more or less just that -- large dinosaur-like predators (in the spirit of "horses can be tapirs," perhaps they were late-surviving specimens of Gastornis xichuanensis or something of the sort) -- then we can only assume that they didn't mess with Nephites, perhaps because Nephites were larger and stronger than Lamanites and had superior weaponry. But if the Nephites were sufficiently badass to walk among Tyrannosaurs with impunity, how is it that they were afraid to pursue the Lamanites into the forest? Well, the Lamanites were born and bred in that briar patch, and perhaps the Nephites would have been no match for them on their home turf. Or, depending on just how large the Nephites were, they may have found the forest impassable for much the same reasons that the Tyrannosaurs did.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

More Freudian syncs

I make no apologies for my admiration of the uncannily perceptive Sigmund Freud, even though just about everyone in my circle hates him. I don't have much patience with Freudians, or with the system to which they subscribe, but the man himself was one of the great observers of the human condition.

I find that my reading of his works tends to trigger synchronistic goings-on, the most notable of which (qv) being the time my wife and I both suddenly forgot the name of the country Monaco -- only to read the next day Freud's account of forgetting the same thing.

This most recent one is not so impressive, but it still got my attention. I had just dreamt the night before of going into a Starbucks, clad only in a pair of boxers, and ordering a coffee, a sandwich with the self-contradictory name "Giant Smallstar," and a hockey jersey. I was not at all embarrassed about being in public in my underwear, and no one else seemed to notice it, either. The day before the dream, I had read an adaptation of The Emperor's New Clothes as part of a children's English class. The day after the dream, I happened to pick up a volume of Freud after a long hiatus in which I had been reading other things. On the next page after the one where my bookmark was, I read this:
In a dream in which one is naked or scantily clad in the presence of strangers, it sometimes happens that one is not in the least ashamed of one's condition. But the dream of nakedness demands our attention only when shame and embarrassment are felt in it. . . . 
The persons before whom one is ashamed are almost always strangers, whose faces remain indeterminate. It never happens, in the typical dream, that one is reproved or even noticed on account of the lack of clothing which causes one such embarrassment. On the contrary, the people in the dream appear to be quite indifferent; or, as I was able to note in one particularly vivid dream, they have stiff and solemn expressions. This gives us food for thought. 
The dreamer's embarrassment and the spectator's indifference constitute a contradiction such as often occurs in dreams. It would be more in keeping with the dreamer's feelings if the strangers were to look at him in astonishment, or were to laugh at him, or be outraged. . . . [This dream] has been made the basis of a fairy-tale familiar to us all in Andersen's version of The Emperor's New Clothes . . . . In Andersen's fairy-tale we are told of two impostors who weave a costly garment for the Emperor, which shall, however, be visible only to the good and true. The Emperor goes forth clad to this invisible garment, and since the imaginary fabric serves as a sort of touchstone, the people are frightened into behaving as though they did not notice the Emperor's nakedness. But this is really the situation in our dream.
Not all of this can be ascribed to coincidence. Reading The Emperor's New Clothes may have prompted a dream about being naked in public, and the memorable dream may have prompted me to pick up Freud -- but it's still impressive that Freud mentioned by name the story I had read the day before, and that he mentioned the atypical dream-situation of being naked but not embarrassed.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

An ancient garden

I dreamt that, for some reason not entirely clear, it was necessary for me to knock at the door of one of my neighbors (not identifiable as any particular person from my real life) and ask permission to walk through their house and out their back door. I believe some sort of road construction made it necessary for me to take this circuitous route to wherever I was going. The door was answered by a Southeast Asian maidservant who seemed pretty annoyed but nevertheless did show me through to the back door.

Coming out, I found myself in a completely unfamiliar part of the city, the most striking feature of which was a few blocks of parkland where the close-cropped lawns were dotted with gigantic old trees, obviously dating from several centuries before Christ. (One of my favorite trees in real life is a red cypress supposed to have sprouted in the year Confucius was born. These had the same vibe.) They had obviously been planted, with different sorts of trees in different areas. Figs here, acacias there, and over yonder what looked incongruously like beeches.

I thought about the implications. Millennia-old trees in virgin woodland are one thing, but these had been planted -- not an ancient forest but an ancient garden. A garden, not a forest, is the ideal. I thought of the garden of Eden, but of course all its trees would have been young. This was what it might look like today, if we had been able to keep it.

Later, back at home, I kicked myself for not using my phone's GPS to ascertain the location of the ancient garden. The neighbors wouldn't be likely to let me walk through their house again, and I was sure I wouldn't be able to find it any other way.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

High-wire unicyclists

I just happened to teach the following two passages in two different classes on the same day. They're from two different books, published by two different companies, with two different pedagogical purposes -- but they both mention riding a unicycle on a high wire in a circus. (Neither actually uses the word unicycle, though; both instead describe it as a one-wheeled bicycle.)

"Hannah works in a circus. She rides a bike with one tire. . . . 'Sometimes I ride my bike on a high wire.'" The passage is from a phonics unit focusing on "ire" and "ore."

"Most Chinese acrobats join the circus . . . . acrobats use 'monocycles' (bicycles with one wheel). . . . Brave acrobats walk, cycle, or jump on a wire that is high in the air." The passage is for general reading comprehension, and for students to discuss using comparative and superlative adjectives.

(By the way, what planet is the author of that second passage from? "Monocycles"? "Gastriloquists"? Is that some sort of Philip Pullman alternate-history English or what?)

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Pyramids and Sphinxes from A to U

From time to time I dream about reading this book or seeing it on someone's desk or on a shelf.

Something about that title just makes me smile every time -- like the author couldn't think of any pyramid- or sphinx-related words for the letters from V to Z but just decided to go ahead and publish it anyway. (Hey, Raymond Saltshaker, ever hear of a ziggurat?) Somehow, U is the perfect letter to leave off on, too; "A to X" or something wouldn't have been so funny.

Another unremarked milestone

According to the latest figures , the pecks have now killed more than two-thirds as many people in Taiwan as the birdemic has, and that rat...