Sunday, June 28, 2020

Dora Ruffner on Oprah in 1987

Readers of Whitley Strieber's book Breakthrough (1995) will know that it prominently features one Dora Ruffner of Boulder, Colorado, a close friend of Strieber's, whose house he apparently visited in company with the visitors in 1987. Running a Google image search on "Dora Ruffner" doesn't turn up any photos of her, and the main purpose of this post is to rectify that. By a strange coincidence, she appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1987, the same year as Strieber's experience with her. This is what she looked like at that time:

Whitley Strieber's friend Dora Ruffner on Oprah in 1987

Ruffner is (or was) into witchcraft, and the character Amanda Walker in Strieber's witchcraft-themed novel Catmagic (1986) is based on her. She appeared on Oprah, together with her much less sane-looking coreligionist Laurie Cabot, in order to explain to their poor bigoted viewers that "actual witches aren't like the Hollywood stereotypes." (I remember "clearing up misconceptions about witchcraft" was a thing back in the late 1980s.) The Oprah clip has basically no merit at all, except that you get to see what Ruffner looked like. She appears, billed as a "White Witch," at the 2:02 mark.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

What's a ghommid?

Lately I've been tagging some of my posts with the label "Ghommids," so I figure I should probably explain what I mean by that word.

The term was coined by the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka for The Forest of a Thousand Daemons, his 1968 English translation of D. O. Fagunwa's 1938 novel, the first novel ever written in the Yoruba language. Despite using daemons in his title, Soyinka considered that word misleading and avoided it in the text itself. As he explains in his introduction to Forest,

These beings who inhabit Fagunwa’s world demand at all costs and by every conceivable translator’s trick to be preserved from the common or misleading associations which substitutes such as demons, devils, or gods evoke in the reader’s mind. At the same time, it is necessary that they transmit the reality of their existence with the same unquestioning impact and vitality which is conveyed by Fagunwa in the original.

This concern for giving creatures of West African legend the same "non-exotic validity" in English that they have in Yoruba led Soyinka to adopt what I have elsewhere characterized as a Tolkienian approach to translation. The same logic that led Tolkien to "translate" the "original" word kuduk into hobbit, a coinage intended to sound more at home in an English text, led Soyinka to coin the word ghommid to refer to that motley assortment of folkloric creatures that might otherwise have been called gods, spirits, demons, fairies, goblins, elves, etc.

I have borrowed this word of his and use it in much the same way: to refer to any of the assortment of beings -- apparently intelligent, roughly humanoid, but certainly not in any straightforward sense human -- which the human race has from time to time encountered throughout our history. I use the term as a way of avoiding making unwarranted assumptions about the nature of these creatures -- good or evil, material or spiritual, terrestrial or extraterrestrial, real or hallucinatory.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Patterns in -al and -ar adjectival suffixes

When does the adjectival suffix -al take the form -ar?

Some books say only immediately after the letter l; that is, -ar is used only to avoid the string *-lal. Thus, we see it in words like solar, regular, stellar, particular, etc. Other books say -ar is used when it is added to any root that contains the letter l, even if the l is not root-final. Neither of these rules is correct.

As far as I can tell, -al is always used if the word or root to which it is appended does not contain the letter l; and -ar is always used if l is the last letter of the word or root to which it is appended. If the word or root contains l, but not as the last letter, both forms are attested.

-al: algal, allodial, alluvial, celestial, colloquial, colonial, electrical, filial, intellectual, larval, laryngeal, lateral, legal, Levitical, lexical, liminal, lingual, local, logical, loyal, lustral, palatal, palatial, phalangeal, plagal, plural, pluvial, political, polygonal, relational

-ar: columnar, lumbar, lunar, peculiar, planar, plantar, vulgar

both: familial, familiar, lineal, linear

This isn't anything like a complete survey of relevant words, just the ones that came to mind off the top of my head. (Readers, please comment with any others you can think of.) I don't see any very clear pattern here, so for now I think it's best to think of the "avoid -lal" rule as the basic one, and words like lunar and lumbar as exceptions.

The million-year-old university

In my recent post The twilight of the brain, I make passing reference to the image of "a university a million years old," which occurs in Whitley Strieber's book Transformation (1988). On June 23, I happened to be reading one of the few Strieber books I'd never read before, The Super Natural (2016, co-authored with Jeffrey J. Kripal of Rice University) and found that it includes a retelling of the ancient university story, with many differences from the Transformation version. I took out my copy of Transformation to try to find the passage in question -- and found that I had opened it up directly to that very page! The synchronicity fairies have spoken, and a detailed comparison must be made.

The two accounts

Here is the story as it is told in Transformation (pp. 108-111 in my copy, though I understand pagination varies among editions).

In 1972 a number of vivid thoughts surfaced that I now [around 1987] realize were connected to that summer [of 1968, when Strieber was traveling in Europe]. They involved a journey to a great desert. This desert had a tan sky that was so bright it was difficult to look at. It never really got dark there.

The little men took me into an oasislike setting that was bordered by tall, very thin trees and crossed by a narrow lane. Over this lane there stood an enormously high arch. One of the men with me -- who seemed very jolly and gay -- said that the arch was to commemorate "the achievements of the scholars." Ahead I saw a completely tumbledown building. It was on a cliff at the edge of the oasis and was so old that it seemed almost to have blended with the stones themselves. Beyond and below it I could see the tremendous desert.

I was told that the building was a university "a million years old." I was really very excited to go inside. We approached the building and I said, "Is it in ruins?" The reply was, "No, but the scholars aren't much good at maintenance." There was an imposing entrance, but I was taken around to a side door that was reached by clambering over sharp volcanic rocks. These stones were fearsome, and for years afterward I had a recurring dream of climbing through them and trying very hard not to cut myself.

As we approached the door we encountered two taller, thin men with gigantic, black, almond-shaped eyes. They were not nearly as friendly as the small men in blue. In fact, when they stared at me I felt naked. It was hard to be in their presence. One of them said, "He isn't ready yet." This deflated me. Things had been going so well; I'd felt very much approved. Now there was a sense of desperation. Why wasn't I ready? I wanted to go in.

The two tall beings left. One of my guides announced, "They said you weren't ready, but now they're gone." So in we went. I found an absolutely featureless corridor made of what seemed to be dark-green stone. The floors were dusty and felt like packed earth. There were doorways, and light shone across the floor from each. I was taken into the first room. Its floor was etched with a circle, and there was a large window looking out over the desert.

When I went into the circle I wanted at once to dance. There was no music, but when I danced I felt a sensation that I cannot describe. The best way to characterize it would be to call it a movement that led at once to great loneliness and great excitement. When I danced I found myself for moments inside other people and other lives. I was walking up a narrow, curved road. A portly redheaded man was running toward me. He was wearing a white toga, and my impression was that I was seeing something happening in ancient Rome.

The dance took on a great passion and intensity. Round and round I went, sailing through armies of lives, places familiar and unfamiliar. It was as if my soul had hungered for this. I sailed round and round and round, going faster and faster. I don't know how long I danced, but it was glorious.

Reluctantly, I left the university and was taken to another building. This building was a three-story adobe structure down the lane from the university. In it there was a room for me to live in. It was unfurnished. I slept on the floor. Once I woke up to hear somebody talking loudly in English. Two men appeared, both of them normal-looking. They were wearing khaki clothes that looked military. I had the impression that they were Americans. One of them had a Bell & Howell movie camera, which he pointed at me. They were standing outside the door to the room behind a white tape. The one without the camera said, "Why are they keeping you outside of the enclosure?" I replied that I didn't know, and he looked absolutely furious.

Next I was with a woman who was so pale that even her lips were without color. She handed me a piece of fruit that looked like a giant fig. She told me to eat it. I said that I didn't care to eat it. She replied that I had to.

Feeling very dubious, I bit into it. At once there was a terrible bitterness, and it seemed like my head was going to split open.
I was aware of a group of people, some with tears in their eyes, watching me from behind the line of white tape as I went off on my own. I found that the grass was very soft and fine, and I sat in it for a time. Then I started to return to the university, but one of the tall beings who's said I wasn't ready was there. He waved me away and I thought it better not to go. I went instead to an area of shacks made of what looked like adobe and dried tree branches. They were very rough and simple. In them I would find things like a single wooden bowl, or a discarded blue uniform. Some of the small men were there, and I was so surprised at the simplicity of their dwellings that they laughed aloud at me.
There isn't any more than that. 

Here's the version given in The Super Natural (Chapter 4; I'm reading an electronic edition that doesn't have page numbers).

[B]ack in our apartment on Fifty-fifth Street in New York, I had a more arresting experience with the kobolds.

It came in the form of another powerful dream. It probably happened in 1973 or 1974, but I still recall it vividly.

I was on a plateau in the middle of an enormous desert. The horizons were much too far away, as if the planet was two or three times its normal size -- or, I suppose, as if it was not this planet at all. Before me on the plateau was a narrow road, snaking elegantly through an expanse of close-cropped grass. There were tall trees, like cedars of Lebanon, in a grove off to my right. Ahead, the road passed beneath a tall triumphal arch. To my left was a squat oval building perhaps three stories tall, set in the side of a cliff. Beyond it was the immense desert view that I was seeing. The building was dark blue, and its windows had louvered awnings. The sun was bright and powerful, flooding everything with chalk-white light.

Having no idea what I should do, I decided to walk toward the building. As I went under the arch, I was joined by two small men wearing clothes that were busy with flaps, the overalls of workers. The clothes and the men themselves were a dark, iridescent blue, the same color as the building.

They drew me along to a little ravine. In it were some lean-tos made of sticks. They indicated that this was where they lived. I said, "These aren't even huts." One of them replied in a low, breathy voice, "They're all we need." At that moment, I got the impression of vast stretches of time, and how hard it was to maintain environmental balance, how you must waste nothing if you expect to survive long enough to matter. From that brief instant would later arise my own deep concern with the environment [. . .].

I asked them about the building. One of them replied that it was a university. Now that we were close to it, I could see that it was a wreck. I said, "It looks like it's in ruins." The reply, through bubbling humor, was, "It's a million years old and the scholars aren't very good at maintenance." Then they asked me if I would like to attend it.

I can remember the shocked delight and eagerness that flashed through me. I could see an arched doorway in the base. But as I drew closer, I found myself struggling through a field of sharp boulders. At that point, two very strange beings appeared, as tall as I was, very thin, with great, slanted black eyes that disturbed me very much as they bored into me.

One of them said, "He's not ready." This seemed to disappoint the blue fellows. It certainly disappointed me, and I tried to get around them, but they blocked my way. I sensed that the whole history and meaning of humanity must be known in that place, and that if I could matriculate there, I could learn the truth of us and the secrets of our lives [. . .]. I wanted to go in, and badly, but I understood that I had to obey them. The little blue men reacted with regret. They still thought I was ready. Finally, I turned away. The next moment, I woke up.

The core story

Here is the core narrative, consisting of the overlap between the two accounts. This overlap is so substantial that these can only be read as two different versions of the same experience.

Strieber was in a large desert where the sunlight was very bright. There were tall trees, grass, and a narrow road or lane, which passed under a very large arch. At least from the time he reached the arch, and perhaps before that, he was accompanied by little men in blue.

He saw a building, built into the side of a cliff. He thought it must be in ruins, but the little men explained that it was a million-year-old university, and that the scholars weren't very good at maintenance. He had to climb through a field of sharp rocks to reach the entrance. At the entrance, he was met by two taller, thin beings with large slanted black eyes that stared into him in a way that he found disturbing. These two beings said he wasn't ready to enter the university. This disappointed both Strieber and the little men, who thought he was ready.

At some point, either before or after this attempt to enter the university, he saw some extremely simple dwellings made of sticks and understood that the little men lived in them.


At first glance, the most obvious difference is that Super Natural presents this as a dream Strieber had in New York in 1973 or 1974, whereas Transformation presents it as something he actually experienced during his summer in continental Europe in 1968. Looking more carefully at the Transformation account, though, I see that he is careful to avoid actually calling it a memory. Rather, it was one of "a number of vivid thoughts" that "surfaced" in 1972, which he later decided "were connected to that summer" of 1968. In other words, nothing in Transformation is strictly inconsistent with the whole thing's being a dream or fantasy that he had in New York in the early 1970s.

The other glaring difference is that the Super Natural version ends when Strieber is prevented from entering the university, turns away, and wakes up -- whereas the Transformation version continues for seven more paragraphs, with Strieber entering the university after all, dancing there and seeing a vision of ancient Rome (a theme which he would revisit in The Secret School, this time placing it in his childhood), and even living in the vicinity of the university for a period of time. This seems awfully hard to square with Super Natural's "The next moment, I woke up" -- unless the narrative in Transformation is spliced together from several originally separate dreams or fantasies; he does introduce it with a reference to "a number of vivid thoughts." Apparently, by the time he wrote Super Natural, Strieber was no longer so sure that these scenes belonged together, or that they had any reference to 1968.

Besides these two biggies, there are a number of minor differences. Transformation refers only to "little men in blue," but Super Natural adds that the men themselves were "a dark, iridescent blue," too, as was the university building. In Transformation, we are told that the university "seemed almost to have blended with the stones themselves," which seems inconsistent with its being blue.

In Transformation, Strieber is led by the little men from the beginning; in Super Natural, he is on his own at first and is joined by the little men when he reaches the arch.

In Transformation, Strieber sees the little men's very simple dwellings after visiting the university, and their reaction to his surprise is to laugh out loud. In Super Natural, he sees the dwellings before the university, and the little men's reaction is to solemnly intone, "They're all we need," triggering a moment of insight which Strieber considers as marking the beginning of his concern with environmental issues. The supposedly transformative impact of this episode is missing in Transformation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Kobolds aren't blue.

Apologies to Bill Watterson

In Chapter 4 of The Super Natural, Whitley Strieber attempts -- not for the first time -- to connect the little blue men of his close-encounter experiences with the kobolds of German folkore.

Like so many of the aliens believed to have recently arrived, little blue men have been with us for a long time. As is the case with most of the other forms, they were originally identified in folklore -- most frequently, in this case, in northern European folklore. [. . .] In the past, they were most often found in mines. Now they're known as "blue aliens." They were observed by German, Welsh, Cornish, and English miners. The folklore was most developed in Germany, where they were given the name kobolds. Because of its dark blue color, the metal cobalt, discovered in a German mine in 1735, was named after them. But the word "kobold" ultimately derives from the Greek for "rogue." Most appropriate, judging from my own experience with them. They were said to carry, at the level of the heart, a small orb, glowing red, and, in point of fact, I've seen that myself.

Only in Strieber's books have I ever encountered the idea that kobolds are blue.

While "cobalt ores" were indeed named for the legendary kobold, this was because they are worthless and toxic, and were thus thought to be the handiwork of subterranean goblins -- not because they could be used to produce a pigment that was the same color as those goblins!

The glowing orb mentioned by Strieber can be found in the 1884 book Nineteenth Century Miracles; or, Spirits and Their Work in Every Country of the Earth, by Emma Hardinge Britten. I quote from p. 32.

From Mdme. Kalodzy, the writer of "Rambles in the Hartz Mountains," and "The Clock Makers of the Forest," &c., the author of this work has received the following account of these "Kobolds" or spirits, as witnessed by Madame Kalodzy and three companions, who spent a week in the hut of a peasant, one Michael Engelbrecht, in whose family the Kobolds seem to gave been perfectly familiar:--

"On the three first days after our arrival," said Madame K----, "we only heard a few dull knocks, sounding in and about the mouth of the mine, as if produced by some vibrations of very distant blows, but when on the third evening Michael came home from work, he brought us the welcome intelligence that his friends, the Kobolds, had promised by knockings to make us a visit. This we were right glad of, as Dorothea, our Michael's wife, had expressed her fears that they might be shy of so many strangers, and would not appear, unless we spent some hours in the mine.

"We were about to sit down to tea when Mdlle. Gronin called our attention to a steady light, round, and about the size of a cheese plate, which appeared suddenly on the wall of the little garden directly opposite the door of the hut in which we sat.

"Before any of us could rise to examine it, four more lights appeared almost simultaneously, about the same shape, and varying only in size. Surrounding each one was the dim outline of a small human figure, black and grotesque, more like a little image carved out of black shining wood than anything else I can liken them to. Dorothea kissed her hands to these dreadful little shapes, and Michael bowed with great reverence. As for me and my companions, we were so awe-struck yet amused at these comical shapes, that we could not move or speak until they themselves seemed to flit about in a sort of wavering dance, and then vanish, one by one."

The narrator went on to say, that she and her husband have since both heard and seen these little men, who always come and go very suddenly; appear as above described in the shadowy image on diminutive black dwarfs about two or three feet in height, and at that part which in the human being is occupied by the heart, they carry the round luminous circle first described, an appearance which is much more frequently seen than the little black men themselves.

Here is Strieber's glowing orb (though not described as red), but notice that the kobolds that carry it are unambiguously described as black, not blue. (That the kobolds announce their arrival with knocks is also relevant to some of Strieber's encounters, though he doesn't mention it.)

I suppose it's possible that Strieber's description of the kobold is based on other accounts than the ones I've been able to find, and that those other accounts describe the creature as blue. I doubt it, though. I strongly suspect that Strieber was alluding to this story by Madame Kalodzy and that he found it the same way I did: by checking up the references in the Wikipedia article on kobolds. Strieber writes, "They were observed by German, Welsh, Cornish, and English miners"; cf. Wikipedia's identical list of four countries: "Medieval European miners believed in underground spirits. The kobold filled this role in German folklore and is similar to other creatures of the type, such as the English bluecap, Cornish knocker and the Welsh coblynau."

The bluecap of Border folklore at least has the advantage of being blue! (Wikipedia describes it as "a mythical fairy or ghost in English folklore that inhabits mines and appears as a small blue flame.") No particular color seems to be associated with the knocker or coblynau. Kobolds themselves are variously described, but never as blue, and the color most commonly associated with the mine-dwelling variety is black.

An interview with Alex Pietrow (and, What's that weird symbol?)

If you've ever communicated with me by email, or if your blog displays icons for commenters and I've commented on it, you've probably seen this mysterious little monogram.

People often get confused by this, try to read the white bits as letters, and think it says buna or bona or something. In fact, it's just my first name, William, and you read it like so:





Because its just as (marginally) legible upside down as right-side up, it's an ambigram -- text which can be read in two different ways -- and longtime readers will know that I used to make quite a lot of these, and even had a blog devoted to them.

I bring this up now because Alex Pietrow of has just posted an interview with me (part of a series of interviews with, ahem, "notable people in the field") about my brief ambigramming career. Check it, and Alex's site, out if you have any interest in that sort of thing.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

But black lives do matter!

Pizza, calzones, and Black Lives Matter

To which I respond, "What's wrong with the workers of the world uniting?" If you haven't read Václav Havel's 1978 essay "The Power of the Powerless" recently, this might be a good time to reacquaint yourself with it.

The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: "Workers of the world, unite!" Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment's thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life "in harmony with society," as they say.

Obviously the greengrocer . . . does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: "I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace." This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer's superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan's real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer's existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan "I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient;' he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, "What's wrong with the workers of the world uniting?" Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe.

Read the whole thing.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

How the giant planets protect Earth from massive impacts

An asteroid hitting Jupiter

In Chapter 14 of The Afterlife Revolution, Whitley Strieber writes:

The planet is shielded from strikes from cosmic debris by the gravity fields of the gas giants in the outer solar system and by the closeness of the moon. Jupiter and Saturn will take the first hits and if anything gets closer, the moon will work as a shield. The result of this is that large asteroid strikes are much rarer on Earth than they are on the other planets. Earth isn't pockmarked with craters because the moon is.

As a longtime reader of Strieber (who is a horror novelist and philosopher, not a scientist), I know he keeps informed about science -- reads the major journals and all that -- but also that his scientific knowledge is broad rather than deep and does not rest on any very strong foundation of basic scientific literacy. (I remember reading in one of his books that during the Mesozoic the earth was dominated by a single animal species and being completely baffled as to which species he might have in mind -- only to read on and find that he meant "the dinosaur"!) So when I read something like this, I know that it is almost certainly based on some real scientific research reported in the press, and also that he has almost certainly misunderstood it.

I'm a relatively clueless layman, too, but I won't let that stop me from taking a cursory stab at making sense of this.

Look up at Jupiter in the night sky. See how big it is -- not even a single arcminute in diameter? Assuming "cosmic debris" could come at Earth from any direction, what unimaginably tiny percentage of it would be blocked from hitting Earth because it hit Jupiter first? Even taking into account Jupiter's gravitational field, it would surely still only cover a negligible proportion of the sky and offer negligible protection.

As for the Moon's working as a shield, it is only from a naive geocentric perspective that the Moon is "up" and therefore stands between Earth and any incoming debris. There's no reason at all to assume that debris approaching the Earth-Moon system would tend to hit the Moon rather than Earth; on the contrary, the opposite must be true, as Earth is both physically larger than the Moon and exerts a stronger gravitational pull. Of course some sizable percentage of incoming debris will hit the Moon rather than Earth, and so the Moon probably is a "shield" in that sense, but to say that "Earth isn't pockmarked with craters because the moon is" is to betray a fundamental misunderstanding. Earth is less cratered than the Moon because it has an atmosphere -- burning up most meteors before they hit the surface, and eroding away the craters left by those that do -- not because meteors are somehow drawn to the Moon rather than to Earth.

Coming back to Jupiter and Saturn,  research by NASA's Tom Barclay and his colleagues, reported here about a year before the publication of The Afterlife Revolution, is presumably what Strieber is referring to. (His books consistently make reference to very recent science news, as documented by the pseudonymous Heinrich Moltke here.) Barclay's team did computer simulations of the early solar system "after Mars-size planet embryos had already formed in the system, and looked at cases with and without giant planets on the outer perimeter." The article reports their conclusions thus:

The researchers found that, with giant planets around, the remaining small solar system bodies were either ejected out of the system more quickly — because of the angular momentum the gas giants add to the system, Barclay said — or became a part of the existing planets sooner.

Without the influence of giant planets, the fragments formed a large, dangerous cloud orbiting close within the system that took much longer to disperse.

Elsewhere, the article quotes Barclay directly:

"If you have giant planets, your last giant impact happens somewhere between 10 and 100 million years [after planet formation], which is pretty fine — it's like what happened on Earth," Barclay said. "If you don't have giant planets, the last giant impact can happen hundreds [of millions] to billions of years in. This really is a risk to habitability."

While I am of course skeptical of any conclusions based on an oversimplified computer model of an imperfectly known situation, Barclay's theory at least has a prima facie plausibility that Strieber's version does not. The idea is not that any given object would tend to hit Jupiter rather than Earth, but rather that the presence of giant planets would, over a period of millions of years, tend to clear out much of the debris in the solar system so that there would later be much less of it around to hit Earth or any other planet.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Wordsworth's daffodils as a symbol of death in Strieber's Transformation

Past the streams of Oceanus they went, past the rock Leucas, past the gates of the sun and the land of dreams, and quickly came to the mead of asphodel, where the spirits dwell, phantoms of men who have done with toils.
-- Odyssey XXIV, A. T. Murray trans.

In Communion, Whitley Strieber's famous 1987 memoir of his interactions with apparently non-human "visitors," there is a scene in which one of the visitors strikes him between the eyes with a wand-like instrument and causes him to see terrible visions: the planet earth exploding, his father choking to death as his mother looks on impassively, and -- I would have sworn if you had asked me yesterday -- his son, Andrew, in a field of yellow flowers that represents death. And I would have said that, while the exact species of yellow flower is unspecified, some of Strieber's fiction (Majestic, if memory serves) suggests the evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) as the likeliest candidate.

But in my recent rereading of Communion, I noticed for the first time that this memorable image never actually occurs. He sees his son simply in "a park," and green is the only color mentioned; the yellow flowers are from another book, and they aren't primroses.

The park of death in Communion

The park is first mentioned on p. 57, during a hypnosis session with Dr. Donald Klein to retrieve memories of the events of December 26, 1985 -- with a spontaneous regression to October 4, which is when Strieber saw the various wand-induced images.

"Oh . . . green. Shows me a park. I see my son. What's this got to do with him? Is this the devil? What the hell is this?"

After the hypnosis session, Budd Hopkins asks Strieber some follow-up questions (p. 57).

"What about the green?"

"It's a beautiful, green expanse. Was immediately relaxing when I saw that. And my boy. My boy is in the park. My boy is there. And he's happy. That's what I saw. But--"

"Why are you so upset?"

"Because I think the park represents death, and he's there because he's dead. That's what I think."

"Why should the park represent death?"

"I don't know. That's just my impression."

A later hypnosis session returns to this same material (p. 62).

"Now I see . . . a park. . . . My little boy is sitting there on the grass . . . he's all wobbly, and he's like he can't move his arms right. He's all wobbly and his eyes look funny." (They appeared entirely black, without any whites at all.) "I have to go over and pick him up and help him. If I don't help him, he's gonna die. [Long pause.]"

There seems to be a little confusion here. Is the boy happy, or all wobbly? Is he going to die, or is he already dead? At any rate, there is no hint whatsoever of yellow flowers. The only descriptive details refer to "grass" and "a beautiful, green expanse."

The field of yellow flowers in Transformation

In Transformation (1988), Strieber's second "visitor" book, he relates another visitor-induced vision (pp. 134-135). This one has the field of yellow flowers, but Strieber's son is not there, nor is it explicitly called a symbol of death.

The next thing that happened was that my deck and pool dissolved into a magnificent vision. In this vision I was standing before a field of yellow flowers that rose up a low hill. The sky was black and full of stars so large and bright that it seemed as if I could reach up and touch them.

Even though the sky was dark the flowers were bathed in bright sunlight. As I watched I felt a wind blowing around me from behind. Suddenly children of all ages and sizes were running past me and out into the field, running and laughing through the sunlit flowers and up the low hill. They ran in a dense column, laughing and waving, and I felt an anguish to join them.

They ran up the hill and right into the sky, a glowing column of children, and when they reached the top of the sky they exploded into new stars.

A voice said to me, "This is the field where the sins of the world are buried." I wanted to go out to it but I could not, and that was painful, but I was filled with joy just to know that it was there. [. . .]

Later I told my brother about this experience, and he said "The odd thing is that I've had a private fantasy of a field of yellow flowers all of my life. When I'm relaxing I often imagine that field."

The following spring we were to make a lovely discovery at the house. After an absence of three or four weeks we returned to find that there actually was a field of yellow flowers where I had seen one the previous August.

It turned out that the landscape architect had planted the area with bulbs in October-without, of course, knowing of my vision. I had not even known that she had done the planting, let alone what kind of bulbs she had used.

By coincidence she had chosen yellow daffodils.

Is this another version of the same park? I guess a field is a bit like a park, and there are children, but that's about where the similarities end. The children are running and laughing, not sitting there "all wobbly" like Andrew in the park. There are no direct references to death, but the hints are there: The sins of the world are described as "buried"; and the image of children running up into the sky and becoming stars recalls the posthumous fate of many a mythical figure. Daffodils are, etymologically, asphodel, the flower of the underworld. Even the little detail of the wind blowing calls to mind Homer's description of the Elysian fields in Odyssey IV.

Still, the links to the park of Communion are by no means obvious. Why had my memory conflated the two visions?

The Wordsworth connection

Later in Transformation (pp. 180-181), Strieber is on a flight which, due to an ambiguous prophecy from the visitors, he believes may well end in his death. As the plane flies into a storm and begins to shake, Strieber wonders what fate awaits those who die unmoored from any traditional beliefs regarding the afterlife.

What would be my way of death? What if in another moment there was a great roar and I found myself disembodied but still alive, hanging in the air of another sky? Where would my judges be, where my guardian angels? I would wander as helplessly as a cloud. I would drift, waiting for something to happen. But what if it was intended that we create our own realities after death? A man who dies with no expectations would be in danger of oblivion.

The sentence "I would wander as helplessly as a cloud" immediately jumps out at me. Wordsworth is not a poet I am at all familiar with, but I do know two of his poems. One, a poem close to many a Mormon heart, is "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" -- which, as it happens, Strieber had previously quoted from in an epigraph to Part Three of Transformation (p. 161). The other, short and much anthologized, is known by its first line -- "I wandered lonely as a cloud" -- and is, as everyone knows, about a field of daffodils.

Coming as it does in a book that quotes Wordsworth and prominently features a field of daffodils, this "wander . . . as a cloud" line is surely not a coincidence. But is it a deliberate allusion -- is the reader intended to recognize it and think, "ah, Wordsworth, daffodils!" -- or is it a case of subconscious influence, a result of the author's having had Wordsworth and daffodils on the mind?

Anyway, the story continues. While on the plane, Strieber confronts his fear of death head-on, overcomes it, and disembarks a changed man, for whom the world is once again enchanted and death no longer (for the moment, anyway!) holds any terrors. And this -- after a few paragraphs of Traherne-esque rhapsodizing on the wonder evoked by every ordinary thing in the world -- is how the author chooses to describe his new attitude toward death: "When I would turn my thoughts to death I was like a child amazed by a field of daffodils" (p. 184).

For me, this clinches it. The reappearance of the field of daffodils, in a rather unlikely simile, just a few pages after the cloud-like wandering, shows that the Wordsworth allusion is in fact conscious and deliberate. It also links the field of daffodils with death, and thus with the park in Communion.

Here is the complete text of the Wordsworth poem, interspersed with my notes.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

In addition to daffodils and the wandering like a cloud, there is a reference to "the breeze"; cf. Strieber's "I felt a wind blowing around me from behind" -- and, as already mentioned, the wind that blows through Homer's Elysian fields.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

Cf. Strieber: "The sky was black and full of stars . . . [The children] ran in a dense column . . . . They ran up the hill and right into the sky, a glowing column of children, and when they reached the top of the sky they exploded into new stars."

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

The children were laughing, and Strieber "was filled with joy just to know that it was there." 

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Strieber's brother said, "I've had a private fantasy of a field of yellow flowers all of my life. When I'm relaxing I often imagine that field."

Update: I found a passage in Transformation (p. 155) that mentions the park of death. It is presented as a transcript of a letter from one Yensoon Tfai, "a very traditional Chinese," relating how Jo Sharp, a family friend, had been visited shortly before her death by "seven little Chinese men" who lifted her up to the ceiling. The letter itself was transcribed from Yensoon's diary.

She protested and ordered them to put her back to bed, but to no avail. In a trice, she found herself in a verdant park. The sun was setting. Although the surroundings were a joy to her eyes, no living things were visible, only the wind was soughing amidst the trees. It struck a note of desolation to her. She felt a sense of despair. The little blue man presented her with a blue silk flowing robe, which she happily put on because it was her favorite color. [. . .] After this episode, Mrs. Sharp's condition declined rapidly.

Strieber adds (p. 156),

Yensoon also pointed out that the deceased wears a blue silk robe in a Chinese funeral. [. . .] They effortlessly translated her from the physical world into another reality, one that seemed to be a sort of archetypal place of death.

Upon reading this account, I remembered my hypnosis session covering the events that occurred on the night of October 4, 1985. During that session I had seen my son in a beautiful but strangely desolate park. I had thought him dead and had experienced emotional devastation.

Could there be an actual place somewhere, in some parallel reality, where the dead linger in sighing gardens?

At first I had some doubts regarding the authenticity of this letter. Tfai is not a possible name in any Chinese language, and the vocabulary she uses seems to be Strieber's own. Soughing, for example, is quite an unusual word, unlikely to be in the active vocabulary of many non-native speakers of English, but it occurs in several of Strieber's own works (qv). On the other hand, the diary transcript (only a small part of which I have reproduced in this post) does contain subtle and characteristically Chinese grammatical errors regarding the order of adjectives ("the yellow little man," "a blue silk flowing robe") and the incorrect use of and to link attributive adjectives ("a stern and icy cold look," "a slimy and soft body"). I also thought that the name Tfai, while obviously wrong, was the sort of error that served to confirm rather than debunk. It's certainly not the sort of thing any American would come up with if he tried to invent a Chinese-sounding name; more likely, the letter had been written in somewhat old-fashioned longhand, and Strieber had misread Tsai (a common Chinese surname, but not one particularly well-known in the West) as Tfai.

Fortunately, part of the diary passage in question also appears in Lowell Tarling's 2017 book Sharper 1980-2013: A Biography of Martin Sharp. (Jo Sharp was Martin Sharp's mother.) In Sharper, Yensoon's surname is given as Tsai, and she is described as Martin's girlfriend (euphemized by Strieber as "a close family friend"). The diary passage as quoted by Tarling is identical to Strieber's version with two exceptions: It once uses Mrs Sharp where Strieber has she, and it has sighing instead of soughing. I found it very satisfying to have my speculations vindicated in this way; Tfai was indeed a misreading of Tsai, and soughing was indeed Strieber's word rather than Tsai's own.

So the diary entry is authentic and is not Strieber's work. The chance of its being influenced by Communion seems remote. Strieber did not know Tsai -- didn't even know her name! -- and hadn't had any contact with her boyfriend Martin Sharp since they were in London in the sixties (coinciding, according to this post, with Sharp's only period of interest in UFOs). Strieber found out about Jo Sharp's strange experience because Martin had contacted Philippe Mora (who would later direct the film version of Communion) about it and Mora had called Strieber. Communion was a bestseller, of course, and Jo Sharp may have been exposed to it, but it seems unlikely that she would have borrowed the little detail of the park of death while still describing her visitors as "little Chinese men" in "coolie hats" rather than as greys.

Notice also the wind in Sharp's park -- a detail not mentioned in Communion but tying it to the field of yellow flowers in Transformation (and, of course, to the Homeric afterlife).

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Leo, Hannah, and Rabea: Everything they touch turns to gold

Why I am not a nihilist

One of my ambigrams

I wrote this several years ago and rediscovered it while cleaning out some old folders. I post it here as potentially useful to anyone who may be at the same point in his spiritual and philosophical development as I was at that time.

The basic question to ask is “What really matters in life, and what does not?” Pursuant to this, an important secondary question is “Why do these particular things matter?” –– because a theory of why certain things matter can help us discover other things that matter (or don’t matter).

The possibility that nothing at all matters should be ruthlessly ignored –– even though it is indeed a possibility. That nothing matters (hereafter “nihilism”) is not only logically possible but even seems like a reasonable default position in the absence of sound arguments to the contrary. Nevertheless, it should be ignored as unworthy of our consideration.

Objection 1: But nihilism may in fact be true, and a philosophical principle that instructs to ignore something that may be true is a bad philosophical principle.

Reply to objection 1: This objection presupposes that it matters whether what we believe is true or false.

Objection 2: If nothing matters, then trying to figure out what matters is a waste of time.

Reply to objection 2: If nothing matters, then it doesn’t matter if I waste my time. Or, rather, there can be no such thing as “wasting” time. To waste something is to spend badly what might have been spent well, which presupposes that it matters how you spend it.

Objection 3: If nothing matters, that means you have no moral obligations and are free to do what you like and enjoy yourself.

Reply to objection 3: If nothing matters, freedom is of no value, because it doesn’t matter whether I choose one thing or another. Nor does it matter whether I do what I like or what I dislike, or whether I enjoy myself or am miserable.

Bottom line: If nothing matters, then it doesn’t matter that nothing matters.

The naturalness with which the above objections arise suggests some particularly deep or natural assumptions about what matters:
  1. It is better to believe truth than falsehood.
  2. Some ways of spending time are better than others.
  3. It is good to be free.
  4. It is good to enjoy oneself.
Examining these might be a good starting point.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Living in the reign of Zedekiah

I've been thinking lately about the opening of the Book of Mormon.

"For it came to pass in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah, . . . there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed" (1 Nephi 1:4). Nephi's father, Lehi, became one of these prophets, and he, too, began proclaiming that Jerusalem would be destroyed for its iniquities. "And it came to pass that the Jews did mock him because of the things which he testified of them" (1 Nephi 1:19). "Neither did they believe that Jerusalem, that great city, could be destroyed according to the words of the prophets" (1 Nephi 2:13).

I always used to wonder why, in the reign of Zedekiah, people would find it hard to believe that Jerusalem could be destroyed. Here, according to 2 Kings 24 (and backed up by the Nebuchadnezzar Chronicle), are the circumstances under which that reign began:

[10] At that time the servants of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up against Jerusalem, and the city was besieged.

[11] And Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came against the city, and his servants did besiege it.

[12] And Jehoiachin the king of Judah went out to the king of Babylon, he, and his mother, and his servants, and his princes, and his officers: and the king of Babylon took him in the eighth year of his reign.

[13] And he carried out thence all the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king's house, and cut in pieces all the vessels of gold which Solomon king of Israel had made in the temple of the Lord, as the Lord had said.

[14] And he carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valour, even ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and smiths: none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land.

[15] And he carried away Jehoiachin to Babylon, and the king's mother, and the king's wives, and his officers, and the mighty of the land, those carried he into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon.

[16] And all the men of might, even seven thousand, and craftsmen and smiths a thousand, all that were strong and apt for war, even them the king of Babylon brought captive to Babylon.

[17] And the king of Babylon made Mattaniah his [Jehoiachin's] father's brother king in his stead, and changed his name to Zedekiah.

In other words, in the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, Jerusalem has already been conquered. The royal palace and the Temple of Solomon had been pillaged; the entire population of Jerusalem, excepting only "the poorest sort," had been deported; and Zedekiah himself was a mere puppet, chosen and quite literally named by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. When, after all that, prophets began prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem, it is only to be expected that they would be ridiculed -- not for their far-fetched claims, but rather for the absurd pretension of prophetically "predicting" what was already virtually a fait accompli.

Nevertheless, at least as the Book of Mormon tells it, the people still thought of Jerusalem as "that great city" and believed it to be invincible!

How could they have been so clueless? How could they not have noticed that -- even though, at the superficial level, the Temple and the city walls were still standing, and a scion of David on the throne -- "that great city" was already kaput?

Or perhaps it was because Jerusalem was already subject to Nebuchadnezzar that the people thought they were safe. Surely there could be no reason for the king of Babylon to destroy one of his own possessions. Surely, rather than coming back to stomp on its corpse, he would want to develop the city -- to make Jerusalem great again -- if only to ensure that the tributes kept coming in. And perhaps that was Nebuchadnezzar's original plan. However, the people had overlooked the fact that he fundamentally did not care about Jerusalem, and at the first sign of trouble (Zedekiah had sought an alliance with Egypt), he did not hesitate to come back and squash the city like a bug.

The reader will have guessed why this story has been on my mind. Remember when there was a worldwide totalitarian coup, and no one noticed? And even those few who did notice were generally taken by surprise when control gave way to destruction, and the nascent birdemic police state suddenly morphed into an Eff-tha-Police state. The reign of Zedekiah isn't really a precedent for this extraordinary state of affairs -- there are no precedents -- but it does provide some food for thought.

Friday, June 12, 2020

The time I mistook sun for the Andromeda Galaxy

Makes me think of Shakespeare's mistress’ eyes

This is one of my strangest memories.

I can' be sure exactly how old I was at the time, but I was very young. My family was living in Derry, New Hampshire, at that time, and I was out on the deck behind our house with my sister Crystal, who is one year younger than me. My mother was in the house taking care of the baby (my brother Luther, who is about three years younger than me), and there was no one else in the house. My youngest two siblings hadn't been born yet, so I can't have been older than four -- and probably closer to three, given that Luther was still "the baby."

Anyway, Crystal and I saw a large shining object hovering above us in the sky, and we stared at it for several minutes trying to figure out what it could possibly be. Finally, I went downstairs to the small bookcase in the living room where the field guides were kept, took out the Field Guide to the Night Sky (never mind that it was daytime), and thumbed through it until I found a picture that looked like the object we had seen. Then I found my mother and had her read the caption to me.

"It's -- uh -- the Andromeda Galaxy," she said. (I remember she stressed the first and third syllables, which I would much later learn was not the standard pronunciation.) "Why do you ask?"

"Crys and I saw it out on the deck."

This understandably roused my mother's curiosity and concern, and so she followed me back out onto the deck, where Crys was still looking up at the thing.

"My goodness! That's the sun! Stop looking at it, or you'll hurt your eyes!"

And so we went back into the house, and that was that.

The reader will have observed that the Andromeda Galaxy is, to coin a phrase, nothing like the sun, and that -- most heavenly bodies being spherical -- a Field Guide to the Night Sky would surely contain any number of pictures that look much more like the sun than the Andromeda Galaxy does.

In my memory, the thing we were looking at looked like -- the sun -- round and white, with nothing at all to suggest a barred spiral galaxy. The only unusual thing about it was that it was shining though clouds thick enough that its light was paled somewhat, making it possible to look at it directly, but thin enough that the solar disc was clearly visible. It was a white circle with clearly defined edges, looking a bit more like the moon than like the sun as it usually appears. But it never occurred to me, or my sister, to guess that it was the sun, or even the moon. Somehow, out of all the stars and planets and things in that field guide, I decided it was the Andromeda Galaxy that it most closely resembled.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Cheese cat

The picture above comes from an English textbook for very young children. One of my students looked at it and said, "Look! The tiger has the cheese cat's shoes." I guess it's meant to be a leopard or something, but to him the natural assumption was that it was a cat made of cheese!

Cheshire cheese, no doubt.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

References to God as Father in the Old Testament

In my recently posted notes on John 5:1-18, I said, "I do not believe the Old Testament contains a single unambiguous reference to God as the Father." Having now done the tedious work of checking every single occurrence of the word "father" in the Old Testament, I find that this is a bit of an overstatement. There are possibly as many as 13 (but in my judgment only 11) verses in the Old Testament which call God "father."

God as the father of the Israelites
  • "Do ye thus requite the Lord, O foolish people and unwise? is not he thy father that hath bought thee? hath he not made thee, and established thee?" (Deut. 32:6).
  • "Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting" (Isaiah 63:16).
  • "But now, O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand" (Isaiah 64:8).
  • "Wilt thou not from this time cry unto me, My father, thou art the guide of my youth?" (Jeremiah 3:4).
  • "They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn" (Jeremiah 31:9).
  • "But I said, How shall I put thee among the children, and give thee a pleasant land, a goodly heritage of the hosts of nations? and I said, Thou shalt call me, My father; and shalt not turn away from me" (Jeremiah 3:19).
God as the father of Solomon
  • "He shall build me an house, and I will stablish his throne for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son: and I will not take my mercy away from him, as I took it from him that was before thee" (1 Chronicles 17:12-13).
  • "He shall build an house for my name; and he shall be my son, and I will be his father; and I will establish the throne of his kingdom over Israel for ever" (1 Chronicles 22:10).
  • "And he said unto me, Solomon thy son, he shall build my house and my courts: for I have chosen him to be my son, and I will be his father" (1 Chronicles 28:6).
God as the father of the fatherless
  • "A father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows, is God in his holy habitation" (Psalm 68:5).
God as the father of David
  • "He shall cry unto me, Thou art my father, my God, and the rock of my salvation. Also I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth" (Psalm 89:26-27).
Other possible references that I reject
  • "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). This is not a direct reference to God but the prophetic name given to a child: Pele-joez-el-gibbor-abi-ad-sar-shalom. The elements el and abi mean "God" and "father," respectively, but the name hardly amounts to an assertion that God is the Father. (There are also two minor biblical characters named Abiel, "my father is God"; I don't consider their names to be theological claims, either.)
  • "Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?" (Malachi 2:10). Malachi is condemning the priests for showing partiality in their ministry. I read him as saying that partiality is inappropriate for two reasons: we all have one father (i.e., we are all Israelites, descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and one God has created us all. There immediately follows a reference to "the covenant of our fathers," confirming that he is talking about human ancestors rather than God.

So references to God as father do occur in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, I consider Jesus' use of "Father" to be both quantitatively and qualitatively different from anything in the Old Testament.

The quantitative difference is glaringly obvious. God is called "father" just 11 times in the whole 23,145 verses of the Old Testament. In contrast, the Fourth Gospel alone (879 verses) calls God "Father" 122 times -- and "God" only 83 times.

The qualitative difference is that the Old Testament never uses "Father" the way it uses "God" or "Lord," as a straightforward name/title for the Deity. There are in the Old Testament such statements as "God is my rock" and "the Lord is my light" -- but these are nonce metaphors; they're not what God is called. We don't see any expressions like "keep the commandments of the Light" or "the Rock spake unto Moses" or anything like that. "Father," as used in the Old Testament, is no different in this way from "light" or "rock" or any of the other figurative designations which may from time to time be applied to God, and the King James translation reflects this by not capitalizing "father" even when it is referring to God (except in Isaiah 9:6, where the translators are confused). In the New Testament, on the other hand, "Father" is capitalized because it is what God is called -- particularly in the Fourth Gospel (122 uses of "Father" for God, vs. 67 in the other three Gospels combined).

Monday, June 8, 2020

Evidence for systemic racism against blacks

Recent posts by William Briggs and Francis Berger have staked out the position -- which seems at first glance to be obviously true -- that systemic racism against black people no longer exists in the modern West. (That it did exist until very recently is of course undeniable.) I thought I'd check out the evidence on the other side, and for some reason one of the first links Google served up was an article from Ben & Jerry's -- yes, the ice-cream company -- called "7 Ways We Know Systemic Racism Is Real." So here are my thoughts on the points made in that article.

Claim: Whites have, on average, much more money than blacks. For example, blacks were 13% of the U.S. population in 2016 but controlled only 2.6% of the nation's wealth.

Comment: The article cites no evidence at all that this gap is the result of systemic racism. It could be, of course, but it is also consistent with the hypothesis that blacks, for race-internal reasons such as genetics or culture, tend to work less hard, be less reliable, have lower aptitude for high-paying jobs, etc. Another obvious possibility is that this gap is at least partly the result of past systemic racism. Today's blacks may or may not be victims of systemic racism, but their grandparents undeniably were, and wealth runs in families.

Claim: Unemployment rates are consistently twice as high among blacks as among whites.

Comment: Again, the article does not even address the question of how much of this (if any) is due to systemic racism, past or present, and how much (if any) is a result of racial differences in intelligence, conscientiousness, etc.

Claim: Even among college graduates, blacks are twice as likely to be unemployed as are non-blacks.

Comment: First of all, "affirmative action" (lower admission and sometimes graduation standards for blacks) means that a black with a given degree is likely to be less qualified than a white with an identical degree. Secondly, this is not necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison. Blacks are more likely to choose less lucrative majors (for example, social work rather than engineering; see here) and, I assume, tend to attend less prestigious universities as well. Finally, restricting our attention to a population (college graduates) that is selected for relatively high IQ, conscientiousness, etc., is not the same as "controlling for" those traits and does not eliminate group differences. Men are, on average, taller than women -- and men-over-six-feet are, on average, taller than women-over-six-feet. The same logic applies to other normally-distributed traits. Since so many factors other than systemic racism could account for this observed discrepancy, it is not strong evidence for systemic racism.

Claim: If two identical resumes are sent out, one with a white-sounding name and the other with a black-sounding one, the applicant with the white name is 50% more likely to be called for an interview.

Comment: Again, "affirmative action" means that a black with a given degree and job experience is likely to be less qualified than a white with an identical degree and identical experience. Also, discriminating against people with ghetto-sounding names is not the same as discriminating against blacks as a whole, and may well have more to do with class than with race per se.

Claim: Applicants with white-sounding names are more likely to be approved for Airbnb rentals than otherwise identical applicants with black-sounding names.

Comment: Again, "people with ghetto names" is not a good proxy for "black people."

Claim: Black students of all ages are suspended from school, and referred to law enforcement, at much higher rates than their white counterparts, "even when their infractions are similar."

Comment: The report cited (pdf) contains absolutely nothing to back up the "even when their infractions are similar" bit. It simply reports how many students are suspended, with no indication of what infractions they were being punished for, or what percentage of students guilty of those same infractions were not suspended. In other words, it's entirely consistent with the hypothesis that black students are suspended more often than whites for no other reason than that they misbehave more often.

Claim: Blacks are vastly over-represented in prisons (13% of the general population; 40% of the prison population).

Comment: Surveys of crime victims confirm that blacks commit many crimes at much higher rates than other races. The "demographics of crime" statistics derived from victim surveys match those of the justice system almost perfectly, strongly suggesting that systemic racism (incarcerating blacks at a rate disproportionate to their rate of criminal activity) is not at work here.

Claim: If a black person and a white person each commit a crime, the black person has a higher chance of being arrested.

Comment: This is based on an ACLU report (qv) about marijuana possession, not about crime in general. Surveys indicate that blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates, but blacks are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. This probably has to do with blacks being more heavily policed -- which, in turn, is probably because (as discussed above) they commit more crimes. I guess you could call that systemic racism.

Claim: Once arrested, black people are convicted more often than white people.

Comment: According to the report cited (qv), blacks account for 35% of drug-related arrests and 46% of drug-related convictions. About two-thirds of drug arrests result in convictions, so if you do the math, that means that non-blacks arrested on drug charges are about four times more likely to be acquitted than are their black counterparts.

How to account for this discrepancy? It could be due to systemic racism against blacks, of course, but it's almost trivially easy to interpret it as just the opposite. One way to interpret these numbers is to say that non-blacks are four times more likely to be unjustly arrested (i.e., arrested even though, as it turns out, they are not guilty) than blacks are.

Claim: Until recently, crimes involving crack were punished much more severely than crimes involving powder cocaine -- and crack is, like, the blackest drug there is.

Comment: According to this site, in 2009, 73% of sentenced cocaine offenders who were black were in for crack rather than powder. White and Hispanic offenders, in contrast, were 64% powder and 85% powder, respectively. I guess the implication is supposed to be that crack was more harshly punished because it is disproportionately popular among blacks? It's hard for me to work up much outrage over this, since no one's stopping blacks from switching to powder -- or, you know, just not using cocaine. Anyway, this is "until recently" and so not directly relevant to the question of systemic racism in the present.

Claim: Blacks who are convicted are 20% more likely to be sentenced to jail time than whites who are convicted.

Comment: The report cited in support of this statement has no information about what percentage of convicts receive jail time, but only about the average length of prison sentences.

Claim: Prison sentences for blacks are typically about 20% longer than those for whites convicted of similar crimes.

Comment: This is backed up by a 2017 report from the United States Sentencing Commission (qv), which adds that this discrepancy remains even when controlling for an offender's history of violence. This does look like an instance of systemic racism.

It's worth noting that, according to this article, "the most potent predictor of recidivism was being a Black male, even though Black men had less contact with the criminal justice system and few of the risk factors traditionally associated with recidivism." Systematically giving longer sentences to a group with a high risk of recidivism seems defensible, though of course that doesn't make it non-racist.

Claim: Banks have considered mortgages for blacks to be high-risk investments and have either refused to lend to them ("redlining") or targeted them for subprime loans ("reverse redlining")

Comment: Yes, this is systemic racism.

Claim: Black drivers are pulled over 31% more often than white drivers.

Comment: No evidence is offered that this is due to racism rather than to, say, blacks committing more traffic violations.

Claim: Drivers are more likely to drive through a crosswalk while a black pedestrian is crossing the road than while a white one is.

Comment: At least two different studies (see one here) have demonstrated this, and, yes, "racism" seems to be the only plausible explanation.

Claim: A majority of doctors have “unconscious racial biases” when it comes to their black patients.

Comment: The study referred to (qv) used the Implicit Association Test and found that implicit bias against blacks was associated with doctors' spending more time with black patients, talking to them more slowly, etc., and with black patients liking those doctors less and being less likely to recommend them to others. There is no indication that "biased" doctors gave blacks substandard medical care or anything like that.

Claim: Black doctors are less likely than white doctors with similar credentials to receive government grants for research projects.

Comment: No study is cited in support of this, but let me repeat what I've already said twice before: Thanks to "affirmative action" (i.e., systemic racism) blacks and whites with "similar credentials" are not likely to be equally qualified.

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...