Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Synchronicity: Diversity in forests

Last Friday, I posted "Calculating beta diversity," in which I explored different types of diversity by considering various hypothetical forests and the tree species in them.

The next day, Saturday, a student had some questions about an article on an English reading comprehension test he had taken. The article was called "What Is a Community?" and began thus:

The Black Hills forest, the prairie riparian forest, and other forests of the western United States can be separated by the distinctly different combinations of species they comprise. It is easy to distinguish between prairie riparian forest and Black Hills forest -- one is a broad-leaved forest of ash and cottonwood trees, the other is a coniferous forest of ponderosa pine and spruce trees.

Not only is that an example of diversity in forests, it is specifically the beta diversity I focused on in my post -- that is, one forest differing from another in terms of its species composition (as opposed to alpha diversity among trees within a single forest).

Incidentally, Kevin McCall (who, unlike me, is a trained mathematician) has taken up the quest for a formula interrelating the various types of diversity. Check out his "Summary and discussion of ecological formulas" if you're interested.

Build up the repertoire

Today I checked Vox Day's blog and skimmed some of his recent posts. One of them had the title "Time to build up the repertoire."

Immediately after that, I decided to look through the unpublished drafts for this blog and clean out the ones that weren't going anywhere. One draft I found, from August 24, 2020, was a note about a dream I had had back then.

I was wandering the streets of what I took to be New York City, and everywhere I went, I kept running into Weird Al Yankovic strolling down the sidewalk strumming a guitar and singing. He seemed to be cycling through the same two or three songs, so I kept hearing them again and again. (I have no real sense of what songs they were; I don't really know Yankovic's work.) Finally, I went up to him and said, "Hey, if you're going to sing on the street, maybe you need a bigger repertoire. People will get tired of hearing the same songs." He accepted this helpful advice graciously.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Antithesis on Feuerbach

A tombstone is exactly where this belongs.

Possibly Karl Marx's second most famous quote, and definitely the most popular among people who would not in any other sense consider themselves Marxists, is the closing sentence of his Theses on Feuerbach, which also serves, in English translation, as his epitaph: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it." Probably most of us have at one time or another quoted this with approval, or at least internalized its message, and professed an earnest desire to "make the world a better place."

Under Marx's atheist materialist assumptions, of course, there can be no such thing as "the point," and his statement is not-even-wrong. As Christians, though, we can attempt an objective evaluation of it. Which of these possibilities do you believe?
  1. God, seeing that this world could be better, put us humans into it to change it and make improvements.
  2. God, seeing that we could be better, created this world for us, optimizing it for our spiritual needs, so that we could live in it and learn from our experience.
Jesus said, "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27). What is true of the last day of creation is true of the other six as well. The world was made for man, and not man for the world. This world is a school. If a student has an opportunity to "make the school a better place" in some way, great -- but that is definitely not, for the student, "the point" of school.

And so I propose the following Antithesis on Feuerbach: The revolutionaries have only changed the world in various ways; the point, however, is to learn from it.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

The queen of the world

Knowest thou that old queen of the world who is on the march always and wearies never? Every uncurbed passion, every selfish pleasure, every licentious energy of humanity, and all its tyrannous weakness, go before the sordid mistress of our tearful valley, and, scythe in hand, these indefatigable labourers reap their eternal harvest. That queen is old as time, but her skeleton is concealed in the wreckage of women's beauty, which she abstracts from their youth and love. Her skull is adorned with lifeless tresses that are not her own. Spoliator of crowned heads, she is embellished with the plunder of queens, from the star-begemmed hair of Berenice to that -- white, but not with age -- which the executioner sheared from the brow of Marie Antoinette. . . . When she goes by, doors open of themselves; she passes through walls; she penetrates to the cabinets of kings; she surprises the extortioners of the poor in their most secret orgies; she sits down at their board, pours out their wine, . . . takes the place of the lecherous courtesan hidden behind their curtains.
-- Éliphas Lévi

Friday, March 26, 2021

Laughing at Biden? The joke's on you.

Regular readers will know I'm far from being Fake President Biden's biggest fan, but unfair criticism is unfair criticism no matter who it's aimed at. If you're laughing at this latest gaffe, calling it a "senior moment" or whatever and hinting that he has dementia, you're only revealing your own ignorance.

Okay, yes, it's a mistake. He was speaking without notes, off the top of his head, and he made a mistake -- but not the mistake you think he made. Imagine in the middle of a busy press conference, a reporter shouts, "Excuse me, Mr. President, how many digits of pi can you recite?" -- and the president, without even thinking, rattles off the first 500 digits of e perfectly. And your reaction is, "Haha! What a moron! I'm no genius, but even I know that's not even close to pi!"

Is it a mistake? Sure, it's a mistake. But what does it show about the person who makes it? That he's got Alzheimer's -- or that he's frickin' Rain Man? And what does your own reaction show? That you're a pretty smart guy who remembers that pi is three point one something -- or that you're an ignoramus who's never even heard of e?

Coming back to Biden's misstatement, let me explain how it happened, and how it actually shows that he is about as far from having dementia as it is possible to be.


This is Joseph R. Biden of Delaware, who entered the Senate 48 years ago, in 1973. He served as a senator until 2009 and is currently serving in the Harris Administration With Joe Biden As President.


And this is Joseph R. Burton of Kansas, who came to the United States Senate on March 4, 1901 -- almost exactly 120 years before Biden made his statement -- and resigned in 1906 following a corruption conviction.

Now which is more likely? That Biden would have made the ludicrous mistake of thinking he himself had entered the Senate 120 years ago -- or that he might momentarily have confused two different corrupt U.S. politicians who both served in the United States Senate and had extremely similar names? Think about it. Occam's razor.

So far from proving that Biden is "losing his mind," as some Twitter users are uncharitably putting it, this gaffe reveals him to be a man who can, completely off the cuff, estimate how long ago an obscure 20th-century politician entered the Senate, with 99.95% accuracy.

Can you do that? Then best stop snickering.

Calculating beta diversity

Diversity? Comme au courant! Well, you know I like to cover all the bases.

There are (or were when I was in college) three types of ecological diversity: alpha, beta, and gamma. Let's say we're talking about a territory in which there are a number of separate forests, each of which contains a number of trees which may be classified into discrete species.

Gamma diversity is the total diversity of trees within the territory. If we select two of the territory's trees at random, what is the probability that they will be of different species? That number (a "diversity index") would be a quantification of the territory's gamma diversity. You can think of the gamma as standing for global; we're looking at the diversity of individuals (trees) in the entire territory, without considering any of the smaller subgroups (forests) among which those individuals are distributed.

Alpha diversity is the diversity of trees within each forest. If we randomly select two trees from the same forest, what is the probability that they will be of different species? This is an index of alpha diversity. Think of alpha as representing the article a -- the internal diversity within a single forest. We can calculate a diversity index for each of the forests in the territory, and the mean of these numbers will be the alpha diversity of the territory as a whole.

For maximum simplicity, let's just look at territories that have only two forests (Forest 1 and Forest 2), which each have the same number of trees, and only two tree species (redwoods and bluewoods).


Calculating diversity indices is quite straightforward. You take the percentages for each species in the population (for example, the trees of Charliestan are 75% redwood and 25% bluewood). For each species, the probability of randomly selecting two members of that species is its percentage squared -- so the sum of the squares of all the percentages is the probability of selecting two trees of the same species. For Charliestan, that probability is .75² + .25² = .625; the diversity index (the probability of selecting two trees of different species) is 1 minus that number, or 37.5%.

Note that when there are only two species, the highest possible diversity index is 50%. Note also that gamma diversity sets a cap for alpha diversity. The two measures can be equal (as in Bakerstan and Charliestan), or gamma can be higher (as in Ablestan and Dogstan), but alpha can never be higher than gamma.

When there is a difference between gamma (the diversity of trees in the territory) and alpha (the diversity of trees within the forests of the territory), that difference must be accounted for by beta diversity: diversity between forests. (Think of beta as standing for between -- though of course you really ought to say among if there are more than two.) The remainder of this post will discuss the relative merits of various ways of calculating beta diversity.


Approach 1: Forests as units

Can we calculate beta diversity as a diversity index of the sort we have used for alpha and gamma? Well, we could, but that would mean treating entire forests the way we have been treating trees -- as unanalyzable units to be classified into a finite number of discrete "species." For example, if a territory had 10 spruce-fir forests, 5 oak-hickory forests, and 5 maple-beech-birch forests, we could calculate its beta diversity as 1 - (.5² + .25² + .25²) = .625.

The obvious problem with this is that forests just aren't unanalyzable units, and classifying them qualitatively seems the wrong way to go about things. Forests can be more or less similar in their species profile; it's not a binary same/different question. Imagine a spruce-fir forest that is pretty much just spruce and fir, and a maple-beech-birch forest that is also pretty much just what it says on the tin. Now imagine a different country where the spruce-fir forest also has significant numbers of maple and birch trees, and where both the spruce-fir and the maple-beech-birch forests have plenty of hemlocks. This latter country obviously has less beta diversity -- that is, its forests are more similar to one another -- but this approach can't see that.

(Incidentally, this objection also applies to some extent to alpha and gamma diversity. Doesn't a white-red-jack forest, where all the major species are species of pine, have less diversity than an oak-gum-cypress forest? Isn't a neighborhood that's half black and half white more diverse than one that's half German and half Austrian?)


Approach 2: All the gamma that's not alpha

The logic is simple: gamma diversity is total diversity; some of it is accounted for by alpha diversity; all the rest must be beta diversity.

Robert Whittaker's original equation for beta diversity was β = γ/α, which is obviously suboptimal. It would make 1 the minimum figure for beta diversity, when it is the hypothetical maximum for alpha and gamma, making it incommensurable with the other two types of diversity. It is also unable to deal countries like Ablestan, which have 0 alpha diversity and thus cause a divide-by-zero error.

Later ecologists (perhaps for the reasons I mention) decided to subtract rather than divide, making the new formula β = γ - α. Let's look at our three territories again (reproduced here so you don't have to scroll up).


Using the subtractive formula, we get 0 beta diversity for Bakerstan and Charliestan -- which is correct, since in each of those countries the two forests are identical in terms of species profile -- 12.5% for Dogstan, and 50% for Ablestan. But, wait, isn't that a little strange? The two forests of Ablestan are 100% different -- not a single tree in Forest 1 is the same species as any tree in Forest 2 -- so shouldn't the beta diversity be 100%?

Compare Ablestan to Easystan -- which, unlike the territories we have looked at so far, has yellowwoods.


Both alpha and gamma are higher for Easystan, which makes sense. It has greater global (gamma) diversity, and Forest 2 has greater internal (alpha) diversity. But shouldn't its beta diversity -- the difference between the two forests -- be exactly the same as Ablestan's? In both territories, the trees in Forest 1 are 100% different from those in Forest 2. But the subtractive formula gives us a beta of only 37.5% for Easystan, lower than Ablestan's 50%. Obviously this formula is not capturing the intuitive meaning of beta diversity.

Or consider Foxstan, which differs from Ablestan only in that its forests are not the same size; 75% of its trees are in Forest 1.


Both Ablestan and Foxstan have an alpha of 0, which is correct because there is no internal diversity within their forests at all. Ablestan has a higher gamma because it is half redwoods and half bluewoods -- the maximum diversity possible when there are only two species. In Foxstan, redwoods are a solid majority, making it less diverse.

What about beta? In each territory, how different is one forest from the other? Well, it seems obvious that both Ablestan and Foxstan have equal, because maximal, beta diversity. In both countries, the trees in Forest 1 are 100% different from the trees in Forest 2. If anything, we might even say that the two forests differ more in Foxstan than in Ablestan, because they differ in size as well as in species profile. But if we use the formula β = γ - α, and alpha is 0, each territory's beta is equal to its gamma, which means Foxstan has less beta diversity than Ablestan. This seems clearly wrong.


Approach 3: An outgroup diversity index

Both gamma and alpha are calculated by means of a diversity index -- the probability that two randomly selected trees will be of different species. For gamma, the figure is for any two trees in the territory; for alpha, it is for any two trees that are in the same forest. So can't we get beta by calculating a diversity index for any two trees that are not in the same forest?

No, this doesn't work, either. Consider the case of Bakerstan and Charliestan.


Both of these territories should have a beta of 0, because each has two identical forests. But -- precisely because the two forests are identical -- comparing two random trees from different forests is the same as comparing two from the same forest, or from the territory as a whole, so β = α = γ. This method gives Bakerstan a beta of 50%, when it ought to be 0. That's a pretty serious error!

So maybe we should say beta diversity is outgroup diversity (call it xi) minus ingroup diversity (alpha): β = ξ - α. That would give us the desired 0 beta value for Bakerstan and Charliestan. Does it work more generally? No. It fails the Easystan test.


In Ablestan, xi is 1 and alpha is 0, so beta is also 1. This is correct, since the two forests are maximally different from each other.

In Easystan, the two forests are also maximally different from one another -- not a single tree in Forest 1 is the same species as any tree in Forest 2 -- so its xi is 1, and its beta ought to be 1 as well. But because it has an alpha of 25%, its beta is only 75%.


Approach 4: Slice-matching

And now we come to my final answer! I assume I'm not the first to have thought of it, but I'm much too lazy and unprofessional to play the "literature review" game when it's so much more fun to just reinvent the wheel. I do hope I'm not making an original contribution to diversitology here because, you know, that would just be sad. (Alas, my experience with astronomy does not fill me with optimism.)

This method yields the correct values of 1 for Ablestan, Easystan, and Foxstan; and 0 for Bakerstan and Charliestan. Of the territories we have looked at so far, only Dogstan has a non-trivial beta value, so we will look at it first to demonstrate how the slice-matching method works.

You take the two forests' pie charts and remove all matching slices. That is, you can cut a slice out of a pie and remove it if and only if you can remove a slice of the same size and color from the other pie chart. You keep doing this until you can't do it anymore, and the percentage of the pies remaining is your beta diversity. (When I talk about the "size" of a slice, I mean its relative size as a percentage of its pie; beta diversity is not affected by differences in absolute size among forests.)

For Dogstan, we can remove a 25%-sized slice of blue from each pie, the a 25%-sized slice of red, and then we're done. We still have 50% of each pie left, so Dogstan's beta diversity is 50%.


What if there are more than two territories in the forest? Do we remove only those slice that can be removed from every forest? No, that clearly won't work. Imagine a territory with 4 all-redwood forests and 1 all-bluewood forest; no slices could be removed, and thus the beta would be 1 -- maximal beta diversity, despite the fact that three of the four forests are identical. No, slice-matching can only be done between a pair of forests, and the beta diversity of the whole territory is calculated by taking the mean beta of all possible pairs of forests. In our example, there are 5 forests and thus 10 possible pairs of forests. Of these, 6 are red-red pairs with beta of 0, and 4 are red-blue pairs with beta of 1. The mean beta diversity for the whole territory would thus be 40%.

As a further illustration of how this works, let's take a look at Georgestan and Howstan -- territories which each have four different forests and four different tree species.


The bottom row of pie charts shows the species distribution for each of the forests. I have so designed these distributions as to give the two territories identical gamma diversity, but Georgestan's diversity is more of the alpha variety (each forest is internally diverse), while Howstan's is more beta (each forest is different from the other forests). I've limited myself to pie slices that are multiples of 12.5%, so as not to overtax my MSPaint skillz.

The pyramid of pie charts above each bottom row shows the "slice-matching" results for each pair of forests. Go diagonally down to the left and to the right to see which two forests each chart is comparing. For example, the pie at the apex of the Georgestan pyramid is comparing the forests F1 and F4, which are highly similar. Slice-matching rules allow us to remove quarter slices of red, yellow, and blue, and an eighth slice of green, from each forest. What is left -- the slices that cannot be matched -- is shaded black and represents the beta diversity between those two forests, which in this case is 12.5%. Looking at the corresponding pie at the apex of the Howstan pyramid, we can see that its F1 and F2 are very different, with 50% beta diversity. Beta diversity for a whole territory is simply the mean beta diversity of all possible forest pairs.

The diversity figures for the two territories, then, are as follows:
  • Georgestan
    • gamma = 75%
    • alpha = 72.7%
    • beta = 18.8%
  • Howstan
    • gamma = 75%
    • alpha = 57.8%
    • beta = 52.1%
We can compare these to the extreme cases of Itemstan (all four forests look like Georgestan's F1) and Jigstan (the forests are all red, all yellow, all green, and all blue, respectively).
  • Itemstan
    • gamma = 75%
    • alpha = 75%
    • beta = 0%
  • Jigstan
    • gamma = 75%
    • alpha = 0%
    • beta = 100%

Is there a formula?

Robert Whittaker had a simple formula -- β = γ/α. -- which we have found inadequate. Can the slice-matching approach to beta diversity also be reduced to a formula? This much seems intuitively obvious:

If gamma is held constant, increasing alpha causes beta to decrease and vice versa. This seems to imply that we should be able to derive alpha if we know beta and gamma, or derive beta if we know alpha a gamma. (Seems. I haven't fully thought this through yet.)

We clearly cannot derive gamma if we know alpha and beta. Jigstan and Ablestan both have an alpha of 0 and a beta of 1, but their gamma is different. This is only possible because Ablestan has two forests but Jigstan has four, so perhaps a fourth variable -- the number of forests -- has to be included in the formula. My hunch (just a hunch) is that any one of those variables should be derivable from the other three, hopefully in a tolerably elegant manner.

Perhaps some of my more mathematically gifted readers (you know who you are!) would like to give it a shot.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Time, time, time, and time ,time, time again

Sometimes random shuffle serves up very appropriate juxtapositions.


Harvard, Yale, Howard, Jail

When I was in Moab, Utah -- mountain-biking mecca, hippie capital of Deseret, and one of the most interesting places I've ever lived -- I often used to see T-shirts, bumper stickers, and such that said "NEW YORK LONDON PARIS TOKYO MOAB" (sometimes with a few other cities thrown in).

In case you're having trouble visualizing it...

This morning I woke up with a fragmentary dream-memory of seeing a similarly designed T-shirt that read "HARVARD YALE HOWARD JAIL." I wasn't sure what it was supposed to mean, except that it was obviously super racist (Howard is "the black Harvard," so the black Yale is -- jail?), so I didn't give it any further thought.

Almost immediately after waking -- before I had even brushed my teeth or anything -- I checked the Babylon Bee. This is not normal behavior for me; I do check the Bee a few times a week, but it's not like it's the first thing I do every morning. Nevertheless, today I felt a sudden urge to do so. The first article I clicked on was "Kamala Harris to hold discussion with Harvey Weinstein on empowering women and girls."

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Howard University has announced a very special virtual event that will be broadcast to college students this week. One of the hotly anticipated discussions will feature Kamala Harris and Harvey Weinstein as they talk about empowering women and girls. 

"Listen-- I like girls. All kinds of beautiful young girls-- empowering them, I mean," said Weinstein, who will be broadcasting from an upstate New York prison where he's serving time for empowering too many girls.

Female VP Kamala Harris, who is empowered, also expressed excitement about the upcoming talk, saying: "HAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! A-HEE HEE HEE!"

The conversation will last 1 hour, and then Cruella Deville and Michael Vick will hold a special live discussion on humane puppy treatment.

Howard, jail, and a guy whose name sounds like "Harvard." Not bad.

As usual, the Bee's "satire" didn't stray too far from the truth, so it was easy to guess which search terms to enter to track down the real story it was spoofing. In fact, the event will be with Bill Clinton, not Harvey Weinstein.

Bill Clinton went to Yale.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

To the ones . . .

To the ones who have slipped into the mirror,
And the ones who reflect it in their eyes.
To the ones who must hide everything,
And the ones who lose what they hide.
To the ones who cannot be silent,
And the ones who must lie.

Over at Winking Back from the Dark, I discuss this cryptic dedication.

Wade in the water, children

God's gonna trouble the water.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The last Christmas

Here's the Fake President speaking on March 11, 2021, to mark the one-year anniversary of the birdemic coup.

Photos and videos from 2019 feel like they were taken in another era. The last vacation, the last birthday with friends, the last holiday with extended family.

And here's an email from a friend, dated March 8, 2020, three days before the revolution.

This isn't quite a synchronicity but I was very struck throughout December by the number of times I heard 'Last Christmas' by Wham being played on radios, in shops, building sites, etc. It's the kind of tune you hear a lot every Christmas, of course, but I really did seem to hear it everywhere I went.

I found it odd at the time, but it's only just stuck me that maybe there's something in it - some kind of coded message from the powers that be perhaps - that 2019 really was the 'last Christmas.'

Or is that me just 'over-imaginating'?

My reply, sent the same day:

Okay, the synchronicity fairies have officially been summoned! Just hours after reading [your] email (and mentioning it to no one), I was in the car with family, and [someone] started singing "Last Christmas" -- in March, apropos of absolutely nothing.

Remember this was before anything was shut down -- and when it was, it was just for a few weeks, to flatten the curve. No sane person was predicting that it would go on for a full year, let alone that we were permanently entering a totalitarian twilight zone where it was always flu season and never Christmas!

There are always signs.

Virgil in the wood

Virgil in Hell, with Homer and other poets
(Barry Moser, illustration for Mandelbaum's Inferno)

I recently posted on how the Jon and Vangelis song "I'll Find My Way Home" is about Dante in the wood, as recounted in the first canto of his Comedy.

This song is about Virgil in the wood -- how he emerges, a shade, from the dark to guide Dante and to share his road. Reading Dante, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Virgil is damned -- a fact that, if we did keep it in mind, would color every aspect of the Comedy. Not that he's burning in a lake of fire or anything, he hastens to clarify; he and his fellow poets are "punished just with this: we have no hope and yet we live in longing." It seems punishment enough!

Incidentally, I agree with this self-assessment put in Virgil's mouth by Dante. The Aeneid -- a book second only to the Bible in my heart -- is so unrelentingly dark, so deeply and knowingly without hope, that it sometimes feels almost "modern." Virgil was paganism taken to its logical conclusion, paganism pushed to its breaking point, on the cusp of graduating into Christianity. In choosing that particular poet as the guide to take him to the threshold of paradise, Dante shows his penetrating insight and his genius.

Content warning: Teh gay.


Some context:

Monday, March 15, 2021

On This Day I Complete My Forty-Second Year

Younger years, it seems, had more. It
pass'd more swift than those before it.
Still, I’d swear that more was in it
than a fraction of a minute.

Lives, the universes, and everything

And thus we saw, in the heavenly vision, the glory of the Telestial, which surpasses all understanding; and no man knows it except him to whom God has revealed it.

-- D&C 76:89-90

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us, even by me and Silvanus and Timotheus, was not yea and nay, but in him was yea.

-- 2 Cor. 1:19 

Eternity is in love with the productions of time.

-- Blake

Warning: This is going to be one of those posts -- yet there is method in't.

Degrees of glory

Joseph Smith, the Prophet, wrote of three "kingdoms" or "degrees of glory": the Celestial, the Terrestrial, and the Telestial. Celestial is self-explanatory: Heaven. Terrestrial refers not to the Earth as we know it now, but to the Earth as Moses tells us it was first created: Paradise, the Garden of Eden. "The world in which we now live" is a fallen one, no longer truly Earthly, and is given the designation Telestial. If this coinage of Smith's is not simply an arbitrary one made by analogy with Celestial and Terrestrial, it is presumably intended to evoke the Greek tele or teleos -- the Distant Kingdom, the Last Kingdom. The very outskirts of God's creation.

These "degrees" are not to be thought of as specific places, but as kinds of worlds, states of existence. People, and even entire planets, can and do pass from one of these states into another.

After death, some "go to Heaven" -- a Celestial glory. Others inherit a Terrestrial glory, perhaps along the lines of the Elysian Fields of Homer or the Paradise of Muhammad. Liars, adulterers, and other such riffraff go to the Telestial. This could be, but traditionally is not, interpreted as reincarnating back into "the world in which we now live"; at any rate, they remain at this world's general niveau -- and even this Last Kingdom has a glory "which surpasses all understanding."

Beyond the Telestial, "a kingdom which is not a kingdom of glory" -- for "the light shineth in darkness," and God and God's creation are not in the last analysis truly omnipresent. The nature of this "outer darkness" is not known -- that's kind of what they're getting at with that term darkness -- but might be conceptualized as chaos, or nothingness, or an illusory dreamworld of untethered solipsism -- if those are indeed not three ways of saying the same thing. Only the very damnedest of the damned wend their way there -- those "wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever." None has been observed to return. Are they well and truly lost, those "sons of perdition" who sail off the edge of the cosmos and disappear into the black? Will nothing of value ever come bubbling up from that vasty deep, world without end? It is my rather unorthodox opinion that not even God knows the answer to that. They, no less than the rest of us, are sailing uncharted waters, and "it doth not yet appear what we shall be." I know what my own hunches on the matter are. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio -- yes, and in outer darkness, too. Even in outer darkness, Horatio, even in the abyss.

Worlds without number

The Book of Genesis is traditionally attributed to Moses -- but how did Moses, who by his own reckoning lived 24 centuries after Adam, know anything about what happened "in the beginning"? Joseph Smith must have asked the same question as he was doing his "translation" of the Old Testament, and the answer came in the form of an inspired prologue to Genesis, in which God appears to Moses and reveals the Creation to him. This has since been canonized as Moses 1 -- one of the most important and idea-rich documents Smith ever produced, and well worth reading in its entirety.

At first God says, "And now, behold, this one thing I show unto thee, Moses, my son, for thou art in the world, and now I show it unto thee" -- just this one little thing, the world! But after Moses has seen "the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created," God decides he is ready for a glimpse of the big picture.

And he beheld many lands; and each land was called Earth, and there were inhabitants on the face thereof.

And it came to pass that Moses called upon God, saying: "Tell me, I pray thee, why these things are so, and by what thou madest them?" . . .

And the Lord God said unto Moses: "For mine own purpose have I made these things. Here is wisdom and it remaineth in me. And by the word of my power, have I created them, which is mine Only Begotten Son, who is full of grace and truth. And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; . . . And the first man of all men have I called Adam, which is many."

And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying: "The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine. . . . and there is no end to my works, neither to my words. For behold, this is my work and my glory -- to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man."

At first the reader thinks the "many lands" must be the many populated regions of our own planet, and that each land is called Earth for the same reason that every tribal people calls itself The People. Or perhaps the reference is to the innumerable other planets with intelligent life which must exist somewhere out there in space. As we read on, though, it seems more and more as if God is talking about parallel universes.

Many "Earths" -- inhabited planets -- is understandable enough, but many heavens? This surely means more than the trivial fact that each planet has its own atmosphere. Heaven, in this context, means "outer space." And there are many of them? Explain that without invoking parallel universes. And what are we to make of the strange statement that "the first man of all men have I called Adam" -- clearly a unique individual -- "which is many"?

The first man is called Adam, Moses -- but there are many Earths that have an Adam. Millions of them, quadrillions, numbers you can't even begin to fathom. Many of them have an Abraham, many a Melchizedek, many a Moses. Thou art Moses, but there is a larger Moses -- one who, like me, belongs to many worlds. For ye are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High.

Remember the old legend of Jacob, and the mysterious man who wrestled with him until the breaking of the day? (You should probably write that down, by the way, for posterity.)

And Jacob asked him, and said, "Tell me, I pray thee, thy name."

And he said, "Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?" And he blessed him there.

And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: "for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved."

Now why would Jacob say that? Surely he didn't think he had beaten God in a wrestling match! And notice what the wrestler said: "Wherefore is it that thou" -- thou of all people! -- "dost ask after my name?" Give it some thought, Moses. It shouldn't be too hard for a folklorist like yourself to figure out the man's name, and who he was, and what it all meant, and in what sense Jacob had seen God.

And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: "Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed."

"O Solon, Solon, you Greeks are always children," said the learned Egyptian, "and there is not such a thing as an old Greek."

"O Moses, Moses," the Lord had said, "you learned Egyptians are also children. Come and enter into the kingdom of God."

God's friends, God's enemies

God has called many people his servants but only Abraham his friend. Ever wonder why? Because he pled for Sodom. Sodom! -- a city so cartoonishly wicked that when they were visited by heavenly messengers, the very angels of God, their first thought was, Let's gang-rape them. But when God announced that he was going to wipe them out, Abraham didn't say "About time! Deus vult!" Instead he said, "That be far from thee to do after this manner! Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?" and he started bargaining. Sodom, Lord, I know, I know, it's a horrible place, corrupt beyond imagining -- but isn't there some good even in Sodom? A few dozen righteous men, perhaps? Okay, probably not that many, but maybe ten? Five? And how heroically righteous they must be, to remain uncorrupted even in Sodom! Isn't that something beautiful, something that adds to your glory? Doesn't the city deserve to go on existing for the sake of that?

Well, God still ended up destroying Sodom -- sometimes these things have just got to be done -- but he thought, This Abraham guy really gets it! And that's the story of how God and Abraham became friends.

Those who harp on the Problem of Evil -- Voltaire and all his myriad spiritual progeny -- aren't they (aren't we) sort of anti-Abrahams? Abraham looked at Sodom -- hideously foul Sodom, the earthly City of Dis, the very embassy of the bottomless pit -- and said, "There is still good in it. It should be spared." We look at this vast, beautiful universe -- this Telestial world whose glory surpasses all understanding -- and say, "There is still evil in it. No good God would have created it." When God wanted to destroy Sodom, Abraham played the role of counsel for the defense. And we -- well, we play the other role, that of prosecutor, accuser. There's a Hebrew word for that role, a rather memorable one. It later came to be used as a proper name. The word is satan.

Peter was the first of the disciples to suss out that Jesus was the Messiah. So, after charging him and the other disciples to keep the secret, Jesus laid out his grand Messianic plan: Step one, ride in triumph into Jerusalem. Step two, get stripped naked, beaten bloody, and nailed to a cross. Step three -- but I see Peter's raising his hand. Yes, Peter, did you have a question?

Peter took Jesus aside and said -- in language strangely similar to Abraham's when he pled Sodom's case, as if subconsciously aware that he was playing the anti-Abraham -- "Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee!"

That didn't go over so well. "Get thee behind me, satan," said Jesus. "Thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God."

What the whirlwind said

But don't we Voltaireans after all have a point? As wonderful as this universe of ours is, shouldn't a perfect God have created a better one -- a perfect one, even?

Well, in the context of Moses' vision of worlds -- universes -- without number, the obvious answer is: Yes. He did. And he created this universe, too. Should he not have done so? This is the essence of the Lord's reply -- as imagined by Scott Alexander in Unsong -- when he spoke out of the whirlwind to Job.

It is true that I could have limited myself to creating universes where no one ever became covered in boils, and I did not do so. For the universes where some people get covered in boils also have myriads of wonders, and joys, and saints, and I will not deny them existence for the sake of those covered in boils. . . .

Have you beheld the foundations of the Earth? Seen its footings and its cornerstone? Watched as the sons of God all sang together and the morning stars shouted for joy? Have you seen the doors of the sea? The chains of the Pleiades and Orion's belt? The lions, the ravens, the young of the doe and the bear? Behold the Behemoth, which I made beside you, and the Leviathan who resides in the sea. Can you say that all these wonders should not be, so that you could avoid a case of boils? Shall I smite them for you? Speak, and I shall end the world with a word.

For a nominal atheist, Alexander can be remarkably serious and sincere when it comes to theodicy, and I find his reading of Job a compelling one. The Book of Job as we have it is a bit of a letdown. Job asks an important question and steadfastly refuses to take sophistry for an answer -- but then he is satisfied by a reply from God himself which seems to be nothing but bluster: "I'm much more awesome than you. Do you know any science? Can you catch a whale? Have you ever even seen the doors of the sea? How exactly do you think you have the right to question anything I do?"

But what if all that rhapsodizing about Behemoth and the morning stars wasn't bluster? What if it was context? "And now, behold, this one thing I show unto thee, Job, my son, for thou art in the world, and now I show it unto thee."

And Supergod is back in the game

When I wrote my anti-Supergod manifesto -- my explicit rejection, as a Christian, of the all-powerful, all-knowing God who created absolutely everything out of absolutely nothing -- the main reason I gave for rejecting Supergod was the Problem of Evil -- to which, I asserted, "every proposed solution is pure, unadulterated sophistry."

But in my brief and (justifiably!) dismissive survey of theodicy, I had missed something essential. Like almost everyone else who approaches the question, I had been asking why Supergod would have created this world rather than a better one. It didn't cross my mind to, as the popular cliche has it, "embrace the healing power of and." It is supremely ironic that I should be guided by Joseph Smith (a believer in Mere God) and Scott Alexander (an atheist) to the one theodicial argument that -- maybe -- lets Supergod off the hook.

That argument is this:

  1. Supergod is not limited to creating just one universe.
  2. There are many possible universes that, though far from perfect, are "net good" -- that is, the good in them outweighs the evil.
  3. For any such net-good universe, it is better for it to exist than for it not to exist.
  4. Therefore, Supergod (who is perfectly good and thus always chooses the best possible course of action) would have created them all -- including this very imperfect universe in which we find ourselves.

One may reject this argument -- I think on balance I do reject it, and in any case I have other reasons for not believing in Supergod -- but it is more plausible than any other defense of Supergod I have encountered, and makes the Supergod hypothesis, if not necessarily true, at least intellectually respectable.

When I looked up the Job episode in Unsong so I could quote it above, I was surprised to discover something I had forgotten: that it, too, refers to the story of Abraham and the destruction of Sodom, but gives it a very different interpretation from my own.

"How many wonders and joys and saints is one case of boils worth, God?"

"Be careful, Job. I had this conversation with Abraham before you. He asked whether I would spare my judgment on Sodom lest fifty righteous men should suffer. When I agreed, he pled for forty, thirty, twenty, and ten. But below ten he did not go, so I destroyed the city. And if I would not restrain myself from destroying for the sake of a handful of righteous men suffering, how much less I should restrain myself from creating."

In Alexander's reading, the point of the story is the number ten. (Not five. I had misremembered the final figure in my own retelling.) Whatever good was accomplished by destroying Sodom, it would have been outweighed by the premature deaths of ten -- but not nine -- righteous men. God replies to Job's sarcastic question as if it were not rhetorical, as if it had as the correct answer some particular finite number -- as if there were some equation into which one could plug the numbers of wonders, joys, saints, boils, and so on, and which would then output the correct decision as to whether or not that particular world ought to be created.

No. This is as far as I am willing to follow this line of reasoning. If you wish to continue, you'll have to go on without me. Einstein famously resisted the idea of God playing dice; how much more should we resist imagining him with a calculator! King David was an adulterer, a murderer, and a man after the Lord's own heart; which of his many sins did he feel the guiltiest about?

And David's heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the Lord, "I have sinned greatly in that I have done: and now, I beseech thee, O Lord, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly"

"Net good" is a category error. Good and evil can't be thought of as if they were the same sort of thing as weight or income. There are infinitely many qualitatively distinct goods and infinitely many qualitatively distinct evils. Few of these can be measured at all, and those that can are mutually incommensurable. Even in the super-simplified Utilitarian version, where all good is reduced to pleasure and all evil to pain, the "felicific calculus" of Bentham remains a pipe dream. Good and evil cannot be expressed mathematically and are not susceptible to mathematical operations. "The good in this world outweighs the evil" is not a statement of a mathematical fact; it is an expression of a moral choice -- the choice we all made when we chose to incarnate into it, though some of us later have second thoughts. We, each of us, choose to exist and choose what worlds to enter. That -- not math of all things! -- is the foundation of the justice of God, and the only theodicy with which we have to do.

Note added: As a draft, this post went through many provisional titles before I settled on the one it has now. I chose it simply because it suggested the scope of what I was discussing -- something for which even Douglas Adams's famous phrase "life, the universe, and everything" was too narrow unless pluralized. (Pluralizing such familiar expressions as "eternal life" is also a classic Joseph Smith move; see D&C 132.)

Not until I received an email from a reader -- "By the way, happy birthday. Is the title of the post a pun on this particular birthday?" -- did I realize the full appropriateness of the title I had chosen. In the Adams story, a supercomputer thinks for seven and a half million years and concludes that "the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything" is the number 42. And, yes, it just so happens that the day I finally finished and published this post was my 42nd birthday.

Furthermore, the conclusion I reach in the end -- that numbers can have nothing to do with answers to ultimate questions -- is eloquently expressed by Adams's joke.

Finally, even the name of the author I allude to in my title is relevant -- the plural of Adam.

None of this was on purpose. I take it as a gesture of encouragement from the synchronicity fairies.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Chomsky: still relevant

Endorsed by Sogo department store?

As the world wakes up to the fact that climate justice is racial justice, it's admittedly a tough time to be a white environmentalist. They know it's not their time, they know voices-of-color need to be heard, they know Black Science Matters -- but with the planet lurching ever closer to climate catastrophe, it's so hard, so frustrating, for these environmentalists-of-no-color to bite their tongues, keep their brilliant schemes for saving the planet to themselves, and let their Black and Brown colleagues have the floor.

They may think of themselves as "allies," they may even outwardly celebrate the ongoing decolonization of the climate justice movement -- but still, deep inside, their colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Yeah . . . but figuring it out is racist!

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know I have a tendency to quote from anything and everything -- Dante, the Beach Boys, Sigmund Freud, Pleiadian Perspectives on Human Evolution, it's all fair game, and I like to think it shows how admirably well-rounded my education has been. But there's one bit of dialogue I don't quote nearly as much as I would like to -- because citing my source would mean acknowledging the shameful fact that I once watched several uninterrupted minutes of (cough) Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.

So, here it is. In the future, I can just discreetly link to this post instead of having to mention what movie it's from.


Deuce: TJ, thank God you're here.

TJ: How'd you find me?

Deuce: It's the only chicken and waffle place in all of Holland.

TJ: So a black man's gotta be at a chicken and waffles place! That's racist!

Deuce: But you are here.

TJ: Yeah . . . but figuring it out is racist!

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

An open letter to Charles M. Blow

Dude, shut up.
(No, no, I mean the title of your book. You spelled it wrong.)

Dear Mr. Blow,

Thank you for bringing it to everyone's attention that the Looney Tunes character Pepe le Pew, aside from being named after a white supremacist frog, "adds to rape culture." Rape culture is obviously bad, even worse than Chinese people eating with chopsticks, and we all admire you for calling it out when you see it.

You know what else adds to rape culture? Pornography.

I look forward to a series of righteously indignant tweets on the subject.

Best regards,

William James Tychonievich

A familiar face

Over at Winking Back from the Dark, I relate a striking coincidence -- or perhaps an instance of subconscious telepathy or precognition.

Dante in the wood

Gustave Doré, Dante in the Gloomy Wood

I think I may have mentioned a time or two the awe in which I hold the late Allen Mandelbaum, who might be called in two sense a "translator of genius." He translated geniuses, and he was himself a genius. (Can a mere translator, who adapts someone else's work, be a genius? Yes, just as much as a classical musician who performs works composed by others. Think of Mandelbaum as the Glenn Gould of translation. Interpreting the tongues of angels is one of the canonical gifts of the Spirit.) I've read roughly a zillion English translations of Dante, and they fall into two categories: Mandelbaum, and everyone else. He's also a very strong contender for the title of best English translator of Virgil. Oh, and Homer, too. You know, the three greatest writers who ever lived, and who wrote in three different languages. We won't see another translator like Mandelbaum for a very long time.
Today I picked up Whitley Strieber's Communion for the umpteenth time. It opens with an epigraph from Mandelbaum's Dante, the first lines of the Inferno:

When I had journeyed half of our life's way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.
Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear:
so bitter -- death is hardly more severe!
But to retell the good discovered there,
I'll also tell the other things I saw.

I myself once had a go at translating those lines while experimenting with a new rhyme scheme -- a rhyme scheme which I recently revisited, modified, and used to compose a prayer to St. Joan of Arc. First the opening of the Inferno, then Joan of Arc.

This evening I was listening to some music on YouTube. I started with Ween, whose album The Mollusk I've been playing a lot lately, but then I suddenly wanted to listen to "Joan of Arc" by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark -- a song I had discovered only recently, when it was recommended by some of my readers.

When it was over, YouTube decided that the next thing I wanted to listen to was "I'll Find My Way Home" by Jon and Vangelis (Jon Anderson of Yes, and Vangelis, the Chariots of Fire guy). I'd never heard it before and wasn't quite sure what I thought of it at first, but I soon realized that the lyrics were (not explicitly, but still pretty obviously) about Dante in the wood -- first Joan of Arc, then the opening of the Inferno.


Jon and Vangelis:

You ask me where to begin
Am I so lost in my sin
You ask me where did I fall
I'll say I can't tell you when

Inferno, Canto I:

I cannot say how I had entered
the wood; I was so full of sleep just at
the point where I abandoned the true path.

Jon and Vangelis:

My sun shall rise in the east
So shall my heart be at peace
And if you're asking me when
I'll say it starts at the end
You know your will to be free
Is matched with love secretly

Inferno, Canto I:

The time was the beginning of the morning;
the sun was rising now in fellowship
with the same stars that had escorted it 
when Divine Love first moved those things of beauty;
so that the hour and the gentle season
gave me good cause for hopefulness

Jon and Vangelis:

Your friend is close by your side
And speaks in far ancient tongue

Inferno, Canto I: The ancient Roman poet Virgil appears and serves as Dante's guide (too many lines to quote). And as I listened, although the song itself was new to me, it felt familiar because it was after all just my old friend Dante, speaking his ancient tongue close by my side.

After the Jon and Vangelis song, YouTube played another song I'd never heard before, "The Voice" by Ultravox, which begins thus:

Native these words seem to me
All speech directed to me
I've heard them once before
I know that feeling

Ultravox coming right after Vangelis is a further coincidence, since I had recently read a post by Vox Day called "The new Chariots of Fire." 

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Read a banned book -- no, not that one!

The American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom has been doing Banned Books Week every year since the 1980s.

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools. It brings together the entire book community — librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types — in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

It publishes lists of banned or challenged books, encourages people to read them, and encourages libraries to prominently display collections of these books near the entrance, with an ironic "warning" that some people consider them highly dangerous. Because to hell with censorship, right?

So these guys are definitely going to come out with a strong statement supporting Dr. Seuss and condemning the evil jackasses who want to cancel him for daring to celebrate diversity -- right? Right, guys?

Here's the stunning and brave anti-censorship statement the ALA OIF saw fit to release.

Wow, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, way to let these shitbirds have it with both barrels. Nice to have someone standing up for the freedom to read.

In case you haven't figured it out yet, no content-neutral "anti-censorship" movement actually exists. "Supporting banned books" means supporting the sort of books that usually get banned. Any guesses as to what sort those are? Well, the ALA has prepared a helpful infographic.

See "racism" there in the word cloud showing the reasons for book challenges? You might need a magnifying glass. Oh, and be sure to zoom in and read the yellow light-bulb thing in the lower right corner.

The "censorship" these people oppose is, overwhelmingly, opposition to the sexual revolution and to the glorification of sexual neuroses. That's it. That's what they stand for. They want children to be exposed (against their parents' wishes; see the third green square) to LPGABBQ propaganda -- not, Moloch forbid, to the obscenity of a Qing-era Chinaman wearing traditional clothing and eating rice with chopsticks! When they say they support books "some consider unorthodox or unpopular," they mean unpopular among benighted proles. (What, you didn't think "unorthodox" meant heretical, did you? They obviously don't support crimespeak!) They speak power to truth, not the reverse. They deserve no one's support.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Mo Willems: People who live in glass houses . . .

Obligatory one-eye photo. Illuminati confirmed!

Mo Willems is one of the ringleaders of the movement to cancel Dr. Seuss.

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) — A Massachusetts museum dedicated to Dr. Seuss has replaced a mural that included a stereotype of a Chinese man.

The mural unveiled Tuesday includes illustrations from several of Dr. Seuss’ books. The original mural in the entryway of the Springfield museum featured illustrations from the author’s first children’s book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” which included the stereotype that some found racist.

The original mural became the center of controversy when children’s authors Mike Curato, Lisa Yee and Mo Willems said they would boycott an event at the museum because of the “jarring racial stereotype.”

Well, two can play at this game!

What the AP didn't tell you is that Mo Willems is the author of a collection of racist cartoons called You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons -- published in 2006, not 1937! The cover shows an Indian man with a big black mustache, hairy arms, and a stubble-covered chin; and an Indian woman with a sari, a nose piercing, and a dot on her forehead. How is this different from "a Chinaman who eats with sticks"?


And here he hurtfully stereotypes Sikhs as rippers-off of tourists, insensitively depicts a Christian devil and angel as Sikhs, and shows by his use of the Mexican term gringo in an Indian context that all Brown cultures are the same to him.


The Sikh turban is a symbol of holiness and spirituality, a "crown which the person wears every morning with a commitment to the Almighty that he/she will stand for justice and equality." Willems casually puts it on a cartoon devil with horns and a tail.

He also lets us know that the Chinese are lazy, grovel before "superior" Westerners, and (like Dr. Seuss's objectionable Chinaman) have lines for eyes!


Sorry, Mo, what was that you were saying about the mote in Dr. Seuss's eye again?

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Diversity is offensive

You've probably heard that some of Dr. Seuss's books have recently been "canceled" -- will no longer be published -- because of they supposedly "portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong." This sort of thing is hardly news these days, and I'm certainly giving it several orders of magnitude more attention than it deserves -- but, well, I've certainly never let that stop me from posting anything!

One of these libri non grati (the only one I shall bother to discuss; life is, in the last analysis, short) is And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, originally published in 1937. Its crime is the inclusion of "a Chinaman who eats with sticks" among the other improbable things (a zebra, a brass band, the mayor, a man with a ten-foot beard, etc.) the main character imagines seeing on that street. This was apparently deemed offensive even back in 1978, when Seuss amended it to "a Chinese man" and altered the illustration slightly. Now even this bowdlerized version is deemed "problematic," so the whole book has been junked.


Why the changes in 1978? Okay, I guess Chinaman had somehow become offensive and was replaced with the more up-to-date Chinese man, even though the change messes up the rhythm a bit. (Did you know that technically "Chinese" is a racial epithet, which I'm pretty sure is bad, while "Chinaman" is a much less hurtful-sounding racial substantive? Not that anyone asked us grammarians. It's also still more common than the PC alternative, unlike other passé demonyms.)


But, setting the vocabulary to one side, why the changes to the illustration? The Chinese haven't worn queues (a style forced on them by their Manchu overlords) since the revolution of 1912, so that's just more updating -- but why is his skin now white instead of yellow?

Was it offensive to show him with yellow skin? Is it insulting to say or show that Chinese people aren't white -- you know, because white is the best skin color, and not having white skin is bad? Is that the logic here? Because I'm not sure what other explanation there can be.

Anyway, after those changes -- now that the gentleman from China is a proper post-revolutionary queueless one in whiteface -- what's the objection? Maybe the New York Times can explain it to us.

In “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” a character described as “a Chinaman” has lines for eyes, wears a pointed hat, and carries chopsticks and a bowl of rice. (Editions published in the 1970s changed the reference from “a Chinaman” to “a Chinese man.”)

Okay, lines for eyes. First of all, you might have noticed that the (non-Chinese) "big magician doing tricks" also has lines for eyes, as do most of the people on this page, because Seuss has drawn them as if they all have their eyes closed. But supposing he had drawn the person of Chinese ethnicity with less-round eyes than the other characters, why would that be offensive? Chinese people do in fact have epicanthic folds that make their eyes look narrower than those of Europeans -- is that bad? Is it ugly? Are European-looking eyes the best sort of eyes, so that to portray anyone with any other sort is an insult?

(Ironically, most of the Chinese women I know do think it's better to have round eyes and pale skin. Eyelid jobs are the most popular form of cosmetic surgery among the Chinese, and there's even a saying, 一白遮三醜, "one white covers three uglies.")

Pointed hat. Such hats really are worn by some Chinese (and other Asian) people, and I often see them even in modern-day Taiwan. Is there something shameful about wearing non-European headgear?

Chopsticks and a bowl of rice. I know it may come as a shock, but nearly every Chinese person I know eats rice from a bowl with chopsticks every single day. Is that a barbaric thing to eat? A barbaric way of eating it? Something to be ashamed of?

Look again at Seuss's Chinaman. Has he been made to look ugly? Sinister? Uncivilized? Animal-like? Does he have anything of the Yellow Menace about him? Is there anything at all negative in the way he has been portrayed? No, he simply looks different from the white characters -- a member of a different race and a different culture, wearing different clothes, eating different food in a different way. You know, diversity. That's what was found offensive.

If Mulberry Street were written today, the parade would feature people of a variety of skin colors, and perhaps sensitively subtle hints of other physical racial differences (nothing cartoonish, of course! Seuss's four-color palette would have to go), but these racial differences would not be allowed to correlate with any visible differences in culture, clothing, profession, or lifestyle. Perhaps the magician or one of the aldermen would happen to be Chinese, say, or black, but would be otherwise indistinguishable from a white magician or alderman. Oh, and at least one person would be in a wheelchair. This kind of superficial diversity is laudable. Failing that, the second best option -- as seen in Seuss's non-canceled books -- is for everyone to be white. Any diversity beyond the cosmetic, though? That's offensive, man.


By the way, these are the three jackasses responsible for starting the campaign to make sure all Dr. Seuss characters are white. I know they're functionally just interchangeable pseudopods of the Blob, but it's worth keeping in mind that they do in fact have names, faces, and moral agency.

Mike Curato, Lisa Yee, and Mo Willems hate the Chinese.

Monday, March 1, 2021

My sister and the Maid on adjacent lines of text

Kevin McCall recently posted "Some thoughts on psychics," which begins by citing my own old post "The influence of adjacent lines of text."

In Kevin’s post, I found this:


The reference is to Tycho Brahe, the astronomer, but it's also an abbreviation of my own surname. I have recently received several email messages about my sister's portrait of Joan of Arc -- whom my correspondent usually refers to by her title "the Maid."


Note added: Kevin's post also mentions' Swedenborg's clairvoyant vision of "a fire in Stockholm." The stock in Stockholm means "stake, pole," so this is another nod to St. Joan.

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...