Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Thursday, April 26, 2007


Off for a bit in pursuit of a question I thought I had left behind 30 years ago, courtesy of MassMarrier.

At this point I have penetrated the maze of news articles on the world's tallest Dutch and all that therein was. As usual, that got quite circular, what with news story quoting news story augmented by columnists quoting news stories. It was beginning to resemble journalistic spin-the-bottle until I Googled the two actual academics quoted in the stories, and picked up the trail of the monographs on which the news stories rest, however lightly.

Having a librarian wife has its advantages, and I should presently have copies in English translation.

Why this interest? I was heavily involved in stature studies from the historian's perspective after graduate school, so I've dipped in the pool before. So much of what I read in the recent Dutch stories struck such familiar chords that I've been motivated to play scholar again. The academic view is one advantage I have over the journalists, columnists, activists, and Dutch public officials blowing their own horn.

The other is that I don't take politics with my science, any more than I take religion with my science. It's bad for your teeth because if your political enthusiasms get ahead of the data, you may wind up with a foot in your mouth.

So far I've only seen the abstracts of the monographs. Those alone tell me for certain that the historical background of the current data was badly misrepresented in the news articles. For example, the Dutch were short-er 60 years ago than today, but no source ever claimed they were the short-est in Europe, then or at any time. That was poetic excess introduced by someone in the journalistic scrum. And, as I recall, Americans were never the tallest people in the world, save in their own conceit. I may get to that in the later piece.

The abstracts suggest that my learned colleagues overlooked as much evidence as they admitted. Unfortunately, physical anthropologists have a habit of doing that. They are also overfond of averages. Next time you squeeze awkwardly into an airline seat, you can thank the physical anthropologists who calculated the average width of the airline passenger posterior (I am not making that up).

Now that I have made my biases clear, I mean to poke around and let some of theirs out to air. This will be no monograph, just a peer review of sorts that looks for the weak points in the argument.

I'll offer only one hint where this may go. The otherwise snarky and data-poor International Herald Tribune piece from the news pile does grasp why the unusual height of five percent of the Dutch population matters so godawful much to Americans ( and it has chiefly been Americans writing the news stories about the business). It was that dimension of the question that got me into stature distribution studies in the first place: the place of the issue in the social mythology of progressive cultures.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

This Really Is All I have to Say

I have some other notes, but I'll have an impromptu go at Mass Marrier's comments to "We Shouldn't Talk About It."

1. "I don't see why you frame this as a rural issue and come down so hard, and so stereotypically on urban progressives. Those aren't the issues."

No, they aren't. Still, stereotypes can reflect reality. If you read Samuel Johnson, you find sweeping hostility against the Scots. Stereotypes? Prejudice? In context, they are the perfectly rational responses of an Englishman against a people whose irruption into English society brought with it enormous social and economic change, not all of it good. Dr. Johnson had a reason for his attitude.

I would be far more equable toward urban progressives on gun control had I not been repeatedly labeled a dangerous psychopath, in fairness not because I have a rural background, but just because I knew something about firearms. This did not happen here, but in actual life over my 30 years as an urban progressive. (I thought I was an urban progressive, but my heresies seem to have precluded that. I hope my thorny independence doesn’t obscure the fact that we are more or less on the same path.)

2. "I see the progressive issues as shifting the handgun-centric culture. It's the bigger, harder struggle. As Australia recently showed, that is possible in a very similar culture."

Perhaps one ought to consider shifting the culture of school violence, a particular interest of mine. However that issue, so central to most of our major slaughters these past years, has too many sticky points and sharp edges for most people to handle. I’ll take the noble gestures about cultural shift more seriously if everyone else takes school violence seriously as a pragmatic starting point. Perhaps liberals and conservatives both are afraid it is their kids who are doing the bullying in schools, and don’t want to face the consequences. But no, it’s just easier to get a rally going for Bambi and Thumper than for troubled, lonely kids slowly turning into time bombs.

3. "That didn't require a fleet of new ideas. It used many older ones -- strict enforcement, gun buybacks and the like that many all-guns for every adult say are unworkable. There, they worked because the national will was to stop mass killings and the thousands of suicides and domestic slayings. It is working and thousands of Aussies are alive now because of it."

The all-guns for every adult lot represent the lunatic fringe of the people opposed to gun control, just as the no-guns for anybody lot represent (I hope) the lunatic fringe of those in favour of gun control. If anyone bothered to look, they would find a solid core of people very much in favour of using existing methods to stop the insanity. That was the position of tens of thousands of gun owners before polarisation set in. The ideologues of the right close their eyes and pretend it ain’t so. Those of the left-centre cannot be bothered to look.

Bothering to look for common ground is the new idea: so new that you cannot even see it. To suggest looking for common ground on any divisive topic seems to be beyond the reach of ordinary reason. Eventually, the idea may occur to someone with more of a following. Such a person is welcome to all the credit. If they can implement it before we turn into the Balkans, I’ll be pleased.

4. "Conflating that with removing the shotgun from the wall of the hunter or varmit eliminator does address the issue. The progressives I hear from on this this would like a cultural shift instead."

That’s a little confusing but I’ll struggle on with what seems to be there.

I find it absurd that progressives waste so much energy pushing their angst about hunting. It is absurd because progressives have won on this issue and most don’t even know it. American hunting is in decline, has all but vanished in some areas, and there you are, beating a dead horse, saying it “addresses the issue.”

There is one issue, really, and you have not addressed it. It is how to take the gun control issue away from the right. Progressives have not done it on their own in over 40 years. They need to look to what they see as the enemy camp for support. They need to do what Democrats used to do when they were successful: listen to everyone, not just themselves. Some are doing it, but maybe not enough.

5. "I'll watch for those screaming, "Hick!" I haven't seen them recently."

That’s good: Clintonesque and disingenuous. I assume “recently” does not include last summer. I am kicking myself that I deleted the relevant exchanges, so I must concede to you.

I do have a programme (thanks for asking) which is quite far from all guns for all adults, and not reliant entirely on existing laws. It would likely get me served for lunch at a Newt Gingrich barbecue. I’m keeping it to myself. First, giving away one idea per post is enough. Second, it does rely on cooperation. I know I keep coming back to that point and it bothers me. I should get myself voluntarily committed for such thinking.

From here on, I say no more about this wedge issue, and comment is closed on it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Another Thing we Don't Talk About

Everyone has been on about gun control this past week. As usual, hardly anyone has commented on the real leitmotif of most major American incidents of violence these past ten years. I mean the violence by children toward other children, who sometimes find a way to get back: most don’t seethe as long as Cho did.

We are told that “bullying” is just being picked on and that our children should toughen up (so we can have a higher quality victim?) and should inform the authorities. We are told it is inevitable. (
If school violence is so inevitable, how is it that relatively few people have experienced it? This could be one more reason to fire the Punditocracy wholesale and find talking heads with brains inside. ) When they can take no more, the children who respond with rage, taking so many lives and their own, are just “crazed killers.”

“Bullied” has become a weasel word, thanks to the punditry, so I will not say I was bullied in seventh grade. I was pushed up against a brick wall and beaten three to five times a week for most of the school year, by a group of five boys. That was in addition to the much more usual tripping in the halls or on the stairs, the threatening phone calls (no Internet then), and ridicule in class or, worse, in gym. Neither my parents, nor teachers, nor administrators of the school did anything. They knew and ignored it. Before I was 13, I learnt that in such situations, I was on my own. Authority was of no use to me, and would (as once happened) even punish me if I fought back.

I comprehend these killers in ways that most people do not understand. They have my pity, but also my anger. (It is not your anger. This smug bourgeois moral superiority over the “crazed killer” must go down very well in Baghdad, where bombs and IEDs kill that many innocent people every day.) I’m angry because I held on and it is very hard inside to know why Cho and all the others could not. I’m outraged that so many people in Cho’s life had the power to help this broken boy and did not. They became Pilates washing their hands of him. They walked away and left him to destroy the lives of people who could neither help him nor hurt him even as much as he had already been hurt.

And all we want to talk about is gun control, as if it would fix it all. Jesus wept: gun control doesn’t matter jack until we face up to this problem and fix it for good.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

We Shouldn't talk About It

In the horrid backwash of the Virginia Tech tragedy, Virginia's governor has asked everyone with a political agenda to tone it down (I'd like a link to that).

This has been widely interpreted as a ban on discussing
  1. The troubling and inconsistent accounts of VT campus security's emergency response. All we have now comes from a security chief with an obvious interest in covering his ass.

  2. Gun control .
I think I'll discuss Number 2, since I don't live in Virginia. It should be amusing.

There is really only one wedge issue. It isn't abortion, it isn't gay marriage. It is gun control and all that travels in its wake. While the other two issues make screaming lunatics of conservatives, and high-minded martyrs of liberals, gun control (plus hunting control plus whatever) makes screaming lunatics of nearly everyone.

I regret to observe that the issue brings out the worst in anyone of a progressive bent. It brings out the worst trait of liberalism, which is the tendency to say "I know what's right, I'll decide for you what is right, and you're an illiterate turd if you don't accept my decision with gratitude." Cruise the progressive blogosphere today and you'll catch my drift. There is no end of vindictive, vituperative prose, chiefly (pardon me) aimed at demonising anyone who ever held a gun, and very little concerned with finding new solutions to this problem.

At work today, two of us were discussing the Explainer's alleged explanation of how a man with two handguns could kill 33 people. The explanation covered everything, badly, except what really mattered: that a 9 mm pistol bullet is capable of shooting through an engine block, which really leaves you with no place to hide. The size of the weapon, we were commenting, has little bearing on the stopping power of its projectiles.

This was my cubicle mate's cue to jump into the conversation with a jocular, but sincere, comment that we must both be potential homicidal maniacs because we knew how firearms worked.

Wow: knowledge is dangerous. When did that become a liberal concept? Where firearms are concerned, it has been a liberal concept all of my life.

Any issue that involves firearms (or seems to) draws an ineradicable line in the sand between rural and urban people. It is almost a caricature to think of rural people as hicks believing that liberals are people who "want to take our guns away." The trouble is, many liberals do want to disarm the entire population. Let's be honest: that isn't about crime. It is about a fundamental disquietude about firearms and hunting, which occupy a central part of real rural life ( as opposed to the gentrified version). Both are more foreign to most urban progressives than the life of a village in India.

Progressives rightly expect conservatives to look all facets of many issues, yet fail entirely to do so themselves when it comes to this point. Far too many urban progressives do not care what rural people think or how they live lives that may be vastly different from their own. Which suggests these progressives have forgotten how to listen.

Gov. Kaine was perfectly correct when he asked people to back off the political dimensions of the Virginia Tech tragedy. It is a poser for both screaming camps, fraught with awkward questions. The shooter's purchases were perfectly legal. His possession of them on campus was not, but was never detected. So, if gun laws ( including an outright ban on possession at this location) can't prevent mass murder, what can? Alert prevention and boots-on-the-ground police work?

Oops: that brings us around to forbidden topic Number 1, doesn't it? I will at least leave that one alone.

If I could advance one idea to the Democratic Party before the 2008 election, it would be to steal the gun control issue away from the right. The issue has not budged an inch in 45 years, and will not without a wholly fresh approach. To do that, progressives need to do some really honest self-assessment about the motives behind the violent animosity they show, not only to right wing interests using the issue, but toward people like me.

All I'm proposing is that urban progressives drop the "hick" stereotypes, consider how to neutralise this issue, and try to reconnect with the ordinary people they've frightened and antagonised over gun control. I expect to be hammered for suggesting that, from both sides if anyone actually reads this stuff. I certainly was the last time I brought it up, and the climate then was much less charged. Last time I shut up shop. This time I'm waiting for prose that makes my point.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Beware of the Simple Answer

Mass Marrier /Harrumpher drops in here sometimes, about as often as I write these days, so he may be able to provide a link to comments of his that started this train of thought.

He was on about the average height in the Netherlands having exceeded that in the United States. It couldn’t be any reflection of racial diversity, he said. It must be because the Dutch were doing a better job raising and feeding both children and adults. I think that’s a fair executive summary?

For me, this sparked a rewind to the mid-1970s, when I worked at a Freedom Trail historic site with a brand-new MA in American Studies. Like “everybody” in public history, I believed that “everybody was short back then.”

One day, I was at lunch with a co-worker, who happened to be a graduate student in biological sciences at one of our august institutions. I mentioned the general belief in casual conversation; he cocked an eyebrow and asked what the arguments were in favour of the belief. I recited them, and he said that biologically, the belief made no sense.

That rather sparked my interest and a fair amount of research. Damned if he wasn’t right.

For Americans, the matter of stature is a deeply embedded cultural myth: a myth in the literal sense of a story that reflects a peoples’ sense of identity. The myth began with the offhand discovery that the “average height” of World War Two draftees was an inch taller than that of World War One. It was reinforced with some highly biased anthropological studies arguing for a deterministic connection between individual height and nutrition. The fact and the anthropology fit in neatly with an American desire to see this as a progressive culture, one in which everything is always better. One could argue that this was painfully important to adults who had been the children of the Great Depression. The draftee evidence also lent itself wonderfully to one of the great pitfalls of humanities research: the sine wave fallacy. For instance, using the draftee evidence as an example, if there was a one inch difference between these two generations, then it is allowable to posit a one inch increase in stature going back indefinitely. That is the sine wave fallacy. The absurdity of the logic is easily demonstrated: it would make Charlemagne one inch tall.

Alas, the biology is far more complex. The height of Homo Sapiens, barring a few widely scattered populations, falls on a bell curve ranging between 4 feet 9 inches and 6 feet 9 inches, and has done so as far back as we have evidence of Homo Sapiens. While there are medians that fall out along this curve in given populations, there is no "average height:" that is just a mathematical construct. Everything on that curve is normal. All other things being equal, the female median will be lower than the male median in a given population. Nutrition is just one of a host of factors influencing the median. One of those appears to be that changes in stature distribution can be entirely, and maddeningly, random.

Alas too for MM’s argument, genetics do play a powerful role in stature distribution. Let’s take the argument that Southeast Asians are shorter because they are malnourished. That is true is some, but not all, cases. For one thing, there is a good deal of food in Southeast Asia when people are not busy killing one another over politics. There is a hypothesis advanced that individuals from cultures using rice as a staple tend to be shorter than those in cultures using wheat as a staple. This has some merit. However, if you move a child from a rice culture to a wheat culture at an early age, she or he doesn't usually become an adult at or above median height for the new culture. Likewise, there is good evidence that individuals malnourished as children can, if they escape other diseases of malnutrition, make up some or all of their growth deficiency in young adulthood.

Other interesting arguments have been advanced that age at menarche is a better indicator of health in a population than stature. American ages at menarche have plummeted during the last two generations. What do we get if we factor that against the shift in stature between Dutch and Americans? Deadlock.

In the case we were studying, that of Colonial America, the nutritional determinist argument was blasted by hard evidence that even the very poorest inhabitants were eating a more complete and balanced diet than 20th century Americans. I know that the nutritional determinists have made a comeback in recent years. However, their branch of the tree of knowledge really doesn’t stand much strain.

It is important to look very carefully at nearly any such argument made either from "common knowledge" or from single causation. As in this case, you need to know all the empirical variables and account for them in your conclusions. You must also weigh the cultural baggage that you are bringing to the party, often unconsciously, before you draw a conclusion.

Damn, that was fun! I haven’t played with this toy for years!