Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Blaming the Messenger

So, this was an interesting development.

All this election season, I've been following Nate Silver's site ( for his analysis of the polls and what they tell us about the presidential race. It's been his conclusion that beneath the surface noise and media obsession with the 'horse race' it's been a remarkably stable election, with the incumbent maintaining a slight but significant lead throughout.

Now commentators who like to position themselves as thoughtful conservatives, like David Brooks and Joe Scarborough and and the National Review, are attacking Silver, claiming that just because his method worked last time around, that doesn't mean it has any validity this election -- e.g.

Silver's response ("I'm sorry that Joe is math-challenged") is amusing and his explanation moderate (you add up the states where polls you consider reliable predict candidate A is ahead and compare the total against that for candidate B) -- and of course he's explained his methodology in detail a number of times on his site, including the important caveat that the prediction only covers known facts, not 'October surprises'.*

The most interesting part about all this is that Silver showed Obama ahead for months, with his chance of winning thereby growing larger the closer it got to the election (= less time for the challenger to make up the difference). Then after the first debate that trend reversed, with Obama's lead melting away day-by-day over the next three weeks, stabilizing around the time of the final debate, and climbing steadily back up ever since.

Now, so far as I am aware, none of these conservatives attacked Silver when his poll showed that Romney was rapidly gaining ground on Obama -- this being a message they v. much wanted to hear. But once he reported that Romney's surge had proved ephemeral and was receding, they pounced.

The moral? distrust those who attack the messenger when they don't like the message. And we shd all try to be mindful of our innate tendencies to embrace evidence that supports a conclusion we like and downgrade evidence that supports one we don't like: basic human nature.

--John R., still in election mode

P.S.: Thanks to Janice for pointing out that Paul Krugman, who as a Nobel-Prize winning economist knows a thing or two about numbers and statistics, and who's never shy about offering a pungent comment, has come to Silver's defense:

*Tues. night I heard for the first time the suggestion that Tropical Storm Sam was a classic 'October Surprise'.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Voting (Presidential Candidates)

So, to return to the voting, let's move on to The Big One.

I'm a Decided. In fact, I've known for over a year, since watching the bizarre array of candidates on the Republican side, who I'd be voting for. So much so that I find it hard to believe people who still claim to be 'undecided': if you haven't cared enough to pay attention, please continue to drift on your merry way and let those of us who actually care get on with the election.

Which doesn't mean that, come the Voter Pamphlet, I don't read up on the positions of the minor-party candidates. There are eight tickets that made the ballot here in Washington State: the Democrats (Obama and Biden), Republicans (Romney and Ryan), Libertarians (Gary Johnson), Constitution (Virgil Goode), Greens (Jill Stein), Socialism and Liberation (Peta Lindsay), Socialist Workers (James Harris), and Justice (Rocky Anderson). Let's take them in reverse order:

The Justice Party
These folks had the best party platform, bar none, of all the people running. I'm for virtually everything they advocate: good schools, less college debt, a WPA program, equal rights, an end to the War on Drugs, major prison system reform, healthcare for all, clean energy and "responsible environmental stewardship"; support for human rights, an end to drone killings and assassinations, a return of habeas corpus.  If I thought they had the ghost of a chance I'd vote for this ticket, no question. But they don't, so I won't: I want my vote to actually count as something more than just a protest or wishful thinking.

The Socialist Workers Party
Pure pro-union. I'm all for workers being well treated, citizen or immigrant, here or abroad. But it's a pretty narrow focus: a one-plank platform, so to speak. I want more out of a presidential candidate than that.  Though to be fair their vision includes an end to the war in Afghanistan and a general desire "to champion the struggles of the oppressed and exploited". They'd make a great advocacy group, but president and V.P.? I doubt it.

The Socialism and Liberation Party
My initial reaction is, which is it? Socialism or Liberation? And if they can't make up their minds, why shd we take them seriously?
   My second thought: both their Presidential and Vice-President candidates have never held elective office before. Apparently they view the Presidency as an entry-level position. If they're not going to take themselves seriously, why shd we?
   My third thought: these people have an extremely ambitious agenda -- free healthcare, affordable jobs for all, free education, an end to war and sanctions and occupations, an end to mass incarceration, equality for women, gay rights, forgiving college and mortgage debt, immigrants' rights, clean environment, cutting greenhouse gases, renewable energy, an end to homelessness, and more. They'll fund this by seizing the assets of all the big banks. Not quite clear how the financial system is to operate without them: maybe they'll just be nationalized rather than abolished. Also not clear how they plan to seize the banks: executive order, perhaps?
   In short: pie in the sky. Good pie, but not something they expect to actually achieve; rather goals for a better world they want to work towards. In the end this isn't a presidential campaign as much as a public service announcement.

The Green Party
These are the people who made the news, in a minor way, when they got arrested trying to force their way onstage at the final Obama-Romney presidential debate. I'm generally sympathetic to the Greens (that's probably the Tolkienist in me): trying to prevent "irreversible climate change" and helping the poor sound to me like good goals for any party to espouse. And the specifics of their 'Green New Deal's not bad either: guarantee higher education, forgive student loans, Medicare for all, break up the big banks, end corporate domination of elections. But their claim that electing them will create 25 million new jobs makes Romney's claim of four million new jobs created by magic seem relatively modest. They'd do their cause better by sticking closer to the real world, and the huge change Green issues can make.

The Constitution Party
The Know-Nothing party is always with us, and this year they're calling themselves the Constitution Part. These Nativists have a lot of things they're against, but far and away fear of immigrants is their chief concern. They advocate deporting everyone who can't prove he or she's in the country legally, then suspending all legal immigration as well (no green cards for two years). And, as if that's not enough, they want to abolish the 14th Amendment -- you know, the one that makes you an American citizen if you're born here. What standard they'd put in its place they don't say (I assume having two white parents is the sort of thing they have in mind). Oh, and they also want to get rid of PBS, ban abortion, prevent gay marriage, and support Chick-Fil-A.
   Me, I say the melting pot's been good for America, which has become more wonderfully diverse than the Revolutionaries cd ever have dreamed.
   NOTE: This one cd actually influence the election, since its candidate (Virgil Goode)* is a Congressman from Virginia: if his ticket draws away arch-conservative votes from Romney, it cd swing this more-or-less tied state into the Obama column -- which is why I suspect he'll receive v. few votes indeed.

The Libertarian Party
Traditionally the Libertarians have two issues: legalizing drugs and not paying taxes. This election, they're forgoing any mention of their support for ending the War on Drugs and concentrating purely on the anti-government, anti-tax message. Ex-Governor Johnson offers as his qualification for office the number of times he cut taxes and the number of government workers he put out of work. Color me unimpressed by his purely negative message that they govern best who govern least (tell it to James Buchanan and Franklin Pearce) and that less government equals better government. So far as 'The Vision Thing' goes, Johnson comes in dead last -- wh. is surprising, given that a significant chunk of the country is in a fairly libertarian mood (or at least claims to be).

The Republican Party
Romney promises to repeal healthcare reform, cut taxes so the government has less income, then spend lots more on the military (apparently spending more than the next ten countries with the largest military budget put together's not enough).** But, given that he changes positions daily, who knows? This is basically the anti-Obama vote.

The Democratic Party
The known element. Interestingly enough, the entire Voters' Pamphlet write-up deals with economic issues, and the work he's put into getting the country out of The Great Recession. Oddly reminiscent of his Inaugural speech, as if he's chosen this to be the matching bookend for where-we-were-then.

True Confessions Time: The one thing I got really wrong about this whole election season was that I thought all along that there'd be a major third party effort backing a Tea Party candidate. But that never came together; Romney's major achievement has been to keep the Tea Party firmly in his corner.

By the way, for those who don't think we've had enough debates over the last year or two, four of the minor-party candidates are having a debate on November 4th, two nights before Election Day: Gary Johnson (Libertarian), Jill Stein (Green), Virgil Goode (Constitution), and Rocky Anderson (Justice). Ralph Nader, who's still unapologetic about his role in electing George W. Bush (he maintains that a Gore Presidency wd have been indistinguishable from a Bush Presidency), will moderate. Cdn't they get Ross Perot?

Next up: State Offices.

--John R.

*I keep wanting to put a middle initial in there: Virgil B. Goode, but I guess that's just the Chuck Berry influence.  Do have to admit I love the fact that among the people running for president we have a Virgil and a Rocky (and, for that matter, a Willard).

**After all, you never know when you might need to invade Grenada.

Pictures of Mr. Pitts

So, having talked about him so much this past week, here's a picture or two of The Stray Who Came to Stay (temporarily).

That is, assuming I can figure out how to download a photo here -- so this will be an experiment that cd affect some future posts.

Here are the pictures.

--John R.

Farewell, Mr. Pitt

So, today I took the long drive up to Arlington to drop Mr. Pitt off* at a no-kill shelter that had agreed to take him. The last obstacle, proof that he tested negative for feline leukemia, came through yesterday.

It didn't take more than a few minutes for them to conclude this was a highly adoptable cat; less time, in fact, than it took me to fill out the paperwork.  Within five or ten minutes of our arrival, he was gone, taken off to a back room to get used to his new surroundings. After a short observation period, he'll go to one of their many adoption rooms scattered throughout King County.** I'll watch their website (which lists each cat in each adoption room, with a picture of each) to see how he does. If possible, I'll pay him a visit between his arrival at an adoption room and his finding a new family of his own, but given what an all-around great cat this is I don't think he'll have to wait long to find him some new people.

Before I left, I went by and petted all the cats in the isolation room for cats who tested positive for feline leukemia --- all of them adoptable, but only by people who don't have other cats (or whose other cats have also tested positive for the disease).*** As had been the case on my one previous visit (when I started volunteering, two years ago), these cats were very friendly, indeed desperate for attention. There was much purring. In attempting to give everybody attention who came clustering round, I found myself petting four cats at once, which isn't easy.   Then went into the ready-to-head out room and petted a few cats there as well (here some preferred to continue snoozing rather than be disturbed).

Then it was a brief visit to the office to see Cini Bon, who'd been up for adoption at the Tukwila site a while back but turns out to be terminally ill, so they've adopted her as an office cat at the main shelter, where she sleeps on desks and gets throughly spoiled while she lives out her final months. I don't think she remembered me, but she was perfectly willing to accept petting and purr in return. With her tiny head and otherwise general rotundity, she reminded me a little of Hastur (who has a tiny head, thin little legs and tail, and a balloon-like middle), except she was calm whereas Hastur is gooney.

And then came the hardest part: getting in the car and driving away, leaving Mr. Pitt behind and knowing odds are I'll never see him again.

So here's  happiness at a good ending (or the best we cd contrive under the circumstances), and sadness at a parting. I'll miss him tonight, and for a long time to come when I go down into the box room and am greeted by no friendly purring face. But I'm glad he's at a no-kill shelter, in the hands of Good People, and basically gets a do-over on a new life with a new family soon.

So, goodbye, Mr. Pitt

--John R.

*turns out the only thing that will make him stop mewing when riding in a car is to sing to him.  We did the latest Bare Naked Ladies album and some Warren Zevon ("My Ride's Here") on the ride up, and he was much quieter than on either of his rides to the vet's.

**the one I volunteer at is in the PetsMart nr SouthCenter

***a positive result does not necess. mean the cat has the disease -- it may be latent rather than active -- but does indicate it probably has a weakened immune system. And since it's contagious, even healthy cats who test positive are isolated from those who test negative.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Voting (initiatives)

So, those not interested in politics shd just ignore the next few posts, where I share my thoughts about how I'm voting and why.

Voting is already underway here. Washington no longer has voting in person at polling booths,  but does all its ballets by mail -- a system that seems fraught with potential for fraud, but luckily this is a state with a really good record for squeaky-clean elections, so it shd be okay. In any case, it's what we've got so we'll have to hope for the best.

The ballet is so long and complicated this year that I thought I'd break it down into sections. First up are the Initiatives (what some other states call Propositions) and Referendums and, God help us, Advisory Votes (where we're asked what we think about laws the legislature passed).   If we want a democracy rather than a republic, we shd redo the whole system, not try to have it both ways at once.

The big two are Initiative 1185 and Initiative 1240, both of which are on the ballot because of petitions, and both of which actually change the law if passed.

Initiative 1185: NO.
This one wants to keep in place a supermajority rule whereby the legislature needs a two-thirds vote to pass any tax. Because filibuster-type rules worked so well in the national congress and senate these past four years. A recipe for gridlock, this is the Tax Deadbeats' initiative of the year. We elect people to make hard decisions, including raising taxes when necessary; to then try to prevent them from carrying out that job is, shall we say, counter-intuitive.

The Wife Says: "'That operates on the assumption 
that at any given time two-thirds of the people 
are brave enough to do what needs to be done"

Initiative 1240: NO.
This is the Charter School initiative, which would create a publicly funded charter school system. Since, as I see it, the goals of the charter schools movement are (1) to loot public schools' funding till the system collapses (they're alarmingly close to success there) and (2) re-establish segregation, I'm against this one. We shd have a well-funded public school system, with those who want to home-school or private school doing it on their own dime: it's wrong to take public money to fund private schools.

Referendum 74: YES.
This  is the Gay Marriage bill, which would confirm the legislature's legalization of Gay Marriage here in Washington State. Not much I cd say one way or the other on this, except that how people vote here is a pretty good indication whether they're living in the twenty-first century reluctantly or with hope.

Initiative 502: YES.
Here's an odd one: a prohibitionist voting yes on legalizing marijuana clinics. Why? Because it makes no kind of sense to have alcohol be legal and marijuana illegal. Hypocrisy poisons the system: The sooner we stop "The War On Drugs", the better.* Treat marijuana like alcohol -- taxed, regulated, restricted -- and punish its abuse, not its use, as we do with drunk drivers.
   As for harder drugs, it's better to set up clinics to treat addicts and keep them functional than it is to put them all in jail.

Engrossed Senate Joint Resolution 8221: ???
Honestly, I have no idea. The description of what this measure is supposed to do is such gobbledegoop that I'm just guessing at what we're being asked to approve. It seems that the goal is to reduce the state's ability to borrow money. Not being a big fan of the government going broke in a crisis, I'm voting against this one -- but I wish I had more confidence in knowing what I was actually voting for or against.

The Wife Says: "The one part I cd understand 
made no sense to me at all"

Senate Joint Resolution 8223: ??
Another poorly described measure, this one relates to where to Univ. of Wash. can invest its money. I'll be voting no: if they can't explain what they want to do differently and why, then they haven't made the case for changing the law.

Advisory Vote of the People 1: MAINTAIN
Here's we're just getting silly: a non-binding vote on whether we approve of a closed loophole. It's disguised as "they raised our taxes!", which makes it a Tax Deadbeats' measure, which is reason enough to reject it. Though it gives me pause that while the state senate passed the measure being questioned 35 to 10, my own state senator is one of those who voted against.

Advisory Vote of the People 2: MAINTAIN
Another beauty contest without legal weight, and another poorly described measure. Sorting through the double negatives, it apparently relates to keeping a petroleum tax going after it wd otherwise have expired. I think.  When in doubt, I consult who supports and opposes this bill. Those favoring a "repeal" vote are the Tax Deadbeats, who call it "a tax increase". For the "maintain" side, we have the fact that 93 of 98 members of the state house voted in favor of the extension (including our own two representatives, Upthegrove and Orwall, who are pretty reliable), with only one voting against and four abstentions. So it's a bipartisan measure and almost unanimous; good enough.

At this point, I have to switch over to the second voters' pamphlet, for county and local issues.

King County Proposition 1: Approved
This is to fund a regional fingerprinting database. Have to admit I'm tepid on this one, given how fingerprints aren't nearly as reliable a form of identification as people think (there are strict rules as to its legal admissibility in a trial, where fingerprint experts have to carefully hedge how they voice their conclusions). But they're still useful (e.g., to identify people who for whatever reason can't speak to identify themselves), and the argument against is pure Tax Deadbeat ("The Council uses homeowners as its ATM and . . . conducts business in air-conditioned offices . . . Property taxes are too high and going higher because valuations are rising . . ."**), so this one gets a (qualified) approval.

City of Kent Proposition 1: APPROVED
This local measure authorizes the city of Kent to raise property taxes a fraction to maintain parks. This one's pretty much a no-brainer: those who like parks and walking trails will vote yes, those who can't abide any tax for any reason will vote no.***

Whew. That's it for the initiatives, much the stickiest part of the ballot. From here on out it's voting for people, not measures. 

--John R.

*actually, there may be developments on that front soon: the civil war in Columbia is now winding down.
**they also complain, in their reasons against, that city bus drivers are getting paid too much. No, really.
***here the anti-tax people argue that this tax will prevent people in $300,000 homes from being able to afford milk, and suggest that it's better to discard assets than pay for their maintenance.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Day Four

Today, made the last attempt to contact Mr. Pitt's owners. No response to the message I left. Have to face the fact that they seem to have deliberately abandoned their cat.* That complicates matters.

The good news is that one of the local no-kill shelters has agreed to consider him, should he pass tests for feline leukemia and the like. I'm scheduled to drive him over there on Tuesday. So for the meantime, he continues his lonely but safe sojourn in temporary quarters in our garage, and we're hoping and praying that all goes well with the tests. And trying to think of any alternative if things don't go well.

I'll see if I can post a picture of him here tomorrow, for those who might be curious what the subject of all this sudden attention looks like.

--John R.

*of course it's possible they're away on a long trip, like we were in September, or just never check their answering machine. But it's hard to feel charitable to those who first had a cat declawed and then seem to have deliberately washed their hands of it. Especially as he's sitting here purring at my feet as I type this at the old desk in the box room, with the clock ticking down.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Day Three

Thursday, and still no call from Mr. Pitt's owners. We've called again and left messages, including a message that if this is no longer their phone number, will they please let us know that. We've been able to confirm* that they still own that same house listed as his home in the microchip database, though of course that doesn't necessarily mean they still live there. We're wondering if they may have given him away at some point to new owners, but if so they're our only link to identifying and getting in touch with those new owners. And still no call.

Sat with him for an hour or so this morning down in the box room; spent about an hour and a half this afternoon walking around other complexes in The Lakes putting up more flyers. Sat with him for another hour this evening. Still no call, and time is running out.

Here's hoping for a breakthrough soon.

--John R.
current reading: A New World Symphony by Philip Larkin (unfinished novel)

*it's amazing what you can find out on the internet. and a little scary.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Day Two

His name is Pit. Turns out he is microchipped, so we now know the name of his owner, their address (in Renton, so he seems to have wandered quite a ways), and telephone number. Which our vet called, and left a message. We hadn't heard from them by early evening, so I tried again, to the number in the microchip registry, and left another message. No message came tonight, so at this point we're trying to figure out how to get in touch with them if they don't call back.

Renton is a long way off for a stray cat (though he was heading that direction when I found him, so maybe he was trying to find his way home -- over twelve miles away, according to google maps). Suspect his original owners may have given him to someone else who lives near here, or perhaps further to the south. In which case, they cd probably tell us how to get in touch with his current owners, if it's not them. IF THEY WOULD CALL BACK.

In the meantime, I spent a good deal of time down in the box room this evening, working at the old desk (a much-battered relic of my grad school days,* presented to me long ago by fellow Marquette T.A. Stephen Hidalgo. thanks, Stephen!) and sharing the chair (also battered but comfy**) with Mr. Pitts, who sometimes sits in my lap while I work, sometimes behind me in the chair, and sometimes on the floor in front of the space heater. While I keep him company, upstairs Janice works to reassure our cats that All Will Be Well.

Fact of the Day: it turns out there's time for a cat in a car in a carrier to mew piteously two hundred and fifty-four times between leaving our garage and arriving at our vet's (McMonigle's on East Valley Hwy). Once we got there he settled down, and came out on a leash to sit by me and watch the proceedings as other cats and dogs came and went. He even behaved well when the two resident clinic cats, Frankie and Olive,*** came over to inspect the newcomer. Cats don't come much more tame than this.

Here's hoping they call soon.

--John R.

* back in the days when I used to decorate in Early Attic, according to one friend

**this being formerly Steve Winter's chair at TSR, and hence a Historical Relic.

***the two cats they had for such a long time, Orca and Thomas (both black-&-white cats) having now honorably retired, like the senior Dr. McMonigle himself, and turned over the day-to-day at the clinic to younger hands and paws.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Stray

So, tonight we went out for a walk with our friend Kate (hi Kate!). Not too far into it, we heard loud mewing coming from the underbrush along the stream that separates the walking path from 64th street. Thinking this was the Not Rigby* who'd for some reason wandered a bit afield, I called and a completely unknown cat emerged from the underbrush: a yellow and white cat who seemed both starved and desperate for attention. Telling the others to go on without me, I hurried home and got some cat food for the stray, returning to find he'd wandered a bit further away but was still calling out with loud mews every few seconds. I carried him back to our place and gave him a can of food, which he ate ravenously. Then he walked away a few steps, mewed, and came back; walked off in another direction, mewed, and came back: clearly utterly lost and without any idea which way home lay.

That he had a home I didn't doubt: while his stomach was hollow he was too friendly to be a feral cat, and a total lack of scratches or even burrs showed he hadn't been out on his own long. I sat out with him for quite a while, and after Janice got back from the walk, we talked over what to do, also getting some advice by calling and talking to the people I volunteer with over what their group can and can't do. We decided to bring him into the Box Room (/garage) for the night, and try to see if he was microchipped. In the meantime, we put together a poster and I walked down and posted it at both mail kiosks in our complex.

He settled into the box room readily enough -- more proof he's not a feral cat, if the head-butting and purring weren't indication enough, where we set up a dirt box, water bowl, food dish, and towel in a box to sleep on. Sat with him a while longer, then had to leave him alone down there for the night. Poor basement cat.

And our cats? They've been clustering around the door at the bottom of the stairs leading into the Box Room. They know Something's Up, and that there are Intruders In The House. Luckily, they're not taking it out on each other, but they're carefully monitoring the situation.

More later.

--John R.

(see earlier post)


So, thanks to Jim Lowder for the following link, which I doubt I wd have stumbled upon. Seems there's a company that specializes in making movies with titles and themes similar to big-budget releases --e.g. THE DAY THE EARTH STOPPED (not to be confused with THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL) or TRANSMORPHERS (ibid TRANSFORMERS).  I knew there were folks who, every time Disney makes an animated version of a classic folk or fairy tale, immediately releases a genericized version, but didn't know the same happened with live action films.

In this case, they're making a film about Homo floresiensis, the small subrace of hominids discovered in Indonesia a decade or so ago, and thus claim any trademarks and copyrights regarding JRRT's hobbits has no relevance (rather like the guy who called himself "Gandalf the Wizard-Clown" who claimed he'd gotten the name directly from the Elder Edda).   If I were them, I'd shudder at the thought of going up against Saul Zaentz -- who, I note, is misidentified in this piece as a "book publisher", showing that the endemic confusion between Zaentz (the movie people) and the Tolkien Estate (the book people) continues. Alas.

Here's the link to the article, with matching trailers both for the Peter Jackson film and THE AGE OF HOBBITS, for those who want to compare 'look and feel'.

For those who just want to see the AGE OF HOBBITS trailer, here's that link all by itself:

I'd say this looks interesting for two reasons: first, its female protagonist, and second, it seems to derive its plot from "The Scouring of the Shire" (hobbits resisting bullying from The Big People), one of the few extended sequences omitted from the Peter Jackson films.

At any rate, an interesting curiosity. Thanks to Jim for sharing.

--John R.

P.S.: Oh, and the release date? Scheduled for December 11th. Just three days before the Big Event . . .

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Blurb

So, Monday I went down to the Barnes & Noble in Federal Way, which I visit once in a while, and discovered that since my last visit they now have a Hobbit Table* -- that is, a table filled entirely with books by (and about) JRRT.** And, while there, I got to see an extremely minor new publication of mine -- a blurb.

Specifically, a blurb for Corey Olsen's new book EXPLORING THE HOBBIT. I've never been asked to do a blurb before; nice to be asked.  I provided both a very short one and a longer one; they chose to go with the longer form (perhaps appropriately, given the expansiveness of my own H.o.H.). Here's what it says:

Most readers race through THE HOBBIT at breakneck speed, drawn onward by the exciting plot. Professor Olsen encourages us to slow down and take the scenic route, savoring each chapter. Through close, careful explication, he points out significant details and draws attention to hidden themes; he's particularly good at pointing out how Tolkien uses poems as characterization.
   Recommended to hobbit fanciers everywhere.
                                                      --John D. Rateliff

I shd point out I'm in good company; this is a well-blurbed book. The back covers has no less than five testimonials: one by Wayne & Christina, then mine, then Michael Drout's, Patrick Currey's, and ending up with Verlyn's. Here's hoping Corey's book gets fans of the book thinking about it as well as enjoying it.

--John R.
current reading: D&D NEXT rules; Philip Larkin book; "The Battle of the Goths & Huns".

*like the one that appeared, then disappeared again suddenly, at the SouthCenter B&N I usually visit.

**plus a few oddities, like Gollum bobble-heads. The mind boggles.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Listening to Talk Radio (Poke-em-with-a-Stick Wednesday)

So, I actually listen to talk radio on a fairly regular basis -- a little in the morning (until it's forced off the air for six or seven midday hours devoted to the horror that is Jazz) while making breakfast, and a little in the afternoon while driving over to pick up Janice after work. Not every day, but more often than not.

But that's NPR, which is not what most people mean these days when they say "Talk Radio". "Talk Radio" has come to mean politicized shock-jocks, mostly right wing, like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Medved (the only radio personality I know of who shares a name with a Tolkien character). That's not my cup of tea, but once in a long while I'll get curious and listen off and on to such shows for a few days, then find myself happy to do without it for another year or two.

This morning, it was curiosity over how they were reporting on last night's debates compared to how various progressive websites were covering the story that lured me into listening. I didn't see the debate itself, having opted for a friend's birthday party instead (hi, Stan!), so it was very much listening to the blind men describing the elephant. The progressive sites were relieved and triumphant, thinking their candidate had done well; the radio hosts varied between insulting the moderator with fat jokes and claiming that their guy didn't lose after all (never a good sign).

The most amusing takeaway from all this, for me, was one radio host's inveighing against a NASA program working to develop food for use on the Mars Mission, once we actually have a Mars mission. Another was a commercial on another channel advertising special Survivalist rations (freeze-dried and canned) that wd remain edible for years, come the End Times.  Here, I thought, was a great chance to kill two birds with one stone: dub the Mars food 'Rapture Rations' and surely those same radio hosts would be clamoring for more money to be spent developing them.

For the rest of today, I think it'll be listening to cds and giving the airwaves a rest.

--John R.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dunsany's Nobel

So, heard the exciting news a few days ago that not only Tolkien but also Dunsany was once nominated for the Nobel Prize.

The discovery was made by Martin Andersson (many thanks for his sharing it with me), who was leafing through a book by the Swedish Academy at the Goteborg Book Fair that listed all the nominees, and discovered that Dunsany had been nominated in 1950 by the Dublin Centre of Irish PEN, a writers' organization.

The timing of that is interesting, since this was near the end of Dunsany's life, when he was in eclipse. It'd been years since he'd had a play produced, he was nearing the end of a long string of novels, and his main productions were Jorkens stories, the occasional adaptation of an old piece into a radioplay, and endless articles attacking modernism (and other people's punctuation).* Had it come a decade or so earlier, I'd have suspected the hand of Oliver Gogarty, a longtime friend and supporter of Dunsany's, but he seems to have shifted to the U.S. around the outbreak of WWII and played little role in Irish affairs thereafter. So for now the mechanism of how Irish PEN came to be nominating folks, and how they happened to pick upon Dunsany this particular year, remain unknown; more on this may eventually come to light.

Did Dunsany deserve a Nobel? Given that I think he's the finest fantasy short story writer in English, the peer (I wd argue) of Kafka and Borges, I'd say yes. But that's a minority view. Still, it's good to know he was nominated; that someone out there shared my evaluation of his work.

Here's the link:

A Closing Thought: we now know Tolkien was nominated, and that Dunsany was nominated. I wonder if any other fantasy authors have been nominated over the years. Or science fiction authors, for that matter (I'd say Ray Bradbury would have been a worthy candidate). Ironically enough, the very first writer in English to get the prize, Rudyard Kipling, wrote fantasy, though I v. much doubt that it was PUCK OF POOK'S HILL than won him the Nobel.

--John R.

*this may not be as big a factor as all that, given that, as I understand it, the Nobel is supposed to award the whole of the author's work, not what he or she might produce thereafter.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Middle-earth Coinage

So, a few nights ago I found out what I'm reliably informed I won't be getting for Christmas: gold and silver HOBBIT coins being released in New Zealand in connection with the Peter Jackson movie(s).

I think of all the movie tie-in things I've seen and heard of, this is the one that boggles my mind.*   Not that they're minting these, but that they'll actually be legal tender -- technically at any rate (no one's likely to buy $10.00 worth of, say, hobbit snacks** with a one-ounce gold coin, I suspect).

Of course, the news that they're also going to temporarily rename their nation's capital as a movie tie-in also induces boggling, so maybe I'm just easily boggled these days.

Here's the link, courtesy Janice (thanks, JC!):

And for details on specific coins, check here:

--turns out they go for as little as $29.90 and as much as $3695 (for the one-ounce gold coin, roughly equivalent of the old double eagle) or the modern US mint's Buffalo (which currently goes for about $1840, roughly $100 above the price of gold).

Perhaps the (non-silver, non-gold) Radagast coin is more within my budget . . .

--John R.

*ranking right up there with the Lord of the Nazgul piggybank from the awful Bakshi film thirty-plus years ago

**which is not a licensed product yet, that I know of -- though they did eventually offer Scooby Snacks for sale in stores, so who knows?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Can This Possibly Be True?

So, night before last I was listening to an hour-long interview on NPR's Fresh Air with Nate Silver, the polling guru behind the website, which looks at the polls in presidential (and senatorial) elections, weighs their bias, averages the results, and offers his estimation of where the race really stands (right now he gives Mr. Obama about a two-thirds chance of winning, largely because of his strong lead in states like Ohio and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania).*

The whole interview is of interest, if you like this sort of thing (which I do).

The most interesting points to me were, first, his explanation (in part of a discussion of availability of data) of just how expensive and time consuming medieval manuscript production was: he said a single manuscript cost the equivalent of $25,000 in today's money. If true, that explains very well why books were so rare, and precious: why the Merton College library kept all its books in a single huge chest with three great locks, the key to each of which was carried by a different person.  Or why, later on when they got more books (I assume in the first century or so of printing), they chained them to the shelves to keep them going walkabout.  He said that cost fell by about 500%**  with the advent of printing -- still expensive, but no longer prohibitively so.  I'm sure there were more and less expensive Mss (depending on the length of the text and the amount of decoration incorporated into it), but if Silver's figure is anywhere near right, it's illuminating.

Second, there was his explanation of why, despite so much information being available, polls often fail to predict what really will happen.*** The two key factors turn out to be (1) taking into account what you don't know and (2) judging the trustworthiness of new information you come across.

The first is where most polls and predictions fall down. The weather service is careful not to give predictions too far out, since weather systems are too complex to predict with confidence in the long term. However, they're pretty reliable in the short term: if they say it's going to cool off over the next two days, they're probably right.  So here knowing yr limits produces better results.

 In Silver's case, he gives both a "Now Cast" (the odds of either Obama or Romney winning if the race were held today) vs. the predicted election day figure, which he cautions is based on what we know now, and is always subject to the unexpected -- the levy may break, terrorists attack, a smoking gun or compromising footage come to light ("47%"), or someone well and truly put foot in mouth. 

In the case of Tolkien (you knew this was going to get around to Tolkien in the end, didn't you?), we know a lot -- I've recently taken to playing the "What Was Tolkien Doing One Hundred Years Ago Today? game with Wayne & Christina's CHRONOLOGY -- but there are things we don't know. For example, we know relatively little about Tolkien's life at Leeds, the five years that laid the basis of his professional career, and therefore tend to act as if those years were less important than the ones that are better documented.

We also quite often come across conflicting stories -- did THE HOBBIT originate as an oral story he told to his kids during the 1920s, as Tolkien's two eldest sons insisted, or as a written text in the early 1930s, as Tolkien himself repeatedly stated (and the bulk of the documentary evidence supports)? Did C. S. Lewis write THE DARK TOWER in 1938 or 1946?  Are MR. BLISS and FARMER GILES written before THE HOBBIT, or after THE HOBBIT, or both (i.e., drafted before but with final versions after)?  When we get a new piece of evidence, we weigh how probable it is based on what we already know.

For example, with a 1999 account by a Swedish woman who was an au-pair girl in the Tolkien household in 1930-31 saying Tolkien began THE HOBBIT while she was there, the probability of errors in the latter account is high. There was a long gap between the event and its being recorded, the person involved was v. old at the time it was recorded, and her memories being taken down by a reporter rather than written up by herself. And yet what she says fits in remarkably well with the preponderance of other evidence, of which she herself wd have been unaware; this veracity in what we can check lends credence to elements in her account not found elsewhere.

By contrast, the evidence of John and Michael Tolkien contradicts a well-established pattern. Tolkien is often wrong about dates, but in such cases he almost always errs by predating the event -- as when he claimed he'd begun THE LORD OF THE RINGS before THE HOBBIT was published (rather than three months afterwards), or that he'd delivered the OFS lecture in 1938 (rather than 1939) and written LEAF BY NIGGLE in 1938-39 (rather than 1942-43). The pattern is clear, and it lends weight to a later dating being more probable than an earlier dating.

In general, a good reminder about handling evidence and drawing reasonable conclusions from it.

--John R.
current reading: THE UNOFFICIAL HOBBIT HANDBOOK (2012), ORESAMA TEACHER (2007-present)

*this is down from an 85% chance just a few weeks ago, when Mr. Obama was leading in ten out of twelve 'swing' states after a long string of Romney gaffs.

**for a transcript of Silver's exact words, see the last paragraph under the following link:

--of course, a handmade and carefully illuminated Ms. today on vellum or parchment might well run that much as a luxury item -- even high-quality limited-edition machine-produced reproductions run in the hundreds or thousands.

***according to Silver,  pundits are almost always wrong, but this seems to be by their statements being based on advocacy, not probability.

--Silver does note that local weathermen are far less accurate, deliberately overpredicting bad weather as a way of creating a little drama in hopes of attracting viewers.

UPDATE: As two readers have pointed out in Comments (thanks Ardamir; thanks Troels), the women in the example I used was Icelandic, not Swedish. My mistake. Troels also points out that by a factor of 500 is not the same as 500%. I'd thought my meaning was clear enough; apparently not.
   Thanks, as always, for the corrections.

Friday, October 12, 2012

My Cat Fix While I Was Away

So, I've often noticed when with my father-in-law that he's developed baby radar: he loves spending time with his great-grandchildren so much that he immediately notices any baby or toddler in any restaurant or public place he enters. I even got to see him do a I've-got-more-great-grandchildren-than-you contest with another senior citizen he ran into (he won, ten to seven -- but only by including his youngest son's son's soon-to-be-born little girl)

With me, it's cats. I love petting and playing with other people's cats when I visit their home, like to notice cats watching out windows taking in the world when I'm on a walk, and volunteer once a week at an adoption room for a no-kill shelter (Purrfect Pals, centered up in Arlington) -- letting the cats out of their cages to wander freely in a glass-walled room while I clean up their dirt boxes, give them fresh food and water, and "socialize' them (pet them, play with them, sometimes walk them on a leash). With the result that I find myself on the look-out for cats when I'm away from home.

During our two weeks in England in September, I saw four cats:
--one self-satisified sitting in the garden behind our hotel (Celtic House, not far from Russell Sq). Only saw this one when I was looking down from a third story window (second floor they wd call it), but clearly at ease in its own surroundings.
--one friendly but self-possessed little striped brown stripling at Lacock, a Cotswold village that looks exactly as it looked several centuries ago. This one we came across just outside the churchyard; it let me pet it, then let me know when it'd had enough.
--one yellow cat, lean and furtive, that slipped by us, pressing itself against the buildings on a street in a bad neighborhood we were walking through when we got off-track on our way to a tube station. Clearly trying to avoid being noticed, and aside from myself, successfully. Someone opened the door to an apartment building on her way out, and it dashed inside. Looked like this one has a hard life but knows how best to cope; hope it has somewhere it can get enough to eat and a safe place to sleep.
--finally, a neighborhood cat (longhair, grey and fluffy I think) we saw making its rounds the last night we were in Bath, walking some unfamiliar streets on the west edge of town looking for a laundromat (with the help of some friendly local folks, we did, but it had already closed. Que sera.

And during our week in Milwaukee (The Ambassador), Delavan (Lake Lawn Lodge), and Harvard (Ravenstone Castle), I saw two:
--Sir Peter, a large brown striped cat who reigns at Ravenstone Castle, the B&B we stayed in on the outskirts of Harvard (he was shy about approaching us but friendly when petted, and appreciated the catnip teabag I'd brought along as an offering to him.
--an orange and white cat, prowling the neighborhood in Harvard nr my father-in-law's apt: didn't want to be approached by strangers (e.g., me) but didn't flee panic-strickened; just removed itself when I moved towards it and went back to what it'd been doing (looking for mice in the tall grass, I think) as soon as I withdrew.

And then back home again to our own three: Rigby and Hastur and Feanor, who are emphatic that we're not to go away and leave them again for a while.

--John R.

My Cat Weighs (Less Than) Twenty Pounds

Good news on the cat front: I took all three cats in to the vets (McMonigle's on the East Valley Hwy; highly recommended) over Wednesda-Thursday,* where they got their boosters, got weighed, and got a plan for the latest intervention over Hastur's issues.

Rigby now weighs  8 & 3/4 pounds. This is great news, since her last two check-ups she'd been down at scven-something pounds, which was too low. Now she's back to a nice healthy weight for her size.

Hastur is still overweigh at 15 3/4 pounds. So the portion control for her nom will continue. The fur loss is much improved -- she's in the paradoxical position of being unable to reach and clean some areas because of her tubbiness, so she overgrooms spots she can reach, licking all the fur off. Now the bare spots are growing back, stubbily, but I had to resort to bathing her in the tub to help keep her clean. Which she didn't like at all, poor cat.

Feanor also had really good news: he's now below twenty pounds for the first time in several years, at 19 1/2.  He's always beeen a solid black cat; now the fur inside his ears is turning white -- the male-cat equivalent of that grey streak at a middle-aged man's temples, perhaps? He's also just developed a few scattered white hairs on his tail. Equivalent of old-man eyebrows, perhaps?

So, the good news is that all the cats are well, and two out of three have their weight either in or moving in the right way. More games and play with Hastur to boost her activity a little, making sure she keeps clean, and continuing to restrict her access to the others' food shd pay off over time for the third cat as well.

--John R.

*in addition to taking care of the ten cats in the Purrfect Pals adoption room in the PetsMart nr Southcenter for four hours Wednesday morning -- these have been two days largely devoted to cats.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Tolkien's Webley

So, while I was drafting the preceding article about THE FALL OF ARTHUR, I followed a link at the very bottom of the GUARDIAN piece and discovered that by so doing you can see a photo of Tolkien WW I service pistol (a Webley Mark VI revolver).

Here's the link to the article from six years ago*

and here's the online entry for the item itself (in the 'Personal Stories' section):

Given that I imagine the Imperial War Museum has any number of Great War officer's revolvers, I assume Lt. Tolkien's is included because he's now so popular that it's a good draw for the exhibit as a whole (it's possible, of course, that they just like to make extra links like this to bring the war home to modern museum-goers). 

In any case, it shows that, like many veterans before him (most famously, Dr. James H. Watson), Tolkien kept his officer's sidearm after the war was over, since the article notes the gun was acquired by the museum from the Tolkien family two years earlier (e.g., 2004, perhaps not incidently the year after Jn Garth's excellent book had made Tolkien's wartime duty more widely known than it had been hithertofore).

At any rate, wanted to share.

--John R.

*and here's the article from which that link came: 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Arthur eastward in arms purposed

his war to wage on the wild marches,

over seas sailing to Saxon lands,

from the Roman realm ruin defending.

Thus the tides of time to turn backward 

and the heathen to humble, his hope urged him,

that with harrying ships they should hunt no more

on the shining shores and shallow waters

of South Britain, booty seeking


So, the big news Sunday night was the announcement, forwarded to the MythSoc list by Douglas Kane (thanks, Doug!), that the most eagerly awaited of all unpublished works by JRRT has been scheduled or a May release. Here's the official release at the publisher's website:

And here, also courtesy D.K., is what someone thinks the cover will look like:

--its provenance is a little uncertain, but it does bear a strong 'family resemblence' to the cover for SIGURD & GUDRUN, which leads some credence to its authenticity.

I don't know why Australians get a break and apparently will be able to buy it three weeks sooner than the rest of us -- because it takes so long for the books to reach them, perhaps? I've put in a pre-order at amazon, myself.

The HarperCollins announcement includes the news that this volume will include three essays by Christopher Tolkien, which is good news indeed -- I thought his contribution to SIGURD & GUDRUN as good as the poem itself. And more can be learned about the forthcoming book via the following piece in THE GUARDIAN (thanks to Janice for the link):

Here we learn that the book is 200 pages plus (relatively brief, closer to FINN & HENGEST than SIGURD & GUDRUN): remember that the poem is just under a thousand lines long. Better yet, the opening lines are printed her in this piece for the first time ever (see them quoted above).

For those who don't have it handy, here are the only other previously published lines, from Humphrey Carpenter's TOLKIEN: A BIOGRAPHY (1977), p. 168:

(of Mordred's lust for Guinever):

His bed was barren; there black phantoms
of desire unsated and savage fury
in his brain had brooded till bleak morning.

(of Guinever herself):

                        . . . lady ruthless,
fair as fay-woman and fell-minded,
in the world walking for the woe of men.

Of those last two and a half lines, I'd say much what Beren says of Luthien: just that fragment is so good that it justifies the existence of the whole. Here's hoping there are more lines that good, and that the fragment is large enough to get a good sense of the whole that Tolkien had planned.

For my part, I'm going to be re-reading Tolkien's obvious sources for his tale: THE ALLITERATIVE MORTE ARTHURE and THE STANZAIC MORTE ARTHUR.

Given that I first heard of this book as forthcoming back in 1985, I think it was, from Rayner Unwin, I really can't convey how pleased I am that another seven or eight months will see it in print.

And there was great rejoicing, and is great rejoicing, and will be great rejoicing in the land.

--John R.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The New Arrivals

. . . are ourselves, back at last from our travels. Two weeks in England, one very busy week back, then a week in the Midwest that included two talks and an interview for me and visits to my father-in-law and all four of Janice's siblings. The cats are inclined to forgive us for being away so much, but sternly inform us that we're NOT to do that to them again anytime soon.*

Oh, and there was a Tolkien book waiting for me when we returned home, as often seems to be the case these days. This time it was THE UNOFFICIAL HOBBIT HANDBOOK, subtitled EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT LIFE I LEARNED FROM TOLKIEN by "The Shire Collective", one of whose three authors turns out to be Peter Archer, a friend from Wizards of the Coast days (he was head of the WotC book department). All I've read so far is the interview with Smaug and the advice on how to tell a Good Wizard from a Bad Wizard. Lighthearted, but having just read David Brin's vicious little tare I was in the mood for something more good-humored, and this came at just the right time to fit the bill.

And of course I've also put in a pre-order for the forthcoming new Tolkien book, due out in May. More on this later.

--John R.
just finished:
(1) MASTER OF THE WORLD by Verne (v. bad)
(2) MORSE'S GREATEST MYSTERY & other stories by Colin Dexter (rather interesting)

*their forgiveness will be tested later this week when I take them all in to Dr. McMonigle's to update their boosters; they won't like that at all.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I'm On NPR

So, Friday I had a phone interview with NPR -- specifically, with Milwaukee's local NPR station, for their LAKE EFFECT segment. It was broadcast today (Tuesday). Listening to it, I'm pleased that it came out as well as it did. You never quite know how things will go when speaking off the cuff, so it's nice when everything goes well. They told me they have editing software that cleans up hesitations and interruptions, like coughs or saying "um . . . um" a lot; it seems to have done a nice job. Here's the link:

Listening to it this evening, the only slip that caught my attention was my asserting, for some reason, that Wm. Ready was a devout Catholic. I don't actually know this for a fact -- I assume he was Catholic, since his heritage was Irish despite his growing up in Wales (he boasts in his autobiography about his family having brought a priest over from Italy to serve the community), since he worked at Marquette, concentrated on getting collections of Catholic authors for his new archives, and as I understand it went from Marquette to another Catholic university. Luckily, the point's not essential to the argument, just a side-issue. Similarly, I mention Marquette's having bought some seven thousand pages worth of material; checking Wayne & Christina's count in the COMPANION & GUIDE, I see that the final number was closer to eleven thousand pages.

Oh, and the introductory bit on the website gives the opening date of the upcoming HOBBIT movie as November 28th. Would that this were true! As I understand it, it'll be a little further off than that, with the debut date being December 14th (which will make a nice slightly delayed birthday present).

--John R.

P.S.: Have to say, re. the closing music to this segment, I'd never noticed the little tuba solo in THE BALLAD OF BILBO BAGGINS before. Live and learn.  --JDR

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Thulcandra No More

This might be one of the neatest things I've ever seen (or, more accurately, heard).

Remember the music of the spheres? Well, now you can listen to Earth's part in it.

Follow the link to the audio file, and enjoy.

--John R.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A New Arrival and A New Departure

So, another book showed up this week: Louis Markos' ON THE SHOULDERS OF HOBBITS: THE ROAD TO VIRTUE WITH TOLKIEN AND LEWIS, with a Foreword by Peter Kreeft.
And, co-incidentally, the next day the mail brought a catalogue from The Teaching Company that the lecture series Markos gave through their Great Courses, THE LIFE AND WRITINGS OF C. S. LEWIS, is on sale for just $9.95, making this a great time to pick that up for those interested in a thoroughly Xian reading of CSL.

I've only had time for a quick look at the new book, but as suggested by the fact that Kreeft provides a Foreword, this is a heavily Xianized reading of Tolkien, focused on LotR but also drawing frequently on the Chronicles of Narnia (ironic, given how much JRRT disliked them). Kreeft asserts that while LotR might be the greatest book of the twentieth century, the Narnia books are "the greatest children's stories ever written". I don't agree with the latter part of this statement, but if you like LotR and Narnia in equal measure, and wd like to see traditional (Xian) values asserted vie the medium of interpreting Tolkien and Lewis, then this is the book for you.

As for me, it's off on another trip tomorrow. Early (far too early) in the morning we head off to the airport for the flight to Milwaukee. I finished drafting my Marquette talk this evening and have it all printed out (and a safety copy too). If you happen to find yourself near Marquette Wednesday afternoon, drop by and join the fun in the new library building on Wisconsin Avenue.

--John R.