The Devil You Know

The most baffling aspect of President Trump’s election and administration, to most observers, is the apparent inconsistency of his behavior with the proclaimed values of much of his voting base.  The only people not apparently puzzled by this are the most dedicated of those supporters and those of his opponents who were already prepared to write off those supporters as backward, ignorant, or villainous.  It was in some measure easier to explain immediately after the 2016 presidential election, when the Democratic field had – with rumored corruptions of its own – narrowed itself down to nominating Hilary Clinton, who ran an unimaginative (and it turned out, lazy) campaign leading to an election whose candidates in the public mind were “not Trump” and “not Clinton”.  While few outside his die-hard coterie expected great things from a Trump presidency, very few of any political stripe appear to have anticipated the chaotic nature of his administration or Trump’s own inability and indifference with regard to limiting his pursuit of personal goals or grudges.

Despite these problems, Trump’s popularity – relative to what’s necessary to run a reasonable campaign – does not appear to have gone anywhere, and the Republican party appears as firmly supportive of Trump as the Democratic party appears likely to be of its final choice this year.  One might have supposed a year or so ago that the Republicans would conclude that, having avoided Hilary, they could quietly drop Trump – or at least go through the motions of holding a regular primary election, a practice which the party holding the White House has avoided in recent years but which could have quieted some concerns about legitimacy.  Conservative commentators, while disappointed, are at least familiar enough with the Republican party to follow the electoral logic; progressive pundits remain consternated – particularly after a party-line impeachment process failed to remove Trump from the presidency.  (The impeachment aired quite a bit of Trump’s own disregard for legal procedures, and Republicans failed to argue convincingly – which was their best defense – that the process instigated by Democrats had been just as flawed procedurally.  However, Republican arguments to that effect from both congressmen and conservative media were roundly ignored or dismissed, generally without rebuttal, in most outlets.)

I suggest that Trump retains support for much the same reasons the Democratic party retains support throughout many of our cities suffering from flawed if not outright corrupt planning and administration – a fact which has baffled some conservatives for at least as long as I’ve been paying attention to politics: Trump makes gestures towards the things his base considers important, while his opponents have either a history or a declared intention of ignoring or even attacking those things.

It’s enlightening to approach the question by asking what items Trump’s administration has been most adamant about.  I count four general items: support for the pro-life movment; appointment of judges committed to law; appreciation for the role played by and sacrifices of American servicemen (whatever one may think of the dangers his policy exacerbates); and distrust of immigrants.  The first two are the most important basics of American conservatism to the extent it exists as a principled political program.  The third is an American universal – though it indicates on reflection, as Chesterton said of English pride in their empire a century ago, that America may not have much else to be proud of.

The last in the abstract is baffling.  Christianity requires hospitality to the traveler, foreigner, persecuted, and dispossessed: from Abraham to Ruth to Christ himself those forced or called from their homes have played integral parts in salvation.  However, in the current context it can be explained at least three ways.  The most charitable is to recall concerns about law, and the fact that American law is not currently hospitable to strangers.  This is an argument for changing the law: but in the meantime, most conservative Christians would be inclined to say that laws which do not demand actual sin should be followed, and illegal immigrants are therefore lawbreakers.  The fact that not many actually care to change the laws can be laid either to other concerns – or to ignorance of the severity of the laws, which are rather convoluted as well as unforgiving.

The least charitable explanation is that Republicans have attracted the majority of America’s remaining racists.  This is largely, I suspect, true, because the Democratic party has made it fairly clear that the only racism allowed in its ranks is antisemitism.  However, I am not convinced it applies to more than a minority – and not a very sizeable one – within Republican ranks.  In between the principled and the wicked, I suspect, stands the majority distrust of foreigners, living here or not: a feeling that there is something very insecure about the American identity right now, and that bringing in more and more persons fiercely (it is assumed) attached to their own identities, without attempting to instruct them in The American Way, is tantamount to cultural suicide.  Pragmatism does not justify immorality: it does, however explain why an unexamined stance on the matter may not produce guilt.  The obvious thing to do is hard to examine fairly to see if it might be wrong.

And the fact of the matter is that in contrast to these four positions, the views advocated by Trump’s opponents are certifiably insane.  The Democratic party has all but ostracized all pro-life advocates from its ranks.  The progressive theorists for the last century, from Wilson and those who inspired him to today’s activist judges who keep trying to sideline Trump’s legal – if morally dubious – orders, treat law as merely an expression of common will that loses its force – not just its practical force, which is a truism, but its authority – if that will is understood to have changed: and then take it on themselves to interpret the so-called “common” will.  The military – as mentioned above – goes largely uncriticized, but the few who admirably do dare to criticize it tend not just to villify particular excesses but to treat the American military as one of today’s great collections of villains.  And, finally, Democratic politicians praise all variety of different cultures – being particularly, um, tactful about Islamic ones – while treating America’s Christian and European heritage with contempt and suggestions of legal repressions to come, in the name of coddling and preferring just about any vice, but especially the sexual ones.

Trump’s actions are not the actions of a responsible candidate.  His character before election should have disqualified him to the public mind for office: his attitudes in office have been self-aggrandizing, insecure, and intemperate.  Apart from likely misuses of his official prerogatives, his pardoning of war criminals – one not even tried yet – is inexcusable.  And yet – especially when throughout their attempts to bring these charges home his opponents have badly muddied the procedural waters – since Trump retains a consistent message on these pieties of his base, and his opponents are determined that most if not all of those values are incorrect, this is why Trump retains the support he does.  Trump’s personal foibles and misdeeds will continue not to count for much when balanced against the promise to institute a regime that disdains all of the values Trump claims he will protect.

Crossing Patterns

For several years I went contra dancing pretty regularly.  Contra is usually done in long sets, with a long line of dancers facing another, but periodically callers include dances in other sets: short sets with a definite number of couples (usually 3 or 4) , square (and interlocking grid square), and – based on my observations probably the public favorite – four-facing-four sets.  In a normal contra the lady and gentleman in each couple are in a different line and progress up or down their respective lines together: with four-facing-four, the dance occurs in a short set of four couples, but the progression of the dance is down a set of sets stacked up parallel to each other down the hall.  It’s as complicated as it sounds but not too hard to do.

At any rate the four-facing-four always provoked the thought, “Why stop there?” and thus vaguely witty remarks I would make about writing a dance six-facing-six – same concept, but each short set with six couples or a dozen people.  A friend eventually asked me why I didn’t actually write such a dance instead of just talking about it, so I finally did.  Not that I’ve ever written another dance: some definite running before walking here.

That probably has a lot to do with the final result, which is pretty involved, and maybe more complicated than it has to be: my primary considerations were the “overhead view” and figuring out how to get the progressions to work.  Four-facing-four dances usually have the couples switch sides with the other couple they progress with: to do the corresponding thing with a six-facing-six meant somehow shifting the short set each time.

Here are the complications:

  • The A1 figures are differentiated between side couples and middle couples (although it would be a simpler call for all couples to do the same figures at once this is where the “overhead” consideration came in)
  • There’s a series of quick rights and lefts that don’t all go the same direction (in fact I’m not sure I’ve seen rights and lefts on a left diagonal, though I don’t see why it wouldn’t work)
  • Although the final progression is single in line of dance, the majority of the dance works out to almost a complete reverse progression with quick double progression at the end to return.  It shouldn’t gum up the ends too badly, as they wind up involved in most of the dance, but the final double progression will necessitate a quick turn around to pull back through with the next “outs”.  Ideal might be a circle rather than a line if numbers and space allow.

Start six-facing-six.  Within the short sets, there are four “side” couples (two on each end of the short set) and two “middle” couples.

  • A1 (8) sides balance & California twirl to face a new couple while middles star right; (8) middles balance and California twirl to face while sides star right with new couple
  • A2 (8) rights and lefts on right diagonal (8) sides do-si-do while middles half hey
  • B1 (8) rights and lefts on right diagonal (8) rights and lefts on left diagonal
  • B2 (8) partner swing (8) pull by right, pull by left (in line of dance for large set)

I wrote this a couple years ago and it’s been sitting in one of my random stuff boxes, but that’s a silly thing to do with a dance so now I’m posting it on the blog.


Periodically, colleges and universities in the United States change what sports leagues – colloquially known as “conferences” they are aligned with under the NCAA umbrella.  In contrast, in the NFL these changes are usually driven by teams having been added to the league.  In addition, for several years, NFL wonks have been considering, to various degrees of formality, adding a 17th game to the regular season schedule.

I’m all in favor, actually, because it would be really easy to do by realigning the NFL’s eight current absurdly small four-team divisions into four eight-team ones.  The requisite two games against each division opponent, plus my favorite quirk of the NFL’s competitive balance scheme, scheduling games against teams with equivalent finishes the previous year in other divisions, yields a neat 17 games.

The NFL playoffs have a near-perfect balance of just deserts and drama at 12 teams, so I’d keep that: the four division winners, plus eight wild cards based on record, though I’d be inclined to do overall seeding by record, 1 to 12.  If the NFL would prefer to keep up the polite fiction of separate conferences, the divisions could be aligned two and two and each seeded 1-6, it doesn’t really matter.

There’s no convenient way to carry out the new alignment, though – or is there?  As long as one doesn’t scuffle too much over the NFL’s history, there are actually some lovely logical arrangements just waiting to be made, based on the names – though not the actual geographical footprints – of some of college’s classic conferences.  With that as a reference, here is my proposed NFL realignment:

  • Big East: Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins
  • Mid-American: Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings
  • Mountain West: Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers, Los Angeles Rams, Oakland (Las Vegas) Raiders, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks
  • Southeastern: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans

See?  Easy!

Sum 15

And now for something completely different.

I wanted an activity for my spare class periods at the end of this week, so I wrote up rules for a card game.  I wanted to use familiar card game concepts, but also put a slight mathematical challenge in, to make it a little more than just a time-waster.  It also had to be something that I could scale to different class sizes.

Cribbage immediately came to mind, an in fact my first run was essentially just the play from cribbage expanded for more players.  This was challenging, especially as I tried to run it with the whole class in one game using multiple decks.

The second run I split the class into smaller groups, and also tried awarding points to multiple players for each play, which one of my three groups got the hang of but proved unrealistic.

The third run I kept the class split up, and reworked the ruleset to essentially what’s below, which looks more like a rummy variant.  15s were changed to 14s, and the limit of 31 changed to a reset on multiples of 15.  I hadn’t worked out a clean method of scoring for this class.

The fourth class I ran again split up, and the last class I ran a game with the whole class and multiple decks.  The fourth and fifth runs came out relatively smoothly, though I wouldn’t call the reception enthusiastic.

“Sum 15” is a working title and referred in the end to the reset rule for multiples of 15.  I haven’t come up with anything better yet.

Deal 6 cards to every player
Place the remaining deck in the middle and turn a starter card face up
Each player going around left of the dealer must play a card in turn until all cards dealt have been played
Cards played remain face-up in the middle unless a set is made

A player who plays a card to make a set picks up those cards and places them face down in front of them.
A set is made if:

  • The last two cards played sum to 14; for sums, Ace is 1, Jack 11, Queen 12, King 13
  • The last two cards make a pair
  • The last three cards are in order, for instance 2-3-4 or Q-J-10

If a player can play a card so that the total value of all cards in the middle is a multiple of fifteen (15, 30, 45, 60, etc.), then that player picks up ALL the cards in the middle.
Then place a new starter from the remaining deck face up and continue in turn beginning with the next player.

When all players have played their six cards, the player with the most cards picked up wins

There’s a limit on how many players you can play with off a single deck.  I think a maximum of six players per deck is the correct rule of thumb, but I ran a game with 14 players with only two decks.  How much of this was my students missing point plays (and so needing fewer restarts) I’m not sure.

We Are the Threat to the Second Amendment

The American War for Independence was fought, and the Constitution of the United States of America subsequently constructed, so that Americans could live in a free society.  The particular connotation of “freedom” paramount in importance was that of self-government.  The British crown and parliament were seen to interfere with the ordering of American colonies by themselves: the crown and parliament were thrown off.  What then proved to be an interim measure, the Articles of Confederation, was homegrown but the resulting government was ineffectual and even bad: the Articles were superseded.  The Constitution as it took effect in 1789 provided a much more effective structure for the central government of the United States: but as government is entrusted with maintaining by compulsion those things thought necessary in society – or at least by the governors of society – a more effective government is also a greater threat to individual and social liberties.

Thus, with ratification beginning in 1791, several Amendments – the Bill of Rights – were quickly added into the structure of the new government.  From the standpoint of modern practice, these protect freedoms ranging from our most prized (such as speech and religion) to the apparently quaint (not quartering troops) to the generally ignored (authority of individual states and the people).  Today, while the exact limits of the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment – speech, religion, assembly – are hotly debated, the most controversial item in the Bill of Rights is the Second Amendment:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be abridged.”

The security of any State is threatened by foreign encroachment; but that of a free State is also threatened by its own government, should that government turn tyrannical.  This latter was certainly that consideration by those drafting this amendment.  The Constitution already provided for armed forces.  The rest of the Bill of Rights asserts rights against government: why would this be different?  The Founders had just fought a war against a government they considered tyrannical.

At the time and in context, militia were lightly trained and loosely organized citizens with ordinary or perhaps slightly outdated infantry weapons.  The Second Amendment thus speaks directly to the legitimacy – even necessity – of a “civilian military”, under regulation.  The weapons in view for the citizenry to possess – the Militia Acts of 1792 required citizens to provide themselves with these arms – were recognizably those used in war.

It is worth noting that the Second Amendment has nothing to say about what individual states in the Union might require or disallow with regards to arms (except as superseded by national militia regulations).  However, the authority of states in this question would seem to have later been strictly curtailed by the Fourteenth Amendment, although I do not know whether this reasoning following the letter of the Constitution is routinely followed itself in court cases.

Militia service was assumed to be a duty for citizens.  The Militia Acts prescribed militia service for all white male citizens in the United States, subject to requirements established in the various states.  This reflects the common practice of probably a majority of nations throughout history, free or not.  It is still common practice throughout the world to require some degree of military service.  It is, however, not true of practice in the United States today.  How we got here is understandable: reluctance after the Civil War to give the Southern states opportunity for further disruptions, followed by the nationalism and centralization of the early Progressives; two World Wars and various ensuing conflicts would put the country’s military in mind to keep skill in the field at its fighting peak, a task for professionals, rather than amateur citizens.  But there is something a little odd about the occasional claim that the current doctrine of an “All Volunteer Force” is somehow specially “American”.

I take it for granted that some discipline in habits is necessary in a populace to maintain a continuing society.  That discipline can either be imposed from outside or maintained from inside: tyranny or at least autocracy on the one hand; self-control and self-government on the other.  As a society we do not value – in fact we tend to resent – admonitions to curb our desires.  We do so increasingly poorly, and are largely inclined to make jokes about our failures rather than consider them seriously.  In this light, the decline of – the lack of requirement of – militia service is an indication of a people not significantly concerned with remaining free.

In light of current outrages some call for further arming, that everybody should be ready to defend themselves: but a free man should not have to go armed in a free place.  The absolute horror of weapons themselves occasioned by these massacres is not significantly more palatable as an alternative, because by implication it is to admit we have surrendered our freedom.  Between the desire to feel in control of one’s own safety, the emotional and symbolic implications of surrendering the instrument of that control, and the actual fact of a government that spawns ever more intrusive regulations and agencies – the threat the Second Amendment actually had in mind – it is quite easy to understand the desire to see the right to bear arms remain unabridged.

It is mainly either free or lawless societies that have been armed societies: the former to mark and protect their freedom; the latter out of necessity and terror.  The Constitution of the United States was written for a people who – whatever their failures in actually carrying out these principles – wanted to live freely.  Its provisions are probably not safe for a populace which does not wish to exercise self-control.  But – here is the trouble – are we ready to admit that we are in fact not exactly a free people, or do not wish to be?  If so, are we content with that, or will we make actual reforms?

If society as a whole reflects an inability of individuals to govern their own conduct safely, the society is not free: even those individuals who might control themselves will be restricted, out of necessities that affect the whole.  I firmly believe no other nation has yet had the ideals of liberty imagined, or even achieved though admittedly only in part, so well as we have in the United States.  But it is possible for a nation’s maturity to regress.  Are we still free?  Can we prove it?  Or will Uncle Sam have to come take the scissors away from a nation of squabbling toddlers mad about who got invited to the party?

Review: Whistling Vivaldi

Whistling Vivaldi, by Dr. Claude Steele, currently provost of Columbia University, is mainly a summary of studies performed to investigate “stereotype threat”, a term coined to refer to decreased performance as a result of perceived negative expectations.

Steele opens by discussing what he calls “identity contingencies” – the fact that some things in life that we have to deal with will depend on who we are or who we are seen as being.  Stereotype threats are presented as instances of this, and the majority of the book is dedicated to examples of various experiments done to demonstrate that they actually exist – and perhaps most disturbingly, can be easily created artificially but intentionally simply by imposing divisions on a group and attaching expectations.

The remainder is spent discussing ways to address the problem.  The method Steele mentions more often focuses on creating positive expectations or otherwise offsetting the negative ones, by using vocabulary meant to be less threatening, by specifically addressing a negative stereotype fear with reassurances, or other techniques to create positive expectations among a population that would typically be stereotyped with negative ones.  He also briefly mentions addressing these problems by making sure that students learn to work in the ways that do work already for groups with high performance.

The circumstances under which the book was recommended to me – to say nothing of the title – suggested to me that Steele’s work would be reliant on anecdotes of mainly emotional value, an impression which proved quite misleading.  In fact I actually enjoyed the book quite a bit and would recommend it.  I found it disjointed in places: the “disjoints” come when he mentions various experiments or discoveries related to his main topic, and then reverts to the main point.  In a way the book is far too short – another way of looking at these rough connections would be to emphasize one of the book’s chief values, that Steele sticks to his point and doesn’t try to do too much.

Immigration Principles and Consequences

It is widely accepted in the modern world that an independent nation has the authority to control who may enter its borders.  As long as this principle is accepted, persons entering a country will be subject to some kind of confirmation or examination; and as long as that is true, the potential exists for whatever system is put in place to conduct those examinations to become overloaded.  The result is delay, and in order to maintain the orderly entry, some kind of living arrangements for the people waiting to enter (or not) must be maintained.

This possible situation is being played out in reality in the United States along our southern border with Mexico.  The situation further is not quite captured by this neutral language, as there are both widespread failures and evils due to enforcement of policies not appropriate to the overloaded situation – possibly not appropriate at all – and scattered but mainly reliable reports of intentional abuses.

Quite recently the concern over the living conditions provided, together with these reports of abuses, has led some to term the detention centers “concentration camps”.  In a technical sense, the term is accurate, but it has been mainly used to invoke the horde of negative connotations the term has acquired in the popular mind by its association with Nazi Germany.  Those connotations are unfortunate because they imply an intentional evil where the situation we are dealing with is, primarily, accidental.  Certainly some of the abusers may feel enabled by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and feelings of President Trump, other politicians, or their own supervisors: but the institutional problems would exist in the most welcoming possible society, as long as it as accepted that entry to a country may justly be controlled.  Further, if the general principle that entry to a country should be monitored is correct, it is logically possible that in a given country as a given time, a limiting stance on immigration is reasonable.

Solutions to these immediate problems would take one of three forms:

The orthodox approach would be to increase the resources – monetary, personal, legal – devoted to monitoring and controlling immigration at the crisis points.  President Trump’s border wall would fit this category (except that it is not something that can be completed quickly) as would his administration’s deployment of National Guard troops to the border (although it is not clear that this helps directly with the processing of paperwork and so forth that is the real slowing factor).  A more direct solution would be to hire more Customs & Border Patrol personnel, on at least a temporary basis.  Other steps would include reviewing policies in place and either temporarily suspending normally sound policy which is inadequate to the situation, or replacing policy if it is found fundamentally lacking.

An alternative approach would be to re-evaluate the basic principle.  Especially in a world where modernist ideas of democracy ideas are generally accepted – which is to say, the people pre-exist their governments – it is not clear on what grounds a government should be able to stop a person’s travels.  The first cause that comes to mind would be self-defense: in other words, the apprehension of criminals, a check on medical conditions, or possibly the confiscation of weapons.  And these, almost certainly, will take some time: in the United States, even domestic background checks can take several days.  Another potential issue is identifying who exactly – after entry – is a citizen or “really” part of a nation, and who is either passing through or merely resident.  So although it is attractive to think we could see entirely free human movement, as long as there are regionally distinct authorities, this is unlikely as even the most minimal and common-sense limits and restrictions produce the same problem as the endorsement of national borders as a principle produces: a time in which travelers or immigrants must wait for authorized entry.

A final possibility – which has been actually advocated for at times by the Democratic party, and was for years the de facto policy for immigrants who had previously entered in an unauthorized fashion – is to maintain all the formal principles as valid, while simply not enforcing them when it is inconvenient or difficult to do so.  This is the easiest at any given moment, but is simply procrastination and thus is not really a solution.

I am in favor of the first procedure: specifically in this case an increase in personnel and other resources dedicated to managing this crisis.  Because I believe freedom of human movement is a worthwhile ideal, even if (as outlined above) it cannot be fully met in a fallen world, I would hope this would be combined with a re-evaluation and liberalization of the formal requirements for immigration, as well.