Saturday, October 17, 2009

The yearbook photo

In my school, the senior class members were allowed to choose what their photo would be and you could have small groups.

Here I am at 16 with my three friends. Hopefully, people can figure out which I am. My son got it wrong though.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

On my hometown

I've been planning to do a post of comments on my old hometown in Northeastern Louisiana for a while, but I keep putting it off because it's a difficult subject with no conclusions.

But I just came across this almost News of the Weird article in which a Justice of the Peace in Tangipahoa Parish, which is north of New Orleans, was caught denying a marriage license to a couple because there were "interracial," meaning she's white and he's black, in this case.

On the obvious and negative side, the reaction is:

?!@#&$#%@#$$($%? REALLY? STILL TODAY IN 2009?!!!!!! C'MON LOUISIANA!!!!!!

The other side of things is that at least this guy is becoming more and more of a minority. I get the impression most Louisianians are also going: ?$%@#$#@%^

This was enough of an inspiration to finally write my article about the Boro, which is Winnsboro, LA.

My family has deep roots there with my great grandfather moving there over 100 years ago. He was a Methodist minister for a very short span in the early 1900s. My grandfather, father, and mother were all Presidents of the Chamber of Commerce at one point, with my mother being the first female president they'd had. My dad is the only family member remaining in the town, but the Paca family was a leading family, you could say, for a century.

I was born and raised there, and it was the only world I knew until I was 12, when I left to New Jersey for a boarding school. I spent a few summers there in the mid-80s, but by senior year or so, I would stay with my mother in other places in Louisiana and Mississippi. And so, I only know of the town from a child's point of view and I have not spent more than a few days at a time there in 20 years.

It's a farming town as virtually all small towns in the area are, on the border of the Mississippi Delta. When I was growing up, the crops were cotton and soybeans. The cotton market fell apart later when I was in college and lots of people moved to corn.

The racial makeup was stereotypical for the area as well. White and black. And that was almost it. Everyone could count the number of families of any other ethnicity on two hands, maybe one hand. I'm only coming up with 4 families right now.

As far as I remember as a child, almost all the elected leaders and such, with only a couple exceptions, were white. I always thought that this was basically because the town was about 60% white, 40% black and there was enough racism that only a small number of whites would vote across the color line.

However, I recently came across some interesting demographics about the town. I had the racial makeup reversed. It's actually 60% black / 40% white. Whites are the minority. (I don't know if this is a change over the last 20 years or not.) Puts the lack of black elected leaders in a slightly different perspective. Here are some other interesting demographics:

Of the households with children, only 35% are headed by a married couple. Another third have a female head with no husband present, and the final third are labeled "non-family". I'm not sure what that means exactly. Could be non-married, could be a combination of families.

The median income per household for the town is... get this:

$17,500 per year.

That's median, so 50% of the households make that amount OR LESS. Not one person, the entire household. This then implies the next stunning fact:

Almost 60% of the town lives below the federal poverty line.

This is not going to be the whole picture, because I know well that there are many poor whites, but one also can't notice the close connection between the town being 60% black and just about 60% of households being below the poverty line.

Things are changing, as I understand it. Here's a lovely video of Freddie Cole, a world famous jazz musician, brother of Nat King Cole, playing a couple years back in town at the Princess Theater. The band stayed with my dad while visiting. The Princess Theater is something of a high spot for Winnsboro with well-known artists coming to play and productions being mounted.

But in the comments to this video, someone stated how wonderful it was to see this, not just because it's a great jazz musician in a tiny town, but because black and white citizens were sitting together and playing music together. And this was not true when I was a kid. In the early 80s still, blacks had to buy their movie tickets at a side door and then sit in the balcony. I confess I had forgotten, but it's completely true. Clearly, it was illegal, but segregation continued on at the Princess just 25 years ago. Good news is that that's gone. Bad news is that it's so close in memory.

I periodically wonder: Why is Winnsboro in such economic troubles with a full 60% below the poverty line? A large part of it is the general decline of rural America. People are leaving the country for the city all over the nation. At the same time, not all rural places have to collapse. I've never actually been there, but Vermont has a reputation of being simultaneously rural and yet decently educated and, if not prosperous, getting by alright. The Delta soil is very rich. Why can't Louisiana be like Vermont?

My best idea is that it's this lingering racism and history of slavery. While the Princess is no longer segregated, it sure seems like most whites and blacks still live rather separate lives. Here are two examples I've found:

The town has one major festival each year: The Franklin Parish Catfish Festival.

I've never actually been, as it started sometime when I was in boarding school. I always hear good things, though, and it became a pretty big deal for a while with thousands of people attending. I encourage my readers down Baton Rouge way to try going some time. Interestingly, though, if I look at the photos on the official site, I can only find one single African-American in the pics. In a town where 60% of the residents are African-American. (I'm sure things are more mixed in reality, because this is a big event and town celebrations like parades had everyone attend when I was a kid. Even so, there's at least under-representation of the black citizens in the way the celebration is presented online.)

Simultaneously, blacks in Winnsboro will celebrate the Juneteenth Festival. I'd like to pretend I was all in the know on this but I hadn't heard of Juneteenth. It's a holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in Texas and has slowly spread across the nation. Here's a little home video from YouTube.

Nothing in particular to see there except that I don't see a single white person hanging out. A Juneteenth festival is never mentioned as a cultural event on the town web site. People are still living in their own racial worlds.

And this has immediate political consequences. I just dug up the parish election results for 2008. (A parish is like a county and include more than just Winnsboro.) The parish voted 67% for McCain, 32% for Obama. Got those numbers? 67 McCain, 32 Obama.

Now here's the racial makeup of the entire Parish: 67% white, 32% black. I'm not making this up. It looks for all the world like a straight race-to-party-line.

So what? I can only think that this two worlds approach to race that persists is still killing the rural South. Not just black Louisianians, but white Louisianians as well. No society can truly prosper without them all working together, or at least consistently with one another. Until that cycle is broken, the median income will stay as low as it is. I don't know what it will take. All the old guard dying off leaving the younger people who see all of the citizens as one group, not just those of their own color? I don't know. I welcome your ideas.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dubious concoctions - Goldfish tenderloin

Several weeks ago, we had these pork tenderloins. They always come two in a package. I had cooked both the first night and so later in the week it was time for the second one as leftover. I didn't want to have the exact same thing, so... I had this idea.

N invented Cheez-It Chicken several years ago. You basically crush the Cheez-It crackers into crumbs and then use them like bread crumbs. So I figured I would try to do this but with a pork tenderloin.

Unfortunately, we didn't have Cheez-Its; we only had Goldfish crackers. But those are cheese crackers, right? So same diff.

Except that we only had rainbow colored Goldfish crackers.

However, I was not to be daunted, so I crushed them all up. Dipped the already cooked tenderloin in some sour cream, stuck it in a bag with the smushed Goldfish crackers, and then fried it up in a skillet with some oil.


It wasn't that bad actually, though I don't think this is a recipe anyone needs to recreate. It certainly looked... interesting, however.

the big idea

I've been working on a Big Idea in the back of my head for a few weeks now. I call it the LIMIT model of language, which stands for Language as Integrated Motion in Time.

I've always been rather good at writing prologues to stories and mediocre at following through. I just wrote the intro to my idea and it has a nice ring to it.

LIMIT: Language as Integrated Motion in Time

This is a work of synthesis. The method was this: First, there's a goal. The goal originates from the simple thesis that time is a critical component of cognition, and that time must be a component of any understanding of our knowledge of language. The goal was then to discover how to stop saying that bits of language are to the left and right of each other and profitably say that they are before and after. Next, it examines available research programs, selecting the ones that most benefit that goal. As such, it is an active selection, not a passive one. Then, it modifies those research programs to make as coherent of a whole as could be achieved when they are integrated. The research programs that are used, then, are not taken as wholes, but shaped and modified to fit the purpose. Finally, a set of predictions is made based upon this integrated model.

I go through this explication of synthesis, because this process is also the model itself. Language is created through a set of parallel mental components, each with its own goals, that integrate information from other components in a way relevant to itself, and then each process builds an expectation for the future based upon this integrated information. This process is continuous and time-dependent. In sum, a language is integrated motion in time.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Columbus Day and Judging the Past

Columbus Day has come and gone in the U.S., and there's just no way around it: it's a controversial holiday.

I don't view Columbus Day as really about Columbus himself. It's about the modern contact between the Old World and New World and marking that event in history.

There's always a tendency to oversimplify what it means. Not too long ago, Columbus Day, if recognized at all, was only a celebration. More recently, the coin has flipped and people only discuss all of the horrific things that occurred.

And that list of horrific things goes on for a long time:

The destruction of hundreds of cultures
Languages disappearing forever
Million upon millions of innocent people dead
dead through war, disease, genocide, neglect
The spread of slavery across the globe....

But at the same time, many amazing things have come about as well because of this contact. Here's just a partial list (and apologies to the other Americas for the undeniably U.S.-centric list):


Harper Lee
Truman Capote
John Steinbeck
Walt Whitman
Toni Morrison
Michael Chabon
Jhumpa Lahiri
Zora Neale Hurston
David Henry Hwang
Louisa May Alcott
Robert Frost
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Maya Angelou

Performing Arts / Film

Rodgers and Hammerstein
Cole Porter
Arthur Miller
Tony Kushner
George Gershwin
August Wilson
Orson Welles
Gene Kelly
Fred Astaire
Ginger Rodgers
Jim Henson
The Godfather
Marlon Brando
Kathryn Hepburn

Music (this might be the biggest of all: imagine music today without the New World....)

Louis Armstrong
Ella Fitzgerald
Billie Holiday
Dizzy Gillespie
Charlie Parker
Duke Ellington
Benny Goodman
Muddy Waters
Robert Johnson
Bessie Smith
Howlin' Wolf
The Beatles (well aware, they are Brits, but they were performing Elvis and Chuck Berry; same concept goes for pretty much every single modern musical act. I bet if we all tossed away every CD we had that had some sort of New World post-Columbus influence, we'd end up with about 6 items, 4 of which you picked up on world travels (ok, fine, I know some people for whom this would not be true, but I think my points is clear. Even if your collection is stacked with stars from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, almost all of them are doing New World music reflected back through their own culture and artistry)
Chuck Berry
Simon and Garfunkel
Kathleen Battle
the Met
bossa nova
Antonio Carlos Jobim
ki ho'alu (Hawaiian slack key guitar)
songs of Queen Liliuokalani
Western swing


Jesse Owens
Jackie Joyner Kersey
Carl Lewis
Jackie Robinson
Duke Kahanamoku (at least not his exact life)
Michael Jordan
Ichiro Suzuki
Wilt Chamberlain
Yao Ming
Tiger Woods
Mary Lou Retton
Michelle Kwan
Kristy Yamaguchi

Just major world events / innovation

the telephone
the Moon Landing
the Marshall Plan
the Declaration of Independence
the internet
Martin Luther King Jr.
the lightbulb
Henry Ford's plant
Susan B. Anthony
the cotton gin
the "green revolution" that saved millions from famine in this century

And that's all just scratching the surface.

One can say that some of these things would have been created by others if people in the New World, operating in the cultures created by the contact initiated by Columbus, had not done so. Sometimes that's easy to see, such as with the incandescent lightbulb. Clearly opera would be okay without the U.S. Other things are extremely unlikely. It is exactly the mixing of European and African cultures in the U.S., put through the minds of individual geniuses, that created jazz. Anyway, if we go down this road of "well, someone would have done it," then we are just dealing in hypotheticals within hypotheticals. The facts are that all these people in the Americas did do it.

Of course, if we hadn't had these things created, because the settlement from Europe, Africa, and Asia into the Americas never occurred in the pattern that it actually did, we'd all be celebrating other cultural achievements. Playing the game of "well, it was worth it" is hopeless. Who knows what would have existed. The fact that we got MLK and can celebrate that doesn't mean that segregation was good. Instead, people just do the best they can with what they've got.

You can rarely judge an individual's action by what happened due to it 100 years later. Columbus did set in motion the world of Cortez, but, if we simply blame Columbus, then we are letting Cortez off the moral hook for the conquest of Mexico, and surely he's the one to blame there. Cortez could have said 'no'. Columbus should be morally judged on his own actions (and I'm aware that he had a very mixed/dubious character), not for what others did in his footsteps.

Now, that last paragraph sounds good to me (which is nice since I wrote it), but it's assuredly a flawed view. The actions of a single person can be basically harmless when only one person does it, but when a million people do the same thing, it can be devastating. The clearest case is in natural habitats. One besotted nature tourist walking a beach where sea turtles are born does harm to no one. But cover the beach with those tourists and the habitat is destroyed. One carbon-emitting car: no problem. 100 million carbon-spewing cars: big problem. The same thing happens with cultural contact. It does little harm for an English speaker to meet and become friends with a group of Choctaw speaking people. But swamp the nation with English-speakers and the Choctaw language is fighting for its life.

Those wiser than me must take it from here. I think all you can do with Columbus Day is say that it changed the world. That makes it worth marking. And then teach children what happened as a consequence. The good things, the terrible things. And then maybe they will take whatever actions they can as they grow up to keep as much of the good and mitigate the bad as can be done today. If I were to stay in Hawaii permanently, for instance (which is not likely since there are no jobs here without killing someone in my department), I would have failed if I don't take actions to keep Hawaiian culture and language alive.

Accordion Vivaldi

It is Vivaldi, right? (I said Bach at first, hat tip to Akiemi.) Hat tip to Heather

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Overcoming your limitations in writing

How do you overcome your limitations in writing?

I've mentioned before on this blog that I have a lousy visual memory. N corrected me once on the color of our house. (I assumed it had white siding, but it apparently was a sort of tan or something.) I didn't know the color of my own mother's eyes once. Apparently, they are blue. I only remember this because I remember the conversation. I mentioned once how I didn't know anyone with blue eyes with my mother there and she said, "well, perhaps me." I couldn't tell you if my wife has a big nose or a small nose, even though we've been together for 19 years now. If a sketch artist started placing different noses on her face, I would know if it's right or not. I just can't take the nose off of her face and stick it mentally next to some other nose and make a decision. Unless it's Pinochio or Cyrano.

And so, when I'm reading fiction, I often start to skim when I get to those big paragraphs describing the room or the person's clothes. I have an interest in women, I assume from this whole heterosexuality thing I've got going, so I sometimes do care what a woman looks like in a book, but I don't particularly care about everyone else, and I often actually forget the physical description of the female characters as well. If the monster has pointed ears or flat ones? Whatever. It's a monster. That's all I need to know.

I'm currently reading Kate Elliot's Spirit Gate and the color of hair is only important on one woman, a slave named Cornflower. She has blonde hair and is viewed as an object of desire and possibly a demon by others. But the much larger character of Mai, a major POV character and heroine in the novel, well, I can clearly infer she's not blonde, but otherwise, I've totally forgotten, and it really makes no difference to the plot what her hair color is. People react to her as beautiful, so I know she is. But I have no image of her in my head at all.

Largely, I just don't care. Descriptions for the visual senses are not part of the enjoyable experience for me, like a good one-liner is.

And yet, I know many other people do care. It's these detailed descriptions of sight that brings the character and world to life. I think it ties into the way people find different arts appealing. For some, the structures of music are just not all that interesting. For me, that's definitely the most fascinating of all the arts. Others can stare at a painting for half an hour. I can easily put on headphones and disappear into music for an hour, but a painting? Not so much.

How do you compensate for your own weaknesses in writing? Someone once told me she maintains a five senses check list. I haven't written anything in a couple years now, but the last few times I did, I would draft with whatever came to mind, which is always dialogue, emotions, and wit. Then I'd go back in the revisions and continuously look for places I could satisfy the other senses and add something in. Are there places where a normal person would want to visualize more? Should there be a sense of smell here? I think it did help.

Are there things that you know are important that you just don't do naturally? How do you overcome it?

Friday, October 09, 2009

artefact versus artifact

I just wrote these two sentences in my paper:

"There is some tendency for these harsher critiques of the family members to be directed more towards female members of the family than male ones. However, this may by an artefact of the scenarios more than anything else."

And old MS Word underlined "artefact" and wants me to spell it "artifact". So off to Google I went and there seems to be no consensus on this. It could be a UK/US spelling difference, though there's evidence that both forms are used in both nations. However, to me, I don't think of these as the same word, though it's hard for me to pinpoint the difference.

If an archaeologist digs up a piece of pottery, that's a definite artifact with an "i" in there. But, well, that's not the kind of artifact I am talking about in my sentence. This sort of an artefact is an accidental construction of other features. My sentence example is a better explanation than my definition here.

What are your thoughts? I expect people to have opinions on the spelling, but what about the difference in meaning? Are these really two different, though related, words? Or is my inability to articulate the difference between an artifact and an artefact evidence they're really the same thing?

My guess right now is that these are the same word, but that I've encountered this "accidental feature" use of artefact among stuff written by people who happened to use the artefact spelling. It's a probabilistic meaning for the linguist readers.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Why is shortly a word but longly isn't?

As in, "I will have a beer shortly," but not "I will finish this paper longly."

Just asking.