General Kelly takes on a new assignment

I keep telling myself I won’t write about politics anymore; it’s too depressing. But I keep making an exception for John Kelly, the ex-Marine general who headed Homeland Security and now will be Chief of Staff in the Trump White House.

I make the exception because Kelly is my age and from my home town. Many of the same forces that shaped me presumably also shaped him. But here we are. One could imagine a military guy agreeing to take on Homeland Security — it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. Better someone who is competent that an idiot or an ideologue. But if competence leads to an outcome like this, give me idiocy:

Colindres always thought of America as a dream refuge. He fled Guatemala in 2004 to get away from the drug trafficking, from the murder, from the country where one of his family members was killed. He came across the border through Texas — where many of those he traveled with were caught. He decided to turn himself in and he was released into the US on a provisional waiver.

What he did not know, until after he married Samantha and began legal proceedings to become a US citizen, was that he had missed a court date in Texas. New England Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Shawn Neudauer said an order of removal was issued by a federal judge in 2004.

Colindres maintains the system failed him, too. Officials had his name and address wrong, he said, so he never knew about the court date or resulting order.

“I’m not a criminal. The only thing I did wrong was miss a court (appearance),” he said. “I didn’t know, I was just 20 years old. I made a mistake. I’m sorry. I think that’s all I can say.”

And now Kelly will apply his competence to–what? It will all end badly, for Kelly and for the country. He is likely to end up a dignity wraith, to use Josh Marshall’s brilliant term, having accomplished nothing except ruining his reputation and, like his predecessor, expressing gratitude to the great man who has humiliated him.

100,000

I just noticed that the odometer in Microsoft Word ticked past 100,000 words on my new novel. I think I have about 15,000 words to go. Is this good or bad? Portal weighed in at about 103,000 words, Barbarica at about 84,000. But I’ve got a bunch of characters and a lot of loose ends to deal with. I could imagine splitting up this thing into two books, but that doesn’t feel quite right.

I have plenty of time to change my mind, I suppose.

Malcolm Gladwell and the mystery of free-throw shooting

Here’s an interesting podcast in which Malcolm Gladwell confronts one of the fundamental mysteries of Western civilization: Why don’t basketball players shoot free-throws underhanded?  The evidence is incontrovertible that this method produces better outcomes than the overhand method.  And yet almost no one uses it.

This is of particular interest to me because, growing up, shot free-throws underhanded — I guess because my father did.  And I was good!  In the 7th grade, I was elected captain of my gym team, basically because I could shoot free-throws better than anyone else.  But this came to an end when the gym teacher noticed what I was doing and ordered me to cut it out.  So I did.  I was also pretty good shooting overhand, but nowhere near as good as I was underhand; it’s just harder.

Gladwell tells the story in his typical entertaining fashion, focusing on Wilt Chamberlain’s legendary 100-point game, which would never have happened if he hadn’t been going through a phase where he was shooting free throws underhand.  But then later, he changed back to the overhand method he was so bad at, because it made him “feel like a sissy.”  Wilt Chamberlain felt like a sissy!  Gladwell also brings in other standard examples from sports of people who can’t do the right thing even though they know better, like coaches who insist on punting when all the data says they should go for it on fourth down.

But, as usual, Gladwell’s explanation for this is, well, not that interesting, at least to me.  He uses the same theory of “thresholds” that he has also advanced to explain riots and school shootings.  Some people are go-it-aloners who don’t need to feel like they’re part of a crowd; for free-throw shooting, this would be Rick Barry, who didn’t care that no one else shot underhanded.  He knew he was right, and so that’s what he did.  He had a low “threshold”.  Most people have much higher thresholds; they can’t bring themselves to shoot free throws underhand or go for it on fourth down unless everyone else is doing it.  If everyone is doing the wrong thing, they will do the wrong thing–this might be the lesson of the Milgram experiments and others that emphasize the importance of situation in predicting human behavior.

Gladwell may be right; I don’t know.  But I’d have liked him to dig a little deeper.  Why would someone like Wilt Chamberlain feel compelled to be a conformist when it came to free-throw shooting, despite being as out of the ordinary as one could imagine in so many other ways?  What causes someone to have a different threshold?  No explanation is given.

The Salem Lyceum

A few weeks ago I had dinner in a restaurant housed in the former Salem Lyceum building. Lyceums were to mid-nineteenth-century America what TED talks are to our America.  Here’s a nice summary of the history of the one in Salem.  Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson, Daniel Webster . . . the intellectual and political heavyweights of nineteenth-century Massachusetts all showed up here.

As the article points out, the Salem Lyceum is most famous for an event that was technical, not intellectual — Alexander Graham Bell’s first public demonstration of “long distance telephone conversations” in 1877:

IMG_0648

Technology marches on.  I took this photo on my iPhone, which automatically sent a copy to my Dropbox account on a computer somewhere in the cloud.  Then I used my phone’s global positioning technology to map out the route back to my hotel.  I didn’t use the phone to talk to anyone.

Who stole Shakespeare’s skull?

According to this New York Times article, it was a guy named Frank Chambers.  First, researchers used radar imaging of Shakespeare’s grave site at a church in Stratford-upon-Avon.  The imaging indicated that the skull was probably missing.  This led them to an account of a doctor named Chambers robbing the grave in 1794:

“We’ve done lots of research literally trying to pick holes in this story,” Mr. Colls said, adding that the group had looked into the names of Chambers’s gravedigger accomplices, the inns they visited before and after the heist, and the depth to which they were said to have excavated; all the details checked out. “If the grave-robbing account is a made-up story,” he said, “then it’s unbelievably accurate in all its details.”

What I like about this piece is its consideration of whether the researchers’ imaging technique “moved” Shakespeare’s bones, which would mean that the inscription above the grave — “Curst be he that moves my bones” — would apply to them:

Whether the archaeologists beaming radar into Shakespeare’s grave were able to escape the curse printed above the grave depends on how much you believe in quantum physics. Radar waves, like every other form of electromagnetic radiation including visible light, carry energy and momentum, a lesson every schoolkid learns when asking where a comet’s tail comes from: particles of cosmic fluff pushed into a stream by the pressure of sunlight. Indeed, scientists have suggested that spacecraft with giant foil sails propelled by sunlight or powerful lasers might be the cheapest form of interplanetary or even interstellar travel.

One of the ineluctable rules of quantum mechanics (and perhaps journalism) is that you can’t observe something without disturbing it and influencing it in some way. For Shakespeare’s remains to be detected, electrons in the atoms of his bones would have to absorb energy and momentum from the radar waves and then kick it back out. So to see Shakespeare is to give him a quantum tickle. Safely embedded in the ground, the bones might not have moved much or at all, but they knew someone was watching.

Good stuff.

Here is Shakespeare, back when his skull was attached to his body: