A Loving Portrait of Queen Victoria

The Telegraph insists on reading this in the base terms to which the age has become accustomed, but this is really a nice bit of portraiture.  Look at how the painter managed to capture the liquidity of the eyes, for example:  also the use of light, which shines on the eyes and nose at the correct angles to have come from a single source.

Photography spoils us:  anyone can get those details right with a digital camera and a little practice.  To have done it with oils on canvas is the mark of a craftsman.

Sex and Strategy

I don't feel we've spent enough time this week waging the war between men and women. The fertile comments section over at Megan McArdle's place sent me to a 2007 talk by Roy Baumeister engaging in the ever-popular game of using evolutionary biology to explain why men are from Mars and women from Venus. ("But that's no reason why they cain't be friends.") One of his more widely publicized explanations derived from 2004 research suggesting that our ancestral breeding population included twice as many women as men. In other words, women were twice as likely to have surviving progeny as men, so the reproductive competition was a game with much greater risks and rewards for men, who tended either to produce a lot more children than average or to suffer the extinction of their bloodline.

Baumeister concludes that this gender difference produced men who were willing to bet it all on risky ventures like discovering the New World, while women were content to stick with the status quo. He produces evidence that, although men and women may vary only slightly in their average capabilities in many areas, the bell curve is flatter for men, so the "tails" on both the negative and positive ends are greater for men. More geniuses, but more morons; more world leaders, but more homeless or incarcerated men. He believes this pattern can be explained by the effect of natural selection on the higher riskiness of male reproduction.

Myself, I wonder if you couldn't as easily argue that men, exposed to the risk of not reproducing at all, would be fiercely conservative and protective of their few opportunities, while women, virtually assured of reproducing no matter what, would be willing to throw caution to the wind and experiment. That's the problem with a lot of evolutionary biology, isn't it? It's fun to spot the patterns and try to reduce correlation to causation, but without a genetic mechanism it's hard to find a definitive answer. For instance, it's one thing to say that natural selection operated differently on men and women, and another to say that men ended up with the genes that worked well for men, while women ended up with the genes that worked well for women. In reality, of course, men pass their genes down to children of both sex, as do women. Unless you can tie a male trait to the Y-chromosome, or a female trait to the absence of the Y-chromosome, it's not easy to make a case for a genetic differentiation in the present generation on the ground of gender-based natural selection in past generations.

Baumeister's arguments may work a little better when he ties the unequal ratio of reproductive success to cultural norms rather than to supposedly innate heritable differences between men and women. He suggests that many cultural conventions make sense if you assume that only a few men can be expected to reproduce successfully, while most women can. This assumption leads a society to assume simultaneously that men should be the cannon fodder and that men should end up on top of the heap when it comes to wealth and power. As he points out, if half the men are killed and you're left with only the most successful half, you can rebuild your population fairly quickly. If half the women are killed off, you're in for a slow and dicey recovery.

At all events, I found Baumeister's talk highly entertaining, particularly when he analyzes the different areas where the sexes excel:
Research by Major and others back in the 1970s used procedures like this. A group of subjects would perform a task, and the experimenter would then say that the group had earned a certain amount of money, and it was up to one member to divide it up however he or she wanted. The person could keep all the money, but that wasn’t usually what happened. Women would divide the money equally, with an equal share for everybody. Men, in contrast, would divide it unequally, giving the biggest share of reward to whoever had done the most work.

Which is better? Neither. Both equality and equity are valid versions of fairness. But they show the different social sphere orientation. Equality is better for close relationships, when people take care of each other and reciprocate things and divide resources and opportunities equally. In contrast, equity — giving bigger rewards for bigger contributions — is more effective in large groups. I haven’t actually checked, but I’m willing to bet that if you surveyed the Fortune 500 large and successful corporations in America, you wouldn’t find a single one out of 500 that pays every employee the same salary. The more valuable workers who contribute more generally get paid more. It simply is a more effective system in large groups. The male pattern is suited for the large groups, the female pattern is best suited to intimate pairs.

Ditto for the communal-exchange difference. Women have more communal orientation, men more exchange. In psychology we tend to think of communal as a more advanced form of relationship than exchange. For example, we’d be suspicious of a couple who after ten years of marriage are still saying, “I paid the electric bill last month, now it’s your turn.” But the supposed superiority of communal relationships applies mainly to intimate relationships. At the level of large social systems, it’s the other way around. Communal (including communist) countries remain primitive and poor, whereas the rich, advanced nations have gotten where they are by means of economic exchange.
It rings true for me, anyway. I've always said I practice socialism under my own roof, and to a lesser degree within my small intimate circle, but I firmly believe competition works best for the country at large. And while I may not be an entirely conventional female in some ways, there's no doubt of my strong preference for small-scale social interaction. So the male-dominated institutional pattern of large, relative anonymous groups doesn't suit me, which is why I enjoyed practicing law in a big firm as long as I could toil away at difficult problems in small groups of like-minded professionals whom I trusted, but I hated networking and rainmaking and was perfectly awful at it.

Good Eyes

Reminds me of the shooting competition in Winchester '73.  The one where they're shooting dollars thrown into the air?  Then they start shooting postage stamps placed over the center of a ring, so they're passing the bullet through the ring itself.

With enough practice, I suppose anything is possible -- if your eyes are good enough.

Weatherproof agriculture

We must be thinking about this more lately because the rainfall here is so erratic, and because we lost so many plants this week to a completely unforecast freeze after nursing them through the drought all summer and finally getting some production off of them in recent weeks. I'm lost in admiration of the new book my husband received in the mail today, with detailed plans for a combination greenhouse and aquaponics system. There is a tall cylinder in the middle to hold a catfish tank, surrounded by a circular path, and lower aquaponics tanks on the perimeter. You feed the fish, and they feed the plants. This version is made from a kit meant for the top of a silo. The authors suggest that an alternative version would include a hottub surrounded by flowers.

Pressing Reform

Never let it be said that Congress isn't capable of coming together to tackle the important problems.  First horse slaughter, and now....
On Nov. 15, the Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously approved S. 1867, the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a provision to repeal Article 125 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).  Article 125 of the UCMJ makes it illegal to engage in both sodomy with humans and sex with animals.
This still has to get by the conference committee, because for some reason the House didn't think of this obvious improvement to good order and discipline.  Don't worry, though:  there's still time to get it done for the holidays.

I think every unit that worked closely with the Iraqi forces has stories to tell about the tender love between man and beast.  Perhaps this is all in the interest of cultural exchange?  Hearts and minds, I suppose.

Autumn Fire

Not chestnuts, but almonds roast on a steel plate this evening, each with a touch of chocolate.  

The hero of the hour on his favorite rug.

On Horse Flesh

I noticed with some pleasure that Congress has re-approved the slaughter of horses for meat today.

It's a terrible shame to see a horse put down for any cause.  Human beings and horses get along very well, and in an ideal world more men and women would have the chance to have a relationship with a horse.  Nevertheless, we are where we are, and the well-meaning attempt to ban the slaughter of horses has led to reliably worse results.

Horses who could no longer be slaughtered were instead left to starve.  Instead of a quick and painless death, they were rendered economically worthless.  The intention was, I suppose, that people should simply care for the animals until they died of old age; but rather predictably, what they did instead was refuse to lay out money for feed or hay for animals who could not promise any sort of economic return.  Trapped on dry lots, with neither food nor water, they were left to perish in the most brutal conditions.

If they can be sold for meat, they'll be sold by weight.  That means they'll eat, at least, until the end.  This may seem unkind but it is far better.  Good on Congress for getting one right, and for learning from its mistakes.  Let's hope it points to a trend.

Today's Great Accomplishment

Today, my neighbor's dog Callie wandered up the hill from her home in the valley below.  I generally like all dogs, and usually know all the neighbors' dogs (even if I don't know the neighbors, in which case I assign the dog a name.  I do know this neighbor, though, a fine older gentleman and the owner-operator of a log-hauling semi).

Now, Callie loves to play fetch.  So, I got a stick and threw it for her several times.  My own dog, Buck, was there also, but Buck never learned to play fetch.  I tried to teach him more than once over the years, but he would just watch the stick fly through the air and then look at me.  "Oh, well," I thought, "I guess he's just not interested."

Callie sure was interested, though.  She was running after the stick, biting the stick, and growling fiercely when I'd try to take the stick back from her.

Then one time I threw the stick through the air and Buck went chasing after it!  I'd never been able to convey to him what I wanted him to do, but watching Callie he had suddenly worked out the rules of the game.  Once he understood, he played with the same enthusiasm she has always shown.

There's the Order of Reason at work for you.
I never know that anyone is "thinking," except insofar as they can communicate something to me that reminds me of the internal process I identify by the work "thinking."
The lower animals are limited by the lack of language, and so they have a lesser access to the order than we have.  Yet to see one observe a game and learn its rules, across species?

Santa Anno

Here's a fine, brave piece.

My Kind of Male Character

Since T99 is putting up the challenge, I suppose I ought to think about an example of what I like to see in how men are portrayed.  I'd like to put forward an example from John Wayne -- Red River, surely, or Rio Bravo.  But the truth is that my favorite of all is from a 1980s movie of no special fame.

This rendition of the end scene, if you don't know the movie, is just as good even in a foreign tongue.

Here is one who has learned to live in fellowship with a horse or a hawk or a sword, and thus has every strength that might bring glory to a man:  but in spite of that he has not lost the most important thing.  If you don't know the film, perhaps you should see it, though in truth the music is terrible.  All the same, it may be the best we have ever done at capturing the ideal -- and at understanding the importance of lies and sin, embodied in the character portrayed by Matthew Broderick, in maintaining faith against the hardships of the world.  It is those lies that turn the warrior from despair and even suicide, and sustain him until the hour when God's grace brings him joy.

There lies a subtle lesson.

My kind of female character

If they're going to show cleavage, this is how I'd prefer they did it. Ziva's no wimp, and she can sing, too.

I didn't realize until just now that that's a Tom Waits song.


Little Red's comment made me think of the lyrics to this politically incorrect old shape-note song, Greenwich (183), with its grim satisfaction at the comeuppance in store for rich and powerful villains:
Lord, what a thoughtless wretch was I
To mourn and murmur and repine
To see the wicked placed on high
In pride and robes of honor shine

But oh, their end, their dreadful end
Thy sanctuary taught me so
On slippery rocks I see them stand
And fiery billows roll below
There's nothing like this in my 1980 Episcopal hymnbook, I'll tell you that. It would give the editors the vapors just to hear it. Sure is fun to sing, though: "But oh, their end, their dreadful end . . . ."


Now let us turn our attention to this article from Humanities on Averroes.

There is some good work here, but finally the author misses the point both on the history and the philosophy.  Historically, the reason that the last Islamic philosopher of any weight was probably Averroes isn't the pressures Islam placed on his teachings; it's that Christian Spain conquered his city within fifty years of his death, and much of the rest of the peninsula.  Meanwhile, in the famous schools of Baghdad mentioned by the articles, the Mongol horde arrived.  The result was that Islamic scholarship was decimated at both ends; there was no one left to teach, and no one in the Islamic world with time to learn.

That is the historic reason that Averroes' torch passed to Christian thinkers.  Any civilization is in danger of destruction in every generation, if it fails to pass its lessons to its children.  To lose all of one's schools in a generation is a tragedy, and a blow, from which few if any civilizations have recovered.  Islam has a chance to recover cuttings of its old traditions from us, and restore them.  If it does, it may yet flourish anew.

Philosophically, the author misreads Averroes' contention about what philosophy is for.  Averroes does indeed say that "anyone who declares these interpretations to those not adept in them is himself an unbeliever because of his calling people to unbelief."  So does the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who holds strongly that a particular interpretation of a crucial passage in the Torah should not be expounded philosophically 'in the presence of two' -- and Jewish philosophy has, and Jewish philosophers have, continued to be at the forefront of the field.

No, rather, Averroes held that philosophy was the highest way of pursuing the questions of the divine, and that metaphysics -- he followed Aristotle's definition of metaphysics as the study of 'being qua being' -- was "either obligatory or recommended by religious law."  Since he was a qadi, a sha'riah judge, this opinion should carry some weight even today.

Those of  you interested in the subject may find Richard C. Taylor's article on the subject more interesting; sadly, it is not available online without a subscription of some sort.  However, even your public library can almost certainly obtain it for you, if you only know to ask for it.


My mother-in-law makes what she calls "hot water cornbread," which I think may also be called cornpone or corn dodgers. They should be simple to reproduce here at home, right? You just take cornmeal and salt, and add boiling hot water. How much? Well, as much cornmeal as you need for your batch, enough salt that they taste right, and then add water until the consistency is right. Then you form the piping hot dough into little pads in your palms about the size of a squashed egg, and pop them into an inch or so of oil heated to about the right temperature, cooking them first on one side, then the other, until they're the right color.

I'm experimenting with making the dough wetter (the two on the left) and drier (the two on the right). My third and fourth batches this morning are getting pretty edible, though they still don't taste like my mother-in-law's. One cup of cornmeal makes about six dodgers.

More on the Jobs Picture

Zero Hedge has a guest post that is really an advertisement for a report on what skills will be in demand in the future.  They don't get around to telling you what skills you'll need in the ad, but they do explain what the challenges are that will be facing future workforces.

The challenges they list begin with automation, which we were just discussing ourselves, and go on from there.  See what you think.


News from Stonehenge:
Archeologists have discovered two new pits at the mysterious Stonehenge site that shed potential light on its ritual use. The pits are aligned in a celestial pattern, suggesting that they could have been used for sunrise and sunset rituals; the pits pre-date the construction of the famous rock formations more than 5,000 years ago. 
The discovery was the handiwork of a group called the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, which has been working at the Stonehenge site since last year. The project's leaders are an international team of archeologists who've been using geophysical imaging techniques to develop a profile of the site's ritual uses. Investigators theorize that the pits, positioned within the Neolithic Cursus pathway, could have formed a procession route for ancient rituals celebrating the sun moving across the sky at the midsummer solstice.

"The Internet Miniskirt"

A writer named E. J. Graff wrote a piece by this name at the American Prospect last week; I happened on it this morning.  The subject is the sexual threats that haunt women who enter the public space, especially to venture strong opinions.  She offers numerous examples, if examples are needed -- I expect that all of us have observed this behavior at some point -- and then concludes:
After a certain age—say, by 19—women know that we must keep our heads up and our eyes open in the back stacks of libraries or hidden areas of public parks, lest we encounter flashers or worse; be alert when walking at night or in empty areas; stay near streetlights and away from parked cars; keep our keys splayed in our fingers as potential weapons if jumped; check our back seats before getting into our cars and to lock the car instantly on getting in; make sure a friend knows where we are at all times....
A lot of men have no idea how fully women's lives are limned by caution and fear. This is the invisible burka for women in the West. I don't mean to exaggerate it—god forbid that I should be mocked by Katie Roiphe, who has made a silly career of asserting that sexual violence is just flirting by another name—but neither should this gendered background noise continue to go unnoticed. 
Here's the larger question for me: Why do so many men feel comfortable having and acting on such sexually violent attitudes toward women? What will it take to end this underlying beastly treatment of women who dare to be anything but silent bodies? How do we end this epidemic of violent disrespect? I am honestly asking for your thoughts.
I have no use whatever for the kind of man she is describing.  I am going to offer my thoughts, since she asks for them, with the understanding that I would also like to see a society in which this kind of behavior was driven out of the public space.

Before I do that, I want to say a few words to clarify the nature of the problem.

Ms. Graff says that a lot of men have no idea of the degree to which women's lives are full of the fear of violence.  I would gently suggest, as a counterpoint, that she herself does not seem to appreciate the degree to which men have a very different relationship to violence.  She understands that men are more likely to cause violence, especially sexual violence to women:  what she doesn't seem to appreciate is that men are also far, far more likely to experience violence.  The exception is sexual violence (see table 5), but otherwise the vast majority of violence is targeted at men.  This is true not only of criminal violence, but of lawful violence:  the number of men versus women who are imprisoned, say, or the number of men versus women killed in war.

Thus, if by the age of 19 a woman learns to carry her keys in a certain way, a man by that age has learned to fight.  He will probably have had to do so.  I have been punched, kicked, mobbed by groups of up to three, machinegunned, mortared, rocketed, and shot at with an AK-47 at various points.  I suspect that most men have been in fights, if not as adults than as young men:  certainly we fought often where I grew up.  I've also studied violence -- not only in the martial arts, but also chronicles from Thucydides to Froissart to T. E. Lawrence, military histories, and theoretical works from Sun Tzu to Vegetius to Clausewitz.

Violence in politics is the ordinary condition of humankind.  There has almost never been a state of affairs in which it was unusual, let alone unheard of, for anyone entering politics to be subject to violent intimidation if not actual attacks.  This is why -- as Hannah Arendt reminds us -- Machiavelli held courage to be the most important political virtue.

Nor is violence outside of politics an unusual condition.  When Ms. Graff writes that a woman learns always to 'keep her head up and eyes open' and to 'always look in the back seat of her car before getting in,' I am strongly reminded of the opening lines of the Havamal, where the god Odin is giving advice to the wise:

At every door-way,
ere one enters,
one should spy round,
one should pry round
for uncertain is the witting
that there be no foeman sitting,
within, before one on the floor

Likewise, on travel:

Let a man never stir on his road a step
without his weapons of war;
for unsure is the knowing when need shall arise
of a spear on the way without.

This is not new, then, nor is it unusual.  There are ways of dealing with it so that you can go about your life unafraid, and these strategies include:  study and practice, such as I described above; the habit of keeping and bearing arms, which has been my constant habit since youth; constructing friendships with people who will stand up for you, and with you, and fighting for them in return; and of course "keeping your head up and your eyes open," with which Ms. Graff is plainly familiar.  It's an excellent practice.  

If we can see the problem of violence and threats in this broader light, we can begin to make sense of the question she's after.  How do we put a stop to this state of affairs in which there is violent disrespect for women in the public space?  I will suggest that it's not a problem for women, but a problem that men and women need to think about in concert.

Possibly the most popular post I have I ever written was "Social Harmony," which treats the problem of violence in society.

Very nearly all the violence that plagues, rather than protects, society is the work of young males between the ages of fourteen and thirty. A substantial amount of the violence that protects rather than plagues society is performed by other members of the same group. The reasons for this predisposition are generally rooted in biology, which is to say that they are not going anywhere, in spite of the current fashion that suggests doping half the young with Ritalin. 
The question is how to move these young men from the first group (violent and predatory) into the second (violent, but protective). This is to ask: what is the difference between a street gang and the Marine Corps, or a thug and a policeman? In every case, we see that the good youths are guided and disciplined by old men. This is half the answer to the problem. 
But do we not try to discipline and guide the others? If we catch them at their menace, don't we put them into prisons or programs where they are monitored, disciplined, and exposed to "rehabilitation"? The rates of recidivism are such that we can't say that these programs are successful at all, unless the person being "rehabilitated" wants and chooses to be. And this is the other half of the answer: the discipline and guidance must be voluntarily accepted. The Marine enlists; the criminal must likewise choose to accept what is offered. 
The Eastern martial arts provide an experience very much like that of Boot Camp. The Master, like the Drill Instructor, is a disciplined man of great personal prowess. He is an exemplar. He asks nothing of you he can't, or won't, do himself--and there are very many things he can and will do that are beyond you, though you have all the help of youth and strength. It is on this ground that acceptance of discipline is won. It is the ground of admiration, and what wins the admiration of these young men is martial prowess. 
Everyone who was once a young man will understand what I mean. Who could look forward, at the age of sixteen or eighteen, to a life of obedience, dressed in suits or uniforms, sitting or standing behind a desk? How were you to respect or care about the laws, or the wishes, of men who had accepted such a life? The difficulty is compounded in poor communities, where the jobs undertaken are often menial. How can you respect your father if your father is a servant? Would you not be accepting a place twice as low as his? Would you not rather take up the sword, and cut yourself a new place? Meekness in the old men of the community unmakes the social order: it encourages rebellion from the young.....
The martial virtues are exactly the ones needed. By a happy coincidence, having a society whose members adhere to and encourage those virtues makes us freer as well--we need fewer police, fewer courts, fewer prisons, fewer laws, and fewer lawyers. This is what Aristotle meant when he said that the virtues of the man are reflected in the society. Politics and ethics are naturally joined.
Now, true virtues are virtues for anyone.  Courage is a true virtue because, no matter what you want out of life and no matter what your opinions or values are, courage will help you achieve it.  The martial virtues are likewise true virtues -- and Ms. Graff shows some evidence of them!  After all, she has learned to arm herself (if only with car keys), keep aware, and ensure that she has friends she can count on to come after her.   These are things that she apparently wishes she did not have to do, but perhaps she should take pride in them instead.  These are strengths, which allow her to live the life she wishes to live in the teeth of a dangerous world.  It should be a joy to defy the wicked.

There is another answer, though, which is indicated by "Social Harmony."  Women cannot do this alone.  Partly this is because young men need old men with the right values, to whom they can look up to for an example.  It is critical that old men set this example, and it is critical that society supports them in doing so.  When an old man by example teaches his son to refer to all women as "ma'am," society should support his efforts to instill a sense of reflexive respect for ladies.  When the old man disciplines the young man for failing to show this reflexive respect, society should reinforce him by showing honor to the old man for doing it.  This will point out the path to receiving honor for the young man, who by nature hungers for honor above all things.

The other part is that women should encourage men to take up and enjoy the role of defender.  This is archetypal:  the form here is that of the Lady of the Lake.  
The key things that matter are these: the lady is noble of spirit; she, like the Lady of the Lake or Queen Victoria, has the power to bestow arms, or to approve of their use in her defense and interests; she is morally worthy of service; and she calls men to channel their feelings of admiration for her, even love for her, into practical service.
It is a commonplace among scholars who write about the Arthurian legends to assert that the Lady of the Lake is a kind of holdover from an ancient goddess of sovereignty.  Numerous forms of the myth appear in journal articles; what people rarely stop to ask is why there should be so many such forms in which a woman bestows a weapon upon a man.  If men did not care about womens' approval, why would this myth be so strong and so pervasive?  The truth is that men care very deeply about this.

To be entrusted by a lady with her defense, as in marriage, is perhaps the highest honor that a man can know; outside of marriage, it is nevertheless a high reward.  It is a pleasure as well, one that opens the way for the kind of friendship that can only arise in conditions of genuine trust.

It is also, I would warrant, why the 'Western burka' wears so much lighter than the Eastern one.  General James Mattis got into hot water a few years ago for making a remark along these lines.
"You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years, because they didn't wear a veil," Mattis said. "You know guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot 'em."
I imagine Ms. Graff would not care for the general's celebration of violence, even in as good a cause as ending the abuse of women who did not wish to be subjected to the burka.  Even so, note the definition of manhood he offers to his Marines:  it is one that is not only opposes violence toward women who wish to speak and be seen in public, but defines manhood in terms of defending rather than abusing those women.

No doubt I am not the kind of man Ms. Graff would completely approve of either:  she and I obviously differ on politics in fairly fundamental ways (although I may have to read her book on marriage, since she starts from exactly the right question and then arrives at the opposite conclusion that I have reached:  I imagine it's an interesting argument).  

For all we may disagree, she would never be safer than in my company.  If she does not wish to endorse my service, she shall have it anyway:  if I am wrong in this, I shall gladly die in my error.  If she does not approve of me, though, she ought to demand such a defense from the men of whom she does approve.  It will please them no end to be asked, and it will go a long way to establishing the space she desires.

I realize that a feminist theorist may have objections to the idea of seeking protection from men, but they should rethink this question.  A woman who has developed the martial virtues in herself, as Ms. Graff has done, should have no fear of forming an alliance to defend her interests.  Nor should she want to construct a society in which the men she admires are denied one of the greatest pleasures that life affords them.

If they are good and strong men -- good enough and strong enough to succeed at establishing and upholding the example -- young men will follow them.  Bad men will fly from them.

What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

Grim got me going on my favorite daydream: how to reconstruct society after the collapse. Yes, I know I'm just re-enacting an early childhood existential catastrophe, so sue me. I still find post-apocalyptic fantasies engaging, and I'm not alone.

My husband, whom I met and married when we both lived in a communal household, sent me this Atlantic piece about the revival of communes. People who tried them out in youth are re-thinking them in retirement. It's sort of a return to the village or clan, at a time of disenchantment with broken families and anonymous suburbs or apartment complexes. I was particularly taken with the thought experiment of "Who would come if I stood out in my front yard and yelled for help?" I know what would happen here, or what would have happened in our old communal home; I'm less sure what would have happened in the suburb we inhabited in the interim.

We spent long years on our own experiment, which wasn't even a true income-sharing commune, just a way of sharing some living expenses in close quarters. I guess if a flaw in the system could be found, we found it, repeatedly. In our semi-dotage, though, we continue to flirt with the idea, the more so whenever the world threatens to collapse personally or societally.

We're not really cut out for it, I suppose: too solitary and wrapped up in each other, a Bokonan "duprass," as Kurt Vonnegut would say.

Or on art supplies

This time of year, I start looking about for nieces, nephews, and children of friends who might share my twin passions for Robert Heinlein books and art supplies, so that I can replay some kind of childhood drama about ever being able to put my hands on enough of each. I've struck out so far on Heinlein. I used to experiment on various kids with a paperback or two, especially the "juvenilia" series, but I never made any converts.

I usually do a little better with art supplies. I can't go into an art supply store without experiencing an almost irresistible urge to try each medium and buy every single color manufactured in it. All those trays of every color in the spectrum, in oil paint! Pastel crayons! Ink! Colored pencils! Chalk! Water color! Embroidery thread! Yarn! Craft paper! I still remember afternoons of bliss at a neighbor's house with a young friend who had the 64-color Crayola set: magenta, burnt sienna, gold, forest green, brick red, lemon yellow, everything I could possibly want in life.

What really makes my heart race are the 128-color sets, but I usually start with something smaller and try to find out if they've got the bug or not. Perhaps none of these young people have quite the orgasmic reaction I remember from my youth, but they often seem happy to scribble away with their new colored pencils on their suddenly adequate supply of large expanses of paper canvas. Because of course there are the beautiful papers. I generally opt for Strathmore pads, reasonably priced, heavyweight paper with a nice texture, just the thing for engaging one of my young relatives or friends with their new set of colors.

www.dickblick.com is a terrific mail-order resource for art supplies: great discounts and a wide variety of the basics in high-quality versions. In response to a well-timed email promo, I just sent off for some colored pencil sets and paper pads, but in order to get the full value of my discount and free shipping, I was forced to add in some gorgeous bright red Bombay India Ink (for my calligraphy pens) and a handful of tiny, lovely white china bristle paintbrushes. Who ever has anything like enough fine paintbrushes?

The only thing wrong with the dickblick site is that they don't find a way to spread pictures of all the options all over the screen; they make me click through too many pages to get to the good stuff. They'd make a lot more money off of me if they'd recreate the impact of walking into a store and being surrounded by rack after rack of COLOR COLOR COLOR. I want them all.

If not in this generation, perhaps in the next, my eyes will meet the eyes of a kindred spirit on Christmas morning, saying Yes!

Maybe I'd spend the $1,500 on a marimba

You never know what you'll find on YouTube. This is Philip Glass's "Openings" on a marimba, of all things. I'm very fond of this piece as it was composed for the piano. The 3-on-2 rhythm makes it sound more complicated than it is; a piano amateur can easily play it. How this guy can get the same effect with four mallets in two hands, I have no idea. I love it, despite the false notes sprinkled in.