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ᚱᚢᚾᛖᛊ : Escaping with Anglo-Saxon

With Lily. We escape together.

Among the teetering stacks of books by my bed, I always keep some books for what I call fill-in reading. This is light reading for short reading sessions — for example, when I know that I’m going to fall asleep after only a page or two.

One such book is a 1950s textbook on astronomy, which I’ve been studying for years. Another, for many months now, is A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. The first edition of this book was published in 1894. It has been through several revisions and new printings. My copy is from 1970. Later editions include a supplement, not because new words are being invented in Anglo-Saxon (that’s supposed to be funny), but because the scholarship continues.

Why read dictionaries, or, at least, historical dictionaries? One reads these dictionaries to get a feel for the kind of words a language had. And because Anglo-Saxon (also called Old English) is an early form of my native language, and because I have a good bit of exposure to Latin through Spanish and French, a better grasp of the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary helps provide a better feel for how Old English and French came together after the Norman Conquest to give birth to modern English.

As an editor, I have argued for many years that writers need to know the difference between the Anglo-Saxon components of English and the Latin components. This is because, when we write in Anglo-Saxon, the writing is clearer and is much more useful for persuasion and evoking an emotional response. For telling stories, only Anglo-Saxon English will do. We resort to Latin only when we’re obliged to get technical or abstract. Still, Anglo-Saxon, like German, is rich with a vocabulary of abstraction and objects of the imagination, for example, gēosceaftgāst — a doomed spirit, a word which is found in Beowulf.

It’s almost impossible now to think of Anglo-Saxon without also thinking of J.R.R. Tolkien, who not only wrote a few of the most famous novels in the English language but who also aroused our curiosity about the roots of the English language.

Do you recall when you first saw the runes in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings? The runes then seemed very magical and obscure. Tolkien’s runes are part of a language he invented. But real runes are not so obscure, because they’re an alphabet used for Germanic languages before the Latin alphabet was used. It’s almost a letdown to learn that runes are so well-supported today that they are included in the Unicode table of international characters, which means that most computers can reproduce runes. (If you see question marks in the headline on this post, rather than runes, then your computer must not be fully Unicode compliant.)

While reading through the Anglo-Saxon dictionary, I found a number of words that I recognize from Tolkien. The page below, Page 105, contains the word ent, for example. It means giant.

The words you’ll find in the Anglo-Saxon dictionary fit roughly into three categories: words that are very familiar and common in English (stēam, for steam or moisture), words that are easily recognizable with a little thought (fordrīfan to drive, sweep away or drive on), and words that are interesting but that make no sense at all (dwæsian, to become stupid).

Our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon is based on about 400 surviving manuscripts. Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries took a heavy toll, though it cleansed England of catholicism. The monks’ revenge, though, is that much of what survives was written down and preserved by monks. Consequently there are a lot of ecclesiastical words in an Anglo-Saxon dictionary. If you subtract the ecclesiastical words, then you have a language that is perfectly suited for describing Tolkien’s Shire, or for telling the kind of stories that Tolkien told. It’s a world of fairy tales and adventure and unspoiled landscapes, a world of people, their surroundings, their thoughts, and their deeds. There’s even the stars. See eoforðring on Page 105. It refers to the constellation Orion. (The ð character is the letter eth and is pronounced like the “th” in “that.”)

It’s a great luxury to be retired and to have time for such pursuits as pursuing the history of the English language. Can you imagine how much fun it might be to do that for a living? Of all the lives that have been lived, I think I most envy the life of Tolkien. I could do without the World War I parts. But I greatly envy his life at Oxford. I can’t find any good photos of Tolkien that don’t require royalties, but here’s a link to some good ones at Getty Images, in which it’s clear that his natural habitat was sitting in a library, reading, wearing his tweeds, and smoking his pipe. The pubs! The Inklings! The books! The walks! The Oxford dinners! It’s all such a wonderful place to escape to in the imagination, and it’s all much easier for me to imagine after a visit to Oxford last summer.

As for escaping, I’m not ignoring the state of the world, or the state of the United States, or the exasperation of reading the news. In fact, I’ve had a lot of little local political responsibilities to deal with of late, such as precinct meetings and fundraising. It’s all a bunch of endwerc, which you’ll find on Page 105. But that’s all the more reason to have a slosh of ale, or a cup of tea, and to spend a little quiet time trying to think like an Anglo-Saxon.

† Note: The source for the word endwerc is Leechdoms, Wortcunnings, and Starcraft of Early England, which looks like a book I need to read. The book is important enough that Cambridge University Press released a facsimile version, in a three-volume set, in 2012. It’s 1,496 pages.

Click here for high-resolution version

Some of Tolkien’s runes, with translations

Sherlock Holmes ★★★★

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, 1943

When my search for newer fiction fails to come up with anything that I want to read, I start looking for classics. I vaguely remember reading Arthur Conan Doyle many years ago, but if I’ve ever read The Hound of the Baskervilles, I don’t recall it.

What fun! It’s light reading, which is just what we want for escape fiction. The gothic, old English atmosphere is infectious and comforting and makes you want to go make a cup of tea. Doyle’s command of English is relaxed and confident, strangely formal and informal at the same time, musical enough to be read aloud.

It was interesting to note that Doyle had been dead for only nine years when Hollywood, in 1939, started producing a series of 14 Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. According to the Wikipedia article, 20th Century Fox made the first two films, then Universal took it over in 1942. Amazon Prime Video has 12 of the films.

I started with “Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon.” I will certainly watch more of them.

Movies of that vintage seem more like plays to me, but that is not a criticism, because I love plays. The exterior sets may be a little flimsy, but the interior sets are rich and beautiful. And the costumes! The men are almost always wearing tweed. The tailoring is classic and superb.

I have to admit that I pay particular attention to the tailoring, having developed a fetish for Harris tweed while on the Isle of Harris last summer. (I now have five Harris tweed jackets in my wardrobe.) The classic tweed jackets of the 1970s and 1980s were cut just the same as the 1942 jackets in “Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon.” Some things never change. Some are what we today call “slim fit,” for men who have the figure for it. The jackets of more portly men are cut to flatter their portliness. Rathbone often wears tweed Norfolk jackets. Norfolk jackets, whether vintage or new, are much more difficult to find. (I’m still looking.)

As you can see, I’m in escape mode. The Trump impeachment trial went as well as it could have gone. The Democratic candidates for president are slouching toward Super Tuesday, the first event that really matters. I immerse myself in reading the news every day, as always, but my impulse has been escape rather than writing about what has been happening of late.

It’s pouring rain here. So now back to The Hound of the Baskervilles, and a cup of tea.

Another waste of a big production budget

Above are the opening 38 seconds of Season 2, Episode 1, of The Expanse. How much of the dialogue can you understand?

As if things weren’t already scary enough out in the real world, we now have to add the possibility of a global pandemic to our worry list. Good mental health requires some escape.

It’s funny how we find comfort in dystopia stories even as the world feels more and more dystopian. Mostly what we’re looking for, I think, is courage. Only the right kind of characters can leave us with courage. Those characters are always good, even if (and probably because) they are weak, damaged, and scared.

As streaming services flourish and the cost of publishing is reduced to next to nothing, never have so many stories been available to us. And yet finding stories that are fit to watch or fit to read is a hard task. I wanted so badly for The Expanse to be fit to watch that I watched the entire first season, hoping that subsequent seasons (which got better reviews) would get better. But I gave up after watching a few minutes of Season 2, Episode 1.

I had many complaints about the first season. A big one was that I just couldn’t understand most of the dialogue. Partly because I couldn’t understand the dialogue, and partly because the screenwriters seemed to want us to be confused, I read the Wikipedia plot synopsis after each episode to make sense of what I had just seen.

I Googled for search terms such as “The Expanse” and “confusing dialogue,” and I found that I wasn’t the only person with this complaint. Other people’s explanations were the same as mine: The sound track is too loud and too noisy. We often can’t hear the dialogue because it’s buried under noise and bad music. Many of the actors speak English poorly. Much of the dialogue is ironic and smart-ass, thus much of the dialogue doesn’t really mean what was said. So you have to run all the dialogue through your irony analyzer. But I also found that the sound designers of The Expanse were very proud of their awful work. That’s not very promising for future series.

My Googling also found some serious discussions about the larger problem of incomprehensible dialogue. As the quality of video (and the screens we watch it on) get sharper and sharper, the quality of the audio is going to hell. Among the reasons given for this were that the people who do the production work have read the script and have watched each scene many, many times. They know what the characters are saying, so they fail to realize that the rest of us don’t. So they add noise.

Plus I think there is a kind of narcissism with sound designers, who want to make damned sure that you’ve heard what they’ve done. They’re like the loud (and mediocre) live musicians who intentionally make conversation impossible in pubs and lounges. They want you to hear them and only them whether you like it for not. There actually is a pub a few miles from here in a beautiful riverside setting, but I left and have never gone back after my iPhone measured a band’s volume at well over 100 decibels, and the band arrogantly refused requests to turn it down. I often wonder if many people whose lives involve lots of amplifiers and headphones can’t even hear anymore.

But inaudible dialogue and an intentially confusing script aren’t the only problem with The Expanse. It wants to be hip and edgy, so it disdains classical forms. By comparison, Battlestar Galactica was positively Shakespearean, with a brilliant cast actually trained in accents and diction, and with dialogue that was sharp and smart and efficient. We never struggled to understand what was said or what was happening.

In The Expanse, everything is so gritty and vague that it’s hard to figure out whether there are any good guys. They all seem pretty bad. Though, by the end of Season 1, the Holden character (Steven Strait) is showing some signs of being a good guy.

Once again I’m searching the galaxy for stories that are worth telling, for writers who can write, and for characters who don’t have marbles in their mouths.

Note: In the video clip above, I get the words “cover me,” “light me up,” and “left.” How did you do?

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World ★★★★

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World. C.A.Fletcher. Orbit, 2019. 384 pages.

This incredible book has renewed my faith that people can still write superb and beautiful novels. It’s what we call a hot read. I had to keep telling myself to slow down, because the constant suspense made me want to read faster. And then you get to the end, quicker than you wanted, wishing that it could go on, so that you could stay in that world and stay in the story.

The novel’s world, as the title reveals, is a dystopia. It would be wrong to say much more than that, because almost anything one might say about this book would be a spoiler. The author, knowing that, includes this line just before the first page: “It’d be a kindness to other readers — not to say this author — if the discoveries made as you follow Griz’s journey into the ruins of our world remained a bit of a secret between us.”

I will mention some of the setting, since you’ll learn it anyway in the first few pages: The story starts in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, the memories of which are still fresh in my mind from a visit there last August. Everyone who goes there, I suspect, wants to find a way to hold on to the magic of those islands. C.A. Fletcher did it with this novel.

This book, I suspect, will become a classic. And because C.A. Fletcher is a screenwriter, I suspect it also will become a movie. Yes, it’s a dystopia; but no, it’s not depressing. You’re probably going to read it sooner or later, so why not get started…

The end of the road for all you can eat home cookin’?

Hillbilly Hideway. See below for more.

It’s true everywhere, but here in the American South, our cuisine is (or was) an essential part of our culture and identity. Passing that culture and identity from generation to generation is very important work. But — at least here in the American South — that work is breaking down.

For decades, all-you-can-eat places serving traditional Southern cuisine, served family style, have been a meaningful (if smallish) niche in the eating-out ecology. I remember, as a child, on road trips into the Appalachian Highlands, stopping for supper at the Dan’l Boone Inn at Boone. It’s still there! And it’s still doing it, at $19.95 per person. River Forest Manor, at Belhaven on the North Carolina coast, used to serve family-style meals, but they’ve now gone to a different model that emphasizes the big house, for weddings and such, rather than the food. I could name other places, long gone. Back in the 1960s, there even were places that served all-you-can-eat seafood, including shrimp and oysters, on Fridays.

Here in the middle of nowhere, in Stokes County, North Carolina, we still have Hillbilly Hideaway. It seems they haven’t updated the prices on their web site, but lunch and dinner are now $20 per person.

A few times a year, I have Sunday breakfast with my Republican friends (no kidding!) Jess and Kitty. Here in the middle of nowhere, there aren’t many places to go, so sometimes we go to the Hillbilly Hideaway, which, even though it’s in the same county, is nevertheless 17 miles away. Hillbilly Hideway doesn’t do Sunday breakfast anymore, but they start lunch at 11 o’clock on Sundays, before the church crowd. However, there doesn’t seem to be a church crowd on Sundays at Hillbilly Hideway anymore. Jess, Kitty, and I lingered until almost 1 p.m. last Sunday, but only a few tables were occupied, and the place was quiet. Jess, Kitty and I figure that the high cost of all-you-can-eat these days — $20 — is just too high for a poor county like this. Plus I’m starting to wonder if younger people even care about traditional cooking anymore.

For people my age, traditional Southern home cooking is what we grew up on. The standard for any particular individual might have been a mother, a grandmother, or a favorite aunt. But we all idealized it. It’s what people here still do on holidays, insofar as they remember how.

But the younger generations, I now realize, know far, far less about home cooking. They may not even like it, because they’ve grown up on fast food, frozen food, and home cooking that can be put together in 30 minutes or less. Too many vegetables! It’s related, I think, to why even many country people with lots of land don’t bother with gardens anymore. They don’t like that stuff.

I’m sure there are plenty of people who can get their money’s worth at a $20 all-you-can-eat meal. Jess, Kitty, and I are not among them. I wish Hillbilly Hideaway all the best. I hope they can adapt to changing times.

Fried chicken, ham, hoe cake, and cornbread.

Hillbilly Hideaway vegetables


Pinto beans

Stewed apples

The dessert cart, extra cost

Update: Ten years ago, Huntington, West Virginia, was identified as the most obese city in the nation. Today, Politico reports on how citizen activists improved on that. For fun, nine years ago, Jamie Oliver went to Huntington and found that most children cannot identify basic vegetables.

A parable of justice

In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy. Katrina Forrester, Princeton University Press, 2019. 402 pages. ★★★★

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, liberal ideas ruled. There had been a terrible Depression, followed by a terrible world war. Seventy-five million people died. Great cities and vast armies were completely destroyed. When the war ended, many lessons had been learned. The world was still a scary place, though. Fascist forces had been soundly beaten in the war, but they plotted a comeback. There were still many people living who had once been slaves and for whom equality and justice remained only a dream. But as the world began to rebuild itself from the war and as many began to prosper, a new hope took root and spread. A consensus grew that, with the right ideas, the right institutions, and the right politics, the world could become a much better place, with liberty and justice for all.

These ideas were closely connected with three great universities, which were called Oxford, Harvard, and Princeton. One man in particular, a man who had survived the war, returned to his studies after the war at the place called Princeton. His name was John Rawls, and he was beginning his life’s work of codifying these new ideas into a new philosophy and a new politics. He modestly called this new philosophy and politics A Theory of Justice, or justice as fairness.

In that galaxy at that time, great thinkers and great scholars were greatly admired rather than ridiculed. Another great thinker, somewhat older than John Rawls, also was at the place called Princeton. His name was Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein’s theory, called relativity, had revolutionized physics, rendering largely obsolete the science that had preceded it, called Newtonian. John Rawls was now codifying a similar revolution in moral and political philosophy, renderingly largely obsolete the philosophy that had preceded it, which was called utilitarian. The highest value of this utilitarian philosophy was deemed to be the greatest good for the greatest number. But that philosophy had led to much suffering, because it found it acceptable that many might suffer, if more are better off. That cannot be, said John Rawls. Not even one person is to be treated unfairly to benefit anyone else, he said. No one, he said, is to have more than anyone else unless such inequality benefits even the least fortunate. All are owed what they need for self-respect. All are owed what they need for a fair chance at the life they want.

Few could understand Einstein’s theory. That theory was, as physics tends to be, very complicated. But, of those who did understand it, many said that Albert Einstein could not be right. Time after time, they tried to prove his theory wrong. But no one succeeded. Instead of disproving Einstein’s theory, others built on it. In that galaxy, Einstein’s theory stands to this very day. After more than twenty years of work, John Rawls published his complete theory. That theory was, as philosophy tends to be, very complicated. Few could understand it. Of those who did, many said that John Rawls could not be right. Time after time, they tried to prove his theory wrong. But no one succeeded. Instead of disproving Rawls’ theory, others built on it. In that galaxy, John Rawls’ theory stands to this very day.

Seventeen years after Rawls’ death, a brilliant scholar named Katrina Forrester, from the place called Harvard, wrote a book examining in great detail how John Rawls developed his theory of justice and how, for fifty years, others critiqued and extended that theory. Katrina Forrester imagines a time when John Rawls’ theory might be replaced. But that has not yet happened.


As Rawls’ theory grew in scope and beauty, the world once again turned ugly. A new war broke out, this one in the jungles of a poor continent. Many from the rich countries refused to fight, and some were shot for their resistance. Laws had been changed to give full equality to the descendants of slaves. But many people hated the idea of equality. So great was the resistance to equality that fascists, recently so decisively defeated and at such great cost, began to claw their way back to power. At first, they moderated their goals and disguised their intentions. But steadily they began to take back power for the enemies of equality who were amassing great riches. The enemies of equality did everything that was politically possible to avoid the expenses of helping the least fortunate. A world of inequality was exactly what they wanted. The theories they wanted were the theories that justified that inequality. The first great leaders of these enemies of equality were called Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had their own theories and principles, among them privatization, supply side economics, and deregulation. These theories were closely aligned with other theories, such as libertarianism, which held cruel theories of fairness very different from Rawls’. Even before the world war that had preceded Rawls, fascists had refined the art of propaganda, so that the powerful could disinform the people and direct the people’s resentment toward scapegoats, blinding the people such that the people looked up to and lionized the very people who were exploiting them. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan further refined this art of propaganda. In despair at the world’s reversal, many good people looked for refuge in simple theories that withdrew from engagement with the larger world, such as identity theories or communitarian theories. So overwhelming was the structure started by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan that many were persuaded. Some even tried to accommodate the Thatcher-Reagan theories in Rawls’ theory of justice. Even the political opponents of Thatcher and Reagan capitulated, calling it the Third Way. Though they had compromised many of their principles, these people still considered themselves to be liberal egalitarians.

By the time the liberal egalitarians awoke to their misjudgment, great damage had been done. Even by the time John Rawls died (the year was 2002, in that part of that galaxy), the condition of the world looked increasingly hopeless, though there was worse to come. A new leader arose. His name was Donald Trump. Not since the years before the world war had people like him held so much power or deceived so many. The gains that had been made for fairness and equality were reversed.


The story from that galaxy is an old one. Why do people do so poorly when they know how to do much better? Perhaps no theory exists adequate to explain it. Part of the problem, surely, is that physics and philosophy are hard. Most people must get by with easier understandings. Even books such as Katrina Forrester’s, magisterial in their command of political history and the history of ideas, do little to make those ideas more accessible or to counteract the propagandas of the wicked. The places called Oxford, Harvard, and Princeton might as well be in a different galaxy.


A NOTE FROM DAVID: This is one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read. It took me weeks to get through it, though I have read Rawls and other books about Rawls. I am not a scholar or a philosopher. To do a straight review of this book would be beyond me. But part of why I found this book fascinating and rewarding is that the years it covers — roughly 1946 to the present — are the years in which I have lived. The events and crises that shaped and reshaped Rawls’ theory of justice are the same events and crises that shaped my political awareness — the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights era, civil disobedience, the energy crisis, overpopulation, Woodstock and the hippy era, the Reagan-Thatcher era, the Third Way, gross inequality, ecological catastrophe, and now Trump and Trumpism. One of the things I learned from this book is that, during all these events and crises, I am proud to say that I have been solidly a liberal, though I did not come to know Rawls’ work until much later. This liberalism came from my own conscience, a few good mentors, and a few good friends. For a very good straight review of this book, I recommend Jedediah Purdy’s review in The New Republic: What John Rawls Missed: Are his principles for a just society enough today?

A portrait I wish I had shot

Christopher Tolkien. New York Times photo by Josh Dolgin. Click for high-resolution version.

I hope I am not inviting copyright trouble here. The extraordinary photo above is linked to a New York Times URL; I have not downloaded a copy of it. The photo accompanies the New York Times’ obituary for Christopher Tolkien, son of J.R.R. Tolkien: Christopher Tolkien, Keeper of His Father’s Legacy, Dies at 95.

You all know who Christopher Tolkien was. There is nothing that I need to add. But as lovers of literature and photography, how can we not ask a question: Why is it that people who change the world with their books always look so amazing? It was the same with Christopher Tolkien’s father, J.R.R. Tolkien, who was always photographed in tweeds, and often in front of a fireplace or bookcase.

What a gift, to have lived such lives.

Conservatism, with lipstick and without

Roger Scruton. Wikipedia photo.

The Washington Post has an obituary this morning for Roger Scruton, whom the Post describes as a “British philosopher, author and high priest of conservatism.” Scruton was a lipstick conservative. By that I mean that his fundamental meanness was masked by good manners, nice clothes, connections to Cambridge, and even a trip to the palace to be knighted by the queen.

Lipstick conservatism was the rule during the era of Thatcher and Reagan. But in the era of Trump, the masks are gone. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” conservatives no longer feel a need to disguise themselves with lipstick. Ugly things that once had to be encoded and encrypted are now spoken openly. But regardless of how well they speak English or how they dress, they are the same thing: ugly.

I have not read Scruton’s books, and I won’t. But it doesn’t take many words to reveal what he was. According to the Wikipedia article, Scruton wrote, in praising authority, that obedience — obedience! — is “the prime virtue of political beings, the disposition that makes it possible to govern them, and without which societies crumble into ‘the dust and powder of individuality.'” His sense of virtue permitted him to write articles favorable to tobacco without disclosing that he was receiving monthly payments from a tobacco company. When busted for this, he attacked others and made no apology. The Washington Post obituary says, “Unabashedly elitist, he favored fox hunting, the fur trade, Bordeaux wines and the House of Lords, as well as an old-fashioned death sentence, hanging. Single mothers, gays, socialists and multiculturalism came in for scathing criticism.” The Pet Shop Boys once sued Scruton for libel for a gratuitous insult that was provably wrong. The Pet Shop Boys won.

It happens that, when I read Scruton’s obituary in the Post, I was about 30 pages from the end of Katrina Forrester’s book on John Rawls and the history of liberal philosophy. Though many moral and political philosophers who engaged, extended, or criticized Rawls’ thinking are discussed in this book, Scruton is not mentioned. He just doesn’t signify, even as a critic. The contrast is remarkable. While liberal philosophers were building an elegant and rigorous theory of fairness, equality, and justice, Scruton was making mud pies out of privilege and meanness and getting knighted for it.

I Googled for other obituaries for Scruton; they’re mostly hagiographic. But, as for me: Goodbye, Roger Scruton. I’m glad I never knew you.

Richmond, Jan. 20: I’ve got a bad feeling about this

“Unite the Right” rally, Charlottesville, Virginia, August 2017. Wikipedia photo.

I had been wondering when the mainstream media would write a proper piece about the gun-rights rally planned for Richmond, Virginia, on Jan. 20. The Washington Post finally has it today: Prospect of gun control in Virginia draws threats, promise of armed protest.

Because I am in the woods of rural red America, I’ve been hearing about this for quite some time. This is militia country, and the buzz I’m picking up on the ground is that lots of militia guys are planning to go. They’re actually training for it. Most of them won’t be looking for trouble. But as we learned from the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, it only takes one fool to start some violence, as when a man drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others.

The organizers of the Richmond event have asked the militia guys to leave their long guns and military gear at home. But if you know any militia guys, then you know that that’s not going to happen. The militia guys have every right to protest gun legislation in Virginia that they don’t like. But to descend on Richmond heavily armed, with all of Richmond’s emotional reminders of the old Confederacy, and with the world on the edge of a nervous breakdown, is playing with fire. I just hope that the state of Virginia has a plan for keeping the protesters and counter-protesters apart. There are too many people who actually want violence, because violence feeds their fantasies or supports their agendas.

Many studies have found that conservatives are more fearful than liberals. Thus liberals don’t easily understand why conservatives respond they way they do if they think someone is going to take their guns away, because conservatives very much see their guns as protection, while liberals are much more likely to see guns as just dangerous. The Virginia gun legislation is still being debated (the legislature goes back into session on Jan. 8), but actual buybacks of assault weapons, as far as I know, are off the agenda. Registration of already-owned assault weapons may be in the current version of the legislation, but conservatives aren’t going to accept that either, because as the Washington Post story says, they see it as just the first step toward confiscation.

Did organizers of the gun event know that Jan. 20 is Martin Luther King Day? I suspect that they did and that it was intended as an insult. As I said in the headline, I’ve got a very bad feeling about this.

Update 1: I don’t know if I agree with this opinion piece or not. But it’s something that we need to think about: How would the far right react to a Trump loss? Here’s a glimpse.

Update 2: The Guardian posted a story today about Virginia: Virginia Democrats won an election. Gun owners are talking civil war.

Update 3: “We have received credible intelligence from our law enforcement agencies that there are groups with malicious plans for the rally that is planned for Monday.” Virginia Governor Declares State Of Emergency Ahead Of Gun Rights Rally.

Update 4: Virginia Capital on Edge as F.B.I. Arrests Suspected Neo-Nazis Before Gun Rally.

A morbid measure of mass insanity

Wikipedia photo from the entry on Multi-Vehicle collisions

During the weekend, in Pennsylvania, yet another traffic pileup killed five people and injured more than 60. Oddly, I can’t find any information on how many vehicles were involved in that pileup, though several of the stories have referred to a pileup in Virginia two weeks ago, involving 69 vehicles. Other pileups in that area of Pennsylvania have involved 100 vehicles.

This is not just an American phenomenon. According to Wikipedia, the record for the pileup with the highest number of vehicles was in Brazil, at 300. In 2009, 259 vehicles were involved in a pileup in Germany. The record in the Czech Republic seems to be 231. In Los Angeles, it’s 216. In the Pennsylvania crash this past weekend, several of the drivers who were killed were professional drivers, who ought to know better than to drive too fast for conditions.

When one car rear-ends just one other car, that’s bad judgment — often fatally bad. But when 100, 200, 300 cars pile up, that is mass insanity. We have normalized the kind of insane traffic conditions in which pileups occur — too many cars, too close together, traveling too fast. If a driver can’t stop to avoid a hazard ahead, then that driver’s vehicle is not under control. That 300 vehicles should be out of control in the same place at the same time blows my mind.

Wikipedia has a good article on the subject, Multi-Vehicle Collisions, though the article says that very little research has been done on the causes. Some of the details in the Wikipedia article are hellish:

Multiple-vehicle collisions are particularly deadly as the mass of crumpled vehicles makes escape for survivors difficult. Even if survivors are able to exit their vehicles, other cars may strike them. Individual vehicles in a multiple-vehicle collision are often hit multiple times at high speed, increasing the risk of injury to passengers who may have survived the first impact with the benefit of now-discharged protective airbags. Collisions after the initial collision may occur from the side of the vehicle, where the passenger compartment is more vulnerable.

A fire in one part of the collision can quickly spread via spilled gasoline and cover the entire crash area. Multiple-vehicle collisions can also overwhelm local firefighting, ambulance, and police services making speedy rescues more difficult. If the collision takes place in a remote area, getting medical help to the scene can be a daunting task.

Suburban commuters drive every day in traffic conditions in which a pileup would occur if a single mistake by a single driver started a chain reaction. My guess is that people who routinely drive in such conditions have normalized it to such a degree that they no longer sense the danger. They may even be eating or talking on the phone.

Fortunately for me, my lifestyle rarely gets me into the kind of traffic in which pileups occur. I stay off of freeways, and I don’t drive into big cities. Last summer, while driving to the Raleigh airport, I drove through a severe thunderstorm. Visibility was terrible, and water on the road made hydroplaning inevitable. But the traffic around me didn’t slow down. I realized that if I slowed down to a safe speed, I’d be inviting the congestion of speeding drivers behind me and increase the risk of being hit from behind. So I got off the road and waited. That’s why I left for the airport early — to not put my flight at risk if there were traffic problems. But most drivers are in a hurry and won’t slow down, which multiples the dangers.

This is a form of mass insanity that is getting worse, not better. We keep building freeways, and new freeways seem to be overloaded as soon as we build them. If you’re forced to drive on these freeways, even if you’re aware of the insanity of it, you can’t protect yourself by driving at a safe speed, because you’ll be hit from behind. Maybe that’s why good drivers, including professional drivers, get trapped in pileups: They know that if they don’t maintain the same speed as the rest of the traffic, they only increase the danger to themselves and others as traffic packs up behind them. They’re trapped in a fast-moving slug of traffic vulnerable to a pileup. You either entrust yourself to luck in spite of the danger, or you get off the highway.

As readers of this blog know, I’m no techno-utopian. But I wonder if this is one of the problems that self-driving cars might be able to solve. But self-driving cars seem to be a bigger challenge than was expected. For a computer to drive a car is easy. What’s difficult for computers is the same as what’s difficult for good drivers — keeping track of all the idiots around you.