The Big Concordance Fallacy

I want to coin the term “Big Concordance Fallacy.”  It happens when someone (almost always a man) with little to no theological training gets a big concordance and starts randomly pulling out original Greek or Hebrew words from the text and then plugs in different English translations of the individual words to see how the overall verse changes when retranslated back into English.  By doing this selectively and repeatedly, radical new applications to living can be discovered from familiar texts!  Of course the problem with this type of interpretation is that it completely isolates the original words from their context, and the final interpretation is based on the range of a word’s meaning in English, not Greek or Hebrew.  I attribute its regularity to a variety of factors, including the modern personalization of Scripture (what does the Bible say to ME!!!!)  and a desire of a lot of men to appear spiritual.  Perhaps there is a bit of novelty as well to having “discovered” a new principle.  I’ve done a lot of language study as part of being a data scientist, and I’ve learned with enough degrees of freedom, you can “retranslate” a passage to almost anything by selectively choosing words and repeatedly flipping them for synonyms.  It may seem like scholarship to the uninitiated, but it most certainly is not.  I wonder what Moby Dick would look like if I selectively translated it to French and back?

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Don’t vote because a famous person said to

“Make your voice heard…”  “Rock the vote…”

Around every election season, we get the unrelenting plea to do our civic duty by voting.  I’m going to take the opposite stance – if you’re voting because your favorite star or Facebook told you to, just don’t.

It seems just sad to vote because someone who entertains you tells you to, and often even tells you who to vote for.  Actors and singers are just genetic outliers who happen to be better looking or sounding than the general population.  They often live in extremely isolated worlds where all their moves are carefully choreographed.  They have no real “expertise” beyond living in fantasy worlds that are emotionally manipulated to seem more interesting than yours.  They are not your friends, or your mentors, or your leaders, even when they pretend to be.  The clever things they say on TV or in their songs are written by far smarter, uglier screenwriters.  The characters they portray are usually far superior to themselves.  Unless you’ve really done your research, stay at home and keep watching Netflix instead.  Your country needs you to…

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Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Past, and Not Being Condescending or Nostalgic

The stars hung luminous and low over the prairie.  Their light showed plainly the crests of the rises in the gently rolling land, but left the lower draws and hollows in deeper shadows.

And so begins “The First Four Years”, the final canonical Laura Ingalls Wilder book, published after her death.  It’s also some of the only truly beautiful prose in a book that’s otherwise filled with mayhem, disappointment, near-death and death.

A couple of weeks ago, I went on my own prairie tour in Minnesota and South Dakota.  Unlike Laura and her family, who took weeks and even months to get from place to place in the books, I did it over a long weekend using modes of transportation inconceivable in the 1870s.

When we examine the past, I think we tend to ere into one of two camps, depending out our own political views and experiences.  On one had, we can think condescendingly of our forebears, viewing them as simplistic, ignorant, unenlightened, and prejudiced. This is how much of the left views American history.  Alternatively, we can convince ourselves that way back then was really far more moral, that everything was simpler, and that people were more contented without the vices and cares of our modern day world.  This can be the fallacy of the right.

I had heard both, even before going, about Laura Ingalls especially.  When we look at the past, we tend to view people as being more innocent, even when it’s not true.  When  I see a video from the 90s, I sometimes think to myself, “They had no idea that 9/11 was coming.  It must have been so much nicer!”  But I forget that the people of the past had their own problems to worry about too.  A popular radio preacher, Kevin Swanson, said a couple of months back something to the effect of, “When Laura went to school, they weren’t worried about molesters and pedophiles and school shootings.”  Since I had also read her uncensored autobiography, I knew that he was wrong.  Parts of the true story not included in the children’s book include a local man trying to rape her when she was about twelve, and a man randomly shooting through an inn while drunk.  There’s also adulteries and fornications, and it’s even implied that a woman dies for her immorality.  It is wise not to view these people as children in a state of unpolluted bliss.

Conversely, I have friends who view the 1800’s as an incredibly dark time, unenlightened by modern philosophy.  “It would have been horrible to be a woman back then,” they say.  “Women were basically treated like property.” These people also view these historical figures as children, but they view them as spiteful and malicious underlings who were never taught what they needed to know.  This is not correct either, and it ignores the nuances surrounding culture traditions of those times and ours.  As the books show, the women really did have a lot of autonomy.  Laura married for love and was fully given the choice to or not to.  Based on modern suicide rates and other data, I would dare wager that most women were happier then than they are now.

Are the books over-romantic?  Many people complain about this, but I would say no.  The Long Winter contains brutal depictions of near starvation, especially for a children’s book.  In fact, the books were considered quite edgy when first published.  I can attest that the scenic descriptions Laura wrote about are not exaggerated.  If anything, Laura probably under-described them.  Places like the Big Slough and Silver Lake were even more spectacular in the 1800s than when I saw them, as there wasn’t a cement plant between them.  Conversely, the houses (or recreation of the houses) were far more spartan than I had imaged they would be.  The Banks of Plum Creek are breathtaking on a fall day – everything I had hoped they would be and more.  While the warm wind blew across the prairie grasses, up the tableland, and into the hollow where the river slowly wound its way around, I could easily imagine the Ingalls dugout as any child’s dream backyard fort.  But when I saw a recreation of it, I realized that it was far closer to living in a dirt closet.

And the people worked brutally hard.  Everyone did, male and female.  I felt unbelievably wimpy after witnessing what I been done by back and hand.  Walk 300 miles for a job?  Common.  Trudge 40 miles through snow to retrieve mail?  That happened too.  Live on almost nothing but coarse bread yet clear hundreds of acres of land with your shovel and a mule?  Spend an entire weekday doing laundry?  It was all accepted as part of life.  The amount of work required for a return on capital was incredible.  A century of free-market capitalism has brought huge technological revolution and we’re foolish not to appreciate this.

When we see the wilderness, we think of recreation.  When they saw it, they thought of danger and hardship.  They conquered it for us.  In only five minutes of a 500 mile trip was I ever out into the prairie enough not to get cell phone reception.  We should not lionize our ancestors or think them more righteous than us, nor should we revile them from our perch of sanctimonious presentism.  But along with learning from their mistakes, we should be grateful for what they left us.

And now, I know that some of you have been hoping for some pictures from my epic, air-conditioned journey!

The tableland surrounding the dugout site, Walnut Grove MN:

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Me in front of the dugout location:

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The meandering banks of Plum Creek:

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Inside a dugout mockup:

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Panoramic of the Big Slough and Silver Lake, DeSmet SD:

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The rustling prairie grasses Laura wrote so much about:

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Pa worked for the railroad.  The CNW, my favorite railroad.  It’s still there.  You can envision horse teams cutting and grading it.

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The Surveyor’s House, “By the Shores of Silver Lake”.  This house was true luxury by the standards of the day, and is about the size of your two-car garage or a couple of U-Store-It units:

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Main St. DeSmet, where Laura often walked:

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The small lip of land between Lakes Henry and Thompson, where Almanzo courted and wooed her:

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The claim shanty is long gone, but the cottonwoods so eloquently described in the books still stand after the house has long turned to dust:

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How to Obtain the American Dream

I’ve decided to revive my blog with a topic that always comes up around Election Day.  Is the American Dream generally obtainable?  Those on the right somewhat naively believe that  everyone has the same ladder to success.  Those on the left try to boost up the people on the bottom rungs but often end up trapping them in dependency in the process.  So, everyone wants to know, how hard is it to achieve the American Dream?

I’m going to argue here that it doesn’t actually matter.  Living as if it’s possible to achieve the American Dream is far more important than if it’s actually possible.  If you believe that it’s obtainable, you might get lucky and reach it, or at least you will come out around average.  If you believe that there is something at the top continually “pushing you down” the ladder, you will never reach your goals.

I first consciously realized this in graduate school.  I had a Chinese friend who had gone to a super exclusive preparatory highschool with the intention of going to a very prestigious university, but his parents’ divorce his senior year had altered his finances.  Instead, he had to settle for a state school, and he had a different perspective on it than his middle-class peers.

“I think you will achieve your career goals, Dave,” He told me over cafeteria food one day.

“Really, why?” I asked him, curiously.

“Because when I ask them what their plans are after they graduate, everyone else here talks about what will happen to them.  You talk about what you will do.”

Two years later though, I didn’t feel like my career was moving anywhere.  I was still in gradschool and not really sure I was going in the right direction.  There seemed to be few job openings in quantum mechanics.  But I remembered what my friend said and updated my LinkedIn account with my skill set.  A day later, I had a recruiter contact me.  I interviewed the next week.  I was still able to continue graduate school part time, but get the job I would have wanted after I graduated.

I would love to tell myself that I obtained my job solely through my merit, but that would deny that luck proved beneficial too.  I had chosen three diverse skillsets – chemistry, databasing, and computer programming – not even knowing that a field existed that required all three.  I was offered a position as “Chemometric Scientist” about two weeks after I learned that a Chemometric Scientist position actually existed.  So yes, there was truly quite a bit of luck involved.  I could easily have ended up at a far less lucrative job, but I was in the right place in the right time.  I also got lucky with the job being local.  In a city of several million people, I got one of two positions.

I had friends with slightly different skill sets who didn’t get so lucky.  I had a few who were luckier.  But even the unlucky ones who were able to convince themselves that their future success would be based upon their motivation and skills and not uncontrollable circumstances, regardless of whether it was actually true or not, were able to obtain the American Dream, at least in some form.  I’ll concede that it might have taken some of them awhile, and some still don’t really have the jobs they want, but most were able to achieve a comfortable if not prosperous middle-class existence.  Conversely, the people I knew who thought it was impossible to succeed, whether by birth or connections or any other factor, and who simply waited for their lives to change by some external factor are almost all underemployed and unhappy.

So is the American Dream real?  I don’t think the answer to that question matters nearly as much as whether or not you can convince yourself that it is.  Put yourself out there, work hard, and see if opportunity comes.  Even if it doesn’t, It’s unlikely that you’ll be the worse off for it.

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The impossible gym class filled with fat ladies

“This will be easy,” I thought to myself as I glanced at the decrepit women around me.  “I think that some of them are even in their fifties.”

I had decided to attend a gym class entitled, “Barbell Strength.”  It looked interesting, and I was kind of tired of just working on the machines, so I thought I would try it.  Seeing that I was the only guy, I was beginning to regret my decision.  One hour of boredom coming up!

At 6 pm, 15 minutes late, an extremely skinny lady in her forties walked in and started gathering weights.  “Who here’s watched 50 Shades of Grey?” She yelled.  Everyone but me raised their hands.  “Good, because we’re listening to the soundtrack today!”

I groaned inwardly.  But soon, I was groaning for a different reason.  After about two minutes, I realized that this class was harder than anything I had done before!

It’s not that the weights were heavy, in fact, they were super light.  Under normal conditions, I could have lifted them all day.  But these were far from normal conditions.  No breaks, no recovery, and all the angles were so weird!  What a normal bicep curl was became brutal when it included a curve.  Hopping around while lifting weights also added seemingly brutal difficulty.

After five eternal minutes, another man stumbled in late.  “What’s the matter, Jeff?  Get your toenails painted again?” The instructor drawled.  Despite weighing 90 pounds, she was lifting more than I was!

Twenty minutes later, I wasn’t sure if I would make it, so I looked around to see if everyone else was in the same boat.  A seventy-year-old lady was calmly matching my weight.  A girl my age was lifting three times what I had.  I felt like tipping over.

But once I put away my self-respect, I got a really good workout.  It’s true that I could barely stand the next day, or the day after, but my pain let me know that I was building muscle.  The clock said 6:45, class over!  But no, it went to 7, 7:05, 7:10…  Finally, as people were lining up for the next class, we were dismissed.  I stumbled into the shower, vowing to never come back.  I didn’t sleep at all that night.  But the next week, it was a little easier!

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My new job

Hello All,

As some of you may have heard, I am now doing graduate school part time, and have become gainfully employed!  I work in Addison, TX now as a Chemometric scientist focused on algorithm development.

I’ve been enjoying it a lot so far.  There’s a lot to learn, but I’ve been picking it up fast.  I also have to work on my thesis proposal, because I’m finishing my doctorate part time!

-Dave

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24 Hours at Saginaw watching trains

This Memorial Day weekend, I participated in my second 24 Hours at Saginaw!

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It’s the event, about forty-five minutes from my house, where railfans come from across the country to watch a busy railroad junction beneath some of the biggest grain elevators in the world.

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Although the weather was bad, there was tons of train activity.

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I talked to some old railfan friends, met some new ones, and had a blast of a time!

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