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June 28, 2012
Health care decision roundup
Posted by Avram Grumer at 04:17 PM * 229 comments

For those who can’t wait for tonight’s Daily Show and Colbert Report, here’s the Internet on today’s big news story:

  • @Dr_Cop:
    DEWEY DEFEATS OBAMACARE
    (Context)
  • @MSignorile:
    Breaking: Conservatives planning to leave U.S., but can’t find wealthy Western democracy without universal health care. #hrc #scotus
  • @garyyounge:
    BREAKING NEWS: Fox News reports that Kenyan-born Supreme Court Justice John Roberts has converted to Islam
  • Rob Beschizza on BoingBoing:
    Supremes uphold Romneycare
  • The Onion:
    Republicans, Leukemia Team Up To Repeal Health Care Law (“While chronic leukemia was reportedly worried about how its association with the Republican Party would affect its public image…”)
    (Actually a few months old, but new to me.)
  • Pelosi & Boehner reaction shot (Update: Damn, it’s actually from yesterday.)

And just in case anyone wants some more serious coverage:

June 27, 2012
How to vote for the Hugos
Posted by Avram Grumer at 02:34 AM * 15 comments

In the current open thread, Elliott Mason pointed out that the Chicon 7 Hugo Ballot page doesn’t actually tell you how to vote! (Not only that, but the page has been designed with fill-in text forms instead of pull-down menus, so new voters have even less guidance than they would if the form were sensibly designed.) Maybe the instructions are somewhere else on the site, but if so, I couldn’t find them, and new voters shouldn’t be expected to hunt for them.

As a public service for first-time Hugo voters, here’s the process described on the official Hugo Awards site:

How to vote in the final ballot

The final ballot is a bit more complicated. You get to rank each of the final five nominees in order of preference. Place a 1 against the work or person you most want to win, 2 against your second favorite and so on. You are not required to vote for all five items — vote for only as many as you have read/watched/know about. Easy, isn’t it?

No Award

Under each category you will also be given the choice of voting for No Award.

You should vote for No Award as your first choice if you believe that none of the nominees are worthy of the Award, or that the Award category should be abolished. If you vote for No Award in any other position it means that you believe the nominees you placed above No Award were worthy of a Hugo, but that those not placed above it were not worthy. However, as we shall see, it is possible to rank nominees below No Award and have an effect on the outcome.

The online ballot says “None of the Above” instead of “No Award”. And it also doesn’t seem to mention when the voting deadline is: Tuesday, 31 July 2012.

If this causes Making Light readers to have a slightly higher level of representation in the voting, I can live with that.

June 26, 2012
On the prospect of being left behind on a ice floe
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 01:44 PM * 199 comments

Like many people in the various post-Boomer generations, I grew up being told repeatedly and plausibly that Social Security would not be around by the time I was old. Although I left the country—and that particular economic context—behind when I was 23, that mindset has stayed with me. Something in me doesn’t really expect to be able to retire, ever. Deep down, I expect to have to work until I am unable to, either from ill health or lack of opportunities. And then I expect to live in much reduced circumstances.

I was fortunate to start my adulthood without student debt (in-state tuition at UC Berkeley, back when it was a three-digit number of dollars a semester, plus two parents working full-time as lawyers. Also known as privilege and luck.) I’ve done my best to save money here and there, and joined whatever pension schemes I was eligible for. But many of my contemporaries, and even more people younger than me, haven’t had that good fortune, and many who have saved have watched the value of their savings melt away in the financial crisis.

This topic came up in the punishment and statistics thread. It’s a difficult discussion to have in hard times, because there really does not seem to be enough money to go around. We all feel vulnerable.

Lori Coulson, who used to work for Social Security, made a comment that was, for me, a completely different way of thinking about things. The key excerpt:

Right now if the current financial circumstances continue for the next 20 years SSA will be able to pay out full retirement benefits until 2036. If we raise the cap on the amount of income subject to OASDI tax (currently $110,100), the program will be solvent until 2075, when it may need to be tweaked again.

SSID(isability) is in trouble, so is Medicare. Getting people back to work would solve most of the problem (more revenues). Allowing people who don’t have insurance to buy into Medicare, or reducing the age at which one becomes eligible for Medicare (say age 50)** would also help, again more revenue because enrollees pay about a premium of about $100-200 per month.

**This might keep the over-50 crowd employed, as their health insurance wouldn’t be coming out of their employer’s pocket.

Her thesis—and it’s a plausible one—is that these waves of Serious People Telling Us SS Is Going Away are (a) Wall Street wanting its hands on our investment money, and (b) a lingering aftereffect of discussions that have taken place as the system has been adapted over time.

There is nothing new under the sun — the Boomers got the same “SS won’t be there for you” back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That’s when Reagan and Congress passed the last changes to OASDI.

In 1983, the retirement age was raised from 65 to 67, and the FICA tax was doubled (both the employee and the employer contribution) to build the SS Trust Fund. Please note the Trust Fund was designed to deplete as the Boomers die off.

So perhaps I was naïve in thinking that, because everyone has always told me that I will get a less comfortable retirement than my parents’ generation, it might be true. Maybe I didn’t think through the idea that voter pressure can change even those things that were presented to me as immutable. But I will note, judging by the thread, that I’m in very good company.

I’d suggest you read the subthread before getting onto the topic here. But be aware, as you do so, that there aren’t any villains, knaves or fools in the conversation we’re having here. We’re just a bunch of people who don’t want anyone—ourselves, our elders, or our children—to be impoverished in old age.

June 25, 2012
Insufficiently Boring
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:26 PM * 81 comments

Was it only a month ago that The Economist did a “Capitalism! Whisky! Sexy!” post about the coming revolution in ‘fusty old retail banking’? How time flies.

[Banks] will cut costs by closing many of their branches. Banks will also tap into new sources of revenue by mining their enormous troves of customer data. A bank that knows what you have just bought or where you have booked a holiday will be able to offer real-time discounts on related products (much as Google targets advertising at people based on their searches). The retail revolution will also offer the best banks the opportunity to gain new economies of scale through their IT platforms.

That was published on May 19, 2012.

A software update at the Royal Bank of Scotland Group on on June 19, 2012—precisely a month later—seems to have led to corruption in the payments feed. The overnight batch on Wednesday, June 20, failed to update a large number of customer accounts with incoming payments. Millions of accounts were affected at RBS and its subsidaries, National Westminster Bank and UlsterBank. Millions of people woke up on Thursday morning without access to their money. It’s been a nightmare.

As a result, some customers were blocked from taking money out of cash machines, while others had internet supermarket food deliveries stopped after payments were rejected.[…]Some people could not use debit cards at tills, including hotel check-out desks, airports and petrol stations.

The bank is still unwinding the problems, and there are still people without access to their money. For weekly-paid employees, people on benefits, and pensioners, the lack of payments is a real hardship. Not everyone has a cushion to tide them over. Some of the very poor, who frequently have coin-operated meters, expected to spent the weekend without electricity.

British techie site The Register has a few guesses about what went wrong in the update. Former RBSG staff have written in to suggest that it was a bug in the bank’s CA-7 system, which schedules the jobs for the overnight batch. They blame the recent outsourcing effort that has moved the support of the bank’s systems to India, a move that was undertaken to cut costs. There might have been plans to gain new economies of scale through the IT platform as well. I wouldn’t bet against it.

I suspect that The Reg’s diagnosis is fair—not because the work was sent to India per se, but because turning over your systems support staff in a wave of redundancies is not the best way to manage the transfer of knowledge. Not everyone who worked the batch at RBSG even knew what it is they knew; how, then, could they explain it to people who didn’t know there was knowledge to acquire? Outsourcing the work from Edinburgh to Aberdeen and sacking the staff would have exposed them to the same risks.

Meanwhile, the only way for customers to get cash has been to go into those much-abused, unsexy bank branches and talk to staff members. The bank extended branch opening hours, even opening on Sunday, to try to meet the demand. It’s going to take some time to get everyone back to where they should have been, and even longer to compensate people for late fees, overdraft charges, and other ancillary costs. I suspect the branch network is going to be busy for some time to come.

It’s the worst IT disaster in British banking history. That Economist article doesn’t come across in quite the same way in the light of it.


More personally: I Y2K tested one of the batch feeder systems at RBS from 1997 - 1998, and managed acceptance testing in payments processing systems from 1999 - 2001. I was one of the people who watched over the first batch of the millennium instead of going to a party. I was part of the project that moved the National Westminster batch onto the RBS software without a single failure. I haven’t worked for the bank for five years, and I am surprised at how personally affronted I am that they let that batch fail. But I shouldn’t be. Protectiveness of the batch was the defining characteristic of our community. We were proud of how well that complex structure of disparate components hummed along.

It was a thing of beauty, of art and craft, and they dropped it all over the floor. Sheesh.

June 23, 2012
Punishment, damned punishment, and statistics
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:05 PM * 142 comments

Trigger warning: discussion of prison rape

When I woke up this morning, I saw from my Twitter stream that Jerry Sandusky was found guilty on a sufficient quantity of child sex abuse charges to make it likely that he’ll go to prison. But said tweets did not contain what I’d half-dreaded they would: the inevitable prison rape comments.

Some of that is that I have good Tweeps. But when I braced myself and went looking, I didn’t see nearly as much of them as I’d feared. I’m sure they lurk in the comment threads of the newspaper sites and propagate on Facebook. Or perhaps the subject is now just under the surface, the subject of a nod and a wink and a tap alongside the nose.

Back in 2007, Patrick wrote about “the conviction that society requires extra-legal violence in order to hold together”. That’s still a good description of the role of prison rape in the popular culture. But somewhere in the last five years, that strain of discourse seems to have become muted in the political conversation**. I don’t know if I’ve learned to tune it out, or if it left the building when Bush left the White House. It always struck me as a partisan canard.

Still, the problem itself remains. Whether people joke about it or call it justice, prison rape is pervasive. There’s a much bandied-about figure: 216,600 victims in 2008 (the latest year for which figures are available). The DOJ appears to have recalculated that down to 203,000 (pdf) based on some methodology changes, and most responsible journalists seem to agree with that revision. (In comparison to earlier survey results from the DOJ, 49,000 (pdf) and 88,500 (pdf), the reduction pales in significance. It’s still a radical increase on what was previously acknowledged.)

The federal government has just brought out new regulations, which form the long-delayed practical implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. According to the Huffington Post,

The regulations are immediately binding on federal prisons. States that don’t fall in line face a loss of 5 percent of their Justice Department prison money unless their governor certifies that the same amount of money is being used to bring the state into compliance. Prison accreditation organizations also will be barred from federal grants unless they include similar anti-prison rape standards in their accreditation process, which means local jails could lose their accreditation unless they comply.

Of course, corrections officials are objecting, citing the costs of implementing the regulations. I hope it won’t take nine more years to get changes in place.

This is distressing, all of it, but not anything I hadn’t already known, suspected, or thought about. But while Googling around, I came across an article† that gave me an interestingly different angle on the matter.

Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted. Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells. The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie—but as the single most shameful lie in American life.

I find the notion that violent crime has moved from the outside world to the prisons an interesting one. I’m not sure it’s a straight transfer, that we moved the criminals there so they aren’t committing crimes in our cities any more. I think violent urban crime has also fallen for the other reasons that usually get cited. Crime is not necessarily a zero-sum game; its absence in one place does not mean a new occurrence somewhere else. But I think the larger picture is true in a way the article did not intend. There is indeed a great crime going on in the prisons of the United States, one that encompasses unrecorded sexual assault, murder, and robbery, but whose extent is not defined by their boundaries. Its presence has shifted the balance of criminality in the nation.

Basically, we’re locking too damn many people up. There were 1.6 million (pdf) people in state and federal prisons as of December 2010. And it’s not all murderers, rapists and thieves: 51% of federal inmates are serving time for drug offenses and 35% for public-order offenses. Even if nothing worse happens to them, prisoners spend years in distorting and damaging regimes, where they lose the self-organization skills people need in the outside world. Some of them are kept in conditions that drive people insane.

And when we let them out (if we let them out), we prevent them from voting, so politicians rarely represent the interests of ex-cons. In this economic climate, they struggle to get jobs as well, which can in itself violate the terms of their parole. It’s even dangerous for them to blog, lest they offend the wrong person.

Allowing them to be sexually assaulted is just the icing on the cake.

We’re breaking human beings, beyond the needs of punishment or deterrence. We’re not reforming them, redeeming them, or giving them a tools to restore the social balance that they broke when they committed their crimes. We’re taking the bad situations they created and giving them no way to make them anything other than worse.

Why do we do this? Some of it’s capitalism gone septic yet again: one private prison company demanded a 90% occupancy rate as part of its management contracts. Some of it’s that streak of mutated Calvinism that infects our national discourse, whispering that bad things only happen to bad people, and therefore that the occurrence of bad things proves that those people were bad. That’s fear talking, since it’s so easy to fall off of the bottom of the ladder these days. Any reassurance that we won’t be next is a lifeline.

What to do? And who will do it?


** Note that we still seem to commit an awful lot of extra-legal violence. We just seem to valorize it less
† Mind you, there’s a lot to disagree with in the article. It repeats the canard current among the MRA crowd, that the figure of 216,600 sexual assault victims means that ‘more men are raped than women in the US’*. And its conclusions are bats: it’s all the fault of moderates! In order to stop prison rape, we must abandon all other forms of prison reform, such as elimination of the death penalty! We should embrace a British-style surveillance society!
* This ignores both the difference between assault and rape and the existence of female prisoners. So it’s wrong. But worse, it also creates an opposition between the parallel and synergistic causes of eliminating both forms of rape. Wrong and harmful. I don’t need to tell anyone what will happen to commenters pursuing that line of discussion in this conversation.

June 20, 2012
The Holy Rood of Bromholm
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 07:58 PM *

Constantinople’s emperor
Possessed the holy cross
Rode with it into battle
And never suffered loss
A relic of the true cross
Its holy power employed
Until one day without it
His army were destroyed

(The Holy Rood of Bromholm — Stone Angel)

By what circuitous routes I came to learn of the British folk/rock group Stone Angel I shall not bore the reader. The Holy Rood of Bromholm is a free download on the band’s webpage. I’ll pause here to give everyone a chance to go listen to it.

The Holy Rood of Bromholm was recorded live at All Saints Church, Filby, Norfolk, in 1976. For all the traditional sound of the song, and the primarily traditional repertoire of the group, The Holy Rood of Bromholm is a modern composition by band member Ken Saul.

The Story:

But first, a Digression.

As all know, the True Cross was found by Saint Helena when she visited the Holy Land in the first decades of the fourth century. St. Helena promptly divided the True Cross into nine parts (for the nine orders of angels), and, of the wood most besprinkled with the blood of Christ, she fashioned a cross which she put into a chest of gold encrusted with precious stones, and sent to her son, Emperor Constantine.1 It eventually fetched up in Constantinople.


1. Paraphrased from Ancient Funeral Monuments of Great-Britain, Ireland, and the Islands adjacent, by John Weever, published by W. Tooke, London, 1767. p. 571.


Fast forward nine hundred years.

The Holy Land was controlled by the Muslims. The First, Second, and Third Crusades had had variable success in getting control of the Holy Sepulcher, but at the end of the Third Crusade (Richard the Lionhearted, Robin Hood, all those fellows) Jerusalem was still in the hands of Saladin. In 1198 Pope Innocent III preached a new crusade to free the Holy Land from the unbelievers.

Vast oversimplification alert!

The Fourth Crusade got rolling in 1199. The Crusaders hired Venice to build ships to take them to Egypt. Alas! when it came time to sail in 1201, the Crusaders didn’t have the money to pay the Venetians.

Enter Alexios Angelos, who (by the rules of western feudal succession2) was the true emperor of Byzantium. Alexios offered to pay off the entire Venetian debt, plus an additional 200,000 marks of silver, plus supply 10,000 professional soldiers to fight beside the Crusaders, plus the use of the Byzantine navy to transport the Crusaders to the Holy Land, plus put the Eastern Orthodox Church under the authority of the Pope, plus a few other inducements, if the Crusaders would only put him on the throne that was rightfully his. Long story short: The Crusaders took him up on his offer and arrived at Constantinople in the summer of 1203 convinced that the people, seeing their rightful emperor, would rise up and overthrow the usurper. The people of Byzantium would greet the Crusaders as liberators, the Crusaders would get tons of cash then head to Jerusalem to kick some Saracen tail, and everything would be swell.


2. Which the Byzantines did not acknowledge.


The Latin knights had apparently never heard the saying about things that seem too good to be true.

So the Crusaders rowed up the Bosphorus with Alexios Angelos. The people on the city walls, far from rising in his support, made rude remarks. The Crusaders went to Plan B: By force of arms they put their Alexios Angelos on the imperial throne as Alexios IV Angelos. Then it turned out that he didn’t actually have the money he’d promised. This worked out poorly for him.

By spring of 1204, Alexios III Angelos, his brother Isaac II Angelos, Isaac’s son Alexios IV Angelos, and some guy named Eyebrows (Alexios “Mourtzouphlos” Doukas) had all been Emperors of Byzantium at one time or another during the preceding twelve months and were all either dead, in exile, or both. The Crusaders murdered, pillaged, plundered, raped, sacked, and burned Constantinople in what ranks right up there on the list of Greatest Crimes Against Humanity in History. When the smoke cleared, the dust settled, and blood stopped running in the streets, Count Baldwin of Flanders was left standing as Emperor Baldwin I, ruling the Latin Empire of Constantinople.

Eleven months later, in spring of 1205, Baldwin I was at Adrianople (site of one of the original Emperor Constantine’s famous victories), and came off second-best in a fight against Tsar Kaloyan of Bulgaria. The scene was so chaotic, and the Latin defeat so through, that for a year after the battle no one in Constantinople knew for sure whether Baldwin were living or dead.3


3. As it turned out Baldwin actually had been captured but later died in captivity. Tsar Kaloyan had Baldwin’s skull made into a drinking cup.


The digression has now concluded.

Baldwin had a chaplain named Hugh, an English priest who had taken the place of Baldwin’s original chaplain when the latter had died on crusade. Baldwin had looted a bunch of relics during the Sack of Constantinople, including the True Cross that St. Helena had sent to her son. Hugh’s job was to take care of Baldwin’s looted relics. As long as Baldwin rode with the True Cross he couldn’t lose in battle, but that ill-fated April day he’d left home without it. When Baldwin turned up missing after Adrianople, Hugh skonkered off with the loot and headed back to England, selling the relics along the way to fund his travels. 4


4. We only have Hugh’s word that anything in this paragraph (including but not limited to “Baldwin had a chaplain named Hugh”) is true.


In discussing this in correspondence with the Lovely and Talented Miss Teresa, she commented:

I’m inclined to doubt the story. If he’d had time to grab the relics, he’d also have had time to grab some of the smaller reliquaries, and use those to pay his way. But if you don’t think too hard about that, it’s exactly the kind of imagination-inspiring but slightly louche story that makes a good con. Baldwin could have swiped any major relic you can imagine from Constantinople, and doubtless did. It’s entirely imaginable that his chaplain would flee after the battle, and not surprising — creditable, even — that he’d take the relics with him. But supporting himself on his travels through Europe by selling them off piecemeal? That presents a rather different image.

Still, it’s a one-time offer, never to be repeated. You have to act now — he’s travelling on, and if you don’t buy it, some other town further along will. And having the seller’s motives be a little questionable makes it easier to pay him a bargain price for a major relic. A particularly elegant bit of social engineering is that the story explains multiple relic sales, so if someone turns up who was around when he made one of his earlier sales, he’s covered.

On his arrival in England in 12235, Hugh sold the next-to-last of his wares to the monks of St. Albans: Dubious relics of that most dubious of saints, Margaret of Antioch. All that remained to him were the pieces of the True Cross that he had been unable to convince anyone to take during his travels across Europe.


5. Two years later, in 1225, a fellow claiming to be Baldwin himself showed up in Flanders. It didn’t end well.


Try as he would, Hugh was unable to sell the True Cross. This might be because by then Europe was awash in pieces of the True Cross. Ingenious theories were suggested for why pieces of the True Cross were variously pine, balsam, cedar, olive, or other woods. Pious priests and nuns made jokes about how many ships it would take to carry all the fragments if they were gathered at one place. No one was interested in buying a couple of pieces of wood that might have been pried out of a stable one town up the road.

So Hugh wandered the lanes of England until he fetched up at Bromholm (or Bromeholme, or Bromeholm, or Bromholme, or Bromcholme or Bacton) Priory in Norfolk, an impoverished house reduced to just eight black friars dedicated to St. Sepulcher, and traded the cross for being allowed to stay.

Quoting Matthew Paris:

“There he sent for the Prior and some of his brethren, and showed them the above-mentioned Cross, which was constructed of two pieces of wood, placed one across the other, and almost as wide as the hand of a man; he then humbly implored them to receive him into their order with the cross and other relics which he had with him, as well as his two children.”
(Quoted in Pilgrim life in the middle ages by Sidney Heath, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston & New York, 1912)

In 1224 the Chronicle of London recorded :

“…the emperour Baldewyn, which whanne he wente to bataile to fyghte with Godes enemyes, he hadde a croos boren before hym, whiche crosse seynt Eleyne made of the crosse that Cryst dyde upon; and there was an Englyssh prest that tyme with hym that was called Sir Hughe, and he was borne in Norfolke, and which prest broughte the same crosse to Bromholm in Norfolke.”
(Quoted by W. W. Skeat in the notes to his edition of Piers Plowman, EETS, 1885)

There the story would have ended, except for one thing: This True Cross was truly the True Cross. It performed miracles.

Miss Teresa comments:

If I were a town father of Bromholm, and there was a potential market fair to be had, I’d be encouraging about miracles.

Word began to spread that the miraculous relic at Bromholm was turning water to wine, making the blind see, the deaf hear, and raising the dead to life.

Soon enough pilgrims were coming from all over. The priory had to lay on an additional six priests just to hear the pilgrims’ confessions. Bromholm Priory was about thirty miles by road from the popular pilgrimage destination of Our Lady of Walsingham. Folks who were making one pilgrimage could add a day or two to their trip and visit both.

Twenty years after the cross arrived at Bromholm, King Henry III sent a silver model of a ship and granted Bacton a three-day market fair each year at the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross6. The town prospered.


6. September 14, the anniversary of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, on the site where St. Helena found the Sepulcher (buried under a temple to Venus) and the True Cross.


The priory is at the south end of Abbey Street in Bacton.

“Help! hooly croys of Bromeholm,” she seyde,
“In manus tuas! Lord, to thee I calle!
Awak, Symond! The feend is on me falle.”
The Reeve’s Tale (Geoffrey Chaucer)

But wenten to Walsingham, and my wife Alis
and byd the Roode of Bromholme bring me out of dette….
The Vision of Piers Ploughman (William Langland)

The True Cross (fashioned in the form of a patriarchal cross) was set into a larger wooden cross, which was silver-gilt and adorned with a portrait of Our Savior, and kept in a magnificent reliquary. Bromholm started to pick up more relics.

THOMAS RUDHORNE, bishop of St. Davids, who flourished in the reign of Henry IV, hath, in his history, these words to the same effect:

Capulanus quidam porauit quandam crucem ligneam in Angliam, quam affirmauit esse de ligno in quo perpendit CHRISTUS et monachis de Bromholme obtulit et postea locus coruscabat miraculis.

A certain priest brought over with him, saith he, a wooden cross into England, which he affirmed to be the cross whereupon our Savior CHRIST was crucified; which he delivered to the monks of Bromholme, after which the place did shine gloriously with miracles.

But the story of this holy cross is more fully delivered by CAPGRAVE, …  By the virtue of this holy cross, cooperante Domingo, GOD assisting, thirty and nine persons, were raised from death to life; and nineteen which were blind, received their sight, besides many other miracles wrought, if you will believe my author.

Hic apparuit multa superstitio circa crucem quae vocatur, the holy cross of Bromholme, et dieunt illie se habere zonam beate MARIE et lac eiusdem, et fragmenta crucis sancti PETRI et sancte ANDREE, saith a book in the treasury of the exchequer of the visitation of abbeys7.

Here appeareth great superstition about a cross, which is called the holy cross of Bromholme; and here they say they have the girdle and milk of the blessed virgin, and a fragment of the cross of St. Peter and of St. Andrew.

(See Note 1. Weever, p. 572)


7. Likely the visitation of Layton and Leigh.

Royal visitors to Bromholm allegedly included both Edward II and Richard II.

But all was not well at Bromholm, regardless of their relic. The Priory’s rents were diminished when changes in the coastline washed a great deal of their land out to sea in 1385. (Personally, I suspect a mermaid was involved. The Merry Maids do that kind of thing.) A fire and a pestilence added to their woes. The priory needed a patron.

In 1401, to relive their distress, Pope Boniface IX granted to the Priory at Bromholm an indulgence equal to that of St. Mark’s in Venice.

Paston Hall, home of the letter-writing Paston family, was located just two miles from Bromholm Priory, and the Pastons became the Priory’s patrons.

In 1419, the Prior was a witness to Clement Paston’s will. Thereafter the Pastons took a special interest in Bromholm.

Fox gives a curious account of the alleged burning of this cross at the beginning of the fifteenth century. He states that one Sir Hugh Pie, chaplain of Ludney, was accused before the bishop of Norwich on 5 July, 1424, for holding that people ought not to go on pilgrimage or to give alms save to beggars at their doors, and that the image of the cross and other images ought not to be worshipped. He was also accused of having ’ cast the cross of Bromholm into the fire to be burned, which he took from one John Welgate of Ludney.’ However Sir Hugh utterly denied these articles, and purged himself by the witness of three laymen and three priests. At any rate the cross was not burnt, for it is in evidence more than a century later.

What this tells me is that the Holy Rood was not openly displayed at this time nor was its exact location common knowledge, for, if it were, Sir Hugh Pie would not have needed to conjure, but rather point to the altar and say, “I am not guilty, for there it stands.”

As the century progressed: At John Paston’s funeral in 1466, held at the Priory, a special barber was employed for five days to freshen up the monks and brethren. One man was employed for three days in flaying beasts, which included forty-one pigs, forty-nine calves, and ten head of cattle. They also ran through 1,300 eggs, twenty gallons of milk, eight gallons of cream, thirteen barrels of beer, twenty-seven barrels of ale, a barrel of beer of the great assize, and a runlet of wine of fifteen gallons. Twenty pounds of gold was struck into coins to give to the poor.

Seventy years later the end came for Bromholm Priory and its Holy Rood. In 1535, in the midst of Henry VIII’s break with Rome, the king appointed Thomas Cromwell royal vice-regent and nationalized the monasteries. All monasteries with an annual income of under two hundred pounds were declared property of the king, followed, a couple of years later, by all the rest of the monasteries. (The story at the time was that, once the king had the rents that belonged to the monks, there’d never again be a need for taxation on anyone. We’ve seen how well that worked out.) Cromwell send around visitors to determine the values of the religious properties and enquire into the virtue of the clergy. Bromholm only had four monks (all accused of incontinence) and an income of just over £100 per annum.

Something must necessarily be said of the actual process which was followed by the Crown agents in dissolving these lesser monasteries. It was much the same in every case, and it was a somewhat long process, since the work was not all done in a day. The rolls of account, sent into the Augmentation Office by the commissioners, show that it was frequently a matter of six to seven weeks before any house was finally dismantled and its inmates had all been turned out of doors. The chief commissioners paid two official visits to the scene of operations during the progress of the work. On the first day they assembled the superior and his subjects in the Chapter House, announced to the community and its dependents their impending doom; called for and defaced the convent seal, the symbol of corporate existence, without which no business could be transacted; desecrated the church; took possession of the best plate and vestments “unto the King’s use”; measured the lead upon the roof and calculated its value when melted; counted the bells; and appraised the goods and chattels of the community. Then they passed on to the scene of their next operations, leaving behind them certain subordinate officers and workmen to carry out the designed destruction by stripping the roofs and pulling down the gutters and rain pipes; melting the lead into pigs and fodders, throwing down the bells, breaking them with sledge-hammers and packing the metal into barrels ready for the visit of the speculator and his bid for the spoils. This was followed by the work of collecting the furniture and selling it, together with the window frames, shutters, and doors by public auction or private tender. When all this had been done, the commissioners returned to audit the accounts and to satisfy themselves generally that the work of devastation had been accomplished to the king’s contentment — that the nest had been destroyed and the birds scattered — that what had been a monument of architectural beauty in the past was now a “bare roofless choir, where late the sweet birds sang.”
(Catholic Encyclopedia, “Suppression of English Monasteries under Henry VIII”, 1917)

Bromholm Priory was dissolved in 1536. Its houses and lands were sold to Sir Thomas Wodehouse. Everything of value was stripped. The relics were sent to Thomas Cromwell in London, and Cromwell did not treat relics with respect.

On 2 February, 1537, Richard Southwell wrote to Cromwell that he had in his charge the cross of Bromholm, which he would bring up after the suppression was finished, or sooner if Cromwell wished it. On 26 February he wrote again to Cromwell, saying that he had delivered the cross of Bromholm to the late prior of Pentney, the bearer of both letter and relic.

This was the last documented sighting of the Holy Rood of Bromholm.

In later years the buildings were quarried for local stone.

Photos of the ruins.

The end came suddenly for Thomas Cromwell some three years later. He was arrested on the 10th of June, 1540. From the History of England From The Fall of Wolsey to The Death of Elizabeth. by James Anthony Froude, M.A. Late fellow of Exeter College, Oxford , Volume III, John W. Parker & Son, 1858, p.302:

‘The Lord Cromwell,’ says Hall, ‘being in the council chamber, was suddenly apprehended and committed to the Tower of London; the which many lamented, but more rejoiced, and specially such as either had been religious men or favored religious persons; for they banqueted and triumphed together that night, many wishing that that day had been seven years before, and some, fearing lest he should escape, although he were imprisoned, could not be merry; others, who knew nothing but truth by him, both lamented him and heartily prayed for him. But this is true, that, of certain of the clergy, he was detestably hated; and specially of such as had borne swing, and by this means were put from it; for indeed he was a man that, in all his doings, seemed not to favour any kind of Popery, or could not abide the snuffing pride of some prelates.’

Froude footnoted the quote to Hall’s Chronicle p.838

Thomas Cromwell was executed without trial on 28 July, 1540, following a bill of attainder. There ended the man who would have known for certain what had become of the Holy Rood of Bromholm. It was widely supposed to have been destroyed by him. Except for this one odd little coda:

… Although it [the Holy Cross of Bromholm] is supposed to have been burned at the Reformation there are strong reasons for thinking it is still in existence. Mr. Dutt quotes, in the book8 already referred to, a note that appeared in “Eastern Counties Collectanea” (1872-3) as follows:
“A convent of nuns in Yorkshire, who have a large piece of the Cross of our Lord, set in silver in the shape of a Jerusalem cross, desire to trace its history. A member of the family of Paston was at one time Superioress of this convent. Now the Pastons were intimately connected with the Priory of Bromholm, and lived in the next parish, and it does not seem improbable that at the Dissolution the celebrated relic of the true Cross, for which Bromholm was famous, may have come into the possession of the Paston family.”

It would be interesting to learn which of the convents of Yorkshire desired this information, and if the relic is still in their possession.
(Pilgrim Life in the Middle Ages, Sidney Heath, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston & New York, 1912 (p.250-251))


8. The Norfolk and Suffolk Coast by W.A. Dutt, published by T. Fisher Unwin, 1909

Owls do shriek where the sweetest hymns
Lately were sung;
Toads and serpents hold their dens
Where the palmers did throng.

—Philip, Earl of Arundel, Lament for Walsingham


June 18, 2012
Today in History
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 08:15 AM * 106 comments

On this date, two hundred years ago, the US declared war on Britain in what would come to be called the War of 1812, and was known at the time as “Mr. Madison’s War.”

Thomas Jefferson was of the opinion that conquering Canada would be “merely a matter of marching.” The common thought at the time, at least among the Democratic Republicans with their power base in the south and west (and who controlled Congress and the White House), was that the inhabitants of Canada would greet the Americans as liberators and rise up to throw off their British masters.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

The Federalists, with their power base in New England, thought that starting a war against Britain and attacking Canada was a lousy idea. Regardless, the declaration of war passed on what would these days be called a straight party line vote and President Madison signed the declaration on 18 June 1812.

Which is how Washington, D.C. got burned to the ground and Dolley Madison wound up fleeing with the Declaration of Independence hidden in her skirts.1

But that is for a different post. I intend to celebrate the anniversary of the war by going out and having some poutine.


1. Not really, but it makes a good story.

June 14, 2012
Takedown du jour
Posted by Patrick at 11:22 AM * 48 comments

Jonathan Chait explains what Sally Quinn really meant.

Once Washington was a happy place where a girl and her mother could be groped simultaneously in good fun by a white supremacist. Sadly, it has all been ruined by Kim Kardashian and Ezra Klein.

Cory Doctorow’s important quibble to my territories explanation
Posted by Patrick at 10:57 AM * 16 comments

If you’ve been following any of the discussion of publishing “territories” and their divergent effects on how printed books and ebooks are sold, a discussion happening here but most especially on John Scalzi’s The Whatever, you should also read Cory Doctorow’s absolutely correct quibble to my explanation of why it’s generally legal for retail booksellers to sell any edition of a printed book to anyone anywhere in the world, without worrying about the territory restrictions that might be spelled out in the contract between that book’s author and its publisher.

[T]here are, in fact, some international restrictions on what’s called “parallel importation” or “grey market selling,” where a retailer imports goods intended for sale in country X and offers them for sale in country Y. Recent trade treaties (especially ACTA and TPP) have attempted to strengthen these restrictions, and an apocalyptically stupid Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Decision has further eroded this practice.

The entertainment industry’s representatives deliberately blur the lines between counterfeiting, infringement and parallel importation. When you hear that ACTA is a treaty intended to fight “counterfeiting,” you probably don’t think that the “counterfeit” jewelry, DVDs, books, and perfume under discussion is the actual, bona fide item, manufactured for sale in poor countries and imported without permission to a rich country. Most of us understand that a “counterfeit Omega watch” is a fake Omega watch, not a real Omega watch that was manufactured for sale in India and then imported to the USA.

The white-hot center of this stupidity is the watch trade. For example, “genuine Rolex products can only be imported with the permission of the trademark owner, Rolex Watch U.S.A. Inc. A private individual can hand carry one Rolex watch from a trip overseas without obtaining permission. Bring in more than one, and they will all be seized as a trademark violation. Purchasing a Rolex from overseas by mail is also a trademark violation.”

Like the California Celebrity Rights act that TNH linked to in her sidebar the other day, this is the kind of thing that reminds us the the root of the word “privilege” is “private law.” These are laws and regulations that exist for no reason other than the protection of someone’s private advantage, with not even a remotely plausible argument that such protection does the rest of the world any good. (As Cory implies but doesn’t spell out, if the advocates of these measures felt they actually had any public merit, they wouldn’t feel the need to so constantly lie to the public about them.)

June 13, 2012
Keyboard solo by a gigging editor
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 01:47 PM * 61 comments

Over on Scalzi’s Whatever, much fun has been being had in the aftermath of the release of Redshirts. (An excellent book, by the way).

But there’s been some rumbling, because not everyone in the world has been able to buy it yet. And, as usual, there’s a good deal of confusion about precisely why.

So Patrick has been explaining in the comment thread.

The entity that published REDSHIRTS last week, Tor Books, has the exclusive right to sell the book in the English language in the US, Canada, and the Philippines, and a non-exclusive right to sell it in English in all other countries of the world-_excluding_ the UK and a long list of Commonwealth and former-Commonwealth countries. A list which includes South Africa.

John and his agent could have sold us the “World English” package of rights, which would entitle us to publish the book in English everywhere-we would certainly have been willing to offer for that-but instead they opted to take the slightly riskier path of selling us rights only in our core market, reserving the “UK-and-a-bunch-of-Commonwealth-and-former-Commonwealth-countries” package to themselves, in order to try to sell it separately to a British publisher. (This is a slightly riskier path for most genre writers who aren’t top-level New York Times bestsellers, because British publishers don’t really buy very much SF and fantasy from the US below that sales level. This wasn’t always the case but it certainly is now.) After a period during which I imagine John’s agent shopped the book around to various British publishers (I don’t know the details because it’s, literally, not my business), they accepted an offer from Gollancz. However, that deal was concluded just a month or two ago, so it was vanishingly unlikely that Gollancz was going to get their edition out simultaneously with ours. I believe their edition is scheduled for November.

(Footnote here: An exact inverse of this situation is why Tor’s edition of Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut novel THE QUANTUM THIEF appeared in May 2011, several months after Gollancz’s edition in September 2010.)

The more interesting question you ask is: Why can you, in South Africa, buy a copy of the US REDSHIRTS hardcover from (for instance) bn.com in the US, but you can’t buy the US e-book edition? Why do online retailers pay attention to your address and credit card when assessing your eligibility to buy an e-book, while being willing to ship any edition of any print book anywhere?

The answer is a little arcane, but bear with me. The fact of the matter is that, when it comes to traditional printed books, neither the retail booksellers nor their customers (that’s you) are party to the contracts between John and his various publishers. Our contract with John says that _we_ won’t sell our editions of his book outside the territories in which John grants us exclusive and non-exclusive rights. Gollancz’s contract with John says that _they_ won’t sell their editions of his book outside the territories in which John grants them exclusive and non-exclusive rights. But if Amazon buys a bunch of copies in the US and someone in South Africa says “Hi, here’s my credit card, send me one,” no contractual agreement has been violated. Amazon owns those books, not us. They can do what they want with them, including selling them to people in South Africa, Shropshire, or the moons of Jupiter. Amazon is not John Scalzi, Tor, or Gollancz. You are not John Scalzi, Tor, or Gollancz.

(Another footnote: It has been perfectly possible and legal for regular people in the US to buy British editions for decades longer than the Internet has existed. For years one of the absolutely standard ads in the back pages of the NEW YORKER was a little panel ad offering “BRITISH BOOKS BY PHONE.” There’s nothing new about this.)

But the agreements under which online retailers sell our e-books include restrictions, imposed by us, which require them to keep track of where orders are coming from, and require them to refuse to sell to individuals who seem to be trying to purchase from outside the areas in which we have the right to sell. Effectively, in this case, Amazon (or bn.com, or Apple, or Kobo, or whoever) _is_ a party to our agreement which John. So they can’t sell you that e-book, because we don’t have the right to sell copies in South Africa.

(Two footnotes. First, yes, everyone knows that there’s a limit to how thoroughly anyone can police these restrictions. Get a VPN connection that makes you look like you’re online from a country where we have the rights, and a credit card with a US or Canadian address, and you can probably buy the ebook with no problem. Second, the agreements I referred to concerning ebook sales, between us and the online ebook retailers, have nothing in particular to do with any current arguments over “agency models” versus other models of ebook retailing. These restrictions were in place before the “agency model” and they’re in place now.)

Does this sound like a lot of bullshit gobbledegook? Probably. Is it true? Absolutely. Did it happen because everyone rolled out of bed one morning and said “Let’s make global ebook retailing baroquely complicated, because annoying our customers is fun”? No. Does the book industry need to be rethinking how it handles this stuff? Yep. Is it? I think it’s starting to. Meanwhile, you wanted to know why-and that long explanation is the “why.”

The conversation continues in the thread, with a much lower level of entitled anti-Big Publishing aggression than many of these discussions contain. As a result, actual information is being conveyed, and people are coming to understand the book industry better. Worth a read.

June 12, 2012
Chained to a rock with SPOILERS eating your liver
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 01:41 PM *

As requested, have a thread for discussing Prometheus. I haven’t seen it, but I’m afraid that Martin did and didn’t like it.:

Dissenting opinions welcome. Agreement welcome. Spoilers welcome. Thread drift discouraged.

June 10, 2012
Fruit punch czar
Posted by Teresa at 02:16 PM * 210 comments

This is about the exercise of power. It’s a recurring rant of mine. At one point I wrote it all down as part of a comment. Since then I’ve had several occasions to refer to it, and others have done so as well. This will probably keep happening, so I might as well make it a standalone entry.

There’s a process I’ve seen in many times and places, where people mistake a thing one does for a thing one is.

I first spotted it in clubs and concoms. In the beginning, you have a task-based system: “Okay, Ferdy’s running the huckster room and Lulu’s doing hotel and banquet. Mo’s just about got the program pulled together. We’re not doing a daily newsletter, so Felix, your work is finished when the pocket program’s delivered. Think you can take charge of the fruit punch in the consuite in the evenings? It’s just a little bit more than Margie can handle.” Felix says sure, no problem, and does fruit punch duty at the convention. As a joke, someone sneaks the line “Fruit Punch Czar: Felix” into the published committeee list.

The job’s not a lot of trouble — arrange for fruit punch, keep an eye on the punchbowl, police the area — and it gives Felix a reason to hang out in that end of the consuite in the evening. This works out well. Felix is an amiable soul, and a lot of people wind up hanging out in his area. The “Fruit Punch Czar” thing gets immortalized when Felix wades into an incipient fight, and one drunk and belligerent would-be-combatant says “Who the bleep are you?”

Felix instantly replies: “Fruit Punch Czar, with powers of High and Low Justice anywhere within fifty feet of the punchbowl.”

“Oh,” the drunk says meekly, and subsides. So after that everyone refers to Felix as the Fruit Punch Czar. But really, that’s just the way Felix is. If he were given the job of hanging out in the main corridor holding a rubber duck tied to a string, Felix would do it — and would still be wading in to stop fights and sort out problems, and would still accrete a random group of cheerful conversationalists around him.

(Why sort out other people’s problems and adjudicate disputes? Felix would say it’s because it’s a good thing to do. He’d also say that anyone can do it, which isn’t true; but it comes naturally to him, so he thinks it is.)

After a few years, the job is up for grabs. Felix and spouse have had their first kid, and are busy. This is where the saga of Yorick begins. Yorick is no Felix, to put it mildly, but he has a flaming yen to be Punch Bowl Czar, dispense High and Low Justice, and be at the center of the coolest gathering at the convention. At the annual committee meeting where everyone settles out who’s doing what job, he and his like-minded crony Jan make a real push for the jobs of Consuite Coordinator and Fruit Punch Czar. Margie says fine; she’ll run the Green Room instead. Someone else takes on publications.

Yorick is way into being Fruit Punch Czar because he thinks it makes him Felix. Do I need to describe the whole dysfunctional sequence of events that follows, winding up with a bitterly destructive committee fight four years later because Jan and Yorick are upset that plain convention attendees have been “usurping the powers” of the Fruit Punch Enforcement Squad — members of which wear matching FPES t-shirts and have, according to Yorick and Jan “paid their dues” by working as gophers and dogsbodies for the Fruit Punch Department?

Isomorphisms: I’ve had some interesting conversations about moderation with Ken Fisher, community godfather at Ars Technica. I mentioned a bizarre phenomenon I’d seen on various forums: longtime regulars being sharply reprimanded for explaining local customs to newbies. The term used to describe this supposed misbehavior was “backseat moderation.”

Ken said he certainly didn’t agree with that policy, but he knew what prompted it: busybody users running around on boards playing pretend-moderator, telling other users that You’ve Been Bad, and The Moderators Are Gonna Get You For That. It tended to happen, he said, in forums where the moderators were a separate class from common users.

That made sense. If users see moderation as a high-status role rather than a task, some of them will inappropriately imitate that role, instead of helping each other create community and good conversations by imitating what they’ve seen moderators do.

I know a similar principle from conrunning: if you get a volunteer who only wants to do security, the last place you should assign them is security. Odds are you’ve got someone who wants to be in charge, but doesn’t understand that authority is 95% responsibility and 5% action, and that power is a transient role in events.

June 08, 2012
Open Thread 174
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 06:00 AM *

Did you hear about the guy who was frozen to absolute zero? He was 0K.


Continued from Open Thread 173
Continued in Open Thread 175.

June 07, 2012
A little bird tells me…
Posted by Avram Grumer at 10:17 PM * 207 comments

A few months back, I put down a book by an author I had previously liked, about one-third of the way through, and stopped reading. The problem — well, one of several — was that although this was a book set in the near future, where characters walked around with cellphones and used the Internet, the author handled information flow among the characters as if it were still the 1970s.

As an illustration to older SF authors of how the present works, in the hopes that they might extrapolate thereform when imagining the future, I present the story of Melissa Stetten and Brian Presley (via):

Ms Stetten is a twenty-something model living in New York (though possibly not a native). Yesterday she was on a plane when the fellow sitting next to her, wearing a wedding ring, tried hitting on her. She turned him down, and tweeted about it. He kept at it.

Over the course of the conversation, Brian mentioned not just his first name, but also that he’s an actor, and born in Oklahoma. Eventually he brought up that he’d just been working on a project with Matthew McConaughey, and that’s all it takes nowadays. Inside a minute, one of Stetten’s followers had found him on the IMDB.

Things got worse for Brian from there — lied about his marriage, turned out to be lying about being “clean and sober”, etc. The story’s been picked up by a Hollywood gossip site, so I imagine he’s got some ’splainin’ to do back home. I’m interested in this not so much for the sake of schadenfreude about some actor I’d never heard of (although it is fun) as for the implications for science fiction. How much have you read recently that gives you that glimpse of the possibilities of heavily networked societies? How many authors (other than Charlie Stross) are really writing about the possibilities of a crowd-sourced panopticon? And how many are still living in the ’70s?

Editorial and Critique Services: Debra Doyle, Ph.D.
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 01:43 PM * 8 comments

I figure that, since my beloved bride has hung out her shingle (and placed her sheepskin on the wall), that it’s appropriate to post it here: Editorial and Critique Services: Debra Doyle, Ph.D.

Hello. My name is Debra Doyle. I have an earned Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania (1981).

For business, I write. About the only thing I’ve ever done for money besides writing—if we don’t count a stint working in the dishroom of the cafeteria while I was in college, which, really, let’s not—has been teaching: Freshman composition (under the various trendy names it’s gone by over the past two or three decades), which wasn’t really that much fun; and fiction (yearly at the Viable Paradise workshop since 1997), which was and is considerably more enjoyable.

Along the way, I’ve become a published author. I’ve written or co-written around thirty novels and around thirty short stories. I’ve written, and been paid for, non-fiction essays. I’ve edited myself and my co-author, I’ve been edited by the best, and I’ve edited other peoples’ works. I’m good at it.

Now-a-days, lots of folks are self-publishing. I’m doing it myself. If you’re planning to self-publish, and if you haven’t yet heard the advice that since you’re now a publisher you need to hire an editor, well, you will.

Other folks want to learn to write. A one-on-one session with an experienced teacher can teach you to fish. If you know what I mean.

Therefore: I am putting my writing and teaching expertise up for sale.

What I will do: Critique and line-edit your novel. A critique generally runs 3-5 pages, and covers structural and developmental issues. If I think that your novel has reached or can reach a level which makes it suitable for submission, I’ll tell you so. If I don’t, I’ll be honest about it and tell you that, as well.

What I won’t do (because no one can): Guarantee that your novel will be commercially published. Guarantee that your novel will be elevated by my services to publishable quality—I’ll only undertake to make it a better novel than it was before, and to provide you with what I hope will be a learning experience in the process. Think of the whole thing as a private tutorial, if that makes more sense.

Fields I’ll work in: Fantasy; science fiction (I only undertake to vet the fiction part; you’re on your own with the science half); historical fiction, alternate-historical fiction, and historical fantasy; mystery; dark fantasy and paranormal. I have experience with both YA and adult fiction.

Fields I don’t work in: Contemporary mainstream; literary mainstream; experimental fiction; nonfiction. If that’s the kind of manuscript you have, I’m not the editor/teacher you’re looking for.

What I will charge: for a typical (e.g., 80,000-100,000 word) novel, $1000, paid in advance via check or PayPal. Rates for shorter works and for doorstops are negotiable.

If you’d like to get in touch with a satisfied customer, just ask.

Contact me at doyledebra@earthlink.net if you’re interested.

To give you an idea of who she is and where she’s coming from: In addition to being my beloved bride and long-time co-author, Doyle wrote the essays The E-Pub Revolution as Gold Rush , Doyle’s SF Genre Rant, and The Girl Cooties Theory of Literature

June 04, 2012
In Pursuit of Mastery
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 04:33 PM * 138 comments

I recently served on the evaluation committee for our intern’s defense of his master’s thesis. Three professors and I listened to his presentation, asked him awkward questions, and then retired to another room to discuss his grade. Although I’ve done a bit of postgraduate study here and there, this is a process I’ve never participated in before, from either side. I found it interesting, but disappointing.

The problem is that I was expecting something else. The professors wanted to focus on one question: “does this thesis add to the sum of human knowledge?” And that’s a fine and important question. The answer certainly was “yes”, albeit in the extremely narrow field of indexing methodologies for geographical information. But the question we never asked, and which I could not have answered in the affirmative, is “does this student demonstrate mastery?” Don’t get me wrong—the guy in question is smart, and has acquired a lot of information during his studies. But that information hasn’t had time to steep into knowledge, much less wisdom1.

I’ve been thinking a lot about mastery these last seven or eight years, both in my personal life as a bookbinder and moderator and in my professional life as a software tester2. I’ve come to realize that it’s a separate skill from binding books, moderating conversations, or testing computer software.

Mastery is the experience of possessing—or being possessed by—a deep understanding of a subject, one that reaches through the individual techniques to the heart of the matter. It’s the dead reckoning that guides one through the unmapped territory between known processes. It comes from practiced familiarity with the raw materials of the craft and the range of techniques available to work with them, but it’s more than that. It’s knowing which errors to prevent, which to correct, and which to pursue as the way to a more interesting final perfection. It’s the moment when one realizes how many questions are properly answered it depends, and realizes as well that one knows what so many of the answers depend on.

One can be a master without a full grasp of every element of the field, because mastery includes the humble3 acknowledgement of the limitations of one’s knowledge, and the delightful realization that there is always more learning to do. One of the hallmarks of mastery is deep joy: sometimes it bubbles over into silliness, and sometimes it’s somber. But it’s not frivolous, careless, or overly pedantic.

Note as well that one can also be a superb craftsman and not a master. One of the most disastrous relationships I have had in the bookbinding world was with such a one. I should have realized it when I noticed that his students never outgrew him, but it took two or three exchanges where he started to put me into a box for me to see the problem. But he was a wolfling like me, self-taught, and he never did figure out this side of things. He thought that binding books, and showing others how to bind books, was the end of the journey rather than its beginning.

Mastery is a teachable skill, both within fields and across them. I suspect it was the true secret of every guild, back in the day. And once you know it, you recognize it wherever you meet it: I’ve listened to Patrick and Teresa discuss the curriculum for Viable Paradise4 and tasted it in the air like lightning. I visited a chef last week, and his conversation rang with it like a bell. Our bathrooms were tiled by a man with no detectable common sense at all, but true mastery of adhesive, ceramic and grout.

We have an abundance of it in this community; it shines in many of our threads. That’s a joyful thing.


  1. I worry, sometimes, about how highly we value new knowledge and how little we do that knowledge’s transformative effect on people. Is this another case of over-prioritizing growth?
  2. I am not a master of either bookbinding or moderation, but I have enough experience to see mastery from where I stand. But I am comfortable admitting to mastery of software testing.
  3. Humble in the sense of calmly knowing your place in the great order of things. Not groveling or undervaluing yourself, but not taking yourself too seriously either.
  4. I gather that VP is like sinking in a swimming pool full of fiction-writing mastery until only the tip of your nose shows above the surface…then being tugged under by the instructors. If that sounds like fun, note that applications close June 15.

June 01, 2012
The return of the evil spelling test
Posted by Teresa at 09:40 AM * 320 comments

This is the latest version of my evil spelling test, enlarged and with extra evil added. As noted on a previous occasion, it’s built around words that trip up good spellers, arranged in an order that’s intended to increase their difficulty.

The origin of the test was pragmatic rather than theoretical. I made it out of words and word combinations which I’d seen misspelled by good spellers. I’ve gradually come to appreciate the role played in it by over-thinking and second-guessing. It’s easier to remember how to spell battalion when it’s on its own (two Ts, one L) than when it follows artillery (one T, two Ls), and is followed by vermilion (one L, though it’s pronounced like million) and guerrilla. Millennium and millenarian are a wicked pair all by themselves. They’re followed by miscellaneous because (a.) it’s often misspelled, and (b.) it’ll trip up test-takers who figure that if the last three words had double Ls, this one has to be single.

I first imagined it as an oral spelling test, where you hear the word and spell it out loud, the way you do in a spelling bee. (Thus the phonetic spelling of ˈkæʊnslər: it’s there for the momentary free-falling panic of hearing that set of sounds and not knowing which of its four alternate spellings (two if you define the word) is called for.) I’ve seen the spelling bee/oral test format criticized for its artificiality, but it has a strength others lack: it tests your real knowledge of how a word is spelled. Feeling that a word “looks wrong” is not the same thing as knowing how to correctly spell it.

Digression: old copy editors and proofreaders know that a typo you missed will often be right next to a typo you corrected. My theory is that closely adjacent typos mess up our “something is wrong at this location” radar. In the next pass, the first typo will be corrected, so the second typo will become visible. Of course, if the next pass is the printed book, that’s not going to help.

The proofreader’s sense that “something is wrong at this location” is a genuinely weird phenomenon. People who have a serious case of it will “feel” a typo go past when they’re riffling through pages too fast to be reading them. They’ll gradually sense the presence of a typo in their peripheral vision — for example, in the small print on a poster located eight feet up on the opposite wall, when they’re concentrating on reading something right in front of them.* When they’re proofreading, sometimes the typos on the next page will “light up” as soon as they turn the page. They’ll still methodically read that page against the setting copy, but there’s a good chance that the typos they saw in that first moment will be the only ones on the page.

If you can get enough of these people together for a conversation, it’s fascinating to hear them discuss the experience. For some, the misspelled text flashes the first time they see it, or is a different color, or floats slightly above the surface of the page, or vibrates. For me, there’s a bump at that spot, about the size of a caraway or fennel seed lying on the desktop underneath the paper. My mind can feel it, though my fingers know it’s not there.

Back to the test. Since spelling bees are impractical, I suppose it could be implemented as an online test that speaks the word out loud, and gives you the options of seeing a brief definition of it, seeing its phonetic spelling, and hearing it spoken again. You then type in its standard English spelling. It would be interesting to see whether error rates changed if you did or didn’t display the words already typed.

For the benefit of the copyright-impaired, this test is copyright © 2012 by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, all rights reserved; but if someone wants to implement it as an online test, talk to me.

bazaar
dumbbell
bizarre
abattoir
accede
precede
supersede
occurrence
inoculate
desiccated
espresso
pastime
harassment
iridescent
embarrassment
accessory
unnecessary
accommodate
vacuuming
daiquiri

liquefy
prophesy
artillery
battalion
vermilion
guerrilla
millennium
millenarian
miscellaneous
denouement
ingenue
barbecue
ukulele
counterfeit
liaison
sovereignty
ambience*
a cappella
hemorrhage
corollary

parallelism
commitment
committed
committee
poinsettia
dilettante
ˈkæʊnslər
adviser
sorcerer
calendar
cemetery
stratagem
sergeant
minuscule
restaurateur
plenitude
pharaoh
silhouette
perseverance
cantaloupe

camouflage
feud
fluorescent
suede
pseudopod
fuchsia
jodhpurs
sacrilegious
indispensable
ichthyology***
irresistible
putrefy
hierarchy
nonpareil
fiery
siege
seize
niece
weird
sieve

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Even larger type, with serifs

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.