What we know and how we know it

This is a small enjoyment of something I think is funny. It can be taken seriously, too, (in which case, of course, it is no longer funny) but it is clear to me that these two fully instances point to larger categories that might help us.

Screen Shot 2019-01-07 at 7.43.43 PM.pngI happened across this sign recently when I was looking for examples of the idea that when you “know” what something is about, it is hard to notice that other people might think it is about something else. I put it in that post, even though it didn’t fit as well as some others I had found, because I kept laughing at it. It still tickles me.

So here is an unreconstructed nerd who hears his girlfriend say that she needed more time and more distance (away from him) and translates it instantly [1] into velocity. She needs…um…velocity.

I think it is his confidence that engages me over and over. Sure. “I knew what she meant.” Needing “velocity” is the most reasonable meaning; physics is the most likely background for such a remark from his girlfriend. Sure.

In the other instance of this process, I am the clueless person.  I found this is notation in a piece music we were singing for a Vespers service. It was, of course, a religious service, but I think that, given time, I would have seen Gsus as “Jesus” anyway.

I knew it didn’t mean that. But I think that if I had known what it did mean—and I didn’t—it would never have occurred to me to see the appearance of a word rather than the meaning of it. So here is the meaning of it. [2] Just for the fun of it, I showed the mgsususic to the man who directs our choir at church. I asked him what he saw there on the page. He told me about the suspension and after it is resolved it winds up in the key of G and all that. I said, “That doesn’t look like Gsus (I pronounced it Jesus) to you?”

I think he was a little startled. The idea that it sounded like something that had nothing at all to do with music came from so far away for him. It reminded me of a lovely scene in Frank Conroy’s book, Body and Soul. The young boy, Claude Rawlings, takes a piece of music out of his piano bench and takes it to Mr. Wiesfeld, who runs the local music store. He points to a dark blob on a stick. “What is that?” he asks Weisfeld. It’s takes Weisfeld a little while to locate the question and finally it is only the boy’s earnestness that brings an answer. “It’s a note,” he says. “But,” says Claude, “what does it mean?”

It is the distance from the blob to the note that I was asking our director the jump and when he did, he laughed out loud. And then I laughed. I saw what it “said,” and he saw what it “meant.”

[1] d=d0 + vs(t-t0) after all.
[2 In these chords, the third (the second note in the chord) are being replaced with either a major second An interval consisting of two semitones or a perfect four An interval consisting of five semitones . The sus4 chord includes a perfect four and the sus2 chord includes a major second.

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Eagles fumble the ball

Screen Shot 2019-01-07 at 9.29.33 AM.png

Apologies first. I am sorry for that intrusive “Play” symbol in the middle of the picture. I couldn’t find a way to get rid of it except by substituting a “Pause” symbol.

Then there is the misleading title of this essay, which will surely make some Eagles fans think I didn’t watch the game [1] and that is why I have the wrong team fumbling the ball.

OK. Enough of that. The Bear’s player is Anthony Miller. The gesture looks like “Who, me?” The Eagle’s player is Cre’Von Le Blanc. His gesture is pretty common among secondary defenders. It is celebratory. It can be very personal, like “That’s what you get for throwing the ball in my direction.” Or, it can just be the player’s version of the referee’s call, which is very common.  That is the signal the ref gives to show that the pass was incomplete.

A running back who thinks he made a first down will signal first down, not waiting for the referee to signal it. Whole teams will signal that they recovered a fumble—the ball is still buried deep in that pile of players so no one really knows [2]

This picture just shows Le Blanc celebrating that he caused an incompletion. Except that he didn’t. He caused a fumble.

Those two plays are identical in most respects. Le Blanc knows that Miller caught the ball and he knows that he ripped it out of Miller’s hands. He does not know how many steps Miller took while he still controlled the ball—and that is what is going to make the difference between an incompletion and a fumble.

So he celebrates what he thinks he did. And all the Eagles celebrate with him. And while they are all celebrating Le Blanc’s play—it was a superb play; I have no wish to take anything away from him—the football lies there on the turf. Unloved. Ignored.  Look at the picture.  There it lies.

Eventually the ref picks it up. And now there is no reasonable thing to do with it. They have to pretend that it was an incompletion because what do you do with a fumble that the ref recovers? So they give it back to the Bears at the original line of scrimmage.

So the Eagles fumbled by refusing to fall on the ball. Or even pick it up. Or picking it up and running it back the other way for a touchdown. Instead, they took Le Blanc’s word for what had happened. A very small achievement, it turns out, compared to what he actually achieved. He actually caused a fumble and nobody noticed.

There are some very general football maxims that could be trotted out here, like “Keep on playing until the whistle.” That’s perfectly appropriate and that would have helped the Eagles a lot. But what has caught my attention is that the Eagles all celebrated with their teammate. He signaled what he thought he had sone and they all celebrated with him.  That is what I would have wanted to do.  It was a terrific play.

They all gave him credit for the small thing he thought he did. And that made them not capitalize on the big thing he actually did.

I like celebrating your teammates. It is one of the things I like best about watching football. But in this instance, it led to giving the ball back to the Bears and only a missed—“tipped” later video confirms—field goal enabled the Eagles to win the game.

So…really…the Eagles fumbled the ball.

[1] They are mostly right, but I did see this play.
[2] And the ball may changes hands several times after the original recovery.

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The Blindness of Good Intentions

It is true that moral fervor can make you inattentive to other aspects of the problem. That is true of any kind of fervor. [1] There are so many examples that I see immediately that this consideration of ignorance, blindness, and inconsiderateness—that’s what other people say about you while you are focuses on your good intentions—can’t really be about examples.

So let me try to say in the beginning what I’m thinking about. After a couple of examples, blindeness 3you can contribute your own favorites. There is a certain clarity of vision that comes with fervor. The focus is narrow, the need to act is intense, all the parts of the picture you construct reinforce each other and dammit, your duty is clear. A lot of good things can be done that way and frankly, there are some good things that probably cannot be done any other way.

But the costs are high for everyone, especially for the fervid actor who, in his [2] fervor, ignores or rationalizes away all the contrary signals that he otherwise, would have attended to.  And, as this poster illustrates, the likelihood of misunderstanding is high.

  • Imagine a wife who wants her husband to convert to her religious faith or, a problem just as severe, to convert to the emotional intensity of her religious faith. His persistent retreat from her catches her entirely by surprise.
  • Imagine a father who wants his children to become fully autonomous [3] and “disciplines” them firmly so that they will acquire this skill. Their hatred of him for his cruelty catches him entirely by surprise.
  • Imagine a solid German family living in hillbilly country [4] who wants the children to have a lot of hillbilly friends, but to be carefully unlike them in nearly every way. The loneliness and isolation of the children will come as a complete surprise to the parents, who only what their children to be “better.”

Enough examples?

I called this essay “the blindness” of good intentions because knowing what my intentions are, I pay particular attention to everything that bears on those intentions. Am I clear enough in describing the goals? Have I taken the range of objections into account? Have I provided each participant with the resources necessary to accomplish the outcomes? Is everybody adequately motivated? That’s a lot to pay attention to and that’s just the top layer.

Nowhere in here are the legitimate objections that might be raised to my intentions, or to the cost the participants might pay in cooperating with them. And when we are done with all of those, we have yet to consider what other projects will have to be foregone just so that I can do this one.

And ignoring all those things is not malice or ignorance. It is just blindness. And every time you choose what to pay attention to—intense, focused, persistent attention—you choose to be blind to other things. That’s just how it works. And if you focus on how good your intentions are—not just on knowing what they are but also on knowing that they are admirable—it is even worse.

Blind Love

I was recently part of a conversation where “the blindness of good intentions” was given a very specific focus. The conversation began with a poster that said, “Women are not rehabilitation centers for badly raised men. It is NOT your job to fix him, change him, raise him, or parent him. You want a partner, not a project.”

blindness 1If you begin categorizing exhortations into those that are like food (nourishing for everyone) and those that are like medicine (good for some people, but harmful to others), this is definitely a medicine kind of remark. If it were phrased as a teaching, rather than a bumper sticker, it would say, “Women who feel they are obligated by virtue of their gender alone to fix men should reconsider.”

In a string of interesting comments, there was one by Denise Haley Hall that I thought shed a helpful light on this problem. I am using one of the middle paragraphs of her comment here and I will add my observations to each part. I think you will see why I appreciated her perspective so much. [6]

Here is the first.

Some women believe they can love a man enough to make him not be the bad boy, to make him grow up, to make him not be abusive.

Here we have the outcome specified. The man is to “grow up,”[5] to stop being a bad boy and to stop being abusive. And we have a means. If the woman “loves the man enough” all those good things will happen. If they don’t happen, it must be because the woman “has not loved him enough.” She has failed. My heart goes out to those women, but I have had the good fortune never to have married one, so my compassion is still abstract.

Here is the second.

They need to recognize that they never will “fix” him and stop letting themselves settle for less than a true partner in a relationship.

Here the whole project of “fixing him” is abandoned, as it should be. Further, the goal of a partnership marriage is affirmed. But how do we get from the shortfalls that raised the question of “fixing” to the true partner status. Just abandoning the effort isn’t going to be enough. How do we establish the grounds for mutual respect that would ground a partnership?

Here is the third.

I feel like some women continue to pick such men because they need to feel needed.

Here there is a turn in the argument. Here a woman is imagined who makes the same kind of choice over and over; one “project man” after another. And if, for each of these projects, she believes that just loving them enough is going to get the job done, she will fail time after time.

But here, also, an answer is offered. These women do what they do because they need to feel needed and taking on a man as a project meets that need. It truly does. It meets that need and moves all the other needs out of the picture. That is the effect of “the blindness of good intentions.”

And here is the last.

They thrive on caretaking so much that they need people to rely on them and therefore they take over so much responsibility.

I have seen the same things Denise has seen, but I process them is a slightly different way. These women don’t actually “thrive” on caretaking. They choose it and they refuse to give it up, but they don’t thrive on their caretaking obsession any more than an addict thrives on his drug of choice. That choice could be destroying him, but try to take it away.

The second way of processing this last observation differently is to focus on power, rather than on responsibility. Being the only one in the relationship who actually knows what is going on or who cares a rip about success is this woman. As she works on her project—this isn’t all that much fun for the project either—she earns the admiration and sometimes the compassion of her friends and she takes more and more power in the relationship.

This is the blindness again “I’m only doing this for your own good” is, among adults, a justification for exercising power, but the focus is entirely on the outcome. The “I’m doing this” part is a claim of power. It is what being the responsible person drives you to. The “your own good” part is the outcome the actor hopes for. Producing the outcomes that would justify such a use of power will, eventually require the cooperation of the “project” and projects are notoriously slow to cooperate.

What would work?

It is way too late in this essay to hope for a thoughtful answer to such a question, but there is a bumper sticker version that can start us in the right direction. Men and women don’t come together like puzzle pieces, each cut out to fit the other. [7] An adjustment of each to the other is going to be required. These can be done over a long lifetime by small changes offered with generosity and grace. Nobody is a “project;” we learn as we go. And when we change, we learn other things. That’s not a project. It is not two projects. It is a partnership.

[1] The Latin root is fervere, “to boil.” The English “fervid” is the adjective form.
[2] The context of the discussion that raised this interest was whether this question should be “genderized” Would it be good for the discussion for us to imagine that this is something women do to men or men to women? My answer is No to the genderization move, so I am going to use the once-innocent neuter singular pronoun (I know, it does look like the masculine singular pronoun) to refer to everyone of all sexes and of both sexes.
[3] Not, by the way, like the family car. We are beginning to say that cars that drive themselves are “autonomous”—that means to rule themselves—rather than self-driving. The Latin verb meaning “to drive” is agere (ago, agere, egi, actus, if you want the whole declination) so a combination of auto = self and actus = to drive would be much more accurate and less scary.
[4] Playing, here, off of Colin Woodard’s American Nations, in which he identifies my part of Ohio as a place where Midlanders and Greater Appalachians both live, but who value very different things.
[5] “Grow up” is somewhat problematic in that “maturity,” which is where you get to after you have grown up, looks like different things in different men and women. If “grow up” means only not being a bad boy and not abusing others, it is too narrow. If it means “maturity,” it is not adequately specified
[6] I should take the time here to say that Denise said I could use her words and could attribute them to her by name (thank you, Denise) but I am projecting the argument further in each instance. I hope Denise enjoys them, but I have no idea whether she will agree with them.
[7] OK, I see that I am trapped. Every puzzle picture I use will have one piece fitting in the concavity of another piece. Dr. Freud has me in a corner on this one.

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Happy New Years?

A barista at Starbucks pronounced her good wishes on me as I left the store this morning with my hands full of Bette’s coffee and mine. “Happy New Years,” she said.

I know this is going to sound crabby and I want to take just a moment to say that I am not feeling crabby. I’m just curious about how language works and especially how it changes. [1]

Why, for instance, do sportscasters say that a hitter “reached” in the third inning? I thinknew years 3 that several hundred thousand uses of the phrase “reached first base” and the lack on any other common conclusion of the phrase beginning with “reached” has brought us to the place where “reached” may be taken to mean “reached first base.” Or possibly any base.  That could be represented in written English as “reached…”

Most people who say “Goodbye” don’t understand that it is a severely contracted version of “God be with you.” This contraction followed the same process as “reached” except that it wound up being used as a single word rather than a truncated phrase. It could be represented in writing as “Go(o)d b (e) [with] ye.” Goodbye. No one is confused.

So I am imagining that there are so many occasions where the possessive “year’s” is used that the way the word is heard by people who follow the sounds of words more than the sense collapses the possessive into the plural.  So “new years” rather than “new year’s day” becomes an expression of its own. The possessive (’s) is translated into a plural (-s) as if many years were being celebrated and the speaker wishes for you that they will all be happy ones. [2]

new year 2The fact is that the language we use every day—unless the setting of your life is one where the accuracy or the beauty of language is, itself, something to be valued [3]—works as long as it is good enough. “Good enough” is a very forgiving standard. People know clearly, or can infer quickly, what you probably mean and that is good enough. You can even point to an oil filter and say “carburetor” and the person you are with can say, “You mean carburetor.” and you can say, “Of course. What did I say?”

So…really, it works. I take my barista’s good wishes to heart and I begin to prepare to replace my old and much loved 2018 pocket calendar with a brand new and promising 2019 calendar.

Oh…and Happy New Years.

[1] Now, “crabby;” if you are looking for crabby, I confess that I did tell this barista—but not until she asked—that the order of the adjectives on her doughnut tray is wrong. It says “Old-fashioned glazed doughnut” when it should say “Glazed Old-fashioned doughnut.” “Old-fashioned” is a shape of doughnut and “glazed” is what they did to the surface of it. The natural order of adjectives in English is remarkably stable. If you have any doubt about that at all, I have an exercise for you. Take these trait names—the order here is random—and give them to five friends. They will all effortlessly and without thought order the adjectives in the same order. How about: dog, black, large, mean, and pregnant.
[2] There is also a phenomenon in popular songs called Lady Mondegreen. A “Lady new year 1Mondegreen” is the construction of an idea based only on the hearing of it. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in 1954, writing about how as a girl she had misheard the lyric “…and laid him on the green” in a Scottish ballad as “…and Lady Mondegreen.” I, myself, had trouble as a boy in church hearing the expression “gladly the cross I’d bear” as anything other than Gladly (you know) the Cross-eyed Bear.” I have since seen tee shirts featuring images of Gladly.

[3]  In which case, I offer you my sincere congratulations and I hope you are as grateful for the privilege as you should be.

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On being God’s prophet

Here is a series of reflections on the “emptying out” that so often—necessarily?—precedes the giving of God’s word to a prophet. And maybe more than a prophet, as well. Here, for instance is how Amos was called (Amos 7:14,15)

14 ‘I am not a prophet,’ Amos replied to Amaziah, ‘nor do I belong to a prophetic brotherhood. I am merely a herdsman and dresser of sycamore-figs. 15But Yahweh took me as I followed the flock, and Yahweh said to me, “Go and prophesy to my people Israel.”

And, at the other end of the historical chain, and (conveniently) at the other end of the alphabet, we have Zechariah. (1:1)

In the second year of Darius, in the eighth month, the word of Yahweh was addressed to the prophet Zechariah (son of Berechiah), son of Iddo, as follows…

The Hebrew word translated “prophet” is navi. I knew that. Here, by the courtesy of Wikipedia, is something I did not know and since I understand it only superficially, I will just pass it along to you as factual.

Thus, the navi was thought to be the “mouth” of God. The root nun-bet-alef (“navi”) is based on the two-letter root nun-bet which denotes hollowness or openness; to receive transcendental wisdom, one must make oneself “open.”

In Deuteronomy 18, God says “…I shall put my words into his mouth and he will tell them everything I command him.” Consider that if the principal meaning of nun-bet is “hollow,” i.e., empty. Now consider it if the principal meaning is “open,” i.e. not closed.

Think of it this way. If you are sitting in a plane that is not taking off. Why is it not taking off? There is a problem, let’s say, with two of the cargo hatches. The first one has the door stuck shut and no one can open it. Inside, it is empty and would carry all the cargo anyone needs. The second one opens up very nicely, but it is already full.

One is hollow (but closed); one is open (but full). You see the problem. That particular plane is not going to be God’s prophet under either condition. It may very well be that the root nun-bet means either hollow or open, but in the cargo scenario, we can see that both hollow and open are going to be required.

Let’s just set that aside and consider some examples, some biblical, some cinematic.


nabi 1Here, for instance, is Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) in the movie, Ghost. Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) has been killed in a holdup gone bad. He knows who killed him, but he cannot communicate it to Molly Jensen (Demi Moore), his fiancé. For that, he needs someone who is “open to the spirit world.” Notice “open.” She is not empty, or “hollow,” however. She is a con artist who has pretended to be a “spiritual advisor” for many years. Pretending to have this gift is her con; she has no idea she really has it.

When Sam discovers that Oda Mae can hear him, he bullies her into going downtown and finding Molly and telling her what happened. He needs for her to say exactly what he is telling her to say. And she does do that, at first. She wants to get it over with so she can go home.

But there is also a status in this “prophet thing.” She kind of likes being asked questions that only she has the answer to. Now she “has the answer” in the sense that she repeats what Sam tells her. If Sam had been speaking Russian, Oda Mae could have repeated all the sounds and Molly would have understood their meaning, even though Oda Mae would not have understood what she had said.

But “having the answer” is seductive. Oda Mae can seem, in her conversation with Molly,nabi 3 to be an expert on things spiritual. “Why is he still here?” Molly wonders, having been persuaded by Oda Mae that she can hear Sam. “I don’t know,” says Sam. It is a line only Oda Mae and the viewers can hear. “He’s stuck, that’s what it is,” says Oda Mae. “He’s in between worlds. You know it happens sometimes that spirit gets yanked out so quick that the essence still feels it has work to [on] here.”

Oda Mae knows none of that. She was closed, as in one of the senses of the nun-bet complex. Then Sam forced his way in. [1] And she was empty. There were, in her, only Sam’s words and only she could hear them. But she didn’t stay empty. She became what we would call a false prophet—saying what has not been given to her to say—but which I am sure she would call “a true prophet plus.” She continues to say what Sam tells her to say and then she says more. What could it hurt?

A scene or so later, Molly shows us what it looks like to do it right. She goes to the police as Sam (through Oda Mae) asked her to and she tells them exactly what Sam told her to say and no more. She is ridiculed. Oda Mae has a long record of convictions and nabi 2incarcerations. That’s reality for the police. There are still discrepancies in Molly’s account to be accounted for. No one like the person the police know Oda Mae to be could possibly have known the things Molly describes. On a better day, that might have stopped the cops and made them wonder. This cop was compassionate, unlike his fellow officer at the next desk, but Oda Mae has a record and the actual killer, Willy Lopez, does not. End of story.



Was Jesus “empty” after he had “emptied himself?” (Philippians 2:8). Theologically, there is a lot riding on it. This hymn, called “the kenosis passage” [2] is of interest in this context only because the Christ, having emptied himself, was empty, but he didn’t stay empty. [3] He learned obedience…through his sufferings.” (Hebrews 5:8). Unlike Oda Mae, he didn’t improvise “new truths.” Even in John, at the very highest of the gospel christologies, Jesus says, “In all truth, I tell you, by himself the Son can do nothing; he can do only what he sees the Father doing.”


Although it would be saying a good deal too little to say of Jesus that he was only a prophet, it would not be too much to say that having emptied himself, he remained open to God’s word to him and he said what God told him to say. Saying that and only that is very much within the prophetic tradition. Oda Mae Brown, by contrast who, having been forcibly opened (the Henry the 8th song) and found to be empty, did not stay empty. [4]  She really liked the prophetess role and pushed it as far as it would go. She didn’t say what Sam told her to say and nothing more, as a prophet in the nun-bet tradition would.
[1] He sang “I’m Henry the 8th, I am” day and night until Oda Mae agreed to help him.
[2] The Greek kenóo means “to empty,” and it is an aorist tense verb meaning that the action occurred only once, even though the effects may continue.
[3] An interesting example of the same process, with inside and outside reversed (but the problem, i.e. Incarnation, remaining the same) is Sir Robin the Brave in The Muppets Frog Prince. Because of an evil enchantment, Sir Robin is still himself on the inside, but he is a little frog on the outside. His task is to convince the other frogs, especially Kermit, that the discrepancy between inside and outside does not mean what he thinks it means.

[4]  Moses had that same trouble, you will recall.

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A Family of Shoplifters

I am told that is the translation of the Japanese characters for this movie. In English, thelift 2 name is just Shoplifters. I like the Japanese title better because this superb movie is actually about an ensemble performance. The one line description they give for this movie is pretty good: “A family of small-time crooks take in a child they find outside in the cold.”

I’d like to celebrate this wonderful film just a little. Then I’d like to think about the “family” designation. And finally, I want to trace out one of the subplots. I saw this plot when I saw the movie. Kind of. I saw all the pieces of it and I knew they were related, but it took a night’s sleep and a longish bike ride to put those pieces in place.

This is probably the place to say that if you don’t want to know what the movie was about, to me, at least, you should stop reading now and go see it yourself.

I want to say it is a coming of age story featuring Shota (Jyo Kairi), sitting on his “father’s” lap in the picture. I know there are other plots there, but this is the one that matters to me most.

Family or not?

I think there is one blood relationship in this ensemble, but I’m not sure. Hatsue’s husband produced a son in his second marriage. Aki (Mayu Matsumoka), the “daughter” in this ensemble of crooks, is that son’s daughter, so she could, under some circumstances, be Hatsue’s granddaughter-in-law. But if she is, that is the only blood relationship in the family.

Hatsui, (Kirin Kiki) is called “grandmother;” Osamu (Lily Franky) and Obuyo (Sakura Andô) are called “Dad” and “mother.” and when they take on the abused girl, Yuri, the younger members are encouraged to call her “sister.” Shota (Jyo Kairi), the only boy in the family, doesn’t want to and he also doesn’t want to call Osamu, “Dad.” Yet.

So it is a “family-like” collection of people using family-style names for each other and, frankly, behaving in very generous family-like ways toward each other. In order to highlight how good their treatment of each other is, no good standard families are shown at all. The standard families shown are terrible families, especially by comparison to this “family.”

Shota grows up

Shota looks very young sometimes and sometimes much older. I’d guess he is supposed to be 13 or 14. We are introduced to him as the first shoplifting exercise is being conducted. This exercise is really cool. There are secret hand signs and something that looks a little like an incantation. There is a distraction by Osamu and Shota sticks some things in his backpack and they both go home to eat whatever he has stolen from the store.

lift 1I mention that detail only to show how attractive it is. The grocer is either oblivious or too stuffy to care. He is seen only in the background. In the foreground are a father and son team, also a master and apprentice team, who are out rustling up dinner for the family.

Two elements undercut this tenuous reality as the story develops. One is the rationale provided by Osamu to Shota. The reason why what they are doing is not wrong is that the food in the store doesn’t belong to anyone yet. If someone had purchased it and put it in a cart, it would, presumably, be wrong to take it out of the cart. Having been bought, it “belongs to someone.” [1] The other element is harder to pin down, but it rests on the idea that to us, the viewers, the the grocer is a nobody. He never appears in the foreground; he never says anything. He has no idea, apparently, that this family is stealing him blind.

The argument about why it is right to steal these goods is, as I indicated, pretty thin. But it gets worse than that. Later in the film, Osamu is getting ready to smash the window of a car in a parking lot and grab a purse from the back seat. “Wait a minute,” says Shota. “This clearly belongs to someone and it is locked in their car.” So not only is the excuse flimsy, but his “Dad” doesn’t apparently believe in it himself.

It is at that point that we realize that Shota has never really bought the rationale, but that lift 3he has deferred to Osamu, as the apprentice defers to the judgment of the master. “I guess he knows something I don’t know,” Shota must be saying, “because this doesn’t really make any sense to me. You can almost see Shota’s esteem for Osamu shrink right in the scene and it is not long before Shota steals something so clumsily that he gets caught and you wonder, as you watch, whether these two events are related.

Furthermore, the grocer (Sosuke Ikematsu) isn’t the nonentity he first seemed, either. Part of Shota’s duty is to pass the shoplifting knowledge on to his “sister” Yuri, just as his “father” Osamu passed it on to him. And we see him teaching her the hand signals–as in the picture above– and the little dance with the fingers that comes just before a theft. But this time, as they are going out, the grocer stops him. “Don’t teach your sister to do that,” he says, mimicking the finger dance perfectly, and he gives Shota two sweets of some kind.

OK, this puts everything in a different light. If we had seen that initial shoplifting scene from the standpoint of the grocer, we would have seen him seeing the thefts and perhaps shaking his head sadly. He knows what they are doing, and he knows they really need the things they are stealing. The analogy occurred to me that it is like the old Israelite practice of leaving the corners of the field unmowed so that they poor could come and get food there. It is not a perfect analogy, but it’s not bad and it struck me forcibly when the grocer confronted Shota at the door. We realize right away that the story as it has been given to us is misleading in quite a few ways. This stealing is, in fact, successful by the compassion and generosity of the grocer.

It didn’t look like that in the first scene, but we know now that is always what it was. It isn’t cool anymore. There is not the slightest shade of Robin H; lrood in it any more.

Those two events bring Shota to a place where his way of life is no longer sustainable. If even Osamu doesn’t believe the excuses he has been teaching Shota, then they have no merit at all. And if the grocer, far from being the oblivious nonentity Shota thought, has, in fact, been feeding their family all this time, then continuing to steal from him is unconscionable.

And that is how Shota grows up. His first act of autonomy is to get caught stealing a bag of oranges. It was an act of conscience. It recognizes and transcends the grocer’s generosity. It rejects as un-genuine and unacceptable the excuses his “father” has been peddling. He makes his own choice; no more deferring to the master. And with that choice, the whole edifice of “family” comes crashing down.

The Shota narrative is, as I say, only one of the subplots in this complex and engaging film, but it is the one that drew me first and strongest.

[1] The obvious flaw in this is that the grocer had to buy it before he could sell it. These items didn’t just happen to be on the shelves.

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Yellow (Caution) lights

Since my neighborhood Starbucks closed, I have been walking further in the morning to get coffee for Bette and me. A very urban route it is, too. And when I walk on Broadway going west or on Weidler coming back east, I am walking in the same direction as the traffic. That’s how this all came to me.

Yellow 1I can tell without looking at it when the light turns yellow because there is often a sound of acceleration. You can hear it in the engines and in the sound the tires make on the street. If the drivers are slowing down in response to the yellow light, I either don’t hear it or don’t pay attention to it, but if they are accelerating suddenly, I do hear it and I don’t like it.

So, why are there yellow lights [1] and why do people game them? The yellow lights, called “caution lights” when they were introduced, announce that a time is coming when you are going to be required to stop. The implication is that you should start preparing to stop. Taking your foot off the accelerator and putting in on the brake would be a good idea.

The difficulty is that the drivers don’t want to stop. And, in fact, the law does not require them to stop for a yellow light, only to prepare to stop. If you go through the intersection while the light is yellow—or, let’s be frank, if you get into the intersection while the light is yellow—then you can continue. [2] So there is a lot of incentive to treat the yellow light as the last phase of the green light. Not what Mr. Potts had in mind.

I asked, above, why people “game” the yellow lights. That might have seemed a curiously yellow 3restrained question, given that people game every specific standard we know of. I remember an old Nancy and Sluggo comic strip where “the mother” told the two kids to wash their hands to get ready for dinner. They complained that actually, only one hand (each) was dirty and we are to imagine that the mother said to them, “Well, just wash that one then.” In the final frame, we see the two kids at a bathroom basin, cooperatively washing only one hand (each) and Nancy’s comment was, “I’ll bet she thought we couldn’t do it.”

Exactly. That’s how long we have been gaming the system.

The caution light phenomenon is based on the idea that the only thing that is really wrong is going through a red light. Going through an early yellow or a late yellow aren’t really wrong; possibly imprudent. So how much of the yellow can I utilize for my own convenience (late yellow) without doing something really wrong?

That accounts for the acceleration I hear on the street in the morning. People are hurrying to get through the light because a) they are in a hurry and b) it isn’t really wrong. The “caution light” has become a “this offer will expire in just three more seconds” kind of light.

What to do?

I should preface this by saying that I am not proposing it. I am simply working through the very common problem of gaming the caution light. The first element is that the yellow light is, for all practical purposes, of a known duration. [3] The second is that the penalty for going through a red light (and getting caught at it) is relatively mild. It is not, for instance, loss of your driver’s license.

So we could, just as a way of restoring the “caution” function to the yellow lights, make the duration of any given yellow light variable. [4] This means that speeding up to “make the light” would be a very risky thing to do. It is risky in the sense that you would have no rational basis, not even an experiential basis, for calculating whether your attempt to “make the light” would be successful.

That probably wouldn’t do the job by itself, so I would go to the other part of the program and make the detection of the violation certain and the punishment substantial. Cameras at every intersection that has a three-color traffic light would be necessary. They would record every car in the intersection while the light is red and automatically send the notification to the driver. “Your license has just been cancelled” or “This is your second of the three allowable infractions before your license is cancelled.” Whatever kind of penalty the policymakers decided on, provided that the detection and reporting of this act of “un-caution” is certain.

I think that would do the job. It might not be a job worth doing, of course, but it does do the one thing I was hoping to do here, which is to restore the “caution” meaning to the yellow traffic light.

yellow 2I am reminded in this context, of a forgettable scene from a forgettable movie called Starman. [5] In it, a visitor from another planet (Jeff Bridges, shown here preparing to utter this line), offers to drive for awhile while his host (Karen Allen) takes a little nap. She sees him blowing through a yellow light and thinks he doesn’t understand terrestrial traffic signals. She starts to explain them to him. “Oh no,” he says. “I remember everything I see.” (Meaning that he has internalized as rules what he has seen her actually do as a driver.) “Green means go. Red means stop. Yellow means go very fast.”

[1] In 1920, William Potts, a Detroit police officer, developed several automatic traffic light systems, including the first three-color signal, which added a yellow “caution” light.
[2] And since, in many places, the lights are timed in anticipation of a certain vehicular speed, “getting through” this light means that you have a really good chance of a green light at the next several intersections.
[3] While it is true that different yellows last for different lengths of time, you do get a sense, when you have driven a route a number of times, what the normal duration of this particular yellow is.
[4] If we did it in the next 2 years, we could get it done by the 100th anniversary of caution light.
[5] Why I see unable to forget a line from a forgettable movie I saw once 30 years ago is a question that need not detain us here.

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