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Some Things Never Change

In a previous post, I explained that I am interested in history because I love stories. Not everyone shares this interest, however, and they reasonably ask why they ought to study history at all. Peter Stearns offers a strong response to this objection and describes the many practical benefits of an historical education. Often, these justifications get dumbed down to some variation of the old cliché: “Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.”

The irony of this statement is that anyone who does bother to read history discovers that it is, in fact, one long chronicle of the same mistakes being repeated over and over again. Only the costumes change.

Well, not just the costumes, of course. Circumstances and conditions can change quite a lot from one era to the next. Bronze gives way to iron. Horse drawn carriages give way to automobiles. The belief that we become ill due to imbalances in “humors” yields to germ theory.

With all this apparent progress, then, why do we continue making the same errors again and again? A careful reading of history reveals the answer. The lesson–which is rarely discussed in history classes because it contradicts dearly held modern notions–is that one very important domain remains untouched by the relentless march of progress: human nature itself.

My little daughter Helen, born just three months ago into the most technologically advanced and materially wealthy culture the world has ever known, is running the same basic “software” as a little girl born into a hunter-gatherer tribe 15,000 years ago.

If history doesn’t convince you, literature will. Read Shakespeare and you will find yourself encountering characters who live in a dramatically different world from your own. Look past the cultural set-dressing, however, and you’ll find people just like yourself. The same ambition to amount to something. The same blinding infatuation of new love. The same grief at the death of a loved one. The same sense of bewilderment and rage in the face of betrayal. And the same desire to transcend all of this, to somehow reach for something higher or better.

If you take an interest in evolutionary psychology, you will find that it confirms what the great artists and historians have been telling us all along. Namely, that basic human psychology has remained largely unchanged in the face of all our material and scientific progress.

That may seem like a grim reality, but there is good news. The history, literature, art, and philosophy of past ages applies as much to you as it did to the people who created it. The great treasure house of human wisdom–from the cave paintings of paleolithic times to the novels of Flannery O’Connor–are yours.

Gilgamesh, The Iliad, Paradise Lost, and The Great Gatsby were written by and for people just like you. Confucius, Epictetus, the Buddha, and Augustine are speaking to you. Michaelangelo, Turner, Bosho, Rodin, and Dogen have made things for you.


I have seen The David,
Seen the Mona Lisa, too.
And I have heard Doc Watson
sing Columbus Stockade Blues.
-Guy Clark, Dublin Blues

Authentic Blues

Today the world took a short break from arguing about deflated footballs to briefly note the passing of legendary blues guitarist B.B. KingSmithsonian Magazine reprinted an article from 2011 featuring comments by John Hasse, a Curator of Music at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Hasse said that King had “unchallenged authenticity” which “made the blues seem real.”

With all due respect Dr. Hasse, what the hell are you talking about? Are there musicians prowling about the nation’s blues clubs whose “authenticity” we should be challenging? Are there players who make the blues seem unreal? Can the Smithsonian save us from this fearful epidemic of fake blues? Won’t someone please think of the children?!

I won’t presume to know what Dr. Hesse meant by these comments, but I have often found that, when it comes to the blues, words like “real” and “authentic” often refer to the artist’s personal background. B.B. King was black, from Mississippi, and grew up poor. Did this make him “authentic” and especially qualified to play “real blues?” Maybe. It’s worth noting, however, that King himself did not subscribe to this notion.

“Hard times don’t necessarily mean being poor all the time. I’ve known people that was part of a family and always feel that the family likes everybody else but them. That hurts and that’s as deep a hurt as you can possibly get. I’ve known people that would have problems with their love life. This is kind of how the blues began, out of feeling misused, mistreated, feeling like they had nobody to turn to.

Blues don’t necessarily have to be sung by a person that came from Mississippi as I did, because there are people having problems all over the world.” – B.B. King

King thought deeply about the blues and concluded that it belongs to us all. To paraphrase the Buddha, suffering is inherent to the human condition. The only qualification necessary to play “real,” “authentic” blues is humanity. Musical ability helps, too.


Genealogy of Adam Nicely, Sr.

About a year ago, I discovered that Adam Nicely, Sr., a veteran of the American Revolution, is my sixth great grandfather. My uncle, a dedicated genealogist himself, was surprised by this news and has asked to see the evidence. He (my uncle) does his research the old-fashioned way, by going to courthouses and cemeteries. I do my research the same way I do virtually everything else–by staring a little glowing screen while I smoke a cigar. (His way seems a lot more fun and satisfying.) I am willing to bet that he’s seen some documents that I’ve never seen, and it’s possible that I’ve seen some documents that he hasn’t seen.

I’m posting the evidence here because I suspect that some other members of my family might also be interested in this information. If you’re from Western PA and your name is Butina, Burd, Bridge, Karns, Kerns, or Nicely, you may find this interesting. If you’re not, this might help you the next time you’re trying to fall asleep. (Note: Names in bold are in the direct line of descent.)

Adam Nicely, Sr. was born in 1730 in Lancaster County, PA. At the age of 30 (1760), he married Elizabeth Eichert from Philadelphia, PA. He served in the American Revolution as part of the West Md. County Militia in 1777. He lived to be 96 and died in Donegal Township, Westmoreland County, PA and was buried in Keltz Cemetery in Ligonier (now part of Darlington). His grave can be seen there today, and it would appear that the original headstone has been replaced.

Evidence of military service and burial.

Evidence of military service and burial.

According to 13 separate family trees found on, in 1765, Adam and Elizabeth had a daughter, Maria Polly Nicely who married John Kerns (sometimes spelled Karns and Karnes). In 1780, they had a son, also named John Kerns (1780-1850).

Maria Polly Nicely is the weakest link in the chain. Despite appearing in so many different family trees, there are a few discrepancies. Her marriage to John is frequently listed as 1783, three years after the birth of their first child. Although out-of-wedlock births weren’t unheard of at the time, it’s hard to imagine a socially acceptable circumstance where the couple would wait three years to get married. One possible explanation is that Maria’s husband John also served in the Revolutionary War and married her upon his return. This would fit his age and the timeline pretty well, but I can find no record of his service.

John Kerns married Catherine Soxman in 1803. Among their children were Anna Marie Kerns (1804-1852).  

In 1825, Anna married Simeon Burd (1804-1861).

In 1843, Anna and Simeon had a son, also named Simeon Burd (1843-1908). Simeon married Virgina Carbis (marriage date unknown). Simeon and Virginia had a daughter, Florence Baptista Burd (1875-1932).

In 1902, Florence married Edward Vincent Bridge (1872-1946). In 1913, they had a daughter, Virginia Bridge (1913-1979), my grandmother. If all the links in this chain are accurate, then Adam Nicely, Sr. is my sixth great grandfather and my Dad and my uncle’s fifth great grandfather.

Both Great & Good

George Westinghouse, Jr. was born in 1846 in upstate New York. He was the eighth of ten children, and his father–the owner of a tooling company–didn’t think his namesake would amount to much. George did poorly in school and preferred to spend time working on machines in his father’s shop.

The Civil War broke out when George was 15, and although he wanted to enlist right away, his father forced him to wait until he reached the age of 17. George first joined a cavalry regiment but was quickly transferred to the Navy, where his mechanical abilities were put to good use.

After the war, George attended Union College, but dropped out after only three months at the urging of the college president, who assured George that he was already a great engineer and that he was wasting his time in the classroom.

In 1868, George invented the airbrake, a device that not only improved the efficiency of trains, but saved the lives of thousands of brakemen who routinely died operating the old-fashioned manual brakes. This combination of innovation alongside a concern for the welfare of others would characterize his life.

George continued to invent things, eventually accumulating 360 patents. He also created a business empire encompassing 34 firms and about 50,000 employees. George treated his employees well, giving them more time off than any of his contemporaries and, unlike Thomas Edison, ensuring that the engineers who worked for him were rewarded for the inventions and innovations they developed while on his payroll. He was also the first industrialist to employee women engineers.

Perhaps the greatest compliment he ever received was an insult from fellow business leader Andrew Carnegie: “Westinghouse could have made a lot more money during his lifetime if he hadn’t treated his workers so well.”

Then, as now, big business was synonymous in the public mind with worker exploitation, corruption, and ruthless market manipulation. In the era of robber-barons, George Westinghouse was living proof that a businessman could be both great and good.

He is, in short, a capitalist hero, and should be seen as a role model for anyone who wishes to be both successful and virtuous.

If someday they say of me that in my work I have contributed something to the welfare and happiness of my fellow man, I shall be satisfied. -George Westinghouse


The Reproducibility Project is a cover band, and like all good cover bands, they have a great name and a charismatic front man. Rather than reproducing classic rock singles, however, this band covers research projects.

Dr. Brian Nosek led a group of 270 psychology researchers in “covering” 100 classic research hits. Their album–called Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science– just dropped in the journal Science and it’s a big hit. Seriously. It came out two days ago and there have already been nearly 300 articles about in the press.

Covering other people’s research projects–that is, conducting replication studies–is a core part of science. At least, it’s supposed to be. That’s why just about every research article ends with something along the lines of, “Hey, guys, don’t get carried away. This was just one study. We’ll need to do more studies before we know for sure that these results will stick.”

The problem is, at least in psychology, these follow-up studies almost never actually happen. It’s not that psychologists are stupid or lazy. It’s a question of motivation. Just as cover bands never get the same kind of cash, fame, or groupies as the original bands they’re covering, psychologists who conduct replication studies don’t get published in top journals.

Getting published in a big-time journal is to academic types what getting on the cover the Rolling Stone was to rock bands back when people paid attention to the Rolling Stone. Getting a credit in a top journal is the surest route to tenure–which, for eggheads, is like sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll in one package. Tenure means you have a rock solid job with great benefits, lots of time off, and, most importantly, a parking space close to your building.

So publishing a sexy new finding gets you published in a top journal and one step closer to tenure. Publishing a replication gets you published in a lower-tier journal (if you’re lucky) and one step closer to losing your teaching gig and starting over again with a part-time job at a college halfway across the country. In summary, replication studies are good for science and bad for your career.

The Replication Project is a big deal because they did cover band work but got rock star attention for it. They replicated 100 studies published in top journals and got their results published in a top journal. What they found, in a nutshell, is that many of these influential studies didn’t replicate very well.

The media angle has been that this is bad news for psychology. On the contrary, it’s great news. A hundred studies is just the tip of the iceberg and we haven’t even started looking at the quality of the replications themselves, but the support for the Reproducability Project suggests that we may finally be turning a corner on replications.

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. -C.S. Lewis

Consider this my standing ovation for the 270 researchers who had the courage to join Dr. Nosek’s cover band and the 97 authors of the original studies who assisted them in their replications.


Aristotle’s White Christmas


Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby): 
Thank you Phil Davis, from the bottom of my heart. Now will you leave me alone?

Phil Davis (Danny Kaye):
No. Because you’re a miserable, lonely, unhappy man.

Bob Wallace:
I’m a very happy man.

Phil Davis:
You’re happy for the wrong reasons. That’s the same as being lonely and miserable, except worse.

A Limerick Ode to Mr. Carll

Paul Carll worked in the coal pits,
But on Christmas Eve he called quits,
And down by the crick,
Lit a dynamite stick,
In a flash he was blown clean to bits!

Poor old Mr. Carll is the Christmas Eve ghost of my humble neighborhood, Dorothy Patch. Every year on Christmas Eve he walks the patch, singing Christmas carols until, at midnight, we hear the tell-tale “boom” that announces his departure for another year.

I usually leave a little brandy or bourbon out on the porch for him and come inside. This year will be so warm, though, that I may just sit on the porch with some moonshine and a cigar and try to meet him in person. (Probably best to hide my lighter, though.)

Dorothy Man Blows Himself Up in Celebration.

Paul Carll, who is employed at Dorothy works, near Latrobe, was blown to atoms Tuesday at midnight while trying to celebrate the advent of Christmas. He ran a wire from a telephone battery in a foreign boarding house to some dynamite in a can. The explosive was prematurely set off.

HGWT: The Outlaw (S1.E2)

When Alcorn [left] appears in the lobby of the Carlton Hotel, he’s scared. He’s on the run from Manfred Holt, an outlaw responsible for the deaths of at least nine men. Alcorn was the chief witness against Holt, and now Holt has escaped from jail and has sworn to gun him down in revenge.

Paladin: It took some courage to even testify against a man like that.

Alcorn: Oh, I was scared, but I owed it to my neighbors to speak up.

Alcorn has shown admirable bravery and good citizenship by testifying against Holt, but he’s a rich city slicker with no skill in gunmanship. He’s well aware that if Holt isn’t captured quickly, he’ll soon be dead. Paladin agrees to capture Holt, for a fee.

Holt, played brilliantly by Charles Bronson, is one of the most interesting villains in Western history. Although he acknowledges that his tendency to kill is a fault, he attempts to justify it by explaining that he never killed anyone who wasn’t “holding a gun.”

Selected Mad Libs from Our Family Dinner Table

Candlemaker Crunch.
Deck the stounge with poison ivy.
Ralphie Boxbender wants only one thing for Arbor Day.
Children bounce off the laundry room when you give them a vegetable.
Second cousins mended socks and sewed cheeses over holes in clothes.
It was November of 2016, and Armenia had a loud inside game.
And all that glitters is plum.
In facial expression, welcoming kitty kat.
Fast Mario Hedgehog is an upcoming 3D spiky germ.
Teacup Dinkleburg was a sporty writer.
United Hungry Church in Kirby’s Dreamland was the center of Jerry’s life.
The procedure went dank and the baby is up and zooming around.
Consistently super tasting craft poison, brewed locally.
President Brother Burgerking W. Littlegirl.
PickyPants Jackson thinks he has the vaguest solution for a vacant property.
He believed the appointment of Mr. Dumptrucks was a cool mistake.
Members of Tacoland Tom’s inner circle revealed their forecast at sunrise.

Soft as Music, Light as Spray

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