Are They Really Christmas Songs?

I don’t know if people still complain about Christmas songs being played early; like most things about “people” I suppose it depends on who one talks to. Anyway, while I’m sympathetic to the idea of “keep the waiting in advent,” it has occurred to me that there is a reason that recently traditional secular Christmas songs are song before Christmas and not after: if you look at them, they are really advent songs. Secular advent songs, of course, but advent songs. (I’m taking the list of Christmas songs from XKCD’s list which I discussed earlier.)

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and Have a Holly Jolly Christmas both have titles (and main lyrics) in the future tense. Santa Claus is Coming To Town is technically in the present progressive tense, but all of the lyrics are anticipatory—primarily warning about present behavior in light of future rewards. Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire is set on Christmas Eve, but that is still, technically speaking, during Advent (unless you’re measuring days from sundown to sundown, in which case I think that the present-tense of the song would have to be taken as anticipatory).

I’ll Be Home for Christmas, though I rarely here it played or sung, is another one clearly set in the future tense and thus an advent song. I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas would most naturally be taken to be about anticipation though it could, technically, be set on Christmas. That is, until you get to the later lyrics where he dreams of a white Christmas with every Christmas card he writes. It would be absurd to suppose the song is about somebody who sends out Christmas cards after Christmas, since their purpose is to wish someone a happy Christmas.

Rocking Around the Christmas Tree is harder to place, temporally. Its subject is a Christmas party, which I’m used to being held prior to Christmas but in 1958 when it was released it might have been the custom to have Christmas parties on Christmas day itself, though I am inclined to doubt it.

Blue Christmas (which, again, I never hear anyone sing and don’t hear played) clearly talks about Christmas in the future tense in the lyrics (“I’ll have a blue Christmas without you”).

Silver Bells could be set on Christmas or even after it. That said, it’s about Christmas decorations and such which are generally put up before Christmas, so the smart money is on it being an anticipation of Christmas.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas is another one whose very title shows it to be set before Christmas.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year is, like Silver Bells, not explicit, but it seems to be about the (secular) season of preparation for Christmas, placing it before Christmas.

The other songs on the XKCD list (with one exception) aren’t about Christmas at all, or at least not a present Christmas. Winter Wonderland, Let It Snow, Jingle Bell Rock, and Sleigh Ride are all just about winter. (So, for that matter, is Baby It’s Cold Outside, which is increasingly be played as if it’s a Christmas song.) Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is primarily about the time before Christmas, and culminates in Rudolph’s triumph on Christmas Eve, but al of this was in the distant past. Frosty the Snowman is about a magical snowman and has nothing whatever to do with Christmas. (Admittedly, the animated movie Frosty the Snowman is set on Christmas Eve, but that’s still anticipating Christmas.)

The only real exception on the entire list is Little Drummer Boy, which is actually set after Christmas. It seems to be based on the visitation of the Magi, which is traditionally celebrated on Epiphany, which for many years in the western Church has been celebrated in January. Since the song doesn’t reference anything that sets its date, it could be anywhere from the day of Christ’s birth (e.g. when the angels gave the good news to the shepherds) to months after the Magi visited. I suspect that no one pays attention to the lyrics of this song, though, since approximately 20% of them are “pa”, 20% are “rum” and 45% are “pum”.

So, all things considered, I think we have some of the reason why these songs are all played before Christmas, rather than after it—they are, in fact, (secular) advent songs. As Chesterton often noted, the common man often has his heart in the right place, even when it’s there for the wrong reasons in his head.

Warm Feet While Hunting in Western Pennsylvania

I’m a bowhunter who hunts in western Pennsylvania, so one of the problems that I face in the late season is keeping warm when it’s cold out. Much of this is pretty easy, and is the same answer as anywhere else—layers. The only difference is that the outer layer is camouflage. That said, this does not apply as much to the feet, since most people out in the cold are doing different things than hunters are. In particular, hunters need to walk to their hunting spot, then they sit or stand still in the cold for hours on end. That last part is particularly important, because they don’t generate as much bodyheat as someone moving does.

Before I get to that, I should mention that it also doesn’t apply as much to the hands, and I’ve found some very good hunting mittens made by Hot Shot Gear. They’re called pop top hunting mittens, and they’re both warm mittens but also allow you to slide your fingers out of the mittens in thin gloves, which is essentially for your string hand. I shoot with a trigger release, so I only need one finger, though a thumb release or traditional finger guard would require more fingers and this allows that. They’re warm and very functional for archery. As a bonus, the index finger has a tab on it that can work with capacitive touchscreens, which is very helpful for texting someone to complain about the deer not coming by.

Anyway, there are two main solutions I’ve been able to find to the problem of keeping one’s feet warm. The first are enormous boots which are both heavy and cumbersome. They’re tiring to walk in and they clomp noisily as one can only really step with one’s full foot in them; the best one can do to not clomp is a mild heel-to-toe motion. On the plus side, they’re warm and waterproof.

The other main solution are thinks like mukluks. Mukluks were designed for seriously cold conditions but they are also lightweight and flexible. The only downside is that they’re not waterproof. In the places where they were developed this isn’t really a problem, since below about 15F (-9.4C) water can be relied upon to be hard and stay hard (that is, to be ice and not melt) and so being waterproof is irrelevant because the only liquid water you will be exposed to is in your water bottle. My understanding of places like North Dakota, Canada, Alaska, etc.—where people really love mukluks—15F is spring weather and people tend to wear tennis shoes and light jackets in it. I may be exaggerating slightly, but they’re concerned with whether the boots are good below -30F, not 15F. (Moreover, if the weather is frequently colder than 15F, a warm day that gets up to there or even into the 20s isn’t going to melt any ice.)

In western Pennsylvania, though, winter frequently oscillates between being a bit below freezing and just above it. Even on fairly cold days it’s not uncommon to find mud in places where the sun hits for a few hours or leaves provide some insulation, unless it’s been well below freezing every day for a few days. We need waterproof footgear, but I really don’t want to pay the penalty of clomping around in massive, inflexible boots. So I got a good idea from this post: making a winter boot out of galoshes and a thick felt bootliner plus insoles. I tried it out and it worked extremely well. The results were light, flexible, comfortable, waterproof, and warm.

I’m a size (men’s US) 11 wide and ordered the boot liner true to size and the overboot sized to 11-13 shoes. The result had plenty of room inside without being too big, and comfortable fit me wearing a thick winter socket plus a second, even thicker winter sock. I absolutely loved their performance and feel.

To give a list of the particulars that I used:

Something to note about this approach is that the total cost for the parts that weren’t the socks (which you’d have to buy separately with any boot) was $67.46 (not including tax or shipping) which is extremely cheap for a pair of insulated boots. With the socks it came to $113.36 (the Darn Tough socks were expensive, but in my experience Darn Tough socks are worth it, especially because they honor their no-questions-asked lifetime guarantee). For a comfortable way to avoid pain and possibly frostbite, I found it well worth it.

One thing I need to note is that this approach gives no “support” of any kind. I hate “support” in shoes because it mostly means some sort of uncomfortable rigid thing that prevents the foot from bending naturally and makes a natural gait extremely difficult. That said, I spent a year or two wearing vibram five-fingers, so I developed strong feet whose arch comes from the muscles and tendons in the foot, as it’s supposed to, and not from resting on top of something that pushes the middle of the foot up. If you haven’t developed the muscles and tendons in your foot to be able to walk naturally, you will probably not find this approach nearly as comfortable. If you haven’t, I recommend trying to do so. (If you can get them to fit your foot, or make do with ones that are too large as I had to, vibram five fingers are a great way to do this. Just take it slowly. You don’t want to walk through a large box store your first time out—concrete is very tiring to walk on naturally. After a few weeks, your feet will be strong enough that it’s not tiring anymore, but you have to walk a little before you can walk a lot. Once you’ve done this, though, walking is a lot more pleasurable to do, and it pays dividends for hunting where you can more easily use the ball-first walking style that allows you to feel if you’re stepping on a branch and pick your foot up, so you don’t announce to everything with ears in the forest that you’re coming.)

Thoughts on the Soul, While Hunting

A quick video I made while bow hunting while the deer weren’t coming. I share some thoughts on the soul, and how some people go wrong by thinking of the soul like a ghost in a machine, or like some sort of physical pure-energy matter that operates the body in a purely physical way, except not physical. I also talk about how everyone actually believes in the soul, because being a strict materialist would be absurd, and give examples.

Dr. Thorndyke’s Scientific Wizardry

I recently read the Dr. Thorndyke short story A Message From the Deep Sea. I’m not sure when it was first published, but it was collected in John Thorndyke’s Cases, the first short story collection of Thorndyke short stories, published in 1909. It’s a good example of the scientific wizardry that Thorndyke typified—you can loosely describe Dr. Thorndyke as “Sherlock Holmes with all of the humanity removed”. The police detective and police surgeon come to the wrong conclusion in a case where the murderer was trying to frame someone. Only Thorndyke, through his very careful examination and encyclopedia knowledge of everything, was able to see through it. The case, by the way, was that a single woman in her twenties—a German immigrant lodging in England for several years now, generally liked—was murdered in the middle of the night by having her throat slashed while she slept. In one of her hands she held a few strands of long red hair, pointing to the daughter of the landlord as the murderer because the victim stole the other woman’s fiancé from her.

I find it interesting that Thorndyke was able to see through the framing because of a setup designed to allow him to do it. In some sense, of course, this always has to be true in fiction because nothing happens without the story being written to allow it to happen. Somewhat analogous to God, nothing can happen in a story without being in at least the permissive will of the author. In this case, though, the story was really designed around Thorndyke seeing through it. That is, he required a lot of the story to be unusual in order for his scientific wizardry to work.

The titular message from the deep sea was a sand on the murdered woman’s pillow that turned out to be, under the microscrope, deep sea sand from the Mediterranean ocean. In fact, among the micro-shells of the Foraminifera in the sand, was a species that only lives near the Levant, making it possible to identify where in the Mediterranean the sand came from.

At first it seems very strange that sand from the bottom of the Mediterranean sea should show up on the pillow of a dead woman, but it turns out that the man who murdered her—her former boyfriend who she threw off for the fiancé of the landlord’s daughter—worked in a factory that imported and processed turkish sponges. In the early 1900s these would have been literal sponges from the sea floor, rather than the synthetic replicas we use today, so the collection of them would have involved copious quantities of sand being brought up along with them. And, it turned out, the murderer was a laborer in a factory that imported and processed the sponges. Since such sand is everywhere in these factories—the floors are often covered in it ankle-deep, and the men who work there get thoroughly dusted in it. If such a man were to bend over, some would naturally spill out of his pockets and the various folds of his clothing.

There were also some details about damp footprints which could only have been caused by the rain which happened for about an hour before the victim was murdered, with no rain having fallen for the preceding fortnight. Also, there were some candle-grease marks that were left and a bit of candle in a common candle-box which bore the octagonal mark of an unusual candle-holder in the victim’s room.

Oh, also, a tiny bit of the knife used to kill the victim was chipped off on one of her neck vertebrae (which Thorndyke found but the police surgeon missed) which corresponded exactly to a chip in the blade of the knife which the ex-boyfriend used to try to kill Thorndyke at the inquest once Thorndyke had proved him guilty.

Actually, I forgot to mention the part where Thorndyke explained that the victim’s hand wasn’t holding the hairs in a death-grip but only had them placed there afterwards, and also the hairs were clearly taken from a brush because there were hair bulbs on both ends, not all on the same end, and furthermore the hairs had clearly fallen out naturally because they didn’t have the surrounding part of the follicle which comes out when live hair is ripped out but doesn’t come out when it naturally sheds.

The explanation of all of the evidence which Thorndyke collected, which took several pages of slow and exacting explanation occasionally interrupted by questions from the coroner, does make Thorndyke look something like a wizard, especially when other experts in the room missed it all. I can see why it was popular at the time, especially since forensic science was quite new in 1909. Looking at stuff under a microscope to prove what it was was hot stuff at the time. Having an encyclopedia knowledge of anything is always impressive.

The thing is, these are all very strange coincidences. How often is someone murdered by a person who works in a factory that coats them with extremely distinctive powder? (One might object that they don’t change out of their work clothes, but in the early 1900s people had far less clothing and a bachelor might well not change his clothes after coming home from work.) How often is a murder committed during the one hour it rained in the last two weeks? (Something I’m less familiar with—how often does it go two weeks without rain in England?)

The knife getting chipped is not wildly out of the ordinary. (I’ve seen this fairly often with broadheads going through deer.) Without the murderer having been identified, though, it would not have been useful as evidence, except perhaps to exculpate the accused woman because her knife had no chip in it.

The hair with roots on both side struck me as the only really solid evidence of the case that was not put there merely to make Thorndyke look good. A person trying to frame someone with unusual hair might well try to plant their hair at the scene of the crime. Closing the victim’s hand on the hair but not being able to turn it into a death-grip is a mistake any murderer might make. The roots of the hair showing that they were shed and not ripped out would happen from hair that was taken from a brush, and the roots being on both sides would probably show up as well. How many murderers would take the time to orient the hairs with all of their roots on the same side?

One other curious thing about this case is that Thorndyke uses fingerprints as evidence. He found fingerprints in the discarded candle, and then matched them to fingerprints he stealthily took from the former boyfriend on a pretended chance encounter. (He gave the former boyfriend a picture to hold to help him identify, then dusted it for fingerprints.) Using fingerprints is quite unusual in detective fiction, in my experience. Indeed, Thorndyke make his first appearance in the novel The Red Thumb Mark, in which Thorndyke revealed his scientific wizardry in proving that the fingerprint in blood which was the chief evidence against Thorndyke’s client had been forged. The fingerprint is not very strong evidence, though, since it was taken from a candle in a common box, and the former boyfriend had been until very recently a lodger in the house. It wasn’t nothing, but it certainly wasn’t the main evidence used.

Incidentally, this reminds me of S.S. Van Dine’s rule of detective fiction number 20A: “[Do not use, because it has been over-used] determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect.”

Murderers smoking exotic brands of cigarettes was common, for a while. Thorndyke, you must recall, solved the crime of the sea-sand twenty years before Van Dine wrote this list. That said, even Sherlock Holmes did not consider the butt-ends of cigarettes very often; he had trained himself in the much more difficult identification of cigar ash.

All in all, this case is entertaining, though only just. Back in 1908, when read in a magazine or newspaper, much in the same way we might watch an episode of a TV show, it would have been more entertaining. Thorndyke reminds me a bit, though, of the superhero Aquaman. Since his powers depended on water, the writers were forced to always work water into the scene of Aquaman’s fight with the bad guys. Thorndyke’s super-powers depend upon the microscopic traces of unusual conditions, so the writer must always work very unusual circumstances into his stories.

I’ve really come to appreciate Poirot’s line, in Murder on the Links, “Mon ami, a clue of two feet long is every bit as valuable as one measuring two millimetres!” He elaborates a bit later:

“One thing more, Poirot, what about the piece of lead piping?”

“You do not see? To disfigure the victim’s face so that it would be unrecognizable. It was that which first set me on the right track. And that imbecile of a Giraud, swarming all over it to look for match ends! Did I not tell you that a clue of two feet long was quite as good as a clue of two inches?”

Ultimately, I think that the clues that are two feet long have tended to win out over the clues that are two millimetres long. The clues which require a microscrope are now the domain of technicians who one hires at an hourly wage to examine crime scenes. We like to read about the people who analyze the clues, not the people who gather them up with specialized equipment.

At the end of the day, I am not surprised that I only discovered that Dr. Thorndyke ever existed from an off-hand line in a Lord Peter Wimsey story. It’s still interesting to see what’s been forgotten, though. And also interesting to see what readers will forgive when a genre is new.

Christmas Traditions

There’s an XKCD that a lot of people have seen which plots most-played Christmas songs by decade of release:

The conclusion it presents, “every year, American culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of Baby Boomers’ childhoods,” is true in a sense, but mostly wrong.

The biggest problem with it is that it’s using radio songs. There are several problems with this; they are largely technologically constrained to not have been recorded prior to the 1940s because sound recording was awful back then. Having done a fair amount of swing dancing, if you ever heard a recording made from the 1930s or worse the 1920s it’s barely listenable. You simply need to get a modern band to play those songs now in order for them to not hurt your ears. On the flip side, there just haven’t been any good popular christmas songs composed since the 1960s because of cultural shifts, but that’s a different story that I’ll get to later. The really big issue, though, is that the radio doesn’t play the really popular Christmas carols, they only play things recorded by popular recording artists. Even where popular recording artists record traditional carols, the radio will play versions by all sorts of different people, so a song which gets a lot of play time will not get it all on the same recording. To have this sort of concentration, we need the songs to still be in copyright so there’s only one or a very few versions of it available for the radio to play.

To really see the point, consider the popular Christmas carols—the ones that people actually sing—and when they were composed:

Jingle Bells: 1857
Heark! The Herald Angel Sings: 1739 (current musical arrangement: 1840)
Joy To the World: 1719 (current musical arrangement: 1848)
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen: traditional; at least the 16th century
O Holy Night: 1847 in french; English version by a guy who died in 1893, so before then
Silent Night: 1818 in German, English translation in 1859
O Come, All Ye Faithful: 1751
What Child Is This: 1871
Away in a Manger: 1897
The First Noel: 1833
We Three Kings: 1857

So yeah, the first problem is that if you consider stuff that can’t really have been done prior to when the baby boomers were born, you won’t find it. In a sense we’re done; the only thing which is trying to recreate the boomers’ childhood was a thing that barely pre-existed the baby boomers (commercial radio in the modern format).

Christmas songs after the 1960s tended to be either novelty songs or songs that really aren’t family friendly. As people got less religious and more sex-obsessed and so sang about having sex on Christmas with various degrees of veiling their meaning. That’s not actually going to be very interesting when it’s competing with songs about having sex five times a day, so it’s not shocking that these haven’t been popular. (In short: religious people won’t like them and irreligious people can get better).

There’s another aspect, which is that there was a short time period, as popular culture was becoming hardcore secular, where the newly secular people could enjoy the religion of their parents without participating. That’s the sort of thing that only lasts a decade or two; after that the energy just goes out of it.

Here in 2021 I think that the secular energy for Christmas is fading fast; one of the more popular things for adults to do is to agree with other adults to not exchange Christmas presents because it’s just a pain in the neck. No one really likes getting together with family to eat dry turkey and too many store-bought pies—that’s why they only do it when it’s an obligation they can’t get out of—and the concept of universal good will just doesn’t make any secular sense and has been long-since abandoned.

The grain of truth to the XKCD is that there is an attempt to LARP the most recent sincere Christmas celebration anyone can remember, which happens to be the baby boomers’ childhood Christmases. That’s mostly a coincidence, though, and in any event it includes many things which pre-dated the baby boomers. Twas the Night Before Christmas was first published in 1823 and the general depiction of Santa Claus as dressed in red and white originated at the latest with Puck magazine in the early 1900s and was set in popular imagination by the 1930s with widespread soft drink advertising campaigns (most notably Coca Cola).

So yes, the baby boomers were influential. The world did exist before them, though, and they don’t explain most of it.

The Tuskegee Experiment Was Weird

I recently read up on the Tuskegee Experiment, and it was really weird. (If you’re not familiar, it was an experiment run from 1932 to 1972 to study the effects of untreated syphilis on African Americans in which they pretended to treat 600 poor, male, African American share croppers for decades, resulting in over 100 of them dying from an entirely treatable disease.) What’s weird about it was not that it was cruel. Human beings are very frequently cruel. What’s weird about it was that it was both cruel and scientifically pointless. It’s not surprising when people do unethical things for some sort of benefit they could not get otherwise. It is very surprising when people do unethical things for no possible benefit to themselves or anyone else.

So I looked a little further, and like so many things that don’t make sense, it was the way it was because of a strange set of historical events which changed it repeatedly until it kept going because it was already going, but wasn’t something anyone would ever have started on purpose. Even more curiously, it was kept up for forty years in large part because no one would ever do another study like it again (since it was utterly pointless).

Let me explain.

(Note: I’m just using the Wikipedia page on the Tusgekee study as my source for this; take it with a grain of salt but it’s good enough for my purpose here.)

The Tuskegee experiment was motivated by a 1928 retrospective study in Oslo, Norway, called the “Oslo Study of Untreated Syphilis.” It looked at several hundred white males in various stages of untreated syphilis and documented their symptoms. This is medically important in a disease which can present differently over time (syphilis takes a long time to kill you, if it does)—if a doctor is looking at a patient and only is aware of the symptoms at one stage of the disease while the patient is at a different stage, the doctor could easily mis-diagnose the patient as not having the disease.

So, doctors had this very useful information for treating white patients, but is it also applicable to black patients? Perhaps they present differently (i.e. have different symptoms, or at least different severity of symptoms). There are some diseases more prevalent in white people than in black people, and vice versa; there isn’t really a good reason to assume that the two populations are identical. To do a good job treating black people who have the disease, doctors really would benefit from evidence that they present the same way as the white patients in the Oslo study do. (There are issues with lumping all people of European descent together as one homogeneous “white” population, just as there are with lumping all people of African descent together as “black”, though in the latter case most black Americans in the 1920s came from a small region of Africa so it wasn’t quite as bad.)

So far, this is fairly reasonable given the state of medical science in the 1920s. Now it starts to get a little iffy: the researchers at the US Public Health Service at Tusgekee decided to conduct a prospective study in order to complement the retrospective study from Oslo. This is not at all, ethically, the same thing, since not treating people and finding out the symptoms they had before you treated them are very different. Their reasoning was that the study participants, being poor share croppers, were unlikely to ever get treatment otherwise; thus it was a trade of six months of not treating them (during which time they would not have gotten treated otherwise), and after which they would give the participants treatment. Not great, but in a slow-moving disease, this could be defensible if informed consent was obtained (it wasn’t).

Something else to consider, here, is that the treatments of the time were mostly ineffective. They consisted of things like arsenic-based treatments like arsphenamine and mercury-based ointments. Penicillin, the actually effective treatment for syphilis, would only be discovered in 1928 and the technology to refine the compound into a medicine was only developed in 1940. (The first proof that it could cure a disease was an eye disease in 1930 in a laboratory setting.) So part of what needs to be considered was that in 1928, the treatments that they were temporarily withholding weren’t actually all that effective, anyway.

Somehow or other this became six months to one year, which was still in the realm of defensible if informed consent had been obtained (which, again, it hadn’t). However, this is where things really start going off the rails. Before the conclusion of the study when they were planning to administer the standard treatments they lost their funding and could not afford to treat the patients. At this point Taliaferro Clark, head of the USPHS, decided to extend the study without treatment (which involved pretending to treat the participants). He resigned before the study was actually extended, however. It’s a bit unclear (just from the Wikipedia page) who took over extending the study; various people contributed.

With the advent of penicillin as a safe and reliable treatment for syphilis, the entire study became pointless. Unlike the arsenical and mercurial treatments, if you suspected syphilis you might as well give penicillin and see if it gets better. Nevertheless, the study continued because it would never be possible to get this data again. It would never be possible because there was absolutely no point in getting the data and it was horribly unethical to get it, but for some reason that was beside the point. The fact that something was going on that could never be restarted made the people involved feel like they needed to keep it going, since once lost, it was lost forever. True, it had no apparent value, but I suspect they figured that perhaps one day someone would find the value in it that they couldn’t see right now.

In the baptismal vows a catechumen makes (or their parent makes for them at infant baptism), there are the questions: “Do you reject Satan? And all his empty promises?”

It’s interesting how good an example the Tuskegee study was of an empty promise.