Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Die is Cast. Decision Making in a Random World.

When Julius Caesar stood on the banks of the Rubicon River, he could have added up the number and quality of his forces and compared them to those of Pompey and arrived at any number of predictions. Some of the ways to crunch the numbers seemed in his favor. Others indicated his defeat. But he had to make a decision regardless.

When facing a decision in any context, let alone a crisis, we should remember this quote from Teddy Roosevelt:

"In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing."

People are piling on decision makers such as Mayor De Blasio right now, saying they overreacted to the so-called Blizzard of 2015.

We here in the New York City Metropolitan Area went to sleep last night anticipating an imminent disaster. Now, I'm personally far enough west of the City that I was told to expect 14-16 inches of snow. As of 10 PM last night, the National Weather Service was still predicting for NYC to receive 20-30 inches. On the basis of that information, States of Emergency were declared, schools closed, and travel bans imposed.

I looked out over my driveway this morning and estimated that there were maybe three inches of snow out there.

And as I sipped my coffee, the news confirmed the shift in fortunes. The storm had suddenly and unexpectedly moved eastward and spared NYC the catastrophe that had been earlier predicted.

Social media today is full of Monday Morning Quarterbacks declaring that the reaction was excessive. And they cite the mere fact that the predicted snow did not fall.

People need to remember that the National Weather Service predicted the path and severity of Super Storm Sandy to great accuracy. They, in fact, predict the weather overall with laudable precision. I have no doubt that even as of 10 PM last night, meteorologists at the NWS believed that all the available data indicated much more snow for NYC than ended up falling.

Click to download your free copy of Praying Our Fathers: the Secret Mercies of Ancestral Intercession.

Colin Powell has described his decision making philosophy along what he terms the "40-70" Rule. If you make a decision with less than 40% certainty of being right, you are rash. If you wait to make a decision until you have more than 70% certainty of being right, you are probably going to hesitate too much. No one ever achieved anything significant who waited for 100% certainty before acting. 

As of 6 AM this morning, the storm just didn't happen for the NYC area. But if De Blasio had waited until 6 AM this morning to react to this storm, hoping it just didn't happen, he would have been making poor leadership decisions. Even if the storm didn't happen.

Had the NWS predicted 6 inches, only to have 30 fall, people would have been demanding their heads, not just their resignations. In the reverse, we should remember that they did indeed include in their bulletins a line to the effect that "The exact path of the storm remains uncertain and could dramatically affect snow totals." We should all be breathing a sigh of relief that the storm shifted, not criticizing this agency.

Back to Caesar. That day on the Rubicon, he had scattered intelligence about his adversaries. He had maybe 40% of the information he needed to make a decision. But a decision had to be made. He threw the die. He crossed the Rubicon. Did he make the right decision, considering that just five years later he was assassinated?

Yes. He made the right decision. Because he made the decision.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Lamb Loin Chop Dinner!

Dinner tonight was Lamb Loin Chops, cooked medium rare, thanks to the wonderful meat thermometer that my twin gifted us with. 

They were served with a garlic and ginger paste, alongside roasted broccoli with melted Swiss cheese.

Here you can see how nicely red it still is, when you know to take it off heat when the internal temperature is around 130 degrees. Again, per my twin's advice, I placed the meat in a tin-foil tent for ten minutes. That makes it hold all the juices brilliantly.

We simply need to eat more lamb!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Place of Brightness: Cans of Soup as Weapons...

I read with great interest (and horror) a story of how children were being taught to fight back against a school aggressor with anything they have around them, even a can of soup:


The plan is, of course, ludicrous. The chances of any given school being the target of violence, let alone the chance that any given student would be the "last line of defense" and needed to throw a can of soup at an aggressor, is so staggering low that efforts to thus educate are a horrible waste of time and energy.

That said, a can of vegetables is actually a weapon in my novel A Place of Brightness. Here's the passage. An Orthodox priest had been trained in his childhood to be a commando to fight the Communists in Romania. But today, he's stumbled into a grocery story robbery:

Father Stefan Valquist headed toward the checkout area. As he approached the store entrance, he noticed a sudden and strange silence in the normally bustling space.
“Hands up!” a voice bellowed.
Stefan’s eyes quickly struck upon a masked man sweeping a gun through the area.
“Open that thing up,” the man shouted at a teenage girl behind the cash register. “The rest of you take out your money and don’t try anything stupid.”
The half dozen shocked customers standing there responded slowly to the demand.
The man looked Stefan up and down while he stuffed money from the till into a bag. “What’s with the black robe?” he asked. “You think you’re some kind of ninja?”
“I’m an Orthodox priest,” Stefan said, holding his hands up at shoulder level. “This is what we wear.”
“I don’t care if you’re the Pope,” the man barked. “I’ll put a bullet through you all the same. Keep those hands where I can see them.”
An elderly woman nearby began to convulse in sobs.
“You got a problem, lady?” the man asked, slamming the drawer shut and walking quickly toward her.
“Please don’t …” she gasped, cringing from his approach.
Shooting a glance around his perimeter, Stefan spotted a display of canned vegetables within his grasp. Just outside his reach stood an assortment of brooms.
“You better shut up,” the man yelled. “Or you’ll be sorry real soon.”
“Leave me alone!” she cried.
“That’s enough,” the man barked, swinging his gun toward her.
Stefan’s hand snapped out to seize a can. An instant later, he had hurled the metal receptacle to smash into the man’s face. The thief staggered backward in shock.
The priest bounded forward, his hand grabbing one of the brooms. He dropped to one knee and swung the stick forward. The sound of a hollow crack rang throughout the store as the wood exploded aside the man’s head.
The astonished crowd watched as the thief collapsed silently. After a moment to register the unexpected event, they erupted into applause.
“You’re a hero!” a young woman exclaimed, throwing her arms around him.
“Someone please call the police,” Stefan said, gently extracting himself from the woman’s embrace. He walked to stand over the man. “How is he?”
“Who cares?” the woman asked.
“I can’t kill,” Stefan whispered.
An older man knelt beside the unconscious robber. “He’ll live,” he said, looking up curiously. “But what do you mean you can’t kill?”
“I just can’t,” he said, closing his eyes. “I’d lose my priesthood.”
Stefan leaned against a wall, as the store became a chaos of sounds and motion in the aftermath of the incident.
The elderly woman approached him. “Thank you, young man,” she said softly.
Stefan smiled faintly and nodded.
“Where did you learn those things?” she asked.
His eyes glistened. “My mother taught me.”

If you'd like to read the first two chapters of my novel A Place of Brightness, visit my website and read the first two chapters for free. Thank you for your consideration.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

I Hereby Post To The Internet An Image Of Muhammad

I went to work at the Top Secret National Security Agency after 9/11. I served our country as an Arabic linguist, which included time in Iraq in 2004, for which I was awarded the Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal.

Like all of you, I am reeling from this senseless attack in Paris. And in this post, I will include an image of Muhammad. You see, it was for that simple act that the employees of Charlie Hebdo were murdered. And so, I feel I need to do the same. 

To truly stand in solidarity with them we need to share their risk. We need to do the very thing they did for which they were murdered. It isn't enough to just tweet "Je Suis Charlie." 

Post a Picture of Muhammad. That's what I'm going to do.

But before I do, let me tell you something very important. I worked at the NSA. And working alongside me there were patriotic Muslim Americans. These are men and women of Arab descent, faithful Muslims, who love America and are honored to offer their linguistic talents to defend our liberty and way of life against the abomination and perversion of the terrorists who soil the name of Islam and the Prophet they pretend to defend.

Therefore, I do not post a picture of Muhammad to the Internet with any animosity toward the religion of Islam. I have known and know honorable adherents to that Faith. This is not about Islam.

And so, I hereby post to the Internet an image of Muhammad. This is a recent cartoon by the talented cartoonist David Fitzsimmons. You see, while his twitter post uses the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, his cartoon actually depicts Muhammad.

And he depicts him as devastated and deeply disappointed by the violence done in his name.

But make no mistake. Mr. Fitzsimmons has depicted Muhammad in this cartoon. And that is the very "crime" for which the staff of Charlie Hebdo were murdered. 

And I will not let Mr. Fitzsimmons stand alone

So, Mr. Fitzsimmons, I repost this and praise your courage in releasing this cartoon. I stand beside you. Come against him, come against me.

Join me. Repost this (giving Mr. Fitzsimmons appropriate credit, of course). 

Liberty is worth dying for, people.

But they can't kill us all. (I mean, unless you let Mr. Fitzsimmons and me stand alone...)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Wind Chill: It's Not Just A "Feeling"

 News Report: It's 10 Degrees, but with Wind Chill it Feels Like 15 Below...

I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. So, I know the cold. My twin and I were paperboys for many years and there were mornings every Winter when our father insisted, God bless his departed soul, on driving us through the route because the temperatures, with wind chill, were dangerously cold.

Here's what many people outside the Great North do not understand. Wind Chill is for real.

The media, as I hear it here in New Jersey, doesn't seem to understand it completely. 

Here's an example. It's currently 10 degrees Fahrenheit where I live. We are predicted tonight to receive gusts up to 36 mph. And we are under a "Wind Chill Advisory" informing us here that the Wind Chill could be 15 degrees below zero.

And yet consistently I keep hearing this reported in local media as the following. "It's 10 degrees. But with Wind Chill it will feel like 15 below."

No. It won't feel like 15 below. It is 15 below.

Look, I'm a Latin teacher, not a Physics teacher. But I understand the science underlying this issue. Cold air takes heat off an object. Cold air in motion takes even more heat off an object. This is because the effect of the motion is that even more cold air touched that object. And so even more cold air does its damage.

But when you report that it will "feel like it's 15 below," you could mislead people into thinking that Wind Chill is just something psychological.  "Hey! I know it feels like it's 15 below, but it's really only 10 above, so I'm fine out here!"

No, you're not.

And I'm writing this at a time when my family and friends back in Wisconsin are in a seriously dangerous situation. And I've seen that, while Chicago wisely cancelled school today because of the cold, other districts did not, putting children who had to wait for a bus at peril.

The point is, with no wind, I could hold my ungloved hand outside in 10 degrees above pretty much indefinitely and not get frostbite. But if I did that tonight, with Wind Chill of 15 below, it will not just feel like 15 below. I will get frostbite.

As a final note, as I said, I grew up in Wisconsin. I never ever complain about the heat. And in the Summer of 2004, while in Iraq, I was in 120 degree heat. 

The reason I don't complain about the heat is that I want to reserve the right to complain about the cold. I mean, if you complain about both, well, then you're just a complainer! 

So, I don't complain about the heat. And that gives me the right to say, "Damn! I hate this cold!"

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Fun With Grammar!

Whenever my Latin students say, "Dr. Massey, I have a question," I respond, "Is it a Latin-based question?" If the answer is in the affirmative, I chime, "That's my favorite kind!"

Now, what I really mean is any question linguistic or grammatical in nature. If, for instance, an Arab student were to ask me about the formation of a maSdar with an irregular verb, it makes my day!  And my Saturday today was brightened by a dear friend enlisting my native speaker instinct regarding a question within, mirabile dictu, an English test administered in China.

Here's the question and the possible answers:

Wasn't it the icy road rather than the
drivers ______ responsible for the accident?

a. that was      b. who were    c. which were 

d. who was 

This is a classic case of congruency conflict when you face intervening material. The phrase "rather than the drivers" is an aside. It could be put in parentheses. If we take it out of the equation, the answer A is obviously correct. The problem is, on a psycholinguistic level, it's very difficult to keep track of antecedents when you insert material as this sentence does. My native speaker instinct is to prefer B, even though I know as a linguist that A is the "correct" answer.

But, on further reflection, I'm more interested in how the fronting of the verb in an English negative question essentially negates the negative!

I had not considered this before. Here's the issue. Exhibit A:

The icy road was not responsible for the accident.

In this sentence, the icy road is fully exonerated.

But note, we can shuffle the same words to create a question and reverse the sense. Exhibit B:

Was not the icy road responsible for the accident?

Guilty as charged, icy road!

And I suspect that when I, as a native speaker, prefer B above, it's because the very structure of the sentence disinclines me from A because of the inelegant verb repetition:

Wasn't it the icy road that was...


At any rate, as a linguist who has successfully acquired a proficiency in a number of languages, I believe the question above, however grammatically interesting, is a pedagogical absurdity.

Getting this "right" or "wrong" will in no way further promote the ability of these students to arrive at a functional speaking ability of the English language.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Shugborough Inscription Deciphered

 The Shugborough Inscription is an enigmatic series of letters carved on the Shepherd's Monument at Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, England. The precise meaning of these letters has eluded scholars for centuries.

 The Shepherd's Monument includes a relief based on French painter Nicholas Poussin's Et In Arcadia Ego.

Here is the inscription in question which is situated below the relief. You can see here, between the letters D and M, the series:


I believe I've solved the mystery. I was an Arabic linguist at the Top Secret National Security Agency for four years after 9/11, and I was trained there in cryptological methods. But my solution to this puzzle draws primarily on things I have learned while teaching Latin in a public high school for the last nine years.

First off, the D and M are very likely the ancient Roman abbreviation of Dis Manibus (for the Manes), found very widely on tomb inscriptions. The Manes were understood as ancestral spirits of the underworld. The abbreviation DM is even found on very early Christian tomb inscriptions, such as this 3rd century C.E. example from Rome:

And this is a clue to the correct interpretation of the longer series of letters between D and M on the Shugborough Inscription. The inscription was intended to be understood as a tomb memorial composed in Latin.

The beginning of the inscription (O·U· ) matches a 2nd century C.E tombstone of a Roman matron from North Africa:
Oro ut bene quiescat
I pray that she may rest well

(See p. 152, Roman Africa, by Alexander Graham [London: 1902])

The convention of making a distinction between the letters U and V arose in the late Middle Ages, so the Shugborough Inscription would certainly abbreviate UT as U· and not
V· as we see in the inscription above.

I was then struck by the presence of three V's near the end of the inscription. As someone trained in cryptography, I assume that anytime you have a letter that occurs more often than other letters, you are looking at an important clue. So the question we ask, is there a place somewhere in Latin literature where three V's occur prominently? If so, this inscription may be somehow quoting such a passage.

One such item that comes immediately to mind is Julius Caesar's famous quote, Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered). But since my interpretation of OU as Oro Ut (I pray that) was already on very firm ground, I could not see any reasonable interpretation that allowed me to incorporate Caesar's quote here.

But then I recalled Jesus' statement in John 14:6, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life," which in St. Jerome's Vulgate translation is rendered:

Ego sum Via et Veritas et Vita.

And so, I interpret the inscription and translate it as follows:


Oro Ut Omnes Sequantur Viam Ad Veram Vitam.
I pray that all may follow the Way to True Life. 

I've already demonstrated that the Oro Ut portion of my interpretation is attested. Other parts of my interpretation are equally found in literature we may assume would be available to the creator of the inscription.

The phrase "veram vitam" is attested in the Vulgate New Testament itself:

ut apprehendant veram vitam.
...that they may take hold of True Life.
(1 Tim 6:19)

And notice the following in a biblical commentary on John 14:6 contemporary with making of the Shugborough Inscription:

 ...viam qua itur ad veram vitam.
...the Way by which it is gone to True Life.

(p. 217, Annotationes in sanctum Jesu Christi evangelium secundum Johannem, by Dominicus Snellaert [Antwerp: 1724])

And note finally that the phrase "ut omnes sequantur" is attested elsewhere as well, such as in the writings of Bishop Ussher, which predates the Shugborough Inscription:

...ut omnes sequantur vocantem.
...that all may follow the one calling.

(P. 19, The Whole Works, Vol. 4, by James Ussher [Dublin: 1631])

I cite Bishop Ussher not from the assertion that the Shugborough Inscription is directly quoting that passage, but simply as proof that this phrase is fully grammatical and attested in literature. Theoretically, one could argue that the  Shugborough Inscription is directly quoting the Ussher passage above and therefore the first V could be interpreted as Vocantem. In that case, the translation of the series of letters would be rendered. "I pray that all may follow the one calling to True Life." I find it more likely that the passage is alluding to John 14:6, hence my interpretation of the letters as viam ad veram vitam.


I believe my proposal provides a sensible and credible interpretation of this long-standing mystery. My interpretation produces a straightforward and grammatical sentence, all parts of which are attested in tomb inscriptions and texts predating or contemporary with the creation of the Shugborough Inscription.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Learning Latin with Pope Francis - December 11, 2014

To visit my archive of Latin Papal Tweets, go to my main page.

December 11, 2014

Literal translation of the Latin: Ecology is indeed of the greatest importance and gravity for the survival of people and it presents moral consequences for all people.

Here's how the Latin works:

Grammar Points
nom. sing. fem. noun
res, rei
[ecological] Ecology
nom. sing. fem. adj.
oecologicus, oecologica, oecologicum

of the greatest
gen. sing. neut. adj.
maximus, maxima, maximum
gen. sing. neut. noun
momentum, momenti
3rd. pers. sing. pres. ind. verb
sum, esse, fui

[of] gravity
gen. sing. neut. noun
pondus, ponderis

Prep. + acc.; governs supervivendos
[of] people
acc. pl. com. noun
homo, hominis; in agreement with gerund
acc. pl. masc. gerund
supervīvō, supervīvere, supervīxī; acc. following prep. ad

 3rd pers. pres. act. ind. verb
exhibeō, exhibēre, exhibuī, exhibitus
for all
dat. pl. com. adj.
omnis, omne
[for] people
dat. pl. com. noun
homo, hominis
acc. pl. fem. noun
consecution, consecutionis; dir. obj. of exhibet
acc. pl. fem. adj.
moralis, morale