Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year, everyone. Happy New Decade as well, even though technically it's another year until the end of the decade.

I hope that the coming year and decade are better than the preceding one, rather than worse, both in my country and everywhere in the world.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Rambling about personal stuff, science, and politics

********* WARNING - this post contains stream-of-consciousness rambling and depressed feeling-sorry-for-myself stuff, so if you hate this kind of thing you might want to skip it.***********

I had a good, quiet Christmas with my brother and father, just as I hoped. I baked more and ate a little less than I have during past Christmas seasons, which is a positive development, apart from the fact that I have to push more of my cookies and fudge and marble squares on family and friends.

On a completely different note, I've noticed that my free-time reading lately has been shifting somewhat from history toward science-related subjects. This isn't actually surprising - even before I loved reading about history, I loved reading about various types of science, especially anything having to do with astronomy and biology. In the end, I never became a scientist or a historian of any type for a variety of reasons - lack of focus and self-discipline, a fear of failing that is so strong that I generally don't try at all when I believe that I might fail, the distracting effects of obsessive compulsive disorder which ensures that I am often spending at least half of my time and mental energy worrying about things that are mainly irrelevant to the "real world". Or, if I am in a more harshly self-critical mode, I suspect that it's just because I'm lazy and not very bright. In any case, when it comes to some fields of history and science, I'm one of those people who, as my father used to say (not about me in particular), "knows just enough to be dangerous". Actually, I don't think I'm very dangerous, because I know that I actually don't know very much - it's the people who know a little but think that they know a lot that cause the most trouble. Occasionally, being relentlessly self-deprecating is a good thing, if it keeps a person from getting a swollen ego. If only it didn't go too far in the other direction, and leave me sometimes thinking that I am the most useless person around (or at least in the most useless 3-5%).*

Speaking of self-confidence and ego versus self-doubt, my political beliefs used to be somewhat of an exception. That, though, will require another post at another time, because it's after 1:00 AM here and I need to get some sleep.

*To give you an idea of how pathetic this can get with me, I often focus on blog entries where people express frustration with the cluelessness, viciousness, or incompetence of others, while I avoid reading entries in which people talk about major accomplishments by themselves or others. This is because I vastly prefer reading about people acting even more stupid or insensitive than I think that I do, while reading about people doing things that I can not or will not do just gives me a treasure trove of new reasons to hate myself. The good news is that I don't always think this way - the bad news is that I do pretty often.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday season, etc.

This may sound bizarre to some people, but being with my immediate family has generally been my favorite part of the Christmas holidays. I could easily leave all of the hype and stress and marketing associated with the holiday. When I was a kid, receiving lots of presents was important, but in more recent years I could totally skip that too and not miss it much at all. Going through Christmas without seeing anyone in my immediate family, though, really would take all of the personal meaning out of Christmas for me.

Why am a sounding like a sickly-sweet Hallmark card? The weird thing is, those cliches about Christmas being a time that brings families together and full of warmth and love and all of that stuff that makes many people feel sick - they have been pretty much true for me. Of course things aren't perfect, and there is sometimes stress and sadness, and there have been some Christmases that are much less happy than others, but overall the Christmas season is still strongly associated in my mind with fairly happy times together with family.

A couple of things help. For one thing, my brothers, parents, and I have generally gotten along fairly well for most of our lives. There have been times of anger and tension, but these have actually been very few and far between. Once me and my brothers were all adults, the sibling rivalry and adolescent-parent strife mostly faded into history. We really enjoy each others' company most of the time, so once we were all adults family gatherings took on some of the same atmosphere as gatherings of very good, old friends, with an extra dimension. The second thing that helps, I think, is that we all have a pretty casual attitude about the holidays. Nobody expects elaborate or expensive gifts. We don't worry about putting out lots of decorations. The main elements of our family Christmas are time spent together, lots of unhealthy but tasty food, a little simple decorating, and a mix of serious conversation with plenty of joking and good-natured insults.

The holidays inevitably remind all of us how much we miss Mom, though. This will be the fourth Christmas since she died, and there is a huge empty space in the family that will never be filled. My father and brothers and I still enjoy the holidays, though. The last thing that Mom would have wanted was for us to stop enjoying being together as a family, and we have not stopped.

Last Christmas was very distinctive because I went over to Germany with my father and youngest brother, and we celebrated Christmas with my middle brother, niece, sister-in-law and her family, who are from Magdeburg, a city to the west of Berlin. The year before we were in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where my brother and sister-in-law were living at the time. In fact, this is the first Christmas that I will have spent in Massachusetts in 5 years. Staying near home for Christmas actually feels a little "exotic" this year.

I have taken this week off from work and am spending it with my father and one brother at the "old family home" where I lived the majority of my childhood and part of my adulthood as well. My middle brother is staying in Germany with his family, but my other brother (unmarried like myself) flew in today from Colorado. We are also joined by a friend's dog who I am taking care of over the holidays.

Rio, our temporary family member for
the holidays - friendly, intelligent,
and generally furry and adorable.

The weather here has been seasonally appropriate. We got about 10 inches of snow from late Saturday night through Sunday afternoon, in a storm that was unusual in that it pounded places further south and along the coast with much heavier snow than the inland towns here got. There is enough to cause some problems, but not very serious, and it looks right for Christmas.

Canadian Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) in Dad's front yard.
At about 15 feet tall, it has outgrown any possibility of being
used as an indoor Christmas tree in the house.

On a less scenic note, it is really cold - partly because of the actual temperature, which has been between about 12 and 30 degrees Fahrenheit (about -11 to -1 Celsius) over the last few days - but also because of the wind. The "old family home" is near the top of a hill, and it has an open field behind it to the west. This means maximum exposure to cold winds.

View behind the house, with an area cleared out for Rio's use.

I was saying to my brother that with the cold, dry, windy air and blowing snow, coming to central Massachusetts now from Colorado Springs might not seem like much of a change. One key difference is that instead of seeing the Rockies just to the west, the best we can do is some Massachusetts hills. Well, what can ya do?

Not quite the Colorado Rockies, I'm afraid.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Only tolerates narrow temperature range

I've hated hot weather since I was a kid, but until I was 30 or so cold weather didn't bother me much unless it was really cold, like under 10 degrees Fahrenheit (under -12 Celsius). Over the last few years, though, I've noticed that I dislike the cold more and more as well.

Extrapolating from current trends, I predict that by the time I am 50 I will be extremely uncomfortable, and possibly even dead, anywhere outside the temperature range of 65 - 72 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3 - 22.2 degrees Celsius).

In terms of climate tolerance, I will have become like one of those rare and delicate plants that can only survive under an incredibly narrow range of conditions and quickly wilt and die if anything changes too much. The main difference is that the plants are probably a lot prettier than I am.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Let it snow

View out my bedroom window this morning

Since the start of work was delayed until after noon today due to snow, I just wrote about 6 paragraphs about how I grew up loving snow, but later came to think of it as a pain in the butt, but still appreciate how beautiful it can be. Then, when I was attempting to move the location of the picture, I somehow accidentally deleted everything that I had written - why doesn't blogger have a simple "Undo" icon?! I am not going to write all of it again, so I will sum up briefly -

- I loved snow as a child and missed it during a period where I lived in Louisiana.

- As I got older, snow became more of a burden and a lot less fun

- Unfortunately, it's not socially acceptable for a 34-year old man without kids to build snowforts or snowmen or throw snowballs around, so the stuff that I most enjoyed with snow as a kid is ruled out.

- Here in Massachusetts, snow often comes along with its siblings, sleet and freezing rain, which make life even more difficult than snow but with none of the side benefits.

- If only there were a way to keep the beauty of snow without all of the inconvenient part.

- Snow can be beautiful, but for my money it's not as beautiful as a good spring day.

A good spring day, by my reckoning

Thursday, December 3, 2009

After the first Thanksgiving - English worldview

In 1621, Massasoit, the chief sachem of the Wampanoag nation or tribe, decided that the prudent course of action was to make an alliance with band of English religious refugees, later to be known as the Pilgrims, who had formed a small settlement which they called "New Plymouth" or "Plymouth Plantation". His people had already suffered a hideously high death rate (possibly 50% or more) from European diseases over the previous several years, and rival nations were threatening to subdue his people. The newcomers might make valuable allies. In the fall of 1621, the now-allied Wampanoags and English celebrated a feast together, which has gone down in U.S. history as the "First Thanksgiving".

In 1676, Metacom or King Philip, the middle-aged son of the long-dead Massasoit and his heir as sachem of the Wampanoag, was shot and killed in the last stages of a vicious war between the Wampanoag and several other native nations, on the one hand, and the united forces of three English colonies plus native allies, on the other. Metacom was in fact killed by a native serving as an ally of the English. Metacom/Philip's body was cut into several pieces, and his head was severed and impaled on a pike in the town of Plymouth, not far from the spot where his father and the earliest English settlers had celebrated their alliance some 55 years earlier. At least 1000 natives on the losing side, including Metacom's son, were packed onto ships to be sold as slaves in the West Indies. Thousands of other natives had either died or fled southern New England. Even those that had allied with the English got little reward other than being allowed to remain free and keep at least some of their land. It was the end of both political and cultural autonomy for the native nations in the southern part of what had now become New England.

How did something that started with at least a tentative alliance end up with the descendants of one allied group almost wiping out the descendants of their former allies as a distinct people?

European aggression and subjugation of native peoples in various non-European lands is something that happened so many times between the fifteenth century and the twentieth century that it seems inevitable that any encounter between Europeans and non-Europeans, no matter how well it started, would inevitably end in war, which would in turn usually end with the Europeans crushing their enemies. In reality, it's not quite that simple. In some cases, Europeans and natives were able to coexist relatively peacefully for a long time, and in some cases, the natives were able to beat the newcomers. Not every European was immediately inclined to look upon every non-European as an inferior. Some early encounters were genuinely friendly, although they were rarely completely free of tension. Still, it seems to me that almost all Europeans carried some important "mental baggage" that made it extremely difficult for them to treat non-Europeans as true equals for any extended length of time, and the English Pilgrim and Puritan settlers in Plymouth and later Boston and other places were no exception.

This is almost certainly a gross oversimplification, but I think that there were two assumptions shared by almost all the English settlers in what they called "New England" that made it very difficult to deal with the natives as equals. The first assumption was that Christians had a unique insight into the true purpose of life, and the true nature of both people and the entire universe, that non-Christians lacked. More specifically, the English Calvinists assumed that their particular type of Christian belief had this kind of special insight, which other versions of Christianity either lacked or had distorted, making them essentially the only true Christians. This was a pretty typical view in almost every variety of Christianity in Europe after the Reformation in the 16th century. Since religion was so central to the lives of many English settlers in New England, this set of beliefs had an even stronger effect on the way that they viewed the world than it did with many other, less intensely religious groups of Europeans who were encountering natives elsewhere.

The second assumption was that the way that their society was set up, all the rules, customs, expected behaviors, taboos, and material culture that surrounded their whole existence, was simply and objectively the best way. This is a characteristic that they shared not just with other Europeans but with just about every human culture on the face of the earth. It's probably a bad idea to say that anything is a universal trait of human cultures, because there always seem to be a few exceptions, but most cultures seem to assume that the way that they do things is the right way, the natural way, the most sensible way. What set the Europeans apart from the all the other ethnocentric cultures by the seventeenth century was simply the scope and aggressiveness of the spread of European culture. Only the Europeans were travelling around much of the known world and establishing outposts of European culture all over the place, from trading outposts to extensive settlements to full-fledged imperial territories complete with a subjugated native population (although only Spain had yet succeeded in setting up a really extensive empire, as opposed to a series of scattered outposts, by 1620).

Unlike some other European powers, the English could encounter another culture that was very different from their own without even having to leave Europe. In the early 17th century, the culture and way of life of the people in many parts of Ireland was almost as alien to most English as the culture and way of life of the natives of New England was. There were vast differences between the Irish and the Wampanoag or Massachusett, but from the point of view of the English, there were a few key points in common that made both groups "savage" and lacking in what the English considered proper, civilized living. Both native Irish and native Wampanoag lived in a society in which oral tradition, oral codes of law, and extended family and clan ties played a dominant role, while for the English written texts were becoming more authoritative than any spoken word, and extended family played a minor role in most peoples' lives compared to their immediate, nuclear family, and non-family relationships like church communities or master-servant relations. Native Irish and Native Wampanoag both cultivated some crops, but also lived a semi-migratory lifestyle, in which they would often live in different locations depending on the season. For the Irish, this moving around was primarily to find pasture for herds of domesticated animals, while for the native Americans, it was to hunt and gather different animals and plants at different times of year. The English, by contrast, practiced a more intensive form of cultivation and livestock rearing while living in the same location year-round, in sturdier and more permanent houses. Both Irish and Wampanoag had a society that emphasized bravery and skill in combat as among the most admirable traits in men. The English considered bravery admirable, but increasingly other characteristics such as self-restraint, "polite" conduct, and steady, disciplined work habits, were replacing sheer physical bravery and prowess as the marks of an ideal man.

Given that the English saw many similarities between the Irish and Native Americans, the situation in Ireland by 1620 did not bode very well for the future of Native Americans. Ireland had long been a separate kingdom that was ruled by the same individual who was King or Queen of England, but otherwise it had largely been left to its own devices. Beginning in the sixteenth century, though, the English monarchs and their tried to force Ireland to conform more closely to English political, religious, legal, and cultural norms. By the late sixteenth century, armies raised in England were battling Irish leaders who refused to submit to these impositions, and these wars were often fought mercilessly on both sides. By the early seventeenth century, both England and Scotland, now ruled by the same king, were encouraging Protestants to emigrate to Ireland and settle on lands that had been occupied by defeated Irish rebels. Some of the English settlers in Massachusetts had friends and relatives among these settlers, and in their minds they were probably undertaking a similar mission of establishing a devout and civilized community in a land that had until recently been dominated by "savage" people who knew little or nothing about true religion.

While violent conflict was not inevitable, it would have taken an exceptional amount of understanding and restraint on the part of the English in New England to overcome all of the cultural forces pushed toward a conflict with the natives sooner or later. There were some English who were inclined toward peaceful coexistence, but in the end, those with a more aggressive approach would prove more popular, and would push the course of events

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving - some history

- The original Thanksgiving was probably not in November - it was probably in late September or early October, which would have been right after most of the harvest was gathered.

- It was not in 1620 - it was in 1621. The Pilgrims, a strict Calvinist religious group at odds with the church and government in England, arrived on the shores of what later became Massachusetts in November of 1620. The modern celebration of Thanksgiving is actually closer to the date that the Pilgrims first landed than to the date some 11 months later when they celebrated their first successful harvest.

- They landed at about the worst possible time - November in Massachusetts is heading into winter and far too late to plant or grow any crops. Lack of skill and fear of the natives limited the amount of successful hunting they could do. They had neglected to bring equipment for fishing since none of them were fishermen by profession. They had to rely mostly on the remaining supplies aboard the Mayflower to feed them through the winter and into the spring and summer of the next year before they could grow or gather much food. In the first terrible winter, half of them died of a combination of malnutrition and disease. Worried about the possibility of being attacked by the native Wampanoag Indians, they buried their dead in secret to hide their shrinking numbers, and the sick men who could still stand staggered to their feet and assembled with muskets in hand whenever an alarm was sounded. Why did this disaster happen? They had intended to land in early summer of 1620 and immediately plant crops, but their departure (from Holland and England) was delayed repeatedly for a variety of reasons. Their journey across the Atlantic didn't get started until September 1620, and then contrary winds and storms meant that it took 2 months to cross the Atlantic.

- The Pilgrims had virtually no contact with the native Wampanoags during the first winter, except for occasional glimpses of people in the distance scouting out their settlement. The Wampanoags, for their part, didn't know what to make or what to do about the Pilgrims. They had just gone through a disaster of their own. The Wampanoags and other native nations in what would become New England were not unfamiliar with Europeans. For almost 100 years, European ships had periodically cruised off the shore, at first to explore, later to fish, trade, and (much more ominously) raid coastal settlements for slaves. By about 1615, the Wampanoags and other native peoples knew a few basic things about Europeans - they were strange looking, strange speaking people who could make some very impressive and very useful things that the natives could not, such as iron tools, woven cloth, guns, and sailing ships - but they were also dangerously unpredictable. One group could be friendly and interested only in trade, while the group that came the next summer might feign friendship and then suddenly attack a town, grab some of the residents, and take them off never to be seen again. These were the kind of people best kept at a distance. Then, in around 1617 or 1618, an unknown group of Europeans unleashed, probably unintentionally, what was probably the most devastating killing weapon that humans could inflict on other humans until nuclear weapons were invented - epidemic disease against a population that had no history of epidemic diseases. Not just any epidemic disease, either - it was smallpox, one of the worst. It devastated the Wampanoags, killing more than half of their population in a year. The worst-hit towns and villages were totally abandoned, with the majority of the population dying and the survivors going to live in other towns. One of the towns that was completely abandoned was a coastal town called Patuxet. It was at the site of Patuxet, abandoned for about a year, that the Pilgrims landed. It was a good location with a fair amount of land that was clear of trees - what had been the fields of the residents of Patuxet until a little more than a year earlier. It was into this ghost town that the Pilgrims moved for the cold winter of 1620-1621, when it once again became a place of disease and death.

There was another problem - the Wampanoags were traditional enemies of another native nation that lived to the west, in what is now Rhode Island - the Narragansetts. The plague had barely touched the Narragansetts, and they now massively outnumbered the Wampanoags. When the spring of 1621 came, Massasoit, the most powerful sachem or chieftain of the Wampanoags, decided that the newly arrived Pilgrims would be much more useful as allies than as enemies. In return for letting them settle on land that the Wampanoags no longer had the population to farm, the Pilgrims promised to aid the Wampanoags in future conflicts with the Narragansetts or any other enemies. The Pilgrims were also a source of European trade goods that were very valuable to the Wampanoags - especially woven cloth and metal tools of various kinds, which were much more durable and resilient than stone tools.

The first Thanksgiving was celebrated by two groups that did indeed have a lot to be thankful for. By the fall of 1621 the Pilgrims were finally growing plenty of their own food, and the Wampanoags had a new ally to help deter attacks from neighboring nations, as well as a source of trade goods. The atmosphere was probably genuinely happy and festive. The future, of course, would not be nearly as happy, at least not for one of the groups involved.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Someday I've got to break the habit of automatically making negative comments about my own physical appearance in any and every conversation. The problem is that I've been doing it for so long that it comes almost as naturally as breathing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lincoln's second inaugural address

In this frustrated history geek's opinion, Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered in March 1865, is one of the more important speeches in the history of the United States. It's relatively short, like Lincoln's more famous Gettysburg Address, but it gives a great deal of insight into how Lincoln viewed the Civil War. It was given when victory for the Union was certain, when the war (and Lincoln's own life) had only slightly more than a month left. The last paragraph, in which he calls for peace and reconciliation, is the best known. Less well known, but equally significant, I think, is the part in bold, in which Lincoln basically says that the bloodshed and destruction of the U.S. Civil War was divine retribution for centuries of slavery.

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Selfishness and unhappiness

One of the weird things about the rather toxic blend of Obsessive-Compulsive disorder and a gnawing sense of inferiority that I usually carry around is that it makes me far too self-centered, or just plain selfish. I am probably one of the more self-centered people that I know. It's not a type of selfishness that brings me any joy or confidence, but it is there nevertheless. My thoughts are often preoccupied with my own obsessions. I tend to look at other people in terms of whether they will have a positive or negative effect on my emotional state, rather than appreciating them for their own sake. I feel like I can not and do not want to help other people when I am already worried about my own bizarre internal problems. I think that these things fall under the definition of "selfish". They are the reasons why I suspect that I would make a poor partner, a poor husband and an even poorer father.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The sickness that is part of me


I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive disorder when I was 13 years old. For the 21 years since then, I have continuously taken medication for it. I have gone through compulsive behaviors, obsessive fears, and panic attacks. I have gone through more obsessive thoughts than I want to even try to think about, some of them very innocuous or even enjoyable, others disturbing, others potentially dangerous to myself or other people. This is a disease of my mind, but it is also so bound up with most of my thoughts and emotions and behaviors that it is an inescapable part of who I am. Sometimes I hate it as an alien presence that deprives me of full control of my own mind and makes me hate myself, other times I regard it as just a part of life, and sometimes I actually revel in it as something that makes my internal mental life interesting even when my external life is stupefyingly dull.

Perhaps the worst part of it all, though, is when my own obsessive thoughts turn from fear and guilt to repeated thoughts that involve possible harm to others. For me, this usually involves harm through neglect or carelessness rather than malicious attack. There is no particular feeling of anger or aggression, more like (for example) "What if I don't stop for that person crossing the street, but keep on going at full speed instead." As far as I know, I haven't actually hurt anybody ever, but the fact that these thoughts go through my mind again and again is enough to make me feel somewhat afraid, not to mention guilty. There is something else that worries me even more, though. Constantly worrying about these things tends to, ironically, desensitize me. A thought that is shocking and repulsive at first becomes less shocking and repulsive when it becomes obsessively routine. I lose the sense of people around me as being important in their own right, and evaluate them merely in terms of what kind of obsessive thought or feeling they might provoke in me. I grow tired of feeling guilty and worried, especially when I haven't actually harmed anyone. All of this seems to desensitize me further, and I have a deep and lurking fear that one of these days my thoughts might transform into action (or deliberate negligence), and that I might actually harm someone.

I talked to Dad about this earlier this evening, and he advised that I needed to start seeing my psychiatrist for more than the occasional brief session to review my medication. I need to start talking to someone in detail about this again, someone who knows a lot about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder but who is not all bound up with it themselves.

I have to give a huge amount of credit to my psychiatrist, who I have been seeing at varying intervals for over 20 years. He was always very honest about the fact that medication could help, that therapy could help, but that OCD is something that will never completely go away as long as I live, that my mind will always have a tendency to move into obsessive patterns, and that I would have to be mindful of this for the rest of my life. It is a very light burden in the better times, a very, very heavy burden in the worst times, but when it starts to effect how I relate to other people in a potentially dangerous way, it takes on a whole new dimension that I can not afford to ignore.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Computers and magical thinking

My continued inability to post any comments on some people's blogs (because I am officially "signed out" of certain people's blogs and can not sign back in no matter what I try) is seriously pissing me off. On the lighter side, it reminds me of how ludicrously ignorant I am about what makes computers work. I think that it has something to do with "electrons" moving through "semiconductors" in the form of "binary code" following complicated sets of instructions known as software, but I have to take that completely on faith. If I had been taught as a child that computers were driven by powerful and unpredictable spirits residing within the metal and plastic boxes, and that glitches could best be cured by sprinkling the blood of a freshly killed goat all over the machine at midnight, then I would have gone through many, many goats in the past 20 years (not to mention that the corner of my room with the desktop would be very dirty and foul-smelling).

I suspect that this is true for a lot of people. If you don't know much about computers or other electronic devices, then you basically stand in the same kind of relationship with them as people in earlier ages did with the weather and the seasons. These things were/are controlled by mysterious forces that you don't really understand, and when it comes to explanations you pretty much have to take someone else's word for it, or work hard to be initiated into the mysteries of the knowing elite. I think that this is more or less what people are referring to when they talk about "magical thinking" (someone correct me if I'm totally wrong).

This may be a wild over-generalization, but I'm going to say that most people's basic approach to reality today isn't much different from that of earlier people who hunted and gathered for food, or farmed with stone tools. Most people just want to find what works so that they can get things done and get on with their life. When it comes to explanations, most people will accept what the experts say. Even though science is surely a more accurate way to understand the physical world around us, most people who accept the knowledge and insight gained by science still accept it because it's what the experts say.

The question is which groups are considered the experts in any given society. Is it scientists, religious authorities, political figures, celebrities, something else, or some combination of these? It may seem strange, but a society that accepts scientifically established facts doesn't necessarily have any higher a percentage of truly "critical thinkers" than one that accepts religious explanations of natural phenomena. It is just a question of which group of experts has more prestige in a given society.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Saddest anniversary

I recently passed the saddest anniversary in my life. Three years ago this past Sunday, October 18, my mom died from leukemia. I have been meaning to post about this for the past several days, but I find the subject difficult to write about, or sometimes even to think about.

She had a rare, aggressive form of the disease that caused her a lot of pain and that moved fast. It was just about six months between when she showed the first symptoms in April 2006 to when she died in October 2006. They didn't even realize that it was leukemia until early June, and she then spent more than two months in Brigham and Women's hospital in Boston, where she got some of the best treatment that I think is possible in cooperation with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, but it still did not work. She came home in September and was at home for the last month of her life, with my father and visiting nurses taking care of her with some assistance from me and my brothers. The pain was often intense even with pain medication, and for the last few days she was asleep or unconscious most of the time. It sounds wrong to say or think this, but my father and brothers and myself all felt a sort of relief along with the great sadness when she did pass away, because she was in such pain and had great difficulty moving or being moved at all, even adjusting her position in bed, toward the end.

Mom carried very heavy emotional burdens for most of her life, from depression and a dysfunctional family life and a deep-seated and unshakeable sense that nothing she ever did was good enough. In spite of all of this, she was determined to do everything possible to give her own children a happy home and the kind of childhood that she had not had. She succeeded beautifully, far better than she would ever acknowledge. I hope that she realized this before she passed away, and that she realizes it now. If there were more people like her, the world would be a vastly different and much better place.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pics of autumn snow

It snowed again this afternoon - the extremely wet snow you get when the air is just slightly below freezing, where multiple flakes stick together into larger white clumps that look a little like bits of cotton falling, until they hit something warmer and melt in about one second. It's a little weird to have snow actually sticking to the ground when most of the trees still have most of their leaves, but most of it melted within a couple of hours even in areas where it did accumulate.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Snow coming early this year

We got a little wet snow here yesterday morning, and the forecast says we might get more tomorrow. It's still too warm for the snow to last long on the ground, but this is unusually early for a first snow around here. Some of the trees haven't even started to change color yet, let alone lose their leaves.

On an unrelated note, the mysterious inability to comment on some peoples' posts has returned, but now it has gone a step further. As of this morning, I can't comment in reply to MY OWN POSTS. (Deep breath -- I love computers, computers are our friends, I don't want to take an axe to my computer)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I think that I exercised too much this past weekend between the gym and long walks and outdoor work. My principal evidence for this is a couple of half-developed blisters on my feet and, more importantly, the fact that some muscles in my arms and abdomen are quite sore. My arms especially are bothering me, since I can't fully straighten either elbow without a fair amount of pain, which leads to me walking around with my arms noticeably bent at the elbows. This makes me look a little weird, or at least even more weird than I usually look.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Heading home today

I've had a great trip, with Grandma and my other relatives very happy to see me (and vice versa - we don't see each other often). The weather for the first couple of days was abnormally cool for Texas at this time of year, although now we are back to a more seasonal high of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This afternoon, though, I face the flight home. I don't mind flying itself, but I'm not a big fan of the hours spent scrunched up in a coach seat, or the security checks. Once again, I have failed to wear the ideal clothing for passing through US airport security - a t-shirt, sweatpants, and slippers. Instead, I insist on wearing pants with a belt, shoes with some kind of metal in them, a watch, and various stuff in my pockets, all of which need to be removed quickly and then put back on, hopefully without losing anything.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Off to Texas

I'm flying down to Texas today with my father to visit relatives. The main purpose of the trip is to visit my Grandmother (my father's mother), who turns 93 today. She is my last living grandparent, and also the one that I was closest to and knew the best while growing up. She lives in an assisted-living facility in a small town west of Waco, Texas, near where my aunt (my father's older sister) and uncle live. She is doing all right as far as I can tell, and she gets to see one of her children frequently, but I'm sure she will be thrilled to see my father and I, since she doesn't get to see anyone from our side of the family very often due to distance. When I was a kid growing up, she lived near Washington DC, in the same house that my father had grown up in, and we went down every summer for at least a week to visit her and my grandfather. I loved those family vacations - going to a bunch of different museums and tourist sites in Washington, digging through the huge volumes of old stuff in the basement (I especially remember my grandfather's stamp collection, the old 1950s stereo system with vacuum tubes, the big old TV that they bought the day that JFK was assassinated, and a 1950s vintage calculator or adding machine that must have weighed at least 15 pounds), and probably bugging Grandma half to death with all of my questions about the various junk and what life was like when my father was a kid and earlier. The only downsides were the intense heat and humidity of Washington, DC in the summer, and the 8-hour drive from Massachusetts to Maryland, which to a kid seemed as long as a major geological epoch.

In any case, I hope that Grandma will be happy to see us.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Computer quirk - unable to comment

I love it when I'm about to comment on someone else's blog and then I realize that due to some quirk in the computer or network, I can't comment on this person's blog on my home computer unless I fully signed out of blogger on my work computer, or vice versa. Well, I forgot to do that, and now I'm stuck not being able to comment because I am taking the next few days off from work for vacation. The weird thing is that there are only a couple of blogs that this happens on - it must have something to do with how they are set up, etc., etc. Computers for me are kind of like the weather was to everybody before modern science - mysterious, powerful forces that I can try to take advantage of, but that are ultimately beyond my control and can turn on me at any moment.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Head of state and head of government (2)

Finally getting around to part 2 here

So 2 posts back I explained how I think that the President of the United States being both the head of state and the head of government often makes it difficult to criticize a president too strongly without seeming like you are criticizing the country as a whole. Is this a serious flaw in the U.S. Constitution? Looking at it from a historical perspective, why did the a country with an almost paranoid fear of strong central government create an office that gave its holder such great power and prestige?

The historical background, Part 1 – The Chief Executive and the separation of powers

When the United States was first established, during and immediately after the War for Independence/Revolutionary war, the dominant political view was that no one elected official should have too much power or prestige. The way most revolutionaries saw it, their troubles were caused by a king in Britain who was trying to gain real political power as well as a ceremonial position, and a Prime Minister allied with the king, who could push through almost any law he wanted as long as he had the support of a majority in Parliament. They also remembered how in most colonies before the revolution, the governor had been appointed in London, and often worked to thwart the actions of the colonial assemblies, who were elected by the eligible voters among the colonists themselves. All of this was to be avoided like the plague, so the new state governments stripped their governors of much of their power, and made the state legislature the dominant branch of the government. Many states also had the governor reelected every year so that an unpopular governor could be voted out relatively quickly. The national government of the United States, under the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation, went further. This government had no executive branch at all - no president, no prime minister, no national governor, or any equivalent. There was a President of the Congress, but in practice he didn't really function as an executive, and he didn't have much more authority than other citizens. In a sense, the early U.S. government was one of the few in history that didn't really have any true head of state or head of government at all. That was fine with most Americans.

There were some problems with this system, however. The job of an executive branch is basically to enforce the laws that are passed by the legislative branch, and without any executive, the Congress that ran the US couldn't really enforce any laws that it passed. It pretty much had to rely on the goodwill of the state government to get anything done. Again, this was fine with most Americans - most people identified more with their state than with the country as a whole, and it was common to refer to neighboring states as if they were foreign countries. (The different states had very different local cultures, to a much greater degree than today.) As time went on, however, it became clear that this decentralized system had some drawbacks. Trade with and investment from other countries suffered because the nation had no stable national currency, and it was difficult to collect debts in states whose governments were favorable to debtors. Other states, by contrast, had governments dominated by the interests of wealthy creditors, which passed very tough laws demanding quick payment of debts using scarce coins, and which allowed quick foreclosure on farms and homes when the debts were not paid. This became bad enough to provoke an armed uprising in Massachusetts by farmers determined not to have their farms taken. Meanwhile, fighting with the natives on the frontiers depended on local and state militias of widely varying quality, because there was no national army to speak of once the Continental army was disbanded after peace with Britain. Different states had disputes about land boundaries and navigation rights along rivers, and the national government could only serve as a mediator if both sides were willing to allow it to play this role.

By 1787, enough influential people were concerned about these issues that they persuaded 12 out of the 13 state governments to send representatives to a meeting in Philadelphia to discuss ways to strengthen the central government. Instead of just modifying the existing government, however, the majority of these delegates decided to create an entirely new one. This meeting was the Constitutional Convention, and the document that it created was the Constitution that has been the foundation of the federal government of the United States for just about 220 years. It was this document that gave the United States a powerful president, who would be both the head of government and the head of state. The executive and the entire branch of the government serving under him* would be in charge of enforcing the laws passed by Congress, and defending the country from foreign threats in the capacity of Commander in Chief of the national government’s armed forces. In his capacity as head of state, he would also be in charge of negotiating with foreign nations.

Why the sudden reversal, from a weak or nonexistent executive branch to a strong one? First of all, most of the delegates who designed what became the Constitution of the United States had become convinced that the lack of a strong executive was one of the major problems with the national government and the state governments. Nobody wanted a king, but in their minds the new country had gone too far in the other direction. As they saw it, any national government that was going to be effective needed a fairly strong executive branch. If that meant having the same person be the head of government and head of state, then so be it.

The designers of the constitution were still concerned about having an overly powerful president, however. You didn’t need to be a brilliant political theorist to recognize that putting too much power in one person’s hands was a very bad idea if you wanted a republican government that wouldn’t intrude on the rights of its own citizens. So, they set strict limits on the President. The President had no power to pass any laws or raise any revenue – that was entirely in the hands of Congress. The President was commander in chief of the military, but only Congress could declare war, and Congress was in complete charge of funding the military, so they could presumably refuse to fund any conflict that the President got involved in without their permission. The President and his Secretary of State were in charge of foreign relations, but all of their agreements had to be approved by the Senate, and any funding for them had to be approved by the House of Representatives as well. Finally, a President who was really overstepping the limits could be impeached (indicted) by the House of Representatives and tried by the Senate, which would act as a jury and could remove him from office by a 2/3 vote if they believed that he was guilty.

Apart from the specific restrictions on the Presidency, however, there was a more fundamental innovation that would end up setting the United States government apart from that of Great Britain and Britain’s other colonies that eventually became independent nations. The legislative branch (Congress) and the executive branch (the Presidency) were set up as completely separate branches of government, along with the Supreme Court, which formed a third judicial branch. Congress and the President would be chosen in two completely separate elections. (The President was, and is, chosen by an Electoral College, which would be elected by either the state legislatures or the people of the different states. The members of this Electoral College can NOT be members of Congress.) They would function independently of each other, performing different roles. It would be quite possible, even likely, for the President and the majority of members of Congress to disagree about important political issues. This was the basis for what became known as the “separation of powers” in the government of the United States.

This is completely different from how the British government, and still is, set up. In the British system, the executive branch of the government basically consists of the Prime Minister and a group of other ministers who are chosen by Parliament (more specifically, by the House of Commons, since the other part of Parliament, the House of Lords, is not elected and has had its power greatly reduced in the last 200 years). In practice, this means that the Prime Minister and other ministers usually come from the same political party and have similar political views to the majority of the Parliament. The Prime minister and other ministers are almost always members of Parliament (specifically the House of Commons) as well. The executive and legislative branches of the government in this system are very closely tied together. They function as two integrated parts of the same system, and when people vote for representatives in Parliament, they are effectively also voting for who they want as Prime Minister at the same time. There is no separation of powers between the two.

So, the Constitution that was proposed in 1787 combined the roles of head of state and head of government into a single chief executive, but at the same time it completely separated that executive from the national legislature, and surrounded the position with limitations. The men who signed the proposed Constitution apparently believed that these separations and restrictions were sufficient guarantee against the President becoming too powerful. Convincing the rest of the citizens of the United States was something else, however. Looking back, it seems inevitable that the Constitution of 1787 would be ratified, but in fact opposition to it was fierce. Each state saw its own battle between supporters and opponents of the new constitution, and one of the charges that the opponents brought against the document was that the office of President was much too powerful – as bad or worse as having a king. The supporters of the constitution gradually got the upper hand in most states, largely because they were simply better organized and more unified. The new Constitution was ratified by 1789, and the long history of the office of President of the United States began. Time would tell whether the theory of how the office was supposed to work matched the practice.

(To be continued later, again … this is taking much longer than I expected!)

*In the late 18th century it was taken for granted that like all elected officials and voters, the President would be a man. Fortunately, the original Constitution did not actually specify the male gender as part of the qualifications for President or any other federal office, so this did not need to be amended later.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I'll get to it

I'll eventually finish that long-winded post that I started about the President's role and head of state vs. head of government. I've been distracted by various other things, and I've blown what free time I had by participating in the ultimate in futile activities - arguing about politics on the internet.

I never learned to take my father's advice - be wary of arguments about religion and politics, because they are fundamentally emotional subjects rather than rational ones. Both religious believers and people with strong political views generally base their positions on articles of faith which they have accepted. It's not impossible to change somebody else's articles of faith, but it is usually a long and difficult process - not something likely to happen in a casual online argument!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Head of state and head of government (1)

It seems that a Republican representative interrupting Obama's speech last week with a shouted "You lie!" has pissed a lot of people off and sparked a lot of debate. Some of the debate is about the comment itself, but more of it revolves around the issue of whether a U.S. Representative or Senator should be able to argue with or heckle the president during an important address.

This debate involves issues of politics and public etiquette, but since I really like political history, there is one element of the debate that particularly interests me. I've seen a lot of people point out that in other countries (the United Kingdom/Britain and Canada being the most common examples), the Prime Minister will often face hostile questioning and heckling from their* political opponents, whereas in the U.S. the President almost never has to directly confront their political opponents face-to-face in public.

The basic reason for this is that the US government is set up in such a way that the President of the United States is both the head of state (the official "face" of a national government) and the head of government (the head of the executive branch of government and the single most powerful official in the government). This seems natural to people in the USA, but in quite a few governments, the head of state and head of government are two different people. In constitutional monarchies, like the United Kingdom and the several other nations who recognize the same sovereign, the Queen or King is the head of state, but has no political power. The head of government in constitutional monarchies is an elected official, usually a Prime Minister, who has more actual authority than any other official in the national government. Some nations that have no monarch still have a separate head of state and head of government. Germany, for example, has an elected President who is head of state but who has very limited real power. The head of government, on the other hand, is the chancellor. India has a similar arrangement, with an elected President who has much less real power than the Prime Minister, who is the head of government.

The position of head of state, whether it carries actual power or not, almost always has a special prestige that head of government does not have. The head of state is traditionally a symbol of their entire nation, the "public face" of not just the nation's government, but of the nation as a whole. To directly insult a head of state is often seen as insulting the entire nation.

The system of having a separate head of state and head of government has some advantages over a system like that in the United States where both positions are held by the same person. In a modern democratic society, the head of government is chosen by a specific political party or coalition of parties, and is often obliged to make controversial policy decisions that are certain to provoke intense criticism from their political opponents. In a country where the head of government is not also the head of state, the head of government has no special role as being the symbol or embodiment of the entire nation. The political opponents of the Prime Minister in the United Kingdom or Canada are free to criticize and condemn as much as they want, knowing that none of their criticism can be construed as an attack on the entire nation. The head of state, the person widely seen as the public face of the entire country, does not take any significant part in day-to-day political life, and rarely if ever expresses opinions on politically controversial issues.

In a system like that of the United States, on the other hand, where the head of state and head of government are the same person, the line between the two roles is very blurred. The President is both the symbol and public face of the nation as a whole, and an official elected with the support of a particular political party and allied interests, who is expected to work in support of a particular political agenda that by definition will be supported by some citizens and opposed, sometimes very strongly, by others. When a President's political opponents criticize or outright condemn the President's actions and political agenda as head of government, they may not intend to attack the President's symbolic role as head of state, but because the two roles are held by the same person, any attack or criticism will seem like an attack on both roles to many people. This is closely tied to partisan politics - people who are sympathetic to the President's political agenda or at least neutral are much more likely to see an attack on the President's politics as an attack on the President's role as symbol of the entire nation, while the President's opponents will draw a strong distinction between attacking the President's specific decisions and agenda and the "office of the Presidency", by which they usually mean the President's role as head of state. This applies to both sides of the political spectrum - nothing in U.S. politics is more predictable than that the President's political supporters will generally try to equate strong criticism with an unpatriotic attack on the basic institutions of the United States, while the President's political opponents will emphasize the importance of free and open political criticism, and that the roles will reverse when the Presidency is taken by a candidate from the opposing party.

Obviously, one can object that this is a clear double standard and that any reasonable person should be able to see right through partisan rhetoric and realize that criticism of a President's politics is completely different from a criticism of the United States itself. This is a valid objection, but in my humble opinion it badly overestimates most peoples' ability to completely ignore their own political beliefs. In my experience, what most people consider reasonable political criticism versus an attack on their country's basic institutions depends heavily on their political beliefs. Most people who have any political views whatsoever will tend to give people who share their views much greater leeway when it comes to criticism, while seeing criticism from the other side as being "disrespectful", "angry", "shrill", etc., unless it is expressed in a very mild form. In the case of a President of the United States, this means that most people will interpret anything but the most mild criticism of a President who shares their views as an attack on the President's position as head of state as well as head of government.

(Continued later)

*This isn't grammatically correct, of course, but I like to use "they", "them", and"their" as gender-neutral third person pronouns, because in my totally subjective judgment it just looks and sounds better than the clumsy "he or she", "his or hers", etc., and doesn't look as silly as terms like "hir".

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Organizational & Dusting Deficiency Syndrome

A quick glance around my living and working spaces seems to hint that I may not pay enough attention to organization. It also seems to imply that I do not dust often enough.

To check if you suffer from the same deficiencies as I do, answer the following questions truthfully:

1. Could your organizational system for mail and paperwork be accurately characterized as the "piles of paper on the floor" system?

2. Do certain corners of your bedroom and/or closets contain dust bunnies that are almost as large (though not as massive) as actual bunnies?

3. Does trying to find an old piece of mail resemble an archaeological dig ("Ah, here's level 2005 VII B, containing forgotten paperwork from the job I had at the time - but I'm looking for something from late 2007 or early 2008, so that would have been deposited in a higher layer')?

4. When you see someone's desk completely covered with piles of stuff, do you find this admirable and something to aspire to rather than appalling?

5. Do you occasionally experience paper landslides when a pile gets too tall and unstable?

6. Are you afraid to sneeze too close to your furniture and piled paper, because this would kick up a cloud of dust that would turn the one sneeze into an uncontrollable, convulsive series of at least 10 more sneezes?

If your answer to any of these questions is "Yes", then you may have an organizational and/or dusting deficiency. If your answer to ALL of the questions is "Yes", then you have pretty much the same problem that I do.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunset pictures

I was originally planning long and involved post about history, but since it's 12:40 AM and I need to get up in a little more than 6 hours, I'll have to settle for posting a few pictures of a nice sunset this evening. This is the house I grew up in, which I am watching while Dad is visiting my brother and his family in Germany. Growing up, I always liked the view to the west from the backyard, especially in the evening.

OK, so I like sunsets. I promise that the next time I post photographs, they will be of something else.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

After spending most of the summer with unusually cool and wet weather, we're back to "seasonal" weather - highs around 90 degrees (Fahrenheit; that's 32 or 33 Celsius) and hazy and humid. This makes me sorely miss the cool, rainy non-summer that we used to have. It was great - kind of like I imagine the summers in the Pacific northwest or England might be like (not that I have ever been to either of those places - and I heard that the Pacific northwest had an unusual heat wave recently).

Friday, August 7, 2009

For several weeks now, my morning commute has been slowed down by the fact that traffic is narrowed down to a single lane due to construction. As far as I can tell, they haven't been working on the road itself - they are working on something under the road. I wonder what they could be working on that would take this long. Are they constructing a secret underground bunker or lab down there? Some people would say that this is ridiculous - why would anyone build something secret in such an obvious place as right under a state highway? This objection, however, ignores a critical point. People here in Massachusetts have become so accustomed to long, drawn-out, disruptive, mysterious construction around and underneath roads that it probably wouldn't even occur to most people that there is something slightly unusual about spending weeks on end working underneath the same short section of road. By taking advantage of this, they might be hiding something in plain sight!

(This post made with tongue firmly in cheek, except for the whining about endless construction.)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

That's a good thing, right?

I may have to get new pants and new belts soon, the reason being that my current ones are becoming too large to wear. This is a new experience for me, since in the past the old ones have generally become too small.

I think that I will always be somewhat overweight, and I can't see myself ever becoming a vegetable eating, getting up at 5 AM to go jogging super-healthy person, but any improvement helps.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Weird weather and a garden that grows too well

Whoever is in control of the weather this summer apparently decided that late April or early May has the ideal weather, and so they would just replay it over and over again instead of giving the normal warm and humid summer weather. This has irritated a lot of people, but it was just fine with me, because I really hate warm and humid weather. Then again, I really hate cold weather, too. My ideal climate would never go above 70 degrees or below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (that's between 10 and 21 degrees Celsius for all you non-Americans who insist on using slightly more rational systems of measurement). Then, this week, the weather went back to being seasonal, i.e., warm and humid. Well, the window air conditioners are finally getting a workout after sitting around and doing little but collect dust for over 2 months.

The cool, rainy weather has been great for my lawn and garden. Actually, that's a lie, since I don't have any lawn and garden, since I don't own any land. What I do have is my father's lawn and garden, which I help take care of, and often lapse into thinking of as sort of mine. The gardens are what really stand out. As I grew up, I watched Mom expand the gardens over a larger and larger portion of the yard, and at times I took a casual interest in gardening myself. Mom passed away from cancer in late 2006, and my father and I have tried to keep up the gardens since then. Unfortunately for the gardens, neither of us has the dedication that mom did, and so the nicely arranged cultivated plants are often mixed in with quite a few wildflowers and outright unattractive weeds. I will periodically attack the weeds in part or all of the garden, then see a whole fresh crop of weeds come up, sometimes in just a few days. The rainy summer seems to have encouraged an especially lush growth of weeds.

Still, some of the unasked-for plants have turned out to be very attractive wildflowers, and I've kept most of those, which leads to a somewhat chaotic and unkempt but colorful garden:

There was once a grove of pine trees here. Then, there was an above-ground swimming pool.
Then, there was a formal garden, which a certain amount of benign neglect
is in the process of turning into a wildflower patch. At least it's colorful.