Saturday, December 29, 2012


Stories, New and Old

After the recent re-election of president Obama, along with the surge in support for gay rights and same-sex marriage across the nation (if not in all the states), I felt that we might be at a tipping point in this country much earlier than I had anticipated.  But the fall out from the statement made by the the vice-president of the NRA in the wake of the Newtown, CT elementary school massacre convinces me that we may indeed be there. 

These cover pages from the two leading tabloid newspapers in New York City would have been unthinkable even last year so conservative are they (the Post even more so than the Daily News).  But Wayne LaPierre's belligerent justification of ownership of assault weapons along with his proposals to arm progressively more and more people was denounced by the president, by lawmakers from both parties, and by a significant number of educators, mayors,
police chiefs, and governors across the country.  The negative reaction certainly happened in liberal states as you might imagine.  In Boston, the mayor, chief of police and superintendent of schools all
denounced LaPierre's proposals.  But negative statements by a great many conservatives indicate that Newtown was a slaughter too far.

I don't buy for a moment that massacring adults or high school students is in any way acceptable, but it seems to be the death of five to seven year olds that has finally gotten people to think, and think hard, about the dangers of the mass of weapons that are in in the hands of almost half the population of the United States.  Opinions are changing among former NRA supporters and defenders of universal gun ownership.  About time!


A mystery three and a half centuries old has been solved this year by a 21 year old math major from Brown University.  Lucas Mason-Brown, with no previous experience of cracking code, nevertheless succeeded in breaking and translating the shorthand code of the Separatist Puritan Minister, religious thinker,  and founder of the Rhode Island Colony, Roger Williams.

Beyond Rhode Island, where Williams is a major figure to this day, he is perhaps the least known and understood of the early English colony founder/leaders.  Part of this obscurity can be laid at Williams' own feet; he was not a particularly easy man to get along with, iron-willed and unyielding when it came to his core beliefs.  Arriving in Boston in 1631, one year after its founding, he condemned the town's Puritan religious establishment as not separated from the Church of England.  He was in negotiation to take over the churches in Salem, Massachusetts but Boston pressured Salem to withdraw the invitation, leaving him with no employment.

Williams headed south to the Plymouth Colony, which was fully Separatist but, always contentious, he soon found it wasn't Separatist enough by his standards.  He went back to Salem and was soon in political trouble there; Boston laid charges of sedition and heresy against him and banished him out Massachusetts for good.

Joining with religious dissident and proto-feminist Anne Hutchinson, herself banished out of Massachusetts, and her husband Will and a small group of others, Williams founded Rhode Island.   It began on an island in the middle of Narraganset Bay and attracted many who were in search of the true religious freedom that was not to be found in Boston, but that was the foundation of Willians' beliefs.  He declared that he cared not if one were Catholic, Protestant, Jew or Turk; all were welcome as were their various religions.   By the early 1680s, Jews were beginning to arrive in Rhode Island's  after fleeing other colonies and countries where they had been persecuted. 

Williams would not allow the conversion of Native Americans by force, believing them fully entitled to their own ulture.  He fought with Boston over the colony's appropriation of Native Americans' land, claiming that the King of England could not give the colonists land he did not own, and that the Massachusetts Bay Colony must purchase the land from the Pequot tribes (Boston's quick and dirty solution was to exterminate virtually the entire Pequot nation and take the land it wanted ).

So, back to the story of Reverend Williams' secret code (excerpted from a Boston Globe story):

Lucas Mason-Brown, a 21 year old senior at Brown University, was an unlikely candidate to help unlock the secrets of a centuries-old New England manuscript; he’s a math major and not exactly an expert on 17th-century theologians.  “When we started,” said Mason-Brown, “I knew absolutely nothing about Roger Williams.”

The mystery of the code had stumped researchers for years.  Mason-Brown used a mix of statistical analysis and historical research to reveal the meaning of some of the theologian’s last writings, a series of extensive notes written in the margins of a 234 page book by an unknown author. 

The deciphered content of the shorthand, while interesting, isn’t groundbreaking: some of it is notes on other essays, while one section outlines Williams’s beliefs on baptizing Native American children. (He was against it.)  Mason-Brown called it an “original commentary on several hot-button theological issues of the time.”  Williams championed the separation of church and state and advocated for the rights of Native Americans. 

The university’s John Carter Brown Library acquired the book in 1817. Inside, almost every square inch of white space was covered in a cryptic scrawl made up of strange characters dashed off in one or two strokes.  For librarians, the only clue to the origins of the handwriting came from an accompanying note, barely legible itself: The writing, the note said, belonged to Williams.  But how could historians be sure?  That puzzle continued into recent decades.

After the Brown Daily Herald published an article about the unsolved shorthand, Mason-Brown wanted to get involved. Four other undergrads joined up as well.

The first step was math, Mason-Brown’s forte. He used a method of statistics called frequency analysis: Guessing that each character stood for a sound or English letter, he found the characters that appeared most frequently in the handwriting. Then, he matched them to the letters that appear most frequently in English — E, T, and A respectively.

Next, the students compared the shorthand with a little-known shorthand dictionary from that era. Williams had based his writing system off standard shorthand from the day, though he changed the characters to suit his needs.  By the end of last spring, progress was made, but much of the contents remained hidden. 

Most of the other students on the team graduated, and Mason-Brown took up the mantle, garnering a grant from the university to spend his summer staring at high-resolution images of the notes on his computer.  After almost a year of analysis, Mason-Brown says he’s decoded about 75 percent of the writings. 

The secret hope was that the writing would reveal new information on Williams and his unique views for the time.  “This is a further elaboration of his views,” said historian John M. Barry, who wrote a book about Williams. “We know that he strongly opposed the use of any kind of pressure or compulsion to convince anyone of any religious belief.”  And perhaps, he said, solving the mystery will bring some much-needed attention to a little-known founding father.

Mason-Brown, who will graduate in May and pursue a Mitchell Scholarship in Ireland, doesn’t plan to pursue cryptography professionally. His ambitions lie more in “pure math” — the secrets of elliptical curves, for example. But he will miss the collaborative nature of his Williams research.  “It’s not often,” he said, “that a math student gets to work on a problem that people in so many different disciplines get to appreciate."


This year's version of the indoor/outdoor tree.  The indoor section has one of the three trunks of the original tree that we planted about a dozen years ago as part of a grove of future Christmas trees. 

The tree is about 14 feet high; using only half a tree indoors allows us to have a tall one that doesn't use up too much space in the room.

My granddaughter helped trim the outdoor half of the tree.  It's made up of the other two trunks and beautifully fills the center gable of the living room window array.

The part of all this that we like so much, apart from the fun we have doing it, is the delight our friends have when they come to visit .

Happy holidays! The oldest synagogue in the country is located in Newport RI. I had thought it was due to Sephardic Jews who were also Portuguese fishermen, and maybe it was, but now I suppose it was because Jews were more welcome there than other places. The Touro Synagogue was build in 1763, and is open for visits, and still functions as an Orthadox synagogue.
Kathy, I've visited it there!
Thanks for posting photos of the decorated tree! It's very inviting!
Happy New Year to all the men at your NYE soiree; wish I was there !
It is noteworthy when even the Murdoch media and right-wing polemicists start to distance themselves.

This shooting tragedy has been an epiphany for me. In the past I always felt it was disrespectful and opportunistic for advocates from either side of the gun control issue to take the opportunity of these tragedies to try to score points for their respective sides. A dear friend of mine, a retired elementary school prinicipal posted a piece on FB that said, (paraphrasing in summary); there is no better time to have this debate than when the consequences of the outcome are so painfully clear for all to see. That is something I believe now that I did not believe before Newtown.
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