One Run Baseball Luck?

My favorite baseball team has won a lot of close games this year, and that has been a key component in what so far has been an outstanding season. Conventional baseball wisdom, to which I subscribe, has it that a good team does well in games decided by one run. But I wondered what if it is just chance which team wins 4-3 or 9-8? Would some teams win significantly more if the results were just a coin flip instead of skill? I undertook an experiment, which I readily admit is filled with holes, but the results are interesting.

First came in-depth, five-minute Google research to find how frequently games were decided by the slimmest of margins. One source reported that over a decade, 29% of the games were won by one run. Another source for one season had it slightly lower. I was surprised that the percentage was that high. I “confirmed” these rates by looking at the results on one day when all teams played. Four of the fifteen contests were decided by one run, for a rate of 27%. Over the 162-game season, I decided that on average a team was involved in about 46 one-run games.

Then to determine what the results might be in those contests if the outcome was a matter of chance, I decided to flip a coin forty-six times for each of the thirty major league teams. Of course, I was not really going to do this burdensome, boring activity (I might develop a callus on my flipping thumb). Instead, I found an online coin-flipping site that randomly generates heads and tails. This simulated flipper (there are many similar sites) allowed me to choose from a single flip to a string of tosses. Their nearest choice to my desired series of forty-six was fifty, and I decided that was close enough for my purposes.

Making my own random selection, I decided that each heads would represent a victory. When the results were in, I was not surprised that many of the trials clustered around twenty-five heads. More than half of the 30 “team tosses”–sixteen–produced “victories” of twenty-three to twenty-seven games. Perhaps these outcomes might affect a pennant race, but not very often. However, four of the sets of fifty tosses had from twenty to twenty-two heads. By chance, my hypothetical teams would have been six to ten games below .500 (twenty heads—victories means thirty losses, or ten games below .500 in one run games) and that certainly could affect who would win a division. Similarly, six outcomes fell from twenty-eight to thirty heads or six to ten games .500 (thirty heads or victories means twenty losses) in these simulated close games.

Four of the outcomes of these flipping sets of thirty, however, were particularly striking. On the negative side, one team would have won only nineteen games out of fifty by chance and another only fifteen. A manager with a record in one-run games of fifteen wins and thirty-five losses should start looking for another job.

On the positive side, one set had thirty-one heads and the remaing set had thirty-three. Thirty-three and seventeen in one-run games by chance, but this team’s manager would probably win awards and the team might win the pennant.

This exercise reminded me again of how unintuitive probabilities are for most of us. There is a reason why the study of probabilities came late in the modern development of mathematics and basic statistical tools such as significance testing are even more recent. And my thoughts, as they often do, turned to my admiration for the spouse.

The spouse—bless her eager heart thirsting for more knowledge–decided, yet again, that she would try to understand calculus. Wisely, however, she thought that she should first master precalculus. She has been taking online classes, and I have heard much talk about sines and tangents, matrices, and vectors. Now she is in a probability unit. Perhaps our conversation would have amused you as we struggled with what seems to be a simple problem: Using a standard, well-shuffled deck of cards, what are the odds of finding a spade by drawing two cards without replacing the first one back into the deck? If you instinctively knew how to calculate that, you were much better with probabilities than we were.

While that deck-of-card problem was cracked after considerable effort, flipping coins seems clearly straightforward. The chances of getting heads is fifty percent. We know, however, that flipping a coin ten times does not always yield five heads or that flipping a quarter fifty times does not always result in twenty-five heads. However, our instinct is that the result will be close to twenty-five. “Outliers”–such as thirty-three heads and seventeen tails–will be rare. Then there is the issue described to me by a Harvard statistician. He would assign his students to flip a coin a hundred times and record the results. He said he could tell when someone did not do the exercise and just made it up because their lists would seldom have significant runs of heads or tails while real flipping almost always produced, for example, six or eight heads in a row. Therefore, fifty flips would sometimes result in the number of heads well above or below the twenty-five number. Our intuition may be that fifty flips is a large enough trial to eliminate “outliers,” but it is not. And in case you might think that the internet flipper was flawed, out of the total of fifteen hundred tosses–fifty for each of the thirty team–the total number of heads was 748. With fifty flips, however, “outliers” were not really outliers.

However, when I have told my baseball friends about my exercise and say that chance alone might have a team win or lose an inordinate number of one- run games, they rebel at the notion and assert the baseball wisdom that good teams win more one-run games than they lose. It is not simply a matter of luck, and even after my experiment, I still tend to agree with them.

First Sentences

“One winter morning several years ago, I got an email with some ridiculously exciting news.” A.J. Jacobs, The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life.

“The police decided to enter the flat, but rather than break down the door they called a locksmith, figuring that a few minutes either way were unlikely to make a difference.” The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason (translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb).

“At a recent lecture on the Piltdown disclosures a member of the audience remarked, ‘When I read in the paper that Piltdown man was bogus, I felt as if something had gone out of my life; I had been brought up on Piltdown man!’”  J.S. Weiner, The Piltdown Forgery.

“In my dream I was reaching right through the glass of the window on a hockshop.” Fredric Brown, The Fabulous Clipjoint.

“Magic matters.” David Copperfield, Richard Wiseman, David Britland, David Copperfield’s History of Magic.

“It is never easy to move to a new country, but in truth I was happy to be away from New York.” Katie Kitamura, Intimacies.

“A little before eight on the morning of March 21, 1829, the Duke of Wellington, England’s prime minister, arrived on horseback at a crossroads south of the Thames, about a half mile beyond Battersea Bridge.” Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.

“It’s hard to know, ever, where a story begins.” Jennifer Haigh, Mercy Street.

“We forget that love is revolutionary.” Tiya Miles, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake.

“His cousin Freddie brought him on the heist one hot night in early June.” Colson Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle.

“The politics of inevitability is the idea that there are no ideas.” Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.

“It wasn’t far off midnight, but it was still light.” Ragnar Jónasson, Snowblind. (translated by Quentin Bates).

“’We need every one of you,’ proclaimed an anonymous 1985 article in a major white power newspaper.” Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

“The dust hovers in a cloud behind the Reykjavik coach, the road is a ridged washboard and we rattle on; bend after bend, soon it becomes impossible to see through the muddy windows and, before long, the Laxdoela Saga trail will vanish into the dirt.” Auour Ava Olafsdóttir, Miss Iceland.

“Somewhere in the vast northern ocean, between Iceland and Norway, Thorsteinn Olafsson got himself involved in the biggest mystery of the middle ages by making an honest mistake: he turned his ship a few too many degrees west.” Egill Bjarnason, How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island.

Independent People on an Iceland Journey (concluded . . . finally)

          The Icelandic language has developed colorful phrases, at least according to Eliza Reid, a Canadian who is married to the President of Iceland. In her recent book Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World, she gives us: “A guest’s eyes see more clearly.” “On with the butter.” (Keep going, get a move on.) “Give it under the foot.” (To flirt.) “Never peed in a salty sea.” (Inexperienced.) “There lies the buried dog.” (The crux of the matter. Getting to the point.) “I come from the mountains.” (Out of touch.) “It lies in the eyes upstairs.” (Obvious.) “The raisin at the end of the hot dog.” (A pleasant surprise.) (Our guide insisted that that last phrase did not exist. A raisin might be said to indicate a pleasant surprise, but never in conjunction with a hot dog. Icelanders eat a lot of hot dogs. They come with many toppings. I tried to order one with everything in Icelandic, but, not surprisingly, my language skills failed. The couple hot dogs I had were very good. I was told that Icelandic hot dogs are different from ballpark franks because in addition to beef and pork, they also incorporate lamb.)

Icelandic Hot Dog Stand. Photo by AJ

          Although a comparatively small group has ever spoken, read, or written Icelandic, the world owes a huge debt to the language. Throughout history, much of literature has been oral and has disappeared. However, in the thirteenth century, Icelander Snorri Sturuluson, and probably others, began to record the sagas, myths, and legends in the Icelandic vernacular. Five centuries later Árni Magnússon collected and assembled as much of the medieval manuscripts as he could lay his hands on. These Old Norse writings, which I gather can be read relatively easily by a modern Icelander, have told us much about history from 900 to 1200 because many of the sagas were family chronicles of the contemporary world. They also preserved legendary figures that otherwise would have been lost. You might think of Thor or Odin as Scandinavian, but we know of them and other Norse figures because of the ancient Icelandic writings.

          Icelanders continue to value reading and writing. (Giving a book at Christmas is expected.) A sign in the airport said, in English, that one in ten Icelanders writes a book. Before the trip, I remembered that I had read an Icelandic mystery story and thought it might be interesting to read another, but I did not remember the author’s name. I googled for Icelandic mystery series, and to my surprise found that there were a half dozen or so all with good marks from reviewers. Remember: This in a country with 370,000 people. I read and enjoyed a few of them and learned something about Iceland from each. I also read a modern Icelandic novel and found it, too, to be very good. Some of the characters in that book wrote poetry and others of my readings indicated that the land produces many poets. I began to think that everyone in Iceland wrote verse. I asked the guide if she did. She said that she did not but quickly added that her brother was quite a good poet. (Later I learned that the guide owned a share in a Reykjavik art gallery and was an accomplished painter with a one-woman show coming up in a northern city.)

          And in these endeavors, I learned about a major writer I had not heard of before: Halldór Laxness, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. (He was born with an Icelandic name but adopted Laxness from the place where he was raised.) His most famous book, Independent People, was so rich I could only read it in small doses to make sure that I would not miss too much. Touching, heartbreaking, filled with sly wit, it is a major work of literature. Almost as good is his Iceland’s Bell, which incorporates real events and figures, including Árni Magnússon.

When I returned home, I was asked if I would go back to Iceland or even consider living there. My first reaction was that my days are dwindling. There are many places I have not been, and they will take precedence over a return to the island. On the other hand, if I could be guaranteed to see the northern lights, I would go back, but I also realized that there are many other reasons to spend more time in Iceland. For example, I did not see a single McDonalds, but they do have a Costco. A roadside stop offered a panino. The stores displayed the same clothes in June that they must offer in January. It is the home of skyr. Iceland does not have mosquitos. I did not go to the Blue Lagoon, and it is worth plunging in. And a very good reason to go back are the Icelandic women.

          Ah, Icelandic women. They all seemed to be between six feet and six feet three, but not with a model’s body. They had ample bottoms, reasonable, but not overlarge busts, and a definable waist. Most had great smiles (from those we met, Icelanders laugh a lot) and a clear complexion that looks as if it were scrubbed moments ago. They did not need makeup to have rosy peach cheeks. While a lot of the small girls had almost snow-white hair, women’s hair generally has darkened into a light brunette with copious blonde streaks that the spouse said Americans would pay a hairdresser $400 monthly to achieve. And the Icelandic women all looked as if they could beat the crap out you. What was not to fantasize about?

Three Independent People on an Iceland Journey

Independent People on an Iceland Journey (continued)

Our trip finished in Reykjavik where two-thirds of Iceland’s scanty population lives. At first glance, the capital city looks like a model town designed by Disney. Cute homes brightly painted and immaculately maintained. Clean streets. Well behaved, helpful people. Charming squares and parks. I say at first glance because I did see a few street people—a “crazy” ranting at full volume, a person looking as wasted as anyone I ever see in New York, some graffiti—but such sightings were rare. At third or fourth glance, Reykjavik appeared to be a model small city.

          The city has remarkable architecture, but the dominant structure is the church that sits on a hill in the center of the town. Iceland has a state Lutheran church, which was adopted centuries ago in good Christian fashion after the Catholic bishop or archbishop was slaughtered. The country, however, guarantees freedom of religion to all. (The guide told me that outside of Christmas and Easter, only maybe twenty percent of Icelanders went to church once a month.)

We often saw traditional-looking churches with picturesque steeples in the countryside that might hold seventy-five people if packed. These buildings were well maintained on the outside. In my forays, I did not find one that was unlocked, and I could only peer into the windows, but the interiors also looked in good shape. Often adjacent to the church was a small graveyard, and I would wander through them looking at the headstones, thinking about the lives and the grief of those who did the burying. We visited one church far removed from other habitations. While my traveling companions took a hike to the sea, I wandered on paths in the hummocky, mossy countryside. I stopped and listened. I could hear no human noise, even distantly, a rarity in my life, but I concentrated on the overlapping bird sounds for ten minutes, which is close as I have gotten to meditation in a long time.

Countryside Church. Picture by AJ

          The Reykjavik church—Hallgrímskirkju—was different. It’s large and cavernous, created in a modern design with a soaring bell tower seemingly held up by structures that mimic the natural basaltic columns seen throughout the countryside. The interior is unadorned with comfortable pews. The windows were clear, not stained glass, that let in lots of light.

Hallgrímskirkju. Photo by AJ
Hallgrímskirkju. Photo by AJ

The church has a remarkable organ, so remarkable looking that we came back for an organ concert that was part of a first-Saturday-of-every-month series. I was reminded in reading the bio of the organist, Kitty Kovács, of the many different lives there are and how hard a musician’s life can be. She was born and studied music in Hungary. She had won prizes around the world and moved to Iceland in 2006, first working as a piano teacher. Since 2011 Kovács has been an organist at a church unknown to me and as a teacher at a local music school on the Westman Islands, which sit a bit off the southern coast of Iceland. I don’t pretend to know much about organ music, but to me it was a wonderful concert that showed off the range of the instrument and the depth of her talent.

          Danish is a required subject in Icelandic schools, and at least to this tourist, almost everyone also seems to speak English. But the native language is Icelandic, which is a descendant of what was brought to Iceland by Vikings more than a thousand years ago and bears a relationship with modern Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish. However. for almost all its history, Iceland and its language have been essentially isolated from the rest of the world. The guide said that Icelandic is sometimes described as Old Norse, the language of Scandinavia but without a millennium of evolution.

          I am not good with languages (an understatement), but on most trips I pick up some basic things—good morning, good night, thank you, you’re welcome, etc.–and decipher some words on signs and menus. Not in Iceland. I would ask how to say something and try to repeat it, but my effort only brought a little laugh and another enunciation of the phrase. I never could hear the difference. The written language seems to have some sort of mark over or through every third letter, and there are letters that seem almost recognizable—a “p” or “d” for instance—but they aren’t and don’t sound anything like what I think of as a “p” or “d”. Double consonants seem to be pronounced much differently from single ones, and so on. The guide was asked, “If you wonder why Iceland is not more important on the world stage, did you ever think your language held you back?” There was no reply

          The language is maintained within Iceland’s small population, but few outside of Iceland speak it, and it will be interesting to see what happens to the language as time goes along. More and more foreigners are living in Iceland, but my guess is that many if not most of them manage by using English and don’t learn much Icelandic.

          Icelandic names, however, fascinate me. They don’t have traditional family names. Last names are the father or mother’s first name with the addition of the Icelandic equivalent of son or daughter added to it. If a Robert Johnson has a son named Tom, the child’s name is Tom Robertson, and if Tom has a son named Barak, then it will be Barak Tomson, so on. The result has made Iceland seem like a friendly place because first names are used, not the last ones. If you met the prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir (Jakob’s daughter), you would address her not as Ms. Jakobsdóttir, but as Katrín. Even the phone book is alphabetized by first names.


In anticipation of the overruling of Roe, states passed new abortion laws, a number of which do not permit abortions even when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. These laws were passed primarily with the votes of conservative men. I assume they are concerned that otherwise their potential offspring might not be carried to term.

After the draft abortion opinion was leaked, many people, including Clarence Thomas, said that the leak irrevocably harmed trust in the Court. Now that the opinion is out, I no longer hear how harmful the leak was. How much was your faith in the Supreme Court harmed by the leak?

I have been thinking of a truism: Life is a sexually transmitted disease.

At this time of year, I remember the truism: Nothing is responsible for more false hopes than one good cantaloupe.

Was the comedian right who said that he believed in abortion and that often it should be mandatory–and retroactive?

At the riveting January 6 hearings, I notice that witnesses and representatives swig and swallow water from little plastic bottles. Is this environmentally unsound practice some sort of security measure?

I had not thought of Donald Trump as a contemporary artist before, but I am almost positive that I saw broken crockery on the floor with ketchup dripping down the wall in an offbeat gallery a few years ago.

The football coach’s prayers at the 50 yard line are constitutionally protected according to the Supreme Court. I assume that he was unaware of Jesus’s guidance in Matthew 6: 5-6: “And when you pray, you must not be like hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your father who sees in secret shall reward you.”

Many “patriots,” it seems, besought pardons from then President Trump for their activities in trying to overthrow an election. Trump did give pardons and commutations to some, such as Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, for crimes that were not related to January 6. Why, then, not to the others? I went to the closet in the guest room where I had tucked away my lawyer’s hat and put it on. I wondered what advice I would have given Trump about those pardons. First, I thought, “Get the money upfront.” Criminal defense attorneys know that it is hard to collect fees once a client has been sentenced to jail. And with Trump’s penchant for stiffing people (and for his not-very-likely-but-wished-for incarceration), the imperative–Get the money upfront–would have been even more important. Once I got beyond that financial consideration, I realized that I would have advised Trump not to give out pardons for anything related to January 6. Once Jim Jordan, Rudy Giuliani, Mark Meadows, and others were pardoned, they could no longer incriminate themselves about January 6 because they would no longer face criminal charges concerning those events. They could no longer validly claim the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Legally they would be required to testify about anything to do with trying to stop the lawful transfer of power or face contempt. It could not help my hypothetical client Trump to have such testimony. Therefore, I would have advised, don’t give the pardons.

The person who claims to be a self-made man usually admires his maker.

The Fourth

Before the hot dogs and watermelon, before the sack race and the balloon toss, before the sparklers and fireworks, read the Declaration of Independence. And if you are of that inclination, pray for the United States of America.

The Supreme Court’s Sensitive Places

          Lawyers like other people have always had concerns about sensitive places, such as bikini wax zones, Adam’s apples, and bunions. Now, however, they will be litigating about different kinds of “sensitive zones,” for the Supreme Court in its recent gun case has indicated that, although there is a constitutional right to carry firearms in public, their presence can be restricted in “sensitive zones.”

In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court recognized (created?) a right that had not been established in the first two centuries of the nation: Ordinary, law-abiding citizen now had the right under the Second Amendment to possess a handgun in the home for self-defense. Last week in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen the Court expanded that right to carrying a handgun for self-defense outside the home. The Court found a New York law that required a showing of a special need to pack a pistol in public, whose roots go back to 1905, unconstitutional.

The Court concluded that constitutional rights have the scope they were understood to have when adopted, and that the definition “bear” in the Second Amendment naturally encompasses the right to carry a handgun in public. Therefore, they reasoned, the state must justify any restriction on that presumptive right. The majority emphatically rejected what most lower courts had done when they had considered the interests a gun restriction promotes. Instead, SCOTUS decided that a limitation on carrying can only be constitutionally upheld if it falls within the country’s historical tradition of firearm regulation no matter what good purposes are served by the gun safety measure. So, after reviewing history without considering the benefits the law serves (surprise, surprise), Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, stated “[W]e conclude that respondents have not met their burden to identify an American tradition justifying the State’s proper-cause requirement.” And so now there is a constitutional right for you to carry a handgun next to me in Times Square. And for me to carry a handgun next to you.

          In the recent Bruen case, however, the Court suggested that there were exceptions to this right. The 2008 Heller decision had discussed longstanding laws forbidding guns in “sensitive places” such as schools and government buildings. Thomas in Bruen stated, “Although the historical record yields relatively few 18th and 19th century ‘sensitive places’ where weapons were altogether prohibited—e.g., legislative assemblies, polling places, and courthouses—we are also aware of no disputes regarding the lawfulness of such prohibitions. We therefore can assume it settled that these locations were ‘sensitive places’ where arms carrying could be prohibited consistent with Second Amendment. And courts can use analogies to those historical regulations of ‘sensitive places’ to determine those modern regulations prohibiting the carry of firearms in new and analogous sensitive places are constitutionally permissible.”

          And, thus, lawyers and others will be occupied with the question of what defines “sensitive places” for Second Amendment purposes. The Court did not attempt any comprehensive definition of “sensitive places,” but it rejected New York’s claim that they include the places where people congregate, and where law enforcement is presumptively available. The streets and parks of your town are not such zones. Apparently, however, schools, government buildings, and polling places are.

          But hold on. The Bruen opinion seemingly relied on a law review article, written by David B. Kopel and Joseph G.S. Greenlee, entitled The “Sensitive Places” Doctrine: Locational Limits on the Right to Bear Arms. In finding that New York’s law was not constitutional, Thomas wrote that the most important history in understanding a right was the history shortly before and after the founding. Kopel and Greenlee’s survey of laws found few restrictions on gun carrying before the Civil War. They found no ban on firearms at legislative assemblies and wrote, “In general, Americans did not seem to mind people coming armed to attend or participate in legislative matters. Congress had no rules against legislative armament, and through the mid-nineteenth century, it was common for Congressmen to be armed.” Delaware in 1776 did prohibit guns at polling places, but the authors found no other such restriction until Reconstruction. One example does not seem like a tradition.

          Only after the Civil War did the country start to have widespread limitations on firearms: “In the half-century following the Civil War, the former slave states were the center of the gun control movement. . . . The racial subtext of Southern gun control was obvious.” Thomas in Bruen, however, stated that the history a hundred years after the founding should not bear much weight in determining our traditions in restricting guns. And yet, some of the “sensitive places” are even much more recent than Reconstruction. For example, “bans on guns in schools are, in most places, of similarly recent vintage. For most of the twentieth century, students brought guns to school. . . . When Antonin Scalia was growing up in New York City in the 1950s, he carried a rifle on the subway on his way to school, for use as a member of his school’s rifle team.” Only in 1980s and 1990s was there a widespread ban on guns at schools. The authors conclude, “Given the relatively thin historical record in support of the sensitive places doctrine, attempts to elaborate and extend the doctrine by analogy may be difficult.”

          By the current Court’s standards, then, the historical tradition of sensitive places where guns can be restricted is, in fact, inconsistent with Thomas’s assertion that we should look primarily to the years immediately before and after the founding.  The Court did not discuss the rationale for re-invoking such a doctrine. If they had, they would have had to recognize that the doctrine is based on reasoning that the Court states could not be used to justify the New York law. Kopel and Greenlee state that an 1874 Georgia Supreme Court ruling that upheld a law banning the carrying of weapons into a courthouse employed the first sensitive places analysis. That court stated that access to a court is “just as sacred as the right to carry arms” and armed people at courthouses deny free access to the courts. In other words, safety and court access outweighed the right to carry arms.  Bruen , however, explicitly rejected safety concerns in considering whether New York’s law was valid.

          Using Bruen’s own historical analysis, then, there is little basis for the sensitive places doctrine. Moreover, the doctrine is based on reasoning that the Court rejects. But still the Court seems committed to preserving and perhaps extending “sensitive places.” Why? I, like many others, thought in 2008 that the Supreme Court in Heller would expand gun rights, but I was also confident that the new right would not extend to carrying guns into the Supreme Court building itself. And I am not surprised that Bruen will not allow the carrying of handguns there either. The Court may not weigh your safety or mine when the right to carry is considered, but the Supreme Court justices want to make sure that their own safety outweighs what they claim are Second Amendment rights.

Independent People on an Iceland Journey (continued)

Iceland is famous for its landscape. There are grazing fields but few trees. (Iceland’s Christmas trees are imported.) There are no forests, and the few trees that exist do not reach any significant height. Another Icelandic well-worn joke: If you are lost in a “forest” in Iceland, stand up. Few crops are grown other than fodder for wintering livestock. There are some greenhouses growing foodstuffs, but there are no fruit trees, lettuces, or broccoli growing in the countryside. Almost everything from wood to food must be imported. I wondered why Icelanders have not perished from scurvy, and the answer may be root vegetables. Turnips, I learned, are a good source of vitamin C, and rutabagas are a super source of that essential nutrient. And Iceland is awash in cod liver oil, which contains mega doses of vitamins A and D. I was told that the natives take it every day, and it was available at every breakfast.

The countryside is dotted with well-maintained homes and farm buildings that stand out starkly in the landscape like oh so many houses on the American prairie. Much of the countryside is covered in lava flows. The classic Eleventh Edition of The Encyclopedia Britanica (1910) describes it much better than I could: “The great lava-fields are composed of vast sheets of lava, ruptured and riven in divers way. The smooth surface of the viscous billowy lava is further diversified by long twisted ‘ropes,’ curving backwards and forward up and down over the undulations. Moreover, there are gigantic fissures, running for several miles, caused by subsidence of the underlying sections.” Icelanders seem proud that the Americans practiced for the first moon landing on the otherworldly lava fields of their country.

This landscape coupled with the lack of welcoming weather for much of the year made the golf courses we saw often surprising, but many Icelanders are avid golfers. I asked one of them how long was the golf season. Without cracking a smile, he replied, “Last year it was very good–all of Wednesday.”

Most of the landscape seems drab (perhaps this is why most of the houses are brightly painted) except for stands of blooming purple flowers. This lupine is controversial. It was imported from Alaska to halt soil erosion. The plant takes nitrogen from the air and transfers it to the plants’ roots and then the soil. Lupine has spread tremendously over the island. Some see it as beneficial making for a richer earth and preventing erosion. Others see it as an invasive species whose spread needs to be controlled, but for the tourist it adds a beautiful color to the landscape which, except for greenish gray moss, is otherwise dun brown and gray and black from the lava, rocks, and basalt.

Besides volcanos, Iceland also has waterfalls in abundance, and I hiked to many of them. I don’t have the literary ability to describe the array or their power or their fascination, so let’s just look at some pictures.

Photo by AJ
Photo by AJ
Photo by AJ
Photo by AJ
Photo by AJ
Photo by AJ

Iceland also has summer houses in abundance. This seemed strange. Did people really need to escape the summer heat of Reykjavik and the other towns when the temperatures might soar to seventy degrees? But the guide said that summer houses are part of the Icelandic culture, although they often broke Icelandic patterns in one way. Icelanders overwhelmingly own their own homes. There are few renters, and those outsiders who come to Iceland for an extended stay find few places to rent. (Icelanders are also car owners, often owning more than one. Our driver owned three, all American vehicles. Icelanders keep them until they no longer work. The used car market is small.) Often, but not always, the summer homes are owned by those who use them, but many are owned by corporations for use by employees, and many are owned by unions, which are strong in the country, for members’ vacations.

(to be continued)

The Termination of Roe

          The Supreme Court has terminated Roe v. Wade. Many of the most important consequences of aborting the constitutional right to abortion are obvious, but I have also been thinking about other effects.

          There is a glimmer of good news in the Supreme Court case that overruled Roe v. Wade. The opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women’s Health Organization averred that there was no right to abortion specified in the Constitution, but it also held that access to abortion was an issue for the states to decide. I had little doubt that the Court would kill Roe, but I was concerned that in doing so, the majority would suggest that a fetus was a human being. This, of course, is a common view. For example, in an opinion piece in the New York Times published on the day Roe was overruled, Karen Swallow Prior, a research professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote that if you believe as she does “that abortion unjustly ends the life of a being that is fully human [Emphasis added], a life that exists independently of the will of the mother, is self-organizing and unique, developing yet complete in itself, then you will understand Roe not as a ruling that liberates but as one that dehumanizes—first the fetus, then the rest of us.”

          People who have beliefs like Prior’s will seek to have states that do not already have laws making abortion criminal to pass them. They will not have success everywhere. I doubt that will be the end of their efforts. When they lose in the state legislatures, they will turn to the courts hoping to get rulings outside the democratic process that a fetus is a human being. If courts ever conclude that, then an abortion would be depriving a life without due process of law. Abortion would be illegal everywhere.

          But right now, there is that small bit of good news that the Dobbs Court held that abortion is an issue for the states.

          A justifiable concern is that with Roe overruled, other Supreme Court precedents that relied on reasoning similar to Roe’s will also fall. Clarence Thomas concurring in Dobbs said that Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), Lawrence v. Texas (2003), and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) should also be reconsidered, and there is little doubt that he would overrule them all. Alito’s opinion stressed that only abortion was at issue in Dobbs, and Kavanaugh concurring suggested that the Court should not consider other precedents. However, if the Court is consistent, these other decision, too, could be overruled. So what would that mean?

          Obergefell held that there was a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. The consequences of striking it down and returning the issue to the states are obvious. Griswold held that married couples had the constitutional right to access birth control, a right that was extended to non-married couples by the Supreme Court in 1972 in Eisenstadt v. Baird. I don’t imagine that states will rush to outlaw condoms and birth control pills. At the time of Griswold, only Connecticut and Massachusetts had such laws. However, many state legislators have stated an intention to ban the morning-after pill and intrauterine devices under the theory that IUDs and the medication cause abortions. If Griswold is overruled, these laws will be constitutional because states can not only regulate abortion, they can also regulate these forms of contraception.

          Lawrence is thought to hold that laws prohibiting gay sex are unconstitutional. If it is overruled, states could again criminalize this behavior. Lawrence, however, did more than that. Thomas was correct in saying that the case constitutionalized “the right to engage in private, consensual sexual acts.” Some state anti-sodomy laws made oral and anal sex illegal for all people. In these places, married people who engaged in fellatio or cunnilingus were violating the law. Even if Lawrence is overruled, states might not pass such laws again. However, the assumption is that with the fall of Roe, anti-abortion laws that were in effect before Roe and remain on the books are again operative. A similar thing could happen if Lawrence is overruled. Laws still on the books would be back in effect. Gays, and perhaps others, would be breaking the law.

          This makes me think back to my childhood. I read the local newspaper of my town of 45,000 growing up, and I learned early that people were arrested for adultery, fornication, and cohabitation, and some even went to jail. I understood what murder and assault were, but I did not understand these other crimes. I asked the parents what these offenses were. I could tell that my question embarrassed them, and their explanations were vague and filled with hemming and hawing. What I did learn at the age of eight was that at least sometimes I needed a source of knowledge other than the mother and father. So, when there was an arrest for rape reported in the paper, I looked up the definition in a dictionary and I learned that rape was “unlawful carnal knowledge.” That did nothing to further my understanding.

          In the local Sheboygan police reports, it seemed that people were being arrested for such offenses on a weekly basis. And, indeed, A Wall Street Journal article in 1968 reported that in 1967 in my hometown “there were thirty-five arrests for adultery, eleven for fornication, twenty-seven for lewd and lascivious cohabitation.” Elizabeth H. Pleck, in her book Not Just Roommates: Cohabitation After the Sexual Revolution, says that the local paper, the Sheboygan Press, published with pride the entire WSJ article, and the town took honor in being the cohabitation arrest capital of the United States in the 1970s. (Not Just Roommates can be found on Google books.) The cohabitation law was repealed in 1983, but it was enforced as late as 1978.

          I believe that the fornication law, too, was repealed, and in any event, such laws are unconstitutional under Lawrence. I have read that the Wisconsin adultery law, although now not enforceable, is still on the books as a felony, and probably other states also retain such a law, too. If Lawrence is overruled, those laws can again be enforced. Of course, there will be nothing like full enforcement of the laws against adultery or fornication. Our court and jail systems could not handle the cases even, perhaps especially, in the South where divorce rates are higher than in much of the North.

We can, however, expect that there will be pockets around the country where the laws will sometimes be enforced. Back in the day the Sheboygan police chief said that most of the arrests for sexual offenses resulted from neighbor’s complaints. The arrests, however, also clearly comported with his personal sense of morality. Offended neighbors are still with us as are enraged spouses or ex-spouses, and in some places, they will clamor for arrests and prosecutions. And religious zealotry is certainly with us. After all, while the Bible does not mention abortion, it does condemn adultery and fornication. We can expect that some police chiefs and sheriffs will hear the call from what they think is God (as well as the call of publicity and political ambition), and they will do what they claim is His will.

Whither School Vouchers?

         The Supreme Court this week held that a Maine school funding scheme violated the Constitution. Maine has some rural school districts that lack a secondary school. The Maine law allowed those districts to sign contracts with nearby public schools for the education of their high school students or to pay tuition for the students at private schools as long as the private schools were not sectarian. (A conservative organization misleadingly characterized the Maine law in this way: “Maine passed a law that banned families from sending their children to religious schools.”)

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., writing for the majority of six, said that states are not required to support religious education, but if they subsidize any private schools, they may not discriminate against religious ones: “The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools—so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion.”

One of the schools at issue in the case, Temple Academy in Waterville, Maine, says it expects its teachers “to integrate biblical principles with their teaching in every subject” and teaches students “to spread the word of Christianity.” The other, Bangor Christian Schools, says it seeks to develop “within each student a Christian worldview and Christian philosophy of life.” In his dissent, Justice Breyer wrote that both schools “have admissions policies that allow them to deny enrollment to students based on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and religion, and both schools require their teachers to be born-again Christians.”

The decision was not a surprise. Under the Roberts court, claims from religious groups have been upheld at a rate higher than any time in the last seventy years. The Court’s split was also expected with the six conservative justices, all Catholics, in the majority.

The debate is going on as to whether this ruling promotes the constitutional right of the free exercise of religion or is an erosion of the constitutional wall between church and state, as the dissent maintained. (Often lost in the distinction as to whether a claim extends freedom of religion or whether the claim violates separation of church and state is that the anti-establishment clause was placed in the Constitution to promote religious freedom.) But the decision raises other issues that should be discussed.

A wing of conservatism advocates for the broad use of school vouchers. These vouchers are public moneys given to the parents for the education of their schoolchildren. Thus, parents, not the state, decide which school will get the government money. Conservative economists promoted the vouchers in the 1950s as a way to improve education. The claim was that allowing free market principles, under the slogan “school choice,” would work wonders for educational quality. Many of those seeking a religious education today support vouchers.

Because the voucher can be used at any private school including sectarian ones, public money is used for religious purposes. The Supreme Court had earlier made it clear that governments could not directly aid religious schools, but the use of vouchers gives parents control over the state money, and is, thereby, an indirect aid to religious schools. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court in 2002 held that a school voucher did not, therefore, violate the federal Constitution.

The recent Court decision is another step in favor of vouchers. Some conservatives, however, want us to go still further. They would like the end of public schools as we now know them and go to an all-voucher system. If increasing numbers of children are separated into religious silos or segregated by gender identity, sexual orientation or any other sociological grouping, the fracturing of America is exacerbated. Would the benefits of vouchers outweigh this cost to American cohesion? That is something we should be discussing.