Aftermath of the October Snowstorm

The October Surprise was hard on New England’s flora.

Southern New England generally enjoys mild weather. Three seasons are beautiful, and the winters are usually tolerable. 2011 was an exception. It was the hottest and wettest year on record, and there were two destructive storms. On June 1, a few tornadoes touched down in several locations between Springfield, MA, and Sturbridge. On October 30 the region suffered the effects of a freakish snowstorm of massive proportions. Many tree limbs were lost, and a lot of people were without electricity for a week or more.

We received between one and two feet of snow. The worst damage was in northern CT, which is where I live, and it was much worse than one would expect for a storm of that magnitude. In the first place, quite a few leaves were still attached to the trees due to the exceptional heat and rainfall. That meant that a lot more snow accumulated on the branches than would have been the case with a winter storm. The second exacerbating factor was the fact that the snow mixed with ice. This made the snow stick to the branches as it fell, and it made the accumulation there immune to the effects of the winds that would ordinarily blow it to the ground.

Seven months later the effects of the snowstorm are no longer easily visible. New England is as green as ever, and that is very green. If you look hard enough, however, you can see some very peculiar remnants of the storm.

This tree lost a lot of branches, but one skinny one on top somehow survived.

The same thing happened to this tree.

Both of these trees can be seen — in opposite directions — from my parking spot at the office.

This maple lost a LOT of branches. I have still not figured out an easy way to dislodge some of them.

Many of the branches on the north side of this pine in our front yard were permanently bent 90 degrees.

All the branches on one side of this tree were lost.

This may have been the ugliest bush in the world.

After the dead parts were removed, nothing was left of this bush.

I took these last two photos just in time. The landscapers came in last week with a chainsaw and a Bobcat; there is no sign of either bush now.

One place in which the effects of the storm are easy to see is the Windsor Locks Canal, which is just west of the Connecticut River, which flows due south from Vermont-New Hampshire to the Long Island Sound. The fact that the ground was saturated from all the rain that we received in October caused dozens of trees weighted down with snow to become uprooted and fall into the canal.

This is the canal. The tree in the foreground fell into the canal. The one in the middle of the photo is hanging on by a root or two.

Several trees in this section became uprooted.

The trees that fell into the canal, which has no current to speak of, for the most part just stayed there. Trees that fell into the river are eventually swept downstream. Sometimes they end up trapped on the shore. At one spot several of them are visible.

I don't know how long these logs have been trapped on the bank here.

Most peculiar of all is the tree that has been sitting in the same position in the middle of the river for months. It is apparently caught on something just north of some rapids. I would have expected it to pivot 90°, but it still resolutely points downstream.

The river will need to reach flood stage to dislodge this tree.

Moysian Fits

When should you support partner’s four-card major with only three pieces?

In yesterday’s pairs game my partner and I twice found ourselves in four-three fits. In both cases we ended up in unmakeable contracts, but both results were slightly above average. In the first one my partner dealt at favorable vulnerability.

Hand #2: My hand (9 HCP; 7 losers):

♠A54 T3 AQJ72 ♣T64

Partner’s hand (12 HCP; 7 losers):

♠T863 A6 95 ♣AKJ62

Partner opened 1♣; I responded 1; after LHO overcalled 1, partner rebid 1♠. I seriously considered jumping to 3♠, but I downgraded my heart values and settled for 2♠, which was down one. 2 would have worked better.

On the second hand LHO dealt, and we were vulnerable.

Hand #25: My hand (12 HCP; 7 losers):

♠AKQ3 KT75 964 ♣62

Partner’s hand (12 HCP; 6 losers):

♠6 AQ8 AQ73 ♣T8753

This time, if I remember correctly, the opponents were silent. Partner opened 1; I responded 1; partner bid his club suit. I jumped to 3NT, and partner corrected to 4. Down one again. This time we should have stopped at 2NT or 3.

My style for the last couple of years has been to support partner’s four-card suit whenever I held three cards in that suit plus a singleton or worthless doubleton in a side suit. I think that I picked this up from an article by Marshall Miles, but I could not subsequently find it. Yesterday’s result made me wonder if I should rethink this approach.

The first lesson to be gained from these hands is that Losing Trick Count does not work with Moysian fits. In the first hand we made three tricks less than LTC would predict. The second hand was two tricks short of the prediction. This was a known phenomenon. LTC can only be applied when an eight-card fit has been discovered.

Another thing that I had previously noticed was that Moysian fits work better if the trump honors are concentrated in the declarer’s hand. Otherwise, he/she may have to use valuable honors for ruffing. In the first case, my holding was perfect: A54. Could the problem have been that I had a void instead of a singleton? Yes, but only indirectly. If I had held five hearts, I would have bid them in preference to diamonds. So, the only possible Moysian distribution with a club void was 3=4=6=0.

I should definitely have rebid my six-card diamond suit. As long as partner had two of them, we should be better off in diamonds. This would have been much better than a no trump bid, even though I had an excellent holding in the opponents’ suit. So, from now on, I will amend my policy to prefer six-card rebids to three-piece support.

In the second case we found ourselves in a good strain. The problem was that we ended up just slightly too high. I don’t think that there is much more to learn from this hand. If the diamonds had behaved, we would have made it.

Grottaferrata and Santo Lucà (Part 2)

Pope Benedict IX was the interlocutor!

I finally finished translating Santo Lucà’s “GRAECO-LATINA DI BARTOLOMEO IUNIORE, EGUMENO DI GROTTAFERRATA († 1055 ca.)?”, the forty-six-page document that I found on the Internet. I previously wrote about my interest in Grottaferrata here.

Professor Lucà studied some anonymous scholia in Grottaferrata and the Vatican Libraries and deduced that the author could only have been St. Bartholomew the Younger, the fourth hegumen (abbot) of the Basilian monastery in Grottaferrata from 1015 or so until his death in 1055. St. Bartholomew held the office during the entire pontificate of the controversial Pope Benedict IX and the traumatic transition that followed it. More astounding to me was the fact that Professor Lucà identified the “interlocutor” of the scholia as Pope Benedict himself, who came from nearby Tusculum. In fact, the pope’s grandfather, Count Gregory, donated the land for the monastery. My fanciful account of Benedict IX’s pontificate can be found here.

A little historical background is in order. From 800 until 1870 the pope was the de facto king of central Italy. In the first half of the eleventh century southern Italy was mostly controlled by the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople. Northern Italy was largely under the egis of the Holy Roman Empire based in Germany. So, the pope was both head of the Christian Church and the ruler of a state that served as a buffer between the two empires. He was both a “spiritual power” and a “temporal power.” Unlike the other royal entities, however, the papacy had only vague rules of succession and until the end of the eleventh century the cardinals had nothing to do with papal succession. The new pope was often selected by a powerful ruler or a political faction.

Pope Benedict IX’s uncles, Pope Benedict VIII and Pope John XIX, held the papacy from 1012-1032 following a decade that saw three popes who were hand-picked by the Crescentius family, the major rivals of the counts of Tusculum. Benedict IX reigned from 1032 to 1045, at which point the Crescentius family organized a rebellion, deposed him, and installed one of its own as Pope Sylvester III. Fifty days later Benedict and his allies drove Sylvester back to Sabina, where he resumed his role of bishop and renounced his claim to the papacy. Thus began Benedict IX’s second pontificate, an unprecedented event in Church history.

Not long thereafter Pope Benedict voluntarily resigned the papacy (also unprecedented) in favor of his godfather, John Gratian, who paid Benedict a staggering sum of money for the privilege of becoming Pope Gregory VI. Within a year of this event, the young Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III, came to Italy and presided over the Council of Sutri, which deposed Benedict and Sylvester, neither of whom attended, as well as Gregory, who was present and admitted to using simony to obtain the papacy. Henry then installed a German bishop as Pope Clement II and went back to Germany with Gregory as his prisoner.

Pope Clement died after only ten months, and his death was, according to Professor Lucà, the occasion that motivated Bartholomew to compose his scholia. Benedict evidently had made clear his designs on returning to the Throne of Peter. In the scholia Bartholomew expressed his opinion that his friend Benedict should discard his desires and retire permanently. He reasoned that the Romans and the German emperor would not not tolerate Benedict’s return, and, in fact, the monk was right. Pope Benedict was able to reclaim the papacy, but his third pontificate ended when, at the behest of the emperor, Boniface of Tuscany, who had spearheaded the effort to restore Benedict to the papacy only a few months earlier, brought his army to Rome and forced the Tusculan pope to flee for good. The new pope was another German, who took the name Damasus II.

Bartholomew, who was a friend and confidante of Pope Benedict, wrote in the scholia concerning a number of other related subjects. He said that there could only be one pope and one emperor. The pope was in Rome (the west) and the emperor was in Constantinople (the east). He was right to be concerned about the conflict between the two cities. The great schism occurred less than a decade later in 1054.

Last week I sent an e-mail to Professor Lucà in which I posed two questions. 1) Did he think that the young Theophylact, the future Pope Benedict IX, might have been educated by the Basilian monks? This would have meant that he would have been one of a very few Romans who could speak and read Greek. 2) Did he believe the legend that Benedict and his brothers retired as monks in Grottaferrata?

I sure hope that he responds.

* * *

It is difficult to explain why the Church has always considered the pontificate of Sylvester III as legitimate. In a very similar situation involving Pope John XII, the interloper has always been adjudged an anti-pope. It is also difficult to explain how it is possible for the pontificates of Gregory VI and Clement II to be legitimate. If they were, how could Benedict just resume ruling the Church when they were out of the picture?

It is fruitless to puzzle over these matters. The fact is that on several occasions it could not have been clear to anyone who was really the pope, and sometimes the situation was not resolved for years. Furthermore, the official list is not much help. In fact, it was revised as recently as the twentieth century. Someone in the Vatican determined that Pope Cletus and Pope Anacletus were actually the same person and that Pope Donus II never existed at all. The most enigmatic name remaining on the list is probably Adrian V (1276), who is still considered a legitimate pope even though he never got around to being ordained as a priest.

And if you think that the pope must be celibate, you are wrong. Pope Adrian III (884-885) was not only married; he even lived with his wife while he was pope. During his pontificate his daughter was abducted and murdered.

I used to read a lot of fiction. Now I prefer history. I find that it is much more imaginative.

Terrible Miscalculations of Scale

For thousands more years the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across—which happened to be Earth—where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle […]

For thousands more years the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across—which happened to be Earth—where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog.

Those who study the complex interplay of cause and effect in the history of the universe say that this sort of thing is going on all the time, but that we are powerless to prevent it.

‘It’s just life,’ they say.

— Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Chapter 31.

I do not doubt that catastrophes sometimes occur because of terrible miscalculations of scale. Sometimes, however, even accurate determinations can be equally deceptive. Every so often I encounter numbers in the news that are difficult to put in context. For example, I recently read that Harvard’s endowment is currently valued at $32 billion, which, by the way, is 11 percent less than it was worth just four years ago.

Contrast that with the entire country of Afghanistan, which in 2001, the year of the American invasion, boasted a Gross Domestic Product of only $21 billion. It has risen considerably since we began investing so heavily there, of course. My understanding is that the country’s primary export, opium, is also on the rise.

The GDP of Iraq in 2003 was only $13.6 billion, a byproduct of the UN sanctions that had been in place for twelve years. At that time the administration was arguing that this pitiful country was arming itself with “weapons of mass destruction.” They probably expected to find inexpensive chemical weapons after the invasion, but I remember plenty of talk of “mushroom clouds.” The idea that Iraq was at that point developing nuclear weapons or any other sophisticated weapons system was nothing short of preposterous.

Iraq is also doing much better now. In its case the huge increase in the price of oil is a big factor, as is the fact that sanctions have been lifted.

George W. has a degree from Harvard. I wonder whether he considered asking Larry Summers, who was then its president, to buy the two troublesome countries. Would that not have been a lot easier?

One thing that was definitely not on the table was to ask Harvard to use its endowment to fund the wars. Summers would certainly have asked how much it would cost, and the administration refused to address that question at all. The last time that I looked the cost of the Iraq War was estimated at over $804 billion, and we had spent approximately $534 billion on the conflict in Afghanistan.

So, how was it possible for us to spend so much money on these two conflicts and have such an unsatisfactory result? Or, to put it another way, how could anyone have thought that the right way to deal with the problem of a small group of people who hated America enough to organize and execute an armed takeover of four civilian airplanes was to write a blank check to the U.S. army, navy, and air force, and tell them to invade two countries, one of which had absolutely nothing to do with the incident?

Maureen Dowd in her New York Times column of January 13, 2007, claimed that in college President Bush had been a very aggressive player of the game of Risk. In this game one player attempts to conquer a territory controlled by another by amassing huge piles of “armies” in the target territory. If the aggressor has overwhelming resources, failure is almost impossible.

However, the armies against which one fights on the game board are never indigenous. They are fighting in and for territories that they themselves had previously conquered. When they are defeated, they are neatly removed from the board. By contrast, the opposing armies, such as they were, in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to disappear as soon as our troops began arriving. The resistance did not cease, however; it just went underground. In fact, for a long time it seemed to get stronger and stronger as new recruits more than made up for battlefield losses.

It makes me wonder whether that dog survived swallowing the Vl’hurg battle fleet. Unfortunately, Douglas Adams died in 2001 without revealing the canine’s fate.

Another example of scale that is difficult to fathom is how incredibly rich a few Americans are. Everyone understands that there are very rich people, but I doubt that many appreciate just how rich the plutocrats are. The top 1 percent of Americans own an astounding 37.1 percent of the nation’s wealth. The next 19 percent of Americans own 50.6 percent. That leaves only 12.7 percent of the total wealth for the bottom 80 percent of the population.

Maybe someone can come up with a graphical way to display this incredible disparity so that the poor suckers who are not in the top 20 percentile can readily visualize what a raw deal they have received. How about this? Suppose one hundred people had eight bags of money. What would you think if one of the people was allotted three bags, nineteen shared the money in five of the bags, and the other eighty had to make due with only one bag? To make it accurate, the guy with three bags could throw a couple of nickles to the eighty.

U Over U: My Favorite Bidding Convention

Unusual over Unusual works well against Michaels and the Unusual No Trump.

Bidding conventions in bridge are agreements between partners that assign unnatural meanings to bids in specific situations. The down side of using conventions is that the natural bids are lost. My favorite convention is called Unusual Over Unusual. What I like about it is that the two bids that it gives up are almost never of any value whatsoever.

U over U is used when the opponents have employed the Unusual No Trump, a Michaels Cue Bid, or any other two-suited bid after your partner has opened one of a suit. For example, if your partner opens 1, and RHO overcalls 2NT, he is announcing that he has at least five clubs and five hearts. If RHO had bid 2 in the same situation, he would be showing five hearts and five spades. This is a Michaels Cue Bid.

U Over U is designed for these situations. The first thing to do is to map “our suits” to “their suits” using the mnemonic “lower-lower; higher-higher” (or “cheap-cheap”). In the first example above in which RHO used the Unusual No Trump, their suits are clubs and hearts. Ours are diamonds and spades. We map the lower of their suits, clubs, to the lower of our suits, diamonds, and the higher of their suits, hearts, to the higher of our suits, spades.

In the second example above in which RHO used the Michaels Cue bid, their suits are hearts and spades. Ours are clubs and diamonds. We map the lower of their suits, hearts, to the lower of our suits, clubs, and the higher of their suits, spades, to the higher of our suits, diamonds.

The U over U responses are:

  • Weak hand without support: pass.
  • Weak hand with four-card support: raise partner’s suit using the LAW of total tricks.
  • Limit raise or better with support: Bid the suit that is mapped to partner’s suit. This bid is forcing.
  • Invitational values or better with no support but five or more pieces in our other suit: bid the opponent’s suit that is mapped to our other (unbid) suit. This bid is forcing.
  • Weak hand with at least six pieces in the other (unbid) suit: Bid the suit.
  • Double: No support, but a strong enough hand to be able to set at least one of the opponent’s suits.

The biggest advantage of using this approach comes when responder has support. He can distinguish between a weak hand (raise), an invitational hand (cue bid and pass), and a strong hand (cue bid and take additional action). Without the convention his options are much less descriptive. It is possible to assign the limit raise to one or the other cue bids, of course, but if you are willing to go that far, why not just assign both of them?

Many people, including some of my partners, refuse to play this convention because they are afraid that they will forget it. This seems silly to me. Everyone cue bids to show support for regular overcalls. In this case, you have two cue bids available; why not agree to define them? The mnemonic is not that hard.

The worst situation arises when partners have not discussed what the bids after a two-suited overcall mean. In that case, the raise becomes ambiguous. Is partner showing a bust hand with four-card support, a simple raise, or a limit raise? If the opener does not know, he is in a poor position to determine where to place the contract.

You can also use the principles of U over U when the opponents have made a two-suited overcall of 1NT. In this case the biggest advantage may be the ability to alert partner to the possibility of a penalty double. For example, suppose partner opens 1NT showing 15-17 and the RHO bids 2NT showing the minors. If you have three cards or more in each minor and at least five points, you know that the opponents will probably end up playing in three of a minor with at best an eight-card fit and half of the deck or less. If they are vulnerable, you may be looking at a four-digit score on your side of the card.

Of course, if you are playing “stolen bids” (AKA “mirror doubles” or “shadow doubles”), you cannot do this because you have assigned a different meaning to the double.