The Mother of Thanksgiving

Sarah Josepha Hale, engraving from Library of Congress

Mary had a turkey browned
From three hours in the oven
Her guests were drooling all the while
For gravy and the stuffin’

Hale’s famous poem, variation by kajmeister

Perhaps Americans would still have invented Thanksgiving without Sarah Josepha Hale. After all, proclamations of Thanksgiving had been declared by the Continental Congresses by Samuel Adams and John Hanson and the like:

It being the indispensable duty of all nations, not only to offer up their supplications to Almighty God, the giver of all good, for His gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner, to give Him praise for His goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of His Providence in their behalf; therefore, the United States in Congress assembled, taking into their consideration the many instances of Divine goodness to these States in the course of the important conflict, in which they have been so long engaged and so on and so forth etcetera etcetera etcetera…

November 1782, text for the Thanksgiving or National Prayer Day observation (Wikipedia)

That seems a rather dry plateful of harvest to start with, taking some 250 words until it even gets to the Thanksgiving part of the equation. Why, there’s hardly any gravy at all, although there does seem to be quite a bit of lard in it, so maybe the pies were flaky.

Perhaps there would have been a harvest festival in the fourth week of November without Mrs. Hale. There was a dinner with pilgrims and with food supplied by the Wampanoag, although it didn’t involve turkey or stuffing, and it might not have been so friendly as the children’s stories maintain. Yet harvest feasts–giving thanks for the bounty of the earth–is a tradition that goes back through much of human history. Surely, those happened without Sarah Hale.

And maybe, Mary went to school with her little lamb without Ms. Hale, and Bunker Hill Monument might have been funded and Vassar founded and abolitionists would have done their work. And yet, maybe not. Because Sarah Josepha Hale was a very busy woman.

A National and Fixed Union Festival

Hale thought the idea of an annual Thanksgiving holiday, celebrated on the same day across the states, was a critical one. She had been writing presidents for fifteen years, advocating for a formally recognized “federal holiday” to join the two that existed at the time, Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day. She wrote presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan before her letter to Abraham Lincoln found a home for persuasion. There might have been editorials in various newspapers; Hale wrote a lot.

Letter from Sarah Hale to President Lincoln
Sarah Hale’s letter to President Lincoln, photo from wikipedia

The harvest meal, the commemoration of a Thanksgiving, was taking place in many states, particularly in New England and the north. Other states claimed their own ownership and history of settlers and thankful meals, so there’d been disagreement on the day and the food. Sometimes the day had happened in November; sometimes late in the month. But in 1863 many states were doing their own thing and shooting at each other for the right to preserve doing their own thing. Although by November–after Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga–by November 1863, the tide of the war was turning for the Union.

Lincoln was trying to bring people together after hardship and thought a national holiday, celebrated by everyone on a fixed day, might be a way to do it. Hale’s idea, probably not hers alone but hers as advocated and described, did take root.

Eventually, President Grant signed the national Holidays Act, which included New Years, Christmas, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving. Over time, the final Thursday in November was settled on for Thanksgiving, as a way of recognizing formally in the United States, the freedom and bounty that people had after the stress of a turbulent and trying year.

An Original American Influencer, 1822- 1879

Hale, born and raised in New Hampshire, was a schoolteacher who married a lawyer at the age of 25. She bore him five children, though he died by the time she was 34. She wore black in mourning for the remainder of her life, dying at aged 90. Maybe that’s where Queen Victoria got the idea from. Hale had a lot of ideas that caught on.

Sarah was raised by parents who educated both their children, although her brother went to Dartmouth and she was home-schooled. She was eventually the editor of Godey’s Ladies Book , for forty years overseeing an influential magazine of essays, poems, stories, and ideas. In its time, Godey’s was the largest publication of its type, with 15,000 readers. Godey’s also published fashion and home plans which were copied.

log cabin pictured with quote
Hale wrote many quotables in Godey’s, example and picture from thisfamilyblog.com.

Hale was also an abolitionist, advocating for an end to slavery. She was one of the first women novelists and the first to write a novel about slavery, Northwood: Life North and South. She also believed strongly in both employment and education for women, and used her magazine to pen essays on the topic. Over time, the idea of colleges for women became slightly more acceptable, and she was able to help fund Vassar College.

Sarah Also Wrote a Poem, Whose Fleece Was White As Snow

Hale, in one of her 50+ books of essays, stories, and poetry, wrote the original poem, “Mary had a little lamb.” As a schoolteacher, Hale claimed that the incident with a young student and pet barnyard animal took place. She wanted to teach a moral:

And you each gentle animal,
In confidence may bind,
And make them answer to your call,
If you are always kind.”[2]

Rarely-read stanza of the famous poem, cited in Wikipedia.

Of course, royalties and credit claiming being how it is in our wild and free country, another Mary showed up a few decades later to claim ownership of the incident and the poem. Mary Tyler of Sudbury, Massachussetts said in 1876 that she was the originator of the little story because she had, in fact, brought a lamb to school. Supposedly a young man named John Roulstone wrote the poem down after observing the commotion and handed it on a slip of paper to Ms. Tyler. Naturally, she didn’t still have the slip of paper but recalled this all by memory.

This all becomes too American. The town of Redstone recognized Tyler’s claim, despite there being no evidence to support it and Sarah Hale’s poem in a book published many years earlier. So there was naturally a schoolhouse/monument/tourist site, purchased by Henry Ford who did such things to bring in tourists and their dollars and to be patriotic. (For example, Ford did purchase Rosa Parks’ bus, and it does sit in his Greenfield Village patriotic tourist attraction.) Meanwhile, Mary Sawyer, the claimant with no evidence, lived in a house which was added to the National Register in 2000. The house was–somehow fittingly–destroyed by arson in 2007.

Sarah wrote the poem. Sarah also helped fund Vassar, raised funds to support Mount Vernon and the Bunker Hill Monument, edited one of the most influential magazines in America, advocated for the end to slavery and the beginning to women’s colleges, and helped create the holiday that we celebrate today.

FDR fixed the national holiday on the fourth Thursday in November, rather than the last holiday in November, hoping that there would be more time for Christmas shopping. In the hard times of the 1930s, merchants needed all the help they could get, as they do now. Black Friday and Cyber Monday apparently also have deep American roots.

Turkey wasn’t at the original meal, and possible not stuffing or cranberries, nor was Thanksgiving originally on the final Thursday. Yet the main point of Thanksgiving, to look back over the trials and tribulations of a stressful year, whether 1623 or 1863 or 2020, and to remain grateful that we who are celebrating are still here and can hope for a better tomorrow–all of that is part of tradition. We are in the middle of pandemic surge, but we have at least put some of the worst of the political tribulations behind us, so we are better positioned to conquer our current challenge together.

Lincoln’s Proclamation, as written in part by William Seward, puts it well:

The population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom. … these great things…. should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.

Lincoln proclaiming Thanksgiving

Eat what you want. Celebrate however you can. I am certainly grateful for you, gentle reader.

Mary had a Little Blog
She Wrote with All Her Heart
May this Year End Well for You and Yours
And the Next Be a Brand New Start

Stuffing and Variations

two bags of to-be-delicious sourdough stuffing
You can never have too much…. photo by kajmeister.

I was pondering when the first cook might have stuffed a turkey way back when… because there’s plenty of time to ponder these days, what with all of us being indoors and on our own so much of the time. Let’s not limit it to turkey, though. Who might have been the first person to stuff an animal, which is to say to take the innards out of an animal and replace it with other stuff, then cook it?

The noun form of “stuff” probably emerged from the verb “stuff” which came from the French otoffer meaning to cram things in other things. (See also “stop” and “plug” and suddenly I’m thinking about Drano.) Anyway, the noun “stuff” really does emerge from the verb, such that when we refer to “our stuff” or “bunch o’things” we mean bunch that could be crammed somewhere. When we are such “stuff” as dreams are made on, as Shakespeare’s Prospero said, he meant a motley bunch of craziness out of which we will go, after death, into some truer reality. This year certainly seems the “stuff” that dreams are made of, so I’m ready to decide we should cram 2020 somewhere else. I have suggestions about where, but you probably don’t want to hear them.

This raises a whole host of ancillary questions. What is the (brief) history of cooking stuffed things, i.e. what was stuffing about during the heyday of say Henry VIII? Compared with the 1950s, for example? Did the pilgrims stuff their turkey? (my guess is no, let’s find out). Why is it for some oddball reason called “dressing” in other places? And what are the weirdest things people want to do with their stuffing, (G-rated only, please)?

a toast to the turkey, family photo from 1965
Holiday dinner 1965, photo by kajmeister’s Dad.

My mother knew how to cook one kick-ass turkey. She wasn’t the world’s greatest cook, but her stuffing and gravy were the best. Apparently, we also ate peas and carrots and Very White Mashed Potatoes on a very white tablecloth with white fine German china underneath. It was the Midwest in the 1960s, what can I say? That’s my uncle Delano on the right, named for FDR, before my uncle changed his name to Lamont then Lavont then Levitar, which was the eye in the pyramid. All that is another story. It was still good turkey.

The History of Sticking Fire Under Dead Things to See What Happens

One of the reasons fire was such a great invention is that aside from scaring away predators and allowing humans to survive in colder climates, it also led to cooked food. Grains, in particular, are often toxic unless cooked, so fire allowed humans to eat crops that they could grow rather than running after their food. Also, cooked meat has more nutrition and can be chewed and digested more rapidly; chewing and swallowing raw meat takes all day. Once the ability to make fire on demand was discovered, it wasn’t hard to rig some sort of spit to turn meat to be evenly cooked. However, stuffing an animals would pose the technical problem of how to tie it shut.

The Sumerians and Egyptians didn’t have turkeys (western hemisphere) or chicken (China) but they did cook duck and goose, and they did make rice-based stuffing for vegetables. Early civilizations would often cook things in animal stomachs–hey, if you don’t have enough pottery, you use what you have! So, while we don’t have recipes for rice-stuffed roasted goose, it’s not impossible to imagine.

Turkeys evolved in the Americas, and the Aztecs definitely had them, although they only roasted them on rare ceremonial occasions. They had a turkey god called Chalchiuhtotolin, but they apparently appreciated the turkeys more for their feather production and as a pesticide vs. as dinner. The conquistadors wondered why these natives had half-plucked dinners running around everywhere and the Aztecs wondered why these foreigners would want to eat a beast that was still producing ceremonial garb and keeping the insects off the crops.

Aztec turkey god
Cited in Turkeys Part I

The Evolution of Cooking Things with Other Things in Them

One of the earliest dudes to create a cookbook was a Roman named Marcus Gavius Apicius. (The Internet says he was the cook, although Wikipedia said he was the diner. Whichever he was, his name is on the cookbook.) Apicius was fond of fish, sauces, and exotic ingredients like flamingo tongue and camel toe. He stuffed all sorts of things, with dozens of recipes for sausages as well as stuffed chicken, hare, and dormouse. Those of us who know our Alice in Wonderland know that the dormouse is very fond of treacle.

turkey menu from the movie "Christmas in Connecticut"
Barbara Stanwyck’s menu from Christmas in Connecticut. Photo from Pinterest.

One type of stuffing very popular in the Tudor era that recently surfaced was stuffing meat inside other meat, a process called engastration. The Turducken is a recent version of this, a chicken inside the duck inside the turkey. A Tudor Christmas pie involved putting a giant crust over a turkey stuffed with a goose, stuffed with partridge, stuffed with pigeon, kind of like a Russian doll version of food. The Tudor era led to stuffing many things into other things, which we might think is silly, except that modern fancy foodies eat stuffed chicken wings and stuffed quail eggs, and all manner of stuffed foods that require an eye dropper.

Even for a regular bird-stuffing project, consider the alternatives, as described in a recent Thanksgiving recipe:

Yield: 20 cups, enough for one large turkey, 2 to 3 geese or 8 chickens.

Recipe from the New York Times

That tells you all you need to know. Why make eight chickens, when all you need is one decent-sized turkey? eight chickens stuffed is … what’s the point of stuffing them? that would be like a half-cup of stuffing each. Also, who has geese? When was the last time you saw a goose at the supermarket? That’s right. Never. This is why it’s always “fun” to read recipes written by wealthy people with nothing better to do with their time than troll around open-air markets, looking for two or three geese to stuff.

On the other hand, if you’re a chicken farmer as my grandfather was, and you have your nine alphabetically-named adult children to dinner, then maybe all you have is chicken legs. But I still think a turkey or two might have been just as efficient.

When you have eight adult children & you’re a chicken farmer. Minnesota @1960, photo via kajmeister.

Engastration By Any Other Name

Stuffing has had other names throughout the years and cultures. It was also called “forcemeat,” from the French “farcir” which also means…you guessed it… to “stuff.” Forcemeat, used by both ancient and Enlightenment cooks (circa 1658) was made by grinding up meat, usually pork, and fat with some other meat. Then cubed, seasoned, cured, “rested,” and placed–i.e. crammed–into the other vessel, which might be a meat. Imagine grinding up pork meat with quail meat, and shoving it all into a deer. And you thought hot dogs were mystery meat!

The Victorians, who wanted to put fig leaves on Renaissance paintings and covered their table legs so that they wouldn’t be too erotic, were the ones that invented the alternate word “dressing” as a substitute for “stuffing.” Dressing is the more customary term in the southern U.S., so I might speculate it arose from that genteel background? I understand also that in the south, dressing is customarily made with cornbread. Out here in San Francisco, stuffing made with sourdough bread rocks the house. All kinds of bread sound good to me. Of course, not every variation will sound as good.

Weird Stuffing: No Accounting for Taste

My mom used to say “Yes, No or in a Barrel…” so here would be an evaluation of what might be unusual but still acceptable, all things I’ve read in recent recipes to “shake up your stuffing”…

YES: Rice. Mushrooms. Sausage. Spam sounds weird, but if it’s rendered down hard, it would be just like bacon.

NO. Oysters. Ground beef, Parmesan. Eggs? inside a turkey? what the heck, that’s just making meatloaf? Corn chips? wrong consistency. Stuffing really shouldn’t be crunchy. Cheese: no, what is with Americans wanting to put cheese on everything? If you just want melted cheese, make a sandwich. Otherwise, leave it out of your turkey. Cheese & Gravy? oi. Uncooked Spam (or uncooked bacon). Pepperoni (oh no). Popcorn would seem to defeat the purpose. If you need corn flavor, just use cornbread or… corn. Blue cheese and walnuts? Honestly, I think recipe-writers sometimes just try to throw oddball ingredients together to see if we’re paying attention. White Castle Sliders and Twinkies? … now, you’re just drunk.

IN A BARREL (i.e. maybe). Figs. Apples/raisins. I’d try it. Crackers instead of bread. Could work, was apparently Extremely popular in the 1950s. Hard cider (vs. turkey stock? maybe) or Whiskey. I see where this is going. Plantains? not my cup of tea, but I bet if someone knowledgeable made them, I’d like them. Smoked salmon/bagels could be interesting baked on its own, but inside the turkey?

The Stuffing That Dreams Are Made On

Here are the basic keys to stuffing:

BREAD: Needs to be stale or toasted a little. You don’t want goo, and if you use fresh bread, the stuffing will end up the like mashed potatoes. It needs to absorb the gravy, not be the consistency of the gravy.

VEGETABLES: Celery and onion are the savories which pair well with turkey and with almost any other good combination of all the unique ingredients above. If you saute the veggies first in a little butter and chicken stock, then they will be the right kind of tender, and the house starts to smell good, even before the turkey is cooking.

LIQUID/FAT: The bread, vegetables, and Other (rice, figs, whiskey, whatever) need to cling together a little, so that when you cram it in the cavity, it doesn’t immediately fall out. A little melted butter or turkey stock will do it. Or whiskey, I suppose. A classic process of making the stock is to boil the turkey innards, the neck and giblets with some onion and celery ahead of time, then strain it. That gives you plenty for the stuffing and gravy.

So, Praise to Stuffing! All Hail to Thee, Fine Stuffing! Practically anything else can be substituted in your Thanksgiving/ Friendsgiving/ harvest meal–goose or soy for turkey, yams for potatoes, brussel sprouts for green beans, pecan for pumpkin for apple pie–but you Must. Have. Stuffing.

Hooray for Stuffing! photo by kajmeister circa 2003

Time to Ostracize the Buggers

The Greeks did it with little shards of pottery because papyrus was way too expensive. The Romans did it in groups of hundreds, with their feet. Some groups did it with little black marbles. It wasn’t done in western republics in secret until late in the middle 19th century. What’s the pertinent subject on most Americans minds these days? Voting, of course!

George Bingham painting of country men lining up to vote
The Country Election by George Caleb Bingham (1852), St. Louis Art Museum.

Can We Vote for Banishing People?

The Greeks might vote for a candidate, but they would also vote at times against them as well. They voted to exile people, such as dictators or the dictator’s family, friends, personal lawyers, or unindicted co-conspirators. But even the cheapest paper, i.e. papyrus, was super-rare and expensive, so they didn’t use paper for the ballots. Instead, they would scratch the tyrant’s name on a piece of broken pottery, called an ostraka and turn it in.

broken black pottery piece with Greek lettering
A shard of ostraka, used to ostracize petty tyrants. Photo from wikipedia, slightly modified.

Funny story–there was a respected general and political leader called Aristides, who was nicknamed “the Just” because he was, well, a pretty honorable dude, according to Herodotus. An illiterate citizen came up to Aristides, while they were practicing their ostraka scratching, and said “How do you spell Aristides?” The Honorable Dude said, “Why do you want to write down Aristides?” and the fellow said, “I’m tired of hearing him called ‘the Just.’ I’m sick of these goody-two-shoes! I want someone mean and horrible.” Or something to that effect. Of course, Aristides then wrote down his own name on the ballot.

Writing down the name of someone on the pottery shards was called ostracism. Maybe we could consider this practice using, I dunno, empty water bottles or something?

The Romans used Excel spreadsheets a lot. They divided all eligible people (men, property owners, proper skin color and all that) into 193 centuries, a model based on their armies. The centuries were ranked within by property, with cavalry equities at the top and unarmed, property-less men at the bottom. Then, they were ranked across, by class, and by junior or senior, and each executive officer then took turns to act as officer-for-the-week, although all the actions *of* that officer have to be ratified…. er, no I think maybe that was the Celts. Anyway, the Roman system held rather a lot of infrastructure, but, then, have you seen their buildings and roads? I mean, bits of their aqueducts are still standing!

box with draw slots for black and white marbles
A ballotta (ballot machine) to collect the black and white balls. Photo at Wikipedia.

Not to Be Confused with the Black and White Ball

Another voting tradition was to use colored balls. This was common for fraternal organizations and clubs, like the Masons. Members would get several colored balls and drop the ball from their closed fist into a slot. In this case, it wouldn’t require a majority of “black” balls to be exiled. You could be blackballed with two or possibly even one vote. This system has some roots back to Venice where the balls were referred to as “ballotta” meaning “a small ball used in voting,” hence the derivation of the word “ballot.”

Rome did introduce a variation of the secret ballot ~130-140 BC. Prior to that, voting was done by voice, which wasn’t particularly secret. A new set of ballot laws ordered that voters would walk down a narrow causeway, then be handed a wooden tablet that had wax on it on which they’d write the name. The narrow causeway was established because when there was a wider hallway, “poll watchers” would stand to the side and intimidate or try to bribe the voters. Curiously, while mandating a secret ballot was intending to reduce corruption, it had somewhat the opposite effect:

Candidates could no longer rely on the support of their clients or of other citizens to whom they owed favors, making canvassing [campaigning] more important. In addition, candidates could previously bribe voters by promising payment upon receiving their vote. With the secret ballot, this was no longer possible, making it necessary to bribe potential as well as actual voters. Furthermore, voters had the option of accepting bribes from every candidate and voting for the highest bidder, or voting their conscience. This made bribery a more competitive affair as candidates attempted to outbid each other, either by holding lavish games and feasts or by directly promising money to voters.

From Wikipedia

Sounds kind of familiar. In Rome, despite the attempts to improve representation through secret ballots, the country ended up in a series of civil wars anyway, which led to Julius Caesar and the replacement of the republic with a series of emperors, some of who were not so great for Rome. Though the empire did last 400 years, plus, see aqueducts.

Either Australia or Massachusetts

During most of the Middle Ages, voting wasn’t something barons, kings, tsars, and shahs were very fond of, so ballots fell out of favor. Even as late as the early 19th century, after England and other countries had various forms of parliaments, voting was still done by a show of hands or voice. The first “modern” version of secret paper ballots was used in Australia @1860. The first place in the United States to adopt this wacky novel idea was Massachusetts. Hence, using secret ballots is often called the Australian or Massachusetts method.

Before the Australian method was put in place, paper ballots with the candidates’ names were printed by partisan newspapers. (Partisan media? who’d have thunk it?) Party workers would distribute pre-filled out ballots, and voters would drop those directly in the ballot box. Presumably since the party worker knew which ballot you asked for, it made that process less secret. Around 1890, most states replaced that process with one where you marked an X next to the candidate’s name, in today’s fashion. Even when the ballot became secret, candidates could still distribute samples of pre-filled ballots, very similar to what is flooding our mailboxes today.

sample old ballot
19th century ballot from Wikimedia commons.

So, while you’re standing in line, socially distanced, waiting to get to the ballot machine or waiting in your car to drive up to that ballot box, consider that this is a slight improvement over systems from days long gone. Though I still wonder whether we could put discarded water bottles to better use.

crushed water bottle with T-R-U written on it
The ostraka for 2020? Artwork by kajmeister.

Don’t Give Up Your Right to Complain

Voting is your right to complain. If you use the government, you need to vote. That is, if you drive on the roads, eat food, take medication, live in a house or an apartment or a shack or a boat, send kids to school, pay taxes, then you use the government, and you need to vote. Whatever and however you have to do it, get it done. If you have a mail-in ballot, find your nearest drop box and drive it over before there it gets more crowded. Be sure to find out how to sign it properly and whether you need a witness. Here’s a great source at Vote. org.

If you vote in person, wear a mask. You might need to bring something to do, as your peer citizens have been exercising their democracy in droves this season, and that is heartening to watch! Then, once you’re done…

Can you work the polls? Can you drive someone to the polls who needs a ride? Can you help pay someone’s parking ticket that they got while standing in line at the polls? What can you do?

Let’s do this thing! Let’s Ostraka these __rs out!

Going Once…Going Twice…

“Paul, it’s Bob Wilson. You’ve won the Nobel Prize.”

A security camera in front of Paul Milgrom’s home in Stanford, California, recorded Wilson and his wife Mary sidling up to Milgrom’s front door in the predawn darkness and repeatedly knocking and ringing the doorbell to wake him up. After a short pause to take in the momentous news, Paul Milgrom responded, “Wow, yeah. Okay.”

Story by Melissa de Witte at stanford.edu.
Robert Wilson and Paul Milgrom, photo by Andrew Brodhead.

The Nobel Prizes for 2020 were announced earlier this month. I thought I should take it on myself to understand what it was that earned these folks the Biggest Blue Ribbon for Brains in the world. I know just enough economics to get myself into trouble, so this could be fun. Economics (and science for that matter) are like languages that I speak badly (hablando de español…) I can almost read economic theory with a little wikipedia and dictionary.com at hand, but writing about it might generate some misinformation. Nevertheless, let’s dive in and alleviate your curiosity. I know you saw the awards but did you understand what they were for. I’m especially proud since northern Californians took four out of the eleven Nobel awards, two from my alma mater and two from its rival but still my peeps, woot woot!

Not All Auctions Involve Cattle or Eyebrows

My favorite award this year has to be the Prize for Economics, which usually annoys me in its advancement of “free markets,” which aren’t. This year, however, the theories were comprehensible and practical. Understanding the math is something else entirely, but never fear—we won’t go there. Two fellows from Stanford (take off that red shirt!) won for their development of Auction Theory.

When I think of auction, I always visualize a Texan with a big hat and microphone who sounds something like Leroy Van Dyke, in his famous song from the 1950s:

Either that or auctions make me think of a scene in a spy movie or comedy, where fancy people are seated in a room, and the British butler begins auctioning the mysterious painting or golden egg or Wonka ticket, which might hold a clue to the whereabouts of the Austerioserlian terrorists. Numbers are randomly repeated as he points at audience members who do nothing more than move an eyebrow or lift a pinky. Or, if it’s a comedy, the lady inappropriately dressed keeps accidentally bidding when she sneezes. To me, that’s an auction. It turns out that those are not the only types of auctions.

Auction from the First Wives Club. Photo from artnet.com.

Those auctions are known as open-bid English auctions, where the price moves from low to high. There are also Dutch auctions (aka clock auctions), where the price starts high then moves down, as well as sealed bid auctions, multi-unit auctions… but wait, there’s more! These Stanford professors won their prize for describing the theory of combinatorial clock multi-unit auctions.

Let’s translate that into English. They were interested in auctions where things were sold in groups, where the price of the whole might be more than the sum of the parts. Multi-unit or combinatorial auctions might apply, for example, to estate sales. The clock part means an auction where the price for the whole is set high, then the auctioneer lowers the price, or combinations of prices, until a bidder accepts it.

Combinatorial Clocks Are Even Better With Flowcharts

What if buyers don’t want to buy everything in the group, but bundles of things? The tricky part for the auctioneer is to look at all the bids for various combinations of the items and determine which will maximize revenue for the auctioneer. This became an important practical challenge when the FCC decided to auction off radio frequencies, which before 1994 were allocated without auction. The combinatorial clock format worked better for the telecommunication industry, while the federal government (i.e. us taxpayers) earned more overall. The format the two prize winners invented (Simultaneous Multiple Round Auction) helped provide bidders with more information about what others were bidding, which improved the bidding process for everybody. I agree; more information = better.

Once I started looking at pictures related to combinatorial clock auctions, several flow charts popped up, so of course I was instantly in love:

From a fascinating treatise on “Market Design and the Evolution of the Combinatorial Clock Auction” here

What makes the combinatorial clock auction work is the ability to create multiple rounds and the ability for bidders to select multiple bits and pieces, kind of like off a Chinese menu. Still, the very idea of radio stations today is somehow quaint. The last time I was poking around the AM dial, looking for some sports or palatable music (I’ll even take Katie Perry, come on!), all I heard was enthusiastic warbling about Jesus, singing in Spanish, or conservative talk radio. Although I didn’t really stay long enough to hear if it was conservative, they just sounded angry. I’m sure my 23-year-old would patiently ask me why I didn’t just turn on Spotify.

Photo without Covid effects in the Financial Times, taken by Andrew Brodhead.

Curses, I Paid Too Much!

Wilson, the bespectacled grinner on the right, turns out to have started an economics dynasty. Milgrom on the left was one of his students and the third “offspring” to have won a Nobel prize–the fourth person related to Wilson if you count Wilson himself. Which we probably should.

What Professor Wilson was himself especially noted for is developing an understanding about “the winner’s curse.” People often bid less than the value of an object because they fear overpaying. Nobody wants to bid $45 for an object that ends up with a resale value of $2.99. Wilson’s work also demonstrated why having more information on common objects, such as on resale values, improves bidding.

It saves a lot of time on eBay when you can see whether other people have actually sold the precious Genuine Vintage Antique doodad that your Aunt Sadie left you, which you were planning to post for sale. If the other sales don’t even cover the shipping, then you might want to see if Sadie’s grandchildren would prefer to just keep the thing. Especially if it’s this kind of combinatorial clock:

Photo from pinterest.

I think I’ll pass bidding on that one. On the other hand, if you find one in the shape of a parasaurolophus, let me know.

Tapping

Should I try to kill the war elephants just with Nubian archers? The mathematical analysis by Muhabir on the East Nagach server suggests that I only need Nubian archers, but I have tried with an army before and lost, and it takes 4-8 hours to rebuild archers. It’s possible that the auto-attack mode in the Egyptian mode is set to the AI’s advantage, and that I should be attacking myself, but it’s been so long, I’ve almost forgotten how.

Also, I lost my pink piece of paper that my daughter helped me construct which explained the Circle of Life, so I’m a little at sea.

600 (Embassy) + 174×4=696 (Houses) + 428 = 1724 Deben Coins per day

Muhabir’s Mathematical Analysis of the FOE Egyptian Settlement
Kajmeister’s 2-year-old Forge of Empires settlement. Crowded, but it’s home.

App life in the 21st century is big business. Entertainment, during this pandemic, is a much larger part of what we have to do, especially when there are also hurricanes, wildfires, and police shooting at protesters at various parts of the country. Best to stay inside. I have been playing a game called Forge of Empires since 2016, since I first got my tablet. It’s now a love/hate relationship. I’m getting a little bored. But I have to solve Egypt first.

Gotta Play

Some of us oldsters back in the day played a game called Sid Meier’s Civilization, which let you build cities throughout history, from ancient days through medieval and industrial times, with the outcome building an Apollo spaceship. I spent many happy hours, sometimes even at work to take a break from the frustrations of middle management, moving my settlers around and trying to decide whether the Great Library of Alexandria was more important than the Lighthouse (it was a push… the Pyramids were key and Leonardo’s Workshop, which gave you gunpowder). Forge of Empires has some of the feel with settlers, cities, advancement–if you’ve played one of these, you know how they go.

KK has been playing the Simpsons game, which I looked into but felt it was more funny than intuitive. Lee used to play a game involving keeping Japanese anime cats happy; I tried that for a while, but it lacked any feel of advancement. The cats just were. Rather realistic, actually. Lee also goes online and shoots at terrifying-looking things with large guns. It scares me just to stand behind and watch them play. I will say that if the zombie apocalypse comes, I know who I will shelter with. Not the cats.

FOE Egypt… the most difficult extra settlement, which I probably will be unable to do, even in a month

The graphics with FOE are good, and they’ve added a lot of features in the last three years. There’s a tavern where you can sit and exchange coins, as well as get various boosts. They added an auction site where you can trade your 4 Shrines of Knowledge for something more interesting, like the 4th piece of the set for the Fall Harvest. A place to just shoot at other teams… randomly placed coins, supplies, or even diamonds you get clicking on strange-looking trees, hippos, or stranded parachutes out in the fields…and once a month or so, there’s a big event with special challenges. If you do these tapping kinds of games, it will sound familiar. Even in the blog space, I wrote about it before (scroll to the bottom). Where else can you build your Atomium next to the Capitol next to the Chateau Frontenac, between the blacksmith, Santa’s workshop, and the tar kiln?

The fundamental underlying problem is that the game limits the space you can occupy. At first, there’s plenty, but as soon as you start acquiring things –and I’m a big farmer/gatherer so I’m good at acquiring–you run out of space to put them. You end up with a giant inventory of Coin Boosts (completely useless), Victory Tower Upgrades, or Faces of the Ancient (37). You get way more stuff than you can use or need. A stupefyingly boring surfeit of stuff. I am at least seven levels away from the top of the game, but I got stuck at about this point two years ago. I think I’m going to have to start over.

Tapping Is Big Business

Ninety billion dollars is spent annually on mobile gaming. Or $1.2 trillion if you count global apps. This is not just big business but GIGANTORRRRR (*echo echo*) business. You may have heard about the “Let’s Play” format where celebrity gamers earn money by others watching them play; some dude named PewDiePie apparently is a millionaire. Hope he’s stashing it in a 401K and not blowing it on, like, online games.

Source: Top App Trend

Some of the companies designing apps, like Epic (which makes Fortnite) and Spotify are banding together because the companies that support the apps, like Apple, don’t give them enough money. Write-ups talk about pitting the “small” firms against the “giants.” Reminds me of what we learned about the railroad robber barons of the 1880s, such as Vanderbilt–yes, the guy with the mansions and universities named for him–who would get other companies to pay for him not to compete. On the other hand, railroads brought food and useful goods to people; the Apple apps that we are tapping are simply distractions. Should they be Giants of Industry?

I was speaking with a young woman yesterday, giving a little career exploration advice, and she said she got a job because she plays Minecraft. (Such things happen, whether through being part of a potential boss’s network or whatever the reason. Better than meeting on the golf course.) Given how tech savvy she is, she could probably get a job in the gaming industry, and why not? if we’re all going to be inside and tapping away, then someone has to be paid to program what it is tapped.

Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow diagram

Tapping in the Flow

The key to game design is to strike the proper design between Boredom and Stress. If it’s too easy, fugeddaboutit. If it’s too hard to reach the top levels, it’s also unpleasant. This is the essence of the famous idea of Flow, that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described in the groundbreaking research for his book. To get the most out of an activity you need to challenge yourself until it’s too hard, then practice and learn, then challenge, usw. (&c)

Difficulty takes different forms. KK, as her Pokemon friends know, is an avid Pokemon player, really a Master if there’s such a thing. She’s only a handful of levels above me numerically, but she plays with such care and dedication that she really ought to be nationally ranked. In our neighborhood, there are apparently several such people, some of whom hunt in a pack and others who can play the game without going outside and walking around as you are supposed to do. She gets vehemently frustrated when Other Knowledgeable Ones kick her out of the gym after only five minutes, but she also is annoyed when they don’t kick her out after a few days because then she’s missing out on coins. Last night, she went for a short post-prandial walk up the street, to put herself into a gym–there was an elaborate explanation as to why. I made the mistake of asking that it be repeated.

Five minutes after coming home, she checks her phone and gosh darn it (or words to that effect). They had already kicked her out. I was probably insufficiently sympathetic. If she reads this, I’m sorry. You were right to be annoyed that the people who kicked you out didn’t look at how long you were in so that you could have more coins. Selfish bastards!

I would never fight her in Pokemon; I’m no fool. I only take her on in something like Scrabble, which is just as ruthless but has clearer rules. We used to be roughly evenly matched, but then she started playing Words with Friends, and now we are allowed to check the two-letter word list that we have in our cloud… so even with Scrabble, there’s tapping involved. My mother and her sisters were wickedly good Scrabble players; my 86-year-old aunt who is legally blind still beats the pants off of me. Well played, Depression babies, well played.

FOE Circle of Life… what kills what. In theory, Archers kill elephants but…

I Despair

The Egypt portion of FOE still eludes me. It’s a sub-section from the main game, and I did master the Viking and Samurai versions, so I’m not a complete cretin. Here you build out your brick huts and war elephant stables, producing grain and flowers–down the road I think if I produce enough Ceremonial Sacrifices, then I will win a modest-sized pyramid. But you can’t just be a gatherer/producer, which is my specialty. You have to fight. The mathematical analysis said that I only needed Nubian archers and war chariots, but I keep getting killed with the elephants. And they take 8 hours to build. I’ve read so many portions of the Wiki; I think the problem is you have to be willing to read and understand about hit point values, and I just can’t keep that stuff in my head. Don’t ever make me a general in your army, really, put me in the back where I can handle the supply trains.

Because this is the most difficult of the sub-section offshoots, they give you a month to complete it, instead of only ten days, but I don’t think I’m going to make it. I did manage to replicate the Circle of Life. Lee, the gamer, explained to me that they’re all based on some variation of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock. The key is remembering what the Light Infantry can kill because everything can kill them. Still, I’ve had my Nubian archers going after the Artillery (elephants) as directed, but I think the computer’s AI is not calibrated correctly. I may have to quit soon and start the whole game from mud hut level.

Although, on the other hand, we’re baking now, so I don’t want to quit before I make cinnamon rolls.

Forge of Empires fall harvest=baked goods. I never seem to get enough for pumpkin for the cinnamon rolls.

Author’s note: I have been pandemic-blessed to pick up two significant short-term gigs (one is writing-related) which are keeping me too busy at the moment to write frequently. This happy problem forces me to dial it back from weekly to bi-weekly or monthly. Those who gently commented that my entries are too damn long can catch up on the ones they missed.