In the fall of 1966, my then wife, Carol, and I entered graduate school at the University of Chicago, in the Department of Psychology. Carol was studying Developmental Psychology with Lawrence Kohlberg, and I was to study Comparative and Physiological Psychology with Sebastian Grossman (that relationship didn’t work out, so I ended up with George Stevens as my advisor). One of my courses was Ethology, taught by Eckhard Hess. Hess had arranged for one of Konrad Lorenz’s students, Wolfgang Wickler, to come to the University of Chicago to speak about his work with dominance hierarchies and aggression with monkeys (described in the second section of this document).

Wickler’s presentation was fascinating, revealing previously unknown (to us, at least) relationships between sexual and aggressive behaviors. Most telling, though, was his adherence to ethological canon, that sex and aggression emanated from separate motivational drives, but ended up conjoined through the course of evolution in the establishment of dominance hierarchies. One of Wickler’s conclusions was that sexual behavior in the service of aggression was “pseudo-sexual,” to be distinguished from “true sexual” behavior. However, it was not clear how an observer would be able to tell the difference between the two, other than by noting the genders of the individuals and the outcome of the interaction.

At some point in our discussion on our way home from the lecture, Carol asked the crucial questions that stimulated and guided our own studies of sex and aggression over the next several years: “What if there really isn’t any difference between “pseudo-sexual” and “true sexual” behavior? What if, for the animals involved, they are the same? ”

We spent the entire night working with those questions, hypothesizing different mechanisms that would explain Wickler’s findings, but rejecting the two-drive approach. We managed to formulate the basic principle of the theory we present in the third section of this document, but it took several years to develop fully and get our thoughts on paper.

We completed “An Evolutionary Theory of Social Interaction” in 1970, and printed a hundred or so copies using an old mimeograph machine. The stencils were not very good, and many pages were dim and almost unreadable. Nonetheless, we sent two copies to the Library of Congress along with our filing for copyright. I always intended to expand these ideas into a book, along with examples of behavior in different species that confirm our hypotheses, but life interfered. So 48 years later, I retyped the manuscript, edited some glaring grammatical errors (most notably, which-that substitutions), and added some footnotes and a new graphic.

As you read this document, please remember that it was written in the late ‘60s. Since then, there has been a significant amount of research and conjecture on the relationship between sex and aggression, but to my knowledge, no one has come up with the theory that we present here.


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So You Want to be an Engineer

In the mid 1950’s, Northwestern University’s Technological Institute offered me a full tuition scholarship to study Electrical Engineering. At the time, I had no idea what engineering was or what it took to be a competent engineer. All I knew was that I was good at math.

When I was in high school, back in the Dark Ages, our advanced math courses were limited to Algebra I and II, Plane and Solid Geometry, and Trigonometry. High schools did not offer Calculus back then. I loved math, and I was good at it, so I elected to take all the courses that our school offered. The teacher who taught most of those classes was Laura Smith. Miss Smith was the most feared teacher in our school because she was the toughest. Anyone who volunteered to take the toughest courses from the toughest teacher was considered to be asking for failure. But I was good at math and I loved it, so I took those courses and, I can say without false modesty, I pretty much aced them.

Sometime during my senior year, Miss Smith took me aside to discuss my plans for my future education. I had to tell her that our family couldn’t afford college, so I wasn’t really planning on a “future” education. She persisted, “You’re good at math. You should think about going into engineering. Look into some engineering schools and apply for a scholarship.” So I did.

During my first week at engineering school, Dean Eshbach gathered all the incoming would-be engineers into the Tech Auditorium. Early on in his greetings, he asked us to look at the person to our right and the person to our left. Then, he gravely said, “Sometime in the next four years, one of those people will no longer be your classmate.” The audience buzzed with concern…we each thought to ourselves, “Will I be the one to drop out? Is engineering school so hard that a third of us will flunk out? What the hell have I gotten myself into?”

To some extent, the Dean was right: quite a few people I knew did drop out of engineering. Some left school for good; others stayed, but switched majors. I don’t think any of them failed any engineering courses. After all, we were all in engineering school because we were good at math.

It took years, but I ultimately figured out what it takes to be a good engineer, and math is such a small part of it. The most basic characteristic of a good engineer is the underlying question he or she attempts to answer: An engineer focuses on “HOW” something works rather than “WHY” it works.

People who focus on “why” should go into philosophy, or one of its daughter disciplines, science or religion.

People who focus on “how” have spent a good part of their lives taking things apart and putting them back together, usually without benefit of an instruction manual. Sometimes they are more successful than others, but it is the process that is important.

An engineer’s impulse is to make things simpler. Engineers spend an inordinate amount of their spare time thinking about ways to make life easier, more comfortable, safer. Sometimes they improve on existing gadgets. Sometimes they come up with entirely new ways of doing things. (An engineer without benefit of an engineering education is called an “inventor.”)

So, if you are thinking about becoming an engineer, ask yourself if your most important question is “HOW” or “WHY”. But you should still be good at math.

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Biscuits and Gravy

I read recently that one of the new “in” things to have at wedding receptions is a gravy fountain with biscuits on the side. Really?

The article didn’t actually get into the specifics, but I assume that they were talking about “white,” or sausage gravy, which is the appropriate complement for biscuits, rather than “brown,” meat gravy, which is not.

My wife, Katie, would be appalled, seeing as how she thinks white gravy, in and of itself, is revolting to look at (although she managed to try a smidgen of my home made gravy and said it tasted “OK”).

I, too, would be appalled, because gravy for biscuits should never be thin enough to flow out of a fountain. And by that, I mean that the best gravy is thick enough to spread with a knife. I think that our baker daughter, Liza, would agree with me.

Beyond the issue of the desired viscosity, however, is the problem that most people making gravy are in too much of a hurry and don’t properly brown the flour as they heat the roux, resulting in a raw pasty, floury flavor. And there is always the risk of lumps.

Gravy is a combination of animal fat and flour (called “roux”), and liquid. Oh, and salt and pepper, too. The nature of the fat and liquid determine the color and flavor of the gravy. As a service to all, here are instructions on how to make proper white, sausage gravy.

  1. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat.
  2. When the skillet is hot, add a pound of mild breakfast sausage, breaking it up into small chunks, then, using the end or edge of a spatula, chop it into smaller and smaller pieces as it cooks. Stir frequently and allow it to brown. Don’t stop too soon: the sausage will turn gray as it gives up its water, but it won’t brown until all the water has evaporated, leaving only the fat.
  3. When the sausage has browned, remove it from the skillet with a slotted spoon, and place in a bowl for use later. It helps to tilt the skillet so the fat runs to the lower part while pushing the sausage to the upper part. If you don’t end up with at least ¼ cup of fat, you’re using the wrong brand of sausage. (I prefer Jamestown Mild, myself.)
  4. Pour the fat into a clean metal container. (An empty tuna can is ideal, because it has shallow sides and you can get a measuring spoon into it without tipping it over.)
  5. Return the skillet to medium-high heat and add 3 to 5 tablespoons of fat. (Obviously, the more fat, the more flour and liquid).
  6. For each tablespoon of fat, add one tablespoon of flour. (3 tablespoons of fat; 3 tablespoons of flour – and so on) For every tablespoon of fat, you will (later) add up to 1 cup of liquid
  7. Stir the flour into the fat using the end of the spatula, making sure that all the fat is absorbed into the flour as it cooks. Keep stirring until the flour actually turns brownish – but don’t let it burn.
  8. After the flour is browned, CAREFULLY AND SLOWLY add a cup of water (it sizzles and steams and splashes), stirring constantly to ensure that the roux absorbs the liquid without forming lumps. It helps to use a slotted spatula to “smash” the roux and water to keep it smooth.
  9. As the gravy simmers, gradually add whole milk (not 2% and certainly NOT skim!). If you started with 3 tablespoons of fat, use up to 2 cups of milk – you already added 1 cup of water. Stir and smash continuously as you add the milk, to ensure even cooking and to keep lumps from forming as the gravy thickens.
  10. Let the gravy simmer (keep stirring, scraping the bottom of the skillet, and smashing any lumps) until it is about the consistency of thickish pancake batter (oozy, not drippy). Add salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste.
  11. Remove from heat and stir in the cooked sausage. Serve with the most marvelous biscuits you can manage. I recommend Liza’s biscuits, but I don’t have her recipe.
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Standing on the Corner

In the summer of 1955 I was between my Junior and Senior years at North High in Wichita, Kansas. I had given up my paper route a few months earlier, in part because I got tired of getting up at 5:30 am in every kind of weather and throwing papers every morning and afternoon — except Sunday, which was morning only — and in part because I perceived it to be a kid’s job. To be honest, that job allowed me to establish credit at the local Schwinn bicycle shop, where I purchased my first 3-speed bike, and the office furniture store next door to the bike shop, where I bought a used 30” by 60”, two pedestal, six drawer, steel office desk, with a linoleum top that had only a few small gouges on its surface. But I digress.

Early in the summer of 1955 I got a job by answering a help-wanted ad that was printed in the newspaper I had once delivered to over a hundred customers twice a day, every day (except Sunday, which was morning only), for almost a year. The ad was placed by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the city-run organization that operated the public bus transportation system. In 1955, bus passengers paid their fares with coins. If they didn’t have the correct change, the friendly driver would be happy to give them change for a dollar (or a five or a ten or a twenty). They dispensed coins from a silver metal device with multiple tubes and levers, and bills from a wad they kept in their shirt pocket.

It sounded like a simple job when the supervisor described it to me. All I had to do was stand on the corner of East Douglas Avenue and Market Street, where every bus in the city passed by once on each circuit of its route. When a bus stops, and after passengers disembark or climb aboard, I step into the bus hefting a leather bag filled with rolls of nickels, dimes, and quarters. The driver hands me a fist full of paper currency and tells me how many rolls of coins he wants in exchange.

By the way, a single roll of quarters weighs a half a pound. In order to have enough coins to meet the demand of a typical weekday 4-hour afternoon shift, the bag would have to contain around $400, and would weigh about 50 pounds. Since the bus company office was two blocks from my corner, I would put the bag of coins on a two-wheeled dolly and push it down the sidewalk to the corner.

The supervisor warned that if the value of the bills I returned to the office did not match the value of the coins I took out, I would be held responsible for making up the difference. No one ever mentioned the possibility that there could be a positive balance that I could pocket for myself. It was common knowledge that some of those friendly drivers would try to pass off a stack of 48 singles as $50, so I learned to count quickly and accurately before each exchange, no matter how urgently the driver was trying to speed up the process because he’s “running a bit late.”

For the most part, it was a simple job. There would be times when five or six busses would hit the corner in rapid succession, but there were also times when there were no busses to be seen for four or five minutes at a time. When you are a 16-year-old boy hanging out on one of the busiest corners in town in the middle of summer, you can be reasonably certain to be entertained by the number of young women dressed for the heat passing by. Actually, Count Basie wrote a song about just that, and it hit #3 on the charts the very next summer.

If weather was a bad part of maintaining a paper route, it was also a bad part of selling change to bus drivers. Kansas’ summers are hot and humid, and there was precious little shade on my corner. The worst weather hit one afternoon when it was over 85° in the shade. Looking west, I could see the sky fill with yellow-purple clouds that signaled the rapid onset of seriously severe weather. Within 20 minutes, the temperature had dropped 40˚, the wind was gusting around 20 miles per hour, and black dust, probably all the way from Western Kansas, filled the air. The corner offered no shelter, and busses kept coming. My clothes turned black, my nose and mouth were full of mud, and I could barely see. After about ten minutes the wind slowed down and it started to rain…big drops. Fortunately, it did not hail (I have seen hailstones the size of baseballs in Kansas). And ten minutes after that the sun was shining and it was a pleasantly unhumid 75˚.

The summer of 1955 was a different time. Bus drivers gave change to riders who needed it. A popular song would soon proclaim the glory of “Standing on the corner, watching all the girls go by.” A 16-year-old kid could stand on a downtown street corner day after day with a bag full of money and never worry about getting mugged.

Summer ended, I finished high school and worked (at different jobs) for a year before going to college. When I got home for Spring Break, I had thought I would bring my trusty 3-speed Schwinn back to school when I returned — the bike I had paid for (on credit) with my paper route money. But I learned that shortly after I moved out my mother gave my bike to the son of one of her church friends. And the desk was gone, too.

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What’s In a Name? — Part 3

The first time my wife was married, she kept her “maiden” name. It confused her father: he was concerned that his daughter would never be “Mrs. So and So.” When she and I got married nearly 40 years ago, she again kept her “maiden” name. Upon learning that Katie remained “Moran”, my mother commented, “that is the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”

A recent Huffington Post article explained that it wasn’t too long ago that women were required to take their husband’s last name:

“Women were forbade to keep their last names a short handful of decades ago, under the premise that the wedded couple were viewed as “one person” by the law. That one person was the husband, whose identity superseded the wife’s. He was the sole person who could vote, hold property, go to law, etc. In fact, it was only in 1972 that every United State legally allowed a woman to use her maiden name as she pleased.”

Curiously, even if a woman chooses not to adopt her husband’s name upon marriage, she almost certainly carries her father’s name…at least in our culture. As we were considering starting our family, Katie and I felt that there should be a way to free women of this remnant of androcentric tradition. Our solution was that we would give my last name to any male offspring, and Katie’s last name to any female offspring.

Our first born was a boy, so Daniel became a Blatt. Katie worried that we would not pass the Moran name to the next generation, as Doug and Steve, the children from my first marriage, were also boys. What are the odds that the next would be a girl? But, almost three years later, we welcomed Elizabeth Rose Moran to our family.

Our odd naming convention has not caused any problems, although a few elementary school teachers were caught by surprise to see that Liza Moran’s parents were the same people as Danny Blatt’s parents. They probably assumed that we were a blended family until we explained it all. I think the different names actually insulated Liza from any teachers’ expectations from having had Danny in their classes a couple of years earlier.

While most people we have discussed this with have generally thought it was an interesting approach, to my knowledge, nobody we know has used the same naming principle for their own children. Katie and I were taken by surprise a few evenings ago when a character on a TV drama described the same naming convention to explain why he and his daughter had different last names. So, apparently, we aren’t as odd as we originally thought.

Will this ever become a trend? So far, Danny’s wife is still a Klekner, and Liza is still a Moran. It remains to be seen how they will choose to name their own daughters. However it turns out, it is reassuring to know that what’s in a name is more open to choice now than it was for previous generations.

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Some ideas about how to live with AR-15 type rifles:

I don’t want to debate the Second Amendment.
I don’t want to argue about what the “AR” in the name means – just accept it as a reference to semi-automatic firing rifles, regardless of name or number.
I don’t want to rehash arguments about mandatory registration, training, and licensing – although arguments can be made in their favor.
I don’t want to take away anyone’s guns.

What I want to do is find a path that permits responsible people to own and use their rifles appropriately.

Let’s accept the notion that AR-15 type rifles are used for sport. I think we can dispense with the idea that they are useful for hunting, so what kind of sport can they be used for, and under what circumstances would those sporting activities be safe?

The term “sports” normally conveys a sense of competition. So why not focus on building a set of sporting activities involving competitive elements using AR-15 type rifles. I’m not a gun enthusiast (though I was a gun owner in my youth and learned to shoot safely and accurately) so I can’t provide specific examples. But most sporting competitions involve contests of speed, accuracy, concentration, and teamwork, among other elements.

Sports activities often involve special venues in order to facilitate the competition and foster safe practices during the sport. For AR-15 type rifles, special ranges would seem to be in order (along the lines of Hogan’s Alley?), along with an agreed upon set of procedures and rules and a system for review of players’ actions during the sport (referees or umpires). Perhaps local groups could form teams that would compete at State, Regional, and National contests.

Finally, there must be concern about how and where the sports equipment is stored when not used for practice or competition. Most people recognize that these are dangerous devices in the hands of untrained, undisciplined, or malignant individuals. Under ideal conditions firearms of this sort would be secured in such manner to permit free access by their owners. Secure storage options could be available at the sporting venues, with procedures in place to prevent access by unqualified individuals.

These ideas are not impossible to achieve, but it would take a lot of effort by a lot of dedicated sportsmen (and women) to accomplish. It is a shame that there is not a national organization dedicated to supporting firearms sports. (There used to be, but it abandoned its foundational principles decades ago.) Perhaps it is time for sportsmen across America to work with one another to make progress on this thorny issue.

Respectfully Submitted,
Jesse Blatt
February 18, 2018

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Shame on Senate Democrats

Someone has to say this, so it might as well be me: Senate Democrats should be ashamed of themselves! They are acting like sanctimonious hysterical harridans, not the mature minders of political decorum that the Founding Fathers envisioned for the Senate.

The Senate is supposed to be the center for careful consideration of issues, followed by informed debate, followed by restrained action. “Zero tolerance” is the refuge of an unmindful mob. Strictly enforced, this rule would empty both chambers of Congress, the White House, and the entire Judicial branch.

Government is the method by which imperfect people attempt to improve and maintain the living conditions of an imperfect citizenry. Clearly, if one’s imperfections adversely affect one’s ability to govern, corrective action is required. Some offenses are indeed sufficiently egregious to require expulsion from government, and the Constitution provides methods for that. According to the Congressional Research Service (report # RL30016):

“While there are no specific grounds for an expulsion expressed in the Constitution, expulsion actions in both the House and the Senate have generally concerned cases of perceived disloyalty to the United States, or the conviction of a criminal statutory offense which involved abuse of one’s official position.”

Unless the Senate offers a resolution of expulsion, and two-thirds of the voting Senators support it, let the people of Minnesota determine Senator Franken’s political future. Matters of this magnitude should not be determined by a handful of zealots brandishing a few uninvestigated allegations of relatively minor offenses.

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