Saturday, April 16, 2016

Rare Awakening

Calm as a rock, sharp as a blade,
Straight as a ray, high as a hawk
Sane as the day, hard as a jade.
Rare is this state, deep as a loch.

Complex the night, artful the dreams
Crumpled the limbs, pillows astray
All night a fight, jungle of beams
Out on the rims, can’t get away.

Some mornings come like lightning strikes.
They wake me clean, a curtain ripped.
A cymbal- drum, a ruptured dyke.
All black turns green, a slammed-shut crypt.

And then…

Calm as a rock, sharp as a blade.
As if all night I’d only prayed.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

♫ Tender is the Steak ♪♫

One of the subjects on which I often muse when walking Katie—officially Canis lupus familiaris, in pop language “dog” or “beagle”—is the pure fact that, in this avowedly materialistic age we live so intensely inside vast structures of purely mental character in which the physical, material, is almost entirely invisible. Just imagine a picture of a commodities market, say trading in Corn Futures. The Internet will display, first and foremost, forbiddingly complex statistical tables or people working two phones and three screens while frantically waving what look like third arms. But after the trading is done (selling things not even planted), months and month later, machines will harvest and store actual kernels of corn with all the “real” action far in the past—but frantic trading still embracing what has not yet been put into the ground—and may not be if the future’s prices are too low.

Yes. The steak may well be tender if the cattle eat aggressively-priced corn. But what about that popular 1983 song—“Tender is the Night”? How can the night be tender? And what is a pretender? Is a pretender “hard”? Well, hard work will give us some insight. Tender comes from tendere in Latin, meaning “to stretch.” The pretender is a person who stretches out before he manages to touch some object. He is a “before-stretcher.” And if he is a wanna-be king, thus one reaching for kingship before any legitimate reasons for that action have been firmly established, he is a Pretender to the Throne.

So the steak has been stretched; fibers have been severed; therefore it is softer, easier to chew. A tender night, presumably, has been stretched out too. Consequently short summer nights do not qualify but December nights are tender indeed. Or am I just whistling Dixie?

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Medium: Snow and Shadow

As every year, so this year too, the subject of April arises now that the month has made its appearance, introducing itself with a reasonably-sized snow storm in its earliest days. Rain and snow have alternated since. Yesterday’s rain turned into snow as the (invisible) sun was setting and the roofs visible from our living room turned white. It was a late night. We woke up late and, glancing out the window, saw a little sketch of our gazebo drawn quite spontaneously by the ultimate artist of our local environment, the Sun. Gazebo sketched in Snow and Shadow. The April arguments always turn on whether or not Winter is really over. No, Brigitte, Spring is only here de jure, not in fact, and outside our premature yellow daffodil is bending its head in sorrow. But the sky is bright.

Monday, February 29, 2016

C Becomes B Today

In that strange title above  my reference is to the year’s Dominical Letters. 2016 is a leap year, and all such years have two such letters. 2015, more modestly, was simply a D; 2016 is, more self-promotingly, CB.

A paragraph such as the one above would have been totally incomprehensible to me on February 1st, the day on which I wrote a post on the year 1932 to mark Brigitte’s 84th birthday. In that process I discovered that 1932 was also a CB year, like 2016; Wikipedia tells you such things. I discovered what a Dominical Letter was, where it fits into the scheme of things, and, furthermore, that 84 is meaningful because it is a multiple of 28, and every 28 years the days of the week in a year begin repeating. Therefore 1932, 1960, 1988, and 2016 are all CB years. If you were 0 years of age in 1932, you will be 84 in 2016, and you can prove it by calculating 3 x 28. Check.

In the medieval scheme of things it was important to know on which date in January the first Sunday of the year fell—or to predict on which day it will fall in future years in order to prepare future calendars for Easter and other Church festivals. The ecclesiastical Latin for Sunday was dies Dominica, or simply Dominica, hence “dominical,” the Sunday Letter.

Now it so happens that the Dominical Letter, once you know it, automatically tells you the date in January. In the following tabulation are all the letters (note that there are seven) with their actual number:

A
B
C
D
E
F
G
1
2
3
4
5
6
0 or 7

Thus if the first Sunday of the year falls on January 1, the DL is A. If on the 7th, DL is G. In mathematical algorithms devised to determine the Dominical Letter, the result for G will always be 0 but must be transformed into 7 before applying its results to an actual calendar. Incidentally, once you know the Dominical Letter, the weekday of January 1 can also be determined by a simple formula: If DL=1, the Day of Week (DW) is 1; in all other cases, DW is 9 minus DL. Taking a G year, the DL is 7; that means Sunday, January 7. January 1 will be 9-7=2, a Monday. The Days of the Week, are numbered thus:

Sun
Mon
Tue
Wed
Thu
Fri
Sat
1
2
3
4
5
6
7

In 2016, where DL is CB, we use the first letter for Sundays in January and February, the B for Sundays the rest of the year. Therefore Sunday is on January 3 (C in the first table) and January 1 will be a Friday; 9-3=6, that 6 being in the table immediately above.

The fact that Days of the Week have a fixed number whereas Dominical Letters have a variable number depending on the year illustrates the maddening confusions that can surround learning this subject.

Let’s next turn to the reason why leap years have two Dominical letters. Lets take as an example 2010 and 2016. 2010 was a C year, meaning that its first Sunday fell on January 3. All other Sundays in the year were therefore designated by C. 2010 is a common year, not divisible by 4. 2016 is a leap year, also a C year at the beginning. It has the same exact days in January and up to the 28th of February. In March, however, its Sunday designation shifts “back” by one.

February-March 2010 - a Common Year starting on a Sunday "C"
Sun
Mon
Tue
Wed
Thu
Fri
Sat

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28







1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
February-March 2016 - a Leap Year starting on a Sunday "CB"

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29







1
2
3
4
5
6
5
6
7
8
9

Notice how in 2016 the first Sunday in March “falls back” by one—compared to 2010. The March pattern shown is that of a B-year (e.g. 2011), thus one starting on a Saturday, its first Sunday being January 2nd. Therefore the B is shown next to the C to indicate that in 2016 C only applies to January and February, not to the year as in and after March.

Quite wondrous algorithms have been devised to calculate the Dominical Letter for any year—in the Gregorian or the Julian calendars. The only input needed is the number of the year. The sleekest of these was devised by Karl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855). The process, on the surface, is simple enough. One counts the total days in target year – 1, 2015 in our case, minding leap days. The total is then divided by 7; the remainder is the number of the Dominical Letter.

Here’s a threat. One of these days I will discuss how that is done. Meanwhile this rather rare February 29 must be lived more fully while the sunshine still lasts.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Liberal Education

When the Kentucky governor, Matt Bevin, suggested last month that students majoring in French literature should not receive state funding for their college educa­tion, he joined a growing number of elected officials who want to nudge students away from the humanities and toward more job-friendly subjects like electri­cal engineering.
   [New York Times, “Rising Call to Cut Funding for Liberal Arts Degrees,” 2/22/2016]

Isn’t that interesting? The majority rules. And the values of the majority—and the quality of its thought—will invariably come to be mirrored at every level of a society, not least its governing circles. Here is democracy’s Achilles’ heel. It is a laudable structure of governance, but its quality will reflect the people.

“Liberal” means free. It was the province, long ago, of those who could both fund the costs and take the time to get educated. “Liberal Education” has never meant  “cost free.” It was the education of the leadership class: wide, general, and elevated—over against vocational education which was for the lower elite of the laboring masses, the craftsmen. And the laborers got none at all.

He who funds also calls the shots. State funding, sooner or later, also means direction of the curriculum. State education is, therefore, regardless of its content, never liberal: the student isn’t “free” of State interference.

Interesting, isn’t it. The more we laud freedom, the less of it is actually available. I used to ponder that when I was young and came to the conclusion that, so long as I wasn’t independently wealthy, I was only “free” to seek a job. And to vote—if that even mattered when far outnumbered by those who do not think. And to drive—provided I bought some insurance.

Someday some few will again have liberal education—but democracy must first decay and its pieces must slowly be absorbed back into the soil of history.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday came yesterday and Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) the day before. Therefore we are now in the Lenten Season. That season, measured on the calendar, is 46 days long—or is it 36 or 40? On that subject I’ve written earlier here (here). Suffice it to say, that days of fasting are on weekdays, and Sundays are not counted, therefore 40; but counting Sundays, 46. Easter will fall on March 27 in 2016.

Now Easter is a movable feast, being based on a lunisolar calendar, one that combines the features of the solar (Gregorian) and of the lunar calendar. The earliest that Easter can fall is March 22; the latest is April 25. The earliest Easter was celebrated last in 1818 (with Ash Wednesday on February 4) and will next appear in 2285. The latest was last celebrated in 1943 (Ash Wednesday on March 10) and will occur again on that late date in 2038.

The ash used yesterday to mark the foreheads of believers, so the Catholic Encyclopedia tells me, was made by burning palm leaves blessed on Palm Sunday of 2015. Palm Sunday? It is the Sunday before Easter.

Now, what with this being a Christian nation (or so we’re told by multiple presidential candidates), the food industry will presumably soon begin reporting a catastrophic decline in sales and profits—with the WSJ angrily demanding that the Federal Funds Rate be lowered in compensation. We’ll all be fasting on weekdays. Therefore, last Tuesday, we had our last indulgent weekday Eating Jamboree—Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras.

A penultimate (look it up) comment. The Muslims also have an extended religious fasting season, Ramadan. It last 29 days, so we fast more. Moreover, we were first—which I add to encourage our presidential contenders. But the Muslims use a lunar calendar—hence their feast really moves about the year. Their religious calendar has 10.87 days fewer than ours. One of our presidential candidates will no doubt fix that—and have the Muslims bear the cost.

The ultimate comment is that this post owes everything to Jeb Bush. He showed up at a rally with an odd mark on his forehead. Brigitte asked what that odd blur on his forehead was. My role is to know it all. “It must be Ash Wednesday,” I said. Then I looked up the date and then Jeb’s religious affiliation. He is a convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism. There must surely be a woman behind that shift…

Sunday, January 31, 2016

MCMXXXII

Let me look back 84 years from MMXVI to MCMXXXII. Why? As a little exercise in retrospection to a day, January 31, 1932, when Brigitte was not yet born. She would be born the next day, February 1 of that leap year. 2016 is identical to 1932: every date in 1932 falls on the same day of the week as in 2016. Brigitte was born on Monday—and will celebrate her 84th on Monday once more.

So what kind of a year was MCMXXXII? Given a perspective of 84 years, 1932 looked pretty ordinary—the same-old, same-old, you might say. In many places even the same parties were involved in the same sorts of conflicts. Japan was more aggressive—invading Manchuria, for instance. These days China is more muscular—creating mini-Manchurias in the South China Sea; Japan seems about as troubled (and helpless) about those islands now as China was about Manchuria then.

The ISIS of that era was just forming—the Nazi party in Germany and the Fascist in Italy, but things hadn’t heated up as yet. To be sure—and I’m restricting this just to February, Brigitte’s month of birth, Goebbels had already nominated Hitler to run for the presidency of Germany; Hindenburg had also agreed to run again. But Hitler was not qualified for the job because he was not a German citizen (echoes of Cruz in 2016?). Then, still in February, Hitler was appointed as a police commissioner in Braunschweig; and, as a civil servant in Germany, he gained citizenship automatically. Useful, that, for his political candidacy. About that same time. Mussolini and Pope Pius XI had an hour’s meeting in the Vatican to talk about the Lateran Treaty that “solved” the “Roman Question,” as it was then called, namely the status of a sovereign Vatican City embedded in a Fascist state. In that month, also Trotsky was banished from the Soviet Union for all time; with him Stalin got rid of an irritating opponent—which did not prevent Stalin from having Trotsky assassinated in Mexico. Same-old, you might say.

To be sure, things were in bad shape in Germany, conditions paving Hitler’s rise to power. The country was an economic shambles with 6 of 20.4 million unemployed (a rate of 29.5%). Germany was struggling for the repeal of Part V of the Treaty of Versailles (thus permitting it to rearm) while France opposed it. Meanwhile the League of Nations (old name but same-old) was pleading with China and Japan to enter negotiations; but Japan held on to Manchuria until the end of World War II.

The United States was not doing so well either. Of its 50.4 million workforce, 12.1 million were also unemployed (23.5%). Today the number of unemployed is 7.9 million, but the workforce has trippled; hence the unemployment rate is at 5 percent. Then, as now, low-cost lending by government—to restore growth—was a big issue. Hence in Brigitte’s birth-month The Reconstruction Finance Corporation began operations—lending to banks so that they would lend to industry. (The RFC lasted until 1954.) The U.S. was also seeing the beginning of a brief climate change: the Dust Bowl days were just starting. The first organized efforts were launched to repeal Prohibition. The U.S. hosted the Olympic Winter games in Lake Placid. All through 1932, of course, Hoover was President—but in the fall elections Franklin D. Roosevelt won a landslide victory.

John Galsworthy (he of the Forsyth Saga) won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Werner Heisenberg (he of the Uncertainty Principle) the prize for Physics. The Forsyths would morph into the 1 percent—and the uncertainty principle would become as much a law of society as it is of physics. All up in the air; even more so now—and Aldous Huxley knew it; he published Brave New World in 1932. What we do know about MCMXXXII and don’t about MMXVI is what followed it fairly soon; soon after 1932 came World War II, and a great and very destructive war it was; but for most of those now living, it is almost forgotten. Not so for those who look back on the good old days…

Happy Birthday tomorrow, Brigitte. You belong to the lucky who, despite the endless chaos, survived and thrived, and now you can look back on it all and then, looking around, just shake your head…

Friday, January 29, 2016

That Interesting State of Nature

Not so curiously (when I think about it) gloomy, coldish, and wet weather brings to my mind that interesting seventeenth, eighteenth century concept of “the State of Nature.” One doesn’t hear much about it these days—although one ought to; we may be headed back in that direction.

The thought tends to arise early in the morning when (in this house anyway), getting the morning paper takes a fair walk; I have to dress for it, and bundling up is even better. Sleet, remnants of snow lie (and often are just then falling) on the ground; wind that sometimes shatters my half-asleep balance with its gusts, and never mind its distant majestic roaring in the sky—together these phenomena make me think, for the two minutes I’m outside, that I am in the State of Nature; I do so even when the temperature is almost warm, 20° to 32° F, say. I’m in that state just long enough to realize that (thank the Lord) I’m not permanently there. Physical discomfort, to be sure, was not what Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Hume had in mind. These luminaries of the Enlightenment were using the lens of Reason, with variable application of actual observation, to illuminate how organized societies came about. But “state of nature” may also be understood my way, thus as exposure to it; and then I’m also reminded of the philosophical meaning of the phrase.

There was no TV back in the seventeenth century—and no endless choice between programs eager to show us how monkeys, penguins, elephants, and countless other species still live (if they are lucky), in the state of nature. Thus Hobbes could speak of man as an isolated creature at war with all other men, his life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and [thankfully during my short paper-walk] short.” Hobbes represents one pole of State of Nature—the negative; the cure for which was Leviathan, the mortal god. The other pole is represented by Rousseau; for him the State of Nature was a kind of mundane paradise; the State then becomes something oppressive by introducing, applying, and exploiting the dangerous concept of property. Hume’s stand on the subject is closest to mine; which makes sense: he is the youngest of those luminaries, born in 1711 (versus Hobbes born in 1588). Hume in effect dismisses the State of Nature as a fiction; but he grants it a minor status as a philosophical concept to think about.

Observation of Nature and its creatures—not least anthropological studies of remnants of primitive cultures—show that humans have never really lived in the State of Nature, at least as philosophically understood, whether negatively or positively. But all people who’ve ever lived have reacted to weather like we have had lately with my rather jaundiced view of it. Hence tents, huts, settlements. Hence interaction with helpful others. Hence the State—which is just a function of population density—always at least potentially present, its rudiments always visible.

Those rudiments of the State, of course, include cooperation, voluntary self-limitation, and obedience to rules held in common. Hobbes' solitary man could do anything he pleased; the stamp on his forehead said libertarian. But that way lies chaos—which we’ve never found in actuality except in times when the State begins to wither and, in the process, a return to a much more decentralized state of affairs is in process. Chaos observed? Yes. In Syria for instance. And in a milder variety here at home as well. The parts are separating, hence things seem chaotic; let’s hope that that situation is only temporarily. Let’s hope that the center will too hold.

That hopeful note because, this morning, the sun is bright; it’s lovely out there in Nature, especially when viewed though a window looking at the trees in the distance while listening to the crackling in the walls as the radiators are getting a nice supply of hot, hot water to keep this micro-Leviathan cozy.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Bless That Tilt

The odds that the tilt of the earth’s axis relative to the sun’s (23.4°) will change in anybody’s lifetime—including the babies who are being born as I write—is virtually zero. Never absolutely—not in this dimension where everything is ruled by flux. But given that zero, it is amusing to discover how many people have taken time to think about the consequences that would ensue if our axis and the sun’s were parallel—not least among them Isaac Asimov. We did so too, this morning, talking about seasons, and that because its “unseasonably” warm on this late January day. If our own axis matched that of the sun (see link on this blog), seasons as we know them would disappear—so what else would change?

Endless opinion, mostly negative. Brigitte took a, for her, innately more positive stance—always discovering, at least where humanity was concerned, that we would be, as always, active and creative. Thus she rejected the view that humanity would just be scratching out a meager living in an essentially undeveloped state just north and south of the tropical regions. No. Humanity would make the most of it; if the season did not change, humanity would do the moving. But the environment, at least, would be much less interesting. No seasons, neither Spring flowers nor the dreary view of leafless trees. No animal—and worse yet no butterfly—migrations. Some say no technology would ever have developed for lack of hardship that winter provides. But then, Brigitte says, there is human curiosity—also left out of the equation.

Asimov predicts an environment in which Ice Ages are Ice Permanencies—and keeps most of his article on another subject. His article was originally published in the August 1977 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction†; in it he is poking fun at John Milton who, in Paradise Lost, thought that the tilting of the axis was a kind of punishment that went with the Fall. To the contrary, says Asimov, the tilt was a blessing. Brigitte and I certainly agree. We’d rather believe in Global Warming causing this “hot” January morning (34° F) than the beginning of a slow process of axial tilt movement to the vertical. Global Warming, turns out, will have at least some of the same effects as a tilt-adjustment.
—————
†Available on this site—if you are willing to page down, down, and down until the magazine’s cover comes into view.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Eselsbrücke

The German word of my title is usually translated as “the bridge of donkeys” into English; but no sooner read, we are told its Latin derivation, pons asinorum, and referred to Euclid’s fifth proposition, the one that deals with isosceles triangles.

I learned that phrase in German; in German usage the word is simply a mnemonic—as it also does in Dutch and Czech—with an implied confession, when we use it, of our close relation to donkeys. The discovery that it has quite other meanings in other languages, meanings more closely related to Euclid, had to await my reading of Frederick W.H. Myer’s book, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, a late-nineteenth century work, where the following sentence startled me into awakeness:

He [see below] may thus be ranked as the only man who has ever done valuable service to Mathematics without being able to cross the Ass’s Bridge.
     [Myers, p. 68]

While the phrase instantly brought the word eselsbrücke to my mind, the context was alien—and set me to investigating the phrase. I’d never encountered it in a book before. Well…

It turns out that Euclid’s Fifth Proposition—which simply asserts that triangles with at least two equal sides will have angles under the base equal to one another—was the last proposition medieval students had to study. If they managed to understand Euclid’s proof, they had then crossed the bridge from donkey to student status.

I am showing the diagram Euclid used in his proof of this assertion. The “base” here is BC—and the angle under the base would seem to be greater than the angle above. Therefore some serious proving is involved. How Euclid does it may be found here, on page 11.

I won’t go into the proof itself except to say that it is more complex than that for the first four propositions. And I’d point out that this graphic, if you look at it poetically, may suggest a bridge. Its top is BC and it is supported by F and G. Thus the graphic may have suggested the name.

The man to whom Myers refers was Dase (no first name given), a math wizard from childhood until his death. He could not even understand the simplest arithmetic as taught in first grade—yet the Academy of Sciences at Hamburg employed him to produce tables of factors and prime numbers out to nearly 8 million. (Factors are whole numbers that divide exactly into another whole number leaving no remainder; primes only ever have two factors: 1 and themselves.) Now as for that bridge, Dase never even came close to crossing it. Ah, the mystery of mind…

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Satellites and Prester John

We live in a time scrubbed clean of myths—one reason why, for most of us (not least our soldiers engaged all over the Middle East), the name “Prester John” produces, at best, a vague sensation of having heard it before but little else; and for those born after the 1950s, probably nothing at all. The myth of Prester John is perhaps the most thoroughly forgotten among others. Among the others are the Lost City of Atlantis, El Dorado, The Flying Dutchman, and the Wandering Jew.

To take these going backwards, the Wandering Jew was a man who, having taunted Jesus, was condemned to live until the Second Coming—and therefore still wanders the earth. The Flying Dutchman is a sailing ship condemned to sail the oceans until some crime has been atoned for—sometimes (at least until the satellites came) still seen by sailors in storms. El Dorado was a mythological chief among the tribes of present-day Columbia who covered himself in gold dust as an initiation rite; the conquistadores transmuted the man, originally El Hombre Dorado, into a kingdom, eventually into a hidden empire where gold was more common than dirt. And Atlantis was a great island and city somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean which, after long dominance, fell out of the favor with the Greek gods; they caused it to sink; it has now disappeared. Until it did Atlantis, much like El Dorado and Prester John’s kingdom, was the object of endless, if mostly literary, voyages of discovery.

Let me now tackle Prester John; that Prester was originally Presbyter. That word can mean “priest” or “elder” being derived from the Greek word for “old man”—thus Old Man John. The myth is that John had been a missionary of the Nestorian version of Christianity (dated to the fifth century (link)) and that he had established a wealthy kingdom in the Middle East somewhere. The myth arose in the twelfth century, thus toward the end of the time of the Crusades. It was evidently started by Crusaders. Those people, of course, operated over much the same area as our troops are now operating in various capacities—thus Syria,Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. By contrast with our troops, the Crusaders had no satellites, had only a sketchy knowledge of distant cultures, but great ambition to strike it rich somehow. Therefore to find Prester John and his domain was a kind of ambition that produces enduring myths.

The old myths are gone. We have modern varieties, of course. There is ET; and the little green men; there are flying saucers; the satellites can’t see them either—but people driving by night are not so blind. As for the ancient and the older legends, they are fading in proportion to the spread of tiny smart-phones. That great, powerful island in the Atlantic? Since the Crusades that island has risen from the Ocean; why didn’t anybody notice? We call it the United States of America. El Dorado is now on Wall Street but, despite hedge funds and their kin, it is still refusing to yield great wealth to ordinary veterans. The Flying Dutchman hasn’t been seen in recent times, but we have yet to find Flight 370 of the Malaysian Airlines; that plane’s absence suggests that a modern version of the old myth is now in  the making. Let me give it a start. I would suggest that that famous Boeing 777-200ER may still be flying up there—but hidden from sight by a Romulan cloaking device. As for the Wandering Jew, he disappeared even more effectively behind a cloak of political correctness. Maybe he will reappear again if Donald Trump is elected president.

Channeling Solomon

For the first time in history, it may be necessary for the Supreme Court of the United States to hire a qualified Medium. Why is that? Well, the answer is advancing technology. It is now possible for a couple to conceive a child by in vitro fertilization of a mother’s ovum and a father’s sperm. Better yet, the resulting embryo may then be frozen to be gestated (or not) based on the couple’s chosen schedule. But what if, in the meanwhile, the couple gets divorced? And one of them is unwilling actually to have the child (once it has been thawed out). You can’t divide an embryo in half. Or can you? And what if they are twins. Such cases are multiplying. Soon SCOTUS (as the knowledgeable refer to the Court) may get a case to decide. The difficulties are great—even if a precedent exists. But for best practice, perhaps channeling Solomon himself may be appropriate. Therefore a qualified Medium!

Monday, January 18, 2016

MLK Morning 2016

Gorgeous sunny morning
The merest breath of snow.
The fog seems to have frozen,
Has simply left the air,
And rests on grass and thatch
While the sun, arrested
In its path, stopped by this
Vision itself had wrought,
Cannot move on without
A moment’s meditation.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

A Curious Controversy

On a quite casual look to see how heroin is derived, ultimately, from poppies, I came across the following text in Wikipedia’s article on “Morphine” (link):

Later it was found that morphine was more addictive than either alcohol or opium, and its extensive use during the American Civil War allegedly resulted in over 400,000 sufferers from the “soldier’s disease” of morphine addiction. This idea has been a subject of controversy, as there have been suggestions that such a disease was in fact a fabrication; the first documented use of the phrase “soldier’s disease” was in 1915.

I spent the best part of half-a-day trying to find the actual source for that number—and indeed for that phrase. Wikipedia’s references were in part non-functional. In due course I discovered that the number comes from a Book entitled Drug Dependence and Abuse Resource Book, published in 1971 by the National District Attorney’s Association; in that book a single article, by Gerald Starkey, entitled “The Use and Abuse of Opiates and Amphetamines” contains the passage I quote below. (Starkey, by the way, is shown as an MD in the original book—but later, one opponent labeled him a “yellow journalist”—see below.) The passage itself is quoted in Shooting Up: A History of Drugs and War by Lukasz Kamienski (link). Here it is:

In 1865 there were an estimated 400,00 young War veterans addicted to Morphine… The returning veteran could be identified because he had a leather thong around his neck and a leather bag [with] Morphine Sulfate tablets, along with a syringe and a needle issued to the soldier on his discharge… This was called the “Soldier’s Disease.”

Wikipedia, above, also refers to a “controversy.” The source of that controversy is one Jerry Mandel, particularly his paper titled “The Mythical Roots of U.S. Drug Policy: Soldier’s Disease and Addiction in the Civil War,” available here. Mandel’s paper appears under the imprint of the Drug Reform Coordinating Network, better known, perhaps, as StoptheDrugWar.org. He argues that major addiction (say on the scale of 400,000) was not an actual fact of history but that, on the contrary, it is a much later phenomenon, evolved to support the War on Drugs. His claim is that the phrase “soldier’s disease” was not used in print until 1915. One writer who uses Mandel’s argument (of several such) also labeled Starkey as a “yellow journalist.”

Who do you believe? I tried an experiment. I asked Google Ngrams to trace the usage of two phrases: “soldier’s disease” and “army disease”; the latter term was also supposedly widely used during the Civil War to refer to drug addiction. Here is what Google had to say:


It would seem that the phrase “soldier’s disease” first appears strongly in the Civil War period—and is now back in force—thanks to controversies surrounding the legalization of drugs…