Saturday, February 18, 2017

Buster Bunker

The new product that I propose somebody should bring to market would be made of very thick concrete. It would be shaped like a telephone booth, but lower in height. Inside it would consist of a decent light and a comfortable seat. The purpose of this bunker will be to accommodate people over a certain age; it would be wide enough to allow them comfortably to read a newspaper. If, reading the morning papers, the occupant  suddenly burst apart from rage, skin, skull, heart, and lungs all spattering in every direction with enormous force, the thick walls of the Buster Bunker would keep all this bio-debris contained. Upscale models would also come with a built-in CPM (that stands for “corpse collecting module”); it would wash down all this debris with alcohol and burn the whole mess. Fine-tuned automated bottling and sacking machinery would collect gases and solids and prepare them for shipment to one of several Fortune 500 companies pre-selected by the former owner. Yet another special feature would be a flashing light on the outside, green for women, red for men. If the green light flashes, you’ll know that grandma is no more—but the little place where she lived is still as spic and span as it was when she got up that morning to read the paper.

Motivation for this invention? Well, today’s headlines are a good example. Today we learned that along with such things as Social Security and Medicare, our newly minted Administration’s budget would also eliminate Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, AmeriCorps (community services), and Legal Services Corporation (legal aid for the poor), and other valuable if small agencies that help those potential green and red lights. We don’t own a Buster Bunker yet, hence we’ve had to contain our rage at these proposals.

Come to think of it, Buster Bunkers ought to be built and distributed, and their operations subsidized by Federal Dollars. That would also help with freeing up a lot of housing and control population growth. The cost of a Buster Bunker should be kept to about $13,130—with an additional $500 for a CPM. Let those who’d have to clean up the mess pay for that additional but obviously useful component.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Unholy Sanction

For what will be obvious reasons today, the word “sanction” caught our attention. To be sure, this piece may be read three or four years from now, its context completely forgotten, so here is the context: General Flynn, Trump’s National Security Adviser, resigned last night, evidently over accusations that he had discussed “sanctions” with the Russian Ambassador. The resignation was announced by the New York Times at 11:06 pm, whereupon the cable media went into a kind of melt-down trying to process the sudden, alarming, and indeed seemingly EXPLOSIVE news. This kept Brigitte and me up later than usually. In three years all this will all seem weird at best.

But back to that word. In a nut shell, the word can have two meanings: (1) it is a decree or ordinance which permits something to be done—as in “You have our sanction to proceed”; and (2) a negative order or laws (along with consequences) which penalizes something that has been done—as in “The United States has passed sanctions against Russia for its Crimean invasion.”

Both meanings are reported by Online Etymology Dictionary. The second (negative) sanction is there said to have been first used in 1956. Nothing more is said. But the date has puzzled many word lovers before it puzzled me this morning. 1956? Come on. So what is the root of that date—never mind the word sanction.

The big global event in 1956 was the Suez Crisis. It began in 1956 when Egypt’s Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. In response, Israel, joined by England and France, invaded Egypt. The United States under Eisenhower, joined by the Soviet Union and the United Nations, opposed this move (or let’s say that they failed to sanction the invasion). This failed sanction may be at the root of dating negative sanctions as first entering the dictionaries of the English language. The history is not cited by linguists; what they have to say is presented at this interesting place (link). In his 1956 State of the Union Message, however, Eisenhower did use the following words:

In all things, change is the inexorable law of life. In much of the world the ferment of change is working strongly; but grave injustices are still uncorrected. We must not, by any sanction of ours, help to perpetuate these wrongs.

Could that be the original framing of a negative sanction made some time before Eisenhower actually used such a sanction against the Israeli-English-French invasion of Egypt?

Sanction derives from the Latin sanctionem meaning “act of decreeing or ordaining” and confirming the enactment of a law. The application of this word in ecclesiastical decrees, not least the bestowal of sainthood on the deserving, gives us the sense that sanction is somehow related to sainthood and the sacred. That sense is more or less correct. We certainly have a holy sanction which makes the saint—and the unholy sanction which can cost a general his job.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Remembering my Etiquette

When you ponder it a little more than superficially, the phrase political correctness is a tautology. Thus the word “political,” by itself, already contains the sense of “correctness.” Deep down the two words mean “the same” (tauto in Greek). But let me extend this by looking at two words that seem to be related: political and polite. Political is rooted in the word “citizen,” polites in Latin; and that last word derives from polis, “city.” At this point “political” is not in any genuine sense equivalent to “correctness,” of course, but let us plow this furrow deeper. One idea might be to check if the words politic and polite both come from the same root; but that turns out to be wrong. Polite comes from the Latin politus; in spelling that word is almost identical to “citizen” (polites) but its meaning is “polished,” refined, hence elegant and  accomplished. The word politic, however, despite its strong linkage to citizen in Latin, had acquired the meaning of “prudent, judicious,” by the 15th century, no doubt because a citizen must have those characteristics in order to get things done. In English, as well, we get the word “civil” from citizen; and civility relies on prudent and judicious behavior. Polite behavior, although derived from polishing rough things until they’re smooth, has functionally the same meaning. A polite person will always be politic, civil, thoughtful, and considerate. Tautology.

Now we could take this even further (always true where language is involved). The hardnosed critic of political correctness will point out that “correctness,” as used in that phrase, does not mean adherence to truth, necessarily; rather, it means obedience to a ideology, whether that ideology is true or not. And that’s also true. The phrase came into use for that reason, I think: to enforce an ideology. An alternative was already available when it was introduced: it was  etiquette. Etiquette retains, to this day, the meaning of “correct behavior” whether in politics or other spheres of life.

Etiquette literally means a small slip of paper, a ticket, you might say. It comes from Old French estiquette, which simply meant a label. Etiquette, in the sense of “prescribed behavior” (notice behavior, not belief in anything) developed from “label” because people visiting courts (be they in France (étiquette), Italy (etichetta), or Spain (etiquette) were handed little cards on which the basic right behavior was printed to be learned. Similarly, soldiers assigned to be lodged in a village, temporarily, were issued a similar ticket with similar instructions on how to behave.

Etiquette is about such things as rising when a lady or elderly person needs a seat, which spoon to use, when to bow, when to speak, who goes first, what words may or may not be used (and here we are approaching but not reaching political correctness)—and never mind what you would rather do—like putting your muddy boots up on that beautifully laid Downton Abbey dinner table.

By combining “right behavior” with “prudent and judicious” speech, we might get political etiquette, a nice correction in the course on which we are now headed—a rough beaching on some arid sandbank or worse. No one possesses etiquette automatically; I remember my childhood. To do so you have to be brought up right. One has to have acquired manners—and education enough to understand the meaning of correct behavior until it becomes instinctive. And it doesn’t harm you if you read and study a fair amount to discover that you’re not born wise.

My source for etymologies and historical precedents comes, as always, from Oonline Etymology Dictionary (link).

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Sun is Shining!

The good Lord has decided to do the unusual. He waved a finger ever so slightly so that something we haven’t experienced in what seems like a month, but was surely at least three weeks, the grey skies have vanished and a bright sun shines this morning in celebration of Brigitte’s birthday. Not a cloud in sight—and it now seems that Folklore, which asserts that the sky is blue, must be true after all. Yes, even here in Mordor. Thank you, Lord. We know you love us. And a little hint of that will let us endure a lot for a long time to come.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Catholic Vote Revisited

My use of the word “revisited” above is a nod to an earlier entry on my (these days) much-neglected economics blog called LaMarotte. There I had a posting in February 2012 on the subject. The post showed the Catholic vote from 1948 through 2008. Today I thought I’d revisit the subject. The result, obtained from Wikipedia (here) follows:

According to CARA† the Catholic population (self-identified Catholics) was 74.2 million in 2016, still a substantial block of people, but evidently declining: in 2011 CARA had the figure at 77.7, in 2010 at 74.6 million. In  the 18-year period that I’m showing, the Catholic vote went to the winner in 14 out of 18 elections, thus 78 percent of the time. In that same period, democrats won office eight times, republicans ten times. The majority of Catholics voted for democrats in each year the democrats won but also four times when they lost. Catholics voted for republicans six times when they won but deserted that party the four other times the GOP was successful.  Catholics in the 1948-2016 period never voted for the GOP when it lost. On the whole, therefore, one infers, the Catholic vote is more likely to go democratic than the other way unless something rubs that collective the wrong way. In 2016, alas, the Catholic vote deserted Hilary Clinton and went with Donald Trump. Well, maybe the next time.
†Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, link.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Thin Water

Thin water (call it that) but it is everywhere,
Insistently covering, coating everything—
Pebbles, grass, swaths of concrete, tracks of tar, the trees—
Soaking the air invisibly, dripping, puddling,
Wet, wet, wet. Shivers run down my back. I pull my
Skin close to the bones. A big breath—and out I go
To haul the garbage bag out to the distant curb
Navigating petty lakes across the ocean
Of thin water; then back again to fetch that blue
Recycling Bin full of its humid cargo of
Spent bottles, cans, and plastics sacked to save the world.

There are these times when for a week of Sundays, seems,
The sun must hide behind a massive grey or fog
So thick thin water turns quite visible and white, and
The faint light only hints at what I cannot see:
Houses across the street, the lake between, the docks
Down there where in some distant future yachty things
Will moor and white swans will seem to move without the
Locomotion of webbed feet thanks to thick water
That carries them darkly, but glitters as it
Reflects the light that, in some future, shall be back.
Will it dry out? Or will fake January last?

I Pray not. Sick of thin water and obscuring
Fog, sick of fake news and fake months that should be cold
Instead—and brilliant—the Sun in charge again!

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Left Bank

Say you’re at the middle of a bridge—say it is the Seine River in Paris. You’re looking upriver, meaning that the water is approaching you. Which bank of the river is which? It seems to you then, from your orientation, that the bank on your right is rive droite and the bank on your left is the rive gauche—what with rive meaning “bank”. But suppose then you decide to go to the other side of the bridge, this time seeing the water flowing away from you, the two banks have changed names. So which is the left bank of the river? This left or the other?

Left and right in (call it) riverese (and possibly also in other contexts) is relative to your point of view. Now left and right in dictionary definition means that the bank on the left of the direction of flow is left, the bank on the right of the direction of flow is right. The Seine flow roughly east to west through Paris. Therefore the Rive Gauche is to the south, the Rive Droite is to the north. This method of naming is formalized in the geological science of orography, the study of topography of hills and mountains. Thus rivers as seen from their source (which is topographically highest). As seen from the source downward, the banks remain always to left or right of the water.

Why this question? Well, I’m studying the brief life of St. Joan of Arc—which will appear here by-and-bye. In Joan of Arc’s life the city of Orléans plays a major role. Up-to-date accounts (e.g. Wikipedia), refer to crucial events on the south bank of the Loire—which is the dominant river in the northern part of France. In older accounts (e.g., my dated Encyclopedia Britannica), the references are to the Left Bank of the Loire. But how could the left be the south when, staring at a map, left is West and right is East. I had to sort that out quickly—given that, just looking at a section of a river on a map, I’d no idea which way the river flowed. I know the way the Rhine flows, or the Danube, but the Loire is largely aqua incognita…

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

That Cross of Gold

In the wake of the Great Recession, I had been charting employment growth/decline monthly on LaMarotte. I’d started in March 2011. For years after that, I used to wonder why I saw almost no sign of a popular upheaval over the sluggishly-performing economy. But the upheaval did finally came with the nomination/election of Donald Trump in 2016. And suddenly everyone is using the word populism.

To be sure, it is a euphemism. In a country where one may only refer to the population as “middle class,” it is painful for pundits to speak of the lower class. To call something a “populist revolt” is more acceptable than calling it a “lower class revolt.” But one thing is certain. William Jennings Bryan’s famous Cross of Gold plays a major role every time that populism rises to the surface. If you ask Google NGram (the word-usage application) to chart “populism” and, say, “tea party,” you’ll discover that until 1962 “populism” was much less used than “tea party”; beginning that year, however, “populism” began to soar in printed mentions so that by 2008 it was used five times more often than “tea party”; and since then (NGram only goes up to ‘08), it must have had an even more sharply rising usage.

I note that until 1962 indices of productivity and real hourly compensation were essentially the same (since 1947). They begin to diverge in 1962, with productivity higher (and higher, and higher) as time advances. The 1960s mark the start of an economic divide—which grows and grows…and grows. And so does the use of the word populism.

Bryan said, in a speech at the Democratic National Convention of 1896, “you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.” The context here was monetary policy, specifically money supply. The United States, operating on the gold standard, had an insufficiency of money. Bryan advocated bimetallism, meaning the use of silver along with gold to increase the supply—which would have benefitted the agricultural producers, a vastly larger segment of the population then than it is today. The subject of bimetallism deserves its own entry; for now, let’s just say that the gold standard favored East Coast money interests; bimetallism would have helped (let’s call it) the middle class.

Many parallels mark the 2016 and the 1896 elections. Little-known Bryan emerged as a very popular figure and won the Democratic nomination. But he lost the election (no Putin helped him, I suppose; Nicholas II ran Russia then). The gold standard was kept in place. William McKinley won the election. (We disclose here voluntarily that our last address was 259 McKinley.) Another parallel was that a large but little-heard portion of the population—the red states of that time—were disaffected but not as successful as the voters of the same type that managed to capture the presidency in 2016.

Populism? The lower classes in revolt against elites—after long stagnation and suffering. The Golden Cross just got too heavy. Amazing how much 1% can weigh. The ultimate outcome? Who can foretell the future?  One of the interesting observations for me is that the “rage” you expect to see by studying statistics is not necessarily visible until some voice starts shouting it to mobs. Then we have populism. And it can win even without the majority of the popular vote.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Truth Is…

…well, the truth is, at root (thus from the view of etymology), strongly anchored in such concepts as faith, adherence, and loyalty. It came as a small shock to me to realize this morning that underneath it is the Old English word treowe, which I recognize as the German word die Treue, a word I understand deep in the gut. That word, in turn, according to my Cassell’s dictionary, is defined as “fidelity, faithfulness, constancy, loyalty; sincerity, honesty; accuracy.”

Based on its roots, “the truth” is best described—except for the last word in that list above—as a quality or feeling resident in my internal reaction to something; it has a definite emotional quality—again, with the exception of that last word, accuracy. I do not think that most of us have a very strong emotional reaction to accuracy. We’re cool about accuracy but warm about the truth.

Now the problem with “the truth” arises when the truth of some vast collective phenomenon needs to be assessed—and therefore the personal feelings of large masses of people are involved—as in public opinion. There we’re dealing with there is vast clouds of facts we cannot check in person—and our own view of promises which will require months and years to check.
 The truth for us, in such a situation, is a judgment based pretty much on a gut-level reaction to the values that some collective phenomenon may or may not represent.

How close to the “truth” are the fidelity, faithfulness, constancy, and loyalty of millions of voters? How much do they collectively know, how deeply, and how accurate are they on the whole. The truth is we can’t know. The truth is that the truth is as elusive in practice as the meaning of life. All we know is what it is for us, individually. I know in my heart. Not collectively.

If we define truth as “that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality” (as Google does), means, when applied to collective facts, that these can only be checked approximately.  None of us knows reality.

I sense that this subject is endless, so here an abrupt end. In that long list above in Cassell’s, one word is obviously inconsistent: accuracy. All the other definitions suggest that truth is “good”; why else those positive reactions of adherence to it; accuracy, however, captures today’s common usage. True is that which agrees with what we see. If what we see is “evil,” rejection, repugnance, revulsion, flight, and aggression would be the negative reactions truth engenders. The content it hides in that single syllable is what really matters. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Notes on the New Random: Head Gear

What with Trump embracing Netanyahu, I noticed an odd fact about Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice as the new Secretary of State. Tillerson has quite gray hair, but the graying has not been uniform. The back of his head, when seen in profile, indicates black hair. And at certain times and from certain angles, he seems to be wearing a yarmulke. Was that fact one, or perhaps even the most important, reason for his choice as Secretary? To be pleasing to Israel? Or was it Mr. Tillerson’s friendship for a man who rarely wears a hat at all?

Concerning headgear, I have not been privileged to read the classified portions of the Intelligence Establishment’s report on alleged Russian hacking of the U.S. election process. Therefore I cannot confirm a rumor that is said to be “in the air” (or is that just “fake news”?)—namely that the color of Mr. Trump’s favorite electioneering baseball cap was chosen by Mr. Putin, the color red being, as it were in Mr. Putin’s background.

Image credit is Wikipedia (link).

Friday, January 6, 2017

How Long Does It Take to Build a House?

Our own Wolverine Drive follows the shoreline of Wolverine Lake, lake-side properties on one, inland-properties on its other side. Wolverine Lake came about when a doctor, Howard Stuart, succeeded in damming up the flow of water from six little lakes (Spring, Mayie, Pork Barrel, Bickling, Taylor, and Bradley) to form a single body of water. This took place 1919-1920. Our village, therefore, is old—and mostly looks its age. In recent decades, however, the lakeshore has been gentrifying. The humble little “summer houses” along the lake have been gradually replaced by ever more impressive mansions.

In direct view of our “backlot” house (backlot meaning that we’re on the wrong side of the “drive”) two of the lakeside houses were razed to the ground late in September, one directly opposite us, the second some houses to the right. The second (right, below) was rebuilt at competent speed—up with finished roofs and some stone facing on some of its outer walls. But then construction stopped abruptly. It stands there now, attractive enough but obviously unfinished. The house across the street (left, below) began going up a month after its demolition. By November 10 it was also more or less up, complete with walls, a tower, covered roofs, and windows installed—but visibly unfinished still today, Three Kings Day, 2017.

So I got to wondering. How long does it take to build a house? We’ve seen activity ranging from furious to rather token at both of these mansion some days—then absolutely nothing for days and days on end.

Well, the Bureau of the Census conducts an annual Survey of Construction. It reports on the average completion time of buildings. The answer to the question I pose is that, on average, a house takes 7 months to finish. But, as with all things collective, “average” is just another word for “approximately” or “you hope.” If you live in our region (East North Central), the average is 8 months. If you live in Middle Atlantic (Virginia up to Delaware), the period is 9.5 months. The shortest period, 6.5 months, is experienced in the Mountain States.

Based on such data—and assuming that construction began at both our houses on October 21—we can expect that the buildings shown will be done by June of this year. For a while, around here, we were joking that they will be done in May. Well, June may be the earliest. When we first moved here in July 2014, three other houses were in the same “half-finished” state further south on the lakeside of Wolverine Drive. One of them is still not finished; two others are—but no one has as yet moved in. Construction equipment takes up their drive-ways still

Thursday, January 5, 2017


If our family has a patron saint, it must be St. Martin of Tours, in France. Who, by the way, selects one’s patron saint? Must happen at a higher level than down here… To be sure St. Martin was born in what is Hungary today. My ancestors chose his name to supplement their own, calling the family Szentmartoni Darnay, or Darnay of St. Martin. Then our youngest, Michelle, went to Tours as an exchange student and later settled there to go to school and lived just blocks from the St. Martin Cathedral. Before Michelle was born we lived near Trier in Germany, one of the places where Martin served as a soldier on his slow journey toward France. Links upon links.

Michelle did some travelling around Christmas and visited a place about 39 miles south-west of Tours called Candes-Saint-Martin, a tiny village now of under 300 people but with a bishop’s palace where St. Martin was once the episcopus. She sent Brigitte and me each a little lapel pin of a view of Candes-Sain-Martin. A much-enlarged image of that place is shown below.

The picture is the work of Manfred Heyde accessible on Wikipedia (here). The view of Candes is from the eastern shore of the Loire at the point where one of the Loire’s tributaries, the Vienne, enters the larger river. Candes, incidentally, is thought to be a Gallic term meaning “confluence.”

St. Martin was born either in 316 or 336 AD; both years have some support, but controversy surrounds both. I prefer 336. It would mean that I was born 1600 years after St. Martin. He died in 397 either at 61 or 81 years of age. Martin is best remembered in the image of a soldier who, meeting a freezing beggar along a road near Amiens in France cut his own cloak in half so that the beggar could be covered. Life is all about simple acts of kindness. Some will never to be forgotten.

The image above is from Wikipedia (link) by Eva Kröcher, Frankfurt am Main.

Monday, January 2, 2017

White Christmas in Glens Falls

Monique and John spent Christmas in Glens Falls, NY with the East Coast branch of the extended family. It snowed tons there while here a warm spell cleared most of the grass of white. Above a rather nice photo (one of several) that Monique took and sent us by e-mail. Her own colorful portrait taken in the same scene is also inserted; her new hat is but partially visible.

As best as I can make out, the above is a view of Christ Church United Methodist near Notre Dame Street where Monique and John were staying. Vast amounts of snow this year, but both ends of the trip passed uneventfully, with the great northern not interfering in the least in what was a long journey in a very new truck.

Today’s weather, here at Wolverine Lake, makes us think that Spring's already here. My new Christmas-gift blue jeans, with red-felt inner lining, guaranteed to defeat even -15 temperatures, was too warm to wear...

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Radicalized Octogenarian

A radicalized octogenarian?
That sounds like a contrarian description—
Given that most octomen or octodames
Can’t even walk without a pair of canes.

But reading what old Mitch McConnell says,
As he’s about to set brave Medicare ablaze,
And sharpening his axe to hew down SSA,
Octos must start to weigh a radical response.

The suicide wheelchair’s next in line
Of terrorist weapons to break your spine.
The TNT cane set off by a weak tap
Awaits your kidnap in an old folks home.

But who was the perp? A laid-off librarian?
Not this time: an octo-Hungarian.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Remembering Colonel Martinnen

On the last day of this sorry year, by way of a minute thumb on the scale to set the true weight right again, I will mention one of my commanders from my military days, Colonel Alpo Kullervo Martinnen. The world always has its share of brave and courageous people; they are rarely noted but, I trust, they’re really in the majority. Yesterday, in a note from my old friend Phil Cavanaugh, I was reminded again that Colonel Martinnen had been one of them.

I knew Col. Martinnen in the 8th Infantry Division. At the time he was the head of G5, the divisional department responsible for (then) for Civil Affairs and Military Government. Not surprisingly, all members of that group, at that time, were foreigners: Col Martinnen was a Finn; I was the ranking enlisted man with Hungarian, German, and French language skills; Horst Stark and Gary Wiese were both Germans. In case of a war breaking out, our G5 would have managed relations with the surrounding population—of which the chief task would have been keeping the roads open for military operations.

Martinnen (1908-1975) had risen to the rank of Lt Col in the Russo-Finnish War (1942-1944) as commander of the 61st Infantry Regiment. After the war he was active in the massive Weapons Cache Case in Finland during which military people hid weaponry and supplies for up to 35,000 soldiers in case of yet another Soviet invasion of the country. The Weapons Cache came to be discovered. Martinnen and many of his followers then fled Finland. Most emigrated to the United States and there enlisted in the U.S. Army around 1947. By the time I knew him, Martinnen was once again a Lieutenant Colonel, but this time in the U.S. Army. The Army immediately commissioned him a Major on enlisting—and then had him undergo U.S. basic training with mostly 18-year old privates. After serving as a trainer in winter warfare, he eventually was sent to Germany as a staff officer. And after that stint, he went on to command the 13th Battle Group, the successor to the 13th Infantry Regiment, which had been my own arma mater. Later yet he served in Korea and, just before he passed at age 67, he was serving in an assignment in Iran.

Beneath the layers of public life where power tends to corrupt, the stalwarts and the brave go on doing their thing with energy and courage—if sometimes bending the rules. One time, I recall, I had to type a document classified as Confidential. I took the document to him and said that I couldn’t do it: it was classified—and I had not received my clearance yet. “I clear you,” he said briskly. And I went off to type. (The document was about clearing roads of obstructions. Overclassification was already well-entrenched back then in the 1950s).

I’ve mentioned Col Martinnen once before, in 2011, in connection with the Finnish language here on this blog. Ethnically Alpo Kullervo was a Swede, you see, like many others of the upper layers of Finnish life, but determined nevertheless to master his “mother” tongue. A worthy man. I discovered yesterday that one of his sons, also a U.S. soldier, died young in Grafenwöhr, Germany, during an artillery accident at that firing range—a desolate place but one that I’ve always loved. 

Image courtesy of Wikipedia (link).