Friday, August 22, 2014

From MAR to POI

A month and two weeks have passed since we made our move West to what might be called the Lake District adjoining Metro Detroit. It took that long since, yesterday, I braved an awesome traffic circle (a new one, and they’re very popular on new roads around here) to find our new library, formally the Commerce Township Community Library or, in modernese, CTCL. CTCL is associated to something that calls itself the The Library Network (TLN), made up of 65 regional libraries that, together, share a common catalog. The catalog is much more complicated and, initially, more difficult to use. The advantage is that one can order books from a rather large number of libraries and, patience playing its role, have it delivered at the nearest one to us.  That practice, Brigitte reminds me, is called an ILL, an inter-librart loan. I noted, this morning, that the larger libraries in our region, of which the Grosse Pointe System is one, do not participate in TLN. Nor does the most serious near one, the Southfield Public Library, an awesome library known to me because our offices once were near there. Alas.

A while back we spent a couple of weeks here at Monique’s “house sitting” for a spell. At that time, about a year or so ago, I noticed that the CTCL had had its DVD collection interfiled with books. Such an arrangement produces major problems, of course. Most films, do not have “authors” in the strict sense of the word. I did manage to find some of the Agatha Christy DVDs under C for Christy (or was it under A for Agatha? I forget.) In any case, I told Brigitte at the time that should we ever move West, I’d certainly volunteer to organize the Commerce films using separate shelves. Little did I suspect the problems I might encounter doing so.

Well, it turns out, they’ve actually done that job in the meanwhile. Some free space (and the library is pleasantly roomy) has now been equipped with shelves; all of the movies are now together. The classification system is by the title of the movie—which makes good sense. Commerce evidently uses the Concourse system, in use for a couple of decades by now and offered by BookSystems. Evidently the Grosse Pointe Library also uses the same classification approach; it too, like this one has made me wonder and shake my head. If you look for Agatha Christy movies, for example, and go to the letter C, you won’t see anything appropriate. By title, please, always by title. Looking for a Dorothy Sayers DVD? If you look under S  for Sayers you won’t find that worthy lady—but you might find Strong Poison—and Gaudy Night under G. Sometimes, however, given the interpretation applied by the librarian using the Concourse system, you actually might discover all of Sayers’ or Ruth Rendell’s DVDs together—because the largest name, on the cover of the DVD, will be the author’s name, not the title of the particular story. So it was in Grosse Pointe on some, but by no means all, such series.

Here at Commerce, Agatha Christy DVDs, clustered powerfully around Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, may be found under MAR for the lady and POI for the gentleman. But, at this stage, my research is far from over. Where, for instance are Tommy & Tuppence? Are they under TOM or TUP?

Monday, August 18, 2014


A possible consequence of moving—even if it is only roughly 50 miles away from where we were—is that the television channels available to us also change. To be sure, such a change has to do with the cable of satellite carrier, which is another major complication. In any case, moving here to the western edge of Metro Detroit, we discovered that we suddenly have access to two Public Broadcasting System channels. One of these is the familiar WTVS, the Detroit Public TV. The other one turned out to be a channel known as WCMU. For the first time ever we have two public stations to view—and the changes in programming were interesting. It took a while before we found the time and energy to research what exactly WCMU is. The CMU stands for Central Michigan University. CMU owns the channel and transmits programs in five northern Michigan locations: Alpena, Cadillac, Manistee, Flint, and Mt. Pleasant; the last is the location of CMU itself. Mt. Pleasant has a population of 26,000 and CMU an enrollment, at its campus, of 20,000 students. I assume that students do not count as part of the population; another nearly 7,000 students are enrolled at other locations operated by CMU in distant places.

The programming of our urban DPTV (Channel 56) differs significantly from that of CMU’s (Channel 28). CMU’s is divided roughly evenly between subject matter designed to appeal to a more rural population (a touch more religious, heavier on northern Michigan places and events, and much more likely to feature country music and especially blue grass). DPTV is much more urban in its coverage. 56 is now (again) doing heavy fundraising; the frequency of these campaigns appears to be every other month. Meanwhile WCMU, during this same time, has no rude interruptions of programming—one reason why we’ve gotten to know it.

As a byproduct of our search of WCMU’s identity, a subject arose one tends not to think much about. We managed rapidly to discover the meaning of the letters CMU—but not of the meaning of that W. I knew—in some forgotten corner of my memory—that the W is something arbitrary, thus having no inherent relation to the letter itself. It turns out that that W is ultimately traceable to Geneva, Switzerland. Here is why:

The International Telecommunications Union (founded in 1865) is headquartered there. The ITU manages call signs, as these things are called, for all the countries of the world. The United States has been assigned the letters AAA through ALZ, KAA-KZZ, NAA-NZZ, and WAA-WZZ. Entirely at its own option, the United States, while possessing, does not use the leading letters A or N. It uses K for all stations west of the Mississippi and W for all stations east of the Mississippi. Arbitrary is the right word! You’d have thought that it would have gone the other way at least, with W meaning “west of Old Man River.” No, sir. W here stands for east.

I expect it will take us about three years to forget this again. Until then this post will be here as an equally forgotten reminder…

But WCMU is worth watching—if you’ve kind of soured on urban sophistication.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

“Supermoon” Corrected

More accurately, my own calculations corrected. Last year (here) I gave some data on the recurrence of supermoons, better known, certainly in past times, as Perigree Moons. Peri means near; a Perigree Moon is therefore a full moon at a time when the moon is closest to the earth in its ever-so-slightly-elliptic path. I said at the time that Supermoons recur at 14 months intervals—and added “thus roughly every 378 days.” Now that number is clearly wrong.

The last Supermoon came on June 23, 2013. Today is the date of another. The distance in time between those two dates is 413 days. What I did wrong was to multiply 14 by 27, which equals 378. I was using the number of days the moon orbits the earth, but rounded. The actual time for that is 27.3 days. StarDate reports, however, as follows (link):

The Moon takes 27.3 days to orbit Earth, but the lunar phase cycle (from new Moon to new Moon) is 29.5 days. The Moon spends the extra 2.2 days “catching up” because Earth travels about 45 million miles around the Sun during the time the Moon completes one orbit around Earth.

That “catching up” phrase is perhaps a way of avoiding the task of explaining that the 27.3 day measurement is a measurement relative to the stars (called sidereal time) whereas the 29.5 day measurement is a measurement relative to the sun (called synodic time). Synodic time is slightly greater than sidereal time due to small changes in the earth’s and moon’s rotation over what might be called absolute time.

In any case if we multiply 14 months by 29.5 days, then we get a 413 day interval between Supermoons.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Wood and the Crick

When uprooting of a household after a quarter of a century, things are set in motion. Life because very physical. Everything’s always displaced. Where is my knife? That knife lived in a cup on my desk for decades, used only every now and then. It is a great knife, mind you, a gift from my sister Susie—she who still remembered that a pocket knife’s a great gift for a male. Now that knife has been used on countless boxes and lost twice or three times every day. And where’s the tape? It was here just moments ago.

In midst of such turbulence, one depends on luck—and prays to St. Anthony of Padua, patron saint of finding things. Quite often, during this busy time, luck was with us, sometimes even quite amazing luck—and we would be knocking on wood. That happened again yesterday, and then we got to wondering about the origin of that phrase: “Touch wood” or “Knock on wood”—accompanied by the action.

Wikipedia calls such an action apotropaic, thus a warding-off gesture. Things get very complicated here. We knock on wood when good things happen. So what are we warding off? Well, the opposite of the good. We don’t want to claim the good as our possession, as our right. Arrogance is punished; the good may be taken away again. Therefore we knock on wood. But why are we knocking on wood? Wikipedia has the answer to that as well. It tells me that the phrase may point back to a time when people believed in benevolent tree spirits, nymphs. The Greek word for those creatures is dryads. And that word itself comes from “oak.”

The ordinary human heart is humble. It’s quite naturally so. We don’t really believe that we deserve good luck, that we merit it in any way. We acknowledge that such things are gifts from a higher source. An old friend of mine, Joe Dennis, used to say quite frequently: “Good willing and the crick don’t rise.” Apotropaic sounds too academic in such contexts. The root of touching wood was no doubt giving thanks to the wood nymphs—rather than to our egos—and hoping that the Dryads agree. The Arabs say Isha’Allah, meaning “God willing,” just like my old friend. Back then I didn’t know that phrase. Things change over time. We were fighting communism then, in Vietnam of all places. And the crick was actually rising then. I also discovered, by the way, that the Arabs also knock on wood, just like we do: “duqq al-khashab.”

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Westward Transit

With a feeling quite akin to anxiety—but nudged to do so by Brigitte—I can now report that our move, last referred to on June 4 (here) has now been completed except for the “closing ceremonies” on the sale of our old home, which still lie about a week ahead. Brigitte’s views are that now, what with a “new normal” gradually taking hold, some of the old normal, thus blog entries, should also be part of life again. Therefore…

We moved clean across the metro area from its eastern edge marked by Lake Saint Clair and, across her waters, Canada to the western region of Oakland County, not far from Ann Arbor, a region of countless little and big lakes. Ours is Wolverine Lake—but ours is surrounded by others: Loon Lake to the west of us, Mud Lake and Walled Lake to the south, Hawk Lake to the east, and Bass, Commerce, and Reed Lake to the north of us. Not surprisingly, perhaps, around here the street terrain has a European character. There is no real grid in any sense of the word. Main arteries that generally move in one of the map directions don’t do it in straight lines but resemble, rather, the paths of donkeys going from one to the next visible cactus. The environment is almost rural here—and my sidewalk edger, acquired not very long ago, is, still in a shiny state, probably entering its early retirement. No sidewalks here—but there are bicycle trails—and view of water, sky, and swans galore—yes, even from my current office, looking out the window; but I do have to roll back in my chair a little bit on this very blond and mutedly shiny hardwood floor…

We bought this house on May 30—and sold our old residence exactly the day before we planned to put it on the market. We view that event as miraculous—and bow our heads even thinking about it.

The move itself was a challenging experience, at our age, and therefore occasion for observing that one is called upon to learn even when approaching the last days when, as Tolkien’s tales have it, one is moving West. The challenge would have been impossible for us but for the massive assistance that reached us: All of our children came to help—as did my brother Baldy and Peggy his wife, and in the last week and counting, two of our grandchildren, Malcolm and Henry. What we left behind, most notably, from our family perspective, are the following words still written in chalk on the brick of the old house:

In large letters:
In smaller letters adjoining that AND:


Generations come and generations pass. The one constant is change. It is very nice when one big change has come and gone and one settles down to await the next one down the line…

Friday, June 20, 2014

Sneakers, Sandals, Slippers, Shoes?

It appears to me that the Department of Defense will soon be engaged in a redefinition exercise, this time relating to footwear. In George Orwell’s novel, 1984 (ah, those were the days), one perfectly respectable occupation for scribblers was rewriting history so that it was always in line with political orthodoxy. Similarly, these days, it would seem equally respectable to redefine things in order to adjust reality to the pronouncements of our highest leadership.

The other day President Obama pronounced that he will not put American boots on the ground in Iraq. Okay. Got that. Today, however, we are told that some 300 American “advisers” will be arriving in Iraq. They will be divided into teams of 12 each and stationed with Iraqi army units at various levels, suggesting that some at least will be very close to sites of actual armed combat.

And this calls for definitional changes. The simplest would be to rename “boots on the ground” “shoes on the ground.” No boots—the President said so. But combat shoes might be permissible. The other way might be to make a distinction between “advisers” and “soldiers”; under this definition, “adviser boots” are okay, but “soldier boots” are not. Another way to match fact to policy might be to issue sneakers, sandals, or (fortified) slippers to the 300 advisers so that “no boots on the ground” would become irrelevant.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Brasil v. Brazil

It took us some time before the contrasting spelling of Brazil—always rendered with a Z on the Canadian Broadcasting Company, whose coverage we’re lucky enough to watch but with an S when we see actual local names of Brazil spelled out.

A quite complete and persuasive discussion of this difference, with very nice illustrations, also comes from Canada, this time Uma Nota, which happens to be a music blog about Brazilian music. Here is the link.

It turns out that the original name comes from the Portuguese pau brasil, brazilwood, a reddish-hued tree (Caesalpinia echinata). But that word, brasil, could be and was also spelled brazil, all depending on the mood of the speller, not only in foreign lands but also by writers (or typesetters) in Portuguese—even on currency. The official change, Uma Nota informs me, came in 1945 when a Portuguese and Brazilian commission set the formal rules for the Portuguese spelling of words. We, meanwhile, clung to Brazil.

We are among a minority—with Hungarians (Brazilia) and Bosnians (Brazil). The Germans say Brasilien, the French Brésil, the Spanish Brasil, the Italians Brasile. So where does that Z get its original roots? Well, the original name of Brazil, based on the earliest Portuguese records, was Terra da Santa Cruz, thus Land of the Holy Cross. That Z from the cross keeps hanging in there at least in some languages.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Letters in the News

Strikes me as interesting, if nothing else, that just days after a general called SISI was sworn in as President of Egypt a group called ISIS has overrun northern Iraq and now threatens Baghdad.

Such is my weariness of endless civil wars—or such is the poor quality of normal reporting in the media—that I had never heard of ISIS until Mosul had fallen to them. Now I learn that this group controls, more or less, significant sections of Syria and that its acronym derives from the translation of a name in Arabic, literally Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but “the Levant” is translated as “Syria,” hence ISIS. These complications caused some interesting sputtering on the PBS News Hour by one of the anchors, telling me that they had not been all that familiar with this would-be emirate themselves.

The aggressive advance of ISIS is developing into a new uproar in this country, with some people sounding like they’re about to blame President Obama for loosing the glories won in battle by President Bush.

I would suggest calming down. We have something neither the Egyptians nor the Arabs have. We call it the MISSISSIPPI. If only we could relax, the Old Man would just keep rolling along.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Two-Faced Monger

Tinker, Tailor
Manager, Dealer
Merchant, Trader
Monger, Manger.
Eight I hold here in my mitt
But one of them just doesn’t fit.

In one of our MyWord games the other day Brigitte gave me FISHMONGER. The word came from one of her many, many word-lists, but later she discovered that Michael Gilleland had posted the picture of a lovely vase showing a fishmonger on Laudator (link) earlier that day. Nice coincidence—and then discussion. That word is still in circulation, obviously, but when was the last time we’ve heard anyone say, heading out to Kroger or to Ace Hardware, that he or she was going to visit the fishmonger or ironmonger. In such contexts a monger is a seller, dealer, merchant, or trader.

I concluded that a different use of the word—in the political sphere—as in warmonger or scaremonger, would be much more common. Brigitte was not so sure. Well, these days, Google Ngrams (a facility that tracks the usage of words in print back to 1800) can resolve disputes. Turned out that Brigitte’s hunch was better. In 2000, both fishmonger and ironmonger were much more used in print than warmonger. But the meaning in the latter case is more akin to “promoter,” “activist,” or agent provocateur.

Monger comes from the Latin mango, meaning salesman and, especially, slave-dealer. I got curious about other words with a similar spelling, like manager and merchant. Manager has its roots in the Latin for hand, manus. Our own usage comes from the Italian maneggiare, meaning to handle, particularly a horse.  Merchant derives from the Latin mercatus, thus the market, trade, and such. Last and definitely least, I got to wondering if “manger” has some linkage to “monger.” The two words are spelled almost the same way. Furthermore, we link manger so closely to Christian origins, we tend to overlook its actual function: presenting fodder to our beasts. And yes. That is the origin. It comes from the Old French for mangier, “to eat,” to which the suffix -oire was added (mangeoire). The suffix signifies some kind of implement or device: eating-thing, eating-device—the word, in my revised nursery rhyme, which doesn’t fit.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Birth and Expansion of Islam

In the now accepted version, the Western Roman Empire ceased in 476 when a 16-year old emperor, Romulus Augustus, ruling the West, more or less, from Ravenna in Italy, was pushed from the throne by a Germanic conqueror. 476 also, therefore, by convention, marks the beginning of the Middle Ages. Not quite a century (95 years) later, Mohammed was born in distant Mecca in 570. The fastest travel in those days was by horse. The distance between Ravenna and Mecca is just shy of 3,500 miles. In those days, when someone could travel about 30 miles a day, the trip by land (through Italy, the Balkans, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq) would have required 4 months. Today, by car, assuming 400 miles per day, it would take about nine days.

I show the map here, linking Ravenna and Mecca, by way of making more viscerally tangible the geographical aspects of a nascent Islam and the Christianity attempting to establish itself on the lands once covered by the Roman might. When Mohammed had turned 40, he experienced a religious revelation (610). Islam came into being and then began to spread with extraordinary energy. Its rise, viewed from the various centers of an already fragmenting Christendom, would have been experienced as a threat—like a great Green Hand reaching up, out of the south, and trying clasp Christendom in its grasp. It almost happened, but not quite. Virtually all of the Byzantine Empire, however, eventually fell ultimately to the Ottomans; they reached the gates of Vienna in Austria and controlled all of Syria, the Levant, and North Africa. And an earlier conqueror, the Umayyad Caliphate, took Iberia and held it to the Pyrenees—venturing north of there as well foiled in this attempt by Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours close to the center of France in 732. This Muslim expansion was a genuine and lasting aspect of the Middle Ages, in part, if only in part, triggering the Age of the Crusades, of which the first began in 1096—and, indeed bringing the Middle Ages to an official end when the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453 and then began to continue expanding north.

I’ve attempted to render an image of that Green Hand in the map of Europe that follows. The coloration is entirely mine and shows, overlaid, the conquests of Mohammed, the Rashidun and succeeding caliphates who followed him, and finally the Ottoman conquests which brought Islam to Vienna’s gates.

The next two maps are the sources I used to produce the composite. The first shows the territories conquered by Mohammed (darkest, 622-633), by the Rashidun (meaning “the righteous”) Caliphs (reddish, 632-661) and by the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750).  Note that Turkey has not yet been fully overrun.

The second map shows the Ottoman Empire  at its greatest extent—with dates given in the legend. Note that during Ottoman times Spain had already been recovered and Moroccan lands held by the Umayyads had also been lost; but Turkey and the Balkans, in the East, had fallen to the Muslim conqueror.

The timeline of the incomplete embrace of Europe by Islam shows the successive conquests by Mohammed and then the caliphates which followed it. All of these held roughly the same territories of Arabia, the Levant, West Asia, Egypt, and North Africa—be they Sunni or Shia, as the Fatimid Caliphate was. The Umayyads, the second, extended its power to include Spain and Portugal; the last, the Ottoman, managed to capture Turkey and also made itself, de facto, the successor of the Byzantine, reaching far to the north.

If we date things from Mohammed’s revelation, thus from 610, the very rapid expansion of this faith is illustrated. Less than a quarter century later, Muslims had seized Syria and the Levant, a core part of the Byzantine realm. Just a tad over a century later Iberia fell into Muslim hands. But what with the Byzantine already separated from the West by the Great Schism, it took nearly 500 years from the date of the revelation to the first call it culture-wide response to develop in the West. That was the First Crusade. It was—like most of the crusades—a bloody awful thing. After the holy warriors managed to take Jerusalem, they slaughtered all Jews and Muslims captured. The Jews had been among Jerusalem’s most energetic and determined defenders—and their time had come.

I am only showing the dates for the First, Fourth, and supposed last “major” crusade, sometimes called the Seventh, Eighth, or Ninth. Different campaigns of that so-called last one were given extra numbers. But it was not by any means the last. Tedious counting produces the following counts. Nine major crusades. Wedged in between these were four others. Following the Ninth came nine others of which the last, called in 1487, was actually aimed some Christian heretics, the Waldensians located in an Alpine region between France and Italy. The crusades, with their religious aura, rapidly became a cover for any kind of war in the Middle Ages—whatever its real motives were. The institutional arrangements of that period gave princes leave to levy new taxes in support of crusades—and the institution, if one can call it that, fell into the devil’s hands right from the outset. I date the Fourth Crusade because it featured the capture of Christian Constantinople by Christian arms—and by this conquest it sealed in 1204 by arms what had begun in 1096 as the Great Schism by an exchange of excommunications.  

As already noted, the major impact of the new Muslim faith—the expansion of which was, initially, northward—fell on the Byzantine Empire and Spain. Both were, viewed from the North or from the center of Western Europe somewhat distant. The Byzantine had already begun to unravel thanks to pagan invasions and internal feudal fragmentation. In the West the enclosing thumb of the Muslim advance never effectively reached beyond Spain. The Byzantine Empire’s core, which was Turkey, resisted the first wave of attacks. Turkey fell, in the end, of internal conflict and warfare with the West had already essentially dismembered the Byzantine for the Ottomans harvest. The West resisted more successfully—although, as usually, the Muslim armies eventually covered its eastern edge, my own place of birth.

Meanwhile, in the West, people were living in “interesting times.”  The unity between state and religion, experienced under Charlemagne, was breaking apart locally as unity had also been sacrificed to the Great Schism. The Papacy entered its Babylonian Captivity in Avignon. The population suffered from a combination of the Little Ice Age and distractions like the Black Death (which, per Barbara Tuchman, in her magnificent history, The Distant Mirror, “killed an estimated one third of the population living between India and Iceland” (p. xiii). Europe also endured the threats of Genghis Khan. The Muslim pressure was just one of many. And with the fourteenth century already, the early light of the Renaissance was beginning to paint the edge of the horizon.

The two aspects of the rise of Islam that most fascinate me is the energy it released down there in the deserts of Arabia with a quite different, simpler, but very genuine religious ethos. It transformed regions that had long simply endured in a kind of same-old-same-old decadence. The other aspect is that the Christian-Muslim clash—which still endures today, albeit “crusade” now has a new name—is a wondrous illustration of how different cultures form, almost synchronistically in this case, and inevitably must sort themselves out. The process is still underway. Looking back at its beginnings in the Middle Ages, we are looking at a distant, but not very distant mirror. The words changes but the actions beneath them remain unmistakably the same. To be sure, when looking back, we see our faces in some macabre distortion. That was still us—even though the glass is colored darkly.
Map of Muslim Caliphates’ territories is from Wikipedia (link) and the map of the Ottoman landholdings, also from Wikipedia (link).

Middle Ages Posts:

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Times of Transition

The cyclical character of life in this dimension is so well known we do not notice it at all—say day and night—unless, in the more complex cases, we invert their order thus: summer and spring, winter and fall. Major transitions, thus in culture, take such long times that we notice them only when, by pure chance, we live our lives at one of the pivotal moments of it, e.g., the French Revolution. That revolution conveniently marked, I would suggest, the start of modernity, but it wasn’t seen quite in that same way. It was thought to be an aberration, a local disturbance, by those not yet affected by it.

When we first moved into our house here 25 years ago, weather events punctuated, with very small black dots and only now and then, the news. For the last three years certainly, major storms, destructions, rains, droughts, fires, floods, and such were not yet weekly consuming almost all time on CNN and thus starving us of other vital BREAKING NEWS like the loss of airliners, the rude remarks of NBA team owners, or mass shooting of children. But if this global warming, or whatever else, causes storms with newfangled names like derechos (the name comes from the Spanish for “straight”) continues to produce these phenomena so that, in future, every spring and summer brings these—and every fall inundates our coasts with tsunami-like ocean attacks—why then the times will have completed their transition and vile weather will have become, as they say, “the new normal.”

Thoughts along these lines occur to us here right at the moment—because we’re ourselves engaged in a time of transition. We are in a prolonged process of moving from this house after a quarter century’s possession into a new home located across the whole wide metro area. About that new house, which we now finally own, in due time. And it looks like it will take some time. In the meantime, this house must be emptied of its contents—and, I’m fairly sure of this, it has never been so full of stuff as it is now. Every habit’s in the air, every routine is disrupted. Blogging under these conditions resembled organizing one’s stamp collection during a tornado.

Hence be surprised when a new post appears—rather than expecting posts at frequent intervals. Busy preparations, and agonizing decisions on what to keep and what to shed, are now becoming the new normal here—and out there somewhere is the hope and prayer of another life with fewer square feet but a larger yard, more sun, and views of a lake.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Where is Frodo Baggins?

How can we ever hope to understand very large aggregates of anything? The first step, in any such venture, is to collect statistics. Once such collection is institutionalized—and data become available over some span of time—changes in the measured category may be detected by analysis. And any action taken to change or influence that aggregate can also be tracked—again with statistics.

Around here we fondly remember Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the activist Democratic senator—also a sociologist. In his engagement in the War on Poverty, he always urged the Bureau of the Census or the Bureau of Labor Statistics to set up new data collections. He knew full well that managing mass phenomena begins with numbers.

But collecting information is expensive. Suppose, however, that you’re already collecting it, but for another reason. Supposing that, in keeping records, a company captures hundreds, thousands, millions of various kinds of transactions—and saves these data for legal purposes. It was and still is done. Back in the ancient times these data were held on paper. In the early computer age on tape. It took a while before the secondary value of such data came to be recognized. I don’t remember when exactly—but my guess is that it was in the 1980s—data mining began to surface as a useful method of milking some value from these “givens.”  (Anciently I looked up data and discovered what the word means—just facts as recorded.)

The term used back then, mining, was quite appropriate in an age when old records were on cumbersome magnetic tape—and you had to read, rather slowly, many, many of them to get, say, ten years’ worth of history. After that analysis could begin—and new patterns would emerge.

Since the 1980s, massive technological changes have caused the transformation of ho-hum data mining into the new celebrity industry of Cybernetic Spying. Two new stories in today’s New York Times reminded me of that. One talks about NSA collecting images of faces from the electronic traffic; recognition software is in full development. The other is a story about a company called Palantir Technologies. The company is privately held but valued at around $9 billion; the story deals with the impatience of investors in the company because Palantir is unwilling as yet to go public. The company’s business? Cybernetic spying. The company’s name comes from Tolkien. A palantir is a magic stone that a very corrupt wise man, Saruman the White, uses to spy on the world. Very interesting choice of company name. The company, with Pay Pal figures active in its initiation, was initially funded by the CIA which, curiously—first time I’ve ever heard of it—has a “venture fund.”

Some fiction writers have quite prophetic powers—and Tolkien was one. We already have at least one palantir—and no doubt there are actually dozens. But where is Frodo Baggins? And never mind Gandalf the Grey…

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Foie Gras Writ Large

A story this morning in the Wall Street Journal tells of a seeming squabble in Japan. There the head of the Bank of Japan (BoJ) is pressuring the Prime Minister to implement spending programs. The BoJ has already printed plenty of money, but that action does not seem sufficient to cause big-time economic growth in a country that has suffered from deflationary tendencies.

Reading this quite early in the morning—thus still half-submerged in my subconscious—my mind spontaneously produced memories of childhood. The memories were of a woman stuffing geese with kernels of maize. She stuffed about five geese every morning. She’d sit on a stool, a deep bucket of corn next to her, and holding the poor bird’s beaks apart, she would push the corn down into its throat. I was dumfounded for a moment—until the relevance came with a rush.

Geese were then—and still are—force-fed to cause them to develop overlarge livers which, after their slaughter, are turned into pâté de foie gras. I discovered today that France is the largest producer (18,450 tons in 2005)—and Hungary is second (1,920 tons). As today so yesterday. Even as a child I found this practice odd. The geese hadn’t seemed to like the massive meals they found themselves forced to ingest.

Lest it be thought that this practice —and the enjoyment of foie gras—was exclusively a product of Christendom, I reproduce here the illustration that Wikipedia uses from an ancient Egyptian bas relief (link). The image is quite realistic—for a piece of art that somewhat suppresses what really took place. As I remember it, the woman who did the stuffing used one hand to force the beaks apart while using her other hand’s index and middle fingers to reach deep into the poor bird’s gullet.

With this I now come to the association that brought this image out of the past. It might sound naïve to sophisticates in economics, but I firmly hold that a mature economy need only grow at a rate that matches the population’s growth. That rate in the United States was 1.6 percent a year in 1960 and  0.7 percent in 2010. Why then do we seem unhappy unless Gross Domestic Product grows at around 4.5 percent? Is it because the quality of life, economically speaking, must always be increasing? Increasing until peanut butter and jelly are replaced by foie gras for breakfast? Force-feeding, technically known as gavage-feeding (from the French word derived from “stuffing”) is what a consumption-culture is really all about. Our improvement of the Egyptian technique, which dates from 2500 BC, is that we manage the force-feeding by mere advertising. Not only is such a technique, applied across such vast ranges of ordinary life, unsustainable in the long run, in the short it also, incidentally, leads to a explosion of obesity that, oddly, is resistant to amelioration by mere persuasion. Have we reached the stage of unsustainablity already? Maybe. Our papers are also filled with dread news that retail giants are staggered by dropping demand. The consumer seems suddenly resistant to the call that it is stuffing time. What will happen to the Gras National Product?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Can Serious Thought be Taught?

The cover story of the Christian Science Monitor Weekly for May 19 is titled, on the cover, as “Can parenting be taught?” This being the Christian Science Monitor, however, the full title, found within, is “Can parenting really be taught?”  And that’s a whole lot better. The article deals with what appears to be an avalanche of initiatives to solve the problems of poverty and unemployment by targeting low-income parents with scientific approaches to that oddity called “parenting.” That word, I’m told, dates from 1959 but had an earlier form, called “parentcraft” coined in 1930, the year the Great Depression began...

My initial reaction to that headline was “Can parenting be bought?” Teaching requires institutions, and institutions must be paid—by somebody; and that can be arranged. The answer thus is Yes. And therefore another question, suggested by Brigitte, is “Can parenting be sold?”  The answer is Yes again.

It is a feature of our times, especially in the still exceptionalist United States, that anything can be taught, no matter how unlikely, if only the right programs are in place. It’s not exactly noticeable unless your hearing is sharp, but it is everywhere. The most recent international version of it was to send about a dozen American operatives to Nigeria to solve the kidnapping of girls—and the vast hoopla that surrounded that action on CNN. We’re forever dispatching advisers to foreign lands to teach them anything and everything, not least democracy—on the basis of our odd scientific understanding that if you can identify a series of behaviors and train other people to engage in them, vast cultural mountains can be moved and vast abysses may be filled by the deployment of a few experts.

Can serious thought be taught? To our ruling classes? The answer here is No.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Humor me!

The word was disparate, uttered without conscious thought, simply because it fit the context of our morning’s discussion—triggered by a New York Times story this morning titled “Statistics 10, Poets 0.” I ventured the dismissal, having glanced at the headline, saying: “Statistics takes things apart, poetry puts things together.” But then, recognizing that statistics actually does put things together, by counting disparate but also quite distinct but similar things, I was off on that. Then Brigitte said to me: “Hand me that dictionary. Humor me!”

Our exchange and the request for a dictionary—which is on the floor of the bedroom by the window, underneath a tiny bookshelf, overshadowed by a vast and glorious orchid which takes all the light from the huge window—is a pretty routine sort of thing during our coffee-drinking moments in the morning.

Brigitte was looking up a word, but I didn’t know which until she confided that it was disparate. “I’m looking for additional meanings,” she said. “Words—I can’t help myself. Absolutely everything. Words. Words.”

That makes two of us. In the silence of looking for disparate, her last words, Humor me!, were revolving in my mind—and a wonder arose how that word, which originally described the body fluids the ancients thought were at the root of every state of mind—yes, blood, phlegm, choler, and black bile—could have produced this phrase…

Well, Online Etymology Dictionary on my screen, the tracing becomes easy. Yes, the humors determine the state of the mind. But the meaning is relaxed, not absolutely deterministic. We have a certain freedom to pick the humors we need to deploy in any one situation. Therefore, eventually, the notion of deploying more of one humor, rather than the other, came into usage. And the meaning of “indulge me,” arose, although quite late, in the 1520s. The humor used for that purpose is probably “blood,” which is ardent and sympathetic.

Now as for that article, it is about numbers and metrics—and how these are displacing feelings, I suppose they mean. Not the experience but the duration of sexual encounters is measured—measured in some fantastic way by using apps and cell phones and no doubt secret feeds from the NSA. And mapped—so that we can look down on regions where sexual encounters are of the shortest duration. But I’m not going there.  But here’s a brief quote to get the flavor across:

That God-shaped hole in the universe? It’s been filled with social science. Whereas once we quoted politicians or preachers, now we quote Gallup or Pew.