Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Ultimate Feeder

A while back now—could it have been as far back as April? probably—our bird feeder got clogged up and needed cleaning. In the process, unable to locate the problem, I began a hasty disassembly of it. Eventually it was clean, but when I set to work putting the thing back together again, I found that the central rod that makes it all work splendidly was simply (if also mysteriously) at least half an inch too short. I couldn’t get the holding nut even to start at its bottom.

As so many things nowadays—what with me now in violation of the three-score-and-ten length of life—“fixing the bird feeder” became a major project, indeed, as it developed, a kind of great ambition, not to call it a crusade. No matter what I did, no matter what I tried…absolute failure. Now of course these battles came at intervals—days, sometimes weeks apart. And what with simple replacement one of the obvious options, the journey was also one of discovery.

We discovered that our bird feeder, the SquirrelBuster Plus, made by Brome Bird Care, Inc., a Quebec operation, is not simply a bird feeder. Using the world of cars as an analogy, reaching for an ultimate peak of automotive perfection, SquirrelBuster Plus is actually a Lamborghini, the ultimate feeder, with a matching price, of course (over $80 from Amazon, more like over $90 at Lowe’s). Therefore the project of fixing it acquired a monetary side as well. It was all there, in a way. I just couldn’t get it all to go together again.

Finally—one eventually does the obvious, even it is last in line—I went on the Brome Bird Care website and found a parts list. Was there some part I had mislaid? The page showed a telephone number. I dialed the number. An actual human voice answered my call—a lady who was immediately helpful and technically expert. Within about a minute, she had diagnosed my problem with great precision, identified the parts I needed, and told me that she’d send them immediately, for free, just as a gesture of good will. Brome Bird Care. Remember that name. One rarely encounters a Lamborghihi kind of operation these days, much less a human voice on the phone, and least of all a competent responder!

In a nutshell, my problem was that two parts of the feeder at its bottom had become jammed together but in such a way that simply looking at them did not reveal that. Indeed, our SquirrelBuster had once fallen—thanks to a jihadist squirrel attack. With the parts arriving two days later—and a small crow-bar applied to separate the old jammed parts—our SB-Plus Lamborghini is back on road again. But you have to be a bird-lover to know what you are looking at. The Ultimate. The inserted image shows it all.

Now, in the meanwhile—this is about birds, after all, not owners of prestigious “vehicles ”—we had been using a humbler feeder (shown at left), the sort of thing used by the masses—call them the 90 percent. It did its job—but caused endless feuding among the sparrows that that are our most frequent visitors. The photos show two side of today's political debate: the splendid tower serving the 1 percent and the humble thing for the masses. As for our birds, they seem only to care about the seed, alas. And being birds they don’t even get to vote. We can only guess at their opinion (polling birds is difficult), but we think that they like the SquirrelBuster Tower much better because it contains much more—and has six (not just a measely four) splendid seats at the table—and the food never seems to run out.

I made another interesting discovery while writing this. Lamborghini, it turns out, is owned, these days, by Volkswages (VW). The word in German means “people’s car.” Evidently the ordinary people actually own the 1 percent in this case—but word of that has not yet penetrated to the top...

The kudos here, however, belong to Brome Bird Care. Those folks have the product—and the service!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Augusta Treverorum

In 1959 Brigitte and I took a minor part in the seventeenth Great Pilgrimage in Trier, Germany, and saw there the Holy Robe on display. This was, you might say, our farewell to Germany as well. The next year we came to the U.S. as a family. The German Postal Service decided to help us mark that event by issuing a 20 Pfennig memorial stamp for the occasion, shown on the left; it features an image of the robe itself. The text says: Display of the Holy Robe in Trier 1959. German Federal Post.

So rapid is the rush of time, so great the change in all things historical, Trier is not a city known to many in these United States. But it is the oldest city in Germany, founded in 17 BC subsequent to Caesar’s presence there and his conquest of, among many other Belgic tribes, the Treveri, a Celtic-speaking Germanic tribe (per Tacitus); the name is thought to have come from the Celtic tre-uer-o, meaning “to cross a river” or “across the river”; they were said to be ferry-men who facilitated transportation across the Mosel river at a point where, later, the Romans built a bridge. Trier, as we now call it, located in Rhineland-Palatinate, also served for more than a hundred years (286-395) as the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Constantine ruled there for ten years (306-316) before moving on to lend his name to Constantinople.

Now the Holy Robe had also to do with Constantine. Legend has it that it was Jesus’ robe, a seamlessly woven garment that had come into the possession of Helena, Constantine’s mother, around 327 or 328. And it is said that she either presented or sent the robe to Trier where once her son had ruled. The date of this presentation is lost in time. But the robe was stored in an altar of Trier’s St. Peter’s Cathedral consecrated for that purpose in 1196. Since then we have had an historical record of the garment. Pilgrimages to Trier began in the sixteenth century and have taken place 1512, 1513, 1514, 1515, 1516, 1517, 1524, 1531, 1538, 1545, 1655, 1765, 1810, 1844, 1891, 1933, 1959, 1996, and 2012. So we were at the seventeenth of these. Since 1996 more or less annual festivals, called the Holy Robe Days, have been held, and the next Great Pilgrimage is projected to 2033—to mark the two thousandth anniversary of Christ’s resurrection. We will be gone by then.

Now it happens that, in 1959 we lived a mere 50 miles to the east of Trier, about an hour’s drive away. A day in Trier was a occasional outing for us to the nearest big city. We lived then in the vast and mostly empty Baumholder military camp—mostly empty because it was and is an artillery firing range. A very pleasant trip, a lovely drive, and there a wondrous city with Roman structures, not least the Porta Nigra, the remains of a coliseum, three Roman baths, and of course Der Dom, the St. Peter’s Cathedral—one of several. And two large market places with good shopping—not least an ice cream shop with coffee ice cream always available.

Memories. Augusta Treverorum indeed. Sometimes, as Aldous Huxley once wrote, Time must have a stop. Trier was always one of those times for us.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Through a Parliamentary Lens

By no means every four years but every now and ten, I can’t help but to ponder what politics might be like in the United States if we had a parliamentary democracy. In such a system the de facto “executive” is the Prime Minister. Technically only parties compete, not individuals. The leader of the party with the majority of votes becomes Prime Minister—and if no majority is achieved by any party, a coalition government is formed from two or more parties; the leader of the largest piece becomes PM.

Curious that. The public does not directly vote for the Leader but the leader has real power. In the United States, the Leader is a major celebrity by definition but may have no genuine power to carry out his or her agenda—if House or Senate are in opposition hands.

Looked at through a Parliamentary Lens, we now have five parties contending for rule in the United States: The Democratic Party (DP) headed by Hilary Clinton, the Sanders Progressive Party (SPP) led by Bernie Sanders, the Great Donald Party (GDP) lead by Donald Trump, the Grand Old Party (GOP) led by Paul Ryan, and the Libertarian Party (LP) headed by Johnson Riding. There is also the Green Party, but (as best I can determine) it has no official leader to assume that ultimate title of Commander in Chief.

Now if, instead of electing Electors in November we were electing members of parliament (MPs), the likely outcome would be the following (in order of number of seats won):

DP
SPP or GDP
GOP
LP

None would have an absolute majority. If the SPP came in second, DP could easily form a Coalition Government with Bernie Sanders naming secretaries for Treasury, Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services and Hilary Clinton selecting the secretaries of the other major departments. If Donald’s GDP won second place, the Democrats would still rule by aligning with SPP. Not any year, of course, but certainly this year. This year the GOP under Ryan would find it almost impossible to bring about an effective coalition with Donald GDP. Donald doesn’t do coalitions.

This outcome would be neat because, for the next six years or so the DP-SPP coalition would have absolute power to legislate its program—and therefore try out its policies in the actual world. Things would then seem very strange indeed. We’d get genuine change instead of institutionalized paralysis which is out current fate.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Memphis Stuff Alice

How well artificial intelligence (AI) works these days appears to depend on the quality of your pronunciation. Elegant speech (such as Brigitte’s) will be understood. My own rough speech is not.

What with Mother’s Day looming, Monique has present Brigitte with a long-wished-for device, a Smartphone. You can say “Ok, Google” to such a device on its “home page.” A blank screen then opens in response with the word “Listening…” visible. Now you can say a word out loud—and the built-in Google ap will then give you all sorts of appropriate links.

I thought I’d try that and said: “Mephistopheles.”

What Google heard me say in my rough, un-hewn voice is the title of this post. And, I must say, it’s not bad if you say the title as a single word. The links, however, had nothing whatever to do with satan, the devil, and least of all Lucifer.

The Brigitte tried and … lo and behold! The screen reproduced “Mephistopheles” in sharp purity and then brought us many articles right smack on the subject. A cultured voice? Yes. Arsen’s voice? Memphis Stuff Alice.

Now the actual use of that word for testing purposes came from a discussion yesterday in which we were trying to understand the origins of all those words that signify the Divine Opponent—not least the German version of “devil,” “Teufel.” As it turned out, however difficult to credit, devil and Teufel both derive from the Greek word diabolos; the roots are dia, meaning over or across, and ballein, to throw, thus “over-thrower.” The devil’s been with us a long time. Therefore many different peoples have taken that basic word and expressed them in rough-hewn languages like my own; thus the elegant diabolos gradually turned into first tiufel and then Teufel in German and deofol and then into devil in English.

Satan comes from the Hebrew word satan. I don’t know how the Greek pronunciation matches our own, but for the Greeks it meant an adversary, opposer, denier, plotter. What about Mephistopheles? The root seems Greek root, of course, but nobody knows. The educated guess provided by etymologists is that its roots are mepis, meaning scatterer or disperser and tophel, meaning liar or deceiver. All the meanings of this concept are, of course, pretty much the same, except Lucifer. But Lucifer was a bright angel before he descended into the depths; then his name changed. These days the common meanings, what with AI finally with us, must, however be extended also to mean that we should also look out for stuff from Memphis if Alice happens to bring it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Salire Pistrix

Back in March of 2013, in a post on media reform, I made a parenthetical comment about X-Files, the TV series, saying that while virtually all very popular series eventually “jump the shark,” X-files was an exception (link). Heu! Eheu! (as the Romans said to say alas and alack.) We watched the tenth season of the series (recorded earlier) last night. The ninth season was shown in 2002—hence the tenth is like an afterthought that took some 14 years to form. What was that thought? No doubt it occurred to the owners of that property that the X-Files wasn’t really finished yet; the work had not yet lived up to its full potential. It hadn’t as yet, in nine dense seasons, and 202 episodes, managed to jump the shark. So here comes season ten, with six episodes, in which the third episode (“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”) finally gets the job done. Hence we’re not likely to watch the remainder…

We were, of course, watching episodes captured on Fox Channel and therefore heavily embedded in ads of all kinds but, predominantly, ads about other horror or sci-fi shows, not least Lucifer (which seemed oddly fitting both to Fox and the current theme). We could not help but to note that the extreme commercialization of a once favored show—in which one main advertiser is Ford and Mulder, by sheer chance and circumstances, drives a Ford, and we can clearly see its symbol—cannot help but remind us of the Juvenal’s description of Rome as Panem et Cirenses. In our times, however, advanced as we are over Rome, the culture has decided that perhaps Panem might be dropped and politics itself must be transformed into Circenses.

With that Latin phrase swirling in our minds as I made the wand skip over ads, the thought occurred that it might now be high time to render “jumping the shark” into Latin as well. Which is accomplished here and rendered as the title of this post. The end must be near with the were-wolf at the door.

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.