Friday, March 6, 2015

Game of Drones

I owe that title to a headline in our local version of the Erickson Tribune. Sometimes you see a headline that produces literal envy. I wish I’d thought of that! That article tells the story of drones, as it were, replacing the milkman and the UPS/FedEx delivery truck. My subject is the word’s etymology. We’re having another word-centered morning. The word that set us off on that, however, goes back into the past—and the origin of drone sort of capped our morning’s “round” (in the musical sense). Percept began, precept followed, and we ended on drone.

Percept surfaced late last night as Brigitte read an article titled Philosophy of Nature published by International Catholic University (link)—an odd word when stared at. We know it all too well in its verbal form, perception, but its noun form, meaning “a (thing) taken (in),” but with emphasis on that unsounded thing, is almost never used except in such philosophical context as in the referenced paper above. Per in this concept means “thoroughly” the cept comes from the Latin capere, “to take, to grasp.” 

In precept the pre comes from prae, meaning “before”; the cept is once more “grasp.” Thus “that which comes before,” presumably, we’re properly capable of grasping something. The word means a maxim, rule, an order, or instruction. Percept is solidly objective; precept is a quite immaterial “rule” or “guidance.” The preceptor, therefore, is a teacher or a guide.

Now for that famous drone. I have what follows from English Language & Usage (here). Evidently the drone has quite a history already; it’s actually older than I am. It originated in 1935 when the British Royal Navy demonstrated a remote-controlled aircraft in target practice. That plane was called DH 82B Queen Bee. A U.S. admiral attending that demonstration, one William H. Standley, returned home and there asked Commander Delmer Fahrney to develop something analogous for the U.S. Navy. It was Fahrney who originated the word by naming such flyers drones “in homage to the Queen Bee.”

By the time of World War II, two kinds of drones had been fashioned and were being tested: target drones to be destroyed and assault drones to do the attacking. In the dim future lay the drone that accidentally landed on the White House lawn and in the immediate future will deliver the papers—once targeting has been tuned up a little more.

Incidentally, George R.R. Martin, the man whose novels gave birth to Game of Thrones, was a man I’d known slightly in my science fiction days. Once, while assembling an anthology of stories, he included one of my novellas in his collection. I still glow faintly from that close contact with future celebrity.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

That’s the Wrong God, Abu Bakr

The current “take” on ISIS (the would-be Caliphate), is that ISIS has been seriously degraded, but that much work remains to be done. Most of that “work” is simply to enable the world to focus appropriate power to deal with this instance of public madness. Yes. That a reportedly tiny armed force, 30,000 people, could have caused so much havoc is indeed rather surprising. It illustrates the very degraded state of the military in the states of Iraq and Syria—but it is even more remarkable that a mere 43-year old Syrian, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, thought that he actually could form a caliphate and that such a venture could possibly succeed. So what’s the explanation of this phenomenon?

I think it rests on a belief—namely that God is actively engaged in this world and on behalf of various chosen people. And because God is God, those who hold this belief can sincerely attempt the quite impossible. They have nothing else to support their aims. To some significant degree, the belief also rests on quite deep ignorance, either actual or stubborn. At this stage in history, modernism is still very powerful and quite able, in due time, after it has managed to overcome its multiple distractions, to focus just a small amount of its available power on these fanatics. And then they will turn into history—and be rapidly forgotten.

It is reassuring to have recorded in the Christian tradition—which, alas, also features in its past a belief in a God who intervened and “chose” a people—some quite clear indicators that such a view is faulty. “My kingdom is not of this world,” said Christ in John 18:36.  Then there is “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” Matthew 22:21.

First comes the worship of the tribe, then the worship of God. Endless problems have arisen from failure to grasp the distinction between these two kinds of worship.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Pick Your Operation

Does something like a TV remote fall into the “simple” category—or is it merely yet another instance of massive complexity miniaturized? More like the latter. Ours has to talk to our AT&T cable box yet in such a way that it also talks to our Sony TV. Three remotes live in reasonable harmony together in our living room. The Sony’s own, used sometimes to switch between Cable and DVD, AT&T’s to open up our Eye-on-the-World, and one for our Blu-Ray DVD which also doubles as a channel so that we can watch streamed movies. Sometimes, however, confusions arise. When that happens late at night, help must come from yet another look-alike, our Uniden telephone. It looks like a remote but uses AT&T’s telephone line to connect me with Tech Support in some such place as Mumbai, Maharashtra, India, where I can discover why it is that my AT&T-remote no longer works. Now the time-difference between here and Mumbai is such that at 1 am it is 11:30 am there. The distance is some 7,920 miles. Yet I have to cross that distance “virtually” to learn that to restore my baffled sanity, I need to press the ATT button on my remote (like two inches away) so that I can restore that remote’s functionality again. That simple? That simple. Suddenly everything is Okay again.

I hope I never become a nonagenarian. Then I might have problems with my live-in robotic surgeon the size of a small vacuum cleaner but with multiple extensible thin arms. The call to Mumbai ensues. “I have a terrible pain in my side, down toward the groin. I fired up the Robo-Doc and he wants me to pick from a menu. So far so good. But now that he’s diagnosed appendicitis, he insists that I press Ctrl-Alt-F9 on his keyboard to give him the Okay to operate. But when I do that, Robo-Doc says: ‘Lobotomy procedure authorized. Please lie down on the couch.’ I’m calling you from the closet. Robo-Doc is waiting out there. What’s wrong? Didn’t the F9 work? And how do I abort the whole thing?”

Monday, March 2, 2015

Notes on Excitement

Convergent experiences had me pondering “excitement” this morning. The pondering began the moment I cried an inward “Whoa, there! Let’s calm down.” The excitement actually began around 1:03 am last night when one of our e-mail accounts began to misbehave again. That account goes all the way back to the stone age of the Internet. Hence it rests now on some history in which Yahoo, Southwestern Bell Corporation, then SBC Global, then AT&T, the parent of all, and Uverse, which is some kind of ill-behaved youngest son of AT&T, all bore, and, indeed, still bear a responsibility. Last night nothing worked—and my longish “chat” with AT&T brought no helpful resolution. This morning (surprise but yet, also, no surprise), the unstoppable force had somehow managed to move the immovable object; the defective e-mail account now acted as if nothing had happened (except our sleeping late). But, hey, just give it time. No shortage of excitement around here.

Mornings are also “paper” times—another occasion for excitement. Will the paper have been thrown? In these exciting times our papers, which include the Detroit News, Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times—are delivered by three different route operators; no single carrier ever just brings one. The reason for that is that the giants of the media make use of the lowest-cost ways of getting their paper to our door, using different carriers on different days. Generally it all works well, but now and then, say once a month, the Thursday paper gets delivered on Friday or no paper comes at all. Therefore the trip out to the drive, partially blocked from view by the car, is a case of excitement rising. Will there be a paper? If not, agitation. But if the paper is there, the agitation’s just postponed. Because reading the paper brings new negative emotions caused by content that never pleases; my critical faculties turn that displeasure into a feeling of my own superiority (If I ran that paper, that crap wouldn’t be there!). But feelings of superiority on the cheap are, well, not exactly helpful in polishing my own humanity…

The biological function of excitement is to induce some things to attract, some things to repel us. Very effective. The institutionalization of this excitement is also a method of drawing customers to anything and everything. The best kind of excitement is one which threatens—but not us personally. Doom and gloom—but no need to start grabbing the family papers. We can just watch people staring at burned down homes where their papers have all just vanished. A feeling of superiority arises? Perhaps not—or we don’t allow it. Most of us think—there but for the grace of God go I.

In nature, to be sure, excitements of the sort that literally clog the media (everything is breaking news) are relatively infrequent. But in communities addicted to the media, excitement is constant. That, in turn, produces a strange sort of continuous state that distorts reality. So, indeed. Whoa there! Let’s calm down. Boredom, it turns out, is a highly desirable state. It releases the attention which, if effort is made to direct it, may come to be focused on that which really matters. Like making the bed. Or mopping all that salt off the tiles by the entrance…

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Code Napoléon Recalled

A year away from another general election, the focus is back on money again. And once again ventures are being launched to reform the funding of the electoral process. This, of course, is a bottom-up venture in a day-and-age when the acceptance of our fundamental laws lies back some 238 years (the Constitution having been ratified in 1788). Since then law in the United States, case law governed by precedent, has grown enormously and represents a vast morass piled high enough to make a Himalaya. At a minimum, some constitutional amendment will be required to bring about the change reformers hope to achieve. Such an amendment requires two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress and must be ratified by three-fourth of all states. Even if such a change passes, the accumulated precedents of nearly two-and-a-half centuries will be applied to its interpretation in practice—which is a way of saying that fundamental effective change from the bottom up is virtually doomed at the start.

Just a short time after the Constitution was ratified in the United States, the Napoleanic Code was established in 1804—but its earliest draft dates to 1793. This summarily wiped away the vast accumulation of many different versions of French Mediaeval law: a radically fresh start. The name that come to be attached to it tells us that it was top-down. That code itself was modeled on Justinian’s reform of Roman law, completed in 533—which tells us the size of that mountain of morass Napoleon had to cause to disappear…

The Code was—like its time—rational to a fault. It was, by design, intended to avoid the features of case law; thus it prohibits judges introducing a general rule, thus enlargement of the laws, because this constituted, in the eyes of framers, legislation by judges (Article 5). This also meant that precedent (stare decisis*) is not a binding feature of French law. But…

But, of course, no law, no matter how new and clean, can actually anticipate all of the cases that will be brought before judges. Every code is missy, as we would say nowadays, and therefore judges would be faced by cases in which the proper fit of the existing code would not cover the gaps. To prevent judges from avoiding such problems by not dealing with them. They had to use some part of the Code to apply it to the problem in the gaps. They were required, therefore, to engage in interpretation  (Article 4; for text of Articles see this link). In effect, therefore, the French Code, although intended to prevent legislating judges, also compelled them to interpret the law one way or the other so that the net effect is that French jurisprudence de facto works the same way as common law—although its judges are denied the favorite game played on Law & Order, our TV series, which often features a major hunt for precedents.

Which is a way of saying that reform, however good—and it is best if it is a brand new start—will gradually turn into another yet another new morass. Morass will pile on top of morass until it begins to seem like a mountain. The very shortest version of the French Code today has 3,000 pages; there is also an “expert” and a “mega” version (the last available on a searchable CD ROM).

Now tunneling beneath that mountain with a (probably small) popular movement of reform—and introducing say a few pages more stuff at the very bottom, i.e., as part of the Constitution—say regulating how money may be spent on elections—will barely be noticeable by the money itself which, like water, can penetrate any kind of mountain of morass at any point and cumulate wherever it wishes.

But for a small reform, likely to last, say, two hundred years, one does need a Napoleon.
————————
* Stare decisis et non quieta movere. To stand by decisions and not to disturb the undisturbed. Thus to use case law established by previous cases and to respect their conclusions as law.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Month Has Fled

The month has fled, where has it gone?
Memory draws lines each night
And starts a new one every dawn.
Potter-like it fashions Time
Its turning wheel the sun’s new light
Each day a line, each month a rhyme,
In language that is not quite clear
Until at death we leave this sphere.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Where the Plastic Money Went

Our Bank, PNC, provides an annual summation of charges made to our principal credit card. We only use one. We charge most everything to it that we buy outside—never mind small and very incidental purchases like the occasional ice cream in summer and the like.

Here is where at least some of our money, the plastic kind, went this year:

Category
%
Media
27.3
Groceries
25.1
Merch./Retail
20.4
Moving Expense
15.5
Insurance
4.3
Restaurants
3.7
Gas
3.0
Health
0.7

Total expenditures include two other major categories. One of these are direct payments by our bank to designated accounts:

·         Utilities
·         Extra health and pharmaceutical insurance.

The other is checks that we write. We write fewer and fewer, but some of these are often significant in size:

·         Charities
·         Repairs
·         Special jobs like lawn repair, guttering, etc.

The percentage breakdown is for on-going expenses. We note with some raised eyebrows that we pay more for media—including telephone, newspapers, magazines, cable television, Netflix, and Internet—than we pay for food! Always suspected something like that.

A note or two. A special expense in 2014 was the actual physical move we made in July. With that absent, the Media percentile would be higher. Health is low—but only because we don’t use a credit card to pay for it--and Medicare does most of it. Gas is low as well, but that’s because we buy most of our gas at Costco, and Costco expenditures are listed under groceries.

Yes. Those media. This posting today inspired by news to the effect that a portion of Arizona lost all Internet service because somebody found and severed a major carrier line buried deep in mountainous territory. All sorts of devices went down, not least ATM machines where we draw out cash when we need it.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Fading Names and Sluggish Memories

We were discussing, Brigitte and I, how dreams communicate ideas using symbols—indeed that even when we are in a full state of wakefulness, beneath the surface, dream images may well be present. I offered as an example once reading a book about the collapse of the Soviet Union just before bedtime but sitting up in an armchair in my bedroom. It was getting late. I closed my eyes for just a moment—and there I saw this gigantic image of a huge bear.

So next I tried to remember whose book I had been reading, and I said “Khrushchev.” But it couldn’t have been Khrushchev. He came later—and he certainly didn’t write a book translated into English to reach a world audience. So I said: “You know, the man with that mark on his forehead.” We both knew who we were talking about, but his name just would. not. surface.

Eventually Brigitte retrieved the famous name by recalling a saying by President Reagan: “Tear down this wall…Mr. Gorbachev.” What President Reagan actually said was “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”—but B’s memory conveniently inverted that order.

Visible on the bed this morning was a prominent picture of another famous foreign politician on the cover of the Wall Street Journal. “You know,” I said, “I can hardly wait for the day when, in some context about Israel, we’ll sit here and try to remember the name of Netanyahu.”

Yes. God speed that day. But will we live long enough? That is the question.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Where East Meets West—Twice

A project Brigitte is toiling on—on which more when the research is done—caused me to make a graphic of the world. Sometimes a picture teaches more than those famous thousand words. So let me start here with that picture.


It’s hard to believe that one can actually compress the map of the world into a single image—which is done here. In fact I’m showing a slight bit more of our globe just so that the Prime Meridian, thus 0° Longitude, is shown twice with a slight overlap. The center of this image is the Antimeridian, thus 180° Longitude. The line marked by that red A runs through Greenwich, England and meets the tip of the line in the middle at the North Pole. Thus the left side shows the eastern and the right the western Hemisphere.

We’re not accustomed to this view. Deep habit has us imagine West to the left and East to the right, but when we travel on the globe, in whatever direction we are going—so long as we are crossing longitudes—eventually West becomes East and vice versa. In Greenwich there are houses where it is quite possible to stand in some kitchen chopping onions and one foot is in the Occident, the other in the Orient. We’re accustomed to think of Europe as part of the Western World, but only a little slice of it—most of England, a chunk of France, and a goodly part of Spain—are geographically West. London, with Longitude of -0.1278, is as much in the West as San Francisco at Longitude -122.4194.

Now this being a flattened version of the globe, the bottom portion is a single landmass—and would show a solid white mass all across the image if Google had let me go further south. That is because Antarctica is a landmass that squarely covers the pole.

Note that at some points the Longitude 180 marked in black covers over (because coinciding with it) a dashed line in light red. That dashed line is a date line. It jigs and jags to ensure that tiny islands or that bit of Russia are in the same time zone. Luckily for us, who must by all means keep Putin in his place, the dateline (even if only a broken line) keeps Putin firmly in the East. Go West, young man. But not too far—or you’ll end up in the Orient.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Length of Lent: 36? 40? 46?

The subject arises because tomorrow is the first Sunday of Lent, but Lent begins on Ash Wednesday—which always falls on a day 46 days before Easter Sunday. In Catholic tradition, the period is known as Quadragesima, literally the “fortieth,” in common usage “the forty days”. But when this tradition first took root—late in the sixth century when St. Gregory the Great was pope (590-604), he thought of Lent as a form of spiritual “tithing”; therefore fasting and repentance (the central focus of this period), was a period of 36 days, which, rounded, makes a tenth of the year. So how does all of this sort out?

Let’s take it one step at a time and answer first what might have come first: 40 or 36? Forty seems to have come first. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it (link), “In determining this period of forty days the example of Moses, Elias, and Christ must have exercised a predominant influence.” All three underwent a 40-day fast. The 36 days came about because fasting on Sundays (and every Sunday is a celebration of Christ’s resurrection) is inappropriate. Six weeks produce 42 days. Deducting the Sundays produces that 36-day period.

Let us next see how the duration of the length of Lent became 46 days. This comes about because of that “predominant influence” the Catholic Encyclopedia talks about. Yes. The fast ought to be 40 days, not an abbreviated 36. Some period after Gregory, a couple of centuries later as best as I can determine, four more days of fasting (workdays) were added—thus the four days beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending on the Saturday before the First Sunday of Lent. Simple, really. Lent is 46 days. Six Sundays fall into that period. Take those away and you end up with a nice clean 40 days of fasting.

A final note. Easter is a holiday that combines the solar year, the lunar cycle, and the days of the week. Easter is always celebrated on the first Sunday after a full moon that appears after the vernal equinox. In North America the vernal equinox will be March 20 until and including 2102. The earliest possible Easter therefore will be March 22—assuming that the full moon falls on March 21 and March 22 is a Sunday. The latest possible date for Easter is April 19th, thus assuming that a new lunar cycle begins on the day of the vernal equinox.

We think our lives are complicated. Traditional ways are as complex as any other. Oh, I ought to add: Maundy Thursday this year will fall on April 2, exactly three days ahead of Easter Sunday. So what does “maundy” mean again? For an answer look for at this blog post here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Let’s Hear It For Miss P!

The Grumpy Old Man must keep his peace today. Sometimes the papers do bring good news. A Beagle won the 139th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show! The dog was Miss P (popularly) or Ch Tashtins Looking for Trouble (formally). The WKC is based in New York. A beagle won this event only once before, in 2008. It produced what became known as a national “Beaglemania.” Well, 2015—get ready for another!


Around here, Beaglemania is kind of an everyday affair—owing to Katie the Beagle, known worldwide for her Haikus. I show a picture of her here, matronly although she appears, because I don’t wish to violate anybody’s copyright. As for Katie—she certainly looks like a champion, doesn’t she?

The Murray Mysteries?

We’ve lived the last forty years or so in the suburbs either of Minneapolis or Detroit. One of the fringe benefits of such locations has been access to CBC-TV. CBC stands for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It is instructive to have such access. Outwardly Canada is very like the United States, and yet the differences are striking. Canada is a vast geographical domain but a small country based on population; some aura of Britain still surrounds it with the waist deep decadence of Britain absent. Those fond of such sports as curling and ice hockey are well served by CBC—and when the Olympics are on, one can get a view of those games from a very different perspective and without the feeling that one’s viewing the Olympics of Advertising rather than of summer or of winter sports.

All this by way merely of introducing a quite different subject—namely a wonderfully entertaining television series called The Murdoch Mysteries. Its hero is William Murdoch, the leading detective of the Toronto Constabulary. The time is the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The series is light, you might say: humorous, not grim, and quite unpredictable. Murdoch is a man deeply into science and experimentation—yet he is a devout Catholic and a bit of a prude, the “straight man” in the comedy—but don’t get me wrong; the episodes are often excruciatingly suspenseful. Important scientific figures, famous authors, titans of industry, and inventors make appearances in episodes. And, generally, Murdoch Mysteries touches on virtually all major fads and movements that enlivened nineteenth century English-speaking culture. We like all the characters, especially like Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig), Constable Crabtree (Johnny Harris), and pathologist Dr. Julia Ogden (Hélène Joy). Murdoch himself, played by Yannick Bisson (shown in the inset (link)), is featured as a “great” detective, known all over Canada and parts beyond. Viewers no doubt think that this designation is a bit of the same fun-and-games that the Mysteries is all about—until, like me, they look further.

When they do, they discover one John Wilson Murray. The author/creator of the Murdoch Mysteries is Maureen Jennings, an immigrant from England to Canada. Her inspiration for the series was a real detective, namely Mr. Murray, who was Ontario’s first “provincial detective,” appointed in 1875. Murray was assigned to solve particularly difficult cases anywhere in Ontario—and soon developed widespread fame. His own cases also carried him all over the world—much like Murdoch’s own. Not only that, but Murray also wrote a memoir, with Victor Speer, which is as dramatic and vivid as the Murdoch series. Furthermore, it was entitled—well, the image I show (link) tells you the title. What more need I say?

Sometimes a life is adventurous and strange enough to become a fiction—and it’s difficult to see which is the more authentic. For a short but illuminating account of Murray and his book, I would suggest this link for a story that appeared in the Toronto Star. One line is worth quoting here: “Murray once stated he hated lies as much as he hated mosquitoes.” Yes. Murdoch would say the same thing. Author Jennings, who is now 76, generally approves of the series if with a small demurral. She says:

The only problem I've really had is with the hair! No woman would wear her hair down [as Dr. Julia Ogden does in the first season] and most men would have had a moustache, but the producers don't like the way they look on TV!

The current Murdoch series, in its 8th season, may be obtained from Netflix on disk or by streaming. An earlier version (much more serious but less innovative in tone or execution) is also available at Netflix on disk. Fun watching…

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bi-Polar World

George Orwell’s super-states came to mind as another paragraph on the Greek bailout was penned yesterday. Europe’s negotiators broke off talks with the Greeks. The story in the New York Times this morning reported this Greek reaction: “Greece, meanwhile, has suggested that it could turn to Russia or China for help if its talks on debt relief and a rollback of austerity measures break down.” The Russians and Chinese might review Virgil’s famous saying, but with a slight edit: Beware of Greeks even when they’re seeking gifts….

Monday, February 16, 2015

Let's Say It Again

February has a special meaning to us around here being at the same time the anniversary of Brigitte’s birth (1st), our marriage (3rd), and my “coming to adulthood”—that day, for me, being marked by entering the U.S. Army on February 21. My second day in the Army was a day off—so that I could laze around and get used to my shaven head. Back in those days February 22nd was a National Holiday, Washington’s Birthday. Year after year, thereafter, a holiday reminded me of that anniversary—until, in 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act created Presidents’ Day and moved it to the third Monday of February. Pragmatism triumphs over history.

That Jugular Vein

And We have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than his jugular vein. [Koran 50:16]

Last year about this time the subject of “fate” surfaced and I wrote a note on the subject (here). That day  vast amounts of ice were melting; now the snow is decently frozen all over. In any case, the subject seems to belong to the month in which the blessed spring is but a month away. It occurred to me in the course of a morning conversation (that first cup), that fate, at the personal level, is all about temperament—and temperament is very much an expression ultimately of the body type. The verse I cite from the Koran is illuminating. It speaks of God’s nearness to us—but what about that jugular vein? Symbolically it is the carrier of life—but it is distant from us, you might say. It belongs to that region of reality over which we have very little control—the “given,” the material order.

Part of our conversation also involved laughing at the review of the movie If I Stay which deals with a teenage girl’s near death experience. Mia, the lead character, spends her time in an out-of-body state tracking her own body and her family and friends. The review ends on this note: “So does Mia stay or go? Let’s just say that she’s a child of her generation with an unshakeable sense of empowerment. Never mind what God or random-chance may have in store for her. ‘I’m running the show,’ she declares toward the end. Deathless words from a near-death decider.” [WSJ, August 22, 2014] I cite this snippet by way of indicating the modernist view of reality: “I’m running the show.” But the truth is otherwise.

We’re running the show in the same sense as a deep-sea diver is inside a massive diving suit—linked by lines and pipes to a boat and oxygen supplies—the boat itself linked in countless ways, not least by radio waves, to the greater world on shore. The surrounding “suit” is much more real, in the practical sense, than the self inside it. Just as our body must constantly exert itself against the vast influences which the world exerts so also the soul must exert itself, at times, against the temperament which we can manage but never really control. If it weren’t so, the concepts of body-type and temperament would not have so clear a meaning to us, and fate would have no meaning. Yet it is continuously invoked when our splendid running of the show starts fraying or even runs aground.

Even when it’s not a snowy February, such morning thoughts keep me humble—because mornings are hard on those who’s temperament is stained with the melancholic dye.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Continent-Spanning Landmass

Some crossword puzzles need special notice—and a listing in Public Language Abusers International. The one that had us twisting into pretzels was Jolene Andrews’ puzzle (2/5/2015) called “Hail Mary,” its thematic being football, in which 43 Down was “Continent-spanning landmass.”

The thoughts that run in naïve minds (we’re gradually becoming crossword wise—but we’ve only been doing these for about two decades, hence we’re not yet taken for locals yet) is something like the following: The continents are landmasses. So what in the hell can a continent-spanning landmass be? Is there something beneath the continents that some kind of curved bridge of land, a kind of flattened St. Louis arch, actually links? Is there such a thing? Why haven’t we heard of it before?

Well, it turns out that there is something above the continents, and sometimes more than one. They are the names attached to continents. And, indeed, if we look carefully at maps of the world, we only find the names of seven continents but, visually, there are only six (including Antarctica)—or five if we count the two Americas, North and South, as one; and we may as well. They are not separated by any water.  But, instead, we have seven! One modestly sized one is called Europe, which isn’t a continent at all! Therefore the answer to the puzzle, which was EURASIA, is not, technically correct, not in a question which talks about “landmass.”

Every puzzle has at least some clues we mark in blood red—and try to remember for use in the future. But occasionally one really wants them to grant us a fracture.

Space v. Light


The view from my office window. After our move, I’ve exchanged a vast office in the basement of our old house, a place always gloomy except under wings of neons hung over illuminated spots here and there, for a small upstairs room from which I can stand guard over the roof of our house—and admire the Lake Wolverine across the way.

Indeed this house is marked by ample and always glorious light, especially on a frozen morning like today. The basement here is of a narrow and humble kind; and my neons now blaze their lights over those of our plants that don’t fit into the house during the grueling season of sub-zero weather.

When it comes to offices, I tend to choose space over light—but it is rather a pleasure, here, to have both.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Dum de, da Dum, da da Dum

Or simplifying the definition of poetic meter. In yesterday’s description of the meter of a hymn, I used the English saying “four beats and then three and a half” in order to avoid cluttering up the post with such phrases as “a trochaic tetrameter alternating with a trochaic tetrameter catalectic.” Now what I call a beat is what poetic tech-speech calls a “foot.” Feet are made of two or three syllables with different stresses. A foot may thus be (with Greekish names and examples added):

Dum de
Trochaic
By the shores of Gitche Gumee
Longfellow
da Dum
Iambic
To swell the gourd and plump the hazel shells
Keats
Dum Dum
Spondaic
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim
Hopkins
de de
Pyrrhic
My way is to begin with the beginning
Byron
da da Dum
Anapestic
On the far-away island of Sala-ma-Sond
Dr. Seuss
Dum de de
Dactylic
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring…
Longfellow
da Dum de
Amphibrachic
I think I will call it the Circus McGurkus
Dr. Seuss

The meter I had in mind was a tetrameter, thus a count of four feet by line, with the even lines shorted by a syllable, thus:

Dum de, Dum de, Dum de, Dum de
Dum de, Dum de, Dum de, Dum.

Saying those aloud brings home the flavor of the formation, with a satisfying sort of finish on a stressed syllable bringing a though to a close.

We could, of course, all decide, the world over, to use the metric system of measurement. Similarly we could decide to teach poetry in a simple way and call what now is called trochaic Dum-de, iambic da-Dum. Now if we speak of iambic pentameter, we could say 5-da-Dum, or describe a trochaic tetrameter as a 4-Dum-de and that trochaic tetrameter catalectic as a 3.5-Dum-de.

We’re not going to do it. Poets will (one of these decades) once more use the formal definitions. For the moment people mostly do not bother. In a Democratic society, everybody is a poet. We’re not going to do it because learning is meant to be difficult, and once it is possessed, it gives us a strange kind of lift in status—at least in our own eyes. So that, discovering I didn’t know how to describe poetic meter “properly,” this morning I set to work finding the right way to say it all.

I imagine people three millennia hence vaguely knowing a little English (as now I vaguely know a little Greek) because in that future people will speak tongues none of us today would understand if  (but don’t hold your breath) right after we finally have Artificial Intelligence, we’ll discover Time Travel. But it would please me, needless to say, that in that very distant future some poor guy will, looking up the right way to measure poetry, came across such things as a “3.5-Dum-de” and genuinely wonder what that means.