Friday, January 13, 2017

The Left Bank

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

That Cross of Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Truth Is…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Notes on the New Random: Head Gear

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

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

Image credit is Wikipedia (link).

Friday, January 6, 2017

How Long Does It Take to Build a House?

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 5, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 2, 2017

White Christmas in Glens Falls

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

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

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

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Radicalized Octogenarian

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Remembering Colonel Martinnen

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Wikipedia (link).

Friday, December 30, 2016

Slouching Toward 2017

One way to assess the year just past is to see how it looked when its sun was still under the horizon. The last posts of 2015—one of which was “Slouching Toward 2016”—suggested that ‘16 might turn out to be a mess as seen from late December ‘15. Among the events noted in ‘15 was the “victory” of Ramadi in Iraq. Now Ramadi is 79 miles west of Baghdad; the infamous Fallujah is halfway in between. Fallujah was then still held by ISIS (and as of December 11 of this year, bombings were still reported as ISIS remnants were being swept up.) Ramadi was “taken,” but what did the Iraqi army capture? Rubble. That was then, a year ago. 2016 turned out to be a year of such victories in Syria and elsewhere. Weeks of bombing; rubble turned into smaller rubble; and a stream of refugees coming out at last as if, when you squeeze rubble hard enough, a bit of darkly-colored life flows out like near-congealed blood. Today, as I gaze at 2017 ahead, the battle of Ramadi has moved on to Mosul. That battle has been going on for a long time but still isn’t over. It takes time to make once populous cities entirely unlivable. 2017 will doubtlessly unveil the “victory” of Mosul too. But that word will be quite meaningless.

My 2015 farewell posts failed to note that 2016 would be an election year. Had that occurred to me, I’d have avoided the word “slouching” and written about about “digging a deep hole.” Election years are like that in this seemingly endless cultural sunset. Well, 2017 is not an election year. So we approach it with faint hope. Or is the future preparing even more amazingly rude surprises? Just wondering.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Lingua Somnia

One sometimes wakes up from what feels like a dream, but the only residue is a single word. That happened to me last night; and the harvest of my dream was the word Nicaragua. Nicaragua is the largest country in that slender isthmus that connects North to South America or vice versa. Honduras is to Nicaragua’s north, Costa Rica to its south, about 6 million people. But none of that was in my mind.  What my dream presented was a linguistic challenge. I lay there in the dim dark, nose barely reaching the cold air, wondering if the first part of that word, Nicar, had any linkage to “black” in Spanish—because agua, of course, meant “water.” This kept me awake just long enough to make a firm decision to look into the matter when light finally came.

It turns out that the etymology of a word like Nicaragua is a swamp not even Donald Trump will ever drain. The accepted  version is that conquistador Gil González Dávila, its western discoverer, named the country for a local chieftain named Nacaro. But later scholars, having studied the original language of the region, called Nahuatl, have made correctives: that R in Nicaragua is suspect—but the “agua” is very defensible. But let us start with the name of the language itself. Nahuatl is formed of two words: NAHUAC and ATL. The first means “near,” the last means “water.” Note here, however, that atl is clearly not related to agua; agua, however, is a natural translation of atl. The name Nicaragua, scholars say, originates from three native words: NIC meaning “here,” ATL meaning “water,” and NAHUAC meaning “near.” In simple terms, Nicaragua means Here-Near-the-Water—just as the name of its language means Near-Water. These folk were proud either of their nearness to two oceans or, more likely, having their population centered around two big lakes on the south-western extent of the country: Lago Xolotlán and Lago Nicaragua (today). That chieftain named Nacaro perhaps played no role at all. But the Spanish clearly got the idea that agua had better be part of every major name around here. The capital is thus called Managua; it is the largest city in Central America. The Man part of that name comes from the name of a tribe, the Mánkeme, who lived in the area of Managua; the rest of it I need not repeat again.

Even a brief investigation into language reveals a universe beneath. To those who, like me, are absolutely fascinated by the hidden, near-forgotten, and overlaid parts of history, I recommend a closer look at the Nahuatl language, presented here by Wikipedia. It turns out to be part of the Proto-Uto Aztecan language group, the fifth level down a sizeable pyramid—all of which was leveled down, you might say, by the Spanish invasion of Latin America (Aztekistan?). The image of the Nahua woman I show above, the curl showing that she is speaking, comes from the same source. The image dates from the sixteenth century Florentine Codex produced by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún. Clearly the Nahuans were also originating later North American techniques of comic book speech. What a vast world we live in…

Monday, December 26, 2016

Boxing in the Fog

Those who’ve wondered what it might be like to be in the sky inside wondrous clouds massively crowding a blue sky would have their answer this morning down on the ground on the shores of Wolverine Lake in the Village of Wolverine Lake, MI. The clouds are down to inspect the lowest reaches. The fog hides all details. Houses, trees, cars, and the doomed remains of snow (the temperature is trying to pass 50 ° F) are only barely sketched in. All else is a white mist. So much, for starters, about the fog.

As for boxing, today is Boxing Day in England, the second day of Christmas elsewhere in Europe. It is also a holiday for all Federal Employees—but only because the 25th fell on a Sunday this year. More is available on Boxing Day in an early post on this blog, titled “The Day After ” (link) written some seven years ago. In that post the links between Christmas and the ancient Saturnalia are also traced. So it is very foggy on this Boxing Day of 2016. If you had the vague impression (as Brigitte and I did until I wrote that post) that Boxing Day is celebrated by boxing matches, you will be corrected. But that interpretation lingers. And checking the news while glancing out the window this morning, I imagined that our politicians, serving or just elected to serve, are well described by the view at Wolverine. They’re boxing in the fog—and no punch ever lands in this thick mist.

This blog began with a post on cyclic history (link). There I suggest that theories of cyclic history are much more likely to be true than belief in a Progressive March toward Perfection. Based on my teachers of history, we’re now part of a great decline in culture. It has happened before, is happening now, and will again a thousand or so years from now, give or take. Cyclic history is not an exact science. The past, however, keeps recurring.

Brigitte brought an example of that to my mind this morning. A story in the Times Digest tells of ISIS fighters smuggling weapons tied to the bellies of sheep. Okay. That’s in 2016 (still). The story reminded Brigitte of a Greek saga that, she thought, clearly mirrored it. I had a very vague memory too—and went to look it up. It turned out that Brigitte’s memories still work with relatively fine precision. When Odysseus falls into the hands of Polyphemus, the Cyclops, around about the 1200 BCs, he and his men manage to escape the Cyclops’ clutches by hanging on to the bellies of Polyphemus’ sheep that he, the Cyclops, lets out of his cave to graze.

Not an exact parallel, to be sure. Are we to associate ISIS with Odysseus? And the Cyclops with one Donald the Trump. Not very close. But the time distance between 2016 and 1200 BC is some 3,216 years. Thus it is likely that in the year 5232 AD some such tale may have some currency. But a true Cyclops has only one eye. That’s strong evidence that Trump might not qualify. In this fog, it’s hard to see the truth.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Our Elders and Betters

Herewith the following splendid photo. It comes from my oldest friend, Philip Cavanaugh. The letter that brought it explains what is shown here.

Dear Arsen: 

Early this month we participated in the annual “Texas T Party”—about 80 Model T’s from the entire production period 1909 to 1927. This may be our last trip; doing 100 miles per day for four days is more fatiguing than it used to be. Anyway I am sending a picture of what could be called “the last and the first”: my green 1926 next to my red 1911.

Hope all is well with you and family; we soldier on.


Saturday, October 15, 2016

Honor and Honorarium

I’ve never earned a penny for making a public speech—but presumably they weren’t altogether free. I spoke as a representative of institutions that thought they benefited from any kind of positive “exposure” to the public; I was merely the instrument of delivering that exposure. There was also the personal “honorarium” consisting of basking in the attention of mostly strangers for twenty minutes or so; and there was, of course, the intangible value of that sometimes rather perfunctory applause.

We live in a world of intangible concepts. What is “exposure,” for instance. It isn’t something one can deposit. How does one “profit” from “publicity”? The profit isn’t measurable; it’s in the same category as the weight of my soul. And what exactly does “honor” mean? Since honor also belongs to an immaterial category, the “honorarium” should be in the same class; it should be praise, never a check. Too rudely physical that. Praise is just words—not deeds. And when crass words turn into crass deeds, or when honor turns into fungible honoraria, we’ve crossed some kind of invisible barrier between order and disorder—whatever those intangible concepts mean.

Friday, October 14, 2016


Brigitte named our presumably last Black Swallowtail this season Terpsichore—quite intuitively, I might add, because she’d forgotten how to tell a female from a male of this species, Papilio polyxenes. But she’d picked right. Terpsichore is a lady. The distinctive markings here are the white, indeed almost yellow, spots on the wings, tails, and the rear of the body and the distinctive and rather large blue markings on the tail reading up to the “eyes.”

The males, by contrast, shown on the left, have much more pronounced and more yellow markings; the blue spots, however, are quite small.

We found Terpsichore on some parsley we’d grown. The parsley was right next to a veritable forest of dill, which Black Swallowtails evidently prefer; but they like parsley as well. Brigitte had asked for a bunch for cooking. She had it in a glass jar on the windowsill awaiting the time for its use. And there, reaching for them, she noticed with delight that a caterpillar had grown large enough to detect. This was about the end of September—in a way quite late. We wondered if the butterfly would develop this season or whether, as we’d experienced at the old house with another late batch, it would wait until Spring to emerge from its pupa once she had formed it.

We’d had an earlier batch of Swallowtail this summer, but what with my deepening laziness, and its consequence of avoiding the LABORS of blogging, no note of those creature came to be written. Two of their names were Castor and Pollux; the third one, perhaps disliking “foreign” names, managed to crawl out of the box and disappeared before it was time to curl up for transformation.

Mind you, we now have a quite respectable stand of milkweed plants. But no Monarchs deigned to leave offspring at our new Butterfly Ranch. Good thing too. Distinguishing between male and female Monarch is much, much more difficult. Someday, perhaps, I’ll have a chance to address the subject…