Monday, November 24, 2014

First the Stoics...

Brigitte sent me a link to an article, titled “The rise of modern Stoicism” by Joe Gelonesi. It is part of The Philosopher’s Zone here. The subject has been in the air around here for a while now—ever since Brigitte bought Martha C. Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire back in the Spring of 2013 and then we both read and discussed it over a period of months, with particular focus on the Stoics. The book is subtitled Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics.

The strong impression I carried away from that experience, particularly from the study of late Roman Stoicism, is how the decaying Roman civilization embraced that philosophy, how widely it spread, and how it laid the foundation for the very smooth acceptance of Catholic Christianity in those realms. Christianity gave that rational, if also transcendental, philosophy a genuine life. The subject is worth pursuing as an antidote to the chaos that now seems to be spreading almost virally.

When things go too far, the answer is almost always already present. Thus, while selfie sticks rise into the air, the (call it) re-moralization of society is also taking place. Concerning that last phrase, it occured naturally: we both also read a book, around about the same time, titled The De-Moralization of Society, From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, by Gertrude Himmelfarb.

Lifts the mood on a gloomy if warmer November day dark with a low pressure system and half-hearted rain.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Grand Canyon Moment

When looking for pictures of a selfie stick yesterday, it seemed to me that a preponderance of photos showed Asians. That in turn reminded me of a Grand Canyon Moment in the 1960s. Of that in a moment. But first, let me say a little more about the selfie stick and all those Asian faces.

It turns out that the device I featured in yesterday’s post was invented in the United States, perhaps in Buffalo, NY. Buffalo is the address of Fromm Works Inc., the corporate entity that produces the QuickPod. That product appears to be the original selfie stick, invented by the company’s president, Wayne Fromm. It dates from 2004. Fromm Works is also the originator of many other very clever products, mostly aimed at children. So why is that product, and its look-alikes, so popular with Asians? One possible answer is that Alibaba, the Chinese Google-Amazon, promoted them heavily.

My own thought associations, linking the selfie stick to a Grand Canyon memory, seem to be reflecting some genuine process. Back many decades ago, when I first got into studying technology, I came across a saw to the effect that the French come up with the ideas, in the abstract, the Americans commercialize them, and the Japanese flood the market with them. Things have changed since then, but some such process is still going on.

Now my Grand Canyon Moment is told in a few words. I was travelling with an Austrian Engineer, a client of a company I worked for, J.F. Pritchard Co. We were doing a big job for an Austrian conglomerate, cleaning natural gas. The engineer and I travelled from Kansas City to the West Coast. On the way we stopped at the Grand Canyon for part of an afternoon. One of the places we visited was the gift shop. It was filled with Japanese tourists. They were rushing about picking up souvenirs, turning them over and looking at them, laughing madly, and then talking up a storm with further laughter. I got curious. Carefully I picked up one of the souvenirs too, turned it over as they had—and saw the cause of the Japanese amusement. Virtually every object commemorating the Grand Canyon carried the following message: Made in Japan.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Selfie Stick

If you haven’t heard of this product (we had not until this morning) it is high time to get with Modernity and invest in a Selfie Stick. The illustration I’m showing is from Wikipedia creative commons (here). The image was taken by Petar Milošević in Prague. The selfie stick is widely available from Amazon to Walmart, you might say. I saw one discounted from $21.81 to $4.19 (plus shipping) at Amazon.

The big banks all over the world are desperately trying to cause economic growth by printing more money and such. Growth is already here, if only we could promote desperately needed new products so that the public could know to acquire them.

Here is our attempt to grow the economy by making publicity waves. We shall, of course, acquire a pair of sticks ourselves, a Hers and a His, as soon as we have acquired some brand of iPhone to fit into their maws.

In the future—no doubt from Amazon, which already uses little robots to fill our many orders for books and such—will come the Selfie Bot. It will roll ahead of the user and take a constant stream of selfies as that person is doing his or her shopping. Stay alert, NSA. Here is yet another way to keep track of potential terrorists. We all are, after all, especially after seeing such products on sale…

Thursday, November 20, 2014

My Mother on Inertia

My Mother understood the fundamental problem of this dimension—which she voiced around about the time when she had reached my age. She used to say, but only sotto voce and in private, that eating was disgusting. But eating was just her standing-in for anything to do with ordinary physical life; she chose that activity to make the point more sharply; because, no matter when, eating remains a pleasure and a need. She meant life-in-matter. The problem only appears when life in the valley is viewed from a point of view above it, thus from awareness, intelligence. Viewed through a materialist monism, thus from below, what you see is simply what you get, matter and matter all over again: the endless catch-as-catch-can and tawdriness of everything made temporarily neat and tidy only by massive expenditures of energy and effort; even then the daily functions of intake and elimination provide sufficient instances of grossness so that we cannot avoid eventually noticing that something is amiss.

Fighting the fundamental chaos that surrounds us—and it seems to have a powerful will of its own we call Inertia—is the principal occupation of daily life. Extraordinarily high levels of collective coordination and cooperation are required to keep that chaos at bay in the best of times. Life-in-matter is by definition conflict—of the soul against the random. Any ideology that embraces it, e.g., a free market ideology, invariably increases chaos by increasing conflict and directing energy from cooperation.

Not what God actually created. This world here is what we rightly call The Fall.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ideological Shift

An interesting article in The American Conservative (Nov/Dec 2014), titled “‘Duck Dynasty’ vs Dante,” reminded me again that no really decent statistics on politics are available to the general public. Economic statistics are available; but you have to pay real dollars for political statistics. Therefore it is difficult to check, using numbers, opinions, as those in this article, that the shift in ideology in the United States represents a movement from urban to rural. I always marvel at the detail that CNN, for instance is able to show in its coverage. Such data must cost a ton of money—but the people’s right to know does not extend to a right easily to analyze those numbers.

Half-heartedly looking for some, I found at least a few numbers looking backward provided by the Brookings Institution (link). These show the shift in dominance of the House and Senate, between 1991 and 2013—thus excluding the results of the most recent election—by regions of the country.  Here is the tabulation:

Democratic Strength, in Percent, in House and Senate, in 1991 and 2013
House
Senate
1991-1992
2013-2014
1991-1992
2013-2014
102nd
103rd
102nd
103rd
South
66.4
29.0
68.2
27.3
Border
67.4
36.6
60.0
50.0
New England
66.7
100.0
58.3
66.6
Mid-Atlantic
56.9
60.3
50.0
90.0
Midwest
61.2
38.4
70.0
60.0
Plains
54.2
33.3
58.3
41.7
Rocky Mountains
45.8
41.9
37.5
43.8
Pacific
60.6
70.4
40.0
90.0
Democratic regions
8
3
5
4

This tabulation still identifies the border states as a separate region. They are Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Delaware. Note the dominance of the Democrats in the 1991-1992 Congress (8 of 8 regions) and near dominance in the Senate (5 of 8 regions). Twenty-three years later, the dominance has swung to the other side—but four regions are still hanging on to the Democratic view of things. I show them in bold type.

I’ll look some more. One of the great puzzles, for Brigitte and me, is this general trend. People are getting poorer—and more Republican. Something’s oddly askew. Perhaps it is those gerrymandered districts. Or could it all be just Fox News?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Marescence



To keep Alzheimer’s at bay, learn a new word every day. Or perhaps one every month. This month’s word is marescence. It stems from the Latin for marescere, to wither or to shrivel. The subject presents itself every fall, but the energy to dig up the facts is not present every autumn. This time I went on a search to discover why it is that virtually all deciduous trees loose their leaves more or less on schedule—thus, hereabouts in the Midwest, they are mostly down by today. But some hang on for dear life. And some keep them until well into the coming spring. Such species, among them Oaks, Witch-hazel, Hornbeam (musclewood), Hophornbeam (ironwood), some species of Willow, and American Beech display marescence, meaning that their leaves turn color but remain attached to the branches until new budding pushes them off. The evolutionary value of this tactic is debated but not resolved.

To get this list I had to find a helpful post (link) at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. Endless blogs and chat rooms go on and on about leaves, but all are incomplete and rarely roam farther than the nearest oak.

Well, in the center of our large back yard rises a rather young American Beech. It still has all its leaves although, at the tip, they are beginning to turn brown. Finding the name of a tree merely by looking at its leaves is very time-consuming. You have to be retired to do it. One step leads to another. The images you see displayed above are the leaves of some of these species, in the order listed above. They suggest that my Fall raking will have its Spring complement as well. My images are courtesy of Wikipedia commons.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Leaves at Wolverine Lake

Their Huddled Masses

The 1 Percent

The occasion here is tomorrow’s second, and last, leaf-pickup by the Village of Wolverine Lake (I actually typed Wolverine Rake, so intense had been the effort). As for the 1 percent, we owe that to Monique’s careful collection of leaves when walking Katie.

Brigitte suggests that I label these pictures—particularly in the context of today’s first post—“Detroit” and “Downton Abbey.”

Home at Last

The Manners of Celebrity demands, for males at least, that the person be precisely three days unshaven, the hair artfully uncombed but not quite pasty on one side (as having just arisen from disordered sleep). The shirt must be open at the collar, the suit jacket must simply be seen to be expensive, and a ragged pair of jeans must be worn beneath.

But the above is mere celebrity—painful as it must be to live that life. The real aristocracy today lives virtually at Downton Abbey. For us, of course, the obligatory study is The Manners of Downton Abbey, available for $19.99 on DVD; it only takes an hour to master the arts; it might take longer to read Downton Abbey Rules for Household Staff ($14.99) and to teach its contents to our virtual servitors.

PBS, this time of year, well ahead of Christmas, sends us shopPBS.org, its magazine, where our virtual aristocracy may be physically spruced up by buying all kinds of products. All Seasons of DA now available may be purchased alongside Christmas at Downton Abbey ($16.99), a raft of books to start our own DA Library (A Year in the Life of Downtown Abbey ($29.99), Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey (ditto), The Chronicles of Downton Abbey ($19.99), and The World of Downton Abbey (ditto)).

The newest addition to our growing collection is Downton Abbey Teas, 30 bags for $12.99. The categories are “Bates’ Brambleberry Tea,” “Mrs. Patmore’s Pudding Tea,” “Christmas Tea,” “Lady Cora’s Evening Tea,” “Grantham Breakfast Blend Tea,” and “English Rose Tea.” For a mere $77.94 (shipping may be free), we can have all six flavors.  The savvy buyer, however, may obtain a free sampler by buying Season Five first. Oh. These teas are a “PBS Exclusive”;  don’t waste time trying to buy these tea products at Kroger.

I’m personally much attracted by the Miniature Downton Abbey Snow Globe ($12.95), complete with a Downton Abbey Quote book titled Wise Words. And if you’re feeling contrarian, I’ll accept, with equal pleasure, the Miniature Downton Abbey Light-up Castle with sound track and Quote Book.

But, surprise, we aren’t even close to being done yet! There are in addition 26 other purchasable reminders that Downton Abbey is physically real. Of these the most expensive (unless that’s a typo) is Downton Abbey Fragrance ($244.99), the least expensive is a Round Jute/Polypropylene Storage Basket ($10.99). There is jewelry, lace, gloves, towels, and even a Downton Life Cotton Oven Kit (also $10.99); I could use one in making our croutons around here. The Downton Life Cotton Apron carries the following slogan: “My second HOME is Downton Abbey.” Well, they have our number at PBS. Obviously.

Finally, there is a kind of show stopper. It is a DVD, priced at $19.99. It is displayed right next to another DVD titled Secrets of the Manor House; the two are related. The show stopper is titled Secrets of Highclere Castle. What? Highclere Castle? What is that? Well, it turns out to be the actual setting of Downton Abbey, the actual physical place. It turns out to be a real location with a real lord and lady (Lord and Lady Carnarvon) who, mostly, expend their energies keeping it intact (link). And what a great achievement it was, for them, to get BBC to turn it into Downton Abbey. We’ll have to visit there, visit our second home, as soon as it becomes safe enough to fly again in the unreal world where we’re obliged to live in actuality.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Fides in Fido and Further Flotsam

The leaves are mostly down and raked—in quantities fearfully greater than at our old house. Here it is the maples that dominate the landscape in yellow. Transitions, we hope are transitory, and a settling down should slowly set in. In any case, posts to this log have virtually vanished, what with mile-long to-do lists still to be worked. But some old habits are returning, among them reading out-loud. The book we recommend is James Galbraith’s The End of Normal. It ought to resonate with those who follow economics. Its most curious thematic—not stated so much as implied—is that the transition (yet another one), this time to the Post-Oil Age, actually began already in the early 1970s. Which brings echoes of my surprises when I realized, over the decades, reading authors who’ve been most influential in forming my own views of modernity, that the current decadence was fully alive and well in the 1930s already, before I was even born. Galbraith’s “normal” is the unbending faith of our culture in the unfailing growth in the economy, the reliable certainty of endless new waves of technological change that will continue to generate it, and a consumption culture, therefore, that will never end.

Brigitte yesterday found a rather fantastic book review, “The Creepy New Wave of the Internet,” by Sue Halpern in the New York Review of Books (11-20-2014) (here). It describes the next wave said to be rising, ready to make life worth living in the immediate future ahead. Worth reading if you have the stomach for it. I did not manage it—but then, of late, I’ve been suffering from (stress-related) irritable bowels. The wave is described as the Internet of Things (IoT), thus objects communicating with each other. Hold on to something firm please: it is projected as a $14.4 trillion industry by 2020.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, sure enough—no doubt to correct my total lack of faith in the future—comes an article proving that Halpern may have a real thumb on the pulse of things—comes an article on dog collars and whistles linked into the Internet so that uptodate pet owners can track their animals and measure their caloric expenditures on walks. This sort of thing—still in early stages—is sure to give new life and growth to the Pet industry, now measured at $58 billion. Our faith in Fido will get a lift from the growth of three fiercely competing companies—no doubt just the first of a whole swarm—in the dog-tracking segment of this market. Bowls that will signal when they have been licked entirely empty will follow—joining the reinvention of eggs, in the grocery business. We have, if you believe Sue Halpern, eggs in a future that will count themselves in the refrigerator and let you know, via your iPhone, when it is time to buy more eggs.

All this came crashing down on me today—when, with the lawn fully raked, my escape into the old normal was denied me. Besides that, the temperature out there is not yet entirely controllable by devices trafficking inside my blood stream informing my Internet-enabled hoodie to turn on the heat using a battery pack that doubles as my zipper and is, of course, rechargeable entirely by a wireless energy transfer that Tesla once saw in his wildest dreams.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Sun Also Rises…

…to the south and to the north of due East. Indeed the sun rises in the East only on two days of the year, March 20 and September 23, the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.

This subject came up yesterday when, discussing the tilted wind-rose on our newly acquired gazebo, I kept insisting that what Brigitte called East was really West. She kept insisting that the sun rose in the East—and never mind which way the wind-rose was pointing. I kept arguing feebly for a while until she said: “If you are right, Arsen, the sun is right now setting in the East—and you can see it for yourself by looking out the window!” Sure enough. Some windstorm had managed to turn our wind-rose helter-skelter.

Another fix-it chore goes on my list, but I rather dread having to climb up there just to correct that problem. I am as challenged by heights as I am by spherical geometry.

Herewith a graphic that shows the rather considerable deviations of sunrise from due East for the North 42nd Latitude where Detroit lies on the map.


I have this diagram from a paper published by the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles in 1948 and accessible here. One of the reassuring aspects of astronomy is that what was true in 1948 is still true in 2014—and will presumably still hold in 3014. Until the skies go into disarray, all’s well with the world.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Don't Let the Airbag Explode Over You!

Was off to have a routine medical test—but one that required, ahead of it, that I drink 80 ounces (4 large bottles) of water. We call such days Medical Day Lite. For the aftermath I had a medium-sized shopping list for Kroger. Brigitte trailed me to the driveway outside doing her usual checks. “Have you got your glasses? Keys? Have you got the list? Good. And Oh. Drive carefully—and don’t let the airbag explode over you!” I laughed and walked the rest of the way to the car as Quasimodo might. — When are these people finally going to grow up!?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

At the Root of the New Normal

To speak of “the new normal” is, you might say, the new normal. The phrase signals something negative. The speaker is comparing current conditions with a much happier one—a time of growth in every category, even such negative categories as debt. People piled on debt because they were confident that growth, progress, advancement, promotions, and good fortune would magically create the necessary funds to pay it back. And debt for some meant sales for others. More and more sales. Higher and higher profits.

The new normal signals disappointment. It’s as if, watching a pot, waiting for it to boil, we looked under it to see if the blue flame was on; and it was. So why, for Heaven’s sake, doesn’t it start to boil? Something is wrong. Is it the water, the pot, or the fire? The Laws of Progress no longer seem to hold. A fundamental change has set it. It’s the new normal.

If the gas flame is the cause of water boiling, what is the analogous driver of the economy. For the longest time—essentially since the end of World War II—economic dynamism was a given. It was the way things were: dynamic. Yes, the occasional “correction” explained why sometimes we had brief recessions, but the phenomenon, the old normal, was really Progress. The way things ought to be. So what was the source of that dynamism.

Confidence. And the root of the New Normal is—the lack of it.

Confidence is two parts faith and one part observation. It is a feeling. It also feeds on itself. It was first shaken on 9/11/2001. On that day a fundamental feeling of American invulnerability was put in question. The excessive reaction to it—proportional in size to the unrealistic faith in our superiority—has spawned a series of mismanaged wars. Meanwhile the Money Culture ignored it and produced growing inequality, the fraudulent Mortgage Bubble, and then the Great Recession. And since then, no matter what happens, it is interpreted as yet more proof that something’s wrong—so that we are now behaving irrationally about the ebola plague in part of Africa.

When for far too long a period a vast, rich society like ours has come to forget that real life is dangerous and ever demanding of vigilance, especially in good times—and that our faith should be in Something beyond our own genius—the “corrective” of our delusion will also take a while to manifest. The New Normal is an early sign of that correction. But confidence will only return when we forget about the Old Abnormal—infinite growth and progress—and turn our eyes to the Heavens. That will steady us again. And the waves of hysteria, which now characterize social life, will then gradually diminish.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Transiting with Father Brown

Sometime in June up in our old attic, packing books day after day, I chanced across a box, never even opened since our last move, in 1989. In it I encountered a thick book I still recalled owning but not having but briefly sampled. It was The Complete Father Brown, by G.K. Chesterton, printed in 1982 under the Dodd, Mead imprint. I set the book aside. And since then, every evening, Father Brown has kept me company throughout the trials and tribulations of our move from the East to the West side of the Detroit Metro. The book contains all but one of the 52  Father Brown stories, the first written in 1911 and the last, “The Mask of Midas,” in 1936; that last is not in the collection but may be read here.

I am still not finished with the book. I usually read it before going to sleep; what with the fatigues of the move, it has taken me two or three days to finish each story. I’m now at around page 700, a few more to go before 993 and the end is reached; already, however, I’m feeling twinges of sadness that this occupation will eventually end.

Chesterton’s life, which began May 29, 1874, is almost continuous with my own. He died on June 14, 1936, thus 48 days before I was born on July 31, 1936. His views on the world as they developed over time might be characterized as a resistance to modernity in the name of the timeless values that Christendom represents. Thus they match my own, as they in turn developed over time—passing through very similar phases.

Perhaps this is just an impression of mine born of ignorance, but I never thought of Chesterton as a convert to Catholicism—perhaps because he did not have any linkage to the Inklings (Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and others). But he was. He came from a Unitarian family background, became an Anglo-Catholic thanks to his wife Frances’ influence, and a full-fledged Roman Catholic at age 48.

What lies ahead, for me—consoling me for the end of the current book—is reading such non-fiction titles of his as Heretics and Orthodoxy and his novels.

Those who know Father Brown only through two major television series, will be a little puzzled by Chesterton’s actual stories. Virtually all TV episodes make use of the Father Brown character—with one or two appearance, as well, of the criminal-turned-detective Flambeau—but they use new stories written for the modern public. The first such was a 1974 series with 13 episodes by the British ITV. The second appeared here in 2013 and in 2014 (20 episodes, BBC1), with a new season projected for 2015. Father Brown is true to Chesterton’s conception of him, but the plots lack the deeply philosophical, and indeed theological, twists and turns that make the actual Father Brown stories so interesting.

What stuck me most forcefully during the last few months of seeing things through Father Brown’s eyes is that Modernity, as Chesterton then saw it, has pretty much ceased to be the actively growing and largely triumphant movement that it still was in his day, having become, in my old age, a growing shatter in which its chief doctrine of progress is crumbling from its clay feet upward.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Celebrity Products

I first encountered the curious phenomenon of product loyalty writ large when I bought an Apple II Plus computer circa 1980. What I’d really wanted was a Radio Shack TRS-80, but I could not justify its stiff price. The Apple was more affordable. In my efforts to learn how to use that product, I got involved with an Apple User Group and read various trade magazines centered on Apple products. To my surprise I found myself mingling with what felt like members of a tribe or of a cult.

In many ways the Apple II+ was an incomplete sort of product when I bought it. I had to purchase a special card for around $300 just to make it display 80 characters on its screen—and I chose that route because, even with that extra expenditures, it still cost less than the TRS-80. Nor did the product have a very long official life. It was only produced for three-and-a-half years (6/1979-12/1982). Then came the Apple IIe (1/1983), then the Macintosh (1/1984), and so on. I bought one of each of those as well but then, thanks to external influences—namely Brigitte’s work environment at Gale Research—I got to know the IBM PC and parted company with Apple for good. It became obvious to me that Apple was running a strange new kind of company in which the deliberate obsolescing of its products was a policy—and a successful policy only because the company enjoyed a new kind of customer better described as the fiercely loyal fan.

I’d gotten into computers in search of utility. But computing had another base: people for whom owning that product was participating in a kind elite. And Apple did its utmost to foster the feeling that, being an Apple user, one was a member of a vanguard. One bought a computer, to be sure, but really joined a faith, complete with its prophet, Steve Jobs.

Now this phenomenon did not stop with the Macintosh—or even the death of the prophet  (5/2011). It has continued on with music ( ITunes, 4/2000), telephones (IPhone, 6/2007) and now with presumably world-conquering apps like Apple Pay (10/2014).

I believe I am correct in surmising that Apple also, more generally, invented the Celebrity Product. Now that phrase is used in commerce—and has been so used for at least a generation—as designating products endorsed by celebrities. But the meaning I give that phrase refers to products that are owned because their ownership bestows a gilding of celebrity on the purchaser—and it matters not at all how good the product is or whether better products might be out there. Apple’s products meet this test. They did so even back when I first bought my Apple II+. Better products were already on the market. But spending on toys is never really about the toy. They’re about the Toy Plus. The Toy Plus participating in celebrity.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Second Weather

Weather might be defined as mutually interacting atmospheric and hydrospheric responses to a single major source of energy. That energy comes in daily cycles as the earth turns about its axis—and is distributed as summer, then as winter to the globe’s two hemispheres as the planet circles that source: the sun.

It used to be—back in those days when the word “economy” meant “frugality” and had not yet acquired its current meaning—that weather was the economy. And in those days no sensible human ever thought that one could manage the weather. It was a blessing or a curse. And chronic changes in regional climate could only be countered by migration. Then came the age of fossil fuels. Not in a literal way, of course, but certainly in an effective way, discovery of coal and oil introduced a new, call it second, source of energy. Not literally because the fossil fuels had all been created using sunlight too—but long ago. The consequence has been that humanity has come to imagine that economies can be managed—presumably because coal can be mined and oil extracted. More or less of it had become a matter of human effort and of enterprise.

Our own is a unique period in history, never before experienced. Incremental changes—like learning to travel by wind or to produce energy by falling water—did not really change the fundamentals, but the fossil fuels have, in effect, brought major change. We now live in a time of Second Weather. Some believe it will never end. Humanity will never run out of its second, its free, energy. This belief, anchored firmly in the concept of progress, itself the child of the Second Weather, is thought to be human ingenuity. Never mind that fossil fuels will eventually run out. Something will replace them. Technology. Like fossil fuels, it is something that can be managed—yes, even by politicians. Therefore rest easy.

Some of us doom-sayers are dubious—even as fracking fracks on. Whether it is the first or second weather we’re talking about, they are both in the realm of chance and unpredictability just because they are such monstrously huge systems that, no manner how many enticing graphics we can produce to track some minor function of either, we cannot really get beyond observation. But the illusion that we are now in charge is tempting.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Third-Guessing the Second

A baseball story in today’s New York Times (appropriately, it turns out) used the word second-guessing far too often not to capture my attention. The realization came that I couldn’t actually “picture” that phrase. I know what it means—in a vague sort of way—but what does it really mean.

As always Online Etymology Dictionary cleared the matter up for me. And (that “appropriately” above comes into focus): the phrase had its origins in baseball slang. The second-guesser is that rude, loud fellow bellowing in the stands and shaking his fist at the umpire. And the umpire, OED informs me, is actually the first-guesser. That is because, in baseball slang, the umpire was once known as the “guesser,” no doubt so labeled by the same cynical people who doubted that he saw things correctly.

It surprised me further that the phrase is younger than I am, by a year, having first been put in print in 1937. The verb form of it, “to second-guess” is even younger: 1941.

Third-guessing, thus the process of explaining word origins by copying other people’s documented wisdom, is a form first introduced, here, on October 19, 2014. May it sail on…