Sunday, February 28, 2010

Technical Note

To round out a busy month filled with all manner of anniversaries, it might be appropriate to end with a note about a new technical feature that has suddenly appeared on the Blogger platform, host of Ghulf Genes. It is a “Pages” facility permitting the user to create static pages accessible either from a listing in the left or the right column (depending on template) or from tabs at the top of the blog. This feature has been available on other platforms and has obvious benefits. This morning, almost by accident—I was messing with my test blog—I discovered the new feature. How long has it been available? I don’t know and don’t want to take the time to discover, but you can see it implemented beneath the header and to the left of the screen. Welcome, “Pages.” This platform needed the new dimension. In time I’ll make use of it.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tracks in the Snow

Out on a walk as snow comes down
in dense diagonals ahead,
the distant air quite white yet still
translucent so that trees retain
their winter blacks, houses their red
brick shades and bushes their dark greens…

The sidewalk’s covered and pristine.
I am the first to press my print
into this virgin, crystalline
seal of an aging Winter as
it drenches flakes but has the air
of half believing that it’s Spring…

Indeed it’s weirdly quiet here,
I’m all alone, no cars, no sound,
the snow’s absorbed all noise and din,
it seems I own this landscape by
myself, the last to walk the path,
the past alone around me now,
no sign, no hint of future time…

Then like a miniature tide
I glimpse a single track approach:
I’m starting a new block. Steps in
the snow, their gender indistinct,
not large, not small—but purposive!
At every driveway in they go.
To every porch they quickly mount.

Aha! I think, as patterns now
appear, as time resumes its tick,
as future reasserts itself,
as I’m no longer quite alone.
Those tracks— surely they must belong
to someone working for La Poste
who carries news once valued most.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Hidden Rainbow

The frown of words must sometimes be relieved by a bit of illumination. Looking at some pictures—while also reorganizing the mass of images that have begun to crowd my black machine—I came across a photograph taken by son-in-law John Magee in California. I use that picture as the illustration on LaMarotte, my sometimes edgy commentary on all things secular. The picture on LaMarotte has a somber sort of feel. But the original from which I cropped it, had to crop it in effect, was taken for another reason—visible in the photograph above. There it is, the hidden rainbow—always present in life no matter what happens, whether visible or not.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Two events quite recently reminded me of Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979), a Russian-born American scholar. One was a post on Siris (here) about the prehistoric temple site in Turkey called Göbekli Tepe, presumed to be at least 11,000 years old but possibly begun 13,000 years ago. The other was seeing Nova’s program, Megabeasts’ Sudden Death, on Public Television last night. The story makes a very good case, based on examination of glaciers, that the woolly mammoth and other large creatures of North America may have been killed off by a devastating comet strike about 12,900 years ago.

I got interested in Velikovsky—as in other heterodox figures of my own time—in a home-made education that I sometimes liken to the progress of an ass dragging a plow from cactus to cactus; donkeys are said to be able to digest such prickly goods; or this may merely be a fitting myth to characterize the likes of me. This happened in the 1960s. I bought and read in succession some of Velikovsky’s books: Worlds in Collision, Ages in Chaos, and Earth in Upheaval, all published in the 1950s. Velikovsky’s thesis in a nutshell? Many geological, climatic, and historical accounts are best explained by astronomical events of a catastrophic nature. A good deal of discussion in the late 1950s and early ‘60s focused (believe it or not) on the likelihood of global cooling. This got me thinking about, and researching, the cause of the ice ages. I stumbled on Velikovsky in that context and stayed to study his strange theories.

Catastrophism and gradualism are as perennial and persistent in human thought as Platonic and Aristotelian approaches to reality. Two figures whose lives bridged the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the Frenchman George Cuvier (1769-1832) and the Englishman Charles Lyell (1797-1875). Cuvier attempted to explain anomalous phenomena in geology and fossil remains by catastrophic causes; Lyell was a gradualist and influenced Darwin. Someone—perhaps it was Velikovsky—suggested that the English embraced gradualism in horror of the French Revolution. And the Anglo-Saxon world dominance that marked the last century explains why we are all gradualists now. All except the donkeys, of course. The truth of the matter might have been expressed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was once handed two speeches on the same subject, one pro and one con. He handed them to another speech writer and suggested that he sort of blend the two into a third. Catastrophism is not incompatible with gradualism. To combine them we might adopt a phrase of Stephen Jay Gould’s and speak of “punctuated equilibrium.”

In its program on the mammoths, Nova duly bowed in the direction of gradualism by producing professors who expressed deep reservations of extinction by cometary bombs descending from the sky. The tone adopted was all too familiar: superior and dismissive, ex cathedra, as it were. This attitude has always struck me as odd and unscientific—and a signal that ideology is present. Even in a modern landscape scoured clean of any hint of God, scientism spontaneously rears back from anything that might even remotely be read as an act of God.

To this I might add a couple of footnotes. I once conceived of a short story the chief merit of which was its punning title: Dis-Aster. Yes. You guessed it. Someone started a huge comet on its way to Earth to make some point or other—embarrass NASA? To let NASA shine in averting the horror and thus gain additional funding? In any case, just two sheets of notes survive. Thus the first footnote ends and the next begins. Its thrust is to suggest that the imagination soars just pondering whole series of ancient civilizations that might once have flourished before current memories even began…of which Göbekli Tepe might be a token remnant. It delights me to see things open up in all dimensions, up, down, and in both vectors of time.

The three books referenced on Amazon:
Worlds in Collision
Ages in Chaos
Earth in Upheaval

Monday, February 22, 2010

Attention Seekers, Value Seekers

I’d like to round out my reactions to the New Age/Paganist convention we attended this past weekend, ConVocation. Convocation is sponsored by The Magical Education Council in Michigan; the 2010 event was the organization’s sixteenth. According to the MEC’s mission statement, “This organization is established for the following purpose: to create community by promoting the sharing of knowledge, experience, and fellowship among people who follow mystical and esoteric traditions.”

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, we’ve recently also attended a science fiction convention called ConFusion just a couple of miles from ConVocation in Detroit’s convention alley, you might say, along I-75 in the metro’s northern suburbs. Structurally the two conventions were very similar, but the interesting contrast for me was a seemingly different internal structure. While attending the last three sci-fi conventions over a period of about six years, it became ever more clear to me that the audiences were shrinking and that at least half of those attending were present (as we were present at the last ConFusion) with the agenda of self-promotion. We were there to sell my novels. This became very obvious in those sessions where I was a panelist and could therefore, from the front table, see the nametags of the audience. Many—and in some panels most—of those attending had panelist ribbons under their nametags. We were addressing insiders who would later address us… Among these some of those simply attending (no ribbon visible) revealed themselves in commentary and questions posed to be would-be artists, writers, or musicians. We were among Attention Seekers. The audience—those seeking values, had greatly diminished.

I must not generalize, of course, but experience is experience. Working our booth in the Vendor room, the same pattern emerged even more sharply. ConFusion is an entertainment venue, but far too few of those who stopped to chat were present for entertainment. They were all selling or promoting something.

Now for the contrast. I mentioned in the last post that ConVocation had a much larger audience; insiders in that audience, however, were the exception. Most of those attending—and eyeballing them they matched ConFusion’s audience in demographic and income characteristics—were present because they sought something of value. A snapshot. I arrived quite early on Friday morning not wishing to miss the single session on publishing. As I entered the lobby and went down the halls to find registration, I saw six different women each sitting on a chair, alone. Each was absorbed in the reading of a book.

This got me thinking in the days that followed. Attention seeking, value seeking. Lots of food for thought there as we look out into the world—especially the cybernetic world of information overload. But the sorting of these thoughts is still in progress.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Interesting Contrasts

We are attending ConVocation, a New Age/Paganist convention just a hop and a skip from the location where we attended ConFusion, the science fiction convention.  We is Dwarf Planet Press. We did not manage to get a vendor spot ahead of time. Had we done so, our tidy, elegant, industrial style booth, used by Editorial Code and Data for a decade at reference publishing conventions (at which we thought we looked  daring) would have looked at ConVocation like a Puritan at a cocktail party. Jewelry, textiles, and magical implements dominated the vendor space, although we glimpsed a book or two for sale at nearly every booth. The contrast between the sci-fi and the pagan event was startling. The differences?
  • Attendance: ConVocation was/is crowded, masses of people.
  • Content: More than a hundred lectures, presentations, and classes—all of them full.
  • Quality: We attended four sessions yesterday, and three of the four were superb.
  • Audience Participation: Much more active and lively. In fairness to ConFusion, the few participants there were as well-informed as at ConVocation.
Our first and challenging session yesterday was a presentation by Llewellyn Worldwide, the leading New Age Publisher. I confesss that I'd never heard of them before. Llewellyn publishes 135 books a year. One of their acquisitions editor and a promotional executive gave a fascinating presentation aimed at new writers, but what we heard and understood from comments on the margins, from anecdotes illustrating good advice, and from the context is how one really goes about promoting books in the modern day. Awesome, brother, awesome. But more later, not least some comments on what the contrast tells me. Must run to attend ConVocation's second day—and this conference is good enough so that we must be there at 9 am sharp!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Reading the Geographic

Keeping Brigitte company at the doctor’s office, I fell to reading what must be a recent copy of the National Geographic. I’ve always been neutral toward this publication and, as in the case of the Readers Digest, I only look at it in circumstances when there is nothing else on offer. The experience thus has a similarity to being thrust into environments I’d just as soon avoid, e.g., airports, truck stops, cocktail parties. But I do learn from the shocks I get at such venues; those are the places where what people call “real life” proceeds. Yesterday I learned of a fundamentalist branch of Mormonism where some men have as many as 80 wives. They get around the law by simply cohabiting with multiple women; and these days who can prosecute anyone for cohabitation? I learned that industrial salmon fisheries in Patagonia are ruining the ocean environments there, some of the last pristine waters on earth. I was reminded of the horse latitudes (Brigitte and I talked about that subject just the other day), thus the New Jersey-sized (or bigger) region in the middle of the ocean where a horrid mass of plastic and textile debris has cumulated. The ocean currents keep it slowly circling. Another article in the Geographic featured poor migratory inhabitants of India. People admire India’s new digital cities and soaring GDP, but India and the rest of the world ignore the slow spreading of alienation, neglect, and beggary. The Geographic tried to console its readers by reprinting some stunning photos taken by the recently fixed 20-year-old Hubble telescope. The photos teach the color of suns: they’re blue and red and orange and seem infinite in number.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Jane Austen, Detective

I must have read the novels of Stephanie Barron not long before I began this blog. Had Ghulf Genes been running at that time, I’m sure I would have noted her name and her delightful novels already. Stephanie Barron is the pseudonym of Francine Matthews, a woman with a fascinating career. She is a scholar (history), a one-time CIA analyst—but above all a very fine novelist. Her Jane Austen books generally follow Jane Austen’s life chronologically; the mysteries take place in the places where Austen lived or vacationed, and its characters include members of her family, people she knew, and, of course, characters invented by Stephanie.

I came across her work in my on-and-off life’s hobby of discovering mystery writers I really like. I approached this series with a great deal of apprehension. I discovered these detective novels while looking deeper into Jane Austen’s life after another period (which also repeats at roughly nine-year intervals) of rereading Austen. “Well,” I thought, “it’s probably a waste, but what the hell. Read one.” I was immediately captured, charmed, indeed surprised—and never regretted setting off on the venture. The list of Stephanie Barron's mysteries, a serious body of work, follows:

1. Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor (1996)
2. Jane and the Man of the Cloth (1997)
3. Jane and the Wandering Eye (1998)
4. Jane and the Genius of the Place (1999)
5. Jane and the Stillroom Maid (2000)
6. Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House (2001)
7. Jane and the Ghosts of Netley (2003)
8. Jane and His Lordship's Legacy (2005)
9. Jane and the Barque of Frailty (2006)
10. Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron (2010)

Why now? I’ve become weary of reading so-called serious books, needed a change of atmospherics, and therefore began another search for yet another mystery author. I think I’ve also succeeded, but I'll write about the new author I stumbled across at some other time. The current search reminded me of the last one.

Francine Matthews, under that, her real, name also writes modern thrillers. I’ve looked at these as well but had the same curious response I’d had to reading Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. That novel is the strangest amalgam of magic and brutality I’ve ever encountered. Two thirds of it takes place in the past and is illuminated by a mysterious spirit. In the last third we are suddenly in modern times, and everything changes with such a gritty brutality that I found it difficult to finish the book. Now, of course, this may have been intended… Years later I chanced across Allende’s The Sum of Our Days: A Memoir. This book has essentially the same content as The House of the Spirits, but, written as a memoir, it is understated and oddly much better structured than the fictional version. A round-about way of saying that the spiritual element is much stronger in Matthews’—as in Allende’s—work when reality is seen at a greater distance and the raw texture of the everyday has been transformed by distance and reflection into meaning.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Another Kind of Climate Change

You have to be old enough, of course—breathing, living in that time—to feel the change viscerally. Not that those times are inaccessible to the younger generation, but there is a difference. I was 14 in 1950 and therefore, obviously, 24 in 1960, 34 in 1970. What loomed huge in the 1950s was Technology as Machine. UNIVAC, the first computer, was born in 1951; it was huge and did almost nothing. This feeling culminated in 1959 when the gigantic machine assaulted heaven and made a giant step, boots on the moon. The transformation of technology has since proceeded toward the ever smaller, so that its latest and almost universally fingered product is held in the hand, and it is now commonplace to thumb-nudge bright little pictures (does it really matter what they show?) left, right, up, and down on a screen no larger than a calculator.

I started consciously noting in the late 1970s that the word “technology” had come more and more to mean the cybernetic. Before that time, invariably, it had meant mechanical, plastic, chemical, and atomic wonders or horrors. There was a time, believe it or not, when Steel, the magazine of the metals industry, had roughly the same aura of prestige as Wired has today. The relentless miniaturization of the new technology has had the curious effect, I would propose, of miniaturizing our scientific imagination too. In the process the genuinely human has been squeezed out. Wandering about, it has gotten lost in a thickening forest of barbarism and of the weird. Hence the interesting changes in science fiction.

The first phase of the cybernetic revolution began with UNIVAC and ended, I would propose, in the early 1970s. The Apple appeared in 1976. The computer developed in the shadow of another dominant technological threat, atomic annihilation. Significant markers of that phase were Herman Kahn thinking the unthinkable. Kahn was an influential military strategist, systems theorist, and founder of the Hudson Institute. His actual title (1962) was Thinking About the Unthinkable—namely about total atomic war—but the phrase was shortened by much use. Two years later came the movie, as it were: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

By the year 1970 two decades of relentless change and endless public dread had reached a tipping point. Two books again marked another transition. It would last another thirty years. That year Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock and Charles A. Reich The Greening of America. One analyzed the all-deforming magic, supposedly, of technology. The other leaped into an imaginary future of ecological nirvana.

This wondrous period, in which we all turned green but nothing actually changed, culminated in two other books, both with oddly ambiguous messages. Francis Fukuyama sensed something. I think he got the details all wrong, but he captured the essence of his time. His book was The End of History. The book appeared in 1992. In 1996 John Horgan wrote The End of Science, Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. Horgan’s book did make some waves, but mostly in the specialized circles interested in science and technology.

The actual future shock, the seal of the old dispensation, came some years after its announcement when on September 11, 2001, airplanes rammed into the two pillars of capitalism and the bastion of military might, the Pentagon. Another, intended to destroy the symbol of democracy, didn’t make it but augured into the ground. Thus we passed through an invisible gate from Modernity into the New Dark Age. (Okay, cut the man some slack. He’s just a science fiction hack.)

Since then? Well, folks, I propose to you yet another wild and wooly fancy that minds like mine will conjure up. It is that we are undergoing a mighty climate change indeed, but it is cultural. But in the manner of humans always, we project it. We project it onto the innocent canvas of nature and think that it’s a physical phenomenon. Lives are short and the processes of history long. Our times will be judged a thousand years from now. By then these words will certainly be lost in the vortex of historical change, but I might just turn out to have been right.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Holiday of Obligation

When my thoughts wander back, as on such a day they ought, to the grand old days in the old country where Brigitte and I both come from, and I look for cherished memories of St. Valentine’s day as we used to celebrate it, I discover—nothing at all. And that’s because Valentine’s day is a holiday of obligation—but of the Church of Commerce, not of the Church of Rome. But the Church of Rome, at least in the institutional persona of the Catholic Encyclopedia, informs me (here) that early lists of martyrs cite at least three Valentines. One was a martyred priest, another a martyred bishop; about the third, who died with others somewhere in Africa, we know nothing at all. The deaths of celibate men by violence seem a poor basis for such a celebration. For this reason the editors go on to discover how this holiday actually arose. I quote:

The popular customs associated with Saint Valentine’s Day undoubtedly had their origin in a conventional belief generally received in England and France during the Middle Ages, that on 14 February, i.e. half way through the second month of the year, the birds began to pair. Thus in Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules we read:

     For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
     Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.

For this reason the day was looked upon as specially consecrated to lovers and as a proper occasion for writing love letters and sending lovers’ tokens. Both the French and English literatures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries contain allusions to the practice.
Now Brigitte was born into a German family but in what is now part of Poland, and after World War II continued to live in Germany—and as I was born in Hungary and in my youth also moved to Germany—we did not encounter this custom. But in the United States, where the St. Valentines, fused into a single image, are unavoidable, our celebration has indeed taken the form of exchanges in writing. That practice, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes with a certain wryness of phrasing, “has of late years fallen into desuetude.”

Saturday, February 13, 2010


An upside-down heart to herald the coming of Valentine's Day.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Stone Motto Addendum

I was delighted to get from Brandon of Siris, as comment to the last post, indications where the wondrous motto quoted yesterday originated—and how it was first transformed by Chaucer and one of his “translators” before it appeared on stone, in a shortened and, as it were, updated version in a garden in Georgetown in Washington, DC.

Brandon informs us that the original concept was framed by Boethius in Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius (480-524) was a high-level imperial civil servant and philosopher. He fell victim to political intrigues while serving Theodoric the Great and was imprisoned. While in prison, he consoled himself with philosophy, and hence we are heir to his thought. He was executed within a year of his arrest.

Brandon identifies the spot in Consolation where the verse I quoted undoubtedly originated, Book I, Meter V. To make this account complete, I thought I’d quote the passage from what is known as King Alfred’s Version of the Consolations of Boethius. A Google Books digitized version is available here. The book was a translation prepared for King Alfred by Walter John Sedgefield and internally dated 1900. Herewith the passage:

THOU Creator of heaven and earth, that rulest on the eternal throne, Thou that makest the heavens to turn in swift course, and the stars to obey Thee, and the sun with his shining beams to quench the darkness of black night, (so too the moon with her pale beam maketh the stars to grow dim in the heaven, and at times robbeth the sun of his light, coming between him and us men; and that bright star too that we call the morning star, and which by its other name we call the evening star), Thou that givest short hours to the days of winter, and longer ones to those of summer, Thou that in autumn with the strong north-east wind spoilest the trees of their leaves, and again in spring givest them fresh ones with the soft south-west winds, lo! all creatures do Thy will, and keep the ordinances of Thy commandments, save man only; he setteth Thee at naught.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Stone Mottos

Two days ago at Costco we noted the rollout (as I think it’s called) of Spring: mounds of earth and gardening kits and bags of fertilizers piled on high. This morning in the hush of silence produced by the snowfall of the past two days thought continues in that same direction, and with a nudge from the fountain inscription found on Siris this morning, I was reminded of our favorite stone inscription. We chanced across it once  in the narrow interior garden of some foundation or museum in Georgetown, Washington, DC a hundred summers ago. We’ve never forgotten it—and have never seen the motto used by anyone anywhere since. It marked a circular plate held aloft by a slender stone column amidst dense greenery, half obscured, and said:
If anyone can identify the author of these words, I would appreciate getting the word.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Decade-Old Trend? Unbelief!

We plan to visit another local convention—by we I mean those of us involved with Dwarf Planet Press—to see what kind of venue it might represent for my novels. This one is called ConVocation 2010, a New Age sort of venue. Even with ample notice, we could not secure a vendor table at this con; every table had already been assigned two months in advance. In perusing the program, I noted that this gathering has a much richer offering of lectures than ConFusion had had in panels.  Even the names signal a certain difference. In any case, this led me to check  the progress of belief in the United States. A reasonably reliable source for data on beliefs is ARIS, the American Religious Identity Survey. The survey is produced by the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Some of the tabulations are available from’s website here.

Interesting trends emerge for the United States. In the period 1990 to 2001, the largest increase by religious affiliation (adults identifying themselves by belief), has been in those who labeled themselves Deists (up 717% in the period). Second were those who labeled themselves Sikhs (up 338%). In third place in this period were those who identified themselves as holding to New Age beliefs (up 240%). These folks are those most likely to visit ConVocation 2010.

These groups are practically invisible; they are less than 1 percent of U.S. adult population. But the trend is fascinating. Between these two years, Deists increased by 43,000, New Agers by 48,000, and Sikhs by 44,000. By contrast, self-defined Agnostics decreased by 195,000 and those professing Judaism by 306,000. These last two are the only categories that showed a numerical loss of adherents. Christianity showed a loss of share in believers in this period, but of that more below. No data on atheists for 1990 were available; they only show up in 2001. All of these comparisons relate to adults. But let’s take the two largest groups. Those who described themselves as Christians increased by 5 percent and 7.8 million; those who described themselves as Nonreligious or Secular increased by 110 percent and 14.4 million.

Another way to look at these data is to ask who has lost or gained in market share—in total share of adherents. Here the biggest loser was Christianity, down in share by 7.5 percent (88.7 in 1990, 81.2% in 2001), followed by Judaism, down 0.4 percent, and Agnosticism, down 0.2 percent. Among the gainers, the largest was Nonbelievers/Secularists, gaining 6.37 in share (7.7 in 1990, 14.1% in 2001). The Nonbelievers’ share would have been even greater if atheists, not broken out in 1990, were added in as nonbelievers in 2001, an additional 902,000 adults. Taken as a whole, the total net gains in “believers” in this period amounted to 10.1 million, the net gain in nonbelievers to 15.1 million. Believers in 1990 accounted for 91.6 percent of the adult population, in 2001 for 85.0 percent. Believers still dominated, but unbelief was the trend—a decade ago. No new surveys appear to have been conducted since.

Numbers to please or to worry just about any reader of this blog? The big pattern is obvious, but tea leaves at the bottom of this or any other survey cup may be read this way or that.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Tea Party in Flatland

The chief marker of a secular era is its worldly and temporal character—this in contrast to a religious era in which the spiritual and eternal aspects of reality are emphasized. Let’s ignore the debate about the claims of either era and proceed. In secular times the spiritual and eternal are simply denied all standing but are tolerated as life-style choices. In religious times the world is still recognized as real, but its importance is minimized. If we express the secular in geometrical terms as a flat surface and the religious as a vertical, it turns out that the religious conception of reality is the more complex of the two. It has a third dimension that the secular times lack. So far, so good. In a flat cosmology time itself is a function of matter with its threefold divisions into past, present, and future.

When troubles erupt in secular ages, two ways of coping with the problem tend always to surface—and only two. Only two because a transcending movement into the vertical, as it were, isn’t thought to be possible. Part of the public embraces the future which, still unknown and not yet realized, may be envisioned to hold the sought-after relief. The others, especially those in a better economic shape—who tend to remember better times—envision the solution to lie in a return to an earlier and happier period. Living memories are short; hence the real past is largely forgotten or only selectively recalled. Thus the past’s as good a canvas on which to paint a golden age as is the future.

Futurism and archaism. These labels were framed by Arnold Toynbee, the cyclic historian. In effect, of course, both are futuristic in the sense that any new order much desired will be achieved, if achieved at all, in the future. The labels therefore refer to strategies. Futurists wish to achieve the new order by ridding themselves of current restraints; archaists hope to bring back into the present what they imagine has been lost.

The French Revolution serves as a classical and large-scale example of a real try at futurism. Its henchmen even changed the names of the months on the calendar. The current Tea Party movement serves as a minor example of an archaist reaction to the initiatives of the Obama administration. That administration is wrongly seen as futurist in its intentions. Alas, it’s merely rational—but unfortunately also inept. Its futurist coloration is a very pale shade of pink and derives from the illusion that change can be made almost entirely by magical PR gestures intended to influence public opinion.

Secularism see-saws this way, back and forth. These dreary rounds remind me of Hell’s fourth circle where, on a flat piece of territory, hoarders and squanderers roll gigantic rocks against each other, crash, separate, and do it all again. Here is the scene in Dante’s words in Dorothy Sayers’ translation (Inferno, Canto VII, 22-36):

         As waves against encountering waves advance
             Above Charybdis, clashing with toppling crest,
             So must the folk here dance and counter-dance.

         More than elsewhere, I saw them thronged and pressed
             This side and that, yelling with all their might,
             And shoving each a great weight with his chest.

         They bump together, and where they bump, wheel right
             Round, and return, trundling their loads again,
             Shouting: “Why chuck away?” “Why grab so tight?”

         Then round the dismal ring they pant and strain
             Back on both sides to where they first began
             Still as they go bawling their rude refrain;

         And when they meet, then each re-treads his span,
             Half round the ring to joust in the other list;
             I felt quite shocked, and like a stricken man.

But you don’t have to go to hell to see it. CNN will bring it to you live.
For more on “Charybdis,” see the previous post.

Scylla and Charybdis

In Greek mythology Odysseus had to make his way between two dangers. Of these Scylla was a rock on which a gigantic monster threatened his ship, on the other was a giant whirlpool called Charybdis. Thus originated the phrase endlessly used in classical literature, and down to our times: Between Scylla and Charybdis. With first Greek and later Latin no longer obligatory in school—studying in Germany, I was still required to take Latin—the mythological images have much less currency. We’re therefore more likely to say: Between the rock and the hard place. An eighteenth century political cartoon, courtesy of Wikipedia here, gives an image of the myth: Britannia between Scylla and Charybdis.

I find myself obliged to quote part of that phrase in the next post, hence I thought I would discover (so easy with the Internet) where moderns think that Scylla is and whether Charybdis is still whirling. The collective wisdom is that the location of Odysseus’ trauma took place in the Strait of Messina, the narrow seaway that separates Sicily from mainland Italy. On the western shore of Italy there, in Calabria, sits a rock and settlement called Scilla.

In the strait itself the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian Seas are mixing their waters, and whirlpools are observed there due to this mixing, but the dangers are not particularly pronounced. The Strait at its narrowest points is nearly two miles wide. The photograph of the Strait, taken from the south, thus Sicily to the left, Italy to the right, doesn’t look particularly dangerous. Not surprisingly, therefore, others have located this dangerous pair elsewhere—or have taken narrower passages in this general region to be the place. But why would Odysseus have deliberately taken narrow little channels when, to right or left, the wider sea gave him much opportunity to avoid both rock-bound monsters and horrid vortices? The photo credit for the Strait of Messina goes to someone called Ivan at this Internet location.

View Larger Map

I conclude by presenting a Google terrain map of the Strait of Messina. Scilla itself is not quite visible (my bad, as they say) but may be drawn into visibily using the “hand.”

Monday, February 8, 2010

Deepest Commiserations

We extend our deepest commiserations to Mary Campbell-Droze. Her years-long dedication to her cause, expressed in words humble, strident, and flaring high into the sublime sky of poetry (and what could be higher than a Beagle Haiku) has been temporarily crushed by events when saints came marching in. Alas, even scorched earth eventually recovers, turns green, and may support young colts under a new-formed sun.

Aspects of Alienation

The word itself, alienation, has a rich flavor, when you think about it. Its Latin root is alius, “the other,” the word itself means “belonging to another” and is therefore linked to property. The third meaning, estrangement, thus an attitude toward the strange or the foreign, seems to have arisen as an extension of the basic concept hidden in that dread word—the other. So here we have a word that simultaneously constellates property relationships (the alienation, thus the transfer to another, of a piece of property); the alien, the stranger; and the alienist, thus the shrink, the person assigned to deal with the insane. Wonderfully rich word, perfect for the sociologist.

Estrangement, based on “stranger,” comes ultimately, by way of Old French (estrange), from the Latin extraneus. That last word is basic. It means “born outside,” thus beyond our borders. Foreign, also from OF, is based on late Latin foranus meaning “on the outside.” There it is again: other, outside, beyond the border. Functionally these are all concepts suggesting a distance in space. What isn’t right around us, that which we don’t see every day—that is the strange, the foreign, the other, the unknown, the alien—the threatening.

Now it strikes me as interesting that the meaning we now attach to alienation has nothing to do with visiting or invading strangers. The modern meaning suggests a kind of internal estrangement. Here we are, living our lives, getting along, more or less agreeing with all that goes on around us. But we now notice that in a kind of stealthy way now this changes and now that. A kind of strangeness has begun to spread. And nodes of strangeness are connecting, linking. They’re forming, it seems (although it’s hard to see it clearly), a veritable network of the “other.” This particular species of strangeness is familiar, however—because it’s all around us and we see it every day. Its alien nature derives from something other than distance. It is a deformation, you might say, of the vertical dimension, the dimension of values.

When a foreign culture invades our own, it is segregated spatially. Those who come cluster together for protection, and the natives avoid them for similar reasons. Brigitte and I saw this process most strikingly years ago once on a trip to Germany. We hadn’t been back for a decade or more. A huge emigration from Turkey, to support the Wirtschaftswunder, so-called, had resulted in the formation of Turkish-only neighborhoods. On one of our trips we suddenly left Germany as we knew it by crossing an intersection and were smack in the center of a middle-eastern world. We recognized it, too, but from television coverage of that particular part of the world. Spatial separation.

But when the world morphs into an alien shape, when familiar institutions—while retaining all their outward forms—internally change into something recognizably alien—when that is our experience, the feeling is, well, alienation of the vertical sort. It is inescapable especially when the numbers begin to shift and we find ourselves in the ever-shrinking minority. With that process accelerating, one experiences a strange isolation from the society-at-large. And the sharper our own sense of values, the more keenly felt. Does this portend that, sooner or later, a vertical alienation also transforms into a spatial kind—with minorities aggregating into separate communities in physical space? Too bad that even in light of today’s extended life-expectancy, I’m not likely to live long enough to see the outcome of a process I feel taking place all around me.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Not Another Anniversary, Surely?

Afraid so. Ghulf Genes turns one year old today. We had a lot of laughs preparing the celebratory cake. It was intended to look quite different, but in one of those series of events that happen even to seasoned bakers, the thing just would not hold still, and the fixes wouldn’t stay fixed...which somewhat reminded me of the object of the celebration.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Bump in the Night

An awesome windstorm rose during the night and filled the sky with an enduring, booming sound. Something woke me at three in the morning—that wind, perhaps, or a bump in the night. A little later I heard a dull clatter. In search of it I discovered our plastic trashcan blown into the street and making orgiastic circles lying on its belly. I set things right and then went back to bed; but this activity had awakened me enough so that for a while I was playing word games in my head; bump in the night; that sort of thing. Eventually the whole verse came back:

         From ghoulies and ghosties
         And long-leggedy beasties
         And things that go bump in the night,
         Good Lord, deliver us!

The verse next reminded me of something I'd read recently, namely that this seemingly amusing chant had once been part of an Anglican litany. Trying to remember where I’d seen that, I drifted back off to sleep. This morning a great high pressure system had replaced the wind and brought searing cold and a bright sun. I got up to discover the origins of this verse if I could.

The first mentions Google brought asserted that this was an old Scottish ditty. Next I found confirmation that it might have been a litany. Last I came across a book by Don E. Post entitled, yes, Ghosties and Ghoulies and Long-Legged Beasties and Things that Go Bump in the Night. The book is subtitled Christian Basics for the Twenty-First Century. To an eye like mine the title and subtitle taken together—and with the Ph.D. following the author’s name on the cover—did not promise enlightenment. I couldn’t be sure, but this sort of pattern suggests a work intended to “update” and to “modernize” Christianity to make it if not hip at least respectable. I proceeded to look at the front-matter and there found, on page ix, a section called About the Title. It says in whole:

An Early Cornish Litany
         Laity: O Lord, deliver us from Ghosties and Ghoulies and long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night.
         Clergy: O Lord, deliver us.
Lest one think I am trying to be funny, this phrase was reportedly part of a 14th or 15th Century Protestant litany, probably Cornish, although sources within the Anglican Church have not been able to locate the total litany. This may seem humorous now, but it represents a world filled with scary creatures. Unfortunately, that eerie world still exists for too many. This superstitious world view hang-over is a good example of what social scientists call cultural lag.
Very well. The commentary seemed to confirm my interpretation of the book's general pattern. Just yesterday elsewhere, commenting on the phrase “moving on,” I mentioned the cult of progress. In this commentary I saw another instance of it. But having gotten this far, I thought it was time to put the kettle on. And while the kettle made its seething sounds, a kind of miniature windstorm, I was pondering the direction in which our time is really trending. Lines formed in my head more or less spontaneously in my honest effort, I think, rapidly to close that cultural lag and to bring us now up to full speed:

          From profs and from pollsters
          And men with huge holsters
          And drones that drop bombs in the night,
          Good Lord, deliver us!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Statistical Fronts

Ah for the halcyon days [see below] when we could track on maps the progress of our victorious armies advancing on foreign soil to their inevitable victory at last. In these latter days we’ve substituted statistical fronts for lines that mark territorial gains. The earliest signs of the new definition began to appear during the Vietnam war. In that time we started hearing about body counts, and the bad news could also be recorded by counting body bags shipped overseas empty and returned to these shores filled. The perfection of this new front began in earnest in Iraq and continues now in Afghanistan. And all this, of course, is the welcome sign of our growing sophistication in every possible category of the meaningful, not least in armed conflict. With unmanned (or should I, with more sophistication, call it unpresonned) drones we have now achieved some likeness to Zeus who, sending dread bolts from on high can kill with zigzagging laser beams at random. This means that we can be anywhere and nowhere—much as our mythical opponent who is both alive and dead, invisible but sometimes heard, and whose voice we analyze deploying fervent and pious hermeneutics by using ultra-modern sound equipment. In this sort of environment, actual territorial gains, dated concepts like pacification and control, and obsolete notions like victory are inappropriate. Instead we use the probabilistic approaches offered to us by higher math to calculate on computers whether or not we’re succeeding or just approaching success. Failure is also a non-starter, and even if we do approach suboptimal outcomes, we have a more sophisticated language to describe it. This came to mind as my eyes encountered the following headline in the New York Times this morning: TOP U.S. COMMANDER SEES PROGRESS IN AFGHANISTAN. I wondered what General McChrystal could possibly be seeing. Then it dawned on me. Numbers and graphs. Yes. Numbers and graphs.

Halcyon Days?

Phrases like that spring to the half-asleep mind all too easily—but this morning, as I began the post that follows (the one that is, alas, above), something stirred, namely the eerie feeling that I hadn’t the slightest idea what the word halcyon actually meant. Etymonline to the rescue. Wonder of wonders. The word refers to a bird of all things, evidently a mythical bird, but one identified with the kingfisher. The word derives from Greek for hals meaning sea or salt and kyon, conceiving, therefore swelling, thus the swell of a sea wave. The mythological rootings are Halcyone (or Alcyone), daughter of Aeolus, the god of the winds. When her husband, Ceyx, king of Thessaly, drowns in the process of consulting the I Ching (so to say—actually he sails off to consult an oracle), Halcyone throws herself into the sea and becomes a kingfisher (and quite a beauty she is, too) or (in another version of the myth) Morpheus turns both her and the corpse of her husband, washed ashore, into kingfishers. In any case, there is supposed to be a two-week period of calm weather at the winter solstice, the time when the halcyon breeds in the calm seas. And that brief period, my friends, is what came to be known as the halcyon days. A brief duration of calm—not the happy days of the past as I ignorantly assumed. The picture is from Wikipedia here.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Wondering About Rails

We watched The Railway Children last night, a Masterpiece Theatre production that originally aired in November 2000. We got our copy from Netflix. In the introduction to this rather charming story, Russell Baker, the columnist, who was for some time the host of Masterpiece Theater, sketched the history of rail. His account touched upon the so-called robber barons who caused the railroads to span the American continent—and in the process remembered the neglect of safety, the exploitation of labor, and the other wondrous concomitants that seemingly always accompany the tale of industrial development. This made me wonder. Had the development of railways in Continental Europe followed a different course? I say continental Europe because, it seems to me that England not only experienced but led what I think of as the dark kind of industrialization. I always think of satanic mills and Dickens’ London. Europe adopted these ways later. And, it seems, in continental Europe, much more centralized forms of government muted the brutalities of development, not least in the development of rails. The exception was Russia, where industrialization under communism managed to be as soul-less an enterprise as under the sway of capital. Rails absolutely dominated consciousness in Europe in my childhood. But neither then, nor later, did I ever hear either sagas of triumphant successes or tales of brutality as fixed in collective memory. Maybe we were simply sheltered from the truth… In any case, I’m disinclined to trade the boredom of backwardness for the excitements of constant innovation and limitless “enterprise.”

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Humbly and with gratitude, we mark the day.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Tongue Twisters

The lazy post this morning on Dwarf Planet Press on the occasion of Groundhog Day suggested to me that the Editors there might have at minimum identified this animal by its Latin name, particularly for those of us from Europe who did not encounter this animal in the normal course of life, even of rural life. The creature is Marmota monax, familiarly the woodchuck, a member of the rodent family. And woodchuck then reminded me of the following, which DPP should also have featured:
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck
     if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could
     if a woodchuck could chuck wood!
That in turn reminded me of one of the best-known tongue twisters in Hungarian. Hungarians are such a tiny minority here, and most certainly discriminated against (I experience it daily, even at home from my wife of the more populous German extraction) therefore I present the following without apologies, indeed with attitude:

Az ibafai papnak fapipája van,
Ezért az ibafai papi pipa papi fapipa.
Which witty tongue twister means: The priest from Ibafa has a wooden pipe. Therefore the priestly pipe of Ibafa is a wooden priestly pipe. (Not a mean translator, either, your blogger).

In acknowledgement of the French branch of Ghulfdom, I herewith go on to present the following. French-persons will naturally note that a French tongue twister must transcend the genre by also being full of puns:

Mon père est maire, mon frère est masseur.
Academics would leave that one alone by way of saying: “If you can’t understand that without me, you are ignorant indeed,” but here we follow a more generous policy. “My father is mayor, my brother is a masseur.” But if you ignore the spelling, “mayor” sounds out as “mother” and “masseur” as “my sister,” hence "My father is my mother, my brother my sister."

With a nod to Quito, Ecuador—where, as all the world knows, the Ghulfs shall establish their famed family seat in the 2250s—here one in the Spanish language:

¿Usted no nada nada?
No, no traje traje.
The meaning is “You don’t swim at all?” Answer: “No, I didn't bring a suit.” This exchange exploits the homonymous character of “nothing” and “swim” and “brought” and “suit.” The doubling of words adds a quality, especially in that “No, no” violates the seeming rule.

Finally, here is one in German:

This twister additionally exploits what all linguists know, namely that in German you can make nouns by simply compressing a whole lot of other nouns. The meaning: Assassination of the aunt of a Hottentot potentate.
Some of these twisters courtesy of 1st International Collection of Tongue Twisters at

Monday, February 1, 2010

Happy Birthday, Brigitte!

… he said very quietly—because the BIG BLOG celebration is actually taking place on Pontoon Pirates, and you can take part in it here. Yes. We’ve conquered distance, and it is possible to be in Detroit but to celebrate in Paris. We’ve also conquered time, so that we celebrated here yesterday but in Royal Oak—appropriately named, that place, to mark another anniversary in the life of the Queen of Ghulfdom.