Thursday, June 30, 2011

Geologic Ages: Some Footnotes

The oldest blogger on the web, more or less, except perhaps for Jerry Pournelle, is Brandon Watson on Siris—and here’s a post from Brandon to prove it. In that most informative note Brandon makes use of geologic ages to communicate just exactly how old a blogger he really is—but being a great teacher, he is actually pulling a fast one. Most of us have no idea that we are denizens of the Holocene, the most recent segment of the Quaternary—or, like me, knew once but had forgotten long ago. Brandon secretly hopes that we shall “look it up.” But the effort may be too great for some. Therefore, to help those struggling with Brandon’s post (Cenozoic? Mesozoic?) I present three graphics from ever-helpful Wikipedia here:

The first presents all geologic time. The second shows the last block of the first expanded to show more detail. The third shows the last block of the second, ditto. You will find Brandon in the second graphic, on the right, right on that line that separates the Cretaceuous from the Paleogene. Jerry Pournelle? He is left of the Cretaceous.

Blogging is a great educator if you have a guide like Brandon and able assistants like yours truly—albeit in actual physical age, I am an Upper Tarantian to Brandon’s Holocene.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Video in Question

Let us consider a video game and describe it in the ponderous language of law. Consider a game—

“in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being, if those acts are depicted” in a manner that “[a] reasonable person, considering the game as a whole, would find appeals to a deviant or morbid interest of minors,” that is “patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community as to what is suitable for minors,” and that “causes the game, as a whole, to lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”
     [Text from the California Assembly Bill 1179, quoted in the recently decided Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association et al. reachable here.]
California has prohibited sale of such games to minors. The Supreme Court has just held that such a prohibition is a violation of the First Amendment. The only pertinent words in that amendment are: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Since that amendment’s enactment, we’ve discovered that everything is speech, including expenditure of money. Haven’t we? No. Not quite. The Supreme Court holds that—

There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.
     [Text of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942). The emphasis is mine.]
Chaplinsky, indeed, upheld the fighting words aspect of this “dispensation.” In Brown v. Entertainment Merchants, the Supreme Court cites Chaplinsky as well as Roth v. United States (1954) in which obscenity is defined as material whose “dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest” to the “average person, applying contemporary community standards.” It’s okay to prohibit obscenity as well, evidently, for the same reasons I’ve italicized in the quote above. The Court also cites Brandenburg v. Ohio (1959) in which the court defined incitement that may be prohibited in these words:

… the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.
     [Brandenburg v. Ohio, emphasis mine.]
Now it strikes me that emphasized phrases in all of the above might very easily be applied to video games of the sort defined by the State of California. They are (1) certainly not any exposition of ideas, (2) steps to truth, and (3) certainly operate against social interest in order and morality. Or is it a good thing to let teenaged boys experience, even if only virtually, torturing and raping people? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. No need to enlighten me.

Get Rid of the Black Navbar Google

The navigation bar on Google’s search engine has now been changed—and if it offends you, you can’t get rid of it if you use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Users of Firefox, Chrome, and Opera can use a work-around, but it is—a work-around.

This reminds me of New Coke. Eventually all of us who promptly switched to drinking Pepsi, Royal Crown, and other soft drinks made Coca Cola see the light, and New Coke bubbled away. I hope the same thing happens to Google’s black navbar—hard to read and a disfigurement, like a huge and ugly wart on a likeable face.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Crows are Back

In October 1999 the USGS Wildlife Health Center issued a health alert to notify natural resource agencies “of the emergence of the West Nile virus in both free ranging and captive birds in the New York City area.” West Nile virus is transmitted by mosquitoes and affects some eighteen species of birds, most notably American crows, but blue jays, mallards, and several kinds of hawks were also affected if in low numbers (link). The experts did not know whether the virus would spread but thought not—because crows are not migratory birds.

Migratory or not, the disease arrived in our area by the fall of 2001. The Associated Press announced the fact in an August 29 story titled “Detroit Crows Have West Nile Virus,” citing the Michigan Department of Community Health, Lansing. Down on the ground, we noticed a sharp drop in numbers about six years ago—and later crows just about disappeared. I mentioned that in a tribute to crows and their kin on this blog last year here.

Well! Late this Spring Brigitte comes in from outside and says, full of wonder and a hint of pleasure. “I think I heard some crows. I may have even seen one.” — And, yes! They’re back. I’ve since both heard and seen them, in good numbers, flying and settling, wonderful, sleek black forms, sharp, unsettling sounds—that strike our ears quite pleasantly now.

This brings to mind an old poem about crows. Here the first verse of it:

Two old crows sat on a fence rail.
Two old crows sat on a fence rail,
Thinking of effect and cause,
Of weeds and flowers,
And nature’s laws.
One of them muttered, one of them stuttered,
One of them stuttered, one of them muttered.
Each of them thought far more than he uttered.
One crow asked the other crow a riddle.
One crow asked the other crow a riddle:
The muttering crow
Asked the stuttering crow,
“Why does a bee have a sword to his fiddle?
Why does a bee have a sword to his fiddle?”
“Bee-cause,” said the other crow,
B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B B-cause.”
     [From Two Old Crows by Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931)]
The verse, of course, needs modernizing. Around here, anyway, it should be titled “Two Young Crows.”

Monday, June 27, 2011

Not Last Year’s June

It startled me to realize that it’s already the 27th of the month. This isn’t simply a consequence of another well-known phenomenon—but one that Einstein, despite his love of relativity, entirely overlooked in his equations—namely that as you age the flow of time speeds up. No. My surprise now came because the real June is still, oddly, ahead. What we had this month was a late, weary, and bedraggled May. Just to make sure, I stepped back into 2010, at least as noted on this blog. Sure enough, in midmonth last year I noted flowers beginning to fade—the same ones just now beginning to emerge! Everything’s late. By now the rainy season should be over—but isn’t. The fish fly season started weeks late—and the numbers are drastically down. Nature is adaptive and takes all this in stride, but if the fish flies are an indication, populations pay or garner the price for all those up, down swings.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Un Départ by Invitation

Train Ride to Detroit
by Michelle Darnay

«Le trafic sur la ligne B est fortement perturbé.
Traffic on the B line is highly unpredictable.
El trafico en la liña B esta muy perturbado. »

People worry. People read. People type.
People sit, ears sprouting wire, white and black,
Ears hidden beneath mushroom-shaped growths.
People sleep, heads resting on 
Glass leaving greasy spots.
Men in white shirts knot ties,
Wipe pant legs, shine shoes,
Preparing for service.

Train jiggles, jostles, rushes.
Black clouds lean across grey skies
Yet willow fronds hang still;
Sparse yellow flowers push up between
Rock and rail;
Lush ivy drapes thickly over
Concrete walls, broken buildings;
Lively graffiti peeks through
Green masses, dazzles on
Heavy highway pillars.

Hearts race, too fast,
Caffeine driven, stress stimulated;
Breath comes short, chests rise and fall,
Fall and rise, too quickly;
A feeling of pressure between
Ribs, lungs never fully, fully full.
Eyes search for beauty.
Out the window, cars inch in lines between
High, high trucks.

«Ce train a pour terminus l’aéroport Charles de Gaulle.
The terminus of this train is Charles de Gaulle airport.
El final del tren esta el aéropuetro Charles de Gaulle.»

Train flies and stops, flies and stops.
In a tunnel, blackness flashes,
Electric light is then isn’t rhythmically,
Pure sound howls then whistles as
Train exits tunnel.

Eyes find beauty,
Nose finds pleasure :
African women wrap chubby babies
On to backs with
Cloth of exuberant shades;
Butterfly head-dresses stand alert,
One round, black shoulder bared,
Panther-soft skin visible,
Exotic perfume spices the air.
With bags and babies ready, they alight.

«Je ne parlerai à personne là-bas, pendant les deux mois !
I won’t speak to anyone for two months straight!»

Daughter vomits. Daughter drinks,
Pees, whines, smiles, hugs,
Zigzags away toward
Bluer landscapes.
Waves once more,
Eyes bright over
Narrowed shoulders, hair shiny,
My tall, tall, little girl off
To Detroit.

A Certain Weakness…

A certain weakness in democracy is that, functionally, the only real qualification of an elected official is the ability to persuade a majority of ordinary people to vote for him or her. Popularity, one might say, is thus a constant (as in a mathematical context); it was thus in the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth, and still is in the twenty-first century. But effective rule then becomes the function of at least two variables that can and do change over time. One of these is the size of the electorate that votes for any one representative. The other is the quality of the electors measured in education, wisdom, and sense of responsibility.

When the number of electors is relatively small, the candidates are better known; as that number increases, the electors’ knowledge of the individual thins out and therefore becomes more and more abstract. The costs of learning about the candidate mount—for the individual voter; knowledge certainly requires, minimally, expenditure of much more time. More and more mechanical means of communications (beyond personal contact and word-of-mouth reputation) must be used; money becomes ever more necessary to use the new means. Natural candidates—who emerge quite, ah, naturally in day-to-day contacts (and this still happens at the village level)—may not even come close to running. Huge competitions precede even the first stage, that of achieving the status of candidacy!

The quality of the electorate changes as the franchise is granted to people of ever less “natural” (that word again) qualification. The minimum is that of a householder, male or female, to be sure. To this one might add—of a certain age. In our history the age qualification was moved downward; it should have been moved up. Property qualifications have been removed—whereas they should have been retained but modernized: must pay a mortgage or pay rent. The combination of extending the franchise to anyone—and removing the candidate from direct contact with the public by increasing size, produces a new kind of representative who, quite evidently, is no longer capable of effective rule.

This came to mind today when Brigitte read me an editorial in New York Times titled “Dangerous Imports,” reporting on Congressional efforts to cut the FDA’s budget—despite the fact that two-thirds of fruits and vegetables, 80 percent of seafood, half of the medical devices, and 80 percent of active ingredients in medications are imported. We have, alas, far too many legislators who believe that regulation (not least of food safety) is some kind of arbitrary malevolence directed by the Left against the corporate sector—rather than a by now traditional process of protecting public health.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Empires of Empiricism

I got to thinking about the meaning of empirical in the context of contemplating the paranormal, more specifically the subject of precognitive dreams. The word is very closely linked to science in such combinations as “empirical method” and “empirical research.” Now it turns out that the word itself derives from the Greek empeiria, meaning experience. Curious, therefore, that the paranormal falls beyond the pale of modern science—considering that such study is entirely and solely dependent on the examination of experience, accessible only, therefore, to empirical investigation.

The reasons for this stand-off are traceable to the drift in the meaning of the word as well as its deeper roots. Empeiria itself derives from the Greek word meaning skilled, which derives from the words en and peira, thus in and trial or experiment. From Greek the word emigrated to Latin as empiricus, meaning a physician who worked from experience—as opposed to a physician who worked from philosophical principles such as a dogmatic, theoretical knowledge that the imbalance of humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) were entirely responsible for disease.

Thus empirical first served to separate the skilled artisan from the thinker, then the skilled professional from the philosopher. The trial-and-error in that root (applied with an open mind of course) became foundational for science—despite the fact that some sciences don’t permit trial and error (e.g., astronomy, geology). In modern times the qualitative approach to using observation yielded to the dominance of the quantitative approach. (The greedy manufacturers of instruments got the upper hand and caused all this—as arms manufacturers cause war.) And therefore the empirical approach, if deprived of trial-and-error, replication, and precise measurement, is no longer an acceptable avenue to the gathering of insight into the darkest shadows of reality.

I hope this exposition is a helpful nudge back to a more comprehensive approach to genuine science. But now you wonder about empire, don’t you. Is that connected here somewhere, or was I once more yielding to linguistic urges in framing the title of this post? The latter. Empire comes from the Latin imperium, meaning rule or command. Its root is once more im-, meaning in, and parare, to order.

The above composed by a financial contributor to Online Etymology Dictionary.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

More Notes on Collectives

I noted the other day: “Human collectives behave quite unlike rational individuals.” This, for me, is perhaps the most valuable lesson of history. If the lesson is not internalized, temptations arise to make mistakes in other realms of reality. One is the belief that inorganic matter can yield life or that collectives of conscious beings are in some way superior to individuals.

I think it is wise to view public events as if they were natural events, thus to ignore the fact that rational individuals make decisions and thus shape history. Those are invariably collective decisions, thus a fusion of contradictions. The individuals who make them almost never have adequate knowledge to foresee or the power to shape the outcomes, and the greater the scope of the events, thus the more “collective” they are, the less predictable.

Here Secretary Gates’ muted remark the other day about the differences between wars of necessity and wars of choice is a good illustration. Wars of necessity may be defined as wars imposed on us as organized, large-scale physical attacks on our territories intended minimally to seize them, maximally to take control of the entire collective that we represent. If the aggressor is not a state, with a definable territory of its own, going to war makes no sense. After the 9/11 attacks, a full-scale war on Afghanistan was an overreaction. Afghanistan was the hiding place of a terrorist group—not the attacker. And once the Taliban government had been replaced by another, that over-reaction should have ended—in 2004. Indeed Al Qaida had intended neither to seize our territory nor to replace our government when it destroyed the towers and damaged the Pentagon. The War on Terror that mushroomed out of this was thus irrational, a natural event, in other words—although its raw materials were the collective emotions of a public that, at election time, might have displaced the Bush administration if that administration had merely reacted to 9/11 as it should have—by narrowly-shaped raids on Al Qaida’s camp. It was precisely such raids that President Clinton had staged in 1998, using cruise missiles, when he retaliated for embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

Writing this, and remembering Clinton’s limited actions, it occurs to me that irrationality in public life is not necessary. Not necessary but certainly likely—and likely roughly in proportion to the emotional turmoil an event produces in the public as a whole. Now, let us note, irrational impulses in the public can be exploited or tamped down by the administration in power. And the temptation to exploit them will in some way be stimulated by the needs and ambitions of those in power.

Once irrationality takes over—once the horse has the bit in its teeth—it is difficult to bring it under control again. In an open society, rational reasons must be trotted out to explain and justify actions that were, on second thought, altogether wrong. The new product, the new narrative, will then be, again, an incoherent fusion of contradictions, producing yet other irrational decisions.

Yesterday’s presidential announcement to the effect that we’ve now pretty much accomplished our goals in Afghanistan is a consequence of an irrational process, introducing further irrationalities. In wars of necessity, things are simple. In World War II Germany invaded France; Germany had to be pushed out of France. The “goal” was simple, measurable. The German government had to be removed. It was removed. No ambiguities. What our “goals” in Afghanistan might be is as much of a mystery as the location of the territorial lines of “Terror,” whatever terror is. It has no place, it has no organization, no reality, as such—no tangible, visible reality at a scale any great Collective can see. Sad business, listening to the President. He too is reacting to collective emotion; this time the collective emotion is disgust with war. And so he is cooking up a brew of contradictory confusions. He means well. He is a rational being—caught in a kind of storm produced decades ago, because the TV screens in 2001 brought us clouds of smoke surrounding two towers in New York. We barely noted the deaths of 224 people in the embassy bombings of 1998; and only 12 of them had been Americans…

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wal-Mart, the Movie

On LaMarotte this morning I present some sober thoughts on the recently decided discrimination case against Wal-Mart. Writing that post my irreverent impulses produced the outlines of a plot, science fiction, to be sure (the science here being Economics): Wal-Mart, the Movie. What I had in mind was something along the lines of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—and this being SF, why couldn’t time-travelling James Stewart arrive in 2011 for a guest appearance in our time in Wal-Mart, the Movie? Innocent but big-hearted Jimmy, a stock-clerk at Wal-Mart, starts the huge ball rolling when he listens to Wolf Blitzer on CNN announcing the Supreme Court’s decision on Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes et al. He starts organizing, first his mother, then his sisters. From tiny beginnings outward spreads the greatest ever boycott of Wal-Mart. First a few women, at one store, Jimmy Stewart’s own, then many but still not all, refuse to buy anything at all, at every Wal-Mart. There are hold-outs, but eventually, around every Wal-Mart in America, masses of women—and a few sensitive men, as well, of course—surround the stores. At the same time—a few, then all, women who work for Wal-Mart quit—one of them being an extremely fetching VP of Finance at the very store where Jimmy works—a woman whom the stock clerk secretly loves (established early in the movie, while Jimmy still struggles against doubts, fearing to lose his job). Fetching VP joins the protest. She gives it her all, working with Jimmy little shoulder to his big, in events that reach from small to national heights. And in the end of course, when Wal-Mart stores are everywhere empty, indeed being attacked with sledge hammers and front-end loaders by suddenly muscular but still sensitive males in hard hats, the blessed denouement arrives, and ex-VP of Finance is in the arms of ex-stock clerk of Wal-Mart, stream of tears running down their faces as they breathlessly kiss each other while the crowd—it’s all of us, folks, all of America—give a mighty cheer.

And after watching that movie, we all feel much better about things. As we did back in 1939 as well when Jimmy first, as Mr. Smith, did his number on us.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

No More Newspeak at the Reservation's Gates

For a free country where we permit all sorts of vile things in the name of Free Speech, we’re peculiarly welded to an Orwellian tradition. The shortest description of it is “staying on message,” meaning to mouth (indeed to think) the Administration’s current policy—if the Administration pays our salary. Another is the phrase I first heard during the Nixon era from the lips of John Ehrlichman—who had been told to tell John Dean, Nixon’s lawyer, to “stay on the reservation.” If you don’t talk the talk, the Thought Police will come and make you issue corrective statements to the effect that you misspoke, and when you said that War opposes Peace, you really meant that War was Peace.

When prominent, disciplined, loyal servants of the people—or is it of Administrations?—at last retire, Newspeak drops away and startling phrases in plain English issue from their mouths. Thus we hear Robert Gates, approaching the gates of the reservation now, making the statement:

If we were about to be attacked or had been attacked or something happened that threatened a vital U.S. national interest, I would be the first in line to say, ‘Let’s go.’ I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice. [Quoted in the New York Times today, emphasis added.]
That distinction—wars of necessity, wars of choice—should have been made loudly and clearly by audible, credible, visible leaders of a certain gravitas years and years ago. But we hear it, always, only ever in the twilight of retrospect.

It’s a dilemma. Cabinet secretaries are chosen by the President but are confirmed by the Senate. That confirmation gives them a certain independent stature. But no. They are required to adopt the message and to stay on the reservation lest strange tensions arise in the public’s mind. Who’s really in charge around here? The same dilemma arises, to be sure, when Mom and Dad disagree but keep their mouths shut in the children’s presence. And when they don’t...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Montaigne and Moctezuma

It occurred to me by some untraceable set of associations that the erudite, reasonable, Michael Montaigne, a man who influenced such figures as Descartes on the one hand and Isaac Asimov on the other, coincided on the map of time with the Aztec Empire more or less—roughly as my life coincided with that of Victorian England: as one disappeared the other began. In 1519, fourteen years before Montaigne saw sunlight, Hernándo Cortés arrived at the gates of Tenochtitlan; a year later, with his allies, the Tlaxcala Confederacy, he conquered the city. Twenty-five years later, when Montaigne was twelve (1545), the second wave of smallpox began the process of destroying the Aztec population in earnest. Such are the gifts of higher civilization to the lower as they roll benevolently across the world. The Aztecs are remembered chiefly for emperor Moctezuma and practicing human sacrifice—the Spanish for “discovering America,” the Inquisition, and that famous Spanish fly. Fate’s whip bestows its cruel blows on collective reputations without mercy, as it were. The destruction of enemy armies by ritual methods, as the Aztecs practiced it, is shameful; we assign the functionally identical activity, when it takes place as collateral damage, to the fog of war and glitches in technology.  

Friday, June 17, 2011

Honor, Capitalism

Asked to provide an antonym to the word capitalism, most web dictionaries return communism. Some instead suggest socialism; they don’t mention communism, probably because their editors think that communism is now dead as the Dodo. The word’s origins go back to (where else) late Latin, capitale, meaning property, from which we get such interesting secondary meanings as chattel and cattle. That capitale goes back to Latin caput, head. Do I infer correctly that it was the head man who had property, possessions…hence the word’s extensions? Caput is good. Reminds me of the German kaputt, meaning worn out, dead, and the phrase that goes with it: Alles ist kaputt! But (too bad) that word derives from a French card game, capot, meaning a bonnet.

Now with a word having deep roots like that, the tendency is to say that capitalism goes way back. But in the sense in which we use the word, it really harks back to Marx’s Das Kapital, thus the nineteenth century—and indeed Marx’s success in seeding communism, hence the antonym. The fervent embrace of capitalism by a subset of Americans must have its roots in this modern ideological form of it, arising from the blessed Now, Today—thus signifying a kind of loss of tradition, historical sense, a lack of depth, indeed a lack of thought.

Cartoonists retain the distinctions. Capitalists are always pictured as extraordinarily fat, oppressive, and wearing tall hats. The blessed chattel-cattle are drawn as emaciated, thin, threadbare and groaning under enormous burdens.

George Orwell, to whom we owe so many things, failed us in one regard. He gave us Ignorance is Strength, Freedom is Slavery, War is Peace—but he failed to mention Capitalism is Honor. It was in the post-1984 period that we’ve had to invent the phrase and introduce it, and try to teach it to the chattel in popular cable talk intended to suggest that if you work for capital, subject to release at any time, you are a capitalist.

Interesting contrast there. Honor and Capitalism. I suggest it to the thoughtful as a subject of meditation on those long, boring commutes. The modern mind (my impression) feels a kind of mild but sad nostalgia when contemplating Honor—as something that harks back to childhood, the olden days, the days that (really) never actually held sway. Capitalism (my impression once again) has a not quite pleasant taste but signals power, smarts, sophistication, and a kind of realistic indifference to anything but self—but, Facebook Friend, it has a kind of scientific magic, doesn’t it? That very sophistication, that realism, that hard-nosed drive, baby, that’s what magically transmutes—doesn’t it?—into the American Dream?

The truth is (my conviction) that in a genuinely healthy society, one that must confront reality—and the time for that is now approaching—honor will turn out to be the actual antonym to capitalism. It means, at minimum, returning to comprehensive human values: cultivating character, loving our neighbors not keeping up with them, doing unto others as we would be done by, honoring our parents rather than fawning before the powerful, the celebrated, honest dealings, defense of our shores not of “interests,” firm handshakes, straight talk, aiding the weak, visiting the sick, and building foundations before raising structures—never mind Towers of Babel.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Accidental Useful News

This morning’s New York Times brought a story people like me value. The essence of it is in this sentence: “The Pakistani Army is essentially run by consensus among 11 top commanders, known as the Corps Commanders.” The story deals with unrest in the Pakistani military, evidently an up-welling of lower ranks of the officer corps. The army’s leadership is unhappy about General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the top general for, let us say, cooperating a bit too much with the United States. Memories of Pervez Musharraf surface (r. 2001-2008)—one of the more able top generals, who got in trouble too. Problems, problems. On the one hand lavish military support from America. And then you have to regurgitate the price. I know exactly how the colonel-and-lower officer corps feels. Compromised. The lower in rank you are, the closer to the actually human.

I call this accidental news because we rely on small-readership magazines for genuine insights into the structural arrangements underlying all of the chaos newspapers actually report—making sense of which without knowing the deeper foundations is very difficult. Articles in Harpers’, in the American Conservative, sometimes in The Atlantic have occasionally been the source of genuine insight—be it into the Iraqi quagmire, Yemen, Somali, or Afghanistan. Sometimes foreign language papers open your eyes—if you happen to be able to read, say, Hungarian. Not many people do! Our latest gem is Nordamerikanische Wochen-Post, a German-language American weekly—with a quite useful and sometimes startlingly insightful view of the world.


I was squatting in our garden patch weeding when Brigitte came out with a printout in her hand. “How many military bases do you think we have in Germany?” she asked. She sat down on a garden chair. Her question suggested that the figure was bigger than I had imagined, so I said, going over the top: “Thirty?” She smiled. “Would you believe 227?”

Now in the background here, for me, was remembering Grafenwöhr firing range just a few days ago—and remembering it, looking it up—and looking it up being amazed that it was still a U.S. Army installation! Still? Today? Even in my own days in U.S. Army Europe, I would have been astonished at that number—despite the fact that I actually served at three different bases in Germany when I was there and had been to at least six others, one being Grafenwöhr.

The numbers are there—but tough to find. Brigitte was quoting a story in The Nation. That story, in turn, referenced a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and the Bulletin, finally, linked to a FY 2007 Base Structure Report issued by the Department of Defense (link). In that report itself I discovered that the number was 287 bases; sixty of them were evidently typographical casualties. In FY 2007, DOD had 823 bases the world over, the majority in Germany, in Japan (130), and in South Korea (106). Three hundred others were strewn across 36 other countries, according to the DOD—although other sources report a U.S. military presence in 150 countries all told. If the bases in Iraq and Afghanistan were included, according to The Nation (they were not, in this report), the total would be more than 1,000.

A later story in the Huffington Post, publishing comments by Senator Jon Tester of Montana (here), provides what seem to be updated numbers: 268 bases in Germany, 124 in Japan, and 87 in South Korea. The numbers are still in the same ballpark.

So when, again, did World War II end? It ended in August 1945. Sixty-six years later we still have nearly 270 bases in Germany and more than a hundred in Japan. The cost of maintaining these and the other bases, per The Nation, runs $102 billion a year.

My oddly ricocheting conclusion from all this—a couple of more hours of weeding and another day of hard outdoor work later? It is that human collectives behave quite unlike rational individuals. I’ve got to believe, indeed I’ve no reason not to, that the vast majority of our public officials are well-meaning, honest, and reasonably intelligent. Nevertheless, the great public outcomes that we see all around us present something strangely and alarmingly mad. And when I myself served as a little cell in the body of the great Military Industrial Complex, I was just doing my duty. Wasn’t I?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Queen Anne's Lace

It’s that time of year again—or, perhaps, just a few days past absolute peak for this hardy ground-cover, so royally named. Last year’s post on this subject has more of the naming conventions for those who wish to know. The link is here.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Arts of War

The gods of oil and capital began to change the arts of war
Soon after I was born and saw my first, last global Death Dance Star.
When she began, no single land could yet boast its sole dominance.
Participants could not yet hedge all of their bets well in advance
Because they knew how things would wend long before the first bomb went
Off in lovely shocks and awes at war’s thrillful commencement.

Economies were puny things and one among them had not yet,
Like ours, mushroomed out and then ascended, like a silver jet
Into the skies and, if you like, beyond—right to the blessed moon.
And with that rise, and no surprise, came satellites and soon
We’d also conquer planet Mars and there at once we’d make our mark,
Near-visibly to naked eye, with bases each with baseball park.

The shadow of that great economy, which rose and grew so great,
Made outcomes of all wars predictable, indeed as sure as fate—
Provided that we started them or took a hand—and with that came
Changes even in the name of war; war ceased, became a game.
Money-bound and anchored deeply in oil-wells distant, very far,
All changed, the pulse, the beat, the flavor, yes, even the smell of war.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Righteous Indignation

Reading the news of departing Defense Secretary Gates’ comments concerning NATO members this morning, oddly perhaps, produced associations in me of a Wolf Blitzer interview with former President Carter some years ago. Gates criticized NATO countries of lack of enthusiasm in supporting the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The most quoted part of his speech follows:
The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.
The NATO defensive alliance came to be formed, largely at U.S. initiative, to prevent Europe falling into the hands of the Communists. Thus it was de facto an anti-Russian alliance, but legally requires members to come to the aid of any other member nation that is attacked. Now a cold and sober view of today’s situation makes European reluctance to spend heavily on the Afghan war, be it bodies or money, quite understandable. The 9/11 attack on the United States was not by a state actor but by a terrorist group, it took place just shy of ten years ago. In that attack approximately 3,000 people lost their lives and several buildings were destroyed. The American response to this event has been way, way too excessive. It has spawned two costly wars of which Iraq was never linked to the 9/11 attack; the second began as an invasion of a country where the terrorists were located and trained their operatives. That war went far beyond destroying training camps and killing or dispersing the terrorists; it has morphed into a neo-imperialist venture under the new name of nation building.

At minimum Gates’ demands for heavy European participation in the Afghan war stretches the meaning of military alliance to unrecognizable shape. It has come to mean supporting U.S. military efforts, wherever they might take place and for whatever reason—just because, for reasons of our own, not out of any gratitude, we put airfields and troops all over Europe once to keep Europe from going communist.

So why does the Blitzer-Carter interview pop into my mind? Turns out that Gates’ speech and that interview have a common feature. They both represent distortions in reality. The New York Times positions the Gates’ story as righteous and appropriate. Blitzer displayed the same aggressive righteousness in using, back then, what struck me as an almost insulting tone when he interviewed President Carter. The occasion was Carter’s publication of a book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. The book came out on November 14, 2006. The interview in CNN’s so-called Situation Room, took place on November 28. Carter had dared to look at Israeli behavior realistically and soberly rather than politically correctly. That last stance requires that Israeli behavior must always be presented as justified and right, whether it is or is not. Similarly the U.S. position and view of reality must always be seen as correct and right even when it has drifted into collective insanity.

Friday, June 10, 2011


A Hundred Years of Solitude

On the 30th of June in 1910 the Third Royal Bavarian Field Artillery fired the first symbolic cannon shot at Grafenwöhr, in Germany. That shot, as it were, christened a famous troop training ground for future use. Germans and Americans celebrated the centennial of this event last year. Americans? Yes. We were there because we still are. Grafenwöhr is now U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwöhr. The current U.S. administration dates from October 1991—but so short sometimes is collective memory that the current command is silent about the earlier history, including American history, at this by now ancient and continuously used military installation. I spent some time at Grafenwöhr around about 1958 when my unit, the 8th Division Artillery, spent part of a summer on exercises there. Late that fall DivArty (as we called ourselves), had to send someone to Grafenwöhr again on some administrative errand—the nature of which now totally escapes me. In any case I volunteered to go, and two of us, a driver and myself, set off on the day-long voyage. I spent two days there before we left again for the return trip.

I volunteered because on my first stay there I had experienced the magical desolation of this strange firing range in what was then an economically backward sort of no-man’s-land in eastern Bavaria. In a way I was home again—because, as the crow flies, Grafenwöhr lies less than 25 miles from Tirschenreuth, a town farther to the north and east—my first and most memorable home in Germany. There was a silence out there, in Grafenwöhr, a silence that soaked, that permeated even the rude concrete barracks we’d inhabited. Most of the time, of course, they were empty, and silence their natural state. But going deeper, into the firing range itself, the desolation deepened—even visually. Yet I experienced this as an inexpressibly positive inner state. So I volunteered, eagerly, to spend a little more time in that magical place.

Odd, actually. In its one hundred-and-now-one years of history Grafenwöhr has seen a vast mixture of men from all over the globe. During World War I it served as a POW camp and housed up to 23,600 French and Russian prisoners. During World War II it got enlarged. Thirty-five hundred inhabitants were displaced to make room for two- or three-times that many troops. Under the Nazi regime Italian and Spanish troops were trained there—and then came the Americans. In 1958 Elvis Presley spent six weeks there while on maneuvers in the Army, and presumably the place then temporarily actually saw the world’s press make an unlikely appearance. And yet…and yet this place, at least when I was there, was a landscape of desolation and of silence, yes, despite the constant distant sound of dull artillery rounds exploding somewhere out of sight.

The pictures show an old painting of Grafenwöhr’s water tower—and the second the way it looked when, briefly, I had the privilege of passing through there. But don’t let the pictures fool you; you can’t photograph solitude...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Concept Blindness

Concept blindness (on the analogy of color blindness) sometimes affects me—because philosophers (or scientists, or financiers, or engineers, etc.) are satisfied to communicate only with members of the clan. An instance of this affliction arose yesterday when I read the following sentence on Siris, a quote from E.L. Mascall:

The type of universe whose investigation requires the methods of modern science must, I would suggest, have two characteristics: contingency and rationality.
Apparently I didn’t “drill down” deep enough when I took my required philosophy courses in college. At any rate I came away thinking that in that clan contingency means “dependence on something else,” as in “we are contingent beings,” meaning that we didn’t make ourselves. We use that word in ordinary life to mean unforeseen eventualities, as in “contingency planning.” Fuzz set in as I read the sentence. The corrective for concept blindness is more study, of course: a little learning is a dangerous thing.

But so is, perhaps, a lot of learning—at least where clear communications are concerned. It amazes me that from a word in Latin (contingere) meaning “to touch, take hold of, be near, to border on, and to reach” we get today meanings like eventualities, dependency, and chancy. But that’s the way things are.

I have a Latin-English, English-Latin dictionary. Amusingly, if I look up what the English word “contingent” means in Latin—looking on the English side—I get the Latin fortuitus. If I look up the English “contingency,” I get casus and res, thus event and thing; res, to be sure, was used in Rome to mean exactly what we mean by thing in English—thus damn near anything we want to: the thing is, you see, things are in the saddle and ride mankind.

The meaning of “dependency” that I attach reflexively to the philosophical use of contingency arises from my courses in Aquinas at college. At Rockhurst I learned that there is only one necessary reality, God. Everything else may or may not exist—is therefore characterized as chancy, i.e., contingent, fortuitous. The chancy depends for its existence on the necessary, hence my meaning is correct, but only by a kind of derivation.

The heuristic approach to this sort of problem is to spell out the plain meaning. What Mascall is saying, in translation, is that the universe yields answers if we seek diligently to understand its logical pathways of causation, but there is no way we can see all the things that are lawfully possible within it.

Heuristic, by the way, is another of those words that, until today, afflicted me with concept blindness. It’s another affectation in learned circles. By all means use a word those with the wrong nest odor will fail to grasp. It comes from the Greek word “to find” or “to discover”; the heuristic approach to problem-solving is the quick-and-dirty way—thus by trial-and-error, graphing the damn thing, or by looking up its bloody roots. Am I guilty too? Oh yes. Far too often. But I do try to remember to explain.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Reviving Poena Cullei?

Having just written a post on LaMarotte suggesting that finance reform should have taken draconian forms rather than the mild shape of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, it occurred to me while walking the dog (Katie-sitting for a bit) that we need not go back to 621 BC when the Athenian Draco put out his harsh code. We could stay closer to our own time and simply revive the Romans’ poena cullei. To be sure some changes are required to modernize this law. The punishment of the sack, as the Romans called it, only applied to parricides; hence we’d have to extend it to apply to financial malfeasance. No other details need to but could be changed. The sack, anciently of leather, could be made of modern canvas or very stout plastic. How did it work? Evidently the culprit was sown into a sack along with (1) a dog, (2) a cock, (3) a serpent, and (4) a monkey. Then he was thrown into deep water.

Academia tells me here that the punishment was last imposed in Germany in the eighteenth century—which is actually quite recent. And a thesis by someone evidently called Clark, at Xavier University, here, tells me that the authority for this punishment is, among others, Richard A. Bauman, specifically in his Crime and Punishment in Ancient Rome, Routledge, New York, 1996. But the punishment was in my head because last night I had been reading Suetonius’ life of Augustus. That emperor, although evidently only temporarily, outlawed this sentence. And, reading on, I might also learn who had wisely revived it. We might be among those smart enough to do so again. Something ought to get Wall Street’s attention. Finally.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Covering the Future

As part of sporadic comments on journalism, a while back I made notes on “Maybe Journalism” (here) citing Brigitte’s comments that it is a routine aspect of the news to bring us “endless speculative stories about what people plan, intend, seek, project, surmise, etc.” I thought I’d record another sampling from today’s New York Times. The paper recently announced the elevation of one of its two managing editors, Jill Abrahamson, to executive editor in September—and I am sure that she will sweep like a new broom and “Maybe Journalism” will therefore disappear. Thus it’s high time to make final notes on this soon-to-be-healed ugly deformation on the face of journalism.

Today’s headlines include STEEPER PULLOUT RAISED AS OPTION FOR AFGHANISTAN. Read here that the administration is signaling changes that the military establishment actually opposes. Here is another: West Presses Rebels for More Details on a Post-Qaddafi Government—suggesting that lack of progress against Qaddafi in the field is causing Britain’s foreign secretary to jawbone the rebels instead. In the Sudan Broader Conflict is Feared… Meaning? Meaning that the NYT is covering the future—not actual events. Finally we learn that ‘Culture Warrior’ Looks to Broaden the Battle, which amounts to saying that Senator Santorum plans to declare himself a presidential candidate.

The less we, the people, can actually do to influence politics—short of answering long telephone interviews seeking our opinion, which will be read as indicators of how we plan to vote in some future election more months ahead than we have fingers on our hands—the more information we are getting on what might happen so that we can hone our future reactions. As we gradually approach immortality thanks to the magic of modern medicine, so our collective organs are expanding to make the future Now.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Two Curious Pens

The two I have in mind are the peninsula and the penumbra. How did I get here? I passed a car with the interesting vanity plate GOINGUP.If this car hadn’t also had a sticker that mentioned the Upper Peninsula, that is to say Michigan’s UP, I might have thought that the plate’s owner was promoting his or her own upward mobility. But that second sticker informed me that this family probably travels north on beautiful weekends. But then, passing on, the word peninsula got stuck in the grooves of my mind (that happens on walks) and I couldn’t trace the origin of that pen. By the time I got home, I’d added penumbra to the list—and I’d come to wonder if the insula and the umbra had the same or a different kind of pen. Online Etymology Dictionary to the rescue. (Must remember to make a donation to OED—I use it so much!) The pen in these two instances turns out to be of Latin origin. The word is paene, meaning almost. Almost an island. Almost a shadow. And here I was hoping, instead, that the pen was mightier even than the island. Not so. And as for the pen itself, it also comes from the Latin, the word penna, feather. Light as a feather and mightier than the sword.

End of History: A Gloss

A review of Francis Fukuyama’s latest (The Origin of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution) and, coincidentally, a review of The Future of History by John Lukacs, both in the July 2011 issue of The American Conservative, set off a train of thought on the “end of history”: the thematic and title of Fukuyama’s best-known work.

The moment history ended, I immediately stopped reading books about history. Of course. Paradoxically, therefore, I didn’t actually read Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992). To tell the truth I wasn’t even tempted. Fukuyama’s conclusion was that we had reached the end of “ideological evolution.” We’d finally reached the pinnacle. The infinite future hereafter would ever and always take the same perfect form achieved when the Cold War ended: western-style liberal democracy. It would rule and rule and rule…forever after. That being Fukuyama’s conclusion, it did not seem worth the bother to learn how he reached it.

But in thinking about the subject in the 1990s, and recently again, it occurred to me that a certain poetic truth attaches to Fukuyama’s verdict if we modify it just a little. From time to time and always when successive waves of civilization reach a certain level of “maturity” a point comes after which the energy of the culture has been spent and, all through its dreary decay, nothing really meaningful happens except slow-motion shatter. And in that sense history temporarily ends. The same old same old starts repeating if with increasingly unpleasant features.

Here I would propose that for the Graeco-Roman civilization the end of history came with Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, 49 BC. The dreary succession of caesars after that is essentially a featureless chaos. This state continued until finally a grown-up appeared again, Diocletian. He carved the Empire into four pieces round about 293—and with that history began again with the emergence of Christendom soon after.

The end of history for us? That we’re now living in such a featureless age is fairly evident to me, anyway. Should we date it from the end of World War II—Eisenhower our first Caesar? —and, by the way, a much more attractive Caesar in every way than Julius? The assassination of Kennedy? The end of the Cold War? Did George H.W. Bush actually proclaim it when he, quite intuitively, spoke of a New World Order? In the spirit of Fukuyama’s future eternal dispensation, I leave the solution to public opinion. Let an appropriate referendum be held and the end of history determined by two-thirds majority.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Reflexive Progressivism

It happens three, four times a week, usually in TV interviews about some drastic (or would-be drastic) innovation. The person interviewed imagines the world radically changing because of the what’s-it that he is reporting on;  yes; they’re almost exclusively males, these discoverers of the future. The interviewer wryly nods. The unspoken assumption behind these marvelings at changing times is that What-Has-Been shall always be—only more so. The What-Has-Been refers to trends in the last fifty years. These people are so deeply embedded in modern urban culture, their time horizons are so narrow, their grasp of the total system of our current times is focused on so tiny a point (usually New York or Silicon Valley), they reflect so small a population (just the well-off and the young) they’re literally blind to the great movement already devouring the recent past. The gadgets, devices, trends, arrangements, initiatives that they ooh and ahh invariably depend on wealth, social order, and above all on energy. At the same time it is precisely these people who’re on the tube. Viewing the world in a comprehensive fashion requires time, advanced capacities, and attention. Reflexive progressivism therefore rules by its sound bytes while a great, roaring, but mysteriously unseen, unheard surf eats away at the foundations of modernity.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

By Guess and Golly

In the absence of a lens, a guess must do. After a lifetime of observing the essentially invisible Great Economy through the lens of statistics—and seeing that the numbers do indeed confirm what intuition tells me—it pains me that we lack a suitable census of vital cultural indicators. I’d love to have a census, for example, of the kind of books that bookstores routinely stocked in 1950, to pick a year, and stocked, later, in 2000 say.

I’ll tell you why. I learned yesterday that Robert Graves had translated Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, something of which I hadn’t been aware, and promptly ordered the Penguin edition from Had the same thing happened in the 1950s, when I lived in Kansas City, I would’ve gone to Brentano’s on the Plaza confident, dead certain, that I would find it there—or to my public library, ditto. But over decades I’ve discovered that such reliance would simply mean a wasted trip. Somewhere in the middle between the ‘50s and the ‘00s, I sometimes still found books like that in small, crowded bookshops, the kind once found sandwiched between a beauty parlour and a knick-knack shop—but these stores disappeared in turn. In this neighborhood they went from four to none; they stopped paying rent and started selling on the web. Meanwhile the chains got bigger, their footprints grew, the titles on offer increased enormously, but what they offered narrowed in proportion. Pop began to climb 50, 60, 70, 80 percent; culture declined and classics dropped to 20, 10, 5, 2 percent. Not surprisingly my own expenditures drastically dropped too. I’m personally responsible for Border’s bankruptcy no doubt.

Now having studied economic and social matters both by feel and by the numbers, I’m quite confident in my own powers of assessment. Thus, in the absence of the statistical lens—and left to my own guesses—I’m certain that cultural knowledge has shrunk dramatically. Indeed I’d venture to guess that booksellers mirror publishers. Hence more and more frequently Amazon, my last resort, still has the books I used to find in nearby stores, but Amazon finds them in the hands of the shrinking pool of used booksellers and acts only as an intermediary.

I wonder if a parallel exists between water and cultural resources. Seems so. China is now robbing southern Paul to quench the thirst of northern Peter. Living right next to the Great Lakes, I look with narrowed eyes at Texas, thinking: Don’t even think about it, amigo!

Backyard Lyric

For the first time ever this two-eleven morning,
A great Nordic high up in the sky,
I sit amidst the young year’s green-n-blooming,
Listen to the distant mowers growl,
And hear a single also distant trashtruck’s grind.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Month of Juno

Did She who made ameba squirt you, oh Milky Way, from an overfull breast? [Tiara in In Search of Anna Magna]
On this the first day of June it may be appropriate to celebrate the Goddess, Mother Nature, from whom this central month, the month of the summer solstice, takes its name. She is Juno. I was born a contrarian, I’m sure; I’m decidedly not a “born again” contrarian. Hence it delighted me to discover quite early in my growing up, thanks to the helpful labors of that indefatigable defender of Woman, the poet Robert Graves, that humanity had once been matriarchal to the core. The shift to a patriarchal order began in Antiquity, with the consequence that the once ruling Eternal Feminine became a mere hand-maiden and helper of the Male Divine.

My quote above refers to the Great Goddess Rhea; her milk squirted up into the heavens and became the Milky Way (hence the name, of course) when she gave birth to little Zeus. The Roman mythographer, Gaius Julius Hyginus (64 BC-17 AD) once wondered if Rhea, a Cretan goddess, should be called Juno by the Romans—suggesting that Juno is another name for the Great Goddess. But in the transition to patriarchy, subordination is the general rule. Hence in Hyginus’ own time, already, Juno had long been relegated to mean Nature as Matter, whereas Jupiter was elevated to Nature as Creative Impulse. I find the same pattern everywhere. Athena, once also the name of the Great Goddess, now suddenly issues from bloody Zeus’ rather low forehead. Sophia, yet another exalted name, turns into a fallen woman in Gnosticism. No way, José, says this contrarian. And in the Kabala’s schema Shekina is at the very bottom whereas in my scheme She’s at the very top.

The origin of June’s naming in honor of the Goddess is justified (by such as the Encyclopedia Britannica) by quoting Ovid, but Ovid (43 BC - 18 AD) also helpfully points out, to the sour pleasure of all of those of us who carry or carried the word Junior or Jr. behind their name (like me) that the name of the month also derives from iuniores—as May derives from maiores. The majors and the minors, you might say, or age in May and youth in June…

The lovely graphic I reproduce, courtesy of Wikipedia commons here, is Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Juin. There she is, in the center, and the boys appropriately subordinated in the background. Such pleases one who’s cyclic in the Age of Progress and drawn to spirit in the Age of Matter.