Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Our Last Butterfly Takes Off



The late one, the fifth Black Swallowtail we’ve managed to raise this summer, broke from her pupa today—and took off. The time was exactly noon. The glass jar, read “the hospital,” is the same one that travelled with us to Traverse City. The video lasts for one-and-a-half minutes and will not win any prizes, but here it is, for the record.

Cultural Atmospheres

Ages have an atmosphere formed by consensus. On Babylon 5, the SF saga, areas are set aside for aliens so that, in a jocular aside, Commander Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) tells a visitor to watch it: “Stay out of the methane toilets.” Breathing the public air is dangerous for unbelievers, as it were—for heretics to the common faith. But a corollary of this situation is that genuine participation in collective life is actually denied us—unless we share in the consensus. Oh, it’s possible—if difficult to speak through gas masks. One gets used to it. So much so that temporarily visiting another time, as in, say, reading European documents and letters produced eight hundred years ago, one is startled to find oneself in an era where quite another atmosphere prevailed. On Babylon 5 cultures whose members live in “special quarters” do not take much part in the action—although members of the station’s management sometimes visit them, donning masks to do so, when something is going haywire, as always seems to happen.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sibyl

The Sibyl came into my view again the other day when I was looking into the Tarquins (here). The prophetess known as the Cumaen Sibyl supposedly approached Tarquinius Superbus (that’s Tarquin the Proud) and offered to sell him nine Sibylline Books of prophecy. He didn’t want to pay the outrageous price that she demanded. She then burned three of the books—and renewed her offer. Once more The Proud hesitated. The Sibyl burned three more. At last Tarquin yielded—and bought the remaining three at the original price. It is such tales—and never mind their factual underpinnings—that draw temperaments like mine to the study of our cultural past.

I think the Sibyl first came into my view, curiously enough, while studying English Lit, specifically T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot used a quote from Petronius as the epigraph for that poem, rendered in Latin, but my good fortune had been to study English in an environment where teachers could render Latin—or Greek, for that matter—into English. The epigram contains two Greek pieces too. Here it is:

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Sibylla ti theleis; respondebat illa: apothanein thelo.

Now the Sibyl at Cumae I’ve seen with my eyes
She pended, she hung there in an ampule of glass.
And when boys who’d there gathered addressed her and asked:
“Sybil, what do you want?” She said “I want to die.”
     Petronius, Satyricon vii

What a weird picture. It left an impression. All early Sibyls as it happens were priestesses of Apollo, and Apollo truly loved the beautiful Sibyl of Cumae so much he offered her near immortality (another recent subject here). She could live as many years as there were particles in a presumably full handful of dust. But the Sibyl forgot to ask Apollo also to preserve her youth. Thus as the seemingly limitless years passed, she grew older, and smaller, and thinner—becoming a tiny shriveled old woman who could pend herself into an ampule, a longish sort of glass. The image stayed with me. The Waste Land (nice introduction to my times, by the way) did not. But cheerful Eliot did leave one quote firmly planted in my memories, if from another poem, also appropriate to this age:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.

All set for Modernity.

This post, however, while triggered by the associations I’ve just cited, is here to prepare for a future one, scheduled for September 17. That one will be, I promise, much more uplifting. In support of it I thought I’d put some notes here on Sibyls.

The name’s origin is unknown but dated by the Encyclopedia Britannica to the religious period (800-600 BC) predating the Greek classical era. Female prophets arose in that time. An early one must have been called Sibylla, and others took or were assigned the same name. The best-known ancient prophetess was Sibylla of Marpessos, a little place near Troy in what is now Western Turkey. She lived in a period overlapping the sixth and fifth centuries BC, thus at the dawn of the classical age. The EB quotes Heraclitus (535-475 BC) saying of her: “with her maddened mouth … she reaches a thousand years with her voice by the power of the god.”

In the times that followed, Sibyls arose everywhere—and each region claimed its own. The Romans had the Sibyl at Cumae, a place in southern Italy near Naples. Did this tradition die out in the centuries that followed. In a way, yes. After the classical came the Hellenistic (323 to 30 BC), after that the Imperial, and after that the Christian age. Prophecy thins as we advance—but is reborn again in the new religious age that took firm root after Constantine.... To be continued, God willing, in September.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Political Censorship?

I saw a brief clip from the NYT the other day announcing that China was preventing its citizens from downloading music from Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, and Katy Perry. The clip showed Lady Gaga in a most provocative image; I note that the on-line version of this story instead features the Backstreet Boys, also banned. Brigitte handed me the slip and said, “Read it. Tell me what you think.”

The story’s first line told me that China thought it was defending its “cultural national security,” which sounded right. I read on. Blah, blah, blah. Hard to take an interest when one has no idea who these people are (beyond the Lady Gaga) and has never heard a single one of multiple songs mentioned. But then came a sentence that told me why Brigitte had clipped the thing and showed it to me: “The Chinese government has long screened imported entertainment for political messages and commentary that counters the party line.”

I looked at Brigitte. “Political?” I asked. She nodded. We’d both been struck by the use of that word in this context, in this presentation. We both thought that China is trying to shield its people from the corrosions of modernity—and not just coming from America. The article also mentioned music coming from Hong Kong and Thailand. Politics, it seems, has nothing to do with it. Or, perhaps, it’s all just one big ball of wax?

Invocation

When pundits don’t rely on ordinary argument, their stock in trade, and reach out to Science for their authority, my reflexive expectation, before I know anything more, is that the subject will be a clash of values, the focus on evolution or global warming, and that the sciences involved will be of the softer kind—not those that reach their certainties by experimental demonstration. Precisely such appeals to Authority, but coming from the other side, turned me into an atheist in youth just by reflex—until I had had time to do my own homework.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Outside the Box

A feature in the NYT today (“Imagining the Downside of Immortality,” by Stephen Cave) again reminded me: the cosmic models people hold entirely determine how far their thoughts can reach. The hypothesis the author examines? Suppose we conquered death somehow? Would it be a good or a bad thing? He thinks that physical problems (like overpopulation) could be overcome, but that the end result would be a psychological disaster. All human progress, aspiration, effort, and achievement (in his view) is motivated by the fear of death. That fear drives all of our behavior, consciously or unconsciously. He views all religious concepts of immortality as projections—efforts to cope with our fear. And he underlines that all of us, religious or not, seek immortality. The only difference is the modality of that search. It produces civilization, hope. False hope, to be sure. Cave’s underlying hard conviction, of course, appears to be the sophisticated orthodoxy of materialism. To be sure, if all that is worthwhile is just illusion pursued in dread of death, a rather pathetic picture of life is unveiled. But at least it’s grimly realistic. My questioning all of this Cave would no doubt assign to my own naïve dread of disappearance.

Amusing to read such articles in a world where breaking all the rules makes you a visionary and thinking outside the box is highly touted.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Visionary

The inspiration for this post (to use the wrong word) was Steve Jobs’ resignation from Apple. As oil-rich necessarily accompanies any mention of a sheikdom, so Steve Jobs necessarily invokes the visionary tag. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not attacking Jobs or belittling his accomplishments. It pains me that his health problems have forced this move. The subject is pop-culture and language.

The root of that word, of course, is vision, and Wikipedia’s take on things is that the vision can involve the supernatural. Wiki’s first-mentioned visionary is Hildegard of Bingen—followed then by Mohammed, St. Bernadette, and Joseph Smith (founder of Mormonism). In the modern understanding of the word, a vision of the transcendental has been replaced by a vision of the future, a future so compelling that it leads to a transcending of the rules. Thus an op-ed today in the NYT states that Jobs “violated every rule of management.” Hildegard of Bingen did a little bit of that as well—the rules in the twelfth century being that a woman must keep herself out of sight. Interestingly, I note, when Wikipedia turns its attention to technology, the person at Apple it cites as the visionary is Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder, the man who actually designed the first personal computer. It was Wozniak who had the vision—and strove mightily to give it birth. Steve Jobs’ contribution to that revolution lay in negotiating low prices for components and mounting the very successful sales and marketing campaign.

The practical visionary is also well-advised to live in wealthy times. The word’s etymology (from Online Etymology Dictionary) dates to the 1650s, meaning then the ability to see visions. By 1702, however, the word had begun to carry the meaning “one who indulges in impractical fantasies.” I date the Age of Oil (read fossil fuels) to 1748—when coal mining began in the United States. It would take a while before “impractical” visions regarding the material dimension could lead to visionary status.

Another interesting take on this is the use of the word over time, provided by Google’s Ngram viewer. Here is a link to that. The word peaked early in the 1820s, declined thereafter to about the late 1940s (wars and such?), began a little climb late in the 1960s, and then began rising again to prominence in 1980 as computers created the new visionary environment. But should we celebrate the inventor of pop-computing or the pitchman who brought us to the booth?

Added later: Well, all right. Prejudices are showing here, and I might as well come clean. Here are two older posts on the old LaMarotte on this subject, best read in the following order: one, two.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Lens of Attention

Attention is a magnifier—and a kind of resource. That on which we focus becomes large and hence important. The neglected largely disappears. We’re biologically programmed to notice change and, to conserve resources, to ignore that which just stays the same. But let me single out one word above: important. If attention bestows importance, those who wish to be, important, strive to get attention—and they do so ultimately by hyping threats or pleasures.

This after some days away, almost devoid of media, drawn by company, the new, the strange, the beautiful. Libya, Syria, elections? The moon-rise over Grand Traverse Bay—and a night-sky filled with stars, so rarely visible in detro-metro-land: they had our attention.

When Monique worked in cement and therefore barges struggling up the Mississippi were important, conditions on the river all the way down to distant New Orleans figured very large in our lives. Now working on the publishing plantation, news that McGraw-Hill is about to dump its core business, textbooks, is on a par with tornadoes in the south or floods in Missouri. Attention is the lens. It goes where we live. It magnifies into giants what countless others do not even see.

Libya, Syria, elections? Are you really all that crucially important for us, here, essentially powerless to do anything concrete? They seem to be because to have the power, people need the attention of the masses—and the media, its social dispenser, beats its endless drums to catch our vague attention—by threats or fake triumphs (We’ve won in Libya)—ultimately to sell eyeballs to advertisers who hope and pray that we will buy.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sweep, Sweep

Sweep, sweep. Sweep, sweep. Now sweep the yard
In steady rhythm, carefully,
Not too easy, not too hard.
The Summer has begun to fall.
Not that our Spring had failed to shed
Its seed on bed and lawn and all.
Sky’s overcast, the wind is cool.
Some wrinkled leaves, branchlets galore
Are underfoot and more dead things,
Obsolete; decay begins its rule.
Sweep, sweep. Sweep, sweep. Now sweep the drive.
Grey caulk around the house is worn.
I note: The plastic dust-bin’s lid is torn.
My broom sweeps sand and thus disturbs a hive
Of very, very tiny ants.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Day of Butterflies





Four of our five Black Swallowtail butterflies have hatched, migrated outside, eventually into the air, and away... One came last night, three hatched rapidly this morning. Above pictures of them still indoors. The last image is that of an empty husk with but a faintly perceptible slit through which these winged creatures first force themselves into the daylight. One of them, sure enough injured a wing—and gave us some worries for a while.


The migration continued outdoors. The one on the concrete was the first out, last night, and spent his night under a stool in a great down-pour. This morning it was time to dry up. Once dry, they all proceeded to take little trial flights--first to the top of flowers, then to the fenced tomatoe yard, finally into the heights. The last photo shows our last Swallowtail, indeed the one with the injured wing, way up high on a leaf. He rested there for some hours and eventually also flew away.

So does this mean that our butterflies days are over for the year—aside from the last, the fifth, still in chrysalis and a couple more weeks to go? By no means. Around 10 in the morning came a NEW KIND. It stayed for several hours feasting on the blue flowers of our basil plants. Heavy research soon yielded its name. It was a Junonea coenia, better known as a Buckeye—and in the politically insensitive word of nomenclature, sometimes rendered as the Common Buckeye. Not common for us, let me tell you! So long did that Buckeye linger here, we wonder if another campaign may be in the offing. We already know that Buckeye’s caterpillars are very, very black. We shall be inspecting the basil plants daily soon, on the lookout. Herewith some views of this first-time visitor:


We’ve had to use small pictures here to show a good many, hence detail is not immediately visible. But clicking on the images will enlarge them very nicely.

A Tarquin Unmasked

The bathroom door was locked so he banged on it, and called, “Time’s up.”
     “Who is it?” said a voice.
     “Oh, I’m sorry,” said George, retreating a step or two from the locked door in his agitation. “I thought it was Sylvia.”
     “It’s only me,” said Edith. “I’ll be as quick as I can, but the bath’s so slippery I can’t get out. Your water is so soft and I used too much soap. I shan’t be long” and a sound of splashing told George that the guest was keeping her word and he went back to his room feeling himself a Tarquin unmasked.
     [Angela Thirkell, Enter Sir Robert, 1955]
Reading that passage last night—in what was a popular novel intended for a predominantly female audience—reminded me how very much popular culture has evidently changed in the last sixty years or so, here as well as in Britain. Angela Thirkell was a very prolific and popular novelist; more on her is on this blog here; I have a great admiration for her and am slowly reading all of her work. Clearly Thirkell not only expected that phrase, “feeling himself a Tarquin unmasked,” to illuminate and to enlarge this seemingly innocent scene—but also to signal feelings inside George, the lead male in this novel, towards Edith, the lead female, not evident on the surface.

My own recall of Tarquins was thin enough to amount to almost nothing. Something to do with Rome—yes, despite that odd spelling. Etruscan kings? And then, with effort, rose a small flag suggesting that a famous rape had led the Romans to abolish monarchy in favor of republican rule. Thus far my vague response to Angela. Naked Edith in a tub? Thoughts in George of sexual congress. That seemed to fit. But as for masks and such, not even the glimmer of a glimmer.

Here in a nutshell the story. Yes. The first Tarquin (Lucius) was a rich Etruscan immigrant to Rome; later he became a popular king. The second, known as Lucius Superbus, was his son, better remembered as Tarquin the Proud; he gained the throne by the assassination of his father’s popular successor, a Roman. Superbus’ son, one Sextus Tarquinius, raped the wife of a Roman nobleman by name of Lucretia. Here is the story of The Rape of Lucretia as told by Livy—the cause, ultimately, of the end of Roman monarchy.

Now in that story Sextus visits Lucretia while her husband is still away at the war. Lucretia receives the king’s son with due hospitality. But late at night Sextus enters her chambers and gives her a choice: She can make love to him or she can die. If she refuses, he proposes to kill her, kill a male slave, and place them in bed together suggesting that she was entertaining the slave while her husband was at war. She chooses to live and suffers his violation. But later, in public, she reveals his deeds before the king himself and then commits suicide with a dagger. Thus, in a way, she “unmasks” the Tarquin. (The painting shown is Titian’s version.)

But this sort of symbolic unmasking, it seemed to me, is a bit too obscure for the general reader. I went to search out a more vivid representation. A painting, perhaps? In no time at all I discovered what must have been Angela Thirkell’s reference—a play called Le Viol de Lucrèce by André Obey. In this play masked narrators, one for the Tarquin, one for Lucrece, voice the inner thoughts of the actual Tarquin and the actual Lucrece during that crucial scene. And at the most dramatic moment in the play, the narrator-Lucrece takes off her mask and addresses the audience to plead for the character. In a book titled Masks in Modern Drama, the author, Susan Valeria Harris Smith comments as follows (p. 75):

The brief unmasking humanizes and personalizes the action, catching the complacent and removed audience off guard. The departure from the stylistic ritual mode allows Obey to use the mask diversely without violating the mythological context he carefully creates in the first three acts.
The play, written in 1931, was very meaningful in France in that, as Smith points out, the Tarquins’ violation of Rome represented to the French the later German violation of France. The play was turned into an opera in 1946—and the play was undoubtedly produced again in connection with that event; indeed, I found a recent performance of it in 2006 in France. Obey himself became head of the Comédie-Française (1945-1947). In Thirkell’s time, therefore (most likely) that mask-scene had some standing in popular recall, and Thirkell’s use of the phrase consequently produced the intended poetic echoes in this humble scene in her novel. In my case it lead straight to the Internet so that I could unmask the Tarquin for myself.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The First Black Swallowtail

As reported before we left, and again this morning, we’ve had the Black Swallowtail pupae with us in Traverse City in a little fishtank. We arrived home late last night, and as already documented, Brigitte released the pupae again and installed them high above some old parsley plants still riding their chosen sticks.

Then, for good measure, Brigitte affixed a huge (from their perspective) plastic butterfly to the window by means of a suction cup. She’d bought the object in Suttons Bay, just north of where we’d stayed. Brigitte thought this “graven image” might “encourage” her charges. Here is Brigitte “archetype”:

Tonight, to our astonishment, the first Black Swallowtail, by coloration a little boy, sliced itself a very narrow opening in its pupa and came out. Brigitte came screaming to get me, and here is a good picture of the new arrival as seen from the side, wings closed, in other words. Meanwhile we’d moved the tray to a more central place in the sunroom. Here he is:

An hour or two later our friend took flight—but only temporarily. At first he crashed against a wall in an unhappy attempt to plunge himself into a lamp. He crawled up the leg of a stool. Brigitte put the stool on the table and took this photo of our friend. Notice that his wings are now half-open.

There the new-born sat for a while, calming down. But the light was still drawing him ever on, ever on. Taking wing again, he landed (happily for the photographer) on the rim of the lampshade and, exhausted from this effort, rested with wings completely opene:


And that was also—probably—the last we shall see of Aristo One of 2011. He took wing again, fell once more, and once more climbed up the leg of the stool. We then decided that we’d set him free—and took the stool out into the night. Good-bye, young one. You’re back in your element again. A happy, happy flight to you in your brief but splendid, fascinating life...

And the two of us came in again, bent over from all of the tensions of the night...

Unpacked

Our butterfly pupae made the trip to Traverse City in their fishtank home (see a few posts back), spent their time in mysterious and continuous meditation, and are now back again—unpacked! Much the same thing happened with Aristo/a last year, although the destination was Canada. We'll keep the doors to the sunroom shut at night and anticipate, one morning soon, to see one or more butterflies trying to get throught the windows into the sunshine.

Le Grand Traverse

Every year a rugby tournament takes us to Traverse City, MI and then in turn to the Sleeping Bear Dunes. But our bonding with this region began soon after we moved to Michigan in 1989 and our very first excursion to see the state took us to this region. On the left of the embedded map you see the Leelanau Peninsula. It is one arm embracing the Grand Traverse Bay. French explorers first called the distance between the peninsula and the landmass to the east “the long crossing.” The region was originally named after Omeena, a legendary Indian maiden, but Grand Traverse took over later and, of course, gave its name to Traverse City.

[Map Courtesy of BING. Have replaced embedded map because it sometimes fails to work.]

We often hear the words, “Words fail me,” but on this trip “Pictures failed me.” I had two cameras but somehow nothing much came out of them. Hence I bring you here the best of the lot. They show images from the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, located at the tip of Leelanau Peninsula.


Here is a view to the north-north-east.


Here the rock-strewn coast-line.


Last year I showed one picture under the heading “If I had to pick one.” Here is its equivalent for 2011 showing Brigitte, all in white, adjusting her sweater against the cold wind.


And here, finally, a more distant view of that same bench with our party, John and Monique Magee flanking Brigitte, me behind the camera, and the 1858 lighthouse visible in part behind them. The actually lighthouse is to my right but is nothing much to see.

Mind you, this was a great trip full of adventures and delights: a midnight moonrise, a thrilling Old Boy’s rugby game (it ended in a tie), sailing on the Schooner Manitou, excursions, tours, and laughing a lot about a merchant who obsessed about fake C-bills. Not least we crowned our tour by visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes. As luck would have it, the audience of Good Morning America voted the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore the “Most Beautiful Place in America” the very weekend we were there. Oh, yes! We knew that already. Too bad my pictures failed me. The map shows you two islands west of that lakeshore, North and South Manitou. They are the two sleeping bears, little and big.

Okay. You thought I was just faking it—as with that C-bill. Not so! We really were on that boat! And here is a picture to prove it:

Yes, that is John on the left. And if you don’t believe me, you will clearly see the words Detroit Rugby on his sweatshirt!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dalrymple on the Riots

A few days ago I mentioned Theodore Dalrymple in the context of the London riots and wondered what he would have to say about it on one of his venues, City Journal. Well, here are two answers: August 10 and and August 15.

Packed, Ready to Go


The image you see here is the mobile home of our five future Black Swallowtail butterflies. Yes. This is another post in that series. Last year Aristo was in her pupa stage when necessity compelled us to take a brief Canadian trip. (And yes. Aristo was a she. Brigitte’s found a site where boys and girls of this variety are separately shown, and now we know we should have named last year’s creature Arista.) This year we have five we cannot simply leave to their own fate. Four of them are in the chrysalis stage, one about to enter it. So last night Brigitte prepared a temporary habitation for them during our more or less annual trip to Traverse City, Michigan. It begins today. Three of the creatures are visible. That sign at the bottom was intended for me. As I went to bed last night, Brigitte said she had an idea of how we should house them. “I’ll tell you tomorrow,” she said. Well, the answer was waiting on the stove this morning.

Still Struggling to Learn Newspeak

I learned today that Nigeria is another state that I must begin to dread. The New York Times headlines “Islamist Threat in Nigeria Grows With Qaeda Help” (no less). I also learn that “Bashing E.P.A. Is New Theme in G.O.P. Race.” Ah. A former Shining Knight turns Darth Vader? That one starts getting personal—in that I labored some years at that agency. To be sure, that then (and still) tiny lop-off from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (those days) wasn’t exactly the darling of the Nixon administration either.

Reminds me of lessons I learned quite early in life in books titled Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the first George Orwell’s generic and the other his specific description of his times. I’d read these books in the 1950s, a time when individual authors could still be heard. The noise was still quite low. In 1984 I learned that that there must always be an enemy, that the enemy can change overnight, and we must immediately shift attention, when Big Brother nods, and hate the one we loved the day before. Having made peace with Communism, the shift came to hate Islamism—which new hate is still unfolding nicely. But hating the EPA, the new internal enemy, why that one will be a bit of a wrench for me, a lesson in learning self-loathing. The effort is daunting. I think I’ll start after the brief vacation on which we start today ends again next week.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Pierre de Fermat: Happy 410th

French mathematician Pierre de Fermat was born August 17, 1601. Google dedicates its search logo to the event today, the reason why I know. As in the case of all the great mathematicians, I greatly admire Fermat without grasping anything he tackled—much less why he’d bother. But I’ve looked into his life—as also the lives of several others over the years—because they are in some ways kin. I’ve spent my life pondering great puzzles, but in my case none is solvable whereas, in theirs, many were, if not by ordinary humans.

Fermat is most famed for his Last Theorem. The theorem is that there are no whole number (integer) solutions for this equation:

xn + yn = zn if n is greater than two
…which is what Google’s logo reproduces. Fermat jotted into the margins of Dophantus’ Arithmetica the following famous phrase. “I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.”

The issue goes back to Pythagoras’ theorem, namely: “In a right-angled triangle the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides,” which makes:

x2 + y2 = z2
Finding numbers that satisfy this relationship became a preoccupation in mathematics; there are endlessly many, among them 3, 4, and 5. What Fermat claimed was that no such triplets were possible if the power is greater than two.

Fermat wrote his intriguing teaser in 1637. He never published his “marvelous proof.” It took 358 years before Andrew John Wiles, a British mathematician, published a proof in 1995. The story of that proof is told in Fermat’s Enigma, by Simon Singh, Walker and Company, New York, 1997. I got my copy from Brigitte as a birthday gift, my 62nd, in 1998. It’s a truly fascinating but, in the end, a not very satisfactory story. Wiles’ proof takes more than 100 pages to present and makes use of the most modern techniques of numbers theory—which, believe me, are not at all accessible to mere mortals. The margin of Arithmetica was not enough for Fermat, but two or three pages of parchment presumably would have been…

Monday, August 15, 2011

Committing Futurism

In the 1950s (I’m talking about a narrow slice of fantasy and science fiction) our genuine futurists projected two kinds, one aggressively primitive, the other aggressively progressive. The first envisioned worlds where Conans the Barbarian dwelt, the other a world were all of us commuted in fancy little flying machines and the post-war bureaucracy of the 1950s had morphed into an oppressive ant-heap challenging real heroes to revolt.

My own instincts were in the primitive direction. The scientific stuff essentially bored me. Jules Verne had already done that in the nineteenth—projecting technology. And technology, per se, does not a story make. Conan had seen the light of publication in 1931, a bit later. But that projection, rooted in human behavior, promised more fruit. SF, strictly speaking, was not imaginative enough. I never encountered a story in the 1950s, for example, projecting a future in which young people—and the not so young—would expend their free moments staring into tiny mirror-like objects, all alone, isolated by togetherness, as it were, indeed even when with others, even in crowds. Naw. Instead of that writers improved big outer things (transport, city scapes) and dangerous things like weapons.

But there is a reason for all this. It is extraordinarily difficult to imagine radical shifts in the river of existence that carries us in time. The motion is forward. In the 1950s the technologically New was still spreading. Air travel was taking off. Plastics. I still remembered a family transition where horse-drawn carriages moved our furniture. I still remember heating with wood. Experiences of progressive change had a grip on writers of hard SF. The other side, informed by intuition, had more history to look back upon—in which cycles displaced each other, and after the glories of Greece and Rome, Conans did, again, ride their steeds through overgrown countryside. And looking at the social, rather than the physical landscape, the early signs of trouble were already there. Even the primordial science-science fiction writer (after Jules Verne, of course), Isaac Asimov, saw this himself—when he shifted his view to society—through the eyes of his character, Hari Seldon. Seldon, the psychohistorian, foresaw the Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire too (Foundation).

All this by way of saying that it is extremely difficult for us to imagine, staring at a five-inch flicker of a feed, how the world is likely to change when the oil finally runs dry. I pondered some of the basic on a humid August walk and offer some here for would-be SF writers. But before I do, what about the timing of that drastic change? Maybe not in fifty years, but certainly in seventy or eighty. And writing stories about the 2180s, 2190s would be science fiction. The alternative, fusion energy, certainly still is fiction, and if it ever comes to be, it won’t be a solution; if you don’t mind some technical detail, here are the reasons as I summarized them a while back. Now some notes.

It is said that the world is getting smaller. When oil runs out it will magically become enormously large again. Distances, as measured in time and cost, will become very much greater. Transatlantic travel, except for the super-rich, will be long, tedious, and done under sail again.

A correlate of that is that large institutions (private, public, government) will become small. Centralized powers will lose power, decentralization will be the new New. Anticipate initially de facto, later de jure break-up of the United States. Regions will assert themselves defensively—say California its agriculture, the Great Lakes region its water—to protect themselves from redistribution, by a higher level, of their core wealth to others.

Naturally fertile, naturally moistened land will become the greatest single object of value—and society will arrange itself to hold and guard it. Various forms once known, now considered forever gone, will come back: centrally ruled river systems, forms of feudalism.

Careers like mine—functionally centered on working with symbols—will be very rare, poorly compensated, and possibly, as in the Middle Ages, celibate. Symbol manipulation will have lost most of its economic value; it has it now because we’re operating at a great distance from physical reality—and able to do so by symbolical commands.

Most people will once more work with their hands because an absolute die-off of machines is in the offing—unless they’re smart enough (the machines, I mean) to run on water or the energy of wind.

When my grandchildren are raising their children, it will be well for them to insist that their offspring acquire high skill in crafts along the lines of carpentry, iron work, leather tanning, weaving, and the like. Want to be in advertising? Learn to paint or carve attractive signs. We must remember that in those times things as simple as nails will be hard to get, and skills to build things without them will be prized. No oil, disappearing coal—where’s the fuel to smelt ore or melt down the corpses of machines?

Rare the panel on C-Span that discusses such eventualities seriously. When we occasionally see one, the participants talk about planning for that future, arranging things, changing current institutions. No way, José. In the run-up to that future, conflicts will mushroom. Indeed we may be in that time already, unknowingly. In the turmoil of those times such words as planning and societal change will no longer carry any meaning.

But, living as we do in the Age of Flickr, I’ve written too much. Virtually no one will read this far down, so I ought to bring this to a close.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Eat Fruit


Brigitte has always excelled in getting us to eat healthy food. Once it was greens hidden within pancakes and omelets, now it is fruit using pudding (sugar free, fat free, and all the rest) as the temptation. Today’s artful decorations are home-soaked rum raisins, bananas, apples, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and peaches (the last home-grown at Monique’s). Mint crowns the mandala.

A Small Down-Spiral Slide?

A story this morning (New York Times, “Starved Budgets Inspire New Look at Web Gambling”) suggested a slide down the spiral of social senescence ahead. That story also illuminates the oft-repeated problem of unanticipated consequences. One consequence of faith-based tax-cutting (as one might label it) is budget collapse. But while the right hand wants tax cuts, the population shakes its left fist when states or cities curtail or stop services. In consequence “novel” or “innovative” ways of raising revenues appear as pressures build. Gambling and fees are contenders. The first is regressive—because the poor gamble more. The second is arbitrary; it taps sub-groups of the population using some facility or consuming some category of services or products in order to fund the whole.

I liked what one of our Detroit mayors said when trying to defeat a casino measure a few years back. He suggested that we should legalize prostitution too. It might turn out to be even more popular than gambling, he said. And not least with convention visitors, I might add. The mayor eventually caved, alas, but he’d made a good point.

Give us this day our daily bread…and deliver us from “innovation.”

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Land of the Big PX

Writing a post on LaMarotte this morning about Chevrolet (link), that effort triggered by a headline in the Detroit News this morning, took me back in memory to a certain 1952 Chevrolet—which was my first car ever, purchased while I was in the U.S. Army, in Germany—which in turn made those times light up in memory. The memories are of the mid-to-late 1950s—and very different times they were indeed. Poorly paid enlisted servicemen although we were, in Germany we were relatively well off. The American dollar could get you four Deutsch Marks, and the DM had substantial purchasing power. Later on, in my first science fiction novel (The Siege of Faltara) I presented a society that lived on giant islands that floated high in the air above a gleaming planet; down there lived the lesser breeds. America’s general status in the world back then had suggested this image to me—echoed later using the image of enormously high towers (in A Hostage for the Hinterland, originally titled Helium) dominating a savage and barely visible down below. Back in those days GIs talked about Home as The Land of the Big PX. PX stands for Post Exchange. Every post had these, and in Germany you could buy American goodies there. People also talked about The Land of Round Door Knobs, but the PX image was more meaningful to me.

(GIs, by the way, were soldiers. The abbreviation, one of those military things, stood for General Issue. As a GI you knew that you were nothing special, buddy. Nothing unique. With the disappearance of the draft, these days GIs becomes a typo for a satellite-based Geographic Information System.)

Brigitte and I got to talking—about the old Chevy, its likely poor gas mileage, the cost of gas back then, and so on. In 1957, at the on-Post and thus American filling station, gasoline cost 39 cents a gallon. I got to wondering. It turns out that adjusting the 1957 price for inflation produces an equivalent today of $3.13 a gallon. Well. Lowest gas prices in Detroit this morning were $3.44 a gallon, $3.38 for the national average (according to a Mapquest service here.) Considering that military gas prices in Germany were highly subsidized, it looks very much like nothing much has changed—not on that front.

What has changed is the perception. From the wastes of Afghanistan, the U.S. no doubt still looks like the Land of the Big PX—but the troops there are engaged in real war, the killing and the dying kind, not merely passive force-projection. The equivalents of yesterdays GIs are all of them volunteers now and invariably heroes the moment they are killed. Nor do they have time to think about such things. What has changed is the enemy. Back then it was Russia, Communism, and every paper watching the commies intently. Now the papers are filled with images of barefoot towel-heads carrying old rifles. And the country to watch, as Brigitte observed the other day, perusing a multi-page advertisement in the New York Times by Russia, seeking investors here, is China. China has now become the Force to Fear. Orwell has taught us well. What’s changed is everything. And nothing. The present turns into memory, and memory becomes a bridge—from the Land of the Great PX to wherever we happen to be:

Sail on silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind.
     Paul Simon, Bridge Over Troubled Water

Friday, August 12, 2011

Caterpillar Turns Chrysalis



In the world of Lepidoptera, to which our Black Swallowtails belong, caterpillars morph into chrysalides, the fancy Greek for the common Latin pupae (dolls). Chrysalis is rooted in the Greek for gold (khrysos). Just before this transformation starts in earnest, the caterpillars become very active. The phase, called “wandering,” serves them to find suitable places for self-suspension for the duration…

This took place with ours yesterday. The by now huge beasties had devoured, devastated several dill plants and were now ranging far and wide in restless motion amidst the ruins. A couple found places early. Then, to our amazement, they began excreting huge amounts of liquids and dark mud and visibly shrank in size. This morning the first of them had already succeeded in forming its pupa, shown here. It is suspended by nearly invisibly tendons of silk and is also glued to the stick at its tail. The second photo shows another one in the earlier stage, but already suspended. Click images to enlarge them.

To see all of the activity, please follow these three links to YouTube (one, two, three). The first is the shortest and features Brigitte laughing (without copyright infringement).

Oh—and by the way. If you want to see “Sun-Drenched Total Boredom” mentioned in yesterday’s post, link to it here.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Money-Crazed, AI-Driven

Two notes on culture. I’ve got to fix these moments sharply in my head just in case, over in the next world, they have historical archivists whose only access to data are the well-resolved memory pictures of the living.

The first concerns photos of traders published in the papers every time the markets plunge. The traders are always staring at computer screens, the screens themselves not visible to us. They stare with uniquely tense, mesmerized, yet vaguely troubled expressions on their faces—as if looking at a gigantic sci-fi monster. There is an awe in these faces. Beholding that awe—if we don’t know the context—we’d never imagine that they are watching the unfolding of an activity entirely produced by human beings acting deliberately, in detail, communicating sell and buy orders by means of machinery of the most extreme sophistication humanity has as yet seen. All of the communications rest on computers, hence my reference to Artificial Intelligence, not least some of the trading—done by computers following buy-sell algorithms carefully programmed by people with astounding mathematical skills.

The second is an amusing personal experience. The pool where twice weekly Brigitte does water aerobics is right next to a sandy beach on Lake Saint Claire. Of late I’ve accompanied her and, while she does her thing, I sit on an Adirondacks chair, read a book, or watch the beach. The other day I took my little Kodak and—not having tried this before—I rested it on the wide armrest of my chair and let it take a digital film of minute wave movements, the slow distant slide of sailing yachts, swallows flying swiftly by, the occasional people flip-flopping along carrying towels, and so on.

Later I engaged the services of YouTube to turn my camera’s digital feed into an actual video, planning to use it on a family photo blog. It all went splendidly—and I had a video for true contemplatives: In five minutes virtually nothing happens at all. The sail boats are too far away, the birds are too fast, the waves do move—but you have to concentrate to see them. Sun-drenched total boredom, if you like.

Imagine my surprise when, an hour or so later, YouTube informs me by e-mail that I may have committed copyright infringement against Giant Music Company So-And-So—and lest I endanger my massive assets in a lawsuit, YouTube invites me to visit their site and clear the matter up. Good Lord, I thought. What did I do? Exercising what lawyers call due diligence, I investigated immediately—by watching Sun-Drenched Total Boredom yet again. Well, sure enough. At our pool management sometimes plays music over a loudspeaker. You know how it is these days. Music must be present—lest Modern Man die of tedium. There is music behind narrative in documentaries, music behind drama lest I fail to know how to feel (romantic, tense, scared). Therefore music, pop music, while the good people of Grosse Pointe Farms splash in the pool. And some of that music, quite distant, broken up by distance, but audible, was right there, captured by my sophisticated little Kodak’s enormously capable sound system—and this camera about the size of my billfold! Copyright violation!

Money crazed and AI-driven. For surely, I thought, laboriously clearing up the matter by answering YouTube’s lengthy questionnaire by means of keyboard, screen, and Internet linkages (landlines, wireless, satellite, etc.), surely, I thought, no human being, watching that video, could possibly think me a Copyright Violator! The little film had all the facts. Distant music played for the public. All broken up. But no human being was actually involved in YouTube’s message to me. It was all done by AI. Wasn’t it? A machine examined my video, ingenuously captured the pattern of the music, matched it to a database of music, identified it as the sole property of Giant Music Company So-And-So, selected the appropriate standard text to send me, put it in an e-mail, and sent it to me for Action Now.

I hope the archivists over beyond the Border up there will appreciate this little snippet and treasure it as a true marker of the state of affairs in the twenty-first century of the current era.

Our lake, by the way, was named after Saint Clare of Assisi, originally called Chiara Offreducio (1194-1253). She was one of Francis of Assisi’s earliest followers, founded the Order of Poor Ladies, and was the first woman, so Wikipedia tells me, to write a Monastic Rule. My knowing this, to be sure, is a by-product of my twenty-first century experience, and due to my due diligence in looking up the exact spelling of Lake Saint Claire. I bring you an image of Saint Clare, also from Wikipedia here. As for the archivists over there, I expect that they’ve already heard of Chiara and have her on file.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On Walls

Years ago now—many—I happened to rise very early and, turning on the television (something very rare, but it happened that morning) I chanced across a lecture broadcast by the University of Missouri aimed at distant learners who rose before the light to get an education.

The professor used photos and art to illustrate changes in architecture over long historical periods in Europe, specifically walls: their absence, appearance, rising height, growing thickness, and flourishing infestation of metal and out-jutting rock-work on top to deny access to those who would enter uninvited. Over time, centuries. The lecture also featured windows in the same way. The professor showed a Roman villa circa 40 AD with a stupendous, generous frontage reminiscent of trophy homes in a modern suburban super-rich neighborhood—and then progressed forward in time. Windows at first grew smaller; next they acquired iron bars; next they appeared ever higher up, beyond the reach of a tall man’s outstretched hand; next, up there, they narrowed, ever more, until at last they had become mere slits sufficient to spy attackers and to aim arrows at them as they advanced. Thus these architectural forms evolved, from imperial Rome to the High Middle Ages, when architecture began very gradually to change again. Windows opened, as it were; and walls diminished.

I watched in absolute fascination. Of course, of course, I kept saying to myself—delighted by the obvious. Slowly but surely architecture will reflect the actual state of society. When cracks appear in the social order, life goes right on, but increasingly those who are able to enclose themselves do so ever more.

Years later—not quite so many viewed from today—a conference took Brigitte and me to Anaheim. Yes, we visited Disney Land. And after that, on a whim, we decided to drive south to San Juan Capistrano using I-5. Along the way we saw many, many walled and gated communities atop flat rises in the landscape, clearly visible from the highway, not least their gates. Seeing them I remembered that lecture, heard by pure chance. And I thought of it again today thinking of the riots in Britain.

The picture I am showing, from Wikipedia (link), was actually built in the early sixteenth century in Santo Domingo, the Americas—but it has such a wonderful name, Fortaleza Ozama, that I could not resist.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

London Riots

Some of us around here encountered Theodore Dalrymple a decade ago and, in consequence, became aware of conditions at the bottom of British society. The occasion was his book, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass (2001). Next we discovered that Dalrymple was the pseudonym of a British prison doctor, psychiatrist, and writer—a man of unusual background and history: His mother was a Germany Jewess who had escaped Nazi Germany, his father a businessman with communist leanings; Dalrymple became a doctor and spent years working in Africa before becoming a prison doctor in London and Birmingham and emerged as a harsh and caustic writer and critic of modern culture. Also widely read was his Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses (2005). His most recent book, which I haven’t read, is Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality (2010). Dalrymple’s writings are based on direct experience—hence are most persuasive. And he writes very well.

The doctor came back into my consciousness as London’s Tottenham area exploded in riots on Monday. Two books and scores of his shorter articles, usually appearing in City Journal (link), had taught me a great deal—but the experience isn’t pleasant, hence Dalrymple had faded into the background. Now he was back. When riots take place in our own culture, we don’t speak of “British Spring,” but I noted this morning that the Media reflex to celebrate popular uprisings could not be entirely repressed. The New York Times notes this morning  the sophisticated skills of the rioters in running rings around the British Police using Blackberrys for communication and Facebook, Twitter to organize the mobs. They say. Or echo the Guardian as saying.

I’ll have to keep checking City Journal to read Dalrymple’s take on all of this. It will be interesting reading—not pleasant, but interesting.

Vox Populi

In the United States, certainly, the stock market has come to be the effective expression of vox populi, shown again by yesterday’s events. The Dow plunged, eventually losing 634 points. President Obama went on TV and did the rational thing. He spoke of markets. Casually. No emotion. Markets rise, he said. Markets fall. But he was on television, again, only because the oracle was roaring its displeasure. Mid-day I got e-mail from a fundamentalist site asking: “Is God Angry with America?”

Monday, August 8, 2011

Celebribility, Electability

A headline in today’s New York Times: “Where Cubans Can Meet the Beatles at Last.” The story deals with a bar in Havana that features the images and music of the Beatles. But never mind the story; the headline caught my attention. The writer and editors presumably have some sort of vague conviction that Cubans had been deprived, until the opening of this bar, called The Yellow Submarine, of some kind of transcending value by never having experienced the Beatles—thanks to repressive communist manipulations of the media. Certainly the writer, probably the editors too, associate rock ’n’ roll with revolution, leftist politics, and rapture. And emotion, however produced, is the accessible form of transcendence these days. Therefore that phrase, “at Last” in the headline. One almost hears a sigh.

Got me thinking. Got me thinking that gifts that enable a person or group to achieve celebrity (“celebribility”) might have the same functional characteristics that enable a politician to be electable (“electability.”) That word has surfaced yet again and will be much repeated in the coming months. And then I got to musing about the differences.

Celebrities become celebrities because of what they actually do—they sing, act, sway their bodies, beat guitars, wiggle their leg (Elvis), or bare their body parts. This arouses emotions in the population, sells records, results in TV appearances, vast concerts (Woodstock), etc. The celebrity and the skills these people have are one and the same thing.

But the same is not true for the politician. Yes. Politicians also connect to people by their personalities, by what they say, by the colorful clouds of emotions they generate, by projecting images of glowing futures that they promise to create. But these gifts—attractive family, forthright visage, eloquence, passion, the hands reaching to touch other hands that hold cell phones to photograph the celebrated image—all this, while it produces electability, has almost nothing to do with the actions promised.

When the celebrity has projected his or her image of desirability and roused vast primitive emotions (rock ’n’ roll indeed)—his or her job is already done. In the case of the politician, the projection merely enables an ability to try to deliver. Oh yes. Eloquence, truth, a glowing future. I watched President Obama at his 50th Birthday fundraiser do his electability bid again in Chicago last Wednesday. And afterwards contemplated Grand Canyon-deep gorges that separate these acts of projection and any delivery at all.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Butterfly Update No. 3

The new home of our Black Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillars—indoors. We began with three. In other words, we could actually detect three caterpillars when we brought the plant indoors into the sunroom. Soon we discovered that we had five—and, indeed, we may have more. They are shown in sequence here, from the bottom of the plant to the top. The small one is the last discovered, and obviously a youngster.






To those who are getting tired of this story, our apologies. But in truth these matters are at least as interesting to us as “culture,” “society,” “art,” “history,” “language” and all the rest. First-timers to this thematic may wish to pursue the links below, which go backward in time.

  • Initial discovery of Black Swallowtail caterpillars (link).
  • The story of their initial development, outdoors, and loss to birds (link)
  • Last year's story—and the famed Aristo! (link)
The pictures shown here were taken today. When we brought in the plant five days ago, the caterpillars were much smaller than the smallest one I show here today. These tiny things develop rather rapidly!

On Rising Curves

An early lesson I learned in my pursuit of practical economics—indeed I turned it into a personal slogan—is that no curve ever rises forever. It came in handy in the 1960s. Virtually every industrial curve was visibly rising, irresistibly, it seemed. Those of us hired to advise industry on the future were tempted to point at all those uptrending lines as the easy way out. Our clients were already on board with that. But one can’t take the low road, not responsibly. So I had my dispiriting slogan. Industry journals didn’t help. They made the most of those trends; boundless optimism was not only normal, it was politically correct. Just recalling the atmosphere then now reminds me how everything looked in those innocent days.

It was a period of continuous and rapid…Integration. The Industrial Age had, as it were, come of age. All that remained was to put all of the many pieces together. Technology, in those days, did not mean what it means today—the spread of cybernetics into ever smaller devices of communication. The word then meant the application of new materials across the vast universe of all kinds of products—industrial machinery as well as consumer goods. This included, at the industrial level, changes to machinery to process materials better and faster. One of the hottest trade magazines, those days, believe it or not, was Steel, and almost monthly innovations in forming, shaping, cutting, or preserving steel filled the magazine’s breathless pages. That too came to pass. Steel tried to keep itself alive by opening its pages more widely to technology (in the old sense of the word) but couldn’t quite manage the job. The atmosphere had changed. No sooner had the economy integrated all of these arts, mechanics, and materials than industry (old meaning) lost the public eye; its struts, wires, tendons, and muscles disappeared (as they do in organic bodies) under skin—and in their case beneath shiny outer bodies, the fuselage, and the reflecting surface of new architecture.

The next big visible issue turned out to be the very negatives of the now submerged Age of the Machine. Once it vanished, its wastes became visible. For some decades, beginning in the 1970s, Environment became the issue and eventually turned all of us into either would-be-green recyclers or dug-in clear-cutters and adamant regulation-haters. And then dawned the Age of the Computer with the Apple. The child of cybernetics—am I surprised that my spark plug fires at the wink of a built-in chip? not in the least; I’m inclined to yawn—the child of the chip is the Social Network, perhaps the last and final stage of…Integration. It’s still rising. Oh the excitement, the new Political Correctness (“Follow us on Facebook, Twitter”). Rising. Going public. Making the billions mushroom from nothing. But no curve rises for ever.

Is the next big age the Age of Disintegration? Have we just seen the birth of it in that almost-successful attempt to set a limit—somewhat lower than the sky—to debt? To be followed more effectively by new innovations coming tomorrow. Is this age beginning at the top but promising to come down all the way to us, bringing its desirable products and services to our own humble little homes in a decade or two? We shall see. But if it comes, the dis, we must remember that all rising curves eventually dip—and then in turn produce yet other new exciting things to write home about—if the Post Office is still up and running.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A More Visible Egypt

Having seen the secularist, modernist elements rise up in Egypt during the so-called Arab Spring, I watched with fascination as vast throngs of what the New York Times labeled Islamists filled Tahrir Square on July 29. This was a demonstration by the religious majority, estimated to account for between 80 and 90 percent of the population. Most of the rest are Coptic Christians. In the Nixon days this would have been called the silent majority. If the “spring” actually produces genuine democracy in Egypt, it is reasonable to anticipate a governing structure strongly reflecting the views of this majority—who favor Sharia law much more than libertarian secularist forms.

All through my life Egypt was more or less invisible thanks to its probably defensive self-alignment with the West. You would behave that way if little upstarts like Napoleon invaded you from time to time and made themselves Big. Another way to read the Arab Spring is to read it as Winter in the West. The Euro-American culture is in decline. Therefore Egypt has become more visible now. This land became a unified state, hold on now, in 3100 BC. It has 80 million people. It must be enormously diverse. It is damnably difficult to picture to ourselves, in anything like rich detail, the genuine reality of other cultures. When they become visible, they always surprise us. Iran? We see a mullah with a long grey beard, his head wrapped in a vast shawl. Read Reading Lolita in Tehran (Azar Nafisi) as a corrective. And so on. Egypt? Tourists standing by camels while in the near distance a pyramid throws its shadow…

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Caterpillar Crises, Recoveries

Late in July (as reported here) we discovered at first three and then an additional two tiny black-yellow caterpillars of one Black Swallowtail butterfly we had seen dancing our backyard some days before. Last year we had discovered one, and that one quite late in its progress. We named it, and the beauty that it eventually became, Aristo. Then, about three days later, the little dark but yellow-dotted creatures had rapidly grown to resemble last year’s Aristo, although they were then still less than half Aristo’s size. Herewith a couple of photographs of one, presented here, as it were In Memoriam. I’ll explain that phrase in a moment.





In Memoriam because, the very next day, to our utter horror, we discovered not only the first three we’d found but also the other two—gone. Some birds had found and dispatched them in the wink of an eye and five snaps of the beak later. And we entered a kind of period of mourning. And reflection. On the Nature of Things. All this marvelous work of butterfly flights, hovers over dill plants. Those very brief landings lasting just long enough to deposit eggs that, thanks to the gargantuan labors of DNA and enzymes and The Plan first appeared as lovely black-yellow and later as green-white-black caterpillars—intended someday soon, a few weeks later, to take wing themselves. But No! The sharp eyes of a bird, itself the magical product of nature, caught these delicious morsels and they turned into—food!

Over the next two weeks we happened to be present to witness for ourselves at least four or five new visits by Black Swallowtails. They must have very keen powers of smell to find our rather rich sampling of dill plants. They also came when we were gone, no doubt, and we’ve been gone a lot.

Well, what do you know! Inspecting those dill plants again, as I’ve done most mornings, this morning I discovered three new caterpillars, one on one and two on an other plant. They are at the early stage, thus very small, very dark, and displaying only a single yellow dot. Well indeed! I ran to get Brigitte. Then we prepared a large pot with fresh soil and immediately transplanted the two dill growths into the pot and brought that one indoors into our bright Sunroom where birds are perhaps visible but always through glass or screen alone.

Thus our butterfly adventure continues. If our luck extends, more notes will appear here in due time.