Friday, September 30, 2011

This September, We’ll Remember…

Every September, marking as it does
The tail of the season, produces a
Plant to remember it by. Last year a
Pumpkin in the compost heap had pride of
Place, this year we celebrate two small tomato
Plants. They arrived in small black plastic pots
We could just lift up to the sun held in
Two hands. Buried, they grew into this vast,
Grand, mad, tumultuous exuberance.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Great Poet, But Was He Babylonian?

Perhaps the greatest epic poet who ever lived wasn’t really a single individual. I think I know better, but I posses no more proof than the collective deposit of all human scholarship asserts. The person I have in mind is Homer. And his name came into my focus this time while thinking about an SF TV series, Babylon 5, whose creator is clearly known by name, J. Michael Straczynski. It occurred to me that in our own time the epic poem is still alive and well, here and there only, as television series. Further that Babylon 5 qualifies as such an epic in its temporal width, breath, scope, content, and indeed in its mythological framing.

Homer’s two great works, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were performed at four-year intervals by rhapsodes (reciter-singers) at the Panathenaen Festival (where the Olympics where also held). Thus these works had performances before extensive audiences. To be sure: those were ages that came before anything like wide-spread literacy had yet taken root—much as Babylon 5 was being performed before vast audiences gradually once more losing those same roots (at least if recent statistical surveys are correct).

But when did our poet live? Certainly after the Trojan War (1194-1184 BC), but how long after? The earliest biographies of Homer appear to have been written some 800 years after the war. A man whom the Encyclopedia Britannica (EB) labels pseudo-Herodotus (the real one lived 484-425 BC) puts Homer’s birth at 1102 BC. The real Herodotus thought that Homer had lived “not more than 400 years before me,” which EB assumes meant 830 BC. So there you have the rough range.

In looking all this up—and realizing just how fuzzy and vaporous Homer’s origins really are—it delighted me to discover that a satirist of our own time notation, Lucian (125-180 AD) had suggested, in his True History, that Homer was actually a Babylonian and had been called Tigranes. How Lucian could have known that is not on record, but his argument was that Tigranes, having been taken captive by Greeks, assumed the name Homeros, which in Greek means “hostage.” (A Hostage for the Hinterland, as it were.) This gave me pleasure. It permits me to link a modern poet, Straczynski, and an ancient one. The first came from Babylon 1. The other created Babylon 5.

All things are possible—if the song has the right melody.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Canopus in Argo Navis

Members of my family are now reading Shikasta, both in paper and e-book formats. Shikasta is the first novel in a work by Doris Lessing titled Canopus in Argos, first discovered and introduced into Ghulfdom by Michelle, years ago already, but such works march through the clan at a royal pace, as it were. It was when I’d first read it, also years ago, that I became aware of an interesting fact. There really is a constellation Lessing called Argos, and the giant star Canopus is indeed its anchor. The official name of it is Argo Navis. Jason and his Argonauts are responsible for this projection onto the southern skies. And yes. The constellation is a ship. That constellation itself makes a spellbinding story in its own way.

Argo Navis has two unique features. It used to be the largest of the constellations, featuring the second brightest star visible in our skies: Canopus, of course. The brightest is Sirius. The second distinction Argo merits is that it is the only constellation, of the 48 that Ptolemy (90-168) listed in his Almagest, that has since been, well, chopped apart, dismissed, subdivided, what have you. It is no longer officially recognized as a constellation. As Doris Lessing no doubt believes, we are still living in the dark ages dominated by Shammat (read Devil), who wants to distract our eyes from Canopus.

Not surprisingly for me (temperamentally, obdurately, perversely traditionalist that I’ve become), the dismemberment of Argo took place at the hand of Nicolas Louis de Lacaille (1713-1762), the French astronomer. It took place in 1752, thus close to the period called the Enlightenment, the death of which I date to the French Revolution. What did de Lacaille do? He divided Argo Navis into Carina, Puppis, and Vela, the keel, stern, and sails of the old ship. Am I hearing cheers for Progress?

Now for some pictures.

This outline shows Argo Navis as the ancients probably depicted it, meaning the stars they connected to form it. Note the central, anchoring position of Canopus. You can also see Sirius high above at the right edge of the image. The sails are triangular in shape. The long line extending from the deck upward through the sails was once known as the Malus, the Mast but is now the constellation Pyxis, the Compass. The ancients once also drew lines downward from stars here marked b and n to represent oars. Next I show the constellations as de Lacaille drew them, first how the sky looks to human eyes, next the lines that form today’s Carina, Vela, and Puppis.

In the diagram above, the sails have been enlarged. Maybe the winds of modernity had really picked up by de Lacaille’s time. The French astronomer’s Carina does not have the diamond-shaped figure shown here atop its left extremity in blue (the red outlining is mine), but my source on Wikipedia commons (link), one Michelet B, includes it. To see these details, its best to click through, of course. The old ship, in other words, is still there, and not all that modified. But the name has been lost. But thanks to science fiction, as this work by Doris Lessing’s is classified, the lost memory of Canopus in Argos has been recovered.

I hesitate to say much about that opus beyond noting that the most stunning science fiction always transcends the genre. These books, beginning with Shikasta, are not really entertainment reading, do not fit the rubric of aesthetics, but are certainly something difficult and special.

Let me conclude with a stylized and popularized diagram I’ve found on a crossword puzzle page (link) (and nowhere else), without indication of its source. It’s the most pleasing image, but I for one can’t make any kind of sense of it. If true, however, Canopus is not in but out of Argos. And that’s a bit of a disqualifier.

Added November 14, 2011. In a comment to this post Claire Grace Watson informed that she is the source of the image shown above. The lovely diagram is the way the Minoan Age (27th to 15th century BC) saw this constellation. Claire's own site, Disk of the World, is a beauty and a wonder (link). She is a Florida-based writer and artist. Thank you!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Happy Birthday!


My homepage graphic is a photo of a long dock pointing into a lake, one of Google's stock images. I rarely click to see what image Google hides, but that it has some image on a given day is shown by little colored dots next to its name. Today I clicked the dots. It's Google's Thirteenth! My respect for that number is known, hence this posting. And with thanks for the free services this blog has received over a period growing into its third year. All the best.


My exercise is walking. For the second year now my walks take place in a quite different neighborhood in fall and winter than my own—owing to the place where Brigitte does her aqua dynamics. Our own is old and upscale, this one is young and upscale. Ever since we moved to Michigan in 1989, the most striking feature of these neighborhoods has been their emptiness—if you ignore automobiles—and this holds as strictly in the old as in the newer area. I walk at least an hour, more often an hour and a half. In that time I rarely see more than one or two people—exempting only grass-cutting crews. These are loud clusters mostly of machines, one or two men wearing ear protection and blowing grass off sidewalks when I actually see them on foot. I let the sound of these clusters guide my walk, hence often only hear but don’t see them.

My first walk this fall in the new area came the other day. Herewith some images of emptiness.

One sees tell-tale signs of human activity, thus this severe abstract art of lawn-painting done with a massive riding mower.

The neighborhood is younger, but here and there developers have spared one or two of the aboriginal inhabitants. Here is one that invited me to “keep looking up.”

This image shows, curiously, a walking path down the center of a large grass-covered island. Coming right at it from the far distance is a car, but it will have to turn rather than entering this narrow strip intended for the walker. But no walker in sight—except myself. Trees, power lines, pavement, houses, bugs, birds, squirrels, butterflies—and giant insects like trucks, vans, cars. No people in sight. This, I expect, is what our biophysicists see when they examine the innards of living cells. They see a landscape empty of agency. The actual “people” who fashioned the chemical civilization are nowhere to be seen.

And then there are pristine object lessons in Infinity, e.g. this arrow-straight sidewalk. Tangible silence. Tactile emptiness.

Monday, September 26, 2011


My title refers neither to the Pleiades in the Constellation Taurus nor to the seven daughters of Atlas who were transformed into those stars. Rather, I am drawing attention to a eponymous website (link). I stumbled upon it rather late in my e-life. I could have used it many times before. Under senior editors Roger Bagnall and Richard Talbert, Pleiades provides information on the current location of ancient sites in the Greek and Roman world. The site hosts contributions of scholars and other kinds of madmen—and transforms obscure knowledge into maps you can actually look at, and with confidence.

I went there, as the saying has it, because I wondered about the location of Marpessos, the birth-place of Sybilla (mentioned in the last post). More specifically, that river, Aidoneus, intrigued me. The best I could do with that name was to discover that it was one of the names of Hades. The clouds eventually cleared, and Pleiades became visible. After that I managed to get a map location of ancient Marpessos in current-day Turkey. It follows here. I point to it with a faint arrow in western Turkey using a map courtesy of Bing.

A blow-up of the map, this time from Google, shows the town of İntepe, Turkey as the largest nearest settlement. But the old Marpessos was actually further south and east, thus in the vicinity of Çamlica toward the center and bottom of the map.

View Larger Map

What saddened me is that there are no rivers in this regions, not even brooks, nothing flowing and large enough to leave a line visible on any web-map I’ve consulted at the highest level of magnification. Maybe Aidoneus was subterranean, which would be right for a river from hell.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Note on the Optics of History

This post is an addendum to my “Sibylline” posts, on the general subject (here) and on Saint Hildegard of Bingen (here). As I noted in the first, the original prophetess who probably lent her name to a long line of sibyls, Sibylla of Marpessos, lived in or before the sixth century BC. In my second post I write about a prophetess who lived in the twelfth century AD and was born more than 900 years ago. The big difference between these two figures is that Sibylla, while her name and fame survive, is by now very obscure; in contrast, we have masses of information about Hildegard. Mere phrases of almost equally obscure but famous writers refer to Sibylla. Thus (as I’ve already quoted earlier, Heraclites said of her: “With her maddened mouth … she reaches a thousand years with her voice by the power of the god”—much as Hildegard’s voice still reaches us today. The magical or spiritual powers of these women are explained in different ways depending on the culture that surrounded them. The ancients derived the sibyls from divine-human unions, as in this quote from the Sibylline oracles† I’ve chanced across:
[A]nd I am born between a mortal and a god,
Of an immortal nymph and a father who fed on bread;
From my mother Ida-born, but my fatherland is red
Marpessos, consecrated to my mother, and its river is the
By contrast Saint Hildegard’s gifts were attributed to divine inspiration. The ancient sibyls have become almost invisibly tiny owing to temporal distance, whereas Hildegard is still accessible to us today through many writings, not least her own.

Now writing these posts the obvious occurred to me. It is that those ancient women were doubtless as real and complex in their own times as Hildegard was in hers. That their fame rested on something more than just a “maddened mouth,” rested on real qualities and gifts as marvelous as Hildegard’s. These women often had long lives—certainly true of the Sibyl of Cumae in the early Roman era. If by some science fiction magic we could be transported to their own times, taught the language by some little Star Trek device plugged into the left ear, and by a “time distortion” so very common in SF series we could spend, say thirty years observing those times while not aging but ten minutes in our own—why then we would be as amazed and awed by the ancient sibyls as we are by a phenomenal figure like Hildegard of Bingen.

Through the incredible compression of time, however, the ancient sibyls appear small. Therefore the modern tendency is to display a half-sardonic little smile when stories of them surface. We belittle the past because it has become—tiny. This applies, of course, to all of the figures of the past. Despite our at best modest achievements, we feel superior to them, dismissing the past’s utter ignorance. “Can you imagine? They cut up goats, looked at their guts, and from that foretold the future? What a scam. Boy those people were gullible. Gullible!” Do we have social habits equally absurd? Of course we do. Do we notice our own silliness? Not in the least. But it will take two thousand years or so before the public then, enmeshed in yet other insanities, will look at us with those bemused smiles of superior wisdom with which we contemplate the benighted ancients.

†Jennifer Lynn Larson, Greek Heroine Cults, p. 126, available on the web (link).

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Piling it on: Another Orwellianism

It startled Brigitte yesterday to hear, on a rebroadcast of a hearing by the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Growth, tax exemptions and loopholes defined, by various high-level witnesses as, tax expenditures. This morning she asked me to define “tax expenditures.” Okay. That sounds like a rather weird question, but I knew she was going somewhere interesting. So I began in my usual down-to-earth way saying: “Well, checks the government writes to pay soldiers, buy tanks, Social Security, pay its bureaucracy, maintenance of national parks…” Brigitte stopped me. And she told me what people, like one-time Fed Chairman Greenspan, and others, defined as “tax expenditures.” The things she included did not sound like expenditures to me.

“It’s another of your Orwellianisms,” she said.

I went on a hunt. Sure enough. I found the matter explained on Deliberately Considered (link). Here is the relevant paragraph:
Are tax expenditures an entirely different matter? The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 (Public Law 93-344) defines tax expenditures as, “…revenue losses attributable to provisions of the Federal tax laws which allow a special exclusion, exemption, or deduction from gross income or which provide a special credit, a preferential rate of tax, or a deferral of liability.” That is, in plain English: tax expenditures are lost tax revenues caused by special exceptions to tax laws. By law, a list of “tax expenditures” must be included in the President’s budget in a section titled “Analytical Perspectives,” prepared by the Office of Management and Budget. The list for 2012 includes 173 “tax expenditures (p 241 – 251),” which total over one trillion dollars for the fiscal year beginning October 1, 2011. As objective as this may sound, the list and estimates of “cost” is actually quite subjective, because analysts posit the starting point of the tax baseline.
Congress was dominated by the Democrats (both houses) in that year. The motivation behind this phrasing could, presumably, be pinned down sharply with lots of research. But never mind that. Here is a simple case of using a word to mean roughly the exact opposite of what it has traditionally meant.

You cannot expend, meaning spend, money you don’t actually have. To view as expenditures money that you have not collected—and have not collected because laws in place prevent you from collecting them—that is not a tax expenditures.

Behind this lies some kind of really strange logic, certainly intended in some ways to confuse. That is the issue, always, when the meaning of words is arbitrarily changed by those with authority enough to make the concept stick more or less.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Ecliptic

Today’s the day of the autumnal equinox. I understand it better this year than ever before. In the course of writing a post on the astrolabe for LaMarotte, I came to understand what’s known as the ecliptic. It is one of those maddening words. It reflects simultaneously two different points of view and two theories of the solar system. In one the sun goes around the earth; in the other we go around the sun. Here for instance is Webster’s definition of the ecliptic:
The great circle of the celestial sphere that is the apparent path of the sun among the stars or of the earth as seen from the sun: the plane of the earth’s orbit extended to meet the celestial sphere.
If it is a circle, why call it the ecliptic? It comes from creating eclipses, not the shape, although the earth’s orbit is ever-so-slightly elliptical, but not so much that you would notice. That path of the sun among the stars is the legacy of the geocentric view. It prevailed from the end of the Hellenistic era to the acceptance of Copernicus and Galileo in the West. The earth as seen from the sun is the other, the heliocentric view. Now, confusingly, virtually all pictures of the ecliptic have the earth smack in the center—so that the sun seems to be doing all the moving. That, of course, shows that our real orientation is egocentric. The ecliptic only interests humans because it explains the seasons on earth. An honest picture is the following:

The sun is squarely in the center. We do the traveling. The line we describe is the ecliptic. The sun is “in Aquarius,” as people say, meaning from our perspective; therefore it’s late January or early February. The circle of the zodiac was first determined by people waiting for sunrise. As soon as the first light appeared, they looked above that spot at the still dark sky. The constellation they detected right above the sun was the “house” in which the sun was rising. In July-August, when the earth will be where Aquarius is shown on the sketch, the dawn-watchers will see the constellation of Leo instead. Brigitte was born in Aquarius; I was born in Leo. Astrologically we complement each other. But, of course, neither Aquarius nor Leo ever move. Nor does the sun except around its axis. Anyone who could survive on the sun and live in a fixed spot there could divide his sun-day into twelve sun-hours by looking at the sky and reading off a sign of the zodiac. “See you no later than Sagittarius…”

But let’s now turn to the more usual illustration. An attractive one is show below from Wikipedia’s page on the Equinox (link). As expected, it shows the ecliptic circling the earth, whereas the earth is circling the sun, but never mind. What Wikipedia is doing here is depicting the first part of Webster’s definition above, the sun’s apparent path.

Notice next that the earth, which circles the sun following the ecliptic (the horizontal light-green ellipse), does so at a tilt to the ecliptic. This also means that our equator—and the “celestial equator” that we project from it (tilted dark-green oval)—are also at a tilt. As this diagram clearly shows, the ecliptic is therefore located below the equator through half the year and above it through the other half. And where we see the ecliptic, there we see the sun. Therefore the sun appears below the equator and then above it. The exceptions are two days of the year when the ecliptic makes its two crossings. Those days mark the autumnal and the vernal equinoxes; the sun is precisely over the equator. During those two 24-hour periods, day and night are of equal length. Note that the point of crossing is at the intersection of the vertical line drawn at 90° to our actual orbital plane, thus to the ecliptic.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Another Orwellianism?

The one I have in mind is calling suicide bombers cowards. This one’s been around for a while, but not all that long; but I do think that it predates the 9/11 attack. Every time I hear it, I shudder. The dictionary definition is rather straight-forward: “one who shows ignoble fear or timidity.” Ordinary Americans seem to accept this definition without any difficulty at all. Even a cursory look at the web shows many exchanges questioning this use of the word. The consensus seems to be: It takes courage to become a suicide bomber, not cowardice. Those on chat sites who disagree with this position show themselves to be quite incapable of using language as a carrier of truth.

Let me sharpen the issue. Let’s take a man who enlists in our volunteer army in a time of war. By doing so he agrees to fight in combat, thus endangering his life. The difference between this man and a suicide bomber, who also views himself as killing enemies, is the probability of paying the ultimate price. Are we therefore entitled to call the new enlistee a coward lite—and lite because he might survive his career under arms?

This subject has even attracted academic interest. Michael Weber of Yale has published an article in Public Affairs Quarterly (October 2005) titled “Are Terrorists Cowards?” It’s interesting reading. It instructs us concerning the mental acrobatics possible, indeed necessary, when we accept the premise, even if only for the sake of argument. Weber’s bottom line is that calling terrorists cowards is a rhetorical device to strengthen the American people to “support aggressive reply to terrorist attacks” and that “If this is right, and intentional, then perhaps Bush and other leaders who insist that terrorists are cowards are smarter than we think they are, however much we might hate to admit this.” — And I paid JStor $18 for the privilege of learning this?

The genuine value I obtained from the article is the reminder, Weber provides this in a footnote, that Bill Maher, the late host of Politically Incorrect, got his show cancelled when he opined that the 9/11 terrorists had been courageous rather than cowardly.

My bottom line, obviously, is that courage is courage, cowardice cowardice. Calling one the other can’t really fool the common people but may cause the privileged minority to lean every which way to stay on message. I also have genuine grounds for writing off our entire establishment. The center will hold, however, even if it has no voice.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Biting on the Coin of Science

The curious fact about science is that those who invoke the word are not actually talking about the activity but about something that they take to be Authority, something functionally equivalent to what in other times the Holy Word represented. In secular times that word is supposed to be the last word on any subject. The problem is that we still have meaningfully large constituencies that believe in the scriptures. And that we have not one but many scriptures that compete. Actual science does not lend itself to ex cathedra pronunciations. It offers no absolute certainties. These can be read into certain scientific findings, but those who know their science know that those who treat scientific findings as certainties are making a category error.

Monday, September 19, 2011

And Say Hello to Beatrice for Me

I learned of this poetic excursion by one of my favorite poets, Kipling, about one of my very favorite novelists, from yet another, Angela Thirkell (in her Jutland Cottage). Now all three are Up there. Herewith:

Jane’s Marriage
by Rudyard Kipling

Jane went to Paradise:
That was only fair.
Good Sir Walter followed her,
And armed her up the stair.
Henry and Tobias,
And Miguel of Spain,
Stood with Shakespeare at the top
To welcome Jane —

Then the Three Archangels
Offered out of hand
Anything in Heaven’s gift
That she might command.
Azrael’s eyes upon her,
Raphael’s wings above,
Michael’s sword against her heart,
Jane said: “Love.”

Instantly the under-
Standing Seraphim
Laid their fingers on their lips
And went to look for him.
Stole across the Zodiac,
Harnessed Charles’s Wain,
And whispered round the Nebulae
“Who loved Jane?”

In a private limbo
Where none had thought to look,
Sat a Hampshire gentleman
Reading of a book.
It was called Persuasion
And it told the plain
Story of the love between
Him and Jane.

He heard the question,
Circle Heaven through —
Closed the book and answered: “I did – and do!”
Quietly but speedily
(As Captain Wentworth moved)
Entered into Paradise
The man Jane loved!

Jane lies in Winchester, blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made.
And while the stones of Winchester – or Milson Street – remain,
Glory, Love, and Honour unto England’s Jane!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Computer as Typewriter

When my Internet connection fails I feel a kind of silence, but it’s not the pleasing kind. It’s the silence of a power failure. We’re used to the all-pervading vibration all of our electric gadgets. It’s the silence of the dead refrigerator. Next I note that the software I use most is absolutely useless. What remains is the functionality that made me buy a computer long ago. The computer is the typewriter I once but dreamt about. Brigitte and I chanced across a new store that sells old objects—old objects and beautiful. We saw two or three old typewriters on display there—and I do mean old. But they were in pristine condition. We stopped before them and reached out reverently to touch raised keys. Memories. The keys activated slender metal armlets; at the end of each was a tiny metallic letter you can feel with the fingertip. But the feel of these old tools is also awkward. They are bulky, primitive—as if, reaching into a kitchen drawer for a knife we’d come up with a stone chipped so that it has a kind of cutting edge.

Back in antiquity, in my BC years, I used to pass a computer store on trips for groceries. It was dark in there as in stores that sell radios, music systems, TV sets. Techy. Finally one day I dared to enter this alien space. I stood unmoving, a little awestruck. I did not understand the things I saw. My rigid silence eventually drew a clerk. Could he help me? I said: “Do you have any of these that come with a typewriter attached?” This my incoherent way of asking if you could get computers to print something—which I had then imagined as requiring little metal armlets hitting a rubber roller moving paper upward line by line.

Later I also discovered that the computer was not too bad a calculator, either. And I even knew its name, a spreadsheet, because I’d earlier used paper spreadsheets, and little electric calculators, to do laboriously what now happened all at once. Change one number and the results of all linked equations changed at once. In a word, my life became much easier. What used to take weeks of effort—like typing a long manuscript—became the work of a couple of days of final proofing. What used to take days of calculation got done in an hour or two.

Then came the Internet. And when it’s not available, and the old uses of the computer are suddenly its only uses, then I feel exactly the same way as we did in the store the other day fingering those heavy, clunky keys. We’ve just experienced such a failure, an outage due to a defective power cord. It extended over two days; for more, see this. Bracing, that, I can tell you. What if the power had also failed? I just realized that I no longer own any kind of typewriter, not even an electric one. And as an emergency measure, I would be tempted to buy one of those antiques we saw—if I could find a source for typewriter ribbons. Instead I’ve just taken an inventory. Thank heaven I still own pencils and even an actual bottle of ink. When the end times come, we shall still write. Courage. We shall overcome.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Sibyl of the Rhine

Today is the feast day of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a remarkable figure of the twelfth century, of a reach and influence—not to say diversity of talents—difficult to match in that period or any other. Quite rightly she is known as the Sibyl of the Rhine—that title linking her back to visionary women all the way into antiquity. More than that. In this suffocatingly secular era, she is one of the only great saints with an active popular cult. In her own time her spirituality, in subsequent times her fame as a prophetess, in our own her music—and a popular embrace of feminism—keep her name alive for a public that extends far wider beyond the Catholic culture which was her world.

This woman was a phenomenon—from the beginning. Walking with her nurse as a child, she passed a cow. Hildegard was the tenth, youngest child of a noble family; she tended to be sickly. “Look,” she said, pointing at the cow. “Look how beautiful the calf is inside the cow, all white with dark patches on his forehead, feet and back!” Hildegard was five years old! A wide-eyed nurse told Hildegard’s mother about this. The mother decided to follow matters. And, Yes. At the calf’s birth, the future saint turned out to have seen just what she’d described to her nurse. — I have this story from testimonies presented during the process of Hildegard’s canonization. That process petered out; Hildegard was never officially canonized. But such was her fame and following that the Church entered her name into the Roman Martyrology, a book that holds a list of saints recognized by the Catholic Church.

Hildegard had visions very early in life. The first, as she recalled in an autobiography, had come at the age of three. She was 42 before, in midst of yet another crisis of health, she began to write her visions down. She regained her health at once. That work was Scivias (Know the Ways); it records twenty six visions. She also supervised the production of thirty-five illustrations.

Here was a woman who’d never had formal education and acquired her Latin bit by bit, on her own. Yet she wrote nine books in Latin, some quite extensive. Scivias has 150,000 words and, in modern print, would be 600 pages long. Three books of visions. Six other works. Physica is about natural science, Casae et Curae concerns health, herbs; she also wrote a second book on medicine. She published her own letters, a hagiography; she wrote on the rule of monastic orders, on women, children, and childbirth, and other subjects. Some of these works were in German. She also wrote a morality play (Play of the Virtues)—for which she also composed the accompanying music. She was a poet; some 70 of her poems survive. And—such is the nature of a creative soul—she created a special alphabet in which to render a new language that she had created. She called it Lingua Ignota, the unknown language. A phenomenon.

She also acted in the world. She corresponded with the great and mighty. Quite early she won the admiration of a powerful future saint, Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian order. She corresponded with the Pope. At the height of her fame she conducted four preaching tours, appearing in major cathedrals. A woman preaching in that era was quite a sensation—but the great men of her era were in support. And not least—and this endeavor was also very much in the world—she founded three monasteries for women, almost always against the inertial but also only initial opposition of local bishops. She is most famed for her music today.

YouTube likes Hildegard. Many, many selections. A short piece, O vis aeternitatis (2 minutes) is here. A longer presentation, but with many illustrations from her prophetic works (9+ minutes) is here. The last is Canticles of Ecstasy. Her work is also available on CDs. Some put her compositions at 70, some at 80; she might have had others that did not survive.

* * *

I encountered Hildegard at Barnes & Noble, actually—looking for a gift for my Mother. Mother loved and also played music. A package fell into my hands. It was a CD and a book, entitled Vision, shrink-wrapped tightly together. A medieval nun who composed music? This was the gift. Only later, after I’d read the book, did I discover that I’d lived some time in Hildegard’s back yard, as it were, in Bad Kreuznach during my army years—just nine miles south of Bingen on the Rhine, where Hildegard, a Benedictine nun, founded the first of eventually three monasteries.

The appearance of such people makes me shake my head. The Sibyl of the Rhine? Hildegard’s prophecies were decidedly about transcendental realities—not future wars, conquests, and such. Yet she was deemed a prophet. And many people in the secular world of that time scoured her writings looking for “hints” that they might turn to some advantage. This grubby interest, however, caused her writings to be copied and thus preserved.

The present interest is of a similar nature. Feminism discovered in her a medieval woman who confronted the dominant male order and prevailed against it. Yes. It’s possible to treat history as a Rorschach blot and read into it whatever pleases. A closer look at Hildegard reveals, instead, a time radically different from our own. Radically different. Except for the same-old, same-old. It’s still there in the twelfth as in the twenty-first. But the air has a different feel.

Let me conclude this long post with a quote from Scivias. The speaker is Love:

Thus I am concealed in things as fiery energy. They are ablaze through me, like the breath that ceaselessly enlivens the human being, or like the wind-tossed flame in a fire. All these things live in their essence, and there is no death in them, for I am life. I also am rationality, who holds the breath of the resonant word by which the whole of creation was created; and I have breathed life into everything, so that nothing by its nature may be mortal, for I am life.

And I am life: not the life struck from stone, or blossoming from branches, or rooted in a man’s fertility, but life in its fullness, for all living things have their roots in me. Reason is the root, through which the resonant word flourishes.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Booze Imbued the Bibber

The linguistic secret in this title is that all of the words in it, neglecting the article only, have to do with moisture and derive from the concept of drinking, although by different routes. The bibber, usually rendered as the winebibber, derives from the Latin bibere, to drink. Imbue means (Webster’s) to tinge or to dye deeply and to cause to become penetrated. The Latin here is imbuere—but that word came from imbibere, thus to drink or to soak in. In our enlightened times, with every step farther removed from the humble handicrafts where people did the soaking and the dying by hand, the word has come to have a quite different and abstract meaning—as this quote illustrates, from the highest authority, as it were:
Nevertheless, in order to imbue civilization with sound principles and enliven it with the spirit of the gospel, it is not enough to be illumined with the gift of faith and enkindled with the desire of forwarding a good cause. [Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris]
But let’s descend to the lowest low, booze. That word derives from the Middle Dutch verb busen, thus to drink heavily. The word appears to have achieved the status of a noun by the early eighteenth century. The powers that be (I mean in heaven, now) do have a sense of humor. Etymologists believe that the name of a Philadelphia distiller, called E.G. Booze, had something to do with the word’s spread. I myself even like that e.g.

This discussion with a hat tip to my Muse, Brigitte, who looked up from the paper the other day and wondered about the origin of imbue. Curiosity imbues her, you see.

Highway Signage

With only days of summer left, it’s time to wrap up our vacation. During our brief but glorious excursion we made notes of things we should look up. The last item on that list reads “Highway Signs.” We’re still a young country, but our signage has become confusing. (But has it ever been otherwise? Doubt it.) Thus, for instance, we knew the Interstates (of course). We’d guessed that the white diamond with an M on top must be a Michigan State highway. County roads were marked as such. But what about all those shield-shaped signs?

The hierarchy of signage is shown by the arrangement of the display above. The shields turn out to have been national, thus U.S. highways; not the mighty four-lane Interstates, to be sure, but their humbler predecessors. Today I discovered that the signage for U.S. highways that’d we’d seen was the older version. The official form, recommended by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is a white shield over a black background, with lettering in black. But FHWA’s authority does not compel the states to change all signage; hence many of the old signs are still up. And even older version may be glimpsed here and there. Had we seen those, we wouldn’t have been puzzled. Those actually identified the state where the highway ran—but underneath, clearly spelled out, was the U.S. designation, thus US Highway 23 in Michigan.

While looking up these matters on the web, I discovered something interesting. Signage, evolving over time, has lost information. Not uniformly, not everywhere, but information has been sacrificed for uniformity and to save money. That’s already visible in the previous graphic. The oldest sign for a U.S. highway is much more informative than the new. What follows are two graphics showing signage for four states. None follows FHWA’s recommendation that all states should adopt the Michigan style State Highway sign, thus the diamond with a letter or combinations of letters identifying the state—in abbreviation, of course. Fast. Quick. Nanosecond. In this sampling Kansas uses the sunflower symbol, but its old sign is more informative. The Texas signage hasn’t changed much. Minnesota’s has improved. Its 1948 sign tells you nothing at all; the current one carries both the state’s name and outline. Missouri has retained its outline, but its 1948 sign still has the name.

Finally, some changes at the very top (the Interstate) and the bottom (county signs):

In earlier times, Interstate signs carried the name of the state through which the Interstate was passing now. That sometimes useful information has been sacrificed to cost control. The two county signs, both for Michigan, have retained their information. The change has been to make Michigan counties look just a little sexier—in the current signage, anyway.

To see all current state highway signs look here, to see the 1948 signage, here.

We can cross this item off our list…and turn to the task of making room for our plants in the basement in anticipation of the first frost advancing toward us from the future. Our furnace came on as I was struggling with images this morning.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hellenistic Science Rules

The best books come to me as gifts from my children. Michelle gave me The Forgotten Revolution, by Lucio Russo, for my birthday. It is subtitled “How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why It Had to Be Reborn.” The original in Italian appeared in 1996, the English version, Springer imprint, in 2004. Russo is an Italian historian of science, a physicist, and a professor at the University of Rome Tor Vergata.

This is a splendid and decidedly original work. Its thesis is that what we call modern science originated in full during the Hellenistic era and was essentially lost before that era ended thanks to the collision of Greek with Roman culture. The Romans had no interest in science; their focus was exclusively on power and administration. Science was reborn, and largely through the rediscovery of lost documents (many recovered only as Arabic translations from the Greek) beginning in the sixteenth century. One of his (for me) more fascinating observations is that our tendency to speak of the Graeco-Roman civilization as if it was a coherent whole is a coarse and ignorant blending of what were really opposites, an advanced civilization overcome and essentially buried under by a more primitive force.

Hellenism is typically dated from the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC) to the death of Cleopatra (30 BC), thus the onset of the decadent Roman imperial age. Russo thinks that the scientific era that began with Hellenism actually faded earlier, destroyed by Roman expansionism. He dates it to Rome’s conquest of Greece in the Battle of Corinth (146 BC —the same year that also saw Carthage destroyed). That date also roughly coincided with the Egyptian Ptolemy VIII’s rule (a monarch under Roman influence) who began the intense persecution of the Greek community in Alexandria (145-144 BC), a major center of Greek science.

Anybody interested in the history of science will find this book eye-opening. One of its valuable features is that it corrects a deeply rooted current view. It is that the ancients had discovered bits and pieces of science—but it required our genius to do the thing right. Russo’s view is that the Greeks had already done it—right, in other words. We are just now catching up with them. And in some ways some of our greatest (Newton) had still not caught the spirit of the thing and some of our more recent heroes (e.g. Niels Bohr) were again sliding away from the core insights of the Hellenists.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

This Too Shall Pass

I happened across an evidently well-known Virgil quote yesterday on Laudator. It must be well known because I found it easy to get a translation of the phrase into English, not present where I saw it. On Laudator I always feel decidedly like a fellahin, and justly so. Here is the quote:
Dabit Deus his quoque finem.
God will also bring this to an end—which just happens to match one of our most basic sayings within Ghulfdom, and we are not alone.

The more we know the more humble we ought to be—because as knowledge expands so does awareness of the vast universes we’ve not even approached. Having read Dante a while back I couldn’t help but become very aware of Virgil, Dante’s guide right to the gates of heaven. In that connection I looked up the poet, read bits. Of course I’d also read or used other snippets from him (see this, for instance). With the Roman culture I am exactly in the same position as those who used bricks and stones from once splendid Roman architectural works to build their hovels. I meant to read the Aeneid, one of these days, the celebration of Rome’s foundation, but to speak of an urge here is incorrect. Whether in writing that work Virgil was celebrating the Augustan age or poetically critiquing it, that scholars are still debating. In any case his focus was the founding of what I view as a secular domain, which interests me not at all. And I don’t even have a child’s Latin any more, hence I can’t appreciate Virgil’s works in the original.

Nevertheless, like a child, having found that quote, I ran upstairs to read it to Brigitte with a manner, although camouflaged in a 75-year-old body, of a little boy: “Look, Ma! Look what I found!”

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Truth or Consequences

A subject futurists almost never mention is that some features of the future are indeed predictable with certainty. Two are famous: death and taxes. There is a tiny minority who think that death itself may be an endangered species if we but put our trust in Science—something sure to please those people who sniff insulin to stave off Alzheimer’s disease. Tea party enthusiasts, a little more numerous than the would-be life-extenders, also hope that taxes will someday also be forgotten—but they will surely die before that glorious day dawns. Unmentioned is human nature which, as sure as I am sitting here, will deliver at least as much trouble in the so well predicted future—beyond Alvin Toffler’s Third Wave, beyond Daniel Bell’s Post Industrial Society, beyond Francis Fukuyama’s Last Man.

The futurists intend to prepare us for the future, but their emphasis is on big things rather than basic, vast societal transformations the individual influences about like ants shape continents. What they emphasize is foresight and adaptation rather than the practice of morality. But such practice, as it happens, is the most practical approach to the future’s uncertainties. Therefore, at least alongside warnings and cautions about foreseeable changes, futurists should urge the effective teaching of morality as Job 1.

(Here parenthetically I would remind the bristling reader that the word ethics would work as well. We associate morality with sex here in the West, and sexual morality reeks of political incorrectness. Ethics sounds less threatening. Both words, alas, derive from the overlaid Greek or Latin root meaning custom.)

This thought arose from yesterday’s contemplation (on LaMarotte) of the European debt crisis—which was created by minimally amoral piling up masses of governmental deficits—and today’s reading of a column by David Brooks in the NYT. Brooks wrote about a study showing that young people today have the absolutely vaguest concept of what morality is all about—beyond thinking of it as an individual sort of thing. Brook’s title is “If It Feels Right…”.

The study of morality has been squeezed completely out of education because, wouldn’t you know “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” (First Amendment), which we’ve come to interpret to mean that the R-word may not even be whispered in schools. But we associate morality as rooted in religion (rather than, as etymology asserts, in custom).

Now the thought that floated into my mind was that a deep sort of study of morality, begun in the earliest grades of school and continued with more force and refinement right up to college graduation is a necessary preparation for understanding much more subtle cases, such as that excessive borrowing, borrowing that you know, in the gut, will be near impossible to repay, is immoral, not just a life-style choice. It might feel good, to be sure, but it is wrong. And immorality has consequences—not least in the here and now.

Many people have come to doubt this last point. They point at amoral lords of the universe enjoying gargantuan bonuses. They suggest that the rich and powerful never suffer the consequences of their depredations. And here, of course, the dilemma of our situation comes to the fore. A holistic concept of morality is anchored in religion, thus that its violation will have consequences, if not here then elsewhere. Or are you indifferent to starting your next incarnation as a sewer rat? We respect all religions on this blog.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Pech Valley Revisited

Journalism still thrives here and there. It does so in The Christian Science Monitor. In its most recent issue (September 5, 2011, Volume 103, Issue 41), I read a story yesterday titled “Soldiers’ tale of an epic battle” by Anna Mulrine. One has to go beyond the mainstream media to get genuine reporting. Over the years I’ve found stories that give real insight in such magazines as the CSM, Harper’s, Atlantic, and even more obscure places. The story I point to here is on the web (link), but in fairness to the CSM, why not buy a copy? One has to penetrate beneath the canned, sanitized, propaganda to get a visceral (read human) understanding of how things really are.

This story visits the same Pech River Valley in Afghanistan I’ve pointed to before in two earlier posts (one, two), each time to make the point that we’re massively engaged in what is a pointless pursuit, a vast over-reaction. What it means in human terms is here rendered in old-fashioned journalistic style by Mulrine.

The story also highlights the valor of our fighting forces as they engage in actions that make as little sense to them as they do to us. I’ve served my time as a professional soldier myself, albeit in peaceful times. I understand and honor that world. But the merits of that profession do not transfer automatically to those who send troops into pointless battles.

The Body of Culture

I was born in Budapest and have lived in many places, but by the chance of war and the clock’s rotation the Bavarian town of Tirschenreuth became my home town. I lived there during crucially formative years (8 to 13); there is more on Tirschenreuth here on this blog. I show the photo featured on Wikipedia (link); everybody always uses the same view and for a good reason. It combines in one image the two places where in ancient times the collective life of humanity took place: the market and the church. I also show the city’s crest; at its founding it came under the sway of the Abbey of Waldsassen, and the abbot ruled. Tirschenreuth is a county seat and has a population just under 10,000. However tempting to continue—such are my feeling for this place—my subject today is the body, thus the institutional expression, of collective life. I begin with Tirschenreuth because there, in the period 1944-1949, I actually experienced what life in medieval times might have been like. The “body of culture” there was the church; it organized collective life and structured time.

I got to thinking yesterday about the three layers of personal and collective life: the physical, cultural, and the transcending. It occurred to me that the middle level in this triad has drastically changed since my childhood. At my birth in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe, the market had its usual role—indeed in virtually every settlement of meaningful size there was a large market, either permanent or organized once or twice a week. The cultural level was decisively secular; in Hungary, which was roughly evenly divided between Catholic and Protestant regions, culture expressed itself in such institutions as theater, orchestra, opera and the intellectual life. Parents introduced their children to these realms with conscious effort. We were taken to concerts and the theater much as we were taken to church—and the experience was much the same one. The two lower layers were still unified, as it were. The topmost had already parted into at least three separate domains. The country wasn’t unified at the level of faith. Some were Catholics, some Protestant, and a minority (to which my maternal grandfather and Mother belonged) decidedly humanist. He was a Mason (in Europe that meant atheist). My Mother’s religion was High Art, a kind of amalgam of music and of literature.

The point that I would emphasize here is that culture still meant one thing, and something one acquired, couldn’t simply buy. The concept of pop culture hadn’t formed yet. My reflections yesterday yielded the notion that this middle layer has become transformed so that culture as we used to think of it has become a life-style choice, not a collective experience; it has been replaced by politics and pop culture—movies, TV, “music,” and increasingly social networking. Indeed the distinction between politics and pop culture has also begun to blur. Communications media have changed politics and merged it with entertainment; leaders have become pop stars. A single “body” has emerged in consequence and now represents culture—it organizes collective life and structures time: the media. That amalgamation of institutions is altogether dominated by commercial motives. It is itself being transformed from what used to be a print into a visual medium, signaled to us by the drastic decline in newspapers, inwardly (read content) as well as outwardly.

Having jotted down some notes, I went on to thin our Japanese Knotweed. My notes contained no reference to Tirschenreuth. But this morning, waking with some dread of what is to come today in the media, awareness of my home town was suddenly quite large and an addendum to my reflections present. It was that in Tirschenreuth, when we arrived there as refugees in 1944, an earlier order yet had still prevailed. This somewhat backward pocket of Catholicism in Bavaria still retained an order that Hungary had already left behind. Here everything still remained strongly rooted in the old time religion. I’ve always been very grateful for having had the experience. It helps me face the rising flood with equanimity.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Hungarian Wikipedia

I noticed today a banner appearing above Wikipedia pages with the following message:

Thank you to all who helped write 200,000 articles on Hungarian Wikipedia
Click here to help us change the world

I clicked. A page in Hungarian appeared. It gives thanks to all who made possible the creation of the Hungarian version of Wikipedia. The producers feature a few statistics. Evidently the volunteers who made this resource possible compiled more than 10 million drafts over an eight-year period—out of which 200,000 fully-qualified Wikipedia articles were fashioned by more than 179,000 registered Wikipedia editors—helped by countless other commentators, helpers, and readers. There will be a celebration of the appearance of the last of these articles on October 1 in the city of Győr.

Well done indeed! Hungary has just a shade more than 10 million inhabitants. According to the English-language Wikipedia, 16 million speakers of the Hungarian language exist across the globe. The Hungarian Wikipedia has its own article on this subject and is more exact. It puts Hungarian-speakers at 10.64 million in Hungary and at 16.71 million world-wide (1980). Nice to have more detail. But having a national version of this free on-line dictionary also brings additional benefits. The image I am showing, from the Hungarian site (here), is a page from the first book ever published entirely in the Hungarian language (in 1533). Its spelling is as strange and antiquated as that of any document that is as old. Hungary must have been as proud of that book, late although it was appearing, as they are proud today to have their own Wikipedia!

To be part of a very tiny group on this globe gives a person odd perspectives, odd moments of pride. People living in Hungary itself represent 0.15 percent of the global population, all Hungarian-speakers 0.25 percent. A hundred-thousand of those 16.71 million individuals (thus 0.6% of that number) live in the United States. I am one of them.

Friday, September 9, 2011

This Horse is Not an Equus

In these maddened times when elephants fight donkeys, a little excursion into the wonders of nature might be appropriate. A gift we purchased led to a discussion about the seahorse—which is actually a fish. Humanity’s long, long association with the horse—domestication is said to have begun before 3500 BC—no doubt led to the instant identification of the seahorse, when first encountered, with its huge land-based look-alike—up to a point, that is. The official name of this creature is Hippocampus. That word, from the Greek, comes from hippos, horse, and kampos, sea monster, a word that etymologists, using their favorite word, perhaps, say might be linked to kampe, caterpillar, a creature that loomed larger than life for us this summer. Hippocampus is the genus; there are some 50 species beneath that. The higher-up Family name is Syngnathidae, collectively the pipefish—which gives some indication of how these creatures move: pipefish are elongated worm- or snake-like swimmers.

To the left is a photograph of a Hippocampus hystrix, called the spiny seahorse (source). I assume, therefore that hystrix means spiny. As you see, the artist who fashioned the gift we purchased was imitating nature fairly closely. If you would like to see seahorses galloping around in the water, this absolutely delightful YouTube film will show them to you in action (link).

Being a Renaissance woman (her field was physiological psychology in school), no sooner had I produced the name of the seahorse genus Brigitte reminded me that each of us carries a little seahorse embedded deeply in our brain. That’s the hippocampus, of course. It is located in the medial temporal lobe of the brain (therefore in its middle). The temporal lobe is behind and lower than the massive frontal lobe.

The function of this structure is the consolidation of short-term and long term memory. Damage to the hippocampus occurs early in Alzheimer’s disease. The hippocampus is also active in spatial navigation. Navigation? Why of course. That is a sea-faring skill. Why this part is called the hippocampus becomes evident when we place the two hippocampi side by side—as Wikipedia helpfully does in a picture on the subject (link).

All horses aren’t equine, not all elephants are wise, and not every donkey is stupid. But one certainly hopes that each donkey shall remain at least as stubborn as donkeys are supposed to be.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Primary Debates as Mating Ritual

The female courted is the party’s hard core constituency, that is to say the female “in heat.” The candidates engage in ritual combat, its real aim trans-rational, biological. Doesn’t matter diddly what they say. It’s the aura, stupid, the “charisma.” (When I came to this country most people in politics didn’t even know that word, now it is as well known as “environment,” another newcomer. And that, I suppose, is “progress.”) Funny how rapidly Michelle “Straw Vote Winner” Bachman faded from the scene as soon as two viable male contenders finally surfaced, Mitt and Rick. My Job-Creation is bigger than yours. The media aswarm around them are the eunuchs or other kinds of neuters, famed throughout history for loving to groom those who have real potency; they also fancy themselves, secretly, to be the real dispensers of power.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Peaceable Kingdom

Summer is fading, just 17 days left to go. In ours this year we had an experience of the Peaceable Kingdom, as it were—concerned with butterflies, moonrises, flowers, and raising our herbs and tomatoes. Yesterday—the colors shining through the green—we disassembled our wire/plastic cages to harvest the ripe tomatoes—hence this sudden abundance.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Slipp’ry Frames of Reference

My walks sometimes produce odd questions. Something made me wonder the other day: Does God have a sense of humor? My instant, reflexive answer was, “Yes, yes, yes! Of course.” But this reaction was not just piety. If God is All and we have a sense of humor—well, some of the time, certainly—God who has everything in absolute abundance, must also sometimes enjoy a joke. It please me to think so, anyway. And countless instances of meaningful coincidences in my life have had that character—something you cannot help but laugh at—and yet the joke is serious. This subject, I think, hasn’t much standing in our official theologies. Earnest, earnest all the way.

My own Eureka moment concerning humor came in the 1960s when I read a then new book by Arthur Koestler titled The Act of Creation. Koestler’s subject was human creation, but—well, you get my point. It was a Eureka moment because Koestler’s explanation made wonderful sense. He proposed that all experiences of creation, humor, and invention—also the odd experience of art—come from the simultaneous linking of two otherwise seemingly incompatible frames of reference. The act of creation, invention, laughter come from the sudden (Eureka!) realization that the two frames are linked.

How was the steam engine invented? One conjecture might be this. A man is watching a pot boil on a kitchen stove. The lid clatters as steam escapes. His mind just then is filled with a problem: how to lift water from a well or from a flooded mine. Two frames of reference. Suddenly their linkage occurs to his mind. Why not contain that energy, lifting that lid, and make it do some work.

Here in the form of a delightful photo is the operation of this process as a joke:

The photo is by Friedrich Böhringer, titled “Headless,” and is from the Wikipeia Commons (link).

Some frames are slippery, others are not—at least for humans. But in God’s mind they all intersect. Infinite laughter!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Transit to Chrome

Discovered this morning that Google’s blogger no longer supports Microsoft Internet Explorer 7—an unpleasant surprise. I installed the newer Version 9 with some trepidation. Having done so on Brigitte’s machine some months ago, I knew that it would slow things down. The process these days, in MS land, seems to be to pile new code on top of old to counter new security threats—rather than the much more costly process of redoing things from the bottom up—which has always been our policy at Editorial Code and Data, Inc. Sure enough. Having done it once before, the transit was just a shade faster—but the results mind-numbingly slower.

A good while back I gave Google’s own Chrome browser a try. It worked well a while back, but that was an early trial version. I went back to Microsoft. Today, in frustration, I fetched Chrome for a second time. I had it up and working in a matter literally of minutes. True, it took another half an hour before I’d replicated the Favorites pull-down menu, which in Chrome-land is called a Bookmark (but turns out to be a bookmark folder—and you can line these up in multiples, if you wish). In the MS-world it’s part of a Menu. Chrome also had a facility to import my favorites from Microsoft, so the process was simple enough. And the overall results were stunning. Chrome works faster than my old Version 7. Promptly went upstairs and replaced Brigitte’s version with Chrome too. Well, actually, “replaced” is the wrong word. Her and my MS v. 9 are also still available. But when one of them makes you wonder if something is wrong, while the other fades into the background because it works so well, guess which one we shall make our default browser?

None of this changes anything you might see here, but my experience might mean something to others who daily struggle to put stuff up on the web.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Grosse Pointe Bamboo

Since retirement we have returned to nature, in a way. In extent it amounts to nothing at all, just a narrow little backyard, but you would be surprised what happens here after the morning traffic drains the Grosse Pointes of people. A silence of sorts descends. Being out in it we discover it swarming with bees, ants, squirrels, birds, and butterflies. And we can venture out into the wider neighborhood which is, if not officially then at least territorially, still part of The City of Trees, a one-time nickname for Detroit. Our yard and garden are semi-wild—not least the cultivated parts. Here, for instance the area occupied by just two tomato plants.

A relative newcomer to our postage-stamp-sized piece of nature is a cluster of Japanese Knotweed, Fallopia japonica. How long ago? Don’t know. Three, four years ago? This plant is very bamboo like but is only a distant relative. But ordinary people are not all that discerning, hence it is also known as American Bamboo and Mexican Bamboo. It is viewed as invasive—and we can testify to its energetic spread. But we keep our knotweed in its own limited domain. Here some pictures of our Fallopia; it is currently in bloom:

It looks like a bush, but it is a family of free-standing stalks.

The bamboo-like character of the stems is visible here. Some of the stalks are left over from last year.

The leafage, now in bloom.

And closer up.

Articulation of the stalks into leafage higher up.

Finally a view toward the sky, showing that they spread their shade.


While the cigar smoke is still in the air, another idle observation. I haven’t seen this one anywhere else. It is that, quite possibly, the Consumption Culture on which our economy appears so much to hang may itself be a bubble. Call it a superbubble. In the 2008-2009 period we lost 8.7 million jobs. In 2010-2011 we have thus far recovered 1.8 million, leaving a deficit of 6.9 million. We haven’t needed those jobs. Maybe that means that we—don’t. It might mean that our economy needs fewer jobs if demand (which is consumption) shrinks. What if we’ve been living inside a vast and artificially hyped bubble of consumption? It’s a bubble if we don’t need it but still buy it. What if the mortgage crisis woke people up and the bubble isn’t there any more? That would still leave not only those 6.9 million still unemployed but also deprive new entrants to the labor force employment that they seek. Social stability demands appropriate levels of employment. If private demand isn’t there any more—because the consumption bubble has been punctured—we need public demand. And we need it precisely at a time when the political mood is to disassemble the public sector. I’d better stub out that cigar.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Cigar Smoke...

An idle thought occurred the last time I lit a seductively aromatic cigar—noted, the aroma, because I like to run cigars under my nose before I light them, and the mysterious nature of these leaves comes in through the nostrils. Thoughts are peripatetic creatures. The sequence went something like this: Well, they haven’t gotten around to banning these yet, the beady-eyes. Prohibition. Odd strain, that, in the American culture. Balanced by beady-eyed permissiveness. Abortion yes; second hand smoke, horrors, NO! Is this tax-cutting frenzy another instance of it? Another irrational kind of prohibitionism? Innocent hubris? Mixed with the vagaries of democracy? Minimally four millennia of human drinking and carousing, but we shall forbid alcohol! So there. Salvation by law. At least the same tradition of taxation, but now we shall do without it—and prosper? But, yes. It is. It is a kind of prohibitionism. The romantic things it always produces. The Speak-Easy. We owe you much, beady eyes. What’s next? The mandatory social tithe? Those lesser cultures without the law should hire our PR people and rename things to make them right. Market-driven government? In the form of the legalized bribe?

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Having been born in Hungary, the last four month of the year were always people for me—with October playing spoiler. The reason for this is that ember in Hungarian is the word for human, not something left over and still glowing in the fireplace. This worked fine for Sept-ember, Nov-ember, and Dec-ember—but October made me doubt my childish logic. Yes. I was that sort of child.

The earliest Roman calendar had only ten months. Of these—you guessed it—the last four were our friends above. Count them septem, octo, novem, decem. That -ber ending that tails them in English and other languages derived from the Latin suffix equivalent to our -th, as in seventh. It was originally -bris. When the Romans wanted to be more formal, they said Septembris mensis, literally seventh month. Not too many bothered, therefore it became Septembris. The plural of that word for month is menses—also used in English for a recurring event. Online Etymology Dictionary cites etymologist T.G. Tucker saying that the first five months had been named after events in the agricultural cycle. The implication is that the Romans lost interest in the weather once the harvest was all in. Whatever. Just call the rest by number.

So that’s the answer to my recurring question, recurring since childhood but never answered before. I still think that the powers-that-be in Hungary should have renamed October Octoember a long, long time ago. But then this boy, having arrived in America, would have wondered why the English took the human out of October? Was it to signal the cold?

Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius (no Tarquins in sight yet in 700 BC) added January and February and stuck them in at the beginning. Suddenly there were twelve months! But renaming the old numbered ones so that they’d begin with Novembris and end in Duodecimbris—that was beyond the king’s powers. You can never trust the public sector to do the job right…