Monday, October 31, 2011

Ghulf Pupkins 2011

For night...

For light...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

New Titles Over Time

I came across a tabulation not quite by chance today. It was in a book titled The Book Publishing Industry by Albert N. Greco, published in 2003 by Psychology press. The data came from R.R. Bowker, the gatekeeper on books. I was looking at total new title output from 1880 through 1989 by decades. The listing is visible here and excludes backlist books, thus reprints of older titles. I thought I’d chart these data against population growth. Here is the result:

What struck me here is the meandering pattern from 1880 through about 1959—and then the sudden upward explosion in titles. As always when the subject is books, we have multiple measures, of which “title” is one, “number of copies sold” is another—and “content” is the most mysterious third. If we look back to the very beginnings of book publishing using machines, the “content” was Bibles. Back in the hand-made book ages, the most common content was “prayer book.” Now looking at this image, we’ve no precise idea of the content heading for the skies there.

Once I had these data, I could also do a kind of approximation of new titles per capita, which I show next—albeit the measure I’m using is new titles per 1 million population:

The first bar pretty much encompasses the period known as The Gilded Age. A surge in reading was evidently not a feature of it. The early peak corresponds to World War I—but if war causes reading, what happened in 1940-1949? What this chart tells me, however, is that the first eight decades in this period may be more representative of “normalcy” and the last three signal some sort of “anomaly.” All population data in the two graphics are population at the midpoint of each decade.

Tantalizing. But today is a busy day, so enough.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Crusades in Context

The Arabs have memories just as spotty and biased as our own. Thus with western incursions into Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places, they have talked about the Crusades—but in tonalities as if those by now ancient wars had been unprovoked aggressions. That period had never properly gelled in my mind. I thought I’d get myself a broader perspective on this subject.

To sum up my conclusions briefly, the Crusades turn out to have been a relatively brief and not very successful attempt by European kingdoms to counter the massive northward expansion of the Muslim culture. That culture’s penetration was largely successful in the East, less so in the West. In both cases it touched places my family intimately knows. In the west the Muslims conquered Spain where Monique had lived and studied; that thrust penetrated into France; it was stopped at Tours, where Michelle lived for a while. In the East, much later, it reached the edges of Vienna in Austria; thus it had covered all of the places where I had lived in Hungary as a child.

Let’s take a look at this expansion over time. When Emperor Diocletian retired in 305 AD, the Roman Empire had been split in two halves, one ruled from Rome the other from Byzantium. I show a map here from (link). The red line indicates the border between the Western and the Eastern (and future Byzantine) reaches of the Roman Empire. In effect this is also a picture of Christendom projected geographically.

Let me next trace the Muslim expansion in cartoon fashion now, beginning in 305. I have the outline from a kid’s site, MrDonn (that’s where one really learns things) (link). The map’s a little clumsy; the Black Sea is a little tilted. Muslim expansion began in the east just about 300 years later (in 630). The Byzantines lost their African holdings as well as the Levant. These thrusts reached well into Byzantine territories so that the Empire had to defeat the Muslims twice (674, 714) just to hold on to Constantinople. In the west the Arabs invaded Spain (then the Visigothic Christian Kingdoms) in 711. By 732 they had penetrated into France, but they were stopped, and rolled back, in the Battle of Tours. I show the situation in 750 AD.

By 1097, two years after the First Crusade (1095-1099) began, Byzantium had lost all of Turkey in the East. My cartoon, as it were, shows the situation before, the next one the situation after the period of the Crusades. Within a year of this beginning, the Crusader States had been established in the Levant and Spain’s reconquest had then begun. The last of the cartoons shows the situation as of 1204, with gains made by Christendom shown in yellow. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) had recovered parts of Western Turkey (the Empire of Nicaea). My own impression is that both the gains in Turkey and in Spain were ordinary political ventures—reactions to the centuries-long Muslim push north. Only the slender gains in the Levant, the carving out of Crusader States, so-called, were intimately linked to recovering the geography where Christianity had had its founding. But it was a recovery. The Byzantines had once ruled that geography.

Levant? The word’s meaning is “orient,” where the sun rises in Middle French—thus regions east of Rome and Greece. It means the area now occupied by Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. The Crusader States were all established in the period 1098-1104. The longest-lasting of these was the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which ended in 1291 after 192 years of rule. Here is a graphic that shows the Crusader States in some detail:

During these centuries the Byzantine empire was also effectively dismembered by the establishments of independent kingdoms from the north (Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria), from the West (Venice, the holder of the Empire of Nicaea), and from the South (the Muslims). But these successor states eventually yielded their sovereignty to the Ottoman Empire, thus another powerful representative of the Muslim culture. Its expansion in stages is shown in the following graphic. Both the last and following maps are from Wikipedia Commons (here and here).

The Muslim culture still rules Turkey, regions south of there, and all the regions of North Africa. The process is still going on—witness attempts by the west not to convert the Muslims to Christianity but to persuade them to embrace representative democracy. All that changes is the same-old. And in 1947 we did manage to reestablish the Kingdom of Jerusalem again, if by another name. Yes. The process continues. And the maps will keep on changing. La Reconquista of Spain, by the way, took until 1300. And the break-up of the Ottoman had to await the end of World War I.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Lure of Rebellion

Two headlines in the New York Times. On the front page “China Reins in Entertainment And Bloggers”; leading the Styles page is “To Be Young, Hip and Mormon.” The paper’s general stance on things signals the tone of the presentations by headline alone. The Evildoer in the first case is the Government of China, in the other the Mormon Church. The heroes are the rebels. Moving in a little, I discover that China has a ministry called State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. It is now telling TV stations to limit entertainment shows and to increase news coverage. The Times quotes it as aiming to root out “excessive entertainment and vulgar tendencies.” In the Hip-and-Mormon story, the hero runs a rock band, celebrates drowning one’s sorrows in bourbon and explores “the seedy underbelly of his hometown, Las Vegas.” But the hero also made a short video for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in which he proclaims himself a Mormon. But why did the Chinese ministry countenance the growth of vulgar tendencies in the first place? And why did the Church selected this musician to advertise it? The ambiguous behavior of authority, of course, is itself an indicator of the times. Of interest here is the thrilled fascination with rebellion, its favorable treatment on the one hand, anger at its suppression on the other.

As order gradually shatters, as the seedy underbelly becomes the seedy whole—and while the money lasts and a little bit of order still remains—rock stars shall lead us. But when chaos has come to rule, rebellion will take another form. It will manifest as a ruthless quest for order, sword in hand, and public admiration of those who seek the holy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Organic and Mechanical

Let’s sort the words first. What I intend to mean here by these words is “the living” and “the dead,” in the sense that the organic is alive whereas the mechanical lacks that strange quality. But, turns out, both words have very similar rootings in the concept of a “tool.” The first comes from the Greek organon, which meant a tool or implement, a musical instrument, and then an organ of the body. Our own organs in churches carry the second meaning to this day. Going deeper, the Greek meaning arose from “that with which one works,” hence the notion of a tool, and organon came from ergon, which means “work.” Mechanical, in turn, comes from the Greek mekhane, meaning a device or a means (to accomplish something).

Now let me introduce what might sound like a non sequitur. The reason why Muslims keep insisting, to the total irritation of our journalists, that Sharia law must be the center of their laws (e.g., in Libya just yesterday) is because Muslim culture is still more organic whereas the older secular culture is mechanical.

It is, of course—especially in modern thought—almost meaningless to speak about the “life” of a culture, much less to suggest that younger cultures may have more life than the older and the more developed. But one indicator that I would offer is the role that religious life plays in each. Where it is still prominent, that mysterious something we call life is still active within it, whereas in highly developed civilizations it is dismissed as non-existent. In a living culture (which the historian Oswald Spengler called Kultur) the intuitive element is strongly active still, thus has a collective presence. In a civilization (a word Spengler only applied to secular periods of developed cultures) the intuitive is altogether absent. In one something transcendent is worshipped consciously; in the other only raw power is acknowledge to have genuine sway; to be sure, it is sentimentalized into the power of the electorate, the people, etc., but in effect this power is centered in the human; nothing beyond it.

In younger cultures humans are created by the divine. In secular cultures life itself is just a region of materiality that spontaneously arises when the right conditions prevail. Not that in our modern culture, all around us, the religious is altogether absent. Far from it. Brigitte and I were just remarking on the many, many churches thickly present all around us. But the religious has lost its sway over the collective. It is no longer actively present in it. The civilization has become mechanical. We speak of laws—and almost never even of the spirit of the laws. The last time that subject was still seriously discussed was in the eighteenth century by Montesquieu—and, notably, he titled his work a defense of the same.

I would suggest that the uproar over Sharia, here in the west, is an indicator. Now, mind you, we dislike many aspects of that law and rightly so. But if we substituted Christian law in its place, the uproar would be the same. The uproar simply signals that we no longer understand a whole dimension of reality. It’s become a lifestyle choice. And minorities within our own borders who still espouse the higher reaches, the intuitive dimension, are regularly subjected to scholarly attacks in our organs (!) of communications.


The y-axis rises, the x-axis runs.
A matrix of pixels here makes a universe
Of Maxwell’s equations, plastics and glass.

Beautiful women like hard metallic flowers
Recite the day’s political howlers chapter and verse.

Words hasten left to right and overlay the spoken
With the written Dows and Earthquake wrecks
And Thailand floods. The globerati travel
To impress and scold the Arabs fronting microphones
While our home-bound cognoscenti incandesce
Before the cameras.

Enough. A click brings shocking silence. It lasts.
Nothing happens but the night. Then look.
A shadow follows headlights faintly out there
In the falling rain.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Breakfast at National Coney Island

This one’s on the intersection of Gratiot Avenue and I-696 in Roseville, MI. A huge tower marks it—visible from every sky direction long, long before you reach it. To tell the story of my breakfast, I have to subject you to the tedium of “getting on in years,” which is a euphemism for aging.

For readers over fifty, this will serve as a tutorial on things to come. Younger souls might want to skip. I have what I call Medical Days these days, meaning recurring doctor’s visits. After my tête à tête with Dr. LR, I step next door to deliver samples of body fluids. But all of this requires that I should arrive in a fasting condition. For this reason I make appointments as early as possible.

In what still seemed like dead-of-night I found a slip on the rug before the tub, a note from Brigitte saying: “Since you’ll already be at Nine Mile road, why not try to get some peanut butter? ❤ B” Long story here. Peanut prices about to spike 30 percent, we want to stock up before they rise, and long experience has taught me that the lowest prices are at Walmart and at Aldi’s—both close to the geographical point that Brigitte’s “Nine Mile road” signals.

Starved, therefore, and dizzy with lack of coffee, I went to get Smucker’s at Walmart ($2.48 per jar). On the way back the National Coney Island Tower proved irresistible, so I stopped for breakfast—before I went on to Aldi’s where the peanut butter is even cheaper ($1.69 a jar), albeit it isn’t “natural.” Then with two flats holding 24 jars, home.

My first visit to NCI - Roseville—but a delightful discovery. We have these markers, you might call them, markers of times gone by. String theory in physics suggests that time travel is possible if you can harness the energies of something like a mid-sized quasar. But those in the know (thus people who are “getting on in years”) know that time travel is already entirely here and now, and if you want to experience the 1950s—both in physical settings, the taste of food, the cheerful service, and the clientele—you need but get in a car around about 8:30 am on an October Monday and travel to Gratiot and 696 to find it at places like the National Coney Island. I shall be back again. On my next Medical Day.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Al-Sadr and the Future

The U.S. invasion of Iraq began on March 19, 2003. Just twenty-three days later, a 40-year old Shi’a cleric named Abdul Majid al-Khoei died of stab-would at a mosque in Najaf. Najaf is the third-holiest city of Shi’a Islam and, in Iraq, a kind of center of Shi’a politics. The man was the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Abdul-Qasim al-Khoei. He was a moderate and revered leader of Shi’ites. For convenience I’ll call the father the Elder Khoei, the murdered son the Younger. The Elder was famed for opposing Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini’s attempts to unite all Shi’a jurists and was therefore viewed as a barrier to Khomeini’s ambitions to dominate the entire Shi’a world. Later, when, during the first Iraq war, George H.W. Bush called for a Shi’a uprising, the Elder Khoei published a fatwa calling for humane behavior by his followers and forbade vengeful attacks. Saddam Hussein arrested him when the U.S. did not quite follow through that first time around; the Elder was later released but died in 1992 while still under house arrest.

His son escaped and set up a resistance movement in London. No sooner had the U.S. invaded Iraq and, this time, signaled its intention to do the whole job, the Younger Khoei hastened to return to Iraq again and, no sooner arrived, began setting up a structure to organize the Shi’a clerics and, thus, taking up his father’s mantle. But he was stabbed to death—and because of that event, and because a young cleric named Muqtada al-Sadr was implicated in this assassination, I became aware of al-Sadr quite early and, in the process, aware also of the great complexities hidden in that social realm.

Al-Sadr comes from a rival section of the Shi’a clergy, his own father also a famed but dead leader, Ayatollah Mohammad al-Sadr. But the al-Sadrs represent a tradition less inclined to favor benign approaches whether to conflict or to the West. The killing of the Younger Khoei was a straightforward grab of power. And, indeed, soon after that, al-Sadr emerged as the defacto internal opposition to the American presence in Iraq. Patrick Cockburn, in a book entitled Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, gives us al-Sadr’s views. Asked what he thought of Saddam’s fall from power, Muqtada said: “The smaller devil has gone, but the bigger devil has come.” Muqtada never deviated from this course; never cooperated with the occupying power; raised, deployed, and controlled his Mahdi army; and but for his support today’s Prime Minister, al-Maliki, could never have taken power. Therefore, it seems to me, the future of Iraq and Muqtada al-Sadr are linked like Siamese twins—unless another assassin’s knife severs the two. But we shall see.

I come from a small country regularly overrun and dominated by bigger powers. Not that I experienced this, but I was steeped from childhood on in history of a certain flavor. When I see invaded countries’ leaders cooperating with us, names like Quisling rise spontaneously in my mind. And the less modern and commercialized the invaded culture is, the more often it has been oppressed from above—as Iraq was by the Ottomans, the British, the Americans and, inside that country, the Shi’ites by the Sunnis—the more I think a visceral resistance to the invader or oppressor must be given weight, at least in looking to the future. No. Democracy and the Hidden Hand are not at all innately loved objects of aspiration by traditional populations. The Civil War was singular—and happened too long ago to have left its marks deeply enough in the American soul—hence a certain naïveté permits us to engage, without much thought, in nation-building ventures. So let us watch Iraq evolve post December 2011 and learn something from the experience.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Near-Forgotten Genius

I came across the quote that follows in an effort to understand better certain aspects of theoretical dimensions beyond the familiar three. My search was prompted by reading Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace. That book basically concerns string theory. The quote:
Time is a man-made reference used for convenience and as such the idea of a “curved space-time” is delusional, hence there is no basis for the Relativistic “space-time” binomium concept. I hold that space cannot be curved, for the simple reason that it can have no properties. It might as well be said that God has properties. He has not, but only attributes and these are of our own making. Of properties we can only speak when dealing with matter filling the space. To say that in the presence of large bodies space becomes curved is equivalent to stating that something can act upon nothing. I, for one, refuse to subscribe to such a view. [Nikola Tesla quoted in New York Herald Tribune, September 11, 1932]
The world is vast, my education spotty, hence I recognized the name but could not do much more than that. The thought expressed, however, is most congenial. I’ve always had major problems both with spacetime and with time dilation—thus the concept that time slows down with speed of travel, and the astronaut wandering out there at near-light speed would return from his years-long trip to find that he was much younger than his twin brother. At one time I spent real concentrated time studying Einstein’s theories—in the original, at that—and came to the conclusion that while clocks certainly did slow down with speed, it was the clocks that misbehaved, not time. Therefore I’m not persuaded that time dilation has been proved. I have similar problems with thinking of time as a dimension (except as a math token) and with dimensions beyond the conventional three.

Today I checked into the Serbian, Nikola Tesla (1856-1943). He was an inventor of genius. We owe him the discovery of alternating current, modern electric power plants, the AC motor, and wireless power transmission. He also built the first hydroelectric power plant, with a fellow called Westinghouse, at Niagara Falls—a place I used to haunt once when I worked for Carborundum. Tesla also clashed with other greats of his time whose names are household words while he has been as good as forgotten. A nice summary of this very strange man’s very strange and adventurous life is provided in a YouTube film (link). A listing of some thirty-six devices and principles developed by Tesla is available on Wikipedia’s article on this man (link).

Friday, October 21, 2011

Throw Khadafi from the Air (A Bomb, A Bomb)

We live in truly mad times. Perhaps all times are mad, but the difference today is that now they come blurring over our TV screens as soon as they happen, blood, rags and all, bodies dragged from concrete pipes, psychedelic Tommy guns held up to blast the air. Wolf Blitzers magically rise like newly created flowers to tells us all about these wonders, even when it’s not their time to be on air. It all blurs nowadays, legality, interest, law, license, right, wrong, reason and insanity. Ring around the rosy, a pocket full of posies, “Ashes, Ashes!” We all fall down.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Physical, Mental

It’s curious but oh so true that genuine learning is enormously helped by a physical component, a physical doing. Reminded of this by a post on Laudator (link) that comments on the Latin proverb, Qui scribit, bis legit, Who writes, reads twice. I learned this long ago if in a larger context—namely the difference between doing your own research versus relying on a Research Assistant. Here a post on that a while back. Why is this true?

Is it that, for instance, copying out a quote by hand or keying means that you read it twice? Why does a graph you make yourself, laboriously in Excel, become more real than one you glance at in a paper? My own guess is that the brain stores more than merely memories. It stores a kind of invisible weight or stamp with every memory. The heavier the weight, the darker the stamp, the more accessible that memory later becomes. The brain developed as an organ for dealing with the physical world, hence physical involvement tells the brain: This is serious; he really cares. More ink on that inkpad, add some lead.

Another explanation is that the brain labels the mere reading of a page, the glance of an eye lite. It takes very little time. Hence it gets routine storage at best. Multiple readings, effort at grasping the meaning, much underlining, better yet, comments in the margin—the brain is alerted. And of course, the more time is spent, the more important.

When it comes to the genuinely experiential—say cooking or gardening—reading about it, even copying out a recipe, is as it were nothing, nothing at all, compared to actually doing the thing. Boy does that recipe expand, in my case into a veritable primordial jungle of experience, when I try to do what, for Brigitte, is effortless as she half listens to the pundits shouting at each other on the television all the while.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sand You Were and Sand You Will Become

The clash of great collectives, thus cultures and civilizations, is a fascinating story with discernible laws of their own, but the subject interests at most one person in multiple thousands. We’re time-bound. Our time horizons are quite short, at most years, usually much shorter. Virtually nobody wonders how things will look a century, never mind three centuries hence.

I’m thinking now of the oil-rich Arab countries in the first instance. They belong to the Muslim culture; it is younger than the Western. It originated in the seventh, the Western (Christendom) in the forth century. I date the first to 632 when Muhammed died and the second to Constantine’s ascension or, more specifically, to the Edict of Milan in 312. Younger, older.

Cultural clashes make winners and losers, and to some extent the outcomes are predictable. A mature civilization encroaching on a relatively primitive culture spells the domination of the primitive by the mature—and often, when primitives are not very numerous (such was the case in Europe’s invasion of America) the virtual wipe-out of the primitive. When both cultures are in their growth phase, the older will more likely win if all else is equal. This has been the case in the clash between the West and the Muslim culture. Therefore it is we who established Israel in Palestine. It is we who’re “nation-building” in Iraq and in Afghanistan rather than, say, The Caliphate nation-building in Texas or in Florida.

The Romans expanded northward and subjected what today is France and England; they also warred against the Germans like we war against Afghanistan—not quite succeeding—and found little footing east of the Rhine.

When a decadent civilization is up against a younger one it is ultimately overrun, but the younger of the two will absorb the culture of those that it conquers. Thus Germanic tribes eventually overran Rome. Thus also the Mongols under Kublai Khan conquered China. The English conquered India, a decadent civilization, that had been overrun earlier by the Muslims. China was less decadent. It was somewhat “opened,” meaning to trade, by the Opium Wars, but it was never colonized like India; and now, rising, when it looks out onto the world, it is not through westernized eyes.

Now what lies ahead of us in the long run—and there is no need to worry, it won’t affect most people living now—is that the Western decadence will deepen just as fossil fuels run out. Muslim populations are already, as I write, interlacing western populations in Europe, including England; they are notorious for breeding, resisting integration, and heeding their mullahs. When the oil wells dry up, great transformations, and confusions, will preoccupy the “developed” world—most endangered by its vast reliance on fossil fuels. The Arab countries, where all of the world’s attention is now, will become what they have once been—mostly sand. And our vital interest in maintaining Israel, our de-facto 51st state, will become almost indiscernible; we’ll be too busy learning to farm and to weave. What will then become of that outpost of the Western world embedded there, by force, in the midst of the Muslim culture? Will Israel conquer the sand or will the sand conquer Israel?

Nonplussed by Nonplus

Many, many decades have passed, virtually my entire English-speaking life, and in that time I managed to resist looking up the word nonplussed when I came across it. Yes. And this despite the fact that context almost never revealed the meaning of the word to me. Yes again. Tried to guess it. The roots are not only visible but also immediately graspable by anyone with even just a sliver of Latin. Non is no, not; plus is more. So we get something like this: “She was nonplussed by the scene that now unfolded.” I substitute: “She was no-mored by the scene that now unfolded.” Does the meaning now emerge? Not for me. Does it mean that she was shocked enough to decide never again to visit this place? Does it mean that she’d seen enough and wished to see no more? In the past I’ve invariably turned my mental attention sharply aside, telling myself “bad English, worse Latin”—yes, even when Agatha Christie did it, as she occasionally did. And I like Christie a lot!

Well, today in a blog comment—there was the word again. But today the context was such I really did wish to understand what the commenter meant by that. So I broke down and looked it up.

Google sometimes produces a dictionary definition as the first response to a search, and it produced the following:

Well, here is a pretty kettle of fish. The two definitions of this word are contradictory—and neither has much or indeed anything to do with “no more.” Additional digging into this contradiction produced the following quote from the Oxford Dictionary people (link). They rank high in Word Land even if they are British and hence, well, a little down-the-nose when talking about our uses of the language:
In standard use nonplussed means ‘surprised and confused’, as in she was nonplussed at his eagerness to help out. In North American English a new use has developed in recent years, meaning ‘unperturbed’ — more or less the opposite of its traditional meaning — as in he was clearly trying to appear nonplussed. This new use probably arose on the assumption that non- was the normal negative prefix and must therefore have a negative meaning. It is not considered part of standard English.
Not part of “standard English”! Looks like we’ve done it again. The comment I read came from a relatively young American. So I still don’t really know what the comment meant. But, it seems to me, my old policy was a good one and needs only a small adjustment. When Agatha Christie uses the word, I can read the meaning as baffled. But when it comes from a young American, I must discretely look the other way.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Babylon 1?

Well, not quite. The object shown, however, might be labeled a Babylon 1 Prototype. The image is powerfully reminiscent of Babylon 5, once more proving that real scientific advances always begin in science fiction. This object, to be sure, is the design of an unmanned space probe, without an engine, yet, created by Icarus Interstellar, an organization of volunteer designers who, here, are building on the foundations laid by a British project (dating to the 1970s) called Daedalus. The image appeared in the New York Times Science Section today.

A Name Emerges

The nation’s editorial, headline, and slogan-forming powers overnight created a new name for what began as the Wall Street Protest. That name is OCCUPY, and the movement that it represents has now also been baptized the OCCUPY MOVEMENT. I sat down this morning wondering how many protests had taken place yesterday and began by using the search phrase “city protests.” Google then undertook to educate me. The search phrase of choice is, well, occupy. I put in that word and then a letter of the alphabet. Google now has a facility that displays a “News for occupy __________” headline followed by links. Thus:

Following this technique, I was able to build the following list:

The facility also provided content for some of the blank letters, but these were foreign or tongue in cheek. For E: Everything. For F: Frankfurt (Germany), G: Greece/Germany, I: Israel, J: Japan, Q: Qatar, R: Rome, T: Toronto, and for Y: Yourself. Only X and Z were left out in the dark. (I notice now, too late, that Vancouver really belongs in this paragraph, not in the table...)

It also appeared that the old designation, Silent Majority, has been renamed The 99 Percent. Visibly troubled spokes-types on the right tried their best to suggests that among the 99 Percent were people making as much as $500,000 a year and more, but the mood on TV news was not very open to such correctives and these were met with faint, dismissive, and sometimes contemptuous smiles.

That 99 Percent has legs, I tell you—in a season when numerical slogans like 9-9-9 have legs, in the age of Tweets, something shorter is even better. Now, it seems to me, the election campaign is turning interesting.

Monday, October 17, 2011

October Butterfly?

Have we mentioned Zeno yet? I think not. We’re almost too shy to confess that Black Swallowtail butterflies seem to have zeroed (or is it zenoed) in on us.

As October began unfolding, Brigitte discovered yet another tiny tiny late-season caterpillar on the last lonely dill plant out of doors. She promptly recreated the summer’s environment in our sun room again, and the little black thing, with but a token yellow spot to hint at future color-wonders, has meanwhile grown to full size. Let me just hide the dramas that soon unfurled around Zeno, as Brigitte named this creature. Someday we might tell you about Zeno’s altogether surprising ways of living, not least about his or her mysterious disappearances and such. We’ve almost solved the mystery, but there is still a bit of doubt left to overcome. For now, shyly, we present a picture of our October Butterfly to be. When? Maybe before November comes. Or maybe when the first snow falls.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Take Your Pick: Coffee or Gasoline

ABC news made me choke on my just-taken sip of coffee in a segment they based on a Guardian story. The YouTube version of the ABC’s coverage (short) is here. The Guardian story is here. Global Warming is now threatening future supplies of coffee beans, and the authoritative source of this is Jim Hanna, Starbucks own director of sustainability. Wow! Worse yet, cocoa beans are facing the same dread future. At the same time, the New York Times this morning wonders whatever happened to Global Warming concerns in the United States? It’s become a non-issue with both political parties. That’s going to change now! Time to wake up, folks. When push comes to shove, and a forced choice is presented to us—coffee or gasoline—I rather suspect that gasoline becomes a threatened species of a liquid. Add chocolate to into the mix and gasoline is doomed.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Note on Technology

I did not undertake to play the book meme that went around a while ago (here and here), but my own habit is to read multiple books at the same time. Of those, very frequently, some will be re-reading books once more. Just recently I read again Arnold Toynbee’s Christianity Among the Religions of the World, a worthwhile venture at any time. It dates back to 1955 when Toynbee presented the contents of this book in a lecture series in the United States. What struck me this time, reading this book (the last time was in 1965) is Toynbee’s linkage of post-Christian western civilization with technology. The two are linked over and over again. The subject of technology is always present somewhere in my current thought. In fact I’d just read about the sputtering sort of appearance of it during the Hellenistic era in The Forgotten Revolution, on which more here. Years ago now, reading Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change, I’d come to the conclusion that—to the contrary of our common view—technology was present, changing, improving, and evolving as far back as we can see. And, indeed, as I was reading Toynbee I was also reading an essay by Sir Steven Runciman titled “Constantinople and Baghdad: Cultural Relations” in an essay collection titled Cultural Encounters. In that essay (here we go again!) there are several mentions of technological innovations, both on the Byzantine and on the Muslim side, dating back to the ninth, tenth, and later centuries, all of them considered pre-technological.

Why then, in these later centuries—say the eighteenth or nineteenth and thereafter—does technology suddenly begin to throw so great a shadow that an eminent historian chooses it as defining our times? The reason for that, it seems to me, is that the massive expansion of technology is very visible, its technical complexity and the engineering ingenuity is easily linked to advances in science (even though the two are not at all invariably linked), but the cause of this expansion is not. And the cause of that expansion has been the discovery and exploitation of fossil energy—coal and then petroleum.

The age of technology is also the age of metals. But humanity has worked metals as far back as the Bronze Age (3000 BC). Why the recent expansion of the use of metals beyond weaponry? Again. Same answer. Massive metalworking requires enormous amounts of cheap energy. We might say that technology, viewed over millennia, is the consequence of human ingenuity. Its expansion is the consequence of the Age of Oil. But this has important implications. We are approaching Fossil Sunset now. And while our technological optimism is high (but itself caused by the free wealth we discovered underground) when oil runs out and coal is used up rapidly—minimally within a hundred years—the remaining ways of generating energy will yield vastly less usable power. Hence, therefore, technology cannot be viewed as a permanent gain—except in the millennial view, thus at low levels of use. In the not too distant future, our technology will be better. Technology as always improved and will continue to do so. But it will no longer be pervasively present in everyday life and major re-adaptations are in the offing. The consoling thought is that we are extraordinarily adaptive, and when that time comes, those of us now who have an existential crisis when the Internet fails will no longer be alive.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Charting Content

As I’ve had occasion to note before on LaMarotte this past spring (link), newspaper circulation has been declining, relative to population, for quite a long time now. If we index both at 100 in 1970, by 2008 news circulation had declined to 78.3 and population had increased to 148.4. Nevertheless, newspapers—especially the big, influential papers—still have plenty of clout—not least in that they influence the notoriously lazy television media. That post came to mind yesterday as I was reading the Russia insert in the New York Times—in large part because the Russian offer had much more of the flavor of an old-fashioned newspaper. This morning I undertook something I’ve been wanting to do for a while now. I’ve taken the main section of today’s New York Times and classified its forty-four stories into five categories. Such classification is, of course, subjective. Here are my results:

[Note: Clicking through enlarges image. But changes introduced—by Google? others?—now do not bring you back to the post if you click on the Back Arrow. Instead, when wishing to return, press Esc.]

What did I classify as crime/malfeasance? Strauss-Kahn is not charged in a rape that allegedly took place in France. A hedge-fund chief goes to jail. Former premier of Ukraine faces investigation. Gunmen seize aide workers in Africa. Debate on how to handle terrorists. Online education and financial fraud. Custody battle and killings. California inmates end hunger strike. A story on drugs that came from the police. Connecticut triple murders. Finally, second chances after prison. Two of these stories are perhaps a little iffy, but I include them because they exhibit the Times’ fascination with prisoners.

The times coverage of foreign countries is interesting. In alpha order, Africa is mentioned three times (crime, economic news, and all other); Asia twice (Ukraine under crime, floods in Thailand), Europe once (Strauss-Kahn). Islamic countries clock in at eight stories, hence their assignment to a category. The Times’ coverage of Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, and others is almost obsessive; today is no exception.

The economic stories, predictably, are bad-news stories. Some of the stories bite especially because they underline the flavor of the times. Just to name four: fluoridation is being omitted to save money; insurance companies want to eliminate coverage of eating disorders; Congress wants to curb Pentagon cuts; California seems to be killing Medicaid.

The “All Other” category mercifully shared the second largest category with the economy and has a faintly upbeat flavor. It includes a story on Indian students finding places to study here, the floods in Thailand, but with emphasis on officials being blamed rather than the rains, discovery of prehistoric paint manufacturing in Africa, people who build mazes with and within corn fields, state casinos, Mayor Bloomberg’s girlfriend’s puppies (heart-warming?), privately owned parks, a professor who told a stutterer to sit down already in his class, consumers’ rights to sue, and David Brooks’ comments on clashes regarding the 9/11 war memorial.

So how does the equivalent coverage of Russia look? The comparison may not be fair because that paper is intended to make Americans feel good about Russia—rather than reporting news. But here it is. The stories broke into three categories: Politics (36.4%), Agriculture (27.3%), and All Other (36.4%). Politics? All lauding either Putin, Medvedev, or both. Agriculture? Green is the word here—and reveals Russia’s long-standing obsession with the sector. One of those stories features an American who went off to the Moscow region to make all kind of cheese! And the All Other? It deals with a prize awarded to an American professor, Russian charitable organizations showing children’s pictures to New York audiences, achievements in space, and the elimination of onerous employment records in Russia’s businesses. The author of that last story wonders how, in the future, “problem employees” will be identified when they apply for new jobs. That, I suppose, ranks as objective reporting. On the one hand, privacy, on the other…

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A KIT of a PR Venture

I refer to an eight-page insert in the New York Times today. It’s actually a newspaper called Russia, with the secondary name of Beyond the Headlines. It features color photos, a few ads all promoting Russian interests. It is labeled ADVERTISEMENT at the top of the pages, but it is actually a paper produced by Rossiyskaya Gazeta, an official organ of the Russian government created in November 1990 by the Supreme Soviet. The whole production is very sophisticated, interesting, indeed good reading. The paper is on the Internet (link) and also appears as a supplement to the Washington Post. Its main sections include:

Front page
Politics & Society
Special Report
Money & Markets

Within each of these sections we find further subdivisions. On the Politics & Society page, for instance, we learn that only 29 percent of Russians want Putin, 11 percent want Medvedev. But no other candidates are shown. Some 18 percent, Russia tells us, want both candidates, 27 percent want neither, and 15 percent don’t know. On the Opinion page another poll tells us how Russians see the next twelve month economically. Only 5 percent say Good. Probably Good gets 33, Probably Bad 30 percent. Etc.

My headline comes from the Money & Markets page from a story headlined “KIT Finance Returns from the Dead.” KIT Finance is a St. Petersburg investment bank. Helpfully Russia tells me in a box that KIT is the Russian word for whale. Too big to fail? It delights me that in Russia an investment bank would have the chutzpah to call itself a “whale.” My cultural education is getting a lift.

Now, needless to say, this paper is intended to influence us downtrodden Americans. The Russians—and this, by our count, is the second issue of Russia that we have seen—intend to make a good impression. How better to do that than to present a crisp, informative, and comprehensive picture of a place we imagine quite differently. It’s a whale of an effort. What amazes me is that they would bother. We must appear to them a much bigger—and perhaps much more dangerous—fish than we look like to ourselves.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Articulating Principles

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all.
Liberty and justice stand in tension one with the other—and this tension by itself provides the rationale for government. Justice for all implies limitations on liberty—lest liberty turn into license. John Locke, in Of the State of Nature, gave formal arguments for this in the seventeenth century. Limited government, similarly, arises from the same tension. Liberty must be curbed for the sake of justice—but not more than justice demands.

And what applies to government applies with equal force to the exercise of any power—be that of a parent over a child, the head of a household over a family, a corporation, agency, etc. But if power must be curbed, the national government ultimately is the point of last recourse; but of course it is itself a power—and must be curbed in turn. And thus arises the notion articulated in the Declaration of Independence that government derives its power from the consent of the governed.

Is it really necessary to rehash all these old ideas once again? We know all this, don’t we? Well, we live in an age when the meaning of words like “is” is debated in grand jury hearings by sitting presidents; thus it may be a good idea to ponder fundamentals. Not least words like “all,” as in “justice for all.” And “justice” for that matter.

You might say that every time a tension appears, parties will form to either side. This seems to be the situation in our politics today. We have a party of liberty trying to maximize the limitation of government—and a party of justice, trying to maximize the justice for all. The tendencies are illustrated in the only passages, within the 2008 platforms for the two parties, one passage in each, that mention core principles at all:

From the Democrats:
Today, we pledge a return to core moral principles like stewardship, service to others, personal responsibility, shared sacrifice and a fair shot for all–values that emanate from the integrity and optimism of our Founders and generations of Americans since.
From the Republicans:
Republicans will uphold and defend our party’s core principles: Constrain the federal government to its legitimate constitutional functions. Let it empower people, while limiting its reach into their lives. Spend only what is necessary, and tax only to raise revenue for essential government functions. Unleash the power of enterprise, innovation, civic energy, and the American spirit—and never pretend that government is a substitute for family or community.
These two most recent formal platforms are here (Republicans, Democrats).

Now the difficulties here are to determine how to measure justice for all. In effect it is impossible, but there are certain indicators that might be meaningful. A clear one, from my perspective, is income inequality. It strikes me as a meaningful pointer indicating the slippage of justice in the United States that the Gini Coefficient, which measures income inequality, stood at 0.397 in 1975 and at 0.469 in 2010. The higher the Gini, the greater the inequality. This means that in the last 35 years income inequality has increased by 18 percent. Now a certain inequality is natural, of course. But what level is too high? Consider what the military pay differentials are. A four-star general earns 11.5 times more than a private does. In our economy, the top quintile of the population earns 15.4 more than the lowest quintile. Now while the number of four-star generals is a tiny fraction of all soldiers, the top quintile of the population is a full fifth of it. Therefore that 15.4 multiplier means more.

Liberty, to be sure, will minimally produce economic inequality—so that some, but not all, will have much greater wealth. The perception, at minimum, of “justice for all” erodes when this happens; and as it does, disorder mounts. Now, of course, this is a free country. Those who wish to work to maximize justice (thus constraints on the economy) and those who wish to maximize liberty (hence inequality in wealth), are free to do so. But it would certainly help if the underlying principles were spelled out and more openly discussed in debates and punditry than they are. Some people, indeed the masses, don’t seem to understand what is is.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Some quite delightful books exist that, nonetheless, are often overlooked, neglected. Such is, in my own case, one called Medieval Wordbook, by Madeleine Pelner Cosman, published in 1996. My own copy was a birthday gift in 1997 from fellow word-lover Brigitte. Today I ran into a look-up dilemma. I was trying to determine the roots of the word apophatic, as in that kind of theology, meaning negative, in connection with a post elsewhere. Nothing, nothing anywhere. I therefore dug deeply into the most hidden stacks of my dictionaries and found the delightful book above. It didn’t have that word either, but there it was. After my labors were over, I opened the book at random—not a bad way to enjoy such books, and discovered hokus-pokus. That word is more often rendered as hocus-pocus—and indeed that spelling is better. Here I learned, to my surprise, that its origins are the Latin words in the mass meaning “This is the body of the Lord”: hoc est corpus domini. That startled me until I read on. Turns out that medieval people used a contraction of that, by them, oft-heard phrase, at the consecration of the host, at mass, to characterize meaningless and deceptive magical incantations. As my source continues: “Quack physicians were sued by irate patients or by offended physicians’ and surgeons’ guilds for using verbal charms and talismans of nonsensical Latin in fraudulent cures.” Who’d have known—and who’d have linked it to the Latin Mass, itself now obsolete.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Joys of the Craft

People place computer programming right next to accounting, mathematics, and economics, the dismal science. Only nerds and unathletic teen-agers could possibly pursue such occupations. There are also people who remember the weather on any one day, and at any one hour of that day all the way back to childhood. You name a date and hour. They will give you chapter and verse. Poor souls. Programmers aren’t quite as bad, but close. The public rolls its eyes. That programming can be high adventure, drama, and exalting, creative activity seems not quite credible. You want to play 0 and 1? Most people opt out.

Back in 1975 one Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., employed by IBM to manage the development of that company’s OS/360, a mainframe operating system, wrote a book entitled The Mythical Man-Month. It became an instant classic within the weird cabal of people who program computers. Back then I lived in the Paradise/Hell of code. I got the book and started reading it at once. Wonderful book, wonderful. Now the other day the book fell into my hands again. It lay in a box filled with mostly old science fiction volumes the Magee household was giving to the library; they’re running out of space. Was there anything in the box I wanted for myself? There it was, The Mythical Man-Month! And, of course, out of the box it came. A day or so later I opened the book again, once more delighted.

Now this book is about the inner aspects of building very large, complex programming systems; that’s what operating systems are. Thus the book deals with the paradoxical aspects of complexity. Yes, it is about computer system—but then, again, not really. It applies to all great enterprises—indeed, as the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy put it, it applies to Life, the Universe, and Everything. It transcends its subject narrowly viewed. But what immediately caught my attention in the 1970s was Fred Brooks’ insight into an activity the public does not understand. To summarize this insight, let me quote a section from Brooks’ first chapter. The section is titled The Joys of the Craft. The passage also illuminates the scope of the book.
     Why is programming fun? What delights may its practitioner expect as his reward?
     First is the sheer joy of making things. As the child delights in his mud pie, so the adult enjoys building things, especially things of his own design. I think this delight must be an image of God’s delight in making things, a delight shown in the distinctness and newness of each leaf and each snowflake.
     Second is the pleasure of making things that are useful to other people. Deep within, we want others to use our work and find it helpful. In this respect the programming system is not essentially different from the child’s first clay pencil holder “for Daddy’s office.”
     Third is the fascination of fashioning complex puzzle-like objects of interlocking moving parts and watching them work in subtle cycles, playing out the consequences of principles built in from the beginning. The programmed computer has all the fascination of the pinball machine or the jukebox mechanism, carried to the ultimate.
     Fourth is the joy of always learning, which springs from the nonrepeating nature of the task. In one way or another the problem is ever new, and its solver learns something: sometimes practical, sometimes theoretical, and sometimes both.
     Finally, there is the delight of working in such a tractable medium. The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures. (As we shall see later, this very tractability has its own problems.)
That last parenthetical statement puts the absolute stamp of authenticity on this book. The very freedom of creation is itself a challenge—which few people awarely recognize unless they have visited those realms. The next and last section of this initial chapter deals with The Woes of the Craft. In a way they almost match the joys—but only almost. They are present in all creative work—one reason why I described my life in that realm as Paradise/Hell.

For the impatient, the “mythical man-month” refers to the curious fact that in great tasks, where by definition everything is connected with everything else, you can’t get the job done faster, or even on-time, by simply piling on the labor. Increasing the man-power can actually slow down the process rather than speeding it up.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Torture Then, Assassination Now

Predator drones firing Hellfire missiles killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen on September 30, 2011. Al-Awlaki was a U.S. citizen born in Las Cruces, NM in 1971. This was part of the vast collective insanity that plays out in the skies above us while down here all seems normal in up-scale Grosse Pointe Farms. Sunshine. Children going to school accompanied by parents weekdays. Down the street a lawn was dug up a couple of weeks ago to replace a defective sewer line. Now, thanks to Tocco Mannino Landscaping services, a new lawn completely hides the devastation. In the sky unspeakable madness. Some years ago I studied lawyerly documents showing why we could engage in torturing people. Today’s news tells me that the Obama administration evidently ordered al-Awlaki’s killing based on another lawyerly document justifying the event—provided that al-Awlaki could not be taken alive. It turns out that he might have been—taken alive. He and three companions were traveling by car and had stopped for breakfast. Helicopters might have landed and surrounded him. We’re not at war with Yemen, to be sure. Nor were we at war with Pakistan when we landed copters to grab bin Laden. I wonder. Was there also a lawyerly memo justifying military action in Pakistan before we landed?

Droning On

Thanks to a virus that seems to have affected the computer systems of the drone program of the U.S. Air Force, we learned yesterday of Creech Air Force Base. It is a small facility in southern Nevada across the highway, as it were, of Indian Springs, NV, a little place with 1,302 inhabitants. If you get tired of the splendors of Las Vegas, about 40 miles northwest of there, on U.S. 95, you can refresh your luck at Indian Springs Casino. The town is also home of the Southern Desert Correctional Center. The poignant fact in the story we read is that pilots report to work at Creech combat-ready; they’re wearing their flight suits. They work in a small concrete building seated in front of displays screens and guide drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and other places using a joy stick.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


Elections are approaching, and hereabouts school board wannabes are the first to have their signs out. Not surprisingly, this year as in most years, at least one candidate has an apple on his sign, and we’re expected to understand, instantly, that Apple = School. Walking along, the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil popped into my mind—assuming, of course, that it was an apple. Is the linkage biblical? If so it would be ironic, therefore the answer must be No. The student brings an apple to the teacher. The custom, Wikipedia informs me (but omits all detail) is common in Denmark, Sweden, and in the United States. Certainly not in Hungary, Germany, or in France—as I can testify from personal experience. Just to check this out, I put up a Google search in German. Yes, indeed. They know all about it—but associate it strictly with Amerika, find it amüsant, and speak of Bestechung (read bribing) of the teacher. One ultra-clever posting suggests an amusing explanation. Perhaps, the author says, tongue in cheek, writing in German but quoting in English, An apple a day keeps the doctor away was modified by clever students into An apple a day keeps the teacher at bay. He justifies this by noting that an “apple polisher” is a toady trying to curry favors. A toady? Why he was a charlatan’s servile assistant who ate a presumably poisonous toad to enable his master in expelling poisons. — Come on, already, etymologists! Where is that favorite word of yours? You should preface that by saying “perhaps.” I don’t believe it for a moment.

Friday, October 7, 2011

It Felt Good

The headline in this morning’s Detroit News was TEXAS BOUND, signaling that the Detroit Tigers had overcome the Elephant of Baseball last night in a fifth game of the series in a 3:2 victory, in Yankee Stadium yet! Enormously tense although the battle had been, it felt very good. And the bonus was that victory came with the strike-out of A-Rod. All right. A-Rod had been slumping, but it still felt great!

If statistics hadn’t been invented in the seventeenth century by such giants as Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat, it would surely have been invented when baseball dawned in the 1850s. Therefore this post will feature stats. Herewith a bar graph showing World Series winners:

Chart updated to show 2013 results.

The Yankees outrank all other teams by a mile (27 World Series victories to runner up St. Louis Cardinals’ 10). I’ve marked in red the teams we have been rooting for over the years, and they fall way, way below the top tier. We’ve also lived in the Washington, DC area—but there was no baseball team there then, the Washington Senators (1901-1960) had by then moved to Minnesota and become the Minnesota Twins. So we are linked. The second Washington Senators (1961-1971) moved to Arlington, Texas, and had become our next hurdle in the 2011 season, the Texas Rangers.

When you move about a lot, you acquire multiple teams to love—and what goes around comes around. Speaking of Texas, we almost became Texans back in the 1950s, and had we done so, this next battle, for the American League title, would produce the same kinds of inner conflicts that arise when the Tigers battle the Twins.

Here is how we almost became Texans. Our immigration sponsor was a Texas businessman. Such sponsors guaranteed the immigrant a job on arrival. That gentleman died unexpectedly as we were on the ocean, New Orleans bound—and New Orleans bound because we were Texas-bound. His son declined to assume his father’s sponsorship commitment, and the immigration officials then frantically searched for a new sponsor for us. She turned out to be an old friend of ours who lived in Kansas City—and we became Kansas City Royals fans instead.

Chance and circumstance. Hidden links and local loyalties. Skills and commitments—even in our pastimes. Odd thing, life. But it felt rather nice to be on the winning side last night. As for the Texas Rangers, they will be a difficult nut to crack. They’ve never won a World Series title and only a single AL Pennant—to the Tigers’ 10. In their eyes we will be the bad guys who must be overcome.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Give, Give

I am more and more convinced, that man is a dangerous creature; and that power, whether vested in many or a few, is ever grasping, and, like the grave, cries “Give, give.” The great fish swallow up the small; and he, who is most strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power is as eager after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which human nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but, at the same time, lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.
      [Abigail Adams to John Adams, letter of November 27, 1775]
To which I might parenthetically add, Let’s hear it for our Founding Mothers!!!

(I found this in Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present, edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J Adler, The Dial Press, 2005.)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Candles in the Sky

The physicist David Bohm used to say that physicist were not physical enough. They relied too much on mathematical equations and had no, as it were, viscerally physical sense of what they were talking about. A variant of this came to mind yesterday as I first heard and then read about the 2011 Nobel Prize for physics awarded to Saul Perlmutter, Adam Riess, and Brian Schmidt. The variant is that we interpret physical observations based on theoretical structures. But the work these gentlemen engaged in was right physical, actually. They used arrays of massively modern telescopes to observe one type of supernova activity, that associated with Ia supernovae.

The terminology here is unfortunate. We have two kinds of supernovae, 1 and 2, but these are rendered in Roman form as i and ii. In the first category, i, interests us here. Type ii are produced by large stars late in their lives. In the first category, we have three subdivisions: 1a, 1b, and 1c; the first is produced by dwarfs, the last two by massive stars. On YouTube videos we hear people talking about “one A,” but in press accounts we see Ia. But never mind. the 1a’s are all white dwarf stars to begin with, and these are always associated with another sun; each dwarf is thus one member of a binary system. Furthermore, each is the collapsed form of the bigger of the two, with immense density. Most white dwarfs are about the size of the earth but have mass equivalent to 0.6 of the sun. The 1a supernova comes into being when the white dwarf sucks the mass of its binary companion to itself. Slowly its mass increases. When it comes very close to having 1.38 solar mass, it produces an enormous nuclear explosion, the supernova of type 1a. That number, 1.38, is called the Chandrasekhar limit, named after Subrahmanyan Chandrasekar who wrote a 1931 paper titled “The Maximum Mass of Ideal White Dwarfs.” The process described above is illustrated by the fabulous graphic authored jointly by NASA, the European Space Agency, and A. Field; I bring it courtesy of Wikipedia Commons (here).

The important point here is that white dwarfs never go into nova unless they reach that mass. And knowing that mass, we can calculate their brightness at peak with great precision. It is always just about the same. For this reason whenever such a supernova appears, we know how bright it must be where it is. Measuring its observed brightness with our by now stupendous instruments, we can therefore calculate how far away it is. 1a supernovae, therefore, act as a pretty reliable standard candles, thus objects of known absolute magnitude (luminosity). Knowing their observed magnitude, we can calculate their distance from us using a simple formula.

Our Nobelists looked for and found many, many supernovae of type 1a and measured their distances from us. In the absence of any kind of theory of the cosmos, this would give us a nice, clean idea how far away the most distant galaxies—those housing the 1a’s—are from us. Instead these men were greatly surprised by their findings. The most distant galaxies turned out to be much dimmer, thus much farther away, than they had expected them to be. I emphasize that word because “the model” now comes into the picture. That model, simply, is that the universe began with a Big Bang and has been expanding for 14 billion years. The expectation was that over time, the expansion would have slowed, decelerated, owing to the gravitational pull of everything on everything. Adam Riess uses the image of throwing your car keys into the air (read Big Bang). You expect the keys eventually to lose their upward energy—and to fall back down again. Instead, these keys just seemingly kept on going up. The following little graphic shows what they expected and what they actually saw.

Not to forget. The Big Bang is behind this expectation, thus a certain energetic, one-time dynamism. The Big Bang itself is based on Edwin Hubble’s observation that the farther galaxies are from us, the more red-shifted their light actually is, thus that the peaks of the light waves are farther apart. This used to be explained by saying that space was expanding and, as it expanded, it stretched the light. Today the explanation is that some kind of energy must be causing the expansion, dark energy, dark because we cannot detect it directly. And the observed red shifts—and now the unexpected dimming out of supernovae at great distances—has been interpreted to mean that the universe is mostly just that, dark energy (as I’ve had occasion to report here).

Alternative models are not even on the back burner these days. One of these might be that light gets tired as it moves, and therefore a red shift simply means tired light; hence there is no expansion. Fritz Zwicky (1898-1974), a physicist associated with supernovae, proposed the tired light hypothesis. Astronomer Halton Arp (1927-) holds “heretical” views on the red shift as well. If the red shift doesn’t always mean what Hubble thought it did, there might never have been a Big Bang. But we like the Big Bang. In the beginning, etc. Let there be Light. And having light, we now complete the picture with energetic Darkness.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Wrought Iron Returns

A winning snapshot from my rich collection of wrought iron photographs taken by Daughter Michelle in Paris two or three years ago by now. This one technically qualifies. The grating must be wrought iron. Michelle also has photographic gifts. Here is another—exploiting a diamond in green.

Monday, October 3, 2011


It’s playoff time in baseball, a time when we awaken to the sport if “our” team happens to be in contention. For many years now that either meant the Detroit Tigers or the Minnesota Twins. It is also an occasion for making valuable observations about human powers of identification. To give an example. Once more the two contenders are the Tigers and the New York Yankees. Leading off the Yankee batting order now is Curtis Granderson. Yesterday Granderson hit a home run to our great consternation—and thus appeared to us as the very Devil Incarnate. Yet, for years now (2006-December 2009), when Granderson came up to bat, all of our hopes rushed out and surrounded him—because he wore the D. He was one of ours. Indeed, when he left, this blog mourned the fact on December 9, 2009. Now we love to hate Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees—for all kinds of mostly irrational reasons. And I’ll tell you what. If A-Rod by some incomprehensible magic should one day become a Tiger player, that would certainly represent a day of great trial for me—because then I’d have to do major reconstruction of my personal love-hate list. Watching one’s own lower self in action is educational—but also safest when watching an innocent pastime like the playoffs.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Writing, Handwriting, Essays

Here a maddening—but also enlightening—fruit of experience. Mine. If I research a subject and then struggle to write my findings down well enough to make them understandable to the public in general, I will remember the basic facts and relationships for a long, long time. I will remember—but the reader might not. I know that also—from experience. Time and time again I remember reading about something complicated; I will have a vague sensation of understanding it; but when push comes to shove, I can’t reproduce that understanding properly.

My education in the United States began as a junior in high school. Until then I had been required to write essays—not after my Father enrolled me in school here. We learned recently that the teaching of cursive writing has been abandoned; children are taught to write, but not to “flow,” if I make myself clear. Demands to reproduce knowledge in writing had already begun to yield the field to questionnaires in my time (early 1950s). In college we were still expected to write answers to tests in little blue books; that was, in my case, at a Jesuit college, and I’m not sure how widespread that sort of testing was—or whether it still survives.

In the world of work—certainly at research institutes—writing was required to report results. My own interesting personal experience was that our Masters and PhD’s often lacked this skill so tangibly that I spent substantial parts of my time rewriting other people’s incoherent reports at the behest of my frustrated Director. I knew how. Time and time again, I was forced, eventually, to absorb the basic research, interview the researchers, and then do the work all over again—frequently changing the very conclusions—the thinking behind the authors’ conclusions having been too shoddy.

And that was then.

When we seek the causes of decadence, they are not hard to find. They hide in such details. Knowledge thins, understanding follows, and Emotion comes to rule. What is Counselor Deana Troi’s favorite question? “Yes. But how do you feel about it?” What is true at the level of knowledge is also true at the level of ethics. And then we throw up our hands at “the times.”

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Elementary, My Dear Watson

The publication of data by a team at CERN† brought into focus, once again, the delightful parts of physics, thus the elementary particles, the neutrino specifically. The team clocked neutrinos travelling a distance of 732 km underground, at a depth, at the maximum of the path 11.4 km underground, faster than the speed of light by 60.7 nanoseconds. These particles came into view in the twentieth century, perhaps a time when physicists were tiring of the old-fashioned naming conventions. Hence we have quarks—with first names like Up, Down, and Top and colors—and neutrinos (first hypothesized by Wolfgang Pauli in 1930); neutrinos come in three flavors.

Both belong to the category of elementary particles, and those are defined as particles not known to have any deeper structure, thus not known to be built up from yet smaller particles. These are the smallest things we know to exist as definable entities. Here, in effect, are what the ancients (in the West fifth century BC) called “atoms.” Who knows. Our elementary particles may someday also turn out to be yet smaller empires of yet smaller things, but at the present Western Culture has done enough. Just yesterday came news that Fermilab is closing down its large hadron collider. Exhausted. The next great push is in some nebulous future; we’re resting on our laurels. And lovely, cute things they are. Here is a picture of them all:

The oldest, by discovery, are the leptons (from the Greek for slight, slender, delicate), and the first lepton was the electron, which dates to 1897. Our neutrino belongs to this category too. The quarks (we owe that name to one of James Joyce’s nonsense words used in Finnegans Wake) date to the 1960s. These two categories are known as fermions, that name derived from the statistics developed by Fermi and Dirac. Thus they obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.

The red particles are force carriers described by gauge theory; that theory deals certain kinds of fields. They’re usually just called bosons, and that name we owe to the Bose-Einstein statistics, which in turn describes their behavior. The Bose in that composite was one Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974).

But what is missing from this picture? Two bosons, of course. There should be six of them, shouldn’t there? Just for parity with leptons and with quarks! Let’s have some equality around here. Well, there are—two more. One of them is the graviton (in theory mediating the force of gravity) and the Higgs boson. That last one is quite beyond me; evidently the Standard Model of particle interactions requires yet another particle that Higgs and others simultaneously proposed from the Standard Model math. Neither of these missing two have made themselves visible to science—although the graviton is alive and well in science fiction.

The interesting feature of the Standard Model for me—its absolutely fundamental underlying structural assumption—is that nothing happens in physical reality, nothing, without the mediation of some kind of particle. One of those shown above—plus the two that we’ve still not managed to capture in a bubble chamber. Gravity is the elephant in this room: it is the most commonly experienced aspect of physical reality—but its little magic mediator has remained entirely elusive. Therefore, of course, we also still lack a comprehensive Grand Unifying Theory (GUT).

Having refreshed my memories of the neutrino, tracing its family lineage, I planned to write a post and prominently feature John Updike’s wonderful poem, Cosmic Gall. Alas! Still copyrighted. Therefore I provide this link. But for the lazy I will herewith present something of my own. It arises from two urges that ever battle within me. One is a wonder at humanity’s scientific achievements; the other is a dark urge always to deny. The first urge tends on the whole to triumph—and here is why:

Beta-Decay Believer

In neutrinos I have faith
Otherwise I’d not be wise.
Appearing thinner than all wraiths
They seem to lack all size.
Even in their bubble chambers,
To be seen for a brief time,
To display what we call flavors,
They must collide with nuclei.
And particles that even poets
Like Mr. Updike sometimes tease,
Must surely be as sweet as suet,
Fly fast as lightning dipped in grease
Thus faster than Sir Albert’s light—
To cognoscenti’s consternation
And ordinary fools’ delight—
As news break of the demonstration
Of such-like heresies. Indeed,
I say, tomorrow it might be Okay   
To say that light can violate the speed
Limit that Einstein posted yesterday.
But to doubt neutrinos would be rash
For Richard Feynman is a man
With whom I’d never dream to clash.

†Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire
Picture credit is Wikipedia (link).