Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Natural and Ritual

My earliest encounter with culture was learning manners, how to behave at the table, what implement to use and how, what I could reach for, what I must ask for, what word to use, the tone, its volume, its timing. You did not interrupt others’ speech. I had to look at people when I spoke to them. I did not shout at the ceiling. It was complex, all of this. I learned to modulate my voice, learned to append such sounds as “please,” “may I,” and “thank you” to various actions. Manners involved keeping my spine oriented in certain ways. Thus I could not just disappear under the table cloth and crawl among the legs down there—however attractive that often seemed. I had to clear my plate, avoid throwing bits of bread at my sister, keep both hands visible but my knees hidden—volumes of manners, but not a single line to be read. All this took place long before school began.

To learn this behavior and all that ultimately flowed from it—because the rituals of eating expanded to the whole domain of human interactions in my childhood and, in process of being mastered, taught us all about relationships to old, young, ladies, gentlemen, teachers, siblings, other children, etc.—other structures had to be in place as well. We ate meals at certain times. We ate communally—after washing hands. And after washing hands, the towel had to be hung in certain ritual and proper ways. The table was set. It had a table cloth (the white purity of which must be protected). We had our places. So in turn all else was also regulated. To do all this required a certain attentiveness, concentration. Life acquired an invisible and also hierarchically layered structure of dos and don’ts and be-alerts. Amazingly that great facility, habituation, enabled whole cultures to acquire and practice these strange arts of unnatural, ritual behaviors that, in the aggregate, held value systems. The values, when you wished to concentrate enough to dig them out, revealed themselves quite clearly.

Watching a film about Taiwan the other day—it was not about manners—reminded me of cultural rituals—and that they remain active elsewhere. Reminded me of my one and only trip to Japan where, moments after my arrival, I felt glad that I too had been brought up in a culture quite like that one. It thus took me but moments to adapt my own behavior to theirs. Reminded me that effort is required to manifest value at this ritualized level of ordinary behavior—and because it’s present there, also manifesting at higher levels. Effort and time. So many changes. Women in the workforce. The erosion of domestic habits as the house is robbed of labor. Grab a pizza on the way home. And find the kids at home on the couch with bags of chips and cans of pop staring at the TV screen. Pop goes the weasel.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Not a School, A Flagship

Those of us “left behind” by the Rapture of Modernity when it came, gosh, I can’t quite pin down the date, need help in understanding what we read in the papers. I read in the papers this morning that Ohio State hired a coach who will receive $4 million a year in pay plus lots of extras. This led me to wonder, actually for the first time ever, what the difference between a state university (e.g. Ohio State) and the state’s university (University of Ohio) is. Well, good luck. State universities at least appear to be land grant institutions. And Land Grant institutions came about because the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 passed. The root of these bills was a movement, dating back to the 1830s, to establish agricultural colleges. Here is the purpose of these as initially formulated in the first Morrill Act (cribbed from Wikipedia):

[W]ithout excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life. [7 U.S.C. § 304]

The emphasis is mine—and I find that phrase instructive. The Congress of 1862 clearly felt that there also were other classes in the United States, and here they’re singling out the industrial  classes and their several pursuits and professions. Well, as we can see, they’ve come a long ways, these industrial classes.

The Morrill Act left the identification of schools to receive funds under the Act to the state legislatures. And those institutions getting the nod came then to be called land grant institutions. The University of Ohio (founded 1804) is not, but the Ohio State (1870) is a land grant institution. By contrast, here in Michigan, both University of Michigan (1817) and Michigan State (1855) are. Both institutions, in Michigan, are also labeled Flagship institutions. That curious designation came into use, according to Wikipedia, citing Robert M. Berdahl, former Berkley chancellor, in the 1950s when a wave of post-war expansion enlarged the state university, read Morrill Act, school systems. The original land grant colleges were labeled Flagships, thus the old boys who, being older, merited greater respect. Do I get it, finally? I think so.

Now Ohio State excels in many, many ways. It is indeed a Flagship, not merely in having a pretty pricey new coach. Those still clinging to “the arts,” liberal and otherwise, will be pleased to know that Ohio State’s Wexner Center of the Arts is described as featuring “groundbreaking deconstuctivist architecture” and “being lauded as one of the most important buildings of its generation.” It’s most prized item is Picasso’s Nude on a Black Armchair. I’d like to show the image, but it’s surrounded by copyright protection. But if you must look at a nude today, here is a link.

The Wexner Center owes its name, and its Picasso, to the generosity of Leslie Wexner, Ohio State alumnus. Wexner himself is chairman of Limited Brands, a clothing company. Limited owns Victoria’s Secret, thus the thematic link to that nude is, in a way, present. Limited also own Bath & Body Works and La Senza, to strengthen that theme. Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont (1810-1898), who started life as a merchant’s clerk before rising to the House and Senate, knew what he was about when he engineered the future education of the industrial class.

Monday, November 28, 2011

My Buddy, the Other, is Getting Tiresome

With age comes a clear experience of the body as machine—the other, not bloody hell me. A head-cold plagues me, its sequence predictable. Tight, swollen sinuses, runny nose; next comes the sore throat; the coughing will sink gradually down into the lungs. I work my way through this with the same sense of grumbling irritation that would arise if they had torn up our street for repaving and I’d have to squeeze past huge machines to do my daily rounds. The “other” is very noticeable at such times. When I’m normal, though, I also experience its equivalent. I’ll note, for instance, that I’ve left some book upstairs. Then I grumble about bodies—because to get the book, I have to drag this whole big lump up with me two flights of g.d. stairs.

Pilgrimages in our Future?

Notions like “dilution of culture” need parsing. We’re awed by massive powers in our time and march around with anxious eyes glancing at such ephemera as The Economy or The Culture. Sometimes useful insights just roll out of the fingers and I don’t realize their utility until I’ve read what has just “happened.” A phrase like that came the other day. “Experience is sovereign, of course,” I typed, “whereas the objective is just statistics.” That translates into the obvious, but the obvious is sometimes novel.

The Economy is getting, holding a decent job. One job. I am a carrier of culture. Whatever values of the past I actually embody, have at my fingertips, and permit to guide my behavior, that is culture. “Dilution of culture” therefore means loss of values in individuals by generational change. By whatever mechanism. Culture is lost when parents or education fail individuals, when distractions overcome them. It matters—at the individual level. When we extend it and speak of phenomena in general, we mean “on average,” and that’s just statistics. That is why vast up-swells of activism deceive both those who participate in them as well as to those who merely  watch and think that they’re beholding change. The activists intend to change others. Meanwhile those actions that actually improve the lot of individuals—say creating one or two jobs in efforts to implement a good product useful to others or grasping something by effort and thus illuminating a single person’s understanding—they remain invisible.

Not all collective movements have this useless character. I’m now thinking of great pilgrimages—going on these we intend to change us. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Immigrant

I pity the poor immigrant
When his gladness comes to pass.
                                 [Bob Dylan]
I don’t know much about that poor immigrant in Bob Dylan’s song—beyond what Dylan tells me, namely that he “wishes he would’ve stayed home”—but he comes to my mind every time we enter this season of Black Fridays, Cyber Mondays, and “Only X days until X-Mas.” I think of this poor immigrant as humanity in this world of ours—and when his gladness comes to pass is the time when goodies have piled up, higher and higher, so high, in fact, that for a moment gladness comes, until it passes again. And so it goes on…

The still small voice within us tells us when we’re young that life must have meaning beyond pleasure, happiness must mean something—and something more than satisfaction. But without help from all the other immigrants, it’s difficult to discover when we’ve reached equilibrium and thinking about going home again should become our real concern. The quality of a culture can be measured by the help it gives us to recognize when we’ve had enough. To turn our back on a culture that promotes consumption is neither negativity nor alienation. It’s the beginning of repatriation and leaving our immigrant status behind.
Here a link to the lyrics of this poem by one of our most underrated poets.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Notes on Human Time Perception

We explain time by pointing to our memory, which holds the past, and our imagination, which projects the future. Then we say that we live in the present. Here a problem arises because we don’t really live moment by moment—unless the situation is very tense or very pleasurable. Our actual sense of time is wider. A good description of it is the “specious present.” That phrase was first offered by an American Industrialist, E. Robert Kelly (link) who dabbled in philosophy. It means the immediate past and the immediate future, both viewed rather flexibly.

It occurred to me today that our sense of time sometimes stretches even more and includes quite distant memories right in the present. One of the more popular posts here is one concerning the Neubrücke Hospital in Germany, a military hospital in my Army days in the 1960s. It hasn’t been functioning for many decades. Why are people reading that post? They are remembering back.

This in turn made me think that humans may originate in another reality, one qualitatively other than this one. And it’s not the utility of memory for Darwinian survival that gives us our sense of time but some other inner sense that we are sovereigns over time, that we are lords of past and future both, but temporarily challenged here.

Specious? Originally the word meant good-looking and beautiful. It came to mean, in the seventeenth century, something seemingly desirable but actually deceptive. Therefore the specious present isn’t really present. Arguably our life here may also be something less than Life writ large. Our current life may be a byway but not, thank God, a cul de sac.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


.yvurt-yspot era sgniht, swen eht lla s’taht nehw dnA

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A More Quiet Time

George Orwell wrote the script and we strive to implement it. With two wars winding down and the Arab Spring confusing everything, with bin Laden dropped into the sea and the successive killings of an endless series of secondary leaders grimly celebrated (but their names are all the same, it seems, and until they die we’ve never heard of them) it is really time now to shift attention to the next new enemy. The process is under way. A succession of articles and programs on TV are teaching us to fear the Yellow Peril once again.

That reminded me of an old friend, Lin Yutang, a venerable publisher, The Modern Library, and of the 1950s in America, which was a much more quiet time. These things are subjective. The word suggests something less than or inferior to objective—but personal experience is sovereign, of course, whereas the objective is just statistics. The fifties appear as turbulent as the present when listing world events (Korea, Cuban revolution), cultural explosions (Elvis), political witch hunts (McCarthy), or global competition (Sputnik). But the feel of life was altogether different. It was a much more quiet time because the public media had not yet come of age, the Information Age still in the womb, and even the Internet’s seed, ARPANET, still just shy of a decade away.

At the same time the means I needed to orient myself were wonderfully organized. I turned 14 midway through 1950. Books were becoming quite affordable; in Europe we had Rororo, Germany’s first pocketbook publisher—brimming with classics. And arriving in the United States, everywhere we lived—large public libraries. We used to take the streetcar downtown to visit the big downtown library in family expeditions: we owned no car. Here we also rapidly discovered a publisher with a fitting name: The Modern Library. It published wonderful and very affordable hardbound classic and modern works of value. They formed the foundations of our own private family library. And it was between the covers of one of these books that I came across The Wisdom of China and India, by Lin Yutang.

We had time in the 1950s. Between the green covers of that book, at 16-17 years of age, I read the basic scriptures of Buddhism, Laotse on the Tao, the Shu Ching, the Chinese Book of History, and much, much else. The Book of History was fascinating. The mandate of heaven, the virtue of the ruler—quite different from the concepts of governance that I was getting elsewhere. My world expanded—but in quite a different way than it expands now, for the young, by means of instant access using the web. It also led to a life-long interest in China and other cultures. Such experiences acted to inoculate me against the plague of modern times, which is information overload. Does it really enlarge my understanding to see bloody faces in Tahrir Square in Cairo or red pepper-spray in Oakland in real time?

In the more quiet times of the 1950s (and we were already, then, in the midst of the great decadence, but still) there was less information but what there was came in wonderfully concentrated, structured, and thoughtfully presented forms, encompassing the most ancient as well as current times, thanks to the creative labors of such as Lin Yutang and publishers such as The Modern Library.

But would I want to go back to such times? Give up all this instant access? My answer is: Why not? Such services as the Internet are only really useful to people who already know something—and can therefore sort the steel from the dross.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mother of All Things

It’s 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, and I’m sitting at a computer. And the thought then occurs: How many others are doing the same thing in this country right now? Well, that answer is difficult to get, but those who’re guessing are putting the number upward of 160 million; I bet they’re way short of the total. But this in turn made me wonder about the first one. That of course was ENIAC for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, born in 1946, in Pennsylvania, more precisely at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering of the University of Pennsylvania. It’s father was the U.S. Army—and its mother War, the mother of all things. It was intended to calculate artillery firing tables.

Now this baby was a large one. It weighed 30 tons and occupied 1,800 square feet, thus the footprint of a house. IBM was present at this event in a kind of godfatherly role. It made accounting machines that used punch cards. ENIAC was made to feed on such cards and also to spit them out again as its great output. And IBM’s accounting machines, operating off-line, could then translate what the baby was saying into human speech.

Artillery firing tables. Well and good. But it turns out that, as ENIAC was being nursed into its functional being, John von Neumann, the famed mathematician, heard about this thing and got very interested. Neumann then was working at Los Alamos on the hydrogen bomb project. That project needed lots and lots of calculation—so many, in fact, that he persuaded ENIAC’s nurses that the new-born computer’s first ever calculation would take place on behalf of the H-bomb. And so it happened. Now we’re quite accustomed to think of computers as superfast and dealing with very large numbers. ENIAC was fast. It operated a thousand times faster than electro-mechanical computers of that time could manage; ENIAC was purely electronic; it didn’t have to throw mechanical switches to mark its calculations. And as for big numbers, that first test run required, for its input and its output, one million punched cards.

Pic Credit: U.S. Army, from Wikipedia (link).

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fermi's Q

While on the subject of UFO-denial conspiracies (see last post), what about Fermi’s Q? The conspiracy theorists will undoubtedly note that within days of the appearance of a White House denial that extraterrestrials exist, have contacted earth, or that we’re studying captured UFOs in hopes of finally developing a weapon that will work against both Al Qaida and the Taliban, National Public Radio has revived that long-forgotten canard, Fermi’s Question. NPR is part of the government, isn’t it? Now suddenly Fermi? In hopes of enlightening the public, here is the low-down on Fermi’s Question.

It’s summertime at Los Alamos, NM, the year is 1950 (although some say 1951, some 1952, and some even 1947—and the theorists will know how to interpret those ambiguities). Atomic physicists are having lunch. The weather’s balmy. Lunch drags on. The talk turns to space, to travel at or beyond the speed of light. Some opine, and some say that it’s Fermi who opines, that the odds of discovering a faster-than-light-speed means of travel are pretty darn good. This leads to speculation on who might be out there, how many other intelligent civilizations. Fortunately all there carry envelopes, and therefore some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations are easily made, and the upshot is that all present agree. There must be lots and lots and lots of other bright civilizations, so many, indeed, that a large number of them should by now have visited and, if that’s still difficult, at least communicated.

The lunchers are sitting in a moment of silence now, contemplating those large numbers, when Enrico Fermi breaks the silence, voicing his famous question. “Where is everybody?”

Good question, Enrico. One’s tempted to imagine that this question directly led to the SETI program later, but no. Turns out that the question’s been around for a while, at least since, in 1896, Nikola Tesla (another strange one mentioned recently on this blog here) suggested contacting aliens by radio. The question has been in the air, you might say, and perhaps literally so. Or so the conspiracy theorists will note. But the question is a good one because statistics tell us, aided by theories suggesting that life springs spontaneously from bits of water if the conditions are right, that life should be everywhere, on trillions of stars, and certainly hundreds of millions should have advanced enough to be communicating. So, therefore, where is everybody? Why hasn’t somebody checked in?

Enrico Fermi, who with Robert Oppenheimer, is viewed as the father of the atomic bomb, might have considered the possibility that, in the vector of life, inevitably, atomic bombs would be discovered—and discovered before faster-than-speed-of-light travel. And therefore, perhaps, most of those millions of advanced civilizations have managed to blow themselves to kingdom come.

A bomb with two fathers and no mother? Now there’s an interesting mystery to ponder.

Let's Just Start With That Missing Date...

Those drawn to conspiracy theories won’t be silenced by official announcements even if these bear a White House stamp. The other day one Phil Larson answered a petition signed by 12,078 people. The petition says: “formally acknowledge an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race - Disclosure.” Phil also includes another petition, this one signed by 5,387 people and answers them both in the same response: “Immediately disclose the government’s knowledge of and communications with extraterrestrial beings.” Phil works for the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. His response, headlined Searching for ET, But No Evidence Yet, is on the Internet (link). It is negative. White House Stationary. The relevant paragraph follows:

The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race. In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public’s eye.

This will, of course, merely give new impetus to the conspiracy claims. Phil Larson? Who in the heck is that? At minimum the official response should have been countersigned by General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That might have peeled off perhaps one, but only one, of the 12,078 signers, none of the 5,387. The Obama White House? You think those ninnies have clout? Think again. Hey! I’ve looked high and low on that so-called “response” but I can’t find a date anywhere. What do they think we are? Stupid? No date! That’s just the start of deniability….

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Egypt: Twixt Rock and Hard Place

The up-swell of Islamist protest in Egypt. Fascinating. It pits the military (read the monarchical impulse) against the Muslim Brotherhood. The modernists and liberals, meanwhile, watch with minority trepidations from the side-lines. The military as “defender of the constitution” brings memories of Turkey and of Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk, of course, was the modernizer. Above all he wished to free Turkey of religious dominance. But the hard place, ultimately, is democracy. Now we see the same pattern once again, and once more in a modernizing Muslim state. Democracy comes of age when the genuine elites are secular by deep conviction and the religious faith is shattered into numerous-enough little pieces so that no one can hope to dominate. That was the case in 1776 or thereabouts. Our Washingtons and Hamiltons, our Jeffersons and Franklins? Secular to their very enlightenment cores. And the religious character of the American population was a scatter of parts left by an explosion called the Reformation…


Some of our plants just don’t know when to give up. They just keep bestowing color. And our plastic butterfly appears in this photo to be heading out into the clouds.

Ice Ages: Tiny Variations, Huge Effects

They say that people old enough then to remember, know exactly what they were doing when President Kennedy was assassinated. I was at the office and reading an article in Look magazine about global cooling. Yes, cooling, believe it or not. And why? I had become very interested in ice ages and keen to discover what had caused them. That was November 22, 1963. Many things interested me at every point in my life. The assassination pinned that interest precisely on my personal time map.

The prevailing explanation in those days, at least those easily accessible without gargantuan studies (no Internet then, remember)—the broad explanation, still repeated today, was that the cause of ice ages was not known precisely, but the suspects were (1) volcanic dust and carbon dioxide in the air, (2) shifts in the earth’s crust, and (3) continental uplifts. The Encyclopedia Britannica (“last word”) available then, lead with these causes and had them numbered, as above; the discussion pointed out the problems with each. Then followed a discussion of two other theories; let’s call them Tilt-and-Orbit and Solar Radiation. Tilt-and-Orbit is based on known variations in the earth’s orbital eccentricity, its axial tilt, and shifts in the earth’s perihelion, thus the point where it approaches the sun most closely. In the discussion of this theory, the EB mentions the name of M. Milankovitch, a Serbian geophysicist. EB then proceeds to produce a longish paragraph in which it presents four numbered objections to this theory. Solar Radiation says that the sun’s radiating heat-output increases and declines over long periods of time. Now that was the view in 1953, the date of the EB’s edition. Needless to say popular media in the 1960s, like Look magazine, never got past Volcanoes-Crusts-and-Continents.

The work of Milutin Milanković (1879-1958) was first published in 1912 under the title of Contribution to the mathematical theory of climate. In 1914 he wrote a monograph called About the issue of the astronomical theory of ice ages. Interned in Budapest during World War I, he perfected his thought and produced a theory known as Milankovich cycles. His theory of cycles, based on the Tilt-and-Orbit approach (as I’ve dubbed it), was up there as a theoretical offer until scientific exploration, namely deep-ocean core sampling, finally showed that Milankovich was right on target. A paper published in Science by James Hayes, John Imbrie, and Nicholas Shackleton, “Variations in the Earth’s Orbit: Pacemaker of the Ice Ages,” is viewed as the defining link between the math-predictions and physical observation. And that paper appeared in 1976.

Well, yesterday, November 18, 2011, “Science Friday” on NPR, I was trying to find a tire and hence listening to the car radio—and now I learned that perhaps, just perhaps, we do have a straightforward, but very complicated, theory explaining the ice ages. It is complicated because changes in the tilt of the earth’s axis (40,000 years from min to max), changes in the earth’s orbital eccentricity (91,800 years), and in the earth perihelion (21,000 years) each has its own timing. And sometimes they counteract each other’s effects. Furthermore, the differences between minima and maxima are rather minute. Let’s look at eccentricity. If the earth’s orbit were perfectly circular, its deviation would be 0.0. But actual values range from 0.0034 to 0.058, presently at 0.0167. Now that is a tiny deviation from circularity, so much so that for all practical purposes our orbit is a circle. Similarly with the axial tilt. At minimum it is 22.1 degrees, at maximum 24.5 degrees. Our current tilt is 23.44 and decreasing. The inset illustrates just how small a change that is. Yet when at last the time cycles coincide appropriately—and there is no interfering human meddling, like burning up all of the oil and coal stored over millions in just two hundred years, thus loading the air with carbon dioxide, ice ages are in the cards. Tiny deviations, huge consequences, but our lives are too short to notice much of a change. And experts on long-term trends are not in agreement. Some see the earth cooling for another 23,000 years. Others see it warming for another 50,000. Take your pick. What I’d like to know is how on earth anyone could precisely calculate even such a thing as the earth’s tilt now, never mind what it was 30-, 40,000 years ago.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Trepid Agonist

Was driving behind a Dodge Intrepid today and got to wondering about the root of that word. Turns out that trepid is a recognized word meaning scared, but that meaning did not come to my mind. Reason? Perhaps because it’s not much used. Intrepid, by contrast, means undaunted, courageous—and, as probably intended by the Chrysler folks, suggests someone with attitude. That in turn led me to search for other words where the negation of the root is common but the root isn’t used anymore. Soon I had a candidate, indeed a talented one, useful both for con and pro. Agonist! Antagonist? Absolutely. Protagonist? Yes, sir. But agonist, meaning a combatant, competitor, actor, or agent—No. Not ever used. There must be other candidates, but my hours-long ‘agonies’ trying to get a Honda tire replaced, unsuccessfully, ended before I had discovered another example. But one thing is certainly true. An agonist, whether anti or pro, whatever the cause, had better be intrepid. Trepid will simply not do.


One barely sees the old spires pointing at the sky unless by chance the landscape opens from an unexpected angle. Brigitte has weekly swim sessions at a middle school called Parcells, and while she swims I go on walks. Returning from that jaunt a while back, I suddenly saw the old brick spire, a dead volcano, as it were. We’ve gotten well acquainted since that time, and I nod to the old thing as to someone of my own generation. The times have passed us both, but we’re both still around.

Middle schools don’t get much glory, and therefore it took me an arduous forty minutes finally to pin down its age. Parcells Middle School saw its completion in 1948 when, presumably, King Coal still had something to say about the heating of large buildings. Back then stacks were high so that the wind could carry the smoke ever to the east around here. Today the smoke is gone, but as I return to Parcells on foot from my walks, I start to see five, six black birds as I draw nearer sitting on the smoke-stack’s rim enjoying the great view from up there. They just sit and, sometimes, rustle their wing feathers.

Does this spire point to the past—or to the future? Who knows. But it’s pointing up, which, come to think about it, is the right direction, either way.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Never Mind Story, Get The Formula Right

My search for good mystery fiction continues in cycles, my success about the same as that of Diogenes. Diogenes, as you’ll perhaps recall, used to carry a lit lamp around in sunshine; and in those days that lamp lacked batteries. Asked what he was doing, he used to say: “I’m looking for an honest man.” Here a recent disappointment. On the cover an almost naked geisha with a marvelous dragon tattooed on her back. Assassin’s Touch. By Laura Joh Rowland. That Joh in the name suggested an Asian author, possibly good. Warning me off was a quote from The Denver Post’s review. It said: “Sano may carry a sword and wear a kimono, but you’ll immediately recognize him as an ancestor of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.” Still, I succumbed. Had to check something out. Well, The Denver Post’s reviewer had evidently failed to read the book. Deadlines, you know. No sign of Sam Spade anywhere. But neither did the book even remotely capture at least my imagined life of the Tokugawa Shogunate. But the formula, mind you, is good. Samurai detective placed so highly he virtually runs Japan; and better yet, Mrs. Samurai Detective is also a detective, don’t you know. And there is a kind of veneer of historical fact… Sigh.

Relighting my lamp a few days later I chanced across Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May off the Rails. Fowler is more skillful than Mrs. Rowland, but formula dominates here too. Two aging detectives run the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) in London. It’s a special agency with freedom to sidestep the usual rules. Where have I seen that before if not everywhere. Do you want a stunningly drawn portrait of London at its most decadent—transcending even Theodore Dalrymple’s shuddering descriptions—not least encyclopedic as well as microscopic knowledge of the London Underground? If yes, this is the book for you. Their eccentricities rival the characters’ emptiness. But the story isn’t getting anywhere as corpses pile up, each victim vividly described. But why don’t I feel anything? Because I’m seeing surfaces and nobody is home… Witty chit-chat on and on, but then I close the book. I’ll have to get some new batteries and try again.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Disk of the World

By means of a series of linkages I’ve become aware of the Phaistos Disk, a Minoan clay disk dating to the second millennium BC. After reading Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series of novels, I became aware of the fact that a southern constellation called Argo Navis once existed. Trying to see that constellation I came across multiple diagram of it. The origin of the most pleasing of the lot, which I reproduced with others in the post on this subject (link), I could not properly source; it came from a crossword puzzle page. Then yesterday the artist who had actually drawn it, Claire Grace Watson, posted a comment. Where she had discovered it, it turns out, was on the Phaistos Disk (side B), and the story of that is found on her site Disk of the World (link). The Wikipedia article on the subject is here; that’s where I got the image of the disk (side A) that I show here. Now this set of linkages constellates (!) a new thematic which is itself a perfect match for Doris Lessing’s work: mysteries upon mysteries. Of these Claire Watson’s wondrous site is itself a marvelous instance. Those inclined to wonder about past and future ought to see it, hence I provide the link.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Selective Censorship

While reading the Sunday paper, in which the usual madness coincides with really outlandish fashion pictures, whether in ads or in “style” sections, the germ of a joke popped into my mind. It went like this. Q: “What do people in Heaven call a group that’s dressed weird and acting crazy?” A: “A humanity with oil wells.” Just another furtive thought, half-baked and thus at once dismissed. But then I became aware of the root of it, which is “dressed like an Indian with an oil well.” I got to wondering where the phrase originated. Google, of course. And then came a surprise. I got a single hit. The phrase appears in a 1954 play written by Harry Kurnitz, Reclining Figure, available on Google Books. Hhmmm. I tried Microsoft’s Bing. My answer was No results found for "dressed like an Indian with an oil well".

Now I got to wondering. Has the Millennium dawned and I haven’t noticed? Two possible answers. That phrase was very common in the 1950s—the reason why Kurnitz, a very prolific screenwriter (Errol Flynn movies, Witness for the Prosecution, How to Steal a Million, Once More with Feeling!), who knew his public, used it in a play. But then came the silencing wave of political correctness. And by the time journalism was routinely Internetted and therefore indexed, the phrase had become taboo.

But political correctness has not extended evenly and does not cover Gypsies, for example. Yes, of late, since the uproars in France over Sarkozy’s attempt to push them out of France a couple of years back, we are now anxious to call them Roma. But if we search the Internet using the words gypsy and steal, lots and lots of hits. We learn, among other things that to gypsy is to steal, to rob. Polack jokes still get us pages, but Wop jokes don’t. They’ve been replaced by Italian jokes. All right. I tried Indian jokes. Well. I got a couple of entries. But when I examined the jokes themselves, they turned out to be Honky jokes which, the Wikipedia instructs me, are jokes directed at Caucasians, and predominantly in the United States.

Beginning to feel jealous now, I tried Hungarian jokes, and found myself reassured. Yes, the category exists. Example. Q: How do you sink a Hungarian battleship? A: You put it in the water. Another one is Q: Why wasn’t Christ born in Hungary? A: Because they couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin. That last, of course, is the kind of joke people make about themselves—and sure enough, I found the same joke playing the same role as an Irish and as an Italian joke. Having researched enough, I went back to finish my breakfast—but a mental image of a television ad lingered in my mind. It was the image of a seated Indian chief with a big teardrop forming in his right eye.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Grown Ups

My grasp of democratic politics is virtually nil, and of such politics in Greece and Italy even weaker. But from a kind of child’s perspective and at a great distance, the changes at the top in these two countries, formalized in Greece, close to accomplished in Italy, look very interesting.

In Greece Lucas Papademos has become Prime Minister. Serious business; the NYT signals that by showing high clergymen in traditional Greek Orthodox garments administering the oath of office. Interesting figure. Papademos has degrees in physics, in electrical engineering, and a doctorate in economics all earned at MIT. He spent a decade teaching economics at Columbia University. He worked for the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston. He was also a visiting professor at the Kennedy School of Government and at Harvard. Thus far his career in the United States alone. In Europe he was a Senior Fellow at the Center for Financial Studies at the University of Frankfurt. Next he rose from a position as chief economist at the Bank of Greece to become its governor a decade later. He went on from there to the European Central Bank as vice president. Last year he left that position to become an advisor to Prime Minister George Papandreou. Last, not least, he is a member of the Trilateral Commission. This is a high-level discussion group founded by David Rockefeller and organized (along with others) by Zbigniew Brzezinski. The “three” in that trilateral arrangement are the United States, Europe, and Japan.

Let me turn next to Mario Monti, most likely to become the new leader of Italy. Monti has degrees in economics and management from Bocconi University in Milan. He completed his graduate studies at Yale University under James Tobin, Nobel Prize winner in Economics (1981). (Tobin himself was on the Council of Economic Advisors and a member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve.) Monti began an academic career at the University of Turin. After five years there he returned to Bocconi University as a rector and then became its president. He is also first chairman of Bruegel, a Brussels-based economics think tank and is the European Chairman of the Trilateral Commission. He has served two terms as a member of the European Commission.

What are we seeing here? We’re looking at serious credentials, solid academic and administrative careers ending in executive positions. Independence. Appointed service to high level posts with international bearing in banking, finance, and economics.

When things have really, really ground to a halt, at last the call goes out to the grown ups. But can they sail the boiling oceans of greed, panic, and passion? These men, one feels, will give it the old college try.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Rare Blooms

A rare date like 11-11-11 might perhaps be the right day on which to remember rare cultural blooms. One that comes to mind—because we’ve recently watched the series again—is Reilly: Ace of Spies, a 12-episode dramatization of the life of Sidney George Reilly. The series, produced by Euston Films, first appeared in 1983; the next year appeared the 14-episode The Jewel in the Crown, a filmed version of Paul Mark Scott’s Raj Quartet. That was another. Reilly was made by Euston Films, Jewel by Granada Television. We’ve always had a very high regard for Granada—so much so that, in the olden days when early credits for a new show began to roll and Granada appeared on the screen, we relaxed. We were in good hands. Granada also produced Brideshead Revisited (1981) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984).

The dates tend to cluster, and if we add a few other stunning shows, they extend back to the 1970s and forward somewhat to the early 1990s. Well, it turns out that both Euston Films and Granada Television were agents of ITV, Britain’s commercial television; the I stands for Independent. Euston Films was a subsidiary of Thames Television, a licensee of ITV, and created by ITV executives to produce programming; Granada Television was an ITV contractor for North West England but lost its identity in 2002.

ITV itself was created by the Television Act of 1954 as a competitor to the BBC. And some of the shows that we admire are evidently the flowering of this competition. It took about twenty-thirty years for the products to ripen—but they rapidly faded within another decade. Alongside these classics in British television grew programming consciously aimed at different classes with barely disguised propaganda slant (okay, it’s just an opinion). But for a while there both BBC and ITV produced some rare flowers.

Those of you who watched Reilly probably still remember the haunting musical theme that introduces and ends each episode, composed by the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). He lived through the weird period that this very strange story covers and the music reflects it. If you want to hear it and watch the opening images, here is the YouTube link.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Plants Come In

Blogs by nature are like calendars. Last May the fifth I marked the plants’ return—from our basement and our sunroom to the light of nature. Today the plants came in again. It looked like frost might come overnight. Returning home last night in the rain, we noted that the raindrops landing on our windshield were crystal shaped; soon we saw them out there as visible blobs of snow.

Our real clock is the sun. But while humanity at its pedantic lowest devises atomic clocks with which it can more or less prove (though not to resistant me) that time actually slows down with increasing speed, as Prophet Albert claimed, Mother Nature’s nearest clock keeps a kind of royally negligent but still unfailing time. By my equally sloppy measurement the plants were out there exactly six months and five days.

In the spring, probably echoing the plants’ own emanating thoughts, I feel a gladness that they now escape the over-dry drear of the indoors. But in the fall, their thoughts are not all that different—a kind of gladness is present in them, a kind of breathing out as the temperature suddenly rises and in the darkness by the furnace a kind of familiar white horizon, the basement’s painted wall, dimly appears.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Do You Speak or Are You PIE?

If eighteenth century scholarship was right, the answer is: Minimally one, most likely both. By eighteenth century scholarship I only mean the philologist Sir William Jones (1746-1794) who in his brief life managed to master Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Gothic, Celtic, and Persian and reached the conclusion that they probably arose from the same single language. This ancient tongue was still alive, well, and single until 3700 BC. Then it began to start having the children named above. That root has come to be known as Proto-Indo European. Its acronym, PIE, has kept turning up like an unrecognizable shard in my researches into the origin of words. This morning I was tracing the word decorum and eventually came across this: “from PIE base *dek- ‘to receive, be suitable’ (see decent).” There it was again.

To look up words very often does, if you give the impulse rein, produce an ever deeper descent into the seeming infinities of the past. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. And then you discover yourself lost in the Pontic-Caspian steppes, thus a region north and east of the Black Sea, where the proto-people who spoke PIE herded their flocks before some headed east, some west, some north, some south to become all those other people. The smartest of them headed very far south and east and settled in India. There they developed Sanskrit, a language that William Jones considered to be “more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either.” This comes from a book titled Discourses delivered before the Asiatic Society: and miscellaneous papers, on the religion, poetry, literature, etc., of the nations of India.

Here I must parenthetically say: The eighteenth century lacked computers, telephones, air conditioning, cars, air travel, electric light, Facebook, and Twitter—yet a person could evidently write and mean a phrase like “more copious than Latin” while referring to Sanskrit—and still quite young…

Anyway, the Pontic-Caspians spoke PIE, and so did the Goths and Celts before they managed to develop Gothic and Celtic. Our most ancient European poetry, like the Edda, therefore shared proto particles with the Rig Veda and Mahayana Buddhist scriptures. Most of us, alas, are speaking PIE deep down. And genetically most of us living in these latter days also carry Proto-Indo European genes.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Brigitte was laughing at herself for having used BTW on Facebook. She next recited the other two Internet Slang words she knew. Then an idea struck her. “You should write a poem using those abbreviations,” she said. Such challenges I can’t resist. Herewith:

Last saw you at the mall
At the huge crowd.
Then you saw Jack,
Said BRB.
I gave chase
But didn’t see you F2F
Complained to Ruth
She shrugged, said MLAS
But G2G. BG.


As far as I recall
Last saw you at the mall
Laughing out loud
At the huge crowd.
Then you saw Jack,
Said “Be right back.”
I gave you chase
But didn’t see you face to face.
To tell you the truth
Complained to Ruth.
She shrugged and said, “My lips are sealed”
And “Don’t believe everything you read.”
Am thinking of you
But got to go. Big grin.
See you.

In due time the idea occurred to me that if Internet Slang (IS) grew and expanded, in due time we would eventually “evolve” a new language as brief and elegant as the Chinese script. At once I went to work in order to translate our best-known IS symbols into Chinese—and in the process a certain sobriety set in. Here, for instance is the Chinese for the fully spelled out “Laughing out Loud”:


That’s not simple at all, folks. ICYDK basic Chinese literacy requires knowledge of 2,000 characters; the reader of a newspaper must be able to handle 4,000 to 5,000. Higher levels of comprehension lie north of there. The largest Chinese dictionary contains 106,230 characters, but that set includes variants used in Vietnam, Korea, and in Japan; that one is titled Yitizi Zidian; it appeared in 2004. An earlier massive dictionary, issued in 1995, the Zhonghua Zihai, holds 85,568. The Japanese Dai Kan-Wa jiten features 50,000+, the South Korean Han-Han Dae Sajeon 53,667 characters. Those poor Chinese! They’re up against it. How would they go about abbreviating 笑出声来? What three strokes of that bewildering variety will be equivalent to LOL?

ICYDK? In case you didn’t know.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Greek in Rome

Sometimes I feel as once a Greek might have felt in Rome. That thought surfaced sharply when I read Lucio Russo’s The Forgotten Revolution (see this earlier post). The author makes the case there that the Romans had little use for pure science; their consuming interest was power. Yesterday the same thought surfaced when a Japanese student commented on one of my forays into Mathematics on LaMarotte, namely calculation of the log of numbers by hand. My reader sent me notes on how the Japanese calculate square roots by hand. Initially the graphic did not make complete sense to me, hence I attempted to fill in the blanks using Google—and failed on that attempt much as I’d failed earlier on logs. But then came inspiration. I put my question into German and let Google rip again. I instantly had four quite useful answers in that language. Later my Japanese correspondent sent me more materials, not least a link to a Japanese website that—like those in German—took on the question in order to educate its young and (in my case) the venerably old.

Europe and America. Greece and Rome. Genuinely cultivated Romans, to be sure, spoke Greek and valued Greek learning. But Rome, at least until it split in two, was the center of the world. Greek immigrants were everywhere—many of them slaves of course. As Europeans flocked to America—but not as slaves, thank the Lord. Superior culture to one side, superior power to the other. The Greek in Rome must have felt both—and also experienced the ambiguity of that. Odd how an ancient experience now has a modern parallel. And as the United States behaves ever more imperially, the more that feeling intensifies, at least in me. Once the “country of immigrants” made me feel at home; now alienation grows apace—even as I realize that after sixty years of residence I would be quite at a loss in the Old Country unless I quickly mastered Turkish.

Calling Spades Qaeda

It’s extraordinarily difficult to make out what really goes on far away in war theaters—the reason being that our leaders and our media refuse to call a spade a spade. Now institutional anxieties within our military are causing more or less murmured agitation and advocacy for a continued role for troops in Iraq. And the reason for that (yes, you guessed it) is because amorphous Al-Qaeda is once more on the rise. But through the fog of war, PR, and proactive covering of rears, one can still with a little effort deduce what is really happening. And it strikes me that the Qaeda Thing—which our media insist on referring to as an organization—may not have anything to do with it—except lending a resonant label for something both simpler and more complicated.

There is a simple pattern here. Before the 2003 U.S. invasion a Sunni minority ruled a Shi’ite country. The Sunnis were forced from power, the Shi’ites took over. Sunni partisans mounted a resistance effort to the resulting occupation, but this activity has been renamed terrorism. Under General Petraeus some efforts succeeded in dampening down Sunni resistance by co-opting elements of Sunni tribal leadership. But the Sunni resistance was not thereby entirely extinguished. It continues to exist and, after departure of U.S. troops, will undoubtedly cause continued resistance—this time against the Shi’ite regime. But Sunni resistance has now been labelled Qaeda. Not because, in reality, there is a genuine organization that in any way resembles a coherent armed force. It is called that for political reasons because the word produces resonance.

What we have in Iraq now, had before we invaded, while we were there, and will have after we leave is a population group culturally distinct from the Shi’ite majority that refuses assimilation either into the Shi’ite majority or into the rather vaporous something we call a secular society ruled by democratic means and cohering by economic interest alone. That’s an imposition from the outside. When the opposition is labeled Baathist or Sunni, as it often is, but only in later clauses of media sentences, at least we’re close to spades. Qaeda is far away.

That our military leaders are anxious is also understandable. Once out of the line of fire overseas, they don’t want to be saddled with blame for the failure of a Mission that seemed to have been Accomplished long, long before it even began.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Freshness Algorithm

The electrification of information has had one obvious consequence. My morning paper always brings old news. Not surprisingly print-circulation is heading down and newspapers are folding. What keeps some papers alive is the habit some of us still have: get up, make coffee, get the paper. Television coverage brings the fastest news. When crises erupt—domestic or global—the 24-hour news channels will have the instant coverage, albeit bent all out of shape. Time and time again, attempting to get more comprehensive but still instant news, I’ve found that the Internet is hours behind—as is radio. Not that, mind you, speed will help me in any practical, real-life sense. Crises are always distant. When they are not just now but here, we run out of the house to see with our own eyes—which happened a year ago when the power lines behind our house suddenly caught fire.

Today comes news that Google is too slow—and in consequence of that its minions have labored and introduced a “freshness algorithm.” Evidently the fastest news is not on TV any more. It’s on Twitter and on Facebook. Instant now means second to second, and a seg of the pop feels deprived because the Google searches do not bring them Twitter feed results whereas Bing “includes more Twitter and Facebook posts than Google does in search results” (NYT this morning). That “seg of the pop” is my try to learn to write in Twitterese.

What supports all this ultimately silly hysteria for second-to-second currency is the built-in biological imperative of our sensory apparatus. Of course we want to know, and right away. But what our sensory structures haven’t internalized as yet is that the electrified environment artificially enlarges the world and makes events very far away appear to be nearer and more relevant than they really are. As if it mattered diddly whether or not Papandreou will or will not hold a referendum. Yes it might have consequences to us personally, but there is nothing we can do right now (indeed ever) to counter them—even if a 140-word Twit could actually spell them out.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Herewith a quote from Angela Thirkell’s 1958 novel, Close Quarters:
     “Plastic!” said Captain Gresham with deep scorn. “And Pink.”
      “You’ll have to get used to it, darling,” said his wife. “The kitchen garbage tin is plastic now and so is the big washing-up basin and that red broom with red bristles that you admired. And Lady Graham’s housemaid’s new teeth, because she told me so.”
      “You can’t even get an anagram out of Plastic,” said Captain Gresham, happy to discover a new grievance.
     Everyone at once tried to get an anagram, the only one approximating to a possible hit being SCALP IT, which was ruled out by John Leslie as unfair because it ought to be one word.
I’d spent much of my day yesterday studying the subject of plastics for a project—in course of which I’d noted the sudden and rather awesome explosion of plastics into the world after World War II. Thus reading that passage in the evening, I experienced it as a “meaningful coincidence.” Or was it just a case of plastics’ ubiquity?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

One Creator—or Forgettable

To rise above a certain mediocre level, creative works must be fashioned by a single individual—or, to put it more gently, the core creation must be by one person even when the work is later translated into, say, a movie or a television series. In that translation, in turn, it is important that the direction/production of the piece—quite a different kind of creativeness—also be in the hands of a single person with requisite talents. Regarding this last point, I’m thinking of Masterpiece Theater pieces or the Mystery series that have come to us principally from the BBC. Those that genuinely succeed were made from novels or stories. Some of these have succeeded so well that, later, other authors have produced new segments “based on the characters created by [fill in the blank].” The “characters” very often do carry the series forward well beyond the original author’s living work, but a kind of “fade” becomes obvious eventually. Series based on a “concept” reducible to a page—to help sell the idea—and then executed by a “stable” of writers is invariably and by design something second rate.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fashions in Time

Last Sunday we entered a kind of Twilight Zone—and our visceral memories knew it. So did the batteries in the simple clock that hangs in our kitchen. In the morning Brigitte wondered: Had Daylight Savings Time ended? Had I failed to reset clocks? And the kitchen clock stopped in protest. Turns out that right up to 2006, DST in the United States ended on the last Sunday in October. But the Energy Policy Act of 2005 had moved the start of DST up in time to the second Sunday in March—and lengthened its duration to first Sunday in November. All this in the name of saving energy. We will do anything, in other words, except something genuinely effective, to save energy. A graphic to make things clear:

We used to call this “summer time,” and once upon a time it had some relationship to the movement of the sun—although nowhere uniformly. European Summer Time extends from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October. But fall ends in September. Still, that is closer. With the change that set in for us here in 2007, summer time pretty much lost its meaning—summer very much over when somber November starts enduring after the pumpkins have been carved.

Ever since Germany introduced DST (as Sommerzeit) in 1916, it has had progressive proponents and traditionalist opponents. Something about “summer time” does indeed remind me of the renaming of months after the French Revolution. Fashions in time are fashions in culture. It strikes me as significant that the trend now is to abandon DST. Most of the globe’s population no longer lives under the DST dispensation. A quite large country left DST behind: Russia under Medvedev—why, just this year! The map I present from Wikipedia (link) shows how things now stand.

As for us, I replaced the batteries in the kitchen clock. And we anticipate “falling back” in the Fall, thus on Sunday morning, November 5.