Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Day in a Leap Location

Diary notes produce material quite different from blog posts. I’m reminded of qualities present in Pascal’s Pensées—not intended for an audience, the background “understood.” When writing for an audience one’s perpetually on one’s toes not to offend by dismissive characterization of some way of seeing things—because the years of meditation that brought me to my own view cannot be included without wandering off into vast and for the moment irrelevant jungles.

The Michigan primaries took place yesterday, hence we watched the reportage. After some ten days of abstinence, the face of modernity struck me as weirdly mask-like, a horrid African carving. The real lesson is that one shouldn’t interact at all. The facts are easily obtained by simply scanning headlines now and then. The feeling is that I’m removing myself from common life and that in consequence I am neglecting some vital obligation, but in truth the televised mirage is not the common life at all but a kind of grotesque deformation. We were delighted to learn that the Grosse Point library millage proposition won an overwhelming 72 percent approval. In a way we are very far removed from what Robert Graves once called “All That.” But the information channels are still open. We know of the library because by means of Kindle and such, John could study the Detroit Free Press in deep detail… (Florida notes.)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tropical Climates

It strikes me that tropical climates, for all the pleasures that they offer to the escaping northern traveler, are oddly deprived. Here everything appears to struggle. Plants struggle for decent soil and moisture. And because the land-based life is challenged, everything is centered on the marine environment. Birds are the dominant visible life-form. It is hot enough here in February so that July must be totally enervating. Hence these climates don’t produce “great works” like civilization. The heat, humidity saps energy. Now, of course, this is well-known, as are the similar challenges of the extreme Nordic climes; to know is one thing, to experience it is another. No cathedrals in the tropics, as it were…

Aware simultaneously of the pin-hole sized character of my usual interests compared to all this immensity. They are in another realm and here lack all size. Yet I sense a kind of pathos hanging about the palms here, their desiccated, lifeless lower branches turning ever darker, the peeling bark, and the thick clusters of green coconuts above showing little confidence in what awaits them after the fall to the white-grey gravel that stretches between adobe-yellow walls. (Florida notes.)

Thursday, February 23, 2012


People’s fretts, anxieties concerning loss of privacy may be a kind of longing for genuine privacy, the inner life. Once found no one can take it, but to find it requires a kind of radical about-face in the direction many don’t even know exits. (Florida notes.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sun Rain

Sunlight rains into the ocean, each ray a bolt of swiftest lightning. Below the rays hit waves producing flashes of brightest possible duration, but so many that the ocean radiates. I blur my vision ever so slightly and I see lines of light, thin yet densely parallel, truly like a swift shower of solar arrows arriving with fast, furious, but passion-free energies unslowed by passage through the air. (Florida notes.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Nature Nature

Urban life is man-created nature--although one's tempted to call it artificial. But, in truth, it's no more artifical than the nature that now surrounds me here, in the Florida keys: palms, pines, pelicans; sand, sea, horseshoe crabs; herons, egrets, and the unfortunate portuguese man-of-war who'd sailded too close to our dock and had been caught by the ebb tide. The natural seems natural only thanks to our ignorance. The agencies that shaped and shape it are on average hidden from our view. Human intentions? Those we know. We may not always approve of them, but we are never fooled; we understand. By contrast we discern spontaneity in nature--technology in all that's human-made. But it's all technology--indeed technology of the highest sophistication and driven, as our own always also is, by narrowly focused utilitarian designs. Odd, then, isn't it? Odd that out here on the edges of the urban, with Nature-Nature so much more visble and present, a strange peace and exaltation spreads over the contemplating mind. Is it that when life's sustaining mechanisms and its driving intentions are much more hidden the inner aspect of it, that which makes life really life, becomes more visible?

The portuguese man-of-war? It is a hydrozoan, thus a small predatory creature related to and distant cousin to jelly fish and corals. It produces and holds above the surface of the sea the gas-filled balloon-like structure it uses as a sail to move from place to place.  It trails tentacles up to an astonishing 60 feet in length which, coming in contact with little fish, sting, paralyze, and kill them. The tendons also act to draw the "kill" up to the predator's ingestive regions where the victims then turn into fodder. The translucent, irridescent, blue-to-pink colors of this creature's sail above the water produce feelings of magic in the ignorant human viewer--but it's best to keep your distance lest you limp thence with severe chemical burns. Nature-Nature. The deep sighs are not the whole truth of our experience of it. They arise from the beholder's innocence. Sometimes its nice, indeed needful, to indulge in ignorance.

The image comes from Wikipedia's article (link).

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Locality and Distance

Locality annihilates distance. At San Pablo Catholic Church here in Little Crawl Key, FL, we get the sense of ordinary locality: the locals receive and guide us, we hear and join in prayers for the locally suffering and the recently locally dead. And as Michelle points out, all across the globe this Sunday at every Catholic church the gospel reading is from Mark 2:1-12. It tells the story of the forgiveness of sins and the healing of the paralytic sinner lowered into Jesus' presence through a hole made in the roof.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Thalassa, Thalassa

On the way to the Florida Keys. These comments, of course, are jotted on paper. Our trip south involves a meeting with the wider family, its branches arriving at various times, one branch bringing Monique's portable HP and re-connection to the world wide web. This was a brutal day in many respects because I'd foolishly failed to ask Google to give me a step-by-minute-step guide to reaching our goal, and therefore the trip here, vivid with sunshine and marked by splendid sights of all sorts of places, not least the downtowns of Orlando and of Miami, took many hours because, avoiding the Florida Tollway as much as we could (a major offense), we followed I-95 into Miami itself and then grimly slugged our way through south-Miami following U.S. 1. Amazingly that densely-populated south-east region of the great city has nowhere on it any kind of free-way at all, hence we traveled in a vast snake of cars, occupying three lanes, from one light to the next. We lost count by about the 36th--around about 250th Street. Two big impressions:

Not all the states of the union are "countries," properly speaking, but Florida certainly is. This time we drove almost the full length of it, but memories of earlier trips to both coasts and into Florida's center (I once attended an ultralight aircraft convention there) produce enough additional material to form a composite. The state is extraordinarily diverse--and must be hell for politicians trying to reach its greatly varied populations.

The second impression? It was made by the aqua-colored and raised median separating single lanes of traffic approaching and leaving Key Largo, and from this road, yes still decidedly U.S. 1 but now called the Overseas Highway, we got occasional glimpses of the sea. Thalassa, thalassa!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Flowing South

On the way to the Florida Keys: As Michigan fell behind yesterday, a question soon arose and then grew ever more insistent. Where is the Great Recession? The more we saw the country's bigger picture, as revealed by life's flow along I-75 South, the more we remembered another trip, that from Detroit to Seattle taken several recessions earlier. Back then we'd lifted out of Michigan's decades-deep gravity well and beheld what was then one of the peaks of Silicone Mountain. We left yesterday under gloomy skies and drizzle, but the skies grew blue and the sun rose. Ohio unfolded as the well-remembered industrial colossus still--but the very mass of trucks and cars, while threatening to those no longer used to the vast flow along such arteries, signaled economic activity on what seemed an undiminished scale.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Off to See the Archipelago

I’m reliably informed—having to be because I’m but a tourist in the Greek language—first that archon means “chief” and pelagos means “sea,” hence archipelago is The Chief Sea. But, second, I learned that the ancient Greeks didn’t call it that. They called the Aegean Aigaion pelagos.  Ernest Klein, who wrote an authoritative etymology of the English Language, but titled Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, noticed that archipelago comes into English by way of Italian—and reasoned, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary (‘tis a forest of big words, this thicket), that archipelago is a “mistake.” Some careless mediaeval copyist saw Aigaion, couldn’t quite make it out, and reasonably concluded he was reading archon. Silver linings everywhere. Such mistakes make for the bemusement of old men who, instead of blogging while the wife is packing, should be loading that vehicle for departure to the Florida Keys—also now labeled an archipelago. Huh? Yes. Because the Aegean Sea, you see, if filled with little islands. And therefore every sea filled with little islands is now an archipelago. In language, as in all things, the survivors do the naming.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Modern Description of Magic

A news story on today’s New York Times business page—in which transactions in the billions were mentioned—sent me to discover how Yahoo might describe itself in the framework set down by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. In other words, I looked up their 10K.

Herewith the first paragraph describing Yahoo’s business:
Yahoo! Inc., together with its consolidated subsidiaries (“Yahoo!,” the “Company,” “we,” or “us”), is a premier digital media company that delivers personalized digital content and experiences, across devices and around the globe, to vast audiences. We provide engaging and innovative canvases for advertisers to connect with their target audiences using our unique blend of Science + Art + Scale. Through our proprietary technology and insights, we deliver unique content and experiences for our audience and create powerful opportunities for our advertisers to connect with their target audiences, in context and at scale. To users, we provide online properties and services (“Yahoo! Properties”). To advertisers, we provide a range of marketing services designed to reach and connect with users of our Yahoo! Properties, as well as with Internet users beyond Yahoo! Properties, through a distribution network of third-party entities (our “Affiliates”) that have integrated our advertising offerings into their Websites or other offerings (those Websites and other offerings, “Affiliate sites”). We believe that our marketing services enable advertisers to deliver highly relevant marketing messages to their target audiences.
I find it amazing to what an extent our materialistic age has, in a manner of speaking, become etherealized. Yahoo describes its product as “content and experiences,” not once but twice. These, of course, reach audiences digitally, thus as electronic pulses, and appear on screens of various sizes. There is a kind of magic, I think, implied in an ability to “blend” science, art, and scale (no less). The “properties” delivered, when you boil them down, are actually disc space. Another deliverable, this time to advertisers, are “canvases” but these not made of any kind of natural or synthetic fiber, and “target audiences.”

Yahoo’s revenues in 2010 were $6.3 billion on which the company realized net income of $1.2 billion—not bad for a company persistently labeled as struggling. That’s 19 percent—in a bigger world where 5 percent is deemed pretty decent. Of that revenue stream advertising accounted for 84.1 percent, “other” for 15.9, the other described as a combination of interest earnings and gains on sales of securities or properties. My unruly imagination produces the image of what appears to be a Gigantic Monster with an insatiable hunger to Persuade People To Buy! It can’t find enough food to satiate it. And Yahoo then turns out to be but a small eatery where this Monster stops, along the way to others, trying to satisfy Its Elemental Need.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Baumholder, Germany

An earlier post here regarding Neubrücke, Germany, where Monique first saw the light, has turned out to be surprisingly popular on Ghulf Genes despite that little town’s absolute obscurity. But the reason for that heavy traffic becomes clear once we know that nearby Baumholder is, and has for many years also been, the largest U.S. military installation outside of the United States. Many, many thousands of people going all the way back to the times when I served there as a soldier know the place. In my day, the late 1950s, Neubrücke was the nearest major army hospital. Now it is part of the vast Baumholder complex and houses its own barracks. Brigitte and I met in Baumholder, so this day may be appropriate to do something I’ve meant to do for a long time: present some pictures of the place.

This, the most lovely photograph of the place, is on Flicker, the work of Susana Alba-McCormick, reproduced here with permission. It shows part of the dependent quarters in moonlight, among them the building where we first made our home in a very spacious apartment; that’s where we brought Monique from Neubrücke as a baby; it is one of the buildings to the right, on Pear Street.

This one, panoramic enough to include the town, shows some of the same buildings from another perspective, some of the barracks, and more, much more, if you imagine moving on to the left of this image. This and the next two images I have courtesy of Bruce Richards (his site is here).

Baumholder is a most curious place. It is home to some 12,000 Americans, of whom 4,400 are military, 6,550 are military family members, 600 are American civil servants, 360 are their family members, and 100 individuals are retired American military people. The post also employs 500 Germans—and Brigitte was one of them in my day. The town itself—you can see one of its church steeples and housing to the right—has 4,600 inhabitants. And since this photograph was taken, massive additional American Military facilities, not least a major hospital, have been built in the town itself.

Here is an old, old picture, taken from the other side across the little lake that serves the town as a recreational facility, showing also the second church—but there are three others yet.

Now two more panoramic shots of which this one shows the size of this facility more clearly, including strings of barracks—one of which I lived in before Brigitte and I became a couple. 

I owe this nice modern shot to a German industrial site which is installing energy-conservation structures in all of the buildings reaching from horizon to horizon, called Pumpen Intelligenz (link).

Not shown is a vastly—and I do mean vastly—greater area, the Baumholder firing range itself. Baumholder is one of two (and the biggest) artillery training regions in Germany, serving now the German and the U.S. Armies—and in my day, in addition, the French military. The insert shows the size of the range. The dot shown on the upper right is the Baumholder airport.

Baumholder had its origins in 1937 when the German military chose to create the facility. The government appropriated 22,000 acres for the purpose and moved 842 families from 14 small villages to create a zone where destruction could be practiced without actually harming anyone. Strange, strange. Here two war-displaced people met. Brigitte had migrated from Poland, by way of what was East Germany, to this place. And I had come from Hungary, but by way first of Germany and then America to be here. We were both secretaries at the time; she was secretary to Baumholder’s Post Commander. I was secretary to the highest ranking officer, the general who commanded the 8th Infantry Division Artillery (DivArty, we called it). Brigitte and I were both engaged in arranging all kinds of contacts with the German communities all around, and naturally had lots of contacts. Nothing propinqs like propinquity—even in  the midst of that other human perennial: destruction.

St. Valentine's Confusion

All I can say is that it was a good idea to begin with, but unlike text on a screen, once you’ve committed your broomstick to this medium, there is no Ctrl-Z to undo the mistake. So on the broomstick wrote, blaming the mistake on St. Valentine, of course.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Model T

My oldest friend, Phil Cavanaugh, sent me these splendid images the other day:

Part of Phil’s letter said:
Back in 1968 I dragged a 1924 Model T Ford touring car out of a barn in Wallkill, NY. I spent the next year restoring it and have had it since. Over the next 43 years I’ve enjoyed many a tour driving it. I’ve always lusted after Ford cars of the late Model T era, thus the years 1926 and 1927, but these are hard to find and rarely in good shape. Finally I found one on eBay (where else) and bought it. I’ve since sold my 1924 to a guy in Tucson. The new car sat in a museum for five years and so is totally gummed up with gasoline; the gasoline has turned to varnish over time, and the car also has a few other problems associated with advanced age. It will go to College Station to an expert this weekend and, hopefully, it will soon be back and running again. I’m attaching photos both of the old car (black) and new one (green).
Phil spent his working life as a superintendent of military museums, an avocation born of his youthful fascination with history, especially that of the Civil War—but the impulse of preserving the authentic past extended forward in time enough to bring us these resplendent survivors of the Youth of the Automobile.

Thanks, Phil.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Motivation? Gold!

If you ask Google Maps to find the Canary Islands off the Coast of Africa—islands Columbus visited on his way to the “Indies”—and if then you simply pull the map using the mouse from left to right repeatedly, you can experience at first hand the size of the Atlantic without ever getting wet. Columbus took a south-westerly path from there and arrived in the Bahamas. The first island he encountered was San Salvador (his naming), which would also have been the first on his general path. Here he met the Taino, part of the Arawakan peoples mentioned in the last post. Just idly pursuing those people and that language, I also chanced across Columbus’ own diaries, where his first meeting is recorded taking place October 12, 1492. I read on a bit (here is a link). Somehow it soon became dreary, the record of this momentous discovery. Evidently, from Columbus’ own point of view, it had only to do with gold. He wanted to find gold and spices, in that order, with piously murmured asides about the conversion of these friendly heathen to the One True Faith. The diary leaves little doubt about the aims of this voyage of discovery.

This Key Won’t Open Any Locks…

… or “Arawakan Spoken Here.” All right. So you’ve never heard of the Arawakan people. Nevertheless, you have used the Arawakan language if you’ve ever held a barbecue, owned or used a canoe, rested in a hammock, feared a hurricane, roasted an ear of maize, eaten a potato, used tobacco—or visited the Florida keys. Well, You, my imagined reader, probably have heard of the Arawakans, but I had not, not until I got to wondering about the origin of that word “key”—now that we are about to visit Florida. Geography, and geographical designations, are shaded by much mystery in my case. I discovered that key comes from cay, an Arawakan word; the Spanish rendered it as cayo, slightly modifying a word used by the Taino, a sub-group of the Arawakans, people who lived on the string of Islands extending downward from the tip of Florida, beginning with the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and then curling down toward South America (the Lesser Antilles). Needless to say, the Taino lived in the Florida Keys too. Arawakan-speaking peoples also occupied many regions of what we today call Latin America. I am showing a Wikipedia map (link) of their settlements on that subcontinent, showing the Nordic and the Southern versions of that language in light and dark colors. My next mystery is the archipelago. I can already hint that it’s another lulu, but since that takes us to quite another location, I’ll defer unveiling my discoveries for now.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Still Wearing the Commercial Burqa

When the Age of Oil finally ends, commercialism will most certainly die with it. I’m fairly sure of this because commercialism absolutely depends on mass wealth, and mass wealth is due to “energy slaves.” Ponder for a moment world-wide energy consumption today (2005). It amounts to energy equivalent to 1.8 tons of oil per person per year; to be sure, not all of that comes from oil. The U.S. consumption is 8.7 tons per capita, dwarfed by the consumption in Qatar, the world’s highest, at 21.5 tons of oil-equivalent. By way of contrast there is Bangladesh, the world’s lowest with 0.2 tons or 377 pounds. Bangladesh comes closest to what the world was like before the Age of Oil.

My topic today, however, isn’t oil. It’s the obscenity of obscenities—commercialism’s most visible symbol, advertising on television. That too will disappear but will soon be forgotten. These forms of assault on human dignity will vanish because the arts needed to display them will decay along with the high technology necessary to make them visible when energy-wealth will be no more. Advertising, to be sure, is not on the same level of evil as the gladiatorial games, human sacrifice, the immolation of Hindu widows, foot-binding, and other actual physical assaults (usually on women). But it does resemble an obscenity still very much alive and well in parts of the Muslim world—the burqa.

Print advertising doesn’t cover things up. And bits and pieces of that kind of advertising produced today will still be in archives in the year 4000. That sort of stuff is relatively innocuous because it’s easy to ignore. But the Commercial Burqa? That we must endure—and these days even on Public TV. It covers up the programming so that it can’t be seen—not even through little holes in its fabric. We can mute it, to be sure, but the muting is itself a kind of burqa. And, to be sure, ads are bad. But silence? Lordy! Silence is really unendurable for us, creatures of our own time that we are.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Spread of Fuzz

Fuzzy logic had its beginnings circa 1965, the invention of Lotfi A. Zadeh. I remember it well because a most memorable colleague of mine, Howard Gadberry at Midwest Research Institute, introduced it to me. Howard, who was my elder by two decades or more, and very impressive, yet had a child’s delight in the new. He used to appear in the door of my office, stare at me at length, and when he had my attention begin: “What do you know about sharpness?” Then—after the second or third such event I knew what was coming next—I knew that I would now hear things about “sharpness” I couldn’t have predicted in a hundred years. So here was Howard: “Ever hear about fuzzy logic?”

In a nutshell fuzzy logic is based on probabilities, so in contrast to standard logic which produces True or False—and nothing else—fuzzy logic gives you Maybe and can also quantify it. That’s another way saying that this Whatever is neither this nor that. Everything blends.

Monique is leading a project at present which gives her team, and I’m a member, an opportunity to look at U.S. economic sectors once more in revealing detail. And in conversation after conversation, the same theme keeps emerging: the spread of the fuzz. Trying its absolute damndest to keep the more and more rapidly morphing institutions coherent, at least for statistical reporting purposes, the Bureau of the Census still valiantly clings to concepts like Retail, Wholesale, Manufacturing, and Services, but in a kind of slow-motion shapeshift, our institutions will not, repeat not, hold their forms.

Now statistics, of course, are the tool by means of which we resolve the images of collective reality. Numbers are the photons that bring the information. If outer physical reality were behaving as the economy does, we would have begun to panic quite a while ago. That dog is morphing into something else. But what is it. No sooner do we say “fire hydrant” than it has shifted shape again and now looks—believe it or not—like a running bush.

It’s everywhere. The phenomenon of fuzzing is most easily noted by seeing journalism morphing into entertainment-propaganda-advertisements-for-myself-gossip-as-an-industry. But lordy, lord. When you see wholesale melting into communications, and manufacturing exploding into a hive of bees, why then you wonder. But we are trying our best to help Monique put the pieces together again. After all, when the subject is pharmaceuticals, people do tend to think, reading our compilations, that we are talking about drugs, not some new forms of semi-monopolistic distribution.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Chop, Chop, Chop

At any given time, that which is highly respectable  is already dead, work on the advancing fronts of a field is mixed (thus the soaring observer in the sky discerns some merit in it) and that which is below the salt and off the reservation is the future. The last category might be described more mildly, as is done by Aaron Preston in an article on Analytic Philosophy concerning metaphysical system builders. That activity is not countenanced by today’s philosophers, he says; not, he adds, “as a respected professional activity” (link).

My own honored mentors on the nature of culture insisted that absolutely everything is saturated with the feelings of the time. But they hoped to teach that cultures change; they were satisfied if only that was understood; therefore they did not carefully describe the coexistence of ossification, transformation, and emergence.

In a field like mathematics which is inaccessible until its extreme abstraction is penetrated enough to reveal some of its meaning (or lack thereof), the cultural influence is difficult to discern. But sure enough it’s there. I only briefly ventured into analytic philosophy in the first place in order to confirm my impression, prompted by the fact that at least three big names in math had played roles there (Friedrich Frege, Bertrand Russell, and Willard Quine). Thus I once more had to enter that unfortunate slaughterhouse where all your hear is chop, chop, chop. Life is stopped at the door and isn’t permitted in; inside blood and guts and shanks of meat. It pleased me to discover that this form of philosophy, while evidently absolutely dominant in the English-speaking world, and spreading to other parts, is already showing advanced decay—and is dominant because of that. Here is a field that attempted to materialize meaning, thus to make it fit for scientific study. This was achieved by turning philosophy into linguistics, semantics, and grammar and forcing its statements to be expressed in formal reductive logic. In the process it caused meaning to vanish, which is the life of that cattle, retaining only its grammar: cattle made meat.

I find this fascinating. Mathematics emerged as a distinct language by means of which additional layers of meaning in reality could once be made accessible. And like any other language—ordinary, philosophical, poetic—so also math retained ambiguities and marvels. But when it had been reduced to its pure grammar by analytic chop, chop, chop it ended up with a vast immensity of tiny marbles in fixed categories the endless rearrangement of which into meaningless patterns is now the only “respected professional activity” in the realms of higher math. Or so at least Morris Klein observes in his worthy exposition of math—although he does so with a certain amount of nostalgia. (Speaking of language, the right word here is really the German Wehmut.)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Anticipating Just a Little

Our florist had had a brainstorm. She planted grass in a ceramic dish to surround a little bunny that she hoped to sell. All in preparation of St. Valentine’s day no doubt. Irresistible for someone who is partial to rabbits. The grass is already in need of a trim, so we’re anticipating Spring just a little here.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Unable to See? Or is it Unwilling?

I had correctly anticipated yesterday’s employment report—and also the bubble of publicity that the data would produce: one side claiming credit, the other denying it. In such a situation one almost never hears the plain and obvious truth of the thing, but it delighted me to hear David Brooks say it yesterday on the PBS News Hour. Here it is:
Presidents do not control the economy under their watch. They can have a marginal impact in extraordinary circumstances. But it has to do with a lot more complicated things then they are responsible for.
Evidently the dreary truth of things is too much for our times. We prefer to make elaborate gestures quite devoid of all reality. We want our symbols to be simple. The highest celeb around is responsible for everything. Never mind the facts.

I think it was during the same newscast that I heard Newt Gingrich say that President Obama is “against American energy.” Now there’s a sound byte. It’s not meant to be teased apart into concrete meanings. Do that and you end up with absolutely nothing at all. But I feel for those in whom such a charge actually resonates; I wouldn’t want to be their parent, mate, or child.

More on Autism

In an earlier post I noted changes in the official diagnosis of autism (link). One thing leads to another. On a walk with Monique, talking about that, she alerted me to the absolutely fascinating story of Temple Grandin—and a movie about that lady’s early struggles—helped by a heroic mother, aunt, and various other creative and determined individuals to draw her out. Grandin developed from the most unpromising beginnings into a major innovator in animal husbandry; later she distinguished herself as professor and lecturer on autism. A brief video (link) will introduce her. Watching that video—in which, among other things, she discusses the education of the young and the importance of hands-on-learning—and having just seen the film, it occurred to me first, what the real differences are between “hard” cases of autism where some genuine differences exist in the formation of the brain, Grandin’s case, and the spread of “soft” autism which is most likely due to failures of nurture, rearing, and education—hence the changes in diagnosis. Second, I discerned here the similarities between very gifted and creative and autistic people—which may have much to do with natural gifts of “seeing more,” as Temple Grandin did—she understood many things that others didn’t even notice—and good nurture, education. Grandin’s is a story very similar to Helen Keller’s—with very similarly triumphant outcomes. We know too little. But what I’m beginning to see clearly now is that the old ways of life were better suited to let children develop—playing in the real world with toys of their own making—and that the best educational method, based on real observation of children, is Maria Montessori’s.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Formal Chaos

My attempt is to give a suitable name to a contradictory tendency. It is contradictory to aim for Virtuous Vice, Dirty Cleanliness, Clear Murky Windshields, or the Still Small Uproar. Our culture, however, is forever trying to achieve this tottering balance. For a long time now I’ve chuckled over the Informal Formality of dress when thirty-something celebs appear on some show in a formal jacket, buttoned white shirt, maybe even wearing a tie—but they’re also sporting artfully cuffed and torn ancient blue jeans and a day’s growth of beard.
Order and disorder are clashing. We want both. We believe in artful compromise. We believe that nature knows best, read “free market,” but we also need certain degree of predictability. So we create stock markets with strict opening and closing hours, bells that ring, trading rules, and very tight qualifications for those who may play. Meanwhile these markets are ruled by collective emotions and panics—but the television pictures of trading from up close reveal that it’s a deadly serious business: not a smile anywhere in sight. But sometimes quite conscious collective efforts shape the behavior. Yesterday the markets were quiet. Why? Well, this morning at 8:30 am (it is now 8:26 as I write), the Bureau of Labor Statistics will reveal January employment numbers. And traders stayed inactive yesterday awaiting this news. Institutionalized emotions. Today it will be time to roar and rage. (Indeed I’m writing this to fill the time until 8:30. On the first Friday morning of each month, I post those unemployment numbers on LaMarotte.)

It is true, is it not, that the promises of a presidential candidate are entirely dependent for fulfillment on another body, the Congress. Yet we treat campaign promises as meaningful. If we were serious, we’d institute a parliamentary democracy where the “president” becomes a function of a party’s victory. In our case we have Institutionalized Contradiction. Chance may deliver a president and a Congress of the same party, but then the party may be so interlaced with Blue Dogs or Tea Drinkers that the outcome still remains random.

Well, it’s 8:35. Enough of this. Time to see what Randomness has Wrought on the Employment Front last month.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


English is a Germanic language but managed to get itself so mixed with Latin that the title of this post in English is Reification. Now that’s a word one has to learn. It does not communicate its own meaning. Well, Caesar did his damndest, but he didn’t succeed well enough to Latinize German. Therefore the same word, in German, communicates without your having to know, in advance of meeting reification, that its root is res, or thing. Translated literally, we’d have to say thing-making-into. That ending, making-into, we always render in Latin. It comes from facere. We have objectification, beautification, verification—and we verbify those words by using fy. So we could say thingify and get the gist just right—and right away improve the word by making thing visible. Now the irony of this little word is that it has Marxist origins. Marx accused Capitalism of thingifying people. He thought—at least for political purposes—that people were in some ways superior to things. He was being inconsistent, being an atheist. The notion that people are in some ways superior comes from the traditions of belief. (Yes, I’m aware. Reification is also used in the philosophical context as the concretization of something abstract, thus a fallacy—kindred of the pathetic fallacy that causes a lake to smile in the sunshine.) Reification came to my mind as I wrote the last post, because I find that action everywhere displayed as a cause or expression of mass culture—and I always think of it as Verdinglichung because it’s more, as it were, concrete.

Gross Domestic Alienation

We are a social species and hence we want to make a contribution—not in some abstract and therefore meaningless way. Concretely. The contribution should be tangible. When life is structured so that our contribution does not tangibly extend beyond the immediate family, in perception at least our sense of community shrinks. Community is what we view as ours; what lies beyond it is the other. Thus our sense of genuine participation is greatly influence by the scale of things—and also by the nature of our contribution. It must be something real, complete.

Mass culture and mass communications, therefore, produce alienation by their very nature.

This appeared quite early on by excessive division of labor. Before the robots arrived in manufacturing, people spent whole careers on assembly lines tightening three nuts on a part or attaching one little fixture to a larger frame. Done with one, came the next. You were making a car—but were you really? When we arrived here in America my mother had a job for a while where she sewed one part of a shirt sleeve on a machine—one after the other, one after the other. Then she got a job as the sole administrator (those were the days!) at a doctor’s office. If we could march across the labor force and get a genuine, visceral feel for the content of jobs, we would soon discover that short-order cooks are among the few who have real jobs. But these don’t pay much. The robots have taken over tightening nuts, but in other spheres, the evil merely grows. I know a woman who spent two years in training for a job which consists of classifying medical transactions reaching her as slips of paper and finding the ten, twelve-digit numbers that correspond to these in various monstrously-sized insurance manuals. Her reward, beyond pay, is the entirely abstract consolation that she is working in healthcare.

I’ve barely even touched the tip of the iceberg. What goes for work applies to everything else—non-societies of which we’re members, the non-neighborhoods in which we live, the non-schools where we study or teach, the non-families that barely cling together by spider-webs of telephone calls, the non-networks that we call social.

Gross Domestic Alienation, beyond producing an ocean of subliminal frustration, also produces vast emotional storms called elections and their hysterical coverage in the mass media. The insanity has become so habitual now, we barely notice it. Send money, put up a sign, attend a rally, and cast a vote. Then go home in a warm and cozy cloud of conviction murmuring to your cell-phone saying, I’m making a contribution.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

In Praise of Timelines

Speaking of orienting oneself in time, I’ve become quite fond of well-constructed timelines, certainly reading them—but above all in the value of “rolling your own.” Making a timeline makes you keenly aware of how things are related and in the linear fashion. And the very activity tends to force a look at the context in which a particular subject evolves.

I’ll give a brief example here of a Greek timeline of a mere 146 years. It embraces the best known core of Greek philosophical work—but seen in its own context.

Socrates is born
Thucydides is born.
Aristophanes (the playwright) is born.
Peloponnesian War breaks out, in effect Athens (and allies) against Sparta (and allies). It will lasts for 27 years. In the Greek context it is a kind of World War in two phases.
Plato is born.
Socrates dies.
Corinthian War (Sparta against coalition of Thebes, Athens, Corinth, and Argos) breaks out, the second half of the Peloponnesian.
Corinthian War ends when Persia enters on Sparta’s side and saves its hide.
Aristophanes dies.
Peloponnesian War ends, largely because the Sparta’s ally, Persia, provides decisive aid. Persia is the Big Power in that time and region.
Thucydides dies.
Plato founds the Academy at his prime, aged 40.
Aristotle is born.
Philip becomes king of Macedon, and the expansion of that realm begins.
Alexander (later the Great) is born; he is the son of Philip.
Outbreak of the Social War, a conflict between Athens and parts of its alliance—Chios, Rhodes, Kos, and Byzantion—provoked by Athens’ demanding ways.
Social War ends. Athens is forced to give the rebels their independence, in part due to Persian pressures.
Aristotle becomes Alexander’s tutor and does the job for three years.
Plato dies at 82.
Athens loses its independence as Macedon extends its sway and comes to control all of Greece.
Philip of Macedon is assassinated. Alexander becomes king at 20, but he is already a genuine veteran of the wars of Macedonian expansion.
Aristotle dies at 62.
Alexander invades Persia (turn-around is fair play) by crossing the Hellespont (read Dardanelles) and the conquest of Persia is on.
Alexander dies in Babylon (make that Iraq, where else?) and the Hellenistic age begins.

As I’ve noted in an earlier post, this sort of thing is oddly informative. Reading Thucydides is like reading a modern author. The view point, the realism, the whole approach is modern. So are the conflicts that give this period its defining framework. The first date is that of Socrates’ birth, representing a kind of maturation of another age and time. Aristotle dies toward the end, himself a perfectly modern sort of thinker. And the last figure to pass is the man who produced the environment of an earlier modernity—the Hellenistic age.

Since of late I’ve been concerned with mathematics, I would here note where Pythagoras fits into this timeline. He came before Socrates, born 570 BC and died 495. That should please mathematicians—who like to think themselves foundational.

Month of Beginnings

For us here “locally” February is the month of beginnings. Brigitte was born this day. On Friday we celebrate the anniversary of our marriage. My genuine entrance into adulthood began when I entered the U.S. Army and left home, which happened on February 21. Back in those days the nation still celebrated Washington’s birthday on the actual date of his birth, February 22. Thus I got my uniforms, had my head shaved, and polished my new boots on my first day, and the second was already a day off. I thought: This is starting out Ok. Then I went to look at myself in the mirror again; I had to get used to my new look. This blog also began in February—and sure enough its first post is titled “Orienting Ourselves in Time.”