Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Melting Pot

Somewhere along the line a once meaningful metaphor for America has gone the way of all melting pots, it seems, replaced by what? Smorgasbord? We don’t call it that, as yet, but what else does multiculturalism mean when translated into the language of food? The melting pot, of course, was never a very perfect image. It didn’t melt black slaves into whites, not even after slavery ended. Resistant ingredients produced our China Towns—as well as helping build our railroads. The Irish seemed also, at first, resistant to cooking. There were those signs. Don’t try to jump into the melting pot, feller. Not wanted here. But it helped to speak English and to be white. The first signs that we were transiting—thus that the melting pot had holes—was the use of hyphenated-American expressions. Race was there all along, euphemized into “ethnicity.”

What led to the above, however, wasn’t thinking about the melting pot but what was under it: the fire. While wealth was expanding, the pot still melted, even as it leaked and, at its bottom, kept accumulating residues that just would not, absolutely Would. Not. melt. What seemed in the past, indeed quite effectively still when I came to this land (1951), to cause the integration of immigrants was a combination of cultural and physical similarity and ample wealth. Those were the causes rather than the lofty ideas enshrined in the Declaration or the Constitution. Now the fire is sputtering—and hence the pot is cooling. The contents are drying up. And cracks are forming on the surface. I look at politics over the last two decades or so—and at ethnic demographics—and wonder... Is the white population beginning to feel hemmed in by growing ethnic minorities on all sides? Is that what all the passion is about? President Obama only won 43 percent of the white vote in 2008, for instance (link). Isn’t there enough fire for everybody? Should we therefore make the pot smaller—so that all the fat can rise to the top?
The sign shown may be purchased from the Irish Brigade Store for $19.95 (link).

Friday, June 29, 2012

Sobered Up

The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arose.
     [Ecclesiastes 1:5]
For most people in our circle, yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act caused elation combined with a certain chagrin—chagrin present because most of us don’t really like the confusing stitch-work of that act, a mosaic of compromises. Nevertheless, the idea of a national health care plan, reaching all citizens, appears highly desirable and just. I for one expected the Court to kill it. Hence yesterday turned into a kind of dizzy, half-staggering dance of celebration. Today sobriety returns.

I woke up this morning with an observation that has kept recurring ever since I had my first courses in American history in high school. It is that the history of democracies is in a sense incoherent. Now this, but then the reversal of this. Now that, which is a reversal of that other, but not quite a reversal. But be sure that that which we now celebrate will not long survive the choppy sentiments of a chaotically agitated public. And so on and on. Successions of people, briefly glimpsed, obscured, returning, exiled, executed, triumphant, over-come, etc., etc.

Examples are Athens, Republican Rome, Britain, and the United States. In times of democracy, too much change. The periods in the history of democracies that take on a certain structure are invariably military disasters of some kind. Hence I have a very good grasp of our Civil War, but the befores and afters are blurry for me—until we reach the World Wars. And after that, much of the same.

Now as Ecclesiastes observes, recurring change is as much a characteristic of the macrocosm as of the life of societies—with the sun hastening in darkness to return to its beginnings again. The real longing is for the higher law, beyond society and nature, but in this realm, let’s face it, the best we can hope for is occasional approximations the roots of which, even before they spread their leaves, are already under attack by gnawing creatures.  

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Butterfly Update

Herewith our second Black Swallowtail butterfly of the 2012 season. We’ve learned how to tell the boys from the girls, and this is a lady. We now realize that we've yet to see a male. Their wings, seen from the back, are a bright pattern of yellow and black. Ours are mostly black from that perspective—except for the tell-tale markings, not least “eyes” at the tail.

The first image shows the lady just some minutes after she emerged from her chrysalis. She spent about three hours drying her wings and testing her ability to fly. She had affixed her pupa to the screen as well and hence, presumably, felt comfortable in this odd posture. In the second I show her with her wings spread, still in our sun room.

Here, finally, I show her literally seconds before her first solo flight into nature actually began—from a kind of little basket Brigitte had used to collect her from the window sill to bring her out of doors. As all the butterflies we've nurtured so this, the Second Lady of the Spring, also headed straight north.

Now for something different. We discovered, yesterday morning, three new larvae of this species on two different dill plants. They are at their earliest stage and hence virtually impossible to see. At this stage their coloration is brown, with a white spot in the center. Very rapidly they turn black—except for that spot, of course. To illustrate the tiny size of the creature, I will show in succession the dill plant (an arrow marks the area where one larva lurks), the portion of the plant where I saw it, and last, the enlargement of the area itself.

We’ve learned today that Monarchs are as partial to milkweed as Black Swallowtails are to dill. Expanding our view, we’re about to acquire some milkweed. Both of my cameras were on strike when the First Lady of Spring arrived. Our neighbor caught some images, and those may yet be shown.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Crude Simplification

Being myself a master of that genre—it’s a way of venting mental gas—I bow my head when I see someone who out-does me. In his column today in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman attributes this gem to one Daniel Brumberg at Georgetown University. Friedman paraphrases Brumberg thus: “the Arab awakenings happened because the Arab peoples stopped fearing their leaders—but they stalled because the Arab peoples have not stopped fearing each other.”

The white man’s burden sometimes weighs so heavily on learned shoulders that groans like that issue forth—and are then gratefully echoed by pundits looking for the sound-byte. It’s all about fear, don’t you know—and if you didn’t, now you do. Too bad Brumberg-Friedman don’t hasten to globalize this wisdom and assign it to the very birth of democracy wherever. The tyrant’s grown feebler, so let us arm against the neighbor.

I prefer the even simpler simplification of “original sin.” It is also a heavy load but has a few holes in it through which the light occasionally penetrates.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Progressive, Regressive Notes

The temperature has been so cool of late we might as well be living in an air-conditioned house—even as that project is now only about 65 percent complete. Caustic jokes come out of my mouth. “You watch, Brigitte,” I say. “As soon as the system is up and running, news will come that scientists now foresee that Global Cooling has begun.”

The workmen turned on the outdoor compressor while I was out in the yard writing on a clipboard. I didn’t notice. They came to fetch me to admire. It is quite unobtrusive. I used to be quite knowledgeable on this subject years ago, but technology keeps marching on. New techniques.

The two butterfly pupae have yielded butterflies. The sedate and conventional of the two turned out to be adventurous and stormed the screen door beating it to get out. The extroverted adventurous one, by contrast (and this happened yesterday), spent hours quietly, sedately drying its wings before Brigitte finally coaxed it outdoors. Pictures will be shown.

The world’s breathlessly waiting for the Supremes to rule on health care. Soon it’ll be another circus out there. My perhaps premature take on this is on LaMarotte.

We saw a quite wonderful film last night, Arranged. The film is unique in that it takes a contrarian stance toward modernity, placed in New York, no less. Quite unpredictable if you are steeped in our times and wary. Delightful.

Reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. In an odd way its thematics are similar to Arranged. Have not read any novel in the daytime for years, but now my morning work-space is denied me. Yes, there it goes. The doorbell just rang. The workmen have arrived.

My notes are done just in time.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Dove in the Garden

The lovely shrub is our hydrangea; it is unusually showy this year. Our particular shrub is Hydrangea macrophylla. The variety is “Taube,” from the German for pigeon or dove. Hydrangea is a Latinized Greek word constructed by Linnaeus meaning “water cup,” referring to its cup-shaped seed pods. Macrophylla translates as “big-leaved.” This plant originates in southeast Japan.

One interesting fact about this type of hydrangea is that the color of its petals depends on whether or not the soil is caustic or acidic and therefore either holds or releases the aluminum in the soil. Our soil is obviously caustic—because the leaves are pink. But Brigitte has another, younger version, taken from the original shrub shown but planted in different soil—and sure enough, its petals are blue! Other names? There are several: Bigleaf Hydrangea, Lacecap Hydrangea, Penny Mac, and Hortensia. There are yet others, but those (e.g., Mophead) do not apply to our cultivar.

The usual aviso: Click images to enlarge; Esc returns to the post.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Egyptian Time Perspective

At 4:31 p.m. Egyptian time, which was 10:31 a.m. here in Detroit, an hour-and-a-half late, the final results of the presidential election there were made known to the public. The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won the office with 51 percent of the vote; his opponent, the ex-general Ahmed Shafiq, garnered 48 percent. So it is over? Well, in a way. The country’s military oligarchy seems still to hold the thicker strings that guide this Egyptian puppet in its motions. They engineered the parliament’s demise just before the run-off vote was held, perhaps thus hoping to shoo in their candidate.

Interests me, this whole business—if for arcane reasons. Using the Muslim calendar, we are now in 1433. But the Islamic calendar is based on 12 lunar months; these yield 354 or 355 days per year. Using 354.5 as an average, 1433 produces 1390 years of 365.25 days—suggesting that the calendar began in 622 AD. Yep. That also happens to be the official starting year of the calendar, the year of Mohammed’s flight (hegira) from Mecca to Medina. Hegira (or hejira) is also used to mark the Muslim year, combined with the Latin anno; this year, therefore (until November 14), is 1433 AH.

Now supposing we imagine that civilizations are more or less organic phenomena—rather than mechanical—thus that they develop and age “naturally.” In that case the Islamic one is in its fourteenth century—a time which, in ours, felt not even a whiff of democracy yet; the authentic, spontaneous thing would have to wait another 400 years or so. Which is another way of saying that the tenor of events in Egypt, with the authoritarian hand of the military still holding the reins (to change metaphors), seems to be about right. The democratic form is not, in this view at least, “natural” to the Muslim culture at this time. It is imposed by its overwhelming presence round about that country—to its North and, across the ocean, to its West.

Is that the reason why this announcement was late in coming—even if only by an hour-and-a-half? Were the Egyptians sort of hoping that, if they delayed, time would catch them up to an alien modernity? If so, they didn’t wait long enough.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Savonarola’s Ghost

When one’s time horizons are restored—even if only temporarily (the workmen are gone, but they’ll be back)—then the ordinary daily trials resume. But better ordinary woes than strangers underfoot. The first of these is waking up to find myself (disgusting!) still here. The longer I sleep the longer I stay captured by what I think of as the physical—unless the papers trigger one of my routines. Then, with adrenaline flowing, I tend to go off on crusades.

That, of course, still leaves me in the world; not quite the physical, but certainly half-submerged. I’d rather be in some ideal setting where order reigns and everything, looked at closely, retains its sanity. So why bother looking out? Why look at the great social-collective? What draws me, I think, is its seemingly greater scope—something lacking (but also only seemingly) in my concrete drive, my scraggly grass, and the familiar glories of our plants and flowers. The mind’s tempted by the too-rich information that lets one (once more seemingly) encompass the whole globe. But what mirrors back from that is disorderly enough to signal just how bad things are—even if, reason tells me, the “bad” out there is no worse in proportion to mundane daily life than it is right here in my own backyard.

Behind this lies a reflexive identification with community—including my ancestors who tried to pass their values on to me. It grieves me how little they actually managed to pass on. But at least they tried. Occurs to me that there is an archetype in here, in me, called Savonarola, close kin to an actual person by that name. And from it rises—before my mind’s completely awake—a harangue to the wicked. If Brigitte is awake, she gets to hear it. If I’m really captured, it goes out silent as a blog-post. But sometimes I manage to wake up enough to remember to look within. Then, finally, I feel energized and cheerfully go to make that second cup of the morning quite relaxed.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Defending Town and Wildlife

I saw the image of a fishfly on the front page of the Wall Street Journal this morning. The story is headlined “Something Smells Fishy In These Tony Michigan Towns.” Then I see that the story is from Grosse Pointe, MI. So we are “tony,” are we? The author got that wrong. Next I encounter this little snippet: “The worst part: The flies have little to do with fish. The name refers to the smell all those rotting bugs give off.” Wrong again. Finally our author found a policeman in my part of the Pointes, Grosse Pointe Farms. According to that official, this year’s is supposed to be the worst “invasion” in more than 30 years. Not in our opinion here.

“Tony” is supposed to be “high-toned,” thus “uppity.” In the 1920s, I am told it was the name of a reddish-brown fashion color. Yes. The Grosse Pointes are well off to wealthy. And the color is right because most of the homes are brick. But if you live here and know the population—from its highest to its modest levels—it would occur to no one to describe this place as “tony.” Want to be negative? Call the Grosse Pointes bourgeois—with the kind of intonation a French person would use. Want to be neutral? Upscale, staid will do. Want to be positive: Reserved, traditional describes us. We also have lots and lots and lots of trees. They cover us. Green, green. Major budget battles here turn on how many and which kinds of trees to plant. Tony? Baloney.

The fishfly is an aquatic insect meaning that it spends one year out of each year under water living in submerged mud burrows. Had to add that word, submerged, just to emphasize the point. Through most of its life this creature is a nymph. It turns into a winged insect just before its time has come to reproduce—and die. Sex is enjoyed high in the air. Then the fertilized females deposit their eggs on the water. Finally, male and female, they fly inland to die. The fishy smell? Well, hadn’t noticed it. Indeed, just to see, I collected some and held them to my nose. No sign of it. They are called fishfly because they live under water.

Now for that “worst invasion” in 30 years. The policeman may have been referring to the WSJ’s invasion of the Pointes, not to the fishflies. 2010 was much worse; last year the fishflies were both late and rather thin in population. This year was just about right. The Journal’s writer did get one thing right. Elsewhere these creatures are called mayflies. Around here they tend to peak around about June 16.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Conditioned Solstice

We’re celebrating this year’s summer solstice—it’s a day ahead of the usual date because we’re in a leap year while it lasts—by having air conditioning installed into this 1929 house. The work began in Spring and will end in Summer, the two points no more than two weeks apart. This rather extensive span is necessitated by the age of this house and its heating system: radiators. There are no furnace vents to be easily co-opted to carry cold air in summer. Hence rather major work’s involved. Needless to say, the resulting activity has demolished my routines, and will continue to do so for a while yet. After that will come relief. With all this going on, the  summer solstice caught me by surprise, so that this is written a day after. Whatever, as they say. I spent summer solstice digging up and then replanting two huge plants to make room for the compressor that lives outside. Sweaty work at 94° F. So quiet is that unit, the company informs me, that you can have a civilized conversation standing right by it, resting your coffee cups on this decorative top. Can hardly wait for it to come on… 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Path to the Water Hole

Sharia is one of those words that, coupled with “law,” is similar to rice paddy, which translates to “rice rice”; hence Sharia law is “law law.” Unless you insist on understanding the word “sharia” still to mean what it once did, long ago, namely “the path to the water hole,” a now obsolete Arab way of saying “way of life.” When you live in the desert, the supremely important thing to know is the way to the life-sustaining liquid. Certainly since Mohammed’s time, the word has come to mean “law,” “legislation,” “ordinance” or “command.” The word is traced to Koran 45:18. Herewith three different translations:

Then We have made you follow a course in the affair… [M.H. Shakir translation]

Then We put thee on the (right) Way of Religion…. [Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation. The translator adds in a footnote: “Shariah is best translated the ‘right Way of Religion,’ which is wider than the mere formal rites and legal provisions, which mostly came in the Medinah period, long after this Makkan verse had been revealed.” ]

And now We have set you on the right path…. [N. J. Dawood translation]

What seems clear to me is that when the verse was written, the meaning of “path” or “way” was still alive—but that today the meaning of the word is “law,” indeed most commonly rendered as legislation. And more: related words already used in Mohammed’s time were shara’ra meaning “He ordrained,” shara’u meaning “they decreed,” and shir’atun meaning  spiritual law, all used in the Koran with those meanings.

There are those who do—and those who don’t—start sweating and agitating when language is abused. It’s a reflex in me; I plug up my ears, in a symbolic gesture, when I hear Sharia law spoken out loud.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Another Bicentennial

We’re on the eve of another bicentennial, that of the War of 1812. On June 18 of that year President Monroe signed a declaration of war against England that Congress had passed on June 1, 1812. Such events enable us to get a feel of time’s relentless flow. One way is by looking back at the personal level, which I did the other day by recalling Theodosia Burr Alston (link). The war of 1812 suggests just how rapidly time passes on the collective scale. Little Napoleon? That hand stuck into his vest? Ancient history? No. Just the other day. It is very difficult today to imagine France actually invading Russia, but that happened in 1812. Britain then was already embroiled in the Napoleonic wars, and it was England’s greatly expanded activity at sea that also caused the conflict between England and the United States. Britain restricted U.S. trade activities and seized American sailors to serve aboard British ships, known as impressment. America was pressing to the west, and Britain supported American Indian tribes—hoping, indeed, to establish an extensive Indian buffer state between the states and Canada. The big losers in this war? They were the Indian tribes.

The United States excelled at sea—so much so that the USS Constitution, better known as Old Ironsides, has become the enduring symbol of this war. She is paraded every fourth of July, to this day, in Boston harbor. The image I am showing, courtesy of (link), shows such a parade. A curious fact about Old Ironsides: her sides were made entirely of wood, the only iron being nails. But she was well-commanded, larger than all British frigates, and enemy shot bounced off her sides…

Back when the national bicentennial took place in 1976, we celebrated it on a (lucky for us) quite elevated point of a freeway pointing at Washington, DC. Cars, cars, cars everywhere. You couldn’t move an inch—yet the mood was calm and festive. We were up there for many hours until the sun set and then, in due time, the fireworks began. It is shocking to realize that thirty-six years have passed since then...

Learned and eloquent historians on C-Span—rarely seen except on such occasions—reinforced my view that life two hundred years ago was, in general feel, much as it is today. The nation was politically split; the Federalists all voted against the conflict as a block. The other party then was the Democratic-Republican; some of their members also opposed the war. The war’s financing was by piling on national debt. Thousands of newspapers informed the public. Broadsides—posters—served the role of twits and Facebook entries. The physical side of life was much much harder. And to think that the United States was having a small war on the side: it was not the big Behemoth yet leading the charge against little Napoleon.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Caterpillars Have Personalities

Update 2 in butterfly raising 2012. In an earlier post we reported on three Black Swallowtail caterpillars that Spring brought to our tentatively named Rancho Mariposa. One became bird food. When we noticed its loss, we brought the other two inside. Very soon they began what is known in the business as the wandering phase. At this stage the caterpillars become very active. In part their incessant climbing, stretching, and exploration is intended to push what remaining wastes are in them out. In part they are trying to find the perfect perch to rest and form their hard pupae. One of our two survivors behaved with fitting decorum. It crawled about using the dill plants and multiple convenient sticks the Rancho provided for it. The other one?

Well, the other one was insistently adventurous. It managed to reach the rim of the pot several times—and twice it dropped down to the table below. Each time Brigitte returned it to the pot again. Then we were out of the house for a while. On returning, Extrovert had entirely disappeared. A great search ensued, but we couldn’t find it. A day later we discovered it hanging from the screen of a sunroom window. It had managed to overcome endless obstacles and to travel a long distances, ever heading, evidently, for more light. It was so firmly attached to the screen, we couldn’t remove it. And then, two days later, both Introvert and Extrovert turned into pupae over-night. Caterpillars must have personalities.

Clicking on the images enlarges them, Esc returns to the post. In the first image the fine tendrils these creatures use to suspend themselves from the branch that holds them are sharply visible.

Unavoidable Conflict

The conflict between church and state is, you might say, built in. Religion organizes people; it forms communities. The leader or leaders of such communities then come to represent a power. By its very existence, this power rivals that of the secular ruler. The constitutional separation of church and state is a reasonable but awkward stratagem. It works for a while. Here and there. This separation has biblical rootings: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”: quoted in three of the four gospels. Problems surface when Caesar demands what belongs to God—or the Church encroaches on what belongs to Caesar. In a very complex modern world even drawing the line between the two is extraordinarily difficult.

This issue is at the core of today’s runoff elections in Egypt. To one side is a relatively weak representative of Caesar, but evidently backed by a military oligarchy strong enough so that it could simply squash a parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. On the other is the Muslim Brotherhood itself which might, just might, if it waxes strong eventually, impose religious law.

The problem is compounded by the fact that humans are social creatures and that a vast gulf opens between religion as a social phenomenon and religion as an inner experience. My own view of collectives is, to put it mildly, reserved—and no matter what their nominal coloration. They tend to be somewhat less than human. Internal guidance may conflict with the demands of both collectives. As a minimum, let there be separation—be that separation enshrined in constitutional language or not. It won’t always be so. Millions of years to go yet, and a snapshot from the U.S.A. is barely even a moment on such scales. There is no conflict for the individual if Jesus’ words are understood. Caesar is all collectives; we give them what is theirs. The rest is conscience.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Census of the Sisterhood

It pleased me to read the news yesterday concerning findings of the Human Microbiome Project, an organization of the National Institutes of Health. HMP has now taken a census of micro-organisms that share our bodies. We are host to some 100 trillion bacteria, ten for every one of our cells; it isn’t that we “host” them, exactly, although we do. Without them we would have major problems digesting our food. Long ago I had a poetic reaction to studying biology and imagined that each living being is a “chemical civilization.” Even back then (the 1970s) students came to value the crucial role played by our Symbiont Sisters; the scientific work to estimate their total number and subdivisions into “ethnicities” had not yet been done. Now it has. Ten thousand species live in us; all told they have 22,000 different genes—over against our own 8,000; they represent about 1 to 3 percent of our body mass—thus a person weighing 150 pounds will have 3 pounds of helpful guests—using a 2 percent figure. Biome, incidentally, comes from “living" and “mass.”

These civilizations are similar to our own—but only to mean what fractal mathematics calls “self-similarity.” That concept means that some arbitrarily selected whole will be approximately similar to a part of itself—while also being part of a greater whole also self-similar to itself.

Back in the 1970s it was mitochondria in cells that brought home, for me, the notion of a community of living beings, cooperating to form greater wholes. Mitochondria produce the cells’ energy; they are power plants in what looked to me then like cities—if greatly enlarged. Mitochondria have their own DNA; presumably they were, at one time, immigrants to cells, valued for their superior technology.

The more we think about bodies—which we imagine to be exclusively our own—and the more they look like vast aggregations of other living beings—who in turn carry within them what seem to be alien symbionts—and so on until (as in my case), I imagined invisibly tiny “little people” who use enzymes as their tractors, forklifts, helicopters, hoists—the more curious the picture becomes and the more strange we seem to ourselves. Are we these structures, by whatever name we call them: bodies, machines, communities, or chemical civilizations? I’m convinced that we are not. We can live our lives and never even think about such matters. But at some point understanding such mysteries matters. HMP, mindful of the public’s narrow interest in utility, points to advances in medical knowledge as the justification for this research. But for me, this too, like everything else, points at something beyond.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Mental Nervous System

A fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal today tells the story of a “hospital” in Bagram, Afghanistan, where combat robots are fixed. There is Medicare for robots, sure enough, and no entertaining controversy about co-pays or budget deficits in that connection. Soldiers in the theater become very attached to their robots. They name them, give them ranks and promotions, and when the bots are injured they want the same robot back again—not a replacement.

There is a lesson here. We animate extensions of our bodies by extending a mental nervous system to them; their ills and injuries cause us literal if only mild inner pain. How many people, hitting a really harsh pothole, haven’t cried “Ouch” at the bump. My computer has a seizure, a stroke? Flat-lines in a power outage? All else stops until it’s healed.

Having chuckled with Brigitte about this story, I went to tell Clare about it. Clare is our Honda CRV. I think she smiled at me. But she’s still just a baby delivered to us at Jeffrey Honda—or should I say our auto-clinic?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Translating Honor

Honor is a word now in temporary decline. The word belongs to the cultural periods of history not to civilization. It suggests the appropriate fusion of body and of soul, thus bravery and courage, proper to the body under stress, and a transcendental stance, proper to the soul, which, in practice, is willing to sacrifice itself for the community. In its highest expression it suggests intelligence; in its low forms in manifests as duels, honor killings, vendettas and other pointless mayhem. Honesty derives from honor; its current form, telling the truth, is actually a later development dating to around 1400 (Online Etymology Dictionary); the older sense, of honorable, is preserved in the phrase of “making an honest woman of her.” Honor and truth-telling are intimately linked in German: Ehre, ehrlich—and in Hungarian, to leave the Latin or Germanic languages: Becsület, becsületes. The same is true in Greek: Timē, timioz.

The decline of a word very much at home in ages of kings, dukes, and nobles—and the bloated and contradictory meanings it developed by abuse—is understandable. But surely the qualities that it once represented, at best, have not disappeared and are still valued. I got to thinking. How would we translate honor into modern. My nominee is “integrity.” Applied to a person, it has precisely the same meaning that honor once had. It is rooted in the Latin for wholeness, completeness—which in a human means the same fusion of powers honor represents. Integrity is a kind of humble form of honor fitting for a democratic time. Which is appropriate. Proverbs (15:33) tells us: “The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom; and before honor is humility.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Culture and Civilization

The distinct meanings of these two words emerge fairly well when we speak of ourselves as a “multicultural society.” The unspoken meaning in that phrases is that we are now a “civilization.” In a designation like Greek or Roman culture, the two are hopelessly blended. Something like Greek culture existed in a more or less pure form, but when Athens and Sparta staged their early version of a, for them, world war, they had developed into civilizations. I imbibed this way of treating the two words when, anciently, I read Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. For Spengler Kultur was the early, growing phase of a great collective, Zivilisation the later stage.

The root of culture is cultivation, thus agriculture, tilling, the Latin cultus—but that word also includes extensions of meanings like care and labor to include worship and reverence. Thus at the base of culture—religion.  At the base of civilization—the city. The root of the word is the Latin civis, meaning a townsman, later citizen, and from that came civitas, the city, replacing the original for that word, urbs; we still, of course, have urban areas and the behavior that goes with it (we hope), urbanity—when we are not civil.

In the life of the great big collectives, we move from very small settlements and larger aggregations of these held together by a common mode of worship—to vast urban conglomerations in which the transcendental view has thinned out to become a lifestyle. By the time we reach multiculturalism, culture is seen by the organs of civilization as an irrational residue to be tolerated as a civility.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Calculating the Compensation

Is there a difference between bombing a city at high altitude and destroying a single building by an air strike? No. Both are acts of collectives, but they are ordered and then carried out by conscious individuals—which fuzzes up the moral picture slightly. And any righteous feelings should be curbed. The necessary labor and material is paid for by all of us, hence we are all, like it or not, cells of the collective monster.

I happened to see General John Allen make his apology to a turbaned village elder on TV this past Saturday for just a destruction of a single-house; there were women and children inside, of course, a loss of eighteen people in the wrong place. Among the words I heard General Allen say were: “We will do the right thing by the families. We will do the right thing for the community.”

We pioneered this method—the compensation of families for the death of members—back in 2011 under an act of Congress. The average payment to a family was $2,083,000. Interestingly, the compensation was scaled to the income level of the person killed. The bottom here was $250,000 for a person earning up to $20,000 a year. Will the Afghanistani families who lost members in that airstrike get millions, hundreds of thousands, or less? Well, per capita income in Afghanistan last year was $585 a year. Can Big Man Capital even see such minute income? No. And that’s the problem with peripheral damage. Can’t see anything when you are acting in total darkness.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Arctic Algal Bloom

Late-night Brigitte left a link that early-riser yours-truly read this morning. That story—and all the others referenced here—are from the Los Angeles Times. They got me thinking about actions and their consequences.

Last Friday the Times brought a story (link) about NASA’s discovery of a massive algae bloom in the Arctic; this was a big surprise for the scientists involved—and what it means is still being debated. Two years ago, for instance, a Canadian team had reported something contrary: the world’s phytoplankton has been disappearing at the rate of 1 percent a year over the last 100 years (link).

Does NASA’s discovery mean that things are suddenly turning around? Or does it mean that melting Arctic ice has caused phytoplankton to wake up and multiply? Or does it mean that increasing carbon dioxide is good for algae? They certainly feed on it.

The rule for scientists and journalists is to report what they find—without fear. Peer review will sort things out, sooner or later. Last Thursday, thus the day before the algal bloom, the Times brought quite another kind of story (link). It concerned the nearness of the “tipping point”: we have too many people, and our actions threaten irreversible planetary consequences.

This got me thinking. The scientists’ gloom in the tipping-point story may certainly be justified, but stories about approaching Armageddon almost always have the same structure. They project change in one part of the environment while holding all other trends steady. Thus it is presumed that burning massive quantities of fuels, paving the arable surface of the planet, mowing down the rain forests, and genetically distorting crops will continue unabated—yet that population will keep on climbing from 7 to 9.3 billion by 2050. Or, conversely, that global warming will increase—but the amount of water vaporized will remain the same and the sky will remain as bright and blue as ever. The story about algae blooms, however, in altogether unanticipated places, suggests a wilder and more interesting future.

Irreversible consequences? I mourn the decline of liberal education. Even a pathetic one like mine exposed me to Horace’s saying; indeed, we all know it. You may drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will hurry back. I always frown when I hear the word “fragile” applied to earth or nature—until it occurs to me that the speaker is talking about the short term. We’ve had global warming before—swamps, swamps everywhere. Tyrannosaurus was the bad guy on the block. We’ve had an earth, or so I’m told, without free oxygen in its atmosphere and everything barren.

We’ll pay the price for our abuse, of course. The future won’t be pretty. I frankly can’t imagine maintaining  9 billion humans when fossil fuels run out. No problems in the short run. No doubt I’ll ride to the crematorium in a gasoline powered vehicle after I pass. But Nature will reverse the damage after the Troubles that lie ahead.

It is, however, natural for declining civilizations to engage in End Time projections, whether they’re powered by fossil fuels or not. If the tilting point is not yet near, our extraordinary science has yet something even grander up its sleeve. That brings me to the final LA Times story I want to reference (link). It came a week before the tilting point story, on May 31: “Milky Way, Andromeda galaxies set to crash — in 4 billion years.” Human caused? I wouldn’t be surprised.
Phytoplankton image from Wikipedia (link).

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Theodosia Burr Alston…

…or a look back 200 years. She was the daughter of Theodosia Bartow and Aaron Burr. In those days sometimes daughters were given their mother’s names. Hers was a short and tragic life. Here is the opening paragraph of a letter she wrote her father from South Carolina:

Alas! my dear father, I do live, but how does it happen? Of what am I formed that I live, and why? Of what service can I be in this world, either to you or any one else, with a body reduced to premature old age, and a mind enfeebled and bewildered? Yet, since it is my lot to live, I will endeavour to fulfil my part, and exert myself to my utmost, though this life must henceforth be to me a bed of thorns. Whichever way I turn, the same anguish still assails me. You talk of consolation. Ah! you know not what I have lost. I think Omnipotence could give me no equivalent for my boy; no, none—none.†

As she wrote this letter on August 12, 1812, Theodosia was thirty years old, married to a prominent southern land owner and politician. Her only son, aged ten, had just died of fever. This added to a deteriorating health condition which had begun with the boy’s birth. Less than four months after penning these words, she was dead herself, lost in a shipwreck probably off Cape Hatteras, notorious enough in those days for shipwrecks so that it was known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. She departed from Georgetown, SC December 30, 1812 on board the Patriot, bound for New York to see her father. Not the ship, not the crew, nor any passengers were ever heard from after that.

She was a prominent figure, hence speculation surrounded her mysterious disappearance, among these one that conveys the flavor of life—and travel—two hundred years ago. According to this speculation, the ship had fallen prey to so-called “wreckers” near Nags Head, North Carolina, where they notoriously operated. They lured ships by displaying moving lights until the ships, perhaps attempting to escape a storm, ran onto dangerous shoals. They murdered all people and stole the cargo and goods they found on board.

Modern thought on Theodosia’s death suggests, from contemporary weather reports, that the Patriot sank in a severe storm that began on January 2, 1813 followed by hurricane-strength winds. Her ghost, however, is still said to be haunting the plantation in Seashore, SC, where Theodosia had lived…

†Taken from Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present, edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler, 2005, The Dial Press, p. 106.

Friday, June 8, 2012

That Never-Promised Rose Garden

If there is one phrase coined in the twentieth century likely still to be repeated a thousand years from now—with the implied authorities of the Bible and Shakespeare combined—it is “I never promised you a rose garden.”

The phrase comes from an autobiographical novel of that title written by Joanne Greenberg and published by St. Martin’s Press in 1964. The heroine of the novel is Deborah. She invents an imaginary Kingdom, called Yr, a paradise. But as schizophrenia takes hold of her, the gods of Yr become tyrannical. She is hospitalized and treated by Dr. Fried, a German woman. The phrase is Dr. Fried’s:

“I never promised you a rose garden. I never promised you perfect justice and I never promised you peace or happiness. My help is that so you can be free to fight for all of these things. The only reality I offer is challenge, and being well is being free to accept it or not at whatever level you are capable. I never promise lies, and the rose-garden world of perfection is a lie...and a bore too!”

This figure is modeled on a real doctor, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (wife of the famed Erich Fromm) who actually treated Greenberg during a bout of mental illness.

Here we have a very basic, archetypal story, a genuine product of the twentieth century. It gives the last century its stamp. The paradise of Yr, the rise of tyrannical evil, madness, a high priestess who consoles but, in the end, promises nothing at all. But the tale describes the visceral feel of this dimension, hence that phrase resonates. And will continue to do so.

It didn’t take long, however, before its darkness was illuminated slightly by the popular culture in a top-ranking song written by Joe South and sung by the country-music star Lynn Anderson (1971). Here is its refrain:

I beg your pardon,
I never promised you a rose garden.
Along with the sunshine,
There's gotta be a little rain sometimes.
     [Joe South, “Rose Garden”]

Where do we find the real voice of our times? In its cultural expressions. Paradise, expulsion, the angel with the flaming sword, madness, and redemption. And it produces phrases and images that come to mind quite spontaneously when something in us wants to remind us that, ultimately, we are responsible for our life. As it did to me this morning—and I got curious about its origins.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rancho Mariposa

Yes, our Butterfly Ranch is open for business in 2012. We started in April with Brigitte nurturing our first almost imperceptibly tiny dill plants. We added another purchased plant later. No sooner did we have these out of doors than we observed one Black Swallowtail visiting them one morning—hovering, flying away, hovering some more, and this for about twenty minutes. Then, about a week ago, Brigitte discovered the first tiny caterpillar on the purchased dill; it was still black in coloration with a single yellow marker in the middle.  The day before yesterday she saw another on the home-grown plants as well—quite a distance from the first, and yesterday, in the same location, a third. Herewith the first and the other two:

Click to enlarge, Esc to return.

The Black Swallowtails are obviously fond of this location or the dill—although we’ve seen several other species as well. But the others just come to visit, not to deposit progeny.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Mundane Look at Har Megiddo

Apocalypse is seldom far from collective human concerns, but if my mentor Arnold Toynbee is on target, they rise to a loud chorus at the end-stage of civilizations. The first science fiction writer (at least in the modern sense) was Jules Verne (1828-1905); he is best known for such feats as submarines and lunar rockets. But the apocalyptic mood is already there in the nineteenth century in H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds. And after that worthy sci-fi series almost routinely feature a kind of cleansing of the historical slate by some kind of Armageddon produced by disease, atomic war, or alien invasion; some authors use all three.

Armageddon is named in Revelations 16:16. It is a kind of final battle of the kings of the earth, assembled by-frog like demonic spirits who issue from the mouth of the Beast (read Modernity). Indeed the kings come. And then comes the relevant verse 16: “And they [the demons] assembled them [the kings] at the place which is called in Hebrew Armageddon.”

Online Etymology Dictionary tells me that the Hebrew was actually Har Meggido, har being “mount”. The Greek version was Harmagedon, the Latin dropped the H. Wikipedia, in turn, informs me that this mount was a so-called tell, thus a man-made elevation serving to hold a fort guarding a major highway linking Egypt and Mesopotamia (the Via Maris, link); it was thus convenient for all those approaching kings. The choice of this place for the Last Battle by the author of Revelation suggest that he had a down-to-earth sense of the arrangements of his own time. The mount was a strategic military strong-point, and for the author of this book, the world was small enough so that the “kings of the whole world” could conveniently reach this central place from the north and east as well as from the south and west.

For the modern mind Armageddon requires a somewhat greater context. The roots of this post go back to last October when I put on LaMarotte (link) a well-reasoned estimate of how much time we still have until the world, at least as we now know it, will also come to an end. The subject has interested me because I’ve also written apocalyptic sci-fi novels; early on I saw the world collapse in atomic war, later in a space-borne disease; and later yet by running out of fossil fuels—but that last novel I never finished. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published some very similar data. I am showing their projections and mine side by side in the following tabulation:

Fossil Fuel Category
Wall Street Journal
(Year of Running Out)
My Own Projections
(Year of Running Out)
Natural Gas
not projected

Both the Wall Street Journal and I used the same basic estimates of existing reserves. The differences in projection are due to such things as guessing at future consumption growth and on the selection of beginning point. I used the highest available estimates of reserves and past consumption rates rather than increasing usage into the future. A conservative estimate. For that reason, perhaps, my projections are more sanguine.

Armageddon, in this civilization, is certainly coming. But it will be everywhere. As for when it takes places, most of us reading this will no longer be around; and babies born today will have reached a venerable old age. So there is nothing to worry about, actually, is there? Back to grabbing some of that gusto.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Thoughts in a Dentist’s Chair

I almost never watch TV in the morning, but I had an 8 a.m. dental appointment today. Patients are treated to television entertainment while the sharp thing scrapes and the drill whirrs, and above you, seen through half-closed eyes, a bright light shines and an eye looks down into your open mouth through a larger-than-life lens.

Morning shows demonstrate modernity at its silliest—all cheer and jokes and serious attention to such things as hair and skin and looks. Today, what with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in the news, I heard the Queen’s popularity described as “unbelievable.” Why even a bladder infection in such high circles becomes global news. So the chatty chair of this program informed me, and then, unleashed as it were, she told all about the Queen’s bladder infection while images of the Queen succeeded one another. I saw this, of course, before the scrape-and-drill began.

In my context this morning, I couldn’t quite avoid thoughts of bodies, as bodies. Alerted to the subject I watched the TV images closely and noted that all of these showed bodies clothed, except for hands and faces. In dignified contexts, such as the monarchial, dignity matters—but then it matters generally. We carefully cover up our animality and let the face—indeed if possibly the eyes alone—communicate what we are.

Meanwhile a large X-ray image of my right canine was on another screen to my side. Canine indeed. There is not only a monkey but bits of a dog in me too. When drilled on, even small things grow enormously in size, and this small object morphed into a tall stone column supporting a sort of temple; the issue was structural. Decay had attacked this column, just beneath its crown (whether Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian only Dr. Quinn knows). I closed my eyes and imagined a scaffolding on top of which men were hammering away at the decay—to be filled with modern miracle material that hardens almost instantly when stimulated by a wire that dings when it is done.

Our dimension ought to be known as the Order of Humility. Here we are, encased in these material but living structures. Even the hard stone in us has roots. Exalted, honored figures like Elizabeth Regina have bladders capable of infection. And the news are instantly wafted across the globe by wired, wireless communications bouncing off satellites.

Thinking such thoughts, amazingly, it was suddenly all over. I stood tall, made sure my sweater was properly buttoned, and gradually recovering my dignity I went out to pay the bill.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Fast Plagues and Slow

What do the Black Death and Modern Capitalism have in common? They both shed people. The Black Death did so outright; it killed people. It did it rapidly; people died in two to seven days after being infected. World population was around 443 million when it began, spreading from Asia to Europe around 1328.  In Europe in lasted until 1351 and took around 45 percent of the population, world-wide about 15 percent. World population in 1400 was around 374 million, thus 69 million had disappeared. This almost unspeakable phenomenon has faded from memory, by now, but it brought in its trail incredible chaos in social and economic life.

Modern Capitalism sheds people—but they stay alive. They’re simply pushed aside by a combination of machines and fossil fuels. The process, however, is very slow—and in consequence of it, humanity has adapted. Its consequence was first noted around 1811, with the rise of the Luddite movement. It is still doing its thing, but by now that people-shedding tendency has been institutionalized and is called productivity. The very wealth created by those fuels, furthermore, has been used—through income redistribution—to keep the shed people fed, clothed, and housed.

One of the consequences of the “slow plague” has been the huge rise in the services sector in all modern economies—so that that sector is where most of the employment is. And that sector, in turn, is under attack by machines—else I’d get a human voice when I call a company or government agency. Some components of services (transportation, warehousing, wholesale, and retail trade, and health care) are intimately related to goods production; major portions of it, however, produce services the population can quite easily do without. Hence in economic downturns, when, of necessity, people have to mind their nickels and their dimes, we have surging unemployment. Indeed full employment absolutely demands passionate consumption, not just to maintain employment in services but even in those elements of goods production that make unnecessary products.

Another similarity between these two is that we are helpless in facing them. In the fourteenth century no one understood or could cure the disease. It just rolled over the population and then crossed the next border, riding on flees that rode on rats. In our day, vis-à-vis the economic “ecology,” we are equally ignorant of what is in store for us as the Fossil Age passes. And our methods of government are such that we cannot implement adaptations that will help us transit to an age where labor will once more be desperately needed.

Ironically, one of the great problems Europe faced in the wake of the plague was a shortage of people. The one that’s slouching toward us is a shortage of jobs.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Debt Crisis in Europe

Brigitte came across an extraordinarily insightful analysis of the debt crisis in Europe by Theodore Dalrymple and published in the City Journal (link). I recommend it to anyone who would like a holistic look at this problem. I’ve been interested in this process—toward a unified Europe—ever since I visited the Montanunion in Luxembourg as a soldier in the Army; we’re talking here about the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community, a precursor of the European Monetary Union. I’ve posted on this subject on LaMarotte last September here and here. Dalrymple’s article discusses Belgium, Ireland, Greece, and Germany—and in large strokes the difficulties of “union” when quite starkly different cultures are involved.

Saturday, June 2, 2012


Despite  the homogenization of the culture at the level of the media, regional differences stubbornly remain. In each of our last two major moves—from Virginia to Minnesota, from Minnesota to Detroit—at first the population had an unaccustomed look and sound. By the time we got here, I knew that, in a little while, the people would just look like people again, not in any way as “the natives”; yet I still say, when in automatic, “this country,” meaning the Michigan region. When we moved to Minnesota, we frankly expected people to be taller and blonder; instead they turned out to be shorter and wider. We did not expect them to be friendlier and livelier, but they turned out to be both. And soon they were just people again. We had abandoned our attempts to discover Scandinavians origins beneath names like Carmello or Sibrinski. But there was one difference—in the speech modes. People didn’t say “Are you coming with us?” They said, “Are you coming with?” Now that reminded us of German, where they say the same thing in the same way: “Kommst du mit?” That mit is “with.” And they used an exclamation that had us puzzled—but, in my case, only briefly. People would hear some news and they would say: “Uffdah!”

That expression has context, not meaning. I recognized it right away because my Father (and many others in Hungary) used to say Puffti! — and always in the same contexts. That word has no more meaning in Hungarian than Uffdah has in Norwegian—where it originates. The uff part is a Norwegian exclamation signaling something negative; the dah is an added emphasis. Do you want to know when to say Uffdah? Herewith some instructions.

You do not make that sound when something bad happens right in front of you—or only quietly, to yourself. You only use the word when you hear someone else tell the story of some mishap. You do not use that expression when something really bad happens. The trouble or disaster should be unfortunate, but not too terrible. Suppose you’re told that so-and-so, having just finished applying the last artful swirl of frosting to a wedding cake, decided to move it to another surface—and she managed to drop the whole glorious thing. Uffdah! you say. That’s the right context. Keep this in mind for your next trip to Minnesota. If you should forget it, however, here is a translation of that memorable sound into homogenized American English. It is Ouch!

Games Ghulfdom Plays

Our favorite and enduring word game is My Word—actually myword! in its original formulation by its maker, Gamut of Games, Inc., once at 1133 Broadway, New York, NY 10010. Not that we noticed that address in the early 1970s when we bought the game—but a double-thirteen is surely a mark of distinction. It was a word-guessing game played on a sheet, and permitted the guessing of either 6- or 7-letter words. Herewith a scan of the original My Word sheet:

Click to enlarge; Esc returns.

This looks like Brigitte’s sheet in a game between the two of us. She gave me the six-letter word BLITHE and the seven-letter DEADPAN. I gave her DELUGE and BLUSTER. The penciled-in scoring of successive guesses is explained thus:

·         Any letter in the guess also present in the target, but out of position, gets 250.
·         Any letter in the guess which is present, and also in position, gets 1,000.
·         If none of the letters is present, the score is zero.
·         All letter-scores are added and the sum is then given to the player who gave the guess-word.

In the bottom left panel, Brigitte’s test-word, FOUL two letters were absent (FO)—0, the U was there and in position—1,000, and the L was present but out of position—250. Add the results and the score for the guess-word is 1,250. As shown on the graphic, each player does his/her guessing at the bottom and records the opponent’s guesses on the top, alongside the scores that they merit. An alphabet to the side permits recording the elimination of a letter.

Early on we could still buy pads of answer sheets. But as our fascination with the game grew, so the game’s popularity evidently faded. Gamut of Games applied for its trademark on May 24, 1972—thus forty years ago. The trademark became deactivated April 5, 1982. But we had, by then, shifted from playing on preprinted sheets to those we made ourselves. And the moment we began to type or draw our own sheets, the game also expanded. We soon had 8- later 9-letter word sheets. Our most recent innovation was to create a form on which any word, up to 11-letters may be played. It also includes additional features that help in keeping track of things.

Our game yesterday included one hard-fought exchange in which Brigitte gave me PAMPHLETEER and I gave her CIRCUMSPECT. Forty years and still at it—and the game is popular across the family.

Oh, and by the way: There is a version of it that has actually made it into the cyberage. It is called What’s my Word? It runs on the iPad and the iPhone. Same scoring conventions but a simpler pattern; and evidently you can only play six-letter words. No, that was not a sneer. But we only play 6-letter games as a kind of warm-up.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Footnote to Emerson

Earlier today I included a quote from Emerson’s “Ode, Inscribed to William H. Channing.” The relevant verse contains the lines, “The horseman serves the horse, / The neat-herd serves the neat.” So what does that word, neat, actually mean? It comes, in that form, from the old Anglo-Saxon for cattle, nēat. Also from Anglo-Saxon comes cu, for the female—whence we have “cow”; the current German for that same word is Kuh. The “neat-herd, therefore, is the cattle- or cow-herd. Our poor (or well-endowed) language! After the Norman invasion, read invasion of the French language, the French bœuf for cattle or for ox got streamlined into “beef,” and the neat gradually disappeared. Emerson used neat because it served as a good rhyme for a later line in that ode: “The eater serves his meat.” William H. Channing was a leading writer, philosopher, and Unitarian minister. 

Medieval 1 Percent

The king, his courtiers, and entourage ride on powerful horses through a village of serfs. The serfs assemble, can’t help themselves—such events are very rare. Barefoot and dressed in much mended dark clothing, they look up with uncombed heads at the passing splendor: the mounts are magnificent, the armor silver, the gowns purple and silk, the feathers tall, the shields like magic paintings. Above all, these people are so high, they look so well fed, the merest dagger carelessly doing its front-to-back-and-front-again movements on  the king’s hip would buy enough land for a serf-family to feed itself. The king, now and again, acknowledges the rude hurrah’s of the awed crowd with a mild wave of the hand.

Here we have the medieval 1 percent passing through a tiny sample of the 99 percent. But we see some striking differences. The armor might protect the lords from angrily thrown stones, but king, dukes, and lesser retainers can actually hear the voices, can see the misery in which the population lives. Furthermore the inequality between the two is acknowledged and unquestioned on both sides.

Oil-based technology, modern communications, and insanely huge accumulations of wealth, by contrast, erect quite inhuman barriers between serfs and lords in our day. Our institutions are walled off. Impenetrable barriers of cybernetics protect the high from any voices that are raised. Our tools enable the formation of vast institutions stretching over enormous distances well beyond human scale. The numbers are too big to permit a genuine democracy so that our own conceptualization, based on equality, is altogether hollow.

It was bad enough in medieval times. Since then we have achieved universal education (never mind its quality—it’s great compared to that of serfs). The quality of our lives has greatly improved; the TV set, the car (however scratched and bumped and ill-maintained) is present at the lowest levels. But the inequality we see a thousand years ago is actually vastly greater now than it was then. If we don’t actually feel it, that too has its explanation. The oil-wealth has lifted all. But oil is running out. Human labor will once more matter in the approaching times. The need for serfs will rise. The consolation is that in future, when kings and dukes will once more ride on horses, inequality will actually be less again. As for who is really in the saddle, for that we have a poet’s formulation: Horse, neat, purse, meat, chattel. Web to weave, and corn to grind, things are in the saddle, and ride mankind. (With apologies to Emerson.)