Friday, November 30, 2012

Heaven, Arse, and Thread

Let’s round out November with a German saying, Himmel, Arsch, und Zwirn. All depending on how it’s said, it can be a curse (as in “Hell and damnation!”), a reaction to bad news (as in “God Almighty!”), or merely an exclamation of surprise (as in “Oh my God!”). It’s certainly colorful. It also strikes me as a little too long to issue spontaneously. It requires just a nanosecond’s worth of pause before it tumbles out. Not surprisingly, therefore, it has variants that make it even longer by substituting a longer word for Zwirn or thread. The most popular, at least among the scholars who attempt to explain this saying, is Wolkenbruch, cloudburst. And those who make this claim also think the phrase comes from farming dialects. Another is Heaven, Arse, and Chimneysweep! (Himmel, Arsch, und Schornsteinfeger), which hints at an originator with poetic gifts.

I found a great many attempts trying to explain the phrase in various sophisticated ways on German websites. The typical approach is to take each word in turn and then to list every conceivable meaning and connotation that it carries and then weaving something from selected meanings (e.g., heaven is the highest, arse the lowest, thread the finest). Some have discovered that in criminal contexts Zwirn means money (hereabouts we use “bread”); others have it that in old German usage Zwirn carried the meaning of “semen”— and the activity that makes it flow. And so on. Yet others opt, perhaps intuitively, for a single meaning hidden in all three: strength. The strength here is meant to refer to the strength of the emotion that rises and causes that exclamation to be made. That explanation fits both heaven and thread—Zwirn being a particularly strong, twisted filament. The Germans use the word Draht, which has the same rooting as thread, to mean wire, as in metallic. The explanation is difficult to apply to arse—except to say that it must be strong to have us sitting on it all the time. But the intention of this explanation is persuasive to an extent. Big emotion—and a wild grab for big, contrasty words.

Regarding arse, I stumbled on the reason why we use ass instead across the Atlantic. The R got eroded—as it has in cuss for curse, bust for burst, and hoss for horse. Online Etymology Dictionary (endless source of delights) also informs me that the German for our perch, the fish, is Barsch. In Old English we used to call it bærs. Now we call it bass. Oh, the complexity!

*    *    *

After reading this much to Brigitte, she seemed to remember another version. She screwed up her face and said: “Himmel, Kreuz, und…” She could remember no more. But I had another clue—and went to work. It struck me that the combination of “heaven” and “cross” might prove  productive.

Right. It was. I discovered that an older form of this saying—but, to be sure, also associated with disasters—was Himmel, Kreuz, und Wolkenbruch (Heaven, Cross, and Cloudburst) or Himmel, Kreuz, und Donnerbaum (Heaven, Cross, and Thunder Tree). Digging even deeper, I discovered an even older version: Himmel, Kreuz, und Sakrament!

At this point I knew I had arrived. It happens that in Bavaria Sakrament! was the most common curse word; indeed it seemed to be the only word ever used by our choleric landlord. All the cursing in Bavaria was exclusively blasphemous. The longer version in this case was Herrgott, Kruzifix, und Sakrament (Lord God, Crucifix, and Sacrament). Now I knew the pattern from which the “secular” versions have descended. One Austrian site suggests that in very early Christianity, when something dreadful happened, people thought that the End Times had arrived, that the heavens would now open, the clouds would burst, and Judgement would descend—for which no one was quite ready yet.
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†Robert Laude, Hinterpommersches Wörterbhuch: des Persantengebiets, p. 164 (link).

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Neither Nature nor the Cosmos

We were driving home close to dusk the other day from swimming exercise. We’ve lately found an efficient but much more peaceful route by residential streets to the alternate—beating our way down Mack Avenue with endless lights and double lanes. Trees against a pinkish, dimming sky, leafless or nearly so now. Endless trees. Lovely. The recurring thought came. There is nothing fallen about the world. The Fall belongs to mankind, strictly speaking, not to Nature or the Cosmos. It is a human tendency always to project our state onto whatever canvas happens to be handy. It’s not us—it’s the world that has fallen. Curiously, or perhaps not, we also project positives outward. Inspiration comes from somewhere invisibly within, but we project in onto the Muses. And then, since they are out there, we find an outward residence for them—on Mount Helikon in Pieria, in Thessaly.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Ship of Philosophers

On September 28, 1922, Communist Russia, at Lenin’s behest, sent at least 160 philosophers and intellectuals from Petrograd to Stettin, in Germany, aboard the Oberbürgermeister Haken. Another ship was also involved, the Preussen. Lenin’s active agent in this venture was Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the Cheka, vividly familiar to all who have watched Reilly, Ace of Spies. On board the Oberbürgermeister Haken was Nicolai Berdyaev, the philosopher. Berdyaev had also spent some time in Lubyanka prison. Dzerzhinsky interviewed him there but found Berdyaev firmly centered in his philosophy and not apparently political. Berdyaev’s fate was therefore kinder than Reilly’s. The philosopher lived in Berlin for a while, eventually in Paris; he died there in 1948.

The ship of philosophers produced for Brigitte the association of The Ship of Fools. To set that in perspective, that name first attached to a satirical book of the same title by one Sebastian Brant published in 1494 and illustrated by Albrecht Dürer. The more famous painting of it is by Hieronymus Bosch from the same period (shown). The book parodies the vices and abuses of its times. An interesting association between “church” and “ship” and “fools” had long been present in earlier mediaeval times, what with navis meaning ship as well as the nave of a church, and corruption present in the Church. Hence…

Another passenger on that ship of the philosophers was Pitirim Sorokin, the sociologist-historian, a great teacher of mine, albeit only through his writings. And, come to think of it, on our own endless migration from the homeland caused by World War II, one of our stops along the way was also Stettin, now Szczecin in Poland.

My illustration comes from Wikipedia (link) by a round-about-way from Russia. The inscription beneath it says: “The ship with the long name ‘Lord Mayor Haken’ was one of those small passenger ships that, by way of many lines, linked the harbors of the Baltic one with the others. They were smaller than today’s Helgoland ships but were quite stately.” Another source on this subject may be found here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Ashes! Ashes!

Culture is vast, complex, layered, and ultimately impossible to sum up in categories—much as is the starry sky on a clear night in the country. Science derives from the precise, the particular, but the laws it builds are vanishingly thin. This comes to mind in certain contexts, most recently, in my case, thinking about vox populi.

Things run together. Ashes were on my mind as well, well mixed with dust, this month. That led to a memory linked to some work I’d done years ago now for one of our titles. In that context I ran across a children’s rhyme sometimes linked to the Great Plague and a later companion that links to the 1918 Influenza Epidemic. Let’s look at the first of these:

Ring-a-round a rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

That’s the American version. A British version has A-tishoo! A-tishoo! for those ashes, suggesting sneezing. Other slightly different versions exist as well, thanks to the scholars. And let’s transit to them now. Before World War II none of our learned associated this verse with the Great Plague, afterwards the notion arose. To quote the couple Peter and Iona Opie, who first noted this explanation in 1951 (quoted in Wikipedia, link):

The invariable sneezing and falling down in modern English versions have given would-be origin finders the opportunity to say that the rhyme dates back to the Great Plague. A rosy rash, they allege, was a symptom of the plague, and posies of herbs were carried as protection and to ward off the smell of the disease. Sneezing or coughing was a final fatal symptom, and “all fall down” was exactly what happened.

This version of events is challenged by other scholar saying that the symptoms do not match very well. Indeed the colors associated with the plague were black and blue; among the symptoms swollen glands dominate and one finds no mention of sneezing. Gangrene on fingers and toes, on lips and on the nose—yes. Seizures—yes. By contrast, among the top four symptoms of influenza are coughing and runny, stuffy nose. Fever is tops and sore throat third. Too bad that those Ashes! Ashes!—or the double-sneeze—predate the year 1918 when influenza came.

Now an early German version of this rhyme, or simply a sound-alike, is this one, with my translation:

Ringelringelreihen,
Ring-a-ring in rows
Wir sind der Kinder dreien,
Of children three with bows
Sitzen unter’m Hollerbusch
We sit under an elder bush
Und machen alle Huschhuschhusch!
And make together hush-hush-hush.

I cite this by way of showing that the form of such a ditty keeps persisting, but its content is subject to change. That is the way the vox populi works. It is poetic, free, and entirely untrammeled by careful observation of endless details—but it captures the most important. That is why culture gets it right in myths and science in detail. More power to both.

Now the real verse the 1918 Influenza left us is a little gem illustrating how the culture can take an alien word, like influenza, and make it something memorably part of the current language. And the details are right as well. One of the ways by which the influenza virus is transmitted is by means of airborne aerosols. A hard sneeze can send those babies flying. And they maybe even enter by the window:

I had a little bird
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window
And in flew Enza.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Auris Populi

To whom do pundits address their often frenzied pleas? And what are these, these oft repeated outcries? Having held forth on a subject once, why do they repeat the message, in variant forms, over and over and over again? An answer occurred to me today. The pundits are addressing the Ear of the People hoping that, if understood, Vox Populi will repeat them with the force of Deus. And, of course, there is that striking similarity between the preacher of old and the pundit of new. But does prayer work?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

So Where Do You Live?

To tell the truth, not just respond to your reflexive questioning,
I ought to answer with a litany of which the city
Is the first thing on the list, my address next. Or should I start with
Continent and state? And if you wish to reach my voice alone
Herewith the digits of my telephone. But, to be sure, I could
Destroy the small talk that you wish to start to fill the time until
This plane takes off in this—is it really fog?—I could still add a
Few things more, among them, here, this suit I wear and, layered beneath
Its complicated surfaces are underwear and socks under the
Leather of my shoes. And given that these coverings get wrinkled
Up in use, get sweaty, smelly, and so on, multiple copies
Of these habitations reside in drawers, hang in closets, wait
On the floor in polished rows. Where do I live? I live in these, but
There is more—or rather a corrective. My body lives in these,
And I, whoever that “I” really is, lives in the body that
In turn lives in my clothes that live inside the house, at that address
And on this continent. And I, within this most mysterious self—
To reach the end, naught left behind—I, dear sir, live in my mind.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Kirk on Benda

Prompted by a query from Brigitte, I chanced across an interesting two-pager: one famous scholar commenting on another. The first is Russel Kirk (The Conservative Mind), the other is Julian Benda (The Treason of the Clerks). Both are now dead. Russel passed in 1994, Benda in 1956. The two-pager is available here. In that brief piece, which appeared in the Summer 1957 issue of Modern Age, Kirk thought that Benda was “still in the land of the living” when he had, in fact, died the previous summer. In those days, news travelled slowly. In this house we are rather fond of both authors and cited works. There are probably others, hence…

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Professional Soldier

One of the characteristics of the professional soldier—as my late friend and comrade-in-arms Al Coger used to say—is respect for the professionals on the other side. Both are simply doing a job that, alas, has become necessary enough to make war a calling. Hate is not an aspect of it—nor is war something elevated. It isn’t about ideology, much less about adherence to a cosmic faith. It’s organized violence to be managed as efficiently as possible, and as Sun Tzu, who belonged to this profession, wisely asserted in his The Art of War, the most efficient handling of war is to win it without an actual battle.

Elections, to be sure, are somewhat more efficient ways of resolving conflict than war. Unity frays over time, and at right regular intervals it needs to be restored by the force, in the case of politics, of superior numbers. Ballots are more efficient than bullets. And once the matter is decided, civility should rapidly return. It should return if both sides recognize the underlying issue. That issue is that conflict may be unavoidable but isn’t some kind of good in and of itself. Unity is. And conflict must be ended as soon as ever possible—not when the other side has been absolutely annihilated. Compromise, therefore is part of it.

The presence of a sense of unity, even in the midst of the conflict, is what matters. And when it’s absent, real trouble looms. War between nations must be hallowed by an understanding on both side that each is part of humanity—and humanity is the higher good. Within a nation the unity of its people as one community must be the fundamental assumption that renders elections legitimate. Demonization of the other side has been a feature of elections at their emotional heights throughout our own—and in other countries’—history. But after the election is decided, normalcy returns again. Indeed it has been a feature for the winner to embrace those who opposed him and for the looser to pledge his support.

Quite visible cracks have appeared after this year’s election. They may just be a residue of the pain of loss on the right. The right, of course, will triumph again, just give it time, but one of the signs of a loss of effective unity is that every loss today is Doom Forever, and every victory the Triumphal Arrival of the Everlasting Future. One radio host, for instance, Dennis Prager, has elevated political stances into religions. He sees three such competing for humanity’s allegiance: Leftism, Islamism, and Americanism (link). That’s the sort of thing I mean. It reminds me of Toynbee; he saw “end times” characterized internally by the rise of Futurism (read leftism), Archaism (read Americanism), and externally by the eventually successful pressure of an External Proletariat (read Islamism). The secessionist talk, largely only symbolic although it is, also indicates that even great and successful unions of people become, eventually, too big to hold together.

To whom does the future really belong? Toynbee suggested that those in charge of really shaping the future are the people who are looking up, transcending all these battles, and finding  solutions in the spiritual realm—where no “divisions,” in Stalin’s sense, are even discernible. They are too few in number to be clearly seen yet. They’re not agitating in the public square; that square is down there, not up. They’re not thirsting for power, either; they only long to do a good job—like any decent professional soldier. I’m waving to you, Al. You never thought you’d end up in heaven—or that such a place even existed—but there you are now.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Iniquity of the Children

If time resembles waves that lap the shores,
If time therefore now forward moves, now back,
If causes may betimes appear reversed,
As Richard Feynman in his physics said,
Then now iniquities of children may
Be said to visit, lash, and torture back,
In time, their fathers to the third, fourth
Generation in a turnabout that
Is fair play if seen from eternity.
In the vast great orb beyond the cosmic
Pocket where we live, time is no more but
Cause prevails in all directions. All’s an
Ocean limitless with, without an edge.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ashes

Not to get morbid, by any means, but yesterday’s look at dust tempted me to look more closely at a close relative of that, as in “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The phrases is too well known to need much explanation, but its source is interesting. No, it doesn’t come from the King James version of the Bible, or at least not word-for-word. The phrase appears in the Book of Common Prayer. Ashes and dust, however, are linked in three Old Testament verses (Genesis 18:27, Job 30:19, Job 42:6) and always in the same context. That’s what we—or at least our physical we’s—are.

Much of my adult life I spent in the study of technology. Today’s noodling reminded me once more that no subject is exhaustible. I discovered a technology I’d never heard of before, cremulation. It is the final stage of cremation. After bodies are burned in refractory-brick-lined retorts—using, these days, natural gas and propane; we’re energy-consuming even as corpses!—what remains is bone fragments and ash. If the corpse had a pace-maker installed, it is first removed. It has been found that such a device can produce explosions that damage the furnace: a clash of technologies. The remains are then gathered and ground to a powder in the cremulator. It is just a grinder, of course, but interesting to note that after we’ve long fled this vale of tears, the grind keeps going on.

So what is left? Wikipedia’s article on this subject (link) tells me, citing and article in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, that adult women leave on average a residue weighing 4 pounds, men 6 pounds. So much for our average gravitas.

I might use this occasion to note that Catholicism permits cremation but evidently with a great lack of enthusiasm. The grounds for this arise from the Christian view of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit and belief in the resurrection of the body. The Church lifted the ban on cremation in 1963. Certain restriction apply. The funeral mass must be held with the body present; cremation may then follow. The Church frowns on such practices as scattering the ashes and holds that these must be interred. For more, see this article from the American Catholic (link).

The largest Catholic Church near us is St. Paul on the Lake. On its grounds resides a quite extensive columbarium  (link). That word means dove-cote, and columbaria have small niche-sized but sealed places where ashes are held. That columbarium is a favorite destination for Brigitte and me, the weather permitting. We sit on benches there, silence all around us, surrounded by the ashes of those departed.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dust

A series on the Dustbowl Days is running on PBS now, and to be sure the afflicted people endured great hardships in the 1930s. But it bears remarking that, in a more stealthy way, dust covers us at all times if we let the outside air in at any time. Left alone, given time, it would eventually cover everything. Today, doing chores in the basement, a toilet paper roll escaped me and ran under the stairs. I retrieved it using a broom handle through its welcoming center cavity—and that alerted me to masses of dust where I sweep rather rarely. Today was such an occasion. Once daily also, in that same basement, I wipe my computer screen. It accumulates a uniformly-spaced population of dust particles.

Dust particles are incredibly small. One source† puts atmospheric dust as small as 0.001 µm; that symbol stands for micrometer, meaning one millionth of a meter, in this case a thousandth of a millionth of a meter. They carry electric charge and hence are very sociable, so that my broom this morning carried a veritable halo of grey fluff while also moving the larger dust particles on the ground, ranging up to a gigantic 10 µm. I also noted, in looking things up, that dust carries a message: All things are connected. Wikipedia assures me that my gathering this morning probably contained a few meteorite particles along with just about anything you can name, organic and inorganic. They’ve come a long ways to decorate, almost invisibly, the darkest shadows beneath the stairs, sharing space there with a gigantic cardboard box that, aging, probably contributes its own tiny bits originating in the forests of our southern states where corrugated boxes take on life.

The image I show is actually a dust particle from the Moon, obtained from NASA indirectly via Journal of Young Investigators (link). The particle is too small for the human eye to see. Here it is enlarged using an electron microscope. And lo and behold. The particle is cratered, like the Moon itself. According to NASA, the craters were made by super-tiny meteorite particles crashing on the Moon and then carving homes for themselves on the dust particle itself. With such attacks constantly bombing us, how can we ever hope to win?
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†Lide, David R. “Characteristics of Particles and Particle Dispersoids.” Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, 75th Edition. Florida: CRC Press, 1994.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Minimalists

The German Gustav Spörer (1822-1885), who had studied mathematics and astronomy, began as a school teacher but then, at age 36, turned to astronomical observation. His interest centered on the sun and using sunspots to discover where the sun’s equator lies. His work led him to discover, searching ever older records, that a period from 1645 to 1715 the sun had virtually no sunspots. Nobody paid much attention. The younger Edward Maunder (1851-1928), an English astronomer, later made the same observations and was a much better publicist—perhaps because his second wife, Annie Russell, helped him. As a consequence, that period of minimum sunspots came to be known as the Maunder Minimum. Spörer, however, managed to get his own minimum—posthumously. John A. Eddy (1931-2009), discovered a yet earlier period of solar inactivity dating from 1460 to 1550, and, having a kindly temperament, presumably, he named it after Spörer to make up for that pioneer’s lack of recognition.

Having mentioned these names, we’re far from exhausting discoveries of solar minima, thus periods of unusually low sunspot activity. We also have the Oort Minimum, dated to 1010-1050 and associated with the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort (1900-1992), the Wolf Minimum, dated to 1280-1350, associated with Swiss astronomer Rudolf Wolf (1816-1893), and the Dalton Minimum, 1790-1820, named after the English chemist, physicist and meteorologist John Dalton, but I cannot discover who actually made the observations and named this minimum after him. The period from 1300 to 1850, thus encompassing the Spörer-Maunder minima and what might be called the Dalton Dip are known as the Little Ice Age.


I show above a graphic from Wikipedia (link) charting carbon-14 measurements from about 850 AD to 1950. These are thought to be meaningful because sunspot activity interferes with cosmic-rays. Therefore fewer rays reach the earth in periods of strong sunspot activity—and therefore produce less carbon-14. The more quiet the sun, the more radiocarbon is formed. This gives us a way of measuring, indirectly, sunspot activity down here on earth. The graphic above does not single out the Dalton Minimum, but it is there to the right of the 1800 peak.

Now we have ample, indeed abundant, evidence that solar maxima are warm periods while solar minima, if they last a while, produce a cooler climate; hence we look back on a Little Ice Age. Currently, what with a very wide trough in the last solar cycle, the 23th, and a “weak” 24th underway now, some NASA-ites have speculated that we may be seeing another Dalton. Interesting. We’ll have to wait. It might be ironical that just as the population finally gets with Global Warming, the New York Harbor might freeze over as it did in 1780. (See also my post today on LaMarotte.)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Greatest

When I contemplate the vast amount of information now in digital form—or projects that capture ancient books in digital format, a goal pursued by Google—I wonder what will happen to accumulated knowledge as we leave the fossil age. How that transition, which is less than a century away, will actually play out is really the big question—but only for those with generous time horizons. A baby born today will be 69 when it happens around about 2081 (link). Most of the adult population of that year has some decades to wait before being born. Now the up-beat narrative has us transiting smoothly as “new technology” comes on line betimes, but I rather think that those times will be extraordinarily turbulent. And in such times all sorts of printed matter will be lost—never mind digital stuff.

This thought arose again when I came across a reference to Ptolemy’s Almagest. That book dates to about 150 AD. Ptolemy was a Roman-Egyptian and lived between 90 and 168 AD. His book was a greatly valued source of information on astronomy and mathematics. It informed Byzantine, Islamic, and European scholars for many generations. It had thirteen "books" (naturally, I would say). Among other things, the work captures the teachings of Hipparchus (190-120 BC) on trigonometry. Its original title was Mathēmatikē Syntaxis, in Latin Syntaxis mathematica. Syntax means “orderly arrangement.” In due time the name morphed to The Great Treatise, and it is the Greek word, μεγίστη (megistē), meaning “greatest,” rendered untranslated into Arabic as magest, with the article al added at the front, that gives us the Almagest. (Have always wondered where that word came from.)

If I were a multi-millionaire, I’d start a project. It would produce printed versions of the great surviving books of our own and other cultures, ancient and modern, and cause them to be deposited at thousands of locations across the globe in anticipation of a post-fossil melt-down. Lots for my staff to think about as they get going. The printing surfaces should not be useful for burning, say. They should resist corrosion and be impossible to melt. And that for starters. Then, in some distant time one of these stations might survive and, the books once more recovered, they’d give the learned of that time something useful to do. This idea is free, multi-millionaires. You don’t even have to give me a hat tip.
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The image of Ptolemy, from Wikipedia (link), comes from a sixteenth century edition of the Almagest and is one of its frontispiece images. Each age dresses its heroes in the garb of its time.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hebrew and Mayan Calendars

Something interesting must have happened back in the fourth millennium BC. I gather this because the Hebrew Calendar, which dates from the year of Creation, therefore 3760 BC, is echoed by the Mayan Long Count Calendar which begins on August 11, 3114 BC using the Gregorian and September 6, 3113 BC using the Julian calendar. This date, for the Mayans was also the date of creation.

According to the Judaic tradition, the first 6,000 years after creation correspond to the six (might we say “long”) days; the seventh millennium would be the seventh, the day of rest, and it would inaugurate the Messianic Age, also lasting a thousand years. The first year of that cycle is referred to as Year 6000 of the Hebrew Calendar, which corresponds to 2239-2240 of ours. In that year begins the Messianic Age.

The Mayan Long Count Calendar is based on periods one-day long multiplied four times to get other, intermediate periods. One is multiplied by 20 to get what we might call a long week, that number by 18 to get a year of (360 days). Thereafter 360 is multiplied by 20 again to obtain what might be called a “month of years,” and that figure ( 7,200 days), is once more multiplied by 20 to get one “long year” in that cycle of 144,000 days. That period is called a b’ak’tun, and thirteen of them is the period of a “world.” We are now in the 13th b’ak’tun of the Mayan calendar†. It will end on December 21 of this year, thus signaling the end of a world. Unlike the Judaic tradition, which sees the world absolutely created, and for the first time, 5,772 years ago, the Mayans saw multiple earlier “worlds,” each lasting 13 b’ak’tuns. The fifth Mayan world, therefore, is about to begin late in 2012.

Concerning the interpretation of that day, December 21, I’ll have more to say that day. But here I’d like to point to something else.

Interesting that two cultures as distant one from the other as the Judaic and Mayan, or more precisely the Olmec culture in Mesoamerica (which is credited with the invention of the Long Calendar), should hark back to the fourth millennium BC and see the beginning of the world there. Granted. The Jews put the creation nearly 700 years earlier than the Mayans—so that the two beginnings are off by three-quarters of a millennium. But there may be a reasonable explanation for that. I note that the Mayan calendar also recorded very close observations of the cycles of Venus. That’s odd for an ancient culture unless it was once important to keep track of Venus. Odd bits like that cause me to credit claims, like Velikovsky’s, that great solar system cataclysms may first have made humanity—all over the place—keen observers of what happens in the skies. There is Stonehenge in Europe, too. It’s fashioning is dated to 3000 to 2000 BC. Regarding Velikovsky, here are two posts (link, link) on this blog.

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†Here is the math. 3114 + 2012 = 5126 years. Times 365.25 = 18,772,271.5 days. Dividing that by 144,000 we get 13 b’ak’tuns. The image shown is the Mayan symbol for a b’ak’tun (link). Where the Mayans and the Olmecs lived? Here is a link to that.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Lucky and not so Lucky Elections

Very little time actually passes when we are not again reminded that we live in a fallen world. Things are getting back to normal. The cynical response to this, of course, is merely to shrug, but invariably “normalcy” means that children are being killed needlessly somewhere. We have the teaching to guide us (Matthew 19:14): “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’” The Golan Heights heat up as if there was a volcano there. And Israel is mobilizing to defend itself against that Goliath of Palestine, the dirt-poor Gaza strip. Of course it is election time in Israel, and that might have some causative effect (see, for instance, link). And we may call ourselves lucky that children are not routinely killed every time we go to the polls. But such good fortune does not please if our context is humanity.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Times in Upheaval?

Might it be that as we age time compresses, as it were? What for the young seems ages ago is for the old but yesterday. This observation is prompted by noticing that after each election, if you believe the sage pronunciamentos of the pundits, a New Age has just been proclaimed, and what ruled yesterday is fallen, indeed forever, as Everything’s Changed. But the last time that time reversed was just two years ago. And in two or four more years to follow, a mere eyewink for the septuagenarian, the same will happen once again. Similarly, no science fiction movie these  days ever has its heroine just save a city from a raid by nasty saucers. No. Each time the entire  Cosmos must be saved. Pundits thus seem grander, delivering on a cataclysmic Time of Reversal for all Ages—than merely noting the start of a new, ho-hum, and brief interval.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ruled by a Few Families

In imperial days, when emperors and their relatives ruled the country, nepotism was prevalent. When the Communist Party took over, idealists hoped that it would guard against that. “But for some reason, we’re now back to nepotism,” he said [Zhang Lifan, an historian]. “And the country is ruled by a few families.”
  [Ian Johnson, “Dynasty of Different Order Reshaping China,” New York Times, 11/14/2012]

The return at five year intervals of the Communist Party Congress in China (the 18th is now underway) always produces rather predictable stories in the media about political reform in that vast realm. It is always a distant possibility. References to reform at the last congress are trotted out, only to be seen as dead on proposal. The new language offered this time is examined and found to be weak. The coverage we get is brief. The names of groups or interests, usually associated with prominent people, are not memorable for us. A new figure emerges. And that’s that until the next time.

Is there any way in which we might recognize the same phenomena in this country? Surely not. Here we have institutionalized what in China we would view as reforms. But a look across the political landscape nonetheless produces some recurring names like Daley, Kennedy, Bush, Clinton, Romney, Cuomo, Rockefeller, Taft, Roosevelt, Adams, and Lee.

Could it be that rule by prominent families is a pretty common feature of governance. Take the United States, for instance. Wikipedia has assembled a list of United States Political Families (link). The definition provided there says: “Families who have repeatedly produced notable politicians from their ranks, and these historic U.S. political families have had a significant impact on politics in the United States.” (That “who” in that sentence should probably be “that.”) The list runs from A through Z, and only X is absent. Well, the Chinese could help us there. Along with Deng, Zeng, and Bo there, we have Xi. The total number listed for the United States is 1,900—and with a rounded number like that, I suspect there could be more.

Expanding its context, Wikipedia also has a page that includes the entire world, and sure enough, the same pattern everywhere. Yes we all are—ruled by a few families. It’s just the way things are, rich times, poor times, one party, two parties, many parties, kings or commons, then and now.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fall Image


With ht to e.e. cummings.

They Moved The Thinker

Google’s search page reminded me of Rodin’s The Thinker again, it being the 172nd birthday of August Rodin today. This in turn moved me to find a photograph of the statue I’d first encountered at the north entrance of Kansas City’s then Nelson Gallery shortly after we had immigrated to the United States. We’d rented a house overlooking Gillham Park. Just a few blocks from south and east of there was the Gallery, as we called it, within easy walking-distance for recent Europeans. And there, at the back entrance, sat The Thinker. That was 1951. The Thinker sat there, from our point of view, for 56 long years, facing outward from the massive structure behind it and looking into the gloom of a dark wood, you might say. Okay. The wood wasn’t in any sense deep, but it was certainly dark. The figure represents Dante at the Gates of Hell:

Midway this way of life we’re bound upon
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.
     [Inferno, Canto I, Dorothy Sayers translation]

Well, I found out today that, in 2007—in order to make room for another rather modernistic addition to the currently named William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art—The Thinker got moved to the other side, facing south. That, in my opinion, was a bit of a mistake. The Thinker is now looking at a vast expanse of glorious green—and in the very, very far distance is Midwest Research Institute, where once I worked. Life at MRI had its ups and downs, but none of the downs even came close to Hell. Therefore the statue now seems out of place on that lawn. But down a ways from there, to the delight of all art lovers, is a gigantic badminton shuttlecock. You can see it on this blog here.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Felt in the Here and Now

Back toward the end of April of this year, I posted the temperature in Detroit on April 29 for a decade (link). My source for these data was the Weather Underground (link); the site offers the same service for any sizeable metro area. Now today, November 11, is the anniversary of “bringing the plants in” last year. This sort of thing looms LARGE in the lives of the old. Our plants came in much earlier this year (the last were in October 28)—but after that the temperature went up again. This morning the thermometer said 55° F as I checked it at 8:30, which led to my making a November 11 chart. And here it is:

Well, well. There is that upward spike. For November 11, the 2012 measurement is the highest in a decade. For April 29, the 2012 measurement was the lowest in a decade. In both cases, however, the trend line of these data slants down. I show it on the graphic. Now, of course, one-year measurements of temperature, a year apart and in one rather small region, are not particularly meaningful in any sense—except for personal amusement. Weather-systems change without much reference to calendars. What such an exercise illustrates, however, is why it is so difficult to find consensus on global warming. People experience the weather here and now and down and under, on the small spot where they live. And if the weather disagrees with our ideological bent, why we need but wait a day or two and it will promptly “get with the program.”

As I pointed out in April, we have two outdoor thermometers, one affixed to the garage, one to a wooden fence near-by. They never show the same temperature. I should mount a third one to make the case even more telling—but what with the fiscal cliff rapidly approaching, we’re saving our money.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Annotating Change

Archbishop of Canterbury. The new Archbishop of Canterbury and therefore leader of the world’s Anglicans, is Justin Welby. His work in the oil industry before becoming a priest has caused him to be featured somewhat more prominently in the Wall Street Journal than you would expect: front page. Today’s Journal says in part, in a caption under his picture, “Justin Welby, who became a priest after retiring as an oil executive…” The phrase suggests, at least to me, that the retirement has been recent. The man looks quite young. But if so, what qualities propelled him so rapidly to the throne of Canterbury? I looked him up. Turns out the Archbishop is 56 years of age (born 1956). He graduated with an advanced degree in history and law from Trinity College, Cambridge at age 22 (1978). At this point he went to work for the French oil company, Elf Aquitaine, six years later he was named treasurer of Enterprise Oil PLC in London (1984). He left business in 1989 to study for the priesthood. Therefore he was 33 at his “retirement.” His business career had lasted 11 years. His career in the Anglican church has lasted 23 years to date; his rise has been fast. You might say that he was groomed. He comes out of the upper nobility of England.

President of China. China’s new leader is Xi Jinping, is an interesting figure. China is so vast, its politics so complex, its face turned to the public so formal, one gets the wrong image of what goes on there in reality. Black-haired men in black suits sitting in a row, nothing ever changes, always the status quo. Xi Jinping comes from a stormy lineage. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was an important guerilla leader and close ally of Mao. But later he got purged and obliged to work for his living as a lowly factory manger (1965) and did not get rehabilitated until 19 years later (1981) after the Cultural Revolution.  His son, Jinping, thus experienced highs and lows. Is the new leader a reformer? Maybe. He is certainly best known for promoting business. But in his background is radical activism. So we shall see.

Director of the CIA. Poor policies and therefore botched wars produce half-heroes. Was the Iraq War a just war? I’ve never thought so. Have I ever viewed David Petraeus as a military hero? No. For me he always belonged into another bin—one I’d learned about while serving my years in the Army: the political general. President Obama is finally rid of him—without having to lift a finger. Sloughing off the skin of the Bush legacy. Well, Forward. I guess.

These reactions to the front page of the Journal today. The Business & Finance section’s lead story has Lockheed’s future CEO (scheduled to take charge in January) ousted before he took office for carrying on with a subordinate. It’s hard to keep it in your pants. I feel for Xi Jinping who, happily married to a lovely lady, who is also a very popular musical performer, Peng Liyuan, must deal with vast corruption in China—so vast that the outgoing President, Hu Jintao, in his farewell address said that it “could prove fatal to the party and even cause the … fall of the state.” Well, we’re trying, China, but we just haven’t gotten there yet.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Dia de los ñatitas

Some celebrations of those who have passed away slip across the calendar and are held a little later than the beginning of November. One such day takes place in Bolivia, a country that looms large in Ghulf history. It was the country of Monique’s foreign exchange year. On this day, in very traditional families, family skulls are decorated with flowers, sometimes dressed up. And a special mass is celebrated in the cemetery of La Paz.

The image I offer here, from Wikipedia (link)—because it is so wondrously, paradoxically attractive—shows figures commonly displayed in Mexico on November 1 and 2. The Bolivian festival goes back to pre-Columbian times and customs in the Andes. It was customary there to revisit the dead in the third year of their passing. Current customs typically only involve the skulls. At these events, in Bolivia, the dead are offered “cigarettes, coca leaves, alcohol, and various other items,” Wikipedia informs me, in thanks for protecting the survivors during the past year. Somewhat reassuring for someone like me who values nicotine—but troubling if it only happens once a year, on November 9.

The day is typically rendered Day of the Skulls. But ñatitas means “snub-noses.” The Spanish for skull is calavera.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Thunder Road

The election brought back some memories going back to the bicentennial—and showed what a difference 36 years can make to mute once explosive talent. But our memories remain untouched. We owned this album, indeed still do, but we haven’t got any device we can play it on—except YouTube. The lyrics are here and, in a way, provide a true sense of the times in which we live. Herewith the song itself:

Du Calme, Du Calme

An early trip to Kroger this morning (no milk, no pudding), the lovely weather, and something in the air—was it an absence of tension?—made me reflect, as I already did in reaction to a comment on this site yesterday, that elections clear the air and always (even in those years when the other side wins) tell me that the collective, when it comes down to a decision, behaves with reasonably good sense. But then, returning, I saw that the DOW is still seeking some bottom. And it shocked me to discover the Maverick Philosopher mentioning civil war, Red v. Blue. God help us if it comes to that, he tells us, but then advises Leftists to be careful. Red-Staters, he tells us, will clean our clock—because they have the guns. Du calme, mon ami, du calme…

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Elation, Despond, Sobriety

We are not, like Britain, a parliamentary democracy. There a national election decides the party that will really take power, and its leader then becomes the chief executive. With victory goes the right to rule. Not so in our case. Our presidential elections decide who, under the Constitution, “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” The power, in our case, is most clearly present in the House and in the Senate, and these bodies, their members elected separately, may split it. That, in effect, is the outcome of yesterday’s elections. Republicans retain their control over the House; the Democrats still hold the Senate. But with a plurality of 53, the Democrats lack the supermajority (60) to dominate unimpeded even just in the Senate. Power is dispersed. Effective governance requires something beyond the blue and red coloration of maps.

Looking at those maps in closer resolution reveals the Two Americas John Edwards used to talk about. The red areas are from the suburbs of urban centers outward, the blue from the suburbs of urban centers inward. In terms of actual acreage covered, red is everywhere but blue, which is but spots on every map, holds a slender majority of the population. Going by last night’s vote, 62.0 million live in Blue America, at least in their convictions; 58.8 million in the Red America [these numbers will keep changing for a while.]

Now emotions dominated the politically engaged last night as, at 11:18 p.m., CNN projected President Obama’s victory. Elation and Despond. But what follows now is the sober realization that, alas, higher sorts of human qualities, like responsibility and cooperation, will be demanded of us to run this country for at least the next two years. And at about the halfway point in that brief spell, the passions will once more gather into fervent seething as Congressional elections will begin to be fought all over again. We’ve spent the last year-and-a-half, minimally, whipping up the passions and bringing them to a towering peak—to achieve the status quo ante.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Don’t Do It, China. Don’t.

We voted today for individuals as low on the totem pole of political life as school board members of the Grosse Pointe Schools on up to the President of the United States. We also voted for a Congressional representative, a Senator, a state legislator, members of the state board of education, regents of the University of Michigan, trustees of Michigan State University, the governor of Wayne State University, for a county prosecutor, a sheriff, a county clerk, a treasurer, a registrar of deeds, and a county commissioner. Take a breath. We’ve voted for supreme court justices of Michigan (3), judges of the court of appeals, district 1 (2), judges of the 3rd circuit court (19), and judges of the Wayne County probate court (4). Another breath. We voted for six state proposals, 5 Wayne County proposals, and one Wayne County millage rate. Time to breathe out.

We did not have to vote for local council or mayor (that takes place only in odd years). But, of course, there were primaries earlier—so that we could select the people we would vote for today.  

Now, by way of contrast, I present the way a really big country does this. China. Here the President is elected by the National People’s Congress, the NPC. The NPC is elected by the PPAs, the PPAs by the LPAs. And where is the citizen in all of this? The citizen elects the members of the LPA. Everything else is indirect.

Okay. The PPAs are Provincial People’s Assemblies. Imagine that we had regional parliaments in this country, one for the Northeast, South, Midwest, and West. Or if you want more, how about New England, Middle Atlantic, South Atlantic, East North Central, East South Central, West North Central, West South Central, Mountain, and Pacific.  That makes eight. The Chinese have 23 such regions.

The LPAs are Local People’s Assemblies. They represent villages, counties, towns, cities, independent districts, and the like. It is only at this level that people actually vote. And the actual vote is often for a delegate from a local district within these places.

Now, of course, in this country as in China, the selection of candidates is very heavily influenced by party professionals or semi-professionals. Indeed the President to be selected in China is really chosen  by the 25-person Politburo. And the vote taken by the NPC is pretty much a rubber stamp; that’s why we already know his name. But then the Chinese, like our Founding Fathers did, hate the word “faction.” They get rid of it by only having a single party.

Now there is talk of electing members of the Politburo in China by competitive means. Oh, my, I say. Don’t open that Pandora’s box, China. The next thing you know, you will experience campaigns. (Sorry for using a dirty word on a family blog.) And in a very short time, the Chinese citizen will be facing the kind of choices we’ve had to make this morning—but multiplied by several billion. I feel your future pain.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Echoes of the Prayer Wheel

A post on LaMarotte (where I was venting about automated calls), got me wondering how the future would see our absolute faith in the power of advertising to move the secular version of Heaven. The Romans, of course, at the appropriate stage in their development, had the same sort of idea: Vox populi, vox dei. They were, however, technologically backward. And that, in turn, made me wonder if there are other relevant examples from the even deeper past. The image of a prayer wheel then presented itself to me.

These wheels are at home in India and in Tibet. I am showing a hand-held Tibetan version. It has a little counter-weight which causes it to whirl with but a little bit of human effort. They are functionally equivalent to calls delivered by a living human being. Prayer wheels, usually inscribed with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, also come in more automated versions. They may be driven by wind, water, or the heat of burning butter. They are, of course, equivalent to automated calls. In any case they illustrate a human belief: If it is worth doing, its worth doing without any effort. The device actually used, of course, may cost a bit of money, and the more elaborate and expensive, the more powerful, to be sure. Behind these wheels is the belief that the turning wheel works just as well as saying a prayer mentally or out loud.

Now, of course, the folks who start to smile awkwardly (and the more multicultural, the more awkward the smile) when they behold the prayer wheel will, nonetheless, expend huge sums of money on automated calls intending to persuade me to vote for X.

Oh, by the way. If you wish to try a prayer wheel—who knows, it might work!—the one I am showing is available from World Bazaar Imports for $22.49 (link).

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Exothermic Plants?

Last night came the first genuine frost of the year. In preparation late yesterday Brigitte was out in the yard “covering” the few plants that still remained outside. These would, in fact, winter out there, but she still wished to harvest some of them. I saw the results this morning and got curious about the mechanism of frost protection. Unlike the orders above the vegetable kingdom, which are heat-producing (exothermic), plants are heat-consuming (endothermic). So why does covering plants protect them?

The simple answer from the plant-raising community (link) is that a covering them keeps cold air from reaching the moisture on plants’ leaves and buds. The ideal cover is some kind of natural fabric able to breathe: cotton, linen, newspapers, burlap. Moisture escapes. Covering plants with plastic is a distinctly inferior tactic. Moisture will accumulate, and if the overall temperature drops low enough, the frost damage will be much greater, cover or no cover.

In this process of trying to discover the mechanism of protection, I came across something interesting. Some plants are exothermic. They generate heat—and often quite a lot of it (link). Two examples—and everybody on this subject names them—are the Voodoo Lily (shown on left above) and Skunk Cabbage (shown on the right); the illustrations come from Wikipedia. Curiously these plants do not make heat to keep warm, although that is a by-product. The Voodoo Lily, which has a rotting smell, uses heat to spread the odor in order to attract flesh-eating insects which then, disappointed after they arrive (no meat anywhere) nonetheless serve to pollinate. The Skunk Cabbage is suspected of the same tactic. Tricky, tricky.  Reminds me of car companies that sell cars by showing sexy, mysteriously smiling females. Buy the car and—well, there is no girl inside.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Making the Right Connection

An automated call came yesterday from Clint Eastwood. Brigitte alertly grasped the evident intent. She put the phone down on an empty chair and let it lie there until the Telephone Company’s little beep-beep-beep announced that Mr. Eastwood had finished his conversation.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Early Grades

It’s sort of obvious, when I think about it: culture is formed in grade- and middle-school. The logic for that runs as follows. The values we form in childhood, the values we feel, later, as virtual instincts, later shape the collective. Their first experience, of course, is in the home. But their socialization takes place in schooling. The child encounters the social collective in grade school for the first time. There the three Rs are, you might say, almost incidental. It is the Big V that really counts.

If the home has effectively formed the child—the values gained there may be weakened, diluted, and eroded if the child’s first contact with society does not at once confirm them. And parents, time and again, stare in hopeless impotence at this process of erosion aided, as it is, by social consensus.

High school? Too late. Or perhaps irrelevant. My own memories tell me that it is the worst stage of education as ordinarily encountered. Puberty: humanity’s most biologically-imprinted age. Wise woman Montessori understood that; in that age, in her design, the abstract gives way to the tasks of social integration.

And by the time we reach college, the hope is that the individual’s values have reached a certain crystallization.

The difficult aspect here is that values have a holistic character. They can be said to represent a fusion of morality, empathy, cosmology, and intellect—but that comes later on. The child simply absorbs a kind of something: life itself. And as it ages, its powers of absorption, in that sense,  grow weaker. Montessori, again, spoke of the early “Absorbent Mind” present in children. Later that something may indeed  be parsed into components; as an adult, the child may modify this or that part of the whole. But something crucial in the whole remains, and it is that remainder that really forms culture. And that’s what we call values.

If we seek to diagnose the ills of our culture, we ought really to concentrated on the level that really matters: the home and the early grades. The ills of vast collective structures like politics, finance, media, entertainment, business, etc., are all of them traceable to failures in the home, where ambitious parents try to “realize” themselves and struggle to advance careers, and to schools that dare not teach values—indeed cannot—because they fear to overstep the line arbitrarily drawn between religion and the state. And you cannot teach values, as such, unless the cosmological component is a part of them.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

All Saints, All Souls


Halloween, of course—but in this day and age perhaps worth repeating—is a contraction of All Hallows Even, thus the evening before All Saints Day, which is today. As I noted two years ago on this occasion (link), the two words that make up today’s holiday tend to be contractions—except in English. The French speak of La Toussaint, the Italians of Ognissanti, the Germans of  Allerheiligen, Hungarians of Mindszentek. Halloween is a similar formation. The post I put up in 2010, using the German words for All Saints and All Souls developed quite some traffic, thereafter, but especially leading up to the feast itself last year and this. With that in mind I thought I’d offer another illustration this year, this time one showing how the feast is celebrated in Poland but obtained from the Hungarian Wikipedia (link).

The day dawned appropriately dark and grey, nature dimming our view of the glorious here and now. The random rain that kept our Halloween traffic very light last night had stopped. It looked like November. What better time to set aside some time for a little reflection on the greater view of reality—in which the departed saints and souls (the last celebrated tomorrow) are remembered. We need an occasion for that—and in cultures still close to the roots of Christendom (the photo I show is from 1984 in the town of Osviecim in Poland), the remembering is active. As the storms in this dimension roar and roar on, and this follows that in its grim round, it is good to behold some light in the dark.