Five after thirteen, you might say—in annual time. Actually it will be five after in about a minute or so of clock time. The first month of the year is already over. In a swoosh and in a whirl. As we age, time speeds up, and a month is like five minutes, which is also arithmetically accurate. One twelfth is equal to five sixtieth, 8.333… percent. Precision then breaks down a little. If a month is five annual minutes, one minute should be a week. Indeed this month had three full weeks but two others were but partial, the first beginning on a Tuesday, the last ending on a Thursday. The analogy disappears below that. The minute only has seven seconds; but those seconds at least have names: Monday, Tuesday, etc. Anyway—good enough for noodling on a pad…
Thursday, January 31, 2013
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
The death of fellow-blogger Montag’s father, reported on his site yesterday (link), set me to calculating the life-spans of the Greatest Generation. Montag’s father died at 92 and would have been 25 at the conclusion of World War II, a young Navy lieutenant. My own father, who fought on the other side—opposing Russian advances in Poland—saw the light of day in 1907 and passed (quite young by the life-expectancy these days) at 74 in 1981. Generations have long shadows that, of course, are almost invisibly dim as time passes. The last Civil War veteran died in 1956. He was Albert H. Woolson, 18 when that war ended. He died at age 109. We join Montag and his family in this leave-taking and wave our own farewells on the beach of the Greater Ocean.
Those who exulted over the Arab Spring should now be in states of ecstasy. Egypt appears on the way of skipping over the cumbersome, so-yesterday form of Representative Democracy straight to Direct Democracy. They’re way ahead of us. We’re still struggling with inefficient forms of it, like ballot initiatives, that teach our governors and legislatures to become better contortionists. Hey. We already have the necessary institutions and technology. Why don’t we get with the program and embrace Facebook Democracy now. If we don’t innovate, Egypt will get ahead of us—and be the first to show the ultimate consequences of DD.
Humble beginnings. Breakthrough into the Big Leagues. Early Anointment as Comer. Young Starhood. Explosive Improvement in Performance. Celebrity Nickname. First Denials of Taking Performance-Enhancing Drugs. Denial of Having Used Drugs with Attitude. Sometimes Before Congressional Panel. Falling Silent. In Cloud of Suspicion. Hall of Fame-Not. Conversion. Public Confession Before Oprah. And beyond? Perhaps Hollywood Star. Perhaps Running for Governor. Perhaps even, you know, running for… [This with ht to a New York Times story about someone called A-Rod.]
Monday, January 28, 2013
Son of a biscuit! It took me more than 75 years to discover the formal name for a practice that initially puzzled me when first I arrived in the United States at fifteen. Arrived in Kansas City. There I heard people say “Gal Dang it” and “Jeepers Creepers”—not having the slightest, you might say. I was then still concerned with elementary etymology, thus working on gunna, as in that splendid “She’s gunna git got.” An old lady, whom I actually asked to explain it to me, was baffled by my question and responded by repetition. “You know,” she said, “like in we gunna do that, we gunna finish.” I suppose she meant mowing the lawn, which is what I was then doing for her for a quarter. Yes. Those were the day. You could get a gallon of gas for that then.
Well, today I learned, in the course of tracing another wonderful word, that Gal-Dang-it belongs to a category called “minced oaths.” Minced? Well, oaths made ever so small, cut into little harmless sounds, thus euphemized, if that’s a verb. The root of this mincing is the third of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” Exodus 20:7. Mincing is the art of retaining the emotional energy of an oath but changing the sound enough so that the speaker is not literally violating the commandment. With advancing secularization, the practice came to be applied to ordinary obscene words as well, and really fine mincing is provided in print, as in the phrase, which might be applied to my posts: “What in the are you talking about?”
My last report on minced oaths was on a German phrase (link). I still did not know the name of the category then. I will add one today from the French—although it also has a German equivalent. The word is sapristi, usually rendered as Sapristi! It means, to translate it into another minced oath, Oh my gosh! The German version of that, derived from the French, is sapperlotti—in its shorter version sapperlot.
The Internet, thickly populated as it is by sites that enable the ignorant to instruct the challenged, at first would not yield anything, but eventually I found the family lineage of sapristi. It comes from an early pre-mincing, used in the same way, sacristi. That one is a contraction of Sacrum Corpus Christi from the Latin. Now German sites are not all in agreement. Some want to derive sapperlot from Sacré Nom de Dieu. Okay, the nom provides an O, absent is sapristi, but the sapperlotti suggests, to me, that the German form is just more mincing of the French.
Another way of mincing oaths is by the simple elimination of the holy name or names. In French Sacre nom, by itself, produces less scandal (as Catholics might say) than adding de Dieu. And the French also use, with exactly the same shocked surprise, the word Sacrebleu! Some call that a Marian oath in that The Lady wore a blue mantle; others go deeper and discover that bleu is a nicely minced substitute for dieu, and they hark back to such curses as morbleu (death of), corbleu (body of) and others.
Gee-whiz! What an ocean language is —and the fish in it are without number.
Sunday, January 27, 2013
The stealth technology—its most “visible” form is military hardware—is also known as LO technology; LO stands for “low observable.” But observable by what? Well, radar and other mechanical sensors such as those that pick up differences in sound or thermal effects. The modern form of stealth technology was undoubtedly born right alongside the invention of radar (RAdio Detection And Ranging)—but the art was present long before that time as camouflage—blending into the terrain and thus remaining invisible: animals and plants practiced it long before humanity learned to hide itself in war—or peace.
For my purposes today, however, military stealth technology merely serves as an illustration. Why is it that we see virtually no Good News in the media—aside from a few “heart-warming” features served up sparsely in Sunday papers or, with slightly patronizing smiles, by the TV media? The reason I’d propose today is that significant ranges of social reality prefer to operate behind a kind of stealth technology for practical reasons as well as on principle. To remain invisible to the media, an institution must pass three tests: it must behave correctly at all times, it should produce genuine value for the public, and it must avoid drawing attention to itself. The naturally accruing attention from its constituency will be enough to help it operate effectively. The same goes for individuals.
One of the very first German sayings I learned as a boy, after World War II had carried us to Germany, was “Selbstlob stinkt”: “Self praise stinks.” Children would yell that when someone was trying to make himself/herself too big. That sort of thing, coming from your peers, had an educational effect. Attention was a by-product, and nothing more than that, of action—doing things right, not doing things to gain visibility.
All this came to mind recently when news came that Dell Computer was going private—and whenever that subject arises, the privately-held company—I always remember Cargill, Inc., the largest of these. Its headquarters were (still are) in suburban Minneapolis, where we once lived. I got to know Cargill rather well and hence developed an admiration for the privately-held company—in an age when “coming of age,” for a corporation, means “going public.”
The publicly held corporation, what with the commercial culture that has developed around it, is something of a corruption. The trading of its stock becomes the focus of attention—and works backwards to skew all decision making. It leads to all kinds of evils, like acquisitions and divestitures, short-term planning, mass lay-offs that cause the stock to jump, and the absurd notion that the corporation exists only to make stockholders rich rather than fulfilling missions stated at the time of its incorporation. Such entities avidly desire visibility—and also suffer from it. Selling stock to the public is an easy way to get large capital infusions—but I wonder if the benefit actually covers the eventual functional losses the public suffers from the process. If it’s easy—it is suspect.
Good institutions do not attract media attention. The good is taken for granted—the disturbing produces headlines, draws attention, and therefore sells ads. The glow of Good is local. I suspect that the Good or at least the Neutral is overwhelmingly more common than the sleazy—but the lenses of the world bring nothing but news of corruption, decay, and of collapse. What percentage of the total is it? We can only guess.
Friday, January 25, 2013
Zion is a hill or mount on the north-western edge of Jerusalem. It derives from a fortification what existed on top of it, probably built by a Canaan tribe called the Jebusites. Its Hebrew origin is tzion or siyyon, meaning “castle,” echoed in the Arabic word sana, meaning “citadel.” King David took hold of that fortification in consolidating his power after the death of King Saul—and declared it as the City of David. And since then the Zion has been used to refer to Israel as a people as well as to Jerusalem as a city.
Zionism is a certifiably modern formation dating to about 1896 and to a newspaper called Selbstemazipation (Self-Empancipation) the editor of which, the coiner of the word, in German first, as Zionismus, was one Nathan Birnbaum (1864-1937) then writing as Matthias Acher. Birnbaum was an Austrian. In that same year one Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian, wrote Der Judenstaat (State of the Jews — state here meaning sovereign administration), another major influence on the Zionist movement.
I’ve consulted Google’s ngram (which tracks word usage over time in hundreds of publications). The ngram shows Zion suddenly shooting up and peaking in 1902, dropping again thereafter. Zionism begins to climb—although never as high as Zion—beginning just before 1900.
Zion is ancient, Zionism is today. Both are rooted in conquest—more or less by force.
An earlier post centered on the modern process was “That Peculiar Relationship” (link).
Thursday, January 24, 2013
The images history brings us resemble the colored glass shards in kaleidoscopes. The same pieces are always present, although in ever-changing relationships. The difference is that the number of such pieces in history’s kaleidoscope are extraordinarily many. For this reason history has its share of cases where women have engaged in combat—albeit almost always as a last resort. This also holds, by and large, for women who lead wars as queens or generals. They did so by filling a vacuum produced by their husbands’ deaths. There is always an exception that proves the rule. In our case, in Christendom, it was the visionary Maid of Orléans, Joan of Arc.
At the level of leadership, command, and rule, females have distinguished themselves throughout history. But there is a difference between the grubby craft of war, where bodily differences matter, and the art of rule, where the heart and mind are to the fore. At that level, the more women the better.
If, in history, female combat appears sporadically as a last resort—when those prepared by chemical civilization to do the dirty work have failed—times of decadence have also uniformly produced, at the margins, a blurring of the male and female roles. Therefore we know that female gladiatrices were a feature in the Roman games—and know this because decrees survive attempting to ban such “occupations,” and Juvenal, the poet, in the first century, or thereabouts, refers to upper-class women training for the games.
The turn of the kaleidoscope in our times introduces a novel image—if with the same shards of glass. The horrors of war have now become a human right—and, should the draft be introduced again (which some think impossible but is, like all things that go around, probable—if not today), the horrors of war will also become a duty for young females. The New York Times’ headline this morning shows the confusion: “Pentagon to Open Combat to Women.” The phrasing suggests something desirable. Hearings in Congress castigating the Air Force for its sex scandals (training instructors sexually abusing the females they were training) competed with the good news about the “opening of combat” to the fairer sex.
What science has not as yet achieved—and our brave leaders therefore cannot as yet “open” for males—is something only women can do now. One headline is still in the future: “Health and Human Services to Open Childbirth to Males.” The agonies of childbirth seem to me the “war” women routinely engage in—without ever getting medals for it or appearances in the White House. Vive la difference.
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Monday, January 21, 2013
Today’s event, the Inauguration, nudged me to dig up the meaning behind that word. In the civilization that gave birth to ours, the Graeco-Roman, augurs consulted omens when great events loomed ahead. They did so by observing the flight of birds released on the occasion; they noted the path of the birds’ flight and then gave an interpretation. If the omens were favorable, the installation of a leader then took place.
One suspects that in their case, as in ours, the omens always managed to reflect the actual situation indicated by the balance of power. The bird-flight, in our world, is the popular vote. We are the birds whose flight-paths were consulted last November. And now comes the “installation with favorable omens.” Vox populi, vox dei. No doubt the actual path taken by the birds sometimes produced an ambiguous result—and therefore controversy swirled around the augurs’ interpretation. We had such a case on the occasion of George W. Bush’s first term as president—when our augurs, the Supreme Court Justices of the United States, interpreted the flight of birds in Florida in GW’s favor.
Sunday, January 20, 2013
A study extending from 1979 to 2001 conducted by Cristina Archer and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Department of Global Ecology, shows that the earth’s jet streams are moving toward the poles and also rising in altitude. This north and southward movement of the streams is proceeding at around 120 miles per decade.
Wikipedia), but a look at the deserts of the world (also from Wikipedia here) suggests that the world’s greatest deserts are located in the regions bounded by the polar and subpolar jet streams.
The authors of the report suggest that the movement of the streams to the north and south will cause the tropical belt to grow and that the paths of storm will shift farther north; that second conclusion because the jet streams inhibit the formation of hurricanes—and, moving father away, will inhibit them less. Another important consequence, for us, is that precipitation will lessen in the South and in the Southwest, thus another Dust Bowl may be in the offing.
Archer and Caldeira are continuing their studies and are unprepared to link the broad trends that they’ve observed to Global Warming—although multiple global warming models have predicted that just this would be happening: the jet streams moving north and south. The jet streams are a relatively new discovery, initially noticed after the 1883 volcanic eruption of Krakatao in Indonesia. The streams distributed the ashes of this eruption, and their paths were first noted then and later. For this reason, we do not know how the jet streams moved in the past—and, indeed, whether they moved at all. But it is clear from records in the center of America that dust storms were a standard feature of farm life in the nineteenth century—although the dramatic Dust Bowl events are largely blamed on farmers plowing up the land.
Whatever the causes, something certainly is happening, and measurable. The new pattern of storms and of droughts can be traced to the movement of the streams, but linking those drifts back to human causation is not yet firmly established, only suspected.
Saturday, January 19, 2013
A lim’rick I saw on a blog,
No—not about Katie the dog.
So neat is that verse,
Although it is terse,
It had me just reading agog!
The fellow who wrote it is neither
A poet, a prosist, nor healer.
Comic books are his game,
Striking the series’ name.
It’s called the Elephant Eater.
Herewith a link to the Elephant Eater website. The referenced limerick, however, appeared on Patio Boat as a comment. I can never read a limerick without being tempted to write one. That's why they proliferate.
Friday, January 18, 2013
Last October, when troubles in Mali first began to make the news, I suggested that “What is now proceeding in that region is, in fact, a conflict within the Muslim community.” I might also have said, more accurately, “a local conflict within a much wider revolution that is reshaping the greater Muslim community.” In the now very densely populated world, where technological modernity, originating in the West, overwhelmingly dominates everything, strands of influence and motivation are very difficult to isolate. Add to that the self-centered nature of every society, and when I do then it does seem as if phenomena like Al Qaeda and the Taliban are principally aiming aggression at the West. But a very plausible, and perhaps much more fundamental underlying motivation arises from within Islam itself aimed, in the first instance, at Islam, trying to reform it. The hatred of the West is a secondary byproduct of that, motivated in part because the West blocks this “Muslim Reformation,” principally to retain control over oil and mineral resources, and in part because hatred of the West is a handy motivator of the Muslim masses.
If we take the start of Christianity to be 29 AD, the beginning of Christ’s ministry, it took Christianity 1488 years before (in 1517), Luther launched the Reformation. It was, ultimately, a “back to the basics” movement. If we take the start of Islam to be 610 AD, the year Mohammad had his vision, 1402 years have passed since—time enough for Islam to have drifted roughly as far from the True Faith as Christianity had by Martin Luther’s time. In the Muslim world reform takes the form of a “return to Sharia.” It’s aim is to dislodge nominal Muslim but actual secularist authoritarian elites. At the core. Or thus, I suggests, we might view it. Another way to put it: Even if the West were suddenly to vanish from the globe, the Muslim Reformation would go right on.
The rootings of this reformation are traceable to the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by one Hassan al-Banna, its aim the restoration of the Qur’an and Sunnah. That last word means “tradition,” and Sharia its most perfect form. This movement has proliferated since, and Osama bin Laden was the student of one of its later very prominent members, Sayyid Qutb, a secularist turned fundamentalist committed to government under Sharia.
In the West the Reformation has long since faded. In the intermediate period, “On Sunday the Bible [was their] ledger, and on week-days the ledger [was their] Bible” (link), but in these latter days only the ledger remains. We’ve lost even a remote memory of what it is like to live in a religious culture. Hence we imagine that the Muslims only desire democratic and market liberties to become normal citizens of the world. Therefore we face the Muslim Reformation with absolute bafflement and shake our head in incomprehension saying, “Why do they hate us?”
Thursday, January 17, 2013
In order from the left, therefore: Beijing’s Business District, Lhasa in Tibet, the setting for Shangri La, and at the bottom Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. The populations of these places are 19.6 million, 373,000, and 1.2 million. The images we’re accustomed to seeing are, respectively, the entrance of the Forbidden City (construction there began in 1406) with Mao’s image prominently visible; the Deprung Monastery and once the home of the Dalai Lama some miles from Lhasa; and for Mongolia, simple yurts with snowy mountains in the distance. Well, some Mongolians use elevators to get to bed.
This excursion was motivated by our seeing a Chinese film (too gross in content to record its title here) in which the earliest scenes showed us Beijing. Now these images shouldn’t have, but they did rather startle us, and afterwards, comparing impressions, we had to laugh: we are so influenced by stereotypes. And this came a day or so after a newspaper image from Mongolia had also startled us.
The world is changing. To be sure, there are still areas more or less untouched by modernity. Herewith I show a partial map of a city of 54,000 somewhere, along with an enlargement to prove that it is “modern.” The enlargement shows pictures of cars and trucks.
This happens to be Timbuktu, in Mali, in Africa. And another image, closer to earth-level, reveals that Timbuktu looks pretty much like it might have looked when the Western world, in the person of France, proceeded to embrace it in 1883:
If my only information about humanity came from television programs, and I was then exposed to a sufficiently large number of ordinary people, it would be something of a shock. Television selects its professional presenters for looks and charisma, and the individuals are then further groomed and smoothened out—or it selects political figures who are always properly dressed and, very often, staged. And in the ads? Angels, heroes. Real people—and especially when they believe themselves unobserved—are quite another matter. Yesterday we were at the Secretary of State’s Office. In Michigan that means renewing your license plate registration or driver’s license: a cavernous hall filled with humans. Take a Number. Ours was 32; they were just then calling Number 2. Plenty of time for people-watching. On ceiling-hung flat-screen television panels images kept changing. They brought us wise driving propaganda interspersed with celebrity teases (“Hollywood Swoop”). Down below them the huddled masses displayed an incredibly variable mixture of ages, faces, and forms. Such masses sometimes briefly flash by on television too when they show Iraqis or Pakistanis or Palestinians surrounding some suicide bombing site or taking part in funerals. Not you, not you. You are beautiful and popular, a Business Professional, you’re a Maestro of Market Synthesis, and you rent your car from National.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
No, no! It’s not another variant of ontology, the last being a discourse or theory about being, in Greek onto. Therefore with ontology we have onto-logia. The word under my microscope today, however, parses apart a different way: deon-logia. Here the Greek word is deon meaning “that which is a binding duty.” Therefore deontology is the science of moral duty.
I came across this word by what may seem a highly indirect route. Michelle is studying therapeutic hypnosis in a course sponsored by the hospital where she is a midwife. And she sent us a paper, in which that word occurs in the abstract†. The sentence:
This common definition of therapeutic hypnosis needs updating in order to enable the therapists who offer it to their patients to adjust their relational aptitudes to the scientific, deontological, and ethical needs of the contemporary therapeutic relationship.
The word is most closely related to Kantian ethics, characterized as focused on the actions and will of the agent rather that the consequences of an action. Deontology is therefore associated with the rules of absolute morality—on inputs by the agent rather than the outputs of the action (ht to Charles D. Kay). Therefore deontology is contrasted to pragmatism.
Now it amused me that in a recent post, before Michelle’s link arrived, I was committing deontology (in “Virtue and Time” link) without knowing that I was doing it. And it amuses me further than in a highly scientific context, the author would point to fundamental morality by using a very scientific-sounding word. But when it comes to reality—like really healing people—it turns out that morality is indispensable.
†Eric Bonvin, Therapeutic hypnosis: a relational art using attention with the intention to treat (link).
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Reading a truly excellent science popularization, Stephen S. Hall’s Mapping the Next Millennium, made me aware of developments in astronomy of which the first, the discovery of The Great Wall, had first alerted me in the early 1990s that major changes were afoot.
Back in the 1950s, theories about the universe as a whole had a pleasingly simple duality. The universe had but one ultimate fate: it would end in total heat death after continuous expansion until all energy had been exhausted—or the universe would begin contracting at some point, the galaxies converging again, until it all ended in the Big Crunch. In this view what mattered was the velocity of the expansion. If the velocity of the expanding universe was less than “escape velocity”—meaning that gravity would prevail over the outward impulse—expansion would halt and then reverse. Observations then (of the universe’s mass, of the velocity) were not precise enough to determine which was more likely—but the ratios of mass to velocity were close enough so that it could go either way. The out-in, out-in sequence appealed to me then. You know: Vishnu breathing.
Both models, to be sure, crucially depended on observations, credited to Edwin Hubble, that the universe, now, was definitely expanding—and had done so ever since the Bang. Indeed the Big Bang theory was the consequence of Hubble’s observations. If the universe is expanding now, that expansion had to have a start, and reading the observations backward—after all galaxies were moving away from every other galaxy in a uniform pattern—then in the beginning there must have been a great explosion from a mere point.
What are we to conclude? One conclusion may be that galactic expansion has already stopped—and what we see out there is in a much more distant past. The cosmos may already be in process of gathering its errant sheep—and that that gathering is very, very ancient. Those wall are very old, and yet still in formation. Pondering such discoveries not only enlarges my understanding of the cosmos but also of the nature of science. Young tendrils of it are exposing new knowledge—while the orthodoxy grimly clings to exciting news a hundred years old.
†David Burstein, Roger Davies, Alan Dressler, Sandra Faber, Donald Lynden-Bell, Roberto J. Terlevich, and Gary Wegner.
The first image, from Wikipedia (link), shows some of the walls, including the largest, the Sloan Great Wall. In astronomical terminology, these are called filaments. And it turns out that the universe is quite thick with them—as shown in the second image (link), taken from a YouTube film produced by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey in New Mexico.
Monday, January 14, 2013
Once or twice every year (early for the first time this year), one particular aspect of modern culture makes me smile. We are so staunchly materialistic, yet we do not pay a whole lot of attention to the material dimension when our greed for insubstantial money comes in conflict with substantial materiality. The trigger today was an article Brigitte had left me overnight entitled “The Great Oil Swindle: Scaling the Peak of Fossil Fuel Scarcity,” by Nafeez Masaddeq Ahmed (link, it’s slow to load). Much of it concerns shale oil and gas, and, at the end describes looming problems there. That in turn reminded me of a post on LaMarotte where I had looked at the physical problems of shale. After writing that post, which makes one somewhat dubious about the supposed great bonanza of shale, I have been enduring a torrent of hopeful, indeed triumphant articles based on the boom mentality. Forget your troubles, baby, never mind that has-been, Peak Oil. All will be well as, for the next eternity or two, the U.S. of A. becomes the Saudi Arabia of Shale. Every now and then comes a contrarian drop in this downpour, and the article I cite is one such.
Materialistic humanity is always falling for mirages. The tulip mania comes to mind. It peaked in February 1637 in Holland. In that year some single tulip bulbs, Wikipedia informs me, “sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman.” Okay. Let’s translate that. Let’s put the annual income of a skilled craftsman today at $65,000. A tulip bulb for $650,000? Why not? Anything is possible when you are a Shale Sheik.
Sunday, January 13, 2013
E.F. Schumacher, in A Guide for the Perplexed, contrasts two kinds of problems: convergent and divergent. The first category includes those where people find it easy to solve a problem because they are agreed upon the goal. Technological problems are of this nature; it is the better mousetrap problem. There is no disagreement on the values involved: no part of the team working on the project represents mice or holds that a household filled with them is better.
Divergent problems are those where at least two camps are present and the problem concerns values. Divergent problems are ideological in character. To solve them requires not to find a better mechanism, physical or social, but transcending the conflict by appeal to a value higher than each side holds. Finding those transcending values is very difficult. Hence divergent problems are always with us.
One difference between these two is that convergent problems lend themselves more easily to isolation in experimental settings—and to experimentation. Therefore feedback can be rapid and its results can be recursively introduced into a modified draft solution. If the man leaping from the top floor of a 30-story building dies, maybe his arms—or maybe his wings—weren’t strong enough. Back to the drawing board—after the funeral. Experimenting with value systems is much, much more difficult. Entire communities must be isolated, its members cooperating willingly. And how do we know that the experimental community was large enough to be representative? Did it have an urban as well as a rural component? Did it have industry as well as agriculture? And did it have enough of each currently valued ethnicity? And what about the duration of the experiment? And how do we measure its success? By economics? Reproduction? Education? Crime rates? Some want more, some less of any or all of these. And is there a single matrix measuring happiness that could be applied, a matrix each side would accept?
Testing value systems by feedback throws some light on the problem I touched upon in my recent post on “Virtue and Time”—and on my stoic comment about the slow grind of God’s mills. Virtue is an assertion of value by action. But it is a value—finding its expression to a large extent in a society. Its long-term consequences are almost infinitely complex—whereas Boeing 787’s electrical system problems will be nailed quite soon. If virtue or lack of it could be measured rapidly—never mind its legal expressions, which never capture the whole phenomenon—we would rapidly begin to converge on that seemingly unreachable Good Society.
Saturday, January 12, 2013
Few of us have the time or inclination to ponder the nature of stars, where they form and how they come to be, which if nothing else reflects an impoverished curiosity about our own atomic genealogy. Every atom in our bodies, every atom shaping an unforgettable face or reddening an infected hangnail, every atom of every thread of DNA in each of the 100 trillion cells we trundle about each day—every one of those atoms save hydrogen was exhaled at some earlier point in the history of the universe by an exploding star. And if that ancestry fails to move us, we might at least remember that our fragile and privileged ecological niche in an extremely vast and inhospitably frigid cosmos depends on the proximity of one particular star, the sun, which is gentle enough to warm an orchid yet variable enough to touch off ice ages, distant enough to spare us the roar and force of its inferno, dependable enough that we can set our circadian clocks against it and get up each day to ponder such mysteries as the origin of stars. Stars do not just happen. They result from complex astrophysical processes; they are milky accretions of dust and gas that ignite into luminous beacons of light, light conceived in a manner as mysterious and miraculous as the birth of a pearl, and the evolution of these cosmological jewels occurs only in special birthing places, and only under the right conditions. Any effort to identify those birthing grounds, often referred to as “stellar nurseries,” sends astronomers down a path of celestial cartography, and it is a path that has been traveled with singular success by radio astronomy in the post-World War II era.
[Stephen S. Hall, Mapping the Next Millennium, Vintage, 1993, p. 308]
This paragraph is part of an introduction to a chapter in Hall’s book on mapping stellar nebulae—rather than on the subject of how elements came into existence. Hence it does not get into the greater mysteries of that subject, among them that, in order even to have genealogies ourselves, three different stars had to come into being. Of those the first two had to have lived out their lives and sent their products into space—there to form stars or planets. And the third sun gives us life. An earlier post on that subject, “Bodies Made of Diamonds” (link) provides a summary.
Friday, January 11, 2013
There are these temporary nexus where things run together and produce a single feeling, but giving it expression is tough. I saw Barney Frank, the just retired Congressman on MSNBC’s Hardball producing in a couple of minutes all sorts of very coherent comments and prescriptions (link). Earlier, on the car radio, I’d heard a report about a woman who is literally “fixing” a series of bankrupt cities in Michigan very competently—but, of course, emergency management laws give her the necessary powers. Last night Brigitte and I watched about three minutes of two different movies on disk, jerking them out, one after the other, because of their gross implementation of stories that sounded all right on the cover. Then later came a telephone conversation; I heard a report, from the field itself, on the mad ways in which teachers are now being evaluated. That call had been triggered by my last post on “teaching to the test.” Add to these my by now stoic reactions. The right acts needed to correct, the positive unraveling, of so many different messes will not take place in what little time is left to us here. The mills of God grind slowly.
By this morning—a remarkable morning because it was raining in January, and I mean really raining—all this had distilled into a single word, Virtue—because virtue was either present or markedly absent in what I’d experienced before going to bed. It is the foundation of culture and in each one defined in identical ways. The marked feature of virtue is that it is innate and unqualified. It is to do the right thing—but never in the context of a quid pro quo. We are not virtuous in order that—but because we are or it is the right way to act. Therefore the time dimension, which is always present in quid pro quo, is absent in the practice of virtue. Interesting to ponder that vast eras of time are governed by something outside of time. This too shall pass—but virtue remains.
Thursday, January 10, 2013
My contention is that measurement, the very core of the scientific approach, becomes problematical when applied too rigidly to those areas of life where measurement fails to capture the most essential elements. Two such regions among others include the arts and education. How can we capture, in a quantitative net, exactly what a genuinely educated person is? How do we know that this painting here—or that television show—is art? The judgement, in either case, has everything to do with the individuals doing the judging. At best there is a kind of public consensus, more felt than measurable (e.g. as in counting critics or teachers pro and con). Far from all individuals will share the elite consensus, no matter what the individual's status is. In effect, as one ages, one finds oneself disagreeing with some elites while agreeing with others heretofore disdained.
Measurement physicalizes because it averages. It fails to capture individual uniqueness. Testing has its uses—in areas, perhaps, like guiding curriculum reform. As a measurement of a teacher’s performance, it sucks. The ability of a teacher should be judged by another individual—not by a group, and least of all a group of students. That’s a hard requirement. We want to mechanize, routinize everything, template everything, impose a math-based cookie cutter applied to what we view as a uniform dough. Life is much more demanding than that.
In the entertainment “industry,” measuring by ratings, correlating content to viewership, the content itself classified into categories (sex, violence, relationships, urban culture, paranormal, etc.), each category appropriately weighted, produces the chaos of pop culture, where nothing of a higher sort emerges and the half-life of a series is often one quarter of a season—before it is jerked.
Underneath all this, of course, is Moloch Measuring: the measurement of money—be it investments in a show and calculating its return … or investment of public dollars in education by calculating expenditure per pupil. One could easily produce a neat TV series from this. Call it The Invasion of the Soul Snatchers. Combine art and education by defining the show’s locale as a grade school, a high school, and a University. Projected ratings should be good if sex, violence, relationships, urban culture, and paranormal are properly weighted in the resulting mix.
Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Are the communications media the sensory organs of the collective? Functionally yes. If the press is the ears and eyes of society—and the press simply reports what it “senses”—a free press is clearly valuable and legitimate. To illustrate, let me view this at the personal level. What I see out there is initially simply—what I see. The images are neutral. The valuation of what I see comes at a slight delay; it is another function. When the press undertakes not only to report but also to value the news, to interpret it, to give it emphasis in various ways, why then it morphs into something else. At present here, where press-freedom is guaranteed, the media have become functionally like a collective consciousness. Continuous coverage of disasters or mass killings literally saturates the public awareness with news packaged to excess: excess horror, excess sentimentality, excess outrage, on and on.
Let’s assume it’s so: the media are the collective consciousness. But then in turn the press should exercise a corresponding self-control. If self-control isn’t exercised, the freedom granted to the press becomes problematical. It begins to constellate other situations—like needlessly yelling fire in a crowded theater. The operant assumption is that the public has self-control. Therefore the press is free to profit from the exploitation of anything that happens.
But the operant assumption is false. When it comes to electronic media, especially television, the public is conditioned by it. TV watching is almost impossible to avoid. News channels have evolved into quasi-entertainment channels. Therefore lack of self-control by the rulers of the press has translated ever more into lack of self-control by the public. Curiously all of us—not least those who commit mass murders—live more in our minds than in our bodies. Hence our coverage of mass killings may well serve as inspiration for yet other marginal people to enjoy a moment of glorious fame.
The Chinese understand the relationships I’ve sketched out here. Their own imposition of self-control on the media is certainly excessive. Our version is the polar opposite. The right way is somewhere in between. A story yesterday reported on the Chinese censoring a paper because it editorialized in favor of a more constitutional government in China. Amusing. Here the Constitution protect press freedom. And things have slid too far down the slope. Therefore it has become virtually impossible for the Federal Communications Commission to clean up our media or impose some semblance of discipline on them. We all own the spectrum. We license some to use it. Most abuse that freedom. And to undo that, we would have to change our Constitution. Good luck with that. But if my last post on enantiodromia is correct, in the future it will happen here. And in China the press will be freed. And therefore I feel for future generations in China while also being more confident about the future of our own.
Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Back in early 2011 (link) I wrote as follows in a post: “Long ago and far away it genuinely pleased me to encounter the word enantiodromia, a coinage by Carl Jung, derived from Heraclitus, meaning “counter-running” and used by Jung to indicate the tendency in nature, certainly in society, of things to morph into their opposites: growth becomes decline, decline eventually transforms into growth.”
Out shopping a few days ago and listening to the radio, it startled me to learn from Science Friday (1) that physicists in Germany had produced gases at temperatures lower than 0° Kelvin, thus absolute zero and (2) that anything at minus-Kelvin temperatures is actually hot.
The lead scientists are Dr. Ulrich Schneider and Dr. Immanuel Bloch. Both are active at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching (just north of Munich); Schneider is also at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich. Their potentially dramatic discovery is discussed on a page of the Max-Planck Society (link). Another take is presented by Science Recorder (here). To quote from the last source:
The team in Munich cleverly leap-frogged this barrier by cooling about 100,000 atoms of quantum potassium gas inside a vacuum to a few nanokelvin above absolute zero, then reversing the magnetic field surrounding it.
Tweaking the field “suddenly shifts the atoms from their most stable, lowest-energy state to the highest possible energy state, before they can react,” said physicist Ulrich Schneider, one of the project leads. “It’s like walking through a valley, then instantly finding yourself on the mountain peak.”
At normal (positive) temperatures atoms tend to occupy low energy states, while at an infinite temperature they would be equally likely to occupy all energy states. At the newly achieved negative temperatures atoms are more likely to occupy high-energy states–potentially opening the doors for new types of matter.
As so often happens in the reporting of strange discoveries, my questions are not effectively answered. Was the result achieved a consequence of measurement only? Thus due to the nature of the scales used? Or could you, to the contrary, actually boil a kettle full of water using the extraordinarily hot gases existing at “a few billionths of a Kelvin” below absolute zero? In other words, is that “heat” physical, real?
Enantiodromia certainly comes to mind. If you get ever closer to absolute anything, sooner or later it will change into its absolute opposite. One implication of this recent discovery is that at negative Kelvin entropy is reversed and therefore, burning brightly at negative temperature, the universe becomes more orderly. We haven’t by any means heard the last of this. It has all sorts of radiations, to use a pun. Dark energy may be negative. And I’m reminded here, also, of Bohm’s enfolded order, over against the unfolded order which is our visible cosmos.
Monday, January 7, 2013
link) I mentioned a communist uprising in Uruguay called the Tupamaros. The movement began in the 1960s in labor disputes relating to sugarcane workers and the spread. It was a bottom-up struggle between the have-nothings and oligarchies of agriculture and industry that ultimately led to a military dictatorship. I began looking into that name, Tupamaros, at Brigitte’s suggestion. We know so little about Latin American history despite occasional harrowing forays—which began when Monique was an exchange student in Bolivia. And this vacuum produces an itch. In a sense Latin American history is one history, covering a vast geographical area. But the conflicts that riddle it are subdivided into nations formed of two closely-related European countries, Portugal and Spain, and the never quite forgotten Inca civilization and independent tribes the Incas did not quite control. Herewith an illustration.
The last Inca emperor, resident at today’s Cusco in Peru, was Túpac Amaru (1545-1572). At the end of a last if brief war between the Spanish and the Incas in 1572, Amaru was executed and the Inca empire expired. But by a curious route, the extension of a cultural network still active on that subcontinent, and by way of another rebel, he gave his name to a Marxist uprising in Uruguay.
The second figure in this transition was a man christened José Gabriel Condorcanqui (1742-1781). His father was Spanish, his mother Incan, but through her he traced his ancestry back to Túpac Amaru. He was born in Tinta, near Cusco. He was educated by the Jesuits, was a man of wealth, indeed, in Spanish eyes an aristocrat. He came into conflict with the Spanish rulers of Peru defending the powerless natives; in due time this led to an armed rebellion. By that time Condorcanqui had changed his name to Túpac Amaru II. His rebellion eventually failed. The Spanish used four horses to pull his body apart. Vivid stuff, Latin American history.
Now the distance between Cusco, Peru and Montevideo, Uruguay is 2,400 miles by highway. The time distance between 1781 and 1960 is 179 years or, back to 1572, 388. Cultural memory does not require a functioning Internet. It runs deep. Therefore the two Amarus are far from forgotten and Inca memories are up there, like a stratosphere, above more recent memories of conflicts between the great and the small tribes of humanity.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia (link).
Sunday, January 6, 2013
The Online Etymology Dictionary tells me that the expression lifestyle or life-style had its origin in the writings of the psychologist Alfred Adler (1870-1937) but that its current usage dates from 1961. My own memories more or less resonate with that. When I still labored in the economy, I didn’t watch the culture except now and then. Distracted. But the sixties left a definite mark. At some point along the way after that era, style freed itself of life- and began to have a life of its own as (for Brigitte and me) a synonym for decadence across the board. Today being Sunday, the New York Times’ Sunday Styles section (the paper also has a Thursday Styles section) again reminded me of this interesting emergence.
Style is rooted in the Greek stylos, pillar. You can see it, of course, a kind of big, thick, rounded stick. In Latin usage it became stilus, a stake, a writing instrument, hence a mode of writing. All of us budding writers in the 1950s hoped that we’d develop a style uniquely our own. As the baby boom exploded it became every kind of individualized mode of anything, lifestyle. Then it shouldered aside fashion, came to mean clothing worn for ego-boo, and now embraces everything so long as it is sufficiently decadent.
I made a quick check to see if the NYT was alone. No—but with variants. The Washington Post has Style. Looking to the other coast, I see that the San Francisco Chronicle is right in line. Style section. The Los Angeles Times has a section it calls Image, but it features the same content, and in its magazine it has LA Style. Looking north I see that the Minneapolis Star and Tribute has a Lifestyle section and a Style subsection. In the middle, the Chicago Tribune is conformist but the Kansas City Star is a step behind; it only has a Lifestyle section. Looking south, I see the Houston Chronicle holding up the style-flag too. The holdout is the Miami Herald. It staunchly maintains an old-fashioned subsection called Fashion & Beauty; signs of infection, however, are present. Within that section the paper maintains a Style Calendar where it tracks how fashions change.
Just shy of a year ago we got to know Florida and learned that it was really something else. Much like California, it is a genuine country with vastly different regions. And if you are just a person in a car, trying to get through Miami, you get the full sense of that vast city’s overwhelm. It is not so easily moved with the times—especially when you need to ask directions in a neighborhood where nobody seems to speak English. But I had once coped in Spain, and therefore I coped in South Miami too.
Saturday, January 5, 2013
The president of Uruguay is 78-year old José Mujica (1935-). As a young man he joined the Tupamaros, a communist liberation movement that sprang up in Uruguay in the 1960s. He spent his youth fighting a civil war, in and out of prisons. In 1973, at age 38, he went into a military prison and spent 14 years in confinement; in the course of that imprisonment he spent more than two years in solitary confinement at the bottom of a well. He was 50 when he was at last released in 1985 after the return of constitutional democracy and a general amnesty. Then began his career in politics.
What left an impression on me, reading a story in the New York Times, was the almost infinite variety of lives lived on this globe—that and those two years spent at the bottom of a well. That, surely, will do something to a person. The mind, will, and the soul will change all in proportion to the innate character of the person who undergoes the ordeal.
My image, showing Mujica at 74, is from El Diario (link).
Friday, January 4, 2013
I got here because, the other day, Brigitte used Pöbel, a German word that refers to the uncultured masses (to put it mildly). We often use German words in our conversation when they have a sharper, more appropriate meaning than the English equivalent. Then, as is her wont, she wondered where that word might be rooted. We both assumed that its roots are the same as that of people, thus by way of French, peuple, where its first meaning is “people, nation” but les gens du peuple has that German flavor, meaning “the lower classes” or “the crowd.” We were right. But the French comes from the Latin populus, which, it turns out, comes from the Etruscan.
In seeking the German etymology of Pöbel, I encountered a, for me, brand new gem, ochlocracy. You might say that it is the rule of the Pöbel. Sure enough okhlos in Greek means “mob, populace,” and the Greek itself carries the sense of a mass in motion. This sense is captured in the derogatory Latin phrase mobile vulgus, literally “moving mass” or “moving people,” usually rendered as “the fickle crowd.” Now, amusingly, for me—who’d always assumed that “mob” was a stalwart Old English word—it turns out that mobile vulgus is the root of “mob,” only the first three letters of the Latin phrase having been retained—and the whole meaning. And when we capitalize it as in The Mob, or talk about mob-rule, we are talking about ochlocracy.
Is it in our future? Well, it’s making inroads; it is moving. One indicator of our current situation is that we use the phrase pop culture with positive connotations (unless we are a ways past fifty). The family lineage of pop is very similar to peuple in French and okhlos in Greek. But the whole phrase is still in transition. It is something we cultivate even if, it seems, it is aiming at -kratia instead, the Greek modifier to signify “rule.” And sometimes, turning on the TV, even news shows, popocracy already seems to be comfortably in the saddle.
The indicator I have in mind today is the pocketbook—more generally the pocketbook distributed, thus where you could casually find it, more specifically yet pocketbooks holding the culture’s treasured literature.
There was a time when I would visit drug stores to buy books. Drug stores in those days had names like Rexall, Katz, Thrift, and SupeRx. They devoted quite a bit of space to books, arranged on rotating racks, and what you could find in these places was quite astonishing. Novels, of course. Science fiction? Yes. But also literary novels, books of philosophy, history. And all modestly priced, just sitting on racks, humbly, much like boxed spaghetti at the grocers. Up to the 1960s and mid-1970s, I routinely bought very valuable paperbacks at such stores and at airports. And the situation was much the same in Europe; in Germany RoRoRo ruled, but there were lots of others. We were refugees in Germany and immigrants to the United States. We had at best modest means. But not only the publishing world but even retailers like drug stores brought us cultural riches at affordable prices.
|Click to enlarge|
Pocketbooks like the one I’m showing have essentially disappeared, replaced by trade paperbacks of larger size and much higher prices. Is the content still available? Yes. Indeed more so. There are books, e-books, Google books readable online, and much else. But not at the drug store. Chance encounters with classics while finding something to read on the plane? Gone. I still continue to check—a kind of animal reflex. What CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens have to offer is, in the context of the 1950s, 1960s too pathetic even to mention. In the 1950s drug stores still served readers at every cultural/intellectual level; now they serve only the lowest layer. And, indeed, most of the time, visiting Barnes and Noble for instance (Borders having crossed the border into Bookseller’s Paradise), B&N almost never has the book I’ve come to buy. But they can get it for me online. Thanks. I can do that too, and cheaper.
I’d emphasize, here, the structural differences. Looking at the situation around 1959, a substantial market for upscale literature at modest pricing existed. Many providers competed. Many channels delivered the goods down to every neighborhood. Today a vastly expanded content is available but based on what is, ultimately, a centralized (and hence vulnerable) electronic medium, itself requiring expensive tooling to use, tooling that rapidly obsoletes itself. The readers seem to have vanished. And as the age of fossil fuels reaches its end—which should be visible in another fifty-three years from now, this system may not survive it. But in those years, my little book, echoing the voice of a sixteenth century mystic, may still be around somewhere, still readable by someone who knows German. And along with it my many dictionaries.
Yes. And I would also emphasize the economics here. Cultural wealth was once accessible easily to those with modest means. Modest means, yes, but equipped with a sound education which made them look at books at the drug store. And opened vistas no longer visible to those thumbing tiny screens.
The text on the shown book translated: On Divine Revelation/Jakob Böhme/The Silesian Mystic/Introduction and Selection by Charles Waldemar/Goldmanns Yellow Pocketbooks. The book was also published in 1959.
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Pope Benedict XVI’s annual message, World Day of Peace 2013 (link), the forty-sixth such papal message, got echoed a great deal in the mainstream media for putting “unregulated financial capitalism” into perspective. It contained, in addition, other valuations of modern life certain to cause the heathen to rage. Benedict XVI delivered the message yesterday and also quoted brief parts of it in his homily (link) during mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on New Years Day, the official World Day of Peace. There is a secular version of it too, called International Day of Peace, the creation of the United Nations, celebrated first in 1981 and always on September 21st.
Pope Paul VI ( r. 1963-1978) began this Catholic tradition but, not being a close follower of church events, I became aware of it for the first time ever late last night, when Brigitte handed me a printout—and I saw the controversy that Benedict’s message was causing in the media a mere handful of hours later. Ironic, in one sense—not in another. While peace is the aim, the process of getting there is both turbulent and seemingly everlasting.
Tuesday, January 1, 2013
Today is an official holiday but lacking a traditional anchor. It doesn’t mark a great event or the turn of a season fixed by our planet’s motion around the sun. An essentially arbitrary calendar simply rolls over. In the context of this blog the change is more interesting, in a mild sort of sense, than usually, what with our fascination with “thirteen” (link). But, as holidays tend to do, today reminds me of our need for absolute markers in the continuous flux of time. Such days are meant for collective reflection on the transcending meaning of our existence. This New Years Day, however, is more of a reminder of another sort. It brings to mind just how far, as a collective, we’ve drifted into flux. Just as the day began, the Senate voted to avert an arbitrarily created disaster. Later today the House will vote to avert the same again. The Senate has celebrated its secular version of the Midnight Mass, the House will gather to observe a holy secular None.
Well, never mind. One of the demands of such times is a sage withdrawal from the reigning collective. Invisibly beneath its roar a new culture is being fashioned. And for those still in the work force, a day off is nice.